Jacob never imagined gasoline would be such a problem. With everyone gone, and the roads full of the dead, he figured there’d be plenty to go around forever. But the stuff in the cars only lasted a year or so, and the stuff in the tanks just about five years. He didn’t understand why it went bad. Gates said it was water, corrosion, age. Gates started bitching about gas from day one – he actually spent time trying to push Parker into building a mini-refinery. Hoarding crude oil and converting it themselves. Something Parker never committed to and Gates, probably, was too lazy to do himself. Why bother when they could convert to diesel, which lasted longer for some reason, and then move on to homemade fuels. The two rebels had been using biofuels from the waste that the community’s crops produced, but they’d been weaning off of those. Relying on their high grade liquor concoctions, no doubt. The days of true mobility were numbered, though, according to Gates. Too much wear and tear on the Land Rover. They’d scoured the countryside for spare parts, patching the thing together for nearly a decade on roads that were no longer safe to travel. Vast potholes opened along the surfaces, floods washed out gulleys, trees and landslips formed natural barricades. If ever they wanted to go any serious distance along the interstate, it would have to be on foot.
But there was no escape plan. As they weaved onto Braddock Road, skirting past downtown Frostburg and heading onto the shattered streets along the rail line, moving ever closer to the phantom train, that thought suddenly crystallized in Jacob’s mind. There was no Plan B. No way out. If something put them in danger, there was nowhere to run. Head into the mountains with winter coming? No emergency rations, limited ammunition, few functional weapons, and only a handful of people who could hold up in a real firefight… That was Parker’s people. One big soft belly exposed to the world, relying only on their ability to hide.
McGavin and Gates knew this. They were ready to run. Jacob had seen that a hundred times whenever he visited them at their warehouse and, even now, when he glanced back at the crates of supplies neatly packed into the rear of the Land Rover. They were ready to leave with a moment’s notice. And they probably had a plan, too. Back to DC? North into Pennsylvania? If anyone had a plan, it would be those two.
The road names meant nothing now. Industrial waste cum residential in that mountain town, Hicksville Maryland sort of way. Trailers in the hollows, big houses on the hills, and abandoned shit in the middle. Frostburg was supposed to be a dead traintown, a bypassed nothing, a forgotten village, but the university had kept it alive. That mix of small town and boom town ran deep. Room enough for the pick-up mounted yahoos and the more cosmopolitan college kids. Jacob liked that middle ground. He was envious of it. He’d be in college now if it wasn’t for the fucking end of the world. Maybe he’d be up here, or College Park, near where he grew up… Or anywhere in the world. Not now. He’d never have the chance. He’d never see the world. Hell, he’d probably live out a shortened life in the dark hills of western Maryland and join the others in the graveyard beside Parker’s house, a wooden cross faded by time marking his last memory.
Jacob strained to make out road signs. People used to live here. They’d know all of the roads. Lived and died, for generations, all for nothing. All so the world could end, and their town fall into decay, and their graves get buried by tall grass and landslides and trees, and their roads fall into ruin and become fields again. Lots of cars rotting in driveways. Lots of people stayed home… That was good old country thinking. Rot and die at home. Defend your castle. In the city, people fled. Panic, fear. Take to the roads, clog up the highways. The dead on the Interstate were a bunch of city slickers. No sense of community, neighborhood. How many sad, friendless office workers died as they lived? Commuting one person to a car, stuck in traffic? Out here they died in each other’s arms.
Jacob turned away from the ghost houses. He stared ahead, pretending he was driving. Watching McGavin’s intensity and gauging his reaction time as he swerved around potholes and obstacles. The tracks appeared on their right, peaking from behind the late autumn leaves. Gates was devoted to that direction entirely. Sloppy. He was supposed to be watching for trouble from all angles. Jacob found himself surprised to learn that Gates was probably just as excited about the train as everyone else. What did it represent to him? Certainly not the old world. For all his talk, did Gates secretly want the boredom of his old life back? Or was he thinking escape? And, with that, it became very clear to Jacob why Parker assigned him to the team. Murray and just about everyone else wanted to go home again, Gates and McGavin were open to the highest bidder. Jacob had no real designs for anything. He was the oldest of the children who had come with Parker’s group, or been born after. He was the oldest of the generation that called Parker’s settlement, and Finzel, home. Truly called it home. The place where he grew up. Everyone is always coming home… That’s what Parker said.
If something better really came along, would Jacob take it? Probably… Survival of the fittest. But would he ever forget a childhood spent in the forest outside Finzel? No. And Parker? The woman who so easily replaced the mother that he lost to the apocalypse? Never.
McGavin stopped, pulling the Land Rover across the road. The road continued, but you could barely tell. Deadfall from a decade of storms, and just the slow encroachment of nature, had pretty much turned the stretch of blacktop to meadow and forest.
“The tracks have been clear this whole way.” Gates muttered.
“So we walk. North.” Murray said. The first he’d spoken since the hotel parking lot.
Gates was shaking his head. “How have they cleared the tracks without us noticing?”
“What if they’ve always been clear?” Murray asked.
McGavin waved his hand towards the ruined road.
“I mean, what if someone has been keeping them clear since day one?”
“Ten years of stealthy railway maintenance? That requires the sort of emotional imbalance that isn’t exactly welcome here at the end of days.”
Murray opened his door, picking up the light pack he had put together from between his legs. “It’s not impossible that trains have been running this whole time. We wouldn’t really have noticed. This is miles away.”
“So why blow the whistle now?” Jacob asked.
Gates turned smiled. “Well, if we indulge my paranoia, it’s because they want to lure us into a trap. And, like moths to the flame…” He shrugged and looked at Jacob and Murray levelly, then leapt out of the Land Rover. McGavin followed silently, and Jacob was the last. Something in him told him that it wasn’t paranoia. The world was a bad place. They had all started to forget that.
The tracks were clear. A straightaway through the forest. Many of the trees were already skeletal, ready for the coming winter. The brilliant colors of fall now gone to brown, leaves drifting down in the breeze that tussled the upper branches. Gates kicked through leaves and walked up to a fallen tree that had been roughly cut a few feet back from the edge of the rail. Jacob looked to the opposite side and saw the rest of it. McGavin bent down and studied the rail itself.
“Not much use,” he said, running a finger along the rusted surface. The rails ran dull brown, but there were signs of use. Silver streaks here and there. Weeds and saplings springing up in the path of a train broken, stunted, chewed off. “certainly there have been trains running… But not too often.” He looked up at Murray, who was staring blankly ahead.
“Okay, kiddies.” Gates called over his shoulder, taking to the center of the railbed and moving forward.
“Do you know what this means?” Murray muttered.
McGavin stood up, brushed a leaf off his shoulder, and smiled crookedly. “No, Walter, I don’t.”
“Civilization. If they’ve been running trains all this time, then they have commodities… Trade. Communication. They’ve got to be bigger than we are.”
McGavin huffed and shook his head, turning to follow Gates, who had already covered several yards, stumbling occasionally over small branches and washed out gaps between the rotting ties. Clear or not, the mystery train operators weren’t keeping the tracks themselves up to snuff. Though, Jacob guessed, that was a harder task than simply clearing brush and trees.
That’s all he was able to concentrate on. The usual beauty of fall that tended to enchant him was gone. It was high alert time. But an acute awareness that was hopelessly distracted by the little things. Cleared trees. Signs of humanity. Signs of life besides that which had thrived beneath Parker’s wings.
Then there it was. A single locomotive. One of the old, squat workhorses that Jacob had seen outside Union Station a thousand times. The short ones that never strayed far from the trainyard and looked like they steamed out of the 60’s. It was in piss-poor shape, too. Windows busted out, the gunmetal gray weathered black and brown, dirt and leaves collecting everywhere they could. How the hell the little thing made it all the way up here was mystifying. Maybe they used them at other train yards? Maybe it was a survivor of the destruction of Cumberland.
McGavin and Gates fanned out, but Murray and Jacob froze in place. They both watched the two experts stalk the locomotive like cats.
“Is there something wrong?” Jacob hissed. “Is someone in there? What’s happening?”
Jacob’s panic kick-started Murray, and he grabbed the boy and headed towards the treeline, taking shelter behind a recently cut tree angled up towards the sky, the massive root system a filthy, half-buried crown. Jacob saw shadows everywhere. He saw every fear possible rising up from the loamy forest floor, and from behind every tree. Mankind’s time had come to an end. Now was the age of ghosts. Murray had his rifle pointed towards the locomotive, his hands shaking. Jacob fumbled with his pistol but didn’t do any more than hold it by the grip, aimed at the ground.
McGavin and Gates vanished. McGavin round the side of the engine, and Gates, boldly, up and inside. One of the handgrips gave way as he was hoisting himself into the cabin and he fell back gracefully, landing on his feet, then climbed again.
There were several frozen moments. Jacob’s heart pounded in his ears, the trees rustled with the mindless passage of nature and life, and his ears pricked at every tiny forest sound.
Finally Gates reappeared and waved for them to approach. When they cautiously crept up to the engine Gates, up in the cab looking down at them through the ruined sliding door, said, “What the fuck are you two doing back there?”
“We didn’t know…I…” Jacob looked to Murray who, ashamed, was glaring down the tracks.
“This baby’s our train.” McGavin said, coming round from the front. “I think.”
“Cab’s been cleaned,” Gates added. “Wish I knew how to work it. Do these things have keys?”
McGavin shrugged. “Anyway, no sign of life.”
“So how’d it get here?” Murray asked.
“Well, Walter, I would assume someone drove it here.”
“Where are they, then?”
“You two can fucking cut it with the attitude.”
McGavin spread his arms and pursed his lips.
“You don’t think… I mean. Could it – “ Jacob knew they’d all make fun of him if he said it.
“Ghosts, young Jacob?” Gates laughed. Jacob flinched, but Gates seemed good natured about the idea. Maybe he was thinking the same? Jacob almost grinned when Gates didn’t shoot him down.
“I know it’s strange times,” McGavin said, “but I think we can rule out the Phantom Train of Frostburg.”
“So what, then?” Murray asked.
“Two options.” Gates leapt down from the cab. “The driver is holed up back in town or out in the woods.”
“So let’s find him.”
McGavin slung his rifle over his shoulder and started walking back down the tracks. “If they want to be found, they’ll let us know.”
Gates shrugged and followed, but Murray stayed by the engine. “Hold it the fuck there, you two. We gotta find whoever drove this thing.”
McGavin turned, “Why?”
“Well…why are they clearing the tracks? Where are they going? Where are they coming from? Why’d they stop here? We have to know. We live here, man! Anyone else is a threat.”
“At the least we can use it.” Jacob added.
“Use it for what?”
“I don’t know. Surely you two have a use for it!”
McGavin looked at Gates.
“We can use it to go back and forth and blow the whistle and freak the fuck out of agrarian survivalists.” Gates said.
McGavin tapped a finger to his nose and smiled.
“We need this!” Jacob insisted.
A dark cloud passed over McGavin’s face. “We don’t. This is nothing.”
“We need answers.” Murray said.
“Why not?” Jacob asked.
“Call it a gut feeling.” McGavin replied.
“Look at the bigger picture,” Gates said, looking to Murray, then Jacob. “All this work done without alerting us. That involves some level of secrecy. If they live around here, then no way they’re ignorant of our little outfit. If they’ve decided not to contact us, then that’s the way it should stay.”
“We need to expand. We need to rebuild…” Jacob muttered.
Gates truly looked sad. He walked back and put one hand on each of Jacob’s shoulders. “That world’s gone, Jacob.”
“No! It’s not.” Jacob surprised himself, and Gates removed his hands. “It can’t be. We have to work together. I’m not going to die young toiling in Parker’s fields.”
“Amen,” McGavin whispered.
“I’m not going to stay hidden in the woods like some goddamned animal.”
“Parker and her people are a rare breed, kid.” Gates said, “We’re inherently evil. I wouldn’t trust any other group I met.”
“You hate people. You always have. Both of you. You only joined up with Parker because it was lucrative. Because you liked the idea of heading out to fucking hide your heads in the sand and the only way you could do it and keep up with your lazy shit was if we all worked for you.”
“Wow, kid.” Gates said.
Murray nodded, though, and stood beside Jacob. “The kid’s right. What the fuck have either of you two really done for us?”
“Well, all the supplies for a start.”
“Trading nostalgia for free food.” Jacob said.
“And women.” Murray added.
“Told you,” McGavin said to Gates, who rolled his eyes and turned his back on the other two. He froze when he heard Murray chamber a round.
“Okay, Walter. Now you’re in the deep end.” McGavin replied, arms out again.
Jacob edged away, not sure what was happening. He was pissed, but he didn’t intend this. Never this. There was a weird light in Murray’s eyes, and he realized that it had been there all along. Staring at the tracks, taking in the cleared trees and shrubs, and then when he trained his rifle on the locomotive. Possession. Anger. Fear. Envy.
Gates turned around, but said nothing. He simply stood there and stared at Murray, expressionless.
McGavin, usually the quiet one, stepped up as peacemaker. “Look, Walter, relax. We’ll go check out the town and see if there’re signs of life, okay? We’d do that anyway. It’d be irresponsible not to. I agree with you. We agree. We need to get the full picture, okay?”
Murray just smiled, and Jacob shuddered when he saw it. He backed away from all three.
“See,” Murray said, “here’s what I’m thinking. You,” he gestured with his gun to McGavin, then to Gates, “and you are a cancer on our community. Just as whoever drove this train last night is a cancer. We’ve been just fine for ten years. Ten years! We’re safe, we’re hidden, we have food and community. I’m just fine living out my days the old way. The way we used to.”
“Thought you were excited about the train, Walter.” McGavin said.
“Not if they’re doing…whatever it is they’re doing in secret.”
Gates shared a glance with McGavin, then shrugged and said, “Um…okay, Walter. We’ll not look for the train driver. Is that what you want? I’m confused here.”
“Yeah,” McGavin shifted slightly. “We’re confused.” Jacob caught the drift and backed up a little bit more, stumbling on the railbed’s stones long ago buried under ivy and brush.
“The way I have it figured,” Murray continued, “is that we’d be a whole lot better off without you two fucks. And a whole lot better off if we destroyed this train and kept things just as they are…better than before.”
Gates kept his hands up, and kept his gaze locked on Murray.
Murray lapsed into melodrama. He rolled his eyes and waved his gun around, “Oh, let’s call it the perfect murder. Crazy train people shot us, killed you two assholes because you’re Parker’s fucking front line douchebags, poor little Jacob has to go, too. Sorry, kid. But loose lips sink ships. And it won’t surprise Parker that her pet rat got offed in a firefight. She knows he’d stick by you two. Then I’ll make sure this train never runs again and go home. We hunker down and live out our days.”
“Happily ever after, eh?” Gates asked.
Murray leveled his gun and scowled, “Yeah, happily ever fucking after.”
Gates flicked his eyes over his shoulder towards the locomotive and recoiled. Murray spun, saw nothing, and was blindsided by McGavin. The two fell hard, McGavin’s head bouncing off one of the rusted rails. Gates covered the distance in three large steps and dropped down on Murray’s back with one knee. The other man screamed as his spine cracked, his arms spasmed and he tried to turn, but Gates grabbed a handful of his hair and smashed his face against the rail, once, twice, and a third time just because it felt good.
Gates sucked in air, turned and looked into McGavin’s dead, staring eyes, then looked over his shoulder at Jacob.
The boy was shaking his head. He let out a small animal sound, then crashed into the woods and melted into the shadows, though Gates could hear him for about ten minutes, cracking and battering his way deeper and deeper into what had become, after so short a time, a primordial forest.
He looked over at the locomotive. Yeah. Fuck it. Fuck it and fuck any hope that Parker’s people had for salvation. Let them all die on this sad little mountain. He stalked towards the engine and pulled himself up into the cab. He started with any exposed wires, and then he worked over the control panels, and then he figured out how to get into the engine compartment and took it from there. Let the old world die.