Day of N
Zeki suddenly found himself taking center stage as he pushed the throttle of the massive engine forward just enough to 'jerk' the cars behind it. Just like Zeki expected, the action on the back car put it back on the track, but he still had to stop, walk back and check before he was comfortable with moving forward at a quicker pace.
It didn't take long for the small boy to bring the massive locomotive up to twenty-five kilometers per hour. The problem was, he couldn't see the tracks as well as he needed, even when he knelt on the seat. "Need someone out there to watch for bent or broke track. This do not stop like car, takes longer so me need to know faster. Look way down track."
Ramsey pulled out a set of binoculars. "I'll keep watch with these, but what about curves?"
"Me'll slow down. Not far to Jennings, so not do damage for going too slow."
Hunter glanced over to Ramsey, "Keep low and wave your hand in a downward motion if you see a problem. If you stand up, any idiot with a gun may try to shoot at you to stop the train."
"I think the sheriff has the same idea." Gage pointed, "Devin and Vern are both down pretty low in the back of the pickup with rifles out."
"Still, Ram will make an easy target since we are higher up." Hunter stated with a great deal of concern.
"I'll go up front and keep a look out for him while he watches the tracks. You stay here so you can see Ram in case he sees anything."
The moment Gage went up front, Hunter glanced over to Zeki, "I can't believe you actually know how to start and run a train!"
"I guess Allah had reason for me coming to America after all. Me no believed it till now, no matter how much me told." The youngster let out a long breath, "Me just hope world go back to working again. I want Uncle Kadir to know what me did!"
The words caught Levi's attention even as he continued to cry. He gulped and looked up with pure fear in his eyes. "No one said you were Muslim!"
Hunter glanced back, "Just Zeek, and he doesn't care if you are Jewish…"
"How would you know? They hate us!" The boy screamed.
Zeki glanced back and shook his head, "Many do, too many, but not all."
"Many? How about millions upon millions? Israel is surrounded by you morons!"
Hunter's eyes narrowed and he turned to glare at Levi, "You talk about Zeek like that again and this Christian is going to punch you in the mouth. Got it?"
Had anyone else been watching, they would have noticed the same reaction out of both Zeki and Levi. Both boys' eyes went wide and their jaws dropped open. Neither said a word, which only increased the tension.
Hunter, not normally a violent kid, having only gotten into one fight in his life before the bombs fell, clenched his fist and stared at Levi relentlessly, "I said, do you got it?"
The angry words caused Gage to glance in, "Problem, Hunter?"
"There will be if Levi mouths off about Zeek again." Hunter snarled as he stuck out his arm and pointed at Levi, "Zeki didn't do a thing to you. You don't know him, and if you ever talk down to him again, I'll knock you back to Israel, which still exists I might add, when several countries around it weren't so lucky! Now are you going to apologize or am I going to knock the crud out of you?"
Zeki surprised all three kids as he spoke up before Levi could do more than nod. "Hunter, it be OK, me see bad hate of Jews before. Turkey not be as bad as most Muslim country, but it still not very nice. Beside, me bet Levi not come for Israel. Him have no accent like me do."
"I was born in Denver…"
"I don't care where you were born." Hunter fired back, his voice still showing a great deal of anger. "Right now, Zeek is one of us, and you aren't. Don't forget, he held your arm out for me to work on and until you found out he was Muslim, you cried on his shoulder while I worked on your arm."
Hunter nodded over toward Gage, "And since he was too busy holding you still for me, the hand you felt stroking your hair as you cried and screamed was not me, not Gage, not your sister, it was Zeek!"
Hunter then pointed to a spot on Zeki's pants, "That stain is from some of the clear puss out of your arm… It's there because he helped you, held you, and cared about you." Hunter took a couple of calming breaths that didn't work very well, but did help some. "If he hadn't been willing to help me, your arm would have become infected just like that big guy's face. In my eyes you owe Zeek your life and as long as I am around you best act like it."
Gage eyed Levi for a moment, "Dude, I haven't been around very long, but I didn't even know Hunter could get pissed. You best rethink whatever you said. Cause if he can't beat the crap out of you, which I'm pretty sure he can, the rest of us will have his back."
Zeki cleared his throat, "Me can't see Ramsey. Someone need to see if him see anything on track for me."
Gage turned back around, "And I should be on watch for him."
Hunter glanced out and saw Ramsey still on one knee watching the tracks with the binoculars. "Everything looks OK still, Zeek."
"Good, but need to be careful. With all the rain, track not so good shape. A wash out on track could derail us."
Levi again gripped his sister, "Look, I'm sorry, but…"
"But nothing," Hunter cut Levi off, still showing a huge amount of underlying anger. "You have no right to shove him in with those who hate Jewish people…"
"Hunter," Zeki spoke up, "he not be wrong to be afraid. Jews hated by many, many Muslims, Arabs are even worser. Lots of Imam talk about how bad Jews are in Mosque all the time. Me hear it many, many time. But me not have same thinks… thinkings… Um…."
"Thoughts?" Levi managed to offer, doing his best to further calm things since it was abundantly clear he was badly outnumbered and like it or not, his dad had turned him and his sister over to these people.
"Yes," Zeki grinned and sent Levi a nod of thanks surprising everyone within earshot. "Me mom and dad would not let me play with non-Muslim because they afraid me get seen. It be very bad to play with Jew. Bad things happen to Muslim who play with Jews. Many Imam say Jews no deserve friendship. If me play with one, me be Jew lover, others cut off whole family or even do badder stuff. No blame Levi, blame them who use Quran for own power, twist words, not talk about what early part of Quran say."
This got the attention of the wounded woman, "So how come you happen to be so understanding?"
Seeing everyone, including the two adults, was listening to him, he let out a long breath and continued speaking. "Me be bad to Jews before Uncle Kadir beat me butt when him see me.
"Me try to tell him Jews be no good, like me hear and learn, but Uncle Kadir just get more mad. Him say he had Jew friend and say me not hate when me know nothing. He took me to friend in Greece where Jew hate getting bad, but there be more. They took me to Jew orphanage make me play with Jew boy who live there. Uncle Kadir friend then got OK to take boy for a trip somehow. Made me sleep in same room, eat with him, talk to him, make me see how dumb what me be teached was. Jews not be what Imam say. He tell me all the time the Imams who hate Jews and Christians focus on wrong thing. They should hate those who not believe in God of Abraham at all. Those be the real problem."
A few tears welled up in Zeki's eyes. "Him be no different than me other friends, better in many way. Him just want friend."
"Look," Zeki glanced back at Levi, "me learn lots in week. Me worship same god as Jew and Christian, Quran even say so. Mohammad even say Jesus be Prophet of God of Abraham. Uncle Kadir made me read Quran every time me with him. Made me see Imams not be honest some times. Me believe Mohammad be last great prophet, and Jesus be prophet, not Son of God like Christian think, but we all worship God of Abraham. We should be friend and fight against those who not believe at all!"
The woman shook her head, "Well, there is certainly a different way of looking at the world. This would be a much different planet if your ideas caught on."
"Yeah, I'll say." The big man stated as he looked at the red puffy skin under the blisters he had managed to cut off. Not liking what he was seeing and not really wanting to think about trying to cut into that skin to see what was under it, he decided to join in the conversation. "Those who don't believe in your God of Abraham would be in a world of hurt."
"Uncle Kadir say if we no fight between all us, then more people would see, would believe. It be the hate and the fight between all three that turn many away from the one true God."
"Interesting argument, Zeek, and probably way too true," Hunter admitted. He turned back to look at Levi, "OK, I'll drop this for now, since Zeek once again has your back, but you ever mouth off about him again and one or both of us are going to have a black eye or worse, get me?"
Levi eyes went wide and he nodded. It was clear to all looking on, that although the boy was almost the same height and weight as Hunter, he knew Hunter was probably a great deal tougher. The other thing Levi realized was, on the off chance he could take Hunter, there was no chance he could take on the others and Gage flatly scared the crud out of him. The slightly smaller boy had shot and killed two of those Levi had spent the last several days with and showed no remorse over it. Even worse, at least in Levi's opinion, was the fact Gage didn't look even slightly shook up over the fact he had been in a firefight.
The train continued its slow journey down the tracks for several minutes while a rather uneasy silence descended over everyone. Only the train's powerful engine, along with the clanks of the wheels moving over the tracks, could be heard.
Levi held onto his sister wishing the girl would say something, anything. Ever since the blast, the seven-year-old had shown she could hear as she turned at sounds. It took almost two more days before there was any evidence of her understanding words, but other than to cry, whimper, or hold out a hand when someone asked her if she was hungry or thirsty, there was little to be encouraged over. The latest breakthrough had come a couple of days later when she started to move around when she had to go to the bathroom instead of just going. This, at least, prevented him or one of the others from taking the smelly clothing out into the rain to wash them out.
But now she was all he had left. He knew his mother had been killed, his father had left because he was dying, and his brother seemed to have vanished. Making matters worse, his extended family all lived in large cities, which were certainly nothing more than radioactive craters. His sister was the only thing familiar he had left.
Levi looked at his sister again, wondering why she hadn't spoken since the bomb fell. Sure, her hair had literally melted as she looked into the fireball, and yes, her face had been burned. It hurt, he got it. However, almost everyone in the park had been burned to some extent, and there had been kids younger than Rivka crying, but also talking after. Some had been in way worse shape and a few had even been blinded. He had seen and talked to them while some of the adults managed to find some working vehicles to take everyone they could to some hospital somewhere to the west.
Levi once again felt the urge to shake his sister until she finally started talking. The problem was, while two weeks ago he would have had no problem being mean to the royal pain in the butt little sister, now she was the only one left in the world to care about. For about the hundredth time in the past two weeks, Levi found himself wishing he had been with those he saw as the truly lucky. In simple terms, he once again wished he had been killed on the day the bombs fell.
The real problem, at least in Levi's eyes, was he didn't have a clue what he was supposed to do without all the things he was so used to having available. His family hadn't been rich, but had been pretty well off. Because of this, he had never had to do much for himself. Other than fishing, which he learned from his grandfather and really liked, everything else in his life depended on technology. Camping had been done out of an RV with satellite TV and internet, which is what they had been doing on this family outing. His parents called these kinds of trips 'roughing it'. So, until now, he considered living out of a two hundred thousand dollar RV with heat, power, a flushing toilet, and a dishwasher, to be 'camping'.
The last several days had destroyed all such illusions. Sleeping on the floor of the locomotive, while the adults caught rainwater to drink, and the cold wet wind keeping him constantly uncomfortable, had destroyed any idea of being able to handle a world without modern 'necessities'. Had it not been for some lightly burned sleeping bags they found after the caravan of vehicles left for the hospital, it would have been even worse. He was also very lucky his grandfather had bought him a backpack with fishing gear so he could hike to fishing spots with his brother, who shared his love of the sport.
For a moment he realized he could at least catch and clean fish, but one look at the kids around him told him they probably could too, and they probably knew how to cook them over a fire, something Levi didn't know a thing about. Campfires were for marshmallows only. The stove inside the RV did the cooking of the fish, and Levi didn't even know how to do that. Cooking was something his mom had always done. Unless it could be stuck in a microwave, Levi didn't have a clue what to do with it and he knew it.
Levi let out a long uneasy breath, as he once again looked over the boys who had taken the train, and regardless of what anyone said, they did take the train. This train hadn't been theirs; they had come up on it and took it by force. They did it by killing two and wounding two others. Then, without giving any other options, they ordered everyone to toss down their weapons, came aboard and took control. Part of his anger, he realized, was the fact the shooting had caused him to pee his pants, which he still hadn't changed yet. However, he had been dealing with the smells of his father's decay and sister's messing herself for days, so he guessed the smell of what he had done just blended with the other smells on the train.
The real big anger he had at the kids was something deeper and uglier, though. For no matter how much he tried to deny it, he realized he was really outraged by what those around him could do and knew how to do when he didn't. He was mad at his parents for not teaching him to shoot, mad at everyone for having never learned how to do first aid, mad at himself for never asking to learn, join scouts, or anything that didn't involve technology. In simple words, he was mad because the kids surrounding him were able to handle a whole host of things he couldn't.
Levi clenched his fist as it suddenly dawned on him all the private schools, all the music lessons, all the after school computer labs, and the multitude of nights sleeping in an RV at campgrounds had done nothing to prepare him for the world he now lived in. Even worse, he now found himself with others, non-Jews, including a Muslim who were almost comfortable in this post-apocalyptic world. As he looked around again he realized the kids around him didn't even see it as post-apocalyptic. Instead they saw it as a challenge to be conquered.
With a deepening frown of frustration he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned to see Gage pull the rifle up to his shoulder. "Um, guys, we may have a problem."
The big man turned his head and noticed the same thing Levi had. He stood, moved around to the other side of the locomotive, looked in the direction the rifle was pointing, and cringed. "There is a pair of cars coming out of the town we just passed. They are heading toward the road next to us and it looks like they are armed. Your friends in the pickup also see them. They just veered off the tracks and onto the road."
Hunter glanced out the side and saw Angus motioning for the train to keep going, while in the back Vernon moved to the far back while the barrel of his weapon poked over the back of the tailgate.
A moment later, a pair of rifle rounds bounced off the locomotive with loud 'ping' sounds.
The woman forced herself to stand and bit her lip to prevent yelping in pain, "Kid, let us grab our guns…"
Hunter stayed low but moved so he could look out the cab of the train. Seeing someone in the back of the lead sedan pointing a large rifle out the window he nodded and called out, "Gage, let's give everyone back their weapons."
Gage moved up to the front of the train and grabbed the 7MM rifle. He started to hand it to the woman, but she shook her head and glanced down at her shoulder.
Feeling a little stupid, Gage cringed and tossed the rifle to the big man, then handed the woman an older looking .45 pistol.
While the two adults moved to a couple of packs to grab some spare ammunition, Gage quickly switched over to his assault rifle and chambered a grenade in the lower launcher.
At the same time the big man fired a shot at the lead car causing the front window to spider web. Next to the male park ranger, the woman cringed as she checked the weapon and pulled back on the slide, since it forced her to use her wounded shoulder some. She fired off a single shot, which missed while she slid inside the cab to get some cover, while more carefully pointing the pistol at the lead vehicle.
Off to the side in the pickup, the sheriff pulled his .357 while Vernon fired off a single shot from the .30-30. The lead car veered wildly as the bullet went through the already damaged window and went clean through the back window. Next to him, Devin fumbled with his assault rifle with shaking hands, showing once again, out of all the kids, he was the least prepared to mentally deal with the world he had been thrust into.
Inside the cab of the pickup Angus looked over at the sheriff. "Sir, now that we are off the tracks we can go faster and so can the train."
"These tires are already in bad condition, son." The sheriff warned, "If you drive too fast they will blow out on us."
"But at least we can shoot," Vernon countered as he fired off another round. "Back on the tracks, I couldn't hit the broadside of a barn if I was in it with the way this truck was bouncing around."
The sheriff took a deep breath and nodded agreement while grabbing his radio, "Hank, you on?"
There was a brief pause before Hank's voice came back, "Go ahead Dad."
"We have a small train coming your way and we just passed Clayton. Problem is the Garland clan just tore out after us and we are on bad tires." The sheriff cringed as a round bounced off the back of the pickup. He turned and fired a shot out the passenger window and nodded in satisfaction as his shot caused some steam to erupt out of the radiator of the lead car.
"I'll get some help rolling your way. If we can get rid of the Garland's, the rest of Clayton is pretty good folk and they could really help us for a good backdrop for a larger community."
"Agreed," the sheriff stated with some regret knowing he was about to order the deaths of several people. "So get a few folk who won't mind taking them out."
"Already on it, and did you really say you have a train?"
"Yeah, I can't believe it either, but it's on the way so don't shoot at it."
"Dad, shooting at a train… nope, not something I'm planning on doing."
"I wish the Garland's had the same view…" The sheriff stopped talking as a rather large explosion erupted in front of the second car back causing it to lose control. It shot sideways and rolled down the embankment toward the tracks before coming to rest on its roof.
"Dad, what was that? You OK?"
Will looked over to the train only to see Gage shoving another round into the grenade launcher. "Yeah… Um, son-of-a-bitch, that Gage kid is just damned scary… Even more frightening is, the Garland's aren't even backing off after someone just shot a grenade at them!"
Back on the locomotive, the woman looked over at Gage with some shock, "You really do know how to shoot that!"
Gage rolled his shoulder, "Yeah, but Mr. K. didn't tell me it has a LOT more kick with a live grenade than a practice one. My shoulder hurts like hell and I missed!"
The big man fired another shot at the lead car and glanced over with a humor filled grunt. "Those weren't exactly designed for kids. On the other hand, saying you missed is kind of pointless, since the car you were shooting at flipped."
"I wasn't aiming at the back one."
This caused Ramsey to start snickering as he pumped a shot into the remaining car, "Gage, dude, it's a grenade launcher, you don't have to hit. Close counts!"
Hunter moved around to where he could shoot at the lingering car while adding, "Mr. K. told you it was indirect fire, Gage. You can't shoot it like a rifle! I just can't believe they are still coming after us after you shot one of those!"
"Not the brightest, but still very dangerous." The wounded woman reminded the boys as she pulled the trigger of the .45. "Make sure you stay behind as much cover as possible."
Hunter cringed as another pair of bullets smacked off the train. Still, he managed to find in some humor in the whole thing as he shook his head and he went down in a crouch and pulled the pistol. "These have got to be the dumbest people ever."
Levi gritted his teeth as he heard another bullet bounce off metal somewhere on the engine. "How can you guys joke when you are shooting and being shot at?"
Hunter shrugged as he fired a couple of shots off from his pistol, missing with both, "At the moment it seems like a better thing to do than crying my eyes out because I am scared to death!"
Gage rubbed his shoulder as he thought about shooting another grenade, but decided to use the launcher as a last resort weapon. He waited for a couple more bullets to strike the train before rolling out from around the front where he had sought cover. "Scared nothing, I'm pissed." He squeezed a trio of shots into the car from the assault rifle and rolled back out of the line of fire. "They are trying to take our train!"
The large park ranger let out a low whistle. "Nice shooting kid, you must have nailed the guy in back on the driver's side! He dropped his rifle out the window and ain't moving."
"He had the thirty ought six; he had to go." Gage stated coldly. "Besides, the driver is staying real low and I am shooting from too high, so I don't have a good shot at him."
Hunter peeked around the doorframe and watched as someone on the passenger side of the car yanked on the person on the driver's side. He took a deep breath and forced himself to go through the training the NRA guys had given everyone at the winter camping trip. He braced the weapon, made sure his breathing was right, took aim while adjusting for movement, and squeezed the trigger instead of yanking it. The result showed as the single round found flesh.
The woman watched as the person on the passenger side jerked back, while a spray of red coated part of the back window. "Damn, nice shot!"
"I wish I could say thanks, but Levi has a point. I really don't think shooting a person is something I should be happy about." Hunter sighed as he steadied himself before putting another bullet into the same window.
At the same time Vernon and the sheriff both fired from the truck. One of them found the driver. The car veered hard to the right, took out a speed limit sign and disappeared down into what was left of a cornfield. A couple of minutes later the engine caught fire as the busted radiator couldn't keep it cool.
Ramsey watched as the smoke rose from the wreck, "Um, Hunter, as much as I want to find my dad, maybe we should rethink this whole thing."
Gage glanced over with a rather stern look, "Hey, do you really think your dad would stop looking for you?"
"Exactly," Gage stated with a bit of a snarl, "and like it or not, I care about your dad a lot, too. If the whole world is like this, then we need to find him before jerks like the ones who just attacked us do!"
Hunter glanced over as a pair of cars and one pickup came up the road and pulled to a stop around the sheriff. Seeing the old man wave with the walkie-talkie in his hand he let out a long breath. "Guys you're both right. We need to find our parents, but we also need to rethink how we're going to do it.
"I think we need to regroup, see how Mr. K. is doing, then head up to Oberlin. If Vern and Devin's dads are both there, then there is a chance so are some of the rest of our parents. I know my mom would have headed straight for the first big town that didn't get hit and my dad would have pushed on toward the park, but once he found no one there, he would have gone somewhere big to keep my brother safe."
"Wouldn't they have just gone home?"
Zeki looked back from the controls, "None of we want to say, but we saw big cloud from where we live."
Levi's head went down, "Oh, sorry."
"We should probably double-check though." Hunter stated. "Angus lives a few miles outside of town so his farm may be OK and we don't know for sure if Colby was hit."
The woman looked over, "Maybe with the break in the weather, some news will start to flow as people move around more. I recommend taking a couple of days and seeing what you find out."
"Every day we wait is one more my dad may be starving." Ramsey whispered while blinking away some tears. "He was going to head up to the camp at the same time as Devin's dad, so why didn't he make it there?"
"Be happy he didn't." The big man stated with compassion in his voice. "Look, the further away from the campground he was, the better the chance he didn't get burned."
"But what if he went into Norton first or…" Ramsey took a knee and started to cry.
Gage moved up and put his arm around Ramsey, "Hey, dude, you have to calm down. You'll bring on an attack."
Levi glanced up, "An attack?"
"He has asthma." Hunter stared as he also moved over to Ramsey.
Unnoticed by all, except the woman; Levi's jaw dropped open. "You have something to say?"
Levi gulped, "Um no, no my brother has the same thing… he needs to… to stand and breathe deep and slow. Um, look, you are getting worried about stuff there is no proof of. Maybe he was late because of a flat tire or something…"
Hunter glanced over in some surprise, but quickly nodded in agreement, "He's right Ram, there could be all sorts of reasons he wasn't there. Since he and Devin's dad were headed up at the same time, there is a good chance Devin's dad went to the camp, while your dad drove the back roads looking for which way we went."
As the others worked to calm Ramsey down, Zeki started to brake the train. "We be back. Do any know how to switch track so we park cars on side. Me still want to see if we can grab coal."
Gage glanced over with a shake of his head. "Zeek, train operations is all you."
Zeki sighed as the train came to a complete stop. "Me'll need someone strong to pull switch since no power."
The big park ranger stood, "I'll go with you. Just show me what you want done."
Hunter glanced over to Gage, "Let Levi and me handle Ram, you keep an eye on Zeek."
Without a complaint Gage grabbed his assault rifle and moved to make sure the big man was as sincere as he sounded.
The wounded woman glanced over, "Quite a little squad you have built young man."
"Thanks to Mr. K.," Hunter responded, while gently rubbing Ramsey's back.