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.
“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.
“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.