The bottle was nearly empty. Nora watched Eli pick it up again and swirl the last of the moonshine around in its bottom and then drink it in one long swill. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and then pitched the bottle into the grass behind him, taking his guitar up in his hands again and strumming. To Nora it was one swift motion, the way a man moves so deliberately after burying his only brother and his last connection to the lost world.
Eli would not cry or carry on. He would just keep playing his guitar until it was time to depart.
Their group mingled with about forty other people on the edge of the train tracks in the middle of a long empty field. It had taken them a day to hike out to where the train waited for them, the train that never dared to stop at a station or anywhere near a populated area.
It was the new Underground Railroad, where stories of steam engines were passed in whispers between Wanderers on the road and tickets were bought with blood, and the other liquid now just as precious to them, clean water.
It was that time in the morning just before dawn, they had just passed the longest and darkest part of the night under moonless and starless black sky, and now Nora thought of her grandmother’s sapphire ring while the sun made its imperceptibly slow surge upward.
It would be a beautiful day, she thought.
Wesley was walking over toward them. Nora noticed Eli’s eyes narrow as he kept on with his quiet strumming, steeling himself, warning off bother and casual conversation.
“It’s about that time,” Wesley said, leaning down toward Nora and resting his hands on his bent knees. “We’re going to be in the last car, all of us together. We can start loading our stuff now.”
“Thanks, Wes,” Nora said, and looked over at Eli, who nodded and stood up, slinging his guitar over his shoulder, the worn leather strap cutting a deep crease into his shirt. Nora held out her hand and Eli took it, and they walked together back to where they had left their supplies with the rest of the group.
The activity of loading the train was a rushed and quiet affair. The train conductor and other three workers were on lookout with guns at every compass point. They were finished loading in minutes.
“I’m glad I’ll be riding with you all,” a hunched old woman said, touching Eli lightly on the arm. “I just love music. I would love if you played your guitar on the ride, son.”
She was like Nora’s grandmother. Her back arched, she used to be taller before age wore her down a few inches. Her skin was loose and wrinkly on her neck and face, her eyes behind her glasses gray and rheumy. It was a wonder to see a person like this, five years after the war. She had to have fifteen or twenty years on Mrs. Jarvis, who was pushing seventy. A Crone, a perfect living memory, perserved among the walking dead.
“It would be my pleasure,” Eli said to her and smiled. He held out his arm for the old woman to take and he let go of Nora’s hand to help the Crone onto the train.
The steam engine roared to life and the three train cars it pulled lurched forward into the morning.
They had no idea how long they would be lucky enough to ride the train. They set out that morning from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and they were hoping to get to Illinois if they were lucky, to Iowa if they were blessed. They had hope of course, but they also had no way of knowing whether anyone who had taken this journey already had made it to their destination. They didn’t know what they would find out there. These trains only went one way now, their conductor had told them.
For a while Nora stood holding on to the edge of the open train car door, feeling the wind on her face and watching the world pass by her, the rolling fields of Pennsylvania, the towns burned and abandoned.
From behind her, Nora heard a familiar song. Through the rushing of the wind, the notes of her favorite song by The Shins floated to her ears. She turned away from the door and sat down next to Eli as he started to sing Pink Bullets, and she smiled and she relaxed.
The Crone sat beaming across the train car, bopping her head to the terribly unfamiliar sound of music, thinking that Eli was playing just for her. Nora knew better.
I have written about these characters before, and you can read the two other flash fiction pieces here and here – it doesn’t matter what order you read them in at the moment. These characters live in the zombie infested world of one of my many novels in progress. You think I should write more about them?