The Train

I look out the window and stare at the dark, with city lights twinkling in the distance. I’m exhausted after a week of the general chaos of being a mother to four children and frantic last-minute packing. The train begins moving, the rocking motion and clickity-clack of the wheels on the tracks inviting me to close my eyes. This is my first time traveling by train, and I want to see everything. As tired as I am, I am also excited – excited for the journey, the adventure, and for the end of the trip as my husband of ten years is waiting for me. 

The towns I know float by outside. I pass the small city where my parents live, my children sleeping in their spare room. I pass the town where my boys go to school, almost without realizing it because things look different from the train. Slowly, I sink lower in the seat and eventually doze.

My sleep is fitful, and I stir at the odd sounds around me – the very sick woman in front of me coughing, the man behind me shifting in his seat. I am cold and slightly uncomfortable, and more than a few times, I wish I had taken my mom up on her offer to snag a small blanket from their linen closet before my dad drove me to the station. Eventually, light teases my senses, a subtle glowing that pulls me to full wakefulness.

Stretching a little, I gaze out the window at the snow-covered mountains, trees stark against the white. This must be Glacier National Park that my dad was telling me about. It almost looks like home; if my home had shorter mountains and taller trees. The trees look wrong to me, and for a few minutes, I ponder the reason as they appear healthy and proud. Then I realize that there are not any birch trees, or at least very few. All I see is the deep green of Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, and other evergreen trees; no bare white branches glinting with frost and patiently waiting for spring.

A small herd of elk, only eight or so, rest on the rocky hillside next to the tracks and watch the train pass by. Obviously, it is a familiar sight to them as the racket does not disturb them. They remind me of the mountain goats lining the highway in Alaska, leaping from rocky outcropping to ledge with agility and grace. The similarity in the two species comes from their bored looks as humans travel beneath their domains.

There is a break in the trees by the track, and a swiftly moving river comes into view. Staring at the gray-green water flowing and tumbling over rocks between pebble-strewn banks lined with stunted willows, I notice that the color of the water is the exact color of my beloved glacier-fed streams and rivers in early spring. How can it be spring here in this wilderness with snow still blanketing the ground, several feet deep in some places? 

As the train slows into a small depot to obtain more passengers, I think back to my childhood home in Alaska. It has only been six years since I left it behind to find a new start for my family. How could I have already forgotten the idiosyncrasies of the seasons there? Summers are short but memorable, with almost constant daylight and very little night. Autumns are rainy days and frosty nights interspersed with days of warm sunlight and glorious colors on the trees. The winter comes barreling in with snow and wind, taking everyone by surprise with their ferocity every year. While springs arrive slowly, snow still melting even as the trees are budding and tulips are bravely pushing through the snow.

It could be spring here, already mid-April, and yet still snow-covered. This place could be my home if I overlook the taller trees and shorter mountains. It is wild, untamed, beautiful, and breathtaking. So I sit on the train and breathe in a piece of Alaska given to me as a wondrous gift from Glacier National Park, Montana. The view brings a calming peace to my soul that I haven’t felt since leaving home. 

The Swimming Pool

I burst through the front door and ran into the dining room where my mom was paying bills. 

“Mom, Robin and Erica are going to the Y to swim today. Can I go?” I bounced up and down a little on my toes, impatient for her answer. 

My mom looked up from the checkbook. “What time is open swim?” 

“Three to five, and then five-thirty to seven.” 

“Okay, you can go for the first session, but be home for dinner by six.” She handed me a five-dollar bill. 

“Thanks!” I ran to my room and quickly changed into my blue swimsuit. Pulling my shorts and t-shirt over the top of it, I grabbed a towel and shoved it into a plastic grocery bag along with a pair of underwear. 

The YMCA was only a block from our little neighborhood, making it the perfect place for kids to go when the games of tag and hide-and-seek got boring. When I turned twelve, my mom finally thought I was old enough to go there by myself or with my friends. 

“Bye, Mom!” I called as I ran out the front door, letting the screen door slam behind me. 

Jumping on my red Schwinn bicycle, I peddled to Robin’s house, where we always met up. She had a fort in her back yard that was our favorite place to hang out, besides the Y. I leaned my bike against the fence and went into the fort. It was an old shed filled with a few rickety chairs and fraying throw pillows that her mom didn’t want in the house anymore. But we added things like books, paper and pens, and toys to make it a place just for us. 

“Hi! Your mom said you can go?” Erica greeted me. 

“Yep, but I have to be home for dinner.” 

“Me, too,” Robin said. “Let’s go!” 

We got on our bikes and wound our way through the neighborhood, taking the shortcut through the small park to get to the main road. It was a busy, four-lane street, but the bike path was set away from it far enough that we didn’t even feel the wind of passing cars. In just a few minutes, we arrived at the YMCA. 

We locked our bikes on the bike rack and headed in. 

“Hi, girls!” The lady at the front desk greeted us. “Here for open swim?” 

“Yes!” We chorused. 

“It’s two dollars. Do any of you need a lock for the lockers?” 

“Just one,” Robin said. We usually shared a locker.

“A dollar for the lock, refundable when you return it.” She passed Robin a lock with a key attached to a giant safety pin. 

Once we paid, we hustled to the changing rooms. We all already had our bathing suits on under our clothes, so we were ready for the pool in minutes. Robin carefully secured the lock on the locker and attached the safety pin to her suit’s strap. We entered the door at the other end of the locker room, and I stared at the pool’s blue-green water. 

We were the first ones there, but the lifeguard was in place, and he motioned for us to go ahead. Robin and Erica immediately jumped into the deep end of the pool, bobbing up and wiping water out of their eyes. I sat down on the pool’s edge closer to the shallow end and slipped in. 

“What’s wrong, Anna?” Robin yelled. 

“Nothing, I just wasn’t sure how cold it was.” I shivered a little to demonstrate my point. 

“Okay. Let’s get the diving rings!” Robin pulled herself up on the poolside and grabbed several of the weighted red and blue rings from the bucket next to the lifeguard’s stand. 

I took a deep breath and slowly moved into deeper waters. As my toes left the bottom of the pool, I moved my legs in the bicycle motion that my dad taught me. My hands frantically paddled the water, and I edged closer to my friends. I was not a very good swimmer but didn’t want them to know. I reached for the edge of the pool and waited while Robin tossed the rings into the water. 

“Whoever gets one first, wins!” she called before jumping in again. 

“I just want to float for a bit,” I said. I was good at floating on my back and was afraid to try to dive down to the bottom of the pool. 

“Whatever you want,” Erica said, frowning. 

I could tell I lost some cool-kid points just then, but my fear was more substantial than my desire to be popular. Plus, we were still the only ones in the pool. When more people showed up, the water would be choppy and splash on my face if I tried to float then. 

I pushed back from the wall and felt my legs become buoyant as I leaned back. I kept my breathing slow and steady, focusing on the sound of the air moving through my lungs as the water covered my ears and muted the shouts of my friends. After a moment, I closed my eyes. I didn’t try to direct my position but allowed the water to push my body around the pool. After a few minutes, I bumped into the wall and, without opening my eyes, I gently pushed my hand against it to set me afloat again. 

A wave of water came crashing over me, causing me to splutter and splash as I attempted to regain my bearings. I realized I was all the way in the deep end of the pool, and it was twelve feet to the bottom. Still coughing, I managed to grab the side and wipe the water from my eyes. 

“Are you okay?” Robin swam over to me. 

“Yeah, just startled.” 

“Those boys are annoying. They stole the rings from us.” Robin glared over at a group of boys our age who were splashing and dunking each other. 

“Ugh, let’s go get a snack,” Erica said, coming up on my other side. 

Relieved, I followed Erica and Robin back to the changing room where Robin opened the locker to retrieve our towels and money. I shivered again as the chilly air of the lobby hit my wet skin. 

“You really don’t like being cold!” Erica laughed a little. 

“No, I don’t.” I fumbled with my dollar bill as I eyed the vending machines. 

“Too bad you live here, then,” she responded, punching the button that would deliver a candy bar to the pickup slot. 

“Anna wants to go live with her grandparents in California,” Robin stated. 

“No, I don’t,” I protested. I liked Alaska but didn’t enjoy the frigid winters. “I liked visiting them and eating fresh oranges, but I also like living here. Besides, I would miss you both too much!” 

I finally decided on a package of chips and put my money in the slot. We settled on a bench near the main entrance to eat our snacks, knowing that the lady at the front desk wouldn’t let us back into the locker room until we finished. She was always nice to us, but she was also strict about the rules. 

Once we threw the wrappers away under the watchful eye of the desk staff, we headed back to the pool. It was busier now. The group of boys were still rough-housing, and the lifeguard blew his whistle several times at them. There was also a mom with two small children, a few older girls, and a cluster of children a little younger than us. 

“What do you want to do now?” Robin asked as we took turns climbing down the ladder into the water. 

“Let’s play volleyball!” I said. We played in the middle of the pool since it was hard to jump up to hit the ball when you couldn’t touch the bottom. 

“Okay!” They both agreed. 

I grabbed a ball that was floating by, and we stood in a rough triangle. I served the ball towards Robin, who jumped and slammed it into the water with her palm. 

“Point for me!” I called. 

Robin scowled but took the ball and threw it to Erica, who managed to strike it with her forearm. The ball veered towards me, and I leaped up to hit it before it went over my head. I connected with the ball, and it went sailing back to Erica. Before she could get to it, one of the boys cannonballed right in the middle of us. He grabbed the ball to his belly on his way down. When he popped up, he was grinning. 

“We’ll play!” He announced. 

“No, thanks.” Robin swam towards him. “But I’ll take our ball back.” 

“If you can!” The boy chucked the ball to one of his friends, and they laughed hysterically. 

Robin and Erica immediately swam after them. I sighed. I thought something was wrong with me since boys didn’t interest me as they did my friends. All the other girls in my class were starting to wear makeup and talk to boys as if they were appealing. I saw boys as just friends to play tag with. But I didn’t want my friends to know the water scared me, so I pretended to swim after the boys as well. I stayed close to the edge of the pool and motioned at Robin and Erica to toss the ball to me if they got it. I hoped they saw it as a strategy to get the ball away from the boys. 

Finally, I saw Erica swimming towards me. I looked around and spotted Robin talking to the boy who interrupted our game. 

“It’s no use.” Erica shook her head. “She’s totally flirting.” 

I looked at the large clock on the wall near the lifeguard. “Oh, I need to go soon! Let’s get Robin. Her mom will kill us if we leave her behind.” 

“Yeah, okay,” Erica agreed. 

Robin wasn’t pleased when we broke in on her conversation to tell her we needed to leave. But just then, the lifeguard blew his whistle in three long blasts. “Everybody out!” he shouted. 

Groans of disappointment met his demand as everyone made their way out of the pool. Some kids stood near the wall, wrapping their arms around their torsos to try to stay warm while they waited for the pool to open. 

Robin, Erica, and I headed to the locker room to change clothes before riding our bikes home. I went to one of the toilet stalls to change. I always flush the toilet even when I don’t use it, just in case one of the other girls wonder why I change in there. 

On the way through the lobby, the boy stopped us. “Give me a call sometime.” He smiled and handed Robin a slip of paper. 

“Sure!” Robin smiled back. Her short, tightly curled blond hair was beginning to frizz as it dried. I self-consciously pulled my longer curly hair into a ponytail. 

Once we were on our way home, I asked, “You aren’t really going to call him, are you?” 

Robin laughed. “No way! He probably has a girlfriend.” She let the slip of paper flutter through her fingers and watched as the breeze caught it and took it into the road. 

As we passed Erica’s house, she veered off into her driveway, calling, “See you tomorrow!” 

Robin’s house was next, so I traveled the last couple of blocks to my house alone. I didn’t mind, really. Being around people was exhausting sometimes. 

Reaching home, I went around to the back and put my bike in the shed, being sure to lock it and take the key with me. I went inside to find my mom in the kitchen, cooking dinner. 

“Did you have fun, sweetheart?” she asked. 

“Yep! I can’t wait to go again!”