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The Train Tracks

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Brian and I came out of the woods, brushing leaves and pine needles from one another's hair. Shannon met us, long-legged, giggling. Shannon talked, rattled on really, joked with Brian. I could still taste the salt from Brian's skin, and I didn't want to talk. The day was too hot anyway. Sunstruck, heavy-tongued, I followed Shannon and Brian up the hill. We always crossed the tracks there, because the official crossing would've taken us half a mile out of our way.

Here the tracks crowned a low ridge, following it out of town. We didn't know or care where the tracks went. They were just a barrier to us, gleaming silver and rust-brown, ties stinking of creosote, over a gravel bed that provided sharp and shifty footing. As we came up the embankment, we heard the train's horn. We paused at the top, waiting for the train to pass. It bore down on us with the usual illusion of seeming to hang back, inch slowly toward us, then meet us in a sudden rush.

At the moment when it seemed to hang back, to pause, Shannon tossed her head and grinned back at us. The long blong strands of her hair sprayed out, haloed her head. Then she darted forward, across the tracks at the same instant the train broke from its illusionary inertia and thundered toward us.

The engineer must've seen her, because the world filled with a thundering horn. Brian's mouth opened, his eyes squinted, about to close, not wanting to see. The horn rang through my head as I watched, unable to stop looking.

The train missed her.

Unbelieving, we waited for all the cars to pass. There Shannon stood, on the other side of the tracks, laughing. Brian shook his head and crossed the tracks on shaky legs, but I stayed where I was, my stomach turned to liquid. Brian had to come back to me. For several minutes I could not move my feet, though I was very nearly sick on the grass. Shannon sprinted back over to dance around us. I was bent double, Brian patting my shoulder.

"What's the big deal?" I heard her say faintly, my hearing blunted by the train horn. "I had plenty of room!"

"That was close," Brian said, his voice full of relief, but also admiration, as if the stupid thing she had just done took some sort of courage or flair.

And years later, when Shannon had caused me so much pain, when she'd taken Brian from me, when she'd spread the secrets I had told her out in the cold light of public knowledge, I remembered the train.

It missed her. It missed her.

***

This story first appeared in Thema magazine.

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