This Train – Emilie Szemraj ‘20

Colors blur between the slats. Orange, red—fall leaves. Good.  We’ve entered the forests. We’re progressing up the track line.

I cough. The world shakes. For an instant the air ripping away from my lungs matches the grind of the train’s wheels. Then the coal smoke hits, and I wheeze off-sync. 

“You sound worse,” my brother says. He’s tired. His tan skin can’t mask the lines of fatigue on his face, just like my clothes don’t hide how I’ve thinned. Even his dark hair can’t camouflage the dirt crusting him.

“Because I am.”

He doesn’t know I’ve coughed up blood in the last few days. And he doesn’t know that I let him sleep through his watch last night because I had a fever and couldn’t settle.

“Keenan,” he stretches his legs across the boards. “Maybe they’ll give you something. If we ask.”

“Or maybe they’ll give you another blow to the face.”

A fresh bruise is spreading its color over his right eye. A blow I should have taken— I didn’t inherit the frail bone structure of the family. A wide red line streaks across his other cheekbone. From a knife. From a week ago. From when we lost Casey.

James’ face tightens. He touches his face, then slides his hand down to his knee.

I’ve made my peace. She wasn’t my girlfriend. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still see the knife sliding between her ribs. I’ve been seeing it all day, through shifting vision on the other side of the freight car’s slats.

Feels like we’ve been on this train forever.

We got on it about ten hours ago, at the crack of dawn. After days of planning.

Though they don’t know that.

My brother and I—and Casey—had been tracking them for two weeks. It was kind of a stupid plan. Idiotic almost, suicidal really, but what else could we do? We’d needed a way to get up north, to Illinois at least. And when we heard trains were running again, we knew to get on one.

***

The plan formed after we got to Indiana. Our horses had lost too much weight to go much further. We’d run low on food. Then we stumbled across an un-decimated farm and this couple working it—Florence and Joe—offered to feed us and let us sleep in the basement.

If we worked their farm and gave up our horses.

Florence and Joe were the ones who told us about the steam-engine train. Steam locomotive, they’d said. As if they were happy the states had returned to the past and people were once again shoving coal down a furnace for basic travel. Steam locomotive, run by the Western Lakes Union. What Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin call themselves now. I assume the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the U.P, is also caught up in that mess, but nobody in Indiana seems to know, and The Hollows certainly won’t tell us.

That’s the name of the gang of woodmen we’re caught up with. The Hollows. Before the events of 12.16.16, I would’ve called them a corrupted amish warband. technology- denying agricultural war band. Something that would never naturally form, even if Trump was sworn in come January. But today, they are either your enemy or your local municipal government. Just depends whose territory you’re standing on.

Florence and Joe told us the W.L.U had gotten locomotive trains running on some old tracks and a line was coming down to Indiana.  The purpose of this information was supposed to be a warning.

Because of the E.M.P, there are no tractors or farm technology. Not anymore. Nothing but your granddaddy’s horse drawn plow will work to turn over the ground for planting. (Somewhat) thankfully, over half the population starved or murdered themselves away before spring. The remainder can make enough food for themselves with the excavated plows of kingdom-come. The people to man the plows— that’s where it gets tricky. The Midwesterners, as we learned upon our arrival in Indiana, fixed this with the camp farm. Prisoners of war—but also anyone stupid enough to be running between states, unaffiliated with any fiefdom—were set to work the remnants of the corporate farming industry in exchange for their not being murdered.

After the riots of the first few months, once they’d set up their government, W.L.U had been the first to create the farming camp system. And now they needed more laborers.

We’ll keep you hidden, Florence and Joe had told us.

But It’s funny how you become open to the idea of being enslaved when there is fast travel at hand.

***

“Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, I’m twentythree.”

“We sang to you already.”

06.15.17. A special day if there was any. My first birthday in the new world.

James and Casey are not pleased. I sang too much on the trail. I asked for a birthday cake when we ate, too, and James said, “Eat your fucking beans and shut up.” They’ve been kind of dismal lately. I don’t blame them. One of our bear bags was torn down two days ago and most of the bread was in it. All protein and no carbs makes James a dull boy.

“How would you celebrate,” Matt asks, “if we were still in the real world?”

Matt was still alive at this point and always brought table talk back to philosophy. It’d been his major at Chapel Hill.

“Well. I would have my degree. Probably James and I would be in Europe, drinking to my success and our father’s well spent money. France, I think, was where we’d been considering going. James said that’s where the prettiest girls are.”

Casey—blonde and somehow still soft around the hips in this memory—frowns at James like the beans she’s eating are expired. They probably, definitely are.

“And after that?” Matt says.

“Well. I never heard back from Penn. But I assume I was on my way to getting in when—Yeah, I’d be there. Maybe starting to write, that fiction idea, the one the idea about the civil war. Maybe.”

I had been majoring in History before the E.M.P.

“And the rest of us would still be in school.”

“Yes,” I say. “Right.”

We seemed a long way from home that night, though West Virginia was just a state over.

***

I put a hand under my jacket, touch my bruised ribs.

I do wish Matt was still alive. He’d never had any bad plans; not like how I did. He was the doomsday expert, the Shit-Hit-The-Fan planner and prepper extraordinaire. He’d selected the course for Minnesota after we’d found my parents dead and had converted us into seasoned rangers in five months flat. He was the reason we’d made it out of West Virginia at all.

It turned out Florence and Joe had their own agenda—they took in vagrants and then gave them up to their own Yellowwood county’s camp farm. James, Casey, and I figured this out one night about five minutes too late.

We had to fight our way out. When James and I took down Joe, Florence ran a kitchen knife through the back of Casey’s ribcage. James and I spent a minute standing in Joe’s blood, staring at Casey limp at Florence’s feet, before we jumped through the broken casement window. The men who wanted to take us to the Yellowwood farm had been outside.

Fun fact: when all technology is fried, and there aren’t enough of your grandfather’s old fashioned, non-automatic rifles, people will once again revert to the sword. Have you been chased across a corn-field under the moonlight by men with glinting steel blades hanging at their sides?

James and I scouted until we found The Hollows, the local little redneck fiefdom that’d promised Western Lakes Union workers. It was in exchange for guns or food—we weren’t sure. We camped in the forest near them, the night before the train’s arrival, and set a fire. And waited.

I’d never prayed more in my life than that night. Three days on the train would get us further north than two four months on horseback had.

I wanted to see Lake Superior again, more than anything. I wanted to be somewhere where there weren’t so many goddamn people, forming warbands and fighting counties and rural gangs that hunted silent woods and fields. I wanted to find our grandparents living, in the flesh, at their house in Minnesota. I wanted the dirt on my skin and the tears in my clothes and the sickness eating away at my lungs to be worth it. And I wanted to get there before winter came and it’d been a year since the world had changed.

So last night I listened to the Hollow’s men climb the hillside, and I lay down, waiting for us to get beat. Our ticket up North, I’d told James earlier.

Boy, did they exploit that ticket.

***

We were lucky. They hadn’t taken our packs from us, or removed the knives from my boots. Just thrown us in the freight car.

I take a swig from my Nalgene. The chain of the manacles clunks the plastic as I set it down. I tip it over and roll it to James.

He sets it upright, but doesn’t drink. The water swirls green in wood-entombed light.

“You going to say anything? Anything, ever?”

“What’s there to say? We’re just waiting.”

He looks into my eyes. I know what he thinks about.

Casey and I were the ones getting him through this. He told me that two months back, when we crossed into Kentucky. Now he feels like one of his arms got cut off, and there’s nothing when his mind tells him to reach for something. It’s how I felt when Matt died. My best friend.

Now my brother and I are back to how it used to be. Two arms make one team.   I put my elbows on my knees. “One day, I think I’ll write a book about this. The great epic of how America fell apart and rebuilt itself. The missiles blew up in the atmosphere, technology died, and we created the most fractious political climate in the history of mankind.”

James shuts his eyes. “Tell me. How you’d write it.”

“It’d start with research. You and I, we know some things, but some we’ve just heard. I’d need primary sources.” James scoffs. I continue. “Once the governments settle down, a decade or so from now, and all these angry little mobs get absorbed, I’d travel. Start in the Midwest and work my way down the seaboard. Like the Odyssey, but I’m writing the story as I do it.

“The introduction would explain Trump, and the Middle East and China, and Britain too. Then the E.M.P. Then the New York massacres and the immediate civil war of New England. Then the state battles of the south. The Appalachian impasse. Of course the

Midwest, and probably California too, when we figure out what the hell happened there. Probably had something similar to New York. And I hope on the Lakes they had some naval warfare. That would be dope. To have some lake pirate action in a history book.”             James smiles. I chuckle. It comes out too strong and I’m left coughing into my shirt sleeve. The blood is dark across the inside of my elbow. I rest the arm on my knee, bent.       “You’d have to talk about the coasts, too. Find out what Mexico and Canada have been doing. If ships have sailed to Europe yet.” James says.

We don’t know if the E.M.Ps had affected the whole world or not. But nobody had seen a plane since the day they all fell out of the sky. And the satellites had all stopped blinking by Christmas.

“Right. Sounds like it’ll take a few years, minimum. Maybe a decade.”               “But you’d become the first to write it all. A man to go down in history. The one who wrote down all the wars, and how the new governments formed. How America split into thousands of tiny pieces.”

“Into . . . medieval city states. All these counties fighting and new borders being drawn up. Prisoners and headhunters. We’re back to the time of the Borgias.”

“Swords,” James says. “Don’t forget the fucking swords.”

“Yeah. The new, real life Game of Thrones.”

We stop talking. The sun rises higher, flicks into the freight car with each chug. The steam locomotive is the nosiest thing I have ever traveled in. By evening it’s started to pound in time with my blood. When we eat, our food tastes like its coal smoke. When I wake the next morning, it’s given me a headache.

“We need to find a way out. So we’re ready.” I say near noon. It’s the first thing I’ve said today.

James nods. We spend several minutes gripping the slats of the freight car’s walls, seeing if any will pry. They do not.

“We could just make a run for it,” James says. “You have your knives. We wait until they open the doors and go.”

“They have rifles.”

“They’d have them either way.”

I open my pack, take the long knife out and toss it to him. He flips it in his hand, and bounces the handle on a board. I imagine us waiting, pressed against the freight walls, and then jumping on the guard’s back and drawing blades across a dirt-crusted throat.       James thumps his foot against a floor board. He does it again. “Hey. I think we can loosen this one.”  We start.

***

I always thought I’d live in California after college. Move across the states and be blinded by the sunshine off of cutting back from the water on one side and bouncing off of brown hills on the other. And then I’d retire and go North, live my last years in the cold wet of Oregon and be buried in the muddy earth.

Now I’m watching James pry the board up with his knife.  knife on the board’s edge. I’m going to die in Minnesota. I’m going to be anchored to the clear water of Lake Superior and if I’m lucky be put into a pine casket when I die. And if I don’t end up recording our history, I’d like to work on the Great Lakes trade ships. If the rumors are true and they are running. Keenan, the lake pirate. It sounds good.

“I think I got—” something snaps, the knife slips out of the crack between wood.

James falls back onto his heels.

I stand. I press a foot’s weight on the board. It gives a little. I dig my fingers under one end. It lifts.

“Halfway there.” I smile.

There’s a loud screech. The train starts to slow. James tucks the long-knife into his waistband and tugs his shirt and fleece over. I put my knife back in my boot, and pull the pack and myself back to the wall. The board still lies flat and innocent in the middle of the freight car.

The hard crunch of boots on gravel sounds outside. There’s a yell, then a sharp crack of a whip. It’s the leader’s—I saw it on his belt when they’d shoved us in here. A soft clink.

Then farther up the line, the slam of a freight door opening. Then another, and another.

“One per car!” someone yells.

James and I duck our heads when light streams into ours. Door thrown back, a Hollows’ man shoves a woman inside. Her manacles hit the planks before she does, but she rolls and rises on one knee. The door slams shut. I see she’s a redhead, maybe late twenties, before we’re back in the warm dark.

“What are you staring at?” She spits.

“Nothing.” I shrug. “How’d you get caught up here?”

She narrows her eyes. “You first.”

I tilt my head, but go on. She’s going to see what we’re doing anyway. “I’m Keenan. My brother, James.” I gesture. The movement stretches my chest and then I’m coughing.         “We went into their territory and got caught. We’re using the train ride to get to Wisconsin,” James finishes for me.

“I’m Beatrice.”  She nods, silent for a minute, then She sits cross legged in the middle of our floor. “I’m Beatrice.”

“Keenan. My brother, James.” I gesture. The movement stretches my chest and then I’m coughing.

“Where are we?” James asks.

“Sterling, Illinois,” she says. “Do you know why we’re here?”

“You don’t?”

“Of course not. I’ve been in the Sterling-Dixon prison for the last month. But I’m from Clinton. 30 miles west of here.”

I’ve been coughing this whole time. Beatrice frowns, gives me a look.

“The train’s going North. To the central Wisconsin farms.” I wheeze. “We’re leaving before we get there.”

“How?”

James hooks a thumb under the plank’s loose end.

 

Beatrice helps us pry and cut the remaining edge of the board for the rest of the afternoon. We lift it completely out of place to see gravel streaking underneath. If we wriggle sideways, we can slip out.

The three of us eat a can of beans and the last of our crackers as we wait for the train to stop again.

“They have rifles,” James say to Beatrice when he’s done eating. “You have to be quick when you roll or—”

“I’m not staying on this train.” She taps her hand in rhythm with the clunk of the track, rolling her eyes, though she hasn’t been here long enough to mock its beat. “Look,” she says. With her thumb and pointer finger she pulls down her lower lip. I squint. “Ride or die,” the tattoo says.

“Got it when I was seventeen,” she says. “If I say I’m not staying on this train, I’m not.”

The ratty leather jacket makes sense now.

 

***

The train’s clunks deaden to a slow boom before dropping away. We’ve lifted the board out before the noise dies. As the stop in momentum rocks us back, James wriggles through.

I look through the empty stripe in the floor and watch him roll out of the way. I follow. Then Beatrice is out too.

The three of us lie silent between the tracks. I count twenty seconds before James rolls and nudges his head past the wheel. It’s darker now, mid-twilight, but still good enough light to aim and fire.

James nods once and is out from under the car. Hands and knees he crawls down the grass and slips into the woods. Twenty feet away.

His face floats in the leaves. Eyes coursing down the train line, watching, like always. I’m glad I have him. The thought changes to taste like coal and guilt. I’m glad it was Matt and Casey, not him.

He nods again. My fingers slip from the greased up underside of the car’s edge. I’m through the grass and then James’ hand is on my shoulder, and I’m behind him in the woods.

Beatrice’s gaze marks a line from the train to us. Her body makes the slightest outline, dark against darker, soft before the sharp edge of the car cuts through the shadow. A red smidge of her hair remains.

I feel James’ shoulder tense before we hear the sound.

Down the train, a car door opens. A man steps out—the leader, whip at his side. He walks away from us. James tenses his arm again, but he sees the rest same as I do.

People emerge from the forest where the guard walks, ten in a line, two more armed men walking besides them. They’re quiet, but the leaves still crunch and gravel slides. The leader points, and the prisoners climb into the freight car.

Beatrice has moved back, so flat against the rails I know she’s there only by her boot tips.

The Hollows’ man closes the freight car door. Smoke belches from the locomotive.

“She’s gotta move,” I say. “Now.”

The Hollow’s man speaks to the two others. His hand digs around in his jacket. I stick my hand out, beckon Beatrice.

“Stop,” James says.

But Beatrice’s moves, and I did time it right. The Hollows’ man has turned, pressing something into the other men’s hands.

Beatrice’s fingers let go of the car’s side. She crawls towards us. She puts a foot flat on the ground. She rises from the knee when her chest falls forward.

The shot echoes down the track. Beatrice’s legs straighten. She falls onto her elbows.

I lunge. James’ arm encircles my neck. , He pulls ing me back.

“No,” he hisses. “They’ll shoot you.”

Down the tracks, a rifle sticks out of the crack of the first car’s door. The three men before it turn to Beatrice. Watching, but they don’t move.

She finds our eyes. She shakes her head once before the next shot rings.

“We have to go,” James says. He digs his fingers into my shoulder. “They’ll see we aren’t in the car.”

Liquid, shiny in the twilight, oils the surface of Beatrice’s jacket. I can’t see her face.  “Hey. Hey,” James steps in front of me. “Do you want to see Minnesota or not?” I pick up the pack. We walk into the forest.

Two months later, I see Minnesota.

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