The Ad Said (conclusion)
The Ad Said
They’d giggled at first, when Hettie’s heeled shoe, then Hermie’s, slipped in patches of mud hidden where tractors’ mowing had mashed weeds into hummocky rows. It got old, by the time they’d scrabbled over the second fence. They’d pieced their way down the ditch and up, and stopped, at full darkness, to take inventory…scanning the lights beckoning from the suburb. These seemed of a size with those that pooled here and there onto warehouse lots, from where they’d come.
“I’m freezing,” Hermie said.
Her sister shrugged. “Hup, two, three, four.”
An hour ago, funny.
“Seriously. We’ll have to pick it up. Forget the shoes. Forget the stockings.”
They marched. For bravado’s sake, they counted cadence. Then it grew apparent—at last a moon had risen—that the tracks were built up well above the field. They’d have to climb an embankment of cinder and gravel. And then the planks, the bed of the bridge where the rails were laid, had gaps of many inches between. So crossing, even, was no stroll in the park. You could tell that from here.
Hermie burst out laughing.
“You wanna sit down and rest?”
“No, they’ll have chairs at the station. We’ll have to move careful, soon as we get into town, see if we find anything in the gutter.”
“Yeah…I wish we had just a dollar, so we could get coffee and a snack someplace.”
That was how the sisters shorthanded their mother’s saying.
Along the rails was a place to go by foot, a narrow depression lower than these, not clearly intended…or clearly not intended…for public use. A wrong step would scrape your heel, maybe lose you a shoe—more bad luck if it happened.
“Look out you don’t lose a shoe.” Hermie said this aloud. You could thwart mischance by letting it know you were on to it. Course it would skulk off disappointed and lunge at you some other time.
Hettie wasn’t moving; she was leaning on a crossbeam. Hermie stopped, took her own tight hold, and looked down. True, the river was kind of horrible. You didn’t see it from this angle, the current in the moonlight, wrinkling and frothing at the pylons, dark middle of it sliding under the bridge…and a cold, sorrowing smell.
Then, there was a sort of fish.
Or something pontoon shaped, glowing from its belly, a faint and phosphorescent green. Big for a fish. Moving start-stop, like a buoyant sack.
It snagged, and rolled once.
“It’s a man, isn’t it?”
An ear, yes…eye sockets, and a strange, wide-gaping mouth.
It was under the bridge, and they heard the train whistle. Neither spoke. Both looked wildly to the right and left. They were at center, with no better answer. Hermie, who’d been leading the way, took off, making for the Regisville side.
She did call out, “Hettie, come on!”
She thought also, hurtling herself in leaps, landing teetering, gathering into the next, that a train would slow down, it ought to, going where there were houses. But which end was it coming from? That, she couldn’t make out.
Her final landing knocked one shoe half off—but by the strap, it held. The whistle so close at her back heaved Hermie’s shoulders and raced her heart, but she was down the embankment, tripping, falling backwards sitting. She got a finger inside the heel and dragged the shoe back on. This small task was enough to think about.
Maybe stupid accidents always happened this way.
You got your routine out of kilter, and you didn’t have time, when it…the train…
But what about that man in the paper the other day, the gas explosion, just from switching on a light in his kitchen?
He wasn’t expected home. His wife had put her head in the oven.
Their mother said, the three of them drinking tea round the table, “You girls! Stop that! Giggling…what’s funny?”
Or the woman…it must have been in the summer…who’d sat back against a window screen, at her own party…
You didn’t have time, Hermie told herself, to think of what you should do…
The train thundered onwards, and when the red lights of the last car were tiny, the whistling gone prolonged and slow, the creaking of metal ticking now muted and sedate, she stood. She looked, through the dark, at the bridge…and it was only a silhouette over the river.
The Ad Said
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(2018, Stephanie Foster)