The wrong way, the right ending

I hardly had the heart to tell her. 'I'm sorry, but you've gotten on the wrong train.'

The commuter train felt chilly as I sank into my seat for an early-morning ride from Boston to Rockport, Mass., a few years ago. It was December, and I longed to escape the crowded city for holiday shopping at the seaside village.

"Tickets, please!" shouted the conductor as the train finally lurched forward and rumbled out of North Station. Without a word or smile he punched our tickets, moving quickly down the aisle and out the door to the next car, leaving our coach even colder than before.

Lighting was dim, and frost-covered windows made it hard to see out, so the car grew quiet as we passengers sat in self-absorbed stillness. I began daydreaming about a cup of clam chowder at my favorite Rockport restaurant. Then we paused briefly at Prides Crossing to take on passengers. The women who sat down beside me was aglow.

"I'm from Indiana," she volunteered. "This is my first trip to New England, and I can hardly wait to go shopping in Boston."

At first, I didn't have the heart to tell her, but there was no way around it.

"I'm really sorry, but you've gotten on the wrong train," I said as gently as possible. "This is the northbound commuter to Rockport. You wanted the southbound train to the city."

She blushed with embarrassment. She'd assumed the train was Boston-bound. Now she felt foolish and helpless. As the conductor approached again, punching new tickets, I encouraged her to tell him her problem, but he showed no sympathy.

"All you can do now is ride up to Rockport and stay aboard for our return trip to Boston," he said gruffly. "Pay more attention next time."

As he left, he shouted back over his shoulder, "Next stop, Beverly Farms!" and let the door slam behind him.

Everyone had heard my seatmate's plight, and we all felt sorry for her, but there was nothing we could do. In sad silence, I began listening to the rhythmic clickety-clack of the train wheels as we rolled steadily north toward Cape Ann's scrub pine landscape. My Indiana visitor said nothing. She looked lost, when suddenly the lights flickered and there was a jolt.

The train began slowing down, but there was no station nearby. Curious passengers rubbed their frosted windows to melt peep holes and see out. We were creeping now, hardly moving. Was there an accident ahead? An obstruction on the tracks? Would we be delayed?

Then we heard it. Faintly at first, it sounded like a second clickety-clack on the parallel track, here in the middle of nowhere.

Moments later a southbound commuter train inched past us in slow motion. Then both trains halted, side by side.

"Where's the lady who wants to go to Boston?" the conductor shouted as he burst through the coach door. "Well, hurry up now!" he said impatiently.

My friend burst into tears as she gathered her things and rushed forward. Taking her arm, the conductor hurried her down the steps to the cold ground and across the gravel median to the waiting southbound train, where another conductor waited to help her aboard. Seconds later, both trains tooted their horns and moved apart.

Now our silent coach was filled with warmth and laughter. My friend's good fortune turned the rest of us into friends. What could have been a solemn, disappointing day became a joyous one we'd always remember. It felt like Christmas.

But silence fell when the door opened and the dour old conductor stuck his gray head inside the car again. We hardly knew what to expect.

"Next stop, Beverly Farms," he said with a wink, "and this time I really mean it."

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