One step. That’s all It would take.
He draws a breath as he shuffles forward, lining the toes of his shoes up with the edge of the dirty yellow tile where it meets the thin strip of concrete, precisely. He’d come to like precision. Everything in its place, in order, in line, and the world will rotate a little more efficiently on its 23.5° axis. He forces himself to stare at his feet, aligning them just so, avoiding looking in that direction. It is coming. The sound hits him first: the whistling, rushing noise of mechanical power barreling forward. The light is second: he allows himself to look towards It and squints, etching deeper the mass of wrinkles around his eyes. Now that he has finally seen It, acknowledged Its presence, he cannot look away. His hand creaks up to hold steady the worn hat threatening to flap off in the created wind, but that is unnecessary, an involuntary reaction, so he releases the hat, feels it whisked away into the black nothingness, all while gazing steadily at It.
Just one small action. Sound, light, wind; he knows what comes next. As he lowers his palms, tremoring, his attention is momentarily distracted by the jagged white scar stretching in the folds from knuckle to wrist. He clutches the hand to his chest, inhaling sharply.
The boy exhaled with a triumphant whoop as he – clambering on all fours – reached the top of the gravel slope. Not only was it summertime, which meant no school, half-melted grape popsicles, and exploring; it was summertime and he had just reached the top of Pike’s Crossing. He had basically achieved manhood. He stood, letting out another whoop for good measure, then hopped from foot to foot as he waited for his companion to catch up. Looking over the edge and realizing that his friend was still a ways down, he settled for sucking at the gash he’d gleaned from the barbwire fence they’d shimmied under a couple miles ago. It had hurt, of course. He’d had to allow a few seconds after the barb tore down the back of his hand to acknowledge the pain, staring at the flaps of skin splayed open, blood coursing over his wrist. His friend had urged him forward, but then the boy had forgotten his wound and surged ahead of him when they’d reached the slope, knowing they were almost there. The cut was deep; the blood had just begun to congeal when he started crawling up the gravel, cracking the gash open again. Now he removed the injured hand from his mouth, analyzed the way the red-brown edges etched a zigzagging pattern like the grooves he’d carved into a stick with the pocketknife his father had given him. It’d make a nice battle scar to prove his story.
He took stock of his surroundings: the slope flattened out on top to form a plateau, the gravel giving way to a smattering of pine trees, but not before being bisected by railroad tracks that he knew, from hearing snippets of some of the older boys’ conversations, to be abandoned. Turning to check on his buddy, he realized from the increasing volume of his huffs that his friend had finally neared the top, and he rushed to the edge of the slope and offered his uninjured hand, pulling him to his feet. The two engaged, as boys do, with much hollering and backslapping in mutual celebration of their feat. That out of the way, they began to conspire, breathless, about the best way to go about their game. Discussion soon dissolved into a round of playful pushing and shoving, which then transitioned into a reenactment of their newest favorite movie.
The boy avoided the railroad tracks as best he could. He may be a man now, and the tracks may be abandoned, but he was still leery of them. His friend, though, made a game of jumping from one rail to the other as the boy ran along beside him. Breath puffing, he watched from the corner of his eye as his friend landed on his toes, arms outstretched, laughing as he wobbled precariously. When the bite of the wind entering his wound proved too much, he stopped under the pretense of catching his breath as his buddy continued to leap ahead. He prodded at the cut, and it burned, sizzled almost. Shading his eyes with his good hand, he tried to appear nonchalant, watched his friend turn and run back along the ties. But his friend’s forward motion abruptly stopped, like he’d hit an invisible wall. He gave a half-strangled cry as he fell onto the tracks, and the boy sprinted toward him, ignoring the pain radiating from his hand. He saw the problem immediately, his buddy’s foot was wedged, twisted at a gruesome angle, under one of the wooden ties. Face screwed up in a blotchy effort to hide the pain, his friend tried to pull the foot free, the boy assisting as much as he could. It was no use. After a few minutes of panting and tugging, the boy proposed using a stick from the woods to try to push the foot free, and his friend miserably agreed. As the boy reached the first line of trees, a shrill whistle pierced his ears. His face morphed from confusion to recognition to horror in a matter of seconds.
Spinning around, his shoes spit up gravel as he sped back toward the tracks, spurred by his friend’s panicked cries. The engine was clearing the slope and beginning to cross the plateau now, chugging determinedly, emitting clouds of rancid smoke in black belches. His friend’s high-pitched screams cut through the train’s whistle as he scrabbled against the ties with renewed strength, and the boy urged himself to move faster, pump his arms harder, slap his feet down quicker. He nearly made it, too. In fact, the memory would haunt the boy days and nights, how his jaggedly cut hand could just touch his friend’s outstretched fingers as the engine made contact.
The man raspily exhales, lungs wheezing like the approaching engine. He thinks to look around, neck creaking from side to side as he checks to make sure he is still alone. Reaching his scarred hand into his pocket, he wraps his fingers around the cold metal of an old dog tag, then inches his toes forward a millimeter, making up for lost time.
Flashing him a smile, the nurse, her white cap pinned to her curls at a jaunty angle, instructed him to breathe deeply as she moved the stethoscope around his chest, the metal instrument clicking against the dog tag around his neck. She dropped the stethoscope and placed one hand on his forehead, just brushing the edge of his prematurely graying hairline as she used the other hand to sweep a penlight from eye to eye. He continued to stare straight ahead.
After oohing and ahhing over the progress of his healing leg and scribbling down the information, she patted his knee, her hand lingering as she informed him that the doctor would be in shortly. Six months ago he would’ve eaten this attention up. He would’ve wrapped his own hand around hers, given her one of his smiles, the right side of his mouth a fraction higher than the other, and asked her: didn’t she think the exam could last just a little bit longer? He was only twenty-eight; his body had remained trim from his years as a soldier, and he had never had trouble winning a girl over with a few well-placed compliments and several long glances from his blue and gray-flecked eyes. But today he gave a quick nod, dismissing her.
As the door swung shut, taking with it the scent of her flowery perfume, the room reeked again of antiseptic. He tried to hold his breath, pinch his nose, but eventually, lungs screaming for oxygen, cheeks numb from distension, he succumbed, and the odor rushed in like a surging engine.
It pervaded his nostrils, singeing them. Singeing them like the stench of burning flesh had. Just moments before it all went wrong, he had been creeping forward, his best friend’s breath uncomfortably warm on the back of his neck, the rest of the platoon following after him. Every placement of his boot was cautious, toes crunching into the ice-crusted ground, the arch and heel of his foot rolling down slowly afterward. Eyes straining in the waning light, searching for heaps of dirt marking any hastily covered landmines. He had just moved his right foot. His best friend moved too, stumbled, fell forward, and now his own ears were ringing with the blast and the subsequent screams of his platoon, his leg seizing with the skin separating from skin, opening in a hole that spilled blood and tissue and life, and he was falling to the ground in time to see a scorched dog tag sail just past his reach, and he knew, instinctively knew, whose it was as his seared eyes shut.
The doctor entered to find him curled in a ball on the examination table, old-scarred hand clutching scorched dog tag encircled by newly-scarred leg, his sobs punctuated with broken mutterings of I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know.
It is getting closer now. He adjusts the ring on his left hand, much larger than his now shrunken, gnarled ring finger. He hasn’t worn it in decades; the memories it stirred hurt too much. But he brought it out again for tonight. He creeps forward another millimeter, now about halfway across the concrete strip.
The wind bit as he pushed the door open, and tiny daggers stabbed his lungs with his first breath outdoors. He hurried across the parking lot as best he could with his stiff leg, digging for his keys as he mentally berated his wife. She was a fixer, positive from the moment she’d met him after he was released from the military for emotional trauma reasons. Waltzing into his life at a bar one night, she hadn’t been deterred by his tough exterior or brief retorts. She’d kept smiling her red-lipped, white-toothed smile, kept pushing him into conversation, kept cracking him open more and more and drawing out the person he’d been before the war. Confident. At ease with himself. With her. And she’d stayed, continuing to see who he had been and could be.
She’d always been so logical, too. Until now – it must have something to do with the pregnancy. There she had been, lying in the hospital bed, sweat beading her temples as she prepared to give birth to their first child. Everything had been like they’d practiced; he’d been holding her hand when the contractions started, stroking her damp hair back from her forehead, murmuring words of encouragement. Then, two hours into labor, she had announced that she was desperately craving watermelon. He was patient, trying to reason with her that he had no idea where to find watermelon, that she needed him there more than she needed an out-of-season fruit, that she knew how important it was to him that he be present when the baby was born.
He had begun researching the moment his wife had discovered that she was pregnant. Studies showed that fathers developed more of an emotional attachment to their child when they were present at birth and able to hold the child immediately. But his wife had been petulant, insistent, and so he now found himself stalking into the nearest Kroger.
Where the hell does a person find watermelon in the middle of winter? After harassing several wide-eyed clerks, an apologetic store manager procured a battered package of watermelon-flavored yogurt. Slapping a few bills onto the counter, he hobbled to his car and sped back to the hospital, making screeching turns and zipping through lights that were undeniably red. He was three blocks away when he hit traffic: a long streak of angry taillights, a cacophony of annoyed honks. No way around it. Without pausing, he put the car in park, yanked the keys out of the ignition, grabbed the yogurt and began a quick limp down the road. The cold wind made his lungs feel raw, exposed with each inhale; his bad leg protested. Ignore it all. Ignore the aches, the stares from people in their warm cars, the fact that he wasn’t beside his wife, waiting to meet their first child. Ignore it all. He turned down the last corner. Nearly there now. Briskly hobbled the last few feet to the double glass doors, through and past the receptionist’s desk, into the stairwell. Lurched in a lopsided dash up the stairs. Arrived on the second floor, breathless, in time to see one of the delivery room nurses exit his wife’s room at the end of the hall, a pink bundle nestled in her arms.
The nurse seemed flustered, whirling around to yell instructions back into the room. As she turned back, she saw him at the end of the hall, recognized him. Color drained from her face.
The yogurt dropped from his hand as he tore down the hall, forgetting his bad leg, only focused on his wife. Past the nurse still standing outside the door, clutching his daughter to her chest. Into the room to find a swarm of doctors and medical staff, shouting and moving around the bed where his wife was convulsing, shivering, coughing.
One of them tried to tell him to stay back, but he barreled through to his wife’s side, grabbed her flailing hand, tried to get her to look at him. She couldn’t hear. Her head kept twisting from side to side, and she kept shaking, gurgling blood. The doctors put hands on his shoulders, yelled medical terms at him, at each other, words he didn’t understand. Didn’t want to understand. He kept pleading with his wife, voice breaking, eyes blurred.
And then she went limp. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.
Something inside him collapsed into a heap, smoke rising from its crushed center. He was now the one shaking, jerkily sliding down to his knees by the bed, still cradling her lifeless hand. The left one. The one with her wedding ring.
He should have been here. He had envisioned it down to the details: the baby emerging, covered in birthing fluid and blood, yet strangely beautiful, his wife’s tired expression of joy. His daughter shrieking at being forced into this unfamiliar, bright world, the moment when she would finally be handed to him and her bleary eyes would lock with his. That initial moment of bonding, when he and his wife would cradle their daughter’s small body in their arms, protecting her, comforting her as she adjusted her lungs and skin and eyes to this new way of being.
He should have been here.
Trembling lips pressed to his wife’s limp hand, the cold metal of her ring blistering against his skin, he heard a wail from the hallway. His daughter – but he couldn’t. Not now. Her wailing continued as he remained, clutching his wife’s hand and the burning metal to him.
He shuffles forward again, toes nearly reaching the edge now. The force of the wind is beginning to rock him; he shifts, trying to gain a more solid stance. His bones are aching from the exertion of walking, especially down the stairs to this station, and then standing for so long, and he considers reaching down to massage them, at least his bad leg. No. It will only take a moment. It will be quick. He steels himself for the remaining quarter step forward, lowering both arms back down to his sides and clenching his hands as tightly as the arthritic joints will allow.
His plea that she meet with him, just listen to what he had to say, had been met with a sigh, a long stream of breath that had crackled into his ear through the telephone. Alright, she finally said; I can manage an hour. As if she was being generous. As if even considering his opinion was a nuisance. As if she was simply humoring her idiot father that couldn’t possibly have a convincing enough argument to keep her from packing up her entire life and moving to the other side of the country to follow a man he had known, from the first time he shook his clammy, slippery hand, was untrustworthy. But she had still consented to see him. He tried not to harbor hopes that he could persuade her to change her mind. From the time she was a little girl, she had been independent, assertive, insisting that no matter what her father said, butterflies could talk to her and she would wear lip gloss to kindergarten if she wanted. What was endearing as a child became a headache as a teenager, when her bouts of sneaking out and arguments were only punctuated by moody silences. Her transition to college only served to sharpen the jagged edges of the expanse growing between them; he had tried to assert himself into her life too much, tried to dictate which school she would go to, what she would major in, where she should look for a job. No wonder she had withdrawn.
Shrugging his coat on as he stumped through the cramped apartment he now called home, he noticed the tiny, framed photograph of him swinging with his daughter in his lap, her chubby toddler hands reaching forward, out of the picture, toward him. He touched one finger of his scarred hand to the photo, caressed her tiny face. They were both frozen in shouts of laughter. Better days.
The taxi ride to the park was uneventful; his good leg jiggled up and down, poorly concealing his nervousness. He paid the fare and entered the park, walking as briskly as he could, eager to make the most use of the time his daughter had allotted. But of course she wasn’t there on time. He eased himself onto the cold, metal bench they had agreed to meet at. Stretched his leg out where his toes could just reach the neat line forming the edge of the sidewalk, dragged them back in. Drummed his fingers, one, two, three, four, over and over again on the arm of the bench.
She would show up. She would be several minutes late, striding aggressively up to the bench, tossing her long hair over her shoulder as she placed her notebook in her purse (she was currently aspiring to be a columnist). She would plop herself onto the far end of the bench, cross her arms, level her eyes with his and demand to know why she should stay. Chuckling as he imagined her routine of practiced defiance, it took him a few moments to notice the slight woman looking around confusedly a few steps away from the bench. She almost looked like – but no, she couldn’t be; the woman in front of him was far too thin, and her hair was cut too short, and there was a deep purple-brown bruise along her jaw. But their gazes met, and he realized that this was his daughter. She ducked her head and began to make her way towards him, and he racked his brain, trying to recall the last time he’d seen her. Had it really been six, seven months ago? What had this man done to her?
The woman that was his daughter reached the bench and lowered herself as if afraid her bones might shatter. She glanced down, away from her father, and the bench was acutely cold and metal in the silence that followed. Finally, not knowing what else to do, he started to ask about the bruise; she bristled and went to leave; he caught her bony arm, said he didn’t mean to upset her and wouldn’t she just stay for a few more minutes? She settled back onto the edge of the bench, shoulders tense, and he realized that any attempts to sway her opinion would send her walking. So he tried to pry discreetly. What had this slippery man done to make her think that she couldn’t live without him?
But he couldn’t ask that question. So instead: did she have a job lined out in California? Was she prepared for how different it would be from New York? What was their living situation going to be like? She replied with clipped responses and then was silent again: their conversation went round and round and nowhere like the carousel she had begged to ride as a child.
Finally, she grabbed his hand and, still refusing to meet his gaze, said in a rush that she had to do what was best for her, rubbed her thumb quickly along the scar, dropped his hand and stood. She began to walk away, her figure hunched, like it could be blown over by the wind gusting through the park.
He hadn’t realized how frail and broken she was.
She did look back over her shoulder, once, and for the briefest instant he saw not an adult, but the face of a child, lips cracked, glossless, quaking. He knew that in that moment he should have run, hobbling, after her, should have hugged her, should have told his little girl that he would be strong for her, that she didn’t have to go through with this. But he didn’t. He remained on the cold, metal bench, motionless, long after she had walked away. And she never answered his calls after that.
The hand bearing the loose ring removes the faded photo from his pocket; his toes are now exactly perpendicular to the edge of the concrete strip. One trembling finger caresses the laughing child’s face preserved by the photo as his body is racked by a single sob. He pulses, shaken by an outside force, too: Its cold, metallic acceleration. It is nearly here. He takes a rattling breath, his other, scarred hand again clutching the scorched dog tag, shifting his weight, preparing his good leg. So much weight on his body, on his mind, on his conscience. Begging for release.
Sound, light, wind, now his turn.
One step. That’s all It would take.
It whistles past, cold, indifferent.
The loose ring, the scorched dog tag, the faded photo. He’d stepped forward seconds before It came, his scarred hand dropping the objects in a neat row on the track, then stumbled backward, knocked over by Its velocity and the sheer weight of it all. Lying in a heap on the cold concrete floor, the memories wash over him while Its wheels churn over and over the ring, the dog tag, the photo. A vicious cycle.
He clenches his scarred hand: the only remainder. The memories replay, and he repeats to himself the phrases he and his counselor have practiced, what he knows will weaken their hold, will weaken It.
The train from his childhood. Wrong place at the wrong time. It cracks. The landmine and his best friend. His own footing had been sure. It crumbles. His wife’s death. An event out of his control. It disintegrates. His daughter leaving. He is human, imperfect. It fades.
The memories abruptly end, and he realizes he is still lying on the concrete, breaths coming in sharp gasps. Takes a minute to slow his breathing, lungs returning to a steady, whirring rhythm. Then gathers his good leg underneath him, pushes himself to a sitting position and creakily to his feet. Begins ascending the concrete stairs without a backward look at the platform with the dirty yellow strip or the mementos of his past – now a charred heap on the tracks.
Yes, he acknowledges, glancing at his scarred hand, his past is immovable, unchangeable, unyielding, like cold metal. An undeniable part of him.
He squares his aching shoulders. But he can do it now. He can beat It.
One step at a time.