The day I saved Mark’s life, there was no sign of disaster in the brilliant blue sky that sparkled in my eyes as I awoke, casting the shadow of my rocking chair over the wooden floor. It was August, at the peak of tourist season. Rob was off to camp, way up in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. So I decided to pop down to the tracks. This was one of me and Rob’s favorite hangouts, besides the amusement park where Rob’s uncle worked.
I quietly slipped on some clothes, careful not to wake my younger brother, Scott. Ma had warned him off the tracks on pain of death. Anyways, he was too young for me to bother with.
As I passed Ma’s room, I took care to avoid the creaky board. If she had woken, she would’ve demanded where I was off to, and she’d never let me go, even if I managed a lie.
I had my appendix out last July, and I think Ma near fainted from grief, being that my older brother died from appendicitis. Ma was a wee bit paranoid now, it being five years to the date after his death.
As I passed the kitchen, I snatched an apple from the bowl on the table. There were a few flies buzzing around last night’s dishes in the sink. I was careful not to let any more in, as I crept out the back.
Virginia in the summer is hot, even with the sea nearly in the backyard. The sweat was pouring off me by the time I reached the tracks.
I saw Joe Parkinson there already. Him and his brother Mark were trying to light a fire with a magnifying glass. I waved at them before I jogged down the tracks to my spot.
It was right at a curve in the tracks, and closed in on three sides. I thought of it as a sort of nook in the hillside. I stayed crouched there while I finished my apple, right down to the seeds. I made a game of spitting them across the tracks, after flicking the stem into the grass.
Joe and Mark had given up their fire, and were walking up the tracks toward me. They could have been twins, they looked so alike—the same tousled dirtyblond hair and wide, green eyes—but there were nearly three years between them.
“That was some crack in Scouts, wasn’t it?” Joe asked, by way of greeting. I nodded amiably and jumped down from the nook. Mark was rubbing his head, remembering.
We had let out the least dangerous of Counselor Sawman’s snakes, and were playing with them. I was absently poking one of the sleepier ones with a stick.
Joe rather likes snakes, so he didn’t like my prodding. He snatched the stick from my hand.
“Hey!” I shouted. Joe was dancing away, routinely holding the stick out temptingly, then pulling it back. I ran at him with my arms out threateningly. We collapsed in a wrestling heap.
I could see Mark quietly sneaking up behind, so I tried to keep Joe occupied. It worked. Mark quickly pounced on Joe’s sneaker. “Ha,” he whooped, and whisked away before Joe could move. Mark set off at a canter, holding the shoe above his head.
I was watching him with a laugh about to burst out of my lips, when he suddenly disappeared. His sneakers, meant for tramping, had no grips on their soles and had slid on the slick leaves.
He had fallen backwards into the steep slope we called the Gorge. It was maybe twenty feet wide, thirty feet deep and greatly resembled a miniature valley.
I rushed over, in time to see Mark’s flailing limbs roll down the hill at great speed. I grimaced. Joe was standing very still; he didn’t even appear to be breathing. I realized that I was holding my breath.
Crack! Mark’s head bounced off a log at the bottom of the Gorge. Joe and I hurriedly skidded down to him. We dragged him back up the hill, panting heavily.
He was “all right,” Joe diagnosed, while I meekly enclosed the snakes in their cages once again.
I smiled nervously now, and reached down for some loose stones to chuck across the tracks.
Mark was laboriously placing some pebbles along the rail. They seemed to be rather unsteady, and kept wobbling to and fro.
“Ed,” shouted Joe, “train’s comin’!” I dropped my rocks and ran back to the shelter of the trees with Joe. Mark’s pebbles had almost all been shaken off the rail, but Mark was still sitting by it.
“Mark,” Joe called, “move it!” Mark didn’t move, just kind of twitched.
“Mark, come on!” I screamed frantically.
I could hear the train’s whistle now, the one it always blew right before it came hurtling around the bend.
In my mind, I could already see Mark’s broken body being flung down the tracks like a rag doll.
I knew I couldn’t let that happen, but my body seemed as slow as my mind was fast.
I rushed at Mark with a sudden pump of adrenaline. I felt my hands collide with his bony shoulders as, at the same time, I flung myself backwards to escape the train.
The driver had seen us seconds before. I could smell my hair burning from the friction sparks of braking wheels on track.
I waited breathlessly as the short train passed. It might have only lasted seconds, but it felt like years I waited for that train to go.
And when it did, I saw Mark. He was huddled on the other side of the tracks, with his head in his hands. But he appeared to be alive.
The train had come to a screeching halt a few hundred yards ahead. People were indignantly streaming out of it. I could hear a man loudly complaining to his wife, who appeared to have her eyes closed. It seemed like the entire host of passengers had come pouring out, and were angrily muttering.
But soon it all faded to a welcome buzzing, and I could no longer distinguish any particular voices from the crowd.
Joe had nimbly leapt over the tracks and was sitting by Mark’s side. I noticed the crowd had gone silent. So they had finally noticed us. I hoped they felt ashamed of themselves.
“Let me through,” called a voice. “I’m a doctor.” I numbly moved over as a man in a pinstripe suit pushed through the crowd of passengers. “Call for help,” he commanded.
I could faintly hear the message being passed back to the driver, who radioed it to the hospital in Norfolk. Soon, the welcome siren of an ambulance made its way to my ears.
I watched the paramedics jump out of the vehicle, and cluster around Mark and Joe. One of the team ran back to the ambulance and returned, carrying a stretcher. I could see another wave Joe away, while the remaining three strapped Mark to the stretcher. They jogged up the incline, and slid the stretcher into the ambulance, like a baker might slide a loaf of bread into his oven. The driver, who had remained in the ambulance, took one glance into his rearview mirror to assure his passengers were steady, then took off with a squeal of wheels. The exhaust somewhat marred the red and white colors of its rear, but they were still visible as the ambulance retreated.
The two colors danced and blurred in my eyes. I realized I was crying.
As I reached a hand up to wipe my eyes, I saw Ma and Scott grinning at me from a crowd of faces. Then I could see the red and white strap of the medal for bravery being lowered over my head.