I am twelve. It’s a morning in early May. I am in my family’s sun-dappled back garden in downtown Toronto. Leafy shadows blow softly on their branches, matching the dance of the new, bright leaves on the trees overhead.
The bright green seeds from the mulberry tree, not quite mulberries themselves, have all begun to fall and the backyard is carpeted in a soft, pale layer of them. In a few months, the berries themselves will litter the ground, leaving dark, jarring splotches wherever they fall.
It’s finally warm enough to have breakfast outside and we’ve just finished eating. My parents are still sitting at the table while I poke around looking at flowers and worms and whatever else is moving in the earth.
“Can I go for a bike ride?” I ask, longing for the freedom of being out, on my own.
“Yes but your friends will be here in a few hours, so be back by noon,” my mother answers.
I nod and disappear down the mossy concrete steps on my way to collect my bike from the basement.
Out on the streets of the city, I’m free. I ride on the sidewalk, up and down the streets, smelling the sweet scent of spring, looking at the earth, which not long ago was muddy and half frozen and dripping. Now the gardens are being planted, there are leaves on the trees and flowers blooming. It is warm and sunny.
I cross over one road and go up another that snakes around behind the corner store, and then runs parallel with the train tracks, in front of the small old houses that must have once been home to railway workers.
The train tracks are up a hill, partially fenced off from the little narrow green space that runs along just below them, and just above the street.
I push my bike up the steps into the green space and spend some time exploring the overhanging vines, the trees, the benches that no one seems to know are there. Unseen, I watch people go in and out of the houses, I watch cars drive down the small street and people head out with their small children for a walk or a bike ride.
Just another Saturday in May.
I leave my bike where it is and climb further up the embankment, emerging out onto the gravel that forms the surface where the train tracks lie. There are no trains coming at the moment and I wander up and down, looking off into the distance in each direction. I balance on the rails. I bend down and put my ear to them to see if I can hear anything coming. All is silent, other than the distant rumble of street traffic.
Eventually, I go back down to get my bike and dutifully return home on time.
A few hours later, when my friends arrive for my birthday – three girls from my class at school – I lead them back up the little hidden road, up past the green space and onto the tracks again.
They are more adventurous than I am. Or maybe it is courage in numbers. They venture further, even out along the rails that pass over the busy road along a narrow bridge.
One girl explains that if you put a penny on the rail, it rattles when a train is coming.
“So that way, we’ll know when to get off,” she explains. But of course, no one stays to watch the penny, so we won’t know if it starts to rattle.
They start daring each other.
“I dare you to go to the other end of the bridge.”
“I dare you to go alone.”
“I can walk with my eyes closed along the rail, can you?”
“I bet I can go farther without opening my eyes than you can!”
I know it is dangerous, and stupid. But for a while, I say nothing.
Eventually, though, I risk my reputation because I am scared that something bad will happen. I climb off the rails and stand over by the fence line, calling to my friends, telling them they should get down, trying to entice them to come exploring in the trees.
But they can’t hear me, or don’t want to.
Two of them are halfway across the bridge, their eyes closed, their arms stretched out rigidly at 90 degree angles for balance, when a train rounds the corner behind us.
The forgotten penny is probably rattling, I think, but I can’t hear it.
The other girl, who is standing closer to me, jumps off the tracks and we both run forward, calling to the other two to come back. But the traffic under the bridge is loud and drowns out our voices.
We continue to call to them because we can’t think of anything else to do. I look back at the approaching train, then forward at my friends. I am trying to judge the distance and the time it would take to run to them and then back again. I won’t make it. My mind starts to imagine horrible scenarios, having to return home and tell my parents – or worse, the girls’ parents – that they were killed by a train because we were being stupid and hanging out where we weren’t supposed to.
The train’s bell starts ringing. Next, its horn sounds.
That gets the girls’ attention. Their eyes fly open, their heads whip around and they stumble off the rails. They have made it pretty far, which would be impressive if they weren’t about to be run over, or blown over the bridge by the force of the train that is about to come screaming past us.
The girls start running back toward us, toward the oncoming train, along the narrow strip of gravel between the tracks and the low wall at the edge of the bridge. They may make it, but if they do, it will be close. Otherwise…well, otherwise they won’t make it.
The train continues to plough towards us, ringing its bell and honking its horn.
The girls reach the end of the bridge and fling themselves down on the gravel that covers the hilltop, rolling away from the tracks and towards the edge of the fence at the top of the green space.
At the same time, the train roars past, blasting us with the hot wind generated by the force of its movement.
When it disappears over the bridge and around the corner, we all sit up and look at each other.
I’m annoyed and angry that they were stupid enough to go out so far, that they didn’t listen to me. That they could have been killed. That they’ve ruined my birthday.
I’m convinced they think it’s my fault they were almost killed, or that I’m boring and a scardey cat. Either way, I don’t much feel like having a birthday party with them anymore.
Once our heartbeats have returned to normal, we go back down the stairs, past the trees and benches and vines, and we make our way back to my house. Along the way, our conversation resumes as the feelings of awkwardness, of unease, of the muddle of emotions that have passed between us, slowly ebb away.
When we get home, we have cake and I open the presents they have brought me. It is almost as if nothing happened. Almost.
An agreement passes between us, unspoken, a pact to never talk about what happened up on the train tracks.
I don’t know if they kept up their end of the bargain, but I did. Until today.