The worn plank of wood bit into his bony hip, but lethargic from the late summer sun he stayed motionless. The train steamed into town and shuddered to a halt. From his vantage point outside the local Assay Office he stared at the glass upper half of the door where light reflected and shone like a beacon.
Checking the line became his daily routine. Every morning since he woke with the tattered blue ticket stub clutched in his hand, he crawled out of bed at sunrise and came to the station. Each day he waited till the train pulled away before going about his business.
Living in limbo smoothed the strain from his mouth and filled out his emaciated frame.
The woodshed behind the mercantile provided a warm nest for sleep. Plentiful handouts offered through the back door of the Lazy Day Saloon fed his empty stomach. Even fresh milk came from the cow tethered between the public livery and the blacksmith’s forge.
This life was a vast improvement from his last go-round.
The attendant stepped from the lead car and began to peruse the list clipped to his slate. No one exited the train.
Samuel turned his attention to the cluster of passengers waiting to board. They filed out of the depot, excitement and anxiety tangible on each face.
First up were the white tickets. Two old ladies chattered, their hands gnarled claws folded over the pristine slips and eyes dark as button. They reminded Samuel of the black birds that plucked seeds from the grass stalks with precision. The rest wore familiar shocked expressions. One young mother scanned the platform in a constant refrain through red-rimmed eyes, hands searching for the babe no longer at her breast.
At least none of them wept. Samuel disliked when they cried. Tears never did any good.
He stifled a yawn, stretched his arms and rolled his neck. The tattered sleeves of his oversized calico shirt fell back to expose the fine white scars on his tanned wrists. The sight made him flinch and sobered his emotions. Suicide shouldn’t be the best part of life.
He experienced no regret about the conductor carrying him down from the train, hands steadying his shoulders until Samuel pulled his feet unsteadily beneath him. Eternity felt like home.
Movement near the station door caught his eye. He straightened as a girl stepped out into the sunlight. His insides melted the way treacle did when left too close to the stove.
Amelia was finally here.
She was a pretty sight. Gold ringlets framed an oval face and spilled out from beneath the starched brim of her bonnet. Oversized blue eyes sparkled against her smooth unblemished skin.
He knew her at once.
Samuel prayed on her behalf. He asked for the perfect placement and a joyous long life, offered himself again as the willing supplicant so her innocence need not be lost. The answering rush of unconditional love staggered his balance.
He’d learn patience by waiting. Someday he and Amelia might approach the train together, climb into the first class passenger compartment and sit side-by-side on the plush seats, hands held and fingers laced tight. That would be his best future.
A good initial life made the later ones, the hard existences, easier to survive. You had to lose happiness in order to find hope again.
Amelia took her place in the queue, hands clasped tight around the pink ticket.
The conductor called the all aboard and began loading passengers. He checked tickets, sorted by color and motioned the travelers to a specific car.
Samuel withdrew his stack of blue stubs from his shirt pocket. The thick pile was wrapped with a piece of twine. He’d never discarded a single one.
A large man wearing an expensive Sunday suit and a determined expression strode up behind Amelia.
Samuel spied the red ticket in the man’s breast pocket and winced. The color signaled a soul destined for a hard future. He rose from the bench and crossed the platform, sidling along the rail until he stood within hearing range. Simon Peters, the white-haired conductor, doffed his stiff-brimmed cap and flashed a wink in his direction. Samuel took that favor as another good omen for Amelia’s successful placement.
The station platform emptied. Amelia inched up the line.
Samuel waved his fingers to get her attention.
Her gaze linked to his just before the conductor’s firm grip swung her up the step and into the train. She disappeared from sight.
The well-dressed gentleman argued but the conductor shook his head, blocked the entrance and pointed.
The man looked at the shrouded windows of the last car and his face collapsed into deep folds. A sob escaped his lips. He turned away and walked the short distance.
Eyes averted as he passed, faces bent to the dusty boards as those present shared in the sadness of a soul lost. The circle of life closed for a fragment of time.
Samuel trotted down the wooden walk, his hobnail boots striking sharp thunks of sound as he sought a final glimpse of Amelia. She perched on the rose velvet seat, the gilt-edged framework of the parlor car shining bright as her hair, faced forward and aglow with anticipation.
The train picked up speed. The engine rolled down the track with a burst of steam and then all the cars blinked out of sight.
Returned to the sunny bench, Samuel lowered his body to a supine position. Heat seeped into his bones. His resolve strengthened. He’d sit here at the edge of Eternity, bask like a lizard under the warm sun and follow the flight of barn swallows as they wheeled across the endless sky.
Someday, maybe tomorrow, he’d wake with ticket in hand and ride the railway, begin another leg of the infinite journey. Just not this day.
Flash Fiction Challenge: A Traveling Tale @ www.terribleminds.com
#1 by RJ.Keith on April 23, 2012 - 4:19 am
Wow. Just. Wow. Wonderful, emotive writing, and a great take on life, death, and reincarnation. And trains.
#2 by Leslie on April 23, 2012 - 12:02 pm
Thanks! It’s hard to beat dilapidated imagery and steam trains.
#3 by Darlene Underdahl on April 23, 2012 - 8:21 am
The man with the red ticket? Was that Dick Cheney? Couldn’t resist.
#4 by Leslie on April 23, 2012 - 12:01 pm
*snicker* I can think of plenty of politicians that should be getting red tickets. There’s a story in itself! Thanks for reading.
#5 by BJ Kerry on April 24, 2012 - 3:05 pm
Great piece, loved the imagery. Could almost feel the heat!
#6 by Leslie on April 24, 2012 - 4:51 pm
Thanks BJ! It’s rainy and wet here…I must be craving sunshine and heat.
#7 by Louise Sorensen on April 25, 2012 - 9:22 am
Beautiful story. Riveting. I loved it.
#8 by Leslie on April 25, 2012 - 8:06 pm
Thanks Louise! It’s so helpful to get feedback and know when someone likes a story.