The Chicken and the Train  |  Cetoria Tomberlin



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             I stumbled across them by mistake. It was a late August afternoon, and I wasn’t ready to go home yet. Mom was going through a stage that involved lots of crying and plate throwing. Dad called it “the change,” but I didn’t really understand what that meant. I was 14, and I hadn’t even made it to first base with a girl yet.
             The south side of the high school in my hometown is bordered by a fairly dense patch of woods. The forestry team uses it every Thursday for practice. Because of the overgrown wildlife, most people miss the tracks. That’s what we call them: the tracks; a set of rarely used train tracks that bypass the entire town. Dad tells stories about how he and his buddies used to play chicken with the trains. You stand on the tracks as long as you dare with the train coming straight at you. The really brave kids would hop into the empty boxcars as they passed and ride for a mile or two.
             Nowadays, they’re mostly deserted. The trains still run, but not regularly, and their cargo is wood chips or scrap metal. Occasionally, you might find a fellow wanderer walking along the parallel lines or just passing his time sitting on the rails. Lucky me, that day, I found two. I didn’t recognize who they were at first, but what they were doing was pretty obvious. It was a couple in the midst of one intense make-out scene. So intense, they didn’t notice me standing just outside the trees. I’m not a Peeping Tom or anything like that, but I was finding it really hard to look away. The girl’s curly brown hair was getting frizzier by the second, and her nails just kept running up and down the guy’s back like she was trying to claw through his shirt. Something felt strange about the pair, not their intimacy, but something else I couldn’t figure at the moment.
             Suddenly, I realized whose privacy I was trespassing upon. Miranda. The girl’s name was Miranda Crossley. Those were her long dark curls getting dust and dirt mixed into them with sweat. She was two years older than I, and one of the prettiest girls I, or anyone else in our town, had ever seen. Her mother and my mother both taught at the elementary school. Our parents attended the same dinner parties. Hers always brought Miranda along dressed in the softest yellows and pinks to complement her lightly browned skin and blue eyes. They were so proud of the lovely child they had created. So much so they didn’t even consider giving her a sibling. If that was Miranda, then the guy breathing heavily above her must be Chris, her boyfriend. His father was the only divorce lawyer in the whole county. Chris was a senior and not bad looking himself. Rumor had it he was going to UNC for college next year to study biology. His parents were thrilled to have a future doctor in the family.
             The realization must have been more audible than the click I heard in my head because just as I was putting two and two together, Miranda looked over Chris’ shoulder. Our eyes locked, and I don’t think I could have moved an inch. I doubt I even breathed for a full minute. Apparently, Miranda didn’t mind an audience, though, because she quickly returned her full attention to Chris. I felt my lungs fill again, and I tried to decide if I should back away slowly or turn tail and run like hell. I doubted Chris would be as understanding as Miranda.
             I took one quiet, small step backward. I could feel the twig beneath my shoe before I heard it, but it was too late; the weight of my foot was dropping and my reflexes weren’t working at full speed. The snap could have been heard a mile away.
             I saw Chris’ body attempt to turn, but Miranda grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back down for a long kiss. She lifted one of her hands off his shoulder blade and flicked me away as fervently as she could without attracting her partner’s attention. I turned and ran the entire way home.
             Only after closing the door and sinking to the floor, did I allow myself to think again. I grasped what was wrong with the scene. It was Miranda; she had looked like she was about to cry.


♥♥♥


             Two weeks later I was standing there again, but this time it was almost 7 p.m. I had decided to take a walk after dinner and figured it was safe to try my old standby again.
             She was sitting on the gravel rocks by the tracks, alone. I stopped myself from walking right into her line of vision. She was wearing a yellow sun dress with purple flowers all over it. Her feet were bare, but I spotted her flip-flops about five feet away, sitting on one of the iron railings.
             After a minute or two, she spoke: “Are you going to stand there all night?”
             Damn, guess she heard me.
             “Well?” She looked straight into the woods, but not directly at me.
             I felt like I was approaching a firing squad as I stepped out from behind the pine. I thought she’d accuse me of being a complete creep, but she smiled when she saw me.
             “It’s you. I thought … anyway.” She shook her head slightly. “Are you stalking me, Jackson Powell?”
             “No! I mean, no. I’m not stalking you, Miranda.”
             She was smirking at me still. “You know my name?”
             “Everyone knows your name. It’s a small town, and our mothers work together … and … well, you’re Miranda Crossley.”
             She was looking past me know, toward the direction I had come.
             “Are you expecting someone?” I asked.
             “Kind of,” she conceded.
             “Chris?”
             “It’s like I can’t escape him. Everywhere I go, he’s there. It’s exhausting hiding from your own boyfriend.”
             “I wouldn’t know about that.” I sat down beside her.
             “You think you’re funny, don’t you.” She shoved my shoulder with her own as she said it. “Hey, you sure got a show the other day.”
             I looked down at my shoes; my face was on fire with guilt. She stopped giggling when she saw my embarrassment. Her hand slid onto my knee. She must have been hot-natured; it was burning up. I couldn’t stop staring at it. A girl’s hand was on my knee. Miranda Crossley’s hand was on my knee.
             “You got a girlfriend, Jack?”
             “Nobody calls me Jack.”
             “Nobody but me,” she retorted with a smile. “Answer the question, please.”
             “No,” I admitted.
             “Ever had one?”
             “No.” What was this, 21 questions?
             “Well, I bet that means you’ve never kissed a girl.”
             “Well, I no—not any girl I wasn’t related to. I mean, not kissed-kissed, just—you know, like my mom or sister—like how you kiss your mom or sister.” I managed to shut up and just stare at my shoes again. She didn’t torment me, though.
             “Yeah, I get it. You don’t make out with your mom or sister.”
             I couldn’t help but laugh, which must have been what she wanted because she was laughing, too. Her hand squeezed my knee, and I considered putting my hand on top of hers. I wanted to know what they’d look like together.
             “Kissing’s fun, Jack. You should try it sometime.”
             “I will. I mean, one day,” I said. My eyes darted up to her face, then back down to our hands again. We sat there for a few minutes in silence. I didn’t feel like I normally did with girls, awkward and out of place. I felt, I guess, like I was supposed to feel: natural. I guess that’s what made me brave enough to ask her: “Why are you hiding from your boyfriend?”
             She sighed really heavily before answering, “Don’t you ever just want to be alone? Just for a little while?”
             “Yeah, sure,” I replied.
             “Chris doesn’t like to be alone. He doesn’t get it. If I’m not with him, he thinks I’m with someone else. Who else would I be with?”
             “Maybe another guy?” I was serious, but she didn’t think so.
             “What other guy? Chris is the best any girl could hope for here. Top of the ladder, right?”
             “I guess if you’re climbing a ladder, he is.”
             “I’m 16. I’ve got the best I’m going to have at 16? What kind of sick joke is that?”
             I didn’t think those were really questions for me so I just sat there looking at the prettiest girl in town tell me she didn’t really like her boyfriend.
             We both heard the leaves moving before we heard Chris’ voice. “Miranda!”
             I stood to leave. “I’d better go.”
             “Hey, don’t let him scare you.”
             “It’s not that … well, maybe a little, but …” I put my hands in my pockets. I didn’t want to leave, but I didn’t want to be there with her and Chris. Three’s a crowd when two guys and a pretty girl are involved. “He seems mad Miranda, I don’t …”
             “He probably is,” she conceded with another sigh. “Go hide behind the brush on the other side of the tracks. You don’t have time to make it too far by now, anyway. He’s going to walk through those trees any second.”
             I hesitated.
             “He’ll know you’ve been here, with me, if you go back the way you came.”
             She was right. Chris wasn’t a bad guy, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t get mad. I didn’t answer. I dodged for the greenery and made it just before he came striding out of the woods on the same path I had taken earlier.
             “Miranda! Didn’t you hear me calling you?” He stopped a few feet in front of her. I couldn’t tell from where I was watching, but my guess is she was glaring at him.
             “I think the whole town heard you.”
             “We were supposed to go to the movies tonight. I called your cell.” He said it like he was accusing her of something.
             “There’s no service out here; you know that.”
             “I went to your house, and your parents said you’d left to meet me half an hour ago. I had to lie and say we got our wires crossed.”
             “Imagine that, you lying to my parents,” she quipped.
             “I don’t like it.” His eyes were on his shoes now.
             “Well, you sure do it enough.” I noticed she slightly jerked her head when she spoke each word.
             “Only about important stuff!” His head popped up. “What? You want me to tell them you’re avoiding me because you’re pregnant and scared out of your mind?”
             If a leaf had chosen that particular moment to fall, I would have heard it.
             “I’m not scared, Chris,” Miranda answered softly.
             “Well, you sure were two weeks ago. Crying on my shoulder for hours about how your life was over and everything was ruined.” As soon as he was done, his facial expression fell. He reminded me of the time I told my mother she was fat. It wasn’t a lie, but wasn’t very nice to say, either.
             “Everything is ruined, Chris.”
             “Now, just cut that out. Nothing’s ruined. It’s just a baby—people have them all the time.” Chris’s voice was elevating with every word.
             Miranda didn’t agree. “People, not kids.”
             “You really think you’re still a kid? After what we’ve done?”
             There was that smirk again. “Well, when you put it that way.”
             “Miranda.” Chris took a step toward her. “I don’t want to fight.”
             She made like she was about to stand. “Then you better stay right where you are.”
             “Miranda, please. We need to tell our parents. You’re gonna start showing soon. They can help us.”
             “Help us what? Pick names?”
             “Figure things out. Make some decisions.”
             “Decisions? Now you want to make decisions?”
             “I want you to decide. I told you what I want. M, I … I love you … this baby doesn’t change that.” He stepped toward her again. His hands were out, palms open. “It doesn’t change anything. I don’t care.” He took one more step, and she was on her feet.
             She turned her back on him, but kept yelling to him over her shoulder, “Doesn’t change anything? How stupid are you? You think this is about how you feel? I don’t give a shit how you feel. This, sweetheart, is all your fault!”
             Chris’ face resembled someone who had been slapped. “That’s not fair! I didn’t, I didn’t force you. You … we … it just happened.”
             “Yeah, it just happened—and I just have to pay for it. I just get to drop out of school. I just get to spend prom in labor.” She was almost barking every word.
             “Miranda, I … I didn’t …” His hands dropped and balled into fists at his side. He took deep breaths between his words. “I just … just want you to calm down.”
             “I just want you to go away!” She picked up one of the gravel stones and threw it at him. It missed, which only made her angrier. Chris laughed softly and unclenched his fists.
             “You’re so pretty when you’re mad, M.”
              “Well, I’m not going to be pretty for long!”
             She was trying to pace, but she was failing miserably—the gravel rocks were so large, and she hadn’t put her shoes back on. I could already see blood from fresh scratches near the bottoms of her feet.
             “M … please, please look at me.” He sounded like a lost little boy.
             This must have surprised her, because she lost her balance and landed in a cloud of dust and rocks.
             “Jesus, M. Are you—” He rushed toward her and crouched down to help her up.
             “Shut up! Just shut up!” The fall had opened the flood gates. “Please Chris, just shut the fuck up.”
             “All right, Miranda.” He grabbed her shoulders and tried to lift her.
             “Let. Go. Let go!” She flailed her arms at him.
             His hands sprang away. “All right! All right!” He took a step back. “I’m sorry, just … I’m sorry.” He put his hands in his pockets and just looked down at her. “Please don’t cry. Please.”
             She was trying to stop herself, but the effort was fruitless. Chris, and I from the bushes, just stood there watching this beautiful girl crying her eyes out. I don’t know how long it took the tears to subside, but they eventually did.
             “Go … just go, Chris. I … I don’t … I don’t want you here.”
             Now Chris was doing the sighing. “Come with me.”
             She didn’t answer back at first. She just pulled her knees to her chest and placed her head on top of them. “No.”
             Another sigh from Chris. “What do you want me to do?”
             “Leave,” she demanded, then added, “please.”
             “Okay, I’ll call you later tonight, or you can call me, whatever you want.” He turned slowly and walked away back the way he came. Once he was out of sight and earshot, I came out of my hiding place. I would have preferred to stay there until morning, but it seemed rude to leave her there, like that. I picked up her shoes and sat down next to her with them.
             “Miranda, I’m so sorry.” I placed them in front of her.
             “It’s not your fault,” she said, without lifting her head.
             “What … what are you going to do?” I said, after a moment or two of silence.
             “Weren’t you listening? It’s already been done.”
             We were quiet for a while after that. She was the first to speak up.
             “Jackson?” she said softly.
             “Yeah?”
             “Could you do me a favor?”
             “Yeah sure, anything.”
             “Just forget whatever you heard a few minutes ago, okay?” She had lifted her head by now.
             “I won’t tell anyone, promise,” I responded.
             “Thanks, you understand … I … I just can’t handle this just yet. My parents … they’re … they’re never going to forgive this.” The tears started again, but they were silent this time, and she wiped them away just as quietly before they reached her chin.
             I wanted to tell her she was wrong, but I didn’t really think she was. Whatever would have been the right thing to say at that moment was beyond me. I’d never felt so meaningless in my whole life. I remained silent, but sat there with her until the sun had completely set and the moon was rising. I realized it was going to be a long, dark walk home.
             “Miranda, we should go. It’s getting pretty dark.”
             “You go ahead, Jack. I’m going to sit here a little longer.”
             “You want to walk through the woods alone?”
             “No, the tracks circle the town. One section is only a few feet behind my backyard. I’ll follow them when I’m ready. Besides, the moon’s out; it’s not that dark.”
             “I don’t want to leave you.”
             “You’re sweet, but really, it’s okay. Go.”
             “This feels wrong.” I stalled.
             “You’re going to be a good boyfriend one day, Jack.” And with that, she leaned over and planted a simple, short kiss on my cheek, just under my eye. Then, another on my lips.
             “Now, you’ve kissed a girl.”
             “Miranda …”
             “Go. I want you to.”
             I stood up and turned for the woods. It went against everything I knew to leave a girl by herself after dark to walk home alone, but it went against something else not to do what she asked.
             “See you later, Miranda.”
             “Goodbye, Jack.”
             I headed for the trail but took my time. I thought she might change her mind and wanted to give her plenty of time to do so. When I reached the pine trees, I looked back to see if she were still watching me, but her eyes were fixed on the moon.
             She had already forgotten me. I stayed there watching her at least another hour. Eventually, she stood up and started walking east on the tracks. She was about half a mile down them when I noticed her shoes still lying on the gravel.


♥♥♥


             I woke up the next morning around 9 a.m. Dad was knocking on my door, asking if he could come in. This should have been a clue: my father doesn’t ask if he can do anything in his own house. He opened the door slowly. He looked horrible, like he hadn’t slept, but that wasn’t possible since he and mom had both been asleep when I got in the night before. He walked to my window and started talking, but he didn’t look at me.
             “Jackson, there’s something I need to tell you.” His fingers traced the chips in the paint of my windowsill. I never saw Dad fidget before. Something wasn’t right, and I didn’t really want to know what. I just wanted to go back to sleep. I wanted to forget about Miranda and Chris and their baby.
             “Jackson, are you awake? Are you listening?”
             “Yeah, I’m awake.”
             “Jackson, last night … Miranda … Miranda Crossley was found early this morning.”
             “Found?”
             “She was walking on the train tracks, and it was so dark, the train … it didn’t stop. The story is she came out of nowhere—just appeared on the tracks like a ghost. Her boyfriend called her parents’ house around midnight. They had a fight, and he wanted to apologize. Her parents thought she was still with him. They got worried and started looking for her. Her best friend, Janie, suggested the tracks. Said she used to go there all the time to think.”
             “There’s hardly ever a train on the tracks.”
             “I know. It’s the damnedest thing.” He seemed almost to laugh, but not in humor. “She was an only child. Her parents must be going out of their minds. School is canceled Monday. That’s when they’re having the funeral.”
             I wanted to ask about the baby, but I had a promise to keep.
             “I don’t want you to go near those tracks again. I know you like to walk on them sometimes, but … well, just don’t anymore. All right?”
             “All right.”


♥ End ♥



Cetoria Tomberlin is a poet and fiction writer who lives in Northwest Georgia. She received her bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Berry College. Her work has previously appeared in Southern Women’s Review, The Battered Suitcase, Spires, and Fairy Tale Review. She is currently at work on her first novel. This featured piece first appeared on Haunted Waters Press.


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