by Luke Wortley
We sit under the stars by the train tracks at night and cough. Spectral blossoms of smoke roll through our flashlight’s beam as we pass the pipe between us in the dark, a little nugget of green flickering as we inhale. Mary giggles. I take another hit. We kiss. The warmth curls on our tongues, creeps to the back of our throats. I keep my eyes open, and my gaze crawls over her skin, her eyelashes. Her cheek a low curving arc catching starlight.
When we break apart I ask her if this is really it. She laughs again.
Mary leans back against the fencepost and takes a hit. She holds her breath until she coughs and passes me the pipe.
“Do you remember Travis?” she asks.
“I always thought he was kinda hot.”
“Yeah, I know.”
I inhale, let the heat seep down into my lungs and undulate. When I exhale, the surrounding hills grow darker. I know we love each other. We’ve said it so many times, and I’m almost sure that it’s true now. The first time I said it was when we were sixteen and we sat on my back porch drinking Kentucky Tavern straight from the bottle. I remember she had dug her fingernails underneath the plastic stopper and ripped it off. After a few swigs and a good pinch of dip, I said it first. I leaned out over the arm of the chair and waited for her to say it back, expecting a kiss. The world went quiet except for the plinking of junebugs against the light above the back door. Mary tossed her head back, let out a plume of smoke, and mouthed the words. I sunk back into the chair, crumpled up in laughter that felt like needles on my lips. Then I took another swig of bourbon, choked it down. It seemed like the thing to do.
And now Mary’s back in Kentucky, at least for the summer, and we’re here together smoking weed down the road a little ways from my house. I’m unnaturally aware of my mouth hanging open, and the ligaments in my face creak, straining to hold my jawbone in place.
“You okay?” she asks.
“Just tired of sitting here,” I say.
She asks me what time it is. It’s a little after ten. She says that if we run we might be able to hit up the liquor store in town. I say we can swipe some from the house. Why not make it a party, it’s close.
“You down?” I ask.
I reach for her thigh and dig my fingertips into it. I slide my hand up, willing her to want me.
“Not yet,” she says.
We hop the Cunninghams’ fence and plod over the grass and up a hill, and I think they’d have been pissed if they knew we had just toked up on their fenceline. Mrs. Cunningham is a retired mounted police officer. She’d kept a few of her horses over the years and had recently sold her trusty Coco to a larger farm further east in Shelby County, and her husband is Chief of Police in another podunk place somewhere further south. A while ago one of his officers arrested a pit bull that had allegedly killed three calves in some poor bastard’s pasture. My folks and I learn this every time they come over.
We have to be out here because Mary doesn’t feel comfortable smoking at my place. We step onto the railroad tracks. There’s a pressure behind my eyes and my feet are cinderblocks dragging through the grass. I have an urge to spit onto the gravel between the railroad ties, but my mouth is straw-dry. We walk due south in the middle of the tracks in silence, our hands loosely linked. Her other hand holds the flashlight, and the ray of light seeps onto the rocks that fill the spaces between the ties. Moths flutter in its beam. And I can smell water—the Howards’ pond. State record Bluegill was caught out of that pond just four years ago, barely two miles from my parents’ house. We’ve got a ways to go.
I turn to her. Moonlight cuts her face. Strands of dark hair stain her cheeks and forehead like soil. Finally she lets go of my hand, steps lightly over the track on her right, and crunches along on top of the stones. She sways, drifting further away. A train whistle cracks the night. As it rounds the bend about three quarters of a mile up, I wonder what Mary would say if I were to stay until the last possible second; whether she would scream at me to stop; what she would do if I were to jump out of the way and roll on the gravel down toward old lady Howard’s land through the thistle buds.
Mrs. Howard had a fall last spring, but before that you could see her on the riding mower in the dead of the afternoon heat. Her fleshy arms jiggled as she rolled over the bluegrass she’d maintained for the better part of six decades. Her husband could no longer help, as he had suffered a massive stroke the year I was born, leaving him with only the ability to say ‘yeah.’ Her freckles were visible on her shoulders even from the road, and her face poked out over the steering handles of the mower as the curl of her back pushed her forward.
The engine light comes around the distant trees. I don’t have the guts to stand there and eventually hop over the track opposite Mary. The skirt of her dress swishes around her thighs as she twirls. She bends her knees as though taking a dip in the liquid light bearing down on the both of us. The flashlight beam bobs up and down. Then she stops. I catch her eyes just as the train blows its whistle again and separates us.
The gravel underneath the ties vibrates, and I remember I have a pocketful of change for us to lay on the tracks. Just like when I was a kid. The best was when you stacked a penny on top of a quarter and the copper smashed and fused into the nickel, President Lincoln’s face replaced by a sort of melted sun, smooth and hot to the touch.
I crouch to look for her legs, but the train is too fast. It’s too dark and I can’t see them, so I run. The hardness of the stones pokes up through the rubber bottoms against the soles of my feet. I can feel my muscles working, rolling and stretching, heat rising from the center of my chest to my temples. The train still runs every hour or so on these tracks, grating out the howl of metal on metal, a hunter’s call to history. I’ve seen the land respond. Sometimes horses sputter, toss their heads, and stamp the dirt in frustration; the county landmark oak tree down around the bend pushes out Civil War artillery like beads of sweat after a lightning strike. All the while I look for Mary and sprint toward the crossing. The cars whip past. And, since I can’t see the end of the train, I slow to a walk. My gait is measured, my arms swing. I don’t want her to know that I might have been running to catch up. Maybe this time Mary will have to wait on me, maybe this time I’ve called her bluff. I’ll stand my ground on this side of the tracks, I think.
The crossing bar is lowered. The high-pitched screeching gradually gives way to a low moan that rolls on the wind like a flock of geese. Graffiti-covered coal cars lumber by rhythmically in a colossal, artificial heartbeat. Eventually the train comes to rest and I see in front of me a large, blue boxcar with a small hole bored into its side that serves as the pupil for a spray-paint eyeball with a shocking green iris and thick, purple veins worming their way outward. Inside a tawny light flickers just out-of-time with the blinking red lights at the crossing. I still want Mary to wait on the other side of the tracks, still content to let her come to me. I want to let her know that I am in this, but not so in it that we can’t be on opposite sides of the track— that I have a choice. At least I think I do. And it’s her choice whether or not she wants to run away. But even so I think of the times when I get drunk and call her just to take up some of her time to be sure that she isn’t hooking up with someone else. My sternum splits even as I think about her legs curling like tusks around another man; my ribcage buckles under the weight of her rocking back and forth on the bed as her bony, featureless fingers wind his hair up in fists.
Something glimmers inside the eye. I step up to the car and squint into the translucent blackness to find more lights dotting the inside of the car, a cascade of living, gyrating things. Out of the blankness a heat rushes through the peephole and makes me pull away, scratching at my eyes and blinking. The red lights of the crossing signal cause my eyelids to flutter and my cheek muscles to contract. After several seconds I feel the warming push of a huge, orange burst and see a creamy gloom behind my closed eyes. Faintly, I hear the sound of a small piece of metal plinking softly on the pavement in front of me. I open my eyes.
In front of me a light climbs through the hole and crawls erratically over the side of the train car. In the darkness it takes me a moment to gather that it’s just a lightning bug. Then another gets regurgitated from the hole in the side of the car. And another. And another. It’s a hell of a sight, really, to see the center of an eye spitting up bug after bug. And soon they cover the whole façade of the car, blinking their strange lights in concert. It’s like watching Morse code, and I want to know what it means. Maybe two blinks in quick succession means a predator is near, whereas one extended emission of light could be extreme hunger. And I wonder how long a lightning bug’s life is, whether it’s long enough to find a female who will drive it wild just long enough to mate and die.
Then the train whistle erupts, and as the swarm douses its bioluminescence the train springs back to life. In the frenzy of activity, as the wheels screech back to life, the lightning bugs take to the air with a furious buzzing and blink over and over again like thousands of turn signals. Several minutes pass, and the crossing bar raises as the last squeals of the train’s wheels fade. In their absence the world grows darker still. No sign of Mary.
My brain is stuffed with cotton, and I am inexplicably smiling my goofy smile, and I know it’s goofy because Mary told me once when we were dancing at a bar that I have a goofy smile. Or at least we started to dance. And then she leaned in, her breath not even warm or wet against my neck. Instead of a hot slither of a whisper creeping its way over my ear, she shouted that she didn’t like the way I smiled. We fought about it all night.
Now my cheeks tighten, pulling my lips and jaw upward in defiance. A laugh rolls in my lungs and bursts out, followed closely by a painful hiccup, the air catching in the back of my throat and held there fluttering. And I have to sit down.
I crumple to the pavement and lean back on my elbows. The sky is a cloudy creek. With my head tilted back, I open my mouth to drink the night. All around me is the lightning bug swarm, ass-ends switching on and off. One lands on my hand. It blinks, and the air around me warms. Its wings fold on its back like hands in prayer. Its gummy rear end illuminates the back of my hand until I jerk it upward to cover another cough. It flies away for a moment and returns to my knee.
I cup my hands around the thing and slowly close my fingers until I can feel its wings beating against my palms and its shell slapping my calluses, droning out a sound like a tongue vibrating against the ribbed roof of the mouth. My hands lights up as though emitting their own glow, but it’s more than that; it’s a breathing bud of light contained between my palms that can lift itself up on six spindly legs and buzz away if given just the slightest opening.
Sitting there on my side of the tracks, I call out for Mary. My voice a croak. No answer.
“What do you think?” I ask, leaning in close to my cupped hands and appealing to my little captive. “You think she’s gone?”
In response it buzzes frantically, drumming its wings against my fingers, and I spread my palms just wide enough for it to escape. It rockets out and past my ear. I jerk my head around to see where it’s at and see it hovering above me, emitting a moss-green light so different from and somehow stronger than the standard yellow of the others. It blinks off further into the night. Like a sparkler twirling in a child’s hands I can see the shade of where it was just a moment ago. In its wake, the other yellows line up in single file, flashing their abdomens, creating a shifting rope of Christmas lights that stretches across the field. Just beyond the green leader there’s another light, a persistent circle of glowing white: the flashlight. I get up and walk over the crossing in its direction, sensitive feet still feeling every groove of the tracks. As my shoes drag they bump something that scrapes against the pavement. A small object catches the faintest of glows from one of the winged lamps around me: a solid gold ring with a thin, silver strand of Virginia creeper coiling its way through the band.
I slip it into my pocket, clear my throat, shout her name yet again, and stumble off the road into the grass. The flashlight switches off.
The field is overgrown. The grass brushes against my shins, and the lights to my left kept twinkling as I hike in the general direction of the flashlight. The other small, luminous orbs bob up and down, sway back and forth like a clothesline. I pick up my pace and head up a shallow incline. The air becomes heavier with an after-rain wetness that clings to my skin.
“Where are you?” I say.
The flashlight’s beam comes on again at the bottom of the shallow valley. I know I’m a little closer. Close enough to hear Mary’s laugh. She’s been waiting, I think. I hope. I’m hopeful that when I get there we’ll collapse into the field, nestle in the fescue for a night all to ourselves. Behind me another train signals its approach. The sound makes the world go black again as all the lightning bugs shut off. I plod down the hill, hoping not to twist my ankle in a hidden hole.
“Hey!” I call.
I run in the direction of her voice and go right past her. She turns on the flashlight, holds it up, and points it in my face. I can barely make out her silhouette until she’s right next to me; her freckles are defined like tiny sores across the bridge of her nose.
“I just wanted to see if you would come to find me,” she says.
Then she kisses me. I wind my fingers through her hair and clutch at her lower back, pull her in to me. We break apart.
“Let’s keep walking,” she says as she takes my hand. This time she snakes all of her fingers through mine, and I have a sudden urge to pop my knuckles. But I resist.
“Why do you always run away?” I ask.
A mechanical clicking flares up. Thousands of lightning bugs spring up from the field, as though the night sky had come to earth, like we are now the sun and everything rotates around us. I relax my fingers and unravel our hands and put my arm around her. My brain is going numb again. My arm constantly itches as it’s draped over her shoulders. I can’t help but feel that I have to reach farther to pull her close. Up ahead there’s a barn, and I know what she’s thinking. We keep walking.
The barn is hot, the concrete floor stained yellow and orange with the dirt of seasons and worn smooth by boots. There’s a hayloft up above. Moonlight angles through a small window just above stacks of straw. There’s a ladder leaning against the loft’s overhang, and against the far wall an auger drill and some steel-tipped rakes along with two industrial trimmers and an old chainsaw in need of re-chaining. She leans in to my ear, exhales a deep breath I think must have originated between her legs. I feel the same breath within me. She slides her hand down my chest and pauses at the waistband of my jeans. She turns her hand over and burrows her way in to feel me.
“Are you sure?” I ask.
She nods in the direction of the loft.
I let her climb up first and wait a few moments. Sweat beading between my shoulder blades. I spread my arms out in hopes of catching a breeze.
When I reach the top I see her below the window tugging at something. Hand over hand she pulls what appears to be blood-red yarn from the middle of a bale. The stuff droops in the moonlight like sinew, wet and dark. And she keeps pulling. She doesn’t look at me, so I peel my shirt off, walk up behind her, and put my hands on her shoulders. I nibble at her neck and fiddle with the bottom of her shirt, hoping she’ll raise her arms for me so that I can take it up and over. When she doesn’t I move my hands under it and over her stomach, up to her breasts. Her skin is warm as a bath.
“Stop,” she says.
I stop. She yanks at the string, which is now blue-green.
It’s cool and wet. I look at her, slithering the material through my fingers the way I used to finger the frills of my childhood blanket.
I take my own handful of hay and pull. Only clumps of dried grass come out, along with a musty, yellow smell. While Mary yanks out silk, I punch my fist into the center and grope for the slick yarn that she produces. Grass presses on my forearm—slightly heavier than a load of blankets. She wraps the garnet thread around her left hand until it is a red, pulpy mass glinting in the moonlight. It reminds me of the first raw meat I ever saw when my dad field-dressed a dove. He walked up to the dead bird, knelt, and cut a little incision in its breast before sinking both index fingers into its chest cavity. There was a small pop as the ribcage gave way. A pathetic little sound like the first water droplet hitting dry dirt. In his hand a bruise-colored heart of breast-meat the size of a half dollar.
Mary looks up and sees me watching. She steps over and rubs her wrapped hand against my cheek and around my neck, over my back and shoulders. She winds the thread around me. It cools my skin, starting around my lower back and creeping up my torso as each individual thread crisscrosses my body. She wraps her arms around me and pulls me in closer, her head nestled under my chin. Her cheek burns against my sternum. The tips of her fingers dig into my back. Mary hums as we sway and rotate on the wooden floor of the loft. I shut my eyes. Her hum becomes quieter, drowned by a swelling sound like that of metal fans. Yellow lights are everywhere, flashing and humming with heat. We wind. We are a spool cocooning ourselves. Our movements become less graceful as our legs become more constrained. We teeter on the edge. I can feel her fingernails digging deeper into my back, the softness of the thread around my body, her breathing against my chest, a blast of warmth from the thrum of wings outside the barn as the insects’ abdomens blink. Outside our cocoon, everything burns.
We stumble and fall to the floor, cushioned by our satin shell. I struggle to move my hand and can’t. I try to look down at her face. She breathes slow and heavy as though asleep.
I twist and wriggle to free an arm and notice the green light on the windowsill just above us. Mary’s breathing slows even more, barely perceptible except for the faint puff of air against my bare chest. My own skin becomes clammy. Each time I exhale the string pulls tighter. We are so close.
The moment lends itself to stillness, but I wriggle and try to grab the ring in my pocket, flexing desperately to get a single digit free. Having finally created a few inches of breathing room for my questing fingers, I find it’s not there.
I feel my stupid smile spreading across my face as the night wanes. And I think to myself that perhaps it’s not such a terrible thing to have lost it or to have never had it in the first place. I try to imagine what it would be like if I’d found it. I can’t get past this moment as we sit here, closer than we’ve ever been.
“I wish we could lay here forever,” Mary finally says.
“We can’t, though.”
The green light is strong. The yellow lights grow dimmer as the buzzing too fades away. The night is quiet again. Another train whistles in the distance like the whining of a trapped animal. The green lightning bug flutters down from the windowsill and lands on her back. I can see its light radiating just behind her shoulder. I buck. It flies up and away toward the window before stopping abruptly in mid-flight. Behind it, the moonlight, now giving way to the first signs of dawn, illuminates a large spider web—a honeyed net dripping radiance in the early morning. I try to laugh, but what comes out is just a few dry coughs. Our string cocoon keeps folding us into each other.
“I don’t know,” I finally say.
“I still think we should lay here for a while,” she says.
The green firefly struggles, vibrating wildly in the sticky web, its light blinking like crazy. As I wait for the spider to come, I think to myself that we might be able to do just that, lay there forever, wrapped up. In fact, we might have to.