Part One- Denial
Someone was coughing, a horrible wracking sound that slowly faded into a wet murmur. I tried to ignore the sound, but hearing it echo back at me only made me more aware of the walls surrounding me. Wooden slats enclosed me, slats that seemed to press in around me even though I kept my eyes closed. None of the others in the car seemed to mind the walls or the darkness shrouding them; in fact most of them seemed to be asleep, but I couldn't sleep, not with the walls pressing in around me from all sides.
Keeping my eyes shut wasn't helping, so I sat up and pressed up against the wall. The slats were worn and smooth, but I could see movement through the cracks between the boards. It was night outside and, from what I could remember of the Kentucky side of the Alliance, the trees would be crowding in around the train. I could only see faint flickers as we passed, faint moon shadows that were swallowed up again by the night, but it was better than sitting with my eyes closed. At least I could see that there was something outside, something beyond the walls around me.
Something shifted on the floor next to me and Sam's voice drifted up, sleepy and quiet; it was barely audible over the clack and rattle of the train as it clattered through the night. "We there yet?"
"No, I just wanted to have a look outside for a bit." I reached out with my right hand and patted where I guessed Sam's shoulder would be. It was an awkward movement, reaching my arm around me to try to touch him, but my left arm was still tightly wrapped and held against my torso; the train people always demanded that I wrap it up tight, even though I'd explain it was only a symptom, not the cause. They didn't care, but continued to insist; train policy was that we try not to contaminate the car too much, even though only people like Sam and I used this car. Sam always laughed when the train people forced him to put on the cotton face mask and gloves; as he said, what fear did the infected have of infection anymore?
My hand missed, brushing against the wooden floor and I pulled it back. "Go back to sleep, I'm just feeling a little jumpy." I turned back to continue peering out between the slats, letting the occasional flicker soothe the parts of my mind that feared the dark room around me.
Some time passed in relative silence, with only the sounds of the train ahead plowing forward and the occasional grunt or cough sounding from somewhere in the car. I had almost forgotten about Sam waking up when he shifted again. "Do you really think you'll find him this time?"
I couldn't help but smile in the darkness; Sam was a talker, no matter how little there was to talk about. "I hope so. That shaker in the last town said that he heard of a Somnam across the Mississippi curing some guy, and this is our best bet on this side of the river." I twisted around to rest my back against the wall; talking was a good way of taking your mind off of things for a while.
Sam grunted, a sour sound that started him coughing for a moment. "You mean that monkey faced guy? He seemed pretty out of it to me." He shifted again, but when he spoke again, it was nearly a murmur. "Was probably hallucinating, probably thought he was still in America." However, his voice seemed defiantly hopeful.
"You have a better idea of where to go?" I knew how Sam felt, so I wasn't surprised when he shifted again and didn't answer. Though Sam had been infected longer than I had, he was by far the one most set on finding a cure for his bug, even if it was a long shot. I sat and listened for a moment before speaking again. "You been to Coal Road before?"
"Yeah, about a year ago. I had just gotten my bug, but didn't want to sit in some doctor's shack just so he could watch me die, so I jumped on the first train through town and kept going. Coal Road was on that line. You ever been there before?"
For a moment, the darkness seemed to crowd close, but I forced myself to focus on Sam's words. "I lived there for a few years."
"No kidding." Sam's voice was still soft, but seemed to prompt more. It was normally like this, we'd talk, but very rarely would we talk about things before we got infected. Sam knew that I had been born outside of the Alliance, somewhere in the wilderness south of here, but I hadn't told him much beyond that.
"Yeah, the border patrol found me wandering Downriver ways and took me in. Coal Road was the closest town, so that's where they dropped me off. I bounced around a few different houses until the Alliance set me up with a family upriver. It's a nice town."
"How long ago was this?"
"I was nine when they brought me in."
"So this will be like coming home for you."
At that, I paused. I could remember a few things from my time in Coal Road, a tiny border town settled on top of a pre-Volley coal mine, but those memories were scattered at best. They were good memories, but they weren't memories of a place I could call home. Those memories were more recent, memories of Ashley and our time together; those were home to me. Everything before and after was only a memory of passing through. Ashley had been the only home I had ever wanted.
Blinking away sudden tears that had begun welling up, I didn't answer and Sam fell quiet. He knew that there were things that I didn't like discussing, and he didn't insist on it. I appreciated him for that, for quietly letting me bring my emotions into rein once more without badgering me in a ham-fisted attempt to comfort me. People always tried to do that, tried to dig at my pain in hopes that they could dig it out of me, but not Sam. I couldn't even remember if I had ever mentioned Ashley to him before, but I knew that he could tell that I wasn't whole anymore. He could recognize my pain and he knew it was something that mere words muttered in ignorance couldn't soften. It was almost like he had gone through the same things before.
It wasn't the first time I wondered if Sam had had his own family before he caught his bug. Maybe they were still alive, wondering where he had gone to a year ago; maybe they had moved on by now. Either way, I didn't dig into his past. Sam allowed me my space and I returned the favor.
He was the closest thing to a friend that I had left.
Minutes passed in silence until Sam cleared his throat. "Sounds like the train's slowing." Now that he had mentioned it, I could hear it too. The rattling around us was quieting down as the engine ahead of us in the darkness began to slow. Others in the car must have awoken by now and have noticed the same thing as the sound of them slowly gathering their things together began filling the car. Finally, the car ground to a shuddering halt. Faint light drifted through the slats opposite me, illuminating the car somewhat as we stood and waited for the train people to come let us out. I could hear the engine hissing as the sounds of other people, some complaining about the time, some excited to be off of the train, trickled back to us through the night. Those would be the normal folk, those that had paid good money for a seat in one of the front cars.
We never had seats in the Plague Car, as it was called, only the wooden floor and whatever bedding we brought with us. I slung my pack on my right shoulder and made sure that my face mask was still on; the train people always got mad if we didn't keep them on, even amongst ourselves. Finally, as the sounds of the normal folk died down to a muted hum, a shadow stepped up to our car and began rapping the slats. "Wake up!" This continued until another shadow joined him and the door clicked and slid open. "Everyone out." Both men stood back from the car now, face masks and gloves of their own in place as those closest to the door hopped out and began shuffling away into the night.
Sam touched my shoulder as I moved to step forward, but he didn't say anything. Maybe he had meant it as some way of closing our conversation or maybe he needed a touch right then. I glanced back and eyed the bigger man for a moment. Even though he was taller than me and his shoulders were wider, his body was nearly skeletal; he had contracted some type of wasting bug that was slowly starving him to death no matter how much he ate. However, he didn't look feverish, so I merely turned away once more and finally hopped down.
As I hit the ground, a rock shifted under my foot and I stumbled. With my left arm restricted as it was, I couldn't catch hold of the car and instead fell painfully onto the stony ground underneath me. None of the others getting off of the car paused as they flowed around me, but I could see one of the train people start forward, hands outstretched to me as I struggled to sit up. Through the shadows, I could see that he was young; young and foolish. I loudly coughed and the man... no, boy really... paused, eyes suddenly glassing over as he remembered what I was.
Ripped shoes hit the ground next to me and Sam grabbed me, hoisting me back to my feet. He nodded towards the boy as we slipped past him. "The man's got a good heart, I'll give him that."
My foot throbbed from my fall, but I hobbled alongside my friend without a word of complaint; complaining did nothing but annoy others. Glancing back, I could see the other train man standing close to the boy that had tried to help me up. Judging from their postures, the boy was being quietly scolded for what he had almost done. "Yeah, he still thinks of us as people. It's refreshing to get that from time to time." Turning back to regard the sporadically lit train stop in front of us, a sudden yawn cut off anything else I might have added. In the car, I had been too occupied with the dark closeness of everything, but now that I was out, my body was quick to remind me that I was tired. "You've train-hopped through here before, right?" I didn't wait for an answer. "Is there a place where we can bed down until morning?"
"Yeah, follow me." Sam led the way past the stop with its glowing electric lights and the pair of guards, one holding a pre-Volley rifle while the other held a crude crossbow. I shook my head as I passed, reminding myself that out here in the border towns Downriver, raiders still came through. As laughable as that crossbow seemed, it would be needed if a group of New Americans came through town.