It was almost 8:30 as the morning mist lifted and the boys left the mud flats of Piper Brook and crossed the meandering stream on a natural bridge of sorts- a fallen half tree that had split from the larger trunk and landed partially in the creek but close enough to the opposite bank for a twelve year old boy with determination and strong legs to reach dry land on the other side…

           And so they did- two friends on an undefined mission who’s objective lay off in the area behind the hill and past the stand of tall timber. And, mostly dry as the dark- haired boy had promised, even if their once white cords were now speckled with little mud spots and encrusted with a virtual composite of burrs of every sort. The burrs could be picked off, but the mud would have to wait, and was worn as a badge of honor by most adventurous boys of that age at that time. In the tall blond boy’s mind, once his pants were spotted, they might as well be annihilated… they were destined for the cranky brown Maytag washer in the basement, either way.  It was a liberating feeling, knowing that there was no longer a need to stay completely clean, and since he and his dark- haired friend had reached the same status, the rest of the adventure was stress free!

         Once a boy knew he was in trouble, he might as well have some fun… Swamp pants. That’s what Matty’s mom had started to call them.

         Soon, the boys had reached the edge of the woods and the last hill before their destination, at least according to the excited smaller boy. He led the way, tugging at Matty’s sleeve as the autumn sun glinted off the dew -covered grass on the smallish hill and a flock of Canadian geese took flight, startled by the sudden appearance of the two young friends.

        Matty scanned the bright blue sky as the panicked birds formed up, first in a loose circle and then in a dramatic, ‘V’ shaped formation as they found their bearings and honked in unison as if to encourage those at the rear of the large gaggle…  He had always enjoyed watching the regal birds as they made their way south, usually at great altitudes. In his youth, it was rare to see the large birds up close, for they were widely hunted, and that made them more wild and skittish. These were no exception, and soon they were just specks in the crystal blue sky and memories for the cold days of the coming winter that was but a few months off…

         “Ralphy, so… where we going?” asked the tall 12 year old.

        “Nowhere… here… I guess,” teased the shorter boy. “I got somethin’ I want to show you ‘M’. I only show my best friends this kind of stuff, so you gotta promise that you won’t tell anyone. Promise, OK?”

           “Uh… So… how many guys have you showed this… stuff too?”

           “I don’t know… Just promise, OK?”

          Matty looked at Ralphy and sensed that he wasn’t being truthful, but shrugged his shoulders and agreed. “Sure, OK… Now, what did we come all the way out here for?”

           “Oh man… You’re gonna LOVE this, ‘M’!  It’s so cool! Come on…” And with that, he grabbed Matty by the sleeve and tugged the bewildered boy over the top of the last hill.

           There, amongst the golden grasses of the fall scape, a blue- grey bed of gravel lie, and in the center of the 10 foot bed were the steel rails of a section of the northeast train corridor, an inland line that was used by the New Haven and Hartford Railway as a passenger and transport connector to points north.

          Matty often fell asleep at night listening for the faint wail of the passing trains that sped through the area, miles from the little red cape he called home, but close enough that in the stillness of the night, he could hear the whistle as it echoed across the rolling farmlands and marshes of the sleepy town.

        He had never been this close to the actual tracks, tho. But, he was sure that he and Ralphy weren’t supposed to be, either!

            “Is this what you wanted to show me?” asked the nervous boy.

           “Yup. I’m gonna show you some cool things I do here… I come here a LOT to hang out when… well, when I don’t want to hang out at home.” He paused for a second and wistfully added, “Which is most of the time, lately.”

             Matty surveyed the area. The long steel tracks stretched off into the distance in both directions and the shiny tops glinted as they vanished from sight around the gentle curves and into the distant woods. There was noone and nothing in sight but the steel and the gravel around it, and the blond boy did not like this scar upon the land. It reminded him of things that he had read, and times since past, where the guardians of the land were driven from the places they called home and the steel  found its way to the once virgin forests and marshes that screamed their despair in silence…It was unsettling to him to be standing on this unnatural path and he shuddered at the violent possibilities.

          “I think we should find a different place to hang out, Ralphy. Why don’t we head over to the basketball courts near Center school? Maybe we can find a game there in a while. I’ll even…”

             The dark haired boy interrupted, frowning. “NO… We just got here! I want to show you some cool things I only show my best buddies… You won’t be sorry, I promise!” He looked pleadingly at Matty.

         The blond boy grimaced but couldn’t stand the thought of abandoning his new friend… He seemed wedded to a plan, the details of which he had not shared in advance, and even tho Matty had a terrible premonition, he grudgingly agreed. “Well, OK.. maybe for just a little while.”

              Ralphy beamed in appreciation. And so it began…

          “OK… now, I’ll show you some REALLY cool stuff!  Do you have any change? Like a dime maybe? Even a penny is OK, but a dime or even a quarter works the best…”

               “Yeah, I got both,” replied the curious tall boy, “but what do you want with them?”

                Ralphy grinned devilishly. “Here, gimme…” He held out his hand. Matty handed a dime and a penny to the eager boy. “No quarter?”

                “Sure. Only I’ll keep that in my pocket until I see what you do with the dime and penny…”

            The dark haired boy laughed. “OK… So, you’re a cautious man… I like that! But, a quarter would work even better.”

               Matty smiled back, but didn’t budge. So, the smaller boy shrugged and took the coins and a few from his own pocket and crouched down near one of the steel tracks. He laid the dime and penny down on top of the shiny part of the track and then did the same with his coins, one in back of the other. “You won’t believe what happens to these when they get run over by the 9:20…”

                “The 9:20? What are you talking about? The next train that comes through here?”

                 “Yup! There’ll  be one at 9:20, or close to that time, and another every half hour until noon… I’ve been hanging around here for a long time, and I pretty much have the schedules figured out. Anyways, it’s gonna crush these and make them twice the size! If we’re lucky, we’ll still be able to see the dates and some other things. Of course, we have to find them first! Sometimes, they get thrown into the rocks or even the grass and I don’t find every one!”

               The blond boy was actually intrigued by this experiment. He had never done anything quite like this, and it all seemed innocent enough, so he was starting to think that his initial anxiety was misplaced. The adventure of it, took over…

                 “So, it’s almost 9:15 already,” Matty announced after pulling the wristwatch with the missing wristband from his pocket. “Are they always on time?”

                 “Pretty much,” chuckled Ralphy. “But, I can tell when they’re coming… Just like the Indians used to do. ” With that, he lowered his ear to the track and appeared to be listening for some sort of sign that the steel behemoth was on the way. Matty had seen this in a movie, but was a little skeptical…

                    “That REALLY works?”

                “Yeah, pretty much,” replied the nearly prone boy, who also clutched the track with both hands. “I can hear the tracks ‘singing’ sometimes, and sometimes I can feel the vibration in my hands, right through the tracks, especially when they’re warm or hot, like on a summer day…”

                      “Cool! How close does the train have to be, to hear it that way?”

                   Ralphy squinted up at his tall friend and seemed to be calculating. “Oh, maybe a mile or two…”

                  “Really? Wow, that’s a LONG way! So, how long after you first hear something does the train show up?”

                       “I don’t know… maybe a minute…” He seemed to waver on this declaration. “I guess it depends on what train I’m listening for… Some of them go a lot faster than the others.”

             “Oh… I see… Well, do you hear anything? I can’t see anything… Which way will it be coming from, anyways?”

               “From the south. I think they come through Berlin.  There’s a station there for the passenger trains.” Suddenly, the prone boy flinched and his eyes widened.  Just about the same time, Matty noticed a movement through the treeline about 200 yards away.

                “I think it’s coming!” Ralphy announced excitedly. “Quick! We gotta hide before they see us!”

                He leaped up off the loose gravel and both boys yelped excitedly and headed for the hill and the nearby woods. But, halfway down, Matty lost his footing on the dew slickened grass and slid the last 10 feet on his backside as Ralphy frantically tried to maintain his own balance. It was no use tho, and the boy rode the last 10 feet on top of his new friend in a tangle of arms and legs and raucous laughter.

              The train was coming fast as the 12- year- old adventurers got to their feet and managed to refocus their escape efforts. They reached the treeline as the ground started to shake and a deafening bellow from a horn sounded, announcing the arrival of the 9:20… Matty had never been this close to a moving train before and he could almost feel the impact of the massive engine on the groaning earth.. Both boys strained to see the inhabitants of the leading engine as it raced by and as the blond boy peered out from behind the towering pine, he made eye contact with the engineer who was leaning out of the side window.

               Apparently, they had been spotted and the man didn’t seem too pleased… Matty flinched and ducked back behind the tree, but Ralphy just laughed as the deafening roar diminished and the ground ceased to tremble.

               “Welcome to the ‘Most Wanted’ list, M!!” The dark- haired boy seemed to be enjoying this!

                “Whatt ya mean?” Matty retorted. “Most wanted? Have these guys seen you here before?”

                “Err… Maybe. Well, some of them. There are a bunch of different crews… There’s one guy I call ‘Gus’ who gives me the finger all the time and yells stuff at me… But, I fixed him last saturday! I mooned him and gave him the finger at the same time! ” The adolescent boy was now laughing hysterically… “I thought he was going to jump out of the window and try to catch me, but he never could ‘ave… He’s a lard ass and I can probably run twice as fast as he could on his best day!”

                  Matty winced. “Why did you get so mad at him? I mean, to moon him… That’s pretty nasty.”

                   “Eh, it’s a long story… I’ll tell you about it some other time… Come on! Let’s find the coins!” With that, Ralphy headed back up the hill, his converses searching for a foothold on the wet grass. Matty followed slowly, wondering about the way Ralph got so vague at times and feeling more insecure about his role in this latest adventure.

                 After 10 minutes or searching, the two friends had located 4 of the five coins that the heavy train had run over. Matty was shocked at the result. The coins were barely recognizable and it took a while to figure out who owned which penny until both decided upon the barely visible date on one of the coins. Matty turned the two pieces of metal over in his hand and marveled at the impressive forces involved in crushing the metal to a paper thin dimension.

            Ralphy announced his intention to decorate a leather belt that he owned with the growing collection that he has acquired, while Matty pocketed his and tried to convince the shorter boy that it might be a good idea to find a different place to hang out… Ralphy wasn’t hearing this and instead insisted that the best was yet to come. All along, he had a particular plan in place and now it unfolded…

          “M, I brought you here so that I could see how brave you are… Ever since 5th grade, I’ve wondered about how far you would go if you really had to… “

              Matty shrugged at the curious remark. “Huh? You want me to PROVE that I’m not a coward to you?”

            “Naw! I know you ain’t a coward, after the way you handled KG that day and then the whole thing with Mr. Krugar at the pool that time.”

               “You were there? I don’t remember seeing you there…”

              “No… Only that was the talk of the town for the whole summer, the way you told that Nazi to leave off your brother!”

               Matty reddened… “The whole town knows about that? I guess everyone thinks I’m some kind of nutcase then, mixing it up with a guy 3 times my age..”

             “Not what I heard. All the guys are afraid to mess with you, after that stuff… They think you’ll stop at nothing if you get mad enough. Kind of why I came up with this test…”

              Matty didn’t like the insinuation or the misinterpretation of his behavior. “Listen Ralphy, I’m not some kind of maniac… Mr. Krugar was hurting my brother, so I had to stop him, and KG stabbed me with a pencil… And, other things… Last year he almost hit a bunch of the guys from my basketball team with some screws he was firing at us with a hunting slingshot he got from his older brother. He was always a troublemaker and a bully, and I couldn’t take it anymore! That doesn’t make me someone to be afraid of…”

         “Naw, I don’t think that’s what everyone thinks. More like you’re some superhero or something…”

                 Matty flinched at the remark and frowned. “I’m NO superhero!! All I did was stand up for my brother and stop a bully from hurting people! Maybe other people should try to do that sometimes… Why is it always up to me?”

                 Ralphy seemed taken aback by the frustration in Matty’s voice. “Sorry M, I didn’t mean that I agreed with all that. I figured it was all a crock anyways. Probably all a big story… You know how things get told and retold and the next thing you know, you’re wrestling a grizzly like Daniel Boone!”

             “What on earth are you getting at?” Matty sighed. “Those things happened. I’m not saying they didn’t… It’s just that… Oh, FORGET IT! I’m tired of talking about this  stuff. Let’s get out of here…”

              “Hold on, M… Uh, I got these two things I want you to do with me. It won’t take long but I’ll bet that you won’t be able to do them.”

                “What things?”

                “Well, they’re kind of like tests to join my secret club…”

              “Secret club? Tests? I don’t know, Ralphy. I’m not big into taking tests just to be someone’s friend…”

                 “No!! You’ll still be my friend, but this will be to get into the secret club…”

                  “What kind of test? What do I have to do?”

              Ralphy grinned slyly… “Well, the first one is easy!  There’s this little trestle down the way where the water comes under the tracks when the swamp floods, I guess. Well, it’s really close to the ground, but two guys can fit in there and that’s the 1st test– to stay in there while a train goes over your head only a few feet away!  I’ve done it twice, and it’s not easy to sit there! I almost pissed my pants the first time! It’s really scary! But if you can do it, then you’ll pass the 1st test!”

              Matty sighed. This was a new angle, even for Ralphy. It sounded harmless enough. Still, he didn’t like the whole idea that he had to prove himself to his new friend. But, if it was something that they could do together and then leave this strange place, maybe it would be best just to get it over with…And, the tall blond boy did have a certain curiosity about the whole idea of being underneath that roaring behemoth as it screamed down the steel ribbons in the bed of gravel in the middle of nowhere…

               So, he nodded, and Ralphy sprung into action, and Matty was once again being led by his sleeve down the tracks to the north, where the marshlands widened their hold on the barren scape.

                Ralphy was right… there was barely enough room for the two, twelve -year -old boys in that culvert of sorts, and as a result, both youngsters were almost forced to sit on top of each other in order to stay out of the swamp water that trickled through the middle of the bypass. Ralphy had a plan for that too, asking Matty to lock arms with him so that neither boy could run from the rumbling giant without the consent of the other. This was all right with the slender boy who rather enjoyed the close contact and the extra warmth on this chilly day sitting in the shade of the concrete and brick overhang.

           And so they sat there for nearly ten minutes until the earth shook and the deafening metallic sound of the train descended on the subterranean structure and sent ripples across the slow moving water in the culvert and then it was overhead like some shrieking demon, the steel wheels clanging with brutal force as they breached one track and reached the next until Matty could feel the noise in his teeth and skull… It seemed to last an eternity, but it likely was over in only a minute or so and then the ringing sound of steel on steel was left only in the youngsters’ ears and behind their eyes…

           The boys crawled out of the secret place and stood up to watch the vanishing train. Matty shook his head and gritted his teeth. “Never doing THAT again! I thought my head was going to split! I need my hearing for a long time yet, Ralphy… I hope you’re satisfied, because next time, if there is any, you’re on your own!”

            The dark- haired boy laughed wryly… “Yeah, like usual…”

          Matty glanced at him but didn’t reply… There was something about this guy that seemed to come from a very dark place, and while it was intriguing at times, it was also off- putting at other times. This was quickly becoming one of the later and Matty pulled the watch from his pocket and announced the time. “Almost 10 o’clock! Time to check out the basketball courts… I’ll bet Tommy and Mike are over there with some of the other guys. We can get a good game going!”

          Ralphy shrugged, unenthusiastic about the new plan… “I thought we could hang out alone today. You know, just you and me… Maybe head over to Sears at some point and grab lunch at the Mickey D’s near there… “

             “Sears?  That’s pretty far away. Why don’t we head back into town… We can go to the diner and get a hamburg there.”

                 Ralphy stood there looking dejected… “M, do you think I’m a loser?”

                Matty was startled. “Loser? NO! Why are you asking me that kind of question?”

              The boy looked down at his sneakers and kicked a piece of gravel, sending it into a stagnant puddle near the edge of the tracks. “I don’t know… well… to tell you the truth, there’s no secret club, M… Well, I mean if you want to be in one, we can make one, but I tried to make a club twice already, only the guys I wanted in the club, didn’t want to be. One of them told me that he wouldn’t join a club if I was in it because he wouldn’t want to belong to a club for losers…”

                 Matty didn’t say anything at first. He looked at the wiry boy and shook his head… “Ralphy…”

               “It’s OK, M”, the boy interrupted, his voice shaking… “I know I’m nothin’… never have been. Just a kid from the wrong end of town. Nobody wants me hanging around, especially after they meet my old man… Seems like no matter what I do, I always end up fucking it up…”

               Matty grimaced… He didn’t like the bad language or the dismal outlook. “Ralphy, I’m not sure who said that to you, but you shouldn’t waste time on anyone who looks down on you. You’re a nice guy… I like you, only…”

                     “Only?”

                   “Well, sometimes you do things that make me worry… Like the whole thing with the train and the guy you mooned… I mean, you seem to want to get caught or something… It makes me wonder why. About the last thing I need is to get into trouble for some stupid stuff.”

                    The dark- haired boy wiped a tear from his eye and looked away. Matty walked over to him and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and squeezed it softly. “Ralphy, you can’t help what your old man does… You’re just a kid. Someday, you’ll be able to live your life without him beating on you… I only wish I could stop him for you. That I could be that superhero you need. But, I’m just a kid too..”

                    Matty felt the boy’s shoulders slump and then start to tremble as he covered his face with his hands and started to cry. He hooked his arm around the boy’s neck and hugged him from behind until the embarrassed kid took a deep breath and shook the tears away.

                    ” Let’s get out of here, M…”

                The blond boy couldn’t have agreed more, and the two boys started the trek back up the tracks towards the path that had brought them here. It all seemed calmer and Matty was cheered by the change in temperament in his new friend as they reached the hill near the woods… But, in an instant, things changed again, as the wail of the 10:20 sounded and the dark- haired boy got the strangest look on his face.

                  Both boys started down the hill, away from the approaching train. Matty was in the lead, eager to leave this strange place, but as he reached the woods, he suddenly realized that something was really wrong. He spun around to see his 12 year old sidekick running back up the hill, his legs churning, as the fast approaching train bore down on them. He had no time to react.

                    There was only time to witness…

{Continued in Part 3…}

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