The Track

I always wondered why the track was abandoned. It had been that way all my life, and all my dad’s life as far as he could remember. My grandpa always said it was because the tunnel collapsed, but I’d never gone for myself to find out if that was true. Mom was always telling us to stay away from there on account of rusty nails we wouldn’t see until they were stuck two inches into our feet.

Of course, she could have said anything to ten-year-old me and I’d have listened. Fifteen-year-old me, on the other hand? Nothing she said could have kept me away. That’s how Mark and I ended up in the woods one August afternoon. School was starting in a week, and we were making the most of our summer freedom while it lasted.

The track was easy enough to find. After ten minutes of crashing through the undergrowth, we emerged into a tunnel of trees. To our left, the walls of leaves and bark stretched on in eternal greenery, canopied by a web of emerald branches. To our right, those same walls ran for several hundred feet before melting into the mountainside, their branches curling around a point of black made tiny by the distance. The track itself was just a jumble of almost-parallel wooden ties and a pair of metal rails still hopelessly trying to carve a straight path through the forest. Weeds draped themselves over the track, rendering it invisible to anyone who wasn’t paying attention.

“Here it is,” I said, coming to a stop between the two rails.

“Here it is,” Mark agreed. “So what now?”

“See if the tunnel’s collapsed,” I said, pointing at the black spot at the end of the corridor.

My eyes stayed on the ground as we resumed walking. I was still a little nervous about Mom’s warnings, and the footing here was treacherous enough without worrying about rusted nails. By the time I looked up again, we were practically on the tunnel’s threshold.

“I don’t see any sign of cave-ins,” Mark said. “Maybe we have to go inside.”

“Or maybe Grandpa was just making it up.”

“Only one way to find out.”

We stood there for a few seconds, staring into the blackness. A gust of wind came moaning along the track, as if it was encouraging us to take the first few steps.

“If I’d brought a flashlight…” I said.

“Too dangerous without one,” Mark agreed, which was stupid because I knew full well he didn’t care one bit about the danger.

“If you go first,” I said, “I’ll follow.”

I’ll follow.

I shivered as the wind upset the leaves overhead, seeming to echo my words.

“Don’t be a baby,” Mark said. “This was your idea.”

Actually, I’d only told him about the track. He was the one who’d suggested we check it out. “Forget it, then,” I said. ”Let’s get back before Mom wonders where we are.”

We turned our backs on the tunnel, but instead of walking toward home, we froze.

“What is that?” Mark asked.

“An animal?”

The thing was lying in the weeds with its head resting on one of the metal rails. I couldn’t seem to move at the sight of it, but Mark advanced, cautiously.

“It’s dead,” he observed.

His words broke my trance and I joined him. The thing on the track had once been a dog—what kind I couldn’t tell because it didn’t have fur anymore and its skin was weathered to look like a paper bag. There wasn’t quite enough to cover the bones. The ears and eyelids had rotted away, leaving black holes in a crushed skull.

“Look at its head,” Mark whispered. “Like a train ran over it while it was lying here.”

“But trains don’t come here anymore,” I answered, although I barely heard him. Another sound was filling my ears. I looked around for flies, but didn’t see any.

Mark knelt down and picked up a stick. He used it to poke the dog under the chin. The noise in my ears stopped. In fact, it seemed all noise had been sucked away as I watched the ruined head tear free of its neck, roll across the track, and hit the opposite rail. The way it stopped, its empty sockets were fixed on me. Tattered lips, drawn back and twisted by desiccation, revealed a snarl of fangs.

“Let’s get out of here,” Mark said.

I tore myself free of the head’s gaze and looked at him. He was staring over his shoulder at the mouth of the tunnel, his cheeks the color of eggshells. “Yeah,” I said. The word came out broken, barely more than a breath. But it was enough, and soon we were gone.

I felt stupid the next morning. I realized after Mark had gone home that we never came any closer to solving the mystery of the abandoned railroad, and all because we’d been too scared to take a few steps into a dark tunnel, too spooked by an animal carcass to hang around for more than five minutes. Mark wouldn’t be there today—in fact I wouldn’t see him again until school started next week—but I was fifteen years old; I didn’t need an escort just to go exploring the woods around my house. I’d go back there, with a flashlight this time, and do what we’d been too childish to do yesterday.

The dog was gone when I got to the tunnel.

The discovery sent adrenaline flooding through my chest, though I couldn’t tell why. Dead things didn’t just get up and move.

I checked both sides of the track and wandered around the area for a bit, but there was no sign of it, head or body. Forcing myself to a halt in the center of the track, I told myself some other animal must have taken it during the night. Roadkill on busy highways never lasted long, and this was in the middle of the woods. More suprising than its disappearance was the fact it had gone untouched long enough for me and Mark to find it.

Having forced that explanation upon myself, I turned my attention to the tunnel. For a second I had a memory of Mark standing in front of me, his body facing me but his head turned over his shoulder to gaze, as I did now, into the darkness. The memory looked so solid, I imagined that if I poked his head with a stick it would roll away down the track, and if I came back tomorrow his body would be gone—

Maybe coming here alone wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Ignoring that voice in my head, I raised my flashlight and pointed it into the tunnel. My finger hovered over the switch, not quite daring to turn it on. For a moment I pretended the black was actually a curtain, and my flashlight wouldn’t be able to show me anything. How badly would that mess with my brain if I turned on the light and it just died against a wall of impenetrable nothingness?

And Mom was worried about rusty nails, I thought as I pressed the switch.

Nothing happened.

I hit the flashlight against my palm, shook it, clicked it off and on. Dead batteries. Figured.

With a sigh I looked one last time into the tunnel. The darkness seemed more solid than ever. I knew it was just an illusion, but no matter how hard I told myself it was just empty air, my eyes refused to accept it. The clashing of something and nothing made it seem like a transluscent veil hung before the entrance, and beyond it, walking into the depths, was—

I blinked and it was gone. Never had been. The tunnel was just a dark tunnel, no barrier keeping me out. It hadn’t been him. He’d come with me yesterday, not today. Today I was alone, and I wasn’t going in there alone without a working flashlight. I went home.

I was in my room when Mark texted me: You busy tonight?

I told him I wasn’t. Mom and Dad were watching a movie downstairs, but I didn’t care to join them.

I just really needed to talk to someone. So quiet here.

I had to read that text a couple times before figuring out why it looked so strange. Why didn’t you just call? I wrote back.

Can’t.

I waited for more of an explanation, but none came. Instead, Mark wrote, Parents went to a friend’s house. Didn’t want to go with them. Should have, though.

So Mark was just feeling lonely? I shrugged to myself and decided to tell him about my second trip to the abandoned track. When I got to the part about the dog carcass being gone, I paused to see how he’d reply.

Thirty seconds passed. Then: Why’d you have to tell me that?

I blinked at my phone screen. Not the reaction I’d expected. Just thought you’d find it interesting, I wrote.

The texts starting flying in. I could imagine Mark, sitting on the edge of his bed, thumbs on fire as he punched the keypad. You know we don’t have a dog, but this morning our front door was all scratched up like one had been begging to come in all night.

After supper I went to my room and my door had the same thing.

Also whenever I look down the hallway or into a dark room, all I can see is that tunnel and I start trying to swat at these flies around my head

only there aren’t any. Im in my parents room now cuz I cant go in mine

cuz of the scratches

and ive got all the lights on but its dark outside and im afraid to open the door cuz theres something walking around in the hall

and i cant let it hear me thats why i couldnt call

There was a break in the texts and I jumped in to ask what on earth he was talking about.

i hear it breathing, Mark wrote back. dude. no. i think its trying to talk.

I didn’t respond immediately. I wasn’t sure how to. Either Mark was bored and was entertaining himself by messing with me, or he was really scared. In the end, I finally decided the best solution was the same either way. Leaving my phone on the bed, I ran downstairs.

“Mom, Dad, is it alright if Mark comes over?”

“To spend the night?” Mom asked.

I shook my head. “Just until his parents get home. They’re at some party I guess.”

“Alright, I guess that’s fine.”

I went back to my room and texted Mark, You want to come over to my place?

Five minutes later, I’d assumed he wasn’t interested. He was just messing with me after all, and the joke had worn off. Then my phone buzzed.

o

What was that supposed to mean? As I puzzled over the text, the phone buzzed again.

k

OK. So he was coming. Mark lived only a few blocks down the street. If he rode his bike he could be here in a couple minutes.

Maybe five minutes?

Definitely no more than ten minutes.

Two hours later I was climbing into bed, wondering why he never showed up.

One week later, as I sat alone in the school cafeteria, I was still wondering.

James Colton

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