Susan suddenly opened her eyes and drew a deep breath. She quickly sat up and looked around. Nothing was familiar to her. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead. Her palms were clammy. She felt like it was the first time in a long time that she had inhaled, almost like it felt after diving into the deep end of a swim pool, then finally coming up for air.
‘When did I fall asleep? Where am I now? Why do I feel like I'm moving?’ her thoughts came in a quick succession. She was panicked. Her brain wanted answers now!
She inhaled deeply. ‘Breathe. Just breathe.’
The gentleman across from Susan saw her obvious distress and said, trying to be helpful, “We’re on a train, ma’am.” He motioned with his finger looking down the aisle, signaling that he needed something from someone. Within seconds, a woman neatly dressed in powder blue slacks and a matching vest, a white blouse with a sort of maroon scarf tied around her neck approached the man. The woman obviously worked here.
The man said, “This lady just woke up and needs some water. Will you be so kind as to fetch her some?”
“Yes sir,” the train woman smiled big and wide, “We want to make sure all our guests are comfortable.” Then she hurried away.
The man turned to Susan and said, “I hope that is ok. I am guessing you are pretty thirsty. I was when I woke up.”
Susan nodded. She hadn’t thought about how dry her lips, mouth and throat were. “Yes, water would be great.” Her voice sounded hoarse. Susan tried clearing her throat and looked at the man sitting across from her. He was well dressed and handsome; dark tan blazer, light blue dress shirt, jeans and light brown cowboy boots with a matching belt and a silver buckle. He had a shaved head and stubble growing around his chin and mouth. From the flecks of gray in the stubble, she could tell he was about fifty years old. She thought she detected an American southern drawl when he spoke.
The train woman reappeared with a glass of water. She reached across Susan and placed the glass in a cup holder beneath the window. “Is there anything else I can get you, miss?”
Susan shook her head, grabbed the glass and began to drink. She drank nearly the entire glass of water. The train woman smiled big and wide again, “I’ll be back with some more. You’ve been asleep for a long time.” The train woman winked.
Susan nodded as if to say thank you. The train woman left as rapidly as she came.
The man then explained, “Been riding for about an hour now. When I woke up, you were asleep. Not sure how long you’ve been here. I had guessed that you got on before I did. Hoped you’d know where we’re going.” He paused to look out the train car window. “Certainly pretty outside though.” The man motioned toward the window with a nod of his head.
“No. I don’t know how I got here,” Susan gulped down more water, “and you don’t know where we’re going either?” she asked. Susan felt anxious.
The man shook his head, still staring out the window.
Susan turned to look.
The scenery outside was made up of lakes, trees, wildlife and mountains. As the train traversed the landscape, thick forests moved past swiftly; at other times, it felt like the train was coasting on the tops of the same trees. It was a breathtaking view. Susan looked around the traincar. She counted a dozen people. Two per booth where one sat across from the other.
“No, I have no idea where we are headed. I can only guess,” said the man. He pointed to the smiley train woman who was down the aisle bringing other passengers glasses of water. “All I know is that woman comes by every so often asking if I’d like more water.” The man paused and grinned, “What I’d really like is a whisky, but they don’t serve that here, I guess. Just water.” He shrugged his shoulders.
Susan smiled slightly at the whisky comment. She didn’t drink, but understood that alcohol might be helpful in a confusing situation like this. Susan finished her water and held the glass in her hands. She didn’t like not knowing where she was, how she got there or where she was going. Having the glass in her hands gave her something to fidget with while she tried to process what was happening to her.
“My name is Susan,” she finally said, then fighting for something else to say, blurted out, “Water has never tasted better.”
“I thought the same thing when she brought me some water,” the man stated and then added, “By the way, I’m Jack.” He didn’t offer his hand. He only nodded. Jack didn’t seem nearly as concerned about their predicament as Susan did.
Susan stared out the window for a short time, watching the birds fly across the lake in the distance. The sky was as blue as she had ever remembered seeing it. It looked as if it were a perfect day outside. The train seemed to be picking up speed.
The train woman brought another glass of water and traded Susan for the empty one. “Is there anything else I can get you? We will be arriving soon.”
Jack interrupted, “And where exactly are we arriving?”
The train woman smiled big and wide once again, “You’ll see soon enough.” Another wink. Then she hurried away.
Jack looked at Susan and raised his eyebrows, “I have asked her that question about half a dozen times in the last hour or so. That is the answer she gives every time. I’ve never met a happier individual.”
About a minute later, he asked, “You don’t happen to remember where you were before you woke up just now, do you?”
Susan didn’t answer immediately. As she stared out the window, flashes of memory began to come back. She had been in a store. Her daughter was with her. They had been laughing at a dress. Things went black then.
Susan shook her head, “My daughter, Emma, was dress shopping with me. That’s all I can remember. We were having the best time.”
Jack leaned forward, “I was having lunch with my married son and his wife. We were having Texas barbecue. We were laughing about something one of the grandbabies had done. Next thing I know, I am waking up and riding this train.”
“So you are from Texas?” Susan asked.
“Yes. Born and raised,” Jack replied, “and you?”
“From Portland,” Susan said, “But I have lived all over the western United States. My dad was military so we moved around a lot. My daughter was getting ready for a dance that’s coming up next week. We were trying to find her something to wear.”
Jack asked, “How many children do you have?”
“Just two. Emma is 16 and Brandon is 19. He is finishing his first year at Oregon State,” Susan tucked her black hair behind her ears. Her bracelets clinked against the water glass as she rolled it around in her hands. “In fact, they just bought this silver bracelet for me as a Mother’s Day gift just the other day.” She held up her arm to show Jack one of the dozen bracelets that decorated her wrist.
He nodded again.
“I thought it was nice of them,” Susan said.
“That is nice. Sounds like you have yourself some good kids,” Jack replied. He crossed his legs and leaned back into the seat. The seat reclined a few inches. He placed his arms on the armrests and stared at the ceiling.
“Do you have children?” Susan was fighting for things to chat about. She had no idea how long this train ride would be.
“I have five,” Jack held up his right hand with all four fingers and his thumb extended, “I was with my oldest just before I ended up on this train. The other four are either married or in college. My youngest just graduated high school and will be serving in the military soon.”
“My dad was a Marine.”
Jack nodded again. Susan began to understand that Jack’s head nods meant that he approved of, or at least heard, whatever she was saying.
Susan looked out the window again. The train was really moving quickly now, but she didn’t feel like it was unsafe. The train seemed to smoothly glide down the track. The trees, lakes, animals, and mountains were zooming past. The sky seemed to be becoming lighter and brighter, not so much blue, but more white. In fact, everything outside the window was taking on a white or yellow tint. The greens of the trees, the blues and silvers of the lakes, and the distant purple hue of mountains began to look less distinct from each other. Susan could still tell a tree from a rock and a rock from the water, but all the colors were in a yellow, gold, cream and white palette.
“Do you see this?” Susan asked. She pointed out the window, “Everything seems to be changing colors.”
Jack sat up in his seat and looked out the window, “What do you know? That is something, isn’t it?” He seemed to be scanning the scenery and then said, “This train is really picking up speed.”
The train woman suddenly appeared and interrupted, “Would either of you like more water? We’ll be arriving soon.” Susan jumped a bit and nodded her head, “Yes, I am so thirsty. More water would be great.” Jack just waved the train woman away with a quick motion of his hand.
“I didn’t even hear her. She scared me,” Susan said.
“She’s been doing that this whole trip. She’ll just show up out of nowhere and ask me if I’d like some water and then tell me that we’ll be arriving soon.” Jack shrugged again and then leaned back into his seat. “Would like to know where it is we are arriving, though” he mumbled and then sighed, closing his eyes.
The train woman was back and traded Susan’s empty glass for a full one. Susan drank, but not as quickly as she had the others. She kept looking out the window.
The scenery seemed to be one constant picture even though she could feel the train still moving faster than she had ever felt a train or car move. She could see the details of the deer, the squirrels and the birds in the landscape. She could see the beginnings of trails that led from the lake into the mountains. The colors were warm, golden even. Susan then saw people, dressed in the same tones. It was almost like looking at an old black and white photograph. A man and four boys were fishing. Two women were talking as they cooked over a campfire nearby. The scene looked like a family camping trip. Susan could almost read their lips as they conversed. In fact, Susan thought she could actually hear what they were saying. ‘How is this possible?’
“Jack,” Susan whispered as if the people would overhear her if she spoke too loudly, “do you see the people over there?”
Jack sat up again and studied the scene, “Isn’t that interesting? I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Usually when I’ve traveled by train, the scenery is going by so fast that there is no way to discern any kind of detail like this. It’s like I’m looking at a painting or something.”
Susan nodded, “I can see the detail of their tents, their camping and fishing gear. I can even see their expressions even though they are hundreds of yards away. This is so weird.”
Susan’s anxiety was gone, though. Her heart beat normally, even calmly now. She felt strangely relaxed. ‘I wonder what she put in this water.’ Susan looked around the traincar. All the passengers were looking out their windows now, smiling at what they saw, conversing with their fellow passenger about the scenery outside. Then Susan noticed something peculiar.
“Jack, will you look at that?” Susan pointed across the aisle at their fellow passengers’ window.
“Well, I’ll be…” Jack squinted, even grabbing at some eyeglasses he kept inside his blazer pocket. Jack and Susan were stunned. They both looked at each other in confusion. Jack asked, “Do you see that? That’s the Paris cityscape outside their window.”
Susan pointed, “And the one over there is of the Grand Canyon, and there’s one further down that looks like some sort of glacier.”
Jack added, “And the one over there behind you is a landscape of something you might see in an African tundra. This is impossible. We are all on the same train, right?”
The train woman abruptly appeared and took Susan’s glass from her hands. The train woman winked again and was about to leave.
“Excuse me,” Susan asked, “me and my traveling companion here have some questions. What kind of train is this and where exactly are we headed? How is it possible that each window of this train car has different scenery?” Susan looked at the train woman expectedly then added, “And what did you put in the water that has suddenly calmed me down?”
Susan noticed that the train woman’s clothing had changed to white, her blouse was a cream color and her scarf was deep gold. She smiled the same toothy, wide smile, “We will arrive in just a few minutes.” And then she turned and was gone.
Jack laughed, “Welp, I told her that she only had one thing to say. Guess we won’t find out what’s going on til we arrive...wherever that is.”
Susan turned back to the window. The man fishing had now put his pole and gear away and was now just skipping rocks across the lake. He looked up and began waving. Susan looked around to see who he might be waving to. The boys were now at the campground with the two women. One of the women seemed to be the mother and the other, an older sister. The man in the scene pointed and Susan could almost hear his words, “I’m waving to you, Susan. I am looking forward to seeing you again.”
Susan gasped, putting her hand to her mouth. “Jack,” she whispered, “That man just waved at me. I think he even said my name.”
Jack studied the scene, “What do you mean he said your name? How can you hear him? He’s hundreds of yards away and he’s outside!”
Susan shook her head with her eyes wide and mouth open.
Jack definitely saw the man smiling and waving at Susan. “This is impossible. Where are we?” Jack whispered to himself.
Jack’s attention moved to the two women and the boys at the campfire. He pulled his glasses back on his face. He continued to mumble to himself. The younger woman looked familiar. “If I was a betting man, that young woman is…” He didn’t finish. Jack focused his attention on the younger woman.
Jack and Susan continued to stare out the window, studying the people they saw. The older sister now looked up and began waving as well. She waved to Jack and said, “Jack, it’ll be good to finally meet you.” Jack took off his glasses and pinched the top of his nose, then rubbed at his eyes, ‘Now I’m seeing and hearing things, too.’ Susan and Jack waved back at the man and the woman.
Jack said, “Susan, you’re not going to believe this, but I think that younger woman is my grandmother. I recognize her from a family photo album I used to look at when I was a little boy.”
Susan smiled, “You’re kidding me? Because I was just about to say that I think that man is my Grandpa Great. I only knew him as an old man. He died when I was little.” Susan began to study the rest of the family. “Oh my gosh! This can’t be happening.”
Jack looked at Susan quizzically, “What can’t be happening?”
“Jack, I really do think that man is my great grandfather. He used to tell us stories of camping with his four sons. That means the woman is my great grandmother, and those four little boys are my grandpa and his brothers. The one with the suspenders is my grandpa. I’d recognize his grin anywhere. The younger woman? That’s gotta be his oldest sister. I think her name was...”
Together, they said, “Lucille.”
They stared at each other. Jack smiled, “Lucille was my grandmother. She died after giving birth to my dad. I never knew her.”
“So, my grandpa and your grandma are brother and sister?” Susan quickly added with glee, “So, that makes us cousins?”
“Wait, so where is this train going?” Jack asked, “What did your grandfather say to you just now when he waved?”
“Just that he was excited to see me again,” Susan replied thoughtfully.
“And Lucille said that she’s looking forward to finally meeting me,” Jack trailed off.
Susan explained, “Jack, if they know us and they’re both dead, that must mean that…”
Jack laughed and smiled big, “...this train is literally going to the end of the line.”