The overnight train journey connecting Seattle to San Francisco had been largely uneventful. I’d spent most of the evening counting the number of decrepit abandoned buildings dotted along the railway line, and watching fields whizz by, as dusk settled on the land. The loneliness of the journey was compounded by the fact that I was the only one in my carriage.
Again the soft tugging brought me swimming back to reality. Turning around in the obscure light, I saw a little boy, looking up at me with big moon shaped eyes.
“Hey Mister. Are you awake?”
The boy appeared to be no older than 4 or 5 years old, and he was carrying a little red backpack over his shoulders. His bright blonde hair was matted with globs of gel which gave him a spiky punk look. A thin trail of snot ran from his nose, which he smoothed away with a shirt sleeve becoming more luminous with each subsequent swipe. I peered around the cabin, eventually spotting a woman in her 40’s in a darkened corner, asleep under a blanket with two young children nestled against her ample bosom, also sleeping.
“Is that your Mother?” I asked, nodding their way.
“Yeah,” he said looking back over his shoulder. “We only just got on the train and they already fell asleep. But I can’t sleep Mister. I’m bored!”
I smiled and looked at the boy, then over at his mother, mouth wide catching flies.
“Well it’s getting late, maybe you should stay with your family in case they wake up,” I suggested.
“No. My mama just had her pills,” he sulked, hopping up on the seat beside me, fixing his backpack on his lap. “They make her sleep real strong. I’ve got to stand guard until we get to Safran-cisco.”
“What happens when you get to Safran-cisco?” I asked, glad to be making conversation with someone again.
“That’s where Daddy is, silly!” he said, smiling broadly at my apparent lack of insight.
“Oh right. Of course.”
The boy began unzipping his backpack, and carefully emptied out some of the contents onto his lap. A big sketching notepad was opened and he fished a big red marker from a zip pocket. Evidently preoccupied, I turned my attention away from the boy and out again to the landscape. It was still dark outside, and I could only make out several buildings nearby that shone dimly in the moonlight. My head propped itself on a fist against the window, and I felt the vibrations of the train, the ripples strangely comforting.
I closed my eyes, and began to think about her. About what I’d say. She would greet me at the station, with a warm embrace, perhaps with tears streaming down her face. I couldn’t be sure. It had already been two months since we had last met, but this time she would be carrying a child inside her. I hated myself for being so stupid. A child was the last thing we needed, but she persisted, insisting that it would bring us closer together. Strengthen our connection, which had been weakened with my job transfer to Seattle. I wasn’t ready for a child. I was finding it difficult enough trying to keep a long-term relationship together, let alone building a family. I would have to tell her. There was no other way.
I felt a familiar tug at my elbow again.
“Mister? Are you asleep?” the boy asked.
It made me smile at that moment. To be a child again without worry.
“No. I’m not asleep. I’m just thinking.”
“Oh.” The boy said. Then suddenly remembering something, his eyes lit up. “I drew you a picture!” he exclaimed. “Do you want to see it?”
“Sure.” The boy opened up his pad to the centre pages, and revealed his portrait.
“It’s you!” he said. “Do you like it?” he quickly sucked back a slug of snot that had threatened to fall off his lip and blot his artwork.
The giant red figure was mostly head, with a scruffy beard (not entirely inaccurate), and sausage fingers (17 in all, I counted) on a stick body. A rectangular box housed the person, with an attached adjoining box carrying a smaller shape, a second person. It had a looping smile and sharp lines poking out of the top of his head.
“That’s me,” the boy said proudly. “I’m driving the train to Safran-Cisco!”
I laughed out loud and the boy looked at me, his enthusiastic face suddenly turning sour.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“You are laughing at me. You don’t like it.” His face began to cloud and was close to tears.
“That’s not true!” I replied. “I really like it. You made my day.”
“Really?” he asked, with some caution.
“Yes! Really! It’s a great picture.”
We both began laughing and the boy beamed delight at his new creation and began smoothing out the creases on the page. I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed out loud, and it made me feel good again. Then I noticed the expression on my character’s face.
“Why do I have a frown in your picture?”
The boy looked at me and shrugged his tiny shoulders.
“I dunno. I just drew you, and you seemed sad.”
“When? Just now?”
The boy nodded his head, and went back to his drawing, shielding his hand around his work so I couldn’t see what he was drawing.
“I’m not sad,” I said, to no one in particular, “It’s just that, I’m going to see my girlfriend and our baby, and we need to make a big decision together. And. It’s just. Scary. And. I don’t know what to do.” The boy paused for a moment and looked up at me, and then he went back to his drawing.
I looked out the window again to distract the mental noise in my head. A few minutes passed in silence.
“I guess, I just need to…I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
I sighed heavily, and tried to manoeuvre a comfortable groove out of the rigid seat. After a short while exhaustion took over and I eventually fell into asleep.
Upon waking, light filtered through the curtains and suddenly invigorated me. I felt my spine aching to stretch itself out after hours of sitting idly. The boy was still seated beside me, fast asleep with the red marker hanging from his hand. His head hung loosely on his neck and he breathed shallowly through his only unblocked passageway. I gently prodded him on the arm but he toppled back over to my side of the seat, his head resting suddenly on my shoulder. I was about to wake him, when I suddenly noticed a loose page peeping out of his scrapbook, the unfinished piece he had been working on, just before he had fallen asleep.
I picked it up.
It was drawn with more detail than the last one.
Inside the rectangular box, there was a woman and two smaller children, with ‘Zzz’s’ coming out their mouths, suggesting they were asleep. Again, like the last picture, the driver of the train was the boy, whose outstretched hand appeared to be waving to the final group on the platform.
Here stood a tall man with a beard, beside a woman, and between them a little child with a pink skirt.
I noticed the big smiles on the faces of the families, and I began to cry. Perhaps it was going to be alright.