Steel of the railway glimmered in dry heat. Behind the traveler, reddish brown sand blew in a hot wind that he couldn't feel, but he could see. Swirling drifts of earth perpetually hid centuries-old iron and the nearly petrified wooden cross ties.
He had no idea how long he'd been walking. The sun had long-since bleached out his direction sense, and thoughts were as sluggish as his pace.
Ahead of him, the railroad beckoned. Behind, it disappeared in the baking breeze. One foot followed the other. Onward. He was too tired to think, too scared to stop, and too thirsty to wander.
Hours passed. Wearily, the traveler marched towards the horizon.
It was an improbable building. Seemingly built in the middle of nowhere, a traveler would be likely to think it a mirage.
Desert flatland surrounded the adobe structure. In the distance, it had a plain appearance of an old way station. The remains of a small corral and livery had long since given way to a gas pump and a long, plain bunkhouse that served as a motor court motel. Upon closing the distance to the building, electric lights, almost like an afterthought, could be seen strung between poles over the still-intact antique pump. The naked bulbs glowed day and night, a dim beacon in the sandy, rocky sea.
Tire tracks ran in every cardinal direction parallel to the railway out front of the old station, their worn ruts permanent fixtures in the sandstone, yet no vehicles could be seen.
This place was at a crossroads of steel and street.
The weary traveler wandered through the front door. His lips were parched, his feet were sore, and his skin was reddened by the relentless assault from the uncaring sun. He was met by an interior that was blissfully cool and shady, and the tinkle of a bell sounded as the door opened.
A low L-shaped counter with an antique cash register separated the traveler from the clerk. A rack of crackers and cookies stood to the right on the countertop, and off to the left of the small store's interior was a small chest cooler. "RC Cola" was emblazoned in faded paint on the side of the old machine.
Looking around the room, the traveler noted a small hallway leading to the back of the store before he was addressed by the old timer behind the counter.
"Help yourself to a cold drink, son."
Reaching inside, the tired newcomer retrieved a chilled bottle and opened it using the fixture on the side of the refrigerated cooler.
"I haven't had one of these since I was a kid. I didn't know they sold them anywhere outside the south."
The old man smiled and nodded. "I had some Moonpies, too, but they're out until the next truck comes this way."
Taking a long pull from the heavy glass bottle, the man paused to savor the sweet cola. He put the near-freezing glass against his hot brow.
His thirst slightly slaked, the traveler sighed, "Where am I, sir?"
"Like stagecoach, wild west, Pony Express stuff?" He chuckled.
"Kind of like that, yeah. This place has been around for a long, long time, son. But we've kept up with most of the changes." The old man was deeply tanned and lined. He could have been a dark-complected Caucasian, a Native American, Hispanic, or even Asian. It was hard to tell, so dim was the interior and so sun-darkened was his skin. He wore an old-fashioned shop-keeper's apron, a pressed white shirt, dark trousers, and a page-boy hat. His white hair was unruly but not unkempt as it peeked out the sides of his cap. Perfectly straight teeth gleamed brightly as he smiled warmly at his customer.
"What do I owe you for the drink?"
"I'll put it on your tab. Help yourself to another. There's some bottled water there, too. It might help quiet that thirst a little better than the cola."
"Oh, yessir. You'll be here a bit. No buses or trains will be this way for a while yet. You'll be needing a room."
"How did I get here?" He finished his RC, belching quietly while reaching into the cooler for a water.
"I suppose you walked." Dry laughter accompanied the answer.
"No, I mean, where are we? This looks like Arizona. Or maybe New Mexico. Texas? Hell, the last thing I remember, I fell asleep in my bed, and then I wake up in the desert."
"I have to say, son, you're handling all this pretty calmly."
"I learned a long time ago that panic just gets people killed."
"Your platoon sergeant told you that, didn't he?" Another smile.
"Yeah, how'd you guess that?"
"What you're wearing is a clue."
For the first time, the traveler paid attention to his own outfit.
He was dressed in a Class A uniform, complete with expert marksman medals and silver star. His shoes were dusty and dirty from the walk in the sand, but otherwise, everything was in order.
"Sorry, sir. It's just that...I haven't worn this since before my grand daughter was born. Hell, maybe since my son was born."
"Right! How did you know that?"
The man continued to smile as he wordlessly handed the soldier a key.
"This is for your room. It's not much to write home about, but it is clean. There's even an air conditioner that works, but you may have to knock it around a little when it makes a funny noise."
"This is all very surreal."
"I think you'll find some answers in your lodgings. Call if you need anything."
Taking the key and leaving with another water, the traveler exited the tiny lobby / store, and went to his motel room.
Stepping into the cool, he flipped on the light switch. A bare bulb hung overhead, illuminating the tiny room. A double bed sat neatly made with a threadbare orange comforter, and an olive-green plastic chair occupied one corner. A small dresser was against the wall opposite the bed, and what looked like a black and white television sat atop it, complete with rabbit ear antenna. The bathroom was immediately to his left, and it was a plain affair decorated in turquoise-blue and white tile with porcelain fixtures that could have come from the thirties.
He stepped into the restroom and saw himself in the hazy, time-worn mirror.
Looking at the reflection, he didn't see the man he knew yesterday.
Staring back at him was the man he used to be, mid-way through his first tour. He didn't even have the little shrapnel scar above his left eye-- a gift for Tet from his friends out of Hanoi.
"I don't understand." With disbelief, he touched his face. Everything felt real, solid. His self-control beginning to waiver, he began unbuttoning his jacket. Shrugging it off, he let it fall to the tile floor. The black tie was ripped off and slung to the side, and one of the buttons of his green shirt was popped in haste. Finally, the white tee shirt was gone, and he stared.
Frazzled, nearing that panic he so recently spoke out against, the man in the mirror looked on with growing fear and anxiety.
The soldier in the mirror was the traveler's 21-year old self.
"I'm...68." His whisper became a mantra. "I'm 68."
Wandering to the bed, he reached for the telephone. Opening the drawer of the nightstand, the Gideon lamp emblazoned on a hardback seemed to shine at him. There was no phonebook, and he didn't know who he'd call, anyway.
Absently, dull shock setting in, he picked up the book that was in the nightstand.
A disembodied voice spoke in the shocked silence.
"Hello, front desk, can I help you, son?"
The man in the store repeated his question. The soldier had forgotten that the phone was in his hand.
"What's happening here?"
"Just take a nap, son. Rest. You've earned it. Your bus will be here before you know."
Numbly, the soldier nodded as he whispered, "Okay, yeah. I'll just nap."
"Relax, read the guidebook in your nightstand, and wait for a bus. You'll be headed north when we gather a few more travelers. Unless you're on the train headed South. But I don't think you will be. Anyway, I don't make the decisions, I just book the travel. I haven't gotten your reservations yet."
Not understanding any of what the clerk was saying, the traveler numbly nodded. "Rest sounds good. Thank you Mr....?" he trailed off, asking the clerk's name.
The voice on the phone replied, "Charon. My name is Charon."
The line went dead.