The train ride was hectic and tiring. I had slept for most of it, but when we started to near the end of the trip I had woken up with a cramp in my neck. Olivia was sitting beside me reading a book, while the rest of our mates in the missionary were scattered about the train. She turned, probably realizing that I was staring at her before smiling at me. I smiled back, resting my head on the seat as I tried to get comfortable and ignore the cramp in my neck.
Olivia let out a sigh of relief when the train came to its final stop. There were some announcements from the options corner, and after a while, we were allowed to get up and leave. Olivia went about taking her backpack from the overhead compartments, while I grabbed the bag I had tossed under my seat. We woke the rest of our mates off, taking as we laughed and rubbed our tired eyes while stretching. We got down from the train, moving to check out before we eventually left the train station in general.
We were standing by the metal benches by the white building. The parking lot was just a distance away from us. The heat of the afternoon wasn’t intense seeing as evening was drawing near. Our group of about fifteen were chatting amongst ourselves, our boxes scattered about as Elder Alan tried to get us to keep quiet. He was a man in his early thirties, most of us were eighteen or nineteen and would be serving in the mission for two years.
From what I heard from returning missionaries, stations were often built like tiny boarding houses with a church downstairs, and a handful of rooms to talk to people.
“I’m glad Olivia’s going with you. You know most times boys leave their girlfriends behind and they come back to find them married.” I blushed remembering my mother’s words. Olivia wasn’t my girlfriend, and we were too young to think about marriage. Oddly enough I knew Olivia’s parents brought up the marriage and dating question with her too, but we just ignored it like it was white noise in a distant background. We liked our friendship, we weren’t going to give it up because of our embarrassing parents.
“I’ll call for the bus,” Elder Daniel said, taking out his phone before wandering away from the small group of missionaries. Most people had taken a seat on the metal chairs, while Olivia and I stood around. Like most girls in our church, she wore pantyhose along with her long flowing shirt. She was wearing a long-sleeved top, but it was loose in order for her not to feel uncomfortable with the summer heat.
We watched as people pulled their luggage and walked about with families in the parking lot while we waited. It seemed like using the train was the main transport system around here. The parking lot was filled with cabs and yellow taxis ready to pick up passengers.
“This place is huge!” Oliva commented, making me look over at her freckled face. She had braided her red hair back, allowing her round face look even more round. A smile made it’s way to her thin lips, and her grin exposed her pearly white teeth as she looked about the crowded parking lot. “So many people.”
“Yeah...” I trailed, looking around. Yeah, there were a lot of people around. I noticed how packed together the buildings that were about the place seemed. It was quite different from how you could literally walk miles without seeing another house back home. I was in a daze when Olivia tapped my shoulder. I gasped in surprise, looking towards her before blinking.
“We’re leaving,” she said, pointing towards our mates that here now heading for the costar bus that had arrived for us. I let out a small ‘oh’ before holding on to the handles of the two boxes beside me and dragging them along with me before dropping them off with the driver who was loading the bus’s trunk.
I got inside, sitting beside Olivia as usual. Before the bus driver got in and started the car Elder Daniel and brother John led us in a prayer. I closed my eyes, nodding along to the goodwill they professed into our lives. After that, we all cheered before the bus driver started the car and set up some music that we sang along to with slow claps.
Throughout the ride, I looked out the window while Olivia browsed through her phone. The evening was drawing near, and we were all getting tired. The bus stopped at a restaurant and we all ate some takeaway on the bus before leaving again. Oliva picked at my food from time to time when she finished hers, and all I could really do was roll my eyes at her while she laughed. I checked the time on my watch. It was eight in the evening now. I was starting to wonder when we would get to our missionary station.
The bus stopped at a gas station next, and I was glad since I had started to get dizzy from the moving bus.
“This will take a while. We have to change the oil, and do a brief warm up, okay?” the bus driver said, turning back to us. His tired blue eyes looking from one corner of the bus to the other. Everyone nodded or said something in understanding before he looked away from us and got down from the bus, shutting the door to the driver’s sit before heading to the mechanics’ work area.
As the bus fell into slow worship songs I found myself looking out the window and towards the mechanics’ place. The driver was talking to a lean dark man, as two other men went to check on the bus. I’m not sure why, but even under the dim fluorescence light covered in bugs outside, my attention was caught by the man the bus driver was talking to. He was tall, well built, and had quite a bit of tattoos if my eyes weren’t deceiving me.
I’ve actually not seen them anywhere but online before. No one in my hometown had them. It was the same way no one in town really wore makeup or did anything overly complex with their hair. Simplicity was like an unspoken rule, and modesty was ingrained into the teachings of our church and community. Half of the people that I had seen walking around since we got off from the train shocked me, and maybe staring at them for just a little bit had made me feel embarrassed, but here I was looking at this man, and it felt different, not weird or shameful. I’m not sure why.
I blinked, startled at the realization that I had zoned out. My face grew warm when I saw the man staring at me — or maybe I was just imagining things. The bus driver wasn’t beside him anymore and he was leaning against the pillar with his face forward.
Is he looking at me? I wondered, not really able to tell in the dark. On a regular day I would have looked away, and tried to forget about it, but here I was staring right back at him. More so out of curiosity than a need to stare him down. He moved away from the ceramic pillar and walked over to a different corner.
My eyes followed him.
I wasn’t sure what came over me, but I wasn’t resisting it. I didn’t feel like resisting it.
When he walked into the light of the small work area. My eyes went wide. I could see him fully now in his plain white singlet and tattered blue jeans. I watched him take out a cigarette from his pocket before lighting it with a lighter he had retrieved from the other. The man’s dark coarse hair was braided back. This time when he turned towards the bus he made eye contact with me. I hadn’t been imagining things before. He had indeed been staring at me, and for some reason, I didn’t mind.
“What are you looking at?” I sharply turned away from the window when I heard Olivia’s voice. I turned to her, finding her staring at me with a confused frown. “Well, what were you looking at?”
“N-nothing,” I stuttered, but she didn’t look impressed.
“It’s not right to lie, Mathew, not even little white lies,” she said before looking at me and out the window. “Oh. Yikes,” she simply said, and I turned to look out the window as well, and sure enough, she was looking at the same man I had been staring at.
“This town’s going to be a whole lot of work, isn’t it? I mean, just look at his body. He has so many tattoos, and he’s smoking too,” she said, and I just bit my lip. Normally I would outright agree with her, but I don’t know. I didn’t feel like it today — or to be more truthful, the part of me that would have reacted vilely to him was just fascinated. “Also, did you notice how most people dress around here?”
It was confusing.
“Yes,” I said, answering her question. “Maybe he’s just cold.” I shrugged in response to her previous statement. Olivia frown before turning to me like I had grown two heads.
“But that doesn’t explain the tattoos. Plus, he could wear a sweater instead of that singlet for crying out loud,” she said, and I just looked away.
“I guess,” I said, realizing that if I didn’t reply to Olivia she might pester me later.
Did I lie again just now? I wondered, but I shook it off. Not really. It was half a lie, not a full one. I don’t know. We both just stared at the man, and soon he turned towards us. Olivia looked away immediately, and I followed her lead even though I didn’t actually want to.
“Gosh, he almost caught us!” she laughed, giggling. I just smiled at her, trying to distract my mind from over thinking the last few minutes by checking my phone. The bus driver hopped into the car soon after and drove out of the small clearing and back into the road.
I had a feeling of something in my chest sinking.
It was odd. Even in the midst of all the singing and cheering as we got closer to our station, I felt disappointed. But what was I disappointed about?
I don’t know. I said in my head, but the image of the man smoking a cigarette filled my mind. I bit my bottom lip, deciding to shake the thought off, but it didn’t work. The scene of him just standing there and smoking while he stared at me, and I stared back was all I could think about.