Remember — way back in January — when I posted an excerpt of a story that I had begun writing in the second person? It hasn’t seen the light of day since about a month after that post.
When I was younger, I used to have a habit of starting projects and leaving them unfinished as I lost interest, but it’s genuinely been a while since I’ve left a piece of work resolutely stuck in the dust.
That one was, unfortunately, one of them.
However, the idea lived on and transformed into something completely different.
Since this past week of my real life consisted of a schedule so hectic that I had to write it in three different places just to make sure I brought my head with me everywhere I went, this week’s blog is dedicated to another one of my short fiction works.
It is my longest completed work to date (and only just reaches required length of a publication-worthy short story). Obviously, I’ve still got quite a ways to go, but I would love to hear what you think
until I get there. P.S. This is only an excerpt.
Liam had no clue how Amtrak cycled through the trains they ran on each circuit. What were the chances of someone riding the same train on both legs of their trip? He’d never been particularly high on the list of the lucky, fortunate souls – though he’d also never been too high on the list of poor, unfortunate souls either – so he wasn’t about to file an official complaint. But for someone who’d never once won a game of Bingo in his primary school career; got his raffle ticket drawn at any sort of festivity; or been lucky caller number 1, 10, or even 100, this chance occurrence seemed a bit much.
The fact that he was boarding the same exact train car, on the other hand, was of his own doing. He was the one who always chose to stand in the same spot at every public transit station he went to. So really, it wasn’t a surprise that once the same train pulled into the station, he would climb into the same exact car that he’d boarded and debarked a week ago.
He remembered that he’d noticed how the numbers of this particular train car – 713 – hadn’t been defaced while the numbers of the previous five cars had barely been distinguishable. When the train had finally wheezed to a stop however, he did notice with an almost inaudible chuckle that the number 713 had been underlined by bright blue graffiti – was that an F or a T? Really, it would make more sense as an F, but clearly the artist had never been reprimanded by their schoolteachers about the importance of distinguishing their F’s and their T’s.
The same curse stared him in the face now, leaving Liam to wonder whether or not this fluke was simply one of horribly bad luck. It would’ve been nice to blame the entire past week on a series of unfortunate events that began with him climbing onto a car that had 13 in its number.
But he wasn’t that foolish. And even he couldn’t bring himself to stoop that low, to be that desperate.
A musty gust of air ruffled the fringe of his hair. He squinted blearily at the glare of sunlight off the silver car. The train door slid open, blocking the number and graffiti from his view. He struggled to maintain his decidedly neutral countenance when the conductor stepped onto the platform.
Her distinctly 1940s carriage swept away any chance of Liam’s memory failing him. Not that that had been a huge possibility, but the familiarity of her look allowed him to be acutely aware that this was, without a doubt, the same exact train and same exact car that he’d taken so happily in the opposite direction a week ago.
The conductor’s nails had changed color since he’d seen her last. They had been red then. Now the tips of her fingers were a more natural color – something nude or pink, he knew well enough from having lived around Andrea’s nail polish collection for the past four years. Maybe someday in the future it would no longer be something he remembered so precisely. He wasn’t sure whether it’d be more painless to forget or to remember. But then, he also wasn’t sure if he would even prefer the more painless option. Was that even a thing?
The train conductor took his ticket with a smile, “You look familiar.”
Liam managed a half-hearted one in return. “Oh?” Squinting made it easier to avoid showing his true emotions.
People seldom pointed out the Chinese character etched onto the inside of his right bicep anymore. It had received far more attention back when he was in college, when he had yet to develop the practice of wearing nicer shirts and was still wearing raggedy t-shirts whose sleeves got twisted by the weight of his messenger bag. The fact that she noticed it took him off guard.
“Oh,” he managed. He was at least a little flattered that a stranger had recognized him, even if it was disconcerting. “Right.”
“What’s it mean?”
“It’s my mom’s maiden name, actually.”
Her gaze lingered on his arm, then traveled around his face for a few seconds. “Ah,” she nodded with a sort of knowing look, “That’s cool.”
Her simple, genuine response helped him relax. Liam felt his left cheek begin to arch into its familiar dimple of a smile when a female voice behind him abruptly ended the motion.
“Your flirting is holding up the line, Liam.” Each word came out in a monotone, as deadpan as the shattering slam of her mug on the countertop had been three nights ago.
He didn’t dare turn around to catch a glimpse of her facial expression. He could barely bring himself to mouth a breathy “thank you” at the train conductor when he took his ticket back by the corner furthest from her fingertips. Although he and Andrea were – quite certainly – broken up at this point, it didn’t change any of his old emotions or the present longing still harbored in his heart. The simple fact that he hadn’t pushed away the conductor’s potential flirting sat in his stomach like a stone dropping to a bottom of Lake Merritt.
Liam’s low-slung duffel bag threatened to bowl him over by the backs of his knees as he climbed the steps to the car and when he paused at the end of the stairs where they bled into the aisle. He caught himself with his left hand on the securing pole.
This scene of children clambering over armrests, of elderly couples leaning on each other, of lone businessmen slumping against windows was all too familiar to him. But the familiarity – while it originally called up nostalgia from every corner of his heart while tugging at the corners of his lips – now settled at the pit of his stomach alongside his guilt and sat there, keeping him freshly winded even after already throwing him off guard.
He counted each row he passed by letting his fingers run across the prickly blue material of the Amtrak seats. The passengers disrupted his consistency; he had to float his hand over a few heads at two, three, five, and seven, but he made sure to return his hand to the headrests on all the numbers in between. It was the one thing he could do while navigating through this crowded space – walk, keep his eyes on the floor, and keep his hand on something stable – just to make sure his pigeon-toed walk from childhood wouldn’t come creeping back into his stride, wouldn’t make him fall face first in the middle of the train that was preparing to take tired families and relieved adults back home to the Bay Area.
After three seats and six heads he finally stumbled into a completely empty row and sank down, relieved, into the matted, overstuffed cushion of the seat. Though Bakersfield was a few hours north of Los Angeles, the weather was almost as oppressing and heavy as it had been that morning in Westwood. Granted, it had been a bit worse then since it had been impossible to avoid Andrea when they had been standing at the same bus stop, him quite literally loaded down by his life’s possessions.
The airy material of her tank top brushed his arm. He jumped, heart stuck somewhere between his chest and his throat, legs pressed almost laughably close to the seat to let her through. But even his misplaced heart wasn’t really surprised when she simply stepped past the frustrated mother in the aisle and folded herself with mocking grace into a seat next to a guy who looked a few years older but no wiser than either of them.
Andrea kept her eyes locked firmly on her phone. As far as Liam could tell, it had been glued to her hand since the moment they’d gotten off the first bus and for as long as they’d stood on the platform. Even as she’d made her way into the train car, through the bustling aisle, to a seat several rows away from him and the empty spot beside him, her eyes never rose further than a foot in front of her.
Liam’s heart settled close to the base of his neck once he realized his own admittedly far-flung hopes would not be fulfilled. Truly, this shouldn’t surprise him. That horrendous first night and the two days following had already been filled with her basically tossing whatever she could find of his out of her bedroom.
Her door sat at an angle from the doorframe that led into the living room, where he had been forced to take up residence for the last couple days of his visit. His belongings – regardless of their value or fragility – had been thrown unceremoniously from her room, through the hall, and into the living room. Thankfully, the bulk of her findings had been clothes which cushioned some of the more fragile things like the fountain pen he’d loaned her in their junior year of college and she’d kept even after the ink had run out, and his old watch that he had thought he’d lost four years back.
But in spite of it all, Liam couldn’t help feeling a tinge of disappointment ripple through his heart. Andrea would now never acknowledge him of her own accord, unless it was to be snide. He kept watching her anyway.
Because even through his pining, there was something incredibly upsetting and comforting about the fact that he could still clearly recognize her phone habits. Her thumb skimmed the screen far too quickly to read or distinguish anything, and no one actually hit the home button that many times when they were properly catching up social media. The phone was only something to temporarily occupy her hands, something to keep her eyes from actually taking in reality.
A small corner of his heart filled with a wash of warmth at the familiarity of it all, but the rest of his heart swelled up an immense sensation of hurt, hurt that crawled out onto his chest and slipped through his t-shirt to settled onto the wrinkled sleeve on the outside of his right sleeve, opposite the tattoo on his arm.
It wasn’t simply because she was already choosing to cut him out of her life, as if the past five years hadn’t meant anything at all.
It was also the fact that these final two legs of this three-part train ride would be the last time he would get a chance to properly spend time with her. The life they’d shared over the past five years was being treated like his belongings: tossed out of her room without care for their landing.
The longer he watched her skim past the filter-glossed photos of Instagram and the undoubtedly depressing tweets of the hour, the less his mind wanted to remain wrapped around the events that had occurred in the past week. It didn’t matter that children were running up and down the aisles; that the train conductors were ensuring that everyone’s bags were stored properly; that elderly couples were slowly helping each other into their seats. Liam’s eyes didn’t register any of their existences. He simply saw through them, focused intently on memorizing every single one of Andrea’s features from yards away before he’d forgotten them all.