By Jane Benning.
The conductor poked his head through the small compartment and requested the young woman’s boarding pass. Thin and pale with wide, child-like eyes, she looked exhausted. The light circle around her fourth finger hinted that she’d once worn a ring, but that it had been removed recently.
A young girl with chocolate curls lay asleep at her side.
Weary and nervous at traveling alone with her daughter, the young woman began leafing through her things.
“It’s somewhere in here, I know it is,” She sighed, shaking her head, “I just had it.” She set down her bag and reached for the hat box beneath her daughter’s legs.
The conductor placed his hand over hers and eyed her. “Don’t. Don’t bother the girl. Where are you off to?”
The young woman blinked up at him, confused. “Elisfield,” she said after a moment. She twisted her mouth and tears began to well up in her eyes, “to meet my brother.”
The conductor stared at her with sympathy and placed a hand under her chin, “Elisfield, huh?” He gave her a crooked smile. She realized then that he was young himself—probably not yet thirty. “Look, lady, I don’t know what’s bringing a city lass like yourself as far out as Elisfield, but my guess is that you could use a hot cup of coffee.”
“Maybe even a swig of whiskey,” he chuckled.
She broke into a tired laugh.
“I can’t. My daughter—”
“She’ll be fine,” he said, glancing at the sleeping girl against the window. “Car six. Tell them Captain O’Malley is taking care of it.” He winked at her and gave her another reassuring half-grin.
She thought about it for a moment and then nodded her head. “Okay. Thank you, Mister O’Malley.”
“Call me Ben.”
She stood and straightened her dress over her petticoat. “Ben,” she took his hand.
He gently guided her out of the car, “and you are?”
“Mary,” she said in a shy voice.
“Mary. Well, think nothing of it, Mary. I will have one of my attendants look after your girl. I’ll be in to see that you’re alright once I’ve made my rounds.”
She nodded gratefully and thanked him before checking on her daughter one last time and making her way down the aisle towards car six.
By the time the young girl in compartment nine opened her eyes, her mother had changed considerably. The circles under her eyes seemed lighter and the color was back in her cheeks. Even the worry lines that had marked her face for the last several months had grown lighter. In short, Mary Isler seemed younger—alive again.
Madelyn didn’t know what to make of the change, but she was relieved to see it. In the months since her father’s death, she’d begun to worry over her poor, helpless mother. Mary Isler was a lot of things, but independent had never been one of them.
It was not as if fate had granted them many options, but the idea of leaving their proper home on Billar’s Drive had upset Madelyn from the start. Her family was already suffering enough, but now her entire life was being uprooted and placed somewhere else.
At thirteen, she knew nothing of the world, but in the weeks after Frank Isler’s death, she laid awake listening to hushed voices coming from the parlor.
“That can’t be possible; Frank would never,” her mother would insist.
“My condolences, Ms. Isler, but unfortunately your husband’s debt remains an issue, regardless of the circumstances,” a man’s voice would say.
And on it would go throughout the night until her mother would agree to pay whatever sum was requested. Then collectors would leave, only to be replaced by someone else in due time.
Bits of furniture began disappearing, and soon her father’s beloved piano was gone. But still the men kept coming, chipping away at both Frank Isler’s debts and Mary Isler’s spirits.
Finally, in late June, one of the men stayed the night. He left in the morning, assuring Mary that the sum required would be forgiven and that, god-willing, her late husband’s soul would find peace.
That was the day Mary Isler wept for an hour and wrote to her older brother in Elisfield.
Madelyn knew the family’s fortune was gone, but it was losing both her parents—her father in flesh and her mother in mind—that left her feeling truly helpless.
And so, when she woke from her sleep in early September to find her mother looking less vacant, her spirits lifted. They had breakfast in the dining car and, for the first time since Madelyn could remember, her mother was talking to her again.
Some hours later, they took tea in car six. It was there that, to the girl’s mild surprise, she met the conductor.
Captain O’Malley was young and energetic with bright blue eyes. He had dimples at the corners of his mouth and an infectious grin. There was a light scar above his left eye that gave him a bit of character, and his accent was difficult to place.
In all, Madelyn liked him.
And he, it seemed, liked Mary.
The train ride from Norwyk to Elisfield took three days. For the remaining two, Mary and the conductor were inseparable.
He spent his meals with them in the dining car. He told wonderful, vivid stories of his travels throughout his youth and all of the colorful the characters he’d met on the trains. When he spoke, he lit up and his lively conversations left Mary and Madelyn beaming and wildly entertained.
When Mary smiled, Ben O’Malley would visibly melt.
Madelyn accompanied him on his rounds. Together, they stuck their heads out the window between the cars and spread their arms out like they were flying. Then, each night after she would fall asleep, Mary and Ben would have coffee in car six.
At precisely half-past noon on the third day, the train pulled onto the platform at Elisfield.
Madelyn and her mother bid Ben O’Malley a regretful farewell and turned to greet Mary’s older brother, Lionel.
Thin and tall with a groomed mustache and kind brown eyes, Lionel had always been Madelyn’s favorite uncle. A falling-out between he and Frank had led to scarce visits over the years, but they had always remained cordial in front of her.
Lionel kissed his sister’s cheek and held Madelyn out by the shoulders to see if she had, indeed, grown exponentially taller in the last six months.
Madelyn smiled and announced that she had, in fact, grown nearly three full inches over the summer.
Mary blinked at her daughter, having regretfully not noticed the change.
It was then that Madelyn turned back to look at the train. Ben O’Malley was standing in the window, watching them with a strange, puzzling look on his face.
A shiver ran through her as she met his cool blue eyes.
She cautiously backed behind her Uncle Lionel’s motorcar as he loaded it up.
It wasn’t until a few minutes later, when she was settled into the fine leather seat, that she glanced back at the train.
The conductor was still there, watching as they drove away.