Iron Road  |  J. W. Slider

We pay our authors, but we can’t do it alone.
How does it work?  Each author earns royalties from the donations you give.
If you like an author or story, tell us in a donation, and you will have supported that author directly.
Praise is nice, but nothing helps an author more than putting your money where your praise is.

So, what is this story and author worth to you?

             The wind kicked and threw a blur of orange and brown leaves into Ben Richter’s face. He lifted his arm to shield his eyes and leaned hard into the horizon, pushing forward. His feet ached, and the feeling had almost left his hands, lost somewhere in the cold morning air. While he walked, he gritted his teeth and thought about his father, somewhere overseas. Maybe the man had another family by now. He smiled for a moment as the thought of his mother came and went. The last thing she’d given him was life, and for that, she was perfect.
             His feet slid easily against the gravel of the railway, but the collars of his boots were starting to wear against his legs, and twice he’d had to stop to pad them. He stopped again, noticing a thin line of blood against the leg of his jeans where blisters had begun to form. Kneeling on the damp wood of a railroad tie, he pulled his wool socks up again. As he stood, the ground began to shake, and he heard the whistle of an oncoming train ring out in the distance.
             He inched back from the tracks until he was safely tucked away in the tree line. With the train to his right and a stream just beyond the trees, he watched the flowing water until the shaking had passed, then turned back toward the tracks as the last car shot by. Stomping through the brush and kicking ancient shreds of newspapers out of his way, he made his way back toward the gray, winding road. With a final kick, he cleared the edge of the weeds, but something caught his eye: a tiny, filthy coin that skittered across the stone in front of his boot. He took his hand from his pocket, stooped down, and carefully plucked it up.
             Ben rubbed the coin between his fingers, taking some of the dirt from its surface, then spit and rubbed at it again. It wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen, but it seemed as attractive as it was foreign. Maybe it’d be worth something. A meal or two, Ben thought. The first side had what looked like an elaborate maze, and on the opposite side was the face of a man, sharp and angular. He contemplated the gold coin for a moment, then lifted his coat and slid it into the pocket of his jeans. A few more miles, just a few more, and I’ll be somewhere.
             Ben labored on, a 24-year-old silhouette against the skyline, with wide shoulders and a long stride. He wasn’t the scars from his father’s belt or what was left of his savings, jammed into his pockets. His shoulders sagged under the weight of those things, but his legs, constant and solid, pushed on. It was a familiar scene on a new canvas. It’s funny how, in some ways, you learn to hate the things you get comfortable with, because as soon as you decide to love them, they get busy leaving you, he thought. The constant pressure of the earth beneath his feet was the one thing that was always there when he needed it.
             It was evening when he stepped from the tracks to follow the light from what he figured must be a city. It was further away than he’d thought, but Ben trudged on, watching the soft glow and outline of buildings grow larger and clearer until he passed a sign that read, “Welcome to Echton.” He felt his spirits lift at the thought of a warm meal and a bed and quickened his pace. The feeling abruptly left him as he walked past building after building, already closed for the night. He checked his watch, only 6:10.
             “Seriously?” he muttered.
             “Meeting tonight,” a voice said from the darkness of an alley.
             Ben peered in the direction of the sound but could barely make out a tall shadow.
             “You’re not from around here,” the voice added.
             “Do you know where I could get some food? Maybe just a chair, a beer, and a TV?” Ben asked the shadow. The clacking of footsteps against planking broke the momentary silence, and the figure drew closer until Ben could make out the form of a thin man in a suit with a hat pulled low over his eyes.
             “Could see ’bout all that, but you’ll have to wait.”
             “Wait for what?” Ben peered skeptically, glancing around at the clean-cut brick storefronts and ornate gray streetlights.
             “Folks to finish up the meeting,” the man said.
             “Okay, well, is there anywhere I can wait inside?” His socks soaked through and his teeth chattering, Ben was growing impatient.
             The man leaned forward into the light and smiled, revealing a set of jagged teeth. “Follow me,” he said.
             They walked in silence through the town. When he turned the corner, Ben saw a small crowd gathered outside a concrete building that read, “Echton City Worship.” What could be so important that an entire city had to shut down to have a meeting about it?
             As they neared the door, the man turned, swept off his hat, and with a little flourish, said, “Welcome to Echton.”
             Ben followed the man into what looked like a chapel with tall stained glass windows at its sides and row after row of bodies packed into pews. Some turned to watch him pass, and he grew suddenly conscious of his dirty jacket and torn jeans.
             It wasn’t that they were dressed much differently than he was, although their clothes were considerably cleaner. It was the way they held themselves, upright and proper. Their eyes would pass over him quickly, but he felt them linger there for just a moment, and it made his skin prickle. Regardless, he was grateful for the warmth of the building that burned his face and hands. They ached and tingled as sensation crept back into them. At the edges of the room, a handful of men in black uniforms leaned against the walls, gazing over the gathered crowd.
             The man he was following stopped near the middle of the group and whispered something to two men who were already seated. Ben smiled nervously, looking them over. The first was a frail older man, and the other, an enormous mustached man in an overcoat. They slid to the side and opened a spot on the pew for Ben. He nodded gratefully and lowered himself into the seat. The frail man to his left extended a gnarled hand and gave Ben a warm smile.
             “Henry Smalls,” he wheezed.
             “Ben Richter.”
             Henry gestured to the other man, shaking a bony finger at him. “This is my son, Fredrick.”
             Scooting forward, Ben shook Fredrick’s hand, and the big man nodded back politely.
             “Nice to meet you,” Ben said. He bent down to untie his boots, wincing as his fingers grazed the blisters on his legs. Henry’s hand touched Ben’s arm lightly.
             “That’s no good,” Henry said, waving his hand over the crimson stains that dotted Ben’s pant legs.
             Ben shook his head. “Nothing much to do about that.”
             “I think you are wrong, my friend. We might be able to do something about this problem,” Henry chuckled. “I think I’ve got at least some thicker socks in stock, and they’re certainly drier. No charge.”
             Just then, the lights dimmed, and the crowd grew silent.
             “Thank you,” Ben whispered. He looked to the front of the room to see a rather fat man perspiring through his suit, standing at a large mahogany podium. The man cleared his throat and began to speak in a rumbling monotone.
             “Here we are gathered, in witness of our Lord and Savior, to an emergency Echton city upkeep meeting.” The members of the crowd leaned forward anxiously, and Ben could feel the tension in the room. “First, we will deal with some pressing ordinances and township issues; following that, we can move on to … other issues.”
             The large man beside Ben frowned, and a murmur spread through the crowd, which again grew silent. Ben couldn’t make out anything they were saying, although he thought he heard the name Starns, or perhaps Steagle. Maybe it hadn’t been anything at all.
             The fat man pulled a list from his pocket and began reading, stopping occasionally for a quick vote of confidence. The room was warm, and it felt so good to sit. Ben soon found himself drifting off. He fought to regain consciousness, his head falling backward, then snapping forward as he woke again. Straightening himself, he pulled at his pant legs, which had risen gradually as he slumped in the pew. His hand grazed his pocket as he sat up, remembering the coin tucked away inside it.
             Leaning to the side, he tugged it free and turned it over in his hands. He scraped at its surface lightly with his fingernails and rubbed it with the sleeve of his shirt. It was such a strange little thing, almost as if it had its own gravity. A hand squeezed his shoulder, and Ben looked up to see the thin man standing at the edge of the pew.
             “Now, where did you get that?” the man hissed.
             “I— I just found it,” Ben stammered.
             “That’s very interesting.”
             The man snatched the coin from Ben’s hand and turned, motioning for him to follow. Ben looked around, but no one seemed to have noticed them standing in the middle of the meeting. At least, none of them were acknowledging it. He allowed himself to be led from the room, but couldn’t help but think it strange that no one turned to watch the two make their exit. All eyes remained fixed on the stage, even as he tripped over a woman’s feet and almost fell.
             He could hardly register what was happening as they reentered the cold autumn air and crossed the road.
             “I wondered if a few minutes in our little meeting might jog your memory,” the man said, prodding Ben forward. “Just passing through, eh?”
             “I just found it. I don’t even know where it came from.”
             Ben began to protest, but the man lifted a slender finger to his lips and shook his head. Trying to get his bearings, Ben felt his heart beating fast and his muscles tense. As if the stranger already knew his thoughts, the man pulled his jacket to the side so the bronze star on his chest and a gray revolver on his hip shone in the golden glow of the streetlights.
             “We’re just gonna get ta where we’re goin’ now. You’ll have plenty of time to talk later, ” the man said.
             Ben watched his feet shuffle along the roadway and frantically tried to imagine where he was being taken. They passed half a dozen storefronts, then came to a walkway and the entrance of an aging brick building. The iron doors of a cell groaned open, and the man put a hand on Ben’s back and shoved him in. As the cell door slammed shut, Ben was shocked back to reality.
             “What are you doing?” he half shouted, watching the man smile and flip the coin in his palm.
             “You sit tight. We gonna have a little chat about this, soon as I get back,” he laughed to himself and slipped back through the open front door, locking it with a gentle click.
             Ben stood motionless, trying to take in what had just happened. He sunk down, scraping his back against the wall and dropping his face into his hands. The cool, hard concrete under him and the iron bars that lined the rest of the room confirmed the obvious: he was a prisoner.
             As he sat in silence, resentment grew inside him: the thin man in the suit, the coin, and most of all, his horrible luck. He didn’t have any kind of identification. He’d lost any sort of papers he had a few weeks back. Who can I even call if they give me a call? He tried to steady his breathing and concentrate, but, in the quiet of the cell, everything seemed more infuriating. Tap, tap, tap, something rapped against the back wall.
             “What?” he snapped. “What do you want!?” I can’t go anywhere without running into some cop who thinks he’s a war hero interrogation specialist. After a second, the anger faded to a feeling of helplessness, and he slumped back down. The sound resumed, and he swore he heard a voice, although it was so faint he couldn’t be sure. Easy now, he thought. It’s nothing; keep your head. The cell was musty, damp, and stiflingly silent, except for the tapping. It seemed to go on forever.
             At first, he thought he’d imagined it, maybe a byproduct of the tapping-induced insanity. But no, Ben was sure that something was touching his head or being sprinkled onto it. He looked up, and his eyes were showered with mortar dust.
             “Agh,” he groaned, blinking furiously. He jumped to his feet and looked at the spot above his head. He couldn’t see anything, but then the tapping began again, this time erratic and stronger than ever, and the brick began to shiver each time a tap rang out. He touched the wall with his fingertips and felt the vibrations radiating through it.
             “Hello?” he said. It stopped for a moment, and again he thought he made out a voice behind the wall. His pulse started to rise. Were they just playing games with him? He pressed his ear to the rough, red wall and listened, but the tapping suddenly stopped.
             “You think that’s funny, huh?” he said aloud.
             In the silence of the room, he now heard only footfalls and a set of voices, growing louder. It took him a moment to realize it was coming from the front of the room, not the wall. He settled himself on the dusty bed at the edge of the cell, pressed his palms into his eyes, and tried to calm his nerves, as he heard the door open and shut, bringing the footsteps closer still.

♥ End ♥

J. W. Slider has worked in a variety of environments and most recently has become involved in political work, including advance for the White House, work on the Presidential Inaugural Committee, and work on the Obama/Biden reelection campaign. His education was centered around broadcast technology and promotional writing, but since graduation, he’s also spent a good deal of time working to develop skills centered around event management, logistics, and interactive promotional work. His advance work has taken him through multiple foreign countries, as well as many places in the U. S. In addition to this, J. W. also hosts a weekly writing newsletter that develops editorial material on a number of topics chosen by him or the readers of the letter. This featured piece is the first chapter of the completed novel of the same name, available from Amazon. [Author photo by and © Dan Slider; used with permission, all rights reserved.]

Do you Kindle?

We feature a Kindle-friendly PDF (That means actually formatted for reading!) of each story for free download each day, available for a limited time. Don’t delay; download today! Just want a plain ol’ regular PDF? Sure, we’ve got that, too. Need help? Check the sidebar.

The sponsor for today’s fabulous story is Hardly Square, a strategy-, branding-, and design-based boutique located in Baltimore, Maryland, that specializes in graphic design, web design, and eLearning courses. Please support our sponsors. We couldn’t do what we do without them. Sponsors do not necessarily endorse the message of the story, only provide funding for the Go Read Your Lunch series. Want to become a sponsor? Here’s how.

Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

No comments:

Post a Comment