“It’ll be neat,” I insisted.
“Ginny, it’s ee-leegal.” Frank frowned. “And dangerous. My mom said some kid in Vancouver got killed doing that.”
“Don’t be such a fraidy cat.” I sprinted towards the tracks.
We watched some of the older kids lay pennies on the rails, defacing the King beneath the train’s heavy iron wheels. Frank wasn’t keen on the idea, but he went along with whatever I said. I always came up with the best ideas.
We snuck out before dawn to beat the train or, as we called it, “the Skip.” An incline railway, the Skip ran twice a day: in the early morning to take the men mining for copper down the mountain and at supper to bring them home after a shift. There were no roads to the Mount Sheer townsite. If a miner missed the Skip, he walked.
My older brother John told us that one miner who missed the Skip disappeared forever. “When he didn’t come home, his wife hiked down the mountain looking for him. Neither was ever heard from again, but on the same night every year, you can hear her crying for her husband.” Then he yelled “boo!” and shoved me to the ground. I leapt up and socked him right on the jaw. It didn’t look like it hurt him much, but I don’t put up with fatheads.
“Frank!” I yelled, placing a shiny penny on the rails. “You’re gonna miss it!”
Running to catch up, Frank skittered to a stop beside me, and we watched the Skip steamroll over the coin. I picked the penny up as soon as it was past and held it between my thumb and forefinger. I tried to bend it. The coin didn’t budge.
“I thought it’d be thinner, like paper.” My mouth puckered into a pout. King George’s face was unrecognizable, the crown of his head a smeared outline and his nose melted wax. Only half had been flattened. “Let’s try again,” I said.
“Fine.” Frank shrugged. He always gave in; it was easier than arguing with me.
We’d have to wait until after school for the supper Skip, so I dropped the penny into my pocket for safekeeping. We swung our knapsacks onto our backs and walked to the one-room schoolhouse in the middle of town. Frank was in second grade. I was in third. Frank was concentrating on arithmetic when I poked him from behind with a pencil.
I jutted my chin towards the clock on the wall. The second hand was twenty-seven seconds from dismissal. Sixteen seconds, ten seconds, five seconds. “Briiiiiing!”
“Let’s go!” I thrust back my chair with a screech and grabbed my bag.
“Ginny! Calmly and quietly, please,” the teacher snapped.
Darting out the door, with Frank right behind me, we raced to the tracks and threw our packs on the ground. An endless sea of hemlock and cedar surrounded us. A twig snapped, and a raven took to the sky, cawing.
“What was that?” I asked.
Frank shrugged. “Probably a coyote or something.” But he eyed the woods warily. “Hey, can I put the penny down this time?”
I paused, mulling it over. “I guess so, but only because you’re my best friend. And it’s still my penny.”
He placed it on the outside track farthest from where we planned to hide. I nodded in silent approval. If the coin was knocked off the track by the train, it would shoot out into the forest.
We had a couple of hours to wait. Frank threw rocks off the edge of the cliff, then opened his schoolbooks and did his homework. I cartwheeled and finished my apple from lunch.
As the sun sank, the train approached, rumbling the ground. I grinned. “Here we go.” We ducked down just as the Skip thundered into the station. I leaned forward until Frank put his hand on my shoulder and shook his head. Huffing, I squatted and waited. It wasn’t until all the miners finally disembarked and the train was stationed for the night that we searched for my treasure.
“Damnit! It’s too dark. We’re never gonna find it now,” I complained.
Frank’s head snapped up. “Did ya hear that?”
“Hear what?” I was crawling on my hands and knees, running my hands over the dirt trying to feel for the penny.
Then I heard it—heavy panting coming from the woods.
“I think we hurt something,” Frank said.
“The penny, do ya think it…”
“We need to put it out of its misery.” Frank grabbed his pack. He had a small pocketknife. If it was a rabbit or a squirrel, he could make it quick; his dad took him hunting. But if it was something bigger, I wasn’t so sure.
We followed the sound to a clearing just inside the edge of the wood. On the far side, lit by the moon, was a pile of furs heaving with laboured breaths.
Frank’s gasp echoed across the clearing. The furs heard him. It stood up, crouched on two legs, and turned its hairy face toward us. The beast’s fur was matted and rank like a rotting carcass. There was a sharp metallic tang in the air mixed with the scent of sweat and pine. The creature’s eyes locked onto Frank’s.
I screamed. Frank blinked. I grabbed his hand and ran, ravenous caws hounding our steps. We sprinted past the train tracks, through the main part of town, and straight to my house, slamming the door shut behind us as we gasped for breath.
My house was a cacophony of family noises. The baby was crying, the toddler was screeching. My older brothers were talking to Pa. Stew was bubbling away on top of the stove, and Mum was yelling at everyone to “pipe down!”
“Virginia! Where have you been? It’s time for supper. Wash up! Frank, you need to go home, your folks will be wondering ’bout you.” When Mum rattles out orders like a drill sergeant, everybody falls in line.
“We’ll talk tomorrow,” I whispered. My hands only shook a little as I pushed Frank out the door. His home was only three doors down, so he walked alone.
Clouds blotted out the sun the next day, and rain sheeted down all morning. We went back to the clearing. The only signs that we had ever been there were a few broken branches and a lone black feather. At home, no one believed us about a monster prowling the woods. “Yeah, right.” My brother John rolled his eyes. “You two fought off a bear.”
“I’m not sure it was a bear. It might’ve been a man.” Frank paused. “Or something else.”
John chortled. “Oh, that’s even better. It was the ghost of the miner come back to haunt us.” He kept poking me until Mum whacked him across the back of the head with her wooden spoon and told him to make himself useful and go find his little brother.
We went back to the grove and the train tracks every day after school for weeks, but we never found my penny or any other signs of the creature. We argued about it.
“It was just a bear, Frank. And a stupid crow.” Tugging at my ponytail, I caught sight of a girl from class walking to school, and ran ahead, leaving Frank behind.
“It was a raven,” Frank muttered and stared at his shoes.
From then on, Frank walked to school by himself. I didn’t want to play by the tracks or in the woods. I spent the afternoons and weekends with the other girls. School let out, summer came and went. We grew up. Frank went to work in the mines with his dad. I moved away and got married.
When the price of copper bottomed out years later, the mine was boarded up. The school and the processing plant were closed. The townsfolk moved away, including my brothers. I came back to help them and their families move. It was John who told me that Frank refused to leave. I said Frank had always been stubborn. John called him crazy. “He spends all his time hunting. He’s still searching, you know? For that monster in the woods you two swore up and down you saw when you were kids.”
I blinked. A grandmother many times over and now a widow, I hadn’t thought about that day in decades. He was searching? Still?
When it came time for all of us to board the train and leave Mount Sheer, I squinted into the shadows burning away with the morning light and thought I saw something move, an animal walking upright on two legs. But at seventy-two, I no longer trusted my eyes. Behind me, I heard a caw and turned. A raven sat perched on the rails holding something in its beak. It cocked its head, dropped the object, and flew away. I reached trembling fingers out to grasp something shiny.
T.L. Tomljanovic is a freelance writer living in Langley, British Columbia. Her work has been published in university alumni magazines, trade publications, and children’s non-fiction book series. You can find her on Twitter @TLTomljanovic and tomljanovic.wordpress.com/.