Chapter 1. Before the Event
“Geoff, don't let Ben wander off exploring.” Mom repeated the same thing she'd told me at least twice a day since she'd agreed to send us on our own to the grandparents' place. She lifted my six-year-old sister, Franny, from the train station platform for one last kiss.
As the oldest at sixteen, I'd be in charge for the three day train trip, and probably even after we arrived in Heartville. The Grands had a tendency to spoil my brother and sister. Still, all I'd only have to keep Ben corralled and make sure Franny ate her meals. I tried not to think what that would entail, because I was already nervous.
Mom and Dad claim to be Anglophiles, so they named me Geoffrey and actually pronounced it Jofry. And Ben is really Benedict. Then they really got fancy and went Spanish; Franny is short for Francesca.
Ben, who'd never been on a train before, must consider our trip an adventure. Who knew what he'd find fascinating? It certainly wouldn't be anything that could awe me and it might easily get him into trouble.
He ran toward us, followed more sedately by Dad. “Guess what? I can sleep in the upper bunk bed, Dad said so.” That just proved my point about what he'd be excited about. I'd much rather have the larger, lower bed. At least he should be safe. But then where would Franny sleep?
Mom and Dad helped the three of us onto the train. Dad stowed our large suitcase on the lower level, and we marched single file up the narrow, winding stairs to the corridor above. We each carried a backpack filled with a change of clothes, toiletries, and whatever else we thought was essential for survival. Our bedroom for the expedition was the first one we came to. The compartment was too small for all five of us to fit, even with my bed folded into a couch, so Mom took Franny inside first, settled her on the chair in a corner of the room and kissed her. Our parents said goodbye to Ben and me out in the hall.
“The attendant will tell you when you should go for dinner.” Mom smiled, then disappeared down the stairway. Were those tears in her eyes?
Dad handed me some three twenty dollar bills. “You might need this before you get to my parents' place.” Then he, too, was gone.
Ben entered the room before me. “Where's my bunk bed?”
“I think they only open it at night. For now we can sit on this couch thing.”
“Geoff, when will Mom be back?” Franny clutched her stuffed bunny to her. How she could stand the sour smell of Floppy I'll never know. She'd never let it out of her hands long enough for Mom to run it through the washer.
“Franny, remember? This year, we're going to the Grands on our own for three weeks and then Mom and Dad will come to get us.” Would she ask for Mom every other minute? I hoped she'd stop soon.
“But where are we going to eat? I'm hungry.” She pouted. When my sister pouts her lower lip doubles in size so you can see the inside of it and her forehead wrinkles like an old lady.
I didn't know the answer. “What kind of snacks did you bring?” Mom told us each to throw something in.
She dug through the backpack at her feet. “I have raisins, but if I eat 'em, what'll I eat later?”
Ben piped up “Yeah, Geoff, what did Mom mean about an attendant?”
“I think there's a restaurant or something.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “They'll tell us when and where we can go for supper.” Why were they so concerned about food already? We had lunch with Mom and Dad before we drove to the train station.
Ben's attention shifted. “We're moving!”
“Yeah, train's move.” I rolled my eyes.
“No, I mean we're leaving the station. This is awesome!”
Franny pressed her nose against the window next to her seat. “I can still see Mom and Dad.” She waved. “Bye, Mom and Dad. See you soon.”
“They can't hear you.”
Franny turned and frowned at me, then buried her face in Floppy's smelly fur.
Oh, great. Now I made her cry. How could I make her stop?
A woman slid open the door to our room and poked her head in. Medium height and slim, she wore a uniform. “Hi. You three are traveling alone, right?”
I nodded. “I'm Geoff, and I'm in charge of my brother and sister.”
She smiled in a friendly fashion. “I'm Marlene. I'm the attendant for this car. You're scheduled for dinner at...” she looked at a sheet in her hand “...five.”
“Thanks. Ben and Franny were asking about sup...dinner. Which way is the restaurant?”
“The dining car is four cars down. Go through the door next to the stairway and go through the next two sleeping cars. You'll come to the observation lounge. The next car after that is the dining car.” She focused on Franny. “Can I get you anything before then? We have juice and water.”
Franny studied her, glanced at me for permission, and then said, “Orange juice, please.”
“My name's Franny.” She wiped her cheek with the sleeve of her sweater. “Francesca.”
“That's a pretty name.” Marlene turned to me and Ben. “Do you boys want anything?”
Before Ben could ask for something outrageous, I replied, “Bring us both bottles of water.”
“I'll go get your drinks. I hope you know where the toilet is.” She waved a hand to the space behind the tiny sink. “And it's also the shower.”
“Really? Both in the same space?” Ben had to go check it out. “Cool! But what happens if someone wants to shower when someone else is using the toilet?”
“We'll worry about that when the time comes.” I was curious about that, too, but it wouldn't be mature to say so.
Marlene smiled at us. “I'll knock on your door when it's your time for dinner.”
Just then, all the lights went out.
Franny cried out, but before I could comfort her, as quickly as they went out, the lights came back on.
Geoff rested a hand on her shoulder. “We went through a tunnel, Franny. That's all. It's OK. We'll go through a few more. Remember when we made this trip in the car with Mom and Dad and we drove into tunnels under the rivers and through the mountains?”
“I think so. Was it like that?” Her pretty little face scrunched up.
“Now, settle in and I'll be right back with your drinks. And I'll call you in about an hour for dinner, OK?” I looked at each of their faces to make sure they were all right. When I returned with their juice and water, Ben was engrossed in a video game and Franny stared out the window, clutching her stuffed animal.
Knowing they were fine, I continued on to check on the other passengers in the five other bedrooms in the car.
Two men and two women played cards in the second room. They told me their names as I checked them against the list I had, Eddie Tyler and Josh Vega, who shared the room, and Mimi LeBlanc and Abby Block, who shared the next room.
“I work with these two clowns,” Mimi told me, pointing to the two men. “We're headed to a conference in Denver. Josh's girlfriend, Abby, is along for the ride. Josh is such a wuss, he hates to fly, so Eddie and I agreed to travel by train with him.”
Eddie smirked. “Next you'll be telling her our life stories.”
Sarah and Charles Bailey, an older couple, sat side by side on the couch in the fourth room. Sarah twisted a linen handkerchief in her gnarled hands. “Maybe during this trip my husband will be able to see some of the scenery instead of staring straight ahead at the pavement like he did when he drove. I say 'maybe' because my husband's failing eyesight forced him to give up driving.”
I winked at her. “Then the train is a good choice.”
“As fast as the train is going, it's all a blur anyway.” He patted her hands.
In the next room, Patricia Malone read a fashion magazine. Her blond hair and makeup were as finished as the model on the cover. Her teenage daughter Jessica's head tilted forward as she tapped out message after message pn her phone.
“Is Internet service as spotty on the train as my friends tell me?” Jessica stopped long enough to look up at me.
“It depends on the line. This one has some dead spots, but most of the way the reception is pretty good.”
Patricia smiled. “We're on our way west to check out colleges before Jessica starts her senior year in high school.”
I wondered whether they'd intended the trip as an opportunity to spend time together. Had they run out of things to say to each other before they even left the train station? Because, as I left, Patricia went back to her magazine and Jessica to her phone.
A single passenger sat with eyes closed in the last car. He was listed on the manifest as Dr. Reginald Wainwright, Ret. I think that meant retired.
I didn't want to disturb him so I pushed his door open slowly, but he opened his eyes. “Dr. Wainwright, may I bring you something to drink? Tea or coffee, or perhaps some water?”
“Why, tea would be lovely. Thank you, my dear.” He spoke with a clipped British accent and had a salt and pepper mustache and a full head of matching hair. A proper English gentleman. We didn't see many of those on the train from Chicago to L.A. He smoothed his mustache. “You will let me know when I'm to go to dinner, won't you?”
“Yes. Of course.”