Coming of Age Teens & Young Adult Fantasy

Iris stared out the window into the pelting rain, watching trees and farmland streak by. The heat from inside the Amtrak dining car fogged up the windows, but she was grateful to be warm and dry, even if this trip was for all the wrong reasons. She closed her eyes and wrapped her hands around the steaming cup of coffee the attendant placed in front of her with a concerned look. You can do this. This is okay and you are fine. She took a deep breath and released it slowly, feeling her heart rate begin to slow. She relaxed her shoulders and repeated the measured breathing until she felt like she could go on without her heart exploding in her chest. She’d read that this was how people with Broken Heart Syndrome died. They were so sad that their hearts swelled until they burst. She’d made a mental note to stop and take inventory sometimes so that it didn’t happen to her.

The open binder of sheet music sat on her lap, untouched. She closed it and shoved the binder into the old leather backpack crammed at her feet. Those songs had been going through her head for months; if she didn’t know them by now, she never would. Iris removed the scrunchie from her long black hair and leaned back in her seat. Maybe the hard part was over. She’d already lost the most important person. Everything else just didn’t mean that much anymore. She closed her eyes and let the inevitable sadness wash over her once again. 

It was snowing big, fluffy white snowflakes on a bright sunny day. The trees and fields sparkled in the morning sun as the Amtrak train streaked along the Eastern rail toward Boston, Massachusetts. Iris was so excited. It was her first grown-up trip, and she was spending an entire week by herself with Evie. No grandma interfering and making her do chores or schoolwork, no mom chastising Evie and making her cry. Just the two of them…

Iris jolted upright in her seat and gasped, the memory of Evie so vivid she could have sworn she was right beside her. A fresh wave of tears threatened to fall and she quickly wiped her face, massaging her temples and forcing herself to smile, a trick she’d learned from a nun in her Catholic high school who’d had a nervous breakdown. “If you simply stop and smile,” Sister Margaret had told them, grinning at the class in silent frustration, “it changes the way you feel inside.” Sister Margaret learned the trick herself when they locked her away for slapping a kid with her ruler. It didn’t always work for Iris, but the physical act helped to stop the tears until she could control them herself. 

She smiled gratefully as the train attendant brought over a selection of mini liquor bottles. “Maybe you’d rather have one of these?” he said with a mixture of pity and sympathy. He didn’t seem to care if she was underage. She accepted the mini vodka and a little can of soda and made herself a cocktail with the coffee stirrer. The alcohol burned her throat. She was really missing the taste of a cigarette today, even though it had been weeks since she’d smoked one. The unmistakable smell of a Camel Light had drawn her attention on the train platform earlier and triggered a craving. It was amazing how that could still happen after all this time. She inhaled, thinking of the smell. An image of her and Evie at the roller skating rink flashed across her mind.

Iris sped over to the round tables at the side of the roller rink and did a little half spin, landing neatly on the rug-covered bench. She loved the 1970s decor in this roller rink, with disco lights and shag carpeting and a huge hangout area that could only be accessed by going through the rink on skates. It gave the kids an area far away from their parents and was a marketing scheme that had proven very successful, as this was the most popular skating rink in town. Evie came flying up behind her, laughing as she barely made the sharp right turn to enter the carpeted area, and plopped down on the bench opposite Iris. A pack of Marlboro Reds dropped out of her pocket. Evie looked mortified and quickly reached down to grab the pack. “Um, I…” she began. Iris laughed. “It’s okay, Evie.” Iris pulled out a crushed pack of Camel Lights from the pocket of her jeans. Evie managed to look shocked, guilty, and disappointed all at the same time. “You smoke, too?” she said with a little nervous giggle. Iris giggled back and they both laughed at how similar they sounded, dissolving into fits of giggles and wiping tears from their eyes. Evie smiled conspiratorially. “It will be our secret,” she said. Iris grinned at her, basking in the glow of having a secret with her older sister…

“Is this seat open?” Iris opened her eyes as the rich baritone resonated somewhere deep inside of her. A tall, lanky boy with a mop of dark brown curls stood in front of her. Various large bulky items, some appearing to be instruments, were strapped to his body. He nodded to the empty seat across from her. “Do you mind if I sit here?” Iris looked around the dining car. Every booth was full of noisy families and adults trying to camp out in a larger space without paying for business class. She looked up at him, trying to assess how much of a distraction this was going to be. “Sure, go ahead,” she said, watching him hoist a large instrument into the bin above her table. He shoved the rest of his bags into the seat and slid in behind them. 

“I’m Ian. Thanks,” he said. Iris watched as he removed a few layers of clothing and settled into the seat. “Don’t worry, I won’t bother you,” he added, leaning back and closing his eyes. She stared at one shiny brown lock dangling carelessly on his forehead. His lashes were thick and long, his cheeks flushed. A little flutter in her stomach took her by surprise. She looked away quickly, focusing on the small children in the booth across the aisle. She hadn’t thought she could feel anything but sadness anymore. 

Glancing back at her new seatmate, Iris noticed that he had opened one eye and was looking at her. “Are you drinking vodka?” he asked. She couldn’t tell if his tone was curious or judgmental. “Um, yea, well, the train attendant brought it over, I think he thought I looked sad or something,” she replied, feeling the heat begin to creep into her cheeks. “I don’t really drink normally.” She laughed awkwardly and waited for him to say something. After a few minutes, they both spoke at once. “Hey, I…” “Would you…” They both laughed. The flutter came back, giving her stomach a little spark, and she focused on the tray table. She couldn’t decide if the feeling was pleasant or unpleasant.  

“You first,” he said, chuckling. “Oh,” Iris said, looking up, “I was just going to say you could share it with me,” she said shyly. “I have a coffee stirrer straw,” she added, mentally kicking herself for saying something so dumb. “Well, I suppose that would be easier than trying to get the train attendant to sell me one of those,” he responded, chuckling again. Her stomach flipped the way it did when she went on a rollercoaster. 

“Sure, I’d love to, if you don’t mind,” he said more seriously, leaning forward and looking directly into her eyes. She couldn’t look away. Her insides began to melt as he stared at her. “You are sad, aren’t you?” he asked. She felt a tear spring to her eye and she swiped at it angrily. “I’m just, um, I had a death in the family,” she said, turning her head away. “And no, um, I…don’t mind,” she stammered. “That’s why I offered. You can go ahead and share the drink.” He smiled at her gently and took a polite sip through her coffee stirrer straw. “Wow, strong,” he said, wincing. She laughed and added more soda to the cup. He stirred it slowly, looking at her with curiosity. 

“So, who died?” he asked bluntly. She looked at him, surprised at the question. It had been a few months, but everyone still walked on tiptoes around her and nobody really wanted to talk about what happened. “My sister, Evie,” she said, surprised again at how good it felt to say it out loud, to talk to a stranger about it. “She was my older sister…ten years older actually, and she lived in New York City.” Iris looked out the window, picturing what it would have been like for Evie to pick her up at the train station the way they’d planned. 

“Are you a musician?” he asked, nodding to the book of sheet music sticking out of her backpack. “Yea, sort of,” she said, “a singer. I’m supposed to be here to audition for Julliard, but I don’t think I’m going to do it.” He looked at her sadly. “Because your sister died?” he asked. “Yeah…it just doesn’t seem right. Plus, I was supposed to live with her, so…” Iris pressed her temples to stop any tears from leaking out. They seemed to be leaking more easily as she drank the vodka. 

Ian leaned forward. “Hey,” he said softly, “people die and it’s just a part of life. It doesn’t mean your life is supposed to stop.” He ran a hand through his tangled curls and thought for a minute. “You should do the audition,” he said, “Juilliard is definitely worth it. That’s where I’m headed now.” 

“You go to Julliard?!” Iris asked excitedly. “Tell me all about it!” He laughed and settled back in his seat. “Okay,” he said, looking at her affectionately. 

She listened raptly to his stories of jazz clubs on the Upper West Side and in Greenwich Village, amazing varieties of food to eat in Queens, cool spots to hang out in Brooklyn, and little hidden places around the city that she would never have found on her own. He spoke about his favorite professors, his love of jazz music, and the performers he followed that moved his soul. As the train sped along the Hudson River, Iris fell in love with the school, the city, the culture, and most of all, with Ian.

She barely noticed the time it took to arrive at Grand Central Terminal, and before she knew it the train had stopped and the aisles were filled with people jostling each other to reach their luggage. She found the luggage rack where the attendant stowed her suitcase, managing to yank her bag out from under an enormous camping satchel. As she headed into the dining car to say goodbye to Ian, she was stopped by the train attendant. “I’m sorry, the dining car is closed, everyone’s gone” he said, pulling the room divider closed in front of her. “But…” she began. She looked around and didn’t see him anywhere in the crowd. She hadn’t noticed him leaving. “Remember, you’re still living,” Ian had said to her as she got up to find her luggage. Train conductors were gently but firmly pushing people off the train. It’s okay, I know his name. She’d seen it stitched on one of his bags – Ian Deering. She would find him if she ever made it to Julliard. 

Iris made her way through the crowd and headed for the taxi line on 42nd Street. Mr. Matthews, Evie’s attorney, had instructed her to come directly to his office and said the doorman would pay for the cab. She hoped this was true since she couldn’t really afford to spend extra money. Iris needn’t have worried, as the doorman walked right over and opened her taxi door, cash in hand. She allowed herself to be swept along, through the security check and past the front desk, where a young woman in a fitted plum suit waited to escort her. 

“I’m Greta,” she said, smiling warmly. “Mr. Matthews has been waiting for you. I’ll take you to him.” Greta’s expression was a practiced mixture of sympathy and professionalism. Iris followed her down a long hallway with offices on either side. They reached the last door on the right and Greta ushered her into a large corner office with breathtaking views of the Hudson River, the HighLine and the Flatiron Building. Two overstuffed armchairs and an antique coffee table sat in front of the enormous windows. A modern glass and chrome desk occupied the opposite corner. Two walls were lined with books, stacked neatly in the built-in bookcases. 

Mr. Matthews rose to greet Iris and enveloped her in a warm bear hug. “I’m so sorry, my girl,” he said, stepping back and looking at her. She’d met him several times before, but  it had been years. She saw lines in his face, gray hair on his temples that wasn’t there before. “You look so much like her, you know?” he said, shaking his head sadly. Iris never knew how to respond to that so she just nodded her head and said nothing. Greta took her coat and bags and Mr. Matthews led her to one of the overstuffed chairs. He produced a folder with two sheafs of documents and handed one to her. “I’m incredibly sorry for your loss, Iris. Your sister, Evie, was a dear friend to me and my wife. But we do have quite a bit to discuss today, so I’ll get right to it,” he began. 

Greta appeared with a tray of coffee and cookies, setting it up on the little table and pouring out two cups. As she left silently, Mr. Matthews took a large silver box from one of the cabinets and placed it on a simple pedestal in a far corner of the room. He turned on a small overhead light that bathed the silver box in a warm glow. Iris hadn’t even noticed the pedestal when she walked in. He came over and sat next to her on the other chair, watching as she stared at the box. “Is that, is she…” Iris tried to speak and her throat immediately tightened. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She inhaled the scent of the strong coffee and took a sip, letting the warm liquid bathe her throat. Mr. Matthews waited for her to compose herself and answered simply, “Yes, those are Evie’s ashes. We held them at your mother’s request until you could be here to pick them up. So, she’s been waiting for you,” he said gently. 

Iris burst into tears and cried hard for a full minute. Mr. Matthews placed a box of tissues in front of her and waited patiently. When she couldn’t produce another drop of tears and she’d blown her nose on half the box of tissues, he said “Your mother tells me you have an audition tomorrow, is that correct?” She nodded miserably, dabbing her puffy eyes. “Your room is taken care of; Greta will see to it that you get a cab. You should go and get a good night’s sleep and relax before tomorrow.” Iris stood silently and allowed herself to be herded along once again, the silver box carefully packed and deposited next to her in the taxi.

As the driver expertly swerved in and out of cars on 8th Avenue, Iris contemplated what it might be like to live here. ‘Just because someone dies, it doesn’t mean your life has to stop,’ Ian’s words kept coming back to her. She wondered if she would ever see him again. Not unless I show up for that audition, she thought. She leaned her head against the seat and let exhaustion overtake her.

Six months later…

Iris watched as rain streaked across the window pane. From the elevated part of the 6 train, she saw the landscape change from green trees and tiny lawns to huge apartment buildings and factories as they sped toward Manhattan. She still couldn’t believe that she was a student at Julliard, living in her own house. It was a dream come true, and none of it would have happened if not for Evie. But she wondered if she would have gone through with the audition if she hadn’t met Ian. She still thought about him every day, but she hadn’t run into him anywhere. 

Iris ordered two coffees from the cart outside the subway station and made her way onto the Juilliard school campus. She had a friend working in the registrar’s office today and she was determined to solve the mystery. She was on a mission to find Ian Deering. She pushed open the door of the office and called out. “Laura, are you here?”

Laura came out of the back office, twisting her hair into a bun and grabbing the coffee gratefully. “Oh wow, amazing,” she said, taking a long sip and exhaling happily. “So, are you ready to look for Mr. Perfect?” she added teasingly. “Yes, I’m ready, let’s do this,” Iris said nervously. Laura giggled. “Okay, what’s his name?” she asked, perfectly manicured nails poised and ready. “Ian Deering.” Laura typed in the name and hit Enter. She abruptly turned the screen toward herself and looked at Iris. “Uh, are you sure you have the right name?” Laura asked. She covered up the screen as Iris tried to lean over the counter and read it. “Yes, why?” Iris asked, puzzled. “Come on, what does it say, let me see!” she cried, tugging at the computer screen. Laura gave her a strange look. “Um, Ian Deering was a student here, but he died seven months ago. It says there was some type of accident involving a train.” 

March 24, 2023 23:01

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RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

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