Searing wind whistles through my tangled hair as sand slaps my face. My lips are cracked, and I can feel the crinkles in the corners of my eyes from too much squinting. I’ve been in this hot wasteland for longer than I care to admit. I look out from behind dancing strands of hair and see what I have seen for miles: white sand, stretching across a flat horizon. And a blazing sun, just now beginning its nightly descent.
If I am to be honest, I am uncertain to say how I came to be here. It is as if I was dropped upon this endless swathe of desert by some force I cannot fully recall. The memory is faint—so faint. Like a mirage long forgotten. But I know I am not here by my own will. Choice, maybe. But that is a different matter, isn’t it? Because choice can lead us to results we never expected, therefore making it possible for our choices to run against our will.
I sigh. I’ve had too much time to myself, philosophizing and waltzing with thoughts and questions that churn and eddy like the ocean.
The ocean. There’s a place I miss, though I can’t say why. I have no standing memories of times spent on its shores, within its wild waters, or carried on its waves. But it is a place I know nevertheless, and I long for the salty air, the cry of gulls, the spray of water cast by the wind.
I rub my sand-splattered face. Look down and wish a rivulet would split apart the dry ground, that rain would fall and make sandcastles possible. I squat and dig my hand into the white grains at my feet, watch them slip through the cracks in my fingers, and know that nothing can ever be made from such a dry substance.
I stand. I’ve been walking for a long time. I feel the aches in my calves, my feet, my whole body. It trembles with the need to collapse, but I can’t let myself do that, or I’ll be caught forever in this place. I have to reach the horizon; I think if I do, I might find what it is I need. But it’s so far, and tonight I am not motivated to move forward. So instead, I stare at that distant line that holds promises I don’t know if I can trust, let alone reach.
A train whistle echoes from a distance. My ear turns to the sound—to my left—as I marvel that it’s the only thing I’ve heard besides the wind, the skittering sand and my own labored footfalls for…I’m not sure how long.
The whistle comes again, aloof like in a dream, and I hear the soft puff puff of an engine focused on its destination. The sound neither grows louder nor quieter, but strangely, it remains at the same frequency despite the fact I haven’t moved. I close my eyes, because the invisible train sparks an unforeseen emotion in me. My stomach sinks and my chest swells with longing that cannot be put into words. Nostalgia is the only word that seems fitting. For in my mind’s eye, I am taken back to my childhood, where my fingers are small and my hair is wispy and I can hear the call of the conductor.
“Alllll aboard!” he urges, and my feet pitter-patter to climb upon the platform behind another, bigger form. We are going somewhere we go every summer, my brother and I, and my little heart is split between two desires: the home I am leaving, and the great open fields of my grandparents’ country acreage. I gasp, opening my eyes. Puff puff. Puff puff. The sound is in fact louder now. I realize the fact as I realize the memory is real and as raw as a freshly scraped knee, and I suddenly feel as if I have lost something very dear to me.
I breathe the dry air, narrow my eyes against the sinking sun, and hear the train’s wheels and engine roar in my ear. Cha-chunk, cha-chunk, cha chunk. It doesn’t make sense, for it should be right next to me and yet I see nothing but the desert. When the whistle sounds once again, the sun suddenly blinks out as if someone flipped a big power circuit to the off position.
It is night, and the wind grows stronger, turning into gales that whip my hair and clothes about. Millions of stars dot the sky—close, as if they might converge and enter my pores. Then flashes of what seems to be artificial light catch the corner of my left eye, and I turn, astonished as the train’s cars whizz right by me. I stagger back to avoid a collision with the beastly machine, try to catch my breath. Sand swishes beneath my footsteps as I move further back, and then it begins to diminish, the grains swept out from under my feet and fading into the air. I look down and find that I’m now standing on solid pavement, but I can see nothing else but the fluorescent lights from within the passing cars, lights which drown out the stars.
Where am I?
I turn around and find there is a station behind me, but I am the only person in sight. Turning back to face the train, the lights from the windows illuminate my body as they pass, like blinking fireflies. On. Off. On. Off. My chest grows warm with each passing window, and soon it is too hot to bear. Hesitantly, I look down. To my horror, I find clumps of sizzling blisters covering the skin just below my neck. The lights pass. On. Off. On. Off. I cry out, stagger back and trip over my own foot, sprawling to the pavement. I feel a bruise bloom over the ribs I landed on, and I moan as I lift my head.
The train is endless, it seems, for its cars pass by in relentless succession, oblivious to my confusion, my pain, my fear. My chest stings as if it’s on fire, and a terrifying realization accompanies my next scream. The lights from the cars. They blink off as soon as they pass over me. Neither do they turn on until they pass. I wasn’t able to notice standing so close to the train, but sure enough, the lights are for me and me alone. This is not the train I am familiar with, the beautifully magical beast that promised adventure as a child.
Or is it?
I let out a long moan as I push myself to a sitting position, and begin struggling to my feet, because I want to get out of this place. But my wish is met before I even try, for I feel a slap of sand and am blinded by a blazing sun at the same moment. The pain in my chest slowly fades as I rise from the white sand beneath me. I look down, catching my breath, and find smooth—if sun-burnt—skin covering my chest once again.
Now more than ever, I want to find out how I got here, and how long I’ve been here. Because I just can’t remember. But it’s all staged. I know it. My fingers ball into fists as I let a new determination rise: I will resist this place until my captor is forced to surrender, to reveal all. I will not give in. I will not move towards the horizon that holds nothing but vacant hopes.
I scream, wishing for an echo but knowing it won’t come; instead, my voice is swallowed by the endlessness. Tears fall and instantly dry upon my face, a testament to the desert’s desolation. I drop to my knees, and sand bites into my raw skin, but I don’t care. I am so alone, and the truth of the fact encompasses me for the first time. I tremble and collapse to the ground, curl up on my side and imagine the sand is a soft bed, that I am home, surrounded by safety and family.
“Sometimes, it’s easier to believe a lie.”
I gasp and sit up, looking around for the source of the voice. But no one is there. I close my eyes. Swallow. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was hallucinating.
“If it’s true, you have to engage,” he continues. “You have to make decisions that you might not feel ready to make.”
I open my eyes. The voice is soft, close. And then he’s there, kneeling down, reaching out and placing a calloused yet comforting hand on the side of my face. I don’t know this man, but my lurching heart tells me I do. I must.
Sand skitters across my feet, my legs, sticks to the sweat on my face. And then the wind blows stronger, casting the man’s hair about his head, pushing into the crevices between his fingers and my face.
“Who are you?” I rasp, closing my eyes as if the act will confirm my suspicion that he is a mere projection of what I crave: companionship. To be known, to be seen. But even in the longing, I tremble with fear of such things.
“I am the one who hasn’t left,” the man says. My heart lurches again, but I hush it. He is the lie, this man who speaks of lies and truth. “It is harder to believe the truth. Don’t you see? I am here. I am real,” he continues.
“Where’s the train?” I whisper. “Was that real?”
He doesn’t speak for some time, and I wonder if he truly has left me. And then a breath. “It is how your heart remembers it,” he says softly.
I open my eyes, blink against the light filtering through our faces, and find his gaze even though I can hardly breathe. His eyes are aqua green, like the ocean that plays on the edges of my memory. “Do you mean…” I begin, quietly, “that’s how I remember the train that took me to my grandparents’?”
Lines appear in his face when a small smile tugs his lips, and he lowers his hand and slips it into mine. I gasp in its comfort. “It is rather…how your heart recalls your adolescence.” He pauses. “Your past. See…you feel singled out, alone, accused. Being known scares you because then everyone is looking. Then they might run away, like that train. If they saw you in the light, if they saw what a burden you were, if your lack was illuminated, they would all leave you. You were afraid to stay home but also afraid to go abroad. You sought the security of settling in one place and yet ached for adventure. The fear kept you still, staring at the vehicle that could have taken you somewhere but instead condemned you for your immobility. And then the train disappeared altogether, and you didn’t know what to do.”
His words drown me, and I don’t even recognize the tears rolling down my face until he stops speaking.
“Shhhh.” The man stretches out his free hand, swipes the wetness from my cheek. “It is not the truth. It is only the shadow your heart hides within.” I am rocking back and forth, lost in the illumination of his claims, undone by being known to such depth. I do not know how to piece myself back together. I’ve been in this desert so long, I can’t remember anything else.
“You don’t have to do anything,” the man says, as if reading my mind. “Do you recall the ocean, child?”
I look up at him, suddenly and without pretense. “I…get the faintest glimpses of it in my mind, but I can’t remember ever being there.”
He nods. “But you know it’s a part of you.”
“Yes,” I say, just below a whisper. “How do you know?” I am gulping back big ugly sobs in between my words, but the man is undeterred.
“You have been there,” he says. “A long time ago, when your eternal nature was more easily accessed.” He sighs, and I try to comprehend his explanation. “When your heart was free, and had not yet tasted this wasteland. Would you like to come back with me?” He stretches his hand out again, daring me to take it. “The only scary part is the decision to leap, I promise.” He smiles, and I can’t resist his dancing eyes, which remind me of the glimmering waves in my distant memory.
I know I can’t resist, but I do. I hold back my hand, this decision that he seeks, until my heart feels stretched taut like a stringed instrument tuned to the breaking point. I will break, surely, either way. Because I cannot handle this tension—this inner war between longing and fear.
And then, in a breath, he closes the distance between us, bringing his brow to mine and holding the sides of my face. The desert fades to my periphery, then disappears altogether, because all I can see are the tears, the longing, in his own eyes. “Just receive,” he breathes. And I don’t resist this time. I am butter, melting into his affection, this love I don’t deserve. But I want it. With all my heart I do.
And with the release, with the acceptance that I am not alone, a note tears through the air. It explodes, as if ripping through a large curtain that once contained my world. Music rides the wind, entangles in my hair, soars between our faces. Then he lets go, but he doesn’t leave. He merely steps back and lets me take in my new surroundings. Which are so familiar and yet bursting with life that feels newborn.
Light streams down on me from behind snow-capped mountains until my arms tingle with its warmth. Water cascades from the cliffs to my left, in too many streams to count. And to my right is the ocean I remember—but fresher, fuller, more dangerous and beautiful. Waves reach for the brown sand and rocks that speckle the beach, bubbling into white foam as they recede. They are hungry to swallow visitors in their wild depths. They rejoice in the majesty they bear. A gull cries, harmonizing with the melody around us, and cuts through the clouds over the water.
“Look, child,” the man says behind me. “Look closer. Deeper.”
“At what?” The words barely leave my mouth when I see them. They are like stars scaling the cliffs and floating and diving in the water. Little lights that soon materialize into faces and bodies.
“Family,” the man whispers, and I realize these people are singing along to the melody that broke through my anxious chest. “You are home.”
My feet get a clue and roll into a sprint towards the ocean. I’m completely drenched before I even know what’s happened, and my laughter tumbles into the song of this new, familiar world.