Tommy Braxton slowed to a trot. His calf muscles were in knots and the straps on his backpack were slowing sawing through the bony portion of his shoulders. A sense of injustice washed over him as he placed his hand on his front pocket. His lunch money had been there only moments earlier, but tossing it on the ground had saved another beating.
For years now, Gus Childers had been his personal nightmare. Rumors floated around school as to how someone came to power within an organization comprised of equally disgusting villains. Tommy supposed it involved some form of hand-to-hand combat or perhaps he had eaten his predecessor alive. A face to face meeting with Gus Childers never lasted long; he preferred you face down, eating dirt.
Comfortable with the distance between them, Tommy turned toward the scavengers and waved a defiant middle finger. The response to such a rebellious gesture came in the form of an angry growl. Even at 300 yards his sentiment rang clear.
“Go ahead you chicken-shit, hang out with the hobos—but you better believe I’ll be waiting again tomorrow!”
The scamper had carried him to the train yard, a poor choice of escape routes considering the ample supply of ammunition within arms reach, but rarely if ever does fear consult logic. On such a chilly morning Tommy knew to follow the sign. A trail of white smoke rolled skyward until the shelter of the roofline exposed it weakness, and the swirling wind dismantled it easily. He rounded the north-east corner of the abandoned depot and saw the familiar glow of the burn barrel. Despite their many differences, the heat was like a magnet, drawing the wanderers into a tight circle. Tommy searched for one face in particular. Carl had never given his full name, but with no mortgage papers, bank accounts, or auto loans to sign for, a career hobo had little use for a last name. Tommy admired the freedom of his lifestyle; Carl had seen a thousand places and answered to no one. He spoke to Tommy as if he understood the wildness of his heart.
Tommy made his way into the circle and emptied his pack. Large bags of Gummi Worms spilled onto the ground.
“Let’s here it for Old Man Carver—deaf and blind as he is, I slipped in and out of there before he knew I lifted a thing.”
The smallest of the group wasted no time in claiming an entire bag for himself. Dwarf, aptly nicknamed, was second in command behind Carl. He held the dubious distinction of being the oldest of the wanderers, but forty plus years on the run had taken their toll. The hunch in his back required him to lift his bald head in order to keep from speaking to the ground. He stared a moment at Tommy’s ripped jeans.
“Looks like you run into trouble this mornin’, Tommy.”
“Same old, same old—turns out Gus Childers and his goons wanted my lunch money more than I wanted my ass beat.”
The miniature man grinned as he withdrew a knife from his boot and ran his thumb across the blade.
“Big, red-headed kid ain’t he? For another bag of them goodies we’ll see if ole Gus Childers is as rotten inside as he his out!”
“I’ll take care of Gus one day and you’ll be the first to hear about it.”
Each of the outstretched hands had been satisfied except for one; one which lacked three fingers and half of a thumb. Carl had slipped trying to board a train outside of Boston. Tommy never tired of hearing about learning to pick his nose with a pinky finger or the nasty visual represented by wiping one’s backside with an inexperienced hand. No matter the circumstance Carl took what the world was willing to give and made the best of it.
Tommy held up a giant bag of worms reserved for his favorite, “So where’s Carl?”
Dwarf tilted his head to the left. “Ain’t sure you wanna talk to him this morning—crabbier than usual I’d say!”
“This’ll put a smile on his face,” Tommy beamed.
Carl stared at the bag Tommy tossed at his side as if it were poison.
“Ain’t this a school day?”
“What are you…a truancy officer? Why spend another boring day in school—when I can hang out with you guys learning about the real world?”
Carl’s voice took a serious tone, one that Tommy was unfamiliar with.
“Sit down here for a minute, Tommy. Let me tell you about the ‘real world’.”
“What do you plan on doing once you graduate?”
Tommy smiled, “Not sure I will—graduate I mean; thinkin’ about droppin’ out and hoppin’ cars with you.”
Carl exploded and grabbed the collar of Tommy’s shirt.
“Get it out of your head that you’re anything like me. First thing you need to do is take the stolen stuff back and then you need to stop coming here—not for a week….forever!”
Suddenly the friendly surrounding had become cold and demanding. Tommy was on the verge of tears as he stood to leave. Carl grabbed his arm.
“Look, kid—it ain’t that I don’t like you, but you got potential. This ain’t about stolen candy, but that’s where it starts. Tommy some day you’ll have to look in a mirror and the stranger staring back at you will ask questions—hard questions.”
Carl fished around in the pocket of his soiled flannel shirt until he produced and envelope and handed it Tommy. Inside was a picture of a young women holding the hand of a little girl.
“That’s my mirror, Tommy—and I hate what I see staring back at me.”
Carl’s voice wavered as he continued.
“That used to be my wife and daughter before I made the decision to leave. We were so young and I was scared to be a daddy—scared to fail the woman I loved. Chelsea was only three when I hopped my first train, last week my little girl got married and in my absence some other man walked her down the aisle. Those you abandon and hurt will eventually grow cold and indifferent to you. Neither will take my calls any longer, can you blame them? This shell of a man rides a train because that’s all he knows. Tommy, there comes a day when there are no more trains—when you can’t run any farther from yourself and you realize the problem never was the world, only how you chose to deal with it. It will literally break my heart in two if I ever meet up with you in a boxcar. Don’t throw away your future, don’t be a wanderer!”
Tommy left the train yard that day beaten. It wasn’t the ‘face in the dirt’ kind of beating Gus Childer’s delivered, but stung just the same. He respected Carl and his request, finished high school respectably, and graduated from a community college some years later.
Tommy walked the familiar path with purpose; he wished to check on the wanders, more specifically to thank Carl for his advice. In one hand he carried a diploma proudly and in the other a jumbo bag of Gummi Worms.
As he stared at those that circled the fire Dwarf’s was the only face he recognized. He didn’t attempt to lift his head as he explained the circumstances surrounding Carl’s sickness and eventual death. Before turning and melting into the darkness he handed Tommy an envelope. The scribbling was difficult to read with only the dancing flames’ intermittent light. Tommy BRAXTON; the last name was capitalized and underlined.
The very first day you came to the train yard I knew you were different, but in my selfish desire for company I allowed you to stay. For that I must apologize; but for the harsh words I spoke to you I cannot. When you walked away from here I celebrated inside.
Since I know you’re a thinker—yes; the small amounts of cash I mailed to you each month was earned honestly. Once you enrolled in college I found a reason to work again. I lost something very valuable in a boxcar back in Omaha and spent twenty six years searching for it.
If you ever receive this letter and it wouldn’t be too much trouble, I’ve included my wife and daughter’s address. Tell them I spent a lifetime regretting a decision made in haste, but that I died with a smile on my face. I finally did do something I’m proud of—and you’re it, Tommy Braxton. You represent hope for the future.