A short story by Yash Seyedbagheri.
Standing in the vacant lot next to the tracks, Nick’s rock lands, striking the passing train window. It’s the third passenger car. A sleek gray car with little square windows. Glass shatters, a gaping hole visible. But it’s the cry that really penetrates, pierces Nick like the sharpest thing. Like his penknife.
Mama. A howl, deep and anguished. A boy’s howl. So it sounds like. Help me, Mama. Mama, a word all too familiar.
The train keeps on moving, the boy crying again, the crying somewhat blurred by the rumbling of the train, but at the same time blending with the clickety-clack, clickety-clack.
“Make it stop, Mama,” the boy cries. Words are fragmented, drawn out.
Nick stands frozen. Shaking. The shaking increases, his body consumed. Excuses rise to his mind, Nick trying to hold onto each one. A mother’s wails rise, as if on cue, something lilting, a contrast to the boy’s harsh cry. The boy sounds so young. Nick’s age even. The woman’s wail reminds Nick of something, maybe the opera Mother listens to and Nancy mocks. The train rushes on, but the wails hang in the sky, like the energy during a summer’s storm.
He didn’t expect the rock to land. Nick was having fun, trying to improve his aim. He’s thrown rocks at trains before, without trouble. Always down at this spot, an empty lot before the neighborhood turns to businesses. It’s an empty lot where boys often come to play baseball and throw and discover things. Old pennies and more mysterious things. Knives. Prophylactics, or at least that’s what Nick thinks the word is.
But still, he never expected the rock to land with such precision. He’s a klutz, after all, tripping over things, unable to do anything right. He can’t run, can’t play the piano, can’t seem to even do fractions. His piano teacher, Miss Edgar says he murdered Tchaikovsky. His big sister Nancy jokingly calls him “dummkopf.” Blockhead. Even though she always reminds Nick she loves him.
Love means nothing now. Now that he has landed a target. He has struck a train window with absolute perfection. The thought seems so absurd, Nick wants to laugh. But someone in the train has been struck. Someone has been hurt.
Nick has never wanted to hurt anyone, never thought about the possibilities. Certainly, he’s heard Mother talking to the neighbors about boys who throw rocks at trains, but he’s thought that was just Mother worrying. Mother worries about throwing rocks, about playing after dusk, about people disappearing. He always thought he’d just throw rocks, they’d miss, and he’d enjoy the experience, being outside in the summer air.
Nick has hurt someone. Injured someone. Severely, a word he has learned recently, a word that is just as frightening as it sounds. He has made someone, possibly a boy cry, his mother cry too. He has injured someone, at the very least.
Nick imagines the rock striking the boy. Or at least he imagines it’s a boy. He imagines the blood spilling, rapidly, like the times he’s fallen off his bike, but ten times worse. He imagines the bruises, dark and frightening. Nick imagines the boy’s mother, holding her child, while the train barrels forward. In this scene, the boy is slipping into a darker place, the train speeding. The mother is trying to make him feel all right, whispering words of comfort. She is telling him lies, perhaps. She is telling this unknown child he’ll be all right, the good kind of lies, as Nancy puts it. The mother is holding her child in slender arms. Like when he was very sick last summer, Mother trying to take away the burning, the aching. Rocking him.
Nick must move. Act. Now. The boy suffers, his life is threatened. Dependent upon Nick. He has taken from the boy. Only Nick can fix it. But he can’t. It’s as if a force is keeping him down, keeping him in this spot on Roosevelt Street. Across the street from this lot with its rusting fences is a little neighborhood of small businesses, grocers, a few bars with neon signs flickering in the late afternoon heat. Old redbrick buildings with neat little arches, some of which are boarded up, which look dusty and depressing.
A woman rushes up to Nick from the little grocery store. She has beautiful hair like fire and wears a neat lavender suit. She reminds Nick of Mother, especially with the smell of her lavender perfume and cigarettes.
“Are you all right?” she says. “Did you hear that noise? From the train, I mean?”
Nick just nods, as if he is a robot in a science-fiction movie, and his ability to think for himself has been taken away.
“I heard something,” she takes him by the hand, as if he is a baby. “It was just a minute, but it sounded like a scream or something. Did you see anything? Hear anything at all?”
He stands, shaking more and more, the train moving away from him, across the street. He can see the end of the train. It’s so close. He must act. But how? He’s never gotten into this sort of mess. He’s ridden his bike too fast, knocked over trash cans. Mother and Nancy have scolded him, but that’s seemed so tame. He’s never imagined having to explain this.
He wonders what the child’s name is. It seems so funny, but he feels like he should know. Ralph, maybe? Or maybe Jake? Ralph sounds right. He imagines the mother wailing those names over. Ralph, Ralph. Ralph. A name that reminds Nick of his friends, who play baseball and look for dropped items in the lot.
“Did you?” the woman says. “See what happened, I mean.”
“No,” Nick says. He pulls away from the woman, touch too weighty. “I just heard the scream. It was coming from the train.”
“I don’t know,” Nick says, “Maybe someone got killed.”
Nick could hide and put the boy out of his mind. Bury him. But he can’t live with that night after night. He’s only ten, but he knows how absurd this is. He knows of children losing parents. But this is something else. Mother always said it’s against nature for a parent to bury her child.
“I should call the police,” the woman says. “Just wait there. Maybe they can stop the train, find out what happened. It’s all right.”
Even if the child is still around, he’ll have the biggest bruises. A marker, a marker of Nick’s stupidity. Nick hopes beyond hope that the child hasn’t slipped into another world, that the child’s life isn’t over already. He’s so young, hasn’t had a chance to grow up, to know what he wants. Just like Nick.
He can’t wait around, can’t answer the officer’s questions. He hates how people talk down to you, as if you can’t understand what’s happened.
He understands too well now. He has hurt a boy. Worse. He has done something stupid, beyond stupid. Done something no right-thinking kid would do.
“I have to go,” Nick murmurs.
Maybe he can stop the train. Maybe he can find a doctor. So many maybes, which overwhelm Nick. Maybe he can find the boy. Tell him what he’s done, tell him he’s sorry. If the boy is still conscious, if he’s still in pain. If he survives, Nick will do everything. He’ll visit the boy, bring him whatever he needs. Toys and food and whatever. He doesn’t even know where the boy lives, where he was going. Perhaps his mother was taking him on a special trip, like when Mother took him and Nancy to New York, and they moved about, the three of them, together and free in a great city, Nick feeling a kind of comfort, Mother and Nancy laughing. All of them moving with ease.
“Wait,” the woman calls. She starts following Nick, running after him. “It’s all right. Come back. Come back.”
“You’re not in trouble,” she says. “The police just want to ask questions. We just need to clear things up and make sure everyone’s all right.”
“No one’s all right,” Nick cries, words slipping from his mind. “I killed a boy. I killed a boy.”
“Don’t be silly,” the woman calls. “Come back here.”
“I killed a boy.” The words keep echoing. They relieve Nick and weigh him down even more. He has killed a boy. He has killed a boy. He may not be certain, but he has spoken the dark possibility.
He starts to run, to find the train. It’s hard to catch up, running across the street, running along the embankment, pain weighing down on Nick’s legs. He keeps trying to run, faster, faster, the train rolling along. Rolling faster and faster. On that train, a little boy is suffering, head struck by a rock, howling, or dead. Nick says that word to himself, running, running. Dead. Dead. And now, a woman is chasing him, someone who will take him to the police, make him describe the things that have happened. He just cannot describe such things to them.
As he picks up the pace, he imagines someone else just like him throwing rocks. Throwing them at him, left and right, until they strike their target. And he imagines himself injured. Dead. Imagines the weight of the rock, the whistle of air, the harshness of the stone. Imagines Mother and Nancy crying, wailing, the pain rising to them from deep places. He imagines the sensation of taking happiness from other people.
He keeps running, the sensation of pain rising, rising. He rushes down Roosevelt, keeps running along the embankment, the depot in sight. He runs alongside the tracks, darting around cars, in and out. Cars blast their horns, people yell unintelligible things, but Nick keeps running, past cars with families. Past mothers and fathers and kids, kids who don’t throw rocks. Past kids on bikes still enjoying the summer day, kids who don’t know what it means to hurt. Really hurt. Radios blast music, including the Elvis Nancy loves. How Nick wishes he could be home now, with Mother and Nancy, Nancy’s teasing smile, Mother rushing around with a certain kind of energy.
The train disappears, but Nick keeps running. He’ll catch it. He must. He keeps conjuring the images, works his legs to the maximum. The pain rises, pushing upon him with great force. But he keeps on moving, keeps running, running.
The pain throbs, Nick’s legs starting to buckle. But he cannot slow down, he must feel the pain. He must relish it. He must feel the deepest pain, really bear it. And he will. He will find that train. One way or another. There’s no other choice. They can’t say he’s a kid, he’s innocent, it was a mistake.
Whatever happens, it will be more painful than anything else. More painful than falling off a bike, than a fever. Running, the train almost out of reach, Nick vows to listen to the mother’s tears until they’ve dried up. He conjures her screams, blaming Nick for the loss. She will shake him. Maybe she’ll hit him until the police hold her back, like in the movies. Whatever happens, he cannot ask anyone for the answers. It’s painful, how painful it is, the train gone, Nick running, running, running.
That’s how it should be.
Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. His stories, “Soon” and “How To Be A Good Episcopalian,” have been nominated for Pushcarts. He has also had work nominated for The Best of the Net and The Best Small Fictions. A native of Idaho, Yash’s work is forthcoming or has been published in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Write City Magazine, and Ariel Chart, among others.