by Camille LaGuire
For every day of Janine's life, the train slid by, on and on, at a slow but still deadly pace. It always fascinated her, something so big and dangerous and yet so constant. Like the wall that lined the tracks, which kept her from seeing the wheels. She often considered climbing that wall just to get a better look, but it was too dangerous.
They said that people used to jump the wall all the time, before the trains were continuous. They'd cross from one side to the other, play on the tracks, feel the rumble of the trains close up. The city had tried electrifying the fence, putting in spikes, but nothing could keep people off those dangerous tracks. Nothing except the trains themselves, running on and on, crushingly unavoidable, unstoppable.
Once, when she was young, Janine climbed to the top of the trash dumpster, then up the lamp post so she could see down to the wheels. They were round and the steel shone where they buffed the tracks, but they were black with grime elsewhere.
But the boxcars were mostly empty. You could tell by how they bounced sometimes, that some were lighter than others, and some of the cars had slatted sides and you could see through them. When she asked her mother why, her mother only said it was good for commerce. Janine didn't know what that meant. How could empty cars be good for commerce? Maybe having them run all the time was convenient?
She climbed the lamp post again and watched the trains, counted the cars she knew were empty -- the slatted ones, the ones which had doors open. Not counting the ones that bounced, it seemed to her that over half the cars were empty. And when she thought about it, she had only once seen any cargo in one of the slatted cars. A few cows once.
She asked her mother again about the empty cars, and he mother finally sighed and shook her head.
"I suppose you're old enough to know," she said. "It's to keep those people on the other side of the tracks from coming over here. They're bad people."
She wouldn't say much more, and now Janine lost interest in the wheels on the trains and she climbed the lamp post to look across the tracks at the other side.
It didn't look much different from this side, she thought at first. She expected to see some sort of awful, dark place. An evil king's domain, or a world of flat concrete. Something from a story. But the only thing she noticed after observing for a while is that the houses were spaced evenly apart, and they all had fences around them. The oddest thing was that each house had a little yard, but no garden. Just flat and green, like the park.
There was only one park on Janine's side of the fence. Every other bit of land was filled with garden. Perhaps the people over there were hungry, and that's why they were bad. Maybe they weren't allowed to have gardens. Janine couldn't tell. The people were seldom seen, and when she did see them, they didn't look hungry. They looked just ordinary.
Then one day came the time of the great breakdown. Something went wrong, an accident which blocked the tracks and shut down the power all over. The trains stopped.
Janine's parents became frightened. They huddled over their radio and listened to the reports of the disaster. They locked their doors and ordered Janine to stay inside.
Janine just couldn't stay in. She had to know. The trains were stopped, and now anyone could cross over.
She was too scared to cross her self, but she slipped out the window of her room, and ran to the parking lot. There were no people around on the streets. There was hardly any sound - no endless grinding of wheels on tracks, no clatter and rumble of the bouncing cars.
She climbed up on the dumpster and shinnied up the lamppost, and looked first up and down the tracks. No one was crossing that she could see.
Then she looked across the tracks to the other side. And there she saw, facing her, a line of soldiers. A long line spaced evenly along the other side of the track. They extended as far as she could see, all holding guns and facing the tracks. Just as she saw them, one shouted and pointed and they started shooting at her.
Bullets rang against the lamp post, and Janine jumped down to the dumpster and then to the ground.
She crouched against the dumpster, sobbing and clutching her knees to her chest. She heard the sound of guns for a moment longer, and one hit the light of the lamppost and shards rained down. Then someone shouted and the shooting stopped.
And all was silent again. Janine ran for home, sorry she'd come, sorry she'd been so curious. But she noticed that no one came over the fence after her. No one crossed.
She climbed into her room and huddled in her small bed, and soon the power came back on, and she began to hear the distant rumble of the trains start up again. She listened to that rumble and clatter and thought about what she'd seen, and she decided that those soldiers had not been getting ready to cross the tracks. They were watching, guarding. And on this side, her own side, nobody was guarding the tracks.
She went back into the front room and found her mother looking relieved.
"Mommy," said Janine. "Those trains don't run to keep those other people from crossing the tracks do they? They are supposed to keep US from crossing to their side."
He mother looked at her a long time before she said, quietly and gently, "Yes."
"Why?" said Janine. "Are we bad people?"
"No," said her mother. "They're just scared of us."
"But why, Mommy?"
"Because we live on this side of the tracks, that's all. We're from the wrong side."
On Wednesday I'll post some story notes on how I came to write this story.
See you in the funny papers.
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