A runaway and his best friend prepare to spend the night in an abandoned boxcar. It will be a night that will change their lives forever.
Written by Gregory Patrick Travers
By the time that I left my house and headed down Conway Street to meet Tommy, the sun was low in the sky and the evening had cooled right down from the irregularly warm late-September day that preceded it. Mom had yelled at me as I left to take a jacket. I thought she was crazy. About two blocks into my walk I started to think maybe a jacket wouldn’t have been that bad an idea. But I wasn’t about to turn back, so I toughed it out.
Tommy didn’t say why he wanted me to meet him at the Hasty Market but he had that disappointed tone in his voice again, the one that usually followed with a story about his old man getting drunk and beating on him or his mom. It was around the time that his dad usually got home from the bar, so I figured that’s what it was.
I felt sorry for Tommy, even though Tommy was not the type of person anyone needed to feel sorry for. He was a street smart, resourceful, and headstrong kid. Some people couldn’t believe he was only fourteen. He carried himself differently than the rest of the kids our age. But I guess he had to. Life was always throwing Tommy a curveball. His mom was a pill popper, his dad was a drunk. If that wasn’t enough, the teachers at school considered him a write-off and a waste, though I can be the first to say that he didn’t give them much reason not to. The town cops were always pulling him over and giving him the business. Even my mom didn’t like us hanging out together. She said he was a bad apple. But she didn’t know Tommy like I did. Sure, he had a temper and a loudmouth. But he had to put up those walls to keep the kids at school from ripping on him about being short, poor, and the son of a couple of good-for-nothing parents. He had to build those walls to keep his dad from having the satisfaction of seeing him cry when he was laying the buckle on him. So, yeah, I felt sorry for him. But he didn’t need it.
When I got to the Hasty Market, Tommy was out front, perched on a bike rack, sipping the last sips out of a can of Lucky Lager before he tossed it into the corner. His dad had an endless supply of those white cans in the cold cellar. We met eyes and he smiled. His palm ran over his buzz cut, his white XL t-shirt draping loosely over his skinny arms. His t-shirts were always vibrantly bright. His jeans were scuffed and ripped, shoes covered in mud, but his t-shirts were constantly Tide-commercial white.
I stuck out my wrist and he clocked it with his own.
“Sup?” I asked.
“Fucking ol’ man is wasted again,” answered Tommy.
“I figured,” I replied. “So, where to? The tracks?”
“Guess so,” he shrugged. “I’m fucking starving. How much money you got on you?”
“Not much,” I said. I pulled out my chain wallet and ripped open the Velcro strap, peeking inside and doing an inventory of the assorted coins. “I got, like, a buck fifty.”
“Do the looky-loo. I’ll make a candy run.”
I rolled my eyes and started towards the door. Tommy sat still, waiting to see if I was in or not.
I looked back at him. “Come on then, you felon.”
A wide grin stretched across Tommy’s face. He hopped off the bike rack and followed me into the store.
Inside, I walked straight over to the Indian guy at the register, while Tommy disappeared into the isles of chips and chocolate bars. I watched the clerk’s eyes follow Tommy on the bubble mirrors.
“Excuse me,” I said. The clerk’s eyes shifted over to me. I placed a pack of gum on the counter along with the buck fifty I had in my wallet. “Do I have enough for this?”
The clerk’s eyes moved down to the mess of change scattered on his counter and after doing a quick scan and some math he said, “No.”
“That sucks,” I said. I put the pack of gum back on the display and collected my coins. Tommy was behind me when I turned around.
I started walking for the door and I was halfway out of the store when I heard Tommy mutter, “Fuck…”
That’s when I turned around and saw one of the candy bars Tommy had stuffed in his waistline lying on the floor. I looked up. The Indian guy had seen everything.
“Hey!” he yelled. He started to come out from behind the counter.
Tommy looked at him, then at me. Then his eyes lit up and he yelled, “Run!”
I ran out of that store and across the parking lot faster than I’ve ever run in my life. And me and Tommy weren’t strangers to finding ourselves in situations where we need to run like hell to save our asses. When we got to the road, we didn’t stop to wait for the light. We had to dodge a few oncoming cars; one of them almost beaned Tommy. But once we got across the road the clerk had stopped chasing us. He couldn’t keep up, no doubt. We were pretty fast. Tommy always said we would be great at running track if track wasn’t for pussies.
It didn’t take us long to get to the school. We slowed down as we jogged through the soccer field, laughing. I say ‘soccer field’, but that thing was more like a dirt pit. We’d come back in from Phys Ed. looking like we were out there digging for dinosaur bones.
We had slowed down from a light jog to a walk when Tommy lifted up his shirt and showed me our score. Minus the one that dropped in the store, we had six chocolate bars. I caught a glimpse of Tommy’s abs as he handed me a Mars bar. He had a whole six-pack. I didn’t have anything. I wasn’t fat or anything like that; I was just soft around the edges. I always envied people who had good abs.
I opened up the candy bar and said, “Guess we won’t be going back there anytime soon.”
Tommy shrugged, in the middle of chewing off his first big mouthful of a jumbo Mr. Big.
We walked in silence for a bit as we ate, kicking up dust as we went. Finally, I said, “Oh! Shit! I got some news.”
Tommy nodded at me, interested.
“I got into Cawthra School for the Arts! I’m transferring there next semester.”
He threw the wrapper to his jumbo Mr. Big behind him and patted me on the back. “You fucking actor. Good job, Ethe. You’re one step closer to getting famous and leaving this shithole.”
Tommy had always been the biggest supporter of my dream of becoming a Hollywood actor. He said if anyone could make it out of Streetsville, it was me. But still, I knew it would be tough for him once we were separated. Everyone knew Tommy, but there were only a select few who really knew Tommy. We had never been apart from each other before.
“Look at this ugly piece of shit,” said Tommy, pointing to a poster taped to a lamppost.
I threw my wrapper on the ground and walked over to see what ugly piece of shit Tommy was referring to.
The poster said “Wanted” and it had the picture and description of an escaped child molester named Francis Montgomery. He was ugly, that’s for sure. He had a long, narrow face and a crooked nose, as well as a severe underbite that made him look like a horse. And he was bald, with long, stringy strands of brittle hair hanging off the sides of his head.
“Damn, man,” I said, shaking my head. “Why do child molesters always have to look so much like child molesters?”
Tommy laughed. He had this deep chuckle which was pretty contagious. I guess since Tommy rarely laughed, whenever he did, it was nice to hear. You wanted to be part of it. I couldn’t help but laugh, too.
“Fuck this guy,” said Tommy. He spat on the page. “Come on. Let’s go.”
As we passed the baseball diamond we saw Derek Scott and George McNally leaning on Derek’s Accord. They were two years ahead of us in high school, a couple of real cool jocks. Their parents had money and all the girls drooled over them. They were the type of guys that Tommy hated.
Tommy pointed to them, or the two girls who were with them, rather, and said, “Isn’t that Melony and Heather?”
I squinted at the blonde and ginger-haired girls in the distance. It was them. They were in our grade; we had been in the same school since kindergarten. I had a crush on Heather since we were kids. I never told anyone, but I think Tommy knew. He was always bragging to her about my acting accomplishments. “Yeah, that’s them,” I said.
Tommy laughed again. “Should be those dudes’ faces on that poster,” he said. “Grade elevens trying to fuck grade nines…fucking losers, man.”
I didn’t much like Derek or George, either, but I wasn’t about to go around saying that out of fear of the repercussions. But Tommy wasn’t afraid to get beat up. He’d say anything to anyone.
“Let’s go a different way,” I suggested.
“Fuck that,” said Tommy. “Come on.”
I huffed and followed him down the path to where the four of them were hanging out. Heather and Melony smiled when they saw us. Derek and George didn’t.
“Ethan and Tommy,” said Heather with a smile. “What are you two goons up to?”
The two boys’ sneers remained locked on us. Their bodies were stiff, their posture aggressive.
Tommy fed off it, oozing with confidence as he said, “Just out for a stroll, ladies. Enjoying this beautiful evening.”
Derek pointed to Tommy’s muddy shoes and said, “Looks like you could use some new shoes, skid-mark.”
Tommy shot back immediately, cool as a cucumber, saying, “Sweet, I’ll let your mom know to pick some up for me before she comes over tonight.”
Melony and Heather giggled.
Derek turned red. “What did you just say to me, you little shit?” He took a step closer, bearing down over Tommy, but George put his arm out to stop him. His eyes were fixed on something behind us. Derek’s eyes shifted that way, too. Heather and Melony’s, too. Something had humbled the four of them on a button. Me and Tommy turned around to see what it was.
It was Dion Terrell and his boys. Dion was a black kid that mostly everyone in town feared. He sold drugs, was in a gang, carried weapons, he had been in and out of juvenile correction facilities since he was twelve. Dion and his crew moved like lions around Streetsville. No one fucked around with them.
As they paraded through us, Dion scanned us slowly, one by one. I’m pretty sure Tommy was the only one not staring at his shoes.
George put out his hand as a sign of friendship. “Hey, Dion,” he said. “What’s up?”
Dion looked him up and down. “You got a smoke?”
George lowered his hand and reached into his pocket for a pack of Player’s cigarettes. He opened it up and took out three, handing them to Dion. “Take three,” he said.
In my peripheral, I could see Tommy rolling his eyes dramatically.
Dion nodded, took the smokes, then he and his boys continued walking down the path, into the catwalk, and out of sight.
Once they were gone Derek and George returned to their asshole selves. “Why don’t you two fuck off now,” said George. His hand slid around Heather’s waist as he glared at me. “We’re busy.”
Tommy looked at me and smiled. I didn’t understand why at first. Then I saw him snatch the pack of cigarettes from George’s hand.
“Run!” he yelled at me.
We took off hard towards the catwalk. Derek took a swipe at me but missed. I didn’t look back, I just kept running. I could hear Heather and Melony laughing behind us.
The catwalk opened up to a residential street, I could hear George’s feet smacking against the pavement after us. Like we had done many times before, Tommy and I high-tailed it in between a pair of houses and hopped the fence into a backyard, crushing a bed of daisies as we came to the ground. We ran through a maze of laundry lines and drying bedsheets, hopped another fence, and found ourselves on a cul-de-sac that led us out to the main road. George had stopped chasing us.
We stopped at a corner gas station, out of breath from both running and laughing so hard.
“I can’t believe you did that,” I said, huffing and puffing, lungs burning.
“Fuck those guys,” said Tommy, grabbing his chest as he wheezed.
We caught our breath for a second and then he handed me a smoke from the pack of Player’s he swiped from George while taking one out for himself as well. We sat on the curb and smoked our cigarettes. The sun was sinking beneath the horizon, dimming the sky in an orangey pink glow. It was starting to get cold now. I flicked my smoke as the ember touched the filter and rubbed my arms.
Should have brought that jacket, I thought.
A black Pontiac that had been getting gas slowed down as it passed us until it came to a stop. The windows rolled down and a middle-aged, white guy poked his head out of the driver’s side. He smiled at us. “Aren’t you kids a little young to be smoking?”
Tommy looked right back at the man and, with the straightest face, said, “Aren’t you a little old to be starting conversations with little kids?”
By the time we got to our boxcar at the train yard, it was dark out. We were glad to be within the warmer confines of the shipping container, away from the winds howling against the steel walls. It wasn’t very big and it was empty from corner to corner, but the boxcar was like a second home to me and Tommy. It was our hideaway. We’d hide in there and pass the time playing cards, twenty questions, nickel football, or just smoking cigarettes. That and making fun of guys like George and Derek.
We were just starting to nod off when the noise of footsteps on gravel woke us up. People were passing by outside. I quietly crept to the air holes and peeked out into the yard. It was Dion Terrell and his boys.
“You fully shot that motherfucker,” said one of his lackeys. The boy sounded giddy and excited.
“Shoulda had my money,” Dion answered plainly.
“Better stash that heater, my nigga,” said another.
The rest of the conversation became muffled as they walked out of earshot. Moments later, I heard the reverberated clunk of something being dropped in a steel trash barrel.
“What was that?” whispered Tommy.
“Dion and his boys,” I whispered back.
I couldn’t help but wonder if that clunk was them ‘stashing the heater’. My curiosity ended up getting the best of me. I got up and headed for the door. “Hold up,” I said to Tommy. “I want to check something out.”
Tommy nodded and rolled over, drifting back to sleep.
Once I was sure Dion and his boys were gone, I slid the door to the boxcar open just enough so that I could squeeze out. Those things are rusty and squeal like all hell when they’re opened. I squeezed out and jumped down onto the gravel. It was still cold, but the wind had died down. I took a second to look around. The yard was empty. I quietly crept along the tracks to the garbage bin and looked inside. Sitting on top of some crumpled paper and some dirt–was a gun. Dion’s gun.
I reached into the barrel and picked it up by the handle. I was extremely careful. I didn’t know much about guns but Tommy knew a bit. His dad had one. I smiled. Tommy was going to flip when I showed him.
I walked back to the boxcar, slowly and carefully. I was scared I was going to trip over a track or a piece of gravel and shoot my face off. As I climbed into the boxcar, I noticed that Tommy had moved from out of the light and into the shadows, but I knew he was still in the car because I could hear him shuffling around. I was about to call out to him when I heard a voice that wasn’t Tommy.
“Touch it,” the voice commanded. I could hear Tommy struggling and saying something back, but his voice was muffled like someone had a hand over his mouth. “Touch it and I’ll let you go,” the voice said again. “Lick your hand and touch it…Come on, boy. Be nice. Touch it.”
“Hey, asshole!” I yelled into the shadows, raising Dion’s gun. “Get off him before I fucking kill you, you sick fuck!”
There was silence. I could hear footsteps, and then the intruder stepped out of the shadows into the light. He was taking cover behind Tommy, using him as a shield. One hand covered Tommy’s mouth and the other held a pocket knife to his neck. The hands were dirty, fingernails long. I saw his face. It was the escaped molester from the poster we saw earlier.
I pointed the gun at him and he ducked behind Tommy. “Careful, now,” he snarled. “You don’t want anything to happen to your little friend friend here…”
Tommy bit down on the man’s hand and kicked back like a donkey as hard as he could.
The old man stumbled back.
“Shoot this faggot, Ethe!” yelled Tommy.
I pulled the trigger but it wouldn’t budge.
The old man was getting up.
“Shoot him!” repeated Tommy.
I yelled back, “It’s not working!”
Now the old man was back on his feet and coming for me.
“The safety!” yelled Tommy. “Side of the gun!”
I did as he told me and clicked the safety off. I squeezed on the trigger again. This time, the gun fired and sent me back a few steps. An intense flash of light lit up the boxcar like a camera snapping a picture.
The old man dropped to the floor, his knife falling out of his hands.
The boxcar went dark once more.
Tommy ran over to me and squeezed me in a bear hug. When he let go, he motioned for the gun. I handed it to him, trembling.
“Now get out of here,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
Sirens could now be heard in the distance. They were getting louder.
Tommy gave me a nudge to the door. “Get out of here,” he repeated. “Run!”
“I’m not going to leave you,” I said.
“You know my dad won’t give a shit,” he said. Then he smiled, “Enjoy Cawthra, Ethe. Make us proud.”
The sirens were blaring now. I jumped out of the car, onto the gravel, and ran off into the night as fast as I could. I didn’t stop or slow down until I had reached my front porch…
The next day the story was all over the local news and in the papers. The escaped child molester, Francis Montgomery, had been found and taken into custody with a gunshot wound to the torso. The article said the police ruled the shooting as self-defense, but charged a minor with illegal possession of a firearm. Tommy was sentenced to a year in a juvenile correction facility.
I never told anyone about what happened that night. I transferred to Cawthra School of Arts and began to chase my dream to be an actor. After Tommy got out, we didn’t see much of each other. I heard he had been seen kicking around with Dion Terrell and his boys. After I graduated from Cawthra, I moved out to New York and I got an agent. Nights in the boxcar have been replaced with cocktail chatter and frienemies at some hot bar in the city. Though I love my life, I miss having Tommy around. My social circle has expanded, I rub elbows with all kinds of high society and schmooze with the hottest rising stars in the industry…but I have yet to come across anyone more loyal and trustworthy than Tommy was. I’ll always remember the sacrifice he made for me. He was my best friend. And I’ll never forget him.