Authors: Thomas O'Malley,Cara Shores
Duncan, please can I come?
There is a train depot on the plains of Thule: crumbling red brick, large cracked flagstones, mortar shunted with horsehair and wood shavings. The windows are glassless, boarded with knotted sheets of plywood. The wind moans across the plains, down from the north. In the distance, way up high, an eagle turns in long, slow circles. Nothing moves between the curled wire and pidgeoned posts. The tracks stretch in each direction for vast, indeterminate miles. Squinting, Duncan and Billy look to the left and then to the right. That trains still stop here, that a ticket agent waits or sleeps and dreams in an office here, seems such an oddity they cannot properly conceive of it, so when they see the man, bald-headed, shiny, stooped behind the ticket window, they are momentarily startled.
Duncan asks him how often a passenger train comes through, and the old man lifts his implacable moonbeam of a face and regards him.
Once a day, son, he says. Comes after the Omaha freight, drops a couple of cars, and picks them up on the way back. No need for
them, you see. He lifts a scarred, mangled hand as if to illustrate this, and Duncan doesn't know where to look.
How far to Stockholdt, sir? Billy asks, and the ticket clerk jerks a ridiculously large thumb into the air and gestures behind him.
'Bout six miles or so, he says and laughs. You'll need to put your walking shoes on if you plan to walk to Stockholdt. But Duncan is mesmerized by the thumb and stares at it until it disappears beneath the counter, and then Billy nods, thanks the man, and they settle onto a bench and wait.
The freight bound for Omaha comes in an hour or two, over one hundred carsâthey both lose countâstretching from the east and passing into the west, thumping the rails one after the other, so hard they should buckle and break, and after a while it seems as if they will. Duncan is lost in their passing, their heavy drumming and grinding and the incessant tap of metal clicking in the gaps.
Then it is gone, the freight tapping into the distance and the air heavy with dust and black cinder and Duncan's clothes stuck to him with sweat. The weight of the afternoon sun bears down. The air is heavy to breathe. Billy keeps his mouth open to it, and watches the sky as the eagle alights over the tree line. The light shimmers on distant, still lakes; bottle flies hop on and off their skin and gather on the empty barrels beneath the gutters. They wave at the bottle flies and wait in the shade for another freight train to pass through and then, after another empty hour, not knowing which way to go, Duncan asks Billy: Do you think you could walk? Billy wrinkles his brow in determinationâDuncan has seen this look so many times beforeâand nods yes and they begin the walk to Stockholdt, their heads bowed and their eyes mere slits against the sun and the unfamiliar land stretching away in simmering nacre waves.
They walk only half aware that they are walking and the hours pass and then twilight comes on quickly and Duncan realizes that he is no longer warm. In the distance the low-peaked mountains are dotted with flitting lights. Gray clouds sweep over flat tracks of land
and small ponds that the bogged land spoons and about which vacant-looking trailer homes sit.
Duncan reaches across to Billy and pulls him gently to him as they walk, and although Billy is no longer sweating, he feels feverish to the touch. Duncan pauses and they take long gulps from his water bottle.
The skin on Billy's face seems stretched and jaundiced and Duncan wonders if he is in pain but refusing to tell him. Are you okay? he asks. It's okay, y'know, if you're not. I don't know if I can walk much more.
I'm okay, Billy says, wiping water from his chin. I promise. Let's keep going. It's harder when I stop.
It is dark when they enter Stockholdt. Everything looks squat and pressed down, even the town: square rows of flat-topped three- and four-story businesses, clapboard tiers, crumbling porches, and derelict row houses in which yellowed signs declaring ROOMS FOR RENT lay at skewed angles on the insides of grimed glass.
A traffic light hangs over the Boulevard, the town's single street that intersects a section of railroad tracks running north to south. To the northeast are vast straits of cold-looking lake and log-sheared forest and the gray nothingness of pastureland let to fallow, broken only now and then by a grain silo or a derelict farmhouse. The single traffic light sways from a fretted cable that stretches across the single intersection. It flashes red, on and off, on and off, throughout the night. And when the wind blows, the traffic lantern rocks back and forth from its cable like a pendulous eye. The 9:15 Northern Pacific, three hundred cars of livestock feed, trundles though, the boxcars metal slivers in the darkness as they catch the lambent light of the town's flickering streetlamps.
Duncan and Billy walk the streets and the dead children from the Festival of Lights Holiday Train follow them. When Duncan glances back, they nod and smile, their skin shining with beatific opales-cence,
and he is filled with contentment; he senses that he has known them all his life, in the way that he knows Billy and Julie. Perhaps it is the affinity of abandoned children to know nothing other than a singular longing that transfigures all other needs and desires and makes them what they are, and, in this way, makes them kin to one another.
For a moment Duncan almost expects them to break into song and for their songâthe song of dead childrenâto echo and reverberate throughout the empty streets of Stockholdt. Would the sleeping adults hear them? What would their song sound like? Would it be joyous and elegiac or plaintive and soul-wrenching, a caterwaul and baying that would make men and women of the town sit up in their beds with their hearts thrumming in their chests in sudden fear for their young ones. But the dead children's footfalls are silent upon the streets of Stockholdt and their voices are mute. Together, they move without sound from one street to the next.
One of the children, a young girl with wide, bright eyes and thick strawberry blonde hair, which is woven into two braids that swing from each side of her head like whips, points to a glowing light that spins nebulae-like above the town at the black edge of the tracks, the abandoned stockyards, and the plains beyond: the undulations of the aurora borealis, and at its center a fully formed new moon surrounded by a fine nimbus of phosphorescence. In the strange, shifting light, the moon's cratured and shadowed surface seems to move and coalesce until a face takes shape, and Duncan gasps because he knows it is the face of his mother.
An angel, the girl says and smiles, and Duncan smiles also and takes Billy's hand, and the face of Duncan's mother smiles over them as they move on through the streets of Stockholdt, the dead children of the Holiday Train skipping at their heels.
There is a rectangle of four streets surrounding the railroad depot, and six cross-streets intersect these. The street that runs alongside the
tracks is lined with wooden row houses from the turn of the century. Most of the steps leading to the front doors are crumbling. The posts are rotted and the foundations cracked and shifting. Each house caves and presses into the other and, in this way, the brick and mortar settles and secures one house to the next and the next all along the street. Duncan imagines that if one house were removed from the center, all the others would topple to their sides. Many of the houses still have Christmas decorations: sun-bleached brown-plastic reindeer and soot-stained potbellied Santas balance precariously on the small, slanted awnings over their porches.
It begins to rain and they move toward a porch, but before they step upon the broken wood slats, Duncan looks up at the plastic Santa peering down and it is as if they have been transported to the Home's chapel and from the apse he is staring toward the altar and the body of Christ. From above Santa and the peak of the roof, the moon briefly pushes its ghostly, milk-white head through a black cloud.
A car's tires hiss through the rainwater close to the curb, its engine motoring slow and heavy, and Billy tugs on Duncan's arm and they begin to walk quickly down the sidewalk. Duncan keeps his attention on the buildings to the left, but there is nothing there but empty, peeling, and withered storefronts and boarded and abandoned textile warehouses. He pulls his hood tight against the rain. His boots are swollen with rainwater. The car keeps pace with them and before the voice calls to him, he knows it belongs to a cop. I'm not going back, Duncan, Billy hisses, his head lowered against the rain. I'm jumping the next train out of here.
Duncan stops as Billy yanks his hand free and the cruiser flashes its light in their eyes. Fuck you, coppers! Billy shouts and is off running down the street with Duncan caught in the cruiser's spotlight and not knowing what to do as the car door opens and Billy is a small, hunched shape scrambling toward the darkness of the rail yards with a cop in a shimmering black slicker chasing after him. Beyond is the blackness of unlit pastureland stretching out toward the
plains, and when Duncan looks about him, the dead children are gone.
That night in the Stockholdt County Children's Facility, Duncan and Billy lie in beds next to each other as a storm moves across the country. Duncan listens to the sound of a dozen boys breathing, pulls the blankets about him, and cranes his head to look out at the storm building in the distance and then the wind and rain as it presses against the glass. It is cold. He glances at the sleeping shapes around him, the small bulk of them huddled in the darkness. The top of a head, a tuft of ratty hair, pokes out here and there but faces are mostly covered, hidden. The room collects and holds their mist-breath; it fogs the air and the glass. A boy groans and then farts wetly in his sleep.
We almost made it, Billy says, and when Duncan looks over at him, Billy is grinning, but his voice is thick with phlegm and his breathing sounds shallow. Duncan watches as his chest slowly rises and falls.
He smiles. We almost did.
After a moment: Thanks for taking me with you.
Duncan shrugs. I wouldn't have made it without you.
A flame flickers in the dark; there is a raspy breath followed by a cough and the flame is extinguished. At the far end of the room, at a desk in a small wire cage that separates the room from the hall and the bathrooms beyond, sits a figure smoking. The cigarette flares and dies, its tip glowing amber, and the smell of cigarette smoke carries the length of the room.
Sorry that we have to go back, Duncan says.
Billy closes his eyes and his head nods. It's okay. That's what happens. It's like the astronauts and the moon.
Getting there, that's what's important even if you can't get back.
They knew that and they went anyway. It's why they went on those other space missions as well, the ones we never hear about. Them and the Russians. If we'd jumped on a train, there's no way we'd be coming backâwe'd be just like the astronauts, like Michael Collins and the rest of them.
Billy continues to smile with his eyes closed. Imagine if we had made it, Duncan, he murmurs. Just imagine that.
Duncan watches lightning flashing beyond the wire mesh of the windows and thinks of Michael Collins alone aboard his fiery coffinship hurtling farther out into the dark, forever chasing the curve of the earth and already emerging into daylight upon its far side.
Goodnight, Billy, he says.
Duncan waits until Billy is asleep and then slowly he lowers himself into the bed, lies awake staring at the ceiling and the walls. He listens to the thrum and sigh of boys breathing as the storm lashes at the trees outside, shakes the window grates in their posts, while the lone figure in his cage wheezes and chokes slowly on his cigarettes and holds his vigil through the long hours of the night.
The next day, when the police car pulls up to the monastery gates, Father Toibin is standing there, waiting, his brow deeply furrowed as he squints into the sun, the wind whipping his black pants about his legs. And in this moment he seems to Duncan old but as immutable as the Iron Range beyond, with its hills of hardwoods, conifers, and spruces. Duncan slides down in his seat, wishing to be invisible, and Billy begins to cry softly, now that they are back, so Duncan takes his hand and squeezes it tenderly and tries to smile to comfort him. But when Father Toibin's blue eyes scan the car as it turns sharply in the courtyard, they catch Duncan and hold him with their silent power. And then Father Toibin smiles and nods almost imperceptibly.
Officer Perry opens the door and Duncan and Billy step out,
blinking in the light. Billy wipes at his eyes as Duncan walks toward Father Toibin slowly, and when he reaches out his hand, Duncan feels the weight of the journey home, and he is suddenly exhausted. He stumbles and Father Toibin wraps his arms about him, and holds him close, and then beckons for Billy to come to him as well.
Ah, Duncan, Billy, you're home now. It's all right. Everything will be all right.
When he releases Duncan, he turns and looks at Officer Perry standing by the door of his cruiser. Red clay cakes his long black boots and spots the gray jodhpurs above.
I apologize for the trouble they've caused you, Officer.
Not a concern, Father. Just glad to have helped. Officer Perry tips his hat and stares at Duncan and Billy. He has already told them that he has a three-year-old boy and a girl Duncan's age at home, and if they were ever to do what he and Billy had done, he'd be worried to death until they were safe and sound and home again. Clouds move across the lens of his black sunglasses; he chews on imaginary cud, as if he is weighing a serious problem in his mind.
I know we've already talked about this some, he begins, but it doesn't hurt to put it to you again. Men need to know where they stand with one another. Will I have to come looking for you two again?
No sir! Billy and Duncan say together, and standing straight, push back their shoulders.
Good boys, Officer Perry says, his face pinched in such stoic reserve that it is hard not to smile. And the next time I see you, make sure you're old enough to pass the police exam in Stockholdt, yeah? We need more men like you.