Fiction: Chain Letters (excerpt)

To MB — first-loved, too long lost boy.
Chooch Donovan fought to stay awake. He usually worked days when the patchwork landscape and activity in the backyards, back lots and loading docks kept him alert. But at three in the morning, the train drilled through a featureless woolen gray darkness, the track two bright threads spinning out ahead. The soft lights that dotted the track at hypnotic intervals illuminated very little. The train’s headlights cast a wider, brighter arc that shone back at him from the glassy eyes of animals, raccoons and skunks mostly, but sometimes a porcupine or a deer.

The sandwich he had eaten before leaving the house at eleven sat in his gut like a rolled up sock. The half thermos of coffee downed since his shift started had left a dry bitter taste in his mouth. The caffeine hadn’t kicked in yet. His body was used to being sound a sleep at this hour but with Christmas coming in two months he needed to bank some time and a half.

Christmas! Only Halloween and already he had to start thinking about how much that was going to cost him. He didn’t mind really. The older kids knew that the family was strapped and didn’t ask for much. Last year had been particularly difficult and not just on the financial front. Colleen was out of sorts, got it in her head to get a job. Adolesence had hit Bridget Mary hard. Make-up and those short skirts. Made him cringe. He figured a boy fit into the equation somehow but hadn’t figured out who. She had stopped bringing friends home, acted mysterious, bucked him and Colleen on every damn thing. At least she kept her grades up. On that score, Chooch had no complaints.
Brian worried him, too, but for different reasons. Thick skull, his oldest suffered from arrested development. Senior year in high school for christ’s sake and he still acted like a kid. Sometimes Kyle at seven acted more mature. Hopefully once he got into the real world things would fall into place. Thank goodness for Kyle and Maddy. Still young enough to think their parents had all the answers. For now. If it weren’t for those two, Chooch sometimes thought he would lose his mind.
Chooch sighed. They were good kids. With the world going to hell in a handbasket—anti-war protests, drugs and hippies and free love, rock and roll—his kids were doing all right. As for Christmas, for the Donovan kids, hell for him and Colleen, the anticipation and the hoopla—the decorations, the stockings, the music and candy—more than made up for the meager pile of presents under the tree. Actually, think about it, any holiday sent them into a blissful frenzy.
He grinned to himself thinking of Kyle prancing around in his Captain Cook costume after dinner. “Aye-aye, me maties!”
The other kids had gotten too old for trick or treat, but Kyle had spent the last two weeks deciding on a costume. Colleen had suggested Peter Pan, but Kyle scoffed. He wasn’t going to wear tights and a sissy green hat!
Maddy who only last year announced that she was too old to dress up seemed to take more than just a little pleasure in helping Kyle plan for the big day. She spent hours sewing patches onto an old pair of shorts for him, saving a scrap of velvet for the all-important eye patch. Brimey, when she was around, helped Maddy. Brian, who usually lacked patience when it came to his kid brother, gave him some noisy lessons in swashbuckling.
With Kyle wound tight as a top, Chooch hadn’t been able to sneak off for a nap until after seven. He lay down but then the doorbell started to ring. And ring. The kids stampeded down the front hall and out the door—ka-bang!—to chase the pranksters. Colleen yelled, “Keep it down! Your father’s sleeping.”
Not likely. He’d finally dropped off around nine. When Colleen came to wake him up at eleven, he felt like he’d been walloped with a sledge hammer. He still felt woozy.
A little conversation would do the trick right now but Jim Trivers, his partner on the shift, had gone to catch some winks in a rear car. Deal was that Jim slept for the first couple of hours. At Friar’s Gate, they would switch places. Only a half hour to go, then Donovan would get to nap. Donovan took a deep breath and forced himself to sit up straighter and keep his eyes open.
The train eased into the curve just past the Fallsbridge city line. A slight movement on both sides of the track ahead startled him. Before he could figure out what was what, a guy popped up on the track. What the hell! Without thinking, Chooch reached for the emergency brake. The locomotive lurched too sharply to the right. The wheels screeched as they left the track. Chooch never heard the propane blow.
— • —
3:40 AM, a nightmare yanked George Cutter out of a deep sleep. Before he could start to piece it together, an explosion punched into the hollow of the hill on which the Cutter house sat. George felt the foundation shiver from the impact. His brain tick, tick, ticking now, he yelled, “The train!”
George bolted from the bed, pulled on the socks and the sweater that he’d left in a heap beside the bed and ran for the front hall. “Call the police!”
Babs stood and clutched the flannel nightgown close to her body. “Where are the kids, George?”
“Here, Ma.” JC pushed Clarisse ahead of him into his parents’ bedroom.
“Thank god!”
The three heard the George the front door slam.
“’Cept Grant’s gone.”
The explosion had ignited a fire that cast a throbbing yellow light up through bright yellow autumn leaves and painted the white birch in shades of red and orange. It looked like the sun had crashed and now burned in the ravine. George ran as fast as he could across his back lawn, hopped through the vegetable garden and after darting left and right then left again found the footpath. In the woods, underbrush slapped at his legs and snagged in the flimsy cotton of this pajama bottoms. His corduroy coat protected his upper body. He used his forearms to protect his face.
Barely into the woods, the footpath pitched steeply downwards. The smell of wood smoke mixed with seared rubber and fuel that wafted up from below.
Now, George grabbed at the whip-thin branches to keep himself upright as his feet shod in old rubber gardening boots slipped and slid on the muddy path. A few times he lost his balance. By the time the path flattened out again, the seat of his pajamas were sodden, his pants and the skin beneath torn. He slowed. He bent double, hands on knees, and huffed and puffed. The acrid smoke raked his throat and nostrils. Blood-tainted sweat trickled into his mouth. His right ankle throbbed. The sound of sirens, police cars, fire trucks and ambulances, came from two directions, from the center of Fallsbridge and from Carsdale, the next town over.
Before he reached the clearing he could see the train. The locomotive and maybe four other cars lay on their sides. Railroad ties stuck up like splayed fingers. A part of the track had torn loose from the rail bed and arced up like a slender length of black ribbon. Only a few cars remained firmly upright and attached to the track.
The carcass of the train acted as a fire break. Instead of running up the hill, the fire spread on the far side of the tracks. George could make out the charred remains of Grindell’s nursery, the quick mart and the lumber yard. The explosion and heat had blown out the windows of the brick professional building. Flames licked at the foundation. Tweed’s ladies boutique and the orthopedic shoe shop shared the bottom floor. George gasped in horror then nearly laughed with relief. Mannequins, blackened and naked that looked for all the world like real people, leaned out of the display window. Smoke curled from the windows of the offices on the second floor. George’s dentist had an office there. Emergency vehicles roared onto the tarmac in front of the smoldering businesses. They’d get what was left of the fire under control but it was too late to salvage much. Damage done.
George didn’t like to think of himself as one of those sicko lookie-loos who gawked at human tragedy. Dressed as he was, hobbling along on a swollen ankle, he could hardly offer much help. Still, as a concerned citizen and a lawyer, he had a moral obligation to bear witness. Truth, he didn’t relish the hike back up the hill with what was probably a sprained ankle. He’d never get back to sleep anyway.
George limped towards the commotion at the head of the train. He picked his way slowly along the tracks. The slight incline of loose gravel beside the rails strained his ankle. The light from the dwindling fire and the emergency vehicles didn’t reach to the far side of the train and made the darkness darker still.
A squadron of police cars and an ambulance had pulled up to where the locomotive lay on its side. The vehicles focused their spots on the tracks just beyond the locomotive. Paramedics worked on a man sprawled on the tracks. The man, the engineer, must have gone right through the front window of the train. His face looked like raw hamburger and his legs were cocked at an odd angle. George felt sick.
“Sir, were you on the train?”
A policeman’s flashlight blinded George.
George jumped in surprise then quickly collected himself. “No, of course not.”
“Did you see what happened?”
“No, sir, I showed up about the same time as you did.” George hitched up his coat so that the officer could better see his pajamas. “I was in bed. Asleep. The explosion rocked the rafters.”
“I bet. Anyway, in that case, I’ll have to ask you to either go back home or to move to the other side of the tracks where an area’s been secured.” The policeman pointed with his flashlight.
The beam got lost in the glare of more lights on the other side. George could just make out the forms of two young men, no more than boys really, huddled on the tracks. Another policeman leaned forward, hands on hips, and took the boys’ statements. The policeman’s partner, his foot up on the track, knee cocked, hunched over a black notebook balanced on his thigh, recorded their statements.
“Witnesses?” George asked.
“I’m really not—”
“Professional curiosity,” George said. “I’m a public defender. George Cutter.”
“That a fact?” He cocked his head forward to get a better look at George. His voice when he continued was guarded. “Well, actually, we’re thinking perps. Looks like a Halloween prank gone sour. It’d be one sorry piece of work if that’s the case. One of the workers was asleep in the back end of the train when it derailed. Lucky bastard walked away with a couple of scratches. The engineer though, you know, Chooch Donovan, got thrown through the window. He’s banged up pretty bad. I’ll be surprised if he makes it.”
Chooch Donovan wasn’t a friend but he was a neighbor and George knew him and admired him. “What a waste.”
The officer nodded then squinted at George again. “You said your name was George Cutter?”
Years later, whenever he thought about the exchange, George cringed. If he hadn’t felt so flattered by what he thought was a beat cop’s recognition, he might have heard the shift in the man’s voice, better read his expression. “That’s right,” he’d answered. “Attorney George Cutter.” Most of the city’s police force had been in his courtroom at one time or another but he didn’t recognize this one. A little public relations never hurt. “And you’d be?”
“Officer Gillespie.” Gillespie thrust out a gloved hand.
George took it. Despite the initial rush of having his ego stroked, when the big galoot pumped his arm George realized how bone weary he was. “Well, you fellows seem to have a handle on the situation,” he said. “I think I’ll call it a night.”
“Can you hang on a minute, sir?”
Only then did George notice the concern in the officer’s face. Gillespie pressed a button on his walkie-talkie and initiated a conversation with someone on the other side. How cops made out what came out of those things was beyond him and he was too tired to eavesdrop anyway. He did hear the name “Cutter” erupt out of the squawk box a time or two which got him all puffed up with pride again.
The conversation was short. Gillespie motioned to George and summoned him with a clipped, “Come with me, sir.”
George should have sensed then that something was wrong but pure arrogance led him in a completely different direction. He began thinking that his lawyerly skills might come in handy after all. He never once suspected that his role as a father would be called upon until he heard Grant’s quavering voice.
“Dad?”
“What were you thinking?”
— • —
The question always throws him because, even if the details change, the answer stays the same: nothing. As for the train prank, Grant hadn’t been thinking or, at least, reflecting, contemplating, mulling things over, weighing the pros, the cons, the eventual outcomes and consequences, which is what old George means when he says “thinking”. Of course, Grant had been thinking, but thinking for him is more like tossing ideas around, back and forth, coming up with a plan with his best bud with the best bud, Pearce Reilly. To be honest, they were stone bored. Stoned and bored. Bored and stoned.
And talking more than thinking about doorbell night, doorbell weeks more like because it goes on for at least three weeks before Halloween. After, they started thinking about it and planning for a while so, as it turned out, they did finally wind up doing it on Monday night, official doorbell night, well, Tuesday morning to be exact.
So, it’s like a week before Halloween and they’re bored since they have no plans to do anything on Halloween. Grant’s thirteen and Pearce fourteen going on fifteen at the end of November so putting on a costume to go out trick or treating is definitely out. Trick or treating is for grade school kids. As for the haunted house at the fire station, even if it was meant for older kids, t-t-t teens, they both decide that that would be just t-t-t-too retarded.
Doorbell night. They figure it will be their last year of high jinks since, after this year, Pearce will be in high school and Grant a senior in junior high. By next year, they plan to have girlfriends—a steady one for Pearce since he already has to beat chicks off with a stick, but Grant’s still looking around—and have lots better things to do.
Grant calls and tells his mother that he’s studying at Pearce’s. A long pause masks a sigh but, as she often says, she doesn’t have the energy to argue. “As long as Pearce’s mom is there to supervise,” she says. “Let me talk to her.”
“Um, yeah, but Megan’s in the bathroom so she can’t come to the phone.”
“Mrs. Reilly to you, smart guy.”
Actually, Miss Reilly if Babs wantsto get picky about it. “She wants us to call her Megan.”
“I don’t care, young man. She’s not your mother.”
Babs has a real bug up her ass about Megan. Thinks she’s a trollop, whatever that is. “Right. Anyway, can I stay?”
“Okay, sweetie, but home by five sharp you hear me? That way you can actually do some homework before dinner.”
“Aww, Mom—“
“Don’t aw-Mom me, Grant. Five o’clock, promise?”
“Promise.”
Babs is so gullible. Megan, and she positively insists that the boys call her that, is out, at work or someplace and so’s Liam, Pearce’s older brother. Grant and Pearce are just hanging out watching some really old fart black and white sci-fi thing on TV. They’re kinda hoping Randy shows up with some weed even if the stuff does just put them to sleep. Randy’s a former “uncle” who lives down the hall in the apartment complex. He says he was a Vietnam vet which everyone knows is bullshit except that chicks seem to buy it, particularly the really young wannabe hippy chicks that Pearce is always dragging home and, apparently, although Grant never says it aloud to Pearce, some lonely single moms, so Randy with his bogus ’Nam stories, biker’s duds and wacky weed does get laid. Pearce says that the guy’s never been east of Bridgeport. Randy never shows, typical, and Pearce and Grant are just shooting the shit and that’s when doorbell night comes up.
The way they see it, and this is the back and forth thinking but not thinking part, this doorbell night is going to be their last year as kids. The usual tricks, like ringing a doorbell and running away, smashing pumpkins or soaping the neighbors’ cars, seem really lame. The year before, they scored some firecrackers, cherry bombs and salutes mostly, and blew up the Giancarlo’s mailbox. Pearce also got hold of a baggy of gunpowder. He piled it on a garbage can lid turned upside down in the street and tossed a match in. The fucker blew and pretty nearly took off his nose off. It took months for his eyebrows to grow back.
That was cool but they both feel like they should do something a little more sophisticated since, after this year, doorbell night is going to be just too stupid. Every year, some idiot, usually some loser in high school with a negative IQ, puts a cat under someone’s hood so that when the engine starts the cat gets ground to Grade A catburger. Credit where credit’s due, Grant and Pearce think that’s just gross. Even if they both think cats can’t compete with dogs when it came to pets, or snakes or even hamsters who are really boring, killing stuff is definitely uncool.
Pearce tells the cops that it was all Grant’s idea since his brother, Liam, has already done some time in juvie and he’s scared shitless of being sent up which, given Liam’s record and the fact that Megan is not exactly your perfect, prime-time Mom, is a distinct possibility.
But, to be fair, it isn’t like that. It kinda just blossoms full-blown out of both of their heads put together like that story in Greek mythology except instead of kids, what comes out of their heads is a scarecrow, a scarecrow all duded up to scare the bejesus outta somebody. They don’t want to just put it at someone’s door, ring the bell and run cuz it would just lay there like a heap of dirty laundry. Hardly scary. So, then they think of a hangman scarecrow. But, again, they want the element of surprise. Plus they don’t want to single anybody out because they didn’t have any grudges against the neighbors. Not really. Besides, ask anybody, when it comes to scary, randomness counts.
They kind of just yammer on for a while—and that’s the next day when Pearce shows up with some of Randy’s lame ass weed and they’re getting stoned in the abandoned utility shed next to the tracks—so, yeah, they’re a little stoned but not much because Randy’s shit is shit.
For awhile, a lot of kids used to hang out by the tracks and get stoned. You have to be stoned to hitch a ride on the train which, of course, is the point. It’s a pokey old choo-choo but once it comes out of the curve it gets going at a pretty good clip. The game was hauling yourself up onto one of the flatbeds then jumping off just before the train slowed to pass the loading docks behind the strip mall. It was a total trip and lots faster than hitchhiking.
Eddie Piatti fucked things up when he took a header off a car. It would have been bad enough but then his leg got tangled in something and the train just kept going for awhile until someone notice Eddie hanging off. Eddie didn’t die but he did lose a foot. Tough break and the parents in the neighborhood were totally freaked, including Grant’s. Luckily, Grant was at home with strep when it happened so he was off the hook. Short story, the cops got kinda strict about it so nobody jumps trains anymore and the stoners go to the quarry now so Grant and Pearce have the place to themselves.
The train comes by twice a day, at 3:30 in the afternoon and at 3:30 in the morning. It’s when the 3:30 afternoon train slows slightly to take the curve just before the shed that Grant and Pearce have a Vulcan mind meld moment. Without a word, Pearce kills the roach and they both go outside to watch the train pass. The engineer, a youngish old dude who looks like a walrus wearing a goofy train hat, waves at them. They wave back.
Pearce says it first. “Deadman’s Curve.” He sort of intones it. “Deadman’s. Curve.”
Grant lowers his voice to sound like the host from Big Three Theater. “Destination Death. Da-daaaaaaa.”
They goof on that for awhile, standing up then dropping down in the leaves and rolling around as if they’re having death convulsions. Dead. Man’s. Curve. Destination Death. Oooooooooo. They like both those names but pick “Operation Scarecrow” so that if someone overhears them talking about it, they’ll think they’e planning to make a scarecrow for Halloween. Which, as a matter of fact, they are.
Grant cops some of George Senior’s work clothes, a red flannel shirt and some ugly-ass grease-stained chinos that he’d left hanging in the garage. He’d never miss them. He has so much fucking L.L. Bean he should get a best customer bonus. Plus, Pearce says no way he’s going to boost some of his latest “uncle’s” duds.
Grant smells a rat. He knows that the Reilly boys barely own enough clothes between them to cover their sorry asses. The uncles never have much more. Still, Pearce hates them and is usually happy to steal their clothes, all of ’em, any day, and toss ’em in the nearest dumpster. Grant teases Pearce about going soft. Mistake. Pearce pops him one so hard on the bicep that Grant’s fingers go numb. Turns out the newest “uncle” just bailed. Megan’s working on getting another one, but everyone knows how that goes. The uncle did leave a pair of work boots behind which Pearce contributes to the cause.
They want to use straw to be really authentic. They even think about offering to muck out Snoopy’s stall for Clarisse then stealing some from the stables but they need to have a good excuse for wanting to do it because, number one, mucking out stables is nasty. Number two, Clarisse is just a little kid but smart, sometimes lots smarter than Grant even. She’d know something was up. She’d never tattle but Grant doesn’t want to put her on the spot. Even if they had a good excuse and they could keep Clarisse in the clear, mucking out the stall then stealing straw would have taken too much time and effort. The closest thing at hand is dried leaves. Plenty of those. The piles in front of the house are just sitting there and getting bigger every day. Even better, after sitting in a pile for over a week, the dampness turns the leaves near the bottom into gunk almost like papier mâché.
They toss in some rotten crab apples to add weight. They snatch the pumpkin for the head from the Foley’s front porch, perfect because the Foleys hadn’t bothered to carve it so it isn’t rotting.
Piece of cake. The Foley’s don’t have kids and it’s common knowledge that they hate Halloween. They always go out that night to avoid the whole thing. Why else leave two bushels of apples on the front porch with a sign that says “Please take one!,” like anyone wants apples when they go trick or treating especially with everybody scared of finding razor blades and needles. Talk about scary. The Foleys probably end up eating Halloween apples for the rest of the year.
Anyway, the idea comes together like that and then it just becomes a project. Like, first it’s the scarecrow, scoring the clothes, stuffing it with leaves and apples, attaching the head. The head’s really heavy so figuring out how to get the thing to drop realistically with the feet at the bottom and the pumpkin head on top is like a physics problem. Pearce doesn’t get it, but Grant takes lots of measurements and puts the thing through at least ten test runs before they figure out what kind of rope to use and how to rig it. At one point, before they figure it out Grant actually thinks about how proud old George would be. His father is always going on about the importance of problem-solving. “You can know all the rules but, if you can’t solve a problem, what good are they?” Pearce gets all uptight when Grant talks about old George unless he’s complaining about him so Grant keeps his thoughts about his father to himself.
When they finally do figure it out, they’re all like, “All right!” High fives all around.
Instead of hanging the thing from a tree branch and just letting it dangle, they figure out how to animate it. They bore holes into either side of the pumpkin head using a really thin awl bit they lifted from shop class. They thread the white plastic-coated laundry cord through the holes then throw the ends of the cord over branches of roughly the same height, and close enough to the ground to climb up on and jump down from without busting anything. The tests prove that, from a distance in the dark, no one can see the scarecrow lying flat between the rails or the cord stretched taut from the scarecrow into the branches where Grant and Pearce crouch holding the ends. As soon, as the train rounds the curve, Grant and Pearce will blast out the trees with the rope and the scarecrow will pop straight up in front of the train.
They do all the real planning and problem-solving in the old utility shed. They get so caught up in the details they forget about thinking ahead. Figuring out how to make it all work becomes the point, the high point. Well, that, and imagining the ooooo-ahhhhhh! freaked expression on the face of the engineer when he sees their masterpiece. Because it is a fucking masterpiece.
And, yeah, when they get done thinking about how brilliant they are, they think about the story making headlines next day: Authorities have identified the victim hit by the 3:30 AM train as Mr. No-Name Pumpkin Head, no fixed address. Grant and Pearce nearly piss themselves laughing.
What was Grant thinking? He was thinking, “I’m fucking bored,” and then he was thinking, let ’em call Pearce a loser if they want but him and Pearce, made an excellent team, like Starsky and Hutch even if they did wind up on the wrong side of the law. The hell with college or vocational school. They could kiss all that good-bye cuz, right now! forget growing up to be lame-ass cops, they could be famous inventors, man!
Grant isn’t thinking about the real meaning of Deadman’s Curve. The pros and cons. The consequences. After all, who wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Geez, today I think I’ll be completely stupid and careless, hell!, why not aim for complete asshole while I’m at it and maybe, just maybe, I can maim somebody for life.”
Grant doesn’t think about that until after but by then it’s too fucking late.
So when the question finally does come, “What were you thinking?”, the usual answer, “nothing,” flickers in Grant’s brain pan but before he can say it, George Senior smacks him upside the head so fast and so hard that he drops. Straight. Down.