The sound grew from a hissing to a whistle and then a hot puff of smoke blew in the mechanic’s face. A silence filled the tight space. Grog laughed at Cleo’s wrinkled up nose and she raised her goggles, leaving a ring of pale brown skin around her eyes.
“Darn you Grog, what’s so funny? You don’t want to stay down here all night do you?”
Grog tried to muffle his mirth with his work gloved hands. He shook his head, because he didn’t trust himself to speak.
“We can’t stay here much longer we’ll run out of power and light, besides there are hungry people waiting.”
“You’re right,” he said, after a moment passed. “We do need to get back to base with these supplies.”
She nodded, and snapped her goggles back in place as she continued tinkering with the intake valve. Because gas and oil had disappeared, the survivors returned to machines of old. Coal and wood were the fuels of choice. Down under they had to bring fuel with them—for cooking, for light, for operating anything mechanical.
“Guess we’re lucky the miners left these old tunnels, and we were able to use the remains of their trains.”
Cleo snapped, “Well if we hadn’t destroyed the surface we wouldn’t have to seek shelter underground.”
“We do spend some time up on top when we are moving to avoid the cold weather and seeking food. It’s just to avoid predators that we hide under here,” Grog grumbled.
“Well and if we have to be under here, it’s nice having these tunnels as an alternative escape route and for access to resources!” Cleo always tried to focus on the upside.
Grog responded, “Well If there was a mechanical problem with an engine, you’re the one I would want to be stuck with, you’re the best.”
Cleo could tinker with a cranky engine, gentle, coaxing, listening, and under her nimble fingers she would work her magic. She could talk to machines.
Grog held the light while she worked. It was just the two of them on this supply run.
He continued their conversation always chatting more than Cleo liked. “Why do you think the Nightwalkers prey on us, why can’t they just find their own food and stuff?”
Sometimes Cleo would respond, sometimes her forehead would be wrinkled up while she concentrated hard and she would ignore him. “Men always want to take from weaker people, makes them feel powerful. Pass me that needle nosed pliers would you?”
“One day I would like to see us peaceful kind of people stand up to them!” Grog watched her focus and heard her chuckle gently, “Haven’t we had enough violence yet?” He sighed and was silent.
Cleo added, “With our ragtag bunch of underfed men, women and children, what do you think would be the outcome of that Grog?”
Grog’s ears perked up as he heard sound. There it was, a slow chugging pressure building up, music to his ears.
“Oh Cleo, you are a true sorceress!”
“Grog, please, you could have done the same and besides it’s my job.”
“Cleo, I just meant in relationship to machines, you have the magic. Why can’t you accept a compliment?” said Grog.
She rolled her eyes.
He had turned away, but she knew he was smiling. Grog threw his thumbs up in the air and headed to the front of the train.
Cleo made sure all the readouts were good, stoked the engine with more wood, and took her spot in the back near the engine. Soot covered Cleo, except for her eyes hidden behind the goggles. She’d scraped her kinky black hair back and tucked it inside a warm hat. Winter neared on the surface and under the earth the dampness made it feel colder. She pulled the chain attached to Grog’s seat up front, letting him know they were about to move. No old fashioned whistles for them anymore–who knew who was listening? The wire attached to Grog’s seat, allowed her to Morse Code directly to his hand grips.
The train inched forward and the motion of the engines and wheels released the stress out of Cleo’s neck and shoulders. The families at base camp were waiting. They’d gotten lucky and the large wiggling bag, sitting in the cargo area, was quite a prize. If they could feed everyone while they waited for danger to pass, maybe the Nightwalkers would get bored and move to an easier target.
Cleo knew Grog’s eyes were closed now, enjoying the feel of air across his face, that’s why he always claimed the front seat. They slowly chugged up the slight incline back to their fall weather hideout, the ache in her healed wrist told her it was time to move on, hopefully soon. She worried about what Grog had said earlier. “Why do we keep taking new people, it’s hard enough to feed and hide what we already have!” She was concerned too.
Light appeared around the corner. Despite frustration with what was a healthy size for their group, home was home. Everyone was gathered, silently watching as they pulled up to the landing. One of the women, standing tall with a long dark braid down her back waved. A bent backed man, his hair white but still thick, with a few wisps of a beard on his chin, greeted them. His almond-shaped eyes took in their loaded cargo area.
“Looks like you’ve had a successful run,” he remarked.
The woman curious asked, “What’s moving in the bag?
Grog jumped from his seat, ran to the cargo area, and grabbed the bag with the live catch. He held it up and loosed the scared rabbits. They scattered in front of the group and went every which way. He knew they wouldn’t get far in their cave. The few children in the group squealed as they pursued them. Just that sound and sight made it all worthwhile.