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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Waking - No. 15

Harriet stormed for the front hatch.

"No," said Sargent.  He grabbed her wrist and halted her departure.  "You can't go, Harri."

Wheeling on him, Harriet poured out all the aggravation swelling over the past hour.  "What do you mean I can't go?"

"You have to stay," said Merry, "we have to do this."

She smiled that sweet smile she used on their most difficult clients, the ones who didn't understand why their cryofunds couldn't be instantaneously transferred across the solar system.

"This way," said Sargent.

Harriet scowled when he tugged her arm, crinkling her suit’s plastic sleeve.  His unrelenting grip convinced her to traipse down the hall and into the sitting room before he decided to simply carry her back inside.

The circular arrangement of high backed stools remained unchanged from when she'd turned away from the threesome and sought the exit.  Sargent led her to the hip-high glass table cleared of cups and dishes, digital readers and holographic resolvers accompanying a regular evening.  Tonight, all such niceties had vanished, leaving room for their collective judgment.


"No."  Harriet tried wrenching her arm free, but Sargent wouldn't slacken his grip.

"It's for your own good," said Benny.

He planted his massive hands on her shoulders, raised veins poking from his pallid skin and strengthening his gaunt fingers.  When he pushed down and Sargent stepped forward, their combine efforts undermined her knees and Harriet stumbled against the table's edge before plopped like a spattered bug upon the glass.

Curling her legs up and under her, Harriet clasped the vacuumed zippers threading the chest of her suit.  "I don't understand why you're doing this."

"It's time for you to go," said Merry.

"What do you think I was trying to do?"  She swept an angry hand at hatch lost around the corner and the trio flinched as one.

"You can't go that way,” said Sargent, “not again."

"Lay down," said Benny.  He patted the glass like a pillow.

Harriet shook her head.  "This is insane.”

"Then indulge us," said Merry, "and it'll be over that much faster."

Shooting them each a glare, Harriet found the heat in her gaze no match for the coolness in the sky-blue eyes they each shared.  Even their features seemed to copy the same ubiquitous white, something natural sunlight might have once countered; but then, she reasoned, there had to be a sun to shine.  Their oval faces and the dark trim on Sargent and Benny’s hair along with Merry's pixie bob complimented each other, like a set of dolls.

Shuddering from the eerie comparison, Harriet raised both her hands in defeat and stretched out on the glass.

"Try and relax," said Benny.

With a snort, Harriet stared up at the curved ceiling, the ribs on the capsule vanishing into the bulkheads.  A window filled the section overhead, revealing an array of stars whose names flitted from her memory.  She saw, instead, her own dark haired form lying on the glass, stared into her robin's egg eyes, and gaped in shock at the paleness of her skin.  She touched her rigid cheek bones, the purpling rings beneath her eyes, and raked her dry tongue over her flat and lifeless lips.

Something, she realized, is wrong.

Merry laid a hand on her forehead, her touch cold, like metal.  "Close your eyes."

"This is crazy," whispered Harriet, but staring at her reflection, her defiance wavered.

Merry's smile returned but its lack of warmth, of depth, made Harriet's stomach sink.


Harriet glanced at Sargent, his attention absorbed in a panel to her left and then Benny who scowled at monitor appearing in the wall.  They tapped on screens, creating beeps and swirls of light.  The sudden cacophony seemed to harmonize after a moment and then the bleeps mimicked her speeding heartbeat.

Seeking some kind of solidity, Harriet found Merry's downcast gaze.  "What's going on?"

"You're going home," said Merry.

She slipped her hand down until her palm and long fingers covered Harriet's eyes.  In the unexpected darkness, Harriet lay still.  Moments passed, one no different than the one following.  She started counting.  When she reached twenty, she tried raising her arm but discovered her hand too heavy to lift and shove away Merry’s blinding grasp.  She attempted to twist her head, but her neck remained as rigid as the capsule’s bulkhead.

Instead of looking at the blackness of Merry’s palm, Harriet closed her eyes and fell into the rhythmic beat of whatever program Sargent and Benny had started, the one matching her heart's quick drum.  The pulse sank into her body, making every pore throb until she felt certain her skin would leap off her bones.  One beat led to the next, and the one after that, creating an endless string of unbroken notes in a repetitive monotone.  She tried tallying them, but soon lost track and simply gave into the dull tune and the encompassing black.

"...out of it," said a voice beyond the darkness.

Meredith, reasoned Harriet.

Opening her eyes she found the woman's plump face, mousy bangs and too-thick glasses hovering at her shoulder.  Meredith's brown eyes glistened with fresh tears, the first spilling over cheeks bunched in a beaming smile.

"I knew it."

A hand touched Harriet’s arm, the skin fiery warm.  "Welcome back."

Swiveling to the other side, she found Barry.  His half grin appeared between the lumberjack beard bloomed from his perpetual stubble.

"How are you feeling?"  Shawn stepped into view and laid a hand on her leg, pressing the downy sheets onto her skin.

"Fine...."  Staring down at her body, Harriet almost didn't recognize the spindly frame hidden by peach-hued cotton.  She lifted her hand and found tubes of fluid disappearing into her flesh, needles in her veins, and plastic stripes and gauze taped to her arms.  "What happened?"

Meredith adjusted her glasses, her frown deepening with worry.  "You don't remember the accident?"

Harriet gulped.  "Accident?"

The slick road, the pelting rain, the screech of tires and brakes, and the slamming crash flung to the forefront of her mind.  She covered her eyes with her pierced and bandaged hand, finding some solace in the darkness and the galaxy swirling in her sights.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Special Order - No. 13

Trent heard the whispers first.  The low murmurings undercut the throbbing radiating from the base of his skull and beating like bongos on the back of his eyeballs.  He squinted and flinched from the bright beam of light slicing through the crack of his lids.

"It's awake."

The callous clarity of the statement made him shudder.  Gritting his teeth, Trent forced his eyes open and peered into the surrounding neon glow.

Shadows moved beyond the column of light and he lurched away when one skulked to his left.  The effort nearly toppled him from the chair he found himself adhered to at his ankles, waist, and wrists. 

Glancing down, he spied ducted tape circling the lower half of his torso and down his bared arm, the dull silver a contrast to the baby-blue of his uniform’s polo shirt and the jazzy logo at his breast.  The adhesive smell blended in with the remaining musk from the pizzas and his deodorant’s efforts against the sweat beginning to pop out from every pore. 

He jerked his arms, but merely wrenched his shoulder, aggravating his old pitcher's injury.  Steeping in frustration, new and old, he squinted at his surroundings.

Concrete at his feet sent his heart thudding.  The trailer park’s homes had all been on cinderblocks, even the one he remembered knocking on right before....

Frowning he sought the details of his last moments of consciousness.  He'd parked his hatchback alongside number 22, gone up to the front door and banged on the screen’s frame.  Footsteps preceded the door swinging open, revealing the girl. 

His first thought had been approval for her bronzed limbs, then a surprising concern for her short-shorts and plastered tee-shirt and how they might fare against the October chill.  Her smile had been warm enough, as had her invitation inside only until she'd found the cash for the extra large vegetarian with extra olives, of course. 

He remembered thinking his evening had taken a brighter turn, redeeming his miss of Mike's Halloween party and discovering what Missy Callahan had concocted for a costume this year.

When the door had closed behind him, though, he recalled the blur out of the corner of his eye while the girl's hip sway had magnetized his gaze.  Then the world had gone black. 

Until now.

Another shadow joined the first, one at either side like prison guards.

Trent scowled and looked between the two.  "What the hell's going on?"

One of the shadows drifted to his right.  "Do you still think it will work?"

"The height and weight are what is needed," said another voice on the opposite side of the beam, a soft soprano whose familiar timbre made his skin crawl. 

"But the attitude is...combative."

"We'll manage."

"We must."

Trent shook his head and glowered into the darkness where the girl and the other shade conversed over his head.  "Who are you?  What the hell is this?"


"It can be broken," said the girl.

"Listen," said Trent.  "I'm not sure who put you up to this but you better let me go or I'm going"

"It is aggressive, but not particularly creative."

"Not many are."

"Did Mike put you up to this?"  He started laughing and looking about for the camera.  "Very funny guys.  Happy Halloween to you too.  Now let me go or Vinny's going to have my hide."

"What do you think a Vinny would use its hide for?"




"Another avenue to explore."


"Give me a break."  Trent jerked his arms again and wiggled his feet.  The duct tape held and he slouched back into the chair.  "What do you want?  Money?  The tips are in my wallet and the cash box's under passenger seat."

The shadows floated around until they stood behind him.  Out of sight, he felt their attention on his shoulders, on the lump the bat or club had generated at the back of his head.  Their voices, however, had gone quiet.

Besides his breathing, he couldn't hear another sound.  Not the ambient noise of the trailer park or the streets beyond.  No trick or treaters squealing and knocking on doors in search of candy, or the older kids snickering with more mischievous intent.  Basement drips and the hum of electricity failed to puncture the stillness, leaving the black outside of the beam like an impenetrable bubble separating him from the world he knew lay somewhere outside.  Or, at least, he hoped it did.

"What is it?"  He craned his neck, seeking another glimpse of his wardens.  "What do you want with me?"

For all the creepiness in the girl's soprano, he would have given anything to hear her voice.  Instead, the light started dimming.  Some primal instinct warned him of the shadows moving closer, and Trent felt suddenly certain they were able to claim whatever it is they sought.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Donor - No. 8

Irene dove into my chart again. 


Frowning, she flipped through the tabbed pages a second time.  She seemed to find whatever number, ailment or past injury she wanted and hummed, a long sound full of speculation. 

I squirmed on the examination table, the paper sheet crinkling against the cloth of my scrubs and the curves of my naked body underneath.  She'd already inspected me inside and out, but at her thoughtful grunt, I suddenly felt exposed.


Glancing up from the pages, Irene collected herself with an apologetic smile.  "Do you have a second?"

"Sure,” I said, in no rush to return to the blueprints and to-do list waiting for me at the firm, “what for?"

"I need to check on something." She drifted to the door. "But I'll be right back."

"Okay."  I gulped and forced my tongue to ask the question no one wants to ask their physician.  "Is everything all right?"

"I think so."

Her half grin failed to reassure my heart which started sprinting as if to attempt my first attack. 

"Go ahead and get dressed," said Irene. 

She swept through the curtain and then the door and I jolted when it closed with a snap, like the bars of a cage.  The curtain hushed into stillness and I tried to mimic its drooping calm. 

Hopping off the examination table, I focused on my pile of clothes and in sequence began donning on each layer meant for the snowy outdoors rather than the sterile interior.  The turtleneck and corduroys provided a snug defense and, after lacing my boots, I plopped back onto the dented paper seat marked with my backside. 

Swinging my legs, I perused the brochures about ailments I hoped to never contract, the labeled drawers, the biohazard box, the lamps and jars of swabs, anything to avoid letting my thoughts wander.

"You're fine," I whispered, wishing speaking to myself sounded less crazy. 

Smoothing the wrinkles from my shirt, I homed in on every passerby striding past the door with the squish of thick soled sneakers, clomp of snow boots, or clack of heels.  The scale outside squeaked when someone's height and weight were taken, the scribble of the nurse's pen overriding their hushed discussion.  Another door slammed.  Someone laughed.  Computer keys tapped with information being input into their new electronic system.  All of it seemed to spin around me like a top, with me in the center, watching the world going by and waiting for it to stop.

I jumped again when Irene knocked.

"Come in," I said and folded my hands demurely into my lap lest they reach out and shake the words from my Doctor's mouth.

"Sorry about that," said Irene, pushing through the curtain.

Her eyes were on my chart but when she closed the cover she set it down on the counter beside the monitor with its login screen.

I wet my throat with another long gulp.  "What's going on?"

"I noticed your blood type," said Irene, laying her manicured hand on the manila file, "and that you had put yourself down as an organ donor as well."

I shrugged.  "If I'm not using them anymore someone should."

"Well, that's what I wanted to ask you about. We have a patient here who’s in need of a transplant and I wanted to see how you felt about it."

I laid a protective hand on my belly.  When I’d ticked the box I’d expected to be a mess of gooey parts to be passed around in the hopes of helping others, but I never imagined myself conscious for their distribution. 

"What kind of transplant?"

"Bone marrow."


"Whoever might be compatible and willing to undergo the procedure.  I'm not sure you are but I thought I'd ask. We've been having trouble finding a viable donor."


"Biology can be fickle.  Just because people share the right blood type or history doesn't mean their cells are going to cooperate."

"So...what would I have to do?"

"There are a few tests to run, to check and see if you're a good candidate."

"Let me guess—"

"Yes, there will be needles involved."

I shuddered.  A sledgehammer or a saw I could probably deal with, but the idea of those damn pointy little things sliding under my skin, into my veins, sucking out bits of me through my flesh sprouted goose bumps across my body.

"Maybe I shouldn't have brought this up."  Irene collected my chart and shoved back the curtain.  "I'll see you—"

I held up a quieting hand and tried not to notice the trembling in my fingers.  "What's wrong with them?"

"Leukemia.  He's been going under radiation therapy and it's taken a toll on his ability to generate new red blood cells.  I'd hoped we find another way to get him back on his feet, but we're running out of options."

"It's that bad?"

"Yeah."  She clutched the folder to her chest and her shoulders sloped beneath her lab coat, the weight of this man's life pressing down on her petite frame.  "He's here if you want to me him."


"Just down the hall in the lab."


I felt embarrassed for my hesitation.  Whoever this was, they needed help, help I might be able to give, and here I was shy about even saying hello.

"You really think I can help him?"

"I don't know,” said Irene.  “I probably shouldn't have divulged as much as I have to you but his situation's getting kind of dire.  I'm finding myself grasping at straws."

"Maybe I should think about it first.  Read up on what it means.  I don't want to get his hopes up or anything."

"He's pretty levelheaded, but I understand."  She fetched a business card from the rack on the counter and scratched a number on the back.  "This is my cell.  Call it if you decide to try."

I took the card in both hands and stared at the scrawled digits.  My gut grumbled again, mixing my anxiety with guilt. 

"He's really important to you?"


Irene looked down, but not before I caught her blinking rapidly.  She brushed at her eyes, where I imagined tears had been about to fall.  My stomach twisted. 

"He's my step brother."

"Oh.  I didn't realize."

"How could you?"  Irene sniffed and lifted her chin.  Her eyes glistened but she smiled and stuffed away whatever emotions had threatened to boil over.  "We've gotten pretty close since my mother's death and well...I'm the doctor in the family.  I'm supposed to make things better."

"Sounds like you need a magic wand."

"If only."  With a weary sigh, Irene laid a hand on the knob.  "I'll walk you out."

Sliding off the table, I collected my coat from the rack and shoved my arms through the sleeves.  Warm and bundled, I had a sudden impulse to give Irene a hug, to try and make things better. 

"Are you sure you're okay?" 

"I just need a little fresh air."

"You're the doctor."

"Right," she said, the sarcasm in her tone biting.

I followed her from the room and we dipped into more pleasant banter about my holiday skiing plans, and the presents she’d found for her kids and those on the list.  Wending the hallways, we passed by the laboratory with its large windows covered in closed blinds and framed by brightly painted molding.  A laugh slowed me, and I peered through the open door.

Charlie beamed at one of the nurses, his apple-red cheeks as round as his bald head.  Weary bags drooped beneath his eyes, a darker purple than all our nights cramming for finals.  He'd lost the muscle mass from his years playing of basketball, his frame almost brittle beneath a woolly sweater and baggy jeans.

He noticed me staring, and the nurse, about to dab at his exposed arm with its tourniquet band, turned.

"Can we help—" She cleared her frown when Irene came to my side.  "Dr. Maven."

"Hey sis," said Charlie, waving with his free hand.  He raked his fingers over his scalp and then the lopsided smile, the one that pinned a dimple onto his cheek and started my pulse galloping, appeared. "Hayley."

My stomach flipped flopped and nearly bowled me over.  Of all the people in the whole damn world, it had to be him.

"I'll do it," I whispered.

Irene touched my shoulder, medical professionalism succumbing to her empathetic bedside manner.  "You’re sure?"

"Yeah," I whispered, returning Charlie's wave, "I'm sure."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Answering the Call - No. 5

I didn't let my forced smile drop until the doors closed. 

Sunlight warmed the pasty air-conditioned chill from my cheeks, and car exhaust, pollen, and the stain of summer-heated asphalt washed over the pleasantries coating my tongue.  I spat into the uniform grass, hoping to expel the rest of the last two hours of handshakes and hollow banter, but I couldn't shake Allan Martin's perpetual smirk or the haughty look of his assistant, Fitz. 

It might have been my résumé, the wrinkles in my tie, or the answers I’d given to their barrage of delicately prodding questions worming into my personal life, my work ethic, my reasons for being unemployed for the past six months.  Perhaps it was all of the above.  At this point, I no longer cared.  Despite what my bank account might argue, they could take this job and shove it into one of their cramped cubicles.

Fishing my keys from my slacks, I scanned the parking lot, noting the six-figure vehicles in the nearest marked stalls.  The price tags decreased with each stride from the glass-façade towering at my back.

I had the key to my hatchback, made mine by the muddied axles and the scrapes from my last venture out of civilization, in hand when the phone rang.

The classical tune bellowed and I stared at the invisible notes of the unfamiliar ringtone emanating from my suit coat’s pocket.  Trading my keys to my other hand, I dug out the device. 

The screen illuminated with Kristine's face, smiling like I'd seen her smile on our better days, full on teeth and dimples.  My thumb swept over the green button before the fact it wasn't my phone I'd be answering reached my better judgment.



"No."  I met my reflection in the driver's window, ensuring I remained who I thought I was.  My fresh haircut made my ears stick out the way they'd done since second grade.  "It's me, Jared."

"What?  I can't—"  Static bombarded the line.  "I know—" Another hiss cut her off.  "…work.  But Jane's—" More static peppered by growing panic.  "  Okay?  Just come—"

The phone cut out completely.   I looked down at the options for making another call and the thumbnails of various other applications Allan had downloaded. 

I waited for the phone to ring again.  It didn't. 

I waited for a text message but none appeared. 

Neither did a ding indicating new voicemail, not that I knew how to answer it.

Kristine's voice, however, looped through the static filling my ears, the worry and concern in her tone hanging onto my suited shoulders like the summer swelter.

When my mind began churning again, it flung guilt at me first. 

I should have been the one she'd been calling, but all that had ended five months ago when the unknown future had finally created too large a gorge between us.  She'd obviously moved on and the knowledge stung like lemon juice on a paper cut I hadn't known existed.

Allan's smirks suddenly made a lot more sense, and the tiny slice on my fingertip turned into a slash across my guts.  He'd known the whole time and had made me dance like a puppet on strings.  I could see the satisfaction in his spectacled gaze, no doubt watching once competition now toadying for a job.

I balled my hands into fists, or would have except for the phone I still held.

Choices started pummeling me in the head before I had a chance to strike anything else.

Go back, urged my wounded gut, while my darker nature began a sailor-worthy assortment of curses and colorful expletives I couldn't source. 

Another round of guilt socked my stomach and I found myself turning from the blow.  Regardless of the past’s baggage, something had happened.  Kristy had called for a reason and as much as I didn't want to admit it, she needed help, she needed to reach who she thought she'd called.  She needed Allan Martin.

Reaching the tinted glass of the front doors, I depressed the intercom. 

“Excuse me.”

From his island desk, the security guard looked up and frowned.  He pressed a button behind his wall and his voice popped through the speaker.


I licked my lips, suddenly finding myself more wary than I'd been upon my initial arrival when I’d been all smiles and self-confidence.

"I think I have Mr. Martin's phone."

"Say again?"

"Mr. Martin's phone."  I waggled the device at the glass, feeling a sudden surge of sympathy for the moron waving at me.

"One moment."

The line cut off as neatly as Kristy's had.  Peering through the glass I spied the guard bustling at his desk.  He lifted a receiver to his ear and within a few seconds, the lobby's elevator split open.

I rolled my eyes and turned my back, not wanting to give Fitz the impression I'd been anxiously waiting as long as I’d been anxiously waiting.  A thud indicated the locks on the front door deactivating and when I swiveled around I met his pitted eyes and pointed chin accessorizing his pin-striped suit.  I took some solace in the fresh sheen of sweat on his pale cheeks.

"I think—"

"This must be yours," said Fitz thrusting a phone nearly identical to the one I held. I recognized the tell-tale scuffs, however, from the skid it'd taken when I'd pitched it like a stone across my coffee table and then my studio’s hardwood floors during my final exchange with Kristy.

"It is," I said taking it and holding out Martin's. 

Before he claimed the phone, Fitz narrowed his beady eyes.  "You didn't touch anything?"

My ire rebound.  "No." 

He gripped the offered end but I found myself unable to let go.

"Someone did call, though."

"And you answered it?"

"Yeah," I said, finally releasing the phone, "I thought it was mine."

Fitz pursed his lips and stared at the screen. 

"They didn't leave a message," I said, then suppressed the urge to kick myself for the obviousness of the statement.

"Who was it?"

"I think I'd rather tell Mr. Martin directly."

Fitz aimed his chin at my nose.  "Mr. Martin's already in another meeting.  I assure you I can convey any details he might require hearing."

"Fine," I said, suddenly inundated with a fresh desire to put as much distance between myself, Fitz, Martin, and the whole institute as possible.  "The call was from Kristine Balk.  The line was full of static but it sounded important, something about her daughter and a hospital."

With his lips forming a sour pout, Fitz eyed the screen again.  "I see...."

"You need to tell him, right away."

Fitz began closing the door.  "I'll do so at my earliest opportunity."

My palm burned when I slammed my hand against the glass and kept it ajar.  "He needs to know.  He needs to call her back."

"I'm sure Mr. Martin will know how to handle this situation.  I'll be sure you mention your cooperation although I must say it will not have any kind of effect on your application."

"I'm not worried about my damn application, I'm worried about Kristy."

I snapped back when my own words smacked me across the face, and my blockading arm fell limp.

"Then perhaps," said an unflustered Fitz, "you should be bellowing at her door, not ours."

He yanked the door shut, the bolts locking with quick snaps.  I stared at my own stunned expression.  Then, looking through my wide-eyes and the tint, I spied Fitz at the security guard's desk.  Fitz threw back his head, implying a laugh from whatever the jibe the guard had released.  Then they both glared at me, the guard across the expanse of his desk, Fitz over his suited shoulder.

"Get going," I whispered. 

My plea to Fitz fogged the glass and obscured my view of their snarky expressions.  Pivoting, I showed them my back, feeling lame at the sole recourse left to me.  I stuffed my hands into my pockets, gripping my keys in the fist I wanted to punch into that pointy chin.  When my fingers tried the same clench around the beveled edge of my phone, I stopped short.

My phone.  My numbers.  Kristy's number and the picture from our trip to the Key's two summers earlier.

I seized the phone and found myself peering at the screen, my thumb hovering between the eyes of my mirrored gaze.

Kristy's worried voice crackled in my thoughts amid the recent static.  Her harsher and more joyful tones tumbled together, their timbre soften by time and creating a muddied cacophony between my ears.

She needs help, my gut prodded.

She needs Allan, countered my dark side.

“No,” I whispered to them both, “she needs me.”

Friday, May 4, 2012

Last Stop - No. 346

The train’s jounce knocked Linda's head against the windows and out of her doze.  A muffled blare on the intercom, however, had her jolting upright.

"Careful," said Kyle, protecting his laptop against her spastic arm with a raised hand.

"I think this is it," said Linda.

"What?"  Kyle plucked out one ear pip, his metallic techno blaring.

"Our stop."

"You sure?” He squinted at the sign across the aisle.

She stared at the same banner denoting the train’s stops, the faded and scuffed vertical columns of characters unintelligible.

"I heard it," said Linda.  She bent down and yanked her backpack from the square of space by her feet.  "Move or we'll miss it."

"Okay, okay, my battery's almost out anyway." 

He shut down his laptop and squirreled it and his headphones into his bag while others seated in the cramped rows began to rise. 

Standing, Linda kept her head low, avoiding a smack on the overhead grate holding boxes with chirping chickens,  tattered suitcases, and an assortment of crated fruits and vegetables half of which she couldn't identify.  She tapped her toe while Kyle worked into the aisle, clutching his bag to his chest like a giant averse to hitting the heads of those seeking their vacated seats. 

Following him out, Linda locked her gaze on the double doors at the end of the cabin, spying the bug spattered glass through the standing crowd.  Holding her backpack up against the ceiling, she wound through those remaining on board.  With Kyle tight on her heels, she joined the departing clump and they swayed as one when the train slowed and then screeched to a stop. 

The doors opened and the mob began another tussle with those on the platform intent on cramming inside.  Caught in the current, Linda stumbled through the door and out of the compartment. 

Stifling air hit her like a wall, giving her the sudden impression she hadn't stepped off the train at all.  Pressing bodies going every direction at once proved otherwise, and Linda sought refuge from the flow by an iron post supporting the shallow awning shading the platform. 

Kyle's blonde head and sun-reddened face floated above the dark-haired masses moving with precision.  She heard him apologizing and countering the locals’ frowns or speculative glances with a timid smile.  Covering her laugh behind her hand she waited for him maneuver through the throng.

"Are we camping out?"

Linda slung on her backpack and clicked the straps around her waist and at her collar bone.  "Give it a minute to clear out."

The dispersal took less time.  While the train wheezed and churned up speed, everyone else on the platform vanished.

"See?  Now we don’t have to rush."

"Somehow I'm not reassured," said Kyle.

"What do you mean?"

He pointed across the tracks, where another sign, this with freshly painted characters, hung askew.  Linda's stomach dropped to the concrete.

"Where's that?"

"I don't know," said Kyle.  "You're the one with the travel book."

"Well...yeah, but didn't you hear what the conductor said?"

Kyle cinched his bag's straps and looped his thumbs at his arm pits.  "Nope." 

With a huff, Linda dug into her bag, fetching the aforementioned tome along with the phrase book. 

"Here," she said, shoving the latter into his chest, "we might have to ask for directions."

"Oh, that'll be good."  He took the book and started flipping through the pages.

Meanwhile, Linda sought the transportation chapter with the map of train routes.  She planted her finger on their destination, and then compared it to the sign across the tracks.  Scowling, she drew her finger along the purple line they’d been traveling.  No stop came close. 

Backtracking to where they'd boarded in the pre-dawn hours, she traced the other brightly colored lines until one name finally matched.

"Oh no," she whispered.

"That one's not in here," said Kyle, his eyes on the phrases.

She shot him a silencing glare.

"We got on the wrong train," said Linda.

"You make it sound like I should be surprised."

"Worried is more like it."


"Here’s not exactly on the map you know?  There's not even a section on this place in the book." 

She waggled the tome then held it close.  Peering up and down the tracks, she fought against the anxious bubbling in her stomach and the coating of sweat on her palms.

"It's no big deal," said Kyle, closing his book and glancing at the tracks.  "We'll get on one going the other direction and start again."

"And arrive somewhere else we don't know in the middle of the night," said Linda.

"Better than staying put."

She sighed.  "I guess so."  She swept her gaze around the platform.  "Can you see a timetable?"

"How about over there?"  He tipped his book at a cluster of flyers and pinned pages attached to a plywood plank fastened to the wall beside a shuttered window. 

Walking over, Linda perused the collection and stopped at a faded set of columns half hidden under murky plastic and other notices.

"Check this out," said Linda, pushing the obscuring pages aside.

"Can you make any sense of it?"

She tilted her head to one side and then the other, but neither angle provided any illumination.  "Not really."

The shutter over the window folded back with a slap and they both jumped back.  A round face as wrinkled as a crumpled piece of paper appeared beneath the tight coil of a snow-white bun.  The ancient woman said something Linda interpreted as Hello.

She fumbled through her reply, and then she pointed to herself. 

"Lost college student," she said, accentuating the words. 

The woman's wrinkles deepened and she retreated.

"You scared her off," whispered Kyle.

Linda shot him another glare, but beneath the thud of a ceiling fan, she heard murmurs and a moment later a younger man she guessed might be the woman's son by his silvery hair and shallower furrows occupied the window.


Hearing the stuttered but familiar greeting, Linda’s heart started racing. 

"Hello.  Could you help us?"

His face creased and his mouth warped into a helpless smile full of yellowed teeth.  "Sorry...."

Linda waved off the apology.  "My fault." 

She snatched the phrase book from Kyle, and flipped to the T's.  Finding train, she worked up a question about the time of the next inbound one with mimed taps at her watch, points toward where'd they come and alternating words for train and when. 

The old man seemed to grasp her meaning after the third performance.

"Ah," he pointed at her watch and she stuck out her arm.  With a callused fingertip he touched the seven and then jiggled his hand back and forth noncommittally.

Kyle inched closer.  "Do you think he means in twenty minutes or at seven o'clock?"

"Why don't you ask him," whispered Linda while bobbing her head in appreciation.

The old man beamed and brought his fingertips to his lips.  He made a beckoning motion and then waved toward the end of the platform.  Linda followed the gesture and heard a screen door swing open.  The ancient woman stepped out, braced on the doorframe and with a grin of missing teeth.

"I think they're inviting us inside," said Kyle.

"I get that," said Linda.


She met Kyle's eyes.  "Do you think it's safe?"

"What do we have to lose?"

"Your laptop, our passports, our money."

"I think I can take the old man, if you can handle the little old lady."


He took her elbow.  "They're waiting, and we’re being rude."

Linda sensed the old man's rapt gaze through the window.  He bobbed his head again and motioned at the door as if the repetition would ease her disquiet.  Giving in, she nodded, then let Kyle guide her along to the screen door where the ancient one ushered them inside.