A Penny on the Train Tracks
The moment Ed turned and went inside, most likely to find out why his nephew was half naked and crying, I closed the door and began to pace. “I’m such an idiot.” I chastise myself. “What the hell is he going to think I did to his nephew?” I continue to say as I sit down on the bed, realizing Joshie’s sneakers are still on the floor right where he left them before he jumped in the shower last night. Seeing them and realizing that I made him cry, the tears started making paths down my cheeks. I pick up his shoes and hug them to my chest. “I need to talk to Leo.”
I set his sneakers on the end of the bed, wiped my eyes and took the keys to his car out of my pants pocket and placed them in one of his shoes. Before pulling on my pants, I went into the night stand and dug out the keys to the truck, hoping it sat long enough and will actually start. I finished getting dressed but didn’t even bother to straighten up the room or even get washed up before leaving it and locking the door. Outside, I look over toward the office and see no activity. The thought that I should go over there and explain to Ed what happened still being overridden with fear, I turn and walk around behind the building where the truck is parked. ‘Joshie covered it up.’ I think to myself with fresh tears streaming down my cheeks as I pull the cover off and climb in. I put the key in the ignition and before turning it think out loud; “If I ever needed you to start before, I need you now, more than ever.” and I turn the key. It cranks hard once, twice, three times… and with a short burst of blue smoke, fires up. “Oh thank god!” I say as I throw it in gear and as quickly as I can, pull out of the parking lot and head for the school. “Leo, please be there!”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“That’s not a good look.” Leo’s voice breaking the silence startled me as I had been sitting on the steps to the school with my face buried in my hands for what felt like an eternity. “You been sittin’ here long, son?” He continued as he set himself down on the steps next to me.
I spent the next 20 minutes or so explaining to him everything that had happened since I last saw him. He silently sat and said nothing as I continued to explain to him about my dream and about my cousin’s best friend doing for me what I had happily done for him and my cousin countless times before that final day when he was to announce that he was leaving to join the Army. I told him about the years that the three of us played around sexually, about how much I wanted to make them happy because it made me feel good to be the one responsible. I told him how much I thought it was a secret that while they were looking at pictures of naked women, I was focused on them and that Mikey was currently going through it all now. That he would miss them sorely when things get even worse at home soon and they stop going out there for about a year, which will lead him to putting himself in a vulnerable position with an adult who will seem to take their place for a short period of time before deciding to force Mikey into a position where he will have his way with him and hurt him. How Mikey will stop leaving the house for fear that something could happen to his brother and sister if he isn’t there to watch over them and how it will ruin so much of his life in the years to come. How he will become a shell of what he is now, only able to find self worth in the things he is able to do for others which is why that last time with his cousin’s friend when he is about 15 will be so important to him. Why he will be lost for years with no one to ever talk to about how he really feels and why as an adult, when Joshie tries to do the same for him why he wanted to let him do it. Both because he was convinced that Joshie wanted and needed this closeness and performing this one seemingly harmless act would show him how accepted and loved he was and, because for years; no one seemed to want me in their lives like that anymore. It felt good to be wanted and to be treated like I was still just me. Not some older guy, just one of the guys. I told Leo that the only reason I was able to push him away was because I thought about the years of how I blamed myself for leading on the man who hurt me as if I was responsible. I knew that if I let Joshie think that it was okay for him to do that with any adult male that I may as well serve him on a silver platter to a predator who would have no problem hurting him to get what they want. “In a panic, I hurt him Leo.” I cried. “He turned to me looking for understanding and I shoved him away all because I didn’t think of anyone else but me first.”
As I buried my face back in my hands and began to sob, I felt that familiar hand on my back rubbing in circles. It didn’t make the pain go away but, I knew deep down that I wasn’t alone and that worked wonders, as it always used to. “You’ve put quite a bit of thought into this before I got here young man.” He said in a thoughtful manner. “For what it’s worth, I understand now.” He said softly, continuing his rubbing motion. “You can’t beat yourself up for the way you reacted to Joshua.”
“Over reacted.” I corrected him with a sniffle.
“I’m sure that’s how it felt. Considering your point of view, you had no reason to stop him. Yet somehow you got to a place where you realized not just that it was wrong but even why it was wrong.” He stated as if deep in thought. “Don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t reason it out earlier. Do you have any idea how many people never have that realization?” As I wiped away the tears that were now beginning to slow, he shook his head. “That man that hurt you, do you have any idea what his childhood taught him? Your father for that matter, was his father just as mean? Worse? Our history is what slowly builds our ability to reason and our values as an adult. It would have been so easy for you to simply allow that boy, who has learned to trust you in such a short time; to want to make you happy in the only way he knew he was able to do so and in a way he knew you would enjoy. Someday, he may understand why you acted so harshly over something that seemed so innocent and with any luck, he’ll understand why you needed to do so. If he does, then he’s less apt to make the wrong decision if ever faced with the same dilemma.”
“I really didn’t want him to stop Leo.” I sighed. “It felt good to be wanted again. God I’m a monster.”
“No, you aren’t.” He said standing up. “The fact that you wanted it to continue because it made you feel good but, you choose to consider the potential ways he could be hurt if you do, even if you don’t hurt him physically yourself; means that you are anything but a monster. Give yourself a little credit, you are human just like the rest of us.”
“What do I do now?” I asked as I wiped away the last of the tears. “His uncle probably thinks I tried to hurt his adopted son now.”
Leo tapped his chin as he thought. “Is he aware of the boy’s past?”
“Yeah,” I replied, trying to remember the conversation I had with Joshie that first night that he slept over. “I’m sure he is.”
“Then I would talk to him.” He said as he pulled his keyring off his belt and after resting his hand on my head in a comforting gesture, went up the remaining two steps and began to unlock the door.
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” I said as I stood and turned to face him. “I ran first.”
“If he can understand the boy’s background and how it will always be something that he has to live with, what makes you think he won’t understand that you are who you are because of what you’ve been through?” He said in his usual teacher-ish manner, earning a weak smile from me. “Gotta get the lead out if I ever want to go home.” He said as he opened the door. “I’ll be here if you need me.”
“Thanks, Leo.” I smiled as he disappeared into the school. “But I gotta clear my head first.” I continued to say to the now closed door. “I want my bike.” I muttered to myself as I walked down the stairs and remembered watching the younger version of myself turning the corner into this schoolyard on his bike not so long ago. “Gotta go get it out of the basement at the house.” I continued, turning the corner, walking past the truck, toward the house which seemed even closer than I remembered as a kid. As I approached, on the front steps in the shadow of the big tree out front was a small form that I almost missed. “Dale?” I said, realizing instantly that he was hoping that I hadn’t seen him. Looking toward me, the tear stains on his face gave me an idea why. “Oh god, are you okay?” I asked, picking up the pace and looking him over once I got to the steps.
“I’m fine.” He sniffled. “I didn’t think anyone would be here.” He said wiping the tears away quickly.
“No one would be here.” I said as I sat down next to him. “This time of day with the family gone, my grandmother should be at my uncle’s house and everyone in the back house is gone for their vacation.” I rattled off.
“Except your father’s cousin,” Dale said instantly making the hairs on the back of my neck stand. “but he never goes out.”
“No, he doesn’t.” I said, trying to not sound disgusted at the mention of the man who I knew in this time was hoping to get closer to his cousin’s oldest son. “Anyway, why are you here? Is something wrong at home?”
Dale cleared his throat a few times before a tear spilled over and ran down his right cheek. “No.” He replied, wiping the tear away as quickly as he could. “You’re gonna laugh at me.”
“Oh come on,” I said shaking my head. “Did you forget who I am?”
“No.” He said again before taking a deep breath. “Because of who you are, you’ll laugh at me.”
Confused, I sat back and tried to make sense of his statement. “Because of who I am?” I asked. “Dale, I may be your best friend but, I’m an older version of him. If something is bothering you I’m not going to laugh at you. That’s something boys do to make fun of each other or to make light of a bad situation.” I got out, noticing that he wouldn’t look me in the eye. “Please, talk to me.”
“You promise you won’t laugh?”
“I do, I swear.” I said as I watched him continue to wipe away the tears that just kept coming.
“You aren’t my best friend anymore.” He said, finally looking me in the eyes. “You said you haven’t seen me in years.”
“Well yeah, but…” I started before he cut me off.
“I bet I know the real reason why we aren’t friends anymore.” He said, with anger starting to surface in his expression. “You know, don’t you?” My confused expression must have meant more than I could have ever intended because he nodded his head and continued. “Don’t lie to me Mike. I told you and you stopped being friends with me, right?”
“Wait,” I began to say, now becoming a little frightened by his angry expression; “told me what? Nothing you could ever tell me would make me stop being your friend. It was just this mess here with my father and other stuff, we moved and over time we lost touch.”
“I knew you’d lie.” He said, now obviously trying to look angrier than he was upset and beginning to fail. “Every time you go away to your aunt’s house, I come here and sit on this porch and wait.” He said looking out at the street. “I just sit here wishing you were on the steps next to me so I could talk to you.” He continued with a sigh. “I pretend you are here with me and I talk to you and tell you the things I wish I could tell you in person. About the stuff that is going on at home, about the stuff that is going on in your home…” He said turning to look in my eyes. “The stuff Joshie said he did with that kid, the kissing and hugging and stuff. I want that with you… um… you know, with Mikey.” He said not breaking eye contact. “I told you finally didn’t I?”
“No,” I said, stunned. “I had no idea.”
“Really? Like that has nothing to do with why you and I stopped being friends?”
“Well, maybe a little.” I replied honestly, getting a nod from him that clearly said ‘I knew it’. “Dale, I want to tell you something but, to your Mikey what I am going to say would be a complete betrayal… somehow, I think.” I said scratching my head. “It’s not really my place to say this but it is you and me. Regardless of the age difference.” I got out.
“Okay.” He said, looking at me suspiciously.
“I loved you.” I said, shaking my head because it didn’t sound the way I wanted it to. “Well, here and now, of course I love you. You are the best friend I ever had and seeing you here and now, as if no time has ever passed, you are still that guy. The guy who shared everything, including our families. The guy who knows me better than anyone else on the planet. The one person in the whole world who wouldn’t ever turn his back on me.” I said as I felt butterflies build in my stomach. “You deserve the truth and knowing it may actually keep us close in the end.” When I saw the anger start to melt I said ‘to hell with it’ and said “We aren’t friends anymore because I pushed you away. Just like I pushed away everyone else in my life eventually.”
“So I’m right?” He said, stiffening his back.
“I never knew you felt that way.” I began. “I wish I did because then I wouldn’t have been afraid to tell you that I always felt that way about you.” I said, almost having to break eye contact. “You and I met when we were like 7 right?” I asked. When he nodded I continued. “The next year, we spent the entire summer apart because I went out to my aunt’s house, where Mikey is now. I’ve told you about my cousin and his best friend. Well, that summer, I walked in on them looking at dirty magazines that they stole out of my uncle’s room. At first they made me look, too, so I couldn’t tell on them and then as time went on, we started looking at them whenever we could. They used to kiss each other and other stuff and I started doing it with them too.” I looked away and quietly added: “I always wished you and I could do that stuff together.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” He said after thinking it over. “Why would you push me away then?”
“Because I was sure that you would hate me if you ever found out that I… um… well…” I said, feeling really stupid in the moment. “You were the first person I ever had a crush on. When we get older, as close as we are; it will just be too hard to be around you feeling like this but being afraid to tell you the truth. So, I picked a fight with you and pretended to be too mad at you to ever make up.”
“I never told you that I felt the same way?” Dale asked, looking both relieved and hurt at the same time. “Never?”
“It’s stupid, right?” I asked, tears beginning to well up again, annoying me a little. “I was so convinced that I would lose you as a friend if you knew that I decided I would rather you hate me for being a jerk than hate me for how I felt about you and hid it. I mean, how many showers did we share? How many beds? It was hard to tell where you ended and I began sometimes we were so close. When I started thinking about you that way, I had to act like things were the same whenever we got dressed together, jumped in the shower together, used the toilet at the same time. All the stupid, meaningless stuff that I honestly never wanted to end. I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t want more from you anymore and was scared to tell you because then I would be a liar for hiding it for so long.” I said before adding, “Gay and a liar actually.”
“Oh.” He said simply and looked in the other direction. “So right now, he’s with those boys?”
“Yeah,” I replied and rested my elbows on my knees. “There are only a small handful of people he feels he is able to make happy. Those two ’cause they are older and he looks up to them and you, who is closer to him than anyone ever has been. That is how he’s learned to not believe the rotten shit his father has made him believe about himself over the years. He even likes who he is because you guys do. If that makes any sense.”
“He really feels that way?” Dale sniffled, his tears refusing to be contained.
“Yeah,” I sigh. “and since I know how he thinks and feels; if you were to tell him how you feel, it would mean even more to him than you could probably imagine. Maybe even keep him from making the decision to pick that fight. I never found anyone I felt that strongly about ever again.”
“Oh,” Dale said just above a whisper.
“I mean it. You have no reason to fear that conversation,” I say as I stand back up; “I promise.”
“But I’m scared it’ll change things.” He said, now openly crying again.
I knelt down at his feet and took his hands in my own. “It will.” I said, and when he finally looked in my eyes I continued; “If nothing changes then it’s destined to end the exact same way all over again. This may be a chance to fix that mistake, who knows. Maybe even the reason I’m here after all.”
“You think so?” He asked hopefully, trying to dry his eyes again.
“I do.” I reply as he stood and a sad smile began to creep into his expression. “I pretended to tell you hundreds of times in my bedroom. Sometimes I would whisper it to the closed door after you were on the other side of it.” I forced a smile and continued; “I even wrote a letter to you after the last fight we would ever have but, after putting it in the envelope I hid it. It said everything I was afraid to tell you. That I was gay, what went on out at my aunts and a handful of other relatives, the situation with my father’s cousin and how I just knew that what happened with him was all my fault and that I could never tell anyone,” I paused and took a deep breath. “But most of all it said how much I loved you and was too afraid to tell you.”
“I don’t know. I have to think about it.” Dale said before leaning in and squeezing my mid section tightly. “Thanks Mike. I hope you’re right.”
“I know I am.” I replied as I squeezed him back. When he finally broke the hug, I wiped his tears off of his cheeks, knowing my own were threatening to overflow again any minute. “There is no If here, trust me on that.”
“Okay, I’ll think about it. I really will.” He said as I sat back down and let a silence settle over the conversation. “Why are you here anyway?” Dale asked as if he just realized we were both there for no reason.
‘Oh boy.’ I thought before deciding I should trust him as he’s trusted me. “Something messed up happened at the motel with Joshie and in a panic, I ran.”
“What do you mean?” He asked innocently and I gave him a shorter version of what I told Leo as an explanation. He seemed to think it over before nodding his head. “You scared him?”
“I did.” I answered with a sigh. “What he did, he intended as loving and from his point of view, he may have seen it as a way to pay me back for treating him with understanding and as an equal.” I shook my head. “It’s the type of response that I would have had as well in his place and I should have known that. It’s just, by letting him do that kind of stuff, I pretty much told him it was okay.”
“So what? It’s not like you wanted to hurt him or anything.” Dale said with a scowl, reminding me of a time that I turned to my father’s cousin in pretty much the same way. He intended to hurt me and I never knew it until it was too late.
“It’s illegal,” I said. “I never thought of it this way before but, it should be. Doesn’t matter what the intent is.”
“Why? He knew that you wouldn’t hurt him.” Dale stated, sounding a little annoyed. “I mean I know you wouldn’t and I’m younger than he is. What’s the big deal, you didn’t even start it.”
“He doesn’t know that though,” I said thinking about my father’s harmless cousin. “and I can’t be the one to teach him that it’s okay as long as you trust the adult because, any adult that would be cruel enough to hurt him would definitely be cruel enough to earn his trust and then betray it.” I sighed and rubbed my temples, my head still throbbing from the headache that just won’t seem to go away. “I’d be responsible for him getting hurt.”
Dale shook his head and hugged me tight. “He needs to know that then. At least then he’ll know why you did what you did.”
“You’re right., I said giving him one last squeeze. “I just wish my luck wasn’t so bad.”
“Oh wait a minute,” Dale exclaimed as he thrust his hand into his pocket. “I have something that will help.”
“Oh really?” I laughed. “Something in your pocket that’s gonna bring me better luck?”
“Yup,” He said with a grimace as he scooped out the contents of his pocket and began sorting through the wreckage he had found. “Remember that thing you do with the pennies?” He asked as we slowly walked back toward the truck.
“Yeah,” I replied wondering how it was relevant.
As he stuffed one handful back into one pocket and rummaged in the other, he stated; “Well, when I miss you and I’m not on your grandmother’s steps; I go down the tracks sometimes where you flatten the pennies,” He said as a huge smile told me that he had found what he was looking for. “I found this down there.”
He grabbed my hand and dropped a flattened penny into it. “Cool, you found it!” I said, thinking it was the 1980 that I had lost. Taking a closer look, it turns out it was a 1978, which made me smile remembering how many times I chose that year, including the last trip to the tracks. “Actually, you should keep this one.” I said showing him the date.
“Why? You need the luck and you told me these are lucky for you.” He said as I placed it back in his hand.
Pulling out the truck’s keys I watched as Dale looked back and forth between me and the penny in his hand. “It’s the year we met.” I said with a smile, happy that I still held on to this belief as an adult. “I was hoping you had found the 1980 that I lost there. That one would be lucky for me here and now. The one in your hand, that one I would have put on the tracks thinking of you.” The last statement making him close his hand around the defaced piece of copper. “I can’t think of a better place for it than in your pocket.” I said as I climbed in and closed the door.
“Oh wow.” He said. “Do you remember doing it?”
“No actually,” I said with a smirk. “I always thought I had never lost one until much later than now.” I smiled. “Either I was wrong or someone else has been to that spot.”
“Can I go with you?” Dale asked hopefully. “I already locked up my bike in the basement with the rest of them ’cause I was gonna skate. I’ll stay in the truck if you want me to.” Just as I was about to protest, he patted his pocket and smiled. “I want to share the luck cause I want you and Joshie to be okay.”
“Get in,” I said as I started the engine. “But when we get there, I do want you to stay in the truck. Ed may be angry at me and I don’t want you getting mixed up in this, deal?”
“Deal.” He nodded his head and ran around to the passenger side.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Mike, what the hell happened in there?” Ed almost shouted as I stepped into the office. “I’ve never seen him so upset.”
“Well, I…” I began, already at a loss for words. “I think I frightened him.”
“Oh Really?” He questioned, his tone unwavering. “And how did you frighten a twelve-year-old boy bad enough to make him run out in public in nothing but his underwear?”
“I yelled at him,” I said weakly. “He startled me and I overreacted.”
Ed put down the pen he was holding and stood up from the ledger he was writing in. “That boy has been through hell.” He began as he stepped closer, the counter still separating us. “I was clear with you about that, and I trusted you to have his best interest at heart.” He said as he took some money out of his pocket and began to thumb through it. “Evidently that trust was misplaced because now he won’t come out of his room or talk to Marion or me.”
“Ed, I don’t kno…” I got out before he cut me off.
“You hurt that boy which is the one thing on this miserable mud ball that I won’t put up with. Not from you, not from anyone.” He finished as he slapped some money on the counter. “I’m sorry Mike, you’re fired. Take your pay, clear out your belongings and consider yourself lucky I don’t call the police.” He said, earning nothing more than a stunned expression from me as the air seemed to become too thin to breathe. “Goodbye Mike.” He said crossing his arms. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
I looked at him, not able to find any words and then I looked at the money he slapped down on the counter. Leaving it sitting there; I wordlessly turned and left the office. It took ten minutes to pack up everything I owned with Dale silently watching, tears making the task take twice as long as it should have. Throwing the keys to the room on the bed next to Joshie’s sneakers, I followed Dale out the door and closed it, threw the bag of clothes I packed in the bed of the truck and wasting no time, we climbed back in and I fumbled with the keys.
“What now?” Dale asked as I started the engine. “I mean if you want I can go in and ask to talk to Joshie. Maybe he’ll listen to me.”
“No,” I said rubbing my temples, stress teasing my headache into a migraine. “This needs to end now.” Putting the truck in gear, I pulled out of my parking spot and made my way toward the road. “Mikey needs to know what’s going to happen or else it will keep happening.” I said as we pulled out into traffic. “Dale, if you want to go home I’ll drop you there but, I need to tell Mikey about something really bad that’s going to happen. When I do, he’s going to be upset. If you want to come with me to kick his life in a better direction, it’s up to you. One way to help with that would be to tell him what you told me.”
“Today?!?” Dale almost choked. “I don’t know Mike. I mean, what if he gets mad at me?”
“He’s not going to.” I said now running a scenario through my head. “He’s going to be separated from the guys at his aunts soon and because of his father, he won’t see you very often.” I droned on as Dale tried to follow my train of thought. “He needs a reason to not turn away from you, a reason to not hide how he feels. He needs to know that he’ll end up turning to an adult to find what he’s missing from the guys out there. That adult will work to earn his trust and then hurt him. Badly. Physically and emotionally. If that can be prevented, he won’t grow up missing the imagined relationships he will experience with guys who will always end up leaving him behind in the end. He will hopefully learn that he isn’t the freak that he thinks he is and that he’s hiding from the wrong people.” I said as a sharp pain shot through my head, causing me to wince and every breath felt as if I was sucking it through a straw. “Your call, buddy. You already told one version of him how you feel today and it went well. If you’re really up for the real thing, now would be the perfect time to put all the cards on the table.”
“I guess.” He said, looking horrified. “You sure this is going to go okay?”
“For you, yes,” I said honestly. “For me, I’m not sure what it will do to my past if anything it should make it better.”
“I’m in then,” Dale said as I changed lanes to get on the interstate. “Are you up for this? You don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine.” I replied, attempting a deep breath. “I have to be.” I got out as we merged into traffic.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Parking down the street, two houses away from my aunt’s; I grabbed a bottle of aspirins out of the glove box and took four of them. I reached back in and grabbed the sunglasses I had in there and decided to put them on to ease the pain the sunlight was causing thanks to my headache. As I was about to toss the bottle back in, Dale picked up my forgotten cell phone and looked it over, flipping it open in the process. “Walkie Talkie?” He asked, looking completely fascinated.
“Star Trek Communicator.” I laughed as his eyes opened wide at the thought. “It’s useless here but, back home that’s my phone.”
“Cool.” He grinned as he carefully placed it back in the glove box and closed it. “What now?”
“We go talk to Mikey…” I said as I got out of the truck and a wave of dizziness overtook me. “…I hope.” I added as I grabbed the side of the truck and waited for the feeling to pass. ‘What the hell is wrong with me? This is more than just anxiety.’
Dale looked as if he was going to ask if I was alright once again but must have decided it was pointless. Instead he wrapped his arm around me protectively and we both walked toward my aunt’s yard. The moment we were in sight of the house and could hear Mikey’s voice in the yard, my headache got even worse, causing me to stumble and lean on the stockade fence just shy of the driveway entrance. “Wait here, I’ll go tell him.” Dale said to me, as he ran into the yard. The moment he was out of sight, the pain became unbearable and my knees buckled, I ended out sliding down the fence to a sitting position.
“Mike!” I could barely hear Mikey shout as everything began to spin and sound as if it was echoing through a tunnel or a steel barrel. “Mike, talk to me!”
“Tell him…” I was able to say before the pain became more than I could handle. “Tell him Dale, all of it. Please…” I repeated until I could no longer see or breathe and fell to my side, hitting my head in the process.
“Auntie! Help!” Mikey’s voice seemed to echo. “Somebody help, please!” I could hear his panicked cries until the pain seemed to overpower everything around me. The brightness of the sun became a blinding white light and a piercing, high-pitched squeal eventually drowning out everything else.
“Nurse! NURSE!!!” A man’s voice shouted accompanied by a commotion, startling me as the blinding pain began to subside and the brightness began to fade away.
I tried to open my eyes and waited for them to focus, which seemed to take forever. ‘They must have called an ambulance.’ I thought to myself as I looked around the room and realized I was in a hospital. The headache had become a dull throbbing ache and I realized that it must have been something serious as my arms and legs felt weak and shaky when I tried to move them.
“Amazing. Well, I believe we have our answer now.” A man’s voice stated as he approached my side. “Mister Page, can you understand me?” He said as I finally could see that he was a doctor.
“What happened?” I asked. My voice weak and raspy as three other people rushed into the room and began taking my pulse, listening to my heart and flashing a damned light in my eyes. “Are the boys here?”
“Easy, you’ve been unconscious for a considerable amount of time. Why don’t we take it slow.” The doctor said as he wrote something on a clipboard and passed it to another doctor. “What is the last thing you remember?”
‘Last thing I remember?’ I thought. “How long was I out?”
The doctor smiled in the cookie cutter, ‘every thing’s fine’ kind of way that often doctors do when things are not good. “Enough time that we would like to be sure that you are all right.”
“Okay,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “I had a headache and I passed out I think.”
“That’s all you remember?” He asked and I nodded my head. “Interesting.”
“Doctor, how long have I been here?” I asked, causing him to tilt his head like a dog who just heard a strange noise.
“Well,” He said, as the clipboard was handed back to him and he read what was on it quickly. “When you passed out, do you know what the day was? The date too if you can think of it.”
“Um, yeah,” I mentally counted up from reading the paper back at Gilly’s. “Thursday, July third I think.”
The doctor wrote something down and then said, “So, if you were to write the entire date down. What would you write?”
“The date? Like month, day and year?”
“Yes, that would be easiest to insure you are alright.” He replied.
“Okay,” I shrugged my shoulders. “July third, nineteen eighty,” I said as I watched his eyebrows rise and his gaze redirect toward me from the clipboard. “I think,” I added, rubbing my eyes. “My head is still a little fuzzy.”
“Oh no, that’s very good mister Page.” He said as he waved to the other physicians and they began to clear the room leaving one nurse behind. “We will need to run a few tests but, it looks like we may finally see a clearing in the trees.”
“That’s good then, right?” I asked as he began to work his way toward the door.
“It is, definitely.” He replied. “Before I leave, is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yes actually,” I replied wondering where everyone was. “Is Dale alright? Did he make it home or is he here maybe?”
“Dale Newbury?” He questioned with an almost startled expression.
“Yeah, is he here?” I asked concerned that I may have frightened the kid. “He was with me.”
“So you know that he has been here, that’s excellent.” He exclaimed as he wrote something else down and opened the door to leave. “I’ll let him know he can come back in then.”
“Been here almost every day sitting by your bed side.” The nurse that had been working on my IV said with a smile as the doctor left the room. “Broke his heart seeing you lying here like this.”
“Oh man.” I said, attempting to clear my throat to get rid of the persistent hoarseness in my voice. “I hope I didn’t frighten him too badly.”
“You did, a few times. Especially yesterday for sure.” She said as she smiled and turned for the door. “It’ll mean a lot to him that you know he’s been here.” She finished as she stepped out of the room and the door silently closed.
Alone at last, I looked around the nearly empty room for a few minutes. “What hospital is this?” I asked the bare walls, jumping when I heard a man’s voice come from the doorway.
“L.G.H.” He said and stepped into the room. “The doctor said it was okay to come in.” He said as I looked at him, trying to figure out who he was and why he looked so familiar.
“Oh wow,” I said with a laugh as a light bulb went off in my head. “I almost didn’t recognize you without the beard Mr. Newbury. Is Dale with you?”
“What?” He said as he sat down in the armchair next to the bed. “They said you may be a little disorientated but, um…” He stammered a little.
“What?” I asked now getting concerned. “Dale is okay, isn’t he?” I asked as the nurse came back into the room with a cart carrying a water pitcher and cups.
“It’s worse than we talked about.” He stated toward the nurse.
“Can’t be, he asked for you by name hun.” She said as she began to pour water into a cup. “Didn’t you sweetie?”
“What?” I asked as I accepted the cup and took a sip. “We were talking about Dale Newbury,” I said looking back and forth between the two.
“Honey, he’s sitting right there.” The nurse said as she slipped the cup back out of my hand and put it back on the cart. “Would you like me to call the doctor back?”
I looked at the man in the chair. He was a decent build, graying at the temples. His smile lines told me that he had to be around his late thirties or so. Then I looked into his eyes. I could see the same expression I saw a few minutes ago with the little ten-year-old in my truck. The same fear and concern on this man’s face. “No. I don’t think I need the doctor.” I said, remembering that the nurse had asked me a question, never looking away from the man. “Dale? Is that really you?”
A sad smile took over his expression making it easier to see that it was him. It was also easier to see the bags under his eyes. “Yeah, it’s me. Been years since we last spoke. I didn’t think you’d even know who I was.”
“You look old,” I said and then realizing what I said started to laugh. “That sounded horrible, I’m so sorry. I just mean, You were just a kid…” I said, my voice trailing off.
“Don’t worry about it.” He said shuffling his chair closer to the bed so he could rest his elbows on it. “Neither one of us are kids anymore pal.” He grinned as he tickled the whiskers I had on my face now. In moments, his expression became serious again. “Mike, I’m so sorry.”
“Wait, sorry? What for?” I asked, still trying to make sense of this. ‘It’s Dale, he’s an adult…’ I thought as his gaze redirected to the floor. “You have nothing to be sorry about.”
He took a deep breath, held it for a moment and then let it out in a sigh. “It’s my fault.”
“What is?” I asked, trying to sit up a little and failing with a grunt. “I’m confused.”
“That car that hit your truck. It was my…” He began, his voice a little shaky. “It was my boyfriend at the time. We had gotten into an argument and he took my car…” He sniffled. “…took off so fast, I didn’t have a chance to stop him.”
I stopped breathing as I thought a few days back. “…what an asshole.” I mumbled, remembering the first thing I said after the car hit my truck on the way to the school… “Wait a minute.” I said, trying to clear the fog in my head. “What’s the date? I mean, what year is it now?”
“Oh boy,” Dale said with what sounded like fear in his voice. “The doctor said I shouldn’t answer that question yet.”
“Why not?” I asked, looking at my hands and noticing how dry the skin looked. “Dale, could you get me a mirror?”
“What for?” He asked, nodding his head in reluctance when I answered with nothing more than a blank expression. One that I meant to relay the message; “Why do you think?” Rummaging through the stand next to the bed, he pulled out a shaving kit that had a small mirror in it. “Before I give this to you, you need to know that some time has passed.” He said handing me the mirror. “The doctor is gonna kill me.”
“Oh my god!” I absently said as I looked at the face that was staring back at me. “How fucking long have I been here?” I continued as I ran my fingers through a beard that I have never grown before, almost completely gray up the sides of my face. “Dale, tell me. Please.”
“Twelve years.” He said, not breaking eye contact with me. “You were admitted June 29th, 2004 after the accident and it’s now February 5th, 2016.”
My head spun as I tried to comprehend the date. ‘2016?’ I thought over and over as I looked at the face in the mirror again. A 45-year-old man now staring back at me. A little while ago that same man was just about to turn 34. “Oh my god,” I said as I dropped the mirror on the bed. “How…”
“That didn’t take long.” The doctor said as he stepped into the room.
“I’m sorry Doc, he asked for a mirror.” Dale tried to explain as the doctor came the rest of the way in and stopped at the foot of the bed.
“It’s okay, he’s still awake so he’s handling the shock better than I would expect.” He said, redirecting his attention to me. “You should probably know that you took a turn for the worse a few days ago, your family was urged to take you off life support and we expected you to not recover.” He shook his head. “I have a few really interesting calls to make now you know…”
As the doctor continued to speak, I looked at the mirror laying on the bed, noticing something red under one of the folds of the blanket. I reached over and picked it up and looked at it in awe, the doctors voice a low droning in the distance now as I picked up the matted red rabbit’s foot, instantly remembering the feeling of something furry in my hand in my dreams. “This was Justin’s.” I said as my head began to feel like it was swimming. “The voices, someone holding my hand, Ma trying to wake me up, the noises and the silence.” I mumbled. “Those weren’t dreams.” I realized as I looked at Dale. “Everything else was.” I continued, now both sets of eyes on me. “Everything started to go wrong after the last one.”
“What’s he talking about?” Dale asked the doctor as they both continued to listen intently as I tried to make some sense out of all this.
“The headache, being dizzy, having a hard time breathing. That must be when you guys pulled the plug on me.” I managed to get out as I looked up at them realizing this couldn’t be making any sense. “Can someone call my mother? I really need to talk to her.”
The doctor watched as Dale took my hand and squeezed it, and simply shook his head. Looking back and forth between the two, I knew something I was wrong.
“What?” I asked. “She’s been here to see me. I remember hearing her voice in my dreams.”
“Mike,” Dale stated as the doctor stepped away from the bed. “Ma passed away five years ago.” He said, turning my hand over, exposing the rabbit’s foot. “After a couple of years, everyone started coming less and less,” He said. “For a while it was just me, Ma and your nephew Justin. After Ma passed, your stuff got packed and,” he continued, pulling an old envelope out of the bedside table “this was found. It caused a lot of arguing and because so many people were upset with you for hiding all this, they stopped visiting.”
In his hand was the note that I wrote to him so many years ago. My deepest, darkest secrets at the time suddenly exposed to my whole family and all of my friends, and in a way that I couldn’t even explain myself or at least hear what they had to say about it. Ironically, I had all but forgotten about the letter until I revealed its existence to a much younger version of Dale in, what would it be considered? A hallucination? A dream? None of it real. My tears made it impossible for me to see as I thought about how only a few days ago I believed I had a chance to make a change. How I thought I could make my future better. In the end, I found the most effective way to destroy it instead with no way to turn back. Overwhelmed, I let the tears flow. I threw Justin’s rabbit’s foot across the room and I buried my face in my pillow and sobbed. I thought I heard them leave as I began to calm down and was startled to see Dale sitting in the chair, reading that note.
“How many times have you read that?” I asked gaining his attention.
“Since it was found, maybe a dozen times.” He said folding it back up and slipping it back into the worn out envelope it spent its existence in. “Do you want it back?”
“Why did you stick around?” I asked now realizing the conversation I had with him as a child on the steps was nothing more than some form of wishful thinking on my part. “After you found out what I am, why didn’t you leave?”
“I thought I knew the real reason why we stopped being friends years ago.” He said, with a sigh. “I thought you knew how I really felt about you.” He stated, almost echoing my imagined conversation with him earlier. “I always thought you figured it out somehow and hated me for it.”
“Before you say anything and this goes unsaid forever,” I said with a sniffle remembering my words from that conversation; “I loved you when we were kids. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you at my side and even if you hate me for hiding that from you and moving away, I never felt any different. I’m so sorry I wasn’t honest with you.”
“You have a lot on your plate right now.” The doctor stated as he had to have realized the conversation wasn’t getting out of hand and was extremely personal. “If either of you need me or there are any problems, hit the buzzer.” He said before he quickly slipped out of the room.
“Would you believe you did tell me how you felt when you were ten.” I said, my tears still flowing. “In this dream I’ve been living…”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
It’s been over a year now since I realized that I had lost 12 years of my life and most of my family at the same time. My sister Angie opened the door to speak with me and we are even enjoying each other’s company again. She even opened the door for Matt and I to start speaking again, albeit at long distance as he had moved away years earlier. It took me a full year to get back in decent shape, physically and mentally. I know that it will still be a long time before the hurt of so many losses fades, unless somehow as it did with Angie and Matt, others allow me the opportunity to explain why I hid the things I hid. I always felt that secret would destroy everything and everyone in its path and now, I’m convinced the damage would have had much less impact had I simply said something in the very beginning. Unfortunately, I am still convinced that I don’t have the right to reinsert myself in anyone’s life and can’t force it on anyone. I can just hope that they seek out closure in some form someday on their own. Luckily, there were a few who were simply happy that I finally came to terms with my demons. They became the source of strength I needed to start feeling like I was salvageable after all. I do still have weird dreams but, they often involve a group of kids in an old Mercury Zephyr who claim to miss me. Is it weird that I still regret my last encounter with an imagined boy named Joshie? Maybe. Although I did learn a few things later on that would make me wonder. Joshua Martin Stewart as it turns out was killed in a car accident in 1978. At first I thought nothing more of it until I learned that he and his parents were lost in that accident when an 18 wheeler side swiped their car near the school the boy went to. Evidently he was killed in the very same car accident he described to me that night outside of my room. I was able to locate the obituary online which listed “Edward and Marion Stewart” as surviving relatives. Then, they were listed as the owners of a local unnamed motel. I like to believe that it was somehow the real Joshie who chose to me to help by pushing me to see more clearly. I was able to locate his final resting place a while back and every time I go, I bring a cup of coffee for us both. Tommy Russo, I was also able to search for and learned that he was still very much alive but, doing a life sentence in state prison for taking his own father’s life. The story wasn’t full of details but, it was clear to me that it must have been a situation where he finally got pushed too far one too many times as his mother was seriously injured in the confrontation that had been printed. I’d contact him but, he most likely isn’t the same person I started to like in my imagined past.
“Bout time you woke up.” Dale says as he sat down on the bed, placing a cup of coffee on the nightstand for me. “Is it weird that I’m a little excited for today? It is, isn’t it?” He said with a bounce in his voice as he sat down and began to get dressed. “I think this is gonna be fun.” He said pulling on his pants. God he still hasn’t changed when he’s excited.
“Gotta test out the new bike.” I smiled as I took a sip of coffee. “It is perfect.” I grinned. A brand new red Schwinn Ranger Mountain bike that I found online and Dale talked me into getting for myself.
“Well,” He said leaning over and giving me a quick kiss. “If you don’t get your ass out of bed, I’m gonna test it out myself.”
“Remind me again what it is I see in you?” I said with a laugh as I threw the covers back and got up.
“That would be perfection I believe.” He boasted as he sucked in his gut and flexed.
“God, you’re still a dork.” I groaned as I just shook my head.
“Yup.” He laughed as he let out the breath he was holding. “But I’m your dork. Now get in the damned shower, I wanna go exploring.”
“Yes sir.” I laughed as he handed me a change of clothes and leaned in for a kiss. “I’ll be out in a few minutes and we can get going,” I said on my way out the door, smiling as he sat down and started to drink my coffee. Pausing, I turned back and added “unless the cap pops off the bottle and I have to clean up a soapy mess again.”
“OH MY GOD! How many years ago was that?” He shouted as I rushed out of the room, laughing. “How many times do I have to tell you that it wasn’t my fault?!?” I love how that still gets a rise out of him.
On our bikes an hour later, we set out to visit a few childhood spots. I had described my plans for that fateful day to him after we moved in together at the house his parents used to own. He decided that now that I was doing better and since we are still in the neighborhood that it would be fun to try that walk down memory lane again, this time with him present so I, as he put it; “don’t get lost in the past again”. We passed the old school that had this beautiful brand-new addition added on to it. Stopping for a few, we sat on the steps and joked about the games we played there and the trouble we got into. I even pointed out the spot where I first saw the younger version of myself. Off like a shot, we retraced the path I last took on a bike with that same younger me following. We were both disappointed to see that the fort was long gone. No trace that it had ever been, remained. We both reminisced about fixing it up and even wondered what ever happened to Freddy Chandler as he had moved away soon after I did. We spent the better part of the day exploring our old stomping grounds. Even grabbed a quick lunch at the newly renovated “Al’s Diner” which had recently reopened after the previous owner passed away a few years back. The food was still awesome though. Our last stop was my hiding spot at the old train yard that, I learned; Dale actually knew about in real life.
We dropped our bikes in the grass near the bridge and Dale walked over and set a penny on the tracks. “2016.” He said as he walked back and sat up against the bridge support that was always my favorite. “I’ve been holding that one for a while now just for this. It’s the year you came back to me.” He smiled, making me fall in love with him all over again for the millionth time.
I sorted through my pocket and picked out one of the same date and as I set the penny next to his, something in the gravel caught my eye. I picked up the object and wiped it off, another forgotten flattened penny. I held it up to show Dale who simply smiled in return. Looking it over, I wiped off the dirt and was able to make out the distorted shapes that used to be the penny’s design. When I wiped off the date, I simply smiled and my breath caught in my chest. Barely visible, you could still make out a date. One that I will never forget…
* * * * * * * * * * * *
~ The End ~
So here it is, 13 years after I wrote the opening: “Today was a pretty common day for me.” which couldn’t have been any more inaccurate as it turned out to be a not so common day for anyone. Originally, I began writing this story for all the wrong reasons in my opinion. I was lonely, depressed and reading the works of a few really awesome authors who I had come to idolize. They told stories of childhood trauma and of coming of age struggles but, on the way, they were able to find the silver lining on their journey as well as achieving that happy ending we all hope for. I didn’t think I would find my own happy ending in real life and decided, maybe I can get back some of what I felt I had lost by writing it into a story. “A Penny on the Train Tracks” (APTT as it has commonly become known as) was written as planned up until it stalled for a second time after chapter 7 had been completed, At that point, it was still aiming at the happy ending I wanted for me and not much more. The original draft of chapter 8 started with a similar scene in the diner with Mikey’s drunk father being his usual self but, it was to lead the group on a sci-fi fueled joyride through the shadows of my past. My grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and crushes, horseback riding, skateboarding, arcade games and a rollerskating rink. Thinking of it today, it would have gotten old fast and interested no one but me. I ran into a wall early and put it on the back burner as I tried to figure out where my writer’s block was coming from and hopefully get the story back on its tracks.
APTT needed to stall to save itself I learned. The direction I was taking it in would have absolutely destroyed the work as a whole and made it impossible to finish. Sure, I miss the people that were in my life back then and yes, it is really cool to see these personalities alive in some form again but, that holds a special meaning for me alone. What I needed was to get back to the original idea, I needed to push the side stories out of the way and get it back to our main four. Mike, Mikey, Dale, and Joshie. These four were the main story. They were the ones I chose who would tell this story and bring the realization that Mike is very much a product of his past experiences. Once the situation forced him to rethink the ideals he had learned as a child, he was able to make the right decision for Joshie, not the easy one from his point of view which of course was hard (for me as well) to watch unfold. As the years that passed in real life taught me, I had a very distorted view of what was right and wrong based solely on what “hurt” vs. what “felt good”. Mike realized why something that had no bad intent could have had a bad outcome for Joshie and should have a bad repercussion for himself if he had decided to allow it to continue. The reader knows that he would never intentionally hurt anyone, much less Joshua but, teach him that it’s safe to trust an adult in this manner and you may as well make him wear a shirt that says “easy target”. Mike needed to learn that lesson the hard way and so did I in real life. Now that I have; so hopefully, would anyone who reads this story. It did kill me to have to write such an unhappy ending for him though. Fictional or not, it was hard to write and even harder to keep myself from backing up and rewriting it in a way that made everything okay for them all. Sorry, Joshie…
Another change to the outline was the realization that Dale felt the same toward Mikey as Mikey did about him in the end. In real life, I had always imagined never pushing away my “Dale”. Imagine a future with my closest best friend as my partner in life. The thought makes me both smile and hurts at the same time. So many times that I pretended I had the courage to tell him how I felt. So many days would leave me wondering what life would look like with him staying for the long haul. The realization that I lost my best years worrying about how things could go badly with him or anyone else for that matter, that I never realized that I was getting attached to the wrong people simply because they were safe and I was guaranteed that it would never last very long. I’d like to say I’m smarter than that today but, It’s safer to say that I understand my faults and fears better now.
The end of APTT was also planned to be different. In Mike’s imagined 1980, there was to have been no difference in time in the real world. I think the time that it took for me to get my head right, the story became more of an example of who Mike was vs. who he becomes. In a relatively short period of time (from his point of view) he learnt a life lesson that in reality took me years to completely understand. Bringing him back to his life as it was felt to me like even more of the same as I was no longer connected to the people I wanted Mike to come home to, which felt wrong. So, I focused on the real amount of time it took for the story to finally take shape. So, bringing him back in his mid-forties put him in line with the person I modeled him on, myself. “The Letter” was my vehicle to draw the picture of rejection and isolation that had no other way to happen with Mike in a coma. This allowed me to explain why there was no one around. My mother passed away during this time period as well as Mike’s, to further mirror the real-life situation. What I did do however was bring Dale back into the picture as an adult. This was a little something that in the end, would hopefully give us all a smile.
So, I worked hard to make APTT have a real message. I wanted to give it a deeper purpose and the moment I typed “1980”, I simply stared at the screen, trying to figure out what else needed to be said, and nothing else came. Mike learned a real-life lesson, he lost a huge chunk of his life to do it and in the end, the impossible dream of spending his life with someone he trusts and loves becomes a reality without having to pretend to be someone he is not. So even though our main character had to weather some really rough times, in the end, I think the story has actually become something that gave us the happy ending I had hoped for, even if it was a bittersweet one.
With all that said, I do want to mention that after the long wait for this story to begin on its new path, there are a few people who jumped right back in to help make APTT possible once again. To start, this story’s editor has always been “The Story Lover” (http://storylover.us) and without even missing a step, he tackled chapters 8 and 9 as if we had just finished chapter 7 months earlier as opposed to the years it took in reality. Knowing how I get when I am slamming out my raw thoughts on this poor keyboard, he took the raw material and made it readable. Mistakes and punctuation that are a common plague in my rough drafts somehow don’t phase him. I’m so glad that I asked him for his help years ago and I’m sure that this story wouldn’t be what it is today without his final touches. I also want to mention my one-man target group. A friend that has become a real fan of APTT was another person who made this finale as meaningful as it could be. “Darryl The Radio Rancher” (http://storylover.us/?t=CWYSqpOroB8jYSGX) was willing to screen my proposed ending as a fan of the work to ensure that any of the “bad news” that would be inserted wouldn’t ruin the overall message and established the theme of the story. As time had passed for me, I needed to find my style of writing again and he helped me to recapture the spirit APTT was born of, without allowing the original intent to bury the deeper meaning I wanted it to have. Thanks to him, I am even more confident that I accomplished what I had hoped for. I also want to mention “ACFan” (http://cornercafe.us) and “Akeentia” (http://paddedroom.us) both for supporting me as a returning author and brother at a time when I had little hope of coming back from the edge of my own unhappy ending in real life. Without them, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to continue on with the work that I started so many years ago and even if I did, I would definitely have no place to put it for you all to read it. They are all treasured members of my extended family and I thank God every day to have them in my life.
Thank you all for bearing with me as I stumbled around trying to find the right path for this tale. In the end, I feel it was worth the work put into it and I hope you do as well.
As George Harrison once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” and thanks to this story, I couldn’t agree more.
Here’s to the next road, wherever that may be.
– Jeff P. –