He twisted and sat with his good leg stretched out. He waved away gnats and gingerly tried to pull his foot free, then winced and leaned back on his hands again. A column of black ants caught his attention, following each other along the crosstie, across his shoe, and over the rock holding his foot trapped.
He looked back at the path, hoping his daddy would come striding into view. The boy wasn’t really scared, but his foot was hurting, and he was hot. Tar from the crossties burned his skin, and the rocks were getting sharper by the minute.
Glancing at the path again, he imagined what a hero he would be when school started, stuck all by himself on a railroad track, with a witness and an injury to prove it. He squinted into the sun, already enjoying the glory that would be his. The girls would really be impressed.
Then the ground beneath his hand vibrated. He looked up and down the tracks, his eyes large, his hands suddenly shaking. A whistle brayed in the distance, making the train sound like a beast of prey scenting his fear.
The boy jerked his head toward the path again and yanked on his leg, struggling to free his swollen foot. He felt the vibration in his feet and his butt now, and the train whistle sounded again, closer than before.
“No. No, no. No. No, no. No. No, no,” he panted.
The train showed itself then, just at the point where the two rails came together on the horizon, and the boy heard the engine’s rumble, sending him into a panic, clawing at the rock that held his foot. His tears mixed with his sweat and snot before running down his throat. Blood from his torn fingernails dripped onto the rock, and the black ants gathered to feast.
He repeated his mantra, much louder, trying to hear himself over the train’s engine. “No. No, no. No. No, no. No. No, no. No. No, no.”
The locomotive’s red and gold nose and rotating headlamp hypnotized him. He released his ankle and stood, his leg at an angle, when the train’s wheels shrieked and threw up a shower of sparks.
The boy lay in his bed, his mother beside him, telling him not to worry. Everything would be all right.
Fresh tears ran down his cheeks, though, when he saw it was his younger brother in the room, crying and cradling his arm because the boy had punched him for snitching a baseball card.
“You can have them all,” the boy said, but his brother kept crying.
He suddenly found himself with the prettiest girl he knew, and the day was hot, and she tried to be mad, but her tears said she was hurt, not angry. He had kissed her, the first for both, and when his buddies teased him about it, she overheard him say she was gross, and he had never kissed any girl, especially her.
“I’m sorry,” he told her, but something drowned out his words, and she stood on the railroad track staring at him with those tear filled eyes. The boy reached for her, but he was in Sunday School. It seemed strange that he and the teacher were the only ones there, and that they were meeting on a railroad track in the heat and in the woods, but the teacher glared at him over the top of her glasses, and he knew he had to pay attention.
“We have to be good if we want to get to heaven, don’t we?” she asked. “And when we’re not, what do we do?”
The boy didn’t answer.
“What we do is pray, and ask God to…pray, and ask God to…pray and ask God to…”
The train pounced, its wheels shrieking and hot sparks burning the boy’s face and arms and legs. The noise crushed him, and the shaking ground made it hard to stand on his trapped foot, but he planted his good leg and screamed, his voice growing louder with each word.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name! OUR FATHER, WHO ART IN HEAVEN, HALLOWED BE THY NAME! OUR FA…”