Lucy Michaels was 11-years-old the first time she rode on a train. Over the years, as she grew older, she would remember a confusing combination of feelings as she was led to her seat, which was right beside the social worker whom she had met only two days before.
She was excited about taking a train to Chicago. She was nervous about meeting a father she had never known. And she was grieving the loss of the grandparents that had raised her from infancy.
Her own mother had died in childbirth. Lucy’s grandparents stepped in and adopted her when their daughter passed away shortly after delivering their granddaughter. And as they raised her, they told her incredible stories about her mother, Jacqueline. They told her about how beautiful and smart she had been. About how she had so much going for her…
Until she met that no good Lucas.
Mr. and Mrs. Michaels had nothing positive to say about Lucy’s father. Because he was not a part of their plan for Jackie. Lucas just appeared in their daughter’s life as if from nowhere with big dreams and empty promises. As far as they were concerned, Lucas got what he wanted from Jackie and left her alone to raise a baby.
At least, that’s what the older couple always told Lucy, anyway. “He was a horrible man and he wanted nothing to do with you!” Lucas was the absent villain while her grandparents were the heroes who saved the day when Jackie and her soon-to-be-born daughter had no one else.
That all changed in March of 2020 when New York City was one of the hardest hit areas during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lucy could hardly believe how quickly her grandparents had declined in health once contracting the viral infection. They really only lasted a few days after testing positive for the disease. Just like that, they were gone.
Lucy’s whole world fell apart. She wept uncontrollably, leaning against a nurse whose heart broke for the little girl. It wasn’t until Lucy had no more tears left to cry that she was introduced to the social worker, Mrs. Hanks. The girl could only tentatively put her trust in this social worker. She could tell that Mrs. Hanks, behind a kindly facade, was just trying to do her job and mostly just wanted to get Lucy taken care of so she could go home and get back to her self-quarantine.
In her defense, it was Mrs. Hanks who had discovered the truth about Lucy’s father. He didn’t hate his daughter. In fact, Lucas had no idea that Lucy even existed until he got the phone call from Mrs. Hanks. Understandably, he was upset that he had never been informed that he had a daughter, but nothing could be done for that now. All he could be was thrilled that he would get to meet her and welcome her into his home in a matter of days.
As the train sped down the track, Lucy saw that Mrs. Hanks was in and out of sleep while she listened to some podcast that was, in the social worker’s words, “not appropriate for someone your age.” Lucy unbuckled her seat belt and stood up to stretch.
“Where are you going?” asked Mrs. Hanks.
“I’ve never been on a train before, can I have a look around?”
“You can look around this car, but nowhere else.”
Lucy glanced around. They had this passenger car all to themselves. Social distancing and all… She didn’t want to whine, but she knew that what came out of her mouth next sounded whiny. “But there’s nothing to do in here. Just a bunch of empty seats.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” Mrs. Hanks said, finally opening her eyes to look at Lucy, “but the only way you explore this train is if I’m right next to you and I do not feel like exploring this train right now.”
Mrs. Hanks closed her eyes again, just in time for Lucy to stick her tongue out at the woman.
“I’m going to the bathroom.”
The social worker opened one eye to watch Lucy walk toward the lavatory. “That’s fine.”
She stayed inside the cramped bathroom compartment for a few minutes, then silently opened the door to peek out at Mrs. Hanks. Eyes closed, just as Lucy had hoped. With that, she moved quietly out of the bathroom and to the door that opened out into the adjoining car. She wasn’t sure if the noise from outside would be loud or not, but she figured it was a chance worth taking.
Lucy got through the door and looked back through the window. Mrs. Hanks hadn’t moved. She hadn’t even opened her eyes to investigate the sound of the door opening and closing. She was free to move about the train.
She walked through two more passenger cars, identical to the one she was sharing with her social worker. She only saw a few people, about half of whom were wearing surgical masks. She got a couple of odd looks from people who actually noticed she was passing by, but most people ignored her, content to browse Facebook or play Candy Crush on their phones.
The third car that Lucy came to struck her as odd. There were no seats. There was just a little bit of empty space followed by a door. And in front of that door was a man. To Lucy, he looked like what she always pictured an old-timey conductor to look like. Sort of like the ticket taker from The Polar Express, but she knew they weren’t heading to the North Pole.
Lucy decided to enter the car and ask this man who he was and what was behind that door.
He smiled at her when she stepped onto the carpeted floor, closing the door behind her. “Hello, Lucy!” He seemed very excited to see her.
“How did you know my name?”
“Well, that’s easy,” said the man, “You’re the only little girl riding the train today.”
“Oh,” she said, and she giggled a little. “Who are you?”
“My name is Jim,” he said, pausing for a moment. “Now, Ms. Lucy, may I ask you a question?” She nodded her head in approval. “Does that nice lady you were with know that you’re off exploring this big train?” This time, she shook her head, no. “I didn’t think so.”
“It’s my first time on a train,” she explained, “I just wanted to see it all.”
Jim laughed, “Well, I can’t blame you for wanting that. Trains can be fascinating things, especially if you’re experiencing them for the first time in your life.” Jim decided to sit down on the floor, putting himself closer to Lucy’s level.
She decided to sit down, too.
“Do you ride the train a lot, Jim?”
“That’s part of my job, little lady!”
“What is your job?” Lucy asked, getting around to what she really wanted to know about him.
“Well, that’s a little harder to explain,” Jim said as he looked the little girl in the eye. “But I can tell you’re one of the smart ones, aren’t you?” She nodded again, more enthusiastically this time. “Lucy, my job is to travel all over the country. Sometimes the world, even. I get to meet people who are going through hard times and help them find their way. Sometimes that means giving them a hand when they’re lost. Sometimes it just means helping them find their smile again.”
Hearing him say the word smile triggered something inside of Lucy and she couldn’t help smiling herself. “I guess I’m not here to help you find your smile, young lady, because right there it is.”
Lucy laughed for a moment, but then her face lost its happy expression and she looked down at the floor.
“What’s the matter, Lucy?” asked Jim, a new note of concern on his voice.
“My grandparents died a couple days ago,” she said sadly, “And I just found out that I’m going to live with my dad in Chicago. I’m really nervous.” Tears were beginning to fill her eyes as she looked back at Jim. “What if he doesn’t like me?”
Jim smiled at her. Looking at his face, Lucy felt like it was the most comforting thing he could have possibly done. “It would be impossible for him not to like you, Lucy. In fact, I find you to be a very likable person. And I’m an expert. Do you know how many people I meet every day?”
Lucy sniffed and shook her head, wiping a tear away from her cheek.
“Hundreds! Sometimes thousands!” This made Lucy laugh again. “So I know what I’m talking about when I make the claim that someone is very easily liked. You, young lady, have nothing to fear.”
Lucy nodded her head, but Jim could tell she wasn’t quite convinced.
“What if I give you something?” Jim asked as he stood back up.
Lucy looked up at him, sizing him up. At 11-years-old, Lucy knew enough about stranger danger to know that she probably should not have even been talking to Jim this whole time. She certainly shouldn’t take anything that he offers her. But she was still curious.
Jim reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a key. It was unlike any key that Lucy had ever seen. It wasn’t boring like the keys she had seen on her grandfather’s key ring. It didn’t look like a house key or a car key, but it wasn’t big and clunky like the key to a jail cell like she had seen in the movies. It was golden and ornate and seemed to glow all on its own.
“This key,” Jim began, “is a magical key. You can slide this key into the lock of any door, and when you open the door, you will be transported to the place you long to visit the most.”
At 11-years-old, Lucy also understood the difference between real and make believe. “No way,” she said, skeptically.
“Cross my heart!” Jim told her. “Here, let me show you.”
He turned to the locked door that he had been in front of this entire time. “Lucy, close your eyes and think of a zoo. Think of the animals you would see there. Think of the tigers. Think of the lions. Think of the monkeys. Are you picturing it all?”
“Yes…” said Lucy, still unsure of what was happening. When she heard the key turn and the door unlock, she opened her eyes just as Jim pulled open the door. What she saw amazed her.
Before her eyes was an actual zoo. She saw lions and tigers. She saw monkeys hanging from tree branches. She started to step forward, but Jim stopped her and closed the door once more.
“Sorry, can’t go in just now,” apologized Jim.
“Why not?” asked Lucy, mentally kicking herself for sounding whiny again.
“Because Mrs. Hanks is heading through that passenger car,” Jim motioned behind Lucy, “and she’s going to want you to go back with her now.”
“Are you really giving me this key?”
“Of course I am, Lucy,” Jim said, smiling down at the little girl, “But you have to make me a promise.”
Lucy just stared back at Jim.
“Promise me that you won’t try to use this key until you get to Chicago and that you will only use it in your time of greatest need.”
Lucy heard the adjoining car door open and quickly said, “I promise!” before Mrs. Hanks clamped a hand down on her shoulder.
“Lucy! I thought I told you not to run off without me!” Mrs. Hanks was clearly frustrated. She looked from Lucy to Jim. “I’m sorry if she was bothering you, sir.”
“She’s been no trouble at all!” said Jim, “I’ve had a lovely time talking with her.”
Mrs. Hanks directed Lucy back the way they had come, but Lucy looked back over her shoulder at Jim.
“Don’t forget what we talked about, Lucy.”
Lucy called back, “I won’t.”
For the next few hours, Lucy sat in her seat, holding the key in her hands. With every passing mile, she grew more and more anxious about meeting her father. Which caused her to think more and more about where she would go if the key really could open a door to anywhere.
It was late at night when the train finally pulled into the station. Mrs. Hanks helped Lucy with her luggage when they got off the train. Inside the terminal, Mrs. Hanks spotted Lucas and pointed him out to Lucy. “There he is,” she whispered to her.
In the few days that Lucy had known Mrs. Hanks, she had not grown particularly close to the social worker, but in this moment, she couldn’t help but grab onto her hand as she was filled once more with anxiety. Mrs. Hanks led her toward her father.
Lucy glanced around and happened to spot a familiar face. Jim was standing off to the side, watching this awkward meeting of father and daughter take place. When he caught Lucy’s eye, he gave her a wink and then he was gone. Lucy looked around frantically, but Jim was nowhere to be seen. Was he ever there to begin with?
Lucy couldn’t be sure if seeing Jim was just her imagination or not. But she did know that seeing him helped her feel calm once again, as she stepped forward to meet her dad without fear.
Thanks to my mom for this week’s challenge! She doesn’t have a blog of her own, so I can’t link you to see what she’s got going on. But she does make a mean chicken and dumplings. I’m still planning to keep this up each week, so if you haven’t submitted your challenge, you can still click here and leave something for me in the comments.