“Watch me,” Kristin said. She strutted onto the railroad bridge. Spring had overgrown into summer, hotter and greener every day. The tracks smelled of tar brought up by the heat. A steep embankment stuck out under a few feet of the bridge, but Kristin kept going until all beneath her was water. She turned to face me and thrust her arms up in the air—tadah, like a magician’s assistant. “No big deal, baby.”
We were both eleven, then, and in Ms. Robinson’s sixth grade homeroom together. We had lived right next door to each other forever—our mothers even shared a hospital room after they had us. My heroes ranked Wonder Woman, Kristin, then Sally Ride. Kristin and I had always been best friends, and that year she spent a lot of time with our family, sleeping over and staying for dinner, after her mom died in a car crash when we were in Ms. French’s fifth grade.
Beneath my feet, the ground vibrated. I listened hard. In the distance, I swore I heard the faint chugging of an approaching train.
“Kristin, come back. Come fast.”
She shook her head and walked farther onto the bridge. She jumped between the wood beams like hopscotch squares and whistled, showing off even more than usual because she knew how afraid I was. Part of the reason I wanted to be her was she never seemed scared of things like trains or the hobos they said lived out by the tracks. Back then I thought being fearless was the same as being brave.
“Quit it,” I yelled. “I think a train’s coming.” I put my ear to the ground like I’d seen Indians do on TV. I didn’t hear anything, and yet I’d been so sure just a moment before.
“I’m gonna cross. You coming or what?” Kristin shimmied her butt at me from halfway across the bridge.
I put my hand on the metal part of the tracks because my father had told me you could feel the tracks move before you could see a train. The metal hummed beneath my hand.
“Come back. There’s a train. I’m positive. Come back.” I jumped up and down and waved my arms. Though I yelled, I could barely hear myself. I sounded like my mother did when I had dived down in the town’s pool and she tried to call me from the surface.
“Linda is a baby. Waaa, waaa.” Kristin put her hands to her head like antlers and wagged them at me. She stuck out her tongue.
I started to cry. “Please, please, come back.”
Kristin turned her back to me to keep walking. She turned back around right away and ran toward my side of the bridge. She jumped more than one wooden slat at a time, and I imagined her falling between them or getting stuck, a train popping her head off like we did the bright yellow tops of dandelions. Then I saw the train coming, moving fast.
“Hurry!” I ran back from the tracks, the most frightened I ever remembered feeling. Even though it hadn’t reached the bridge yet, the train looked gigantic to me, as if it stood five stories tall.
Kristin looked over her shoulder and tripped. She hit the metal part of the bridge hard.
“Get up. Get up.” She didn’t move. From the waist down I went numb and tingly and thought I had wet my pants. Kristin fell a few feet from the end closest to me. She was almost safe. The train reached the other side of the bridge. “Get up!” I yelled so hard it felt like my throat tore loose from something inside me, as if it could never re-attach. I must have thought if I yelled as loud as I could, she would have to hear me and get up, even if she had knocked herself out.
Kristin put her hands down and tried to stand, moving underwater slow. My body vibrated, and my heartbeat nearly drowned out the loud train whistle. There was no way the train could stop before it hit her. I ran to where Kristin lay, still struggling to get her legs underneath her. I grabbed her by the arm and pulled. She yelled, stumbled, and I dragged her over the last bit of bridge and the white gravel next to the tracks. The big oak and maple trees of the woods that lined the track surrounded us before I made myself stop. My knees gave, and I dropped to the ground, breathing hard. Kristin managed to sit up, and she opened her mouth. I couldn’t hear her because the train exploded by us, its whistle screaming mad and the wheels banging against the metal tracks. The noise made my throbbing head hurt worse, so I shoved it between my knees and clamped my hands over my ears. The wind off the train blew hot and fierce through the trees.
On the ground in front of me, pebbles and stray pieces of the white gravel skipped on the ground from the wind and train’s vibrations, like the jumping beans Dad had brought me back from a trucking trip to the South of the Border in South Carolina. After what seemed like ten minutes, the pebbles settled. I had held my breath, so I gulped air and took my hands away from my ears.
Kristin sat picking gravel from her shins and laughing. I looked down at my crotch because I thought maybe I had wet myself and that was why she laughed. My shorts were dry, but I felt like if I didn’t pee right then they wouldn’t stay dry long.
“I gotta pee.” I looked around and wondered what to do. I couldn’t make it back to my house in time, and I’d only ever peed in a toilet or the ocean.
Kristin pointed to a big oak trunk next to us. “Drop your pants and lean against the tree. Bend your legs like you’re sitting on the toilet or else you’ll pee on your feet.”
I did what she said, but I couldn’t start going. I held my breath and tried as hard as I could. Finally the pee started, and I felt so much better. I peed and peed. When I finished, I looked at Kristin. She stared at her hands, splotched with blood and shaking.
“How do I wipe?”
Kristin had just stopped laughing but started again. “You can use a leaf but you might get poison ivy on your majigi. Dad always tells me to drip dry when we go fishing.”
So I stood there, my shorts and underpants bunched at my knees, a trail of pee flowing away from my feet. Kristin kept laughing, and I grabbed a nearby rock and threw it at her. She ducked, and the rock smacked into a tree trunk behind her. Somewhere above us a bird rustled in the leaves.
“What’s so funny?”
I heaved another rock, whacking Kristin in the shoulder. She rubbed where it hit, and for a second her face contorted and looked like she might cry. But she laughed again. I pulled up my pants and walked away, back toward the tracks.
“Wait.” Kristin limped after me. Both her knees had busted open in big gashes, and scrapes and cuts crisscrossed her shins from me dragging her. The white gravel near the bridge had red speckles of her blood. “Don’t be mad.”
I wheeled around and shoved her. She fell to a knee, and I winced.
She said, “It was totally far away. We were safe.”
“We could be dead.”
Kristin got to her feet. She stepped close and put a hand on my head. Even though we were the same age, she had about six inches on me. She scratched my scalp with her nails, and her touch made me feel sad, and I started to cry. Kristin’s mom used to scratch her head like Kristin did to me. I wanted my mother.
“It was a joke. I coulda got up, but I wanted to see if you’d save me.”
I stopped crying. I couldn’t tell if Kristin was lying because sometimes she did. She was good at it. I shoved my hands into my pockets, and they tensed into fists so tight it felt like my nails cut my palms.
“We could be dead like your mom.”
Kristin’s hand dropped from my head, and she looked down at her scraped palms. She reached out and pinched me hard.
“Don’t ever.” Kristin clenched her teeth and stared at me, her eyes unmoving, set and frighteningly intense. At the time, the expression on her face made me afraid of her, though I didn’t know why. Kristin turned her back to me, wrapped her arms around her body like she was hugging herself.
I didn’t complain about her pinching me because I didn’t mean to say what I had about her mother. I wanted to go home then, to see my mom. I felt like it was my knees that were raw. I walked back toward our houses.
“Linda,” Kristin yelled. I looked at her, and she motioned for me to come back. “I think I dropped Mom’s locket on the bridge somewhere.”
“Will you come out there with me to look?”
I shook my head and kicked at the bloody gravel. Kristin knew how afraid I was of heights, of the bridge, of trains. I didn’t want to go back there ever again.
“Please?” Kristin grabbed my hand. The locket was the only thing her dad let her keep of her mom’s. All the rest of her mom’s stuff he gave to the Salvation Army. It was Kristin’s favorite thing in the world. She usually didn’t wear it when we played outside.
“What if it fell in the water?” I said. We walked to where she fell and looked on the tracks, in the dirt, over the side of the bridge to the brush on the embankment.
“It can’t have.” Kristin looked to the other side of the bridge. “Maybe it’s out there where I hopped.”
My stomach clenched like fingers into a fist. I didn’t want to go any farther onto the bridge, though I wanted to help Kristin find the locket. Kristin’s mom kept a picture of Kristin in the locket, and Kristin covered the picture of herself with a photo of her mom. Her mom had been tall, with almost black hair and light blue eyes. She seemed to me then to be magazine-beautiful. Linda Carter beautiful. Even as a kid, I noticed her looking off past whomever she talked to, like she waited for someone else to show up. Kristin would grow up lovely like her mother.
“A train just came. We’ll be safe.”
“Not from falling.”
Kristin took my hand again and pulled, gently—not so hard that I’d resist. The water beneath the bridge rippled in the breeze. The brook was only a few feet deep. If we fell, we’d break bones. That’s what Mom said when she told us not to play by the tracks. She said we’d be lucky to break all our bones in the brook if we weren’t dead from being run over by a train or kidnapped by a hobo.
“Don’t look down,” Kristin said. She held my hands tightly, the raw skin of her palms making mine itch.
The gaping holes between the planks frightened me the most. “If I don’t look down, how will I see the locket?”
“Just keep me company.” Kristin looked from the tracks to the water below. “Step wider right here.”
We made it to the place near the middle of the bridge where Kristin had stopped. She let go of my hand. I squatted down and grabbed the rail. Kristin squatted too and looked over every inch but didn’t find the locket.
“Wanna?” Kristin pointed to the other side of the bridge. She took my hands, and I let go of the bridge to grab onto her. I held my breath. She led me all the way across to the other side. We found a patch of clover next to the tracks that felt soft as a tumbling matt. We sat down and listened to the wind rustling the tree branches, and the sound reminded me of summer cricket songs. Kristin picked at the rocks embedded in her shins again. It must have hurt a lot.
“Sorry about the locket.” I wanted to apologize for what I’d said, about us ending up dead like her mom, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t risk her getting mad again.
Kristin didn’t look up at me. “Not your fault,” she said.
We sat silently for a while. Kristin plucked handfuls of clover and picked through one stem at a time in search of a four-leafed clover. The sky turned deep pink and purple as the sun set.
I said, “It’s almost time for dinner.”
“Unless you’re gonna be faster going back, we better start now.”
Going back turned out to be much easier because I knew I could do it. I even chanced a look or two down at the brook rumbling over the rocks below. The little falls made bubbling and burping noises I hadn’t noticed before. We followed the train tracks out of the woods and then meandered to our backyards. I felt like I should say something important, about how I never wanted her to scare me like that again. But I couldn’t break the silence between us, maybe because I didn’t want to hear what Kristin would say back. We stood in her backyard, facing each other and toeing the dirt.
Kristin’s dad walked onto their back deck with a plateful of hamburgers to grill.
“I found that damn locket in the bathroom again. Told you you can’t keep it if you’re not responsible.” He opened the barbecue’s lid and tossed the burgers on with his fingers.
“Sorry. Forgot to put it away after I took it off to go play.” Kristin climbed the stairs up to their deck. “See ya.”
“Look at you. You ruined another goddamn pair of shorts.” Her father told her to go wash up, and she waved to me before disappearing inside.
I walked into my backyard. I hadn’t thought Kristin had lied about the locket, but it didn’t surprise me. What I didn’t know was why. Maybe she needed to cross the bridge because she hadn’t the first time, and she couldn’t do it alone. Or maybe she knew I’d never get across the bridge unless I thought she needed me.
Over at my house, I went into the kitchen, which smelled of onions, celery, and Worcestershire sauce—the scents of Mom’s meatloaf. She put the last of the quartered potatoes into the pot, turned, and wrapped her arms around me. She smelled like Ivory Soap and onions.
“Did you cut yourself?” Mom pointed to some blood on my shorts. She looked me over for injuries.
“Well, I’m sure her dad’ll fix her up.” Mom went back to the stove, stirring the potatoes. “Go wash up for dinner.”
I wanted Mom to hug me again. I wanted to tell her everything—about the train, peeing in the woods, Kristin lying about her mom’s locket, and me crossing the bridge even though I was afraid. Mostly I wanted to tell her that Kristin’s Dad wouldn’t fix her up. Kristin needed help, and I was frightened of her. I knew Kristin would come knocking the next day, looking to go back to the tracks. To take another chance. And if it wasn’t the train tracks, she’d find another risk to take. And I wouldn’t tag along again.
At the stove, Mom hummed. She looked over her shoulder and winked. “Go on, wash up.”
I wanted to tell her everything, but I couldn’t. It felt too hard to say I didn’t love Kristin the way I thought I did—there were limits, places I wouldn’t go. Up in my bathroom, I turned on the cold water and let it run over my hands until they numbed. I knew what being older felt like, then, because I had secrets.