The single file line fed up the stairs, one person disappearing at a time like a candy dispenser. I was finally the first in the a line of a thousand faces behind me, no one in front. A man in a blue uniform stood on the stairs, with one foot on a stair and the other in the air, suspending himself by holding a vertical railing near the stairs.
The man motioned me to step up with his hand, to disappear, as he kept his eyes on the line, not on me.
Once inside the train cabin, standing there with all the benches facing me, holding my bags, I was surprised to see that the train was empty. It was empty, but I heard old people coughing and kids arguing. “That’s my paper airplane!” “So, you just made it. You can make another one!” “Mom!” “Quiet, I said be quiet…John, just don’t look at him, just look out the window…ignore him…he’s trying to annoy you…no buts…”
It was suddenly evident to me that the rumors were true. This was no normal train.
I heard rumors of the Train of the Grand Mystical Enterprise of the North and that anyone who decides to ride it disappears from view, but I chose to become a passenger, not to experience this, but to disprove it.
What usually happened was that people, truth-seekers with varying levels of doubt, would ride the train, having heard the rumors from previous passengers that it was all true. Thousands of people would ride the train (the tickets were cheap), standing in the single file line with either impatience or anticipation. After the three hundred and twenty seven mile trip, the single file line would feed back down the stairs and out of the train like a sausage maker, worried, perplexed, or at peace.
In any case, a truth-seeker would go in and come out completely reversed and unable to see themselves in the way they previously saw themselves. The Train of the Grand Mystical Enterprise of the North made its tours, slashing the country in pieces on its brand new railroad, and destroying any truth-seeker that came in its path. And as it continued its annual tours across the country, all the truth-seekers eventually disappeared into its caverns, sucking the land dry of any desire to travel. All truth-seekers at one point in their lives give into their drive and as soon as they give into their drive, they experience a metamorphosis.
The Train of the Grand Mystical Enterprise of the North was such a successful business, because it was based on the premise that all people crave an experience. It promised an experience. Even as a doubting truth-seeker, how could I have resisted the invitation to experience truth?
As I was lost in thought, a man in a blue uniform stepped into the train from the other side of the cabin. He said, his solid voice cutting through the noise of the invisible passengers, “Find your seat, sir.”
“How do I know which seat is mine?”
“Sit down and any seat you choose is your seat.”
I looked behind myself, confused and disturbed that no one was behind me. In fact, looking out the window, it was as if everyone besides me and the man in the blue uniform had become invisible. There was no single file line outside.
I shrugged my shoulders and thought, well, alright, if the TSE approved the train, then I suppose that all dangers have been accounted for. I was most worried that if I simply sat anywhere, I would not only sit on someone, but that I would sit in someone. What sort of damage this might do to a person, I did not know.
The man in the blue uniform, with his hands folded over his brown belt, his blue can hat held onto his head with a strap around his chin, watched me sit in the front seat.
I settled in, comfortable that no one was in my seat. At least, it did not feel like I had sat inside anyone. I am a thorough believer in whatever this train is doing, I thought. I am a thorough believer, I thought. What it all means, of course, I did not know.
“Hello, friend!” said a voice suddenly, coming from my right and making me jump. I turned my head towards it and there was a man about my age – maybe two or three years older – sitting next to me.
“Hi,” I said, “what brings you on this grand mystical train?” He laughed.
“Well, what brings anyone on this train?” he asked, “I wanted to write a report on its illegitimacy, but felt as though I should ride it first. Of course, as soon I stepped into the cabin, it was quite evident that perhaps it is not an illegitimate enterprise!” He laughed. I laughed, too.
“Yes, to be honest, I can hardly conceal my surprise. I came on here to prove its illegitimacy – much like you – but it turns out that I must have been wrong. There is nothing quite, uh, normal about this train.”
“No, no, not at all!” He laughed and so did I. We both laughed together, and being unable to contain the strong emotions I felt, I started crying with laughter and he put his hand over his mouth with his eyes closed and a tear running down his face. I covered my mouth, too, and slapped his arm.
“Oh me, oh my,” I said, “This is all just so absurd, isn’t it? What is – oh man! – what is life even?”
“I don’t know!” he roared, “oh man…”
“Well,” I said, wiping my eyes with laughter still rumbling in my stomach, “I suppose we should move on to something else. It’s clear that we are both (hah!) hys, hysterical.”
He nodded his head, forcing the laughs down, “Yes, I think we should.”
“So, to get the ball rolling, where do you come from?”
“Get out!” I said, slapping his arm. “Where in Western Colorado – if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Oh no, no. I come from Grand County.”
“You’re joking!” I said. He laughed.
“I’m not joking!”
There was a pause as we both looked forward, feeling the train make its way out of the station. I breathed out deeply, letting out the last of the laughs. It was also an opportunity for my face to unredden, which I felt as though I might need.
What sort of coincidence is this, I thought, that he is also from Grand County, Western Colorado? Grand County was a relatively new township, after Colorado spread its borders over into Old Utah. I was part of a mass exodus out of Denver, when the American government legislated a population redistribution. It was not all bad. The government promised any relocated American citizen with a property of their choice whose value is equivalent to their previous property.
The train was finally out of the station and I looked out at the unfamiliar terrain of Montana. What a beautiful state, I thought.
“So,” he asked me as the noise outside the train became consistent, “Were you part of the grand exodus?”
“I was, I was. Aren’t most people from Grand County part of the mass exodus?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said, suddenly wondering if any of the other passengers had appeared like this man had. I turned my head to the bench on my left.
I also thought of us laughing before. It seems so ridiculous now, I thought, that we had laughed hysterically.
“What do you think of the nuclear disaster?”
“Um,” he said, thoughtfully looking forward, “I don’t think it’s all bad. I mean, I am glad that they performed the whole experiment, but they could have set off the plant in a more controlled setting. I mean get this,” he said, leaning now towards me, apparently animated by the whole topic, “they wanted to see the worse that could happen if a nuclear plant went off and to see it in a controlled setting, but why in the world would they treat it as an experiment? Right? I mean, whether it’s an experiment or not, the real life ramifications of something like that are, well, real.”
“No, no, yeah, I am totally right there with you!” I said.
“Yeah, you know, it’s just stupid. The American government really went to hell when they started doing these experiments. I get that they want to prepare us for the worst that could happen once we move to nuclear power, but how does it prepare the American populace for the worst by giving the American populace the worst before the worst happens?! It makes no sense.”
“No, it really does-”
“And, you know what, they could have done it out in the desert. The scientists – I had a friend who worked in one of the labs or whatever they’re called – said they knew what the worst was going to be and wanted to see if they could handle it in a high population density…”
“But that’s so stupid!” I said, interrupting him as he had me, “I mean, first, if they knew the worst that could happen, what is the point? And also, if the worst is frequently an accident, then shouldn’t they have taken into consideration that accidents happen? Even in experiments?”
“Yes, yes, right there with you,” he said nodding his head, “and – plus – it just wasn’t a good call not to tell the public. I mean, fine, you are performing an experiment for our good. And, fine, that sort of experiment is controversial. But they should have at least given any possible affected citizens a two year advance to move out of the area before they did the experiment. That would have been the best move.”
“I, yeah, I…it just gets me so mad. Can we not talk politics?”
“Yeah, sure. I agree. I’m not that political, actually.”
“No, neither am I,” I said, “So then, random question, how many siblings do you have?”
He stared at me, evidently at a loss for words.
“The, the chances of that…” I mumbled, frightened.
“You’re evidently frightened,” he said, “but I am, too.”
We both evidently had the same thought.
“Were you born in a hospital?”
“No, my mother delivered us all.”
He shook his head.
“I am having a crazy thought,” I said. “Do we know each other?”
“I don’t know. But that is a crazy thought. I know what you might say.”
“What is your last name?”
“Mr. Michaels, are you my older brother?”
He laughed, “If I was, it would be as much a surprise to me as it is to you! Mr. Michaels, are you my brother?”
“Wait,” I laughed, “wait, before we go on seeing if we are brothers, from the same family, let’s prove it and determine where we are right now. Psychologically, I mean.”
“Evidently,” he said, that word evidently being a word I felt I used too much and recently used it too much for a personal comedic effect, with a stress on the first syllable, “anything is possible on this train. So we cannot simply rule out the absurd possibility that it is true on the basis of sense perception and reason. We could, however, rule it out according to autobiographical facts that still EVIdently hold weight in our current scenario.”
“Sure, sure, so,” I interjected, making sure that I would be the next to the speak, “How many toes do you have?”
“Nine, as all my siblings do.”
“It’s a biological deformity caused by too much radiation in the water in Denver.”
“Yes and only a family member would know to ask that.”
“Believe me, I know. For myself, that proves it. You are my older brother.”
“But, let’s not be so hasty. We ought to prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt, because you could be someone who holds similarities to myself, but still be unrelated.”
“True, true. I am sure that a lot of people from the Denver area only have nine toes. It would not surprise me at all.”
“No, me neither.”
“Alright, so next question, what are your parents like?”
“Oh,” I said, sighing and crossing my legs in the “feminine” way, as boys accused me of at school (actually, I thought, I should ask him if he knows about that! No, maybe not, it only happened to me…), “that’s a tough question. And it could vary from sibling to sibling even if you were my brother. Siblings have a hard time agreeing…”
“Just describe them to me, please,” he said, “don’t be too particular.”
“Okay, well, my dad has gray hair-”
“That’s not enough,” he said.
“Okay…my mother has brown hair?”
“You ignoramus! More personal details than that. Everyone’s mother has brown hair.”
“But the more personal I get, the more subjective and opinionated this will become. How are we going to trust that?”
“Well, evidently I can’t know that we have the same parents if you stay with as shallow a description as my mother has brown hair! I’d much rather have the opinions.”
“Fine then. My mother is a very overprotective woman.”
“How? I don’t know. She just is. If we had the same mother, this would be the point where you’d either agree or disagree. Is your mother overprotective?”
“Hm,” he said, rubbing his chin, “Not parti…well, perhaps one could say she is. I would prefer to say that she wants her kids to be safe. Yes, that’s what I would say.”
“See! We’re getting nowhere! It would be much better if I could just show you a picture of her. That would prove it.”
“Well, did you bring a picture?”
“I don’t own any picture of my parents.”
“You know, neither do I. They didn’t like pictures or technology for that matter.”
“Hey, that’s good! Nor did mine!”
“Okay!” I said, throwing my hands in the air, “Then we’ve proved it!”
“Eh, not quite. There is still a possibility that we have different parents.”
“Well, I’m sticking to my guns. We have the same parents as far as I’m concerned.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s obvious, you ignoramus! Haven’t you noticed that we even talk in the same way?”
“I have noticed,” he said, thoughtfully, unaffected by my strong language, “that you say evidently a lot. I feel like I say it too much, myself.”
“See? I do, too. EVIdently, we are from the same family – and! wait, don’t interrupt me – if not the same family, at least a very similar family.”
“Eh, approximations don’t float my boat.”
We both sat forward with our arms crossed and our legs crossed. He crossed his right leg and I crossed my left and my left foot touched his right foot. I shifted my weight to the left so I did not have to suspend my foot over his, but could leave it suspending without any effort and still not be touching his.
“Well,” I finally said, “What do you think of this whole train business then? Let’s forget about our family for a second.”
“I think it is rather odd. I mean, here was this long single file line. I expected this to be a full cabin. But it’s just you and I.”
“When you first saw the cabin, did it sound as if there were others in here?”
“Was there a man in a blue uniform that told you to sit anywhere?”
“No, I took my seat and hoped for the best. If there were any danger, they would have told me about it.”
“Oh, good point. Hm. I guess it’s a little upsetting about the man in the blue uniform.”
“Oh, I just mean that it’s upsetting that our experience wasn’t exactly the same when we first came on the train.”
“Why does that bother you?”
“I don’t know. It would have been nice for something to be clear here.”
“What would have been clear if I had a man in a blue uniform tell me to take any seat?”
“I guess, I guess, constarnit, I don’t know!”
“Ah,” he said in a mocking tone, “helpful.”
Outside, sage brush flew by the window, but the mountains in the distance stood motionless, as if watching the train.
“I don’t know if you are experiencing this, but I feel like my mind is a labyrinth right now.”
“Do you?” he said, with his hands clasped over his right knee, “I don’t feel that quite at all. It’s quite clear what we’re in. This train is trying to mess with us.”
“No, no, it’s not that! The train is trying to tell us something.”
“What?” he asked and then chuckled.
“I don’t know. We came here as truth-seekers. We found some truth.”
“Yeah, uh, I mean, as far as I can tell, I have a family member I didn’t know I had!”
“No, you knew you had me, you just had never seen me. You knew you had eight siblings, you just didn’t know me. If there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that you still don’t.”
“Just a point of clarification; did you feel as though you knew all of your eight siblings before coming on this train?”
I thought about the question. “I, I suppose I might have,” I said, pointing at some invisible chart in front of me, “but if I had, I don’t remember if I did.”
“I would ask you what you meant by that, but I don’t think you would be able to explain yourself.”
I laughed. “No, probably not!” He laughed, too. “Did you?” I asked him.
“Again, I don’t know. I thought I did – much like you, I suppose – but I have forgotten. Some things about you are familiar, but other details are not. If I had known you before, I certainly did not see you real like I am now.”
“That’s interesting,” I said, “Do you think we know our family the best when we meet them as strangers? Do you think – let me finish this thought – that we can know people the best when we don’t know anything about them?”
“Well, I don’t know how it is for you, but for my parents, they know each other almost perfectly. And they have known one another forever.”
“Same with mine.”
He unclasped his hands and uncrossed his legs and stretched his arms, putting them in the air.
“So how long is the trainride?”
“Does it matter?” he asked.
“I guess it doesn’t.”
“I am going to take a nap if you don’t mind,” he said, taking a pillow from under the seat and putting it behind his head. He closed his eyes.
“I don’t mind. I think I might too, just so I am not left alone. I wouldn’t mind going at the same time as you. Do you mind?” I asked, taking my pillow from under my seat and resting it behind my head.
“I don’t mind at all,” I heard a voice say from my right, as my eyes closed.
I breathed out deeply.
“You know, whatever happens,” I said, “whether you are my brother or not, it is fun that we can be here together. I am glad to be experiencing this with someone. What an odd world we live in.”
“Agreed. Friend,” he added, “Now who are you going to thank?”
I took it as a rhetorical question and we stopped talking and all I heard was the wheels of the train on the track.
Eventually, in the darkness, I saw a house form in front of me, as if it came out of an invisible graph. It did not come closer, but grew as if it was. I could make out more details as it approached. It is not moving then, I thought, but maybe I am moving? Maybe I am growing in front of it.
As we came towards each other, I felt something warm and fuzzy in my hand. I looked down and there was an animal that I might as well have called a gerbil, but I had only ever heard a gerbil described.
As the house approached, I saw that there was someone standing in the doorway. No, sitting. There was a man sitting in the doorway of the house. And he stared at me.
“Can I get in?” I asked.
“You’re asking if you can get in?” he said with a hollow voice that echoed in the darkness, as if I was still on the train, but now going through a cavern. “What do you think this place is? Heaven? Heaven is not a house. You need a better imagination, kid.”
“What is heaven?” I asked.
“Why are you asking me? I am only a gatekeeper.”
“A gatekeeper to what?”
“You should know that. It is something you want.”
I looked down at the fuzzy thing in my hand.
“Do you want this?”
“Cut it up and put it on my lap. There is a knife in your pocket.”
I took out the pocketknife and began cutting up the fuzzy gerbil while it was still alive. It squealed. With my hands covered in blood, I put the pieces on his lap. He put his heavy hands over the pieces.
“There. Now can I go through?”
“The gerbil had nothing to do with coming through.”
“What do you mean?! So I just killed it for no reason? That’s sick.”
“No, not for no reason. I asked you to. And you obeyed. Thanks.”
“You’re sick, man.”
“I am not a man.”
“You look like one. What are you, then? An angel? A spirit? A metaphor for God? Are you God?”
“No. I am something you must pass. I am, however, affiliated with God. Let’s just say that he and I have the same goals. Sometimes, it seems like we’re not affiliated, because you see me and hear what I have to say about him, but you have never seen him yourself.”
“Oh, just shut up. Please, just take the gerbil. I just want to get through. I’m just growing like a train – can’t you see? – and if you don’t move, I am just going to crash into you like a wall.”
“I have taken the gerbil. But I don’t eat animals. It is not about the gerbil. I don’t care about the gerbil; I don’t care if you killed the gerbil or not!”
“Fine, then,” I said. Opening up the pocketknife again, I took it and shoved it between his ribs.
“You got me!” he said and, jumping up, moved out of the way from the doorway.
I woke up from the dream and looked around the train. It was nighttime. I looked to my right. The man was gone. The train was in the station. I sat there, bewildered in the darkness, stunned. My pillow was wet with saliva.
A door in the back opened.
“You still here?” he asked.
I looked behind me. It was the man in the blue uniform.
“You best get off the train,” he said.
“But…I’m sorry, I fell asleep.”
“Sorry sir, the ride is over. Thanks for riding with us.”
“Where are we?”
“The train station in Grand County. It is time for you to get off.”
He helped me with my bags while my mind was somewhere else. He asked me some questions and I answered impatiently. Yes, yes, I’ll be fine.
I stepped off the train, outside the station, called a taxi, went home. I sat on my bed, realizing that I had seen truth, but bewildered.
I had seen truth and what had it done to me? I can’t seek it anymore. I have seen it and now I have to do something with it. There is nothing more to seek. I am sitting on my bed. Had I really seen it? Had I understood? These sorts of questions haunt me still. I never worked it all out, but I never thought to ride the Train of the Grand Mystical Enterprise of the North, to ensure again in my mind that it had happened at all. I tried to forget it all, what I had seen, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t forget what I had seen.