Hellfire - By John Saul


The boy turned off the path that wound down from the big house on the hill—his house—and wandered along the riverbank. A hundred yards ahead, he could see the wooden trestle that carried the railroad tracks over the rushing stream. He had always imagined that the stream was a boundary, a visible line that separated him from everyone else in the little town. If the river weren’t there, he sometimes thought, then he would be part of the town.

But of course it wasn’t just the river; there was far more to it than that.

He came to the trestle, and paused. Partly, he was listening for the sound of a train, for he knew that if he could hear the low rumblings of an engine, it wasn’t safe to cross the river.

You had to wait until the train had come and gone, or until the sound had faded away into silence.

Sometimes, though, he was tempted to try the crossing even though he could hear a train coming, just to see if he could make it in time.

But of course he’d never tried it. It was too big a risk.

Not that he didn’t like risks. He did. There was nothing he liked more than going off by himself, exploring the woods that covered the hillside, poking along the riverbank, skipping from stone to stone, though sooner or later he would miss his footing and slide into the rushing waters.

But the rushing waters wouldn’t kill him.

A train, catching him defenseless in the middle of the trestle, would.

For a moment, he visualized himself, crushed under the weight of the streamliner that roared past the town twice a day, his mutilated body dropping into the river below.…

He put the thought out of his mind, and instead—as he often did—pictured himself already dead.

He saw himself in a coffin now, with flowers all around him. His parents, their eyes wet with tears, sat in the front pew of the little Episcopalian church in the middle of the town. Behind them, he could see all the other people of the town, staring at his coffin, wishing they’d been nicer to him, wishing they’d been his friends.

Not that he cared, he assured himself. It was more fun to be by yourself anyway. Besides, he had friends most of the time anyway, and when he came home from school in the summer it was nice to be able to play by himself, without anyone else wanting to do something he might not want to do.

Abandoning the fantasy, he listened carefully. When he heard no sound of an approaching train, he started across the trestle, carefully stepping from tie to tie, then continued along the tracks as they swept around the village in a long and gentle curve.

Suddenly he felt eyes watching him, and glanced off to the left. A quarter of a block down the road two boys stood side by side, staring at him.

He smiled, but as he was about to wave to them they turned away. He could hear them snickering as they whispered to each other.

His face burning with sudden anger, he hurried along the railroad tracks until he was certain he could no longer be seen from the road. Between himself and the other boys, separating him from the village, stood the forbidding brick walls of a building that had fascinated him for as long as he could remember.

The boy hesitated, remembering the stories he’d heard from his father, remembering the legends about what had happened in that building so many years ago. Terrible things that could only be spoken of in whispers.

No one knew if the legends were really true.

As he stared at the building, he began to feel as if the other boys—the village boys—were still watching him, challenging him, laughing at him because they knew he didn’t have the courage to go inside.

Always before, when he’d stood here contemplating the old building, he’d eventually lost his nerve, and turned away.

But today would be different.

Ignoring the knot of fear that now burned hot in his belly, he left the railroad tracks and scrambled down the slope of the roadbed.

He started along a weed-choked path that paralleled the side of the building. Halfway along the wall, he came to a small door, covered over with weathered boards that had long since shrunken with age. Through the gaps between the boards he could make out the door itself, held closed only by a padlock on a rusted hasp.

Gingerly he tested one of the boards. The corroded nails