Peter Gates didn’t hear the train whistle. He and McGavin had moved into a warehouse about a mile east of the village of Finzel along what was once called Sampson Rock Road, though you’d be hard-pressed to call it a road now and, back when the world was alive, you’d have to be local to actually know the name of the lonely stretch of black-top. They were near the firetower, their warehouse boldly sitting in view of the old road, the front a dusty parking area where decrepit trucks returned slowly to the earth. They’d been used often in the early years, but, now, it was a full-time job just to keep the Land Rover running.
Inside the warehouse, the two men had created what felt like a giant hanger-bay dorm room. Useless loot had been stacked everywhere, and they each kept sleeping quarters on opposite ends, converting office space into crash pads. Gates was deep into a bottle of homemade gin, with McGavin’s help, and the two were blaring records from a hand-crank Victrola.
A well-used Risk board was laid out between them and McGavin drunkenly pondered Europe.
“This gin’s bad for us.” Gates whispered.
“I think I’ll go back to wine. Leave this rotgut for the shills.”
“Life among the shills!” McGavin sing-songed.
“Are you going to take your turn?”
McGavin tapped his finger on the board, “I keep thinking of my move and then forgetting it.”
The hammering at the front shutters made Gates look up, but McGavin remained focused. Gates turned back with a sigh and capped the gin bottle. “Moving?”
“While this experiment in Alzheimer’s plays out, I’ll go see what our early morning visitor is after.”
“Gunshot through the peephole!” McGavin screamed as Gates moved to the shutters and placed his eye against the tiny hole he’d cut in the metal. Shadows on shadows.
“Porch light’s out.” Gates called over his shoulder.
“And we’ve had the same president for a decade!” McGavin called back.
“So I‘m going to wildly open this door and see if we both get gunned down. Are you game?”
“Rock on, tiny dancer.”
A breathless youth stood on the flight of three concrete steps that led up to the loading dock entrance. The squeal of the security door, beefed up by Gates over the years, made him flinch.
“Young Jacob!” Gates exclaimed. “Is there a great darkness in Amishtown? Is little Timmy trapped in a well? I hope the old mill’s okay!”
Jacob sucked in air. “Train,” he said softly. “Train…”
Gates screwed up his face, then mockingly put on a thoughtful look, staring over Jacob’s shoulder into the night.
“A train – didn’t you hear?”
“A train! Didn’t you hear it?”
“Like a choo-choo train?”
McGavin, who had stepped up to peer at Jacob, rolled his eyes.
Gates turned to look at McGavin, who shrugged and headed for the rolling clothes rack where they kept their coats and boots.
Gates sighed deeply, then handed the bottle of gin to Jacob and trudged towards his peacoat.
Dawn was still several hours away, and the night’s cold sapped at his bones. Gates crossed his arms over his chest and listlessly followed McGavin and Jacob up the hill, through the ghost town of Finzel, and up the bridle path towards Parker’s community.
Everett caught up with them, his breath misting in the moonlight. He’d put the runner sent to get his story in charge of the firetower and seemed to be on the verge of climbing a tree and howling at the moon.
“Saw the damn thing,” he hissed between pained breaths.
“A train?” Gates asked.
“Saw the light, heard the whistle blow.”
McGavin hung back and Jacob took the lead, intent on completing his mission and returning to his lord and master.
“We’ve been at the gin, Everett.” Gates replied, “What’s your excuse?”
Everett shook his head, “Jacob heard it. Everybody heard it.”
“Yes,” Gates said, “but you’re all collectively insane.”
“We were listening to music.” McGavin said.
Everett clicked his tongue and nodded.
With just 35 people, the old farmstead’s library was the perfect size to become a meeting hall. Warm and welcoming, Parker used it as her base of operations. It was judge’s chambers and courtroom, it was schoolroom, and it was the nerve center of the community. Heads turned as Jacob led Gates, McGavin, and Everett into the room.
“Johnny’s on tower duty,” Everett explained as he sat down. Gates and McGavin flanked the door, appearing to be ready to make a run for it if need be.
Parker took a deep breath, looked down at her boots, then stood and paced over to the old secretary beneath the shuttered window. She leaned against it and turned to Sarah Bowman, who had run to the Hen House sign to check on Ken and Chris.
“They just heard it,” Sarah said. “Four blows from a whistle. No sign of any other activity. Chris is heading out to the old overpass just in case.
Parker nodded. “Everett?”
“Heard and saw. Heading north. Couldn’t have been much of a train or I would have heard the cars, too. Maybe just an engine. I’m thinking they were clearing the tracks.”
“At 3am?” Thais asked.
“Ain’t no reason for anybody to be doing anything out there at 3am, to be frank.” Everett replied.
“No good reason.” Gates muttered.
Parker glanced at him, but spoke to Everett, “You’re sure you didn’t hear any cars? Nothing but the whistle?”
Everett shrugged. “I was inside. Frozen to the damn spot. Been ten years since I last heard a train whistle… Coulda missed it…”
“What are you thinking?” McGavin asked. “It was a shipment of Beamers heading up to Pittsburgh?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
Murray Walter stood up, turning to face the group, “I say we find out. Head out to the tracks at first light.”
“And do what?” Thais asked. Follow them in which direction? Look for what? Do what when we find it?”
McGavin coughed, “We’ll find it fast. No way those tracks are clear for any serious length. And no way they could have been cleared or repaired without us noticing.”
“We don’t have a choice—“ Walter started, but Parker launched to her feet and cleared her throat. Walter ‘s mouth snapped shut and he spun around, alarmed. McGavin glanced at Gates, who shook his head with disgust.
Parker weaved around the room, pacing past most of her people. All eyes followed her as she chewed her lip, eyes downcast. She ended up near McGavin, and looked up, her back to him, to address the community. “I know what this means, but we’ve got to be careful. We’ve all seen what happened. We’ve lived through it. Even if civilization has begun again somewhere out there, it may not be suited for us. Our natural tendency is towards dictatorship, the cult of fascism. Chances are that’s what formed out of the ashes. We’re the lucky ones. The smart ones. We sealed ourselves away and have worked the land, built a community. But you know full well the sort that are out there.”
“We can carry this paranoia even further,” Gates interrupted. “What if the train people are hunting for us? Trying to draw us out?” He made a frightened face and waved his hands in front of him.
“We need to know one way or the other.” Walter replied.
“We need to stay put. “ Thais, from the other end of the room, spoke softly, but her voice carried. A few nodded.
“How about Gates and I just check it out. Business as usual?” McGavin offered. “We were planning on heading out in a few days, anyway. Let’s bump it up to first light. We hit the tracks and recon a bit.”
“We need to find the train,” Walter insisted. “What are the tracks going to show us?”
“If they’ve been properly cleared,” McGavin said, “then we know we’re up against something bigger.”
“Are we up against it, Lance?” Parker asked over her shoulder.
“Meredith, you know Gates and I aren’t always on board with your social vision. But on this one, I agree with you. We’ve got a good position here. Food, fresh water, livestock, security. Those luxuries are not out there anymore.”
Parker turned to face him, “I want you to take a couple others with you. Jacob and –“
“Me,” Walter said.
Parker shrugged. “If you wish. This is reconnaissance.” She put a hand on McGavin’s shoulder, “No contact, no matter what. You come back here first. We decide what to do as a community.”
Gates sniffed. “Dawn in a few hours. You boys better get what you need and come meet us at the warehouse.”
Walter Murray nodded, but young Jacob looked scared. For him, this would be his first trip out of the community in ten years. He glanced at Parker, who saw and moved closer to him, but then his eyes moved to Gates, who was also watching him. He didn’t move, except to duck out the door as soon as people started to file out.
Parker knelt down in front of Jacob’s chair and took his hands. “It’ll be okay. I need someone young out there. Someone fast. Your priority is to protect yourself, and make sure you get back here.” She leaned close, and he instinctively pressed back in the chair. “And don’t trust the others. You’re my eyes and ears. My representative from this community.”