On Track

by Diane Payne

Walking home from school, I see a girl lying on the railroad tracks. A group of boys have gathered, laughing boldly, but not doing anything to get her off the tracks. I walk closer and recognize the girl. She's the one who moved into the apartment around the corner.

"Margaret!" I yell running toward the tracks. Her name sounds odd. It's the first time I have used it. "Get off the tracks!"

"I'm waiting for a train. I ain't chicken." Then she sits up and says to the crowd of boys. "Anyone care to join me?"

"We'll see if you stay on the tracks when the train comes by," a neighbor boy yells back.

"Any bets that I won't?"

"My quarter says you'll chicken out," Steve boasts. Then another boy ups the ante to a half-dollar. Eventually all the boys place a wager, some only a dime, others a quarter. "But how are you going to pay us when you lose? You'll be dead!" Steve laughs.

"Margaret, don't do it! It ain't worth their money!" I'm grabbing her arm trying to pull her off the tracks.

"You ain't on my side either? I thought you'd be placing a bet in my favor. You ought to cause I'm gonna win. You'll see."

"But Margaret, what if you don't?"

"I've died before. It ain't no big thing."

We're ten years old. I've never heard anyone talk like this before. Margaret moved into the neighborhood the week before. In class the teacher introduced her as "Peggy" and she corrected her, saying she used her real name, not that horrible nickname. When Mrs. Adolphs asked her where she was from, Margaret said it was hard to say.

"Well, what city did you last live in, Margaret?" Mrs. Adolphs asked.

"Nashville. My aunt thought she was gonna make it big singing, but she didn't, so we moved here."

"You live with your aunt?" Mrs. Adophs questioned her in front of the entire class.

"Now I am. Don't you read the school records? Most teachers do. They usually want to know everything about me. They think I'm some kind of orphan, but my parents aren't dead; they're on the road. They'll be back."

Margaret, with the long uncombed hair, stood before the class in a ragged dress, never twitching. Mrs. Adophs twitched, and her face turned red; but she didn't send Margaret to the principal or say anything else. The entire class was silent, staring at Margaret, not sure what it meant to be on the road, wondering if her aunt sang in taverns and if Margaret went along. But no one said anything. We just opened our spelling books as we had been instructed.

When Margaret hears the train's whistle, she lies down. I beg her to get off the tracks. "Trust me," she yells back. "I'm about to be rich!"

Everyday the train comes at this time, usually the hoboes are sitting on a car toward the back, sharing a bottle of booze, and waving to the kids who wished they were on the train. But no one on the train sees Margaret, they just see us kids. The engineer honks the horn and not one of us moves. The boys are white-faced and quiet. When the hoboes wave, we remain paralyzed, unable to reveal the dead body beneath them. No one is able to cry. All we can do is watch this long train crush Margaret, witnesses of death. Everyone on Seventeenth Street will blame us for murdering this new girl on the block. And they will be right. We didn't stop her. We only encouraged her.

Then the caboose finally passes and we run to the tracks. Margaret lies there, motionless and quiet. No one says a word, we just move closer, gathered in shock.

"Ha! I win! Pay up boys! Sure had you scared, didn't I?"

"I ain't paying you," Steve shouts. "You almost died!" All of us are angry at Margaret because we were sure she was dead.

"I did not. I ain't fat like you. That train was nowhere near my belly. Sure get dirty though!"

Rick finally gives her a dime and then the rest pay up because Rick is mean and if he pays, everyone pays. As we walk back to our homes, Rick asks her how she knew she wouldn't die.

"Everyone did this in Kentucky. Hillbillies are different. They're tough. Don't live like other people."

"But weren't you scared?" I ask.

"Not really. Worst thing is the noise. I know I ain't going to die but the noise is scary."

When we get to the corner, everyone mumbles a quiet good-bye, still looking white-faced, but relieved Margaret is alive.

After the boys are gone, Margaret comes up to me and says, "Thanks for caring about me. I knew you were different than the other kids. You need to come by my house sometime. We can be friends."

I just nod and walk home, wondering when I'll ever have the courage to be Margaret's friend. Margaret who never fears death will find me a chicken. But I want her as my friend because I want to learn to be brave like her. I only hope she will like me. She's not a girl to tell Mom about.

The next day at school, Margaret and I don't say anything to each other. On the playground she picks fights with all the boys and the girls run off to the swings, talking bad about her. She has worn the same dress for three days, failed the spelling test, and keeps laughing as if life is wonderful.

After school I follow Margaret home, not walking with her, but ducking behind the trees and trailing her. When she gets home, Margaret goes into her backyard and stands by the barbecue pit. I've been to her house before when other renters have lived there. Margaret sees me in her driveway and yells for me to come on back. She tells me we can't go in the house because her aunt worked late at the bar and is sleeping. As she talks, she brings twigs to the barbecue pit.

"What are you doing, Margaret?"

"I'm building a fire. What else?"

"You got matches?"

"Of course I got matches."

I break twigs and add them to the pit. I've never seen anyone use this pit before. Then Margaret says, "Do you believe in witches?" I say nothing, wondering if she does or not. I've believed I was a witch for years, driving my sister crazy with my chants, and embarrassing my mother by telling her friends about my powers. I've long quit telling kids about my powers because it only makes them crueler with their teasing.

"Well, I'm a witch," she says back.

"Yeah? How do you know?"

"Just watch. I'm going to make a witch's brew, one that will make me fly."

"What else do you do with your brews?"

"Not much. I don't cast many spells, unless I'm in an emergency."

" Margaret, I'm a witch too."

"I thought so."

"But I don't make any brews. I do all my spells through my head. I say chants and will things on people."

"They work?"

"Yeah, of course," I say.

"How do you know?"

"Because it's how I get rid of the men who hide in my room."

"What men?"

"There's a lot of men that come to my room. I don't kill them. I turn them into frogs and put them into the manhole."

  "What are they doing in your room?"

"I ain't sure. I never let them stay."

"It ain't easy being a witch. No one believes you. How many people know you're a witch?"

"Just my sister and mother but they don't believe it. They just ain't got the powers, so they don't understand."

"I never turned anyone into a frog, but I can fly," Margaret confides. "I can fly with an umbrella. But not by myself. I'm working on it, though."

"Yeah? I can do it by myself and I've died before."

"What was it like to be dead?"

"It was pretty bad. But I didn't need to stay dead long. My mother was glad when I came back."

"Where is she now?"

"I ain't sure. I'm really making this brew to get the power to find her. She needs my help. But I got to convince my aunt to come along. She's ready to move on. Doesn't like this Dutch town of yours. Says they ain't got people who appreciate a good voice. My aunt's gonna make it big, cut albums, and get rich."

"What are your parents doing?"

"I ain't sure. But they'll be back. They got my little brother with them, but they wanted me to go to school. That's why I'm with my aunt but she don't like to stay in one place long. We get free rent that way. She talks them into giving her a break on the first month's rent, promising to pay it off by Friday, and then we split if they hassle us."

"You gotta move often?"

"Lately. We lived with her boyfriend in Kentucky. That wasn't too bad, except he lived with his grandparents and a sister and they only had one bedroom. When I get older, I ain't going to move."

Then Margaret lights the fire and the flame is wild, blowing in the wind. This gets Margaret real excited, but it reminds me of the Flame that I get dropped into at night, the Flame I haven't told her about. Margaret starts singing some witch chant in a low sad voice and I join in, singing my own dreary chant. We do this until the sun goes down, never placing the kettle on the fire, never saying another word together, just chanting like sisters. When the sky is dark, we squeeze hands and Margaret walks into her house. I go home. And when Margaret is absent from school the next day, I know she is gone forever.

©2001 by Diane Payne

Diane Payne, as seen by her daughter, Ania, age 9, though she's never worn heels,and rarely wear a dress.

Diane Payne lives in a small town with her daughter and her dogs, and she teaches writing at the University of Arkansas-Monticello. Her first novel, Burning Tulips, will be published by Red Hen Press in 2001.

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