Through Scorched Plains
By: Bernice Groves
“Another one. You made it,” a voice says. “Tough journey?”
The boxcar rocks. A dozen shadowed bodies rock with it. Outside, the horizon lights up like winking Christmas lights. The train is a dying snake winding through scorched, black plains and dense fog.
“Give the boy some water first,” another voice, this one gruff, says. “There isn’t any for miles.”
“You’re right,” first voice says. “You thirsty, boy?”
I nod. A rustle. A tap on my left shoulder. A shadowed body leans over. Their face is hidden behind a cloth. Their eyes are dark. Their hands offer me a silvery bowl that glints. The water is cool compared to the thick, hot air that sticks to everything out there. It soothes my parched throat. But it’s gone too soon.
“Thanks,” I mumble.
“Sorry it’s just a bit. There’s a bunch of us. We gotta conserve what we can,” first says.
I nod, but light filters into the car intermittently, shining slivers of orange light on parts of our faces. I see a shadow holding a child on its lap. The child’s face is buried in the rags of its parent.
“Where you from?”
It’s the gruff voice, coming from my one o’clock. I look in that direction, even though light doesn’t reach there. It’s just a dark corner. I clear my throat and spit out a wad of stored dust.
“Kickapoo, Illinois. Outside of Peoria.”
A low whistle, followed by a new voice—eight o’clock. Someone to my left wheezes.
“You traveled far—“
A distant, violent explosion splits the air. The horizon blinks again. I feel the piercing screech and keen inside my bones. A baby wails, but it doesn’t sound like one. Its voice is distorted, but its mother’s voice hums a tune to soothe it anyway. It is familiar.
Golden slumbers kiss your eyes…
I close my eyes. A faceless woman stands over me. Her shadowed hands reach toward me. I flinch. Outside, the orange light dims. The bit of wind that enters through the cracked door has traces of methane and carbon—bad for breathing. Bad for living.
“There haven’t been many others…not for weeks. They’re all dead,” eight o’clock says.
“Alfred,” a woman cuts in. “Let the boy rest. Come in further—away from the poison. You’ve had enough of it.”
Something whizzes through the air. I flinch. A soft, thin cloth lands on top of my lap and hands.
“If you need it. Get some rest while you can, child. Before it starts again.”
I slide over, no more than an arm’s length away from where I was sitting before. I lean against the cool metal wall and drape the blanket over myself. I close my eyes.
Golden slumbers kiss your eyes…
The mother continues humming to the baby, even though it is sick. She doesn’t know it will die soon.
“Is he sleep?” First asks.
A hand reaches for me; it stills under my nose. A sudden finger-snap. I stay still; I breathe evenly.
“Yeah,” a woman says.
“How did he survive out there?” A new voice asks.
“Maybe he had help. Maybe it’s just dumb luck.”
“Y’all heard it. Said there weren’t no survivors.”
“Everything up there is decimated. I saw it. With my own eyes. No way a boy survived that…” A woman says. “And then walked the six hundred miles to this area without a scratch on him.”
A tortured silence. The boxcar rocks.
“He ain’t got a bag either,” a new voice says.
“He could be one of them…” a quiet voice says. “One of those child bombers.”
Silence. Distant screeches enter the car; a flash of white light illuminates the backs of my eyelids. The train’s brakes screech, splitting my eardrums. I gasp for oxygen. The boxcar lurches. My heart thumps, loud and hard. Everything spins. I claw my chest. My lungs struggle to inflate. Pain burns my sides as feet and knees collide. For a minute too long, we’re all pressed together against one side of the car. Dozens of babies cry. Their cries mingle in the air from neighboring cars. The boxcar stops moving.
I struggle to stand. The ground trembles. Light flashes again, illuminating the entire boxcar. I see all of their faces for the first time. They’re all packed together, like one terrified animal. Ten women, four men, two children—all dirty and all afraid.
“They’re here,” a child whimpers.
“Hush your child,” a woman whispers fiercely. “Don’t listen, sweetie. We’ll be alright.” She says to her own child.
The oxygen in the boxcar is too low. It’s hot and sticky, just like outside. Two women choke on their cries. The two children cry silently. Darkness swallows us again. Death comes; at first, it’s the sound of our cries. Then, it’s the itchiness of our burning skin, sliding off our bones. And then it’s the never-ending dark.