Strangers at a glance

To no one’s surprise, it turned out to be a cold November morning. The trees littering the hills around the horizon are swaying slightly side to side as if dancing on the inaudible beat of the wind. They are moved by the strong gusts blowing over the open fields, their empty branches outstretched to the sky, dramatic gestures as the year’s cycle is coming to an end. It has been a couple of weeks since the last brown leaves fell to the ground and were carried away by the autumn storms traveling through the region. Only here and there a very stubborn leaf is still attached to its branch, unable to say goodbye to the wood that nurtured it in the past half year.

This morning’s local radio’s weather report mentioned incoming fog, leisurely rolling in over the harvested fields on the Southwest side of town, just like the ocean swells showing up from unknown places, rising higher on the shores of the hills surrounding the valley below. The world feels smaller now, the visibility reduced.

The feet of those who have a destination this very morning, step through the muted surroundings, over the rough gravel laid out next to the railroad tracks. Each of them resembling a walking locomotive, the water vapor in their breaths condenses into clouds of water and ice around them, slowly disappearing into the cold sky above.

The silent scene is only disturbed by the crunchy sounds of the gravel underneath the soles of their feet, bringing back early memories of those first moments of being outside after an early snowfall. Ice crystals flattening under the rubber of boots, crushed into the pavement with each step and movement of those feet, reshaped into something that no longer resembles the snow it once was. The world is being changed one footstep at a time.


 

One of those people walking next to the tracks is Thomas, his eyes focused on the ground 5 feet in front of him, lost in thought. Like many days before he is walking there, on the side of the road, making his way to the center of town and the bank he works at. His blue winter jacket is zipped up all the way to the top and a scarf provides extra protection against the humid cold of today. Did I bring everything? Gloved hands check his pockets one by one, ending with looking at his watch. I still have some time before it arrives. As cars pass Thomas has to take care to stay on the side of the road, not to get hit by the oncoming traffic. The lack of sidewalks caused many encounters with the puddles in the past.

I wish I could get off this train already. Staring out one of the windows of the second to last carriage Stephanie presses the side of her head against the cold window, trying to push back thoughts in her mind. In her hands, her phone vibrates again. Another message. When will it stop? She watches the passing trees and the forested hills in the distance. The terrain is rugged here and it has been a while since they had departed from the last train station, not counting those stops which are nothing more than a pole, a timetable, and nothing else to see all around. Stop thinking. Stop thinking. Stop thinking! She closes her eyes hoping the sudden darkness will cause the thought to lose their way. However, through experience, she knows she will have no such luck.


 

All of a sudden an earsplitting ringing scares the birds scavenging in the empty fields next to the railroad crossing. The birds loop around the field a couple of times before perching on top of the roof of the station building, located adjacent to the crossing. The single white light on each side of the track becomes dark and is replaced by two red lights blinking asynchronously, their light diffused by the morning gloom. A couple of cars pull up on the other side of the barrierless crossing, on their way out of the featureless town. After having come to a full stop they leave their engines running. The temperature is still above zero but the wind bites, cooling down everything it touches. Like the breaths of the few brave pedestrians, the fumes from the cars’ exhausts get slowly carried away by the stiff breeze, adding their own distinct color to the fog creeping closer.


 

His face illuminated by the red light Thomas checks his watch yet again. Yes, this is the one. Good thing I left a little earlier today. He stands on his toes and cranes his neck, trying to see the train, but a gentle curve in the tracks and a forest at the other side of the field hides the view of that side of the track. He can not see further than half a mile. And even then, the fog is a lot denser in the open space beyond those trees. Closing his eyes Thomas thinks he can hear it in the distance, on its way here. Ah yes. Finally. He can feel the speed of his heartbeat increasing.

Stephanie jolts upwards, closing her eyes earlier had caused her to doze off temporarily. What’s the time? She checks her mobile phone which she is still holding in her hand. With a press on the home button, the current time shows, along with a notification mentioning missed calls and many messages. Without unlocking she uses her thumb to make the screen go dark again. Over the intercom, a hard to understand, crackling voice mentions something about the next stop, but Stephanie’s attention is transfixed on the darkened display of her phone, on her own face, before looking out again. She can feel the train starting to slow down, readying itself for a stop at the next station.


 

From beyond the curve, the red and yellow locomotive of the arriving train appears. The enormous machine is moving slower than it actually seemed to be going because the fog still had the worlds’ sounds in its grasp, releasing them only slowly and at a lower volume. The locomotives’ muffled horn, to warn those at the crossing of its approach, sounded once the engine came closer to the crossing where Thomas, a cyclist, and three cars were waiting. Another one was approaching in the distance, its headlights bouncing as the vehicle makes its way over one of the unpaved roads leading out of the forest. With a thundering sound the train rolls by, slowed down by its screeching brakes. As the station is right next to the crossing the carriages roll by slower and slower until the train will finally come to a standstill a little further down the tracks.


 

Not this one. Not this one either. Thomas’ eyes dart from window to window, looking at the people sitting there motionless, staring at their phones and newspapers. Three wagons already. No one is getting up. He knows no one is going to get off here, in the middle of nowhere. Maybe on the other side? Thomas felt his heart speeding up as there were fewer and fewer wagons to go before the train had passed. But then, out of the corner of his eyes, he was what he was looking for. There! There she is! His heart was pounding so hard he could feel his blood surge through his veins. Her head was turned towards him.

Stephanie stares out of the window. The trees have disappeared. In front of her are wide fields and a couple of houses in the distance. Then, after passing a hill, a road appears. Three cars waiting. There he is. One end of his scarf fluttering in the wind as if it was put on in a hurry. His jacket is zipped all the way up to his chin, hands in his pockets and his hair messy and in need of a haircut. A backpack hung casually over his right shoulder. It has been two weeks now she has seen him standing there, waiting at the crossing when the train passes.


 

The moment their eyes lock through the foggy glass of the carriage window the world comes to a standstill. His are brown, hers blue. Like many days before they once more take in each other’s features. His hair too long and blowing over his face. Her cheeks red as her mouth starts forming a smile. His eyes longing and showing the long adventurous paths through the red and brown forests lining his soul. Hers inviting him to soar through open skies and dive through the clouds like Olympic divers, never to touch the ground, but to disappear.

Then the moment has passed, the last carriage rolls past the railroad crossing and comes to a stop in the station.


 

The red lights were still blinking, the cars were still standing still, engines running, their drivers eagerly looking at the signals. In the station the train will remain for exactly one minute before the conductor’s whistle will tell the train operator they can get moving again. Thomas looked ahead, at the cars on the other side of the crossing, their headlights shining slightly upward on the slope towards the crossing. Behind them the main road leading into town. In the distance, the bank building he was heading towards. As soon as the white light returned Thomas readjusted the backpack on his shoulder and walked forward over the rails, staring at the locked door in the back of the last carriage and the yellow light beyond.

Stephanie sits there, staring at the field again. She could no longer see the railroad crossing behind them, and the red glow pulsing, the light illuminating him standing there. She hears the whistle of the conductor, and only a couple of seconds later the carriage judders forwards as the forward movement is transferred through all the linked carriages. Ah well, maybe tomorrow. She had started making sure she was always on the right side of the train when it came through this town, in the hope of seeing him once more. In her mind he was there at the crossing, waiting for this exact train, to go to where she was heading. However, he never appeared. As the train slowly increased speed the station disappeared, the platform ended, to be replaced once more by the brown shrubbery she had seen for many miles before. Through the pathway between the seats, she heard shuffling, luggage being stowed, people making small talk. She suppressed a sigh and looked once more at the darkened display while someone moved up to her seat and sat down across from her.

 


 

“Hey,” a voice said.

She looked up from her phone. There he was. Cheeks red, slightly out of breath.

She smiled.

The train is still picking up speed. Behind the windows people continue to look at their phones, books, and newspapers, the small talk has ended. Except for one, where the conversation has only just started.