A gentle slowing brought me back toward the shallow end of sleep. My eyes opened, but I slept for a few moments longer while they gazed out vacantly. The first thing I remember looking at and actually seeing was the window. Everything outside was gray with a touch of soft yellow. As the day wore on, the air around us would take on more of this color, but it never really brightened. The clouds and the fog were so thick, daylight never quite penetrated at Station Three.
I looked out the window at the greyness that passed by. I had slept like a soldier in the trenches, expecting danger and ready to transition from rest to action in an instant. I awoke with a perfect recollection of what had transpired the day before. My mind had dwelt upon the situation while my body rested. Now, conscious once more, I slipped right into the grove that had been worn out for me. The train continued to slow, and I knew that we were arriving at the next station.
It seemed that I was the only one awake. People were sprawled about the floor or slumped over in chairs, as though everyone had fallen asleep at the same instant wherever they stood or sat. At last, the train came to a complete stop and everyone gave a slight rock forward and back. The doors slid open without a sound. Thick, grey mist poured into the car. Tendrils crept along the floor, obscuring it from view. I was serene. I sat and watched, not feeling any kind of urgency to waken the others, or rise in readiness.
No sound came from beyond the doors. Except fog, I could see nothing of the outside world. It was a blank canvas. It was void of all content, and yet held all the potential of the imagination. Anything was possible of Station Three. Everything was contained within its undefined borders. I waited motionless, patient, and curious.
Presently, a small face peered into the train car. A hand grasped the side of the doorway, and a boy hoisted himself inside. He looked both young, and small for his age. His feet were bare and ruddy, as though he always went without shoes. A threadbare shirt hung from his shoulders, once blue, but now faded to the grey of the fog. His skin was the color of chocolate, his hair black, his eyes clear and big. He turned his head about until he saw me looking at him, and then approached with his hands stretched out.
“Help us!” he implored, and took my hand. I rose, and he led me to the door. Each of the passengers opened their eyes and took deep, first breaths, as if they had been waiting to awake until the question of Station Three had resolved itself. They squinted at the boy and I, suddenly conscious and accepting of this new reality. I stepped down into grass, and let the others follow as they were ready.
The boy still held my hand as we walked. The grass was long and damp, wetting the cuffs of my pants. I could just barely see the ground through the fog, but the view cleared a little ahead. We stepped out into a dirt yard and stopped. Several passengers clustered close behind us. The boy squeezed my hand and I looked down at him.
“We are sick,” he said. His voice was strong, but heavily accented. I knew the words were foreign to him, perhaps the only he knew of our language. He looked out into the yard, and I followed his gaze. The mist cleared, and I saw that the yard was full of mattresses placed haphazardly about. Other children laid on them without sheets. The nearest was only a few feet from me. Letting go of the boy’s had, I went to the mattress, and knelt down beside it. A girl looked up at me, gaunt and breathing with difficulty. She was feverish. I stood and looked across all the other beds, all the other children.
A wooden crate sat nearby. I tried the lid and it gave way under my hand. I pried it off, nails and wood creaking. Row upon row of small, glass vials sat inside. I picked one up and looked at the green liquid inside. Other passengers crowded and looked over my shoulder. I passed the medicine to someone and lifted the entire set of vials. Medical needles waited underneath.
I grabbed up a handful of each and went to work. Kneeling back down next to the girl, I filled the needle from the vial. I took her arm and asked her to hold still. The girl looked up passively, her lips parted. I knew she didn’t understand. As gently as I could, I stuck the needle into her vein and pressed the plunger. I stood and cast the spent needle away.
“Like this,” I said to the other passengers. “There is enough for each of them.” A line formed at the crate as more people arrived from the train to help. The medicine worked quickly. As I attended to my third child, I looked up to see the first girl standing next to me. We smiled at each other in shared joy, she in her renewed health, and I in seeing that I had aided a helpless orphan, for so I knew her to be. And she did look healthy, as though even the memory of sickness had been washed away.
We fanned out as we worked. Those whom we had helped followed us. Before long, we had a crowd of children playing and shouting behind us. I reached the edge of the dirt yard and injected the last child who laid there. I stood and looked back. The mattresses had been cleared away. The children chased each other, clapped their hands, and sang. I still held one needle and one vial of medicine. The boy who had led me from the train returned to me and held out his arm. He who had first asked for our help, and so saved all his friends, had waited to be treated until the end.
With a smile on my face and tears in my eyes, I shot the liquid into the boy’s arm. He smiled back at me. It could have been my imagination, but to me his face looked fuller already. He turned and ran to join his friends. We passengers also gathered together, congratulating ourselves on a job well done. The children hovered around us, wanting us to play, but knowing that we needed to go.
As a group, they led and herded us to the edge of the dirt yard. Fog still surrounded the borders, and it was only when we were right upon it that I saw a path leading away. The children stood, boys on one side, girls on the other, to wave and shout goodbyes.
We all faced them and bade the children farewell. Sincere love swelled in my heart for them. I did not want to leave. But I knew that they would be alright, and that I must continue on. So we turned our backs and started down the path. For a short time, we could still hear the children cheering and calling to us. But the fog was thick around us, soaking up all noise. They sounded incredibly distant after just a few yards. And then, it was quiet.
People shuffled their feet once more, kept rather closer together than was necessary, whispered to one another, occasionally stumbled or kicked a rock with muted clicking sounds. I remembered our walk through the jungle the day before. As we went along, I noted waist high shrubs popping up through the fog to our sides. Further on, these shrubs became thick, and pressed in close. Our path became a thin line through these tightly packed, rugged plants. We walked in single file for some distance.
Without warning, the fog cleared in front of us and the brush opened up to form a well defined rectangle, wider than it was long. We entered into a kind of natural plaza. Directly across from us was a narrow, enclosed gate in the brush. I walked toward it and saw that the gate was either some type of plant that had been trained to grow into the straight lines and sharp angles of the gate, or else it was a structure that had been overgrown with ivy. Beyond the gate, walls of the same type formed a corridor. A man awaited us just inside.
His hair was grey and cut quite short. A moustache drooped long off his lip. He wore no shirt, only baggy, blue pants like pantaloons. His body was hairy and strong, with rounded shoulders and a large stomach. his whole appearance recalled an old world boxer. He held a short shovel in his hands, blunt faced and topped with a hand grip at the end.
“I will not allow you to go further,” he spoke without animosity. He was merely stating his intentions.
“But we have to get past you to catch the next train,” someone called out behind me.
“Anyone who wants to go on will have to fight me. I’ll take you one at a time.” His voice was calm and almost bored. Passengers stooped and picked up shovels from a pile to the left of the gate. I reached in and pulled out a shovel handle without a head. It was full sized, instead of the short shovels everyone else held, and it was heavy. The surface was rough in my hand, not wood, but some kind of unrefined metal.
The man took up the whole corridor. Though there were still many of us, we would still have to approach him one at a time. I was intimidated by him. Not only was he bigger than I, but he also carried himself as one well acquainted with the application of violence. I thought that my chances of besting him were small, unless I was afforded some advantage. There was no way he could take all of us in a row this way, but he was bound to pummel the first few who braved him. I steeled myself to take a beating for the good of the group.
“I’ll fight him,” the words were spoken from behind me. I turned in surprise. One of the taller men in our group came forward, striping off his shirt. The similarities between him and the man who blocked us were striking. They both had mustaches. His hair was also gray, but longer and darker than that of the guard. I felt like a coward letting this man fight. He may have been bigger than me, but it was plain that he was not a fighter. He was in good shape, but he was soft. I knew how this would end. My only hope was that he would tire the man who blocked the corridor enough that I could dispatch him.
The passenger stepped through the gate with his shovel held unfamiliarly in front of him. The guard struck him flat across the face. Our champion didn’t fall, but swung his own shovel in retaliation. The guard blocked the blow and slammed the butt end of the handle into the man’s stomach.
The fight went as I expected it to. Our man impressed me with his endurance. But the only hits he landed were glancing and obviously calculated by our adversary as acceptable in order to deliver a much stronger strike of his own. The guard was strategic, but he fought cleanly. He did not take advantage, but allowed the passenger to recover between each blow. Both men were panting, neither holding their weapons as high as when they had begun. The passenger was bloody. I decided that it was time to take over.
“That’s enough!” I said when he fell to one knee. Other passengers pulled him up and out, and I stepped through the gate. I had studied the guard while he fought. He was stronger and more experienced than I was. But he was tired now, and I thought I knew how to exploit his weakness. If I fought dirty, I had a chance. I would not hold back. Rapid successive strikes and merciless brutality were the cornerstones of my strategy.
The guard threw a casual blow at my head. He was underestimating me, hoping to beat me without much effort. I spun my long staff, knocking the high attack aside and bringing the bottom end up into his knee. He cried out. I continued the motion of my weapon, aiming the end at his head. He moved in time to block the strike, but he had over extended himself, and so left himself exposed.
I abandoned the lateral swinging attacks and drove the blunt end of my staff directly forward into his stomach. His shovel was still held up high to protect his head, he couldn’t bring it down fast enough. He bent under the attack. I pulled back and drove forward again, this time aiming for the center of his face. He was completely unprepared for the final blow. His head whipped back and blood exploded from his nose. He fell hard onto his back, and did not stir again.
Passengers pulled the man out of the corridor, perhaps the same who had helped our defeated champion. I looked for the man who had first volunteered, and found him well. I realized that the guard had not been striking to cause any serious injury. Momentary remorse washed over me, and then I lead our group through the narrow corridor. After a short walk, we found our final train. I boarded the train leaving behind the orphans, a bested foe, a bloodied weapon, and the eternal fog.