On school mornings, Jimmy Danvers was a typical twelve-year-old. You couldn’t part him from his pillow with a crowbar.
Today, the first day of a long summer of freedom, he was up before sunrise and down the stairs in minutes. His bike was in the hallway. He removed the playing cards pinned to the spokes. The entire neighborhood was still asleep and he didn’t want that kind of racket.
The door opened to a world of smells and birdsong. His nose twitched at the cloying scent of a ligustrum hedge. He fought a sneezing fit and pedaled to the end of the street where the path that led up the hill began. A coat of dewy mist gently hugged the undulations of the terrain, something out of a tale, like the edge of the Shire. Smells tickled Jimmy this morning. He caught a whiff of anise mixed with wild garlic. Later, when the sun baked the fields, the scents wouldn’t be subtle anymore. Grass crushed underfoot, dry weeds cooked by the heat, sweet green twigs peeled to make arrows. And there would be noise everywhere. Nothing like this attentive, serious silence.
Jimmy reached the top of the hill and paused to catch his breath. Here, the path turned into a narrow road and riding was smoother. He continued under the railway bridge, and wondered why he never saw a train. He heard them rumble softly at night, lulling him to sleep. Did they only run in the dark?
Past the bridge, the road snaked through fields. A mile further, it dead-ended in a neighborhood of new houses, all smooth asphalt and neat gardens. Jimmy had a good view of the railroad tracks from here.
The last time he climbed up to the tracks was on Christmas and it was bitter cold. He put a gloved hand on the rail hoping to feel the engine coming. His glove stuck to the frozen metal and he couldn’t get it loose. He stood on a tie and stepped from one to another toward the bridge. It was tiring. You couldn’t go far walking like that. After the bridge, the track curved and disappeared in a wooded area. Jimmy walked all the way to the bend. He found the mangled body of a dog. It must have been hit by a train. Its head was gone. Pretty stupid dog, Jimmy thought, that didn’t hear, see, or feel the train coming. The carcass didn’t stink. It was too cold. Jimmy didn’t touch the thing. He didn’t tell anybody about it either.
Jimmy left his bike in the high grass and scrambled up the ballast. He stared at the stretch of pale steel and couldn’t remember where he touched the rail. His glove was long gone. Was the dog gone too? He’d never seen dog bones. He saw a dead cat once.
The trees were thick with leaves and the rising sun cast shadows on the tracks. Jimmy blinked. He walked toward the curve in the track. It was very still. He shrugged his shoulders, impatient with the creeping unease.
There was a darker patch where the dog had been.
Jimmy took a deep breath and the smells were hostile. Creosote, rust, the stagnant water of a nearby pond. The silence gave him goosebumps.
The misshapen dark lump was a bundle of rags. Something discarded. Thrown off a train, maybe. Jimmy took a few cautious steps.
The body was entangled in a torn blanket. Two slender legs stuck out. Jimmy stood over the ragged package, his balance precarious on the rolling stones of the ballast. One small bare foot, tender. He leaned forward to touch it and caught himself. He stared at an unlaced pink sneaker. A ray of sun shot through the trees and lit up the glossy red varnish that coated the bolts tying the rail to the plates.
A length of rope ending with a double knot ran from the blanket to the track.
Jimmy remembered. There was a piece of frayed rope next to the dog. He thought it was a crude leash.
He went down on his knees and cried.