Gemma found herself staring out the window at work, a little diner in Whitefish Montana, as she often did when she got distracted by the noise from the nearby Amtrak station. Listening closely, the hustle and bustle was just starting, which meant that the once daily passenger train to Seattle would be arriving soon, probably in about 90 minutes. A swift glance at the clock assured her that her guess was pretty accurate, meaning that a few soon-to-be-passengers would drop by for a quick bite to eat before boarding, something she’d often thought about doing herself, just jumping on the train, and seeing where it took her, but never having had the courage to actually do. Just as she had this thought, the bell above the door tinkled, and she found herself staring open-mouthed at the man who’d just walked in.
An easy 6’4, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested figure had her full attention now, but honestly not just because of his size or obvious physical fitness—no, rather it was his aura that was making her stop and stare, as he was exuding a level of raw power, and self-confidence that she’d never seen before, a sense of being totally in control of himself, and his own destiny in a way she’d never had.
Born into a normal American family some 28 years earlier, Gemma had never really excelled at anything, but had never been at the bottom of her generation either. A perennial C student, she’d studied well enough in High School, but had been unable to attend college due to a sick mother, shortness of funds, and truthfully, something of a lack of motivation for the effort involved. She was always assuming that she’d simply marry and have kids with the boy next door, but one who’d become the local mechanic, rather than running away to some exotic location as she sometimes daydreamed about doing. That hadn’t worked out for various reasons, not least his sudden declaration some 18 months previously that he was gay, and that his lifelong dream was to work in theatre productions on Broadway in NYC—leaving Gemma behind in a swirl of regret, broken promises, and worst of all, a vague sense of guilt at herself for not having realised it all sooner.
All this ran through her mind in an instant while regarding the stranger, who was now perusing the menu on the wall behind her, apparently blissfully unaware of the tumult he was causing in her stomach, and yes, lower regions. Then, for some reason, her mind flashed back to something her mother had said on her deathbed five years previously, leaving her without any close family, but at least with a fully paid off house: “You’ve always drifted my girl, don’t wake up one day having drifted your life away…”
Shaking her head and remembering that she was supposed to be working (especially as she’d heard the diners deputy manager was leaving soon, a position she knew she could do although it would mean accepting she was going to stay there, probably till it either closed or she retired) she stepped up to the stranger, smiled, and asked “What can I get you?” The stranger then slowly turned his gaze on her, and for the first time in a very long time, Gemma could feel her knees starting to shake, a sensation she hadn’t had pretty much since the first time she’d seen her former mechanic try out for the drama club, but then asked to be their stage staff instead (dammit, how could she not have known?).
“What’s good here?” he asked, in a calm and melodious British accent, displaying perfect white teeth. “And there is something I can’t get on the train?”
“Oh, are you headed to Seattle?” she responded, hating herself for the goofiness of the question, but desperately wanting to prolong the conversation.
“No, not really,” he said. “I just like to travel, talk to people about moving on or not, and maybe help out if I can with a little advice here and there. Take you for example, you seem like you want to tell me something other than 'the spag bol is good,' which I’m hoping it is?”
Caught off guard by the ease with which the stranger seemed to have penetrated her mind, and read her thoughts about whether or not to one day just jump on the Empire Builder, and head away from this town, her job, and well, her life, she spluttered for a moment then blurted out “the spag bol IS good!” She laughed when he smiled at the silliness of her response, and found her herself blushing suddenly, before suddenly screwing up her courage, staring him straight in the eye and asking “Do you really know if someone wants to move on or not?”
That was when he smiled strangely, looked down at her from his height, leaned in, and whispered, “Yeah, I can sense the wanderlust in you, the curiosity at what might be over the horizon, and the need to be something more than just who you are now. But I can also sense the wanting to stay here, to belong here, and frankly, the desire to stay inside your comfort zone where you know you’ll be safe, right here where you’ve always been.”
Surprised by the odd way he’d just spoken, yet somehow understanding that this man might just have an answer for her, she asked a question she’d never put into words before: “What do I do next?”
The stranger sat down on a stool at the counter, considered Gemma’s face for a long moment, then reached into an inside pocket to pull out a long white envelope, which he deposited in front of him. “In there Gemma, are two tickets with no name on them for a seat on the Empire Builder, leaving in about an hour. I will be in one of them, and if you want, you can be in the other. No reason needed, no explanations given, nothing asked for or given in return. Just a ticket on a train that no-one else was going to use, that’s yours if you want it. You have until I’ve finished my dinner, then I’m walking out the door and getting on the train. Whether you’re with me or not. That’s all I can offer you, a simple choice, but one which you have to make in the next few minutes.
“How about it Gemma, will you stay or go?”
She stood there, dumbfounded, with no idea what to say. All the thoughts she’d had, all those different things, pulling her in one direction or the other, and this guy walked in and put a choice like that in front of her? How could she possibly just walk away from her life like that? OK, she didn’t have any close family left here and her personal life was an empty mess, but she had a job with promotion prospects, her house was bought and paid for, she had some friends too, and she would be missed if she just up and left, just like that.
Would she be missed, she found herself asking. Would it be a few days before anyone said anything, or would she immediately be reported as missing by someone? If so, by who? And if not, was that enough to justify jumping on a train with a total stranger, even if he did make her feel more excited inside than anyone had recently, including Jimmy the local bank clerk she flirted with whenever she had to go pay her bills?
Gemma glanced over at the chair where the stranger now sat, devouring his spag bol, yet not getting a drop of sauce on the pristine white tickets in front of him. What about her house, she mused. Could she sell it from wherever she ended up? Did she have enough time to run back there and throw a few things in a bag before the train left? She did, she realised. The stranger had asked her at the perfect time, with enough room to get her things if she needed them but not too much time to overthink the decision, which she was going to have to make in the next couple of minutes. And it wasn’t even as if she could postpone the decision, or say she could always go tomorrow, because she knew in her heart that if she didn’t go now she never would. She couldn’t even just do nothing, because that would be making the choice to stay by default, which was still a decision on her part, even if it was a passive one.
Suddenly needing fresh air, Gemma got up and went outside, where she could hear the noise and commotion coming from the station in one direction, but also see the town where she’d lived all her life, a divergent view she suddenly realised she’d never be able to look at again without thinking about whatever it was she would do next. This was it, this was the moment her life forked from, a selection she would have to make, a decision that she couldn’t run from, and a situation that, no matter which way she went on from, would affect her for the rest of her life.
Then, as if it were destined to be, the approaching train’s whistle blew, and the manager of the diner’s car pulled onto the lot, a perfect representation of the two paths her life could take from now on.
Then she heard footsteps from behind her as the stranger stepped down beside her, held up the envelope, smiled and said, “Well Gemma, which is it to be? Safety and security, or an unknown adventure?”
Gemma smiled, looked at the train then at her town, and made her choice.