AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is an excerpt from My New-Found Land, Diana Channing's journey across post-collapse America. I've altered it very slightly from the book edition to work as a stand-alone story
It was a fine sunny day for traveling, and with the soft blue sky and scent of spring in the air, I could almost forget I was alone and far from home.
The crumbling asphalt road traced a path parallel to the rail line, and around noon I came upon a stalled train. There was a man standing in the shadow of the open door of the last car, and I asked him why the train was stopped.
“Something blocking the tracks,” he said. He sounded cheerful, like being stranded was a grand adventure that suited him just fine. “We may be here awhile. Come on board. I’ve got a bottle of Tennessee whiskey, if you’d like to share.”
What a silly idea! I laughed and shook my head.
“Don’t tell me I’m going to have to settle for the company of desperate war widows and screaming children.”
He had a nice smile, and I guess I must’ve had a touch of spring fever, because I heard myself say, “Maybe just one drink.” I tethered my mare to a nearby tree and climbed into the car.
The man’s name was Gilbert, and he hadn’t been lying about the whiskey. He had a whole bottle of it, as well as a nice cheese and some spicy peanuts. I was nervous at first that he might have other ideas besides just a drink, but he took no issue with my desire to sit in the open doorway, so I was reassured. He set the bottle and food within arm’s reach, and we dangled our legs over the side of the car, sipping our whiskey and looking out at the landscape.
“Where’re you from?” he asked.
“All over. You?”
“Mississippi. I’ve been trying to get to Chicago for a couple weeks now, but the train keeps getting diverted. At the rate I’m going, I’ll get to see the whole world.”
“That happened to a friend of mine,” I said. “She finally got tired of it and got off.”
“It’s tempting. But I really need to get to Chicago.”
I wondered what could be so secret about a trip to Chicago, but it was none of my business. I leaned against the door frame and he told me about Mississippi, with its kudzu, sweltering summers, and air heavy with moisture all year round.
“Sounds lovely. It’s desert where I’m from. Some days it’s so dry you can feel the moisture being sucked out of your skin. And then the creeks and wells run dry, and in the afternoon the dust storms come.”
“How do you survive?”
“We know our land. And the rains come, eventually. We used to take our chairs outside and watch the clouds roll in, the way people in the old days watched television.”
We talked for an hour about everything and nothing. The cheese was sharp and the whiskey was smooth, like dark honey. The afternoon sunshine turned soft and I found myself leaning against Gilbert’s shoulder, his arm around my waist. I could’ve sat like that all afternoon, talking nonsense and dreaming the world away.
The train made a sudden jerk. Gilbert’s arm tightened around me and I grabbed onto the door frame for support. “I’ve got to go,” I said.
He pulled me close and kissed me hard.
The train jerked again. Gilbert let me go, and I jumped to the ground. I turned back and waved, and he got to his feet, laughing. We stood calling our good-byes as the train started up, first slowly, then faster and faster, until it was nothing but a pinpoint in the distance.
I looked around, wondering how the bright afternoon could’ve lost its luster so quickly. Gilbert and I had been best friends for an hour and now just like that, he was gone.
I walked over to my horse and leaned against her shoulder. “Well, better to be friends for an hour than never at all.”
She turned her head and looked at me like she didn’t quite agree.
“Okay. It was a dumb thing to do.” I swung into the saddle, light-headed from the whiskey, and we continued on our way.