As I stepped from the back door of the number 10 bus, my feet hit the pavement with a lightness and optimism that I had not felt in a long while. It had been raining all morning and even the dreariness of the day did nothing to undermine my certainty. This would be it. Something clenched inside my gut and I knew: this would be it.
As the bus closed its doors and carried on without me, I turned from the main road and looked up a winding side street. The autumn trees hung over a narrow, asphalt road that rose in the middle, bulbous with age.
I checked the directions I had logged in my phone. The house I was looking for was several blocks down and I found it before long, hiding behind a row of hedges. It was on a twisted road surrounded by other lots seemingly untouched by the rest of the city: immune to the new generations that drifted through. I stared at this place, with its sharp peaks appearing above the hedges, and tried to guess its age. 1920s, maybe. Perhaps older. I wondered then if it had been updated at all inside or if my future would include old fuse boxes and whining radiators.
Do not mistake me; these would be welcome problems. I have grown quite accustomed to flaws both architectural and habitational. A roof and four walls, by now, will suffice. Anything more would be luxury.
Needless to say, I have seen many potential houses these last few months. I have seen many apartments, many basement suites, many laneway houses. I have viewed them alone, met only by a single, uninterested landlord; I have attended in crowds—great, gaping crowds—and been forced to put in a bid for fewer than four hundred square feet.
A preferable circumstance would be that I never have to move at all. Just three weeks ago, I was in a smallish condominium, wedged between two other residential floors, overhanging the office of a dentist, when my landlord advised us that he wished to renovate the space. His elderly mother was moving in. Or so he claimed. This was neither the first time this has happened to me nor the second. Rather, four times it has happened in three years. I have grown both used to the hunt and weary of it.
As I stepped around the hedges, the house came into view. Half of it was red brick, with slim, peaked windows. Although the yard was neatly manicured, the flower beds were sparse, and the grass greyish brown in patches, as if simultaneously sun-bleached yet smothered by shadow.
When I knocked on the door, the lady of the house answered almost immediately. As I stepped inside, I found that the habitation and inhabitant could not appear more different. Where the lady was small and wide-eyed, with trim, polished clothes that suggested modernity and class, the house was deep and cluttered. A twisted staircase lay to my right, while the drawing room stretched off to the left. The furniture was something even my grandmother would have found old-fashioned and the walls still bore the original oak paneling.
Craning my neck, I peered up the stairs with curiosity. Almost immediately, the landlady’s hand clapped around my shoulders and—unused to being touched—I jumped. Steering me sharply away from the stairs, she led me then down a wide hall lined with somber paintings, through a clean, orderly kitchen, and out into the backyard. As she led me across the deck, I saw, set at the back of the property, nestled snugly before a row of arbutus trees, a small guest house.
It was covered in painted plaster, with morning glory trailing up one side. Two windows flanked a door and a chimney stuck out of the pitched roof making it look like every drawing I’d ever made of a house when I was little. I would have guessed it to be older than the main house, but how much older, I couldn’t tell.
I stared at this guest house for several moments before I noticed that the landlady was staring at me with an expectant grin. As she led me inside the guest house, I cannot say why but I glanced briefly over my shoulder, casting a look back at the main house.
Upstairs, in one of the bedrooms, I thought I saw a curtain waver. It was as if someone had just been there, watching us.
I moved in the next day. My roommate dropped me off not long after seven in the morning with all of my things. Although this now-former roommate and I made half-hearted plans to get together real soon, I knew even then that I would never see her again. We had been amiable, but not particularly close.
The inside of the empty guest house was cold but warmed up quickly after I adjusted the thermostat. An old building with a few welcome modern touches, it was one large room that filled quickly even with the few pieces of furniture I could still call my own. My possessions had dwindled to a bed, a loveseat, my grandmother’s old dining table, three Rubbermaid tubs, and two substantial suitcases. The rest vanished piecemeal over the previous several years, given away or sold on Craigslist. I had long grown wary of acquiring more.
I stared at these pieces in place and admired how well they looked. The floor was stone; I would have to get a rug to warm it. Perhaps there was a thrift store close by, I thought. Likely not, I corrected myself. Not in this part of town. I would need too some pictures to hang on the stone walls. I supposed I could always tear the nice photographs from magazines, the way I used to do when I was in high school.
With so few things to unpack, I had reached a state of livable when a knock came at the door. The landlady asked how I was settling in and invited me over for tea that afternoon. Some people from around the neighborhood were coming by, she explained and perhaps it would be a good way to meet some of the neighbors.
The idea should have sounded lovely but the moment she left, I wondered who these people might be and how long they had lived there. How many of them were now millionaires because of the luck of real estate?
But I needed to appear accommodating. I needed to appear friendly and amenable and willing to rise to the landlady’s demands. The alternative was homelessness.
So, at three o’clock, I put on the least-wrinkled blouse I had and crossed the backyard, rose up the wooden steps, and knocked politely on the backdoor. The landlady said not a word of greeting yet ushered me inside. A small crowd, I soon discovered, had gathered in the drawing room.
This was not a tea party.
A man standing at the front of the room was ranting that someone was going to come take away their yards, whilst all those other furious, white faces around him nodded in agreement. He carried on about a developer having plans to put condo blocks up along the old rail lines. What will this mean for traffic, he implored? And what about the character of the neighborhood? They had already started a petition.
The not-a-tea party was over by five, as all the neighbors—most of them retirees—went off in search of their dinners. I dutifully helped the landlady clean up the stray tea cups and water glasses, before finally excusing myself.
That night, as I lay in bed, the wind howled through the arbutus trees, rattling the single pane windows. For a long while, I lay abed, staring up at the dark ceiling. The first night in a new place is never easy. So many new sounds and new shadows. One might never know what to expect.
I am not sure when it might have happened, but at some point, I had indeed fallen asleep, because suddenly I was awake. My eyes flashed open as I felt my chest beating. My skin tingled with a burst of adrenaline and I pulled myself upright.
I looked around the dark room. Nothing appeared amiss. So, what had awoken me? I held my breath. I listened. It was far too silent; the wind had stopped.
But then I heard it: a gentle chugging noise. A train. It was just a train and it was in the distance, perhaps a mile off. But I could hear it so clearly: the chugging of the engine, the clacking of the wheels.
And the sound was growing louder. The train drew closer. The windows began to rattle again, beating the steady rhythm of an engine. Louder they rattled, and soon more violently. Suddenly, the train whistle sounded sharply and I jumped. I could feel the sound in my chest, it was so close. It could not have been more than a few yards away.
I could not hold back my curiosity any longer. Whipping back the blankets, I leapt from the bed. As I ran outside, I could still hear the train, louder still. The whistle sounded again and it realized it came from behind the arbutus trees.
As I stepped through the row of trees, treading carefully, I found a wire fence, bound tightly in a mess of morning glory and marking the edge of the property. I was about to give up my investigations when I discovered that a small segment of the wire fence had been pared away. There was enough room for someone to fit through.
On the other side of the fence—lit dimly by the waning moon—there lay a rail line. Two long rows of steel, there were, crossed over with rotting wooden boards and resting upon a raised bed of gravel. The tracks were rusted and overgrown. Weeds covered the steel with unbreakable knots.
Despite what I thought I had heard, it was clear that a train had not passed this way in years.
By the morning light, it seemed so silly that I had been scared. As I stepped out of the guest house, a wind caught the arbutus trees, shaking dead leaves to the ground. It was a cold day but pleasant enough for October.
I assured myself that I had imagined the sound. Surely, there was another rail line nearby; the sound simply travelled well. It was a rational enough explanation and I found this comforting. A skeptic, my ex once labelled me, with a roll of the eyes. Resolved, I hitched my purse up on my shoulder and turned towards the main house.
What I saw nearly make me scream. Instead, I just stood there, dumbfounded and flushed as I stared at the figure standing on the deck.
He was three paces from the door I knew went into the kitchen and he was in his pajamas. They were striped, cotton pajamas one might once have bought from Sears and they very much seemed appropriate for a man like him. He looked to be nearing ninety, with the sagging, ruddy complexion Waspish men develop as they age. But for a moment, it was almost as if I’d seen a little boy.
“You heard it,” he said in a voice narrow enough to slip through cracks, “Didn’t you?”
Suddenly, the backdoor slammed open. The landlady tutted when she found the man. After giving me the once over, she must have noticed that this meeting had unnerved me, because she winced apologetically. With a few hurried explanations—he wasn’t well; I should ignore him—she ushered the man back into the house.
I resolved to push the incident from my mind as I focused on work. Nearly six months I had been in this office and I still had yet to fully understand the culture of the place. Perhaps I simply wasn’t used to the dressed-down atmosphere of the west coast. Co-workers drifted up and down the corridors in their asymmetrical haircuts and I could not help but feel as there was a thin veil of understanding that separated me from them. I did not fit in.
As such, the weight of the work day was heavy on me when I slunk home again towards the bus stop. The crowd that had gathered there was unsettlingly large. I approached the periphery and listened to the whispers that had begun to circulate. “Accident up West Boulevard,” was one. “They’re diverting up 16th,” came another.
The wind tossed wet leaves from the trees and the sky was beginning to darken. I had been too distracted this morning and had not worn the right jacket. No bother, I told myself. The blocks are long but a warm bath awaited me at the end of them.
I turned down the road and began to walk.
After several blocks the rain began and I refused to let it discourage me. I flipped up my collar to the wind and carried on. So absorbed I had been in my thoughts that I had not noticed how empty the roads were. Surely, this apparent accident had caught up cars, trucks, and buses alike; it had left the city quieter than I doubted I had ever heard it.
Up ahead, cutting at a disjointed angle across the road was the thin track of the disused rail line—the same line that ran beyond the arbutus trees behind the guest house. My pulse quickened as I approached it. I told myself I was being foolish—that this was a old train track, nothing more. It was just another sentence in the story of this city. It was nothing to fear.
As I stepped over it, careful not to slip on the wet maple leaves that clung to the slick iron, I glanced lengthwise down the tracks; they disappeared into a tunnel of twisted trees. The burnished arbutus bark peeled away like a snake shedding its skin.
I quickly looked away. Before taking another step, I noticed, set in from the sidewalk, some three feet from the rail line, was a large rectangle sign, with happy colours and bubbly fonts.
Despite its determined optimism, it had weathered both time and the rain poorly. The corners of the plastic placard had begun to peel and the plywood was beginning to bloat. I skimmed the text. It was the City’s notification of a development proposal for the rail line. It included purpose-built rental housing.
There was graffiti across the sign as well. Words like NO DEVELOPMENT and SAVE THE ARBUTUS were scrawled in ballpoint pens and indelible markers. It called to mind the sorts of things that used to grace posters and propaganda on a university campus, but with a distinctly different tone. The sense of rebellion here was neither spirited nor impulsive. This vandalism was the child of strategy.
If one required further proof of that, there was a flyer affixed to the edge of the sign. It had been shellacked to the plastic placard but was beginning to erode away beneath the rain. The flyer was plain and white and functioned as a call to arms, it seemed, inviting people to join the neighbourhood committee. The bottom of the flyer, where presumably strips of paper with contact information once hung, had been torn away.
The flyer noted—both underlined and bolded, quite pointedly—that the neighbourhood committee was for homeowner’s only.
My mood was thus not improved by the time I slipped through the side gate and back towards the guest house. As I stopped at the door to the guest house, I looked back, wondering if I might see the man from this morning. In the deepening twilight, I could tell that the house itself was dark. No lights were on inside. No lights, that is, expect for one upstairs, glowing in the window where yesterday I had seen the curtains move.
Spurred perhaps by my irritation with the eroding flyer—perhaps by curiosity—a plan quickly formed in my mind. I had no idea how soon the landlady would return. Hurriedly, I let myself in the guest house. Dropping my bag to floor, I did not stop to change from my work clothes. I immediately went to the kitchenette and rummaged through the drawer until I found the measuring cups.
They were molded tin and had been my mother’s. The first one my hand found was the three-quarter cup and grabbed it and hurried from the guest house and across the yard.
I climbed the stairs to the back deck, the wooden slats slick with rain. Before I could lose my nerve, I knocked on the door. As the knock echoed through the house, I held my breath, waiting to hear the sound of footsteps. I glanced down at the measuring cup.
Silly thing, I imagined I would say if the landlady answered, in all the hassle of moving, I forgot to buy sugar!
A long time passed by and I heard no footsteps. The house was dark. No sounds came from within. I knocked again. I waited.
No footsteps. No movement at all. The house was empty. Dead and empty.
I cannot quite say what made me do it, but I reached for the door knob. I expected it to be locked, but no—it swung open easily. The hinges creaked slightly but nothing was askew.
It felt like an invitation. My heart pounding, I stepped into the house. Despite the fact that I had been through here before—twice even—the house looked much different in the darkness. As I crept along the corridor towards the staircase, the shadows crept with me.
“Hello?” I called out, voice wavering. I cleared my throat and tried again: “Hello?”
Suddenly, as if in response, I heard a thud from up the stairs. And then again. It came from the second floor—a foot hitting the floor and then another, as if climbing decidedly out of bed.
My eyes shot forwards towards the end of the hall—the foot of the stairs—but then I heard a voice. It came from right behind me.
I spun around. The old man was stood there, staring placidly. If he had come downstairs, I would have seen him.
“I’m… I’m… sorry, for letting myself in. The door was unlocked. I just wanted to borrow a cup of sugar.”
He stared at me for a while in consideration before replying. “We’ve never kept sugar in the house.”
“Oh.” I was not sure what else to say. He stood between me and the back door. Afraid to look at him, I let my eyes drift around the walls of the corridor. The black and white photographs that graced the walls seemed to shine in the darkness—images of a family across the generations.
“This is a Sears Catalog house, you know,” he said. “One of the early ones. Built in 1912. Same year the Titanic sank.”
“Oh?” I repeated dumbly.
“Never knew you used to be able to order houses out of a catalog, did you?”
“No,” I admitted, “I didn’t.”
“This house cost my father less than two thousand dollars. He worked for the rail company. The train station itself used to be only a few doors down. It was bulldozed when they built that big mansion. I doubt you even remember that.”
“I didn’t grow up here,” I said, as in in apology.
“You’re not the first,” he said quietly. A pall set about his face rendering him rather boyish. “When I was little boy we had a tenant. A telegrapher. A young bachelor from back east. The rail company owed him some housing and didn’t have anywhere else, so my father agreed to put him up.”
As the old man’s eyes glistened, I tried to picture a young man, coming into a new city, bright and full of optimism, but not knowing anyone—alone in that cold, squat home. He must have felt so much as I did.
“Kept mostly to himself.” A frown touched his eyebrows, wrinkling with the memory. Perhaps it was regret. Perhaps shame. “Mother always thought there was something off—”
A rattling noise interrupted him—a key in a lock. The front door.
Any nuance that remained in the old man’s expression fell away, leaving only terror. “You need to leave. Now.” He stepped aside as I slipped back down the hall and through the kitchen. My heart pounding, I sprinted across the backyard, nearly slipping in the wet grass.
I threw open the front door of the guest house and leapt inside, dead-bolting the door behind me. The rain coated my burning cheeks as I stepped towards the window and looked back up towards the house.
The light that had been on upstairs was now out.
Sometime near three o’clock in the morning I awoke suddenly. My hair clung to my neck, wet with perspiration. Whatever strange tangents had just been dreams were gone. So close they had been so close only moments ago, but now nothing remained except the dark shadows of the guest house.
Then I heard it, off in the distance. The train whistle.
No, I pleaded with the darkness, Not again.
I clenched shut my eyes against the noise as it grew louder and louder, just as it had the night before. Time stretched out, seconds feeling like hours as I could feel the train approaching. As the train drew closer and closer, the windows rattling, suddenly I heard a sharp and distinct tapping noise, like two pieces of metal striking each other.
The tapping continued in an irregular pattern. I wondered for a moment if a branch was caught in the gutter. Yet, as I listened closely to determine the source, the tapping noise shifted. It was as if each tap echoed off a different part of the house.
Louder and louder the tapping grew, closer and closer. No pattern could I lay upon the tapping until I heard a sharp and distinct TAP TAP TAP—right in my own ear. It was was as if the metal struck against itself right above me. TAAAAP. TAAAAP. TAAAAP. I held my breath. TAP TAP TAP.
This pattern repeated. TAP TAP TAP. TAAAAP. TAAAAP. TAAAAP. TAP TAP TAP.
I knew this pattern.
This was an SOS.
Immediately, I threw back the covers and leapt from the bed. I turned to the window and pulled back the drapes to look at the house. I am not sure if I expected perhaps a single light on upstairs, but to my surprise, the entire house was alight. But I could see no one inside.
Stuffing my stocking feet into my boots, I pulled my coat over myself and hurried up towards the house. As I moved across the yard, towards the sidegate, I could see red and blue lights flashing from the street beyond. But all was strangely silent.
The gate groaned as I opened it and my pulse began to race. Something was terribly wrong. Adrenaline began to course through me as I rushed into the front yard.
An ambulance was backed into the driveway. The backdoors were open and one paramedic was loading a stretcher inside. The second paramedic was at the front steps, speaking to the landlady. His face looked grave as she nodded solemnly at him. With a tip of his hat, he stepped off the stoop and joined his colleague.
The stretcher bore a long, black bag and I watched it vanish behind the closing ambulance doors. Without even so much as a glance in my direction, the two paramedics climbed back in, turned off the flashing lights, and drove away.
I had no idea what to do. I stood rooted to the spot, afraid to take a step towards the landlady, afraid to return to the guest house. Her face set into a hardened stare, lips pressed tightly together, the landlady stepped down from the front stoop and crossed the yard to meet me. She looked at me, eyes flashing, and pulled something from her bathrobe pocket. She held it out to show me. “He had this in his hand.”
The measuring cup.
Perhaps she registered my recognition, perhaps not, but she stuffed the cup back in her bathrobe pocket and turned on her heels. Without looking back, she returned to the house and slammed the front door closed behind her. The lights inside flicked off, leaving the house in darkness.
My heart was pounding as I returned to the guest house, nowhere else to go and desperate to lock myself away. I wanted to run but feared she may be watching.
But once I was back inside the guest house—door dead-bolted—I ran to the kitchenette and threw open the drawers. There, in the jumbled mess I had left it earlier that day, were the rest of the tin measuring cups. I scooped them all up into my arms. Panic tore at the walls of my mind. I felt an urge—an imperative. You must hide them. My frenzied gaze whipped around the stone walls and wooden floors that would creak when I walked over them.
Beneath the floorboards. The thought appeared suddenly and I was unsure where it may have come from. Dropping to my knees, I inspected the floorboards. Was there a loose one somewhere I could easily pull up? But across the kitchen, the floors were smooth, the nails driven in deep.
But in the corner, in front of my dresser, I recalled an uneven patch of floor—so uneven, in fact, that I had put a thrift store rug over it to avoid tripping. As I kicked away the rug, I peered down and spotted the short end of the floorboard, poking up a quarter inch from those around it. Digging in with my fingernail, I was relieved to find the floorboard easily lifted away, revealing a tiny hiding space.
I reeled back, gasping. There, in the darkened crevice was what appeared to be a pair of wire cutters. They were unlike what one would find in a contemporary hardware store; with no rubber handle, they were forged steel spotted with rust.
Curious, I picked them up and marvelled at how neatly they fit into my hand. There was something strangely comfortable about them. I recalled suddenly the wire fence behind the row of arbutus trees. Someone had pared it away. But how long ago?
As I returned the wire cutters to the hiding space, I set the measuring cups on top, the metal tapping against metal. The sound sent a chill through me and I quickly replaced the floorboard and pulled the rug back into place. My entire body was shaking with adrenaline as I climbed back into bed. I had not even remembered to take off my jacket.
The next day passed in agony as I blinked against the light of day. The lack of sleep brought havoc upon the working day. Too much longer of this, I thought, and I would likely lose my job.
As the bus drifted down West Boulevard, I pulled the cord for my stop and as the bus slowed, it passed over the train tracks. I was gazing out the window, watching for the development sign with crude curiosity. To my surprise, two City workers were at the sign and appeared to be dismantling it.
They had succeeded; the development had been halted. When I arrived back, lights were on at the main house. Shadows moved within. Fellow members of the neighbourhood committee, I knew, come to celebrate.
As I returned to the guest house, I turned on the lights and gazed around the inside of the tiny building. I dropped my purse where I stood.
I was just so… tired. I had been tired for months. Perhaps years. I wanted to go home—wherever that may be—and sleep for days. This city had defeated me. I fell backwards onto the bed and lay there, staring up at the ceiling.
I could not fight it any longer; I was almost ready to let the darkness take me.
At some point I must have let my eyes flutter closed because I opened them again and—although I had left the lights on inside—it was dark without. As I peered at the clock, I startled to see that it was approaching three in the morning. I had slept for nearly eight hours.
I rose from bed to change into my pajamas and turn out the lights. I removed my jacket and tossed it aside with a thud. I peeled off my socks one at a time and left them scattered on the floor. I pulled my sweater over my head and dropped it near the socks. I stepped barefoot towards my dresser and bent down to the drawer.
Just as I was reaching for the drawer, I realized my feet were cold against the floorboards. There was no rug beneath my feet.
There was no rug over the loose floorboard.
Frantic, I searched around and under the bed, pushing aside dirty clothes and old magazines. I stopped, on my knees at the edge of the bed—just like how Mother used to make me pray—and tried to remember. Had I moved the rug at all? Did I throw it in the wash and forget?
As I forced my mind through the possibilities, my chest heaved with panic. I simply could not recall doing anything with the rug and I could not bring myself to look beneath the floorboard. My forehead was slick with sweat as I pressed it against the bedsheets. I closed my eyes and forced myself to breathe slowly. I wanted to weep.
The night is quiet and peaceful, I told myself. The odd car passed down West Boulevard and the sound was soothing; it was normal. This is all over.
I took a breath. It will soon be over.
TAP. TAP. TAP.
I froze. The sound was distinct in a way it had never been before.
TAAAAP. TAAAAP. TAAAAP.
I could hear it—the metal on metal. A clear and concise tapping.
TAP. TAP. TAP.
It was coming from one spot.
I lifted my head from the bed and looked up. All the lights were still on.
It began again. TAP. TAP. TAP.
I knew precisely where it is coming from. The kitchenette.
TAAAAP. TAAAAP. TAAAAP.
I pulled myself onto shaky feet and looked into the kitchenette. Dirty dishes were still in the sink from days before but the counter was clear. The counter was clear, that is, except for Mother’s measuring cups. They sat, laid out in a neat row, from largest to smallest, including the three-quarter cup i had never got back from the landlady. I stared at them in disbelief.
They had been my mother’s; I knew this so resolutely, yet I had not had them before this. I found them in the kitchenette drawer when I moved in.
The smallest tin cup on the end slid quickly to the side, hitting the next one, three times in quick succession: TAP. TAP. TAP.
I wanted to scream but the air strangled itself in my throat, I only fell backwards onto the bed. The words wire cutters flew through my mind and I scrambled sideways onto the floor. Fingernails digging desperately, I pulled up the floorboard. The hiding space was empty. The wire cutters were gone.
TAAAAP. TAAAAP. TAAAAP.
I scrambled across the floor. I heard it again, all around me, like before: TAP TAP TAP. The pattern repeated over and over and over again, winding its way up and up—louder and louder!
It screeched, too much for me to bear—TAP TAP TAP! TAAAAP! TAAAAP! TAAAAP! TAP TAP TAP! I clapped my hands over my ears but it did nothing to drown out the noise. I screamed against it: “Go away! Go away!”
Suddenly, the tapping stopped.
For half a heart-beat I heard nothing, just a whining silence and a ringing in my ears. With my eyes closed, I merely listened. I couldn’t even hear the cars on West Boulevard. I couldn’t hear anything. Except whispering.
Someone was whispering yet I could not tell if they were close or far. Was someone whispering in the corner, or speaking outside, at a distance? “Hello?” I croaked. “Is it… you?”
But the whispers did not stop. I cried and they continued in wordless babbles. They only stopped when the sound of the train came. The ground rumbled as if that great mechanical beast thundered down the tracks. The walls of the guest house shook. As I heard its whistle cry out, I knew that the train was passing by, just there, beyond the row of arbutus trees.
The silent held for a heartbeat and then the whispering began again. I tiptoed up towards the window and, as I gently pulled back the curtain, a shallow pool of light spills into the guest house. Across the yard, a light was on at the house.
Several lights were on.
There were people in the kitchen, silhouetted in the light. Dozens of them. Had they been there all this time? Were these the whispers? Voices at three in the morning, echoing through the yard? I threw open the curtain and watched them.
Their silhouettes wavered like sunlight through trees. I try to look for faces, but I cannot see them. The light caught their clothes and I could make out neat sweaters and windsor knots, but the faces were blank, expressionless slates.
I needed to leave.
I picked up my jacket from where I left it, discarded on the floor. I pulled it back on and stepped outside.
I stepped out into the yard just as the back door to the house opened. And out the neighbors came, spilling across the deck and into the yard.
Terrified, I stumbled backwards. My bare foot slipped on the grass and I fell roughly to the ground. I landed on something hard. As I winced in pain, I rolled over. Whatever it was was in my jacket pocket.
The wire cutters.
The train sounded again—so loud I could feel the vibrations in my chest. It was as if the train itself was all around me; I felt the sound of the train just as I felt the purest bolt struck through to my heart.
I staggered to my feet. Wire cutters in hand, I ran for the train tracks. One of the arbutus branches whipped me in the face. I tasted blood, but I didn’t care. I found the wire fence but—as expected—there was no way through. I was wise to bring the wire cutters. The arbutus trees were shaking all around me, but I saw nothing. I only heard my ears ringing, ringing with the endless violence of the train whistle.
As I stumbled out onto the train tracks, my bare feet slipped on the metal rails, toes snagging on weeds. The sound of the train was so deafening, I heard nothing anymore: I could only feel it. My entire body vibrated in the darkness, a deep, deep rumbling. I could not hear the others from the house; I could not see them.
As the whistle wailed, the phantom brakes screeched and through the darkness before me came a blinding flash of white.
Ashleigh Rajala is an award-winning writer whose work has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including Room, Redwing, Quarter Castle, and Crab Fat. She lives and works in the Vancouver area with her husband and an extraordinarily fluffy cat.