Life is a cage. I realize this now. The worst part of this realization is that most people know it. But they never do anything about it. They’re content to look through the bars, as long as the cage has a roof and there’s food inside of it. They don’t dare attempt to escape, to risk something better. That, or they’re expecting someone to come along and open the cage for them. That never happens. If it does, you can bet that whoever opens it has his own plan for you. A plan you’re probably going to hate. I finally decided to open my cage. However, I didn’t feel like it had been a matter of pushing a door open and walking out. I had practically bloodied my hands trying to rend the bars, finally grinding them down so that I was barely able to escape. I came out with the scars to prove it. I fought for my freedom.
Outsiders understandably scared me. Homeless people, junkies, drifters, hobos. For some weird reason, I’ve always had a pathological fear of ending up like these people. I can’t tell you why. Maybe it was ignorance. These types always seemed naturally repellent to me. Instead of repulsion and fear, I now felt a completely different emotion towards them: jealousy. Some of them might have been mental, granted, but some of them just didn’t care. They lived life on their own terms, not their bosses’, not their parents’, not society’s. Theirs.
I wanted to live life the way that they did. I wanted to start riding trains. I started researching this mode of travel, my brain soaking up every bit of information it found. Hobos were nowhere near as honorable as they were depicted. They would sometimes kill each other by shooting, stabbing, or just pushing one another off of the boxcar while it was moving, not giving a care as they moved onto the next job out West. I learned about the current incarnation of freighthopping, which is basically a pastime of crust punks and bedraggled addicts, filthy transients who don’t have to ride a train. They need to. There are gangs on the rails – the Freight Train Riders of America and its bastard child, the Blood Bound Railroad. I didn’t feel that I had to fear them much. They were monsters that mainly slinked around trains in the Northwest, like ticks on a snake. I was in the South. Yet, I still felt they could be here. Even if they weren’t, there could be people like them.
I went through nearly every scenario in my head that could happen if I hopped a freight train. I’m a small female. Rape. I know nothing about hopping trains. My body getting dumped at the base of a ravine. Where would I find food? They might use you for food. These were concerns that I considered seriously, but I needed more knowledge of this beast before I attempted to bridle it.
There was a railyard a few miles from my apartment. I went there one summer day. It was glaringly sunny and around 90 degrees, sweat beading on my thighs, causing my blue jeans to constrict around them. I arrived at the railyard, a junky maze of boxcars in drab greens and maroons being taken apart by men with glistening, dirt-speckled skin. The crew change, I thought. As I approached them, my boots kicked up the yellow dust that swirled on the ground, wading through dead, scrubby plants that were choking on the surface.
The man closest to me turned to stare. He was missing the majority of his teeth, and his thinning hair was pulled back in a scraggly ponytail. While he had a more prominent nose, he lacked a chin, giving him kind of a dopey look.
“Can I help yew, ma’am?” he said in a strong, country accent.
“Not sure, but I’m willing to take my chances. I’m Emma.”
I extended my hand and shook his dirty, wet palm.
“Pleasure to heyelp. Watcha need?”
“Well, I was wondering if you would mind telling me a bit about the railyard and the trains that come here.”
The man introduced himself as Will. He was a motor mouth but thankfully an informative one. He told me all about arrival times, when crew changes were, and where the trains were headed. When he slowed his pace, he finally got around to asking me some questions.
“Yew doin’ this fo’ a school project?”
“Uh, not really. I-“
I looked around the railyard to make sure no one was listening.
“I actually wanted to hop a train.”
Will’s eyes widened, causing the skin on his forehead to wrinkle.
“Wah wouldja wanna do that?”
“To get away.”
He nodded his head intently.
“Is there any way you could help me?”
There was a moment of silence between us as Will contemplated what I had said.
“The best tahm to fahnd me is around 10 in the mo’nin. I can tell yew ev’rythin’ yew need to know.”
From that point on, every day at 10 AM, I would go to the railyard to meet Will. Before he worked in the railyard, he had hopped trains to get around, so he was a fairly reliable resource. He told me about the finer points of which cars I could get on, which were the safest. If he admonished me once, he admonished me a million times about cargo shifting and crushing me and to avoid the cars that held them. His advice to me about catching out of the yard was to wait until the train was completely stopped. Due to my inexperience, he wasn’t confident of my ability to catch on the fly – hopping on the train while it was moving.
About a week into my training, Will finally broke it to me.
“Ahm worried about yew,” he said.
“There’r a lotta bad people on the tracks. Some gooduns, mind yew. But a lotta… crazy people can be on the train.”
“I’ve prepared myself for that,” I said defiantly.
“No, ah don’t think yew have.”
Will’s voice had taken on a stern quality that I hadn’t heard before.
“Ah was one of ‘em.”
I stood there unmoving. He took a swig of Pepsi, looking me in the eye as his head came down.
“Ah pulled a knife on a man once. Ah was high on meth. Ah cut ‘im across the arm. Thankfully, he lived. Ah spent some time in jail. Lucky ah got straightened out. Listen, ah don’t think yew should do this. At awl.”
“Well, I’m going to. I have to leave. If you don’t want to help me, I’ll just get on the train while you’re not here. You know Tom is a lazy ass bull anyway.”
The look Will gave me was possibly the saddest that I had seen cross over his face in the short time I had known him. I felt sorry that I had put it that way, but I wasn’t going to be swayed. Will also knew that Tom, the security guard at the railyard was sleeping in his office most of the time. He absolutely wouldn’t be bothered with me.
Will nodded his head solemnly.
“When’re yew leaving?”
“Tomorrow,” I said.
Will remained silent for a second.
“Ah’ll see you off then,” he said.
I arrived at the railyard early. It was still dark out. I had a backpack with me that held a loaded gun, some extra ammo, a bit of food, a knife, and a flashlight. In my hand I held a gallon jug that I had filled with water. I wore heavy, supportive boots. I was covered in layers despite the heat and humidity. Once the train got moving, the wind would be freezing. I met Will.
“Yew sure about this?”
He directed me to the last car on the train. It was completely empty, and the doors were open.
“Hide in the back. Yew got a rock?”
I leaned down and picked up a large weathered stone. I could wedge it between the doors in the event I had to close them, since they didn’t open from the inside. I scrambled into the dark corner of the empty boxcar. Will would sometimes lean against the boxcar and talk to me, but most of the time he was getting things set up. It came time for the train to take off.
“Yew know about the next stop? It’s a whiles away.”
“Yeah, Will, you’ve told me,” I smiled.
“Yew stay safe and don’t let anyone fuck yew over.”
The train started moving. I waved to Will as it gained speed. We stared at each other until Will’s image was obscured by trees. I was completely alone now. I sat in the corner of the train, contemplating my situation. I was scared, more scared than I ever had been. And I loved it. I was free. No one, except for me, knew where I was going or where I would end up. Food was going to be a bit of an obstacle, but I figured I could just go to a soup kitchen or work as a waitress somewhere. While there were challenges inherent with this lifestyle, there were also a myriad of possibilities. I was ready to take hold of them.
The first couple of hours in the train, I kept to the back. It was probably running at about 70 miles an hour, and I hadn’t yet gained the courage to move to the open area. I secured the gallon jug behind my backpack and slowly rose. I held to the sides of the boxcar and sat at the opening. What met my eyes was astounding. A dark gray mountain sat in the midst of a sea of green trees. Its vastness filled the land, as a fierce wind howled through the trees, exposing the silver undersides of the leaves. It was like an island fortress in an ocean of undulating greens and silvers, daring anyone to swim to its shores. This scene was gorgeous, but it also terrified me. My apartment, my cubicle, and the eateries in the surrounding area where I had lived were my familiar landscapes. They had been replaced with the dingy metal walls of a car and the fantastic, daunting views of nature you could only see by traveling this way. I left my crappy boss and co-workers, the bartenders who served me when they should have cut me off, and throngs of faceless people I didn’t care to know. I wondered who would be replacing them.
I stood up in the train now. The sun shone upon my face. I took off my coat and threw it in the corner with my backpack. My body pulsed with this unfettered freedom. For the first time in my life, I was happy. I must have stood there for what felt like hours, my skin growing taut with the cold. I drank in every image that nature had to offer. As ecstatic as I was, I was growing exhausted. Will had told me that the whipping wind would suck the life out of me. I now fully believed him. I carefully moved to the corner again with my backpack. I drank heavily from the jug and put my coat on. I closed my eyes and fell asleep immediately.
The positivity of my experience while I was awake hadn’t translated to my slumber. My dreams were plagued by all the horrors I had read about. Grimy, toothless men with jaundiced eyes leered at me through the jungles on the side of the tracks, stalking my every move. Gang members hiding behind black bandanas held knives to my neck as they tried to pull my pants down. A woman with stringy hair howled at me as she lunged at my body, trying to bite me.
I woke up in a cold sweat. I thrashed as I looked around the car. Night had fallen by this point, but the train was still moving. I hadn’t reached my destination yet. I pulled my flashlight and my gun out of my backpack. No one was in the car. No one but me. I took a deep breath and finished the contents of my jug. I would have to get more water when the train stopped. A couple more hours went by. I had shaken off my terrible dreams, dismissing them as my subconscious response to stress. The hobos and the gang members I could understand. I’d read about them exhaustively. The woman I couldn’t. Had she been a drug user? Maybe I had seen her on Google Images, one of those “after” pictures you see of addicts. If she was, she would have to have been one of the more intense cases. I remembered nothing like her. I didn’t remember her at all. My worry about this dissipated as I felt the train slow down. Will had told me to look out for a huge tower with a blinking red light nearby. I saw it in the distance. This was going to be where the train would stop. I could either get off at this place and find somewhere to stay, or I could wait for the yard workers to unload and sneak back on. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.
The train slowed. I could tell it was about to stop. I put my gun and flashlight back into my backpack and made sure my coat was zipped up. I stayed in the corner as I felt the train come to a halt. I was thrown forward, so I was glad that I had at least held tight to the walls. I grabbed all of my things and peeked out the open door of the car. I needed to stretch my legs desperately, but I didn’t want to encounter the bull. All I saw were other crew workers who had hopped off of the train when it was only going a couple of miles an hour. Will had told me that the yard workers here were pretty accepting of people hopping the train as long as they were nice. Luckily, there was a crew change going on, so I had at least a few seconds to get out of the car. I hopped off and breathed in the air. Thunder rumbled overhead, and dark clouds obscured the velvety, dark blue sky. Fat raindrops hit the top 0f my head, startling me. I didn’t feel comfortable walking in the rain in a place I didn’t know. Back on the train it was.
All of the necessary paperwork had to have been in order, because I saw the new crew hop on the train. I quickly got back to my original hiding place. It was too short of a rest, but I could live with it. I propped my backpack in the corner. I was worried about not being able to get any water. Maybe I could hold the jug outside of the train and catch water that way, risky as it was. For the time being, I felt fine. I was relaxed, warm, and I felt safe with the rest of the crew being relatively nearby. Despite my long sleep just a few minutes before, I had the urge to doze off again. The rain was falling heavily at this point, hitting the top of the car like little torpedoes. The thunder would boom at random intervals, making me jump out of my skin every time it did so. I hadn’t seen any lightning yet though. As if my recent connection with nature had grown to be psychic, a burst of white light illuminated the car. That’s when I saw it.
There was someone in the opposite corner from me. I had roughly been able to make out a body with a face. No, no, there couldn’t be someone in here with me. I had only been out of the car for a few seconds, and I hadn’t left it. I would have seen someone get into the car, felt their presence near. If someone had gotten in, they had to have been fast. And quiet. Had I hallucinated? I… didn’t feel like I had. The rain pelted the top of the car with a frightening intensity, and the wind howled. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see that I hadn’t just imagined something. A dark shape was huddled in the corner. I could see its head shaking as if it were having a seizure. I heard gurgling noises coming from it as its body quaked. It made this sound for a while – until it started laughing. It was a breathy laugh, the laugh of someone who was trying to conceal a joke. The laughter gradually became louder, morphing into a cackle, with the choked gurgles coming up in intervals.
I felt like my bones had separated from my muscles. I was paralyzed as I watched the thing heave up and down, and my throat had run dry. My mind raced as I tried to figure out what I could do. If I jumped out of this moving train, I would die. I was scared to even move, fearing that this thing would attack me. The person in the corner stopped laughing. It inched its head forward, as if it were trying to look at me. One arm extended in front of it, bones cracking as it did. A long, skeletal hand splayed on the floor in front of it. The thing’s shoulders were hunched like it was about to pounce. My fight or flight response kicked in, and I shoved my arm behind me to grab the gun out of my bag. I managed to pull it out and point it at the thing that loomed just a few feet away. I shook even as my finger was on the trigger. However, the figure never moved away. Instead, it cocked its head as if it were amused by my action. In my hurry to grab the gun, the flashlight had fallen out of my backpack. I saw it out of the corner of my eye. I don’t know why, but I felt I had to see what was crouched in front of me. I was prepared to kill this person, but I guess the human side of me had to fully recognize it before a bullet went through its head. I grabbed the flashlight and shone it at the thing. This was an action that I will regret for as long as I live.
Pale, translucent skin stretched across its skull, and greasy, stringy brown hair hung off of it in patches. One of its eyes was a pale corpse-colored blue, its pupil merely a quivering pinprick. The opposite eyelid was plastered into a deformed crevice, revealing the cavernous insides where an eye had once made its home. It growled through a clenched mouth, revealing jagged yellow and black teeth, some of them looking like they had been sharpened down to a point. Its body was grimy and severely emaciated, the outlines of bones looking like they had been carved into its flesh. Red, raised scars covered this thing from its arms to it skeletal face. It appeared to be covered in oily brown rags, one small, wrinkled breast exposed. This was the woman in my dream. This was the demon living invisibly among the drifters, the death goddess willing my destruction. Tears welled in my eyes as she heaved and growled. When the light hit her face, she let out a shrill, high-pitched wail.
Before I could pull the trigger, she lunged at me, pinning me into the corner of the boxcar. Her long, jagged fingernails ripped into my face as inhuman screams emanated from her mouth. I fought her, kicking and flailing, trying to push her off of me. She was stronger than I thought. She was able to wrestle me to the ground, her long fingers grasping around my neck. Her face was millimeters from mine. Her one eye, the hue of decomposition, bored a hole into mine. Her sour breath felt hot on my face, and her cracked lips spread into a wide leer. In a low, gravelly voice, she spoke to me.
“Eeeeeat you… send you to hell… make my house with your bones,” she screamed.
She sunk her teeth into my shoulder, making me yelp in pain. I thrashed as she dug deeper into my shoulder. The gun was to my right. I tried reaching for it while my other hand pulled her hair, trying to rend her off of me. I was able to slip my middle finger around the trigger guard and bash her across the head with the gun. It shocked her enough that I was able to throw her off. I pointed the gun at her and pulled the trigger, but it missed her, sailing out of the open door of the car into the darkness. She threw herself at my legs, still screaming, and brought me to the ground. I hit her across the shoulders and upper back with the gun and kicked her off again. She was too fast for me. If I was going to have a chance at life, I had to make a decision. I looked out the door of the car and saw trees in the distance. I lunged out of the moving train into the storm.
The side of my body hit the ground, and I rolled down a hill, rain pelting me mercilessly. I only stopped rolling when my body hit the bottom of a ravine. My ears stung from the howl of the wind. I clambered up the hill, trying to get to the tree line. A more piercing howl rang through the night. I looked back to see the woman running on all fours down the hill, shrieking with anger. I used all the strength that I could to run. Blood spilled from my shoulder, and the gun felt like a heavy weight attached to my hand. She was gaining on me, and I knew that my fate would be even bloodier than it would have been on the train. She wanted revenge. This propelled me up the remainder of this obstacle. I rain across a short distance and flung myself into the woods, never stopping to look back. My legs caught across blackberry bushes, and I had to push limbs out of the way of my face. I could still hear her howls in the distance, but I pressed onward in the dark. I could see nothing and felt like I was moving through jelly.
I finally came to a more open part of the woods. I had to stop due to sheer exhaustion, even though I didn’t feel safe. The only sound I could hear now was the light sound of rain hitting dead leaves and crickets chirping. Most of the rain was caught in the canopy above, forming a roof over my head. I was thankful for this slight reprieve. I didn’t want to look at my shoulder, but I felt I had no choice. It was covered in red, blood covering it completely and running in rivulets down my breast. I started crying. I was going to die out here, I would bleed to death, and there would be no escape. That woman would find me, finish me off, and eat my dead body. She would use my bones to make a house, whatever that meant. I was at the mercy of an insane person and far from any civilization I knew of. As I became resolved to my fate, I listened to the rain. I remembered the mountain and the trees and the wind through my hair. I didn’t want to die. Not yet. That’s when I realized the crickets had stopped chirping. Something was moving through the brush somewhere in the distance.
A surge of adrenaline burst through me, and I took off in the opposite direction. I ran and ran and ran, hearing her howl as she tried to find me. I kept running until I saw colored lights ahead of me. It was a diner, on the other side of a road. I started laughing when I saw it, thanking whatever force was in charge of the world for bringing it to me. I pushed the doors open. A waitress was behind the counter. I smiled and collapsed.
I woke up in pain. I was propped up in a booth, with a woman staring at me. I jumped when I saw her.
“Shh,” she said. “You shouldn’t move.”
I looked down at my shoulder. It was covered in gauze, but it wasn’t bleeding anymore.
“I-I need to get to a hospital,” I said.
She looked at me sympathetically.
“I’m sorry, hon, but the nearest one is about an hour away. It’s pouring out there. I don’t want to risk either of us. I stopped the bleeding. You’re holding up just fine.”
I looked at her blankly.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
I was swiftly reminded of my terrifying encounter with the thing that stalked me like an animal.
“I don’t wanna talk about it,” I said.
The waitress nodded. She brought me something to eat. She introduced herself as Mae. She started telling me about herself. At any other time, this would kind have annoyed me, but anything that could take my mind off of the recent hours was welcome. Mae had had a fairly hard life. Her stories weren’t uplifting, but they felt like Disney movies compared to what I had just faced. She talked about how she and her siblings, a brother and a sister, and been moved from foster home to foster home. They weathered sexual, psychological, and physical abuse. She mentioned one home where a male pedophile had locked her and her sister in the closet while he sodomized her younger brother.
“My life was hell as a child. But, it did get better,” she said. “I have a pretty good life now. I make good money for what I do. I can go out and drink. I have friends. I can’t complain,” she shrugged.
“What about your siblings?” I asked.
She hung her head. Mae didn’t say anything for a few seconds, but she finally spoke.
“My brother couldn’t take it anymore. He committed suicide a few years later. My sister was placed in a psychiatric facility. She was supposed to stay there for the rest of her life. But she left eventually.”
I looked at her.
“So, she got better?”
“You could say that.”
“What do you mean?”
She gave a small smile as she looked at the gauze on my chest.
“I guess it would make more sense for me to explain further. The bastard pervert who raped my brother – my sister killed him. She took his eyes out and bit his nose off.”
I stared at her in silence, but she continued.
“They were going to lock her up, but a shrink determined that she wasn’t in sound mind when she did it. So, they sent her to the looney bin. She was only trying to protect my brother. He and I would go visit her. She talked about getting revenge on everyone who had hurt us. When she had bit that son of a bitch’s nose off, she said that she liked the taste of the blood. She told me that she was going to eat all of the people that had hurt us. She said that if she ate them and shit them out, that would be sending them to hell. God wouldn’t take them, because they were shit. Those people drove her insane. But she’s still smart. She escaped. I still see her sometimes.”
I was trembling. Mae looked up at me the same way that a lion looks at a gazelle. She zeroed in on my shoulder.
“You met her tonight, didn’t you?” She smiled with all the evil in the world, her pale blue eyes lighting up at my terror.
I remained silent. She laughed. Her voice dropped down to a whisper.
“She wants to send everyone to hell. I really do admire that in her. Sometimes, she’ll bring me something – an arm or a leg. I’ll cook it up for her. She’ll pull the meat apart like a dog. She takes the bones back with her. I followed her once. She sticks them in the ground around her. It’s like she builds a wall around herself.”
“You’re insane,” I choked out.
“Maybe I could find her. I’m sure she’s looking for you. We could eat you together.”
Mae cocked her head and grinned at me. I bolted from the booth and raced out the door. I looked back to see Mae grinning that evil sneer of hers. I ran down the road, hoping and praying that someone would pick me up. I put all my effort into getting away from this place, this experience, this life I had made. I ran into the night.
Occasionally, I would hear something in the woods beside me. Something walking. I wondered if it was her. After two hours, I had no choice but to slow my pace. My legs couldn’t take more than a sluggish crawl. To my left, a rowdy biker bar crackled like electricity through the night. Two men stood outside near their motorcycles under a yellow light. They laughed and threw back beers. They stopped their chatter when they saw me. They followed me with their eyes. One of them had shoulder length black hair. He smirked as he looked me up and down. At this, I disappeared into the woods.
I live in a different place now. It’s an apartment. It’s not as nice as my other one, though. I do some odd jobs. They don’t pay much, but they get me what I need. I’ll work at the little corner store nearby. I sell watermelons to old people and act like I’m normal. After my day is done, I take the money and go to the bad part of town. I get the stuff from the man who can give it to me. I don’t want to do it, but it helps me to forget. Forget my life, my current situation. It helps me forget her. I go up the steps to the dingy place where I live. The other people who live there stare wide-eyed at me as I go by. I don’t know why.
When I get inside my place, I ready my materials. I tie a tourniquet at my upper arm and smack my veins so I can see them. The needle sucks the stuff from the spoon. I flick it to expel any air bubbles. When I put it inside me, I go away. I see the mountains, I see the trees, I feel the sun. I feel alive. The drugs don’t work when it rains outside though. When the thunder booms and the wind howls, she’s there. I can’t fight her with the needle. The sun is overtaken by black clouds and a hideous, killing cold sets in. I lay in the middle of the moving boxcar, my limbs severed. I can only scream. She lopes around the car, fastening bones together, always making sure her eye and my eyes meet. Her mouth pulls back in a wide smile, laughing. Life will always be a cage. You just have to make sure it’s one you’ve built yourself. I broke out of my cage, and I don’t have the means to build a new one. So she does.