There were only twelve of us on the train. No more than children ourselves, but children that were about to grow up far too fast. I looked over at the youngest boy. He couldn’t have been more than twelve, but unlike so many of the others, he didn’t seem to be afraid. No, he was a hardened boy, with a grim smile and grim scars across his face. I suppose he thought he’d seen the worst this world had to offer, that the place we were going couldn’t possibly be worse than wherever he’d been. I didn’t have the heart to tell him he was wrong.
The Restored Lands stretched out outside the window, rolling plains and young trees shielded by warped glass. If I looked back, I could barely see the outlines of our city fading in the distance down the rusted line of old train tracks. Up close, it stood tall and proud, a glass jewel glittering against the surrounding forest. Now, it just looked small.
As unhappy as I’d been in that place, I’d never expected to be leaving it like this. I’d never expected to be leaving it at all, and the thought filled me with dread. I could hardly imagine a worse fate than the one that lay before me now. Doomed to the life of a conscripted drone, a laborer, a worker, a slave, following orders without any free will of her own. All because of one catastrophic mistake.
I pushed the thought from my mind, refusing to indulge the memories pressing at my brain. Instead, I focused on the other kids inside the train, trying to assign each of them to their sins.
First came the girl closest to me. With her, it wasn’t hard to guess. Her clothes were barely there, threadbare rags hanging off her frame and exposing the mark tattooed across her breast. Carefully detailed olive branches wove between curling flames, following the contours of her chest. I recognized the symbol; it was a heretic’s brand. At least I wasn’t so foolish as to wear a banner to my crimes across my flesh.
I moved on, next to a smaller boy, so skinny I could count his ribs. No doubt he chose to steal instead of starve, a risk I was sure every child on this train had once been forced to take. I was no exception, just lucky enough to have never been caught.
And then, all the way across the cabin, was a face that stopped me cold in my tracks. A boy, just two years older than me, with blue eyes like ice and a sweep of blonde hair across his face. He caught my eye, and the corners of his lips twitched with the familiar traces of his smug smile.
My blood ran cold with fear.
His name was Kaden, and he was the reason I was here.
Even as I’d mourned my fate, there’d been a tinkling of relief in the back of my mind. I thought I’d finally escaped.
But somehow, someway, he’d followed me here, and now I could never truly get away.
As the train ploughed forward through the Restored Lands and out into the borders of the Waste, the flood of memories consumed me, rushing back as an unstoppable tide so strong I thought I might drown.
There had been a time, years or maybe months ago, that I’d thought I’d been in love with the blonde-haired boy. Before the warmth in his blue eyes had frozen over. Before I knew what he could really do.
It wasn’t my fault I’d been drawn to him; I’d have fallen for anyone who’d taken me in during those dark days. Back when I had less meat on my bones than the boy sitting across from me now. Back when everyone I’d known and loved had thrown me out because they couldn’t afford another mouth to feed.
I remembered the night Kaden found me as clear as if it’d been yesterday. It was one of the first cold nights of the season, the dawn of the first winter since I’d been out on my own. I was staying in an alleyway off the central plaza, huddling behind the piles of trash that were always tucked just out of sight. I would have done anything to keep warm that night, and I was close to burrowing in the garbage like a rat when he’d shown up.
He walked out of the shadows of the alley, his pale face glowing in the light coming off of the plaza. He had a blanket in his arms, nothing more. He looked like some sort of guardian angel.
And for a while, he was.
He’d brought me back to someplace warm, the basement of a building abandoned long ago. It wasn’t much, but it was home.
In school, they’d taught us about divine grace. They told us it was a miracle our ancestors had survived those 250 years ago. And they’d told us it was only by Her blessing that parts of the Waste had been Restored so that humanity could live again and have a place to build their homes.
And as the warmth came back to my fingers and toes, so the fire of anger in my heart started to burn, boiling over against the grace that had skipped over me and left me out in the cold. But still, despite the anger, I knew nothing of the truth.
It wasn’t until Kaden took me in that I started to learn. As he’d nursed me back to health, he told me stories of our history. His eyes used to glaze over as he talked about the destruction. He talked for hours about what our world used to be, about what happened to it. About the coastal cities covered by the rising tides and the land decimated over centuries, the gaseous poisons in the air and the waste that turned the oceans dead.
There was no miracle, he said. There was only what little that was left.
Once I was healthy again, he introduced me to the others. He called them his friends, but I knew that wasn’t really the right word for them. They came and went all the time, unannounced. There wasn’t a time during the day when there wasn’t somebody else in that basement. And even though they were always there, none of them seemed close. But like Kaden, they liked to talk. They thought like him; they spoke like him; they told me stories just like him. Stories of our world as it was now. They were the ones who told me about the trains.
The trains that ran along the rusted tracks out of the city, the trains that carried passengers away who never came back. The trains that carted off the delinquents, the criminals, the poor to do the work that the fabled Goddess couldn’t do. The trains like the one I was on now.
There was no miracle, they said. No grace. There was only the work of centuries of slaves.
It was only after weeks had gone by that I started to fear the nights, when all the friends had gone and the warm kindness in Kaden’s eyes turned to stony ice.
I tried to focus on the ruins blurring past the glass so I didn’t have to feel the pain as I relived the attacks. But the desolated land outside didn’t stop the images from playing through my head, and the grey, clouded sky couldn’t numb the hurt of the constant onslaught of memories. I watched, paralyzed, as he hit me for the first time, as he held me down against the bed, as he took from me all that I could never get back. I trained my eyes on the crumbling buildings of the Waste as his crooked words pounded through my head, but the horrors outside couldn’t wake me from my nightmare.
There are no miracles, he said. Every kindness comes at a price.
He looked over at me now, his crystal gaze snapping me from my trance, and he smiled, as if he was taking pleasure in the pain his ghost was causing me. Knowing him, he probably was. Or maybe he was just glad to see his pet prize again.
After all, I’d finally left him on the night I’d made my fatal mistake.
I’d waited until it was over—I’d been through it so many times that I’d almost become numb to it all—and I’d waited until he’d drifted off to sleep. I could still feel the suffocating weight of his sleeping form on top of me, pinning me down, trapping me in. I could barely breathe as I slithered out from under him, afraid to make even the slightest sound or move too quickly for fear that I might wake him.
I’d stolen everything I could from him, shoving books and food into a worn leather knapsack. I was healthy enough then that the fear of going hungry in the dark was not so strong as to be worse than the fear of him.
As quietly as I could, I dragged a table over to the window that towered high above the ground. Next came a chair, gingerly stacked on top. I almost fell and broke my neck climbing up that thing, I was shaking so bad, but I made it to the top. It took all my weight thrown against the pane, but I bashed out the window and made my escape.
Jagged shard of glass in hand, I hit the pavement, and I ran. I didn’t have time to look back to see if he had followed. I couldn’t even allow myself to pause long enough to get my bearings. I hadn’t been out of that basement in so long; I barely knew where I was, but I didn’t have a choice. I put all my faith into my feet and let them carry me. All I could think was away, away, away.
I was so close. I’d allowed myself to think I might finally be free when suddenly there were footsteps behind me, loud and urgent against the street. Before I could think, before I could even breathe, there was a heavy hand on my shoulder, forcing me to stop, to turn around. As I spun, I closed my eyes, and I stabbed. Again and again, enough times to make even all the times he had attacked me. I could feel the rugged edges biting into my skin, cutting across my palm, but still I didn’t stop. Even once my eyes fell open, I couldn’t see for the tears in my lashes and the blood spraying from the wounds.
God, how I wish I had been able to see.
The man lying dead at my feet wasn’t Kaden at all. The blood on my hands wasn’t his. It belonged to one of the police.
I remember the glass weapon shattering as it fell from my hand, the knapsack flying open as the murdered man’s partner ripped it from my back, and those icy eyes watching from the shadows as I was arrested in the aftermath of what I had done.
I never thought I’d have to see those eyes again.
I went numb as I watched the shackled workers outside the window in the Waste, broken backs and beaten forms predictors of my own fate. My mind seemed to grow distant from my body as Kaden rose from his seat across the train, walking slowly towards me like a predator stalking its prey. As the laborers outside planted trees they’d never live to see grow tall, Kaden sunk into the seat beside me. And as the slaves outside obeyed their masters, I was recaptured by my own.
And then his claw-like fingers were wrapping around my inner thigh, his nails digging tortuously into still-bruised flesh. He leaned in, his breath hot and heavy as he hissed against my neck.
“I never thought I’d see you again, my dear.” His grip on my leg grew tighter, and I could feel the shackles closing in on me as he let out a barking laugh. “Maybe there are miracles, after all.”