One Throne Joust: Aftermath

This year, the magazine One Throne offered a twenty-four hour writing competition; the first and last sentences for the short story were provided, and had to be connected in a piece less than 1000 words. In the midst of managing a cat with an abscess and a cranky four-year old today, I cranked out the below piece in about 2.5 hours…sadly, it just missed the deadline, but it was fun just the same! Comments and critiques are welcome… otherwise, please enjoy!

“They laid the train tracks back to front and this caused a great deal of confusion – you’d think you were on the train to New York and arrived in Kinshasa, or to Shanghai and found yourself lost in Istanbul.”

I replayed the stories my grandmother would tell me as we trudged along in the mud. The old decrepit tracks were visible through the trees, the ballast around the tracks still level enough to make walking easier but the lack of camouflage made it too risky. Instead we kept to the woods and followed the train line west, away from the cities of the coast and into the mountains.

“Whatcha thinkin’ ‘bout, Mac?” A head full of wild brown curls had bounded up on my left heel. They bounced with each springy step, unrestrained as if our westward march was to be an adventure along the old trail once called the AT, not an urgent escape from the violence and mania in the populous regions of the country.

“Not much, Bea. Just remembering stories from my grandma.” I glanced down and met her light brown eyes, wide with curiosity.

“What kinda stories? We ne’er got stories told ta us,” she said.

I shook my head, marveling at her retained innocence. Most of the kids at the “Developmental Centers” were dull-eyed, sullen and untrusting. Bea was the first we’d been able to extract despite the hundreds of centers we’d passed thus far. Hundreds of centers where thousands of kids had been surrendered for the promise of safety and financial support after the fighting started.

“So? Mac? What kinda stories?”

“Sorry, Bea,” I pressed my lips together and offered a thin smile. “My grandma would tell us stories about some folks who came around after the bombing started. They blamed the war on the politicians, and on the people for electing such fools to begin with.

“These folks came out and started explaining how everything could be fixed by some modifications to the government and procedures. One of the first projects they were awarded was the train system. Somehow they were able to make connections for the trains to run not just around the country, but across the world. And people were so amazed that they demanded this group get more and more contracts. Then things started happening. The trains took you places you weren’t supposed to be. The planes just disappeared. The people living in their buildings became violent. Grandma said it was some sort of evil magic.”

Bea’s mouth was agape. “Do ya think is true?”

I shrugged. “Dunno. But I’m not sure it matters now. Once the bombs fell from Aissur, everything changed.”

I glanced down at her again as her brow furrowed. Before I could say anything else, a low whistle from ahead stopped me in my tracks. One hand on Bea’s frail shoulder, I pulled us off the tattered trail and against a tree with long, soft needles.

A slow, warm rain began to fall, trickling through the tree branches. Droplets splashed our faces as we waited, hunched and silent.

It was nearly twenty minutes before a tow-headed boy crawled under the branches to us, followed by another, a taller version of the first who struggled to pass under the limbs without jostling them.

“There’s a crew ahead,” said the first boy, wiping the moisture from his forehead.

I leaned back against the trunk. “Great. How many?”

He shook his head, spraying drops of water and sweat. “I only saw seven, so there’s gotta be more I couldn’t spot.”

I groaned. “They don’t usually send out less than a dozen in a crew. What’re they doing out this way?”

“There’s a station up ahead,” the second boy offered. “It’s on an old map. Hasn’t been used since the early 2000s, and wasn’t part of the new system, so it was probably overlooked in the pillages. Maybe they’re just looking for it.”

I looked around at my three companions. Two teen boys from the country and one school-aged girl from a Center against a least a dozen armed men from the cities. Men who aged out of the Centers and were funneled into the militias. They were perfectly groomed without a conscious, but plenty of anger.

“Hmm. Maybe.” I shook my head. “We’ve gotta find a way around them. We’re leaving the woods.”

Tommy, the older boy, gaped at me. “You wanna just walk out there?” He nodded at the open space.

I licked my lips and stared out through the trees. The grass was browning with the approaching cold season, but was still knee-high. Remnants of an old house were two hundred yards out. About a mile down, the ghost of a train station was just visible. “Not walk, crawl. Through the grass to the house. Maybe it’s got an old cellar or basement. If they’re already in the woods, they’ve been through the house.”

Tommy raised his eyebrows but said nothing. The younger one nodded. “That makes sense,” he said.

“Yea,” said Bea. “Le’s go. Don’t wanna be sittin’ here when they come down da trail.”

It took nearly an hour to reach the house, crawling with our packs on our stomachs and freezing every time we heard one of their voices booming across the vacant land.

The rain was falling in thick, heavy drops by the time we reached the crumbling foundation line of the house and scurried around to a set of steps.

Darkness enveloped us. “Where?” whispered Tommy.

I lit a small stick that created a soft green glow. “Here!” A dark tunnel led us through cold, musty earth, the roof just high enough for me to stand in a crouch.

We slowed and flattened against the sides as light at the tunnel’s end grew brighter. I stopped the others and peered out first. We were at the ghost station, just at the edge of the decaying platform. Rain dripping from the rusty gutters made a curtain between the platform and the tracks.

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