Part I

Afterward, Jake Ridges liked to joke that the whole thing started—the game, the challenges, the lying and the sneaking around, all of it—because of Sophia Robertson’s boobs. There was more than a little truth in it. If the other girls at Carp High were Toyotas and Hondas—some of them a little more beat-up than others, some of them handled a little too much already, showing signs of previous owners—Sophia Robertson was a Lamborghini: exotic, gorgeous, and a little bit terrifying. The other girls were familiar. Even if the mechanism of their deepest, inner workings, their engine parts, remained largely mysterious, you knew how to get them to unlock, how to drive them, for Christ’s sake. Not so with Sophia Robertson. She was a cipher, an angel, a tease or a bitch, depending on who you asked. Her family had money, at least for Carp; her father owned three dealerships in nearby Leeds. It showed. While other girls were blurry, displaying cracks or, at the very least, seams— ripped jeans, coffee-stained T-shirts, hair that poufed up in the rain—Sophia always looked sharp, clear, as if the resolution had been turned up on a microscope and angled straight at her, as if the money had formed a kind of shrink wrap that kept her protected from the normal destruction of the everyday. Everyone dreamed of touching her but no one had dared so far. If Sophia understood the extent of her power, she gave no sign of it, just like she’d showed no inclination to date or even hook up with boys or girls (even after a brief rumor had gone around

sophomore year that she was a lesbian, a rumor no doubt fueled by desperately disappointed guys to justify why she would not at least, at least, be convinced to give a hand job to someone). It was Jake Ridge’s assertion that no one would have been stupid enough to even think about running under the train if it weren’t for the simple fact that Sophia Robertson had offered to show her boobs to whoever did it first. It was June, and there were five of them drinking by the tracks that cut a few miles south of Carp on their way to bigger, better places. Jake Ridge always thought it was right that the trains never stopped in Carp, even the freight trains, as if all that steel was trying to run away as fast as it could. Besides Jake, there was Mike Dickinson—“the Dick,” as he’d been rechristened two weeks ago, when four hours after being crowned prom king, he’d wound up in the back of Big Bill Kelly’s squad car, supposedly busted for selling oxy to Carly Withers’s mom, though somehow within days Mrs. Withers had managed to produce a prescription and Dickinson was released after he claimed he was merely collecting a reward for returning the pills to her—TJ Ruiz, and miraculously, Sophia Robertson, and Savannah Fenn, who went everywhere Sophia went, did everything Sophia did, and was to Sophia as the moon tailing after the sun, pretty in its own right but completely eclipsed by any comparison of the two. The Dick had told Jake and TJ he’d invited Sophia, but no one had actually believed she would show, much less that she would show with two six-packs and a bottle of Jim Beam tucked in the back of her low-riding jeans. But that was the essence of Sophia Robertson: she was a mystery, a shape so intricate it required its own geometry.

They’d gone through Sophia’s beer quickly. It was hot. That—the heat—along with the beer and the heat and the proximity of Sophia’s breasts worked on the guys like a fast-acting drug, and they felt much drunker and braver and dumber than they should have. A train went by at six o’clock, as the light was just showing its first signs of withdrawing: a big, rattling, lumbering freight train, so loud that for the length of its passing, everyone had to shout and gesture to be heard. The Dick pointed out that the oil tankers were at least four or five feet off the ground—plenty of space, he said, to allow a person to pass. “Yeah, right.” Jake chucked his beer can down the slope as the train rattled off into the distance, wondering if Sophia had noticed how good his arm was. “You’d get crushed before you were all the way through. You’d get pinned by the wheels.” “No way,” the Dick insisted. “The train’s not going that fast. Twenty miles an hour, tops.” “So? How fast do you think you can run?” “I bet I could do it,” Mike said. This set off a heated round of debate, fueled half by the alcohol—Savannah had uncapped the Jim Beam by now and started circulating it—and half by the fact that Sophia Robertson seemed amused and even interested by the conversation. TJ, who was very drunk—he was a lightweight, a scrawny kid, all bones and muscles, who in the mysterious alchemy of high school politics had somehow always been popular despite the fact that no one liked him—started talking about velocity and relativity, two subjects he knew nothing about, and eventually, mostly to shut him up, Jake changed the subject.

The conversation skipped erratically from prom to the Dick’s arrest to high school graduation plans to the fact that the 7-Eleven had recently installed a Big Gulp machine, and from Big Gulps they moved into talking about sex, of course, since that was really all they wanted to talk about. Jake was hoping Sophia would take the bait and admit to something—even hearing her talk about giving another guy a blow job would have been a huge coup—but she only listened, and smiled, and occasionally leaned forward to grab the bottle, giving the guys a brief, tantalizing view of her cleavage. Jake forgot about the train conversation; he was sure Mike and TJ had forgotten about it too. Mike had his arm around Savannah’s shoulder, fiddling idly with her bra strap, apparently having decided the certainty of something was better than the possibility of something spectacular. They were thus totally surprised when Sophia tilted her head and said, “Listen. Another train’s coming.” She looked at the small group. Her eyes were very bright. Otherwise, she seemed sober. “So who’s going to do it?” “Who’s going to do what?” TJ said. Her smile lit up gradually, like a candle slow to catch. But then it was there, blazing across her face. “Make a run for it beneath one of the oilers.” There was a moment of silence. “Prove it, one way or another.” There was a brief moment of silence. Jake blurted, “It was Mike’s idea.” His face burned when Sophia turned to stare at him. She had a way of looking at you suddenly, unexpectedly, with vague detached interest, like a scientist in the middle of a dissection.

“Yeah, sure.” Mike took his arm off Savannah’s shoulder, and she whined and pressed herself against him. Mike wiped his upper lip, which was beaded with sweat. “Yeah, sure I’ll do it. For a price.” His eyes flashed. “What’ll you give me?” TJ was rolling a joint. “The freshman fund,” he said, without looking up. The freshman fund was a senior tradition. A few of the biggest guys—or the meanest guys, in TJ’s case—would tax the incoming class randomly. Take a dollar here, five bucks there. Sometimes steal a jacket. They could do what they wanted—that was the point of being a senior. They were bigger and stronger and they could make your life hell. Over the past year, Mike, TJ, and occasionally Jake had gathered over two thousand dollars between them. They’d spent a big portion of it on a keg party at the Ridge after prom—TJ insisted on buying these weird pervert blow-up dolls from the internet and floating them in the creek—but they still had a grand left. “All of it?” Mike said. “All of it,” TJ said. Mike laughed. Then TJ laughed and Savannah joined in, although it was obvious she didn’t quite get the joke. Jake felt a loosening in his chest. It was a joke. Of course it was a joke; even Mike wasn’t stupid enough to try something like that. Even the noise of the train, which Jake finally made out, sounded harmless, the distant toot-toot of a child’s toy. But then Sophia stood up, smacking off the back of her jeans. “Whoever jumps first,” she announced, “gets to see my tits.” They were stunned. Savannah started to laugh, a high-pitched giggle that turned into a fit of hiccups.

“She’s serious,” Savannah said. She was slurring her words a little. “She’ll do it. She’ll do anything.” Sophia’s eyes ticked momentarily to her friend, but her expression didn’t change. She still had the same mysterious smile on her face, like someone who knows a very big secret, and also knows she’ll never tell. The train was louder now. Now, it didn’t sound like a child’s toy at all. It sounded like metal and pistons grinding wheels against the tracks. “So?” Sophia raised an eyebrow. “Who’s in?”