This is the prologue to my book in a month. Please let me know what you think:
Every kid in a small town grows up with a game they play. The sort of game they have to make up from nothing to avoid dying from absolute boredom. The sort of game they play with their closest friends, but don’t ever talk about outside of that, to parents or teachers, or anyone on the out. Ours was The Railway Game.
I guess it started in 65’, during one of those sweltering summers that never ends. The four of us; George, Etta, Gilly and me, had exhausted all attempts to squeeze our parents for money. Well, all of us except Gilly, who didn’t have any parents. He lived in a shed at his Nana’s house. She was loaded, but only fed him scraps, and gave him hand-me-down clothes from a hundred years ago. At least, that’s what he said.
Anyway, we were bored, and cash poor. We were burning up under a brutal sun, and George was whining as usual. So we started walking. I was in the lead, on account of I was the oldest, and so I was the wisest. I set off in a determined stride, right down Huddle Street, to the edge of town. We passed the broken shell that used to be a Gin-house, until it got shut down by the Sheriff, and we scuffed along the street until the tarmac stopped and turned to dust. The only buildings here were old when our parents were kids – falling brick structures without purpose, and without identity. The edge of town was as far as we were supposed to go without a grown-up, so we just stood around, kicking stones at the remaining panes of glass in a squat building just off the road. It reminded me of a sleeping dwarf, sullen and stout, with dark eyes where the windows used to be. I wondered sometimes what would happen if it woke up.
The air was still and quiet, other than the rasping of Etta’s breath and the clatter of stones against the wall, or occasionally against the little bits of glass still clinging on to the rotten wood window frame. But in the distance, I heard something. At the time it sounded to me like an owl hooting my name.
I started off without thinking, hitting the road in a cloud of dust and then veering off down the slope, through the line of rugged hackberry trees and across the ten yards or so of dry brush. I started walking in longer strides, until they lengthened into a run, and by the time the others caught up to me, calling my name the whole time, I was standing on a little rise, looking down at the train track. We all knew there was a railway. We also knew it was all but abandoned. It was off-limits to any kid who wanted to see the outside of his bedroom any time before he was 18.
We had heard stories from older kids, about children going missing, or bodies turning up weeks later. The line used to be lousy with trains, bringing in produce or iron, and taking coal out. Kids would dare each other to cross the lines or stand on them till the last second, and eventually some idiot would get killed, and the whole town would lock their kids up for weeks. Now though, the line was dead, mostly. There was the very occasional train here or there, pulling a few rusted train-cars, half empty at best. But it was nothing to get excited about. I mean, I’d heard the sound of trains before, and thought nothing of it. For some reason though, this time, it spoke to me. I think I was probably just hot in the head or something, but I followed my gut, and followed the train.
I made it to the track just as the last rusty car rattled by. I was giddy and breathless already, but it didn’t matter. I took off after the train, whooping and hollering. I heard yells and hollers rise up behind me, and in a minute or two, we were all racing after the train like madmen. We gave chase for as long as we could, imagining we were bandits in pursuit of a train loaded with silver, but eventually we ran out of gas, and the train chugged away, content to leave us behind empty-handed.
It was then I saw it, sticking out of the dirt just at the edge of the tracks. It was bent and rusted to ruin, but it was something. I rushed over, while the others were still staring off after the escaping train. As I gripped it, and pulled, the others turned to see what I was fussing with. What emerged was something that barely resembled a sword. Beneath the dirt and the rust, you could see the steel and an edge that must have once been deadly. The handle was still smooth and it was soft somehow, made of leather or hide of some sort or another. I raised it over my head, clods of dirt falling from it, landing on my head and crumbling to pieces down over my face. The others started to holler and whoop again, and I joined in, until we filled the air with the sound of our war cry. When we stopped, we were exhausted. Gill was chuckling to himself, so winded he could hardly stand up. George was stone-faced, as usual, but I could tell he was trying to hold back a grin. Etta tried to look mad for a moment, but then let out a long sigh, between gasping breaths, and she fell to the ground laughing.
I watched them, standing in the shade of a leafless old Oak tree that reminded me of my uncle Edwin. It was hunched and knotted, with a sort of crease in it that looked like a crooked smile. I stood there in the sun, burning up to charcoal as the light hit my skin, but beaming with pride as I held my prize. That was how the game began. That sword, some relic of the civil war we thought, was the first of many prizes.
The game was simple. We would split up into two teams of two. The aim was to find the most interesting object you could, and get back to base the fastest. Edwin, the gnarled oak, became our base, because we could climb up in his branches and lay out, in the cover of his leaves during most of the year, and see out along the tracks, without anyone being able to see us. I was usually teamed with Etta, because I was the best, and she was, well, a girl. That left George and Gill on the other team. We would split up – heading different directions – but one member of each team went each way. The only rule was, you couldn’t lose sight of the track, so the object had to be on the track or close to it. We split the teams so there was no cheating, only there would still be arguments here or there, over who found something first.
At first, you had to be back in 8 minutes. It was risky enough being this far outside town, we didn’t want to risk any more, but the older we got, the longer we played the game, the further we had to go to find things. The first day we went back to play it, it was still Summer but no so hot. We won, Etta and I. I found an old telescope someone had dropped, or dumped, and all George and Gilly could find was an odd shaped rock. The further we went though, the more interesting the stuff. We found bones of animals we didn’t recognize, more rusty old swords, a pirate hat, or at least what was left of it. One time George found a little carved box with runes on it none of us recognized. We tried to open it, imagining gold or gems inside, but we never could pry it open. We stashed it with the rest of our hoard, in a makeshift treasure box of our own, buried at the base of Edwin’s trunk. It went missing about a month after we found it. George was furious, thinking one of us had stolen his prize, after we settled it with our fists, Etta convinced us of a different story. She said it was magic of a sort. We laughed at her, but she had a way of making the far off seem real, so we listened to her, long enough for her to spin a tale that seemed like it should be true. She said the box had gone back to where it belonged, that the reason we couldn’t open it was that the box was protected somehow, by the symbols on it. She said we were lucky it went away, before someone we didn’t want to mess with came looking for it. After a while, weeks or months of her tales, it just sank into our game, became part of it, and part of who we were. The game became about finding more of these magical artifacts. We would turn everything we found into part of the tale. The game was all we would talk about. It became an unhealthy obsession.
Every new school semester we would settle back into a normal routine and the magic of Summer would fade away. We would still see each other, but between homework and the long list of extracurricular activities Etta’s parents signed her up for, we rarely had time to visit the tracks before dark. So we just waited, bided our time until school break when we could jump back into the game. It was a secret we kept to just the four of us, and we swore a solemn oath that we would never tell another soul.
In the Summer of 66’ there was a another boy who tried to join us. We were teens, and he was younger by a three or four years so just a kid to us. He wasn’t a bad kid, just young, and not one of us. He followed us a couple of times, lurking around by the tree line on the rise. Once, he came closer and actually asked us if he could play, but George ran at him howling like a dog with rabies. Little Dan Sherman didn’t know what to do, so he took off into the woods. We heard him in tears as he disappeared into the undergrowth, and Etta shook her head. She threw a big clod of dirt at George, but he just shrugged and told her it had to be done.
Dan didn’t ever try to follow us again. I think I saw him once, in town after school. He was being dragged along by his mother. I tried to catch his eye and give him a nod, but he looked down before I could manage it.
After Dan, we made sure we were more careful heading to the tracks. We would sneak down behind the old Gin-house, along little alley than ran to a tumbledown wall at the end. We would stop at the wall to make sure no one followed us down the alley, then one by one scramble over the bricks, into the tall grass and off down the hill. No one ever caught us down there again.
The last time we played, I was fifteen. The others were fourteen. I was the one who pushed them to do it. Etta was more grown up than any of us by then, and she didn’t have any interest in treasure hunting, or breaking the rules at that point. But I told her we had to have one last summer of being kids, before we were all too grown up to care. The time limit was 16 minutes, and I was returning victorious, George stomping along behind me in a mood. In my hand I clutched a Browning Pistol, model 1922 and I was getting ready to show Etta when she got back, to prove to her the game still had merit. We got back to the base which by that time had grown, acquiring the skeleton of a 1950’s Buick parked against the trunk. We both slumped down in the shade of the old Oak. George cracked open a warm coke that he’d been saving all day, while I licked my cracked lips, wishing I hadn’t rubbed in my victory so much.
We saw Gill first, running towards us, waving something in his hands. He was yelling too, but we couldn’t make it out. I stood up to see what he had, and my heart sank. He was waving what looked like, a severed arm. That would totally beat my 1922 Browning. It took us both a minute to realize, Etta wasn’t with him. Then my heart sank again, and my stomach did a double flip. Gill slowed down and started to stumble, falling to his knees about ten yards away. “GILL.” George dropped his coke and before the bottle had a chance to hit the ground he was on his feet and running. My eyes were still scanning the tracks for Etta, I didn’t see it at first, the reason why George was running so hard. I started after him, just a few halting steps, and then I saw. It was an arm he was holding; it was his own. Gill didn’t speak again after he muttered those last fateful words.
“Etta. She’s gone.”