The Unknowing Boy followed the Fuck-You Kid onto the bridge. The moon provided light for their footsteps but cast the train tracks below in deeper shadow. The Oklahoma wind tossed the trees back and forth, filling the air with a skeletal rustling.
“You sure you want to do this?” Fuck-You Kid said, the red tip of his cigarette bobbing with each word.
“Yes,” Unknowing Boy lied.
He did that a lot. Telling people what they wanted to hear. He didn’t know for sure — he never did — but he thought it started the day he came back to school after missing two weeks in sixth grade. He had to repeat the story over and over again, each time mitigating the other person’s feelings. Because people don’t know how to handle it when you tell them your brother just died. They know that anything they say will be stupid. Not enough. Trite. But saying nothing also seems bad. So they hesitate until you say something that can give them an out. The burden is all on you and you’re the one who experienced the loss.
“What are you going to miss?” Unknowing Boy asked.
Fuck-You Kid thought for a moment, smoke escaping his nostrils in a steady stream. Finally, he said, “QuikTrip.”
Unknowing Boy snorted a laugh. He had meant things like family, friends, or a comfortable bed. Forty-nine-cent fountain drinks and ninety-nine-cent hot dogs worked too, he guessed. There would be gas stations in California but they wouldn’t be the same.
The destination had always been California. Even when Fuck-You Kid had first approached him about leaving and they had no idea how they would do it. Maybe it was just in their blood. Something about being an Okie that called to them from California. Their grandparents had survived the Dust Bowl on farms in small towns like Ada and Pauls Valley. They hadn’t left, couldn’t leave. But the need to leave was so strong it baked into their bones. It hid in their DNA and now their descendants felt it with every breath.
That need, and everything else, brought Unknowing Boy to the bridge with his best friend. They both had heavy backpacks filled with anything and everything they could think of. Unknowing Boy also had rolls of cash saved up from refereeing soccer games, the only job he could get as a fourteen-year-old. The cash was in his guitar case, stashed under the old Alvarez he hoped would earn them enough for food along the way.
Unknowing Boy did his best to match the laid-back confidence of Fuck-You Kid, who leaned against the railing and stared down the tracks where their way out would come. That laid-back confidence wasn’t easy to copy, it had to be earned. Built up over a lifetime like Fuck-You Kid, a latch-key kid with parents who let him skip school, listen to whatever, and watch whatever. He was the kid who always knew a little too much for his age. The one who would tell stories at lunch that Unknowing Boy would laugh at and pretend he understood before going home and looking up the words in the dictionary. For years, Fuck-You Kid has told everyone who would listen that he was going to get out of this town. They all looked at him and saw a kid who knew who he was, a kid who was going to get out. And they believed it.
When they looked at Unknowing Boy, all they saw was the kid whose brother died. He needed to get away from those looks, the pity trapping him in this life. There had to be something more out there for him.
At last, a horn announced the train’s approach, screaming a warning to all late-night drivers: these tracks could be your end. Unknowing Boy looked at the tracks and hoped that was true.
They had watched the train on many nights before. There were always a lot of boxcars, their roofs passing a few feet below them. The train slowed as it traveled through town but its speed was still scary. It would be a tricky jump, really more of a controlled fall.
But it would be worth it.
The engine passed underneath the bridge, boxcars stretching into the night.
“Let’s do this,” Fuck-You Kid said, though his voice shook a little. Unknowing Boy understood. They wanted this so badly.
Unknowing Boy counted down from three. At one, he lurched forward, his pack thumping against his back and his guitar case tangling his legs. He put one foot on the rail and let his momentum carry him forward before his brain could remind him this was a stupid idea. He hit the boxcar and rolled with the impact. It felt strange landing on a moving surface. His equilibrium faltered and his roll almost took him off the edge. He caught himself at the last second. Sitting back on his heels, he barked a laugh. The kind of jittery laugh that escapes your body after near disaster.
“Holy shit! That was insane!”
He turned around to face his friend. Who wasn’t there. Panic. Images flashed through his mind of his friend not catching himself, falling off the side of the train and being pulled under. Then he saw the red glow hovering above the bridge.
The Fuck-You Kid, who everyone knew wanted out of this town, hadn’t jumped.
Unknowing Boy briefly considered going back for him. But if he went back, he’d never be able to make that jump again. He leaned against his backpack, heart hammering in his chest as he tried to catch his breath. He still had no clue who he would be or who he even wanted to be. But he knew who he was right now.
He was the boy who got out.
Robert Flippo has a degree in Professional Writing from the University of Oklahoma and currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he writes stories fueled by green chile and good coffee.
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