STOP THE CAR
“Don’t be afraid.”
Charlie was lying down on one of the railroad tracks, hands behind his head in a pose of utmost relaxation. The sun had just gone down so I could barely make out his features in the dark, but I’m sure he was grinning. I stood on the rails of the separate second track, hands in the pockets of my jacket.
“I don’t want to get run over by a train,” I said.
“Do you hear one coming?”
I listened to the crickets singing around my bare feet and the god-awful static of the cicadas in the trees surrounding the twin tracks. Somewhere under nature’s racket there was the impossibly low rumble of certain death scraping over wood and steel at a hundred miles an hour.
I said “Yes.”
Charlie was beside me then, and he pushed me to the ground. “Take your seatbelt off for once.”
The ties pressed hard into my spine, vibrating slightly and itching at my skin through my shirt. Charlie was back on his tracks in the same comfortable position as before, as if he’d never left that spot. It was strange how calm he was when all of my muscles were taut and poised to spring at the right moment. He wasn’t terrified at the prospect of being millimeters away from death. It’s why he brought me to the railroad tracks.
The earth shook so violently I thought it would break in half, bouncing me against the sharp rails and ignoring my staccato gasps. The train was fast approaching, chomping away the tracks. It let out a bloodthirsty shriek, as loud as if I had a pair of tubas attached to both of my ears. It was a mythical monster and we were the human sacrifices.
I heard Charlie’s voice, but not his words. My mind struggled to make sense of the sounds buried under the monster’s chugging footsteps.
“I wonder which one of us is about to die?”
With another howl from the belly of the monster, my legs awoke and propelled me away from the tracks with a single forceful push, and I rolled from the painful metal through soft wet grass. The wind rose suddenly, thrusting my hair in every direction around my head. I dug my fingers into the dirt to stop my spinning body and snapped my head up to see the train barreling down the tracks Charlie had been on.
Before I could scream, the monster’s tail sped past and disappeared. Charlie was sitting casually on the other side of the tracks, body fully intact and spotless. When the train moved further away and grew quieter, I could hear him laughing.
I buried my face in the grass in relief. My heart would have been screaming if it had a mouth, pulsing at a breakneck tempo. Adrenaline was dissolving fast now and I felt exhausted.
When I glanced up again there was a silver flask in my face. Charlie’s feet made no sound when they touched the ground. He was squatting in front of me with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, offering me a drink.
“Thought I was a goner,” he said. His voice was level and sarcastic.
I pushed the flask away, stood up quickly, and began walking in the other direction. Charlie laughed again and ran after me.
“What the hell did we have to do that for?” I shouted, still walking briskly.
Charlie moved in front of me and stopped me with his hand on my chest. The red flare of his cigarette tip was all I could see.
“Why are you angry? You’re alive. You’re unscathed. You’re safe,” he said.
I brushed his hand off of me and said “I’m going home.”
He let me walk again, but he stayed by my side.
“I just wanted you to know how exciting life could be.”
“I don’t want to be excited.”
“Then at least have a cigarette,” he said, producing one for me. “It’ll calm you down.”
I’d never smoked before, but I grabbed the butt and let him light it. When I inhaled the carcinogens rushed down my throat and burned inside my lungs, and I automatically coughed. The cigarette fell from my lips, and Charlie bent over to pick it up. He put it in the other corner of his mouth, looking like a walrus with both tusks on fire. My heart was more or less beating normally and the absence of adrenaline in my bloodstream made me want to fall over and go to sleep on the ground. Then I was at my house, as if we’d only been in my backyard.
Charlie waved goodbye and left me alone in my driveway, running down the road and disappearing behind a tree.
I coughed again as soon as I opened the front door.
“Jonah?” my mom called from another room. “Is that you?”
“Yeah,” I said, trudging towards the stairs.
“Don’t go upstairs without taking your medicine. I just picked it up from the pharmacy.”
I put my hand on the banister and groaned quietly. “I don’t want to.”
She somehow heard me and appeared in the doorway next to the stairs. “Do you want to get better or not?”
I followed her into the kitchen and swallowed two white tablets with no water to satisfy her. The taste of sulfur powdered the back of my tongue. I climbed the stairs as quickly as possible, turned into my room, and collapsed on the bed. I didn’t need to change out of my dirty jeans to feel comfortable enough to pass out, and soon I was hearing things that I was sure were only in my head. Someone was calling my name. They wanted to give me something, but I didn’t want it. They changed the subject. They wondered how much a plane ticket to New York would cost. I didn’t know, either. My thoughts birthed themselves without any effort on my part as I quickly slipped into unconsciousness.
It was Saturday when I woke up, sunlight streaming on to my body from the window beside my bed. There was nothing very interesting in my room, just the same bookshelf and progressive rock band posters I see every single morning. I felt refreshed, and trapped. I wanted to go on an adventure.
I changed into a clean white t-shirt and jeans and slid down the stairs. My father sat at the dining room table reading a newspaper and didn’t notice me. I went to the kitchen, where my mother stood staring off into space with a cup of coffee, and grabbed the phone.
“Who are you calling?” she asked.
“Charlie,” I said.
The earpiece rang several times without interruption. Charlie usually answered after the first one. Maybe he was asleep. I hung up.
“Did you take your medicine?” my mother asked.
“I just woke up.”
“Then take it now.”
I hesitated. I didn’t feel sick, and the pills tasted like rotten eggs. They seemed pointless.
“Jonah,” my mother nagged.
“Take your medicine, Jonah,” my father said sternly. He didn’t even look away from the newspaper. It wasn’t any of his business.
I did what they wanted so they would leave me alone. I wanted to get out of the house, but there was nothing to do alone. Charlie would have an idea, and I didn’t care if he wanted to skinny dip in the retention pond down the street. I just wanted to have fun. I felt dangerous.
I sat on the couch in the living room and absently flipped through the channels on TV. I just needed time to pass quickly so I could try Charlie again. After about an hour of mind-numbing cake decorating challenges, I went back to the phone. It rang and rang, and he still did not pick up. I waited even longer, tried again, and received the same result. The digital tone was so insulting. Why wouldn’t he pick up the phone?
I stared at a wall until the day packed its suitcase and boarded a train. It couldn’t have been more wasted if it had been drinking. Charlie never picked up the phone once.
Sunday came quickly, but nothing changed. I was still dying to leave my house, I still had nothing to do, and Charlie was still missing. I let the day slip through my fingers.
By Monday I started wondering if I’d made him angry somehow. He hadn’t seemed irritated after the train fiasco the other night, but sometimes he was difficult to read. Charlie obviously wasn’t a normal teenage boy, even though he went to some private Catholic school on the other side of town. That was probably why he was so weird. Charlie basically lived to die. I don’t really remember how we met but we’ve known each other for a pretty long time, and he always wanted to do these dangerous activities like lie down on train tracks until a train showed up. He had an affinity for stargazing underneath the local power station and smoking Marlboro Reds.
For all I knew, he could have gotten himself blown up or something.
School dragged on, as school is wont to do. The whole day I couldn’t think about anything other than Charlie. I called him when I got home, after I finished my calculus homework, and before and after dinner, and he never answered. Every time I went in the kitchen to use the phone, my parents badgered me to take my pills. The only sickness I had was being sick of taking medicine. Tuesday and Wednesday were the same, but when my mom reminded me of my pills Wednesday evening, I tossed them down the garbage disposal instead. Thursday I saw my shrink.
Dr. Smith’s office could have been a set from a movie. There was a cream colored couch for me to lie on and spout personal nonsense. Her desk was made of strong dark wood and was covered in seemingly important papers and scientific trinkets. She had one of those swinging ball contraptions, which I made the focal point of my vision every time I had an appointment with her. On her walls were posters of Albert Einstein quotes and a portrait of Freud. He’s just the guy I wanted watching my therapy sessions.
“Let’s talk about your friend, Charlie,” she said, sitting in her black leather throne with her legs crossed. “What’s he been up to?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t seen him since Friday.”
“Why?” she asked.
“He won’t answer my calls.”
“That’s very strange,” she mused, scribbling on her clipboard. “Did something happen between you two?”
I pondered for a moment. Dr. Smith promised she’d never reveal anything I told her to my parents, and I trusted her for the most part. “Well,” I began, “on Friday we went and played on the railroad tracks, and he almost got hit by the train, but we were both okay. Then he gave me a cigarette, but I only tried it for a second and I didn’t like it. I don’t know, everything seemed normal. I don’t know if it’s my fault or not.”
“Have you been taking your pills?” she asked.
“Yeah.” She didn’t need to know that I quit taking the pills last night.
“Good,” she said. It was almost time to leave. “I’m going to refill your prescription.” She tore something off her clipboard and passed it to me.
“I don’t think you need to,” I said, glancing at her illegible, crooked cursive. “I’m not really sick anymore.”
She stood and walked me to the door. “We’ll see. I’ll see you next week, Jonah. Let me know then if you’ve heard from Charlie yet.”
In the lobby I tried to hide the prescription from my father, but he saw it and took it from me. We took it to the pharmacy on the way home.
“It’s for your own good, Jones,” my father said as he drove. “You know your mom and I only want you to be healthy.”
I told him “I don’t understand how I’m unhealthy.”
“Just take your medicine, please, and do it with a smile.”
That night I stood in the kitchen, weighing the options. I could take my pills like a good boy and go to bed, or I could call Charlie.
I dialed the number as fast as I could. It rang once.
“Hey, I’m coming over,” Charlie answered. I smiled, relieved that he wasn’t dead, but before I could respond he had hung up.
The doorbell went off as soon as I put the receiver back. How did he get here so fast? I hadn’t called his cell phone, because he didn’t have one. I ran to open the door and he brusquely let himself in, dashing up the stairs. I ran after him and found him pacing in my room with a scowl where his mischievous grin should have been.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
He stopped pacing and glared at me, pointing an accusing finger. “Where have you been?”
“What?” I was taken aback. “You wouldn’t answer the phone. I’ve been calling you since Saturday morning.”
“Oh,” he said, his eyes softening. They shifted from green to brown in the light. “I just went out of town for a few days. Had business elsewhere. I can’t tie your shoes all the time.”
I watched his mouth as he spoke. His teeth were disgustingly straight and white, and the way his lips moved with them as he formed words was somehow fascinating.
“Come with me,” he said.
He took me downstairs and out of my house and through the woods across the street. I followed the sound of his voice, singing softly, because I could barely see his black jacket in the dark. Then he stopped and we collided.
“What’s the biggest fire you’ve ever seen?” he asked suddenly.
“I don’t know. Campfire size.”
I heard a snap and smelled smoke, and fire appeared in his fingers. I thought he was going to light a cigarette. Instead, the tiny flame flew out of his grip and spontaneously swelled in size. The blaze illuminated the area in a flash, and I could see a devilish smirk on Charlie’s face. I stared into the fire and saw what had caused the sudden explosion.
I screamed, expletives streaming out of my mouth like gasoline. I wanted to run, but my feet were anchored to the ground by my confusion. Charlie just lit someone’s house on fire. Charlie just committed arson before my very eyes.
“Relax,” he laughed. “No one’s home.”
Without thinking, I reared back and sent my fist flying towards his head. The whoosh of empty air made me stumble forward. He laughed again.
“What’s with the violence? Isn’t it beautiful?”
“No!” I shouted, finally tearing my feet up from the dirt. I wanted to take another swing at him, but my legs knew it was more important to get to a phone and call the fire department. They took me all the way back to my house, leaving Charlie to watch his crime burn brightly.
I made it to the kitchen without breathing. The phone cord had been cut.
Charlie was already there, looking in my fridge. He grabbed the water pitcher and waved it at me jokingly.
“Why did you do that?!” I exclaimed. I didn’t know if I was referring to the arson or to the phone. Both required an answer.
"Don't do that!"
I wanted to grab his ears and rip them out of his head.
“Lighten up,” he said. He made himself laugh. “I could help you with that. I’ve got plenty of matches.”
Charlie couldn’t help me with anything, I realized. He was unhealthy. He was a disease.
My bottle of pills was sitting on the counter. I reached for them.
“What are you doing?” Charlie said, suddenly angry. “Don’t take those. You don’t need them.”
I tore the lid off and poured the rest of the pills into my palm. I didn’t care how many there were. I swallowed all of them.
“What’s the point?” Charlie said. “I’m your only friend.”
“So what?” I replied, grimacing at the powdery yellow taste of each word. “I don’t need a friend if all I can get is an arsonist.”
His fist smashed into my nose and blood poured out of my head. It splattered on the floor in the shapes of constellations.
“You’re a nobody,” he said.
His knee slammed into my chest and knocked me over. He doubled over, cackling, his flawless teeth stretching out of his gums. I pressed my face against the cabinet, where blood dripped down in perfect parallel lines. The cabinets were bleeding, too. Where were my parents? They said they cared about me. How could they let this guy paint the kitchen with me?
I could hear a shriek through the walls, rising and falling in octaves. Light burst through the front door, then dashed out, then came back again. Charlie glanced away from me, fear flickering across his face for the first time. He swore out loud and disappeared outside, leaving me bleeding out on my kitchen floor. There was a crude smiley face traced in the red puddle, the bloody residue on my own finger. My head felt like a balloon, and everything seemed to be underwater.
My parents popped into the house in a state of shock. They screamed through mechanical fans, their voices jagged and robotic.
“Oh my god!"
"What the hell happened?"
I laughed quietly. My voice sounded like a beehive. “I took all my pills.”