Charlette sat gazing out the window, legs delicately crossed under her skirt. The world flew by in a blur, the greens and yellows of the landscape melded into a watercolor painting that was ever changing, and never stopping. The wide brimmed hat on her head blocked her view of the rest of the train and created her own private viewing of the gallery. If she focused hard enough on the background, she didn’t have to see her own reflection staring back at her. She quickly shifted her gaze down to her lap before her eyes could adjust to the window’s foreground.
This was her yearly trip to the countryside. She could almost feel the sea breeze on her face and the smell of salt saturating her every pore. She vaguely registered that a man had claimed the seat next to her. With a small grunt and graceful ease, he sat and opened his newspaper. This would have blocked Charlette’s view of his face if she had bothered to acknowledge his presence there. She looked back out the window, watching the scenery change from wooded forest to quaint towns. As they neared the coast, sand started to creep into the strangest places. Piles stood on lawns, within the lines of cross walks, and dusted across decks and porches. A sense of home and comfort came upon her and she breathed a sigh of ease. Her hand drifted to Clayton’s leg, sliding just above his knee. She waited with anticipation for the comforting warmth of his hand to ease gently onto hers. Her brow furrowed when it never came. She turned her head to see the newspaper angled back from the face of the man staring quizzically at her hand. Seeing his expression snapped her back into reality as the hand that had been resting on this stranger’s knee flew to her mouth. “Oh!” was the only thing that escaped her lips before tears welled in her eyes. She knew she was flushing shades of red to match a sunset.
The stranger laughed a hearty laugh and asked, “Can I help you?”
“I – I –,” His laugh and curious smile put her at enough ease that she could force a small smile, herself. With a laugh she said “I thought you were my husband. Force of habit, I guess. My apologies.”
“Force of habit, myself. I can’t tell you how long your hand was there because I thought you were my wife!”
This made Charlette laugh, truly laugh, in a way she hadn’t in a long time. “Well, aren’t we the pair.” She looked at her hand, rubbing the lines of her palm with her thumb. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, forcing her heart rate to slow and the memories bubbling behind her eyes back down. Her foot subtly drifted back until her heel touched the package nestled beneath her seat.
“Is your husband traveling with you?”
“Not on this trip. Your wife?” The question was a formality, and Charlette didn’t much care about the answer.
“My wife passed last year, but I still feel like she should be sitting next to me. That’s probably why your hand didn’t catch me off guard. I actually could have sworn I saw her walking down the hallway earlier. Nearly called out her name.” It was his turn to look down at his hands.
Charlette couldn’t seem to find her voice and they sat in silence for a minute.
The man cleared his throat, probably about to apologize for suddenly making this train ride a somber one, when Charlette spoke softly. “My husband’s funeral was last week.” The man’s eyes softened as he reached for her hand but stopped when she shifted her arm across her chest.
“I would love to tell you it gets easier, and maybe I’m not there yet, but I can tell you the hole stays for a while and the strangest things bring the feelings back. Like a stranger on a train… Would you like to tell me about him? Or would you like me to leave you alone?”
One of Charlette’s hands was clamped over her mouth and her body began to tremble. She stood abruptly and brushed past the man. Three rows down she stopped. She turned back and returned to the stranger. “Could you stay in this seat please? My things are here… and I don’t want them left alone.”
The restroom was at the end of the car and the stranger watched her disappear through the around the corner. She paused out of view, leaning against the wall for support. She had cried so much in the past few weeks she thought she had run out. Met her lifetime quota, dry eyed until the end of time. After having composed herself sufficiently, she slowly made her way back to her seat. She watched the man as he rubbed his forehead and massaged the crease between his brows. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and stared at the floor. He turned his head to see what was probably the familiar corner of the wooden box stashed beneath her seat.
She approached their seats and glided past him to deposit herself into her own chair. “Now that you have seen me cry, I should probably introduce myself. My name is Charlette.” She extended a hand in greeting. The man shook her hand firmly and said “Declan. Nice to meet you, Charlette.”
“I’ll let you get back to your paper, my stop should be coming up soon.”
Declan removed the back few pages of the paper and held them out to her without a word. Charlette smiled and took the pages, opening them delicately in front of her. She let the dark words and inky pictures envelop her, drawing her into a world of other people’s pain for a while.
The box was tucked safely under her arm and she navigated her way to the door, through all the other passengers gathering their belongings. One of the conductors opened the doors for her with a complimentary “After you ma’am, have a good trip.”
She stood on the top step, scanning the crowd for a familiar face. An older version of Clayton stepped out from the crowd and offered her a hand. Back on solid ground he wrapped her in a tight hug, which she half returned since the box left her unable to use one arm. “How are you doing?” Clayton’s father searched her face.
“As well as can be expected.” She smoothed her dress with her free hand and adjusted her hat.
“We will head to the beach this afternoon. It should be good weather.”
“I’d like to eat something first. All I want are Claire’s pancakes. I could practically hear him singing about them when I got on the train.”
“She actually made some this morning thinking that’s what you’d want. Is this him?” He removed the box from the crook of her arm.
“That’s him. All dressed up and ready for the beach.”
Clayton’s father hooked his arm through hers as they walked off the platform. “Let’s go get some pancakes.”