You could be electrocuted, that’s what they said. There’s a sign, right there. Danger, beware of third rail. But those admonishments only applied to the underground passenger trains.
The tracks between his residence and the strip mall were nothing to worry about. Freight trains were so much slower. There was no danger of sudden shock. It was too far to walk across the bridge; crossing here was much faster. Everyone knew it, otherwise there wouldn’t be a hole cut in the fence wide enough to walk through. Every time it was repaired, another hole would replace the previous one. It was a mystery who was responsible.
He would often cross these tracks before school to purchase red pistachios when he had enough pocket change to do so. There were two other boys who hung out with him more when he had enough to share. Sometimes the tall one would even let him pedal around the block a few times on his Huffy. The three of them would meander about the neighborhood, tossing a not fully inflated basketball about and chasing stray cats on occasion, then head to their respective homes around dusk and plan to meet again the next day.
One of these mornings, while hopping across a few of the sleepers, his pant leg caught on one of the rail fasteners. The coins flew out of his hand, a glimmering shower of metal disappeared into the ballast. He got up quickly and looked around while dusting off his pants.
He should know better.
He was unable to retrieve every cent that was lost. The incident cost him a detention for tardiness. Sitting in the principal’s office, the scent of pencil shavings, coffee, and warm Xerox paper filled his nostrils. His new teacher, Mrs. Wells, coaxed him to explain his lateness, and he couldn’t bring himself to lie.
This is the first time since the beginning of the year he started to dislike her. This feeling grew the more she spoke.
She was new, had gentle yet concerned eyes. She gave him extra time at the board while solving equations because he hesitated a little longer than the others. On a few occasions, she would pause just a little too long before speaking sometimes. Or look at him strangely and call him a different name. But she was okay.
However, she asked him many questions. Too many. The kind he would continue to hear about the next time he pulled something like this. He was betrayed by her curiosity. This time, it resulted in a phone call to his parents. He didn’t want them to know he had been on the tracks again.
Later that evening, he sat at the kitchen table trying not to be distracted by the smell of dinner sizzling on the stove. When the phone rang, his mother took the call while he slumped in his seat. Dinner was not eaten that night. He had no taste for it anymore. And it wasn’t offered to him besides.
His teacher had concerns. Why had he told her he was buying pistachios for breakfast? Why was he putting himself in danger? Was everything okay at home? Why was he on the tracks?
After the incident, he had to be more cautious. Her class was no longer his favorite.
He would join his classmates in stealing and rearranging Post-it notes she wrote for herself. They hid her purse in the janitor’s closet for hours. He waited for a confrontation which never came. He still got extra time at the board. He still risked taking his “shortcut” on occasion, until he was once again caught. This time, he was sighted by a neighbor. And that wouldn’t have happened except for the commotion of the newspaper headlines that summer. A local boy was struck by a train. There was a bit more surveillance of the area during the days surrounding the announcement. He wondered about the boy. Was it too dark? Was the crossing bar broken?
On the first day of eighth grade, he walked by his former classroom. A man in a V-neck sweater and khakis stood in front of the class. The hallways echoed with speculation. He glided through the cacophony of slamming lockers and the blaring of bells marking the end of each class. Mrs. Wells was gone. They said they were lucky she was removed. Having someone in her condition was dangerous. People could never trust anyone with their children these days.
By the time November came, the rumors had almost ceased. The boys stopped hanging out with him. They were raw about the number of strikes they got compared to his.
On one particularly slick morning, he decided to take the bridge instead of the tracks. It was not so much the rain that deterred him that day. It was the carelessness of the wind.
Bang! “Where is it?” My mother’s voice hit me right in the temples. Time to get up.
Downstairs, her body is halfway hidden underneath the sink. She rummages through its contents. “Andy’s here, Andy’s in here.” Eventually, the top half of her emerges, no sign of glassiness in her eyes. I move toward the stove, making footprints in the loose flour on the floor. I turn the flame on under a pot of water and wait for it to boil. I’m guessing he’ll be gone by then. Andy, that is. One of her hallucinations.
She used to be concerned more about hospital corners than honesty. I’m losing her more often, but she always makes it back. She disappears longer than usual.
I don’t think about that now. The pot makes soft bubbling sounds. Teddy will be up soon.
It is park day.
At the table, my tepid smile was giving no effort, much like the tea. The steam had since relocated from mug to air. My willingness evaporated with it.
While outdoors, I hold Teddy’s hand. It’s tiny and fat and gets lost in mine. Rocks click and crush together, colliding unsteadily beneath my sneakers. We walk slowly to keep time with her pace, but once we reach the play area, Teddy breaks loose and runs to the slide. Music booms through the air.
She looks directly into my eyes. This is what intelligence nearing disaster is. Sundowning time.
The clutter that lies within us is whisked up by some ominous force. Yesterday I tried to poison her food. Seconds to go before I once again become her killer.
I care for you deeply. Sometimes I may be the only one who does. There are many in your orbit who claim otherwise. But we know the truth. You know the truth. That’s all there is. Beware of certain people, they will not remove the snakes in your veins. You’ll have to scratch them out, the skin will seep but regenerate. Remember when we watched those pills dissolve down the drain in tiny toilet tornadoes? They keep you quiet. They use those to track you. Don’t let them steal your information, you must no longer be followed. They are poisonous. Ever since we met, I’ve made decisions to help you navigate. Nothing has changed about that.
The universe is a vast and confusing place, but I can help curate this experience for you. The leaves are turning. You should have someone to look out for you. The world is ripe with peril. I’m sure you’re aware. You have the discernment to know what is going on around you. Be particularly aware of the people closest to you. Avoid disclosing your secrets, they, too, are disguised informants. They will use everything against you and tracking devices are everywhere. You are being recorded.
The music I play for you is important. The songs hold messages and clues. You will be apprehended if you do not pay attention.
Sometimes you ignore me. But I don’t mind. You always come back. I’ve given you Andy to keep you company. I know you miss him.
Shivering, she crosses over the road, just to where the asphalt meets the grass. Sometimes cracks in the pavement are not possible to sidestep. As a child, she could set her shoe safely between the wild lines. But not quite this time. Surely her feet could not have stretched out so long and wide as to cover the divide, then some. As she spreads her toes, their outlines are visible underneath the dingy canvas. Grumbling, she kneels, body heavy, torn between time and gravity. She starts to dig, first with her hands, until the ground gets hard. Then she starts kicking until the soil gives.
She used to know exactly where it was but couldn’t give away its whereabouts. She hid it well. But now they want it back. It must be moved now. Everything is too close.
Her eyes do not easily adjust under the final traces of the sun’s lazy descent. Lyrics to “What a Wonderful World” are resounding between her temples. But she found it! Clutching the object across her chest, she stands and slightly tilts her head. She listens to her name dancing in the distance. It’s time to run, but her arms become frozen to her side. Then her knees buckle.
Something is wrong with her legs. The tune in her head dissolves into muffled static. The breeze shuffles tree leaves into sudden applause.
A neighbor reports seeing her. He locates her about two miles away from home. Frigid. Her thin nightgown, crowded with a faded rose print, is flapping against her legs as she paces down the street in those old tennis shoes from the shiny black donation bag from the corner of their living room.
When he arrives, he expresses his apologies. He dozed off. He was so sorry. He collects her and takes her home. Unfurls her fingers to reveal a small stone and promises to give it back to her. It is gray and smooth under the grains of soil. It was the kind they would skip on the water at their friends’ beach house during the summers. He misses the laugh escaping her throat, watching the stone make a soft plopping sound before sinking.
He runs water into the tub and bathes her under protest. He repeats his name in gentle desperation but receives multiple pinches in response. Tiny drops of water collect on the skin of his forearm where she’s touched him. After she’s dry and in bed, he prepares her suitcase. It already contains a few items. He slowly folds and stuffs until the zipper resists. That way, he knows it’s enough. In the morning, he will make the phone call, have another conversation with the friendly woman at the facility. It was all set.
Yet when she pries her eyelids open against the slivers of sunlight, she smiles. Calls him Michael. Asks him if he is going somewhere. He pulls a blanket up over her and hands her the stone. “No, we just returned from the lake house, you’re still tired from the trip, so I’ll unpack your things this afternoon.” He asks her what she wants to eat for breakfast. Asks her what she’d like to do later. Or if she’d like to go for a drive or watch a movie. Asks her all the things that would make her stay.
Two weeks after my father’s funeral, people still linger bearing food and kind words. I smile, shake my head, then excuse myself. Repeat. It’s hard to hear and hunger never settles in. Voices constantly tinkle in the background like wind chimes, then lower into soft whooshing whispers anytime I walk by. It was sudden, the newspapers stated. A car crash. Dead at the scene. I avoid glances by keeping my eyes on the floor. I wish I could speed up time and be done with this moment. Get rid of the violence in the air. At the wake, they say he looks good. A little rounder in the face from the fluid, but mostly the same. I refuse to look.
Dust specks dance in the light between the window blinds. Tiny pieces of skin and dirt float up to the ceiling and disappear. Little traces of us everywhere. I sigh and stand in the vestibule for a minute before heading upstairs.
I peek into the bedroom. My mother’s back is slumped, hair another shade lighter than the last time I saw her. “Do you need anything?” I ask. She looks past me, shrugs, then turns to look back out the window.
“Water,” is her only reply.
In the kitchen, I feel a pat on my shoulder. It’s Uncle Donnie. You know, none of us knew, but nothing has changed. We are going to miss him and he is always your father. You will always be my niece. He taps my nose twice, the same way he’s done for years. I focus on the dingy ring around the light switch. The heat collects heat behind my eyelids, and I swallow.
When I return upstairs, she’s still in the same place. I hand her the glass and sit on the side of the bed opposite her seat, circling my fingers around the thread pattern on the floral comforter.
“If you’re going to dawdle, can you do it a little closer?”
I circle back around to her side. “I know about Andrew.”
Her eyebrows lift slightly.
Earlier that week, I started to clear out the basement. I tell her about finding pictures and a birth certificate in one of the boxes. I expect her to rise out of her chair. It is her business to putter around more than usual, rearranging knickknacks, never leaving anything in its original place. But today, she is finally still.
“He was only with us for a few days. It was pneumonia,” she says. She and my dad would argue about that up until. Up until…now.
I don’t know what to say or do, but I get up. There are guests downstairs.
“You’re not a replacement.”
“I’m not your first.”
“I know, I’m losing everything.”