“What an absolute doll, she was,” spoke a shrill, clipped voice that cut into the fog inside Tommy’s mind. “I was having a gasser over how khaki wacky she was for her joe before he left for England. You woulda thought she was dying with all her blubbering she was doing when she was watching him leave!” The woman’s comments were met with cackling laughter. Tommy’s mind picked up multiple conversations, and a soft, distorted music.
Tommy felt the world around him lurch as his head bumped against a hard, cool surface. The feeling felt good against his feverish skin. Tommy’s eyes felt heavy. His thoughts were a swamp of confusion. He tried to piece together the murky memories, but they were blinded by a consuming light. As the mist lifted, he was vaguely aware of a rhythmic chug that moved through his feet and into his body. Once his senses sharpened back into focus, Tommy forced himself to open his eyes.
At first, Tommy didn’t understand what he was looking at, or rather through. Streaks of color flew past his eyes. It took him a second to realize he was looking through a window as rolling hills and trees whipped past. From behind him, Tommy heard voices again, but they spoke in an accent he hadn’t ever heard before. His eyebrows creased together as cold uncertainty dripped down his spine.
Where was he?
Who was he with?
Tommy knew he had to turn from the window and face the strange voices. It was likely that he was with the police—that the light was a search light trying to find them in the woods. Tommy felt ashamed. What would his parents think? They’d probably scold him and ground him for life.
But, why was the world in front of him moving away so quickly? Nothing outside the window look familiar. His eyes dropped down to the seat he was in. It was a fabric decorated in zig-zag patterns. Definitely not what he’d find in a cop car. So, where was he? Was he dreaming? Was he out cold somewhere in the woods where the bears would find him and carry him off to their den?
Tommy hoped this nightmare would dissolve before he turned around. Maybe none of this way real. Just like a train in the middle of the woods hadn’t been real. Surely all of this was just his imagination playing tricks on him.
Another bump made his forehead hit the window with a sharp clap. The pain spread across his face as he rubbed the spot. Could he feel pain in a dream? If so, it was a first. Another wave of cackling laughter provoked Tommy. Reluctantly, he turned.
Immediately, Tommy’s heart moved into his throat. His mind frantically tried to decipher the scene he was witnessing, but none of it made sense. He saw a group of women who were talking together from where they sat in lavish seats. Their clothing—square shouldered dresses with short sleeves—did not look familiar to him. The high, rounded ceiling above him did not look familiar. Nothing indicated a reality he understood. The floor beneath his feet shook and rattled. His eyes flew to the passing scenery as he pieced things together. In an instant, a snippet of truth flooded his mind.
Tommy was on a train.
The woods became clear in his mind as a light flooded the night and began to chase him down. Could it be? It was impossible. There was no way.
Tommy heard the high pitched, yet low and crawling sound of a train horn.
Sweat started to collect on his forehead as the train car shook again, rattling over another bump like a ragged breath. His hand went to wipe the perspiration away, but he stopped when the back of his hand scraped up against coarse hair. Both hands went frantically to his face, as his fingers weaved through a thick beard. He continued to investigate himself, traveling up a nose much too long to be his own, to a brow furrowed with wrinkles. His fingers pondered the expression of an older man. He brought his hands down and stared at the thick, calloused palms completed by a wedding ring.
His heart was ricocheting off his rib cage. Tommy felt the sick feeling of vomit collect in the back of his throat. The smell of cigarette smoke from a gentleman hidden behind a paper made him feel lightheaded. The screech of the women’s laughter cut into his mind with its heavy authenticity. The feeling of helplessness consumed him as the train car jumped over another bump, tossing him around like a ragdoll. Frantic fear told Tommy to run, but discouragement and uncertainty made his legs plant to the floor.
What was he supposed to do?
Tommy had no idea as a million thoughts race in his mind. He stared numbly at the fabric seating in front of him. He was still waiting to wake up, but the truth weighed heavier and heavier upon him. This was worse than a nightmare. He never should have gone into the woods. Tommy stared numbly down at his feet as a trapped feeling settled into his legs.
Brisk footsteps approached down the aisle and came to an abrupt stop at Tommy’s seat. The owner cleared his throat, but Tommy didn’t look up.
Tommy didn’t move. The man cleared his throat even louder. Finally, Tommy looked in the direction of the voice. The man was standing with his hands clasped behind his back. The man, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, wore a dark blue coat with eight gold buttons laid over navy blue pants. His large mustache twitched frantically, and his beady eyes shown with desperation.
“Harold, I need you to come with me,” the man said with urgency.
Tommy could only respond with his most confused and bewildered gaping stare. The man leaned in closer and took off his blue, square cap. Tommy saw the word “Conductor” in gold across the top, just above the brim. The man wiped sweat off his forehead with a spotless white rag which he withdrew from his breast pocket.
“Sir, it behooves you to please follow me. A…,” the Conductor paused and peered cautiously at those around him, “situation necessitates your attention.”
Tommy truly had no idea how to respond to the man standing before him. It was obvious the Conductor had mistaken Tommy for someone he was not. The man did not relent, though, and Tommy could tell he was about to force Tommy to his feet.
Shakily, Tommy stood.