"Shit Five-Oh. Drop your smoke dude."
The cop pulled the cruiser up lazily, lights off. Smoking had been illegal in Vermont for less than a month, but Essex Junction was not exactly a town brimming with crime. Arbitrary laws like these kept problem students in line, and gave the pigs something to do. I kept smoking my cigarette as my girl Sarah chucked her butt to the ground. Fuck that. For one thing he had already seen me smoking, and secondly, sometimes you could psyche them out. I stared at the cop like it was my eighteenth birthday, and I was just dying for the chance to flash my ID. Like the DMV had printed it out an hour ago, and had been waiting for a chance to flash it all day. Worst case scenario I would at least get to finish my smoke. I tuned out his babble as he wrote a ticket to half the kids at the rocks, glancing at me occasionally. He pulled away slowly, as Sarah shook her head in disgust.
"Fucking pigs, why the hell didn't they give you a ticket?"
I explained my theory to her, but part of my mind was drawn to the suit walking up to the rocks. The rocks was actually a small dirt lot just off school grounds. This was the only reason we were allowed to smoke here. The principal was walking towards the group of twenty kids. Some dropped their smokes, and this time, I chose to comply. Cops didn't scare me, but he did. He knew my parents a little too well, and I knew they would kill me if I got caught smoking again. He was a towering, powerful man, and though his eyes had a kind feel to them, it didn't take long to realize they provided a false sense of security. Vilasseca hopped up onto one of the boulders that was meant to serve as a median between the road and the parking area, pausing to make sure he had everyone's attention.
"Ok guys, as most of you know, the town has passed a new ordinance saying you will be fined for smoking. To assist in this matter, the school has purchased this property. Which means you are now on school property and anyone who is smoking, needs to put it out. Anyone caught smoking here will be suspended."
He hopped down, surveying the crowd to be sure even the more defiant kids would drop their smokes. After a moment, he turned and began walking toward the school. We stood there dumbfounded. This was where kids had been coming to smoke for years. Hell, my brother had graduated three years ago, and he smoked here. My face burned red, blood rushing through my ears, my fists clenching into tight balls. We were outcasts and losers, no one questioned it. That's why we started smoking, though most wouldn't admit it. We didn't fit in with the rest of the crowd, so we wandered down to the end of the road and fired up a butt to belong somewhere.
And so began the migration. There was a short period where everyone simply moved to the guard-rail on the side of the road. It was short lived, twenty kids clinging to a guardrail on a busy street was not the best plan. We then moved to the peak of the hill that was right at the border of the school's property. At least we were out of the street, but it was owned by a lonely widower who didn't take kindly to finding forty cigarette butts covering his lawn each morning. We were feeling more defeated by the day. The jocks had the football field, the preppies canvassed the benches in front of the school, and the loners had, well, pretty much anywhere they wanted to be. We were a crew without a turf.
Finally we were pushed to the railroad tracks. It was a pretty well known spot, and we were able to hold onto it for a few months. It seemed as if we finally had a home. This was the route most kids took to get to Central Beverage, a mini market that happened to have the best cheap coffee in Vermont. The spot was perfect. The occasional train would pass through, and we would all move to the side, watching it travel by lazily. There was something very peaceful about it. The dull clang of the warning signals, the methodical chugging as it roared by. Sometimes we would laugh at the reactions of a particularly irate driver forced to wait at the crossing, as we sipped coffee and took slow drags.
I was there the day that Justin got hit. He wasn't a friend of mine, but we shared a few mutual friends, and offered each other the obligatory head nod in the hall from time to time. My inner circle and I were making the usual hike to Central Beverage to grab a cup of coffee. Justin was known for having his over sized head phones encasing his ears, more often than not blaring loud enough that you could hear it ten yards back. Sarah, Karrie and I were off to the far right conversing when we first heard the rattle of the train on the tracks. We turned back to see it was right behind us. We were far enough to the side for it to go racing by without pause. Justin was ambling slowly on the outside of the steel rails, his head swinging to the beat. The whistle started blaring loudly in our ears as we tried desperately to shout a warning to him. The train was trying to slow, but kept barreling down on him. He had time to turn just as the train reached him.
And it's a damn good thing he did. He stumbled ever so slightly to the right, and managed to clear his body from the path of the train. His backpack, however, was a different matter. The train clipped it with full force. His feet were suddenly ripped from the ground, as if pulled by some unseen force, his body contorting and spinning like a top. He flew through the air and landed face first. I heard the sound of bone crunching into lose gravel, and thought for a moment I might be sick. Had he broken his neck? We raced up the tracks wondering what we would find. One head phone had slipped off his ear, and we could hear loud hip hop blaring out of it. The stones imbedded deeply in his face were a pinkish hue, as the blood began flowing from the deep wounds. His lower jaw jutted too far out to the left, he had clearly broken it.
"Karrie, go get some help, now." I managed to stammer.
"Why don't you go?" Her voice was quiet, her breath short.
"Because you're a hell of a lot faster than I am, now fucking go!"
I kneeled down beside him, and after a moment, placed my hand on his stomach. Still moving up and down, so he was breathing. I suppose I should have been checking for a pulse, but I wasn't sure what a healthy persons pulse should sound like. He glanced at me out of the corner of his swollen left eye. He looked like he wanted to say something, but his mouth wouldn't allow movement in its new position. His white T-Shirt was quickly turning dark red from underneath. I didn't notice the layer of blood that covered my palm until hours later.
"No dude, don't try and talk." I desperately wanted my voice to sound cool and calm. "Just stay still, we're getting you some help."
My knees were biting into the gravel bellow me as my hands trembled. Others were starting to run up the track, and I could hear the urgent shriek of an ambulance racing towards us. To be honest, I had never really liked Justin. He was cocky, the kind of kid who couldn't be your friend if you didn't have hundred-and- fifty-dollar shoes strapped to your feet or know all the words to the latest Wu Tang album. My breath started hitching, as I realized he was reaching his hand out to me. After a moment, I took it. What else could I do? I heard Sarah say something, but the words became a blur. I was lost in his eyes. He had no cockiness and his now certainly broken nose was not turned up in the air. He was just a scared little boy. After all, despite our best efforts to be mature, we were still kids.
The ambulance finally came, and the paramedic pried me away from him. As they lifted him onto the stretcher and hauled him away, I was unsure what to do next. It took a moment for me to realize that a large crowd had gathered and I was in the center of it. One kid in the back shouted out.
"Well, I guess we won't be hanging out here anymore."
I turned to him and stared as if I were seeing a Martian or some new species of bug. I couldn't fathom the callousness that had just come from him. Yet I couldn't help but wonder, if I hadn't been here, would I respond the same way? If I hadn't seen it, would I be the one throwing out the smart-ass remark? I had never felt more like a child in my life. I started my walk towards home, unconcerned that school was supposed to start in five minutes. People asked me a few questions as I turned to go, greedily searching for a gory detail to share with those who hadn't been present for the event. The world was on mute now. I glanced down at the tracks as I realized I was still following the wooden rungs. I stepped off them in disgust and cut through the woods to the main road.
I never walked on the tracks again.
© 2004 Laurie Delaney, all rights reserved
appears here by permission