Fourteen year old Caysee is making her escape from a war-stricken Chicago where her parents died to the hopeful Pacific Republic where she has the opportunity to go to college and be free. She travels with Mac whom she met just before leaving her home town. They Ride the Wagon Train together out of the Northern Province and into freedom, but the escape challenges both of them, and the Underground Network, in ways that changed them and the continent forever. Look for the full book to be released by the end of March.
The trio stood, stretched, and made their way to the stairs that led to the hatch. Bryant stood off to the side and let Caysee, then Mac climb their way from the inside of a dark train car to a thick, overcast morning that was brightened by the greenest grass either of them had ever seen in their life.
“Wow.” Was all Caysee could manage to say when she looked at the sight. A dark cloud cover provided a low, cozy ceiling to the scene. On their left a wide grey river stretched out, its far shores decorated with pine trees in a dark green hue that contributed to the serious color scheme. On her right, foothills full of bright green grasses and small trees led her eyes up to the grey Rocky Mountains, whose uneven white tips took up the entire horizon with arrogance.
Nobody said anything for a long while once they settled on top of the car. The morning was still cool so they huddled together in a bunch to keep warm, but their thoughts were entirely their own. The river guided the tracks along like an imaginary platoon leader, while the mountains stood like soldiers overlooking their travel.
Mac watched the landscape and let the rhythm of the train put him in a kind of trance. All he could think about was being free. Free to enjoy the air cutting across his face, even if it did bite at his eyes. Free to gaze at the water mirroring the cloudy sky, if he looked carefully it was hard to tell where the reflection ended and the clouds began. Free to just be himself and to feel what it was like to know he had a place in the world after all. Free to set his own path, not dictated by others or circumstances, but a carefully thought out path, with meaning and purpose. Free to breathe without worrying if someone was watching him. Free to speak without having to carefully pick through every word. Free to be happy and content in a moment such as this without being afraid to let his guard down.
Free. ”Was there anything worse than being confined? Is there anything worse being robbed of your ability to follow your own path?” He thought of the friends he knew while he belonged to the IP. Not one of them could really choose their own way, even if they felt they were doing so by rebelling against their conditions. He realized now that they were rebelling because it was the only choice they felt they had: join the masses and let Execs dictate their fate, or exercise what little control they could muster and give into the gang mentality of the Posse. Neither choice was optimum. “The only real choice,” Mac decided, “was to take the risk and run toward freedom.” He could see now that he would rather have died in the pursuit of it than let it be taken from him completely.
He almost did die, thanks to his appendix. Mac took a moment to remember what he went through: the painful walk to the abandoned mall – he recalled, for the first time, that Caysee propped him up in some doorway and that he thought she left him for good. Because of Mac’s dreamlike- fever-state, it seemed like days before his friend came back. When she did, he wanted to tell her to just leave him. “Go on. I am so tired I don’t want to move anymore. My mind is outside of my burning hot body and I’m begging you to please just let me lie here. It can’t be much longer and the rest of me will follow. Go. You’ll be just fine without me.”
Caysee’s voice acted like a tractor beam of energy that reached out to catch Mac’s mind and attracted it back to his body, “Come on Mac, let’s get you inside. We got help coming, I promise to take care of you.”
Hell came next, Mac remembered. He shuddered at the thought of it. He remembered Caysee floating in and out of his dreams, forcing him to drink water against his will. Every sip was a silent battle between them; Caysee was always stronger and won.
Hell and Pain. The same knife taunting his body, its blade never dulled and it always found the same opening on his lower right side. Every muscle was cramped and burning from heaving, he could not move without them screaming and stinging. Caysee’s voice sang somewhere up above his awareness, echoing in the heavens far above Mac’s hell, and at the very least reminded him that he was not alone.
At some point a man’s voice made its way down to Mac’s hell and he knew that it was important but he wasn’t sure why it should be. Then magic. The pain went away. Everything was quiet. His body was still. His breathing was normal. He could sense light outside.
He grew out of his hell and closer to the voices. Even though they still sounded faint and far away, Mac knew he was coming back to life.
“Drink, Professor, drink.” He could hear Caysee reading from one of her books, was her voice shaky? Was she crying? She let the book fall to the floor and moved the chair closer to the bed, “I’m so glad you’re going to be okay Mac. I don’t know what I would do if you left me right now.” She held Mac’s limp hand and sobbed into the blanket it rested upon for a long time. Mac was somewhat awake and a bit confused by Caysee’s behavior; he hadn’t realized yet what a close call he had with death. He could sense a kind of relief in the sobbing. Caysee had to be strong for Mac and to do that all of her emotions were shoved aside so that she could make clear, smart decisions. Once Dr. Greg declared that Mac was going to be okay, Caysee could finally let her emotions out. The passage in the Harry Potter book reminded her of every fight they had over every sip of water. It was a memory that triggered her meltdown just now. It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but the relief and exhaustion Mac sensed in the sobbing made an impact on him; no one had ever cared for him like this.
The thought of it overwhelmed him and Mac leaned back slightly on top of the rail car to watch his friend and savior for a few seconds. Caysee’s hair was growing out, its color reminded Mac of the browning wheat fields they passed on the way to Saskatoon: golden? sandy? silvery? He noticed the hair clip was finally getting some use. It was holding the hair from her face and the dragonflies seemed to coast in the wind the way a vulture can glide for hours at a time. Her face was fuller, Mac thought. Her skin was healthy instead of kind of dull, a sign that she was eating better. She held her face straight on, her shoulders square and confident even in the slicing wind. Her lips rested naturally in a half smile. A wave of gratitude came over Mac. Caysee had showed him what a true friend was, someone who stuck around no matter what kind of mess a person might find himself in. Mac had never known this kind of unconditional devotion and now that he had, he was determined to be the same kind of friend.
Freedom. Greens and greys and muted whites flashed before Mac and while he let it all move past him he let all of his old life stay behind, blown off in chunks by the wind, no longer needed, no longer wanted.
Freedom. Deep breaths of air, pure and unpolluted by either chemicals or sounds of bombs and guns. Freedom. The long metal chain carried them both closer. Closer and closer.
Caysee decided she would never get tired of the air moving across her face as the metal chain cut through it with ease. It was good to feel the wind in her hair. “It’s so cool to have hair again!” she thought, “To be traveling and moving again too!” These past few days of moving and adventure had awakened many forgotten memories for Caysee. Most of them were fuzzy, some were quite clear, but they were all memories of going places with her parents. “Are you ready for another plane ride Caysee?” her mother’s voice was nearly audible. She was probably around four and she remembered she was sitting on her parent’s bed, surrounded by neat piles of clothes ready for a suitcase. “We are going to go to the ocean where there’s lots of water and warm sun. Daddy wants to show you the dolphins.” Her mom leaned in to smooth her hair over then kissed her on the cheek, and tapped her nose with her finger, “I love you Caysee Jo.” Caysee didn’t remember the dolphins, but that small fractal of a recollection of her mother was much better.
She suddenly realized that her parents would always be with her, no matter where she went. Every little thing her dad taught her, every story her mom read to her, every camping trip they had together gave her the strength and tools to survive on her own these past three years. A part of them hasn’t died and that part was her.
Of course! Caysee thought about this idea for a very long time while the movement of the train rocked them to and fro. At some point, a feeling of peace overcame her. Understanding that her parents would always be with her and live on in her gave Caysee the sense of peace that she longed for. At last, she didn’t have to hold on to their memories so tightly, they would still be there. At last, she realized she didn’t need to feel guilty for letting them go, they would always be with her. At last, the past she was hanging on to was finally laid to rest, Caysee could now focus on the future.
It’s a luxury to think about the future Caysee thought, the fresh, cool moving air somehow made her more observant. She was used to being in survival mode, only able to look as far ahead as maybe tomorrow, no further. There simply wasn’t the time or energy to consider a future when a girl was always forced to think about eating and a safe place to sleep. Caysee allowed herself to dream for just a moment about teaching in a classroom while the train rocked the three riders back and forth. She couldn’t tell the age group or what she was teaching, but she could picture herself standing in front of a group of people and lecturing. “Yeah, “she thought, “I can do that.”
Bryant sat in the middle of all this thinking and did a fair amount of his own. “I haven’t been along this route in a while.” It was a kind of magic to him that nothing really changed. A fallen tree was new, the river’s bank changed slightly here and there, but the mountains and the green and the vastness of the scene were the same. Solid. Secure. Unmoving. He marveled at the idea, he could always count on Mother Nature. For the thousandth time he thanked whatever gods or fate there was that allowed him the freedom to have the life he had. Bryant knew he was alone and he treasured his freedom . But now, Caysee and Mac captured his attention and held it. For one thing, it was good to have someone his own age to speak with. Most of the Riders that came through that were his age were scared and with their own adults, he never really took the time to make friends with any of them. As he hung out with Caysee and Mac he found himself reminded that he was still a kid in some ways. There was a kind of comfort in knowing he wasn’t an adult yet, that he still had some growing to do. It made him feel like he had a future. He couldn’t see it, just as sure as he couldn’t see around those proud mountains, but he knew it was there and he knew there was a lot of it. He would have to make sure Caysee and Mac were part of it. They were two of the toughest people he ever knew. So many of the Riders were skittish and wary, which made them dangerous because he couldn’t count on them to know what to do in a pinch. But not these two. He was impressed with Caysee’s ability to live on her own. Allen gave Bryant a good idea of her life, but the way she held herself and spoke with confidence intimidated Bryant, and though it made him uncomfortable, he respected her for it. Not many people intimidated him and usually they were much older and wiser for their experiences. She would be a good friend for him. Her confidence was contagious.
He let out a sigh and the three of them shifted their positions slightly but stayed to themselves. He glanced down at Mac, who had shown his own strength and confidence. “He sure does try to be tough, but the kid wouldn’t hurt a fly. He just needs a direction and he’ll be fine.” Bryant didn’t doubt Mac’s ability to work well for the Train or VNET, his passion for helping others was obvious. Now he just had to think where to hook him up.
The wind was growing colder, drops of rain splattered the top of the rail car, the three of them began to shiver and they spoke almost at once the same thought: “It’s time to get back inside.”