Mr. Thompson turned back from the curtained doorway of the train’s compartment to look, with some distress, at his slightly built teenage daughter.
“But Charlotte, it’s a long trip to your grandmother’s. You have to eat.”
“It’s okay. Really. You and mom go to the dining car. I’ll stay here with Susie. We can get something at the snack bar later.”
At the mention of her name, a pudgy six year old, currently kneeling on the seat, looked away from the window. She had been watching houses and fields rush by at a dizzying pace as the overnight train to Pembroke began to pick up speed. She stuck a thumb in her mouth and looked a little sadly at her parents and sister. She waited, knowing what the theme of the coming discussion was going to be, and how it would end.
“Charlotte, I wish you wouldn’t be so self-conscious. That’s why you don’t want to go, isn’t it?” argued Mrs. Thompson. “It’s been a year since the accident. You’ve got to stop thinking about the scars all the time.”
How do I stop thinking about it, Mom? The space is blank where my picture should be in the 1957 Central School Yearbook. How can I forget the grease fire in the kitchen, the pain, the surgeries, the lost summer. I missed my Junior High Graduation and when all my friends were starting their first year in High School, where was I? Still in rehab.
The train swayed, clicking and clacking around a bend. Susie, already off balance and unable to catch herself in time, bounced off her bigger sister, dislodging Charlotte’s hand, up until now tucked out of sight in her jacket pocket. Even after a year, the sight of the patchwork reddened flesh marked with tucks and puckers where the grafting had taken place, startled her. She shoved the offending hand back into her pocket.
“Please, Mom, I’m really not that hungry. Besides, Susie won’t eat all that they’ll give her anyway.”
It was a lame excuse and didn’t deceive anyone.
Susie had scrambled upright again, and crept over to her sister’s side. She pulled on Charlotte’s sleeve.
“I’ll stay with you, Char,” as though she were the baby-sitter and not Charlotte after all.
Clickety-clackety, clickety-clackety, Heswatchingoverme. The rails began to sing as the train picked up even more speed.
“Okay honey,” conceded her father with something of a sigh. “Stay with Susie. But your mother is right you know. You can’t keep your hand in your pocket forever. I know some people have been mean to you, and insensitive about how you feel. It’s been hard to ignore the stares and the whispers. But the fire and that burn and those scars didn’t suddenly make you less of a person. It’s not your hand that counts; it’s what’s in your head and in your heart.”
She was listening, but Mr. Thompson was sure she wasn’t hearing what he was trying to say. He gave up.
“End of speech. Just so you know how much we love you just the way you are.”
He leaned over and hugged both of the girls.
“We’ll be back soon,” he said, taking his wife’s arm to steady her as they headed down the narrow aisle that led from their bedroom through the coaches to the dining car. It was a long walk. They were at the end of the train.
Clickety-clackety, clickety-clackety, Heswatchingoverme, repeated the rails.
Charlotte sat still and quiet, as the soothing rhythm and swing of the train began to calm her. Her father might not have believed it, but she really had heard what he had said. It sounded right. But it felt so wrong. Then, a sharp tug on her sleeve and an impatient, “Char!”, broke through the wall of her thoughts.
Susie wanted to share the discoveries of her new world. She was fascinated by the buttons and levers that operated the ventilation system, the call button for the steward, the miniature sink, and the midget-sized bathroom. When she ran out of things to push, pull and exclaim about, Susie went back to the window. But it wasn’t long before the little girl grew tired of watching the scenery flash by. Even Charlotte was about to be lulled into thought-less sleep.
“Char, I’m hungry.”
She shook herself back to reality and big sister responsibility.
“Okay, let’s go down to the snack bar.”
“But I’m tired. You go.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I shouldn’t leave you alone, and besides how can you want to eat and sleep at the same time. That’s a contradiction.”
“Never mind, Sooz. It doesn’t matter. Can I trust you to stay here and not move a muscle until I come back. No matter what?”
Clickety-clackety, clickety-clackety, Heswatchingoverme, came the reminder from the tracks below.
The little girl nodded her head up and down slowly, as if she was struggling with a huge decision. She was. Susie wanted to go. It would be exciting to see more of this wonderful train. But all that excitement was just about to put her to sleep.
“You’ll come right back?”
“I’ll be right back. I promise. But you have to stay here, okay?”
Char wagged a finger at Susie, perfectly imitating their mother. Her little sister was already curled up in a corner of the compartment’s red leather seat. She was having a hard time keeping her eyes open. Charlotte was sure that at least one member of the family wasn’t going to be walking the aisles of the train for a little while.
She tucked a blanket around her sister, and then slipped through the curtain, letting it swish gently behind her. She decided to close the sliding door so that Susie wouldn’t be disturbed. There was no one else in the passageway. The sleeping cars were deserted during first call for supper.
Charlotte straddled the aisle trying to adjust to the swaying of the train. The clickety-clack was less noticeable out here. She’d have to go through this car, then two others, before she arrived at the snack bar. But they were all sleeping cars so she didn’t expect to meet anyone. She would need both hands to hang on while she rambled and rolled through the back end of the train.
It’s so ugly. I’m ugly.
She raised her injured hand to grasp a door handle as she reached the end of the car.
She pulled open the sliding door that separated the cars. The little square box between cars smelled fresh as outside air whistled through the cracks in the metalwork at her feet that marked where one car began and the other left off. As the sliding door glided closed behind her, she looked at the puckered checkerboard of scar tissue that snaked from fingers to wrist, and then disappeared underneath the sleeve of her jacket.
The doctor told me the scars would fade—sort of, someday. It doesn’t save me from the stares and whispers today. That new boy in class took one look and walked away. I was sure he was going to ask me to go to the fair with him. Mom said he wasn’t worth crying over. Dad said he was immature. Truth is, nobody wants to be seen with a cripple.
That morning it had happened again. When the Thompson family boarded the train a man had come hurrying out of the compartment beside theirs. He had almost run Charlotte in a race to get off the train, and then back on, before the trainman called “All aboard” for the last time. In the minor collision that resulted, some ash from his cigarette had fallen on her sleeve. Quickly she tried to brush it off and in doing so, had exposed her scarred hand to the stranger.
He had stared for long seconds at the raised welts, then turned away, muttering apologies.
“I hate this!” Suddenly aware that she had spoken out loud, she looked around to see if anyone had heard. She saw no one.
Clickety-clackety, clickety-clackety, Heswatchingoverme. The message from the rails knocked at the wall of self-loathing that barricaded her heart.
Charlotte knew that God had heard her. Since she had burned her hand she hadn’t talked to God much, except to complain. She knew she shouldn’t. But that didn’t seem to keep her from doing it anyway.
Where were you, God, on the day of the fire? I believed in you and you let me down. I hate being different from everyone else. I’m sick of explaining about the accident. I’m tired of people feeling sorry for me. No one sees ME, they just see this ugly hand. Dad keeps telling me that there is a reason even when I can’t see it. But why did you let this happen?
“Can I get you something, Miss?”
Startled, Charlotte looked up into a smiling black face. She had been so caught up in her thoughts that she had passed through the sleeping cars and arrived at the snack bar without even realizing it. The red-coated steward hovered, waiting for her request. She felt very grownup with all this undivided attention. She pretended to be her mother and chose responsibly—an egg salad sandwich to share and two apples. She paid the money, being careful to protect her hand from view as she counted out the right change. With the bag tucked under her arm Charlotte hurried back the way she had come. For the first time all day, there was a faint smile on her face. Eating on the train meant no dishes to do after supper.
Clickety-clackety, clickety-clackety, Heswatchingoverme, the rails called again.
Charlotte had passed through the first two sleepers, and was almost to the end of the second car, when she noticed something odd. There was a smell that hadn’t been there before. It was very faint, just a hint of something… like smoke.
It must be my imagination.
She pulled one set of doors open, crossed through the box that separated the cars and stopped outside the sliding door leading into the last car. She put her hand on the door. She looked around, then sniffed the air like a bloodhound separating scents in the breeze. Maybe the wind was blowing back the smoke from the engine. She peered through the small window in the door. It was black inside. Had it been that dark before? Charlotte slowly pulled on the door. It had only slid open a fraction of an inch, before she knew where the smell was coming from. Thin, wispy smoke trails reached out for her. She could feel heat on her face. She slammed the door shut, petrified.
Fire! There’s a fire in there somewhere. Sooz … Sooz is all alone.
The train raced on unaware, and for an eternity of seconds, the terrified teenager stood rooted to the spot. The song from the rails was blotted out by the jumble of words tumbling through her head.
What do I do? Run for help? Yell? Run to Susie. I can’t. I’ll get burned again. Was there something to pull? Did Sooz show me a cord to pull for emergencies? I’ve got to get to Susie, but how …
A door in her mind opened even while the sliding one stayed tightly shut. Something entered, and turned every inward thought of Charlotte’s, outward, leaving everything around her clearly focused.
There was a red emergency handle above her head, embedded in the side of the car right beside the door. She didn’t have to read the sign above it to know what it was for. She reached up and yanked the handle as hard as she could.
She could feel the train slowing, bumping and jerking as though it couldn’t make up its mind whether to stop or go. Somewhere far away someone applied the brakes. The sudden change in forward motion threw Charlotte off balance. She dropped the paper bag, scattering food across the passageway.
It took Charlotte what seemed like a million years to pull herself to her feet.
Somebody will come to help us soon.
She knew Someone was already there and she knew what He had prepared her for.
I can’t wait. I have to go now. I have to get Susie.
She flung open the door, pulled the bottom of her jacket up around her face covering her nose and mouth, and plunged into the deepening darkness of the corridor.
The acrid smoke brought tears to her eyes and temporarily blinded her. She felt her way along the passage desperately trying to remember what lay between her and the compartment where Susie was.
How many doors were there between the beginning of the coach and the end? Why didn’t I pay more attention to things around me instead of thinking so much about myself? If I had, I’d know how far I have to go.
She swayed back and forth, feeling her way, clutching at curtains, stumbling up a little step, not sure whether the train was moving or whether it was the smoke making her dizzy.
The coach seemed to go on forever. It was hot, but she didn’t dare take the jacket away from her face. If she lost it, the smoke would finish her off.
Charlotte reached out to grab a new handhold. A sharp, searing pain shot up her injured arm. She drew back, quickly falling to her knees. That wall was hot—hotter than the rest. The smoke seemed thicker here.
Oh Lord, help me. I have to get to Susie.
With superhuman strength, the teenager pulled herself along the floor. As she reached out, her hand struck a solid object. She slid closer, pulled herself up and realized, even light headed as she was, that she had come to the end of the train. The entrance to their compartment must be just back a little way over to the right.
She stumbled back a few steps, reached out for the door that she had closed when she had left Susie …
Thank you Lord for making me think to close the door.
… and fell through the curtains into the room. It was gray with smoke, but the pale light filtering through the car window revealed the still form of Char’s little sister. Just as she had promised, Susie hadn’t moved from the spot where Charlotte had left her. Char threw herself across the narrow space toward the little girl.
“Sooz, Sooz, wake up. WAKE UP! Please, Sooz, can you hear me? Susie …?
Then, even the little bit of light there had been, faded away.
“That hand’ll blister, Mr. Thompson. But she’ll be fine.”
Faces swam in front of her eyes, and voices faded in and out as Charlotte tried to focus, pulling herself back from wherever she had been. Four heads became two—one her dad’s, the other, a redheaded man in uniform. The sun was shining. She coughed and the man in uniform pulled a plastic oxygen mask away from her face, allowing her a gasp of real air.
“Susie?” She croaked out the word.
“Your mother has gone with her to the hospital. But she’ll be okay. She inhaled some smoke, but your quick action pulling the handle and alerting the crew made all the difference. And if you hadn’t closed the door to the compartment, well …”
The redheaded man’s admiration was plain. Charlotte pushed herself up.
“And the man next door?”
The trainman shook his head.
“Didn’t make it. He was smoking in his compartment and fell asleep. The cigarette caused the fire.”
The uniformed man moved away, leaving father and daughter alone. Mr. Thompson reached out and pulled Charlotte into his arms.
“Dad, I think I know the reason now.”
“The reason why God let me burn my hand. He needed me to know what it was like so that I’d go and get Susie.”
“But weren’t you afraid?”
Char thought for a moment.
“A little. But God sent me a message and told me not to be.”
“A message? How did He send you a message?”
Mr. Thompson was sure that Charlotte was about to quote one of the many Bible verses that she had learned by heart in Sunday School. So when she said …
“Oh, He sent it by rail.”
… he didn’t know how to respond.
She looked at her scarred hand, and laughed.
“It’s toasted on both sides now”.
Her father was astonished. What had happened to the self-conscious, fearful, resentful girl of just a few hours ago?
“You won’t be able to use it for a while. Do you mind?
“I wasn’t using it anyway, just hiding it away. I think maybe it’s time it stopped hiding.”
Mr. Thompson squeezed Charlotte a little tighter.
“I’m not sure what happened here but I’m glad you are ready to wear your scars with courage.”
Charlotte rested, secure in the arms of both of her fathers—the human one and the heavenly one. Then …