%@ Language=VBScript %>
The Long Walk Home
By Carter O’Brien
As I walked home from school after soccer practice, I soaked in the sounds that the city’s streets provide right before rush hour. I hadn’t been on those streets all summer, so for a few weeks after school started the experience was all brand new again. I wasn’t fascinated by the visual aspects of summer changing into fall, the trees changing color, the days getting darker faster. I didn’t think twice about that anymore, but the sounds of the city were still a mad rush to my senses and both confused and delighted me with their complexities–-the crunching of leaves scattered about on the sidewalks, far-off sounds of cars accelerating and also screeching to a stop, the unusual buzz generated by the outdated and often flickering streetlights, and over everything, the rumbling of the Ravenswood ‘L’ a half-block away, running parallel with the street.
I remembered the first time my mother had let me walk home from school. She had fussed endlessly the night before–-constantly reminding me to never accept a ride from a stranger, insisting I stick to well-lit streets and call her the minute I walked in the door. The world had never seemed so overwhelming. Every tree, every building, every grown-up looked so important, like permanent fixtures in a world I was just floating through. It was the train that really captured my fancy, though. I had deviated from my pre-approved route down Sheffield Avenue and had instead walked under the train tracks, in awe of the mighty machinery that operated above me where light filtered through the rails. It was unbelievably loud and it immediately commanded attention, which I was most happy to provide. I wanted to ride the train so badly I could barely stand it.
That was when I was in 5th grade. Now a 7th grader, I felt much older and more confident of myself in the city, but the train never lost its hallowed spot in my memory. The first time I snuck on the train by squeezing my tiny frame around the turnstile I knew that a door had opened for me–-I was now able to go anywhere, to do anything I wanted.
Of course, I really didn’t know of anywhere to go except for the area around my school and the way home, but that wasn’t important. The freedom was what mattered. The a solid punch in the arm reminded me I wasn’t alone.
“Carter, wake up! I’ve asked you ten thousand times how much money you’ve got.”
It was my best buddy Bobby, warming up for another punch as I snapped back to my immediate reality. I managed to block it as I whirled a kick into his midsection.
“Jerk,” I said, “I told you already, I have a bus token and that’s it.”
He studied my face intently as I prepared for another strike. The only problem with having a friend who was really into karate was the fact that at any time you might get smacked upside the head, or find yourself looking into the heel of a shoe a split second before a rush of pain. We both loved it of course; along with just about every other boy we knew, our utter fascination with violence and death was incredible. The art of war seemed to be the link to manhood, the force that shaped the world.
“Well, with your token I’ve got enough change for you to get a transfer, so after you pay and get the transfer I’ll wait by the exit for you to give it to me.”
This was fine by me. After all, the real beauty of being young was that most adults were completely oblivious to you. We spent the rest of the walk to the train station at Fullerton beating each other up, not seriously, but enough to get hot looks of disapproval from the adults we passed.
“Hey, Carter, guess what I’m going to do this weekend?”
“How would I know? What?”
“My brother just turned 17 and he’s going to take me to the Asian World of Martial Arts on Clark Street. I’m going to use some birthday money to get a three-piece take-down blowgun and some Chinese stars and stuff.”
“Wow. That is so cool.” I was beside myself with admiration and jealousy. “What are you going to shoot first?”
“I don’t know, but the ad said that the darts would go through 2 inches of solid wood, and you’ve seen kung-fu movies, man–-you can do anything with Chinese stars.”
My opportunistic mind raced furiously.
“Hey, would you get me something too?”
“Sure man, just get me the money by Friday.”
This was a major development. I needed money, and I needed it fast. I could usually find at least a dollar in change around the house and I could raid my piggy bank, but before I could hatch a really clever money-making scheme we were at the train station.
“All right Bobby, I’ll get you a transfer, just don’t get me busted, all right?”
“Ahh, stop being a sissy and just do it.”
So I did. I went through the line, paid my fare and then slipped the transfer to Bobby through the grated wall. Almost immediately I was greeted with yet another playful punch from behind.
“Man, that was easy,” Bobby said, “You know, we could probably be awesome professional thieves. Look how simple that was. How hard could it be to pick someone’s pocket or break into a house?”
I didn’t really need to answer, because we both knew deep down that the chance of either of us having the cajones to do anything like that was pretty slim. Still, it was fun to imagine. A life of crime did seem pretty cool. As we ran up the stairs to the platform I started daydreaming again about how cool I was going to be in the neighborhood when I pulled out my Chinese stars. That was the kind of thing me and my friends dreamed about, this was my ticket to the big time, yes sir. I looked up at Bobby and he just kept bouncing up the stairs. It seemed he never stopped moving; he always seemed to know what he was doing, and it was always something cooler than anything I was thinking of myself.
We finally got up to the platform, completely short of breath. As always, Bobby was two steps ahead. Although I hated the fact that he was faster than I was, that always gave me something to try to beat, but now I just needed a breath. While I panted like a dog, Bobby leaned way out over the tracks to see if a train was coming. There were only a few people on the platform because most people at this time of day were already on the train coming home from the Loop. Bobby walked back over to where I was still catching my breath and pointed out a man on the other side of the platform.
“Carter, look at that guy. He looks really nervous or something. I bet he just robbed a store or something and can’t wait to get on that train and get out of here.”
I looked at the guy; he did seem really nervous. He was pacing in circles around one of the benches and kept looking down at the tracks. I didn’t think he had actually robbed a store or anything, but he did look like was in a hurry to get somewhere. Before I could pay too much attention to him, I was distracted by the rumble of an approaching train. The train was going south and we were waiting for a northbound one, and as the platform started to shake all the people on our side looked with hostile bitterness at the people on the other side.
“Man, how come it’s always the wrong train that comes first?” I moaned, but Bobby wasn’t paying any attention to me, he was totally focused on the nervous guy waiting on the other platform. I started to say something else, but it never even came out. For some reason I can’t explain, I also became mesmerized by the nervous guy and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. There was a glaring, tangible intensity surrounding him that I had never experienced before, and both Bobby and I stared in silence. Then, in the blink of an eye, he jumped, right at the last possible second, right in front of the train.
Time stopped. The other people on the platform all seemed to stop talking at once. Even the roar of the train stopping and the accompanying screeching brakes, which normally drowned out everything, seemed to fade away and disappear. All I remember is hearing a short cry, followed by a loud thump. Although I was looking right at him, all I can remember are the sounds. Then there was chaos. The passengers, probably wondering what the sound was, all pushed to get off the train and clustered excitedly around where I guessed most of the body was. I was completely in shock, and I turned to Bobby, but he was as at a loss for words as I was.
That was the last spoken word between us until the next day, at school. I don’t even know which of us said it, and it didn’t really matter because it was what we were both thinking.
Neither of us took the train home that day. We went our separate ways at the station; I decided to walk home and Bobby stayed under the station to wait for a bus. As I walked home, the sounds of the street once again loomed large, but this time I was overwhelmed by them. It was darker now, and the cars sounded horrifying as they drove by. I held my breath with each passing one, with the echo of the body slamming into the screeching train slowly fading away.
I went out of my way to avoid walking next to the train tracks, walking a few extra blocks instead. I felt better as I heard the sound of the train fade in the distance. By the time I went to sleep that night the whole event seemed like it had happened years ago. As I waited to fall asleep, I wondered what had made that guy do it. Why had he decided to jump in front of a train that day, that time, and at that station? Although I was unsettled and scared by the whole incident, I eventually drifted off to sleep.
The next day, before school, I saw Bobby in the playground. As I walked over to him, I looked carefully at his face, searching for a telltale sign that the experience had been real, and that I wasn’t the only one who had been massively disturbed by it. The look on his face seemed to say, “Yeah, there’s something we need to talk about.”
He walked up to me and before I could say a word delivered a swift punch to my shoulder and said, “So, how many of those Chinese stars do you want? I need the money by tomorrow.”
Copyright©2001 by Carter O'Brien.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.