Excerpt: Listen for the Train

When Esther found the cat, years ago, she brought her home and set her down in the living room and said, “You’re safe here, little kitten. You’ll always be safe here.” She decided to call the cat Petunia. They still lived together in the same old cottage, situated in the middle of an RV park. As she curled up in her armchair, she stared at the aged wood walls and wondered if the crumbling building she’d found in the woods a few days ago had ever looked like this one.

Empty land—a nature preserve with marshes and hardwood hammocks—cradled the RV park. The other day, Esther had taken a wrong turn in the woods and nearly gotten lost, leaving behind the sound of the road and the laughter of a few hikers who’d passed by. Stepping up a slight incline, then down into the woods and along a narrow path, sandburs getting stuck to her sneakers, she had found herself in a clearing where tall grass bowed in the breeze. The sky had been bright blue, the sun shining. It was close to ninety degrees and rivulets of sweat dripped down her back below her tank top. She could smell the pine trees, the marsh around her, heard a bullfrog croak somewhere amongst the lily pads. She wiped her forehead with her shirt and looked ahead, taking in the dilapidated structure.

There’d once been an overhang shading the front porch, but it had collapsed—by the looks of it, some time ago. The empty windows, their glass panes long since gone, offered a clear view through to the other side where part of the wall had crumbled. Who had lived here, she wondered? She knew a little bit about the history of the area, so she thought perhaps some old cracker lived here once, and she pictured him sitting on his front porch and drinking water from a jug or whittling something with a sharp knife, shaded from the hot afternoon sun. She stood there staring at the ruins of the old house for a long time, thinking, until she’d headed back home.

She thought of that house now—thought of it and pictured herself there, sitting on the front porch. Only, in her mind, the house was whole again, the roof in one piece, the windows intact. She imagined she wasn’t alone there, envisioned she wasn’t alone ever again—but she couldn’t picture her companion, didn’t know who they were. In her little cottage, the walls were like arms holding her, the cushions of her chair like an old friend. She drifted to sleep, listening to the rain pound the roof.

As the deep whine of the train’s whistle cut through the shrieking wind, heavy raindrops pounded the off-white aluminum awnings of the cottage. The lamp in the small living room trembled where it stood on the ancient rag rug, the threadbare armchair bathed in yellow light. A half-empty tea cup on the end table rattled on its saucer as Esther reached out to still it. She let go, watching the tea ripple in the cup as the train roared by her kitchen window.

After nine o’clock at night, the storm raged, while she lifted her long sundress and rushed into the front room, where water, streaming sideways from the dark sky, leaked through disintegrating caulk around the windowpanes. After pressing a towel on the sill and checking on the one that kept water from leaking in beneath the front door, Esther returned to her tea.

She didn’t mind the train, or the storms, and felt good sequestered in her house where she was alone. Here, she could be herself instead of what others wanted her to be. The storm felt refreshing and she hoped the rain would cleanse the earth, even as it washed away her own inner discomfort. Over the years, Esther had isolated herself from others, and it always seemed the power of the storm gave her more reason to do so—to seek shelter, to stay safe.

The sudden sharp bang at the back door startled her, and she ran into the kitchen and dining area to find the screen door had been thrown open by the wind, which seemed to constantly change direction, and the rug on the scratched wood floor was soaked. Reaching into the gale, she drew the screen door shut with a thud, and secured the wooden door behind it, throwing the deadbolt into place. Gasping, she wiped the rain water from her brow and licked the drops from her upper lip.

After drying off, she brushed her shoulder-length brown hair back into a ponytail and pulled on a pair of pajama pants and a tank top. The entire room flashed a brilliant white when a crack of lightning hit nearby, surely splitting the earth as the storm intensified. In the living room, she sunk back into her armchair, curling into the soft cushions.

As she fell asleep, she wondered where Petunia had gotten to, but assumed she’d slipped under the bed. Thunder, lightning, and pounding rain probably frightened the little cat, but the shadows beneath the box spring would provide comfort and solace.

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