Should You Smile at Strangers?

Ka-thunka, ka-thunka, ka-thunka.  The train’s steady sound was usually soothing, but today Natalie found it jarring.  She wanted the one-hour trip to be over.  She also wanted to put off her arrival, put off making a decision.

Learning that the cancer was back was a gut-punch blow.  Everything had been looking up.  Every month since the last round of chemo had been better and better.  And now…

“I can’t do this again,” Natalie whispered.

She gazed out the window, as weathered fence posts and empty gravel roads blurred by.

Kan’t-do-it, kan’t-do-it, kan’t-do-it.  The train clattered over the rails in sympathy.

She would phone the clinic when she got home and cancel the new appointments.  She just wouldn’t tell anyone else.  Didn’t want anyone to judge.

Am I being fair to them? she wondered, realizing she was judging herself.

The train’s cadence changed as it began slowing in anticipation of the next stop.  Not hers.  She was only half-way.  The minutes dragged by.  The minutes raced by.

The train whistled and she looked up to see another dirt road coming up, with gates down and lights flashing.  Unlike the earlier roads, this one had a car on it, waiting at the gate.

The train continued slowing as it passed by the road.  She gazed vacantly at the car.  The man in the driver’s seat looked up.  Their eyes locked.

Natalie instinctively began to lift her hand in a wave, a smile advancing across her face.  The man smiled and waved in return.

Then the train was past the road and pulling into the station.

Why did I smile?, she asked herself.  So silly!  Why did he smile?  She definitely did not know him.

He looked like an angel, Natalie thought.

The train pulled out of the station.  I’m halfway home, she thought.  She thought of the angel’s smile.  Maybe I’m halfway done chemo, too.  Maybe I can.

Think-you-can, think-you-can, think-you-can.  The train clapped its agreement as it got up to speed.

Yes.  Yes, I think I can.

Vincent pulled up to the train crossing just as the lights came on and the gate floated down.  He unbuckled his seat belt.  Fished his wallet out of his pocket and lay it on the passenger seat.

He’d carefully thought this out.  The custody battle was going nowhere.  Two people who couldn’t agree on what’s for dinner without fighting certainly can’t agree on what’s best for a seven-year-old boy.

Everyone is suffering.  Jeremy is suffering.  I’m suffering more because I know he’s suffering.

Vincent heard the train’s whistle.  He had checked the schedules online.  He had even done a reconnaissance visit to check the timing and speed of the trains.  This first one was a westbound commuter train, and it slowed as it pulled into the nearby station.  Three minutes later, a eastbound freight train would scream by on the second track.

Vincent kept the car in drive and his foot on the brake.  The gate wouldn’t be up long between trains.

As the passenger train trundled past, he watched the wheels slice along the rails.

I can do this, he told himself.

Something caught his eye.  A movement, a flash of light bouncing off a window.  He didn’t know.  He looked up.

A woman stared at him from the train.  Her hand came up, as if to wave, and she smiled.  Without thinking, he automatically raised his hand from the steering wheel and smiled back.  Then she was gone.

He didn’t recognize the woman.  But she looked a bit like his sister.  Liz.  Liz the peacemaker.  Liz the counsellor.

Liz.  She could help.  She would help.  I just need to phone her.  Let her know what’s going on.  She could mediate and get us out of this hopeless, brittle battle.

I can do this, Vincent resolved, flexing his hands around the steering wheel.

He threw the car into reverse.  Turned it around.

In the rearview mirror he watched the gates close and the freight train charge away to the east.

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