© 2022 Patti M. Walsh. No part of this book may be reproduced without permission from the author except in brief quotations and in reviews. This is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to real places, persons, or events is entirely coincidental.
Puffs of forced air exploded in my face with each exhaled breath.
I wanted everyone to think I was cold, not anxious, so I spewed a few more. Fingering the wristband that identified me as an unaccompanied minor, I waited and waited and waited in the bleak misery of a blustery train station on this unbelievably cold, early January morning. Yeah. Happy freakin’ New Year.
After nearly an hour of signing papers and answering questions, it was finally time to leave on my first solo trip anywhere. I blew again and shook off my hoodie. Dad replaced it, then tugged at my open jacket.
“Zip up your parka, Bonnie.” He lifted its hood up over my head. “We don’t need to send you off with a cold.” He pecked me on the forehead, knocking my glasses askew.
Scrunching my face to match my insides, I huffed a deliberately huge vapor cloud, as if it could erase my stepmother and half-brother behind my father. The effort shook free my hoodie yet again, and yet again, he replaced it with a Hollywood smile that could seal deals and steal hearts. That’s my dad. To everyone else, he’s Ben, marketing magnate and social superstar. Tickling the tip of my nose, he squeezed my shoulders. Despite myself, I yielded to a lopsided grin.
“Atta girl,” he declared, his resonant voice muffled by a stiff northerly wind. “And zip up your parka. Where’s your hat? You should be wearing a hat.”
I hate hats.
Closing my eyes, I imagined it was just the two of us. And Mom, of course. She belonged at Dad’s side. And I belonged with them. On the beach, I fancied, squinting into the sun, not squinching vapor clouds into a bleak January morning, or eyeballing the steel rails that prowled their way upstate.
Mom. Stuffing tears deep inside, where no one or nothing could reach them, I tried to conjure up her image. I didn’t remember much, except her laugh, her eyes, and her hair. Thick auburn hair. It was the last thing I saw when a truck hit our car, killing her instantly. I was five. That was seven long years ago.
“You’ll have to live with your father,” everyone said. That wasn’t a problem—I had seesawed between my parents since their divorce two years before the accident. Besides, Dad’s condo was only a few blocks away from our little house, so I still had my school and friends. But the new arrangement wasn’t for a weekend or holiday. It was forever, and I first became a speed bump and then a roadblock in Dad’s method-ical life. So, he found a nanny, which turned into a series of nannies. No one was good enough for me, he said. Not until he met and married Deborrah.
She pronounced her name Deb-ORR-ah. I called her Deb-Horror. With her, everything had to be so, so perfect. And I sure wasn’t. Not only did she find fault with me from Day One, but she canceled my life and replaced it with If-ville. If Mom hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have to live with her. If she hadn’t insisted on a new house, I wouldn’t have had to go to a new school. And if I hadn’t had problems at the new school, I wouldn’t be stuck on this platform, banished to live in the mountains with an aunt and uncle I hardly knew. My godparents. Anam and Nog. Strange names. Strange people.
With cold resolve and even colder hands crammed into pockets, I glared at my stepmother, stabbing icicles into her soul as she snuggled my half-brother into a warmth that eluded me. It was as obvious as the skinny little nose on her copper-skinned face that she wouldn’t miss me any more than I would miss her.
“Train 233 to Albany, Saratoga Springs, New Grange, and Montreal arriving on Track One.” An invisible voice screeched my destiny like fingernails on a blackboard.
New Grange. Anam and Nog would meet me there and bring me to their place outside the village of Tory Island. Who lived somewhere called Tory Island? Worse than that, outside Tory Island? I called it the boonies. I would stay with them through Labor Day. September. Nearly nine months. That seemed like forever. Nog would homeschool me. What would that be like? More jitters, more clouds.
As the train rounded the curve from the south and whistled its approach, Deborrah stepped forward, Benjy tucked into her arms. For once, he wasn’t crying. Without thinking, I reached out and stroked his cheek with the back of my index finger. It was soft like a cotton ball and warm like fleece. He smelled like the oatmeal bubbles that dribbled from his pink lips. Okay, I admitted, maybe I would miss him.
Wigwagging her hand, Deborrah stretched the word byeee into three syllables as thin as her personality. “You be good now. Mind your aunt and uncle.” She chided me as if I had already done something wrong. I slipped a thumbnail to my mouth, a habit that she swatted away.
“You mind your aunt and uncle,” I mumbled, jerking aside. With my back turned, I mimicked her tepid farewell and stuck out my tongue with a defiant head shake. The jiggling teased
a corkscrew from the ponytail tucked inside my hoodie. Jeez. I whooshed it away as the train crept to a stop.
“Call me when you get there,” Dad commanded. He never asked or suggested. Glancing at the train, his watch, and me—his speed bump—in that order, he noted that the train was two minutes late, and Dad did not tolerate late. “We’ll be up, hopefully for your birthday.” That was August. Pulling me into a quick but firm hug, he added, “Depends on my schedule.” Of course, it did. Everything did.
“Yup.” Short answers magnified my practiced apathy. It also was easier to agree with my father than challenge him. We’d been over this a hundred times. I was sure they wouldn’t come.
“All aboard,” a trainman bellowed, hopping onto the platform. He talked to Dad, scanned my wristband, and grabbed my backpack. I slung the matching tote over my shoulder, noting that the rest of the ensemble was being hauled toward the rear of the train as freight. Climbing onto a sleek car, I turned into the spotlight of a weak sunbeam. I felt like I was on stage, so I took a bow and bid my so-called family good riddance.
“Love you, Missy Mope.” Dad winked at me. That’s what he called me when I was stuck doing what I didn’t want to do. Like now. Make me, my long face would dare. Beyond the reach of one final hug, I broke character and winked back. He blew a kiss.
“She’s in good hands, sir,” the conductor called over his shoulder, nudging me into a car, where a dozen or so people looked up from their timeworn blue seats encased in chrome. It smelled like old leather shoes and damp wool coats. The heat was cranked up so high that I broke out in a sweat. No need for a parka in here, I thought as I unzipped it. Hefting my backpack onto the overhead rack, the trainman introduced himself.
“Name’s Porter.” His body looked muscular beneath his uniform, probably from lifting all that luggage. He smelled like aftershave. With a thrust of his jaw, he directed me to an open seat on the left by the window. “I like that side. Nice views. And you can see your folks as we pull out.” Yanking off my parka, I threw myself into the plush seat he suggested. “New Grange’s the ninth stop, a little over four hours. I’ll be by to see if you need anything, young lady.”
He called me a young lady. No one had ever done that before.
Heaving a long crrreeeeaaakkk, the train pulsed away. My stomach flinched and my throat pinched shut thinking that I had already lost Mom, and now I was leaving Dad. But then everything relaxed knowing I was also leaving Deb-Horror and Benjy, the crybaby from hell. I shook my wild hair free of its ponytail, and giggled. Four hours. On my own! A broad grin accompanied my final wave as the train curved into a tunnel, instantly erasing both my family and my bravado, for in that second of immediate darkness, the window morphed into a mirror, reflecting a girl whose smile puckered into a scowl.
“Who are you?” I asked the 12-year-old girl who looked back at me. We simultaneously removed our glasses. With locked eyes and grimaced face, we sized each other up. The girl in the mirror bit her lip, which told me that she was scared. She gnawed on her thumb, which told me she was anxious. But she also reminded me she was a young lady.
She blinked away tears that told me she was alone—and nothing like the people who had just disappeared on the platform. For starters, they all had similar skin colors. Dad liked to joke about my lighter and freckled version of his rich caramel complexion. “I ordered café au lait, with extra cream and brown sugar sprinkles. And I got Bonnie.”
I wasn’t as dark as Dad, and not as light as Mom. She was pinkish, with freckles that marched across her button nose. I
touched my own, which matched hers, freckles and all. Calling them fairy dust and me Bonnie Baby, she would tickle me with kisses. I would give anything for one last fleck of a fairy kiss.
My parents had been a striking couple—tall and athletic. Yet the girl in the mirror was short and skinny. Then there was the hair. Mine was a longer, tangled version of Dad’s thick cinnamon brush cut. Mom’s was windblown auburn. Dad’s face was chiseled with a square jaw, tight mouth, and dimpled chin. Mom’s was oval with a full mouth and soft chin. Mine was round and buckled with braces. But I had Mom’s eyes. Green eyes that blinked back tears. I resembled both parents, but looked like neither.
“You don’t belong,” I told my perplexed self, covering my eyes with long elegant fingers—Mom’s fingers—as if they could erase the last seven years as gently as they had wiped away tears before that. Shielding my eyes from myself, I thought about the avalanche of events that got me here.
When Dad married Deborrah, he said I needed a mother. I didn’t need a mother—he did. Before long, she needed a house—the condo wasn’t big enough, and the neighborhood wasn’t good enough. Then she needed a baby. “I got me a built-in babysitter,” she boasted to her friends, emphasizing each word with a shoulder thrust. Nobody bothered to ask what I needed.
As if I could erase those disasters, I closed my eyes and circled my fingertips from them to my brow and across to my temples. Resting my palms together below my chin and fanning my fingers across my cheeks, I opened my eyes. In that instant, the train cleared the tunnel. Watching my reflection dissolve into a rolling countryside, my hands sprung outward.
“I’m free,” I said aloud. I liked how that sounded, so I repeated it. Then I bit my lip. Until I got to New Grange. Then what? Before I could kick that scenario around, the train slackened its pace across an intersection. A pack of teenagers
in a pickup truck waved, and I waved back. To them, I was an adventurer. They didn’t know I was a loser.
I wasn’t always one. I sighed, remembering the world where I had had a real family and real friends, like Jenny, Sara, and Erin. Erin and I grew up next door to each other and stayed close even after Mom died. Although we didn’t look alike—she had straight blond hair, brown eyes, and a big toothy grin—we called ourselves twins. We’d wear matching T-shirts and hair ribbons. We even dressed our dolls alike.
When we met Jenny and Sara on the first day of kindergarten, we instantly became the Cutie Club—that’s what our moms called us—inseparable superheroes on escapades, or princesses on quests. Over the next five years, we traded Curious George for Harry Potter, Muppets for boy bands, and dolls for nail polish, pretending ourselves into the reallife women we might someday become. We were cool. We were Girls Who Code and budding filmmakers with the videography club.
But my stepmother shredded that life like cheese. My new school didn’t have those clubs, and I didn’t have friends.
I pulled out my phone to text Erin. My BFF. Used to be, I corrected myself. What happened to the forever part? I stared at my phone as if it were a crystal ball. It told me I couldn’t remember the last time we’d been in touch.
After I moved away, Erin and I talked, texted, had a few sleepovers, played some games online, but that all got old. Or maybe we did. Did she ghost me? Did I ghost her? If she wasn’t my best friend, was she still my friend? Friends were people who understood you, or at least tried. As each day, month, and year went by, no one seemed to understand me. While everything was the same for Erin, Jenny, and Sara, all I had was replacement feelings, a replacement family, and a replacement life. I missed my friends. It hurt to admit how much.
That’s probably why I hated my new school. The only kids
who paid any attention to me were the other misfits. For them, breaking rules was chill, like skipping school to hang out at the mall. Of course, the one day I went along, we got caught. Dad gave me a pass, saying that he played hooky as a kid. He told me not to do it again. Although DebHorror kept repeating that she was “disappointed,” she was forced to go along with Dad since she wasn’t my real parent.
But she sure acted like she was, especially when it came to what I wore. She didn’t let me dress like the other girls. They wore rad clothes, henna tattoos, goth makeup. In my attempt to imitate them I came off as a wannabe.
Deb-Horror pitched a fit one morning when I tried to sneak out wearing a borrowed lace-up vest and short skirt. I responded by kicking a hole in my bedroom wall with my platform boots. I didn’t understand why that was such a big deal—I didn’t hurt anyone. Besides, she and Dad had knocked a hole in my life. They made me see a social worker, who said I had something called an “antisocial personality disorder.” That was harsh. I didn’t have a disorder; it was my life that was disordered.
Next, there was the Juul incident. I didn’t like vaping, but I liked hanging around with kids who did. When I got home one afternoon, Dad questioned the mango smell, made me empty my backpack, and threw away my pod. After a lame “father-daughter talk,” we coasted for a few weeks. Then it was Game Over, big time, when my nosy stepmother checked my Instagram. She discovered the picture I had posted of a slap game we played on a new girl. It was just a prank—I didn’t even take the picture—but Dad called it bullying.
In addition to taking away my phone and tablet, he grounded me, which I hated to admit was a good thing because I wasn’t there when the other kids got caught shoplifting a few days later. Looking back, some of them may have had that disorder thing. Even if they weren’t real friends, they were
somebodies. Looking at my phone, I realized I missed having somebodies, anybodies.
That’s how I ended up on a train, deported to a place I’d never been, to do who knew what, with people who were little more than strangers. Sure, Anam and Nog were my aunt and uncle, but I hadn’t seen them in over three years. That’s when they moved to Tory Island, where they were opening a bed and breakfast.
They called every few weeks. Anam was Mom’s best friend. She sent cute cards that I was too old for. Nog was Mom’s big brother, which is funny because he was way shorter. He would go on and on about his old house and his old dog. I never liked old stuff. Or old dogs. I did perk up, though, when he mentioned horses.
I laughed at the thought of Anam with horses. The only ones I could imagine her with were statues at the museum where she used to work. With her hair in a bun and her body swathed in too many clothes, she was as prim as Nog was gabby. Round and smiley, his hands and mouth moved constantly as he spewed his Nogisms. That’s what everyone called his silly stories and daft expressions. Except Dad, who didn’t abide silly and didn’t like Nog.
When I told Nog about my troubles at school, he and Anam hatched a scheme. “Get her away from that crowd,” he suggested to Dad. “Keep her too busy to get in trouble. She can take the train here—she’ll love that. You can all come up this summer and we’ll spend a week together.” Deborrah frowned at that. So did I. But Nog persisted, referring to the inn as the family homestead where he and Mom—her name was Maura—spent their summers as kids. Finally, he sealed the deal.
“She can finish the school year with me. I am a teacher, you know.” Dad and Deborrah agreed—maybe too quickly. Of course, no one bothered to ask me. Sure, I thought, just rent me out like a servant.
I thought about Erin again. I wanted to tell her everything. But where would I start? Admitting that I became a loser? Maybe I could invite her to visit, but I didn’t know if I wanted to visit. What if I didn’t like my aunt and uncle. What if they didn’t like me. I didn’t like me. Maybe this was all a big mistake. I realized I was still staring at my phone. At least Dad returned my screens as a condition of this arrangement.
I shook my head. With nothing to share, I shoved the phone back into my tote. It was part of a totally awesome ensemble that my stepmother bought for this trip. Of course, I pretended to not like it. That made me laugh. Instantly, my mood changed. That happened a lot.
Burrowing into my seat, I dug out the snack that Deb-Horror had made—something else she got right—a peanut butter sandwich and a box of chocolate milk. Placing the sandwich aside for later, I slugged some milk and pulled my tablet out of my tote and put in earbuds. But I didn’t feel like reading, playing a game, listening to music, or watching a movie. Maybe I could post a picture to my Facebook page, or do a video blog on this trip. No, that only reminded me of how things had changed.
Bored, I put the tablet down and watched the misty scenery. I picked the tablet up to take a few pictures. But all I saw were blurred factories and trees. Ugly warehouses and trucks. Disjointed people and cars. I put it down. I was tired from not having slept much the night before. I had been too nervous.
The train’s rocking lulled me into a half sleep. I tried to picture Mom, but I only recognized her absence. Momma. The rocking reminded me that’s what I called her in my heart. Sometimes whole days went by when I didn’t think of her. I felt guilty about that, like I didn’t love her anymore, which wasn’t true. After all these years, I was still wracked by the unfairness of it all. Why did she have to die? She was smiling
and happy one minute, gone the next. I didn’t understand it then, and I certainly did not understand it now. I never told anyone this, but I wanted to kill the truck driver who killed her.
Tears scraped my heart, burning it like a skinned knee. I stared out the window until the train stopped at a dingy station, where a handful of people got on. As we pulled away, Porter appeared at my side and startled me out of my funk.
“How’s it going, young lady?” He looked like somebody’s grandfather with his graying hair and ample smile. “There’s a dining car in the back. Want me to take you there?”
“No, I’m fine, thank you.” I put on my glasses and my grownup face. “I have snacks with me.” I held up my uneaten sandwich. “I just, well, you see, I just never went anywhere all by myself before.” Now why did I go and tell him that?
“Ah, I see. I remember my first trip alone. Out West. First day on the job. Left my family behind. I was older than you are now, but it don’t make no difference. Whenever I got homesick, I pulled out a pocket watch my grandfather—my Pops—gave me when I was 12.” With that, he fished in his pocket and pulled out a gold timepiece. “Still works. Reminds me that the past is history, the future’s a mystery, and the present is, well, a present. Do you have something like that?”
I glanced at the bag that Porter had placed on the luggage rack. As if I had x-ray vision, I could see Mom’s emerald ring tucked in my treasure box. I deliberately put it in my daypack and not my luggage, so that I could keep it close. Dad gave it to me the night before he married Deborrah.
“This was your mom’s engagement ring,” he had said. “Now it’s yours. Because I love you.” Of course, he had to spoil the moment by adding, “Don’t lose it.” I never wore it, except to try it on from time to time, pretending to be a beautiful woman. In that instant I longed to unpack it, slip it on, and press it to my heart. Maybe it would soothe the ache. I closed
my eyes and pictured the green stone set within a gold Celtic knot. It did remind me of the past, the present, and the future. I found Porter’s eyes.
“Yes, I do. Thank you.”
“That’s good, young lady. Always good to know who you are and where you’re coming from, especially when you’re going someplace new.”
“It’s my mother’s ring. She died.” I couldn’t believe I told him that, too. But his kind eyes didn’t even blink.
“Well, I’m sorry for your loss.” He bowed his head before stepping uninvited into my soul. “Before he died, my Pops told me that in order to understand life, you gotta first understand death. See, where there is no death—where past, present, and future are one—you have freedom to live. That’s a big lesson, but you’ll figure it out.” With that, he edged away and paced through the car checking tickets and answering questions.
Instead of pulling out the ring, I pulled up pictures on my tablet. Mom, Dad, and me, back when Dad lived with us, when we were a real family. Pictures of Mom and Nog when they were kids, and another of them laughing in a restaurant. Mom and Anam as young girls wearing funny hats and another as grown women on vacation. There was one of Anam holding me as a newborn. I studied her picture. She always looked like an old painting. We had nothing in common. I scrutinized those images for a sense of my family—past and future. And the present, well, the present was very confusing.
Outside, patches of scenery appeared and disappeared dreamlike in the mist and fog. Small towns and regal estates flickered by. Perhaps the inn would be like one of them. We zipped by railroad crossings. We stopped. We moved. People got off. People got on. Scenery appeared. Towns disappeared. We stopped. We moved. Stations loomed and tracks retreated. People got off. People got on. I lost track of the world as the train pulsed through the mist. Dad and Deborrah blended into
Nog and Anam. My baby pictures melted into Benjy. Momma combed her long auburn hair, her ring visible with each stroke. “Young lady,” she called me. “Young lady.” Not Bonnie Baby. I reached out to hold her.
But it wasn’t her voice. It was a man’s and he smelled like aftershave. Jolted awake, I blinked. Where was I? I blinked again. Porter was leaning into my seat. It took a few seconds to realize where I was.
“Wake up, young lady,” he repeated quietly. “This is your stop.” To the entire car he boomed, “New Grange. Next station.” Next station? How long had I been asleep?
I stuffed my tablet into my tote and wiggled into my coat as the train creaked to a stop.