Let me tell you about a kid I know, a boy named Abel.
In many ways he’s not unlike a lot of children around here, meaning Abel’s family is poor and he has only one parent at home. That would be Lisa, Abel’s momma. Lisa spends most of her time waiting tables down at the diner. The tips aren’t much but they provide. There’s groceries enough, along with the rent money for their little rundown house along a dead-end dirt road outside town. Abel stays home most times. He came into the world with a mild form of brittle bone disease. Any awkward step can leave Abel casted and laid up for weeks. He’s got to be careful in what he does. Lisa worries about her boy. There are times, many times, when Abel knows himself a burden his momma cannot bear.
But I don’t want you thinking everything in Abel’s life is bad.
Far from it. He doesn’t have much but believes that okay; very often the ones truly cursed in life are those who have more than they know what to do with. It’s hard for Abel to get around with those soft bones, but there isn’t much exercise involved in reading. That’s what he does mostly, Abel reads, which has turned him into maybe the smartest kid I’ve ever known. And you can say all you want about the way his classmates pick on him, Abel’s got someone who will do just about anything in the world for him. Dumb Willie Farmer might only be the janitor at the elementary school (and might only be Dumb, as the name implies), but you will find no better friend. Ask Abel, he’ll tell you.
And about that house: sure it’s nothing more than a rented little shack, but it’s set along the edge of a field where the trains pass three times a day. Abel loves his trains. He’ll limp out there every day to count the cars and wave at the conductor. His daddy’s gone, prayed into the sky before Abel was born, but some days Abel will wave at that train going by and imagine a daddy he never knew waving back.
I’m not sure how life would have turned out for Abel had he not gotten into trouble with his momma and cleaned their house as an apology. Have you ever noticed how quick things can change off one small decision? It happened to Abel that way. He even cleans up the spare bedroom in back of the house where Lisa says he should never go, and that’s where he finds his daddy’s letters—shoved into an old popcorn tin and addressed to Abel Shifflett of Mattingly, Virginia. Some of these letters are dated from years back, but the one on top? Sent three weeks ago. Abel can only sit and ponder it all. His daddy’s not dead. And more than that, one of those letters reveal where his not-dead daddy is: a place called Fairhope, North Carolina.
It’s one of those times when all of life’s murky darkness gets shot through with a beam of light.
Abel knows what he’s supposed to do. He’s going to find his daddy and bring him home. Because that will fix everything, you see? His momma won’t have to work so hard anymore. The two of them won’t have to struggle. If Abel can get his daddy home, they’ll all be a family. It’s all Abel has ever wanted.
The problem is how a ten-year-old boy with soft bones is supposed to make it all the way down to someplace in Carolina without getting found. It’s too long of a way, and there will surely be danger. But then Abel realizes he has a secret weapon in his friend Dumb Willie, and the two of them hatch a scheme to run away from home. They’ll hop one of the trains coming by Abel’s house and ride it as far as they need. It isn’t a terrible idea so far as ideas go, but one which doesn’t take long to go awry. Hopping a moving train at night is an act fraught with peril, especially with a broken little boy and his not-so-smart friend. Abel’s journey seems to end before it begins when he is crushed under the rails.
But this isn’t a tragic story—oh no. This is a tale of magic big and small, and Abel and Dumb Willie aren’t the only ones at the train that night. Death itself has come in the form of a young woman to take Abel on. One look at this broken boy is enough to convince her this is a thing she cannot do. Even Death carries a burden too great, having witnessed so many children having their lives ended in so many needless ways. And while both Death and Dumb Willie (who is not so Dumb after all) understand what has happened to Abel, Abel himself does not. He convinces the strange but pretty girl who saved them to join in their journey, after which he promises to let her take them home.
So it is that Death itself accompanies two boys along the rails through the wilds of West Virginia and eastern Tennessee, clear to the Carolina mountains. Looking for a father long thought dead. Looking for a little magic.
That is the story in short for my eighth novel, Some Small Magic, which is out today.
There’s more to Abel’s journey (trust me, a lot more), but the rest is for you to discover. Believe me when I say you won’t be disappointed.
It’s my favorite book so far, and you can pick it up by heading here.
In the meantime, should you find yourself at a railroad stop in central Appalachia, do yourself a favor. Scan those boxcars as they fly past. They might not be all empty. And if you see three faces peering out at the blue sky, send a little prayer their way.
Because those three are bound west, toward home.