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Railroad Girl by Britany Schaffer

The heavy, frayed rope drags languidly behind me as my two great black hounds trot ahead. In the dark veil of night, the lights of the city flicker around me. An electronic beat pulses dully in the distance, a blue light casting shadows in the wind, surely some peer event above my social stature. I glance sideways where the appalling pop music is playing. My eyes narrow, and I turn back to the train track in front of me.

What would it feel like, I wonder, to sit on a velvet cushion in front of a sterile mirror with plasticine lipstick in front of my pampered, airbrushed face, and expect nothing less than absolute adoration, admiration, and envy anywhere I place a pedicured pinky toe along my path?

The city lights glower at me as I make this forbidden inquiry. I stand askance the hullaballoo of the teenage party. I watch the dynamic of the young girls in front of me, giggling carefree as swarms of suitors beat their chests in failed attempts to woo them. What is the difference between us, I wonder, while my bare, bitter feet roll unflinchingly along the splintered wood and sharp gravel footing as I pass the scene unnoticed.

I think back to those hurried hallways, buzzing with meaningless adolescent gossip and slamming locker doors. A songbird flapped in my chest, leaping into my throat as I approached my own. The voices turned to distant echoes when I caught a glimpse of a corner of spiral notebook paper sticking from the air vent in the lower row of lockers in number 187 – my locker. I hardly felt the backpack flung against me by some unwitting jock as I bent to pull the paper from the slit. But he had tucked it so far through the vent that it slipped in when I pressed against the cold metal. I cursed and rushed through the combination – 24-13-2 – to open the door and collect my treasure. It sat flat on the top shelf, and I snatched the paper and shut the door, not bothering to lock it behind me.

I had read that note, and the seventeen others that had come before, hundreds of times. I calculated every word I wrote in response before sneaking it, burning in my pocket as I silently passed unseen down the opposite hallway, into the top locker in number 334.

The note came two days before homecoming was scheduled. While it spoke at length about the dance, I was disappointed that he hadn’t ended by asking me to go with him. Only insinuated. I wouldn’t have asked him myself, but I did have this terrible rom-com vision of entering the crusty gymnasium and a spotlight shining straight in line from his eyes to mine. He would be breathless. And in that moment, he would finally be mine. I saw that vision so clearly that when I didn’t see him immediately upon entering the gymnasium two nights later, I thought twice about exiting and coming back through the doors again. My eyes had searched the room dancing in colored spotlights and blurry faces, but he was nowhere to be found. I stood with my foot tapping in a back corner with two gussied-up girlfriends reassuring me. Those notes were far too intimate – we had gone too far into the darker corners of our lives and the world around us for him not to be here, for my dream not to come true.

And that’s when I saw him appear at the door, hand-in-hand with a popular junior girl. I felt that flapping bird in my ribcage drop dead suddenly from the sky straight to the ground below. I flew out of the gymnasium before my friends could catch me, and before he saw me. I ran past the parking lot and deep into the night. Before I knew what I was doing, I raced to these very tracks, the whistle of the train beckoning me closer. The iron horse trotted heavily on cold tracks, pulling ever forward. And finally, finally, lighting the train’s way along the tracks, the spotlight was on me as I had imagined. I closed my eyes, and felt the dream wash over me as the last sight I’d ever see.

A muffled cry summoned me back from my cold memory. The rope grew taut, and the weight I’d been dragging suddenly pulled back. I tugged the rope hard until I heard a sharp choke at the end. The thumping music was now distant behind us as we passed the ancient oak trees that marked the bend where my body was found a year ago, tonight. Muffled cries escaped the burlap sack, and I pulled again with a sharper jerk, and a high, tight cough ended the voice, now breathing in rasping wheezes. I stopped walking and turned back toward the packaged treasure I’d gathered from the shadows outside the gymnasium after the last car left the lot. He had been waiting, as instructed in a typed note I had left him in his locker the day before, for his precious pretty, popular girl to meet him here for whatever he was after that night a year ago. It only took a quick knock from behind by the shorter of my two black hell hounds, and I bound his hands and feet and covered his head and body in two burlap sacks from the cafeteria dumpster. We then walked carelessly out to these tracks under a pitch-black new moon, where I would finally show him exactly what he’d done. I’d made this pact to mark my anniversary each year with the blood of a callous heartbreaker, to vindicate a shattered golden heart. He was an easy first target.

While the lump inside the burlap sack whimpered and writhed beneath me, I felt the distant rumbling slither through the glistening tracks. “Hush,” I hiss at him. His body becomes silent, recognizing my voice. I knelt to let him feel my icy breath on the back of his neck.

“Remember me?” I breathed as the whisper of a train whistle called out in the distance. Pleading sobs emitted from the sack as I turned my back and walked through the two grand oaks, hounds at my heel. The whistle grew louder as I disappeared from this world and into the next, only to return again next year for another vindication.

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