thornsBeyond the Briars

by Joshua Patterson

If I hadn’t seen it for myself—hell, if Tommy Howard hadn’t been there to see it too—then I would never have believed it existed. I’m still not sure that I do. Enough time has passed where the days of running around the abandoned train tracks seemed more like an old movie than something I had lived. Too many freezes and thaws had left no more then a grainy glimpse of the rusted trestle over the Susquehanna. Cue marks loomed over the crabgrass growing between the rocks of the rail and a deep vignette surrounded the path that lead down to that…thing.

“You first, Robbie,” I could hear Tom say in his soft and girlish prepubescent voice, and then the film reel burns up. The final memory too terrifying for a mind to hold on to except for in the deepest and darkest of dreams.

Tommy and I hadn’t really talked after that day. We tried to hang out like we always did; begging for change outside of Bob’s Diner and harassing the girls at the Galaxy Bowl until they gave us a free game. We even pilfered a few smokes off of Tommy’s parents to drag on behind the bleachers at the football field, but something felt different. Something had changed between us. Looking back on it now, I suppose that we believed the distance would make it feel like it hadn’t happened at all. If I could forget Tommy Howard, then I could forget everything that lived past those briars on that lonely path beyond the trestle. That had been almost twenty years ago, but I still hadn’t forgotten. That scene from the old movie of my life circled around and around like the lever of a twisted jack in the box—never knowing when the thing was going to jump back out.

“How much further,” the detective barks.

We hadn’t even made it past the Thatcher property and onto the tracks, but the detective was on to something, the trip did feel longer than I remembered. The stolen cigarettes of youth had turned into a pack a day habit, and though I felt winded trotting through the long grass and uneven divots of the cow-field that led to the railroad, the anticipation of what may be waiting on the other side of this trek made it seem endless. For the detective there was the promise of a body, the final piece of evidence for the prosecution, and for me—I suppose there would be something similar. I shook my head and we continued walking towards the rails with the falling sun on our backs and the spring’s first choir of crickets buzzing around us.

Before the detectives, the headlines and that ominous letter, the last I had heard of Tommy Howard, delivered straight from the gossip queen of the Tri-State area herself—my mother—was that Tommy was doing well. He had shacked up with Stacey Pearson and was teaching music at Sidney High. This, of course, was followed with Why couldn’t you have stayed here and done something like Tommy had, and Whatever happened to you two? You boys were as thick as thieves. The back-home news: where the names were familiar and the guilt was always thicker than ever. After Stacey went missing, however, my mother changed her tune; she always knew that boy was trouble, and that she was glad I had been smart enough to stay away from him. If only that last part were true, I thought to myself.

A flood of nostalgia struck me as the tracks came into view. Tommy and I playing guns, tossing rocks at the boxcars as they chugged past to see what kind of sounds they made and testing how long we could keep our balance running up and down the rails. How could I believe that the innocent little boy on the tracks could have grown up to kill his wife?

“Keep it moving.”

Rob, the letter had read, if they come asking, show them where it is. – T.H.

As the detective and I reached the trestle, the old black-and-white film in my head was starting to color in. The last of the good memories—Tommy and I spitting over the sides of the old wooden frame and into the creek bed below—would stop at the end of that bridge. The jack-in-the-box was winding, and it cranked over with every beat of my pulse. More than anything, I didn’t want to see what was inside.

“We’re close,” I tell him.

The temperature dropped as the wind blew casually between the beams, but it wasn’t cold enough for the goosebumps that were rising up on my arms. The air was stale, and the taste of ozone lingered from some leftover storm. My feet turned to concrete, and I wanted to stop, but I had to know. Was it still there? Had it ever been there to begin with, or was it all just the overactive imagination of two bored preteens? Up ahead I could see a small path carved out among the overgrowth, and an image of yellow fangs and matted fur raged into my thoughts. It wasn’t human.

“Well, where is she?” the detective asks. “I hope for your sake that you’re not wasting my time.”

…if they come asking, show them where it is.

I point my shaky finger towards the path, and watch the detective work his way through the weeds.

“It’s just beyond the briars.”


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