by Ashley Rice
We were living outside a junction town just north of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Each night when the trains came through they rattled the panes of my bedroom window. I couldn't sleep so I'd count the stars stuck on my ceiling. Momma would be in the front room arguing with Daddy, the television up loud, trying to connect with the rest of America.
Each night, I counted the plastic stars until they were just numbers in my head. Then one night when I was supposed to be asleep I spotted a deer standing still and poised outside my window. That deer stood there a second on just three legs very poised and when it sensed a train approaching from around the bend, that deer, it started running.
However: "Cheryl Ann, don't go out by the woods at night," Daddy had warned me. "You know what can happen by the woods at night."
With the rains came the chiggers thick as June itself. Then Daddy lost his job, the rains stopped too completely and a major power plant closed down. By mid-summer, the house was stifling. Already, from the heat I had bad hives. The first night, I put on shorts and a gray short-sleeved shirt, and -- ignoring the gray roar of the television set -- from my opened back-window, I climbed outside.
Within a few minutes, my itching was gone because of a strong, metallic breeze arriving as a train itself came roaring by. Those trains ran so close to our old house -- right through our fenceless backyard, practically -- but they ran far too fast right there for anyone to ever catch them. And everyone knew that if a train was not slowed down enough, and you tried to catch a hold of it, you'd slide under the tracks and immediately be gone, sort of like drowning.
But off to the left, behind Mrs. Smith's house, was a crossing-over-place by a bridge and also by a water tower where each and every train slowed down. We were lucky we had such a slow-down-place because it was the single and only one left in our entire county.
So that night, when I spotted the train nearing that flat, hardened slow place, I hit the ground and ran for the woods where the tracks were as fast as I could. And then when I saw the old reddened box cars slowing just for me, I ran even faster: the row of telephone poles to the left, not beside me, the train right out in front of me, the pinpricked sky at a tilt, and then I just jumped. Caught a hold of a handle -- pulled myself up.
Then: the trees rushing by. All those trees rushing by.
It was the simplest night jump, right then, of risking everything to catch a hold of them. That summer did not let up, and I rode that same line twenty-three times. Each time I'd close my eyes, count out a slow ten, and then I would leap off. Near the post office was a soft place where I'd jump out and roll, then run home through the woods, knowing that, in hitting the right mossy spot just before the rocks began, and the drop-offs began, just how very lucky I was.
Being a crop carrier, that train did not slow again for three more long state lines. A neighbor kid fell asleep and woke up out in the land of California. Another little neighbor boy lost his only left leg forever. Course my own Daddy caught me running full-out down towards those glinting tracks one moonshine and moonlit night and paddled me good.
Then we moved away from the house with the stars on the ceiling. We moved to a town with white dam water churning, churning. A school bus town. A mining hideaway town (used-to-be).
And then kept going.
About the author:
Ashley Rice is the author/illustrator of Girls Rule, Friends Rule and Solo Para Chicas. Her fiction has appeared in the Mid-South Review. She lives in Texas.