Ashlyn Caverhill viciously kicked a rock, sending it flying off the railway ties and out of her way as she walked along between the tracks.
The first day of school, and she’d ditched her last class.
Not that anyone would care.
But they would most definitely notice. Everyone in the unbelievably small senior class would surely notice the new girl was missing. She'd explain herself tomorrow to her homeroom teacher – felt sick, had an appointment, oh gosh, I thought the day was done! Being the new kid, any excuse should work. At least once. If only once.
Prescott Junction, Maine was nothing like her Toronto home, where a person could hide in the crowd. Ashlyn missed it, acutely. She missed everything. Her friends. The non-stop noise. The energy. A freakin’ Starbucks. The high-rise apartment she’d shared with her mother.
She spied another rock and kicked it harder.
She'd arrived in Podunk Junction, as she thought of it, on the fifteenth of July. And by the sixteenth, everyone in the village seemed to know who she was. Everyone stared when she went down to the ball field to watch a game. So many cars had driven by her grandmother’s house and slowed down to gawk. And by the way the phone had rung practically non-stop for two days after she’d arrived, everyone knew her grandmother, Maudette Caverhill. Worst of all, everyone knew why Ashlyn had come to the Junction.
They all knew about her mother.
Ashlyn walked along the curving track, the river coming into sight as she rounded the bend. As she drew near the river, the sun, which had been hidden behind a cloud, burst out. Squinting against the brightness, Ashlyn lifted her long blond hair from the back of her neck. Her back was sweating beneath the book bag she carried, but at least there was a bit of a breeze to cool her.
The heat was different here in the country than it was in Toronto. Oh, it was just as hot, but somehow it didn't feel as close. Thank God. Because she had to walk two miles home in it. It was either that or the school bus. Come winter, there'd be no option but to ride the bus, but for now, she'd forego that…um, pleasure. She’d never actually ridden on one of those big orange monsters, but she couldn’t imagine it would be good.
And besides, she kind of liked the solitary trek along the tracks, particularly since she didn’t have to worry about trains. According to her grandmother, Prescott Junction had once been a thriving railway town. Passenger and freight trains had run through the Junction all the time, an iron artery carrying lifeblood to and from the town. But those days were long gone. No trains came through anymore. Ever.
At least that's what her grandmother said.
“None? Are you sure, Maudette?” Ashlyn had asked. She'd been picking through her breakfast – way too many carbs, capped off with actual Wonderbread white toast – on her second morning in town. Making small talk with her mother’s mother, a woman she barely knew. “That's strange. I thought I'd heard a train go through late last night.”
Expecting an eye roll from her grandmother over the use of her Christian name, Ashlyn had been startled to see the older woman's eyes shoot wide with alarm.
“You heard nothing! Trains don't run through the Junction anymore. Goddamn, it's really a shame!” The spatula had clanged to the floor and Maudette had just let it lie there. She’d wiped her hands on the dishtowel that hung from the pocket of her faded jeans. “Don't...don't get up at night, Ashlyn,” she'd said. “Stay in bed. No matter what.”
Then she’d fled the house to tend to her happily barking Airedale Terriers in the kennels out back, leaving Ashlyn alone in the kitchen.
Alone and wondering.
Still wondering now, Ashlyn stepped sideways – up then down – to kick a rock off one of the rusted rails. She couldn't walk heel to toe for the better part of a mile on a single rail like most of the born-and-bred Prescott Junction kids could. Not that she was especially interested in mastering that feat. But it somehow almost poetically served to solidify a point. Ashlyn didn't belong here. She didn't toe this line.
It wasn't just the rails. And it wasn't just leaving her friends and everything behind in Toronto. There was a real, genuine creepiness to Prescott Junction. She couldn't quite put her finger on but sure as hell couldn't dismiss. People stared at her. They watched her. And it went beyond her newcomer status. There was something more in their eyes. Something softly veiled yet sharp underneath. Something not quite right.
Even with the kids her age.
And of course there were the whispers. Always the whispers around.
Sure, the kids she’d met this first day of school were nice enough in their token hellos and smile-at-the-new-kid way. But even as a few extended their hands to shake hers (and how bizarre was that?), they held back a bit. Singly, and collectively. Thoroughly. It wasn't like Ashlyn was looking for a new BFF, but hey, someone to talk to this year – someone her own age to hang with a bit – wouldn't be half bad.
Yes, it was only a year. That’s what her social worker had said back home. “Only a year, Ashlyn.” Only her senior year. Only all the friends she had on the face of the planet. Only her freakin’ prom! Somehow, she’d pushed down the jumble of anger and resentment at the unfairness of it all and agreed to come here. What else could she do? After her mother’s involuntary hospitalization, the choices had been made clear to her by Child Services. “You're seventeen, Ashlyn. A minor. And you've one year left of school. You can either go into foster care here in Toronto and stay at Jarvis Collegiate, or you can go live with relatives. Until you turn eighteen, those are your options.”
Ashlyn's father had died before Ashlyn had been born. He’d died right here in Prescott Junction, actually, though Ashlyn never knew how or why. No one would ever tell her. His parents had died shortly thereafter in a car accident. Ashlyn's mother had been an only child also, so there were no aunts and uncles willing to take her in. Ashlyn's widowed grandmother was the only possible solution.
Maybe you should have taken your chances with a foster family.
The thought rose up to taunt her, but she pushed it away. She’d seen too much of that, too many friends and classmates thrust into a foster care situation. If it had turned out well for even one of them, she might have taken that plunge.
The train bridge marked the halfway point, give or take a few yards, between Maudette's place and the school. It spanned the rushing rapids below, and Ashlyn stood on the walkway in the middle of it, looking down into the white water. While she figured she’d be able to get away with a lame excuse with her teacher as to why she’d ditched her last class, she doubted very much her grandmother would fall for a similar line. “Er, gee, Maudette, when I saw all those kids heading down the hall towards the science lab, I thought that meant it was time to go home!”
She looked at her watch. She'd been sauntering along the tracks but still had at least twenty minutes to kill. She could stay here on the train bridge. It was quiet and peaceful enough. Or...
Ashlyn had seen the path before, the one that ran along the embankment at the east end of the bridge. The sloping path was well worn and well traveled, despite someone's half-assed attempt at fencing it off. It went about half-way down the embankment before it veered suddenly left, right under the train bridge. The pathetic wooden fence held a single ineffective sign: ‘KEEP OUT.’
Ashlyn figured this had to be the teenage hangout here in Podunk Junction. No theater, no mall, not even a freakin’ bowling alley for kids to gather in. But here, below the train bridge, was a perfectly secluded spot. Not that she'd ever head down there if she thought others were there. But this was the first day of school. It was a Tuesday afternoon for God’s sake! Surely no one would be there now.
Did she dare?
Ashlyn looked up and down the silent, abandoned tracks. Then she climbed over the fence and slid/walked her way down the embankment. Her sandals didn't grip the gravel of this unfamiliar slope at all. She half turned, slammed her hands against the steel bridge and caught herself before she slid the rest of the way down and into the water. The river wasn't deep, but if anyone saw her…well, that would be embarrassing as hell. Ashlyn gripped the edge of a black-painted steel beam, and stopped to look over the situation.
She could do it, she thought. With a solid grip on the edge, she could swing herself right under. But it would have to be a pretty good swing and she'd better land on her feet. Ashlyn tightened her hold. Then she lunged her body forward as she swung.
Her heart was pounding as her feet hit the cement beneath the train bridge. She pushed herself forward and upright, and looked back behind her. She'd have to swing back up again. That might not be so easy, but in the meantime…
It was cooler under the train bridge. Not just from the cool air coming up from the river, but from the shade provided by the old wooden ties above her that blocked out all but slivers of sunlight that shone down where she stood. The cement felt damp beneath her sandaled feet as she walked around. It was darker under here, too. Not stumbling-around-in-the-blackness dark, but dark enough that it took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the change. But soon she could focus on her surroundings – the few cigarette butts and empty beer bottles around. A half-dozen blocks made from sawed-up ties formed a casual semi-circle around what looked like some kind of homemade campfire pit. Nothing that she saw surprised her.
Not until she looked up and saw the girl crouched up beside a steel beam, staring back at her.
“Holy shit!” Ashlyn’s hand flew to her chest, as though to quiet her suddenly racing heart. “You...you scared me.”
“Yeah,” the girl snorted. “I have that effect on people.”
Ashlyn squinted in recognition. “Hey, aren't you...” Starts with an R. Rhonda? Rhoda? “Rachel,” she said, pleased to have retrieved the name.
She'd seen this girl at school today, in the senior class. Ashlyn wasn't particularly good with names, but this one she'd remembered, mainly because people had whispered about her. While Ashlyn had the new-kid distinction of getting a seat in the front, this girl had gravitated to a back corner of the classroom. Ashlyn had heard the snickers when Rachel walked in. And she did stick out. As hot as the day was, Rachel hadn't come dressed for the stifling heat in the old school, which hadn’t yet discovered air-conditioning. While most of the kids showed up in short-sleeved shirts and shorts or jeans, this girl had walked in wearing a dark skirt that flowed way past her knees, thick stockings and well-scuffed, flat-bottomed shoes, and a long-sleeved black blouse buttoned high on the collar and right down to the wrists. Rachel's brown hair fell halfway down her back. Between the hair and the clothes, she looked half hidden. And Ashlyn had the feeling she was quite all right with that. She’d heard the snicker-snorts of 'witch-girl' from a couple of the jocks when Rachel walked into class. But for some reason, Ashlyn had the feeling Rachel was good with this too, with everyone thinking this way. But Ashlyn knew damn well this girl wasn't a witch. That wasn't why she covered herself with those bizarre clothes.
“You're the new kid, Maudette Caverhill's granddaughter,” Rachel said. “I've heard of you.”
Ashlyn rolled her eyes. “You and everyone else. I'm Ashlyn Caverhill.”
“I know.” With slow but sure steps, Rachel came down from her shadowed, steel-beam perch and stood beside Ashlyn, almost toe to toe. “I'm Rachel Riley. Bet you've heard of me too.”
“I saw you at school today.”
“Right. Of course you did.” She stared. She waited and scratched her head. “Um, this is the part where you turn and dash out of here.”
“Yes, yes, you're excused,” Rachel said, waving her away with her hands.
Ashlyn snorted. “That wasn’t an excuse me, I’m leaving. That was an excuse me, what the fuck?” Ashlyn studied the other girl, genuinely curious. She didn't look dangerous. Certainly not threatening. Rude? Oh, yeah. But in truth, that was almost refreshing.
“I'm Rachel Riley,” she repeated, as though Ashlyn might be slow on the uptake. “You really don't want to be seen with me.”
Ashlyn shrugged. “We're under the train bridge on a Tuesday afternoon. Who's to see?”
“That's not the point. I'm the local loco.” She waved her hands along her attire as if that were all the proof needed. “I'm the weird girl. The witch.” Her mouth pulled back in a grimace and she sucked in a lungful of air.
“You're not going to cackle are you?” Ashlyn asked.
Rachel coughed out the air she’d just sucked down. “Hell, no.”
“Who says you're a witch?”
“Everyone,” Rachel answered. “Me. I'm strange. Got it? I’m a weirdo. Why else would I dress this way?”
Ashlyn angled her head, studying Rachel. “Probably because you're a cutter.”
Rachel’s brown eyes saucered, and even in the dim light below the train bridge, Ashlyn could see the panic in them. The truth in them.
Rachel stumbled over her words. “No-o. I'm just.” She wet her lips. “I'm…you know...different.”
“Oh, for chrissakes! Get over yourself already.”
Rachel blinked. “Pardon me?”
“Different? God, where I come from, you can hardly be cool unless you are a cutter. You’re not different, Rachel. You’re normal. You just happen to be addicted to doing something really stupid.”
“Whoa! Wait a minute, Metro-girl. I don’t—”
“Hey, relax. It's not like I'll tell,” Ashlyn said. “I mean, who would I tell?”
While Rachel didn't exactly wilt with relief, her shoulders loosened a bit. They didn't seem thrown back so very far.
“For the record,” Ashlyn added, “there are other means to...vent. To handle the pressure.”
Rachel bristled. “Ones that leave psychological scars instead of physical ones, you mean?”
Ashlyn shrugged. “Everything leaves a scar of some kind.”
Rachel turned away from her. She paced a few steps and took a seat by the fire pit.
After a moment, Ashlyn joined her.
It was Rachel who broke the silence.
“You don't know the pressure here,” she finally said. “Podunk Junction isn't all moonbeams and roses and lemonade on front porches.”
“Podunk Junction?” Ashlyn was surprised to hear the label she'd given the village coming from someone else. “Omigod, you're not from around here either?”
Rachel snorted. “I wish. I've lived here all my life.” She pushed a dark-toed shoe along the cement. “Which is just seventeen years too long.”
“You don't like it?”
“I'm the proverbial square peg in this round hole town. The odd man out. The–”
“The witch?” Ashlyn said. “Isn't that what you're going for?” She hadn't meant it come out so sarcastic.
Rachel shook her head. “You don't understand this place yet, Ashlyn Caverhill from Canada. You're the newbie. The one who doesn't have to keep the secrets and pretend not to hear the–”
“The train?” Ashlyn interrupted.
Rachel whirled to face her. “Trains...trains don't run through the Junction anymore. Goddamn, it's really a shame.”
Gooseflesh prickled on Ashlyn’s bare arms and she ran her hands over them. Those were the words – the very words – that her grandmother had used. Over and over again.
“But I've heard a train at night. Quite a few times now.”
“You couldn't have,” she said, but her tone lacked conviction.
Rachel ran a hand through her hair. She stared into the fire pit as deeply as if a fire burned there. When she looked up, her face was tight with…what? Fear?
“Okay, so you heard it. I presume you know the drill, then? Stay in bed. As deep as you can under the covers.”
“Everyone does. Always.”
God, that look on Rachel's face. It was beyond fear. And in a lightning bolt of intuition, Ashlyn knew. She just knew. “That's not what you do, is it?” Ashlyn said. “You don't stay in bed at night.”
“No. No, I don’t.” Rachel’s voice was so small and trembled out like a child's. “I never, ever could.”
Rachel's bottom lip quivered just the tiniest bit as she sat there staring back. Ashlyn knew she wanted to tell. Oh, God, she needed to tell. She dug her fingers into her knees as she sat there.
Suddenly, she startled. They both did as they heard the pounding above them.
“Oh crap! That's the Caldwell boys.” Rachel stood. “They always race each other home. School's out. This place will be overrun in about ten minutes.”
Ashlyn stood. “Tell me more about those trains I hear.”
“Un-uh.” Rachel shook her head. “I'm outta here.”
Two steps behind her, Ashlyn followed.
Rachel stopped at the edge of the bridge, just before the steel beam the girls would swing themselves back up on. She turned to Ashlyn. “You should probably know, he's a dick.”
Ashly's head shot back. “Who's a dick?”
“Mr. Maggs, our homeroom teacher. We'll have detention for a week after skipping class.”
“Got it covered.” Ashlyn grinned. “I'm going to play the confused-new-girl card.”
Rachel smiled for the first time since their encounter. She was pretty, Ashlyn thought, in a…well…witchy kind of way. “Yeah, and it'll work just as well as my weird-girl one. I'll see you in detention.”
This wouldn’t be so bad. She kind of liked Rachel, the self-imposed witch. The self-described weirdo who'd spent seventeen years in Podunk Junction.
And Rachel Riley knew about the trains.