The Train snakes across the blackened strip of highway.
The travelers’ feet kick up dust and ash with each step. Wherever the road is cracked or littered with debris, they climb over or around, stopping to help each other scale heaps of twisted, scorched metal or jagged chunks of asphalt. Their legs ache from the hours they’ve walked since daybreak, and the straps of their packs dig into their shoulders. Ahead of them, they see nothing but the charred skeletons of trees on either side of the road and a sparse cluster of hollowed-out buildings in the distance. When the end came, it left nothing standing in its wake.
At the front of the Train, Michael shouts words of encouragement, although they are quickly snatched up by the wind. Even as the others have grown solemn and withdrawn after weeks of grueling travel, Michael remains optimistic. The Train trusts him. They trust that there is something else out there, besides bone-dry dirt and air so thick with smoke and haze it burns their throats and coats the inside of their mouths. When Michael first arrived in Fort Hope and told them of this so-called Land of Opportunity, he was met with measured skepticism. How could there be any civilization out there that had survived not just the wildfires, droughts, blistering heat waves, and epidemics, but also the decades of infighting and lawlessness that followed? A place of forests, rivers, and green meadows, Michael proclaimed, where fauna roamed free and people thrived off the fruits of the land. The citizens of Fort Hope had looked around at the ruins of their once-formidable city, reduced to a dwindling cohort of survivors that sheltered in partially-collapsed buildings and subsisted on scavenged dry goods. The power grid barely functioned, and the lake was drying up. Fort Hope was dying, and the citizens had accepted their fate – until Michael showed up.
Now, the Train forges ahead towards their only chance at survival. Only a few dozen have chosen to leave Fort Hope and embark on this journey; although Michael had promised peace and prosperity at the end, he’d warned them that the voyage itself would be perilous. The elderly and very young were left behind, along with the many who hadn’t believed Michael’s claims of a supposed far-off paradise. A few travelers have promised to come back for friends of family members once they’ve confirmed that the Land of Opportunity does, in fact, exist. Others have vowed never to return to Fort Hope as long as they live.
So far, the Train hasn’t lost anyone, although there have been close calls. Some of the travelers attribute this to Michael’s intrepid leadership – in their eyes, he is a divine protector, blessed with the ability to shield his charges from injury or disease. His wife, Harriet, links arms with the other women in the Train and leads them in song. She is beautiful, younger than Michael by well over a decade, but the two of them are undeniably, passionately in love. Their affection for each other gives the other travelers hope – if those two can find happiness in this desolate wasteland, surely the rest of them can too.
When the shadows grow long and the stifling heat begins to abate, they make camp on the side of the highway. Fires are started with whatever flammable debris the travelers can scavenge. They unpack ready-to-eat rations and shovel the tasteless, rubbery chunks into their mouths. Tents of various size and quality are pitched, from massive family-size setups to ragged tarps draped over lengths of rope. In the privacy of their tents, the travelers peel off their dust-laden clothes and cleanse themselves as best they can with the last of the day’s water. They pass fluids into their filtration systems and hang them outside their tents to purify overnight, so they’ll have fresh water in the morning. They ease down onto their sleeping pads, muscles groaning from the exertion of the day’s walk and stomachs still raw with hunger. Before they fall asleep, they whisper prayers to whatever entity they believe is listening – please let Michael be telling the truth. Please let our salvation be out there. Please don’t let all this be for nothing.
Isaiah finishes the last of his ready-to-eat breakfast and stands to help his parents take down the tent. His ankle throbs from when he rolled it leaping off an overturned truck a few days ago; ever since, walking for twelve hours a day has been especially miserable. His sister, Savannah, plays with a stick that vaguely resembles a dog missing one of its legs. Isaiah wishes he could be as blissfully ignorant as she is.
He checks the catchment of the filtration system – the water looks and smells fine, but Isaiah can’t help feeling disgusted at the fact that he’s been drinking recycled piss for the past six weeks. Still, he fills his canteen with the contents of the catchment and takes a long drink. By noon, the heat will be almost unbearable.
Isaiah works alongside his parents to disassemble the tent and roll it up as tightly as possible. His father takes the tent itself, while Isaiah straps the poles to his own pack. Everything else has already been stowed - sleeping bag, change of clothes, fire starting kit, and several weeks’ worth of rations. He hoists the pack onto his back and slips his canteen into the side pocket. From his pants pocket he pulls out a palm-sized square of paper - a sketch Jonathan gave him the night before he left for the Land of Opportunity. It has been folded and unfolded so many times that the creases have grown brittle, and Isaiah worries each time he takes it out that it’s going to tear, but that doesn’t stop him from looking at the sketch every morning before the Train heads out. It is of the two of them – Isaiah and Jonathan; Isaiah’s arm slung across Jonathan’s shoulders, their torsos pressed together. Their eyes are crinkled in laughter, chins tilted slightly upward. Isaiah barely recognizes himself. He can’t remember the last time he smiled like that.
“I’m not going with them,” he told Jonathan the day after Michael appeared in Fort Hope. Upon listening to his impassioned speech at the lakefront, Isaiah’s parents had declared their allegiance and announced to Isaiah and Savannah that they would be setting out for the Land of Opportunity. Isaiah had pleaded, screamed, fallen on his knees and begged them to stay in Fort Hope, but they hadn’t listened. The lake was drying up, they’d reasoned, in six months, maybe less, there would be no water left. If there was even a chance that Michael was telling the truth – that this rich, fertile, paradisiacal place was out there – it was their obligation as parents to seek it out for the sake of their children.
“I’m practically a legal adult. I’m old enough to make my own decisions, and I want to stay here. There’s nothing they can do about it.”
Jonathan had smiled sadly. “They’re only trying to do what’s best for you. You can’t fault them for that.”
“What’s best for me would be staying here with you.”
“Do you think – hypothetically – they might be right?” Jonathan continued. “The lake is getting smaller every day. Once it’s gone, it’s only a matter of time before the filtration systems fail. This city is dying, and so is everyone in it.”
“What about you? What will you do with the lake dries up? You could come with me. Whatever’s waiting for us out there, we could find out together.”
“I… can’t. My heart couldn’t take it.” Jonathan had been born with a weak heart; he couldn’t walk for more than a few minutes at a time without getting winded. “I’d only slow everyone down.”
“Right.” Isaiah reached out and tucked a red-brown curl behind Jonathan’s ear. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Jonathan wrapped his arms around Isaiah’s waist. “You have to go. You can’t waste away here just because of me. It would kill me.”
Isaiah’s throat burned. “I’ll come back for you.”
They’d spent their last week together wandering the streets of Fort Hope, spending the days traversing the lakefront and the nights tangled in Jonathan’s bedsheets. The morning of the Train’s departure, they’d embraced, and Isaiah had promised once again to come back. He’d spent their entire first day on the road looking over his shoulder, watching the skeletons of Fort Hope’s former skyscrapers shrink down to nothingness.
Isaiah’s chest tightens. He folds up the sketch and returns it to his pocket. Michael calls the train to attention, and the travelers gather before him, packed up and ready to set off. Harriet stands next to her husband, an angelic grin plastered across her youthful face. Isaiah glowers at them as he walks beside his parents back toward the highway. His ankle groans in protest.
According to Michael, the Train will reach the mountains in two weeks’ time. Crossing them will be the most difficult segment of the journey – even if they stick to the roads, the path will be steep, and the increase in altitude means thinner air and plummeting temperatures. The travelers chatter nervously amongst themselves. Their bodies are growing weaker every day; their supply of rations steadily dwindling. Can they make it through the mountains in this state? Some argue that the Train should make camp for a few days, so they can mentally prepare for the crossing and give their injuries time to heal. But Michael says they can’t afford to lose any momentum, not when they’re so close. Once they cross, he tells them, it’ll only be a short, easy jaunt until they reach the Land of Opportunity.
The Train loses its first traveler to a sudden spell of heat exhaustion. He collapses to his knees one especially sweltering afternoon, his breaths growing shallow as he drifts in and out of consciousness. The Train stops as his family rushes to tend to him. The rest of the travelers exchange stunned glances – the man is middle-aged, fit, and hadn’t shown any signs of fatigue before now. They are all too aware of the risks of heat exposure – people have died from heat waves back in Fort Hope, but the victims are usually very old or sick. Between the long, arduous days in direct sun and limited water supply, they figure the heat has become more dangerous than ever.
The man lies on the side of the highway for hours. All attempts to cool him down and bring him back to consciousness have failed. He begins to convulse, his skin feverish to the touch. He dies just before sunset, leaving his wife and three children crying silently over his sweat-drenched body. We must take the next few days to rest, the travelers say. We can’t risk this happening to anyone else. Michael says they can make camp for the night, but they need to keep moving in the morning. What happened to the man was unfortunate, but there’s no reason to assume it will happen again.
The travelers pile scraps of metal over the man’s body. They redistribute his remaining rations and leave his pack at the foot of the pile. In the morning, they press on.
Avery’s ears prick up when she hears the other travelers mention the mountains. She’s seen pictures of mountain ranges in atlases and storybooks back in Fort Hope, but never in real life. She envisions massive protrusions of land studded with trees and capped with snow; streams flowing downhill and birds circling overhead. At the top, the air will be cool and clean, and she’ll be able to see the entire continent.
“There probably won’t be any snow,” says James, a fellow traveler old enough to be Avery’s grandfather. “And there definitely won’t be any streams. Not with water still flowing, anyway.”
Avery is disappointed, but excitement still courses through her every time she thinks of the mountain crossing. “It’ll be an adventure,” her mother had said when she’d told Avery they would be leaving Fort Hope. “Just like in The Hobbit. Or Narnia.”
All of Avery’s favorite books have adventures in them. She’s been working her way through every volume in the warehouse that served as the Fort Hope library. She was born long after the country that had once flourished from coast to coast had been destroyed, but books told the story of the way things used to be. She wonders if there will be proper towns in the Land of Opportunity, complete with schools and parks and places to buy ice cream and new shoes. There would be electricity that worked every day and water that came from faucets and real libraries, with librarians and computers and books on every subject imaginable.
Ever since they left Fort Hope, Avery’s mother hasn’t been able to stop talking about Michael.
“We’re so lucky he came to us when he did,” she whispers to Avery one night as they lie next to each other in their sleeping bags. “We were wasting away to nothing, and he saved us. Without him, we’d probably be dead right now.”
Avery doesn’t like thinking about things like that, but she supposes her mother is right.
When Michael tells the Train they won’t be stopping to rest, even after a man collapses from the heat, Avery’s mother nods. “Good. Smart. We shouldn’t stop now.”
Avery watches as Harriet takes Michael’s hand in hers and beams up at her husband. “What a tramp. He should be with someone his own age,” Avery’s mother mutters. “I’ll be right back, honey. I need to talk to Michael about something.” She surges ahead, leaving Avery alone in the middle of the Train. James comes up beside her and pats her shoulder reassuringly.
“He’s the kindest man I’ve ever known,” her mother says. “I wish I could’ve married a man like that. You deserve a father like that.” Avery never knew her father, but her mother has never spoken kindly of him.
When they make camp, Avery notices her mother isn’t eating. When she asks her about it, her mother says she gave her day’s rations to Michael.
“He needs them more than I do. He needs to keep his strength up. It can’t be easy for him, leading us so fearlessly, especially now that people are starting to complain.” She purses her lips, as if she’s eaten something sour. Her face looks thinner, Avery notices. Avery doesn’t care about Michael. She doesn’t want anyone else to die, and she thinks the other travelers are probably right – they should stop and rest for a few days – but she doesn’t dare say this to her mother.
This doesn’t feel very much like Narnia, Avery thinks as the days wear on. To distract herself from the smoke coating her lungs and the burning in her legs, she imagines that she is a character in her favorite stories, teaming up with a savvy group of friends and defeating villains with newly-discovered powers. Her mother still raves to her every night about Michael, but Avery barely hears her. She wishes she could sleep in a real bed again. She wishes she didn’t have to pee into a filtration system every night, and that her mother would go back to being the cheerful, affectionate person she’d been before they left with the Train. Once they reach the Land of Opportunity, Avery tells herself, everything will be okay. Her mother will be normal again and they’ll both get to drink as much water as they want. They just have to make it across the mountains.
By the time the Train reaches the mountains, the rumblings among the travelers have grown too loud to be ignored.
Michael assures them that he hears their concerns and promises that they can take two days to rest after they cross the mountains, but the travelers aren’t satisfied. The terrain has already gotten rougher, and in the past week they’ve lost five more – three from heat exhaustion; a toddler who developed a dry, hacking cough that didn’t subside until her lungs finally gave out two days later; and a painfully thin woman who’d gone to sleep one night and hadn’t woken up the next morning. She’d left behind an eleven-year-old daughter, who is now being looked after by one of the elderly travelers.
One morning, a group of travelers ambushes Michael at breakfast and demands that the Train stop walking during the hottest hours of each day and make camp an hour earlier in the evenings. Michael responds that he is the one who knows the way to the Land of Opportunity, not them, and they would do well to respect his authority. Harriet’s gaze flits between Michael and the group of dissenters. She has long since stopped attempting to get the other travelers to sing with her, and she can seldom be seen holding Michael’s hand on the road anymore.
There is talk of splitting up – those in favor believe that keeping up with Michael will only lead to more deaths, and they are better off trying to find the Land of Opportunity on their own once they’ve had time to rest. Others argue that Michael is only doing what he thinks is best; he wouldn’t risk their lives and ignore their blatant discomfort without a good reason.
The travelers squint up at the staggeringly tall peaks, their gaze trailing along the road that climbs up the rocky slope before veering sharply and disappearing around the mountainside. As they draw closer, the bickering dies down. Harriet stares at her husband with renewed faith; Isaiah’s heart skips as he fingers the sketch in his pocket; Avery feels hopeful for the first time since her mother died. They can practically hear the water flowing just over the horizon.