Am I here?


The ecstasy rises in my chest and I bask in the unrealness of actually making it. I twirl around again to get a view of the place. Not at all what I expected.

Just walk.

I obey, looking around. Looming, gigantic cacti stand peppered along the desert sand and interrupt the big, wide sky. Rocks of so many different shapes, sizes and colors litter the ground everywhere. It’s exactly like and unlike any desert I have ever seen (not that I have actually ever been). Walking, I stumble on something solid and level. A board of wood. I look ahead and register that there are many boards of wood, covered by the sand. Train tracks!

I walk along the tracks and come upon a telephone pole. I look ahead to see if there are any more and there but it’s alone. There are still wires attached and I wonder where the rest of them went. A train horn sounds in the distance over the flatness and I did not see a train coming five minutes ago, but there is one not a quarter mile away from me now. I get the cue to wave the train down. It blares its horn again and brakes grind for me. It stops much faster than should be possible for a train of its very, very impressive length, and the door to the car right in front of me snaps open and a metal robot head that is attached to a track on the train ceiling yells at me, all aboard! in typical electronic melody. I board and as the robot backs up on its tracks, it introduces itself to me as FRIT, your Friendly Robot In Transit. Do you have a ticket? No. No one ever does. Where are you going today? Surprise me. It seems almost pleased, red eyes lighting, weird orange mesh streaming from the rims. To great places, then! The train has taken off moving by now and FRIT disappears over the front of the car.

There is an open door behind you.

I stop dead in my tracks and there is an empty booth to my right, and to my left, what I think an angel should look like. My insides spike in sharp excitements and I want to do everything I can to sit in the right booth and escape the attack of nerves but they tell me I must, indeed, sit by the girl.

I tentatively clear my throat and ask if I can sit here. She shoots me a surprised, bright smile and says, why, of course. She sounds how an angel should sound. The buzz of bees mingled with tinkling silver. She’s surrounded by bags of various sizes and lumpy shapes, and a single Samsonite suitcase. She reaches across to my seat and moves a tangle of thread and fabric off it, and I sit down.

She apologizes for the clutter and I look around the rest of the cabin. It’s empty. She asks me where I’m going. I pause for a second, thinking they will come up with an answer, because I certainly don’t know. After they keep silent, I realize I am expected to hold my own conversations with strangers.

Uh, the next town.

I ask where she is headed, and she smiles rays and says the next town. She asks me where I got my hoodie and I tell her it was my dad’s.

She nods politely, and blurts: do you always get picked up in the middle of the desert?

I have no idea how to make excuses for myself; I say I went exploring and I don’t really know how I ended up there but I’m glad there was a train to pick me up right when I needed it.

She cuts right to the heart of it in a conspiratorial tone: You’re not from here, are you?

I pause and say no. It’s pretty obvious there’s a depth to my answer.

I can feel excitement bubble in her in rainbow hues. Where do you come from?

Greeley, I say. Colorado.

Registration on her face, a light bulb that betrays all the excitement at the words, and then she masks it just as fast. She leans in close and in a hushed, still excited voice says, how did you get here?

Her tinkling voice and contagious excitement makes me want to tell her everything. My mission. My strange senses. Who brought me here. I also want her to tell me everything: Where am I really; is this the dream world? Why are you here, what do you do, why is this whole place desert and why is there a train here?

Instead I say, I ran away and found a church that is falling apart and I was led to a door that’s not a door that led to a tunnel that led to another tunnel that led to a courtyard where I passed through a gateway and then it was gone and I was left in the desert and now I am here. And I don’t know where here is.

Her excitement ramps up as much as mine has and she lights up the booth. You are from the Solid!

The term in its context is weird enough that it slips by me; and instead ask where this is, then, waving my hand around to indicate the whole generality.

Dustland. She smiles her shiny smile.

The bells go off. I resist the urge to ask, you mean, Heaven? I want to preserve my semblance of sanity towards the pretty stranger who challenges my composure every time she looks in my direction.

Dustland? She catches my eyes with irises so intense I am caught in an opaline grip. My mood rises three levels and she gives no answer.

What’s your name? I ask. She beams at me and says, I’m Sunshine.

Finn Wharton, I offer in in the way I’ve rehearsed it countless times. Sunshine. Her name sounds made up, but I’m the last person to judge.

I ask her about the fabric and if she sews, and she animatedly tells me about all the things she makes, clothing for the urchins and beds and playthings and shelters and houses and even an entire town!

I raise my eyebrows starting at the shelters part and they go higher from there. Sewing?

She gasps, oh right, you’re not from here! Her giddiness revs quicker than the train got to me and she expresses that she will just have to show me.

It seems the longer I am with this Sunshine girl, the less I know and the less I care because I am more satisfied to be along for the ride than I have ever been in my life.


Sunshine’s request was granted with gusto; there’s very little she cannot do. For sure, she can count on her fingers what are her limits: Can’t stay in one place longer than a day; can’t get to the mountains no matter how hard she tries; and she can’t leave Dustland. That last one is self-imposed, though. She’s been wandering the vast expanse of this non-place for so long and she never ceases to find something new to admire, a view to climb toward, a trinket or two to take. And always, always the Dustlanders take her breath away.

She doesn’t need it, either, cruising at speeds that seem rather impossible– everything a blur around her almost to the point the distance seems as close as to brush up against her sweater– colors flying by and her comfortably sitting, enjoying her ride. She likes the train because even the most concrete landscape is made transient. Nothing is ever resolute, especially in Dustland and she likes to be reminded of that every chance she is able to.

FRIT comes to check on his favorite passenger, and asks her if she is having a pleasant trip.

She says yes, thank you. I am invigorated and renewed, and have a whole day to look forward to!

The robot says there is nothing more enlivening than moving through space at breakneck speeds, it gets you to hold onto things you didn’t know you had.

They share a thoughtful conversation about the joys of locomotives and FRIT shares some stories about funny places passengers have asked to go. The end of the rainbow; Nantucket; someone asked to not be let off anywhere in particular but instead to go straight through a nemesis’ house; the Edges; that kind of thing. FRIT proudly declares he got each and every one of them exactly where they wanted to go.

And the mountains? She asks, hopeful.

No luck, he says. They’re just a shadow; nothing there to get to.

She slumps into a pout, how is that possible?

Everything is possible, even the possible being impossible. The tracks simply won’t get there.

So you don’t know if they’re nothing, you just haven’t been there! She sparks back, never out for long.

FRIT chuckles, a softer ha-ha-ha than his normal laugh. If you ever decide to go, I will take you there. I would love to see what’s hidden by that silhouette, too. His robot voice makes the word silhouette sound sing-song.

Maybe your goggles will show you something you haven’t seen, a secret passageway, perhaps! She is all shades of hopeful.

Oooooh, so there’s a thought behind your gift. He tuts and Sunshine says, of course not! I just love you, FRIT.

His eyes light up a shade of red and she can tell he is happy. So she is happy too.

Oh, a passenger! I must go. And so Frit glides away and Sunshine is left to contemplate her daydream: why are the mountains so tantalizing? She remembers vaguely going through mountains in her days before Dustland, but there was nothing magical about them. Simply popping ears and carsickness. well, there were incredible views, too. She doesn’t remember what they looked like; her forgetfulness seeping into parts she didn’t realize she had to hold on to.

Something about these mountains sang to her, beckoned her to come closer. And she tried, but she never did. Her feet wouldn’t close the distance no matter how far she’d go; the train wouldn’t do and even waking up to chance kept her the same distance from the grand outline that framed the entire west side of sandy Dustland, too. Every creature she asked said the same thing: it’s a fixture of the view and nothing more. Always had been there, though.

She tries to pick single figures from the rolling world as the train changes its trajectory. Always cacti towering higher than any cactus should, and rocks that look more like ruins even through the incomplete glances the speeds would allow her to focus through. Always the same and always different, she thinks. Just like me.

A second of loneliness sneaks its way in, but she flips her focus to go back down to the cabin: there’s a passenger to meet!