Paula Shablo: The Last Vacation

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The Last Vacation

Paula Shablo

Jenna was startled by the sound of her heel striking pavement. She’d been walking in sand for miles and had been paying no attention to the changes in the terrain. She’d been softly singing an old tune from some long-gone animated Christmas show: Something about getting home by putting one foot in front of the other foot. “Soon you’ll be walking here or there or whatever the hell and what’s this from and why in God’s name won’t it get out of my head?” She had visions of something, possibly Claymation. Was it Santa Claus? Who knew?

When she lifted her head and really got a look at where she was, she gasped.

It was a train station!

Well, she thought, the weird day gets even weirder…

***

She and Ken had started their day enjoying their first vacation in years. They’d woken up in a lovely hotel room, dressed, and gone down to the beach with a picnic breakfast.

Strawberries in cream and fresh bagels, boiled eggs and link sausages, orange juice, and coffee—all packed into a vintage basket, cozily tucked in with a checkered tablecloth, courtesy of the hotel. It was perfection.

It was short lived.

They had finished their meal and were sharing a lingering, coffee-flavored kiss when the ground beneath them suddenly heaved and bucked, violently pulling them apart and flinging them in opposite directions.

“Jenna!” Ken yelled, regaining his feet and starting to run toward her. Another shock hit the beach, and ocean water roared up and over him in a massive wave as Jenna was crawling back toward him.

“Ken! Ken!” Jenna struggled to her feet. She’d been thrown back just enough so the water didn’t reach her the first time, but the next wave took her down and then thrust her farther up the beach before receding.

When she woke up, she was surrounded by nothing but sand.

Ken was gone.

The hotel was gone. The beach was gone.

The ocean was gone.

“What the hell?” Jenna sat up, pulling her knees to her chest. She looked around. Disbelief turned her face into a reasonable facsimile of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” especially once she clasped her face in her hands. It was certainly for the best that she couldn’t see herself just then.

“Ken! Ken? KEN!!” Her screams went unheeded. Even the pesky gulls were gone.

“Am I dead?” Jenna asked aloud in spite of her solitude. “Is this hell?”

That was unreasonable; Jenna was a good person. In fact, she was a very good person. She was a person who ran back into the store if she realized she’d accidentally lifted the pen she’d signed her check with. She had even, on occasion, run in and returned pens that actually belonged to her—just in case.

She fed stray cats and sponsored hungry children in Appalachia.

Her infrequent lies amounted to, “No, your butt doesn’t look too big.”

She couldn’t be in HELL!

Less hopeful, she called again: “Ken? Ken! Where are you?”

Regaining her feet, she was hit by sudden waves of nausea. Unable to quell them, she vomited copious amounts of seawater along with her breakfast. “Ugh!”

She stood, head hanging, hands on her knees.

The sun blazed, stingingly reminding her that she was dangerously exposed to those damaging UV rays. Dressed in a tank top and shorts over her swimsuit and a pair of flimsy sandals, she wasn’t going to fare well in this great sandy expanse.

With the ocean gone and the sun directly overhead, she had no way to choose a direction. She didn’t think it wise to wait for the sun to start its western descent before moving; she needed to find shelter as soon as possible.

She looked around, desperately hoping for a sign of anything familiar. Just when she was certain there was nothing there to find, she saw the corner of the checkered tablecloth sticking up out of the sand.

She moved toward it, fearful and hopeful at the same time. Fearful that she might find Ken; hopeful that the cloth might keep her from burning up like a roasted turkey. She was afraid she would never find Ken, but she certainly didn’t want to discover him buried. She tugged and pulled until the tablecloth broke free, flinging sand everywhere. And something else—she saw it fly off to her right, glinting in the sunlight.

Absently pulling the cloth over her shoulders, she tracked the object.

There it was, half-buried in sand—Ken’s pocket watch. He’d removed it from the pocket of his shorts just before he pulled her into that last kiss, saying he couldn’t get it wet when they went in for a swim. It had belonged to his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, and was a treasured possession.

Generations of rail men; Ken’s family had followed the railroad from east to west and back again; first building, and then engineering. The reduction of passenger train services had been a thorn in his side—they traveled by train whenever possible. Ken’s route was cargo, but he longed to someday blow the whistle of a passenger train.

“End of the line,” Jenna muttered, gently lifting the watch by its chain. She shook sand from it and held it up to her ear. It was still ticking.

It told her it was just past noon. The sudden upheaval on the beach had been nearly four hours earlier.

“It’s a wonder I’m not a crispy critter,” Jenna whispered, and carefully wound the watch. She tucked it into the bra cup of her swimsuit, near her heart.

She turned in a circle, and then she did it again. Where did everything go? Where were the people? Where was the hotel? Where was the damned ocean?

“Which way do I go?” she whined.

Did it even matter? She could discern her direction when the sun started to sink, but with no ocean, would it matter if she went west or east? North or south? All she could see was sand; everywhere, sand!

Wait! On her third revolution, she noticed what looked like a hill in the far distance.

Something to aim for, at least, she decided. She started walking.

***

As she got closer, over what had certainly been several hours, she could see that it looked like a child’s version of a sandcastle, more of a hill with bumps and ridges. She’d kept her eyes on it, and on the sun, determining that she was moving east; maybe more or less northeast.

It made no sense. She could not have been flung that far by an ocean wave—she should have been within sight of water long before her foot struck the pavement.

She looked around, wondering how she could have missed seeing signs that this was near. She realized that the tracks leading to the place came from underground, from a tunnel off to her left, and only the last few yards leading to the station were visible.

She must have been experiencing quite the case of tunnel vision, she thought. The station was very nearly right in front of her, only slightly to the left of where she’d focused her sights. Still, she’d been looking at that sandcastle shape through tears, an effervescent shimmer of brown and gold shades not so different from the color of the station, so she shrugged it off and decided not to be too hard on herself.

The station looked old; wooden planks, shutters, latched doors. She shook her head when she realized she could see the back end of a train on the other side, reflecting it must have come from the southwest.

But, no. The track ended there in a roundabout, and although the train was facing north, there was no way it could have gotten there from a southern track that did not exist. Jenna whispered, “It must have backed in.”

The pavement she’d stepped onto wasn’t pavement at all; sand-colored flat stones had been laid on this side, and she could see that the doors on this side had been locked with sliding bolts and padlocks.

She turned and walked along the side of the long building until she reached the end. She walked around the front and mounted a few steps to the board walkway. The wood creaked in some spots as she made her way to the first door.

She hesitated, then forced herself to turn and take a good look at the train.

It seemed impossible. This old, faded station and wood-and-iron track was no place for this train. It shouldn’t have ever gotten here—the track gauge was all wrong for an electric subway train. How in hell did it stay on the tracks?

She slid her hand into the front of her tank and fingered the pocket watch. “Oh, God, Kenny,” she breathed, “what is happening?” She leaned against the door and slid down until she was seated with her knees against her chest. She bowed her head and lightly thumped it against one knee. “I really think I’m dead…and this…is…hell.”

“I don’t believe so.”

The man’s voice startled a cry out of her, and she jumped to her feet.

She hadn’t noticed when the door was pushed open from within. She stood in a defensive posture, fists clenched and raised to waist height, feet apart, knees bent. Her heart was doing triple duty; she could hear her pulse-beat behind her ears, which quickened her breath.

In the doorway stood a tall young man with a purple mohawk buzz-cut and an eyebrow ring that looked like a trident, a stout older man clutching a hardback book to his chest, and a petite brunette with aquamarine, badly bloodshot and teary eyes and skin so pale it looked like skim milk.

The woman spoke. “No need for that.” She indicated Jenna’s raised fists. “We saw you through the glass.”

“Where’d you come from?” Mohawk demanded.

Jenna focused on him. He could have been anywhere between sixteen and twenty-five, but she’d bet he wasn’t old enough for a legal pint of beer. “I don’t even know how to answer that,” she admitted.

The older man snorted. “There’s a lot of that going around,” he said. “You might as well come in. Have some water.”

As soon as the word “water” was out of his mouth, Jenna was moving. She’d used the tablecloth like an umbrella but knew she’d still gotten sunburned, and she was so thirsty she was near collapse.

“I’m Rebecca,” the brunette told her.

Mohawk took Jenna by the arm, steadying her as they all backed up into the station. “Justin,” he said.

“Jenna.” She cleared her throat. “My name is Jenna.”

“Bart,” the stout man added, tucking his book under one arm and placing a hand under her elbow.

The air inside was cool, and Jenna moved into it gratefully. It was dark in there, but that was probably because she’d been in bright sunlight all day.

“Jenna,” Rebecca said, “welcome to the end of the line.”

“I looked and looked, but I couldn’t find Ken.” Jenna started to cry.

The latch clicked as the door slipped shut behind them.

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Please visit Paula on her blog: https://paulashablo.com/