For three days, despite the normal schedule for the post and despite the continued rumors spreading around Elisfield, Mary Isler received two letters a day. Mark Wilson, the postmaster, couldn’t explain it. Each evening, he would lock up having inspected his office thoroughly to be sure that no rogue letters had slipped from under his watchful eye. He would turn in quite satisfied that every envelope had been accounted for.
And then, bright and early the following morning, Mary Isler would ring the bell and there would be a letter waiting for her on his desk.
On the third day, Mark went so much as to stay at his desk all night. He’d fallen asleep by five-thirty, though, and at seven o’clock she was there pointing to an envelope that had mysteriously shown up beneath his own elbow while he slept.
Poor Mark Wilson closed his office early that day and spent the rest of the afternoon praying in the small church at the top of the hill.
According to the blank letters, Ben O’Maley had changed the date of his arrival to the following Sunday. His final letter mentioned that he planned on bringing his cousin, Miss Isabel Jaxpur, along for the visit.
So plans were changed, and more linens were washed, and Mary Isler hummed more cheerful melodies as she hung those linens out in the cold air.
Madelyn watched from the warmth of the house, wondering if Ben O’Maley was, indeed, coming…or if her mother’s apparent illness had just taken a more dramatic course.
In her journal, Maddie drew her mother standing in a frigid wind amongst the crackling trees, hanging linens on the line. Her drawing had oblivious eyes and a dreamy smile. She used blueberry preserves to stain her mother’s lips blue.
It was the only color on the page.
Brilliant light shattered through her closed eyelids and painted everything in her head a rosy hue. She winced and buried her face into her pillow. She wriggled around in a half-sleep, unable to get comfortable again.
It was her nightgown. Sweat was making it stick to her skin and plastered her brown curls against her forehead. She kicked her winter quilt off and let out a frustrated grunt.
She spun around and toed blindly at the floorboards for her slippers.
The floor was warm.
Shielding her face from the bright sunlight, Maddie took a moment and let her eyes adjust.
Soft pink light rippled off of the morning mist as it rolled in past the groves. A light breeze swirled, making green leaves dance on their branches, and carrying with it flower petals and pollen.
A bird sang from a nest in a tree.
Her mother’s footsteps pounded down the hall. “Maddie? Maddie, what is it?”
Maddie threw herself into her mother’s arms. She couldn’t get a word past her sobs.
“Shh, shh…it’s alright, Madelyn. It’s fine.” Her mother whispered into her hair. “What on earth is the matter?” She brushed a curl from her daughter’s face and pressed cool hands to her cheeks.
“The-the window. It’s—”
Maddie stopped short. Her mother was bound in a thick quilt that she’d thrown around her daughter as well.
Maddie turned, wincing at the biting cold that made her feet ache.
Outside her window, the sky was gray.
Ice clung to broken branches…
where no birds sang.
It took some consoling, but by eleven-thirty, Maddie was dressed and fed and standing on the platform at the train station. Uncle Lionel huffed about the station not having so much as a cargo train scheduled until Tuesday. Mary Isler paid him no mind and stood on the tips of her toes, leaning far-over the edge to see when Ben’s train would get there.
Maddie’s lips were chapped and her nose stung with the cold. She couldn’t get the sound of chirping birds out of her head.
Strange dream, she thought, hopping from foot-to-foot in her winter coat, I swear, I could feel the warmth, though.
Twenty Minutes went by. Madelyn could no longer feel her fingers even though they were stuffed in her pockets. Lionel checked the time.
“I’ll have you notice no one else is here waiting on visitors, Mary.”
“Well, of course not, Lionel. No one else is expecting Ben and Isabel at eleven-fifty-eight.”
“What train comes at eleven-fifty-eight?” Lionel demanded, waving his pocket watch in the air.
“Testy, testy.” Mary hissed, shielding her eyes so she might get a better look down the tracks.
“This is ridiculous. I’m having Ebber bring the car around. Maddie and I are going home. You can freeze to death out here all week if you want. Your daughter is going to be sick.”
“Another few minutes of fresh air won’t kill you, Lionel. I swear, this is probably the most time you’ve spent outside in ten years.” Mary rolled her eyes.
“It’s the frost that will do it—if your insanity doesn’t do it first. Come to your senses, Mary. There is no train—let alone a passenger train—scheduled for today.”
“Yes, well there was no post twice a day for three weeks, either, but I have my letters.”
Lionel nearly choked on his own anger. “You have blank sheets of paper! Sheets of paper without a damn thing written on them!”
“Oh, enough of this nonsense, Lionel. If nothing was written on them, then how would I know to be here at eleven-fifty-eight on a Sunday morning?” Mary clasped her hands and tilted her head at her brother.
Madelyn wasn’t sure, but three of her uncle’s hairs may have gone silver in that very moment.
The two continued like that for another ten minutes. After nothing was accomplished and no real line of communication had been exchanged, they stood on opposite points on the platform and sulked in their own frustrations.
At eleven-fifty-six, Lionel came over and took Maddie’s hand. “We’re going.”
Eager to be out of the cold, Maddie went along with him.
By eleven-fifty seven, they had cleared the steps down from the platform.
At eleven-fifty-seven and thirty seconds, the ground beneath them began to shake.
“No.” Lionel whispered.
Maddie spun on her heal and flew back up the steps. A train whistle blew through the air.
Mary Isler lept into the air, clapping her hands in joy.
Shaky and uncertain, Lionel walked to the edge of the platform and watched, slack-jawed, as a train rushed down the tracks and blew the hat off of his very head.
The train sounded again and slowed down until Maddie could hear the clacking of each track.
Steam released into the air as it came to a stop in front of the Elisfield platform.