In the near distance, the train to Chicago blared its horn.
The sound was mostly drowned out by the mechanical thump and whirr of the production line, not to mention the loud chatter of a dozen local people doing what they always did when stuck in a room together: gossip.
"Well I heard young Clem is sweet on Lizzy's daughter," said Joyce. Her clever hands, wrinkled and thick-knuckled, made quick work of sorting through the green stream of apples. Good one, good one, good one. Aha! Bad one! In a flash, she whipped it off the line, no second chances, no siree. Bruised and battered by someone else's harsh handling? That's just too bad, but you're off the line and consigned to pig-feed or compost.
"I don't know where you get your news from!" Lois bellowed. Lois always bellowed: a lifetime working in factories much louder than this had taken their toll. But she, too, had deft, merciless hands. Her discard barrel was already two-thirds full, and it wasn't even ten o'clock in the morning.
Next to Lois, Ruth's barrel was a lot closer to empty. She picked at the passing apples with all the enthusiasm of a child faced with a plate of raw vegetables on their birthday.
"I'm telling you, there'll be wedding bells for Clem right out of high school, mark my words."
Lois sucked her teeth, eyes keen on the apples. "Well, 'tis the season for love."
Mouth pinched hard, Ruth shoved back from the conveyor belt. "Bathroom," she muttered, stomping away, spine prickling with the brush of knowing looks.
They knew. Of course they knew. How could they not? The whole damn town probably knew approximately five minutes after Suong walked out. Ruth could just imagine Joyce's voice saying, Oh, I heard young Ruth and her pretty girlfriend arguing this morning.
Argument. Sure. Like Suong ripping out Ruth's heart was some petty little disagreement. Like Ruth wasn't bleeding from the chest as she stumbled into the factory this morning amid the gossiping ladies' dawn chorus.
Regarding herself in the bathroom mirror, she didn't look much better than when she left home: gaunt, ashen, heavy-browed and eyes bloodshot. Even her cropped dark hair, normally thick and unruly, seemed to lie flat. Ruth scowled at her reflection.
Her hand wandered almost of its own accord to her jeans pocket where her phone bulged. She nearly pulled it out to check before she stopped herself. Pointless, anyway, for two good reasons: one, Suong would never bend her pride to text Ruth first, and two, the battery was dead. She'd had other things on her mind last night than putting her phone on charge.
Gossip had rolled onward when Ruth got back to the conveyor line, slipping into her spot next to Lois. The Chicago train blared again, closer than before. Ruth fixed her eyes on the flood of verdant apples.
"Did you hear the Michaels pair going at it this weekend?" Joyce asked, not really directed at anyone but fishing as she always was.
"Going at it like a fight? Or going at it like ...?" Lois got her point across with a suggestive waggle of her white bristling eyebrows.
Joyce cackled. "Both! First they had a right old ding-dong, and then. Well." She grinned widely, revealing most of her missing teeth further back in her mouth. "I think she forgave him, at any rate."
"That's love for you," Lois said, nodding sagely. "Me and Bill were the same. Once you get past the shouting, you actually start talking to each other. Any couple who gets as far as talking is strong enough."
"But what if -" Ruth clapped her jaw shut, stunned and horrified at her mouth running itself. But too late: Joyce and Lois were already looking at her.
"What's that hun?" Joyce prompted.
Swallowing spit and pride, Ruth scanned the apple stream as she spoke: "What if one person walks away." She chuckled darkly under her breath. "Can't talk to their back, right?"
"Oh sweetheart." Reaching over, Lois took Ruth's big calloused hand in her own, ducking until she caught Ruth's glassy eyes. "You deserve a conversation. Even if nothing comes of it."
"You were both spitting nails," Joyce said across the conveyor belt. "You said things you didn't mean, and so did she."
Ruth blushed to realise just how much Joyce really had heard, living in the next house over. The shame of it set her cheeks aflame. She knew exactly how to hurt Suong, exactly what to say, and she had used that knowledge as a weapon. Suong's face had frozen, then gone horribly blank, all because Ruth had fired ammunition acquired through years of living in Suong's pocket, being her girlfriend and lover, cheerleader and critic, therapist and best friend.
Lois squeezed Ruth's hands, thumbs stroking over the back. She smiled kindly at her. "The worst part is not knowing for sure if this can be saved." Sniffling, Ruth nodded.
"So find out," Joyce said. "Give her a call."
Ruth reclaimed a hand to wipe at her cheeks, eyes closing with despair. "She won't answer."
"You haven't given her the chance to decide," Joyce said sharply. Ruth looked up, surprised to see Joyce glaring at her. "Stop making choices for her. Show her the respect she deserves."
"You're projecting, Joyce," Lois said. Joyce rolled her eyes and went back to apple-checking. "But she's right. If you love her, you've got to show her that she's worth the effort. You have to show her you'll try."
Ruth nodded thoughtfully. Her heart rattled at the bars of her ribcage. "I do love her." Just hearing herself say the words, acknowledging them, felt like wings spreading from her shoulders, lifting the heavy weight of her clumsy body. Giddy warmth bubbled through her arteries. "I do!"
Lois beamed. "So try! Call her!"
The Chicago train blared its horn. It was close enough now to be heard loud and clear over the mechanical rumbling of the conveyor belt and its thousands of apples.
Frantically Ruth dug her phone out of her pocket and pressed the Home button before she remembered - "Goddamnit!"
"What? What's the matter?" Lois asked.
Ruth spun wildly, phone clattering uselessly to her feet. "I've gotta go!" Six blocks between here and the station: she could make it.
Joyce called, "Wait! Ruth -"
But she was gone, sneakers slapping against the gritty concrete. She weaved between the machines to the vehicle exit, dodging around forklifts loaded with crates, then burst into the spring sunshine glowing down on 4th Street with its patchy trickle of decrepit pick-ups and enormous trucks running parallel to the train tracks.
Six blocks to the station. Ruth was more than a decade from high school track. She could make it, though.
She had to.
Flinging herself into motion, Ruth immediately regretted wearing her customary jeans to work but pushed through the pinch and twist of denim along her inner thighs. She sprinted across the first crossroad without looking. Up ahead the road arrowed straight into the heart of town. Ruth set her sights and ran.
Five blocks down, Ruth skidded in the oily wet spill from the mechanics. "Sorry!" shouted Aaron over the hissing of the spray hosing down a Taurus on the lot. He fixed Suong's car that time she and Ruth had busted the front passenger seat trying to make it lie back too far. Inside the garage, the bell jangled with an incoming call. "Hey! What's the rush?"
Ruth darted over the second crossroad just ahead of a motorbike that swerved around her with a roaring engine. The rider honked his horn - it was drowned by the Chicago train, trundling along the tracks into the station three blocks ahead. Ruth's lungs hurt as she sucked in desperate gulps of air. It felt like there was a knife plunged into her side. She'd always thought she was pretty fit but Christ Almighty, this was proving otherwise.
The train was here, though. She had to keep going.
The third block: Patty's Patisserie, and the mouth-watering scent of baking bread and cakes in the air. Suong liked their lemon macarons best, had grinned like a kid at Christmas the last time Ruth brought a box home with her after work. Patty herself was standing in the doorway, cell phone pressed to her ear. She waved at Ruth, but Ruth had no time to stop. The train was pulling ahead of her. It was going to reach the station well before she did. Impossibly, she reached inside the desperate parts of herself for another burst of speed, arms pumping furiously.
Another crossroad, this one blocked with nose-to-tail traffic trying to turn onto 4th Street. She had to squeeze sideways between a red Civic and a rusted Chevrolet pick-up that had seen better years. Nancy and Greg waved at her through the Chevy's windscreen; in the backseat behind them, their granddaughter Ella sat with her head angled at the phone in her hands.
Second block, and the train station sat diagonally opposite. The train, crawling to a stop, let out a blip of horn in greeting as its brakes hissed. School was in session; Ruth could just glimpse dozens of faces through the windows of the elementary classrooms and Gina, the crossing guard, hurrying from the front gate waving her red stop sign, hi-viz jacket flapping behind her like a short cape.
"Come on, this way!" Gina shouted.
Sweating and panting, Ruth didn't know who she was yelling at. And then Gina ran right out onto 4th Street, amidst all the town's mid-morning traffic, with her stop sign held aloft like the staff of Moses. Tires shrieked and horns blared. Ruth's heart skipped a beat.
"Go!" Gina barked.
Ruth ran, cutting right across 4th. The station loomed in front of her, a giant granite marvel leftover from the town's heydays. A whistle blew on the platform, high and sharp, and Ruth slammed into the revolving door to make it go faster, except of course it froze. She had to wait for it to start again, and now that her legs had stopped running they trembled underneath her, knees threatening to buckle. Her stomach hurt with every wrenching gasp of breath she managed, so tight and hard that precious little oxygen was actually getting into her bloodstream. Through the warped, smeared glass, Ruth saw the last of the passengers hopping onto the train, doors thumping closed behind them.
The train bipped its horn again.
It began to pull away just as the revolving doors finally released Ruth and she spilled forward, slipping on the slick marble floor. She couldn't believe, it couldn't be possible, not after running all this way fuelled by hope and desperation, to come so close... Shoving back to her feet, Ruth vaulted right over the ticket barriers and up the stone steps to the platform, knocking into Donald the station manager on the way up. She half-expected him to challenge her for a ticket but he didn't, attention turned completely to the Bluetooth glowing cyborg-blue around his ear.
What would be the point? The train was already in motion. Long as it was, in a short minute it would be gone, off to Chicago with its hundreds of passengers.
With one passenger in particular.
Suong was gone.
Bent in half, hands braced on her knees, Ruth coughed and choked on air as her lungs declared rebellion. She was sweaty, dizzy, sick, and that was just from the run. Her heart writhed, cracked and bleeding in her chest, a useless broken thing. She'd been a fool to think that Suong had ripped it out when now Ruth had proof: her heart was still tucked behind her ribcage, entirely hers, and she alone had smashed it to pieces.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered, too late now, the floor as good a recipient of her apology as anything else in this station. Now the tears came. Ruth let them. There was no one left to impress.
Jolting in surprise, Ruth snapped upright, stumbled back, got her exhausted feet all confused and fell onto her ass.
"Oh! Are you okay?" Suitcase wheels humming over the platform, Suong hurried closer with the snappy click of her heels. She knelt next to Ruth gracefully, hands fluttering in mid-air like pretty butterflies. Soft brown hair tied back, her gold earrings - a present from Ruth for her last birthday - glittered as they dangled. Her pink-painted lips pinched as she frowned in concern at Ruth sprawled on her back.
She'd never looked more beautiful to Ruth.
"Suong. You're still here." Oh, points for intelligence, yes. Ruth could kick herself, especially when Suong shot her a narrowed glare.
"Yes, well. Come on, get up. God knows what you have on your clothes from this floor."
Ruth climbed to her feet in fits and starts. She was still a bit dizzy, actually, and relied on Suong's deceptive strength to get her upright. Once there, despite the grit and sweat on her palms, she kept a tight hold of Suong's hands. It felt like her heart was three times its normal size and lodged in her throat where it fluttered like an over-excited bird. She couldn't drag her gaze away from Suong's face, the dark brown of her eyes or the apples of her cheeks or the pink plump bow of her lips.
"How?" Ruth asked. "Why? I don't - You said -"
Suong smiled, and Ruth's heart damn near cracked in half again from the sheer joy of seeing it. "I love you too," she said. "And I would have answered, if you called."
Despite herself, Ruth chuckled wetly, shaking her head. Here she was, stinking with sweat from her six-block sprint, when even now she could hear the buzz of Suong's vibrating cell phone buried in her pocket.
Tears stung her eyes again. She let go of Suong's hands to fold her in her arms, pressing a firm kiss to Suong's neck as Ruth buried her face there and let herself feel the ebb of dread, hope, loss, and relief as they slowly drained from her nervous system.
"I love you," she muttered into the sheltered nook she had made for herself beneath Suong's jaw. "I love you. I love you."
Suong squeezed her in tightly. "We'll talk. We'll fix it," she said. "I love you too."
Pressed between them, as messages poured in, Suong's cell phone continued to buzz.