Daniel K. Appelquist
The day that star exploded, I was out back killing my dog. I looked up and there it was, outshining everything in the sky, exposing me and my crime to the world, lighting me harsher than sunlight could have. When I looked back down the dog was dead, its head having been held under the water too long. I looked down and it looked back up at me with those sad eyes, eyes brightened by that exploding star. Eyes that said "I wasn't such a bad dog--you didn't give me a chance. Now you've killed me. Let that be on your head, on your neck like a flea that you'll never gonna be able to scratch off."
And I said "Fuck you," because I knew that he was right. Though the truth is that he was a bad dog. At night, he yelped and yelped and you never heard the end of it. Putting a pillow over your head was no help, because this mongrel made the most piercing, tortured sound you ever heard. It traveled through walls, doors, pillows, blankets, ear plugs--any substance known to man. It could be heard for blocks.
And this dog was mean, too. He had mauled a kid once; he endlessly jumped our neighbors, frightened small children and elderly women, ate like a horse, and refused to admit that the kitchen was not his personal shit-hole. He was a dumb, mean son-of-a-bitch, and I wasn't sorry to see him go, even if I was a bit surprised at myself for having the balls to do it.
Over the fence next door I heard a clang, the sound of metal against metal. For a second I thought I'd been caught, but I realized it was just old man Davis building his damned track. Davis was a hoot. This guy had been building a track--a real, regulation railroad track--through his back yard ever since I'd been living there. Strangest shit you ever saw.
"Where does he get the supplies?" I asked my friend Harvey once at the Brass Knuckles, this little bar down on H Street. I remember the air was smoky and old Harvey was working on a cigar.
"He steals 'em! That's the kicker," Harvey replied, taking another giant puff, leaning back and behaving like a rich landowner instead of the shit insurance salesman he was. "He steals every last bit of it. Most of it's scrap, of course, stuff that's lying around. I've heard he steals from the Metro tunnels. He goes down there with a flashlight when the trains aren't running, cuts himself a length of track or whatever, then comes back up."
"You're crazy," I remarked, taking Harvey as seriously as I ever did. "How could that guy carry all that track, or any track at all? Track's heavy stuff. He's gotta have it delivered."
"Suit yourself," Harvey retorted blandly while sucking another gout of smoke. "But my source is reliable."
So anyway, here was this guy out in his yard at night, installing another length of the mysterious track. Was it art? Certainly he couldn't be expecting them to build a Metro line through here and he was just preparing. Or perhaps he thought they would pay a premium for his plot of land, which already had a regulation track on it, ready for use. Peering over the fence, I could see that the track did indeed look good. No third rail, though, but I wasn't about to tell Davis that. Davis, being my neighbor, hated me because of my damned dog.
So this particular night, after drowning my hound, I walked back into the low porch of my one bedroom row-house, where I would never have to put up with the smell of fresh dog shit again, and gave my friend Harvey a call.
"Hey Harvey! Do you... Yes... Uh huh... Just so, it was... Yeah... Right... And then I... Uh huh? Okay." Click. Harvey never was one to let a guy get a word in edgewise. Not when he could be spouting the shit he spouts instead. Harvey had said that a friend had told him that they'd seen on the news that the new light was a supernova, that a star was exploding somewhere in space, that all those aliens were dead. I was going to ask Harvey if he thought there was any danger being outside, what with the radiation and all, but Harvey cut me off to tell me that it was perfectly safe, or at least that's what this guy at the deli counter had said. Some shit. Imagine a star exploding like that, taking all the light it was gonna give out over the next billion or whatever years, and spending it all at once, like it was at Vegas or Atlantic City or something.
Still, the star brought with it something strange, a thrill that crept into the street, infiltrated even the low-life scum that populated some of the tenements down by the old post office, where the sneakers were slung over the telephone wire. I couldn't remember seeing much of those kids--they were usually in and out in a flash, with their oversized pants and hats, crazy-looking kids. But who am I to judge? This crazy star business brought them out onto the street. Goddamn if they weren't all out there, gawking and laughing. I hadn't imagined that there were this many of them, hanging out in that old building with half the windows boarded up. Thought I'd heard a gunshot once from inside when I was walking past, but I stopped and listened and I didn't hear anything more, so I kept walking.
That night, though, they were all outside. It would have made me nervous, except that for some reason, I knew it was safe. I knew they weren't gonna hassle anybody. I knew they weren't gonna bother an old man as he walking toward the bus stop, past the abandoned cars, out to the street to catch a bus over to meet his friend Harvey at a bar down on H Street. They were too busy talking, like they never really knew nothing about each other. Talking, and looking up at that bright star, gawking, wondering.
Waiting for the bus, an old man caught my eye, hooks where his hands might have been. He swaggered over to me, a big burly fellow, about twice my size. I froze, unsure whether I was being attacked--should I stand my ground? Run? The man asked me for directions to the train station. "Going to visit my mother," he said. "Haven't seen her in fifteen years, but I just got the urge." His eyes had the look of a man who hadn't seen much joy. "We might die any time, you know." He looked up, knowingly. "Gotta take our joy where we can." He took the next bus, my bus, following my hasty directions. "There's nothing in this world but pain," the man said. I told him about the kids in front of the crack house, laughing, looking up at the sky. "I used to think that way too," he said. "Look where it got me." He lifted up his hooks as if they were the final answer, as if they were supposed to signify something, as if there were nothing else in the world. "I lost these on a railroad track in '67. Train cut 'em right off."
"I'm... I'm sorry," was all I could say.
I got off at H Street and Harvey was waiting for me there. I told him about the kids in front of the crack house, and the man with the hooks, and old man Davis making his tracks. He was silent through all this, which is strange for Harvey. He's always talking, always got something on his mind, something to say, something to tell you. All he said through this whole thing was "Yeah--that crazy old man'll be building his tracks 'til Doomsday," which was an awful strange thing for Harvey to say, because he never talks about Doomsday or anything else like that. Harvey's real cheerful.
"Something bothering you, Harvey?"
The crowd in the bar at H street was different that night, different from the way it had been the million and one times I'd been there before. A bit younger, more lively. Some guys in the corner, over by the piano, were trying to sing. That was no real surprise, but after the song, they started up with a new one. Soon some other voices joined them.
Harvey wouldn't tell me why he wasn't being himself, so I told him what I'd done before, how I finally killed my damned dog. That brightened his face a bit.
"Well, damned good for you!" he said. "I'll buy you a drink for that." And he did. Always stuck to his word, Harvey did. "I saw a woman die yesterday," Harvey blurted out. "I can't get it out of my fucking head. She was just standing there, just standing there."
"Whoa, Harvey! What the hell are you talking about? Who? Where?" Harvey had given me no warning.
"I can't keep it in any more. I can't keep it in any more." He kept repeating this phrase. "She was standing there," he sobbed. "On the tracks. And the train just come by and took her right along with her. It looked like she didn't even notice, like she didn't even care."
"Harvey, calm down. Where was this? I didn't hear nothing about it."
Harvey just rested his head in his hands on the bar. "It doesn't matter," he sighed. "It doesn't matter. She's gone now. Gone." He downed another shot. "Did you ever notice, when you're riding in a train, and you're looking out the window at the other set of tracks out there...?" His voice turned all dreamy, like he wasn't really talking to me at all. "Did you ever notice how everything rushes by so quickly, but that track just stays there, like it ain't moving at all? That track just keeps going and going, while everything changes around it so quick."
I took Harvey out of the bar, out onto the street. "Easy, Harvey. Easy."
Harvey quickly turned on me. "What do you know about tracks? Fuck you!" He tore away from me and ran off raggedly down the street, weaving in and out of light poles and fireplugs like some kind of slalom skier.
What was up with him? All I could think of was his story, about the woman on the tracks. What possesses a person to do something like that, to make such a final decision?
On the corner of the street, there was a man with no arm, with a sign around his neck: "Homeless please help." He looked hungry and afraid. He wasn't wearing anything more than a T-shirt and some ripped up jeans, and he was shivering. His eyes caught the light from the star and it seemed to me that he turned into a monster, some kind of sci-fi nightmare creature, with eyes that were gonna burn a hole straight through me. I just walked on by, to the gentle sound of jingling change.
I kept walking, damning myself and everyone else I could think of, trying to keep those eyes and those thoughts out of my mind. Finally, I broke into a run. I didn't know where I was going until I found myself back on my street, struggling to open the front door like there was something after me, something evil. I'd never been so afraid, and I can't think of what I was afraid of.
It was when I closed the door that I heard it. My mind still wasn't working right. The noise was building, grinding, metal against metal. It was coming from out back, so I crept out there real slow. I peered over the fence and there was old man Davis, standing by his tracks. As I watched, the tracks shook back and forth before him and I swore I heard the sound of an engine getting nearer. With a crash, this train was coming through old man Davis's yard, gunning through there like a bat out of hell. Car after car appeared on one side of the yard and disappeared on the other. That train kept on coming and making that awful noise, and I didn't know whether it was a dream. I don't know when it stopped--I don't remember anything more from that night, but we never saw old man Davis again.
A few weeks later, the building manager came around asking questions about him, but I didn't know any more than anyone else and I didn't tell no one about what I saw. I guess he didn't have any family, because they threw his stuff out into the street. The star was still in the sky, but those crackhead kids were back to their old tricks and Harvey was back to being as much of an asshole as ever.
"They just tore out those tracks old man Davis spent so much time putting down," I remember telling him. "Then they paved it all over for the new tenants. It's a shame. A damned shame."
Harvey just laughed. "What a nut!" he said, his face all screwed up, like it was the funniest thing he ever heard. "What a fucking nut."
"Yeah," I said. Yeah.
Next story...InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Daniel K. Appelquist.