Flash Fiction Friday: This year, I’m participating in the story a month challenge at 12ShortStories.com. The February prompt was “Desperate Times” and the limit was 1000 words in length. I was a little late submitting it, so it won’t count toward my official score, but I’m still pretty pleased with the outcome. After it’s settled a bit, I hope to revise it and submit it to a couple of magazines I subscribe to. As always, please let me know what you think. Your feedback is invaluable, and you never know what little insight might inspire a big change during my edits!
“Jumper” by S.C. Jensen
Jordie didn’t want to kill himself. That’s not why he was down at the tracks that day. A boy had done just that, though, a few years back. Thirteen year old Henry Brand jumped right in front of the old iron horse just as she was picking up speed outside of town. They found him, in parts, strewn between mileposts halfway to the canyon.
Boys at school said you could still see the bloodstain, a dark spot on the parched earth.
At the time, suicide was an unfathomable thing to Jordie. But the older he got, the more it made a bleak kind of sense. It was like playing knucklebones. Sometimes you know when you’re beat; sometimes you’ve just gotta cut your losses.
Jordie’s eyes swept up and down the iron scar that sliced through the cracked, red flesh of the badlands. Scrubby brush burst crazily from the gravel beside the tracks like the grizzled hairs on a hobo’s chin. The sun burned up all the moisture in the air before it got a chance to touch the desiccated soil. It sucked the water right out of his pores. Even the spit in his mouth seemed to evaporate. Jordie grew old under that sun.
He crouched low in the silvery grasses and kept his head down. Rail workers weren’t likely to spot him this far from the switch, but he wasn’t taking chances. Heat radiated at him from the greasy rail ties in thick, rubber-scented waves. It twisted the air before him and the landscape beyond. Jordie kept his eye on the horizon. The three o’clock train would be coming west on this line, and he was ready for it.
Jordie’s mind wandered, dreamlike, in the shimmering heat. He saw his father at the kitchen table. His ropey muscles writhed as he coiled in on himself like a snake, aggressively defensive. The ice in his glass rattled a familiar warning. Jordie’s jaw and ribs ached with remembrance.
He wondered if they would miss him at school on Monday, or if Mrs. Temple would assume Jordie was taking one of his regular “shiner days.” How long would it take before someone realized he was gone? How long until they started searching for his body?
They’d look for Jordie before anyone missed his old man.
Thoughts of the bloodstain crept up on him then. How thirstily the ground must have lapped up the red rivulets, how cool and refreshing it must have been to the furnace-fired earth. Jordie ran a tongue like sandstone over lips of cracked clay. The skin sloughed off in ragged flakes. It made sense that the stain would still be there, though he’d never believed it before. A gift like that was something to hold on to.
Then, Jordie realized he could see it. A shadow of blackened dirt splashed across the wooden ties and down the gravel bank not five paces from where he planned to jump. It could have been an oil stain, or the remains of a bucket of pitch knocked over during a hasty shift change. But it wasn’t, Jordie knew.
He knew because Henry was there.
The boy unfolded himself from between the layers of quivering air, appearing in thin fleshy stripes that thickened and solidified as Jordie stared. Jordie’s tongue curled in his mouth like a dead worm. Henry stood on the opposite side of the tracks and gaped at Jordie, a black-eyed reflection of his own slack-jawed shock. The boy beckoned.
Jordie felt the train before he heard it. A clacking tremor shivered up the rail as if it was ridden by a ghost engine. A whistle shrieked through the surrounding cliffs and forced Jordie to tear his eyes from the apparition. A hulking form grew on the horizon. Jordie felt the quaking like pressure building in his chest. The train bore down upon him, not yet at full speed, but quicker than he thought.
A hypnotic horror forced Jordie’s gaze back to the thing across the tracks. Henry beckoned him still. The boy smiled now, pink teeth flashing. Jordie help up a hand, reaching for the boy or warding him away, he didn’t know. Black blood caked the grooves of his fingernails, staining him the way the earth beneath Henry was stained. His hand gripped the phantom knife and he felt the sluicing arterial flow rush over him.
In death, the old man was less a snake than a pig. Watching the slumped pile of meat bleed out on the kitchen floor, Jordie couldn’t remember why he’s been so scared of his father.
Henry worked his jaw, still smiling. Jordie didn’t hear his voice but the words reverberated inside his skull like the vibrations of the train hurtling toward him. “It’s time.”
The great black engine swelled behind a translucent veil of heatwaves. When it tore through, suddenly hard-edged and undeniably real, Jordie froze. It was time. Was he ready?
The train rushed past and a wall of hot air and dust seemed to blast the skin from his bones. He squinted at the empty spaces between cars as they passed where Henry’s face had become a stop-motion picture of fury. The pink mouthed smile stretched out and down grotesquely, until the bottom jaw fell from the boy’s face completely. Henry’s skull caved in on one side and his limbs separated from the mangled ribcage that opened like a mouth in his chest. And in a spray of blood and earth, the spectre disintegrated.
Jordie’s paralysis broke.
He ran. His legs and arms pumped like rusted pistons and he ran alongside the tracks. His joints screamed and his muscles caught fire. Jordie edged his body closer and closer to the speeding behemoth. The bone crushing weight of the train tugged at him like gravity. His eyes were clear now. He kept them trained over his shoulder on an empty boxcar. It was time.