eastwards on a train

The train was smoothly making its way towards the east and Amy still managed, somehow, to almost trip as she headed back to where we were seated. I shook my head and she just shrugged, grinning. Our carriage was mostly empty. On one side sat two teenagers, watching a screen of a tablet together while sharing a set of earphones, occasionally giggling and elbowing each other. A family of five sat a few rows behind us, the two little girls occasionally running up and down the aisle and clambering into the empty seats to look out of the windows, their father intermittently calling them back. A baby wailed each time he raised his voice.

This little trip Amy had planned was turning out like nothing I had expected. I’d thought we’d be driving up the mountains, and then spend the day looking at old colonial buildings and maybe pick some strawberries before going home. Instead, I was sitting in a train as it chugged its way through the countryside, apparently on my way towards the cable cars that headed up to the Balsands Plateau. We were then supposed to go out exploring a short hiking trail and look at the flora and fauna. (“Fauna, Amy?” “You know, squirrels and stuff.”)

I wondered whether Amy was trying to recreate something from our school years, but as she laid out her itinerary for the journey I was left mostly baffled by the whole endeavour.

She slid into her seat facing me and presented her haul with a flourish. Two small bottles of juice — one orange, the other mango — and two puff pastries of some sort, flaky and crumbly. I raised an eyebrow at them. “Not exactly the most nutritious breakfast,” I said.

“Well, it’s all they had,” she grumbled. “Apparently two-hour train rides don’t rate master chefs and a dining car.”

I absently wiped the table with the napkin provided. “Why are we taking the train anyway? It’s easier by car. I wouldn’t have minded driving.”

“It’s all in the adventure!” she said, gesturing at the window. The mountains were in the distance, limned by the morning sun. “You wouldn’t be able to enjoy the scenery if you were driving.”

“I could if you drove,” I said dryly.

Amy rolled her eyes. “Come on, don’t make me walk down memory lane alone. This is supposed to be fun! You must have done this with your family before.”

“Actually, I haven’t. My father hated trains, and my sister got carsick so easily, so we ended up staying at home most of the time.” Faintly, I could hear the mother trying to soothe her baby while the father threatened to tie the girls to their seats. I wondered if all family trips were like that.

Amy drummed the table with her fingers. “I don’t understand your family sometimes.”

“I don’t understand my family most of the time, but that’s not the point.”

She finally  passed me the bottle of mango juice, along with a straw and a plastic fork. I frowned at the fork and watched as Amy stabbed her puff with hers. I was about to tell her that was not how you ate pastries when she spoke again. “The point is, well, spending time together. And getting you to open up and talk instead of slowly drowning yourself in the thoughts in your head.”

I gave an exasperated sigh. “I’m not drowning and my head is fine. What do you want me to say, anyway?”

“Whatever you feel like, for instance. And for you to quit dodging when I ask you how you’re feeling. I’m not going to judge — you’ve heard about all my terrible life decisions more than anyone else.” I watched as she struggled with the bottle cap and managed to screw it open after a few tries. “And you’re upset about something, and I’m not about to let you stew in that alone.”

I gave her a wry smile before unwrapping my own pastry, pushing the fork aside. “It’s not really a problem. It’s mostly just stupid.”

“A stupid problem with your friend Evan?”

I nodded. “Yes, him. Let’s just say he did something without telling me and now I’m annoyed.”

She paused mid-bite. “I have a confession to make. I brought up Evan the other night because Jay was saying he just got engaged.”

I ended up bumping hard into the corner of our table as I tried to get to my feet. The orange juice bottle teetered on one edge and Amy caught it before it could fall, some of the liquid splashing onto her hand. Both the bottle cap and my fork fell into the aisle. “Why does everyone keep asking me about that?” I demanded, my voice almost a shout in the quiet carriage. “I don’t know anything about it, and if you’re so curious you should just ask him yourself!”

The family (now all seated) turned to look at me as a unit when their baby started whimpering again. One of the teenagers pulled the bud out of his ear, nudging his companion.

I sank back into my seat, mortified.

Amy eyed me warily, but I was more surprised by my outburst than she was. “You realise that I don’t actually know him, right?”

I unclenched my hands and buried my face in them. “Why do you have to push, Amy?” I muttered, squeezing my eyes tight until I could see random shapes behind my eyelids.

I could sense her leaning across the table before she rested a cool hand on my wrist. “Because I worry, sometimes. I know it sounds strange after not butting my head into your business for so long, but I worry about you a lot.”

“I’m fine,” I told her, finally pulling my hands away. The world came back into focus after a moment. The family was back to doing family things and the teenagers were again absorbed in whatever it was they were watching.

“Considering that you just lost your temper in public, that is the definition of not fine.” She watched me for a moment, her expression intent. “Do you remember our maths teacher back in second form?”

“What?” I said blankly, confused by non-sequitur.

Amy simply ploughed on. “She said that she’d never seen you smile, even when you got all the answers right.” The memory was faint, but it was there — I remembered trying to smile after hearing Mrs Wong saying that, feeling caught out and inexplicably self-conscious. “That sort of defined you for me. Not that you were unfeeling or cold; just that you were clever and quiet and had a hard time expressing how you felt.”

Outside, the mountains were getting closer. I had a lump in my throat and my eyes were burning. “I’m not good with dealing with my own feelings,” I confessed, keeping my gaze trained on the distance, watching as the hilly terrain became more distinct. “It’s much easier to just push it all away.”

She smiled, brilliant like the morning sunshine. “A good thing you have me, huh?”

When I said I was going to start writing again, this is really not what I had in mind, but somehow this thing grew on its own. This is in response to the prompt facade . . . I’m just not the type to take the prompt literally or just try to plunk the word into a post, so we end up with this.

(If you’re wondering where this story is set: it’s nowhere. I’m just making a whole city/country/world up whenever I need places.)


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