The locomotive whistles, a train’s usual high, but at the same time low sound, piercing the coal-smelling, dusty air as we take off down the tracks. We start out slow, then gain speed in the first thirty seconds. People are all around me, hoping we’ll get to Chicago for the Christmas Fair without any disturbances. I look out the window that I’m lucky to have a spot next to to see New York City’s brick buildings rushing past me. I can spot them in the distance as they're coming up, but they seem so far away. Yet before I know it, they’ve passed, and then they’re running away from me. They’ll probably be completely out of my sight in just a few seconds.
Someone’s elbow jabs against my waist. A little kid bumps against my hips. A man starts smoking, releasing the noticeable smell of cigarettes into the already bad air.
Like most people, I hate crowds- but I especially hate them in small spaces. It feels so tight, though the photos I’ve seen of train cars make them look open and airy. I’ve never been on a train before- I didn’t know what to expect.
I go inside my cabin, grabbing today’s edition of the New York Times from it’s spot on a small desk before sitting on my bed and taking a look. The front-page article reads “Pearl Harbor Attacked by Japan, 2,403 Dead, we will be going into World War II”. What? I read the article, and then read it again, and again, and again, and again. Why did this happen? How did this happen?
On the other side of the very un-soundproof walls of the cabin, I can hear that the other people have also heard the news, and they’re gossiping about what this means for our country.
“We were so focused on the east, we forgot about the west.”
“I still don’t think we should’ve joined that war.”
“Will my husband have to leave to go fight? Will he come back?”
It takes me a second to realize I’m now standing back in the crowded train car, with even more ruckus then before. Everyone is too busy talking, crying, revelating to notice anyone else. Five people are collapsed in a pile on the floor. No one cares about anyone else. Is this how life will be now? Everyone for themselves? Will we be safe?
That’s definitely what lots of people think, going into their cabins. I’d do the same, but mine is in the same car as the crowd, and I want to get as far away as possible. That must be why I left my cabin. But I can’t remember it… everything is spinning too fast for me to even process what I’m doing.
How did this happen?
I figure I’d just thought the words again, but when everyone turns to face me I realize I’ve just said them aloud. No, I’ve yelled them. At the top of my lungs. So I go near the front of the train. I balance on the metal pole between the front cabin and the coal car until I’ve gotten to the center of it. I sit down, looking off into the distance. We haven’t even left New York yet- it’ll be a while before we reach Chicago. We’re definitely in the outskirts, though. Young boys are carrying papers and yelling, “READ ALL ABOUT IT, PEARL HARBOR HAS BEEN ATTACKED!” The streets are just as frantic as the train if not more, and this isn’t even the busiest area of New York.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
I nearly fall off, I’m so startled. I turn around to see a figure in all black, shoveling coal to fuel the train. They probably took a break from their work for a second to open the door, however.
“Should I leave?” I ask.
The coal worker raises their head to nod, and I get up. But at the last moment, they shake it. “It’s fine. I like the view too. You should enjoy the ride, not spend it with thirty people in a cramped space.”
“Did you hear the news?”
“About the new breed of hamsters those hikers discovered? Yeah.” Clearly they don’t know- unless they’re joking. But why would anyone want to joke about death and destruction- especially if it will surely lead to even more darker, scarier moments?
How did this happen?
“No,” I say, shaking my head to clear it. “About Pearl Harbor.”
“It’s in the island of Oahu, in Hawaii. I didn’t know about it either, until everything happened. It was bombed by Japan yesterday- it was in the paper, front page and everything. We’re going into the world war.”
The coal worker stares.
And stares some more.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
They shake their head. A strong gust of wind suddenly blows our way, and their hood flips over. I see a woman staring back at me. Black hair, skin a little darker than mine. She’s Japanese. But she’s innocent, too. Her life would probably be full of changes in the coming months, probably not for the better, and she dosen’t deserve any of it.
“Oh,” I whisper. “Come sit with me.”
“I probably shouldn’t. I need to fuel the train.”
“This probably won’t be a long voyage anyway,” I inform her. “It’ll be canceled because of the…”
I stop there. But she knows what I was going to say.
Because of the war.
This ride isn’t the only thing that’ll stop. Life will shut down as we know it. Nothing will be the same, maybe even after this is over.
She bends down to sit next to me. “Okay- I guess I was a bit ahead with that coal. Though I’ll have to go back to work in a minute.”
“The sunrise is pretty, isn’t it?” I ask as she’s sat down. “I’m sure if the air wasn’t so dusty from the train, I’d feel cool morning breezes.”
We sit and watch as the train leaves New York City, heading west, though I know it’ll turn back whenever there’s a chance to do so. We run through some rolling fields, dotted with wildflowers, and soon we go into a lush forest, where I see a doe and her fawn rush off of the tracks to avoid us. It’s so natural. It’s what’s meant to be here, not war or bombings from foreign countries or crowded train cars. And for the whole time, one thing is on my mind- will this beautiful place live through the war?