She had never felt this tired in her life, not when she'd stayed up chattering to her friend on a sleepover, not when they'd come back from the ocean after a long day of swimming and hot dogs. Her leg seemed like some little kid pulling on her, tugging her and holding her back and crying (she imagined that the throbbing in her knee sounded exactly like the whining of a two-year old).
She walked down the street slowly. In one of the stores she'd seen a clock that said 2 a.m. No cars passed on the street. The sky was still dark, all the stores were locked up. Finally, she sat down on the curb and leaned her back against a parking meter. She patted her pockets and found the two cookies she'd stashed away (now considerably smashed) and began dropping the sweet crumbs into her mouth. She tried to think what to do. She knew her phone number, she knew her address -- but she didn't have any specific plans for a situation like this. She'd never been lost before -- and she had to admit, as tired and as scared as she was, that there was a bit of her, deep down, that sort of liked it -- provided that she get home pretty quickly and be allowed to sleep until she didn't want to sleep any more. She didn't understand how she could be scared and excited at the same time. She had never liked scared, but now it seemed tied up with something she did like, which was excitement.
Too much thinking. She wanted to go home.
She got up and continued walking. She knew she should do something, but she didn't know what -- her mind was like wet cotton. She walked around and walked around. A couple of times police cars cruised by and she thought about stopping them, but then she'd have to tell them how she got into this city (what city was this, anyway? -- she hadn't seen a name anywhere, or at least a name she could read; maybe the city's name was one of the words she couldn't read) and then they would arrest her for stealing and they'd keep her here forever. So she wandered, not knowing what to do.
Along one long street, which seemed to stretch to China, she saw a sign which said "Train Station". They'd talked about trains in school, how they'd built a railroad line clear across the country, and because the words and the pictures in her head were as familiar to her as the city wasn't, she followed the arrow.
She found herself in front of an enormous pile of granite and wood, with tall peaks and towers and a long, wide awning over the sidewalk. A few taxi cabs waited in front of these huge wooden doors that, from where she stood, led into a lobby full of marble and big chandeliers overhead. She stood there for a moment, never having seen anything so big or heavy. Then, looking both ways, she crossed the street and walked through the doors.
Inside it was warm. Sounds echoed from the big vaulted ceiling over her head. Benches were laid in neat rows -- some of them held sleeping people (some with strange sleeping people who had big garbage bags filled with stuff on the floor next to them and their clothes were tattered and grungy). Along one wall was a ticket counter; only one of the windows was open and behind it sat a man reading a newspaper. The snack bar was closed (she felt her stomach rumble again). For a moment she felt calm, okay -- here was a place people came to and went from, a place that had a place and which, if she asked the right questions, would tell her which way to go to get home.
If she had the money. In a panic she reached into her pocket and felt for the dollar bill. There it was. Would a dollar be enough? Probably not. She always heard mommy talk about how far money didn't stretch, and JC pretty well knew that a dollar was not going to stretch all the way to her home. She could get change and call. But then she thought of the phone ringing and Mommy answering it and her having to explain what she was doing in a strange city and how upset and angry her mother them would be and it all of a sudden sounded like a lot of work and trouble.
Besides, she was feeling a little bit more comfortable with the idea of her "adventure" and she wanted to prove to herself that she could do it. (There it was again, that strange feeling of excitement and fear. Without the driver chasing her and the fear of getting caught, this whole scene of being in a strange train station was, well, like Ulysses setting out to go home, the war finally over -- something new to do.) For once she didn't want to just give up and say to someone "Do it". She'd just have to get back home before they knew she'd gone. (She could do that, right? Just get on one of those trains she saw through the doors at the back of the station? Right? It sounded like a good idea to her. Right?)
She was feeling pretty good about herself. But she needed to go the bathroom. She saw a sign which read "Rest Rooms" and walked toward the arrow. But before she could open the door a woman dragging one of those stuffed garbage bags pushed it open, almost knocking JC down. For a moment the two of them looked at each other, and it was as if every detail of the woman's face and body was burned into JC's mind, so clearly did she see this woman. The woman's face was a net of wrinkles, and dirt hid in every one of them. Her eyes watered and were rimmed in red, and they didn't seem to have any color, just a pale blueish tint with a dark pupil in the middle of the paleness the size of a BB. Her mouth chattered constantly and JC could just barely hear a stream of words come out, mumblings that seemed to make no sense and which the woman did as easily as breathing. Grey hair was tucked up under a dirty knotted kerchief, but wisps of it fell out along her cheeks. Dandruff powdered the shoulders of her tattered grey cardigan. And she smelled of ammonia and sweat and garlic, and JC, staring at her, felt herself at the same time wanting to do something and run away as fast as she could.
The woman never really noticed JC. As quickly as she'd appeared in JC's eyes she was gone, shuffling into the station toward one of the benches, her words left behind as strongly as her smell. JC felt soft inside, the balance between fear and excitement suddenly tipping away from excitement.
In the bathroom she looked at herself in the mirror and was surprised by what she saw. Her hair, so neatly tucked up when she left the house (how many hours had it been?) fell in strands along her cheeks. Her face looked both opened up and scrunched at the same time. There were some crumbs on her sweatshirt. She quickly splashed some water on her face and scraped it off with a rough paper towel. That felt better. She got herself into one of the stalls and found herself relaxing, momentarily safe within four wooden walls. She realized she was falling asleep.
But she didn't. A voice, sounding as if it were talking through a foot of soapy water, broke the air with an announcement about departures. She popped her eyes open and as she did she thought she heard the name "Ithaca" garbled out. She pulled her pants up quickly, flushed the toilet, and ran out of the bathroom.
In the station she saw a small knot of people move toward the doors, so she followed them, figuring they were all going to Ithaca. As they filed onto the train she just slipped in among them, her shortness disguised by their coats and baggage, and she neatly moved past the attendant standing by the door. Once inside the train she moved to a section of the car that no one was sitting in and scooted herself into a seat. Her knee was throbbing again (she realized it had been throbbing for a while, but she only noticed it now). A bit of fog had rolled in and she could just barely make out the platform. Then the fog seemed to roll inside her eyes, and she fell asleep, her forehead against the cool window.