We were running next to the railroad tracks and it seemed like we could run forever. I felt the gun banging against my leg as I ran. The garbage dump was up ahead and the daredevil branch of our gang, which we called the River Rats, was on a rat patrol. The fumes from the dump overpowered the sweet smell of the Jersey meadows and we raced faster, laughing, as the summer sweat poured down our faces.
We came to a halt and marveled at the mountains of garbage around us. Andy, Alan, Phil and I walked into the dump and Phil gave me push towards a messy looking mound of crap. I swore at him and pushed back. He fell on clean ground and gave me the finger. Then he laughed. I extended my hand and he took it and jumped up. I pulled the gun out of my pocket and Alan handed me the bullets. He was the ammo carrier this week and I was the shooter. I popped the cylinder and fumbled the cartridges in, clicked it shut and pulled back the hammer. Andy pointed at the trash mountains and we moved forward into another world. Suddenly there was movement. I fired at the furry motion and a small body leaped into the air and dropped. It kicked tiny legs at the universe in protest and then it was still. More rats appeared and I handed the gun to Andy and he blasted away. The click, click of the empty guy echoed eerily in the dump. Two hits, one kill.
Alan handed him some bullets and he reloaded and offered the gun to Phil. Phil shook his head and we teased him. Tears welled up in his eyes and he turned away, embarrassed by the emotion. We backed off and let him be. Andy tossed off a few more casual bullets into the garbage. Cans flew and bottles shattered and we moved on. We became bored and walked back to the tracks. I held my hand out for the pistol and, after Andy handed it to me, I checked it for bullets. Three left. I clicked the gun shut. We came to a giant tunnel that ran beneath the tracks and we ran down the mound to check it out. An enormous sewer pipe snaked through the tunnel and an old decrepit mattress lay on the pipe. There was a body on the mattress. Alan moved towards it slowly and waved us on. We hesitated and then went forward. The body moved and we stiffened in fear. We watched with the dread of the unknown as it stood up and swayed. The hobo had a bottle in his hand. Andy picked up a rock and threw it at him. The bum started to curse and moved towards us. Andy was yelling something at me as we moved back. I heard somebody tell me to shoot the bum. Without thinking, I pointed the gun at him. Time seemed to slow down.
I cocked the hammer and stood stock-still. The hobo and I stared at each other. It was only the track bum and me in the whole wide world. Where the hell do they come from? Didn’t everybody start out in houses with parents and all? The guys were looking at me, waiting. I lowered the gun and ran. Why didn’t I shoot him? I did not know. Something inside me twisted my stomach and I felt like I could not catch my breath. Everyone caught up to me and at first they were making fun of me for not shooting. I felt another twisting in my gut and pointed the gun at Andy, then Alan, and then Phil. I asked them if they wanted me to shoot now. I had three bullets left and I pointed the gun at Andy again and held it steady. I felt like I was looking at someone else’s hand holding the gun and an alien finger started to put pressure on the trigger.
Andy laughed kind of funny and said that they were only kidding around. Suddenly I realized that the gun was still in my hand. I smiled at my friends and lowered the gun but I could feel that some balance had shifted. Things were changing and would never be the same. I felt a sadness in my chest that seemed to come from a place that lived outside me. We walked down the tracks and Alan pulled some cigarettes out of his knapsack and we all lit up. Suddenly, Phil pointed off into the distance and we saw it. It was a giant chimney, bigger than any chimney we had ever seen. Andy talked excitedly as we ran in the direction of the smoke-stack. He was saying something about copper mines in the meadow. They mined the copper here and then melted the ore in giant ovens. We stood looking at the chimney. It extended from what looked like a big oven. I walked in and looked up the stack. It seemed to stretch upward forever and the sky was a tiny blue light up at the top. The others came inside and looked up and then Andy pointed to the side of the chimney. The iron climbing rungs went all the way to the rim of the stack. Someone, I don’t remember who it was, said we should climb the damn thing. I was scared of being high up and shook my head. I heard the word “chicken” echo through the chimney. We looked at each other, hesitated for just a moment, and Andy jumped onto the rungs and started to climb. Phil started next and I followed him. Alan brought up the rear. It was hot and stuffy in the big stack and the sweat dripped from all my pores. My eyes stung from the salt. I looked up and the chimney seemed to go on forever. I saw Andy and Phil just ahead of me. They would pause for a moment, look up, and then continue. I kept hoping they would change their minds.
Spider webs caught on my face. My god, where were the spiders? My hands were sweating and I was frightened of the spiders and of losing my grip! I looked down and, no no, I didn’t want to do that again. How the hell were we going to get down? Shit, I didn’t want to think about it. Suddenly, I heard a high pitched sound. Phil’s screech filled the chimney and little pebbles were spraying my face. I saw Phil hanging from a broken rung ant then it slipped from his hand and he fell. He was on me and clutched at me desperately. I swung one hand loose and grabbed him and he screamed and would not stop moving. My hands were all wet and it was hard to hold him. I yelled for him to drum my rung, any rung! For Christ’s sake, now, now before it was too late. The sweat was making my hand slip from the rung. Andy was shouting something that I could not understand. His voice seemed to get closer. Phil was sobbing in fear and suddenly I felt the weight of him ease up.
Andy was there and we were both holding on to him for dear life. Phil grabbed the rung and I swung down so I could get some footing. Alan yelled and his hand yanked itself out from under my foot. I almost lost it and then it was over.
I could hear everyone breathing heavily into the air and the sound echoed in the chimney. It was the only sound I could hear. I said that I was going back down and no one argued. We started the descent. No one spoke on the way down. I felt with my foot for each rung. I couldn’t look down. After an eternity we were all at the bottom. We sat on the ground and Alan pulled out the smokes again. My hand was shaking a little as I held the match to the cigarette. I sucked in the smoke. I exhaled and lay back on the ground. Small clouds drifted across the sky. At that moment I thought we would be together forever. I shifted my position because the gun was digging into my leg. I blew a smoke ring into the air and the wind tore it apart.