Authors: Lynne Rae Perkins
Winner of the Newbery Medal for Criss Cross
for a friend
In A Related Story:
The Previous Morning in Wisconsin
A Faraway But Related Story:
A Faraway But Related Story:
Peg and Olie
ait a minute.
Was the—had the train just moved?
Ry turned his head to look at it straight on, but it sat on the tracks, as still as the lumpy brown hill he was climbing. As still as the grass that baked in gentle swells as far as he could see and the air in the empty blue sky.
He must have imagined it. Nothing had moved. Everything was the same.
But there it was again. Was it because he blinked? Maybe it was the water in his eyes; it had wobbled up his vision.
He picked out a post alongside the tracks, directly below the line where the logo on the train changed from red to blue. As he watched, the red and the blue shifted
almost imperceptibly to the right above the post. Then perceptibly. The train was moving.
“Wait,” Ry said aloud.
Because it wasn’t supposed to move yet. The conductor had said—the conductor had said forty minutes. Ry was supposed to be on the train. After a full second of hesitation, he went scrambling down the steep rubbled face of the hill. He was thinking that there was time, that trains usually moved a little, in fits and starts, before they really got going. Probably he would get back on the train and then sit there waiting for another hour. But he was thinking it would be smarter to run than to watch it leave without him.
He was leaping and skidding, and he had just glanced up to check on the train when his right foot came down at the wrong angle on a surprise outcropping. He went tumbling in an out-of-control (but time-saving) way down to the scrubby thickets on the lower half of the slope.
Abraded and gravel encrusted, he rose in an instant to his feet. His boots had filled with pebbles and dirt. It felt as if beanbags were strapped to the bottoms of his feet as he thrashed through branchy turnstiles of brush in as straight a line as he could manage.
On his way up the hill, he had picked out a winding
path through the wider spaces, but there wasn’t time for that now. He no longer had to blink to see that the train was moving. It was passing before his eyes. People visible in the windows read their magazines, leaned back, lifted cups or cans to take a drink. His heart seemed to have moved inside of his windpipe. He willed it back down into his chest so he could keep breathing.
A small child saw him and waved. Ry waved, too, and shouted. His shout was lost in the roar of the train, but the boy beamed, delighted, before he turned away and was carried out of sight.
When Ry came to the barbed-wire fence, keeping who-knows-what in or out, he slowed himself to pay attention, to avoid snagging cloth or flesh. Still, he was over it in a flash, and running.
No one stood watching from the back of the caboose as he reached the clearing. There was no caboose. The sound of the train faded, and he could hear his own deep gulps for air. He felt his heart thumping along.
The train melted from a recognizable object to a guessable shape to a black dot identifiable only by its position at the vanishing point of a set of railroad tracks. Ry watched the black dot until he could not see it at all. Though he breathed evenly now, and his heart was
beating at its usual rhythm, it wasn’t because he was calm. It was just that his body hadn’t yet heard from his brain that they were in dire straits. Because his brain was still puzzling it out.
For many, many minutes he looked, unbelieving, at the empty air where the train had been. Then he turned in the other direction. It was a mirror image of emptiness, with an identical lesson in perspective. From either side of the tracks, more emptiness extended. There was the north emptiness, made of the strange eroded hills, and the south emptiness, with the grass and, in the distance, a blue-gray shape that must have been a butte.
The south emptiness had a shallow silty river, fringed sparsely with a few trees and bushes, flowing in rough parallel to the tracks. As his brain began to take in what had just happened, Ry’s body walked over to one of the trees and sat down on a small boulder in its spotty shade. He untied his hiking boots, pulled them off, and held them upside down. The gravel and dirt spilled out like sands through the hourglass onto the geological time heap of wherever this was.
It felt good to have his shoes off. Ry pulled his socks off, too, and scooted himself around to where he could get his feet in the water. This was so nice that for half a
minute, he forgot how he came to be sitting there. Then he remembered, and said some words. There was one word in particular that he said over and over and over. He said it until it didn’t even sound like a word anymore. Until he felt almost calm. Then he said to himself, “It’s not the end of the world,” and that was true. It wasn’t the end of the world at all. It might, though, be the middle of nowhere.
His backpack was traveling west in the overhead compartment of the air-conditioned train. No one would miss him for a while, or maybe ever; he had been careful about that. Now he looked at his watch again. Time was so weird. Exactly and only one hour had passed since he had opened that letter.
He had received the letter, with the yellow new-address forwarding sticker and “Urgent—important information” stamped on the envelope in red ink, several days ago. But it was like
Peter and the Wolf
, no, wait—it was like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” The letters with “Urgent—important information” stamped in red had been arriving regularly from the camp director, and at first Ry would tear them open immediately. Inside, there would be a photocopied note reminding him to bring
Gold Bond powder to prevent chafing, or to wear his boots for an hour every day to break them in, to study up on this or that epoch, or that the itinerary had been altered slightly due to unforeseen circumstances but don’t worry, it would still be great.
The last one he had opened before this one had been kind of weird, he remembered that now, but to tell the truth, he hadn’t read it that carefully. There was so much going on; the moving truck bringing the furniture, his grandfather arriving, his parents leaving for their trip. He tried to remember now what it had said. Because this one said only—he took it out of his pocket to read it one more time:
Do not come to camp. There is no camp. Camp is a concept that no longer exists in a real place or time.
We are so sorry. The Summer ArchaeoTrails Program will not take place. A statistically improbable number of things have gone wrong and the camel’s back is broken. Your money will be fully refunded as soon as I sell my car and remortgage my house.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, blahblahblah. We hope to regroup and put together a
bombproof program by next summer. Live and learn!
With deepest apologies, believe me,
He almost hadn’t opened it at all. He had come across it by accident, standing in the aisle reaching up into the overhead compartment, trying to search through his backpack without actually taking it down out of the bin, looking in all the zipper pouches for the bag of Peanut M&M’s. He saw the envelope and thought, I guess I better see what this one says. He sat down, opened it, read it, thought, What the…?
Montana rolled by outside his window as he read it again.
He pulled out his cell phone to call his grandfather, but there were zero bars of reception. The battery was running down, too. Ry wished he hadn’t texted his way across Wisconsin and Minnesota, friends from his former life, in his old hometown. He had tried to charge it in the outlet in the restroom, but the outlet was worn out or something; the charger just fell out. Plus it would be not only rude but smelly to sit there for the amount of time it would take. So he hadn’t.
Just then the train slowed to a crawl. And slowed some more, to a creep. And then it stopped altogether. Ry couldn’t see a station, or a town. Or anything, really.
After a few minutes, a conductor appeared and announced that there would be a delay. A minor mechanical problem.
“Do not get off the train,” he said. “The train will move on as soon as the problem is resolved. Which will not be long.”
But he told the elderly woman in front of Ry, in a lowered voice, that it would be forty minutes or so before the train moved on. An hour at most, he said. And he moved back through the doors to the next car to spread the news.
Ry sat there with his phone in his hand and the letter in his lap.
He just needed to talk to his grandfather.
Probably the train itself (being inside of it) was blocking reception. He would just step off for two minutes, make the call, get back inside. He slipped down the narrow, turning stairwell to the vestibule. No one was there. There were two handles on the door. But would moving them set off some kind of alarm? He had one hand tentatively on the handle when a voice behind
him said, “You wanna go out?” Ry turned to see the lady in the red baseball shirt, the one who had slept with a practically life-sized teddy bear.
“I was just going to try to make a phone call,” he said.
“Whatever,” she said. “I open ’em when I need to step out for a smoke. Here: you just—”
She moved the handles and the door was open.
“I wouldn’t go too far, though,” she said, and disappeared into one of the restrooms.
But standing outside the train, there was still no signal.
And a few feet away, no signal.
The hills were not that far off, really. Ry had a feeling that up on top of them, he could get enough reception. He checked his watch. If he was not at the top in ten minutes, he would turn around and come back. It crossed his mind that someone looking from the train might see him go, but he decided not to worry about it. He would just act like he knew what he was doing.
As if he knew what he was doing, he strode through the scrubby grass. Casually, but also carefully, he climbed over a barbed-wire fence. Fortunately, it was not an
electrified fence, at least at that juncture. The hills, when he reached them, were higher and steeper than he had imagined they would be. By going around behind the one in front, he found a more manageable ascent. Still, it was tricky. But fun.
He was having a good time hauling himself up and along. What a great summer it was going to be. Then remembering, and it was, Oh. Yeah.
He headed for a small flat area on a shoulder of rock. It wasn’t the top, but it was probably close enough. The shoulder was tiny enough when he got there that it was a challenge to turn from his knees to a sitting position. Once he had managed that, it was like sitting on any other pinnacle on Earth, which is to say, it was kind of spectacular.
There was what might be a town in the far distance, and the train, not toylike, but smaller than up close. But you could ignore the train and the town, and then it just seemed like the land went on uninterrupted forever, in lumps and bumps of one kind or another. Someone had told him there was a county in Montana that had only one resident. He didn’t know if that was true, but if it was, it looked like this could be the one. A pretty little river meandered along below, on the other side of the tracks. The sky, as promised, was Big.
He was balanced between all of it, precariously enough for a thrill, but short of actual danger. He glanced back down at the train. They were missing it all, sitting there with their magazines, eating nachos, only seeing the world through a window.
That was when the train had moved.
And after he was sure it had moved, that was when he gave himself over to gravity.
But too late.
Now, sitting under the tree, he looked back up at where he had climbed and thought two potentially useful thoughts. One was about that town he had seen in the distance. The other was that he hadn’t actually had a chance, while he was up there, to try to make the phone call.
He decided to go back up.
The second climbing felt oddly familiar. Like, Oh, yeah, there’s that rock. There’s that bush. That skidded-out place was made by my own tumbling body.
It was possible that no human had ever climbed this hill before, that he was the only one. Maybe someone prehistoric had climbed it. Or one of the guys laying the track for the railroad, way back when. Why else would anyone be here?
As he climbed, the sound of a rusty hinge creaking open and shut emanated from Ry’s stomach and he realized he hadn’t eaten for a while, and that he would enjoy eating something about now. That wasn’t going to happen right away, so he blocked the thought out. He wasn’t going to starve. Yet. He didn’t think.
He made his way once more to the place where he had sat the first time, and once more performed the maneuver by which he could turn and sit without falling off. The desolate brown hills still crouched there like ghosts carved out of solid time. The ceiling of sky was an optical illusion made by the atmosphere sucking up all of the colors of sunlight except blue—was that it? When it was just space going on from here to forever, really, with a flimsy veil of gases and moisture in between. The rolling grasslands rolled on and on.
Although he could see the town in the distance. Just barely, but he could see it. This time up, Ry didn’t ignore it. He sought it out. It was far away, but it couldn’t be that far if he could see it. He could walk there, if he could see it.
Reassured, he pulled his phone out of his pocket.