By Jay Sauls
Andrew Alwine, aka ‘Copper Top’ to his friends because of his bright red hair, lay curled up in bed whimpering. He pulled the bedspread tight over his head. His Star Wars nightlight projected a soft amber glow on the wall but provided no real protection. Once again, he dreamed of the long-abandoned rail line, the tracks wavering and vanishing into the distance after it swept past the depot. The decrepit building sagged, kudzu vines climbed up the sides and over the top. Green vines twisted in the breeze hypnotically. And on the abandoned track-side loading dock stood the boy, the one who tortured animals. The shadowy adolescent kicked the puppies and hit them with a stick. One pup lay motionless, its side no longer rising or falling. The boy laughed and wiped clean a stick covered with blood. Andy never saw the shadowy face, just the silhouette, and the hands. Hands caked with mud, fingers, and nails black. The boy in the dream always laughed when his cold shadow fell across Andy’s shoulder.
A knock on his door woke Andy
“Sweetie, are you okay? Did you have another nightmare?” Soft light spread around the edge of his door as it opened slowly. His mother, eyes tired and graying hair disheveled, peeked into this room.
Barely able to control his fear, Andy pulled the covers off his head and hugged his pillow tightly. He nodded and shivered.
“Is it the same one?” his mother asked, now sitting beside him on the bed and stroking his coppery hair.
Andy nodded again. Tears streamed down his face.
“Sweetheart, they’re just dreams.” Mary Beth Alwine wiped his tears away with a gentle brush of her hand. The boy burst into new sobs and fell against her. She cradled his head and rubbed his back lovingly. “I know you want a dog, but we just can’t have one, not with your father’s health.”
Andy silently cried and tried to sniff back his tears.
Mary Beth pulled loose of her son, kissed him on the forehead, and gently leaned him back on his pillow. She pulled the covers up to his chin. “We’ll take your bike to the park tomorrow. Maybe your friends will be there, and you guys can go riding,” she said and tried to comfort him with a smile. “Now let’s go back to sleep. Sweet dreams, Andy-man.”
Andy managed a weak smile and allowed his mom to kiss him on the cheek, her lips cool to the touch. He watched her pull the door shut and the light from the hallway wink out, taking with it the weak illumination slipping around his door. Sleep had been lurking close by, waiting for him to relax. He felt it pull his eyelids down and slow his breathing. As he surrendered, he saw the other boy approach, dragging another lifeless dog with him. Andy balled his fist and covered his eyes as the dream-boy closed on him. He could feel him standing over him, glaring down, smell the sour odor of his skin; a lifeless little dog swings slowly back and forth on its death-leash.
Look at me!
“No!” Andy whispered.
“No!” Andy screamed into his pillow.
Hands suddenly grabbed him by the face and a pair of icy thumbs pulled at his eyes, trying to force his lids apart. His eyes snapped wide and he found himself staring at the ceiling in his bedroom. The sun now pushing through his blinds, the Star Wars nightlight dormant. Night had passed taking the shadows with it.
The city park was in full bloom when his mom drove through the entrance. Minivans circled the drop-off zone, stopping quickly and disgorging kids with armloads of sporting equipment. Small sedans parked in the limited shade as young mothers unloaded strollers and toddlers. Andy leaned as far forward as his seatbelt would allow and scanned the acres of baseball and football fields, playgrounds, and walking trails for his friends. Caleb Saunders rolled past on his bike, weaving through the parking spots, spokes, and reflectors glittering in the sun. Caleb waved, swerved suddenly to avoid taking out a handicap parking sign, and circled back laughing. His white teeth showed easily against his dark skin.
“Mom, stop here,” Andy said excitedly and released his seatbelt. “There’s Caleb. We’re gonna ride the trails.” He threw his door open and bolted out of the van the moment it came to a stop. He raised the lift-gate to retrieve his mountain bike. After muscling it out, he spun the pedals back once, mounted, and sprinted after his friend.
“You boys be careful!” Mary Beth shouted. Andy weaved between cars and pedestrians. “Don’t leave the park and stay away from the old depot!” The boys waved as they disappeared around the colonnade of water oaks lining the entrance.
Andy stepped hard on the pedals, his longer legs allowing him to out-distance the shorter boy. Within minutes they had ridden far beyond the ball fields and playgrounds, now coasting along the winding, lonely bike paths that led further into the park and toward the old-growth forest.
“So whatcha wanna do?” Caleb asked as he tried to bunny-hop his BMX bike over a large root pushing up the cracked asphalt path. He barely caught any air, slipped off the pedals, and almost crashed into a tree.
“Don’t know,” Andy said, laughing. His friend was always trying to impress him with stunts and generally failing miserably. “I was thinking about riding down the rail lines until they leave the park. Mom says to not go beyond the fence.”
“Have you even been to the depot?” Caleb asked as he sprinted ahead of Andy, then circled back. His eyes twinkled. “I’ve heard it’s haunted.”
“It’s not haunted,” Andy dismissed. “It’s just an old building. Mom says to stay out of it, that it’s dangerous.”
“Bet you won’t go inside,” Caleb challenged and pulled up beside his friend.
Andy stared ahead not saying anything, pedaling slowly. The walking path turned to the right, leaving the old rail line and circling back toward the entrance. The park’s fence crossed over the tracks, the rails disappearing through a thicket of briars and brush. A break in the fence allowed more adventurous riders to leave the manicured trails inside the park and work their way through the dense woods. A rutted trail angled through the gap in the old chain-link barrier. Andy glanced back over his shoulder and slowed. They were a good half-mile from the main parking lot and throngs of people.
Caleb matched his pace, then shot the gap in the fence, splashing through a shallow puddle and spraying the briars with mud. “C’mon, Andy! What’s the matter, you scared?” He climbed on the pedals and vanished into the thick summer foliage.
Andy stopped, licked his lips, and glanced over his shoulder once more. Bright late-morning sunshine cast a million shimmers off the windshields in the far distance. He turned back toward the abandoned rails. The woods felt darker, the air uncomfortable.
“Hey, Andy, are you coming or not?” Caleb’s voice came from deep in the woods.
Screw it, he thought and pushed through the fence gap. The path dropped down beside the tracks, then ran parallel, eventually traveling deeper into the forest. The brush pushed closer to the rails, briars pulled at his right arm and leg. The hairs on his arms tingled, the feeling of eyes on his back intensified. Standing on the pedals he pushed the cranks harder. Andy broke out into a hard sweat as the wind streamed through his hair. He raced into a clearing and there sat Caleb astride his bike. He was smiling, his teeth once again illuminating his face.
“Dang, son, thought you chickened out or something!” Caleb climbed from his bike and pushed it around the mounds of debris lining the abandoned depot. “Is this cool, or what?”
Andy coasted up to him, using the toe of his shoe to stop. His heart was racing and a cold sweat that had nothing to do with the ride trickled down his back. He slid from the seat and stared at the century-old building. The windows were empty, the front doors hanging from old rusted hinges. The loading dock cantered precariously away from the building. A breeze shuffled past, rattling the tin roof. “It’s creepy, is what it is,” Andy said not taking his eyes off the dying building.
“C’mon, let’s check out the inside.” Caleb dropped his bike on the ground and scrambled onto the loading dock.
“I don’t know. Mom says we shouldn’t be here.”
Caleb stood with his hands on his hips. He scowled and made crying motions with his hands over his eyes. “Don’t be such a baby! Plus, your mom’s not here.”
Andy bit his bottom lip. It was just an old building, nothing more, nothing less. And Caleb was right, mom wasn’t here, so a quick look around wouldn’t hurt anything. “All right, hang on, I’m coming.” He laid his bike beside Caleb and followed his friend’s tracks through the scattered debris. Old wooden crates were stacked against the depot. He climbed them, angling toward the deck, the wood cracking and splitting as he ascended. The stack toppled over the moment he jumped onto the platform.
“Caleb, where are you?” Andy called as he carefully walked across the old deck, testing the floor with each step. “Caleb! This isn’t funny!” He heard movement to the right and turned in time to see Caleb leap out a glassless window waiving a long-pointed stick.
Andy screamed, turned to run and tripped. He landed hard on the platform, the boards cracking and collapsing under him. He fell through the dock and landed in a tangle of broken, rotting wood, the wind knocked out of him. With no air in his lungs he couldn’t cry or call for help. His panic slowly dissipated when his breath returned, and he realized he wasn’t seriously hurt, just stunned. He climbed to his knees and staggered across the dirty ground, stirring small gray clouds of power-dry dust. As he neared the edge of the platform a short rope with a metal tag hung between the planks. He reached up and grabbed the red cord. But not a rope. A collar. A dog’s collar with tags. When his hands closed around the tags, light flashed painfully, the air around him turned into a vacuum, then the illumination under the building turned black.