There’s Nothing Here
Every day, Canterdell Station, the local train station, bustled despite having so few people. It was a small train station, that thing, nestled in the middle of a little town with a couple of streets downtown and a relatively tiny suburb of medium-sized houses that were still so unpopulated that the few kids in the town went to the school district the next town over.
Canterdell was small enough that we knew almost everyone else by name, but large enough the people who weren’t well-connected didn’t know much past names. I was one of the latter. I mean, I belonged in Canterdell—the ex-ghost town of bachelors and bachelorettes that didn’t want to live in the city but wanted city jobs. Those people who rejected the traditional “young people” life.
Everyone in Canterdell was equally as rich—that is, as rich as people in their mid-twenties buying single-family homes. Then again, most of my friends lived in the city. They told me they rejected the “special snowflake” lifestyle that “wasn’t going to last” for us Canterdellers. Told me one day the stock market would crash just like it did in 2008, that I would lose my life savings. That all the TSMC factories in precarious states because of the China-Taiwan war would finally get bombed by a trigger-happy Chinese general and we would wake up and no longer be “bīng chíllíng.”
I returned home that foggy April evening, my mind just as foggy as the fog that I stumbled through walking from Canterdell Station to my home half a mile away. It had been a long day at work. I fiddled with the light switches to the right of the coat closet that I hung my now slightly-damp grey wool jacket in. One of the first things I’d done when I’d moved into this medium-sized home all for myself was add a light-switch puzzle. When I walked in, a certain number of random yellowish lights would turn on and the rest would remain off. Each switch would control a certain number of lights, turning them on or off. Using all the light switches in the house, I’d have to turn off all the lights in the house. It never really got tiring, since I could at least take my mind off of anything related to reality. Which was good, I supposed. Work was forever tedious.
Every day, Canterdell Station, the local train station, was surprisingly empty for a local train station. You’d expect people to be transferring to different lines, using it as a crossroads between our town and the rest. But no, it was always the same, the same people. Every day, Josh, Myra, James, Paul, Mika, Samuel, Myra, and Rosie were always there. There were obviously more people than that, but they were the same people every day, going to the same places. Never anyone new. We all took the same train, of course—to the city. There was Blackwell City to the west, and the other half of people that I never really bothered noticing took the west-bound train to hoard money from selling stocks and bonds and encouraging Ponzi and pyramid schemes at big banks… and other “similar” companies.
Naturally, I knew all those people on my train. Some subset of our group would oftentimes go to the town square with the small local restaurants and eat burgers and milkshakes (always veggie burgers for Myra since she never hesitated to emphasize that she was vegan) at Parch’s Diner. We were adults, but in reality, we were wanna-be college students. The only difference was we weren’t broke.
I’d been to the diner at least once with everyone, and I chatted with all of them regularly. It was, however, far more fun to talk to Josh or Paul or Mika individually. I never really enjoyed the groups. I never got enough attention when there was only a finite amount to share between all of us. Evil of me, I know. But I like being noticed and not having to notice people. The nice thing about attention seekers is that people are oftentimes chasing after them. It usually worked.
But even though I knew almost all the regulars on the train, I didn’t know Rosie. I’d talked to Rosie maybe once six years ago when I’d moved to Canterdell, and never really bothered after that. It was probably because she was really close with my ex-girlfriend Mira. Maybe it was that every time we went to our emotionless, white-walled platform with glaring fluroescent lights where people mulled around near the tracks, chatting, she and Mika put their bags on the two benches that were at opposite ends of the platform. Of course if Mika was sitting, chances are, Paul was probably standing next to her. I think everyone had guessed by now what Paul’s intentions with Mika were. And if they hadn’t yet, they were, bluntly put, stupid. Or a bumbling bear at social interaction.
But Rosie, no one really ever paid much attention to Rosie. Rosie had her own friends. Everyone knew their tight-knit little group. But Rosie didn’t have very many friends when she sat down to quietly read her magazine on her little bench on our whitewashed, glaringly bright platform.
The thing is, even though I had never gotten to know Rosie, it hadn’t exactly mattered. I didn’t really notice her existence until two days ago, when she was walking down the dirty concrete stairs, her fading dark-brown leather handbag grinding against the rust on the railing, to our platform, and accidentally dropped her magazine. I just happened to be walking alongside her. The magazine she dropped was Poplar Science, that tree magazine I’d read for a month or two and given up on when I thought growing trees in my yard and backyard would make me feel cooler and fulfilled that I was being a green, environment-loving fanboy. There are, obviously, no trees in any of my yards. Just weeds in the untrimmed grass and a gaping patch where I’d tried to plant a tree. As they say, it’s the thought that counts. A for effort.
By instinct, although I knew it had never been a part of my instincts until now, I scooped down and picked up the issue of Poplar Science, an aspen tree ironically plastered on its front cover.
“You dropped this,” I mumbled.
Rosie looked at me for a moment, scanning my face curiously. Then her thin, wiry lips that were devoid of lipstick (unlike the other women at the train station) snapped up into a wry smile. She laughed, but it came out like a tinkling bell. “You can keep it. I was almost done with it anyway.”
I flushed. Truth be told, I did kind-of want that magazine. I hadn’t read an issue of Poplar Science in years, and I was curious whether the green world was just the same mix of somewhat interesting facts and a world of magnificent trees that I could never have outside my window. At least I knew that if I read through Poplar Science now, I wouldn’t stand on my “green man” pedestal.
But I felt bad. It wasn’t my magazine. I guessed Rosie was just that disgusted by her magazine falling on the floor that she couldn’t bear to touch it anymore. I mean, I almost didn’t blame her if that were the case. Once something fell on the filth of those chipping stairs whose cracks had been filled by pink bubble gum that now emanated the scent of sweat and tears, whose color now blended into the greyish-black of the concrete over the FD&C Red No. 3 that it had originally been, it was never the same again. That magazine was now tarnished, as if someone had run a silver coin through a sewage system and rinsed it with tap water after finding it again.
Yet, I was still holding the issue of Poplar Science, now walking down the stairs, sheepishly trying to tag alongside Rosie. Her face was round, her cheeks were plump, and her untied hair ran down to her shoulders. For some reason, streaks of her bangs were dyed orange-red. Huh. I guess I’d never noticed that before.
“I—I’d… feel bad, though. It’s not my magazine…”
More seconds passed as Rosie walked down to our platform and I continued running behind her. I was worried I hadn’t said that loud enough. She might not have heard me! And I’m still clutching this gosh-darned magazine in my hand! My hands started to tremble out of embarrassment. I look like an idiot right now.
Then, as if God were listening to my thoughts, Rosie abruptly spun around and smiled sweetly. “It’s no problem, I promise you. I even think I have another copy of the magazine at home. Don’t worry about it.”
And before I could object, Rosie took her seat at the bench that had its twin at the other end of the platform, where Mika was rolling her eyes and trying not to laugh at Paul.
That evening, I walked home after disembarking from yet another train, leaving Canterdell Station with the birds chirping. The trees had just begun their bloom, the snow was thawing, and the sun was trying to brighten life for the first time in seven months. March. The beginning of spring. What a time to be alive.
The sun was setting—it was far past the beginning of evening—and the lampposts were shining onto the ground. Suddenly, I twisted my head upwards, staring into the light for a split second. A split second too much. I rubbed my eyes and crossed them, trying to get the sunspots to go away. I gave up.
I peered at the next lamppost. It radiated its soft golden aura. I closed my eyes again. This time, a picture from the morning flashed in my mind.
Rosie and her Poplar Science magazine, her chubby cheeks that I barely remembered, her orange-dyed bangs.
Were they orange? I swear they were red. Well, no matter. They were pretty either way.
I kept walking down the street, mechanically turning left on Highwater Avenue, knowing in a quarter of a mile I would have to turn right onto my street, Ruler Road. I kept peering at lampposts, feeling the miniscule warmth of their lights on my face in the chilly evening. I made a mental note to buy a better jacket, as this one wasn’t weathering the elements—no matter how light—very well. Or maybe I should just weather it out. I always liked cold weather anyway.
An eighth of a mile passed. I was at Line Way.
Maybe I should tell Rosie her bangs look cute.
I pictured them again. Were they red? Were they orange? Somewhere in between?
I kept walking. The lights from the lamp seemed to disappear. The crickets nesting in the manicured lawns of the homes around me chirped. Stars twinkled in the sky. Cars roared past me at more than twenty-five miles per hour.
Pink. They were pink. They were light pink. The colour of strawberry ice cream.
I took a right onto Ruler Road. My house was the fourth one down. Four Ruler Road, the mailbox read. I pulled down the flap of the mailbox by instinct and reached my hand inside. It was empty. I walked to the front door and unlocked it. Pushed the door open. Walked inside.
The lights were on, and suddenly, I felt an overwhelming pang of exhaustion. For the first time in years, I felt an overwhelming desire to not play my light-switch game. I reached into the back of the coat closet and felt around until I found the kill-switch for my game. Without any hesitation, I flipped it, and the world that was my house suddenly turned dark.
Maybe that exhaustion was all the work I was doing, trying to make the next generation of Bloomberg Terminals tick, so the next generation of stock traders on Wall Street halfway across the country could get rich in five years on the floor and retire at twenty-seven. Maybe my exhaustion had to do with that Poplar Science magazine, which was still somewhere in my backpack, probably. I put my bag in the corner, behind my shoes. I checked the time on my watch. Only nineteen-thirty-nine. My eyelids drooped.
The last thing I saw before I closed my eyes was a pretty young woman with pink-dyed bangs, pulling her lips into a playful smirk at me, handing me a magazine.
The espresso machine whirred. I fiddled with a pen. Click-click. Click-click. The noise incessantly permeated through my ears, pulsating. It was like the sound of the espresso machine, whirring, vibrating, clicking. I liked to think that my pen and the espresso machine were one—our rhythm aligned.
In reality, trying to get my cheap Bic pen to harmonize with the espresso machine was a pipe dream. I liked to believe that the tune of my pen and the tune of the machine, but in reality, it was really too hard to predict the unpredictability of an old stainless steel Cuisinart espresso machine that was on its last legs. Finally, the shot of espresso weakly puttered out into the metal tumbler, and I tilted my head back and poured the espresso down, feeling the heat of the fresh coffee scald my esophagus.
A wonderful ritual, I know. Undeniably healthy.
But espresso was addictive, so whatever could I do? When I started drinking coffee, I had already accepted that life was going too fast for me to keep up.
I walked into Canterdell Station, as busy as ever, serving its population of just around 300 self-labeled elite just-college-graduates. The whitewashed walls bleached my vision, making the world ostensibly more sterile and emotionless, yet brighter at the same time. A wonderful paradox. I shrugged, letting my backpack’s shoulder straps fall into place. Tapped my access card onto the turnstiles. Pushed through, turned left to my platform. Walked down the stairs with the rusting railing and the stained concrete.
I closed my eyes for a split second when I reached the bottom. Josh and Mika were milling about, standing where Mika normally sat. The only difference was that Mika wasn’t sitting down. She was standing, looking at Josh, with a severe expression on her face. I wonder what that’s all about.
I looked to my right, where there was an empty gap for the train when it rolled in, which was supposed to be in five minutes, on the dot. James and Josh were chatting about something near the train tracks, sipping coffee whose aroma I could smell from thirty feet from disposable paper cups, and smiling pathetically at each other. I guess they were still addicted to that Colombian roast I’d introduced them to a few weeks ago when I’d taken them downtown to Stanley’s Coffee in search of the latest and greatest coffee beans.
Straight in front of me was the bench opposite to Mika’s. A young woman sat on the bench, reading a magazine. I would have liked to imagine the magazine was full of tree pictures. Poplar trees, aspen trees, pine trees, and gardening techniques for each and every one. You can harvest the petals of a hibiscus tree. Steep those petals in boiling water, and the tea you get will be unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before! Eventually, I had just caved in and bought the hottest-selling tin of hibiscus tea leaves to steep in my clear glass Hario teapot. Growing a hibiscus tree is hard.
I meekly peered at the young woman again. Why are you staring? I—it’s okay to stare if you already know her… right? Her slender hands gingerly flipped the page of Poplar Science, revealing two pages shaded dark green with white text superimposed. She placed her left hand in between the two pages, and for a few seconds, flexed the fingers on her right hand.
You’re staring! Then my eyes flicked up to her hair, and my heart skipped a beat. I blinked. R—reddish orange? Not pink? Not bright pink? I tried to take a step forward, but I almost walked into a whitewashed brick wall. Idiot. My feet pushed me in front of the bench, and suddenly I loomed over her. Might as well try and talk to her again, I guess.
“W—what are you reading?”
Her head slowly twisted to the right. “Oh! Hi!” She silently lifted the magazine with her two hands at the edges, showing me the cover. It was the same edition of Poplar Science that I had been entrusted with yesterday.
I nodded at her. “Should’ve gotten around to reading it—oh! I haven’t told you. I used to read Poplar Science all the time. But it’s been a few years since my last copy, so thanks, I guess. For the one from yesterday, I mean. Should get back into it.”
“Yeah. I’ve been reading it since the trees in my front yard feel quite unwieldy these days. I’d love to replace them sometime.”
“Have you ever planted any trees? You know, the book…”
“Been buying supplies, but not yet. Few pounds of soil and some tree saplings coming. You know.”
“Yeah. I gave it a few shots, but I didn’t have patience to see my saplings spring to life.” Even better, my backyard now has a bunch of holes that remind me of its failure. “Maybe I should try again!”
Her lips spread into a wry, tired smile. “Maybe you should, haha.”
“Oh! And you should definitely look into a wheelbarrow and a gardening knife. It’ll help when your tree starts branching and you need to cut stuff.” If, not when.
“Hmm, yeah. Never thought of those.” She blinked twice. “Yeah, maybe I’ll get a wheelbarrow…”
I heard the sound of our train coming into the tunnel, and turned around, expecting the silver cars and the high-pitched squealing brakes to come at any second.
“Well, looks like I have to go now.” We’re on the same train. “G—good luck with your trees!” Maybe I’ll talk to you later, or something.
I faced the train, walked inside and took a seat—the train was never particularly crowded.
“Please stand clear of the closing doors.” I heard two chimes, and the doors closed. Instinctively, I looked to my right. An old man sat in the far corner, fiddling with a piece of white string. I turned my head to the left. Empty.
Well, she isn’t here. Thank God.
The sound of the evening shower coming to life, spraying warm mist on my aching, sore body and dousing me in bliss, removing me from the hell that was work. I closed my eyes, instantly imagining that picture of a gorgeous young woman. Parts of her hair were dyed reddish-orange, and her bangs were nothing short of gorgeous.
Playing with Rosie’s hair. Kissing it, twirling it, tie it, gently stroking it. I ran my hand through my own hair, moistened by the steam from the shower head. Beautiful. She is absolutely beautiful.
I pushed the lever on the side of the tub, plugging the drain. The tub slowly filled with water, and I sighed tiredly, closing my eyes. It was late.
I walked out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around my waist. Half-limping to the closet, I tugged on my pajamas, and slumped into my comfortable queen-sized bed with a hard oak headrest. I pulled the covers over me. Exhaled loudly. Closed my eyes. Exhaled loudly again. Pictured pretty women with cute bangs and long eyelashes. Maybe not women. A woman.
Before I slipped into the void, I smelled the blissful scent of espresso wafting into the room, perforating through my nostrils and into my mind, mixing with the reddish-orange color that tinted the edge of my vision.
Strong coffee down my windpipe again, burning my esophagus again. The sound of a toaster on its last legs trying to heat up bread. I pressed the toast button again, sticking my hand inside to feel the lukewarm temperature inside. Beating a nearly-dead horse until it truly dies. What else is new?
I looked outside the window at my front door, seeing the beautiful trees budding to life. No leaves or flowers yet, but the trees were just coming to life. Just like Rosie.
I quickly bleached that thought from my mind.
Spring. A time for new beginnings.
I smiled, finally feeling energized from the espresso. I put on my coat, grabbed my backpack, which was resting on the couch by the front door, and stepped outside. The grass smelled succulent and fresh, and was coated with dew.
Stooping down, I gingerly touched the grass.
I walked down the platform, awkwardly checking my gold-rimmed watch to remember the time, although I knew perfectly well I was on time for the city-bound train. I glanced around. At the far end, I saw Paul and Mika sharing a bench. Mika’s blonde hair spilled over onto Paul’s shoulder, their hands clasped together, resting gently on the surface created by their legs touching together. Mika’s head rested on Paul’s, and I could practically hear them murmuring to each other.
I looked directly in front of me, to that bench. The one where she sat down and read Poplar Science every day. It was empty.
As long as I could remember, she had always been there. Maybe that was because I only noticed her in the past when she was there. Maybe she really was always there.
Another day, another time, I thought.
Although part of me doubted she—Rosie—would ever come back.