The Return Journey

Submitted into Contest #42 in response to: Write a story that ends with a character asking a question.... view prompt



Maz switched her soya espresso frappuccino to her left hand in order to feed her ticket through the turnstile with her right. She strode to the end of the platform to await the train that would take her to Steph’s house.

“Stephanie,” she corrected herself, not caring that her lips moved to form the syllables. She had her headphones in, so anyone looking would presume she was mouthing lyrics or learning a language, rather than trying to nail her half-sister’s preferred name. She had been so accustomed to abbreviating it in all the Christmas and birthday cards she had sent growing up. She had shortened her own name from Marilyn, which she though evoked mothballs or underwear flashed beneath billowing dresses, and presumed others did likewise. It was ‘Maz’ she ordered printed on her business cards and ‘Maz’ she had heading her profile on her dating app.

Maz had been dissociated from her half-sister for most of her life due to her family moving around the globe for work. Now they only lived a three hour train journey apart, she had spent the last five years trying to absorb the details of the 46 that made up Stephanie.

Once on board, Maz took the birthday gift out of its chic little bag she’d found in the family-owned stationery boutique near her office in Foundry Street in Brighton. Placing it on the grey tray she pulled down from the back of the seat in front (wincing at the squeak this produced, always half afraid a whiskered creature might scuttle out) she admired the sleek lines of the box. Who doesn’t appreciate an activity tracker? Especially one waterproof up to 50 metres, with UV sensor and told you whether you were at risk of diabetes.

A family boarded and took the table across the aisle from her. A boy, perhaps four or five years old (or nine or ten; children weren’t Maz’s strong point) started bawling that he needed the toilet. His bossy sister demanded ownership of the smudged tablet while mummy took Archie away. Maz took out her phone and turned up her music (a new indie electronic band profiled in one of last week’s Metros) and decided to answer some emails, while the verdant South Downs passed silently yet majestically by through the carriage windows.

* * *

“Maz, Maz, Maz, Maz, Maz…” Stephanie counted one Maz per step as she descended them to answer her door. She had to kick pairs of wellingtons and slippers aside to open it fully for the sister she still thought of as ‘Marilyn’, who stood on the doorstep frowning at the underside of her shoe.

“Sorry,” said Maz, with a tight crooked smile. “I thought I’d trod in something taking that shortcut you mentioned. But Stephanie! You’re looking well.” Maz held her thin arms aloft for an embrace.

Stephanie had to try her best not to flinch at the “Happy Birthday!” cried directly into her ear as Maz gave one of her trademark stealth clenches she believed passed as hugs, and thought not for the first time that trying to hold her sister was like trying to hold a panicked sparrow.

“Here you go,” Maz held out the little bag, its geometric pattern and logo standing out in Stephanie’s leafy surroundings like a wad of bubblegum on a watercolour painting.

“Thank you,” beamed Stephanie. “I thought as it’s a lovely day we could sit out in the garden.” With a beckoning jerk of her head, Stephanie marched through her cluttered living room, deposited the gift bag on the dining room table, and called over her shoulder as she reached the kitchen, “come through!”

Maz gingerly picked her way through discarded puzzle magazines, a yoga mat and bags of chinchilla food. Which reminded her to look out for the oversized mouse-beast she thought resembled the Brain from Pinky and The Brain in case its door had been left unlatched, as it had been on a traumatising previous visit.

Obstacle course negotiated, Maz joined Stephanie on the patio, taking one of the wrought iron chairs, with a quick peep for evidence of bird splatters before sitting.

“I made the sangria with apples from my orchard,” said Stephanie, sliding a glass festooned with fruit over to Maz. She then pointed at vegetables she was growing nearby, Maz making the appropriate noises, although dreading to think how she’d know what to put in what dish or cocktail with the lack of labelling.

“So, tell me how you are – keeping busy as usual I suspect.” The inquiry was said in a fond tone, although Stephanie watched Maz’s response with solemn brown eyes.

“It never stops!” laughed Maz, her hands going to the small of her back as she arched it. “Well, as you probably gathered when it came to booking you in for a birthday meal.” Maz was treating Stephanie at a later date to a feast in the city’s new zero waste restaurant that she’d been one of the first to experience (work perk). Stephanie had listed the Saturdays she had had free and Maz had discounted the first five of them, citing other commitments.

Maz gazed at the garden and sighed. “I’m so envious you have any outdoor space, let alone getting to choose what you put in it.”

“How’s the house share?” Stephanie asked. She’d long ago given up trying to keep track of the names of fellow renters and boyfriends that seemed to come and go faster than the seasons with Maz. She was running out of space in her address book under their shared surname too, what with all the moves over the years.

“Landlord still hasn’t done anything about the mould,” Maz replied, wrinkling her nose. She gazed up at the clouds, hoping her moisturiser, serum, primer, foundation and setting powder were going to enough to combat the sun’s rays.

She fished around in her handbag delicately with nails she’d picked out from a tray while Stephanie tutted sympathetically and picked a piece of orange out of her drink to nibble on. Maz found what she was after and lit the cigarette. “Ali’s worried what it’s doing to my lungs.”

Stephanie didn’t know if Ali was a man, woman, housemate, lover, or co-worker, but nodded anyway.

“You should come out here more often,” Stephanie said, swatting away a fly to gesture at the greenery. “Plenty of fresh air, and it’s going free.” One thing Stephanie did remember was how much Maz was paying in rent, as she’d almost choked on her waffle when Maz mentioned it while they were perambulating on Brighton Pier during her last visit. She remembered thinking it incredible Maz had a 2p spare for the arcades.

Maz shielded her eyes from the unaccustomed sunlight. She thought of the harsh strip lights of the supermarkets she rarely frequented, preferring to order her shopping online. “How about you, Steph…anie? Have you been up to much?”

Stephanie beamed and Maz again felt the need to protect her eyes. She couldn’t remember even her own milk teeth ever having been so naturally white.

“As a matter of fact, I just finished a new painting.” Stephanie was one of the lucky ones, doing what she loved for a living. She held art classes in an annexe built onto her home, largely lesson planning on the fly which didn’t seem to bother her students, some of which had been attending regularly for over a decade.

Stephanie put her glass down and placed a beaded muslin cover on top to protect it from any curious insects. As she rose to fetch her latest creation, Maz noticed a hole mended with contrasting yarn in one elbow. Her journalist’s brain filed it for a possible future on country fashion trends. She also noticed her sister looking rather thicker around the middle. It suited her. And it hadn’t become the instant focus of a miserably guilty conversation, as would have been the case if she’d been dining with friends from work.

As she thought of her contacts, and of how loud these thoughts had become in the surrounding tranquillity, Maz’s hand drifted unconsciously to the phone pocket in her handbag to ensure the familiar rectangular lump hadn’t disappeared. Which naturally led to the conscious urge to check notifications. She was halfway through a Twitter thread about a US jewellery manufacturer that had ‘borrowed’ most of its designs from an Etsy seller in Denmark when Stephanie bounded back, clutching a canvas.

The artist propped it on the table, tapping her fingers on its sides as she waited for Maz to fire off angry empathy into the Twittersphere. On lifting her gaze, Maz smiled uncertainly at the back of the frame, wondering if the staples were an attempt at abstract art for the flicker of a second. Stephanie then lifted it up and turned it around, sending a tealight skittering across to the edge of the table, causing a burst of gasps and giggles from them both as they jumped to its rescue.

“Wow, Stephanie, that’s incredible!” exclaimed Maz. She recognised the local church she’d passed during her earlier navigation from the little train station, a station more of a hut than a hub. Stephanie had depicted it in long afternoon shadows, the stained windows blazing in kaleidoscopic colour. A figure in the foreground walking a German Shepherd was painted with his face turned towards the church, while the moss greens and buttery yellows of the High Weald provided the background.

“Truly lovely. Well done, sis.” Her hand had crept back to her phone. “Can I get a picture?”

Stephanie ummed and ahhed and looked for something to prop her painting on while she backed away, but Maz wanted none of it. “With you in it, silly,” she clarified. There was a brief struggle as Stephanie’s hands flew to her head and declared her hair a mess while Maz told her to shush. She took a handful of snaps.

“I’ll choose the best one later and post it on my Instagram. Did you set up a website from the link I sent you? If so, I could tag you in it. Potentially drive a lot of traffic your way.”

It was Stephanie’s turn to wrinkle her nose. “Sorry, haven’t quite gotten around to that yet. Besides, I paint for me, I’m not all that fussed who else sees it.”

Maz was momentarily struck by the sheer strangeness of doing something for one’s own pleasure rather than to receive accolades from others. She shrugged and said “suit yourself, but I think more need to see this,” but filed the mysterious concept away in her brainbox for her next therapy session.

The pair continued drinking for a while, then Stephanie insisted on going for a walk to a nearby copse where local schoolchildren had created signs and oddities hung on tree branches as part of a recent festival. On their return, Stephanie dismissed Maz’s mission to find a delivery service that would bring them takeaway, instead producing a spread of locally sourced delights. The walk and endlessly flowing sangria had a soporific effect on Maz, the caffeine from the start of her journey having long worn off and a 45 hour working week caught up.

She awoke disoriented, her foggy brain mistaking the midnight blanket with white accents that had been lain over her for the night sky, before looking up and realising it was only dusk. Stephanie was at the kitchen window, humming while she washed dishes.

Maz stirred. “You should’ve let me do those.”

Stephanie grinned. “I didn’t want to disturb your beauty sleep.”

Maz looked for her phone, eventually spying it beneath her cigarette packet. “Shit, is that the time?” She would’ve jumped up if the plush blanket had allowed. She staggered to her feet and started gathering her belongings. “Sorry Stephanie, I’ve really got to be getting back. I had lots of life admin planned for this evening, you know how it is.”

“Okay dear. Well, it’s been lovely having you.” Stephanie emerged from the kitchen with a tupperware box. “Little snack for you to take with you.”

Maz took the offering and peeled back a corner. The ‘little snack’ was what looked like three trays’ worth of home baked flapjack. “Stephy,” (she hoped that was allowed) “This is too kind, it feels more like my birthday! I’ll make it up to you in five weeks’ time. The restaurant does a chocolate torte to die for.”

Stephanie kissed her sister on the cheek goodbye and told her she was already looking forward to it.

* * *

Stephanie adjusted the volume of her music again. She’d forgotten it was a football day, and every carriage was spilling over with revellers. She settled back on her heels, prepared for standing up all the way back, for the seats not taken with chanting fans were full of tired-looking daytrippers with their bags filled with London souvenirs and students pre-drinking their way to club nights.

Volume at a satisfactory level, Maz’s hand tentatively burrowed into a corner of the box again. She broke off a minuscule piece of flapjack and popped it quickly into her mouth. She’d seen that blog of men photographing women that ate on trains and wasn’t looking to become its latest victim.

The deliciously sweet bite tasted the way a sunbeam felt. Maz closed her eyes and played the reel of walks down deserted country lanes, a church steeple piercing fluffy clouds, fruit jostling for space in sangria, the blanket like a soft cocoon, her sister’s shining smile. She felt an unfamiliar pang of some emotion that she could only compare to when she came back from a European city break and found she’d missed a sale at her favourite make up brand’s counter. Once again, Maz reached for her phone.

Thirty miles away, Stephanie went to get the magazine she’d left that morning on her dining table and noticed the gift bag she’d discarded there. She plucked out the box, then had to go and get her glasses so she could read the technobabble on the leaflet that fell out of it. She was then distracted by the message tone of her phone, asking aloud to Cecil where it might be. Cecil only snuffled from his cage in reply.

Maz may be the writer of the family – the ‘wordy birdy’ – as she liked to tease her, but Stephanie was a good editor when it mattered. She skimmed over the expletives describing passengers and skipped down to the essence of the text:

“Hope it’s not too late/cheeky to ask – can I come back?”

May 22, 2020 17:18

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Pragya Rathore
07:33 Jun 03, 2020

Wow... Great story... Please write more! Amazing! I'd love to hear from you on my short stories... Please read them :)


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Daryl Gravesande
11:20 May 24, 2020

I love this story! I ESPECIALLY loved the ending. Perfectly closed ending to an amazing short story! I would be grateful if you could like and read my stories too!


Karen McDermott
17:38 May 24, 2020

Thank you Daryl!


Daryl Gravesande
17:41 May 24, 2020

No problem. You have a real KNACK for writing! Continue to inspire and create!


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Zane Safrit
18:44 Jun 02, 2020

Karen, excellent story from beginning to end. Loved the ending. I look forward to reading your other submissions.


Karen McDermott
21:25 Jun 02, 2020

Thanks so much!


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Unknown User
03:26 Jun 06, 2020

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Daryl Gravesande
13:38 Jun 01, 2020

I have a new story! Tell me what you think!


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