by Lawrence Thomas
January 2021 Writer’s Digest Competition Submission (Short Short Story)
Word Count: 1,468 (limit was 1,500)
Latest Version: January 15th 2021
They had never spoken, but each day their paths would cross fleetingly in the train terminal. Every morning, Tori would catch her glance from across the stretch of the coffee counter. It was an enchanting, gentle, intended smile. A genuine and impactful gesture that rendered the world hushed and still for the few brief moments she illuminated his day.
Train Girl. His morning muse. Each time that spellbinding brown-eyed smile entered his thoughts, he drifted back to those transient but lasting human exchanges. It was just a smile , but it was everything for a man longing for even a modest gesture of fondness among the silent resentment that otherwise filled his days.
A 7:15 rendezvous at the terminal cafe was the only part of their daily routines that they shared in common. Train Girl caught the eastbound towards the Run Off, and Tori headed west into an overabundance of glass and steel.
Writing was a tool that Tori had once reached for as a form of solace and expression. The life circumstances that saw his shift from conductor to passenger, provided him ample opportunity for creative utterance in the now three hour return trip to the office each day.
After a few months of this new downtown routine however, the train had become more of a distractive social scene than a creative space. Conversations that seemed purposely meant for the entire train car rather than the three other people within four feet of one another, couldn’t even be drowned out with music without being too loud in it’s own right to allow for expressive thought beyond the words the artists were now screaming into his already troubled mind. You were also lucky to get a seat for the first half of the commute home and even if you did, Tori was often too distracted to read or write or even just close his eyes knowing that others were standing begrudgingly over his shoulder. The pungent smells of perfume and forgotten antiperspirant, and the overlapping hum of tens of others seeking solace through their headsets, all clouded his mind beyond thought, never mind inspiration.
Tori had bought a journal before joining the ranks of commuters with every intention of using the downtime to tap back into his once creative self, but throughout these precious extended hours spent stopping and starting across these seemingly endless rail lines, Tori mostly yearned for the company of his adoring children. He lacked the words, the enjoyment of music, and although there were a million things he could be reading, he could only want for the encouragement to let others’ words heal him. Lately, all he did was stare out the window wondering. His thoughts lost among the things that zipped past his window that bore the relentless reflection of a man as broken as he had ever been; a faded overlay among the elastic lights that ricocheted by on his return passage each evening.
On this particular day, Tori found a seat in the coach, took a few sips of burnt coffee, and pulled out the morning Herald. He hadn’t noticed that all of the faces were different. Even the track the idle train occupied was on the opposite side of the platform – the melancholy mumble of the morning protocols, glaringly different.
I mean tracks changed sometimes, he thought.
“Two minutes to departure.”
The train clamored and screeched away and was three stops into its route, when Tori happened to look up. Odd, he thought to himself panning the second floor of the train car. Not a familiar grimace, and in fact there was even laughter, heads dancing to a happy beat, and an older couple with their arms around each other. Glancing out the window, he quickly realized why everything about this morning was unalike. He was going the wrong way.
Following the explanation of oversight to his boss and his intentions of this continued course, everything about this reverse in direction was immediately proving to be salutary. The monotonous sites of skyscrapers, bumper parted traffic, and vacant stares that followed him downtown each morning had been replaced with open fields, countless vineyards, endless huddles of high arching trees, empty winding roads twisting into the orange glow of the morning horizon, and a myriad of other images of the natural world gliding calmly past his window frame.
Tori remained lost in the tranquility of the untouched world outside for ten minutes or so, before he reached down into his pack for his journal and something to write with. The words bled from the cheap, half-chewed pen in the gush of emotion of an unrewarding job, a failed marriage, and the poignant voices of self-doubt that haunted his thoughts each day; casting judgment on his abilities as a father, and the husband he had not been.
Haunting visions of a fortnight before. Lying there on the floor, pleading desperately to his forever love over the gentle snap and crackle of bubbles and the steamy mist of vanilla blossom. There was music on her radio again. It was in that moment, Tori knew she had moved on.
Although she slept in the bedroom down the hall, the woman who had made his dreams of becoming a husband and father come true, had been two years gone. It wasn’t until those lyrics hit his heart – that song reaching for new love, hope and laughter, that the reality of unbearable loss hit him square between the eyes. Suddenly the soundtrack of Tori’s life reflected devastating separation, unrelenting loneliness, and the living loss of loves‘ goodbye.
Lying melted on the cold, damp, bathroom tiles, Tori finally found the strength to cry. In that moment he needed loves’ embrace, words of affection – even clemency, but in her eyes all Tori could find was the emptiness of love and pain long departed.
When Tori stopped to look up, twenty pages had been filled. He took a deep breath, used his business card as a placeholder, closed his journal, leaned back, and released a long, lingering sigh of relief. It was like a lifetime of judgement, heartache, resentment, and ire had just been lifted from his troubled mind.
Tori didn’t look up right away. He had never heard the sound of her voice before.
“Sorry to bother you”, she softly called once more. Her words were soothing; sincere; angelic.
When Tori finally looked up, he was greeted with that smile, and an offering of some sort within the clear gloss enamel of her long, outstretched fingers.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I thought you might like this.”
“Thank you,” Tori fumbled with genial surprise. He didn’t even notice at first what she had passed him, losing the earthly space his physicality occupied every time their eyes met.
“Next stop, Mapleton,” a man jubilantly bellowed over the PA system.
She picked up her things, smiled once more as she walked away, and she was gone.
After the initial shock subsided, Tori looked down at what Train Girl had handed him. It was a hand-crafted bookmark. Not some mass-produced glossy tag with a threaded tassel, but a personalized piece of art. The page marker was a watercolor painting. A portrait of Paradise. A sunset over a small lake. The autumn glow of fall leaves against a clear orange sky. The brush strokes she used were precise yet free. The paper was a textured cream color with imperfect edges. Not worn from age, but a purposeful look that added to the rustic nature of the scenic landscape. In the bottom right corner in a melodic hand script, was written The Paradise Banks.
A month had passed since Tori’s maiden voyage across the picturesque grape lined peninsula. The master bedroom down the hall was now empty and half of the time, so was the bedroom in between that was once filled daily with laughter and silliness and the magic of youth’s curiosity.
It was a Saturday morning, and Tori woke up with Paradise on his mind. Dragging a comb through the gentle lifelights of his otherwise chestnut hair, he grabbed his journal and boarded the number two towards the uptown terminal.
“Next”, the station attendant called.
“One return pass to Mapleton, please,” Tori returned with a peaceful grin.
The sun started to appear from behind the clouds; its rays passing over Tori’s shoulder as he sat on the bench waiting to board the train. He looked up to stare into its glaze, when a familiar glow met him.
“Is this seat taken?”
“No. Not at all”, Tori gestured nervously, amiably surprised to hear the sound of Train Girls’ voice again.
They talked all the way to Mapleton. Her smile took barely a breath. In those moments, Tori had found a clearing in the path to intended forever.
(C) 2021 Larry Pattison (Lawrence Thomas). All rights reserved.