“Mommy, I’m tired,” the child whined.
The mother sighed and glanced at her daughter before turning her attention back to her newspaper. “I know, sweetie. We’re almost there.”
The girl groaned and petulantly laid back in her seat, carelessly propping her feet on the seat in front of her; the man sitting there irritably huffed, and ruffled his newspaper loudly and purposefully, but did nothing else to deter her. Glen could tell the man wasn’t keen on confrontation, even with someone one-sixth his size. Neither was Glen, for that matter, but he didn’t mind the girl’s constant bemoaning; in fact, he was positive he was the only person on the train who actually enjoyed it.
She’d been whining the entire ride, an impressive forty-five minutes of juvenile complaining, and her gripes ranged anywhere from the daunting length of the trip, to the tackiness of the train’s carpet; at one point, she mentioned to her mother that she was sure someone once passed away in her seat, and he’d “most definitely died eating onions.” It was all Glen could do to suppress a laugh at that, and he’d deftly played off his smothered snorting as a minor coughing fit; it mattered little, as neither the mother nor her daughter had paid him any attention thus far, but he didn’t want them to think he’d been spying on them.
In fairness, he hadn’t been; the train was brimming with passengers, to the extent that there were no unoccupied seats left, and Glen was watching everyone. In the seat before him, a man kept getting annoyed with his neighbor’s newspaper, as the edges of the paper would keep jutting over his, and he would haughtily clear his throat and readjust his newspaper over his neighbor’s; his neighbor would then do the same a few minutes later, and the two had been engaged in this silent battle ever since. Glen’s neighbor, sitting in the aisle seat, was a woman no older than her mid-twenties, dressed in a stiff, formal business suit, anxiously scribbling on a yellow legal pad; every few minutes she would check her watch, tsk disapprovingly and shake her head, then resume her furious writing. Though he hadn’t really meant to, Glen did happen to peek at her notes once, just long enough for him to make out “–aggressive invasion and uprooting of the very fibers of this great–” before looking away again; despite his joy of people-watching, Glen felt reading someone’s writing without their express permission was much too violatory for him, and he cursed himself for not resisting the glance.
Behind him, an elderly couple conversed in a language Glen couldn’t recognize; Dutch, he assumed, but it was a wild guess. The two spoke in hushed tones, and based on their hostile mutters followed by stifled snickering, Glen imagined the pair were making fun of the other passengers. He’d only seen them when they boarded, but he was sure if he turned around to look, he’d discover them gawking and pointing at everyone else. A steward occasionally passed with a cart of refreshments, joylessly offering the over-priced drinks and snacks; alcoholic beverages were available as well, and the elderly couple ordered cocktails each time he passed. Their laughter began increasing in volume not long after, mingled with clinking of emptied glasses.
But across from Glen were the passengers who transfixed him most of all: the mother and her daughter. When they’d boarded, the girl could hardly contain her excitement at the prospect of a window seat, and the mother had dutifully obliged; she seemed much too tired to argue, and the girl’s gleeful insistence was clearly not going to be dissuaded. Now, the mother tiredly pored over her newspaper, struggling to stay awake as she read the article regarding the same headline Glen had seen displayed on everyone’s paper: DEADLY MISSILE STRIKE ON WATER PURIFICATION PLANT. It was the same headline on the paper in his lap, but he’d already read the shocking piece, and the sight of the girl had distracted him from his terrified pondering, anyway.
She had clambered onto the train with such certainty, and her graceful awkwardness–– the kind only a child can possess––combined with the flitting sight of her running up and down the aisle before spotting the open window seat, had rendered Glen immobile and speechless; his heart skittered in his chest, and for a fraction of a moment, he thought the girl was her, his Chloe, scampering about like she’d always done when she was little. And when the girl had stopped next to his row, he was sure she’d shriek with joy and yell for him, she’d yell for her daddy to pick her up and hug her, and his breath caught, but instead she’d hopped with elation and happily pointed out the available seat to her mother, and he’d realized his mistake. Since then, he’d maintained his surveying of the crowded train, secretly studying the various faces in his line of sight, but his attention would always drift back to the girl and her mother, in brief furtive glances.
The window next to him offered some respite from staring at anyone too long, but the sight was far from anything spectacular; grungy buildings of drab, cracked concrete filled most of the view, a seemingly endless wall of overpopulated and decaying structures. Smog blanketed over everything, and the sun was a blurry orb in the sky, thanklessly straining to pierce through the haze. Apparently, the girl also found the view quite dull, exclaiming to her mother that she was bored mere minutes after boarding. Glen had chuckled then, knowing full well as a parent what was going through the mother’s mind as she just sighed and told her daughter it wouldn’t take much longer.
Despite the depressing nature of the immediate landscape, Glen knew that eventually the train would reach an area that would make their current location worth traveling through, and he eagerly kept gazing out the window in anticipation of that holy oasis. It was a ways off though, and he wondered how many of the passengers would stay onboard to see it; indeed, the train was already approaching the next stop, and he was sure there would be fewer people getting on than departing. His assumption was accurate, and though he could see new riders in the other cars, none entered his, and one of the men sat before him left, much to the delight of the remaining man, who contentedly unfolded his paper and read it unhindered.
The train lurched forward soon after, continuing its course; the girl reminded her mother of her boredom, and the mother exhaustedly reassured her they were almost there. Chloe used to roll her eyes the same way as the girl did, and Glen wondered if all children at one point or another displayed a similar expression of dissatisfaction––a universal symbol of disappointment with the universe itself––but he thought that was perhaps too generalized; children certainly had numerous similarities, carried across cultures and generations, but no two were truly alike. Personalities and aspirations, hopes and imaginations, were as countless as blades of grass in a vast field, and just as precious; as Glen eyed the buildings going by, looming into the distance, he became more and more confident of that.
At the next stop, the elderly couple behind him got off, giggling and cackling as they lurched and staggered arm-in-arm down the aisle to the exit. The woman next to Glen left as well, her heels clicking purposefully as she hurried out the train; Glen couldn’t remember if she’d ever even made eye contact with him. When the train resumed its trek, Glen had expected the girl to pipe up once again, but he saw that she’d fallen asleep, her head gently lolling against the armrest of her seat. He chuckled again, and the mother looked up from her paper and caught his eye.
“Oh, sorry,” he quickly said, noting her suspicion, “I didn’t mean to stare. Your daughter, she– she reminds me of… of my little girl.”
“Oh,” the mother said, her eyes softening a little. “Oh, I see.”
“Mine was something of a handful at that age, too,” he chuckled.
The mother smiled. “Yeah, she can be quite… a lot, sometimes.”
“Mhmm. Usually are, at that age. Chloe would get bored on the train, too. Bit more to look at other than buildings back in those days, but still. Not much on a train for a kid.”
“Yeah,” the mom laughed humorlessly, “I’ll say. Told her to bring a book, but of course she forgot it.”
“Yup.” Glen nodded knowingly. “Chloe did that, too. She’d leave her book at home, or her toy or something, and she’d pout and moan the whole way, like it was my fault.”
“Mhmm. Iris does that, too.”
They both laughed again, each amused and pleased with the unexpected conversation so far. The mother looked at her sleeping daughter, Iris, and smiled, and lightly said, “She’s a pain. But I couldn’t imagine life without her.” She looked at Glen again, and he hoped she hadn’t seen his smile falter.
“This scares me,” she said, nodding at her newspaper’s headline. “I… I feel guilty sometimes, about the world I brought her into. Like it was– it was… selfish, or… I dunno. There’s so little of it left, what if there’s… there’s not enough? Is she… is she going to have to… fight? Just for a little… a little bit of water.” Her focus had shifted back to her daughter, but she turned to Glen again, her eyes imploring his for an answer.
At first, he had none, but as he stared at Iris’ peacefully slumbering form, he thought of Chloe again, and of the oasis at the end of the tracks; she’d loved it much as he did, and he knew it was that glow––her jubilant awe at the beauty of the marvelous patch of land––that held the explanation the mother sought. “I don’t know your daughter,” he slowly began, “never met her before, know nothing about her. But I can say, without any shadow of a doubt whatsoever, that she is the world. Everything exists––it’s all possible––because she exists, and the seed of your love for each other will grow and bloom and spread all over, and it’ll be a better place because of it. The world simply can’t… That’ll always be a resource. There’s never not enough. Your girl, she’ll… she’ll be ok. She’s got you. And you’ve got her. And that’ll… that’ll stay. And keep growing.”
Fearing that he may have started rambling, he gently smiled at the mother, and finished with, “One day, you’ll look at her, and realize how it’s her who made you, and you’ll feel so lucky to just be in her shade. It’s a… It’s an incredible feeling. Keeps you rooted to the spot when it happens.” He laughed, and added, “If it hasn’t already happened for you.”
The mother wistfully studied her dozing daughter. “Oh, believe me,” she mused, “it already has.”
They subtly rocked forward as the train began slowing down as it neared the next stop. “Well, this is our stop,” the mother said.
“Ah. Mine’s the next one, so I suppose this is where we part ways.”
She placed a hand on Iris’ arm, and soothingly shook her awake. The girl awoke with minimal understanding of what was happening, and she gratefully let her mother pick her up and carry her, quickly resting her head on her mother’s shoulder and resuming her sleep. The mother stood with her unconscious offspring, and pleasantly extended a hand to Glen, as best she could considering the burden. “Thank you for your words, Mister… I’m sorry, I just realized I don’t even know your name. I’m Amber.”
“Glen,” he told her, delightedly accepting her handshake. “You’re very welcome, Amber. It was a pleasure to meet you. You take care of that little one, ok?”
“I will, Glen. I promise. Thank you, again. You give my best to Chloe, alright?”
Glen blinked, but he kept his smile intact. “Will do, Amber. Thank you.”
Amber beamed at him, then walked away with her daughter. The man in front of Glen had left as well, as had the one in front of Amber and Iris, and once the train continued again, Glen was the only person left in his car. He didn’t mind the isolation, though, and he happily looked out the window as the train kept going, staring at the passing buildings as he thought of Amber and Iris, and Chloe as well. Little by little, the smog cleared and the wall of buildings slowly gave way to barren fields, still rife with the machinery and decay of mining and fracking, but soon the desolation eased into a thick but dreary forest. The train would reach the oasis soon, however, and Glen could hardly contain the sense of eager anticipation coursing through him. He remembered how Chloe would share that same enthusiasm, and he wished she could be there with him, to partake once again in that earnest impatience.
Then the trees parted, and there it was: in a clearing, surrounded by the scraggly trees of the bleak forest, a patch of cherry trees. Glen had always thought they bloomed only once per year, but no matter when he passed by, these ones were always in bloom, and once again their boughs were heavy and full with beautiful pink petals, which would occasionally peel away and drift around the tree in a peaceful swirl. The limbs danced and swayed in the wind, with the sun shining through in a reverent beam. And in the very middle of the patch, at the bottom of the tallest cherry tree, was a small mound with a name spelled out in rocks; a name which only Glen knew.
He watched the patch until it was out of sight, covered once again by the decrepit forest, and he leaned back in his seat and sighed contentedly. He’d come a long way for a glimpse of something so fleeting, but he knew it was worth it; to see those trees again––to be reminded that beauty cannot be judged on how long it lasts, but should marveled for its very existence. Chloe would always say the same thing every time they’d see the oasis. “That was beautiful, Daddy,” she’d whisper to him, still stunned, “wasn’t it?”
And he’d look at her, and say, “Yes, sweetie. Yes, it was.”
Glen smiled, and wiped a tear away, and turned his attention to the woods again, sure there was beauty to be found there in those meager trees, too. Chloe would have thought so, he felt, and at the very least, he knew her love still grew there as well.
After all, that sort of beauty never runs out.