Sunshine, warm and soft, fell through the open window onto Dagny’s face. It was early, and the sun had not discovered what it would be angry about today. It would. It was nearly the end of April. The sun had been angry since the last week of March.
But now the sun was still half asleep and only cast easy rays on the world. Dagny’s world, anyway. They’d learned in school about how the sun shone on the planet. If the sun was just finished rising here, that meant if you went exactly halfway around you’d find the sun had just finished setting.
Were there people there?
Dagny’s world consisted of this house at the northern edge of Verdevilla. Of all of Verdevilla, she supposed. It was her mother and her father and her two brothers and one baby sister and papa. It was her friends at school.
Dagny’s world was Zadie.
“How wonderful! You’ve discovered a way to roll dough by looking dreamily out the window.”
Her mother came into the kitchen through the back door, hair tied up and Jerrah snug at her back. Dagny got up from the table to help her with the jars from the cellar crowded in her arms before something dropped.
“So funny I forgot to laugh,” Dagny said, taking the preserves.
“Huh-huh-huh,” her mother fake-laughed. Then she stopped and cocked her head to the side. Dagny had gotten her brown curls, slender fingers, and glorious lack of period cramps from her mother, but she hadn’t gotten the woman’s superhuman hearing. Dagny couldn’t hear a thing.
“I think I hear your friend coming.”
Dagny knew not to ask. She put the jars down and waited. Almost a minute later, she heard it, too.
Not just footsteps. Not even just running footsteps. High on the wind, sounding like some peculiar bird, came Zadie’s voice, louder and louder with every passing second.
“Dagny! Dagny! Dagny! Daaaaaagnnnnnyyyyyy! Dagny! Dagnydagnydagny! DAGNY!”
And then she was at the window, clutching the sill and panting. She must have run all the way from home. No, the Grants barely lived a quarter-mile away. She must have run all the way from town. The exertion had brought sweat to the edges of her red-blonde hair and a high color to her cheeks that made her look one of the models in the magazines down at the library. Zadie saw mother at the back of the kitchen and relaxed her posture, leaning on the sill and breathing through her nose.
“Oh. Hey, Mrs. P.”
“Good morning, Zadie. Did the mayor hire you to wake everybody up?”
Zadie snorted. “No, but today she should have.” She looked at Dagny again, and the way Zadie’s eyes flashed and her cheeks twitched Dagny knew what she would say before she said it.
“The train is coming. Today.”
It took a little begging and bargaining but finally mother relented. While mother went out back to find father and the boys, Dagny could go to town with Zadie.
“The train!” His voice was as spindly as the rest of him, crackling like static. He shuffled after them, talking a mile a minute. Mother had always said he could talk faster than he could do anything else. “Didn’t think it was supposed to show up for months.”
“I only just heard this morning,” Zadie said. The eagerness to get to town, the fear of missing it, made her shuffle her feet a little as she walked, but she did not leave the old man behind. Zadie had always been better with Dagny’s papa than Dagny was. Color rose in Dagny’s cheeks as she paused to let the two of them catch up.
Zadie said, “The tracks through the Gallon Fields, the ones they thought were missing? They weren’t, they were just buried. They dug them out and fixed them up. A couple of mailmen sprinted their horses all night to get here and let us know.”
“They should have said something!” Papa said. “Surely they didn’t get a mile of track dug up in a day.”
“I think they didn’t want to get people’s hopes up,” Zadie said.
They were walking through the Empties. Some of the houses weren’t, of course, like Dagny’s and Zadie’s. The Garcias and the Winstons and the Joelsons, they were scattered around. Mostly people lived closer to town. The rest of the homes, the empty ones with their broken windows and useless plots of dead grass, they freaked most people out. The other kids at school told each other horror stories of dead bodies and monsters living in basements. The adults told stories of vagrants and nails sticking out of boards just dripping with tetanus.
Zadie and Dagny had been in every single house at least once. They hadn’t found a single monster. A few families of raccoons and opossums. One time a vagrant, but he hadn’t done anything to hurt them and now Mr. Reynolds was running the music shop. Neither of them had ever gotten tetanus.
They liked the empty houses. When they had been younger it had been like having street after street of playhouses. Zadie would be the old world father coming home from work and drinking heavily and yelling at the black screen Papa said was called a television and Dagny would be the ‘little woman’ at home, making dinner and screaming at the kids.
“Look at it all,” Papa said, like he always did. “Look how useless everything was. Grass everywhere. Trees that didn’t fruit right. Cars, cars everywhere! Why walk half a mile to the convenience store when you can drive and be there in thirty seconds? Pah. No wonder my grandfather could barely move when he was my age. We were idiots. Now it’s hot as balls all the time and the only things I miss are the music and the food.”
Dagny covered her eyes as she looked up, as close to the angry sun as she dared.
“What’s the sun angry about today, Papa?” she asked.
Papa thought about it, scratching at the back of his head. “Today I bet it’s the trees. Or the holes where the trees should be. The sun never stops being angry about that one.”
He looked around, back toward the house. The old street they were following curved slightly, and they couldn’t see it anymore.
“Well, go on,” he said.
“You don’t need an old man like me slowing you down, and I don’t know what your mother is afraid of. Anything comes at us out here it’d be the two teenage girls protecting the eighty-year-old man and not the other way around.”
Zadie grinned. “What if we’re supposed to be protecting you?”
“I’m old, not stupid,” he said, casually lifting his shirt to show off the old gun tucked in his belt. “Ain’t nothing out here, anyway. Go ahead, don’t miss the train on my account. If I miss it, you girls will have to tell me about it. Go, go!”
Dagny and Zadie each hugged the old man before skipping off ahead.
Zadie was almost a year older than Dagny. She hoped, when they were older, it wouldn’t matter so much. It seemed to matter a lot now. Zadie was a woman. Dagny still felt like a kid.
It didn’t help that Zadie was half a foot taller than her. They ran through the streets, cutting across dead yards and under broken fences, and Dagny felt like her lungs would collapse just trying to keep up.
“Slow down,” she finally pushed out.
“We’re going to miss it!” Zadie called back to her.
“We’ll hear it coming, won’t we? Zadie…Zadie, I can’t…”
Dagny pulled up short, bent over with her hands on her knees. She expected Zadie to keep running, so when Zadie’s upside-down face appeared in front of her, hair trailing to the ground, Dagny almost screamed.
“Are you dying?”
“Nope,” Zadie said. She took Dagny’s hand and pulled her forward. She was walking fast, but at least she was walking. “There will be no dying today. Not when the world is finally coming to town.”
Verdevilla, built on the ruins of some other town, was thirty miles away from the next town, on the other side of the Gallon Fields. The mailmen on their horses came. Sometimes a few traveling salesmen. But otherwise they were left to themselves. It was too much hassle to come all this way for the same things the people in the city could get from right outside the walls.
It was a shock to the town when people from the city showed up at all, nearly five years ago now. Dagny had been eleven, barely able to understand it all, but Papa had patiently explained everything as they had walked home from the big meeting in the old school cafeteria.
“They were scientists, mostly. Engineers, too. People that design things, build things. In this case, though, they designed a way to break things. They want to come here – they want to go everywhere, I guess – and break down all the things we don’t use. All the Old World things that were pointless back then, anyway.”
“If they’re pointless, who cares if they’re still there?”
“Because they’re still hurting the world and making the sun angry. They get too hot. They get in the way of animals and plants trying to come back. The scientists say they have a way to break it all down. A team of people who will go through everything. They’ll see what they can use, and use it. And if they can’t use, they’ll break it down until they can, or until it doesn’t matter anymore.”
It had all sounded like a fairy tale to Dagny, but Papa had said it was just technology. He’d been out to the city, once, a little before Dagny had been born. Zadie and Dagny, when they were alone and bored, still breathlessly recited the stories he had told them. Towers that touched the sky, covered in trees and ivy and moss. Cars and trams that ran on electricity. Radios that worked. And over the whole city, a dome protecting it all from the sun’s anger.
The train would come, and bring the scientists and the engineers back. And they’d all work together to fix Verdevilla until it could live up to its name.
Even after Dagny had her breath back, she still held onto Zadie’s hand. Zadie, thankfully, didn’t try to take it back. She even smiled at Dagny, that special smile that only seemed to exist for her. With Zadie next to her, the sun didn’t seem angry. Just…a little too happy, maybe.
The swung their hands as they walked, their excitement making them skip here and there, and Dagny let her mind wander.
The engineers would come, but maybe Dagny could convince them to leave one of the Empties. Near her parents, but far away from Zadie’s. They could move in together. Play house the way they used to, but without the ‘play’ part.
“Do you think they’ll bring enough people to tear down the old stuff?” Dagny asked. “Or will they need our help?”
“They must need our help. They can’t have enough people in the city to do all the work for every little town they find,” Zadie said. “Can they?”
“Oh, I bet they do. The stories Papa told us, remember? More people on a single street than he’d seen since the end of the old world.”
Zadie went quiet again, thinking. She seemed to live in the extremes that Dagny hardly ever reached. Dagny sometimes felt a little sad, sometimes a little excited, but mostly seemed to exist in the middle. Zadie, on the other hand, could be bawling her eyes out in the morning and then angry as the sun in the afternoon. She didn’t seem to feel emotions so much as she became them. It was one of the things Dagny…
“What else do you think the train will bring?” Dagny asked quickly.
“Mayor Wellington said she hopes for electricity eventually,” Zadie said. “First she wants a quick way to communicate with the city. We probably won’t get back the stuff they had at the end right away, but there used to be this thing called telegraph?”
“Dots and dashes,” Dagny said, nodding. “Maybe new foods, you think? I had an orange, once, when I was a kid, and I’ve been dreaming about them ever since.”
Zadie giggled. “You dream about fruit?”
“It’s an expression.” Dagny huffed as she rolled her eyes. “You don’t dream about anything?”
The laughing expression was gone in an instant, emotions moving in Zadie as fast as ever. They had left the Empties behind and were in the town proper. Everyone was going in the same direction as they were, toward the tracks and the little station that had stood in loneliness for as long as anyone could remember. They could see it now, a white building surrounded by people and under the cover of bright balloons. It was really happening. The train was really coming.
Zadie wasn’t looking at the station. She was looking away. Away from the station. Away from Dagny.
“I don’t dream about things coming to town,” she muttered, so low Dagny almost missed it. Before Dagny could ask, Zadie had turned to her, eyes wide with mischief. “Come on.”
She pulled on Dagny’s hand before she could protest, dragging her down the alley. Just one block over and already the crowd heading for the train station had thinned, but Zadie kept pulling her away, only laughing when Dagny asked where they were going.
And then they were there. Between the streets of downtown and the endless, pointless river of pavement that made up the old highway, were the train tracks. They were inches away, the toe of Zadie’s shoes almost touching the edge of the wooden planks. There had been a fence here, once, but it had blown down in a storm when Dagny was eight and no one had thought it needed to go back up.
“It’ll come right through here,” Zadie said. “We’ll see it first.”
Dagny tried to smile back at her. There was a sour feeling in her stomach, now. She tried to tell herself her eyes were watering from the breezes coming off the highway.
“What?” Zadie asked.
“You’re not thinking about what the train can bring to town,” Dagny said, taking her hand back. “You’re thinking about what the train can take away.”
Zadie stared at her, eyes darting back and forth. “Haven’t you?”
The truth fell out of her before she could consider any of it. She knew Zadie never wanted to go home. Had seen the bruises when she thought Dagny wasn’t looking. Remembered the times they played house and Zadie wanted to stay there all night. When they’d finally go home and split in the middle of the Empties, and Dagny would watch Zadie take off in a direction that did not lead to her home. Dagny knew Zadie would leave that house if she could.
She just didn’t think Zadie would leave town altogether.
Zadie took her hand again, the pressure of her fingers on the cusp of hurting. Even if it had, Dagny might not have pulled away again.
“Come with me,” Zadie whispered.
“Where? Where would we go?”
“I don’t know. Don’t you see? That’s the best part. We can take the train back to the city, and from there…I don’t know!”
A whistle, high and loud and long, interrupted the stammering. Coming toward them, bigger and faster than Dagny could ever have imagined. The two of them stepped back from the tracks seemingly just in time, the wind making their hair and shirts fly. People were in the front car, waving and yelling and tossing pretty pieces of paper out the windows. Zadie was next to her, hopping and yelling and waving back. Dagny could only stare.
The train was supposed to bring the world to her. Not take her world away.