Part II

“She can’t be serious,” Jake said, and then immediately regretted it, because already Mike had climbed to his feet. He punched Jake hard on the arm as he passed. “Don’t be a pussy,” he said. And then, in a slightly lower voice, “Sophia Robertson, dude.” She was walking backward down the slope, the wind whipping her hair around her face, the remaining sun bloodred behind her, turning her face to shadow, so that for a second Jake drunkenly thought she looked like an angel, or a demon; he couldn’t decide. Definitely something not of this planet. “You think he’ll do it?” TJ said, still focused on rolling a joint, as if they were talking about a character in a movie. Savannah’s mood had rapidly shifted. She was sulking, annoyed that attention had once again shifted to her best friend. “He won’t,” she said with surprising vehemence. “He doesn’t have the balls. None of you do.” Jake got to his feet and discovered that he was drunker than he’d thought. The ground wasn’t solid, but an oscillating surface, rising and falling away like waves under his feet. He moved down the slope carefully, placing each step precisely, as only very inebriated people do, conscious of wanting to appear sober. The train was visible now. It had emerged through a break in the trees. The Dick had said he thought that freight trains didn’t go very fast. But how did he know? He didn’t. The Dick was a champion bullshitter; everyone knew that. The train didn’t look as if it

were going slowly. It seemed to be swallowing the track, sucking it up into its metal grill. Jake briefly imagined the train as alive, churning steel through its digestive system, breaking apart distance and space like a great whale siphoning kelp. Mike and Sophia were standing on the short gravel spit that ran parallel to the tracks. Sophia’s hair was still going crazy. Mike was doing his best to look unconcerned, but he was pale and Jake knew he must be shitting himself. “You in?” Sophia said, when Jake caught up. She had to shout to be heard over the noise of the approaching train. “This is nuts,” he said, which he knew wasn’t an answer one way or another. It was hard to say no to Sophia, especially because she was standing so close he could smell her, a mix of wildflowers or honey or sunshine—bright, girlie things he had no vocabulary for—as well as something deeper, closer, more urgent, something like sweat but not quite. Fear, maybe. She was afraid, then, even if she wasn’t showing it. “Of course he’s in. We’re all in.” That was TJ, coming toward them, lurching a little as he tried to correct for the slope. He had the joint in his hand, now lit. Behind him, Savannah was still sitting next to the rubble of their party, surrounded by empty beer cans and stubbed-out cigarettes. From a distance, it all looked quaint, unreal, like an oldfashioned photograph found, weathered, a hundred years later in a drawer. How had the evening turned so quickly? “Who’s first?” Sophia said. “If you want—” She said something else, but the rest of her words were whipped away. The train was on top of them now, rolling by in a blast of hot air churned up by the wheels, so that her hair danced nearly vertically, like a fiery halo.

You could feel it—the bulk, the mass, all those displaced particles of air, stirred and scattered by the motion of two hundred tons. Rattling freight, cars bouncing and jostling along the tracks, wheels grinding: it wasn’t an object now, but a force, a giant fist punching forward through space. Then: two oil tank cars, shaped like enormous bullets, each of them elevated at least four feet off the tracks. For a brief moment—thirty seconds? Fifteen? Less?—the ground on the other side of the tracks was visible between the wheels, another rutted stretch of mud and gravel and grass running way toward the woods. Then another series of freight cars plunged by them, these low-bellied, hanging low to the ground, obscuring the view of the opposite side of the tracks. They’d missed the chance. Jake felt nothing but relief. Maybe they would delay and debate until the train was gone, until the last opportunity had passed, and no one would look bad. But no sooner had he begun to relax than Sophia turned to them and pointed, her eyes lit up, her smile radiant. Once again, her voice was lost in the wind, but it was obvious what she meant. More tank cars were coming, four of them in a row, all of them a filthy and rusted black. Four chances. Jake’s palms were sweating. His breath hitched in his throat whenever he inhaled, like it was snaring on something. “I’ll go first.” This was Mike, shouting, as the first tank car drew level with them, as the train body thinned and lifted, revealing a vision of dark tracks, mud, the undercarriage sailing overhead like an enormous sea creature through water. Jake was impressed and relieved and annoyed at the same time—the Dick had, since the sixth grade, always been the first to do everything: touch a boob, lose his virginity,

score some molly. As he was turning to ask Mike whether he was sure, he felt a hand on his back, a hard shove, and suddenly he was tumbling toward the tracks. Mike had pushed him. He was shouting without knowing it. For a split second time seemed to go white and soundless, as if there had been an explosion, and he was falling and he was going to die. He landed on his knees inches from the tracks, felt the weight of the train blasting by him like a vibration through his whole body, sucked in a lungful of dirt and the sharp stench of diesel. Six more inches, a slightly harder shove, and he would have been flattened, hurtled under the wheels and crushed to death. He was so scared, his bladder relaxed— realizing he was about to piss his pants, he scrambled backward, crab-walked away from the tracks, away from the train. All of his fear transformed at once into rage, and he was on his feet. “What the hell?” Jake pushed Mike, hard. Mike fell backward, still laughing, on the ground. TJ was laughing too. Even Savannah was laughing, sitting with her arms wrapped around her bare legs, her head tipped back and her white throat exposed to the sky. Only Sophia was standing, perfectly still, perfectly serious, watching the train. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Jake threw a punch at him and clipped TJ on the ear. TJ spun a half circle, howling, which only made Mike laugh harder. “Your face!” he kept saying. “You should have seen your face!” Jake went after Mike again. He wanted to beat the shit-eating grin off the Dick’s face, take his perfect teeth out of his stupid mouth bloodied and broken. Mike held up both hands to fend him off, still laughing so hard he was hiccoughing—“Come on, relax, it

was a joke, man”—when suddenly there was a scream, sharp as a bird cry. Savannah was on her feet. All the color had gone out of her face. And in that second, Jake realized that Sophia was no longer standing by the tracks. She was gone. Then he saw a flash of blond hair underneath the train. She’d done it. She was doing it. Jake wanted to move but he couldn’t. They were all frozen, stunned: Mike on the ground, TJ cupping his right ear, Savannah swaying slightly on the hill. One seconds, two seconds, three seconds. She was lying on her back, pressed to the ground, as the belly of the tank car passed over her, casting her face in darkness. Jake felt a desperate panic, an urge to do something—at the same time, his body was heavy with dread. Was she hurt? Was she unconscious? Impossible to tell. For a moment she was concealed behind the grinding wheels, then visible again as another oil tank passed above her. In an instant, she was moving, rolling to the other side of the tracks. Jake saw a quick vision of a pink thong riding high above the waistband of her shorts as she stood up. He was desperate to call out to her, to see her face. But now another series of freight cars, enormous and painted over with faded corporate logos, were crowding together over the tracks. They waited together in silence, the whole group of them, until the train had passed. It was as though Sophia had cast a spell on them. Jake’s whole body felt numb. His mind felt numb, as if it had been encased in thick ice. There she was: standing serenely on the other side of the tracks, a leaf caught in the tangle of her hair, hands hooked into her back pockets, as if nothing had happened. The

train disappeared into the distance with a final, mournful toot of its horn, as if it knew that something in Carp had changed forever. Sophia picked her way carefully back across the tracks, smiling. That was unbelievable, Jake wanted to say. You’re insane, he thought of telling her. But still, he couldn’t make his voice work. She came directly up to him. For one wild and irrational second, Jake was seized by the urge to take her and to kiss her. But he knew also that he could never. She wasn’t meant for him; she wasn’t meant for anyone. She was more than that. “I won,” she said simply, smiling. She smelled like wildflowers and ocean, like faraway places. “Wanna play again?”

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