A. LaFaye is a writer and writing mentor at Greenville College and the author of a handful of short stories, poems, and over a dozen books, including the novel-in-verse Pretty Omens (Anchor and Plume, 2015) and the Scott O’Dell Award winning Worth (Simon and Schuster, 2004). You can learn more about her at Sylvanoicty: A Creative Community on Facebook.
Jillian sat perched on the edge of the train station bench. Ready to stand at the sound of the approaching train, she tried to ignore the elderly couple next to her as the woman knitted with a click-clack echo of voice and needle and the old man read the newspaper aloud like everyone around wanted to hear the news.
Jillian gripped her phone, closed her eyes, remembering the last time she spoke to her sister, Hannah, the bursts of excitement, the smiles and happy wrinkles under the eyes she could hear in the laughter. In that spark of sound and emotion, she had to call even if Hannah’s train would arrive in twenty minutes.
“I know, I know, but I just couldn’t wait to talk to you. I had to call.”
“Don’t make fun of me. I mean, when was the last time it was just the Sibley sisters for the entire weekend?” No kids. No husbands (ex or otherwise). They’d had it all planned out—a massage at Oh, La, La, mani-pedis, then a slow, giggle-filled, gossip-riddled crawl through downtown.
Not since your going away party when you took the job in Madison, Jillian thought, but she shouted, “Forever!”
The man sitting next to her bristled as if they sat in a library, but he kept his face buried in that depressing paper with the front page article about the arraignment of the driver responsible for the crash on I-94 that took three lives at the beginning of the week. Why would they take a picture of a deadly collision and put it there where everyone would be forced to look at it for days on end? That old man and his gory newspaper weren’t going to spoil her mood.
Jillian knew how to make a mood float.
She asked, “Hannah, doesn’t this remind you of the weekend we gave “good-girl gone bad” a try? Walking out on studying for finals and tubed the Ashton River?”
The old man cleared his throat in disapproval.
Jillian wondered, Who was this guy, the morality police?
“Oh, don’t embarrass me!”
When did Hannah start to sound so old? Jillian forced the idea out of her head and recalled, “It was hilarious. Your pants snagging on that overhanging branch, you clinging to it like a treed coon as your tube floated on down the river, you screaming for the six pack that went with it.”
Jillian shook her head, saying, almost to herself, “But I stayed in my tube.”
I always stayed, she thought, rubbing paint flakes off the old bench that’d sat in the same place since she’d arrived in this town, holding Hannah’s hand. They stepped off the train still wearing the dresses Granny Morgan picked out for them to wear to their parents’ funeral.
Didn’t seem right to feel like that bench, screwed into the train platform, but Jillian had been held in place for decades. She took over the bookshop when Granny Morgan’s eyes grew too old to read the spines to find a book for a customer. Jillian moved into Granny’s house to make sure she took her medicine and slept rather than walked the rooms at night, worrying about “her girls.” Jillian even got married in the backyard.
“Are you listening to me?”
“Sorry, Hannah. I got lost in a memory of the wedding.” Jillian laughed. “You were convinced torn newspaper would be great bird-safe confetti and it rained. You spent hours hosing down the yard to get rid of it.”
The old man leaned towards his wife, saying, “It’s a shame I’m telling you, a mother and two children dying in that crash. Damn drunk driver. He deserves to go to jail.”
Jillian flinched, recalling news clip after news clip about that horrid crash like her mind had started flipping channels. She needed to focus. Put her mind on better things. Then she remembered turning over a rock as she redid the begonia bed on Monday, finding little bits of dried brittle newsprint on the underside of that fist-sized stone that rested on another rock. Those little bits had lasted a decade. Longer than the doomed marriage.
Rubbing her eyes with one hand, Jillian sighed, saying, “At least Dan paid for an entire week of summer camp on Birch Lake. I swear those twins have gills.”
“This is a special occasion. Time for the two of us.”
The old man humphed.
Jillian turned away from him and his bad attitude. “That’s right. The Sibley sisters together again ready to face the world. Remember our first gymnastics meet? We were going to rack up the gold medals.”
“That’s right! Just us.”
“What was the name of that judge for the floor routine? Oh yeah, Mrs. Penning with her red hair and cheeks that made her look like a middle-aged Annie who’d fallen into Mrs. Hannigan’s bad habits. Her and her pissy 8.75. I swear she stole your blue.”
The old man said, “I’m just saying, it’s a sad thing to lose family.”
“Yes, you wanted that blue…blue…” Jillian whispered, feeling a little chilly. “I remember how blue your lips looked that night we tried to swim across the river. We never thought it’d get down into the 50s that night. But you still wanted to try it. You fool.”
“When you went under and I reached for you, it felt like I was trolling the whole ocean. But I found you, pulled you to shore, pumped you like I was trying to inflate our old raft until you puked river water, sputtering, ‘Thank you’ with lips so blue it scared me.”
“Let’s just focus on what this weekend is really about.”
“Right.” Jillian stood, turning away from the bench. “But do you ever think about it? I mean, if that judge had given you a score to match that perfect ten floor routine of yours and I had held my concentration through the parallel bars. I would’ve stuck that landing instead of breaking my ankle. We could’ve gone to sectionals, maybe even nationals. Who knows where we’d be at this moment.”
The old man folded his paper, finally hiding that hideous picture of the crash and said to his wife on the other side of him. “You’re right. This is our anniversary. Not a time to dwell on the death of a mother and her two children.” He patted her knee, saying, “Let’s focus on us.”
The wife smiled, sounding just like Hannah as she said, “Yes, just us.”
They held hands.
Somehow it seemed to push Jillian towards the edge of the platform as the train pulled into the station. She forced a laugh. “Well, you’re here. I better go.”
Hanging up, she stepped towards the engine, feeling the pull of its momentum.
The platform filled as passengers filed out. Why did she have to time her steps so perfectly? Who could find a single soul in this crowd?
The conductor stepped up to the cargo car that stuck out like a torn nail in front of all those passenger cars. When he pulled down the latch in front of her, Jillian felt the chill of jumping into that river at night.
The sliding door sounding like the rapids they didn’t expect to hit. The ropes that tied it down like the floating branch that snared Hannah, the casket as black and glassy as the waves in the moonlight. The gray caskets beside their mother’s seemed too small to serve their purpose, looking more like they should be rocks at the river’s edge they could use to pull themselves to safety.
“Jill,” Hannah’s husband said her name so closely, she realized he stood beside her, but she couldn’t look at him standing alone on the platform. This was supposed to be a spouse-free weekend. “Jillian.”
When she turned, Jillian felt as if she’d emerged from that river, her muscles so tired they shook as she fell to the shore and into his arms, saying, “She’s gone.”