“Please enjoy your trip,” the girl says politely from behind the counter.
I murmur my thanks as I take my ticket before walking through the automatic doors that lead out to the platform. Immediately, I am made aware of the marked contrast in temperature between the indoors and the outdoors. The cold nips at my fingers. A fog rolls in from the
I pull my coat tighter around my body and glance around the platform. Aside from me, there is only an old woman and a mother and son. I nod politely at them before checking the time on my watch.
The train is supposed to arrive at 11:11. It is already 11:09. Just as I am about to begin an internal debate about whether to sit down on one the benches or remaining standing, I catch a glimpse of the sea glittering in the distance behind the trees. I wet my lips surreptitiously. It is a habit I have had since I was a child. The salt in the air finds my tongue.
I grew up in a small seaside village where everything necessary is within walking distance, from the provincial train station where people from the capital would flock through during the warmer months, to the beach where I spent a lot of time swimming and playing with my dog, Keiko.
Once, when I was seven, I spent an entire day out by the water teaching her to dance on her hind legs. I had seen it on television the day before, and while I recall the lesson being a success, I also remember the stinging pain that came with it. It was the first time I had been so severely sunburned. The skin on my arms, legs, and entire back was inflamed, and sleeping was next to impossible for a while, but I have no regrets. To this day, I still consider that to be one of the best days of my life. Those carefree days are long gone, of course.
“You work too hard.” I hear my mother’s voice in my head. “Give yourself a break.”
She is not wrong.
Perhaps this trip is exactly what I need.
At exactly 11:11, a midnight blue train pulls in at the station. It is a handsome one, the kind I only see in luxury travel documentaries. The door opens. I hesitate.
“Sir, do you need help?”
A train attendant handsomely dressed in the same midnight blue as the train stands before me with his gloved hands clasped in front of him. I check the name of the train and look back down at my ticket.
“I think there must be some mistake.”
The attendant holds his hand out. “If I may,” he says.
I hand him my ticket. He gives it a thorough examination before smiling and returning it to me. “There is no mistake, sir. This is your train.”
I am surprised, but do not question it further. Inside, the train is even more impressive. The seats, each bay a set of four, are upholstered in camel-colored leather. It looks buttery to the touch. The train table is folded down. Smooth and polished.
Save for the mother and son I saw earlier, there appear to be no other passengers on the train. The elderly woman, however, is still on the platform.
The worry must have shown on my face for the attendant turns to reassure me. “Do not worry about her," he says. "She is still waiting for her husband. They will take the next train together.”
And then with practiced ease, he leans out of the carriage door and blows on his whistle. He signals to somebody I cannot see, and not long after, the door closes, and the conductor announces our departure on the loud speaker.
I remain standing even as the train begins to move, my eyes fixed on the old woman left on the platform. It is only when she disappears completely that I realize that I probably ought to take a seat.
For the first hour or so, I watch contentedly as the greens and browns outside my window mix together like watercolor on an artist's palette. The terrain here is mostly mountain and forest, but every once in a while, the majestic sea would dip in and out of view.
From where I am sitting, I can hear the mother telling her son that the sea is playing hide and seek with him and that he must be fast if he wants to catch it.
To me, however, it feels like I am being pursued, like the sea is my lover and I am its latest paramour demanding to be chased. Or perhaps it is more like the past, desperate to catch up to the present.
Once again, I am reminded of my hometown. My last visit was probably five years ago, and although I have always meant to go back, I never did. Now that I am thinking about it, I cannot think of a valid reason for staying away for so long.
Eventually, the scenery changes and the tracks lead us through a thick and lush bamboo forest. This time, it is my father’s voice I hear in my head. “Bend, don’t break,” he said to me just before I left to make my fortune in the capital.
He has only been there once in his life, before he married my mother, and that was all it took for him to realize that it was not for him.
Perhaps it is silly of me, but I miss my parents. Both of them are still alive and well, of course, but there is no rule that says you can only miss people who are dead.
Or that you can no longer miss them once you are an adult.
Sometimes, I miss different versions of them, too. I miss the version of my mother who rocked me to sleep when I was five and crying over something I cannot remember. I miss the version of my father when he first showed me how to sail, when we spent a weekend away from home and I drank my first beer under the stars.
At least I know that they have nothing to worry about anymore. The deed to the house and the land they live in is theirs. The boat that my father sails in is his. I took care of those as soon as I had the means to do so.
I do not think they are too lonely either. My younger sister still lives on the island. She married a local boy, and they now have three beautiful boys. She does not know it yet—she would have fought me on it if she had—but I have already set aside money for each of them for university.
I do not have children of my own. My father has always wanted to me settle down and have kids, someone to carry on the family name, but I am not really keen on the idea.
In our last video call, I reminded him that he already has three grandchildren. Any more and he’ll throw out his back. He simply laughed and said that his back had already been thrown. What difference would another child make?
I must have fallen asleep at some point because the next thing I know, the conductor is announcing our arrival. Over the loud speakers, I hear him thank the passengers for patronizing the line along with reminders to check under our seats to make sure that we do not leave anything behind.
I do not think I brought anything with me, but that cannot be right, can it? How does one travel without baggage?
I bend down to check anyway.
“Did you have a nice trip, sir?” the attendant asks after he has escorted the mother and son down the carriage. I tell him that I did. I have been on many trains for work, and the best ones are always those that offer invigorating landscapes, while still allowing for moments of quiet contemplation, and eventually, a relaxing nap. Those that are neither too long that what makes it good becomes exhausting nor too short that the experience feels incomplete.
I cannot help but feel embarrassed even as he listens to my explanation seriously, as if he intends to log my comments in a spreadsheet somewhere. It is one of my less attractive traits. I tend to ramble about the dullest of things. I stop myself before I bore him to death.
As I step off the train, I notice that the platform is empty. Not even the mother and son are in sight. A fog rolls in from behind me. Am I in the correct place?
I turn around to ask the attendant, but he is already blowing his whistle and making his hand signals. He does not appear to see or hear me. The train departs and I am left alone on the platform.
I proceed to enter the station, but it, too, is empty. Just as I am about to ask myself what I am doing here or where “here” even is, I hear a dog barking in the distance. Seemingly of their own accord, my legs move towards the sound until I spot a small brown poodle running towards me.
It stops just a few feet away before it stands on its hind legs to dance. “Keiko?” I ask out loud as I bend down on one knee. The dog barks again and leaps at me. I am smothered in kisses until I have no choice but to sit on the ground. There is no logical explanation for why my childhood dog is here, which means that I must not expect things to make sense the way they used to.
I take another look around. The station looks familiar in the way that a memory is familiar. The more I examine it, the clearer it gets. I close my eyes, and I hear voices and laughter echoing in the emptiness. When I open them, I start seeing faint outlines of people coming and going. This is a popular station, especially during the summer. I remember now.
I pick Keiko up and walk out of the station doors. The sky is brighter on this side. The sun a little warmer. I can feel the beginnings of a sunburn on my back. It should be unpleasant, but it is not.
I lick my lips, tasting the salt in the air, before making my way towards the seaside village that I know is within walking distance.
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Jennifer, I enjoyed your piece. Speculative is an apt description and I loved how you did that. Your phrasing was descriptive, "the salt...finds my tongue," "...sea is playing hide and seek," "there is no rule..." and I connected to this. As a reader I was left with questions but a sense of warmth and comfort. thank you for sharing.
Hi, Suzanne! Thank you so much for reading my story! I'm thrilled to learn which parts of it resonated with you and that overall, it left you with a sense of warmth and comfort. That warms my heart, too. In case you're curious, I was trying to write about death in as pleasant a way as possible. Nothing dramatic either. Just a lovely and unassuming train ride to a place that harks back to simpler times, wherever and whenever that might be. :)
A nice story Jennifer. One comment - the end of the first paragraph seems incomplete. 'A fog rolls in from the .......?
Oh you're right! Darn. I can't edit it anymore, but in any case, it was supposed to be "A fog rolls in from the east."