The man tore his denim shirtsleeves on honey locust thorns crossing his forearms in front of his face, but pencil-thin lines of blood appeared on his cheeks where hidden switches raked him. The moonlight didn’t filter through that part of the woods and he wasn’t on a path. Once, earlier, when he stopped for a few seconds to suck in breath, he thought he might lie down on the forest floor or climb as high as he could in one of the oaks. But behind him the dogs had howled and he threw himself deeper into the trees.
Finally he came to a clearing, a skinny valley that sloped away from where he’d stopped running at the tree line. Along the bottom was a single set of railroad tracks. They bent gently back into the woods and the rails were coated in silver moonlight. The man leapt forward, stumbled on a root, and careened down almost to the edge of the tracks, where he settled in a motionless heap. When he finally picked his head up and looked back, he could see by the moonlight the channel he’d cut through the scrub brush, the black impressions in the dirt left by his bouncing, tumbling body. The man groaned and rolled over onto his back. There was the moon in the sky above him, full, looking down on him and grimacing. The man breathed through his teeth. For a long time, all was still. He did not hear the dogs anymore. He felt sweat and blood and snot on his face, small trails trickling like insect feet from his lips and forehead down to his ears and through his hair.
He got to his hands and knees like a lamed animal, then into a wobbly crouch, and then stood. Where the vegetation of the woods ended, a skirt of limestone chunks ten feet wide sheathed the tracks. He crossed the rocks, stepped over the near rail and stood on a tie. When he turned left and right to look up and down the tracks, his arms didn’t seem to be his own, or at least they didn’t seem to be under his control—they flopped along with his rotating body. The wide palms at the ends of his arms were gray-blue in the moonlight.
Then, from the man’s left, swooping down from the tops of the trees and, at the same time, hurtling through the dense clusters of brush and branches, bark and leaves all around him came the long, mournful blast of an engine’s whistle. The man scrambled back down to his knees, ungracefully lowering himself to a squat, and then pitched forward so that he had to catch himself with one hand. He faced the direction from which the sound came and saw the light from the engine, a pale thing on the trees which dissolved some of the shadows and defined individual trunks, growing in intensity until it was a great white marauding eye bearing down on him. He stretched his body out prone, perpendicular to the tracks, letting his head alight on the far rail as delicately as a leaf lands on a pond without ripples. The engine’s whistle screamed.
And then, as if snake-bit, the man jumped up.
“I didn’t say nothing,” the man said, “Oh God, I got to say something.”
His hands were shaking as he snatched one piece of limestone after another from between the ties, pitching them all aside until he uncovered a fist-sized wedge of lignite. The man’s shadow cast in black by the headlight jerked beside him, mocking the desperation of his movements. Coal in hand, he fell to his knees and tried to scratch words on the rail worn smooth as chrome.
“I’m sorry to my mother,” he shouted, words sputtering out and then seeming to ignite and fly off.
The train was closer and its rusty wheels ground and creaked on the tracks. “Wait,” he shouted. The headlight turned his face so white all wrinkles and lines, dirt, scrapes and scars were stripped away and flung into the night.
“That boy,” the man said, “I’m sorry about that boy.”
His words were stolen by the whistle shriek.
“Wait,” he shouted, but he could not even hear the word inside his head.
The train, a terrible iron wind, was upon him.
“The boy,” the man slobbered, “The boy. I’m sorry about the boy.”
It was all around the man now, a wooshing madness, the roar exploding into the woods, thrumming down through the center of the earth and echoing back up. Shaking the ties, vibrating all the rocks in the bed until they clattered together in their own cadence, bending tree branches like they had elbow joints and hewing from the air a metal on metal screech that could nearly peel the skin from a living body. When it was all gone, the noise and motion, when it had all disappeared around the far bend, the tracks, the woods and all else came together again, like a pane of shattered glass compelled to repair itself.
Paul Luikart lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter. His work has appeared in Curbside Splendor, Johnny America, Chicago Quarterly Review, the Santa Fe Writers' Project, and at the Burnside Writers' Collective.