BY A.S. COOMER
The clouds rolled in thick and boiling. Black as the night. We were out there on the tracks with our bikes, waiting on a freight to move through so we could squash some pennies. Kenny had a nickel he wanted to try out too. We all thought that was stupid.
I don’t know where he came from. Somewhere down the line, I guess, but we didn’t see or hear him come up. One minute we were cussing and carrying on like kids do when they’re out of their parents’ earshot, the next he was standing there.
Scared the shit out of me. I can admit that now. None of us could then, of course.
I think Dave saw him first. I could be wrong though. “Who’re you?” he blurted out.
We all jumped and spun around to see who Dave was speaking to.
“What’re you all doing out here?” the man asked.
He had this snaggletooth that hung out onto his bottom lip, even when his mouth was shut.
We all looked at each other, waiting on someone to answer the man. He was an adult, after all, and we had manners to follow.
Kenny, God rest his soul, spoke first.
“Waitin’ on the train, mister,” he said.
“Waitin’ on the train, huh?” the man tugged at his ratty beard. There was more gray in it than black, which was strange because what hair hung out of his nappy Reds hat was black as pitch.
“Yessir,” I answered.
When the man turned his eyes on me, it was all I could do to stop from shivering. His eyes were as black as the hair on his head, except for the yellowy parts that should’ve been white. Tiny spider webs of red lined both of them.
“Now, why are four little boys just a waitin’ on the train, miles outside of any town?”
The man smiled and I couldn’t stop the shiver. It crept up my spine like a melting ice cube. I acted like I was stretching to hide it.
Nobody answered the man.
He looked at each of us then at the bikes in the gravel, just off the tracks.
“Those’re some nice bikes, boys,” he said.
“Thank you, mister,” Kenny said.
I thought Joey was going to bolt. His face was all ashy and pale. He didn’t though. None of us did.
“Y’all come from Minnie or Sparrow?” the man asked.
“Sparrow,” I said.
He nodded his head and looked at us, slowly, each in turn.
His denim jacket was smudged and torn, his jeans the same. He stood with his legs a shoulder length apart and didn’t sway. He could’ve been a statue salute to the hobo collective if he hadn’t taken two steps closer to me.
He smelled like motor oil and stale sweat. Something else too, something I’d later come to recognize as reefer. When he opened his mouth next, I saw how yellow his teeth were.
“Y’all want to play a little game?” he asked. “While you wait for the train, I mean.”
All of me, with the singular exception of my mouth, screamed no.
“Uh, O...OK,” Dave said.
I never wanted to whack someone on the back of the head so bad.
The man grinned and slid his hands into his jeans pockets.
“What would you do if you and your best friend in the world came face to face with a real life bear? A grizzly or some such that was real angry?” he asked.
We all looked at each other with creased up eyebrows.
“One at time now,” he said. “Let’s start with ye.”
The man pointed at Joey.
“Well,” Joey started, fidgeting and looking down at his feet on the railroad tie. “I guess, I’d try and see if we could get away.” He added “sir” after a pause.
The man’s grin stretched a little tighter.
“I didn’t ask what ‘we’ would do. I asked what you would do, boy.”
Joey stood still and looked up from his shoes.
“I don’t really know what you’re asking, sir.”
“Didn’t I make myself plain?” the man asked. “What would you do if you and your buddy came up to an angry bear? What would you do?”
Joey’s face was white as a sheet.
“I guess I’d run, sir.”
The man turned to Kenny without a moment’s hesitation.
“What about you?”
“I guess the same, mister,” Kenny said.
“And you, boy?” the man turned to me.
“I’d run too,” I said. “Sir.”
The man came around on Dave but didn’t ask the question aloud.
“Same,” Dave said.
“So, y’all would run if you came up to an aggravated bear with your bud,” the man said.
We all nodded in confirmation.
“Good,” he said. “What about if y’all came into a place, a bank or diner or somewheres, just before it got robbed?”
The man walked around us, circling us with long, slow strides.
“Say it was one man with a weapon, a gun say, and he had his back to ye,” he said. “What would you do?”
Like school, it was decided without words, that Joey would be the first to answer this question too.
“I’d try to stop him,” Joey said.
The man’s laughter was a sharp bark. I flinched, blinking at it and I’d bet money Dave, Joey and Kenny did too.
“You would would ye?” the man asked.
“Me too, mister,” Kenny said.
“Me too,” I answered.
“As would I,” Dave said.
“Y’all would be the valiant hero then?” he said. “Saviors, the lot of ye?”
The tooth caught a bit of the sun and glinted. I saw then that it was gold, not just yellow like the others.
“OK, OK,” the man said. “Now, what if’n ye were out on a frozen pond and a little babe was out towards the middle, just a cryin’?”
He made the full circle and started back around. We’d all stepped closer to each other without even realizing it. The second circle was made before anybody answered the man.
“What would ye do under those’un circumstances?”
“I guess I’d call out for help,” Joey said.
The man’s eyes widened a bit but his smile stayed stretched across his scraggly face.
“I would too,” Kenny said.
“I’d try to get some help from the fire department,” I said.
“The fire department!” the man barked his sharp laugh again.
“Yessir,” I said.
Dave squinted his eyes at the man and stood a little straighter.
“I’d call out for help too but I guess I’d try to go out there and grab the baby,” Dave said.
The man stopped halfway through circle number three.
“There it is again,” the man said. “There’s the glory, the guts, the affirmation of life itself. Yessir, yessir, there it is.”
The man reached into his jacket and pulled out an old nickel-plated flask and unscrewed the lid. He wafted the bottle under his nose and sniffed.
“Ah, yes,” he hissed. “There it is. Life itself.”
The man held the bottle out to Dave and nodded his head pastorally.
Dave hesitated but a moment then took the flask and drank quickly.
I felt my stomach turn over in a heap of knots.
Dave shot out his arm, extending the flask back to the man, and tried to say ‘thanks.’
The breath sucked back into Dave’s mouth then came out in a sputtering cough. He hacked for a minute, tears rolling out of his eyes onto his sunburnt cheeks. He wiped ‘em away as quickly as they fell but we all saw them.
He cleared his throat and said, “Thanks, mister. Stuff’s got a nice bite to it.”
Like he’d been drinking since he was in diapers. A strange mix of pride and jealousy clenched another knot in my stomach.
“Thas right, thas right,” the man said and laughed, this one less brittle but just as unpleasant. “A bite. Life itself.”
My face flushed and I was embarrassed that I hadn’t said I’d go and save the baby.
“Now, what if’n you was on a bridge, a real high one, with your little brother or sister. Y’all got brothers and sisters, don’t ye?”
He didn’t wait for an answer.
“And you had to either throw ‘em over or be thrown over yerself. What would ye do then?”
Marty spurted up into my mind without any conscious calling. Little Marty and me, up on the old single lane over the Nolin. What then? Try as I might, I just couldn’t see me throwing Marty over. Sure, he was a snotnosed little brat but he was my brother. My little brother.
I could imagine being tossed over, though. And that was terrifying.
“Shaking your head, huh, boy?”
The man had stopped in front of me. He was tall, looking down on me from a good two foot advantage, maybe three. Memories stretch and skew but he was tall and as thin as a knife’s edge.
“I couldn’t do it,” I said.
I hadn’t even heard what the others had said.
“Couldn’t could you?” he said. “So you druther be thrown your own self?”
“Well, no, sir,” I said. “I don’t think I’d like that a bit.”
He handed me the flask. I drank.
The man started back with his circling but didn’t ask anything else right away.
From Minnie-ways, I heard a train whistle under the swirling summer thunderclouds.
“Looks like this might be the last one we have time for,” the man said.
“Suppose you were out here, on the tracks, miles away from your mommies and daddies,” he said. “Suppose you were told you had to pick one of ye to go a walkin’ and never come back. Who would it be?”
It felt like the knots in my tummy broke. I was scared. Scared shitless.
Joey was shaking his head in short, little seizures.
“Aw, c’mon,” the man taunted. “Just suppose.”
“I don’t like this at all,” Dave said, real quiet.
“Answer me,” the man demanded. His voice was deep then. Deep as a nightmare, dark as a dungeon.
I took to shaking and couldn’t stop.
The bikes looked so far away. Five feet, ten at the most, but the man was much nearer, looming over us, circling, circling.
Above us the storm gathered; funnel clouds and peals of thunder. Some other me was sure the tornado sirens were soon to go off.
The train cried again, closer this time.
“I’m not going to have to ask ye again, am I?”
“Kenny,” Joey whispered.
Kenny’s mouth dropped open and his eyes were as wide as windows in late August.
“Kenny,” Dave said, just as quietly.
“Kenny,” I mouthed. “Kenny.”
The man turned on the only one of us that hadn’t answered.
“Kenny,” the man said.
Lightning streaked across the sky and thunder bellowed, a hellhound close on its heels.
“Kenny, Kenny, Kenny.”
The train rounded the bend and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Joey break for the bikes. Kenny went to run but a gnarled hand, a dimestore turquoise ring looking up like the eye of a rancid hurricane, clamped down onto his shoulder. He opened his mouth to scream but the whistle from the train drowned him out.
The thunder hit again. Rain pattered down onto my bare-naked head.
I scooped up the handlebars in mid-stride. I ran beside the Huffy as fast as my legs would carry me then leapt onto the seat and pedaled and pedaled and pedaled.
I’d left my penny back there on the tracks beside Dave’s and Joey’s, and Kenny’s nickel. I turned back, stupid kid thing to do, and saw them there, glinting up dully from the rails. Kenny was sitting there, too, on the tracks, between the rails, legs sprawled out before him, shaky arms thrown behind barely holding him up. He had this dazed look on his face. A bit of red snaked down his right cheek.
The train came with the storm.
A.S. Coomer is a writer of fiction and poetry. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in issues of Red Fez, Literary Orphans Journal, The Quill, Flash Fiction Magazine, Oxford Magazine, The Broadkill Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Thirteen Myna Birds, Intrinsick Magazine and Serving House Journal. You can find him at www.ascoomer.wordpress.com.
= = = = = > Read A.S.'s Sixer