Two little eyes and a frown. I draw these onto the fogged-up window as the train chugs into the tunnel. My four-year-old sister, Kate, is asleep on my leg, drooling all over my only clean dress. I want to wake her up. I want to be mad at her for soiling the last thing Mama gave me—the last thing she ever will. But I don’t have the strength.
Papa said everything will be alright now. We’d be safe now. This train will take us somewhere we can stay healthy and happy until we can be a family again.
But we can never be a whole family again. Not without Mama.
The image of him waving us off in his dark green uniform sticks to my mind like toffee. His eyes were misty and swollen under his cap as we watched him get smaller and smaller. Until I could barely make out his two little eyes and his frown.
“I miss my mommy,” says a girl in the seat across from us. She can’t be much older than Kate and her clothes are full of holes. Like us, she is probably wearing the only garment she still owns. She clings for dear life to her tattered teddy bear as the train continues to chug us away from our homes. Away from our Papas and Mamas.
“Shh,” says the nurse a few rows back. “You’re all going to be just fine. You will see your parents again soon.”
I may only be fourteen but I know when adults are lying. The nurse has fear in her eyes like the rest of us. We all look like we’ve seen a ghost. Or a war.
“Sonia?” Kate whispers.
“I’m here,” I say. I reach down to smooth out her hair the best I can. I don’t know how Mama always tamed our wild mops. She forgot to teach me. I guess she thought she had more time. Instead, I piled our hair on top of our heads, secured with rubber bands. They pull on my scalp. But at least the tangles and dirt are hidden.
“Sonia, I had a bad dream. We were at home with Mama. Papa was away. And then there was a sploshion with fire and smoke everywhere. We both ran outside but Mama didn’t get out. It was such a bad dream.”
My hand freezes on her head. I wish I could tell her it was just a dream. But Papa says it’s wrong to lie. It wasn’t a dream. It was last week.
The neighbors told Papa we were lucky to be alive. We were playing in the front of the house while Mama was in the back. The bomb only gave us some cuts and bruises. But why wasn’t Mama lucky too? Why wasn’t she with us?
“Here, dear,” says the nurse. She smiles and hands me a cup of something hot. The steam warms my face. The scent of chocolate fills my nose. Mama loved chocolate. I haven’t seen the stuff since the war first started. We’ve been living on our weekly allowance of potatoes and whatever slab of meat the butcher can spare. The chocolate is a pleasant surprise but it’s not enough to pull me from my sorrow.
“It’s a bit chilly tonight. This will warm you. Share with your sister.” Then the nurse moves on, carrying other cups to other kids who are traveling without parents. I wonder what happened to theirs. I wonder if they’re still alive. I wonder if Papa will stay alive or if we’re going to be orphans now. Maybe many of these children already are.
Kate sits up and I help her sip the warm liquid. Of the two of us, she looks the most like Mama. I inherited Papa’s large nose and his stick-straight hair. Kate got Mama’s slim face with her curls. She isn’t going to remember her. Not like I will. She won’t remember the way Mama would laugh so hard she’d snort whenever I’d tell her jokes I learned in school. Or the way Mama always sang to us at night when she put us to bed. She had the best singing voice. Or the way her skin always felt like silk and her hair smelled like lavender even when it wasn’t bath day.
“Make sure your things are packed away,” says a nurse, pudgier than the first. “It’s almost time for our stop now. Hurry, children.” She mumbles something about incompetence under her breath as she scurries from row to row helping children dispose of empty cups.
“Where are we going?” asks Kate.
This one time I don’t want to tell her the truth. I don’t want to tell her we are being sent away to live with strangers who might not even like children. Or that Papa will probably die in this war like Mama. A war he doesn’t even believe in. For the first time, I choose not to tell her the truth. I think Papa would understand.
I force my eyes to brighten with every word I speak. “To a place full of magic. But it’s a magic only children can see. Adults are too boring and serious.”
As if on cue, the pudgy nurse grumbles after a boy a few rows up spills his hot chocolate on her feet.
“Adults don’t see magic the way children do,” I continue. “See, they’ve grown up and forgotten what it was like to be young and hopeful. But we are going to learn all kinds of magic together. That’s why we are going away. So we can learn it in secret.” The more I say, the more I begin to believe it myself. I know it’s silly. Magic isn’t real. But we all need something to believe in.
“What kind of magic? Can we do anything we want? Even save people and stop wars?” Kate’s wide eyes brighten into a soft blue and he cheeks grow rosy in anticipation.
“I’m afraid not. Magic has rules just like everything else. But we can learn to do some things. Things that make our life worth living.”
“Can I learn magic too?” asks the girl with the teddy bear.
“Well, let’s see. Are you a grown-up?”
“I’m only six.” The gap in her front teeth whistles when she pronounces “six.”
“Then you can absolutely learn magic.”
“Can you make magic now, Sonia?” asks Kate. By now most of the children are staring at me, expecting me to take their pain away. Hoping I can help them forget for just a moment that we’ve just lost everything we ever had.
“Alright,” I say. “Close your eyes and think about snow. Think hard now. Remember what it’s like when the first drops fall on your nose. Think about how cold your hands feel when you’re digging in the white powder.”
All around the train children close their eyes. A few even stick out their tongues to catch the invisible drops.
“Now. Open your eyes and say ‘Abra Cadabra.’”
“Abra Cadabra,” they all repeat.
“Look!” yells the teddy bear girl.
“Outside!” says the boy who spilled his hot chocolate.
“It’s snowing!” says Kate.
It warms my heart to see how deep their imagination can go. I look out the window and let out a sharp breath. It really is snowing. Small flurries land on the window, covering up the sad face I traced with specks of white.
“We are going to be alright,” says Kate as she tucks her head into the nook of my shoulder.
And for the first time in a while, I believe it.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
A beautiful story. They say history repeats itself. I felt that the story was from a country currently at war.
I really like this story. I felt the dialogue was very well done. I see from your comments that this is a new venture into historical fiction for you. One suggestion: I don't get a real sense of place in this story, I assume it is during The Blitz in England early in WWII. Just something as simple as geographical location of where the train is going and where it is leaving. I read the story a few times, but just didn't seem to find the setting. I feel a specific setting might ground the reader a little more because many Orphan Trains are als...
Thank you for the input! Setting is definitely something I need to work on more in my writing in general. I have ADHD so I tend to skip a lot of the description of setting when I read. It's hard for me to focus on it when I write but I will definitely keep practicing. Thank you!
This was a great story! Considering the sad subject matter, it's nice to see it end on a happier note. Not happy exactly, but like Kate says, "We are going to be alright." Good voice on the narrator, and a terrible situation to be in. She's forced to grow up much to fast and faced with such an uncertain future. I like the little details too, like her noticing the nurses are afraid too.
Thank you! I'm glad you liked the narrator's voice. Narrators are my favorite character in a story. They make or break the whole thing. Thanks for reading :)
Wow. I'm always amazed at anyone who can pull of historical fiction, and you are definitely one of them! I thought it was beautifully written, very fluid. And despite it being such a sad, horrific situation, the ending left me feeling hopeful. It's a lovely story.
Thank you so much! This was actually my first attempt at historical fiction. I usually write YA so I'm glad it worked out so well!
I read your story last night and have to say, I was still thinking about it this morning. Your depiction of child-like innocence against the backdrop of wartime I thought was beautifully done. It reminded me in a way of A Beautiful Life. They say the best revenge is to live a good life, and I believe a child's best defense is imagination. Very well done.
Thank you so much! A left impression is the best kind of compliment. I'm so happy you enjoyed it. I agree with you. Imagination is the best defense there is.
This is one of my favorite time periods and I always enjoy the range/style of stories that revolve around the war—this one did not disappoint! The tragic reality behind the children being on the train was apparent, but did not weigh the story down. I loved the ending, and the beauty of a child’s imagination. These were some of my favorite lines: “We all look like we’ve seen a ghost. Or a war.” “I force my eyes to brighten with every word I speak. “To a place full of magic. But it’s a magic only children can see. Adults are too boring and s...
Thank you so much! I also love this time period. This is my first attempt at a historical fiction story so I’m glad it succeeded. 😍