By Marianna Heusler

The train was unreserved, stuffy, crowded. Mindy spotted two vacant seats side by side. She had a choice. She could sit in one of them, hoping no one would occupy the other - or she could choose an empty space beside someone who looked halfway normal, someone engrossed in a book or someone sound asleep. She chose the former, deciding to take a chance. "Bad choices" could be a title for her life story.

She gently placed her suitcase in the rack overhead; the clasp was broken. She threw her backpack on the empty seat beside her. For the first twenty minutes the trip was pleasant, uneventful. She was able to catch up with her English literature reading and to begin her term paper on the history of Latin America. Sophomore year at college was certainly grueling. And her social life wasn't much better. Lately, she and David had been fighting all the time. Something was terribly wrong with the relationship, but Mindy couldn't put her finger on just what the problem was.

Lately, David had been acting strangely, always on his cell phone, and very evasive when she questioned him. Now Mindy's grandmother wasn't feeling well, and Mindy's mother insisted that Mindy make the one hundred mile trip to visit her. David thought some time apart was a good idea. Yet the desire to call David - just to hear his voice - was overwhelming and she could always use her cell phone. She wouldn't do it. If David wanted time apart, he would get it.

After the train stopped at Wallingford an old woman approached Mindy.

"This seat isn't taken." It wasn't a question; rather, to Mindy it seemed more like an accusation. The voice was irritating, high pitched, like a manic parakeet.

Mindy looked at the woman with resentment. She noted her acrylic fuchsia sweater, her purple polyester pants, her large loop earrings, her garish blue eye shadow and her bright scarlet lipstick. And then there was that overpowering fragrance, a musky sweet perfume that could not disguise an underlying odor, the source of which Mindy dared not speculate on. Mindy hesitated as her eyes darted, searching desperately for help.

She observed a man approaching in the distance, an ordinary guy, wheeling a large suitcase down the aisle.

"Ma'am." Mindy looked up at the conductor, who was staring at her with some annoyance. "Could you please remove your backpack from the seat and let this elderly lady sit down? The train is crowded. You'll have to put your personal belongings overhead."

Mindy, then, had no choice, although she wasn't too happy about it. She grabbed her backpack and placed it on her lap. The smell from the woman would probably kill her before she reached Springfield. She could identify it now - garlic and onion mixed with vanilla. Disgusting.

"That's better," the woman leaned back into the seat and opened her plastic red pocketbook.

Mindy tried not to stare as the woman rummaged through used tissues, crumpled dollars, a broken rouge case, and finally settled on an ripped bag of sunflower seeds, which she began to greedily suck into her wrinkled mouth.

"Want some?" She held the bag out to Mindy. Some of the seeds fell on Mindy's spanking new DKNY white tee shirt.

"No, thanks." Mindy lowered her head and stared at the textbook, cursing herself for not bringing her Walkman. Instead she'd pretend to be absorbed by her studies. Whatever she did, she mustn't make eye contact with the old woman.

"See that man over there?"

In spite of her resolution, Mindy looked up at the same gentleman she had hoped might have been her seat partner. He had sat down beside an older man who was sound asleep. Lucky him.

"He's going to his father's funeral."

"Do you know him?"

The woman shook her head.

She's a nut, Mindy thought, and why should that be a surprise?

"His father died very suddenly, though. Heart attack, didn't suffer much."

Mindy took a closer look at the man. Perhaps he was someone famous whom she hadn't recognized at first, someone whose personal life was newsworthy.

"Not like your grandmother."

Mindy stared at the woman in shock and confusion.

"That cancer is bad, real bad."

Mindy felt her breathing come in short little gasps. How could the woman possibly know about her grandmother? How could she have guessed? Meanwhile the woman continued to gum the sunflower seeds, scattering them everywhere.

Chills ran down Mindy's spine. One thing was certain. She had to move, to go anywhere, anywhere at all. If there were no empty seats available, then maybe she could stay in the lady's room. For the entire trip? Yet remaining beside this strange creature for hours on end was a fate too harrowing to consider.

"Don't go," the woman whispered suddenly.

Mindy froze in her seat.

"Don't move your suitcase," the old lady warned. "It's not safe."

"Next stop, Meriden. Meriden, next stop." The booming voice broke through the stillness, it was strangely comforting to Mindy.

"They always get caught," the woman said suddenly.

Mindy drew a deep breath, and reached deep inside of herself, gathering courage. "I don't know what you mean," she said in a clipped voice. "And I hope you don't think that I'm being rude," although why she should care what the lady thought was beyond her," but I need to finish this book for school." She glanced down at her textbook, the print blurry and unreadable.

The woman clamped her mouth shut and closed her eyes. Maybe she'll fall asleep, Mindy thought; please let her fall asleep. If only Mindy could escape now. But Mindy had chosen the window seat; any movement would awaken the lady.

Fifteen minutes of peace and quiet -

"Next stop, Berlin."

The woman jumped when she heard the crackling voice, scaring Mindy half to death.

"There are thieves all around us," the woman squeezed Mindy's arm, leaving a red indentation.

A pretty lady walked down the aisle, wheeling her suitcase. She's getting off in Berlin, Mindy thought. Maybe I could pretend it's my stop too. Is she the thief?

"They're coming for you," the woman whispered.

It took the lady in the aisle ten seconds to realize that the old woman was crazy. She shot Mindy a sympathetic look before she scurried away. Mindy looked down at her book and pretended to read.

"Don't matter," the woman shrugged. "You won't need to know any of that."

"Next stop will be Hartford," the portly conductor tore down the tickets from above. "All doors will open."

"Are you getting off?" Mindy asked hopefully.

"Afraid so." The woman rose slowly, as though it was a great effort and then, to Mindy's horror, bent down again. "He's not worth it, you know," she said softly.

And then the lady was gone.

Mindy breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed in her seat. With a little luck the space would remain empty until she got off in Springfield.

She closed her eyes, her stomach knotted, her head heavy. How had the old woman known about her grandmother? Maybe it was just a lucky guess. And what about telling Mindy that her boyfriend wasn't worth it? Perhaps Mindy just looked like a girl who had gotten involved with the wrong kind of guy. Nevertheless, the meeting with the bizarre woman had left Mindy with a very unsettled feeling. Odd, she thought, as she drifted off, very odd.

Mindy woke up with a start when she heard the conductor announce that the train was approaching Springfield. Time to get up, she told herself, time to face Mom and Grandma. While she was riding the train time had been temporarily suspended. But that was over now. Besides, the old lady had ruined the quiet reflection Mindy had planned.

Mindy stood up and reached overheard for her suitcase.

"Can I get that for you, Ma'am?" the conductor offered.

"That would be great, thank you."

He grabbed her suitcase roughly. The broken clasp clicked loudly and, to Mindy's absolute horror, the suitcase sprang open. Mindy watched her turtlenecks, her stockings, her make-up, and her underwear litter the aisle. Her scattered belongings were the least of her problems. Mindy stared in shock at the plastic bags. The contents, which resembled white flour, covered the floor.

The conductor's friendly expression changed immediately.

"I'm going to have to ask you to wait right here, Ma'am," he muttered in a grim, hard tone.

Mindy couldn't have moved if she had wanted to. She was paralyzed with fear, with bewilderment. "I don't understand," she stammered.

And then suddenly she did. The cash David was always flashing, the whispered "business" calls. He had been dealing. Now the police were closing in on him. Of course, he wanted Mindy out of the apartment. And he wanted her to take the evidence with her.

Straight to Springfield.

Everyone was staring at her. Mindy lowered her eyes, telling herself that maybe it was just a bad dream.

The shrill ringing of her cell phone jarred her back to reality. "Pick it up," an official-looking man who seemed to come from nowhere ordered.

She touched the phone as though it were on fire. She expected to hear David's voice; instead there was a heavy silence. And then a whisper so low that Mindy had to strain to hear it. "It wasn't a good idea. Moving that suitcase."

As the train halted with a jerk, Mindy was left with a dial tone.