'You really are nervous, aren't you?' she observed.
'It's just…I get these feelings sometimes,' he said. 'Like, if something bad is going to happen. Or it could be something good. I just get these feelings, you know? And this is one of them.'
Raphael's eyes opened, and vision returned to them like the fade-in at the beginning of a movie. He found himself staring out the windshield of Maggie's car into the deep green-black canopy of nighttime forest. They had stopped. The door on his side was open, and Maggie was leaning down to him, her face only inches from his.
'Come on,' she whispered. Her lips were tantalizingly close to his ear, her breath rustling his hair.
She took his hand, and Raphael got out of the car. She shut the door with a slam that, in the thick silence of the forest, seemed deafening.
'This way.' Maggie led him across a patch of tall, tramped-down weeds to a muddy trail that reached deep into the forest. The fact she was able to negotiate the terrain in high heels amazed Raphael; he could hardly keep upright wearing sneakers.
He felt drunk—or what he imagined being drunk would feel like. Master Chin's strict training had prevented any curious experimentation he might otherwise have been tempted to try. Could somebody have slipped him something? he wondered. But he'd eaten nothing since starting work that afternoon, and all he drank was a Coke, which he'd kept back in the kitchen. But the minute Maggie touched his face, he had gone fuzzy. It was like he kept forgetting where he was and what he was doing.
But when Maggie's hand tightened on his, even those thoughts were whisked away, forgotten, like leaves on the October breeze, and he followed without question.
When they were further down the trail, the moon came out from behind a cloud, and the landscape brightened. Ahead, he could see a break in the trees. The mud under foot started giving way to small stones that skittered away beneath their feet. After sliding the last few yards, they reached safe, level ground, and Raphael suddenly realized where they were.
It was the locomotive graveyard.
Throughout the large clearing, dozens of wrecked train cars sat in all stages of decomposition. Some lay toppled on their sides; some listed, half-invaded by clinging, cancer-like clumps of weeds. Others stood in place on the tracks, looking oddly fit despite their antiquity, as if an engine might link up with them at any moment and chug them back into service. Some were freight cars, little more than great wheeled boxes of rusting steel or rotting wood. Others were passenger cars, their windows broken out, their proud names—Eastern Chief or Golden Line Express—graffitied over with obscenities, or with big, colorful spray-painted murals.
Taken all together, it was a sprawling labyrinth of timber and steel, a ghost village filled with secret spaces, narrow passages, and rusting treasures.
It was a place Raphael knew well. When he was nine or ten, he and Zhai had come here to play together. They had explored the cars and talked about Middleburg's glory days when the trains still ran. In fourth grade, they learned that Middleburg had once been a mining town, and in fifth grade, they learned it was beef cattle and produce that Middleburg shipped to both coasts. When the highways came in, factories and housing developments replaced farms and ranches. For a while, Middleburg was a flourishing little industrial town, but life for the common man dried up when the trains were rerouted through Topeka, over a hundred and fifty miles away.
Geographically, Middleburg was in the dead center of the Great Forty-Eight, and although the landscape all around it was breathtaking, with forests, plains, and mountains meeting in a three-cornered point just outside the city limits, it was still dead center in the middle of nowhere.
And when the train station closed, freight and passenger lines went out of business, and this deserted tract of land on the edge of town was where all the forsaken train cars were stored.
It was the perfect place for two young boys, with lots of nooks to explore and plenty of mystery to fuel the imagination. It was also midway between their houses.
Since then, Raphael had been up there plenty of times with his Flatliner crew, having bonfires, shooting BB guns, and spray-painting the old trains with elaborate 3-D designs that were variations of their signature F-within-a-circle. But not even the Flatliners had been there lately.
That last time, for some reason, he had thought about the stories he'd heard all his life, about the Middleburg Ghost (or Monster, or Beast, depending on who was talking). Playing there as a kid with Zhai, the stories never bothered him. In fact, they had made it more exciting, more daring, to go there. But that last night—almost a year ago, now—the Flatliners had built a bonfire. A quiet mood had fallen on them as soon as they got it lit, and Raph thought the place felt a little creepy. Malevolent whispers floated on the wind, and shadows stretched around them, as thin as a spider's web, and beckoned to them. Called to them to come on over and push through the shadows, into some darker world that lay beyond. None of them, neither Raphael nor his friends, had said outright that they didn't feel comfortable there anymore. They had just stopped coming. Raphael still went there now and then, when he had something serious he wanted to think about, but he never went there at night—not anymore.
And now he was here with Maggie, and he couldn't remember why. In the distance, on the far side of the clearing, perhaps, he glimpsed an orange light. The porch light of a house, maybe? But there were no houses that close. A streetlight? But the street lights in this part of town had stopped working years ago. A campfire, maybe, built by teenagers who had come out here to party? Not likely. Raphael knew all the teenagers in town; half of them were back at Rack 'Em, and the other half, the Toppers, would never have the nerve to hang out in this solitary place full of wreckage, decay, and shadow.
As he and Maggie passed down the slope, the little flickering light was obscured by up-ended train cars, and its presence faded from Raphael's mind when he saw the steel rails of the tracks shining in the moonlight and beyond them, in the distance, the great black opening of the south tunnel. Maggie held his hand fast in hers, tugging him onward, toward what he now realized was their destination: a tired-looking, old wooden boxcar that had once been painted red, slouching wearily, as if about to collapse on the rails. It was set cross-ways over the tracks—though what force could have pushed it into that position, Raphael couldn't imagine.
They were walking in the center of the tracks now, on the scarred, weathered backs of the ancient railroad ties. He must have misjudged the distance because in a blink, they were at the door of the boxcar, and Maggie was pulling him into the musty darkness. Moonlight shone in eerie laser-like streaks through the cracks where the wall boards came together.
'We're here,' Maggie said, and he heard a metallic sound as she took something out of her purse.
Her voice sounded strange, disembodied. For a moment he thought he had lost her, that the darkness had swallowed her up and the only thing left of her was her voice. But when she pressed up against him, put her arms around him, and pushed him back against the wall of the freight car, she felt real. She kissed him, and she felt as real as anything. The thought of how it would enrage Rick to know that Maggie had kissed him was satisfaction enough for Raphael.
He hadn't meant to, but he kissed her back. She pressed even closer, and he started sliding down the wall, taking her with him, to the floorboards of the old freight car. Her breathing quickened, and she ran her hands along his shoulders and down his arms, as light as a butterfly. Relaxing into the kiss, he barely noticed the clink of metal as the cold, steel bands closed simultaneously—one around his wrist and the other onto a steel eyelet screwed into the frame of the car.
Aimee sat on her bed, staring at her cell phone. Dalton's number was displayed on its screen. To call or not to call, that was the question. On one hand, she never wanted to see or think about Raphael again. On the other, Rick had as much as admitted he was up to something and Maggie was in on it. And that thought was strangely comforting.
If Rick and Maggie were setting Raphael up, then Aimee knew there was nothing going on between Raphael and Maggie. Only, she thought as a new wave of disappointment washed over her, only he didn't have to look like he was enjoying it so much.
But, she reminded herself, it wasn't as if she and Raphael were exclusive or anything. They were the opposite of exclusive; they weren't even dating. To be mad at him for being with another girl was beyond illogical.
Seeing him with Maggie had hurt her feelings—she had to be honest about that. Her time at Mountain High had conditioned her to be honest about her feelings and about any situation in which she found herself. But feelings or no feelings, the fact was she had no claim at all on Raphael. And he didn't deserve whatever Rick had planned for him. She had to warn him. She bit her lip and pressed the Talk button on her cell phone.
It rang and rang and rang. At last, a soft voice answered.
'Hi, Lily Rose. It's Aimee. Banfield. Is Dalton home yet?'
'Well, hello, sugar.' Aimee found the old woman's voice comforting, and she warmed to it as Lily Rose continued speaking. 'It sure is a pleasure to hear from you tonight. How you doin', honey?'
'Oh, I'm good,' Aimee said quickly. 'Thanks for asking. Is Dalton home?'
'Not yet,' Lily Rose said. 'She should be here directly.'
'Could I get her cell phone number?'