Alice stared out the window, watching the buildings zip past. Streams of white smoke spilled out from a cluster of factories, contaminating the otherwise clear sky. The train clattered over the tracks. When was the last time I rode a train? She reached into her purse and she hesitated as her fingertips brushed the envelope at the bottom. Her hand eventually found her water bottle and she took a drink, careful not to smudge her lipstick.
Across the aisle, a mother shushed two girls whose little hands were waving back and forth, playing some sort of game that involved trying to touch each other on the nose. Their feet dangled midair, not quite reaching the floor.
The buildings became more sparse as towering trees and overgrown bushes began to take their place. The train travelled past farms nestled in between patches of forest. Through the smudged and dusty glass, Alice could make out a few cows at the far end of a field. She leaned back into the padded seat and tried to ignore all the noise around her. Two rows back a man snored, his book still half-open on his lap. The woman in front of her was eating a bag of chips. The girls shrieked with delight after every little jolt.
Alice closed her eyes and focused on the rhythm of the train as it clicked and clacked, trying not to think about the letter in her bag and all the possibilities it contained. This is going to be a good weekend. My problems can wait until later. She imagined herself arriving at the train station. She would stop at the bakery to pick up blueberry scones before walking over to the old schoolhouse to meet Beth, her childhood best friend.
It had been five years since Alice left her hometown of Willowdale to study economics at the University of Kenton. Her parents, finding themselves in a house far too big and far too empty, had moved to a retirement condo in Kenton to be close to their daughter. She had promised to come back and spend her summers with Beth, but then she’d been accepted into an intensive study program that included summer internships and semesters abroad.
A loud hissing sound filled the train. Alice was thrown forward and she braced herself against the seat in front of her, digging her fingers into the cushion. The woman’s chips went flying. The girls screamed. The man dropped his book. The train screeched and skidded to a stop.
“I’m leaaavving,” Beth called. She waved goodbye to her mother as she shut the front gate, slipping the metal latch through the loop so the dogs wouldn’t get out.
Beth walked down the path leading from her farm to the main road. She stopped to pick some of the daisies growing at the edge of the path and tucked them into her backpack. It would take her about an hour and a half to get to the old schoolhouse in Willowdale, but she left a bit early so that she could take her time along the way. Her father had offered to drive her, but Beth enjoyed the walk. It wasn’t every day that she had a reason to go all the way into town. It had probably been at least a month since Beth had talked to anyone besides her family. She hummed to herself and kicked the gravel on the shoulder of the road.
What should I say when I see Alice? she wondered. I could tell her that we have two new horses, or that I’m learning how to sew dresses. I can’t wait to hear about her life. She’s probably started working at some fancy job or has city friends and adventures to talk about. And what have I done in five years? Improve my sewing skills? Beth kicked the gravel harder.
Beth checked for cars before crossing the main road — even though people seldom drove through this area — and stepped over the guardrail on the other side. She started to make her way into the forest, navigating over fallen branches and uneven ground. There was no trail here, but Beth didn’t need one. She had grown up in this forest, walking to and from school every day when there wasn’t a storm.
Most kids wouldn’t dream of waking up early to spend an hour walking through the forest, but this was where Beth felt the most at home. In the forest, nothing was expected of her; no one was telling her what to do or how to act or who to be. This is why, when most kids were dreaming of university and jobs in the city, Beth couldn’t imagine ever leaving Willowdale. Alice had begged her to apply to Kenton so they could be roommates and study together.
“You can’t stay here forever! There’s nothing to do in Willowdale. And besides, you’ll be so busy exploring the city and meeting new people that you won’t even have time to miss the forest,” she’d said. What if Alice was right?
Alice fiddled with the zipper of her purse, sliding it back and forth. Countless repetitions of “Why did we stop?” and “What’s going on?” filled her ears. One of the little girls started to cry. The woman in front of her tried unsuccessfully to pick up the chip fragments that lay scattered at her feet.
Within ten minutes, the chatter had died down. The man two rows back had managed to fall asleep again and Alice wished she could do the same. Both girls were crying now, and their mother had given up trying to quiet them. Alice checked her watch; it was 3:17 p.m. She took another drink of water. She stared out the window. They had stopped next to a large field — a flat expanse of green nothingness. Eventually, her mind wandered to the last time she had seen Beth.
Their goodbye had been silent. They stood on the platform, neither one sure what to say, and waited for the train to arrive. The train would bring Alice to the city life she had fantasized about. Alice had imagined strolling down crowded streets and going to rooftop parties. She didn’t yet know that her life in the city would mainly consist of late nights alone in her apartment, consuming dangerous amounts of instant coffee, and trying not to fail out of school.
As the train had pulled into the station, Alice picked up her bag. With her free arm, she pulled Beth into a hug and tried to memorize everything about the moment.
“I’ll miss you,” Alice whispered. She wasn’t sure if Beth heard her and, even if she did, she didn’t respond. Alice could tell Beth was trying not to cry, so she pretended not to notice. She was trying to do the same, so she let go of Beth, gave her one last smile, and boarded the train.
Once she was seated, Alice had willed herself not to look back. She couldn’t bear to see Beth still standing alone on the platform — she was leaving her best friend behind. The train started moving and her tears fell like autumn leaves. At first only a few, tentative drops and then, all of a sudden, just as a strong gust shakes the leaves free in great swirls of red and yellow, her tears poured out uncontrollably.
Alice’s thoughts were interrupted by a man at the front of the car, who announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, if I could have your attention, please. I’m sorry for the sudden stop. There appears to be a blockage up ahead. Several tree branches have somehow fallen onto the tracks. We will remain stopped until they can be cleared. Again, I apologize for the delay.”
Alice barely noticed the groans and complaints of the people around her; her mind was already spiralling out of control. I’m going to be late and the bakery will be closed and I won’t be able to pick up the scones before I meet Beth and the scones are her favourite. I promised I would get them and I’m going to break my promise and I’ll be late to meet her and she’s going to be waiting for so long and she hates waiting and she’s going to hate me. Oh my god I’m going to be too late and she probably already hates me.
Beth carefully stepped over logs and around puddles leftover from the previous day’s rain. When she reached a clearing, she took a handful of seeds from a pouch in her backpack, scattered them on the ground and stood very still, hoping to attract chickadees.
Instead, a sparrow landed in front of her and tilted its head as if it recognized her but couldn’t quite remember where they’d met. The sparrow waited for a few seconds before flying away into the trees. Beth waited a bit longer, then continued on her way in the general direction of town. She knelt to re-tie her shoe and when she got up, there was the sparrow again. It hopped forward a few feet and then stopped to look at Beth. She started to follow the sparrow and it flew ahead of her, turning back every few minutes to check that Beth was still there.
The sparrow led Beth to the base of a large maple tree. She watched it fly upwards to perch on a branch and her breath caught in her throat. A treehouse peeked out from between the leaves. She had been so focused on the sparrow that she hadn’t been paying attention to where they were going. As Beth gazed up at the faded beams, she was instantly transported back to the afternoons of her childhood. She and Alice would bring a blanket and peanut butter sandwiches and spend their summers making up their own stories and songs and imaginary worlds.
Beth climbed up the wooden ladder, brushing aside cobwebs from the rungs. The floor creaked as she crawled into the treehouse. Sitting on a makeshift shelf (a couple of boards stacked on top of each other) was a leatherbound book. Beth opened it and was greeted with two smiling faces: Beth and Alice at five years old, beaming from the steps of the schoolhouse. The photo had been taken on their last day of kindergarten. Two weeks later, their parents had built this treehouse and gifted them this book, telling them to use it as a scrapbook for their adventures.
Over the years they had filled it with photos: gapped-tooth grins from when they lost their baby teeth, jumping into the nearby lake on a hot day, blowing out candles on birthdays. Beth turned the yellowed pages, reliving a piece of her childhood through each faded image.
Alice and Beth had called it their Dreambook. Scrawled between the photos were little notes — the handwriting slowly improving as the girls in the photos grew older — about what they had hoped for their futures. They had planned to live in a castle next to the ocean with twenty dogs and twenty cats. Alice had wanted to become a teacher and Beth a veterinarian. Beth reached the end of the book. On the inside of the back cover, in shaky purple letters, she had written, “We, Beth and Alice, promise to stay best friends forever, to never lie to each other, and to never leave each other.”
Tears welled up in Beth’s eyes and she slammed the book shut before they could fall onto the pages.
The man at the front of the train cleared his throat before saying, “Attention everyone, the blockage has been cleared. We will continue our journey momentarily. Thank you for your patience.”
Alice’s watch read 4:07. She undid and redid the clasp. 4:08. The train screeched to life and began to crawl forward, slowly gaining speed until they were once again rushing through the countryside.
Alice tried and failed to ignore the letter in her bag. Even before she read the words, she knew what it would say, that the admissions committee was sorry, but they would not be able to offer her a position as a graduate student for the upcoming year. That they recognized the decision would come as a disappointment. She ripped up the envelope.
Going to Kenton was supposed to be the start of a new life, but now I have no idea what I’m going to do with myself. What am I going to tell Beth when she asks what I’ve been up to? That I barely made it through university? I haven’t come home to Willowdale in five years and for what? I have a degree, but no job and no plans for the future. She wanted me to stay here and I was so selfish. Why was I so selfish?
Alice bit her lip and tried to keep her breathing steady. Stop overreacting. Not getting into grad school is not the end of the world. She checked her watch again. She called Beth’s house to say she would be late, but Beth had already left and didn’t have a cell phone. She called the bakery to tell them she might not be able to pick up her order in time. A sparrow flew past the window. Alice watched its slender wings flap frantically as it somehow managed to keep up with the train.
When they were about eight years old, Alice and Beth found a wounded sparrow in the forest. They had carried it back to Beth’s house wrapped in a sweater and cared for it until it recovered. The girls set it free outside of their treehouse and secretly hoped it would come back and visit. After Alice moved to the city, whenever she felt homesick she would go sit in a nearby park and watch for sparrows. As the train continued on, Alice pictured the treehouse in the woods, walking through the forest after school, and the way Beth giggled whenever Alice suggested they try to jump down from the tree to see if they could fly.
Beth sat in the corner of the treehouse with her knees curled to her chest and the book clutched tightly in her hands. She couldn’t hate Alice for leaving, but she hated herself for staying. She had been so full of dreams: meeting the prime minister, climbing the Eiffel Tower, running a marathon, being in a movie. Some were just childhood imaginings, like riding a unicorn, but there were so many that she could have achieved. What had stopped her from learning sign language or going skiing?
The sunlight that had been trickling through the trees was starting to dim. The sky was slowly shifting from a cool blue to warmer tones of pink and orange. Beth jerked her head up, suddenly alert. The sun was already setting! She’d lost track of time and would have to run to meet Alice. She stuffed the book into her backpack and scrambled down the ladder.
Alice let out a sigh of relief as the train approached the station. When it came to a stop, she was the first person up from her seat and out the doors. The baker’s son, Patrick, waved to her from the platform and handed her a box of blueberry scones. He’d always had a sweet spot for Alice and had offered to drive her from the station to the schoolhouse. He took her suitcase and led her to his car.
Beth reached the edge of the forest where the trees gave way to the field behind the school. Her backpack bounced up and down as she ran across the grass.
Patrick parked in front of the schoolhouse and walked around to open the passenger side door.
“Thank you,” said Alice. “You didn’t have to do this.”
“Beth might be your best friend, but we all missed you,” he replied with a wink.
Alice picked up her suitcase and hurried off toward the far side of the school. As she turned the corner of the building, she nearly collided with Beth, who had been running straight toward her and was just able to slow down in time. They collapsed into each other’s arms, Beth trying to catch her breath and Alice trying not to drop the scones.
“I hope you still like blueberries,” Alice teased. She opened the box of scones and offered one to Beth.
“I actually developed a blueberry allergy two years ago, did I forget to tell you?” asked Beth, before taking a huge bite.
Alice and Beth had a way of making each other laugh almost instantly and, once they started, they had to sit down before they were able to stop.
Once they had finished eating, Beth opened her backpack. She pulled out the daisies and handed them to Alice. “I picked these for you,” she said, “and look what I found in the woods.”
They opened the Dreambook and began to flip through, reminiscing over their shared memories. When they reached the last page, Alice wrapped her arms around Beth in a hug that said, I’m sorry. Beth squeezed her tightly in a way that said, me too.
“I want to move back home,” Alice said.
At the same moment, Beth said, “I want to come to the city with you.”
“What if we move to the ocean?” Alice asked.
“I could use a change of scenery.”
Why I Wrote This Story
I wrote this short story after taking part in the “Write to Discover” program. I wanted to experiment with writing from two perspectives and show the thoughts and feelings of two separate characters. This started out as a story about a girl on a train, then a girl on a train going to meet someone, then a girl on a train going to meet up with her best friend that she hadn’t seen in 5 years. Although I’m excited about university, I’m worried about drifting from my friends when we go our separate ways, so this story became about that as well.