Part One is right here.
This story ends in November, the tenth year of the community. Almost three years since anyone had come up I-68, or ventured east to look for supplies in the abandoned cities. US 40 was returning to nature, also abandoned. Parker’s people had begun to believe themselves to be alone.
The nights were dark and cold. Autumn giving way to an early winter, which everyone dreaded. On guard duty at the Hen House sign, bundled in jackets and blankets, sipping the last of the coffee, now cold, and dreaming of the end of the shift, sat Ken Eaton and Chris Shingleton. One had been a wage slave at the Comcast call center in DC, the other had been a PG County cop. Two souls rescued by Parker. Two people who, a decade ago, had never set foot in the woods. Now they peered into the cold night for any sign of trouble. What had become the most tedious job of all.
The shift dragged mercilessly into the early AM, and Ken kept them both awake with trivia, songs, inane conversation that drove Chris up the wall. The blind on the overpass was abandoned. No need for an early warning system when any sign of their existence was obscured by the wildness growing beside – and onto and through – the road. Anyone traveling the interstate would probably be on foot, anyway. Or mounted. The mechanized Gates and McGavin team were most likely unique, eccentric adventurers given license to pursue their technology by a prospering community. Parker’s people could afford to indulge. But they knew they were lucky.
Chris had argued to reduce the jeep duty to just one person, or do away with it entirely. Years without seeing a soul… Gates and McGavin fanning out across the countryside looking for plunder also returned each time with the depressing – or uplifting, for some – news that they had seen no one, nor signs of anyone’s passing. From the firetower, the nights were always dark. No lights, no fires, no glow on the horizon.
Parker insisted on the guard duty. Always be prepared. She was a regular boy scout. Chris told Eaton that he was taking a piss, and he pushed open the jeep’s door with a vicious, grinding crunch and jumped down onto the loam of the forest floor, trudging through the leaves to the big Sycamore that had started to crowd what remained of the rutted dirt road leading back to the community. Here was beautiful silence. The sharp, earthen smell of autumn in the mountains filled him with childhood memories of Halloween, and holidays, and playing in leaf piles. Trudging in the dark to school, and returning to play in the late afternoon as the trees shed their last and the November sky stared down coldly blue-white.
He leaned against the tree, lit up a joint and inhaled deeply. So much for autumn smells. Time to come down from the chattering tension in the rotten cab of the dead jeep. He closed his eyes and listened to the forest sounds. The rustling of leaves as animals small and large moved about, the scrape of trees as a breeze he couldn’t feel playfully tugged at the upper branches. When he opened his eyes again and looked up, the moon hid behind clouds, and the increasingly skeletal trees waved against the dim glow. He didn’t process the alien sound until a few dull seconds later. A train whistle. He blinked and shook his head, stubbed out the joint on the bark of the Sycamore, and cocked his ear towards the night. A hallucination? Good, wild mountain weed? Over-fatigued and half crazed by fucking Eaton’s mindless blather?
There, again, a train whistle. Ricocheting through the cold air from somewhere along the B&O tracks that ran through the dense forest into Pennsylvania. The tracks were miles to the east, but the cold air played games with the sound and he could swear some phantom train was about to come hurtling through the trees.
That cold night air is something. He could also clearly hear Eaton, about 100 yards back in the jeep, say: “Holy mother of fuck…”
The whistle woke up Parker’s people. Everett Macchiarella was reading a Braille book in the firetower. Endless hours of boring guard duty, and he taught himself Braille. Talk about useless skills. But what was a joke became the perfect way to pass the time, as he was forced to sit in the dark during the night shift to protect his position from imaginary attackers. He heard the whistle and briefly saw the headlamp on the locomotive pass through the distant trees. A flickering phantasm that he saw before the whistle, and it spooked the shit out of him. The whistle wasn’t much help, either. He stood up and shouted to no one, he fought two urges – to run to the window and plaster his face against the glass and to run scared down the winding stairs and back up Tower Lane to the community. He felt suddenly alone and exposed. Alone in the tower, illuminated by the moon, almost half a mile from help. He felt suddenly aware of the dark forest surrounding the tower, and of that half a mile hike back to the others. Some watchman instinct made him turn to the west, looking over to and up the Interstate to where the Hen House sign and his fellow guards were. Of course, he could see nothing. But countless fearful images began filtering through his mind.
In the community itself – a gathering of huts and small houses grouped around an old farmhouse – everyone was asleep. A hard day of work done and another one soon to come. It took the whistle two blows to rouse the lighter sleepers, one of whom was Parker.
She sat up as if from a fever dream, shuddered as the old world came rushing back, and threw the covers aside. Her farmhouse – her palace – was cold. The fireplace showing no more than dim, smoldering coals. She didn’t notice anything, though, as she rushed to her window and looked out at the night. Stupid reaction. She grimaced, then began throwing on clothes, coats, boots. She wrapped a scarf around her head and ran downstairs and outside, where others had already begun to form in the makeshift communal square outside the old homestead. They were all staring east, past the little hill with their graveyard and into the woods as if their eyes could penetrate the gloom and reach across the miles and bear down focus on the train tracks.
“Train,” Thais Schain muttered needlessly. She was 20, pretty. A child of The Fall. The ten year old waif following Parker as she led her people up the Interstate and to safety. Now she was a woman, and occasional consort when Parker’s defenses wavered.
Parker glanced at her, put a hand on her shoulder, then strode up the hill towards the graveyard as if she could get a better view. She looked at the stones of her people, and she knew it was all over.
“What do we do?” Murray Walter asked from somewhere behind her.
Parker turned sideways, not looking at anyone, and issued her orders. “Get to the jeep and the firetower. Tell the guards to stay put, but get a full report. And find Gates and McGavin.”
Muttering, assigning tasks, and then shadows ran out in three different directions. Parker strode back to the farmhouse, followed by her people, and, after closing the shutters on the library windows, lit up several oil lamps. They all stood watching each other, her people, bundled in utilitarian clothes, long haired, some unshaven for years, sleep still in their eyes. Hope and dreaming beginning to shine behind that sleep. A train whistle meant real civilization. It meant machines, fuel, manpower, trade, currency, resources.
Parker sat down heavily in her tattered easy chair. Could she protect these people from themselves? From their wistful decade-gone memories? Her gut told her that, at best, Pandora’s Box was about to be opened.