I’ve been asked by a few friends to give them a print out of Finzel since they’ve just come in from 1899 and their time machine is broken. Another friend, along with my girlfriend, told me that they can’t follow the serialized version of the story. So I’ll try to meet everyone in the middle and post the complete stories from the Serials section after each one concludes. That way all of you weirdos can print it out, then sit in the barn that you just raised with Jedediah and read it at your leisure.
Here’s Finzel, collected. And for those of you who don’t mind a serialized story, the current one is Season of the Witch.
Two miles past the exit for Finzel, MD on Interstate 68 was a billboard. Not the usual screaming ad mounted on a column, drawing attention for miles. This was a homemade affair, the sort of thing only a passenger noticed. Set back into the scrubby pines of the always seemingly hard-scrabble forest covering the hills of western Maryland, hand-painted but still tasteful, facing sideways on the northbound side, it read: “This Way to the Hen House” and then provided directions from the next exit, a rural side track on old US 40 that led nowhere and promised nothing besides the mysterious Hen House.
Parker had passed the billboard countless times on her way from DC to West Virginia University in her college days and, later, between the same two sites for business. She was the child of a displaced Appalachian family: Grim West Virginia pessimism fleeing the Ohio Valley in the war years and blending with the queer southern hustle and sweat of DC. She was the granddaughter of a man and woman who pined for the harsh simplicity of their childhood hills to their dying days, and the daughter of a woman born in a rented dirt-floor Parkersburg shack and raised in a suburban rancher outside DC which World War II bought.
Parker. Black sheep. The first of the family born in DC. Belonging neither to the city nor the hills, most of the time feeling that she didn’t even belong to her own family. Life as a dream, rolling past her in increasingly unforgiving waves. Forty years gone and no family of her own. No time, no desire, to try and establish a home. How strange, then, to become a post-apocalypse den mother…
School, business, travel… The trappings of responsibility, expectations, and the duties of life. That was the old world. Her old world. But not even the apocalypse allowed her to escape the role.
Now the Hen House billboard was no longer quaint roadside Americana, an oddity that, maybe, some day, if there’s time, might be worth a side trip on America’s byways. Now it was camouflage. A fading remnant, behind which her guards watched the dead Interstate.
She arrived – this unexpectant den mother – with 27 people. They’d stripped the land during their desperate flight up I-68, weaving through the dead traffic. They piled supplies into the backs of trucks. They hit Wal-Marts, they hit pharmacies, they hit grocery stores, they hit homes, restaurants, anything promising. They ignored the bodies of the dead, they fired over the heads of the few frightened survivors that chose not to join them, they were holy hell. And she regretted it. Every minute of it. But when she decided to make a run for the country, it was about survival. For the first time in her life, she was awake. Alive.
Finzel stuck in her mind. A sleepy little town. That stupid Hen House sign. Now a road was cut through the struggling pines and the tangled undergrowth behind the sign, leading to an outpost of 35 souls. A Jeep was always parked just behind the sign, at the head of the obscured ruts leading into the forested hills, and always manned by two well-armed watchers. Everyone spent their lives hoping nothing would again come down I-68. Farther back, a converted firetower kept an eye out in all directions. And, shielded by forest and the natural curves of the rolling land, farms and houses formed the heart of her community. Parker’s people.
First came the end of the world. The government, always, lying. The people, always, fighting. First came the lies, the corruption, the downfall. Then came survival. Every person for themselves. Guns, food, water, life. Every pretense of a civilized world dissolved in a heartbeat. A heartbeat is all there is between regular broadcasting and static. Between the panicked voices on the airwaves and…well, nothing. The end. Silence.
When it happened, Parker was home, in Glover Park, trapped in DC, wondering if her end had come. What do you do when the world stops spoon-feeding you? Despite the malaise, she couldn’t complain. She had a nice life, a nice house. Her little city car, so useless now that she finally needed it, was parked against the curb outside a home that political lobbying had built. A career that needed an apocalypse in order to escape. She was privately thrilled.
Her backyard stared down, with sublime manicured poise, at the forested expanse of Glover Park in the Northwest quadrant of the city. The TV and radio shouted static, half the neighbors had fled and the other half were hunkered down and sandbagged in. Next, the lights would go. The water. Before all that, law and order. What possible future did she have when the power died? When the cars wouldn’t start? When the natural wildness in Humanity took hold of her neighbors and dog walkers and baristas turned into rapists and murderers?
Parker wondered if she was the sort of person they would talk about in history books…if there was going to be a future history. She became the leader among leaders. The tough brunette who fought her way out of the city, gathered supplies and followers, and led them to safety in the sad rural expanse of western Maryland, where the winters now killed in a world without technology and the summers were about prayers for crops, for rain, for survival, and for fewer and fewer raiders…
The latter prayer had been answered. Ten years now of tenuous survival off of the land and even more strained political infighting. The raiders were thick at the start, forcing Parker to post scouts behind blinds along I-68 and the parallel mother road, Route 40. A jury-rigged radio tower allowed coded communication, until too many parts went bad. Time took its toll. But so did the angry new world, and the raiders started to vanish. Every spring, lives lost. Both out there in the dead world, and behind the Hen House sign. Until recently, Parker had maintained one last blind, conveniently placed on a now crumbling overpass that had been consumed by nature. Young Oak trees grew on a decaying concrete span 12 feet in the air. That, along with the two guards behind the now faded and illegible Hen House sign, was all that was needed. More than was needed. It was a boring job now. The short straw job. Chatting or snoozing for endless hours, cold coffee from a thermos, picnic lunches, almost tedious enough to make the guards wish they were out in the fields, repairing the community’s buildings, or perched in the watchtower mentally playing king of the hill.
What everyone wanted was to be part of the raiding party. God, wouldn’t that be awesome? The guard jeep could no longer move. Tires had been removed, the engine cannibalized, a tree was growing through the hood. Everything was used to make the community’s patchwork Land Rover run. The pride and joy of Charlie Gates and Lance McGavin. Parker’s raiders.
Gates and McGavin had held up in an old warehouse between Fort Totten and Takoma, in DC. They’d stockpiled and hoarded. They defended with man-traps, Molotov cocktails, and crack shooting from a thousand hiding places. How Parker had managed to coax them out was a mystery to all of her people. Leading her flight from the city along the railroad tracks, she and her people were pinned down by Gates and McGavin who, apparently, tried to murder anything that moved. In the early days after the fall, that’s the sort of thing city raiders inspired. Kill or be killed. Live and let die.
Parker finally told her people to hang back. She tied up her hair, stripped off her gunbelt, and walked leisurely into the kill zone.
Gates and McGavin don’t talk about what charmed them from their snakepit. Within an hour, they were out apologizing, and two hours later they were loading up their 18-wheeler with supplies and joining Parker’s people, her rag-tag party leaving the tracks, taking over trucks, and painfully threading their way through suburban streets and onto the Beltway. Though Gates and McGavin never really socialized. They stuck together, brought up the rear, and snarled at everyone except Parker.
She knew the need for compromise. She was a politico. It was her genius. She let the boys slide when they didn’t want to become farmers. She told them: Pull your weight or get out. They became the raiders. They went out in a Ford and came back with a Hummer full of supplies and dragging a U-Haul. Parker and her people gave them shopping lists and, once a week, they’d drive off. Maybe for an hour, maybe for three days. They’d check off every item on the lists. From candy to gasoline to books to penicillin to Legos. As the years took their toll, they traded out the Hummer for an old school Land Rover, which seemed to welcome creative mechanics and bubble-gum patches. The old beast craved hard roads. The boys once returned with a flat tire and, when one of Parker’s people pointed it out, the boys looked down surprised and shrugged it off with a grin. Real cool cat shit. If they wanted to, Gates and McGavin could take over. Retire Parker to a cottage, snicker at her graying hair, tell her that the harder world needed harder people. Angrier. More violent. And they were violent. When they pulled onto the broken remnants of I-68, or US 40, or Finzel Road, they became raiders. They became what everybody hoped would go away.
Gates and McGavin were no threat. They weren’t leaders. And they could never lead Parker’s people – the weak and scared, sheltering under their savior’s wings, hunkered down in the forest, dousing the lights at sunset, baffling chimney smoke, always keeping out of sight. Parker’s people dreamed about the old world. They wanted it all back. It was owed to them, it was their birthright. They wanted to walk down crowded streets with music in their ears, to live thoughtless pleasures, nose to the grindstone, check’s in the mail. They knew it would never return. You couldn’t live through The Fall and not see the truth. You couldn’t battle your way from the dead capitol to unincorporated Finzel without seeing the full pantheon of human horror.
But everyone lives in the past. Everyone is always coming home.
Parker gave them what they wanted. Behind the Hen House sign was a miniscule mockery of civilization. Rural chic. The sun rose on bustling farms, men split logs for fires, women made bread and prepared meals, both toiled in the fields. A small police force manned the firetower, the overpass lookout (now just on occasion), and the decaying Jeep forever watching I-68 westbound for refugees fleeing the eastern cities. A fear that was becoming imaginary. The stuff of nighttime tales to the new batch of young children, schooled by Parker herself who acted as teacher, scientist, judge…monarch.
There was routine. In a way, the anarchic Gates and McGavin might simply be the final touch on Parker’s brilliant canvas. The traveling minstrels with tales to tell. Her indulgence in the increasingly esoteric shopping lists was necessary for the survival of her community. When the storytellers returned from the empty world, they not only entertained, they brought gifts from the past. Relics of the old world, which Parker allowed to become a commodity, a currency. The collector of useless machine parts became rich, a day’s work bought for a bottle of scotch that had festered on a forgotten shelf for a decade, an extra ration at suppertime for a rusty can of shaving cream.
Parker was not immune. She had the boys get her a plasma TV three years after The Fall and the flight to Finzel. She even plugged it in, though the socket would never again feed it electricity. She found herself lonely without a TV hanging on the wall, dominating the room. It was her concession to her empty life before everything fell apart. When people met with Parker, eyes moved towards the TV. The unspeaking great eye, another member of the conversation. Almost everyone wished it would flicker to life, throw up a comforting face telling them it was all over, it was all a dream, a new America had begun and they were welcome.
The children weren’t drawn to it. Those born after The Fall, and those who don’t remember. They treat the TV like children would treat a picture on the wall. It just didn’t register. Parker gave them books, also trucked in by Gates and McGavin. They found more life in the yellowing pages than they did from the black box on Parker’s wall. She marveled at children reading and enjoying classics, she prided herself on the brave new world that sprang from her mind fully grown.
Parker’s people were happy. Well, as happy as they could be, considering. They all carried ghosts with them, many still cried themselves to sleep. From the shadows, Gates and McGavin dealt briskly in long-expired pills and moonshine. Somewhere, out beyond the Hen House sign, they harvested marijuana. No doubt a local’s old field grown wild and free. The world, for them, was easy pickings, and they traded on nostalgia and escapism.
But every community has these problems. Parker turned a blind eye. What happened behind closed doors, and under cover of darkness, was private business. That, too, was part of her genius. It takes a village, yes. It takes a village to ignore sins and suffering. That truism remained from the old world.
The majority found escapism in work. After a decade, mourning was fading into simple survival. Working a farm, cutting wood, maintaining the community was an all-day business. Working together without distractions, building new families, and no longer polluted by passive or aggressive inhumanity helped. Everyone worked for something, everyone pulled their own weight.
Freedom from the chains of the old society came with a problem. Waking up, seeing the world, surviving the horrors, and carving a refuge to start again only served to illustrate one thing… The fragility of life, of peace, of expectations. The old society’s stock and trade was immortality. Health care, anti-aging cream, artificial hearts, miracle cures, vitamin waters, and an infinite array of snake oils sold by massive corporations. After The Fall, mortality became a bedmate. Jack Otongo broke his leg in the seventh year repairing the side of the firetower. He died of a simple infection. The flu took little Lucy Rich in the fifth year. In the ninth year, 35-year old Martin Cleary drunk himself into a stupor and fell asleep under a tree when a cold snap moved in. A fever took him ten days later.
Rural chic indeed. But could they complain? They had survived the impossible. They should all be dead. Their continued existence was a fluke. Attitudes changed. People didn’t think about hair loss, or hiding the grey, or covering up wrinkles. Humanity had returned. And, with it, the stoic rural realization that every story must have an end.
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.
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.”
The cold sapped the gin out of him, for which Gates was grateful. There was no rest for him tonight. Hike back to the warehouse and start prepping for the journey. They would travel light, follow US 40 out and down to the tracks, crossing them about two miles north from where they saw the train. Both he and McGavin doubted the train moved very far. As the night deepened into the pre-dawn hours, he went over possible scenarios. He kept returning to the obvious – a lark. Somebody screwing around with an abandoned locomotive. When the world ended, the computers dying with civilization, the trains would have been crippled. There was probably an old freight train that came to a standstill out there in the woods, thrown out of contact with the railroad and afraid to move blindly forward. Somebody had found it and fixed it up.
He and McGavin always kept an eye out for trains. They’d traveled days looking for a train in the early years, hitting Frostburg and following the tracks west along the weaving Mt. Savage Road to Cumberland. They found a few boxcars there, but something had happened to Cumberland. When they first followed Parker up I-70 and west along I-68, the Cumberland gap was announced from nearly 100 miles away by a high column of black smoke. Roads and trains came together at the historic chokepoint, the high overpass for 68 a maze of abandoned cars. From above the gap, at the Ali Ghan Freemason temple, Parker and her people peered down the interstate at a burning town. Fires glowed through the night as they sought shelter in the temple and, the next morning, they braved the gap. Bodies littered the overpass, and the town below was consumed. Smoke enveloped them, billowing up through the joints in the concrete, and they had to inch through with the trucks, pushing cars away and ignoring the corpses as they were crushed beneath the wheels. It took most of a day to work their way blind across the elevated section. It was only a mile long before rising up out of the Cumberland Pass once again, but that mile seemed to never end. The black smoke followed them up and over the ridge and down, again, towards La Vale. They didn’t breathe fresh air again till they hit Frostburg, perched up on its mountain. There they collapsed and watched the smoke from burning Cumberland.
Half a year later, McGavin and Gates made it their business to sift through the wreckage. There wasn’t much. The town had been brought to the ground, the Potomac black and oily as it flowed through and on down to DC. Even the houses on the heights had been methodically torched.
The purification of Cumberland. Clearly done with a purpose and a plan. Was there a sickness? A gang of <i>Mad Max</i>-style lunatics? In the past decade, there had been no answers. No people ever returned to the spot, and there was never a sign of other scavengers.
One thing was for sure – no trains would be going east ever again, or coming west. Fires had been set beneath all the tracks, Civil War style. They were bent and warped beyond repair.
From Frostburg, the tracks led north, crossing into Pennsylvania, turning west. The problem is that they were through deep forest, with limited road access. They’d already explored what they could from the road. Would they now have to hike along them? Hopefully not.
US 40 crossed Finzel Road, running parallel to I-68 as a sort of glorified frontage road. It meandered through the countryside into Frostburg and, from there, they would take the local roads running along the tracks for a few miles. But then, about three miles south of where Everett claims to have seen the light from the locomotive, the tracks take their own route through the forest, now grown wild for a decade.
Gates didn’t care about the train. He was happy where he was – feeding off of Parker’s community and not responsible for anything, as long as he kept bringing crap back from the dead world. He wasn’t happy in his old life. He didn’t miss it. A wage slave who parked himself in front of the TV every night. Trying to kill time…all of it. 24 hours a day. After a while, youth left his soul and he just simply dreamed about retiring. Get a government check and drop out. Be a grumpy old man in some rural community. Fuck the world.
The Fall was a breath of fresh air. An escape into a second chance at life. He never tired of exploring the dead countryside. Since Parker set up her community, he and McGavin had been as far East as Hancock, picking up Interstate 70 and always tempted to return to DC. Surely, after a few years, it was a ghost town as well. Nobody wanted to stick around the cities. They’d gone as far west as Morgantown, north deep into Pennsylvania, and south into other parts of West Virginia. They were the kings of the Alleghenies, the lords of western Maryland. All hail the empire of ashes.
The early light of dawn had just begun to creep into the mountains by the time the Land Rover was packed and, begrudgingly, running. McGavin gunned the gas, which burned thick and dirty. Largely homemade shit that they brewed up behind the warehouse. Jacob was wrapped in patchwork coats in the backseat and Walter Murray was leaning against one of the old trucks, smoking a joint, staring at the mean machine with a wary smile.
McGavin shouted something Gates couldn’t hear over the clattering roar of the engine, but the meaning was clear. Time to move. He climbed in with Murray, McGavin let out the clutch, the damned monster stalled, then they waited five minutes before it could start again. When it did, it puked black smoke out of the exhaust and from beneath the hood, then all was okay. They pulled onto the cracked, potholed macadam of Finzel Road and turned south towards the interstate.
He was on the Oregon Trail. He was on Zane’s Trace. He was on the Victory Highway, the National Road. It was once the Mingo Path, cut by Indians. It was the soldier’s road blazed by George Washington, General Braddock, Colonel Zane, and signed into life by Thomas Jefferson. US Route 40. Once going from Atlantic City to San Francisco. The true Mother Road.
Jacob had read all about it. He’d grown up with the books in Parker’s library, but it was the history of his private little world that most fascinated him. Western Maryland, and US 40. Until The Fall, his tenth birthday, he was a city boy. Now there was nothing but the farming settlement outside Finzel, the ghost town of Finzel itself, the cold and humid woods creeping through the low mountains, and the National Road. Still a road – still stretching into the hills, leading east and west. The Interstate was a graveyard. Good for foot traffic once upon a time, and now good for nothing. But old 40 could still take cars. Ten years since technology died, so it wasn’t a nice trip. Not like when he was a kid. Between the pock-marked apocalyptic road and the cantankerous Land Rover, he was starting to wonder if he’d lose his teeth before they made the train tracks.
He liked to think about all the people who had used the natural path through the mountains – how many generations had passed through the Cumberland Gap on a journey west? The old roadbed itself was steeped in history. It had seen the slap of tires since the 1920’s. It had grown, divided, shifted slightly, cut back on itself in some places and straightened out in others, and been bypassed. The river of America, meandering in old age through the worn valleys. The river of commerce… Go West, Young Man! Or sit still in Finzel and fade away.
Parker put a great weight on him. Eyes and ears. But even he saw what the train meant. Parker came all the way up here because she wanted to fade away. Remove herself from the world that rose from the ashes of the end times. That’s not why her people followed her, though. They were running from something, Parker was running to something. That was clear even to a child, ten years ago. Parker had found her goal, but everyone else wanted their world back. Jacob, himself, wanted to see cars on US 40 again. He wanted to follow 40 all the way to the west coast. Gates said it was impossible. He said 40 was consumed by interstates along the way, bopping and twisting around them like some long parasite.
Gates talked about how 40 came to a crumbling end just outside St. Clairesville, Ohio. You had to get on I-70 if you wanted to follow it, picking up the old roadbed miles later. He said it did this throughout. The old road wasn’t, truly, coast to coast anymore. It was a shell, a ghost, a memory.
But Jacob could feel the draw. Even now, driving east on a road that would destroy a normal car, he felt the nagging, gnawing pull… Go west. Or east, even. Sea to shining sea… a world out there. Probably full of survivors… People who could come together and use the old roads. Or the old rails… He’d been under Parker’s wing, and under the shadow of an old mountain, for the parts of his life that counted… Yet he knew that the future must be about rebuilding, not hiding.
McGavin drove. Gates sat in the passenger seat with his lunatic rifle stuck out the window, cold air roiling in and clutching at all of them. Gates liked his guns… But there was no real use for the big bad artillery anymore. Still, Gates and McGavin hoarded ammo, and made their own. Parker let them slide because they always shared their hoard. That seemed to be the Great Compromise from ten years ago. Parker let them live by their own rules as long as they shared the wealth. Though there must have been something else. They were sitting on a fortress back in DC, and now they had thrown in with a commune that was, collectively, afraid of them. What hold did Parker have over them? Or maybe it just made sense to leave the city. That’s why people followed Parker. The dream of the woods. No bodies, no raiders, no disease. No need to have a fortress and live in fear. Though that’s exactly what Parker had created. Her fortress without walls. Why had they remained hidden when it had been years since human contact? What kind of leader didn’t try to gather other survivors, to strengthen her position? Had Parker simply condemned them to some sad rural death? Broken bones…fevers.
Jacob’s mind drifted to his gran. Diabetes. Of course, they all died out fast. They were gone in a matter of months. That whole ritual fading into legend… The insulin, the shots. How many diabetics survived the Fall? What was that like? To live through hell with a death sentence hanging over your head? All the people who needed doctors to live… How many people choked to death in their apartments after the Fall? Maybe that’s why Gates and McGavin gave up their fortress… When Jacob thought of DC, he shivered. How many corpses hiding behind all those windows? How much suffering in the final days of the dead city? How many people stuck underground in the subway? All those Metro tunnels were probably filled with water now… An average of 100 commuters per car, dead and underwater. Like a lost submarine. How many people died at their desks?
“Do you think people still live in DC?”
“Yes,” Gates answered immediately. “I think people are everywhere, and they’re all like us. Hiding in the trees like scared monkeys.”
“How do we know if they’re good or if they’re bad?” Jacob asked, thinking now about their destination.
“We’ll be able to tell from the blood spatter patterns after they blow our heads off from 500 yards.”
Time to stop talking to Gates. Hint taken. Jacob looked back out the window down at the shattered pavement of US 40. McGavin swerved wildly around a pothole, cursed under his breath, then got back to running down the center of the road. They dipped and swayed, the forest eating away at the road, creating tunnels of branches. Jacob focused ahead, and noticed something not quite right.
“Has the road been cleared?”
“That’s us.” Gates said.
“Kind of points people right to us, doesn’t it?”
“What if raiders came up 40?”
“They’d find us and kill us and rape our corpses and eat our brains.”
Jacob muttered an apology, suddenly self-conscious.
Walter Murray put a hand on his shoulder, “Don’t let them fuck with you kid.”
Murray grinned, then closed his eyes and pressed uncomfortably back into his seat.
There was no way to go over 25 on the decaying road. Frostburg seemed far away, and Jacob wasn’t looking forward to cruising through the dead town anyway.
“Do you think there are people still alive in Frostburg?” he asked the car.
“If there are, they’re very, very quiet.” Gates put on his Elmer Fudd voice.
“We’re bypassing.” McGavin said tersely, his eyes wide and focused on the road. “Jockeying onto 68. Main street Frostburg looks like a bomb went off.”
They had bypassed when they all first journeyed to Finzel, too. Camping out in the Days Inn lot but never going down towards the town of Frostburg itself. Jacob lived a few miles from a town – dead or not — and had never been there. Of course, that meant little these days. Why go to the towns? Anything useful that had been in Frostburg had been consumed by Parker’s people, or passing raiders. Or time.
The exit onto 68 was a water-logged meadow, but McGavin followed ruts and joined the once mighty interstate. Traffic was thin through this section, and, again, Jacob saw how clumsy Gates and McGavin had been about clearing the road. Cars were pushed aside to clear a path to the meadow, and the cleared section of 40. Though they were now pretty much overgrown and reclaimed by the forest, Jacob wondered how it was possible for anyone to miss this wide avenue leading right to Finzel. Were they truly the only survivors left?
Then he realized that the threat was long over. Gates and McGavin had spent a decade ranging over the land. They knew more about the outside world than any of Parker’s people. How it must be for them to not see signs of other survivors all these years. What must be going through their confident minds now that they were confronted by new signs of life? Jacob craned his neck to see their faces, but they were both intently watching the road. They were all routine. McGavin looking for potholes and obstructions, Gates looking for trouble.
The interstate rose, spreading broad, and then turning towards the main Frostburg exit. Braddock Road, nearly blocked by two trucks. The same two trucks were there ten years ago, and Parker’s people drove around them and mounted the long rise up a bald hill towards the island of convenience just outside of town. Burger King, BP, and the Days Inn parking lot where Parker’s people had rested after the horrific journey through Cumberland. McGavin now pulled into that same parking lot, shifted the Land Rover into neutral, and sat with his head cocked towards the dashboard.
“Should we be getting out and running?” Murray asked, opening one eye.
McGavin turned off the engine. “Hot,” he muttered.
Gates turned and looked at Murray, “She gets hot. We let her cool down. Sit tight, cowboy.”
“Fuck,” Murray whistled. “Haven’t thought about this place in a decade. This fucking parking lot.”
“Stayed here in 2004,” Gates said. “ground floor room. I had a fight with the wife, so I drove all the fucking way up here, bought a trunk full of cheap beer, checked in. It was snowing like a bitch and they didn’t have fridges in the rooms or any of that shit, so I just dumped the beer outside the window, settled down with HBO, and had myself a booze up. It was great. Open the window to winter, grab a freezing beer from the snow drift, drink it down. I think I fell in love with that room. Those stupid hotel easy chairs that are harder than wood slats, the ubiquitous table with the light hanging over it. Drifting silently to one of the two beds each night, full of snow-cold beer.” He turned to stare out the window towards the hotel, sitting ominously against the grey dawn sky. “That lonely bathroom with the harsh lights. Telling the maid to fuck off. Slinking out at night for a burger. I always liked being alone. I liked the anonymity of the hotel room. Since I was a kid, I mean. Always. That whole life’s nameless passenger thing. Is that a poem? Something. Passing through these places where nobody knew you, nobody remembered you, nobody cared about you. Lose yourself in your little cell. Overpriced can of coke over ice in a plastic cup, flipping through the channels, lying on a comforter on a bed that’s seen a thousand stories.”
“Please, God,” Murray said, “tell me we can start the car now.
McGavin smirked, then turned the engine over smoothly. Jacob turned to watch the black smoke cough out of the exhaust. God knows what Gates and McGavin were using as fuel.
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.
Always Coming Home
Let the old world die. Die like he should’ve. Survivor’s guilt. Why was he walking around when everybody he knew and loved died? Why had he been passed over?
Well, no longer. He was going to go back to where it began. Back on the couch, in front of the TV, gaping at the idiot news, watching the world come tumbling down. Then watching static. Then sitting in darkness staring at the dead TV set. Frozen in place till hunger pushed him to get up, to eat what remained in his kitchen and, finally, to venture out into the newly dead world. Scavenge, hoard, meet McGavin, have Parker come up and whisper to them over a bottle of scotch, and ten years in passive-aggressive Amishville.
Life has many paths. He could have been like everybody else. Could have stayed on that couch forever, mummified in a honeycomb suburban apartment, eaten by vermin and slowly falling apart on a moldering couch while day after day, night after night, the entire world passed by outside the clouding, cob-webbed windows. Forgotten forever. Finally free.
Surviving wasn’t freedom. It was even more responsibility. It was worse than 9 to 5 at the fucking office, and credit card bills jammed in with all the pleading, screaming junk mail, and wrestling dead-eyed soulless monsters at the supermarket check-out lane. All that nonsense, all the time desiring freedom, and, when it finally came, it was anything but freedom. It was the absence of control. Of uniformity. Of the vast cushion of life in the land of plenty.
So he destroyed the locomotive, left his friend of ten years lying dead and tangled with the corpse of idiot fucking Walter Murray, and just started walking east. He followed the interstates home – 68 to 70 to 270 to 495. Just like a thousand times before, except now on foot. Past towns long dead and through nature very much resurgent. He picked his way over the crumbling, scorched overpass spanning the blackened ruin of Cumberland, climbed the hills and gazed down at dead villages peeping from amongst the new forest. He climbed the long, slow rise to Sideling Hill – the ridge that had been blasted through to lay the 68 roadbed and forever make old US 40, weaving up into the mountain and down again, obsolete. A man-made marvel – a cut blasted in the mountain over 300 feet deep. But now I-68 was gone, subsumed by a decade of rockfalls and landslides. He scampered over the rubble, past the weathered visitor’s center, and started the descent down the other side.
Winter caught him at Hancock, where 68 starts as an exit off of I-70. An early December snow surprised him, though the nights had been increasingly dreadful. Just a decade without humanity’s control and the weather had started to change. Or maybe it was all part of the old climate change stuff. Super storms and colder weather. It didn’t matter now. Humanity’s time was over. The Earth would right itself.
There was no need to push on. He had a destination but, really, it didn’t matter how long it took to get there. He decided to overwinter in Clear Spring, 75 miles outside of DC. Mid-December found him ensconced in a house, positioned behind a hill and a screen of trees to keep the worst of the wind out. He covered the windows in plastic sheeting and boards, and burned every scrap of wood he could find. The remains of two people were in the upstairs bedroom, and he unceremoniously dumped the bones and papery flesh out of the window. Then he broke up chairs and table and beds and, as winter moved on, even ripped up some of the old hardwood flooring.
Clear Spring seemed to have avoided the worst of the looting. How strange that the toll of 10 years scavenging was less obvious the closer he got to the city. Everybody who could bugged out – got as rural as they dared. Perhaps he and McGavin were wrong to follow Parker after all. The city and suburbs were a fatted calf, abandoned out of fear. Fear of attack, fear of disease from the corpses… But, once deep in the country, there was no time for anything but simple survival. It certainly hadn’t crossed his mind to make the long trip to the city. Why bother?
Clear Spring was nice. Lots of canned goods in the stores and houses. Enough for a carefully rationed winter. The descendents of livestock roamed the forest, and deer were plentiful. Winter would take a toll…but they’d survived ten winters. He could make a go of it in Clear Spring. But that wasn’t the plan. Let the old world die.
He set out as soon as the roads were passable. The snow and the slush were gone, another season done. He marched down I-70 and, as he approached Frederick, the first storm of spring rolled in like a freight train. Dark clouds boiled on the horizon, and the cleansing rains chased him into the Hampton Inn right where 270 began, the corridor leading to the Washington Beltway. He hunkered down in the main office and devoured the last of his Clear Spring rations, trusting the upcoming suburban sprawl to provide enough for his needs.
He slept fitfully on a moth-eaten fold-out cot, the last of winter’s chill creeping around him. He dreamed of McGavin’s staring eyes, he thought he heard the sounds of Jacob’s flight into the woods and, as always, he saw Cumberland burning. Towards dawn, he dreamed of the old warehouse where he and McGavin had settled before Parker walked into their lives. A nameless, graffitied building along the rail tracks in Fort Totten. Still standing? Still stuffed with the shit they left behind when they attached their wagon to Parker? Maybe he could go back to where that all started. This new life. Pretend the last ten years were just a dream. That was the original plan with McGavin. Build a little empire on the train tracks. Maybe even find one of those hand-pump platforms that go on the tracks, like in the old westerns. Do they still make those? Surely there must be something like it lying around the Union Station railyard. Or was everything automatic now? Gas powered and rusting away.
Let the old world die. He woke up in the hours before dawn, shivering and crying. The impossible silence of the dead world filled his ears and every movement sounded like an echoing rockfall. He screamed. He screamed and screamed and then got up and pushed over a snack machine, the glass front long ago broken and the contents gone. He wrapped himself up, picked up the pack he had made in Clear Spring, and hiked out into the darkness, thinking about nothing. Letting his brain empty as he joined the clogged interstate and weaved amongst the rotting cars.
He felt the world spinning under his feet. It felt like it was finally going his way. Like those moving walkways at the airport. He picked up his pace and got into that spinning groove. Let the walkway carry him down 270. Deer skittered down the narrow paths, leapt over cars, and went every which way to get out of his path. A fox slinked quickly by in front of him, and a few foraging rabbits vanished into the retreating shadows. He thought he saw a black bear in the distance, and a pack of dogs yelped from an overpass. He wasn’t worried. There was enough to go around. And these more urban animals seemed to remember the touch of man. They understood the rifle he had strapped to his back. They knew not to fuck with the king of the apes.
The big sign saying that 270 was dividing was gone. It was one of those markers whenever he was driving home. Get ready, losers, 270 is about to go insane as it tumbles headlong into the Capitol Beltway. He’d jockey into the left lanes to start heading towards Bethesda and Silver Spring. Home was in White Oak. Upper Silver Spring. Home was about seven miles away. He dropped down onto the surface streets as soon as he hit Bethesda. He spent the night in his old high school, curled up by his senior locker. Leaves had blown in through long destroyed windows and, throughout the night, he was woken by rats and other noises in the big building. Nothing mysterious. Just the sounds of decay. He moved through the buildings in the early AM, the new spring moon outside his only light. He’d forgotten where all his old classrooms used to be. He wasn’t even sure if he had picked the right locker. He just remembered the hall. His life was a foggy dream. His memories were sluicing away with the fatigue of the long journey home…and the seemingly endless years since he last walked these halls. They seemed very small now.
He cooked breakfast right out in the open, on the center lane of East West Highway. The blank-faced buildings of Bethesda stared down at him. Anyone home? No.
He started walking again around mid-morning. Not far to go, now. Take his time. He crossed Connecticut Avenue, once a mighty intersection, now just burned out cars, crumbling houses, and silence. Everywhere silence. No smoke from cooking fires, nobody moving. He weaved down past Beach Drive, up the hill to Grubb Road, then down again into Silver Spring proper, then he cut up Colesville Road, hiking past the Discovery Building, which looked like something had crashed into its upper levels long ago, and leaving the sprawl of Silver Spring behind him. Now just houses and parkland and strip malls. He took his time. He passed by Blair High School, and, at noon, he lunched on the overpass that took Colesville Road over the Beltway. He could have saved some time, but that night in the halls of BCC helped align him. Helped remind him that a nice life in Clear Spring, or with Parker’s people, or anywhere wasn’t what he wanted.
We’re always coming home.
He was close. He moved through the pitted White Oak shopping center parking lot, a portion of it almost swampland. He cut through the vast labyrinth of garden apartments behind the shopping center, wrapping up and around to Stewart Lane and, then, to April Lane. His apartment, on the top floor of a four-storey garden apartment, a series of buildings that were indistinguishable from each other. Before he reached his complex, though, he took a shortcut through the once new townhomes. When he was a kid, the whole area was forest. Paint Branch. Now it was garden apartments and ludicrously overpriced townhomes.
He moved extra slow. He took it all in. The cheap siding and gutters of the homes was long gone, the paint peeled and the walls blackened by weather, mold, decay. Garage doors had pulled off of rusted chains and broken rails, and there was nothing but silence. He thought of all the times he’d walked past the townhomes, on the way to and from the supermarket. Every Saturday, he’d wake up at 5:30am, winter or summer, rain or shine, and head out to get his shopping done before the crowds came. He savored the apocalyptic fantasy. No sounds from his neighbors, nobody else out and about, no lights on. 5:30am Saturday was when he was most at peace in his old life. When he pretended the world had ended.
Now it was a little after one in the afternoon on a weekday, and the same silence, the same loneliness that had fueled those early morning weekend fantasies was overbearing. He stepped off the sidewalk into the road and stared at one of the townhomes. Two cars sat in the driveway, one just on rims and the flayed remains of a tire. Inside would be corpses. People who died the way he should have. Useless fucking lumps sitting on their couch watching the TV as everything came apart.
He threw a rock at one of the few intact windows, and the whole casement gave way with a screeching tear and cascaded to the ground. He shuddered as the echo played around him, then he hurried away, inexplicably panicked, and cut through the backyards down to his complex. The parking lot full of cars, three dead bodies still in the playground. Still! He’d passed them, fresh corpses, ten years ago. Had nothing changed?
11525. His building. He looked up at his balcony. The railing was gone, rusting in the bushes on the ground in front of him. There was nothing but concrete and his ratty patio table, tipped on its side. One side was covered in a mound of leaves.
He hiked up the stairs and reached in his pocket. For ten years, he’d carried his keys. They were a talisman. The door needed some work, though. He threw himself against it repeatedly until it flew inward with a spray of bugs and a startled flight of wasps. He skittered back to the edge of the landing, brushing dust out of his eyes and creepy crawlies off of his shoulders. Then he stepped inside. Rotting carpet, water in the kitchen, walls covered in black mold, paint and drywall gone in places. He kicked the couch, which looked like it had started to mummify, and pushed down on the cushions with his foot. No rats or mice. Or, at least, none that wanted to announce themselves. He dropped his bag, sat down with the dust and mold and insects, and stared at the TV set. The ceiling above had given way, covering the TV with a moldy cake of splintered wood, drywall, and rubble. Water leaked from the hole above, the afternoon sky peeking through. This is where he sat when it all happened. This is where he should have died.
What was happening up in Finzel? Parker’s people were probably toiling in the fields. Someone perched in the fire tower wistfully hoping for a phantom train. Maybe Parker had launched a proper search of Frostburg after Jacob returned with his story…if the boy had made it. Maybe Jacob was lying out in the woods, never to be discovered. A feast for the animals. Surely Parker would have retraced their steps. No doubt Murray and McGavin were buried on that hill, overlooking Parker’s plantation manor. It occurred to him that he didn’t know where McGavin was from. He’d never asked. It never mattered. After the collapse, you weren’t from anywhere. You had no one.
Gates picked up the remote, the bottom half covered in a grayish goo leaking from the batteries. He clicked the on switch, he put it down next to him, he stared at the blank TV.
Crowds gathering outside the local rescue stations…the sickness seems to be spreading…reports now from around the world…if you show any of the symptoms, then please hurry to one of the stations listed at the bottom of your screen…experts fear the worst…
It starts like the cold. Aches, a cough, runny nose. Perfectly normal for about a week or so. Then the fever starts. Then the mind gets fuzzy. You forget things. You get confused.
“And then you fucking die.” Gates said to the TV. “And then you get left in your living room, or slumped on the bathroom floor, or trapped in your car, or out on the street, in the playground. You get left and you’re forgotten.”
He pulled out his .45 and put it in his mouth.
The way it was meant to be.
Let the old world die.
There was nobody around to hear the gunshot.