Here is a story I wrote about a year ago. I was reading a lot of Hemingway at the time.
Mitch needed money. So there was that. He needed other things, but he still needed money.
After school, he went running. It was a perfect afternoon. In the height of summer he ran six miles. But he still needed the money.
Afterwards he showered quickly, as if he had some place to be.
It just wasn’t possible to be worrying about it all the time, although he felt he ought to be. Sometimes he got bored and worried about other things, like the end-of-year exams, or what he would do after graduating next summer, or whether some girl liked him, or whether he liked some girl, or whether some girl knew that he liked her, and how to avoid that happening.
He worried about those things less often now though, even in the shower.
After drying, he found a missed call from Clint.
He re-read the name. Not that Clint? He didn’t know any other Clints though.
He got dressed and pressed re-dial.
“Hey, what’s up?” came the answer.
“Hey. Did you call me earlier?”
There was a pause.
“Yeah. I heard you were after some money? I can sort you out if you want.”
“Oh…” Mitch picked up a biro. “I mean, really?”
“Yeah, no biggie. I’m sorted. If you’ll help me cram in the holidays? That O.K?”
“Cool.” He paused. “So listen, when do you want it?”
“Uh…” Mitch considered his words. “As soon as, really.”
“You want to come get it tonight?”
“Uh…yeah, that’d be great.”
“Cool. Come by the park around ten?”
“Sure. Thanks, man. That’s great.”
Mitch checked his outgoing calls. Seventy-two seconds: the longest time he and Clint had spoken in six years of high school.
For hours afterwards he procrastinated. Even dinner, which was typically an undignified affair after a long run, became a mindless, prolonged kinetic activity. Like performance art.
It didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Clint was one of those guys. The guys who seem to be all they need. As far back as he could remember, Clint had had a kind of force field around him. Depending on who you asked, he was respected, feared or loved. Nothing else. And he’d always done what was necessary to keep it that way.
Mitch struggled to remember having any business with him. He respected him – when he bothered to think about him – the same way one respects a mayor or public official. Perhaps, at bottom, his respect was really reserved for the role he fulfilled in their year group. There had to be a Clint. He helped others to know where they were in the hierarchy.
Mitch set off early and took a long route. It was sultry, almost tranquil. The sky seemed a thick black mass, humming. It just seemed to him to really be there, even more than usual. That’s how he thought of it. Everywhere, concrete was chucking the day’s warmth back at that mass.
It was the kind of night when, no matter how slow you move, you keep on sweating just the same. Yet when he finally reached the park, he felt the temperature dip.
He saw Clint standing inside the gates wearing a worn sweater. He was smoking in quick, short draws. When Mitch approached him he flicked it away and he saw there were still wisps coming from several fresh butts scattered about his feet.
“Hey man.” Clint slapped him on the back and looked at him impassively.
“Hey. Thanks so much for this.” Uncertain what to say, he dropped his voice. “How’s it going?” Clint sniffed, gazing at the emptiness around.
“Same old.” He dug his hands in his pockets. “Come take a walk. There’s something I have to sort out first. Won’t take long.”
“Sure.” He led them through the park.
“Listen, about the money,” Clint said, barely seeming to register his presence, his words aside. “I need a favour.” Mitch noticed how his sentences seemed to finish at right angles.
He wanted to know what the favour was.
They walked to the end of the park and kept going.
When they reached the chain-link fence that closed off the train tracks, Clint pointed at a section where the mesh had been cut and they pushed through it.
Mitch followed him silently down a path than ran parallel to the tracks. All he could think to say was, “How’s it going”, and he’d already asked that.
He saw a short, lean boy their age, leaning his back against a wooden pillar that branched into power lines at its top. His face kept changing colour in the glow of his phone.
When he spotted them, he lifted his headphones gingerly and rested them on his neck. A flashlight burst on them.
“Who’s this?” he asked sharply.
“You remember Mitch,” said Clint. “Mitch is a little short. I’m helping him out.” He shrugged, as if to imply they had all been friends once.
“You’re paying him out of your money, right?”
“Cool. Alright. Glad to have you!” he replied, with boyish enthusiasm. He passed Clint a flashlight. As Mitch’s eyes adjusted to the light, he thought he recognised the boy but couldn’t place him. It was like staring at a minor cast member of a show he’d watched growing up. “I thought
Clint was the only one around here with a pair of -”
The boy’s phone rang. He looked annoyed.
“Mum again. I better take this. I’ve missed her three times.” He turned his back on them and sauntered away between the two sets of railway tracks.
Mitch decided it was time to break his silence. But Clint spoke first.
“Can you believe this guy?” He shook his head and laughed. Mitch looked at him curiously. Only his mouth was laughing. “Comes to me, tells me he’s gonna take the ‘ultimate selfie.’ Gonna hang by his legs from an arch when the train goes under and wants me to come watch.”
Instantly, the name came back: Luca. He’d been in their class in the lower grades before being moved to another. He used to eat sugar paint in art class. But he was smart. Smarter than this. Or at least he used to be.
Clint stood kicking gravel with one foot and with both hands in his pockets. He kept looking up and Mitch felt an injunction to laugh back.
“That’s crazy,” he said.
“I know, but what are you gonna do? He’s paying me to be here. Well, us now. For moral support.” He took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, saw it was empty, tossed it beside the tracks.
“So we’re like his cheerleaders now or whatever.”
Mitch watched Luca’s back while he spoke on the phone. His shoulders rose and fell repeatedly.
He was gesturing at nothing.
“What do you think happened to him?”
“He just wants to make it,” Clint replied and, seeming to lose interest in the conversation, strode over to the nearest side of the metal arch and began slapping its lattice of metal struts, shaking it, sizing it up with his hands and eyes, exploring its design from top to bottom.
Luca hadn’t fitted in, which was why he moved class. He could never laugh it off, you see. It took him weeks, months to learn that. By then it was too late. You had to learn to laugh it off really fast or you were stuck at the bottom of the hierarchy for five years minimum. When you’re a kid, it doesn’t matter how smart you are or how much you know if you don’t know your place.
Luca got it worst, being last. Even his equals closed ranks. Mitch had always felt comfortable in the middle, keeping one eye on openings upwards. As for the ones below, he felt total indifference. A vague sense that they must have something wrong with them, something missing, but they weren’t his concern and on some occasions served to deflect criticism away from himself.
“I told her I was watching the match,” said Luca. Mitch watched his wallet bulge inside his pocket when he wedged his phone in.
“Did she buy it?” Mitch asked.
“No but it doesn’t matter.”
Now they were standing closer, Mitch smelled the beer on his breath. It wasn’t pungent. He seemed to carry himself fine and yet he couldn’t help wondering how much he’d had to drink and whether he sounded different.
“Didn’t you used to play for our team?” They both looked at him.
“Only for a year or so.”
Clint had walked up to Luca outside of school and smashed a ball against his head. He didn’t sleep and didn’t tell anyone for three days. The doctor said he’d never fully recover. They advised him against team sports. It was four years before he saw the funny side.
“You could start playing again” said Clint. He was looking at each of them when he spoke now. “No, I was never that good. Got too jumpy.” He rubbed his hands, started stretching, craned his neck. “Still, this’ll be something.”
“How long?” asked Mitch.
“Ten minutes.” He gestured to Clint to hoist him up the pole.
“You were alright” said Clint. He seemed tired. “That was a dumb thing of us to have done. Real crazy.”
Luca stood with his back to them and eyed the top of the pole.
“Give us a hand then.”
“We’ll each take one side of him,” Clint said. Mitch look at him curiously.
Clint stood beside Luca and stared at Mitch. He wouldn’t move until he came over. He didn’t so much as try. He just kept staring at Mitch, the whole time they lifted him.
They raised him under his shoulder and he wrapped his arms and legs around the pole. Mitch put one arm under his shoulder and another around his buttock and, as he pushed him higher he felt the bulge of the wallet in his hand.
Luca climbed to the highest point. To reach the centre of the arch, he needed to crawl across a narrow steel plank. The most dangerous part, apart from falling, was the mass of overhead power lines running parallel to the track. They were still and silent but he inched forwards over the bridge, his fingers clamped to the edge of the plank as tightly as he could.
Mitch watched with a confused mix of envy and dread. Luca was lithe and moved cautiously but the plank was so narrow as to make even his efforts seem lumbering. Height was another thing; he was barely off the ground really. If he slipped he’d have a nasty fall but nothing serious. If he hung down, Mitch could almost jump up and touch him, if it weren’t for the mesh of power lines in between. It was deceptive; it helped numb them all to the real danger involved.
Slowly, Luca turned so he was perpendicular to the plank. He raised each knee in turn and hung his legs over the edge of the plank. They still hung a distance from the power lines, but not much.
He looked down at them and grinned.
“What do you guys think?”
“Legend. Absolute fucking legend man!” Clint loosened. He was pacing on the spot, raising and dropping his shoulders. He nodded with his words, and Mitch saw his neck muscles pump away.
His fist pounded his other palm like meat.
They were waiting for Mitch to speak.
“You…can do this,” he said. Instantly, he realised this wasn’t what either wanted to hear. Luca flinched, as if to refute that this had ever been in doubt.
“Five minutes yet?” Luca asked. “It’d be a real blower if it was running fast for once.”
“Five.” Clint moved towards Mitch.
Luca held the steel under his knees and pushed his head back until he was fully suspended from the bridge and hanging by his legs. He saw power lines as if traced in the dark above, and then the darkness where the train would pass in a blur. His legs hung over the bridge like pieces of chicken wire.
As he was taking out his mobile, he lurched back upright.
“Are you alright?” Clint asked. For a moment he sat motionless.
“I thought I was gonna be sick,” Luca replied, between heavy breaths.
More slowly and unevenly this time, he resumed position and held the mobile screen up close to his face. It seemed harder to operate upside down, even though the controls were the same. The tighter he held it, the more violently it shook with him. He began to swear at it.
“What are they gonna say about me now?” Luca shouted, still immersed in phone-glow.
“They’re gonna say he’s one hell of a guy!” Clint shouted back. He was still looking at Mitch, and his face had broken.
‘I’m supposed to stop this,’ Mitch thought. ‘That’s why I’m here.’ A thick liquid coolant had flooded his body instantly.
Nobody else was going to do it.
An express train would arrive in minutes and perhaps it all would be fine for all of them and perhaps it would not be fine for some or all of them but either way, he would somehow be responsible for whatever happened.
Clint, at least, was waiting for him to stop it. He wouldn’t do it himself. And at that moment,
Clint struck Mitch as the ugliest, weakest animal in the world.
Luca lurched up again and dry heaved.
The train’s honking reached them before the specks of its lights weaving in and and out of tunnels. Luca looked agitated at his phone, down at the track, back to his phone.
“You got this!” Mitch yelled as the train drew nearer. “You- ” Clint winded Mitch to the ground. He hoisted himself up.
“What are you doing?” Luca’s voice was breaking. Transfixed, wordless, Clint shimmied across the bridge, reached out and seized Luca’s phone. He took him by the shoulders and pulled him upright. Then he hung down by his legs with the phone outstretched.
“I’ll hide my face; they’ll know it was from your phone.”
“That’s not the same,” Luca spluttered. “Give it back!” Frustration replaced his surprise. He tried to grab the phone, but could barely reach past his elbows.
“I can do this,” Clint replied calmly as the train came clearly into view. He held the phone firmly, steadily and the rush of white carriage roofs beneath them burst across its screen. Luca watched it all through the screen. It was a perfect shot; it was viral. Dramatic lighting, subtly framed, with a thumb in the corner of the screen that could easily have been Luca’s.
Luca saw it and thought about how it could so easily have been his.
He prised Clint’s legs off of the bridge and pushed him forward. The phone flew from Clint’s hands.
He grabbed the underside of the bridge. Mitch ran towards the pole and started climbing. With his arms wrapped around Clint’s legs, Luca drove him downwards. Clint’s arms gave way like powerful springs, recoiling over his head into a mesh of power lines.
A burst of smoke. A forest’s worth of autumn leaves breaking, then burning. They fell through the smoke. They were smudges on the side of the train’s relentless blur. Mitch flew from the electrified pole and crashed into grass and gravel by the side of the tracks.
The train moved on, unwatched.
The waiting room at the hospital was quiet. Perhaps it was the heat and the lethargy. Perhaps it was the early hour of the morning.
Daylight was already fading in when Mitch staggered through the doors on a broken ankle, although it was harder to discern against the stark whiteness of the hospital reception. His harsh appearance unnerved the receptionist, but she did a good job of hiding it.
“My goodness, what happened to you?” she asked.
“I had a fall and I broke my ankle,” he said. “I think I’ve hurt my shoulder and some ribs too.”
“But what about your hands?” Mitch’s hands and forearms were covered in aggressive burns, already blistering. He stood with his arms half-folded and the sleeves rolled up, and winced each time he moved. “We need to get someone to see to those right away.”
He stood and waited while she used the telephone. He wondered at why there were so few bugs around the lights in this hospital, even in the middle of summer.
Shortly, he was greeted by a doctor who led him down a corridor for painkillers.
“You’ll want to know about these,” he said, looking down at his burns.
“Don’t worry about that right now,” replied the doctor. “There’ll be other people who’ll want to hear about it.”
The next day, he was approached by two police officers.
“There was an accident,” he said. “I just needed money. I was never meant to be there.” And then he told them what had happened.
They released him without charge the same day. He went home and didn’t sleep. At school, his exams were suspended owing to ‘exceptional circumstances.’ He wore cold presses and ointments for the burns, but he was thankful that they weren’t serious enough for a skin graft.
For a month or two afterwards he couldn’t run on his bad ankle, which made even walking painful. His arm was in a sling all through the autumn, and he didn’t go out so much.
Six months later, the authorities contacted him again. They had finished their very thorough investigation of the crime scene and the post-mortems but were left with a question. Why, after he’d regained consciousness, did it take Mitch three hours before he went to the hospital? What could have possibly occupied him during that time?
But he’d already told them. He’d told them he needed money.