Last Train to Jubilee Bay
After the sickness and quarantine almost destroyed the city, the traders arrived creeping out from the sea to live off the memories of those people left behind; getting them addicted to the serum these strange creatures manufacture in return. But now it’s been more than five days since they have come for their daily visit. And Lucy is determined to find out why.
Enjoy “Last Train to Jubilee Bay,” new original short story by Kali Wallace, acquired for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.
Lucy stood at the window and watched the sun set dull and red behind the clouds west of the city. Seven stories below, sweet smoke from burning garbage and cooking fires settled over the streets of Morningtown. The window glass had been broken out and traded away long ago and there was a cold, damp bite in the air, but Lucy didn’t close the shutters.
She lifted Esther’s old coat from a hook and slipped it on. It was too big for her, the sleeves long enough to cover her hands, but the red wool was sturdy and warm. Lucy buttoned up the coat and wrapped a scarf around her neck. The scarf smelled like the city, bitter and stale, like old smoke and rottingwood.
On the other side of the curtain, Olaf coughed, an ugly, wracking sound. “You still here?” he said. He stomped his feet in frustration. “You’re going to be late.”
Metal clanged; he was knocking at the potbellied stove with the iron poker, trying to surprise another hour of embers from the coals. Esther was out, bartering a meal of leathery meat and tasteless roots from the family who lived on the roof, and Olaf had started grumbling the moment she left. There was no food in the apartment, no fuel except the smoking chunks in the stove. Lucy had spent the day scavenging for firewood, prying apart empty buildings like a filthy, fishbelly-pale picker, breaking through plaster to pull moldy studs from the walls.
Lucy reached beneath the cot for her knife and tucked it in her sleeve. The walk from Morningtown to the station was a long one, and dangerous. The poachers usually left her alone on the way out, even in the dead zone past the fallen quarantine fences, but there might be someone willing to take the risk. The return trip was the greater danger, after she had made the trade and had the serum in hand. Lucy had been crossing the city from Morningtown to the station for fifteen years. She knew how to keep the serum safe.
“You listening to me, girl?” Olaf cleared his throat and coughed again. “Pig was here earlier. She said Riverton’s runner took off, didn’t bring any serum back.” Pig ran the trade in Helterville, the neighborhood that bordered Morningtown to the west. She stopped by every few days to gossip with Olaf and share the news from across the city.
Lucy pushed the curtain aside. Olaf had dropped the iron poker just out of reach; he was grasping for it, gnarled fingers scraping along the floorboards, his mouth twisted in a scowl. She nudged it away with the tip of her boot.
“Did you hear me?” Olaf said. He sat back with a frustrated grunt. “You’re not a kid anymore. If you come back without—”
“I know,” Lucy said.
She didn’t snap, didn’t raise her voice. She was taller than Olaf now, stronger and quicker. He had been an imposing man once, but that was a long time ago, and Lucy wasn’t a starving new orphan anymore. Olaf’s hands shook so badly he couldn’t wash himself, and his legs were so weak he could barely stand. He smelled of sweat and vomit, and his white hair was yellow with grime. He had been blind for three years.
“I’m not a drifter kid from Helterville,” Lucy said, her voice mild. “You don’t have to tell me what to do.”
“Pig says the mud rats are angry,” Olaf said. He coughed into his fist. “Five days now and nobody’s got a drop.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything Pig tells you,” Lucy said.
The last feeble sunlight drained from the room. Lucy went to the shelf behind the stove, where Esther kept the papers for trade wrapped up in grubby lace and tucked into a tea tin. When Olaf’s eyes had turned milky white and his joints had stiffened, and word got around that he’d finally started using the serum, everybody in Morningtown had assumed there would be a new dealer stepping into his place. But Esther, quiet, unsmiling Esther with her round face and limp hair, she had poisoned three would-be usurpers in five days and handed their corpses off to the collectors without a word.
Esther’s herbs and Lucy’s knife now did the work Olaf’s fists and reputation used to. The people of Morningtown didn’t like change. They lived high above the ground and raised chickens and sickly crops on rooftops. They poled rafts down the avenues when the floods came and collected rainwater in barrels. They traded moldy books for firewood when the peddlers from Lily City passed through. Morningtown liked to know where its serum was coming from.
There were eighty-seven scraps of paper in Esther’s tin box. Esther had counted the night before, tapped them into a stack, and tied them up with a string. “Most of these are no good,” she had said, her spine rod straight as they sat at the table. “Nonsense and waste.”
When the traders had first crawled out of the sea, a dozen years ago, every memory had been vivid and strong, every page crammed edge to edge with smudged bold urgency. The traders had accepted the memories reverently, grasping the pages with their clumsy fronds twisted into a parody of human fingers, ink running and paper disintegrating to a wet mash in orifices that were not mouths, sending quivers of ecstasy through limbs that were not arms or legs. Lucy remembered the hours her father had spent hunched over stolen ledgers and notebooks, recording every year of his life with painstaking care. He had been one of Olaf’s enforcers, but after the serum stole his mind away and a few hours of bliss each day became a fugue from which he never woke, Olaf had looked to Lucy and said, “He’s as good as dead, girl, but we’ll keep you around if you make yourself useful.”
The pages formed a fat, heavy lump in Lucy’s coat pocket. She never read them. She didn’t care to know what people traded away for their hours of peace.
“You watch yourself,” Olaf said as Lucy opened the door to leave. “Don’t let the mud rats get what’s ours.”
Lucy let the door bang shut behind her. The hallway smelled of spiced meat and smoke, damp wood and mold. Voices echoed in the stairwell: Esther, several floors above, haggling with a woman who lived upstairs over the price of a chicken. The woman kept a garden on the roof, and her husband was a picker who spent his days scouring the mud plains between the city and the sea for fish and crabs stranded by the tides.
At ground level the neighborhood was dark already. From Morningtown to Lily City, east at the sinkhole that had once been a park and onto the Avenue, Lucy walked quickly and quietly as the fog grew thicker, the darkness heavier, obscuring the sky and the buildings above their third or fourth floors. Throughout Lily City and the Avenue the buildings had high paths connecting them, hanging bridges draped with laundry and swaying, lit by torches that glowed yellow through the fog.
The Avenue ended at the concrete trough of the river, then it was twelve blocks to the first quarantine fence, now no more than a trampled, twisted remnant of chain-link and barbed wire tangled with garbage. Lucy felt eyes watching her, saw drifters lurking in shattered shop fronts, but they sunk into the shadows as she passed.
There was a church seven blocks east of Quarantine Lane. The bells chimed as Lucy approached, as they did every night after twilight. Some nights, if she had time, Lucy stopped to say hello to the priest who cared for orphans and addicts in the church’s echoing nave. Father Antonio had been a young man when the epidemic began, and healthy, and he could have left before the quarantine, found a place on one of the trains heading to the bay and the waiting ships. Lucy had asked him once why he had stayed, and he had said, “What lies across the land and over the sea is no different from what we have here.” Since that day Lucy had been waiting for him to scribble his own memories on a scrap of paper and pass them to her. Sooner or later, everyone did.
A pair of collectors followed Lucy for two blocks as she neared the station: a man and a woman, long haired and sickly gray, their eyes bulging and serum white, their damp skin glistening. With bony fingers like claws, they clung to their capes of woven kelp and steered their overladen cart along the road. Radios with broken wires and crooked antennae, a length of iron railing, shoes tied up in a massive bundle, the frame of a bicycle, dripping clumps of muddy clothing, there was no pattern or meaning to what the collectors took. They were only drifters who never died, addicts who sucked down the serum and shed their memories until there was nothing left in their veins but milky waste, nothing in their minds but a compulsion to strip the city bare and leave empty shells behind.
When Lucy faced them, the collectors ducked their heads and mumbled in their wet, gargling voices, that made-up language that sounded nothing like the traders they mimicked.
Lucy turned away and kept walking. The train station emerged from the fog; it was a low rectangular building on a sinking plain of empty city blocks. Collectors had stolen the sign long ago, but Lucy remembered the bold black words on a white board, the call of a train’s whistle and the sun on her face, the hazy warmth of a distant summer morning.
The broken turnstile shrieked as Lucy pushed the bar down and forced her way through. Her coat caught on the ragged insides of the eviscerated ticket-taker, and she tugged free to examine the damage: a tear, no more than an inch long, red-and-white threads erupting like lashes around a hollow eye. She walked along the platform, her boots crunching on crushed tiles, and startled rats raced away and vanished into the walls. Fog engulfed the tracks at either end of the station, heavy with the salty, rotten scent of the sea. In the distance a signal light shone red, when there was daylight enough to feed it, a single bulb above the one remaining arm of what had once been a black-and-white X. Water shimmered in puddles at its base. There were a few signs hanging above the platform, some attached now by only one strained hook, most of the scrolling destination names unreadable beneath grime and rust. Lucy remembered the faint flutter of noise the signs had made as the destinations changed, and she shivered.
She touched the packet of memories in her pocket with one hand, the hilt of her knife with the other. She thought of what Olaf had said. The trades weren’t coming through. Riverton had no serum. She paced beneath the sign announcing a northbound train for Jubilee Bay in faded letters webbed with black mold, and she listened for the quiet splash that would announce the traders’ arrival. They could not move silently along the tracks; they weren’t suited to moving on land at all.
At the sudden clatter of shifting gravel, Lucy froze and slid her knife into her hand. The noise came from the rubble across the tracks, beyond the broken pillars and fallen roof.
“I know you’re there,” said Lucy.
Footsteps scraped and the shadows took shape: a dark-haired child, about ten years old, small and thin and barefoot, dressed in a jacket and trousers and a too-long scarf that dragged in the water.
“They aren’t coming,” the child said.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Lucy adjusted her grip on the knife and looked around; the child could be a distraction sent by poachers to catch her off guard.
The kid scowled and tugged the scarf down, revealing a round brown face and two skinny braids curling like snakes under her chin. “Could ask you the same thing, lady,” she said. Her voice was high and light, her accent from somewhere in the city’s muddy northern flats.
“This is Morningtown’s night,” Lucy said. “You shouldn’t be here.”
The girl put both hands on the edge of the platform and hopped up, sat with her legs dangling over the edge. “It doesn’t matter whose night it is,” she said. She slipped a hand into her pocket and brought out a stack of ragged papers. “They aren’t coming.”
“How long have you been waiting?”
Lucy’s heart skipped. “Five?”
“There’s a lot of rats,” the girl said with a shrug. “They’re fat and stupid and nobody hunts them here.”
Five nights ago would have been Riverton’s night. Pig hadn’t been lying after all. Ugly Sal was the dealer in Riverton; that explained why the child would eat rats for five cold nights rather than return empty-handed. Lucy could make out the shadow of a bruise beneath the girl’s left eye, a healing cut at the corner of her mouth. She was too skinny, even for a Riverton mud rat, shaky and frail like one breath would topple her.
“They never miss a meeting,” Lucy said. She tightened her grip on her knife. “They’ve never missed before.”
“Now they’ve missed two,” the girl said. “First time for everything.” But there was worry threading through her voice. She craned her head to look up at Lucy and said, “Not even once?”
Lucy would have heard. She was sure of it. The city survived, in its own way. Neighborhoods fought and buildings crumbled, floods swept in and roads collapsed, collectors lurked and children starved. But beneath it all, the serum was the only thing that mattered, and it had been since the traders had first crept out of the sea. They had arrived after the quarantine had shackled the city, dripping and bold as though they could taste the despair bleeding from the streets and sewers into the sea, as though they had been waiting in cool green darkness all along.
Lucy had survived as a runner longer than anybody, and she had never once heard of the traders missing a meeting.
She took a slow breath to steady herself, and asked, “What’s your name?”
“None of your business.”
“I’m Lucy. Morningtown.” She didn’t hide the fact that she was still looking around, even though she suspected the kid was alone. “You’re new, aren’t you? What happened to Benj?”
“Drifter knifed him,” the girl said, her lips twisting. “He tried to steal her pages.”
“What a shame,” Lucy said.
“I’m Belle. Riverton.” The girl’s flicker of a smile vanished, and she straightened her shoulders, tried to make herself taller. “Why didn’t they show?”
Lucy stood beneath the sign for Jubilee Bay and looked northward along the tracks. Some days, when the fog was light and the sun shone weak and sickly over the city, Lucy climbed to the roof of the highest building in Morningtown and tried to see the ocean through the garden of hollow-eyed skyscrapers. The pickers said the sea crept closer every day, sometimes swallowing yards of land overnight, the corpses of abandoned neighborhoods disintegrating with every hungry gulp.
“I don’t know,” Lucy said. She spoke quietly and hated that it was the truth. There had been nights, long ago, when she had imagined attacking the traders when they came, slashing at their stringy, fibrous bodies with her knife just to see if they could bleed, chasing them down the tracks and throwing their vials of serum after them. She didn’t know how they would react or what they would do to defend themselves, and she didn’t know what it would take to anger the traders so much that they turned their backs on the city and returned to the sea. But she had considered it, trembling with guilt and fear though she never spoke her thoughts aloud, and she had wondered.
Lucy glanced over her shoulder at Belle. The girl had both arms wrapped about herself, one hand toying nervously with the frayed edge of her scarf. “Do you have a place to go?” Lucy asked. “Somewhere Sal won’t find you?”
Belle made a small noise in her throat, no kind of answer, but Lucy understood.
“Do you know Father Antonio?” Lucy asked. “He’s at the church by the quarantine fence. You should go to him. You’ll be safe from Sal there.”
“You’re not going to wait?”
“No,” Lucy said. “I’m going to find the traders.”
She crouched at the edge of the platform and dropped down to the tracks. The gravel slid beneath her feet, and cold water seeped through a hole in one boot. Lucy stepped from one tarred, broken tie to the next. She tucked her knife away, wiped her hand absently on her coat.
Nobody who followed the tracks had ever come back. That’s what the runners told themselves when they got curious, what the poachers whispered when they got desperate. The stories were most likely lies, repeated so often they had become meaningless. Everybody was afraid of what surrounded the city.
Behind her, Belle jumped down from the platform, her packet of memories still clutched in one hand. “I’m coming with you. I want to see.”
“But it’s not—”
Lucy stopped. She remembered being that young, that scared, that hungry. She remembered the quiver in her gut and prickle on her neck, the long nights in heavy, shifting darkness.
“If you want,” she said. “Keep close.”
She started walking, and Belle followed. The fog closed around them and softened the sound of their footsteps. In places the rails were rucked up like a folded rug, twisted and torn from their ties. Angular shapes loomed and vanished in the mist, the frames of vehicles and leaning fence posts, the corners of broken walls with windows gaping like unseeing eyes.
Lucy didn’t know how far they walked; her feet were soaked and cold, her body aching from the effort of not shivering. She tasted mud and salt on her tongue, felt it slick and gritty on her skin. But they kept going, away from the city and toward the sea, until the sound of surf on the shore carried through the night.
“Look,” Belle said.
On the tracks ahead, there was a train car resting at a precarious angle, partially derailed, its far end sunk above the wheels into a broad pool of water. The wooden walls were pockmarked with holes, the words obscured by spidery patches of mold.
Lucy knew she didn’t want to look inside. She knew it would be better to keep walking. But she splashed through the water to the car’s side, ignoring Belle’s curious glance, and leaned against the door to slide it open. The soft wood bent at the press of her shoulder and the rollers shrieked. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, and for that moment, but no longer, Lucy held her breath, a gasp caught tight and hot in her throat.
Round skulls and long bones and ribs in toppling arches littered the floor of the car, half-buried in thick black mud. Around them were scattered the smaller bones, fingers and feet and jaws in a chaotic mosaic of gray and white, barely visible in the darkness.
Belle leaned around Lucy’s side to peer into the car. If she was shocked, she hid it well. “What happened?”
Lucy swallowed around the ache in her throat and said, “I guess they got out before the quarantine. But it was too late. They were already sick.”
“They must have died really fast.”
“They did, toward the end,” Lucy said. She remembered feverish skin and hair dark with sweat, bloodshot eyes and rasping words. She closed her eyes, took a slow breath, opened them again.
Belle was too young to remember. There were few enough in the city who did, and fewer still willing to speak of it. Those final days were inevitably the first memories to go to traders: the crush of people at the station, billowing black smoke as the wharfs burned, parents shoving their children into overcrowded cars to send them away, screams and sobs as the doors slid shut, the shriek of train whistles and clammy chill of the fog, and the cold, gray silence that had settled over the city when they realized they were alone.
Thousands had fled by other routes. They broke through the barriers and trampled the fences and walked inland along cratered roads and abandoned tracks without knowing if there was anything to find across the interior. They pieced together rafts from burned and half-sunk boats to paddle into the ocean. The sea devoured the land acre by acre, and with the water came the traders, lurching and stinking like dead fish, trailing green and misshapen limbs, bloated with promises and hunger.
Lucy remembered. She was one of the few who did. She had been Belle’s age when the barriers went up, and she had never taken up a pen or charred bit of wood or pin pricked in her own blood to scribble away the memories.
“We should keep going,” Lucy said.
She slipped her hand into Belle’s and tugged her away. Overhead a sliver of moon and a few brief stars shone through the clouds. The train was short, only ten cars long, and they did not look inside any of the others. Beyond the engine, the tracks crossed damp, wave-rippled dunes dotted with clumps of grass, then abruptly disappeared into the black expanse of water. The waves tugged at the shore, rising and falling like exhausted breaths.
Lucy slowed her pace and listened.
There was the lap of the water, Belle’s quiet sniffles, the sucking squelch of their footsteps, and something else, a deep rumble, a noise Lucy felt in her chest and in her bones, so steady and low she thought at first she was imagining it. It was the sound of a train pulling away from the station, of the city’s crowded streets first thing in the morning, of a ferry chugging toward a dock. It had been years since she’d heard anything like it.
“What is that?” Belle asked.
Lucy squeezed her hand, a quick reassurance she didn’t expect Belle to believe. “Let’s find out.”
They walked along the edge of the ocean. To both sides the mist drifted around the bulky shadows of fallen buildings and abandoned boats. The sound grew louder, and as they crossed the dunes a building emerged from the fog, windowless and huge, half as long as a city block. The sea lapped at its sides; the building was half-drowned, one end sinking into the sand and surf. It was a factory, one of the hundreds that used to fill the land between the city and the sea. They had fallen silent years ago, the fish-packing plants and power stations, shipyards and one sprawling refinery, but this one was still running. The low hum ached in Lucy’s teeth.
The building had a wide door on one side, close to where the water lapped at its walls. Lucy leaned against the sharp metal edge, and the door slid open just a few inches before sticking in the mud. But it was enough for Lucy to slip through. Belle followed; her scarf caught on the rusted frame.
Lucy pressed her back against the shuddering metal wall. A heavy mist hung in the air, sickly sweet in odor, instantly slick on her skin. The building had one cavernous room, two stories high, illuminated by the diffuse green light of bulbs strung along the walls. A long machine snaked through the center of the factory: a twisting contraption of belts and spools, gears and pumps, pipes of every size meeting at valves and junctions. The machine was mostly metal, but there was wood worked into some components, carved stone and broken bricks in others, and flat belts of woven kelp and seaweed looped over pulleys. The whole thing shook and clanked; it ran, but poorly, and the building trembled.
At the seaward end of the building, there was a rusted metal vat partially submerged in seawater. Pipes fed into the top and at its base a single valve dripped steadily. A milky white fluid spread over the surface of the water like a pale, creeping mold.
“Serum,” Belle said.
She was squeezing Lucy’s hand so tight it hurt, but Lucy didn’t pull away, only nodded, not trusting herself to speak. The color, the smell of it was unmistakable. Small bottles and empty glass vials bobbed in the seawater, and with them were scraps of paper, the ink blotched and smudged, clumped together like dead leaves after rain.
Lucy took a few hesitant steps, her boots squelching through the thick mud that covered the floor. Seawater pooled in her footprints, shimmering and green. She stopped just short of the water’s edge. Her heart pounded painfully, and she fought the urge to turn and run.
There was a trader floating with the glass debris and bleeding pages.
Lucy watched for a few minutes, her hand twitching for her knife every time the waves lifted the creature, but it didn’t move. The trader was sunk low in the surf, long appendages of slimy, slippery green splayed around it, limp and lifeless. She hadn’t even known they could die.
Lucy tugged Belle away from the water and the dead creature. At the landward end of the factory, past the bulk of the machine, a towering pile of rubbish spilled through open doors. It was a collectors’ heap, the largest Lucy had ever seen, a teetering, haphazard pile of windowpanes with chipped white paint, rusted bicycle frames, clothing in moldering heaps, shoes with the laces trailing, deflated tires from automobiles, wooden crates with papered labels peeling from the sides.
Lucy slipped and caught herself, set her foot down with a noisy splash. Her heart skipped and she pulled Belle closer to her. There was an old woman sitting on an empty collector’s cart beside the heap, her dark, damp clothes and ragged seaweed cloak blending well into the rubbish behind her. Her skin so gray and pale it was nearly translucent, her eyes milked over from years of serum addiction.
“I know you’re there,” the woman said. Her hands shook and her breath rattled in her chest. She said something in the collectors’ gurgling language, barely recognizable as words, then raised her voice and went on, “You can’t be here. They don’t let the warm ones come here.”
“What happened?” Lucy asked. Her throat felt so tight she struggled to breathe. “Where did they go?”
The old woman’s shoulders shook and milky tears trailed down her face. “You can’t be here.”
“I think it’s broken,” Belle said, barely a whisper. She pointed with her free hand. “Look.”
The machine was jammed. Jaws of welded scrap metal groaned but did not open and close, and debris spilled from the mouth, planks of wood with splintered ends, shattered shards of glass, a crushed plastic crate, parts of an engine tangled up in dark fabric, the detached door of an automobile.
There was something soft and white stuck between a wheel frame and a length of metal gutter. Lucy pried her hand free of Belle’s grasp and stepped closer. She didn’t want to look, already knew what she would see: it was a hand, a collector’s hand with torn, milky-pink fingers.
The traders had never explained where the serum came from. Lucy remembered her father saying it tasted like the sea, salty and cool, like sunshine on sand and soft breezes, and she had believed him. But it had come from the city all along. The collectors picked the city apart piece by piece, and they brought it here. The traders bottled it up in little vials of murky white fluid, and brought it back.
Belle took a step closer, but Lucy pushed her away. The girl scowled and kicked at a broken crate, slanted a glare at the muttering old woman.
“Are they going to fix it?” she asked.
After a moment, Lucy said, “I don’t know if they can.”
But they would try. Lucy had no doubt. Perhaps not the traders, if they returned at all. But after another missed meeting, after another neighborhood went a few days without serum, others would leave the station and follow the tracks. They would come from the city and find the factory and fix the machine if they could, arrange a new system and ask a new price, and the serum would flow again. Lucy knew it with a cold, aching sense of inevitability. She could do it herself, with Esther’s help, with her knives and this rumbling machine. She could take over the trade and rule the rotting, drowning city, and feed serum to everybody who craved it until the last bright memory in the last clear mind faded away.
Lucy stepped over to the collectors’ heap and sorted through the junk until she found a long metal bar, almost too heavy to lift, and a garden hoe with most of its red handle intact. She shoved the hoe into Belle’s hands.
“Take this,” Lucy said, wavering with hesitation, with anger. She cleared her throat and raised her voice. “Help me break it.”
Belle started to say something, but she cut herself off. Her eyes were wide and dark, her skin tinted green in the factory light. She was so very young, and so wary, but Lucy didn’t let herself look away. Belle had never seen the streets filled with people and noise beneath the blinding reflection of glass windows on a hot summer’s day. She had never heard the racket of traffic and startled horns and the pulsing flow of crowds. She had never known anybody who did not live and fade and die by the memories they shed. She was too young to remember, but perhaps she understood.
“Help me break it,” Lucy said again.
She hefted the iron bar over her shoulder, high enough that she nearly overbalanced. She took three long strides toward the machine and swung at a mess of grinding gears and strained bands. The bar struck with a solid clang and pain burned in her hands, but she swung again and again until the gears came loose and the seaweed belts tore. The machine’s bolts and welds were rusted, weak, shaking and shedding flakes of iron with every blow. Lucy heard a shout and saw Belle jump onto the machine and scramble up high to hack at a tangled nest of tubes. The old woman was shouting too, unintelligible and babbling, but Lucy didn’t look to see what she was doing.
The machine shook violently and the noise was deafening, metal grinding against metal in groans and shrieks, but Lucy didn’t stop. Springs snapped and steam hissed, pipes cracked and belts whipped free, dozens of failures small and large. They hacked and pulled at the machine until pieces tumbled down, thundering on the floorboards and splashing in the mud, a rain of broken metal and wood and stone. Lucy’s arms burned and her throat was raw; she was shouting wordlessly, louder than she ever dared in the city’s silent streets. The serum-stink in the air stung her eyes and tears blurred her vision.
When she reached the end of the machine, her blood racing, her heart thudding, Lucy splashed through the cloudy seawater and jammed the iron bar into a cluster of gears. The fat metal teeth screeched and the machine quaked ominously.
Belle jumped down, ripping at seaweed belts as she fell, tumbled to her knees, and jumped up quickly. Lucy grabbed her hand, and they ran for the door. They raced away from the building and along the shore, slipping and skidding in the mud.
About halfway to the tracks, Lucy stopped and turned, bent over to catch her breath. Night was fading to a gray early morning, damp and bitterly cold. The noise within the windowless factory settled into sporadic clanks and crashes, and the seawater lapping at the outer walls calmed. The mist was clearing and high clouds raced inland across the stars.
Lucy brushed her damp hair back from her face, reached into her pocket to draw out the packet of pages. She looked at the memories in the predawn light. She wondered, not for the first time, why the traders craved the scribbled, ink-stained pages, the words smeared with tears and sweat.
Lucy tugged the end of Esther’s neat knot, let the string fall to the ground, and flung the memories toward the sea. They fluttered like dying moths onto the surf, the damp sand and salt grass.
A moment later, Belle hurled her own packet into the water. It splashed quietly, then sank. She pressed close to Lucy’s side, small and scared and no longer trying to hide it. She still held the hoe in one hand, its metal flat sunk in the mud.
In the distance, sparse ruins spotted the sea toward the horizon like the remains of a burned forest. Lucy had thought she might recognize something of the seaside, the colorful rooftops along the boardwalk or high curve of a roller coaster, the tall lampposts that had held banners and lights above the streets. But she didn’t even know where the shoreline had been before. She could not trust her sunlit memories of those summers long ago.
“People are going to be angry,” Belle said.
Lucy thought of Esther and Olaf waiting in their apartment, sleepless beneath their threadbare blankets, listening for her footsteps on the stairs.
She took Belle’s hand. “It will be okay,” she said.
They walked back to the tracks and turned toward the city. Dawn was coming in its slow, insidious way. They passed the train of skeletons and did not look inside. Lucy felt the cold in every muscle, and when she began to shiver she only walked faster, pulling Belle along behind her.
The red signal light came into view as the sun rose, and beyond it the station was a long shadow in the mist. The city was a row of broken teeth against the low, gray sky.
“Last Train to Jubilee Bay” copyright © 2012 Kali Wallace
Art copyright © 2012 Richard Anderson