“Next stop’s still a way off,” the old man says from his spot, finally giving me something useful. He closes the book and places it on the seat beside him.
“What time is it?”
“You don’t have a watch or something?”
His eyes crinkle into a smile. “Don’t need one.”
I sigh in frustration, turning away from him in defeat.
After a few minutes of silence, the man asks, “Heading home for the night, are you?”
I don’t look at him. “Yeah.”
“Live with family?”
“Ah. I understand.” He leans against his cane, both hands gripping it now. Now that I’ve got a better view of it, I can see that’s it’s old fashioned, made of aged wood. It looks like it’s from a completely different time period. “Families can be difficult.”
‘Difficult’ isn’t the right word. That means surface-level stuff. Pet peeves and disagreements that just get on your nerves. It doesn’t cover the deeper things. Like the undying tension between mother and daughter. The constant, never ending arguments brought to life by some deep fear, rooted so far that it can’t be pulled out. The smothering weight and that restless craving to just escape.
I wrap my arms around myself, looking away. “What I left behind was more than ‘difficult’.”
“Ran away from it, then, did you?”
“What are you, my therapist?”
“Just a listener.”
“It’s been a while since I had one of those.”
“Well.” He smiles again. “We all need one from time to time.”
“…. Guess so.”
Silence stretches between us, leaving only the rattle of the train as it moves and the old man’s deep, raspy breaths. He’s looking at me, watching me with those deep eyes that make me feel like I’m being judged. I tighten my arms around my chest.
“Lots of people run away from home,” I say, as if defending myself from an accusation.
He nods. “From time to time. But usually, they have the sense to come back after a few days.”
“I was eighteen. I didn’t have sense back then.”
He laughs at that. It’s a pleasant sound, warm and rich. Comforting, somehow. “No one does when they’re that young. Trust me on that.”
I feel the faintest smile tugging at my mouth. “Well. That’s good to hear.”
The train takes a sudden turn, so sharp that I nearly slide off my seat. The old man’s book falls, slipping over the ground before stopping at my feet.
Once the train straightens again, I pick the book up and turn it over, giving it a quick look. Both the back and front covers are blank, except for the title; but the words are too faded for me to read.
I sigh, grab my stuff, and take the book to the old man, offering it with one hand. “Looks like you’ve had this for a while. You probably don’t wanna lose it.”
He takes it from me with a warm ‘thank you’. I hesitate, glancing back at my old seat before sitting down next to him.
“So,” he begins, tracing the book’s worn title with one finger. “Lack of common sense aside, why did you leave home?”
I stare at my hands. “Does it matter?”
“I suppose not. But like I said…” He points to himself. “Listener. If you want one.”
I crack a smile and lean back in my seat, watching the darkness through the windows across the aisle. “Anger,” I finally say, answering his question.
“Everything.” I pause. “Life, I guess. My mom, too, for being so controlling. Dad died when I was just a kid – she probably didn’t want to lose me too. It got worse as she got older. She got anxious about everything I did. I just wanted to live, but she…” I shrug half-heartedly, leaving the sentence unfinished. “It was too much to deal with.”
“Just for you?” I look at him in confusion, and he continues, “I doubt it was like that for just you. She was the one living with that fear.”
“I guess that’s true,” I admit. “But it was…I don’t know. Overwhelming.”
“Same with losing a husband. And a daughter.”
I wince. Look away. “I don’t know why I did it, okay? I just…I wanted to leave. Wanted to live my own life, to start new.”
“Did it work out for you?”
I laugh dryly. “What do you think?”
“I think it was worth it if you got what wanted. Isn’t there some good in what you’ve got now? Especially since you don’t have to worry about your old problems.”
“Sure. It’s a relief to be able to live my own life.” But even as I say that, it feels…like a lie, somehow. A half-truth. Because just as the response come out of my mouth, Momma’s words pop into my head again. ’It’s alright. I’m right here.’
The feeling from the memories comes back to me - the warmth of Momma’s arm around me, the comfort of not being alone. The calm, soothing knowledge that despite everything - all the issues we had with each other, the hassles and rebellion - she was there. There to run to when things got scary. When they got dangerous. There to wrap her arms around me, pull me close, and shield me from it all.
Not anymore. She can’t protect me now, can’t guide me – she isn’t here when I need her, like she was then.
And that’s my fault. God, it’s all my fault.
The realization sets something off inside me. Suddenly, I can’t keep it bottled up anymore - words rush out of me, uncontrolled, flying at the old man in a fierce rapid-fire. “You ever think that by leaving all the bad behind, you’re abandoning the good?”
He doesn’t hesitate before answering. “Lots of times. But those good things might still be there.” I blink, confused, and he shrugs. “They might be waiting for you to come back.”
“I doubt they’d welcome me home. What if I do go back, and it ends badly?”
His expression softens. “Well. You won’t know unless you try.”
I’m about to respond when I feel the train slowing down around me. The darkness through the windows brightens, showing the light gray of concrete. Finally.
“Looks like this is your stop,” the old man says as the train grinds to a halt. The doors slide open, revealing an empty station.
“…Yeah. Guess so.” I reach for my purse, fingers hesitating before finally wrapping around the handle. Reluctantly, I sling it over my shoulder and stand. “Where are you getting off?”
“Oh, nowhere, really.” He pulls out the book again and opens it to a random page, then hunches over his cane. Just like he was when I first saw him. “You get home safe, now.”
“Right.” I step to the open doors, wavering, then say, “Thanks, old man.”
He just smiles. “Goodbye, Angela.”
I step off the train. A light breeze brushes by me, dancing through the train station. New sunlight streams in from the staircase leading up – soft and warm. Morning. I must have spent all night on that train.
It’s only when the door starts closing behind me that I realize something.
The old man called me by my name. I never told it to him.
My eyes widen, and I spin back around, but the doors are already sealed. I stand, confused and amazed as it rolls away and disappears into the tunnel. After a moment I shake myself off and head for the exit.
The stairs take me to the edge of a neighborhood. Recognition registers when I see the small houses crammed together, the overgrown laws, the cracked pavement. A memory flickers in my mind – me, seven years old, doodling with chalk on the sidewalks of this neighborhood. Momma calling me from the house, telling me that dinner’s ready.
I glance in the other direction. Walking that way should take me to a bus stop. I can head home and get some sleep, like I planned.
My eyes wander to the neighborhood again. I take a deep breath and, before I can hesitate, start in that direction.
As I pass familiar houses and yards, I try to think back on my conversation with the old man. But it’s just bits and pieces now – fragments of sentences, brief images. Like a memory from years ago, hazy and fading. I can’t even remember the man’s face.
But I can still hear his voice. ’Those good things might still be there. They might be waiting for you to come back.’
As if on cue, a house comes into my field of vision. Peeling blue paint, wind chimes hanging from a sagging porch. The garden is in full bloom; Momma always liked to keep her yard colorful.
I step onto the porch and stop by the door, listening to the boards creak under my weight. My hand rises, fist hovering over the door. For a second, I just stand there, hand in the air, feet glued to the ground.
I close my eyes. The old man’s words are still in my head, along with those memories from before. And suddenly the idea of leaving, of walking away again, feels impossible.
So, standing there, I make a decision.
The sound of it echoes in the quiet morning air. A second later, shuffling comes from the other side of the door; movement, murmuring and footsteps. A familiar voice.
The door opens. And for the first time in ages, I smile.
“Hey, Momma. I’m home.”
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