Whoa, he says.
But she’s already on top of him, grabbing him by the neck and poised with her other hand quickly unsheathing the gurkha and raising it for a kill strike.
Whoa there, he says, shrinking from her, holding up his hands in submission. Easy, darlin. It’s me. I ain’t gonna hurt you. It’s me, Lee.
Her eyes clear in the dim light of the boxcar, and her mind clears of the phantasms of sleep, and she notices that all around her other men have risen to point guns and other weapons at her.
It’s okay, says the man who she has by the throat. He says it to everyone else in the boxcar. I just startled her is all. That’s what I get for wakin a dreamer.
Lee. Not Moses Todd at all. Lee. The hunter. Lee, the man who gave her a taste of slug flesh spiced with aromatic rosemary. The man who spoke to her of Niagara Falls. He was the man sleeping in the corner of the car with the Stetson hat.
Lee, she says aloud.
That’s right, darlin. It looks like we’ve been miracled together once more.
I’M SORRY I punched you, she says.
He moves his jaw back and forth, feeling it with his fingers.
I’ve had it worse, he says. But one thing’s for sure—I won’t be wakin you up from any naps anytime soon.
The train has stopped at an intersection in a small town where Wilson and his men are looking for survivors and supplies. One of Wilson’s men, a big Mexican they call Popo, strolls casually about, approaching the slugs as though he would ask them for directions but at the last minute raising the nail gun to their heads. Temple and Lee, sitting on a wood-slatted bench under the awning of a store, watch from a distance. They can hear the hissing pop of the nail gun, and they can see the slugs stand still for a moment, as if surprised, wavering a little in the breeze, then collapsing to the ground as if they were balloon animals deflated by a sudden leak.
What happened to your friends? she asks.
Well, Horace, he got too close to a slug. Took a bite out of his arm. He wasn’t right after that. Kept waitin to die or to turn or something. He lasted it out for a while, longer than any of us expected him to.
What happened to him?
I don’t exactly know for sure. See, Clive and I woke up one morning, and he just wasn’t there anymore. All his stuff was there, but the man himself was gone. We waited for him till sunset, but he never showed up. Maybe you feel the change coming. I don’t know. Maybe death is a shameful thing. Maybe he went off to be by himself when it happened.
Lee lights a cigarette and leans back on the bench and stretches out his legs and crosses his ankles.
And Clive, well, he wanted to keep on going just the two of us. But I was gettin kinda tired of the plainsman routine, if you want to know the truth. I told him I reckoned I would light out for the west, see what kind of society I been hearin they got in California. We parted right, and we put up a marker for Horace under a pepper tree where no one’s gonna bother it. It’s nothin to nature, but it did us some good.
He flicks his ash to the sidewalk and slides the back of his hand under his nose.
How about you? he asks. He nods in the direction of Maury, who sits on the curb with a bunch of wildflowers clasped in one thick hand. Looks like you picked yourself up a travelin companion.
She tells him about Maury, about how she found him not long after she saw Lee last. About how he was carrying his granny down the road followed by a whole parade of meatskins looking for a feast. She tells how she found a slip of paper in his pocket with his name and the address of his relations in Texas and how she’s been trying to tote him there but that every time she turns around there’s something else that delays her and gets in the way of her undertook mission.
She has seen some things, she says, but she doesn’t feel like going into detail. Suffice to say, she’s been in the mix.
Well, he says, leaning back and studying her like the poorest doctor in the world, you got some scrapes and bruises, but it looks like you got a handle on surviving.
Yeah, she says. Stayin alive ain’t the hard part. The problem is stayin right.
What do you mean by that?
What I mean is I done some things I don’t care to talk about.
Little sister, anyone alive’s got a collection of those things.
Maybe so, but it’s one thing to feel like there’s a few rotten things knocking around inside you like some beans in a can. But it’s another thing to feel like those things are what your heart and stomach and brain are built out of.
She shakes it off and sits up straighter and crosses her arms across her chest.
It don’t matter, she says. It just comes from thinkin too much. That’s why you can’t slow down for long. You gotta keep your brain tired out so it don’t start searching for things to dwell on.
He nods and takes a drag of his cigarette.
Can I ask you one thing, though? he says.
When you clocked me earlier. Who did you think I was?
That’s one of the things I don’t like to think about.
Just a man I left to die.
WILSON RUNS the train slow enough for anybody needing a ride to flag it down, but just fast enough to keep the slugs from climbing aboard. Sometimes they try, reaching out and catching hold of the metal flange. Sometimes they hold fast and find themselves dragged for the better part of a mile before their grip loosens and they fall to the wayside like clods of dirt shed by the machine.
Sometimes they are on the rails and are crushed under the train, leaving twisted and undistinguishable masses of biology behind.
When night comes, the land is tar dark. The running lights on the train penetrate just barely into the scrub as they pass by it, a scrim of weeds and thorns from which, every so often, she can see the pale faces of the dead watching her progress, as though these rails lead directly to a grim Asphodel Meadow where the host of the haunted give guidance and pay meet respect to these pilgrims from another place.
In the distance there is sometimes the faint glimmer of firelight, dim and implacable. Wilson claims these are mirages, nocturnal illusions that would recede forever if you tried to pursue them. Like the shimmering sylphs of old that led travelers over precipices or into mazy, unending caverns. Not all the magic of the earth is benevolent. She watches them intently, and at times they seem close, these misty, glowing lights, sometimes just out of reach, and she finds herself leaning forward, reaching her arm out toward them into the dark beyond the door of the boxcar.
That’s a good strategy for a quick amputation, girl, one of Wilson’s men says, and she draws her arm back into the car.
The following day, which is Sunday, some of Wilson’s men climb into the refugee car for a Christian service. Popo the Mexican reads passages from the Bible in a low monotone.
The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;
The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.
As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.
They pray, some silent, some mumbling their lips, some blowing their cigarette smoke upward to God in heaven. Temple watches. The god she knows is too big to need the supplication of the puny wanderers of the earth. God is a slick character, with magics beyond compare—like lights that tempt you into the belly of the beast, or sometimes other lights, like the moon and the glowing fish, that lead you back out again.
The night comes, and when the sun rises again it rises over a motionless desert, over streets full of rusty, broken-down automobiles, over tumbleweed towns filled with derelict buildings, signposts twisted and bent so that their arrows become nonsensical, pointing into the dirt or up into the sky, billboards whose sunny images and colorful words flap unglued in the breeze, shop windows caked with the grime of decades, bicycles with flat tires abandoned in the middle of intersections, their wheels turning slowly like impotent tin windmills, some buildings charred and burnt out, others half fallen down, multistory tenements split down the middle, standing like shoebox dioramas, pictures still hanging on the upright walls, televisions still in place on their stands teetering over the gaping edge of the floor where the rest of the living room has collapsed to the ground in great mountains of concrete and dust and girder like the abandoned toys of a giant child.
Indeed, to look at the landscape you might think not that the world has undergone a devastation but rather that it has been put on hold in the middle of a construction, that, in fact, the Builder’s holy hand has been halted temporarily, that the skeletal structures speak of promise and hope and ingenuity rather than of wreck and ruin.
But there are other places too, what used to be travelers’ oases, clusters of gas stations, fast-food restaurants, motels. The windows are intact, the electricity still flowing, the sliding glass doors still operational, the recorded music still playing on tinny, distorted speakers. Ghost towns. Lost to the world entirely, these places are so dead that even the dead don’t inhabit there.
These towns Wilson and his men treat with quiet respect, as though tiptoeing through a graveyard. There is something ominous and lonesome in this kind of wholesale abandonment. Ghostly, the way the rot and decay have not found their way here through the wide desert. Being left behind by devastation is still being left behind.
They reach Longview, Texas, when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. The burn is dry and purgative, and it feels like her skin is being sanded smooth by the weather.
The center of town is barricaded, and there are men stationed with guns, but when they see the train they wave, and someone moves the city bus they use to block the tracks. When the train is within the barricade, the bus closes off the tracks once more.
Three by three, Wilson says. Nine city blocks they got secured here. Biggest stronghold east of Dallas. This is your stop if you’re still plannin on heading south.
There are children playing in the street, and when they see the train, they drop their bicycles to the ground and run toward it, their mothers admonishing them not to get too close. But it’s not just children. People of all ages and sorts emerge from the doorways and storefronts to gather around the train as it grinds to a slow halt.