My eyelids flutter open to reveal hundreds of sleeping bodies knotted tightly together beneath a patchwork of blankets and jackets. A few of the friends are stirring awake or picking their way through the masses hoping to scrounge up some food. Walter appears from the underbrush and hands me a thermos of hot coffee. I don’t know how, and I don’t ask. We enjoy the warmth of our liquid breakfast in the morning tranquility. With the sounds of birdsong and the squirrels bounding along the branches above us, it’s almost peaceful enough to forget the gravity of our situation. Almost.
It’s another hour before the entire convoy is up and moving. Many are forced to nibble down their breakfast on foot. My stomach aches for something more substantial than powdered coffee and saltine crackers, but concerns about food rations pale in comparison with all the uncertainty that looms ahead.
“You think we’re almost there?” Jesse asks Walter.
“I think so. I talked to one of the brothers in the lead early this morning. He seems to think it won’t be much longer till we’re there.”
“And where is there?” I ask.
“We’ll know soon enough,” Walter says.
Somehow, Chelsea’s managed to keep up with the rest of us, but her wandering eyes and the occasional wild gesturing of her hands tell me she’s still far away. From time to time something just off of the trail catches her attention and she stumbles after it like a child. Walter is immediately behind her, guiding her gently back to the path. His words are quiet and kind, but the pain on his face is unambiguous.
Eddie, the brother with the two small girls, is never far from us. I hear Walter fall back occasionally to check up on him. The two of them speak softly, keeping the conversation neatly out of his daughters’ earshot, but I can’t imagine the two girls don’t know what’s going on. Still, they seem content with this distraction through the woods, plucking the periodic pansy and getting me to stick them in their hair. I keep them occupied with conversation, speaking all the louder when I hear their father charge a few paces into the underbrush and vomit loudly. With these rations, I know it isn’t something he ate. Anxiety weighs on each of us in different ways.
The trail opens abruptly into a grassy clearing. A towering abandoned sawmill leans tiredly to one side at the center. The tin roof is old and rust bitten, holes gaping in its panels like dirty cavities. Derelict machinery litters the edge of the property. Parents grip the shoulders of their children tightly, dissuading any curious notions of exploration.
“We’re not staying in there, I hope,” a sister mumbles behind me.
“This is our rendezvous point,” a brother says in a large voice from several yards ahead, relaying the message down the line. We gaze around curiously, struggling to make sense of it.
Eventually the crowd disperses, reclining on the grass and relishing the warming daylight as the sun climbs above us in the sky. It takes us some time to thaw out from the night before and it’s just what we need. Before long the children are back to their old selves, running around and playing again; the adults are chatting, relaxed.
Then we hear a shrill scream from deep within the forest. The voices fall silent as heads turn to locate the source of the noise. A column of white steam rising from the pine tops is our only clue.
The ancient train chugs determinedly through the trees to meet us, steel wheels swishing along invisible rails hidden by tall grass. Yellow sparks splash to its sides as it screeches to a halt. The engine and the string of cars it tows are relics from a bygone era. The engine’s bronze plating and trim are faded and scratched, but it’s no less majestic.
The door to the engine car swings open on creaking hinges and a man emerges. He leans over the chain railing on a narrow metal walkway and gives us a friendly wave before dropping down into the grass and disappearing in the crowd.
“Our rendezvous?” I ask Walter.
“So it would seem,” he says with an amused smile.
Doors on rails slide open on the sides of the cargo carriages. Friendly faces and outstretched hands welcome us aboard. Young brothers and sisters clamber atop the cars to lash our meager luggage to the rooftops. When everyone is accounted for–three hundred and eighty-nine in total–the engine whistle screams once more and the line of cars groans back to life.
In the cargo carriages there are no seats, no tables, no beds. With the doors barred tight, the only sources of ventilation are long horizontal slats just inches below the ceiling. It’s enough to keep the air breathable, but with nearly forty of us in this carriage alone, the smell of sweaty, unbathed bodies is inescapable. The toilet, a shallow metal dish that opens directly onto the tracks below, probably isn’t helping the smell, but I try not to dwell on it.
Mike, the brother who’d been in charge of getting us aboard this particular carriage, smiles as he distributes oranges from a large plastic bin. He lets out a low whistle when he spots me in my wheelchair.
“Couldn’t have been easy on that trail,” he says with the shake of his head as he hands me the fruit.
“It was a long night. Thanks,” I reply.
“Be sure to eat the whole thing. Vitamin C might be a hard thing to come by in the days ahead. We gotta take what we can get now. Not a time for waste.”
I nod, digging my fingernail into the fruit and enjoying the faint spray of citrus on my fingers. Soon the whole cabin smells of oranges and everyone’s mood is slightly improved.
“So, what’s the story behind this train?” Walter asks Mike once the bin has been emptied.
“The engine was owned by a brother. It was his business, I understand. He’d buy old steam engines, refurbish them, and sell them to collectors. The organization contacted him a few months ago and told him to keep his eye out for a few functional engines. He did, and they were purchased by the society and sent to different cities here in the South. The containers were purchased months ago for next to nothing at an auction. They were parked in an old railyard in Florida until a couple of weeks ago, when our congregation was assigned to get them cleaned out for passengers. Not an easy job, let me tell you. These used to be livestock cars. It took forever to get the stink out.”
“Well, we really appreciate your hard work. This definitely beats trekking through the woods in the dark,” Walter says.
“How long were you out there?” Mike asks.
“Not even a full day, but it felt like a week.” Walter motions around to the friends around us, most of whom are sound asleep and snoring loudly, their laps littered with orange rinds. “So, you folks are from Florida?”
“Yup. Been on this train for four days now, picking friends up along the way. You guys were the largest group so far.”
“Are there more people getting on at later stops?” I ask.
“I believe so, but I don’t know the full schedule. The information is all very compartmentalized, for safety reasons, of course,” Mike says with a shrug. Walter nods knowingly.
“It’s ok, we understand. Up until this train showed up, I wasn’t even sure who was meeting us back in that field.”
“Walking by faith,” Mike says.
“No kidding. So how were things in Florida before you all left?” Walter asks. Mike is suddenly very quiet, a shadow falling over his face.
“Not pretty. The National Guard was called in a couple of days before we left. A huge crowd of rioters tried to fight back. The soldiers opened fire… It was a massacre. The civilians who survived retreated, got themselves armed, and went back. Eventually the soldiers were overpowered.
“Things only got worse after that. Some locals got a hold of one of the army tanks, went on a joyride through town. Shot up a bunch of buildings, ran over cars. No one could stop them. The police were nowhere to be found at this point, of course. It was total anarchy. Utilities had been shut off, too. No water, gas, electricity. That’s when the instructions came for us to leave.”
“On this train?” I ask.
“Yeah. By this time we’d finally cleaned it out, gotten the doors repaired, made sure the roofs weren’t leaking. It’s a good thing we had this was our means of escape, too, because by the time we left there wasn’t any other way out. The roads were blocked with abandoned cars and those men in the tank had blown up a few of the bridges to prevent the military from sending in reinforcements. The railway was the only way.”
“It sure is incredible, seeing Jehovah’s hand in all of this,” Walter says with a sigh. Mike nods somberly.
“Makes me wonder what’s still ahead, though,” he says quietly.
It isn’t hard to locate the trail. The hangar was clearly stocked to house hundreds of refugees, and so many people trekking through dampened dirt and grass are sure to leave tracks. After less than an hour of searching, we find the trailhead north of the hangar. It’s about half a mile from the building and marked by a wooden sign.
I try to picture a mixed crowd of that size moving through the trees in the dead of winter. There’s no point in discussing the motive for their evacuation. We’re all in the dark together.
“When do you think they left?” Andrew asks from over my shoulder. I’m at the front of the group, with Marc and Ashley at the rear. Matthew, sound asleep, rides in a stroller his mother salvaged from the hangar.
“Hard to say,” I mutter in response. The dirt of the trail is mixed with gravel and rocks, making the tracks harder to distinguish. An occasional discarded item–an empty food tin or water bottle–is all that tells us we’re still on the right track.
“By the way, I found this in the hangar,” Andrew says, jogging a few steps to my side and matching my pace. He swings his pack around and pulls out a small AM/FM radio. He switches it on and starts scanning for a signal. There’s a pause as the scanner desperately searches for a signal, but there’s nothing. No morning traffic reports, no news bulletins, no pop music, no call-in radio shows. The airwaves are deserted. A chill runs up my spine.
“Try AM,” I say uncomfortably. More static, then another stretch of silence at it scans. Then, finally, something breaks through. It’s faint and riddled with static, but the message is clear enough.
“…Repeat, the National Guard has withdrawn from the following counties: Cherokee, Union, Kershaw, Chesterfield, Williamsburg, and Allendale. If you are a resident in one of these counties, for the safety of you and your family, the South Carolina State Sheriff’s Department strongly recommends staying indoors. For added protection, board up windows and keep doors locked at all times…”
Andrew shakes his head with a low whistle as the cold, mechanical voice rattles off a list of cautionary procedures. To the average Joe it may seem like there’s a fighting chance, but as law enforcement I know better. The situation must be hopeless. Chances of being alive a week from now are slim.
My mind goes back to the conversation Walter and I had just weeks ago. The worst-case scenario; the man hunkered down in his basement surrounded by canned food and a stocked gun locker. Then I see the hijacker in the ditch, rifle glistening at his side while his life slipped away. Walter was right. It’s an uncomfortable admission.
The Witnesses were wise to evacuate.
The deafening whine of a jet engine shreds the forest silence as a grey fighter passes just above us. It vanishes a moment later, heading south. The rumble lingers in the air long after it’s gone, and as soon as it fades over the horizon, a new one takes its place, a terrible, ground-trembling blast that can only belong to an explosion.
We exchange tense glances for a moment and pause in our tracks.
“That sounded like a bomb,” Ashley says, a dire look in her eyes.
“And it sounded like it came from the direction of the hangar,” I say, heightening the tension.
“If we’d been even an hour later, we would’ve been inside…” Andrew says with a look of shock.
“No point on dwelling on it now, let’s keep moving,” Marc says, rushing ahead to take the lead. But the sound of a chopper overhead stops him. We dive for cover as the aircraft passes, and as I glance up through the branches I catch a glimpse of three letters that put ice in my veins. FBI.
“Luke, c’mon, let’s go,” Andrew says, tugging at my sleeve. I nod vigorously and rush to catch up. After the explosion and the sighting of the two aircraft, our pace quickens considerably. It’s now clear that our only hope lies in reuniting with the other group.
By the time we finally break for a late lunch, we’ve been walking for almost six hours. We peel our shoes off and massage the blood back into our battered and blistered feet. We finish an entire loaf of white bread and half a jar of peanut butter. Matthew wakes up long enough to join in the meal and falls back asleep immediately after. He looks much better than he did yesterday, but he’s still pale and weak.
“So, we appear to have hit a crossroads,” Andrew says, wiping breadcrumbs from his jaw with the back of a sleeve. We survey the grassy clearing around us, which branches into two opposite paths on either side through the woods. The good news is that it’s clear from the large swath of freshly trampled grass that a sizable crowd of people was recently here. The problem is that their tracks end here. Neither path shows any signs of recent activity.
“Any ideas?” Andrew asks, gesturing first to one of the routes, then the other. The grass on both sides is tall and undisturbed. It doesn’t add up. Rising, Marc moves towards an old crumbling building in the center of the clearing.
“Babe,” his wife calls after him warily. “You’re not going in there, I hope. It can’t be safe.”
“Just want to get a look around,” Marc says over his shoulder. Then, looking down at his feet, he pauses and beckons us over excitedly. We wade through the grass to get a closer look. It’s an old rusted set of rails. We stare at them in wonderment for a moment before speaking.
“A train,” Andrew says with a smile, catching on. “They don’t run on highways, so the traffic can’t hold them up.”
“Exactly. And all you need is enough coal and a small crew and you can move hundreds of passengers anywhere you like. It’s brilliant,” Marc says.
“Look here,” Andrew says from a few yards up the tracks. “Some of these rail ties have been replaced recently. I’ll bet our brothers have been working on this for weeks. Months, even.”
“This must’ve been the plan all along,” Marc says, face beaming.
“Seems like a stretch,” I say.
“Just like everything else up to this point, but here we are,” Andrew says.
“I certainly don’t see any other options,” Marc says.
“Okay, so we wait here on the off chance that another train shows up?” I ask.
“We could follow the tracks, but there’s no indication of which direction they were headed. There’s a fifty-fifty chance of getting ourselves even farther away from the rest of the group.”
“So we wait,” Andrew says, shrugging. “Could use the rest anyhow. We can sleep in shifts, make sure someone’s always up to watch the rails.” It’s a sensible suggestion, and the notion of rest is appealing. We’re sore, worn out, and mentally exhausted.
“Ok,” Marc says with one last look around. “You guys can sleep. I’ll take the first shift.”
I plop down into the grass and bundle up in a sleeping bag I found stuffed in an old suitcase back at the hangar. I’m asleep before my head hits the ground.