I heard the train coming from several miles away. The local residents had long ago rallied for a bill that stopped the conductors from sounding their horn any time after midnight. So instead of that high whistle that called during the day, I heard only the roaring of the ground beneath me. I felt only the dull quakes of the train’s massive force rushing down the steel tracks.
Yes. It was definitely coming. And yet I was no nearer a decision than when I first set out from our apartment.
The snow was coming down harder, reflecting the orange of the city lights. Even with the moon hidden above the clouds and the stars nowhere to be found, it was a bright night because of the snowy, orange haze.
I could see the forest line receding like a hairline from the clearing on the opposite side of the tracks. Flagstaff is weird like that. On one side of the tracks, you have a small congregation of city streets and housing developments, and on the other side, the wilderness is allowed to regroup, as if preparing to retake what once belonged to it.
“Have you made a decision?” the voice hissed from the the wild side of the tracks. “It is coming, you know.”
The heat of the coming train was burning the steel of the tracks from miles away, melting the snow around it, clearing a path for itself.
“You don’t have to,” Alaya whimpered. I felt the dark eyes of the stranger across the tracks look down at her. I could feel the hunger in his stare. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Shut up, Alaya,” I said, not taking my eyes from the stranger.
I knew she would not try to run. Apart from her hands being bound together, she was barefoot: had been the entire walk down the tracks from the west side of town. Her feet were probably starting to wilt already. If her little toes weren’t black by now, they were surely purple.
About an hour ago, after we had walked four miles in between the steel tracks, winding up the city sprawl, she said her feet didn’t hurt anymore. She said she could not even feel them anymore. She said it was like someone had sewn little wooden stumps below her calves. They didn’t give her any trouble at all in the cold.
She was always easy going like that, even when we were kids. She was being led to her death down a stretch of snowy railroad ties and still she found the silver lining in her own frostbitten feet. For a moment, I thought I almost felt a wet kind of warmth in the corner of my eye. But with the next gust of wind it was gone, returned to that same icy numbness.
“MAKE A FUCKING DECISION!” the stranger roared.
Suddenly I snapped back into the situation. The train was coming closer with every passing moment. The roar of its engine was tearing through the night, converging with the aggression in the stranger’s voice. Still, I could not decide. It was a decision no one should ever have to make; just like the one the stranger forced me to contemplate one week ago when I thought the end had come.
“It is because of your own conceit you have to decide this now,” he growled, as if reading my mind.
“I don’t think you’re conceited, Jeb,” Alaya whispered. “I think you’re just confused.”
“How stupid can one 12-year-old girl be?” the stranger said, derision thick in his voice. “You are still trying to protect him? Just what do you think you are doing here?”
“Don’t speak to her,” I said. “I haven’t agreed to anything yet.”
“You have agreed to plenty, friend,” hissed the stranger. “You are still breathing are you not? In this same spot where you tried to kill yourself last week and chickened out like the spineless little creature that you really are.”
“You are the one who tempted me back into consciousness,” I snapped. “You didn’t have to give me a choice. I wanted to die.”
“Oh did you?” he mocked. For a moment, his dark eyes flashed orange amidst a small gust of snowfall. The tracks were rioting now beneath our feet. “If you wanted to die, then why are you still here? Decide. Now.”
The highbeams of the train were crashing through the snow now. The conductor must have spotted us because he laid into the horn, despite the law that was passed for the residents. And the sound of the horn was not broken; it was one long wail, flooding the absorbent silence that always comes with snowfall.
As the beams touched the foot of the stranger across the tracks, he receded a little. Even as he stepped away, I could see the bright yellow of the headlamp illuminating the scars that ran like patches of ivy up his fingers. They were like pink veins writhing up his forearm and disappearing beneath the fabric of his shirt.
“DECIDE, YOU FOOL!” he screamed, barely piercing the approaching fury of the train.
Alaya’s little fingers wrapped tightly around my calf. She was hugging against me, waiting for the answer she already knew was coming, even before tonight.
I think she knew as soon as she saw me walk back inside the door that night, one week ago. Her eyes were red and she was holding my suicide note. She looked at me as if I was a ghost and cried even harder. I think at that moment, she must have had an idea of what was to come.
It seemed as if I was the only one here uncertain about what was to happen. A life for a life, that was the deal; the same deal that the Children of the Forest had been granting white men since they first came here. Thinking back, it must be a kind of game to them. But right then, it was life or death.
With a pang of guilt as sharp as glass rising up in my ribs, I chose life.
I felt Alaya’s little hands slip from my calf and I jumped backwards, away from the crashing roar of the train. But she could not move. Her legs were too far gone now from the encroaching frostbite. Besides that, I think she knew what was supposed to happen here. I do not know how, but I think she knew.
There was a quick, sickening crunch, and the engine’s roar rushing past me. The brakes locked up and the screeching of steel on steel told me that it was time for me to go. Even as my weak legs pushed me forward, I heard the stranger’s whispering voice, as if he were striding right next to me:
“Selfish, weak humans,” and he laughed. “The one redeeming quality is your love for one another. And what have you now?”
Then, the voice was gone. I suddenly found myself in a dark alleyway, a mile or so away from the tracks when the full weight of what had happened hit me in the gut. I threw up what little I was able to hold down. There were streaks of blood and tar-black stuff that came up. The stranger said that would go away soon, once the deal was completely settled. But I still couldn’t stand to look at it for long, melting down into the fresh snow on the ground.
Even after throwing up, the sickness did not leave me. All I could do was raise myself on my weak knees and keep trudging forward.
I contemplated suicide, again, but the irony was so thick I felt like throwing up again. All that would accomplish was having wasted Alaya’s young life for nothing. But I don’t know how I’m supposed to live with the guilt. I wish I was stronger. I wish a lot of things, the least of which have to do with a long life. Yet, I have to live this life now. I have cursed myself with the necessity of my own being.
So all I can do is raise my tired feet and keep walking forward a little more. All I can do now is take one step at a time. One day at a time.