“All aboard! Next stop Biloxi,” Anna and the guys heard over the intercom in the dining car. The train pulled away from the Gulfport, Mississippi station, continuing on its way to Florida. They had already passed the Bay of St. Louis station stop.
“Anna,” Matt teased her, “are you sure this train is safe? The drink in my glass on the table swayed a little just then as the train was pulling out. You’re not planning on jumping off at one of these stations along the way, are you?”
Anna attempted to give him a mean look, but her heart just wasn’t in it.
They had been traveling for a couple of hours after leaving the New Orleans station. Their tickets had included meal vouchers, so it was an easy decision to leave their suitcases in their seats after they departed and had their tickets punched, and head to the dining car for a late night snack.
However, Anna was getting sleepy sitting in the dining car, and looked like she was ready to find her seat to go to sleep. He and Jackson could stay up and talk, but let her get some sleep. Either they could stay here in the dining car for a while, or go to the seats on the lower level of their car. She seemed so sleepy that Matt’s teasing and insults barely registered on her.
“Leave her alone, Matt, it’s not her fault,” Jackson defended Anna.
She leaned against Jackson’s arm in the booth, looking sleepier by the minute.
“Sorry. I was just trying to lighten the mood,” Matt explained. “She’s about to fall asleep, anyway. Don’t get defensive old man.” Matt believed in facing any new situation with both eyes open. He didn’t remember ever being afraid in his life, especially of flying. He could take care of himself. He didn’t need anyone to feel sorry for him or try to make things easy. It seemed like Jackson was always making exceptions for Anna.
“If I don’t defend her, who will?” Jackson asked quietly.
“OK, OK, Jackson. I’ll leave her alone. You’re right,” Matt admitted. “I don’t have any business attacking the person responsible for us traveling across the country on this slow train to Florida. Why would a person want to fly when you can see the country inch by inch on the backside of this stainless steel ‘mule’ they call a train? Of course, it’s dark outside, so we’re not even seeing the countryside, are we?”
“Matt, come on. Give it a rest,” Jackson grumbled. “Who was it that thought train travel would be an adventure. Besides, the station master told us that the train travels at seventy miles per hour between stations, which is as fast as we could drive.”
“But Jackson, that’s the problem – all the station stops,” Matt exclaimed.
“Matt, sometimes I think you need a girlfriend to give you someone to care about besides yourself. Maybe that would keep you in line. Maybe that would mellow you out just a little bit.”
“A girlfriend? Where am I going to find one of those? Look around. It’s just us three and the waiter, and he’s not my type,” Matt said jokingly, but serious at the same time.
“Maybe Anna has a friend that she can set you up with when we get home. We could double date next weekend. What do you think, Anna?”
“What do I think about what?” she asked sleepily, opening her eyes.
“Never mind,” Jackson told her. “You look like you’re just about ready to head to your pillow.”
“You’re probably right,” she agreed. “You boys can sit up talking all night if you want to, but I do have a meeting tomorrow if we ever get there. And this has been quite a day.”
“That’s what I was saying,” Matt laughed, “if we ever get there.”
“I’ll walk you to your seat,” Jackson told her. “Are you staying here, Matt, or is it time for us to get some rest also.”
“I’ve got a book. I might read on the lower level for a while. You know us dedicated Medical students – always nose to the grindstone, taking advantage of every waking moment to gain another nugget of medicinal truth. If you wake up before me in the morning, just roust me up in time for a quick breakfast,” Matt said. He didn’t expect to have Jackson’s attention any time soon. He knew if he were the one with a girlfriend he wouldn’t be in any hurry to leave her. He grabbed the remainder of the snacks and headed toward the stairs of the dining car ahead of them. “Don’t hurry on my account.”
He walked up the stairs and forward up the hall to the first coach car that their seats were in. That’s the problem with trains, you always have to go upstairs to get to the next car, he thought to himself. He saw Jackson and Anna sit in their two seats as he grabbed his book and pillow, and walked on to the stairs to go down to the lower level.
She spoke to him before he went down the stairs, “Good night Matt. Thanks for coming with me. I really appreciate it. And thanks for making our train reservations.”
He waved to them over his shoulder without looking back. Those two are something, he thought, as he continued down the stairs in the coach car to the seats on the lower level. Several people were reading, but the earlier card game was over. Opening his book, he switched on a reading light and found the place where he left off.
For some reason he couldn’t concentrate on the words tonight. Jackson’s comment about a girlfriend hit closer to the truth than he cared to admit. He did need a girlfriend. He knew it more than Jackson did, but just knowing it didn’t solve the problem of finding one?
He had dated several girls in high school, and as an undergrad in college. One of them had been a nursing student, and would have made a good enough companion. She had been funny, and had the potential to be successful as a nurse. But he knew she was really dating him at the time as a friend, and he also knew the day she met the man she married. She had gone to play tennis with the guy, and he heard her telling another friend later that evening how wonderful the tennis game had been. It was not long after she graduated from nursing school that she had married the guy she met on the tennis court, and Matt had been history from the time of that meeting.
Matt contemplated a few minutes longer, then was joined by Jackson in the lower level.
“That was quick. I wasn’t expecting to see you for hours,” Matt admitted.
“Why not? Anna was too tired to talk all night. She just wanted to go to sleep. This has been a tough day for her. Personally, that coke has me wide awake. I should have asked for something caffeine-free.”
“What’s the story there, anyway, with Anna? Why’s she so scared of flying? I don’t get it,” Matt wondered.
“I thought you knew,” Jackson told him. “It’s because of her folks.”
“Her folks? Doesn’t she live with her aunt and uncle in Metairie? What’s her folks got to do with it?”
“Actually, when she was little, I think maybe nine years old, she lived with her parents in Kenner, not too far from the New Orleans airport. Do you remember the plane crash in 1982 in Kenner?”
“No, not really.”
“Anyway, a plane crashed not far from the airport into several houses in a neighborhood. The plane hit Anna’s house. Her parents were killed in the crash, along with several neighbors in their houses.”
“You’ve got to be kidding, Jackson.”
“No, it’s the truth. She told me that she was in the house in her room playing at the time. She walked away from the house without a scratch.”
“Wow. I didn’t know. I thought she just didn’t like being up in the air – you know, scared of heights or something.”
“She’s told me she still has nightmares about the crash. She remembers seeing the flashing lights of the fire trucks and ambulances, the bodies covered with sheets lying in her yard, the smell of smoke from the burning houses and airplane, and the sight of the plane in the center of her smashed house. It must have been terrible. I’ve prayed so many times that God would take away her fear.”
“Sorry, Jackson. I didn’t know. I’ll apologize to her tomorrow. I may be an insensitive clod sometimes, but I wouldn’t have given her such a hard time if I had known.”
“From what I’ve seen, she doesn’t like to talk about it,” Jackson explained.
“I feel like such a jerk making fun of her,” Matt said. “In fact, if I had known, I could have worn black to the airport this morning.” Even if he tried, Matt couldn’t help making a joke to avoid the seriousness of the situation.
Jackson smacked him with a handy blanket from a nearby seat.
“Hey, what was that for?” Matt asked. “You could have worn black too.”
Jackson smacked him with the blanket again.
“Sure, Jackson, it’s terrible having her parents killed that way. I’ll be the first to admit it. But come on, it’s time to get over it. That was eleven years ago. She’s a wonderful girl – bright, cheerful, pretty, and fun to be around. She’s got it all. But you’ve got to admit, she went nuts on that airplane this morning. I’m surprised we’re not all in jail right now, after that stunt of hers –
trying to open the airplane door after we started moving.”
“Yeah, Matt, she did go nuts. I saw that too. Fear can be a very real thing. I pray every day that God will take that fear away, and give her peace.”
Matt didn’t want to say it, but he didn’t put much stock in praying. He had done an experiment once. There had been something that he wanted really bad, so he prayed to get it. In the end, he didn’t get whatever it was. Prayer didn’t work – he knew it. He also knew Jackson would disagree if he mentioned his experiment, so instead he asked, “Do you believe God will answer your prayer? How do you know God is even listening when you pray? In fact, how do you know there even is a ‘God’?” The last question was asked quietly, with more seriousness than he usually showed.
“Matt, I’ve told you that I’m a Christian. So is Anna. By faith I believe that God sent His son, Jesus Christ, to die for my sins. I’ve accepted Jesus as my Savior, and invited Him to be Lord of my life. God cares about all of us. He hears our prayers. He loves us, and wants what’s best for us. Will He answer our prayers – I firmly believe that He can, and whether or not He does is totally up to Him.”
“That all sounds well and good, but how do you know there even is a God? Have you actually seen Him? You know me, Jackson, I’m more of a ‘hard evidence’ kind of guy. Show me God, and then maybe I can believe too.”
Jackson had an answer. “Matt, think back to your parents. How do you know that they really are your biological parents? How do you know that you weren’t just adopted as a baby, and simply raised to believe that they are your parents, but they really aren’t?”
Matt thought about that question for a couple of minutes. “I don’t know. That’s a good question. I’ve never thought about it before. I’ve just always believed that they are my parents, I guess, because that’s the way they’ve always treated me. They have pictures of me when I was born, and of them holding me as a baby.”
“Pictures can be faked. But they do call you ‘Son,’ and you call them ‘Mom and Dad,’ right?” Jackson asked him.
“Yeah, of course. What about it?” Matt replied.
“You’ve always believed their word that they truly are your parents.”
“Yes, of course. Like I said, I’ve never had any reason to doubt it,” Matt told him.
“In the same way, Matt, God’s word, the Bible, says that if we accept Jesus as our Savior, we are God’s children, and have access to the Father through prayer. By faith, I believe God’s word, just as by faith you believe that your parents are who they say they are.”
“It makes sense, Jackson. I understand what you’re saying. But I still need some hard evidence. Intellectually it makes sense, but I just don’t know if it really is real. Besides, my parents have baby pictures that show a young version of me. And as I get older I look more and more like pictures of my dad when he was younger. There is some evidence to the validity of my parents actually being my parents.”
“I pray that some day you will get that hard evidence that will help you believe in God just as strongly as you believe in your parents. Who knows, maybe God will use me to give that evidence to you.” Jackson was quiet for a few moments before continuing. “Sometime when we’re at Anna’s house, you should ask her to show you the picture from the day of the plane crash.”
“Picture? What picture?”
“She was nine years old at the time – not a baby – just a little kid. When she showed me the picture, she told me that she had been sitting in bed when the airplane hit her house. She said that right after the crash a woman with bright blonde hair came into her room and led her out to safety by the hand. The woman spoke nice words to her. Anna said she was still holding the woman’s hand and looking up at her outside the remains of her house when the cameraman took their picture. The picture shows her in front of a crashed house, with her hand outstretched, and looking up. But the funny thing is, when you look at the picture, no one else is in the picture beside her. The picture is really clear and up close – you can even see the burn marks on her arm. But what gets you when you look at the picture, is the look on her face. You can tell she is seeing someone, but no one else is in the picture.”
Chill bumps ran up and down Matt’s back. For some unknown reason, that picture seemed vaguely familiar to him. “Wow, that’s kind of a creepy story,” Matt said. “Are you sure your girlfriend’s not some kind of a psychic or something?”
Jackson agreed. “It is kind of an interesting story, isn’t it? When she showed me the picture, she asked me one question – ‘Why me?’ She wanted to know what made her special. Why did she survive when her parents didn’t? Why did the woman help her and not her parents? Did anyone else see the woman, or was she some magical being only there for Anna?”
“What did you tell her, Jackson?”
“I didn’t know what to tell her. I know God watches over all His children. Maybe since she was in such a traumatic situation she was able to perceive spiritual beings that others of us can’t see. There is a Bible verse that says ‘Be careful to entertain strangers, for some have entertained angels unawares.’ Maybe there are angels all around us, and we just don’t recognize them as such,” Jackson replied.
“I think maybe you’re going off the deep end, my friend,” Matt told him, with a ready smile. “Reel it back in before I loose you completely. Next thing I know you’ll be lighting candles and holding séances in the back room at home.”
“Matt, I’ve always been up-front and honest with you about my spiritual beliefs. I believe that Jesus saved me from my sins when I accepted Him as my personal savior. He keeps me here on this earth to do His service, and will take me home to Heaven when I die. It’s very simple, really. You can accept Him too, you know.”
“I know, Jackson. You’ve almost persuaded me. I’m just not ready right now. Don’t put too much pressure on me. Besides, like my dad says – ‘I’ve never killed anyone, or stolen anything, or done anything else really bad, so why would God punish me if I haven’t really done anything bad?’”
“We’re all sinners, Matt, even the best of us.”
“I know, I know, I know. It’s too late for a sermon tonight, preacher.”
“Don’t be surprised if I keep working on you, my friend,” Jackson assured him.
“Oh, I’d be surprised if you didn’t. Of course, now you’ve got me wondering if I’m adopted. Thanks a lot, Jackson.”
“My pleasure,” Jackson joked.
Matt yawned and stretched. “I’m bushed, man. I think I’ll make a trip to the bathroom, then try to get some sleep. Although, I think I may stay down here where there’s a little more leg room. I must admit – Anna was the smart one – she went to sleep instead of coming down here with us to talk. Too bad she didn’t get that room she requested, of course then I wouldn’t have had anyone to talk to, would I?”
“Come on, Matt. You know that I believe premarital sex goes against the Bible. The Bible teaches us to wait until marriage for that. What if something were to happen between us, and our relationship didn’t progress forward? What if we both ended up marrying someone else? I know that I wouldn’t want my future wife to have had sexual relations with some other man, so why would I want to do the same before marriage with Anna?”
“I hear you, man. But hearing is not the same as refraining. Isn’t the temptation great.”
“Yes, the temptation is great. But my Savior is greater. He tells me to wait,” Jackson explained.
“You’re a good guy, Jackson. Anna is lucky to have you.”
“I’m not good by any means. But I am forgiven, and I strive to be better every day. Now, where are those bathrooms?”
“Around the corner, I think.”
A few minutes later, Jackson was back in the lower level seats with his pillow.
“Change of plans, Jackson?” Matt asked.
“Anna’s got stuff piled all over my seat, so instead of waking her I’m camping down here too.”
“OK,” Matt yawned. “I’ve got my pillow down here too, although I doubt if this rolling carriage ride will allow me to get too much sleep.”
Earlier, after Jackson escorted her to her seat, and then went back downstairs to talk with Matt, Anna was tempted to just lie back in the seat and fall right to sleep. What an exhausting day it had been! A quick trip to the upstairs bathroom allowed her to change into a long baggy T-shirt and pale blue pajamas pants, brush her teeth, wash her face, and brush her hair.
Back in her seat, the gentle swaying of the train soothed her and relaxed her, almost like swinging in a hammock. Fighting sleep for a few more minutes, she opened her Bible and read a few verses. She felt the train slowing down for the Biloxi station. She glanced at the schedule lying on the seat next to her and saw that after Biloxi was Pascagoula, then Mobile, then on to Florida. A glance at her watch showed that they were still over thirty minutes behind the published schedule.
Jackson had challenged her to read her Bible every evening before bed. Sometimes it took effort, like tonight. Other times it was easier. She read the chapter, and said her prayers. She was asleep as soon as she laid her head back on the pillow in the seat.