Meetings with Arthur
Playing tag around the school yard was a real obsession for me in third grade. My sister, Amy, was four years older than I and scorned such childish games. Since she went to the big school next door to the one I went to, and I thought she was wise in the ways of the world, I was a bit hurt by her offhand attitude toward my favorite pastime. Though I often tried to get back at her by making fun of her stuffed animal collection or her friends, I never really seemed to get much satisfaction. But despite her disparagement, I couldn’t help but talk about the game to her as we rode home on our bicycles each afternoon.
The way home lay over a hill and down a valley, two or so miles. By injunction of our parents, we always rode together. I guess they must have felt we were safer that way. Or at least that I was safer. The arrangement was fine except when one of us had to stay after school. Then the other had to wait, too. As I was primarily the one kept late for minor infractions, Amy was justifiably grumpy on such occasions. On the day the business with the train started, we were running late for just such a reason, though not terribly so. Just the same, Amy was as angry as if I’d had to stay later. The reason was that if we didn’t beat the 3:15 freight, we’d have to spend several minutes waiting for the train to pass. Naturally, this would put us home even later than ever, and Amy would miss most of her favorite afternoon TV program.
“Come on, you dodo,” she said to me. “Hurry, or we’ll get caught by the train.”
We were pushing our bikes up the long hill from the school. That was the hardest part of the trip. Once we reached the top, we could coast down the other side, cross the railroad tracks at the bottom, then ride down the road that paralleled the tracks until we reached our home street. The way wasn’t difficult, and the only thing that could go wrong would be a train blocking us.
We reached the top of the hill, and as we mounted our bikes, we looked to see if the train was coming. Though the road that led to the bottom was winding for most of its length, and the bottom was hidden from a viewer at the top, there was a portion of track that could be seen through a break in the trees and houses covering the slope of the hill. This section of track was down to the left of where we stood, and about three-quarters of a mile away. The train would pass across this section of track before it reached the crossing at the bottom of the hill, and if we could see it through this perspective window, then we could be certain we’d have to wait for it to pass when we got to the bottom.
No train was visible, and Amy shouted to me to come on. Then she started down the hill, pedaling at first, then braking as her momentum built up. I followed as fast as I could, but I was still a novice bike rider, afraid of the steepness of the hill and the many turns. Amy was soon out of sight, though I tried to keep up with her. About half way down the hill was another perspective window, showing another section of track, a bit closer to the road crossing. As I looked through this, I saw the train passing by. I slowed down, not from a realization that I could never beat the train to the crossing, but to avoid Amy’s wrath for as long as possible. When I finally did reach the bottom, I found Amy sitting on the curb, waiting for me, watching the train clack by. I sat next to her, ignoring the nasty look she shot in my direction.
“Could you play tag with a train, Amy?” I asked, forgetting her anger after a few moments. She gave me a withering look that only an older sibling can give.
“Don’t be silly, you dodo.”
I didn’t think the question was silly, but prudently decided to keep my mouth shut. Shortly after, the train rumbled by, and the clanging bell and flashing light ceased. We hopped on our bikes and rode for home.
By the time we reached there, I’d forgotten all about the train, and raced in to turn on my favorite cartoon show, which came on after Amy’s favorite. Amy usually joined me, though she professed to be too old for such inferior fare, but not this time. I didn’t miss her until the commercial break started trying to convince me to convince my mother to buy a certain brand of crystallized sugar masquerading as corn flakes. I thought Amy might be in the kitchen getting a snack or something and wandered in to look for her. She wasn’t there, but I could see her outside, sitting on the back step. When I pushed open the screen, she didn’t even turn around to look at me.
“Flu-Flu and Crazy Dog is on, Amy.”
“Don’t you want to watch?”
“Not today, Michael.”
“Well, I’m going back in and watch Flu-Flu and Crazy Dog,” I told her, and I let the screen door slam shut in emphasis as I retreated to the TV room. I was puzzled by her behavior, but soon got lost in the cartoons and thought no more on it.
The following day after school, I was running around with some of my classmates, playing tag of course, and waiting for Amy to find me so we could ride home. She was later than usual when she came out the door and waved to me. I ran over, pulling to a panting stop in front of her.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“Inside,” she answered enigmatically. “Come on, let’s go home.”
“We’re gonna get caught by the train,” I said to her, trying to make the statement as caustic as possible. To my surprise, Amy merely shrugged and walked off to the bicycle rack. Despite her nonchalance, I sensed an underlying stiffness, and, on the way out of the school yard, I asked what was wrong. Was she in trouble with her teacher?
No, she told me. There was no trouble. What was it, then? Why had she stayed after school? She was talking to a friend, she told me, then said to shut up and stop asking questions. I did so, pedaling quietly behind her until we had to dismount to walk up to the top of the hill. As we rounded the top, Amy stopped and mounted her bike. I got a running start on mine and with a few furious pedals was past her, starting down the hill toward the railroad tracks. I reached the first curve before I realized Amy wasn’t behind me. Skidding to a halt, I looked back to see her straddling her bike at the top of the hill, her gaze directed down the hill to her left.
“Come on, Amy!” I shouted and waved for her. She ignored me, or maybe she didn’t hear me. I yelled again, and this time, whether she heard me or not, she stepped on the pedal, and her bike began to move down the hill. I watched her descend, but instead of slowing as she reached me, she kept pedaling right on past, down the hill. Yelling for her to wait, I followed as fast as I dared. I passed the second place where the train tracks could be seen, saw the train already moving down them, and called out the fact to Amy. But she was disappearing around the next bend, and I didn’t see her again until I reached the bottom. She was straddling her bike, watching the train go past. Her face was flushed, a strange light in her eyes. Ignoring my questions, she watched the last of the train pass, then we remounted and rode home.
Thus began a pattern that took me the better part of the week to figure out. Each day, Amy would hang around after school, doing what, I wasn’t sure. Then she’d come to drag me from my tag game, and we’d ride home. At the top of the hill, she’d wait until she could see the train pass through the perspective window, then she’d ride furiously to the bottom where the road crossed the tracks. Being such a tag fanatic, I soon realized she was racing the train, but the reasons were obscure to me.
“Are you playing tag with the train?” I asked her on about the fourth day we waited at the top of the hill for the train to show itself.
“Sort of,” she replied distantly, her attention on the perspective window.
“Why don’t you just play with the rest of us at school?”
“Because this is different,” she said, for once taking her attention off the visible portion of track and looking right at me. I was a bit taken aback by the intensity of her gaze, but I could tell she wasn’t angry or anything like that, just excited in a way I’d never seen before.
“How?” I wanted to know, but didn’t get an answer.
“Darn!” she exclaimed and began pumping her bike down the hill. I saw that the train was visible below, and I chased behind, realizing I couldn’t catch up with her. In moments, she was out of sight around the next bend. I finally pulled up next to her at the bottom, with the train already half past.
“I’m sorry, Amy,” I said, feeling guilty for having distracted her. Again she turned that new look on me, and again I saw she wasn’t angry.
“It’s okay,” she said, and we started home.
Mother noticed we weren’t coming home as quickly as we used to, and questioned us about it. Amy told her she was staying late to help a friend with a special project, and that I occupied myself playing tag until she was through. She didn’t mention the train, so I thought I would.
“That’s right,” I cut in. “And every day we’re just late enough to get caught by the train.” Amy shot me a look that Mom didn’t see but which spoke volumes to me. It told me I’d better keep my mouth shut about the train. But Amy needn’t have worried, for Mom didn’t notice anything unusual. She was aware that the train passed daily through the valley, and if we were a little late we’d have to wait for it. She’d cautioned us enough times to keep back when we did, for the crossing had no barrier, only a warning light and bell.
But if Mom didn’t suspect Amy was racing the train, she did begin to suspect something else—something I didn’t understand at the time, though I was aware of the basic differences between boys and girls. Amy had been racing the train to the bottom of the hill for about a month when I chanced to overhear Mom asking her some questions one night before bedtime.
She asked about the friend Amy was staying after school to help. I held my breath, for I was fairly sure Amy wasn’t actually staying after school to help anyone, though I really didn’t know what she did until we left. However, Amy came right out with the name Arthur. She and Arthur, she said, were working together on a science fair project. Mom seemed to think all her questions were answered then and there, and though she did ask what the project was, I could tell she wasn’t as curious about it as about Arthur.
I was sure Amy had lied about meeting someone named Arthur, so I decided to see for myself what she did after school each day. The next afternoon, I sacrificed my tag time and went in search of her. I wasn’t very familiar with the big school where the older kids attended class, and I got lost until a teacher saw me and, perhaps suspicious that a younger kid would be wandering around where he didn’t belong, asked me what I was doing. I told her I was looking for my sister, and she showed me how to get to the wing where the seventh-grade classes were. I was soon in the right hall, and presently found Amy. I was surprised when I did. There was a boy with her.
They were at the back of the classroom, where a lot of projects were set up on tables and counters. Several other students were in the room, all engaged in their projects. I sidled into the room and over to Amy. When she saw me, her face turned red. To this day, I’m not sure if it was her boyfriend she was embarrassed by or me. Maybe it was a combination of the two, but whatever it was, she hurried me out of the room and in a sharp but hushed voice told me to go back to my friends until she came and got me. I did, only slightly perturbed at her attitude. I’d gotten a good look at the boy she was with and was more concerned with him than with Amy’s scolding. I don’t suppose there were any distinguishing features to him, though. He was just an older kid, taller than I, slightly long legged, with a somewhat thin face and brown hair.
I did go back to where my friends were playing tag but didn’t feel like joining in. I was wondering about Amy, Arthur, and the train. Before I knew about Arthur, I’d thought Amy was just staying after school as an excuse to be late enough to race the train. But if Amy had reasons for staying after school other than the train, why was she racing it? This was an imponderable question for me, and I resolved to discover the answer. When Amy finally came by to collect me, I almost blurted out an interrogation right then but stopped myself. She wouldn’t have answered, or worse, she’d have given misleading answers. I’d have to discover the truth on my own.
That afternoon, however, I didn’t have a chance to ask or observe anything. I don’t know if Amy was angry with me for seeking her out, or if something else was bothering her, but whatever the reason, instead of waiting for the train at the top of the hill and racing to the bottom, she just rode down the hill, letting me keep up with her. The train had nearly passed, and we waited in silence for it to clear the crossing. When we reached home, she went straight to her room and stayed there until dinner. And after we’d eaten, she returned to her room and occupied herself there until it was time to go to bed.
The next morning, on the way to school, she seemed to be a little melancholy, but that evening she beckoned me from my tag game with her normal spirits. We rode to the hill and pushed our bikes up it. There we paused, both of us looking though the perspective window at the train tracks running through the valley below. While we waited for the appearance of the train, I saw Amy pull a shiny, pendulous object from her pocket.
“What’s that?” I asked, leaning forward for a closer look.
“A stopwatch,” she replied, then told me what it was for.
“Where’d you get it?” I asked in a hushed voice. “Did you steal it?”
“I didn’t steal it, you dodo!” she retorted huffily. “I borrowed it from Arthur.”
“Yeah,” I shot back, not to be undone. “Well, I bet he stole it.”
“He did not! He got it from his father, who’s the gym coach at the high school.”
“What’s a gym coach?”
“He teaches recess, sort of,” she told me, and I knew then I had her over a barrel.
“Hah! There’s no such thing as a recess teacher!” I replied nastily. Amy just looked at me like I was an idiot, though, and I was cowed. I wanted to hold the stopwatch, but Amy refused, saying I’d probably break it or lose it or something.
“Whatcha got it for?” I wanted to know.
A moment later we heard the distant rumble that heralded the approach of the train. Amy watched the tracks intently, and, as the train approached, her thumb pressed down on the stem of the stopwatch. Then she was off, racing down the hill, with me dropping behind. As I neared the crossing at the bottom of the hill a few minutes later, I saw Amy there, examining the stopwatch. I rode over to her and made a rude noise.
“Wassamatter? Break it?”
She ignored me and finished her examination.
“What time does it say?” I asked, edging over to her.
She held up the watch dramatically for me to see but snatched it back before I could actually do so, stuffing it into her pocket.
“Come on, Amy,” I whined.
“It says it’s time to go home,” she replied, hopping on her bike and pedaling away. Yelling something derogatory after her, I followed at a safe distance.
For the next two weeks, I watched as Amy timed the train’s run from the spot on the tracks visible through the perspective window to the crossing at the bottom of the hill. She also calculated her own time from the top to the crossing. The train usually took eighty-three seconds to cover the distance, and Amy’s best time was ninety-eight seconds. She consented to let me check my own time down the hill, but I couldn’t do it in less than two minutes. Shortly after that, the stopwatch disappeared. I suppose she gave it back to Arthur. Then, for over three weeks, she left me at the top of the hill to follow at my slower pace while she raced to the bottom in pursuit of her unuttered goal.
During this time, Mom asked me what was going on with Amy. Did I know Arthur? I answered as best as I could without revealing Amy’s activities. I knew that racing with the train was dangerous and that Mom wouldn’t approve, so I skirted the subject. I told her I’d seen Arthur though I hadn’t actually met him. I mentioned he was the son of the recess teacher at the big school, and she gave me a curious look but didn’t ask more.
Mom’s questions made me a little nervous about Amy’s activities. Perhaps they forced me to think more about what she was doing, about the possible dangers involved, or maybe I was just concerned about having to hide the truth from our parents for Amy’s sake. Whatever the reasons, I confronted her with my fears one day while we waited at the top of the hill for the train. To my chagrin, she all but ignored me, putting off my objections with either a shrug of glib answers that I couldn’t refute. I was getting quite frustrated when the train appeared and Amy took off, racing down the hill and out of sight around the first bend.
Angry and hurt, I resolved to play no further part in Amy’s foolishness. She could race the train all day and night if she wanted, but I planned to ignore her. Thereafter, for several weeks, when we got to the top of the hill, Amy would wait for the first view of the train then race to the bottom, but I merely continued to ride on to the crossing, not waiting for Amy to begin. About half the time she sped by me on the slope, and the other half I watched her skid to a stop at the crossing just moments after the train rumbled across the road. And I couldn’t help but notice she kept arriving at the crossing a bit sooner each day. By the end of that period, Amy was coming around the last bend in the road just as the train crossed.
Then one day, I watched Amy slide to a stop in front of the crossing only a second after the locomotive roared through. Despite myself, my interest renewed. Excitedly, I ran over to where she sat on her bike, watching the train pass. Her face was impassive as I plucked at her sleeve and went on about how close she’d come that time. She all but ignored me as the train rumbled on. Then she turned her eyes on me but looked right through me, not seeming to hear what I said. I was hurt by her disregard, but as we left the crossing and rode home, I thought of the weeks I’d meanly neglected her efforts. By the time we got home, I apologized to Amy, and though she nodded and smiled, I could tell her attention was elsewhere.
The following day she failed to race the train. We arrived at the top of the hill about the usual time, but instead of waiting there for the train to appear, Amy just leisurely coasted down the hill to the crossing. Puzzled, I followed, calling out questions but getting no replies. When we reached the bottom the train was already well through the crossing. As we braked in front of the tracks, I asked her again why she wasn’t racing. This time she looked at me and shrugged, saying she wasn’t interested. I wanted to know how that could be after all the time and effort she’d expended, but she merely said she just didn’t feel like it.
The next few weeks were bleak ones for me. I’d had my own interest and excitement renewed by Amy’s near victory, and the fact that she’d stopped racing was a blow to me, especially since I saw myself responsible. I believed that if I hadn’t ignored her efforts for the weeks I did, she’d still be racing the train. At last, after all the self-recriminations, it struck me that maybe Amy was scared.
“Chicken” was a popular epithet around grade school, but it was another thing to apply it to one’s older sibling. I shied away from the realization for several days, even though I’d begun to understand there might be something to fear. I remembered the dead dog Amy and I had found in the weed-filled ditch between the road and the train tracks the year before. We’d stopped to stare at the mangled and already bloating body for several minutes, wondering what had happened. It had been hit by a car or a train, but we couldn’t decide which. The body remained in the ditch until it completely decomposed, an instructive but fascinatingly unsightly and odorous lesson in biology. Thoughts of the dog preyed on my mind for a week until they burst out one afternoon.
“Amy,” I panted, pushing my bike faster to catch up with her as we trudged up the hill. “Amy, are you afraid of the train? The dog....”
She shot a curious look at me that shut me up but said nothing until we reached the top of the hill. There, for the first time in weeks, she stopped and stared toward the perspective window.
“I don’t think so, Michael,” she said, not looking at me but at the visible lines of the tracks down the hill. “I don’t think I’m afraid. Do you?” She turned and asked the last of me, but I found it difficult to answer. I was confused by my own thoughts, not willing to trust my mouth to say the right thing. Apparently she sensed my confusion, for she turned away and again stared at the tracks.
“Come on,” she said, urgency tingeing her voice. “Let’s watch the train cross the road.” She started down, but not so fast I couldn’t keep up.
We got to the bottom in time to watch the train rush through, and as it went by, I couldn’t help but feel awed by its size and power. Amy had an incomprehensible look on her face, in her eyes, as the cars thundered down the track.
Two days later, she started racing again. I was elated despite my fears, except for one thing. She wouldn’t allow me to be at the bottom when she got there. I had to promise to remain at the top of the hill until the train first appeared and only start down the hill after she did. At first, I believed she was trying to punish me for my inconsideration and indifference the month before. Then it came to me that perhaps she wanted to be alone in her effort, that she didn’t consider what she was doing to be a spectator sport. Only later, after it was all over, did I realize she was protecting me in case she failed.
I was irked by the restriction, but she was adamant, so there was little I could do but comply. Even so, I knew, despite the fact that I couldn’t actually see, that over the next month she gradually came closer to the tracks each time she arrived at the crossing. She took on a single-minded intensity on leaving the school each day that didn’t ease until she’d raced to the bottom of the hill.
Then, one night after Mom and Dad had put us to bed, when I’d nearly fallen asleep, I heard someone softly enter my room and come over to my bed. I rolled over to see Amy standing there, silhouetted by the half-light from the door. She was dressed in pajamas, her hair slightly disheveled.
“Michael,” she said quietly. “I have something for you.”
“What is it?” I was puzzled, for Amy wasn’t in the habit of giving me things except for birthday and Christmas presents.
She reached out her hand, and I took the object from her. I instantly knew what it was, and as I held it up to the light, I was even more puzzled and not a little frightened. I was something I’d coveted and had tried to trade for on many occasions. She’d never relented, though, and that made her presentation all the more curious.
“What’s it for?” I asked, not daring to say more.
“It’s for you,” she said with a slight catch in her breath. “You always liked it, and I want you to have it.”
“Thanks, Amy,” I said lamely, feeling lost.
“I love you, Mikey,” she said, bending over to hug me. Then she turned quickly and went out of the room. I lay there for some time, holding the prism up to the light from the half-opened door, watching bands of color sparkle in the glass. Still grasping the prism in my fist, I fell asleep.
The next day, Amy came to get me after school. I wasn’t playing tag but was sitting on a bench, waiting for her, fingering the prism and holding it up to the sun. When Amy came up, I stuffed the prism into my pocket and followed her to the bike racks. We left the school yard and rode to the hill. We walked to the top, neither of us speaking. I sensed that today was different from yesterday. The race was going to be for real. The prism was angular in my pocket, reminding me with every step I took of every time I’d hurt my sister. I tried to speak to her, but she wasn’t listening. At the top of the hill, I took out the prism, held it up to the sun, and sprayed a rainbow onto Amy’s back, showering her with color. Then her back was gone, and she was pedaling furiously down the hill.
“Amy!” I cried out. “Amy!” I stuffed the prism into my pocket and took off after her. She rounded the first bend in the road and was lost to sight.
A great dread rose in me as I gave chase. Visions of the dead dog, torn and smelly in the ditch, rushed past with the scenery as I raced to the bottom of the hill, crying out Amy’s name. Tears streaked my cheeks, and I was shaking so hard I could barely steer around the curves. At last, after what seemed like forever, I reached to bottom of the hill and skidded to a halt in front of the tracks.
The train was rumbling through the crossing, but of Amy there was no sign. I looked around frantically, thinking she might be off to the side, but still I couldn’t see her. I had two thoughts, then, conflicting but equally terrible. One was of Amy ascending from the Earth, dressed in white wings; the other was of her crouching behind a bush or a tree somewhere on the slope above me, snickering at the stupidity of her little brother. Anger ran through my fear like hot lightning through a dark cloud. Then, as I turned to look at the train, I saw her.
She was lying on the ground on the other side of the tracks, unmoving. Her bike lay several feet away, one wheel spinning around and around. I moved as close to the train as I dared and peered beneath the rushing, clattering cars, fear wiping away all anger. She was lying on her back, but twisted slightly to one side. One of her arms was thrown across her face, and I could see blood on one of her knees.
“Amy!” I screamed beneath the train, but the clanging bell and rumbling rattle wiped out my tiny voice.
The train never seemed to take so long to pass, though it must actually have done so in a couple of minutes or less. By the time it had, I was frantic with panic. As the caboose went by, I raced across the rails to her. Yes, there was definitely blood on her. I plunged to the ground beside her, took her arm in my shaking hands, and lifted it from her face. To my intense relief, her eyes were open, and as I sat back on my haunches and began to bawl out in great huffs, she turned them on me and a small smile crossed her lips. Then she sat up and hugged me to her.
“It’s all right, Mikey,” she said again and again. “It’s all right. It’s over with. It’s over.”
At last she pushed me back and examined the scrape on her knee. Seeing it wasn’t much, she turned back to me. I’d stopped bawling, though I was still snuffling and leaking from the eyes.
“Get your bike,” she said. As I did, she picked up her own and waited for me to come back across the tracks.
Excerpted from The Werewolf and Tide and Other Compulsions, by Christopher Dow
Visit Fiction and Poetry for more by Christopher Dow.
This story originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.