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By Benjamin Selesnick
Keon was in 7th grade when he first snuck out of his parents’ house. It’d been weeks since he’d gotten more then three hours of sleep over the course of a night. He had an awful habit of kicking when he slept, so that in the middle of the night one of his feet would strike the windowsill endlessly until the pain woke him up. His feet were covered with blisters and bruises, a toe that bent precariously to the left. Chipped nails.
Keon’s sleeping issues were not new. He’d had them from as early as he could remember and he tried to remedy them in any way he could think of, but to little or no avail.
In 5th grade, Keon had passed his sleepless nights by meticulously plucking the hairs off his forearm, staring at the lagoon-colored walls of his bedroom. His mind would empty in anticipation of the next self-inflicted shock, so that in these short, passable intervals he wouldn’t worry about not being able to sleep. The hairs got placed into a little pile on his bedside table, but come morning, he would hide them all. Sometimes Keon stashed the hairs in tiny zip-lock baggies for future use, although he wasn’t sure what purpose they might serve, and on other nights he cupped his trimming in his palm and blew them out the window.
But once he’d plucked his arms dry, the quiet burden of insomnia consumed him once more. He found that if he looked at the walls for too long, the room would feel like a cigar box with the doorknob as its latch; Keon as the lone cigar, laying in wait to be smoked.
In lieu of hair plucking, Keon drew little spirals on sheets of loose-leaf paper in different colors, the spirals sometimes growing so tight that the page turned into a plethora of indiscernible scratchings. These scratchings sat on Keon’s bedside table for a long time until finally, in yet another fit of restless irritability, he taped the top edge of each sheet of paper to the walls of his room. Keon would crack the window, even when it was cold out, so that when the wind rushed inside, the heels of the paper flew upwards. They looked like a dancing chorus line.
By 6th grade, he became so frustrated with the cigar box’s silence that he’d pace around the room incessantly until one of his parents came to tell him to settle down and go to bed. He received their nightly chastisements with joy. Even though they couldn’t or wouldn’t sympathize with his predicament, their invasion into his otherwise isolated evenings gave his tired mind something to obsess over. Anger, swirling exponential anger, both at himself and at his parents, kept him occupied into the morning hours.
But hate breeds more hate, and Keon began to feel its effects. He started to grind his teeth, eat at a rushed pace, gain a considerable amount of weight, and lash out at other kids at school.
At the start of 7th grade, Keon smacked a fellow classmate upon entering History class. The two of them had stood there waiting for the teacher to come by and open the door. The boy who Keon slapped, Erik, was crouched next to the door rifling through his backpack. He had a water bottle in an outside pocket, and when Erik went to pick up his backpack, the bottle slipped out and cracked open on the hallway floor. It gushed over Keon’s shoes. “Oh, oh!” Is all Erik said before Keon said, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” But of course, it wasn’t. As their teacher opened the door to let in the other students, Keon’s gaze did not fall from the back of Erik’s shoulders. His breathing quickened. His breath got shorter and gathered in his chest rather than his gut. Both Keon and Erik sat at their respective desks at opposite sides of the classroom. More students piled through the doors. Their teacher began writing on the blackboard, her back turned to the classroom. Keon tapped his foot inside his soggy shoe and peered over towards Erik, who was again searching around in his backpack. While the teacher wasn’t looking, Keon stood up and bee-lined over to Erik, slapping him right across the face with an open palm.
It was atavistic, a moment he couldn’t understand and one he willed himself to forget soon after.
This incident got Keon suspended for three days, Tuesday to Thursday.
Tuesday night, once again trapped in the cigar box, Keon couldn’t contain his irritation, couldn’t contain himself. Ruffled with the shame of what he’d done to Erik, lying in the bed, staring at his scratchings hung on the walls, Keon felt like this moment would never pass. He would be in this bed forever. He would be in trouble forever. He would be himself forever. He would feel this way forever.
And so Keon surmised that if he couldn’t sleep, his thoughts wouldn’t go away. And if his thoughts wouldn’t go away, he would have to distract himself with a walk, and if his parents would keep him from walking in his room, he would have to find somewhere else to walk.
The question of how to leave his house without getting caught gave him pause. He ended up taking the simplest route of them all: out the front door. He waited up until one a.m that Thursday night in 7th grade. To test his parents’ wakefulness, Keon got up and paced around his room on the edge of his toes. Nothing happened. The silence made him even more nervous. He felt the passage of time the way a man feels the tingle of his eyelashes against one another. He put on a pair of sneakers, some gym shorts, a baggy white t-shirt, and tiptoed his way down the stairs and out the front door.
Upon gently closing the door to his house, Keon sprinted across the lawn and dipped behind a tree next to the sidewalk. There he waited, staring into the blackened windows of his house. The shrubs that lined the front side of his home quaked with the breeze and the lantern that dangled above the awning of the front door shifted as well. His parents’ room was on the far end of the home, so he couldn’t see into their bedroom, but he waited nonetheless. It was only when a car drove past that he realized how suspicious he must’ve looked, so he left his family’s property and headed north up Garden Road.
The suburban streets looked the same as they had from his bedroom window. His encroaching steps up the lopsided-street, which shaped itself into a semicircle with the rain water and debris dripping into the drains on both sides, were light; his heels rarely touched the pavement. Keon hid on the sidewalk away from the covetous light coming from the streetlamps.
The evasion of his thoughts, a calmness that he imagined would emanate from the sleeping houses and outdoor cats, eluded him. Conversely, the further he traveled from his home, only a few dozen yards at this point, the more he felt the judgmental eye of God or of his parents or of himself, and this eye refused to let him out of its sight. Raising his shoulder to hide the lower section his face, Keon looked towards his home, which stood at the perpendicular intersection of Garden Road and Emerson Avenue. No bodies emerged, no ghosts, no flashing lights.
Keon found himself standing in front of the train tracks only three blocks from his home. From Monday to Friday Keon could hear the echoes of the train’s horn at 10:21 p.m, 10:47 p.m, 11:23 p.m, and 11:59 p.m in his bedroom. The horn’s tooting grounded him in the moment, forcing him to recognize where and when he was, and so when he looked out onto the tracks that stretched out past the curvature of the Earth, Keon felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for their existence. He smiled a dimpled smile, thinking fondly of the passengers that had come and gone only an hour ago.
But his joy quickly dissipated as he remembered the crowds of teenagers he’d seen walking up and down these tracks during the daytime. Often, they wore black clothing with holes in their jeans. Keon’s clothing was made of pastel colors, his jeans a light sky-blue devoid of any holes. They were cool. By walking the tracks they had broken a rule that not only their parents probably enforced but the police officers enforced as well. To have lived so close to the tracks and to have never once walked on them, Keon’s stomach stirred with shame and envy. He recognized his fear.
And so with all the courage he could carry, he took his first step onto the train tracks, one foot on the wooden panel and one on the metal railing. Then it was two feet on the railing, and he tried to walk as far as he could without falling off, just like a trapeze artist. The ground became harder to see with each step he took; the gravel pushed through the web-like soles of his Converses; the light from the streetlamps shrunk behind him.
The night was black except for a light coming from a metal post a quarter mile down the tracks. It flashed red, red, red. During the day, it would alternate from green and red; green when a train was coming and red when one wasn’t. He used the light as a beacon, guiding his perilous trip on a path that appeared to have no end.
Keon expected to hear the sound of a train chugging along in the distance. The only noises of humanity came from those in the houses that lined the train tracks behind a wall of trees, and even those sounds were muffled and rare.
The flashing light had come and gone. Now, there was only he and the tracks and the trees and the trash. On the sides of the tracks were wooden poles that had small signs stapled to their front. These signs, he assumed, marked distances, although the distances they marked weren’t clear. They had fractions on them with changing denominators and numerators. The closest one he saw said 13/30.
The next one said 27/42. Keon tried to figure out these jumbled equations. 27 divided by 42 equals 0.6428. 13 divided by 30 equals 0.4333. 0.6428 subtracted by 0.4333 equals 0.2095.
He decided that these fractions were intentionally nonsensical.
The train tracks crossed onto a street and the street signs had changed from blue to green. The next town over had green signs. He had to be at least a mile from home. In this recognition of space, it came to him that his father would have to go to work in the coming hours. Although unobservant in many ways, Keon understood that as you walk, time passes, so he turned around and marched back down the train tracks.
On the side of the tracks right before the line of trees, slanted mounds of dirt created a moat between the trees and the tracks. In the soft, sand-like dirt were footprints, drawings, empty bottles of spray paint. The dirt slid out beneath his feet as he walked on it. He took much lighter steps but still, the dirt fell. His pace quickened to keep up with the eroding surface beneath him. He stretched his arms out wide, locked his eyes on the ground before him, and rushed along the mound.
Keon strode past the 13/30 sign and saw that right next to it was a thin path that bled narrowly between the trees. Layers and layers of footprints had beaten it down. Keon stopped and lunged up the hill into the darkness. At the edge of his vision was a wooden fence twice as tall as he, but a majority of his vision was obscured by the dense trees. He put more weight on his front toes, trying to get a better angle to see where the path turned, but in shifting his balance, his back foot lost its grip in the mound and he fell forward onto a layer of twigs.
He looked down the train tracks on both sides. The side that led to Newark, the one he’d walked on earlier, was dark and had become unfamiliar. The side back to his home was much shorter, and he could see the cross street that was only three blocks from his house. Keon sat there for a moment waiting to see if there would be a response to the noise he’d just made. When none came, he hiked up the hill and pushed through the brambles on the beaten down path. Branches and leaves jabbed at his bare skin on both sides. He held his arms tightly across his chest, swinging his shoulders to give himself more room. The path cut a few paces into the trees and then looped around back towards the train tracks. The light from the moon got dimmer as the branches got denser. There had been faint glimmerings through the trees that guided him but the further he walked the thicker the trees became, making it impossible to see more than two yards in front of him.
After following the sharp turn in the path, the trees opened into a tiny clearing. In the middle was a small wooden shack. The floor of the shack was made of dirt and there was a small bench built on its far side. There were scratchings of quotes and names all over it, some made by spray paint, some carved out with a knife. The ground was littered with these blue plastic wrappers that reflected the light that came through the openings in the shack’s collapsed roof. The roof hung only inches above his head. If he were to extend his arms as far as they could reach, he would’ve been able to touch opposing walls. There were clear plastic baggies all over the ground too, all of them empty.
It smelt like fertilizer in there.
Keon fell to his knees and rifled through the contents on the ground. He was looking for a pen. There didn’t appear to be any and the only object tucked below the bench was a bottle. It read Colt .45. He shoved it to the side and beneath it there was a pencil. Its tip wasn’t very sharp. It hardly had one at all. He grabbed it, cracked the tip off on the bench, and ripped the eraser out. He carved into the wall next to him with the pencil’s thin, rounded metal where the eraser once was. He pressed his head right next to where the metal touched the wood so that he could see what he was writing. At such a close angle, the wood looked infinite. The metal barely made a scratch at first but after wrenching on the pencil with both hands, he was able to chip off a sliver of wood from the wall.
The metal end was about a centimeter wide and the plank of wood was only about 8 inches long, so he decided to go with something short.
The evening rain from the night before made everything inside the shack damp and pliable. The seat of his gym shorts were soaked from sitting on the bench and his knees had slight imprints from kneeling on the ground. Unnoticed, a twig still clung to his right knee.
After a minute the design was finished. It was hardly a design, really, more like the letters of a new language Keon had just created. It was chicken scratch but he knew what it said.
Keon thought it was original. Or maybe it wasn’t, but he had never heard anyone say it before. He had made his mark, his personal stamp on the universe.
Keon was very happy.
The path, although he’d trekked it only once, felt familiar. He walked back around the loop onto the train tracks, and during the ten minutes he’d spent in the shack, two cars had parked at the cross street he’d planned on walking to.
The waking world. It stirs.
Two steps down the mounted hill, Keon noticed them and jumped back into the trees. He ran back into the shack where he couldn’t see the headlight of the cars anymore. His heels kicked up tassels of leaves that’d congealed together, dirt that acted like glue to neighboring twigs. He pushed himself off trees that blocked his way, weaving in and out of them, on and off the matted path. Keon ran to the bench and looked through rotted slits within the shack’s tattered walls. Low-hanging branches obscured his vision.
The presence of other people can be just as scary as it is comforting.
Keon’s thoughts swirled quickly and viciously. Every crinkled twig he heard was an intruder, every muted voice was a cop running down the train tracks to arrest him. This is wrong, he thought. He worried that the shack would collapse on him, right then, and that the men in the parked car would hear this and find him moments later. He worried that the gaping hole of the shack that worked as its door would paranormally close up, planks of wood pushing up through the dirt, filling the gap like zombies rising from the grave. He would be trapped once again.
He looked at his engraving on the wall and spoke it aloud, “Oh boy, I’m a boy.” He said it over and over, loud enough that it blocked out any other noise, but quiet enough that he couldn’t be heard on the tracks. After a dozen repetitions, he took the ‘Oh boy’ off and started mouthing, “I’m a boy. I’m a boy. I’m a boy.” His voice softened until his lips moved without emitting a sound. Baggies popped into the air as he sifted his hand through the dirt. He closed his eyes and imagined himself back in his room. His little cigar box. His quilt lightly draped off the left side of the bed. He thought of how nice it would be to pull it over himself and hold it tightly across his chest.
The car’s horn honked. Or maybe it didn’t. Keon heard something that sounded like a car horn. He watched the hair on his arm rise.
The car will never leave, he thought, It’ll be there in the morning. And then I’ll be trapped. It’ll be there in the afternoon too. And even if it’s not there, something else will be and then everyone will know that I snuck out of the house and my parents will find out and I’ll be even more of a mistake than I already am.
He felt his throat tighten and he worried that he was going to cry.
He practically screamed it, the way his voice echoed inside the shack.
If there were someone out there on the tracks, they would’ve heard him. He’d blown his cover, and he was almost happy that he did. Keon stood tall in the shack, knocking his head against a low hanging piece of plywood. He dusted off the seat of his pants, more baggies falling to the ground.
The cars were still there. Two of them. Big SUV’s with headlights that brightened the otherwise pitch-black street. Keon went to the middle of the tracks and walked towards them, putting his foot on every plank of wood that connected the two metal rails. He looked down as he did so and tried not to imagine that the cars were there, but all he could think of were the people in the cars waiting for him at the end of the tracks with long serrated knives in their hands, their faces silhouetted from the headlights.
“I’m a boy.” he continued to mouth.
Two figures sat motionless in the front seat of the SUV. Keon moved to the right side of the track, closer to the rear end of the car. He was only fifteen or so paces away. The driver side door opened up. Keon heard it, saw it. Kept walking. His head was facing forward but he was looking to the left to watch the man. The man was dressed in baggy jeans and a zipped black hoodie. Timberland boots. His hands were deep in his pockets. The headlights of the car turned off and the man became darkened again. Keon kept looking forward. He reached the street and from what sounded like miles away, he heard the man mumble the word, “Punk.”
Me? Keon thought. The word almost came out of his mouth. He turned the corner, away from the SUV, away from his home, and tried plucking hairs off his arm that weren’t there. When he couldn’t get a hair between his fingernails, he started running his nails against his forearms like a junkie.
Keon reached the corner of Emerson and Columbus Avenue, four blocks from his home. He slid behind a tree and looked in the direction of where he had just been: the car was still there. The men, Keon thought, must still be there too. His pulse was quick and he could feel it all over. Through his chest, in his ears, beneath the front of his skull, on his fingertips.
He sprinted back to his house and in his frightened state, forgot to close the door gently. He ran up the stairs and jumped into his bed. Pulled the covers over his head. The spiral-torn sheets of paper waved to him as wind leaked in through the open window. His heart still pounded and in the quiet of his room, he began to cry. Softly, very softly. Tears like globs of Jell-O fell down his face. He felt immobile. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to shut the world out.
Down the hall came footsteps. Large ones. His father’s. The door opened and there stood his father dressed in only his boxers.
“Where have you been?”
Keon didn’t how to talk.
“I won’t ask again.”
From beneath the blankets, Keon opened his mouth but the back of his throat trembled so greatly that the words wouldn’t come out.
His father walked over to the bed and stood above him.
“Keon, tell me where you just came from. What were you doing outside?”
In words that didn’t sound like words, Keon said, “I was walking.”
“I—” He didn’t know how to finish the sentence, “I’m very scared.”
His father waited for more, arms across his chest, “Of what?”
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