Bailey later said that if anyone, or anything, was to take the blame for this whole ordeal, it would be my uncanny knack for strangers, but I say we were merely at the right place.
At a very, very wrong time.
The first things we noticed upon entering the train that afternoon were its only occupants: an old man and an equally old woman. But this was no ordinary couple, at least at first sight.
The woman was a homely looking lady. The kind you'd imagine would have a lot of cats and let passersby urinate on her front lawn. She hummed, playing chess against herself on her lap, a yellow umbrella by her side and a large baseball cap on her head.
The man, on the other hand, was garbed in a much more eccentric fashion. His shirt appeared to be made of soda cans (some of which didn't look as those they'd been cleaned) and he had a garbage bag poncho wrapped around his shoulders. He was muttering incessantly to himself, something like, "I must say, I like cheese. Wait, I don't like cheese? I hate cheese? Ho, ho, ho. Well."
Bailey pulled me to farthest seats.
"Loonies," she whispered.
Well, I couldn't say I didn't agree. So I said, "You know, I'm kinda hungry," and left it at that.
It was about ten minutes into the train ride that the couple took notice of us. They weren't friendly glances, but intense stares, the kind you could only direct into one's eyes. Bailey turned pink and hid behind me, so they directed their intense stares to only me, instead.
Usually, the ailment for the unwanted attention of a stranger is a single moment of eye contact clearly saying, "Yes, you are not so clever. My life is not yours to scrutinize or interpret, and you are unwelcome here. Mind. Your own. Business". One look, and they shift their eyes back to the morning paper, thinking they were either very clever for having evaded your suspicion or otherwise, very embarrassed.
So that's what I did, for Bailey's sake, who had curled into a fetus position in an attempt to disappear.
"You're bothering my sister," my eyes said. "Quit it."
But they didn't look away. Or at least not until the woman, breaking eye contact, picked up her yellow umbrella, opened it with a foom!, and pulled it over the two of them, shielding them from the florescent light.
Now, I wouldn't say that I was superstitious (to the max), but when I have the opportunity to stop a potential catastrophe from occurring, I like to rise to the occasion. And given the already odd situation, having this lady doom us even further was not high on my priority list. So I said, "That's bad luck, you know."
She blinked and looked over. "Excuse me?"
I continued, "Your umbrella. It's bad luck to have it open inside."
A jerk sideways and suddenly, the train jolted upward over some sort of a bump, and began rumbling out of control, a steady cry of high-pitched screeches. With a scream, Bailey latched onto my arm. I flinched, but didn't move. Rumble, rumble, we went. Various times the car began to lose its balance, but it was quickly corrected by some invisible force. And after a while, the company of the car realized we hadn't died yet.
The woman was the first to speak.
"Oh, my." She turned to the man. "What's happened, dear?"
He scurried to the window and pressed his face against the glass, tasting the outside through his cheekbones, garbage bag rustling in excitement. "We derailed. Oh man, oh man, will you look at that. Now that is one fine derailment right there – "
"But we're still moving," I cut in hopefully, desperate to get Bailey's fingernails out of my forearm. "Maybe – "
" – and I also must say," the man continued, "it's amazing we haven't flipped over yet. Or exploded. Or died. Or something. Ho, ho, ho, oh man, oh man."
The two of us stared at him while the woman tried to pull his head off the window. He resisted, repeating that he "must say, we derailed, we derailed, oh man, oh man!" It was at that point that I secretly nicknamed him Crazy Joon, and with good reason, too.
The woman, presumably his wife, gave up with an, "Oh, Harold", and then shut the umbrella with an irritable snap and cracked it over his head. I had a feeling she broke it.
More importantly, however, the runaway train stopped mid-derail.
The four of us were thrown forward. I flew unceremoniously across the train aisle before slamming into a train seat. It hurt, but less than Bailey's fingernails had. Rubbing my head, I got up immediately.
She had landed not too far from me. I limped over and pulled her up, looking out the window, quite surprised to find that a wide expanse of nothingness instead of San Francisco. "So, Bailey. It appears we're in the desert."
Once she had regained a normal breathing pattern, Bailey pointed out to me that this was a "distinctly creepy and unusual situation". I told her I realized this a while ago. We fell silent. The couple had resuming their previous activities, the woman now attempting to continue her game without any of the pieces and Crazy Joon muttering about spitting in rain.
"I'm getting the operator," Bailey said.
I shrugged. "Go ahead."
But, as Bailey found out a few moments later, the passageways to the other cars seemed to have sealed shut, and our adjacent cars completely empty.
So I cleared my throat and spoke up. "Excuse me, but how are we gonna get off this thing?"
"Hmm?" The woman picked a spot on her chin absentmindedly, studying her board. "Oh?" Then, without answering my question, she said vaguely, "What's your name, child?"
"Bob," I said, a little annoyed. My name was Mimi. "And that's Kiki." I paused, and added to save Bailey from obviously unwelcome questioning, "She, um, she's a mute. Very sad story."
"I'm not a mute."
The odd couple snapped out of their reverie, looked fascinated. "Wow," said Crazy Joon, intrigued. "I must say, I don't think I've ever known a talking mute before. Have you, Patty?"
"Oh, no, dear, I can't say I have. You must be very proud, Bob. Your sister is very talented."
Well. So much for that plan.
The four of us lapsed into a somewhat comfortable silence. Yes, it was a little strange (it wasn't everyday your train derailed off San Francisco and landed in the desert), but it was nice strange. I was still hungry though.
Patty and Crazy Joon got up from their seats.
"I reckon it's time to go, dear."
"I must say, I believe it is."
Patty tipped her cap towards us. "Nice meeting you, Kiki, Bob. Toodle-oo."
They strode rather energetically toward the doors, abandoning the umbrella and chess board, cranked it open with their fingers, and skipped out. I watched them run across the desert through the window until they had disappeared from sight, before getting up myself and taking Bailey's arm with me.
Bailey protested, telling me "we just got out of danger and stepping out of this car would be suicide", but I reminded her that she was a mute and pulled her toward the open doorway. Besides, I added, the sun'll cook this car and we'll roast like a loaf of bread, or something.
Right before we left the train, I took the broken yellow umbrella off the seat, despite Bailey's objection, and brought it with us.
We received quite a shock when we found that the rest of our train had disappeared. I assured Bailey that the rescue squad had disconnected each car and flown them to safety, but left our car because, um – they'll be back, I promised.
So we spent the rest of our afternoon sitting in the growing shadow of the car. Bailey noticed what I was still holding and told me that she "told me not to pick it up", but I ignored her and continued trying to fix the umbrella.
"They were cold-blooded killers," Bailey was saying of the couple. "Seriously. We were going to get abducted. And you had to go and talk to them. Don't you know you're not supposed to talk to crazy people? Man, if I hadn't been there, that woman would've skewered you with that umbrella, and that guy? He probably would've tightened that garbage bag around our necks and – "
"Shut. Up." I stopped, and then I quickly added, "Which I say in a completely loving way."
Bailey was too stunned to say anything else. She closed her mouth, crossing her arms, so I turned back to my work, feeling ashamed, but oddly liberated.
It was nearly sundown by the time the umbrella was completely fixed, and a good thing, too, because it had started to drizzle lightly. I told Bailey this was a good thing; of all the days for it to rain in the desert, it happened to be the day we were stuck out here with an umbrella to boot.
She said nothing.
"So." I looked around. "Where to?"
"Nowhere. We're in the middle of the desert."
Huh. I had to admit, she did have a valid point. "So we're just going to stand here?"
"What else are we going do? We're in the middle. Of the freaking. Desert."
So we just stood there, me holding up the umbrella as the drizzle thickened into rain, battering us with increasing intensity.
But as the surrounding land grew darker and the rain got worse, I could've sworn I saw a light sometimes. And not just a light, but many lights, popping up in different places and then disappearing again at random moments. I was going to ask Bailey if fireflies can drown, but she had her back to me and I decided it'd be best if I left her alone.
It wasn't until it was completely night that something truly odd happened. I had been marking the progress of the lights (or desert lamps, as I liked to call them) for a while now, and I hadn't seen so many at one time thus far. They dotted the desert floor, mimicking the nighttime sky, unperturbed by the driving rain.
"Look at that, Bailey," I said. "Absolutely mind-boggling."
She said nothing. Which I considered a good thing, because when the lights disappeared again and then clustered at a point off in the distance, when I pulled both of us away from the car and toward the congregation, she did not resist.
But just as we arrived, a good ways away from the car, the lamps were extinguished in a single wink, and we were left in the dark again. It was then that Bailey spoke up.
"What the hell?"
"Hmm," I said, looking around at the rain. This was highly peculiar, not to mention inconvenient, wet, cold, and a number of highly unpleasant things.
"I don't believe this," Bailey said, edging on hysteria. "Can you see the car?"
Bailey let out an ear-splitting scream and then plopped down, splattering both of us with mud. "I can not believe this! We're in the freaking middle of the freaking desert!"
"You already said that."
She told me to shut up, she couldn't believe this, this was all my fault, she was gonna die out here, what was she gonna do, this mud was dirty, she was getting dirty, and wet, it wasn't fair, she was hungry, damn it, Mimi, this is all. Your. Fault.
"Bailey, shut up, shut up, shut up! You are not the only person in the universe, okay?"
"Excuse me." Someone was tugging on my sleeve.
"Get lost," I barked.
Bailey pushed herself upward. "This isn't my problem. It's yours." She snatched the umbrella away from me, and for the first time that night, I felt the rain. "So you're supposed to deal with it. But no. I get punished too, because you're stupid enough to go talk to some crazy lady about her stupid freaking umbrella!"
"Excuse me, a little help here?"
I turned around to find a fairly wet kid hanging on my jacket sleeve. What? I looked around. We were in the middle of a street lined with – streetlamps. Oddly familiar streetlamps.
Bailey gaped. "What the – "
"Can you help me?"
"Can you get off my sleeve? It's a nice jacket."
"Yeah," Bailey piped up, "can you leave us alone?"
The kid let go of my sleeve, ignoring Bailey, and dug into his pocket. Bailey and I exchanged a glance and then shifted our eyes away, neither of us feeling very clever, knowing we had evaded nothing. He pulled out a cigarette, shielding it from the rain with his other hand, asking if either of us had a lighter.
I raised my eyebrows. Bailey told him that his self-destructive idiosyncrasies were none of our business ("No, we don't") and that he would benefit from a mental physician ("Aren't you a bit young for this? How old are you, anyway?"), but he persisted.
"Look, kid," I said. "Smoking kills. Hooray for lung cancer? At your age? I don't think so."
"Go back to your mom," Bailey added, "we're busy."
"Don't have a mom."
"Well, go somewhere. Else. We're busy."
"As a matter of fact, yes," I said. "And we'd appreciate it if you left us alone for a while, and didn't kill yourself" – I snatched the cigarette from his hand and threw it into the rain – "with these death sticks."
He pouted, looking at the rain batter away at his beloved cigarette. "Shame." The kid bowed to us and started to walk away, down the middle of the street in the rain, but Bailey stopped him.
She collapsed the yellow umbrella and handed it to him. "Here. Take it."
He gave us an apprehensive look, but reached out nevertheless and grasped it by the handle, opening it and shielding himself from the rain. "Thanks." He waved, and then continued walking.
We watched him after a while, the lone yellow blob in the gray of the night. Was it pity? Admiration? It was something, certainly, seeing that kid travel all the way down to the end of the street and into the desert, until he disappeared into the night.
"You know," Bailey said after a while, "you kinda over exaggerated the whole killing thing. He's like, nine. It's not like he'll get it."
"I'm not listening to you."
We stood there in the rain, cold beginning to numb or limbs.
"You still hungry?" I asked.
The two of us limped over to the café next to a train station, both of which we could've sworn wasn't there a second ago.