(Inspired by: EDEN – Man Down)
Huddled inside a long, metal snake, two bundles of fur pressed hard against each other. Their cheeks were stained with frozen tears, and where skin was exposed it was raw and red. Strong gusts of biting cold blew through the countryside, filling the vast emptiness with wailing howls. The wind was fierce enough to strip away the upper layer of snow, carrying with it pebbles and small rocks that smashed against metal in an endless torrent of harsh pings. Thick, suffocating clouds blocked off all natural light – the moon and the stars -allowing Darkness and Despair to mark their domains, their flags of conquest in the form of dead, frozen bodies.
There used to be twenty of them; now, they were only three. The young were the first to go, and the old were the last to leave. Seven brave had trekked away from their stalled train, grim determination fueling their steps. Now they lay with outstretched hands and silent screams, their graves the harsh blanket of white. Another three had already wasted away, falling into an endless slumber, their eyelids encrusted with ice. Four had taken their own lives, sharing one blade passed from each slit wrist to the next. Two lovers froze over and died with fingers intertwined, forever locked in a heartfelt display. One more simply disappeared, his Fate left unknown.
It was going so well. They had finally gotten this train up and running after a long period of hard work, and for the first time in ages, the people of the Small Hamlet had a beacon against the dark. After the passing of a dreadful blizzard, almost like magic, the townsfolk stepped out of their doors to find a train on the tracks, a steam locomotive with three attached carriages. The religiously-inclined took it as a sign of their answered prayers, and so wondrous was the happening that even those that had turned their backs against Heaven and Hell began to think back to a long-lost God. A town assembly was quickly called to order, followed soon by the order for an inspection by the local mechanic and his teenage son. Anxious faces sat huddled together in wait of the results, counting every tenuous second that passed by. The pastor tried to soothe their souls, and it was midway through one of his sermons when the doors to their building burst open. Painfully cold air rushed in and with it came the teenage son as a harbinger of fortune.
“There’s some critical parts that broke, but Pa can fix it no problem,” he announced, and the room erupted to a chorus of cheers and boisterous laughs.
Their mayor rallied up every able-bodied man and woman to pile food and water onto the carriages, and selected a few volunteers for the more… grisly task of body disposal. Rumor was that the last group of passengers had succumbed to starvation, but so overwhelming was this surge of hope that not even the discovery of corpses on board could dissuade the men from their tasks. Stories of survival and perseverance were in the back of everyone’s mind, each one of them thinking himself to be a part of the next grand tale. As boxes and bags of supplies were piled onto the train, spirits were lifted and heads were held high. They were going to make it!
The corners of the girl’s lips curved upwards, bitterly smiling at the memories of their delusional past selves.
“We were fools, weren’t we?” she questioned, her voice almost inaudible amidst the blizzard howls.
“I suppose we were,” came the reply from the man sitting next to her, coughing vigorously at the end of those few words.
Resting her head against his shoulder, she waited for him to settle down. A small sigh escaped. She felt his fingers slide between hers, and she squeezed her hand against his. Her eyes trailed over to the frozen bodies that were seated in front of them, a sight that prompted wistful thoughts.
“Are we going to die like that?” she asked gently, looking up to him. “I can’t help but see us in them.”
The man gripped her hands a little tighter, letting his head fall to rest comfortably against hers. People always said that their heights were perfect for each other, and no amount of snow was ever going to change that. They could have some comfort in that, at least.
A few minutes of silence passed before the man began to speak. He too was looking at the two frozen lovers, as well as the small pile of snow that had begun collecting over them, courtesy of the broken window and billowing curtains up above. He felt her snuggle into a more comfortable position, and he closed his eyes to focus on the feeling of her beside him.
“What do you see when you close your eyes, Aeries?” he mused. “For me, I like to imagine that I’m besides a warm, crackling fireplace. Someplace with -”
“With you,” interjected the girl, finishing his sentence for him. “With you, and with a glass of brandy.”
“Am I being compared to alcohol now?” he quipped in response, laughing.
“You’re just as addictive. And you warm the soul just as well,” she replied, joining in with his laughter.
The two of them found within themselves a small spark that still allowed room for such joy, and their laughs echoed through the silent train and out its broken windows, valiantly pushing back against the encroaching despair. Together they shared the special moment, seizing it to warm their hearts. And after it died down, they snuggled up against each other once more, settling back into the sweet spot that they were in, basking in the remnant warmth of their laughter.
“I’m not going to let you die,” she heard him say.
“That’s what they all say, Marcus.”
“But I have a plan.” Slowly, he reached into his front pocket to pull the object out. The first thing she saw was its cylindrical barrel.
“That’s a better way to go than a slit wrist, at least,” was her delayed response.
She felt it pushed into her hands, and her fingers curled around the handle. Her eyes still transfixed upon the sight, her mind slowly working through the possibilities that this object had brought. Only when he began speaking did she finally look away.
“I said I was going to save you, not kill you. It’s a flare gun. I’ve kept it as a secret from the seven. When you see any sign of anybody, just pull the trigger”
The two of them locked eyes, and she saw in his face the pain and the cold. He pulled her into a hug, and she embraced it with all her might. Burying his face in her shoulder, he continued to speak, choking on the tears that began to flow. “I’m sorry I can’t do more than.. than simply tell you to wait and pray. I want to protect you, to protect you and our son, and I hate it. It hurts that I can’t do more than this.”
His wails filled the space around them, adding to the cries from the world outside. It was a symphony of broken spirits.
At the mention of their child, Aeries too broke down in tears. It was as if something inside of her had suddenly shattered, its piercing pieces exploding out. Sobbing, she gripped Marcus even tighter, her fingers clawing his back.
As she cried, one thought for her was hauntingly clear: she couldn’t remember the last time she felt the baby kick.
– – – – –
“So you’re saying that there’s a train full of survivors?”
“Listen here, I’m saying that there was a train full of survivors. When I walked off, there were only three left. A man, a woman, and the child inside of her.”
“Do you happen to know where this train is situated at?”
“Hell no. God only knows how long I’ve been walking for blind in that storm before bumping into you guys. And I ain’t even a local to these parts.”
“Says here in the report that one of my men almost ran you over. Stopped right in the nick of time.”
“Damn near gave me a heart attack.”
“Well, you better thank the Lord in your prayers tonight. Come noon tomorrow you’ll be on your way to one of the designated safe zones for civvies.”
“You bet I will. Hell, I’ll even add Vishnu and Buddha to that list too.”
“Anything that helps you find your peace. Thanks for your cooperation, you’re free to go.”
“Say, don’t take this the wrong way, but you gonna go back for them? They’re good folk, you know.”
“Lots of people in this world are good folk. That doesn’t mean we can save every one of them.”
“I understand you have lots going on at the moment, but think about it, yeah? Hell, just give me a map and I’ll see if I can figure out where we stopped. It’s the least that I can do for them.”
“Can’t do much without orders from the brass, but I’ll put in a word. Now get out and get some rest, you’ve done plenty enough.”
– – – – –