Jim packed more of his belongings than he expected to use during his trip to Savannah. The seams of his wax-canvas backpack and duffel bag strained against the load, but he was too tired to repack. As an afterthought, he pulled out the extra cash he’d squirreled away in a canister under his bed and put some of it in one pocket and the rest in his wallet. He scanned their mobile home to see if he’d forgotten anything, then grabbed the bags and headed to the main office a few yards away. Melanie was moving things around in the storage closet.
“See you in a few weeks, sis,” Jim called out. She didn’t respond, but they’d said goodbye the night before, so it wasn’t a big deal.
By the service counter, his mama was chatting up a storm with a client. She stopped long enough to give him a quick hug and reminded him to avoid getting too friendly with his father’s girlfriend. He had no intention of side-stepping Suzy. After all, he was twenty-one, and he could make his own decisions without being pulled into his parents’ chaos. It was way past time for him to forge a new path without their influence. With a quick nod, Jim turned away and walked out the door toward the main road and caught the Orlando commuter bus.
Without paying much attention to anything, the time passed by quickly. He got off at the Amtrak station and made his way up to the ticket window through a crowd of people. The station’s weatherboard read seventy degrees, but he felt an unnatural chill created by his inner tension. Jim wrapped his hands around his midsection to steady himself. His mind rolled back to the end of the previous night’s sixteen-hour shift at the amusement park. Either fatigue had taken over his mind and distorted reality, or someone had played a cruel joke on him. Within the mist, a ghost of his sister, Christina, materialized. Her brown eyes were wide and glistening. With a smile and a wave, she disappeared as quickly as she’d appeared.
“Next!” the ticket agent called out in a Southern accent. “Step up, young man. Can I help you?”
“Oh, right, sorry.” Jim moved up to the counter. “Sir, how long is the journey one-way with the fewest stops?”
“Six and a half hours.”
“I’d like a round-trip ticket, please.”
“That’ll be fifty-five dollars.”
He pulled out the loose bills from his pocket, along with the white liner, and snickered at the tongue-like protuberance. It looked so pitiful. Patting the right front pocket of his jeans, Jim made sure his wallet was still in place. It was a safe spot to keep it, to deter pickpockets. An old trick his dad had taught him when they’d traveled together.
“Hey, you got the money? There are other people in line.”
“Sure do.” Jim placed the fee on the curved metal tray under a thick glass window before shoving his pocket back into place.
The agent pulled the money through and returned the ticket with some change. The ticket got caught up in a gust of wind. He grabbed it in time, and thanked God it hadn’t been lost. The last time he’d traveled to Savannah, he’d been with Melanie and their mama. This was the first time he’d gone on his own and purchased a ticket without her help. During all the other trips, Melanie had been an irritating kid. Of late, he had become tolerant of her teenage antics.
By the tracks, he paced back and forth under the metal-roofed pavilion until the train arrived. The doors opened, Jim stepped in, and headed to the first available window seat. He tossed his backpack on the vacant aisle seat and heaved his duffel bag onto the luggage rack across the aisle. Hesitating, he deliberated over the letters under the flap of the backpack before maneuvering into the window seat. The letters weighed on his mind, yet he left them in place for the next hour. Finally, he retrieved them, but realized he was too tired to focus on their content. So, he folded the envelopes up, slid them into his shirt pocket over his heart, and hoped his dreams could evolve into a real-life scenario.
Out the window, the trees sped past. Thoughts of the amusement park floated into the front of his mind, along with his mama’s attempt to turn their lives in a new direction that steered them away from their Catholic roots. Some days, it was hard to tell what was real and what wasn’t. Her new spiritual ideas were almost impossible to live with, although he tried to keep an open mind. He reflected on what he’d learned as a child: respect everyone, and be tolerant of other religions. What a strange thing, considering people often condemned each other in the name of religion. He didn’t know when or if he would join a congregation in the future. One way or another, he needed stability in his life. God tested people, and Jim believed He had an odd sense of humor. Whenever their dad came to Orlando, their mama flirted with him, attempting to reconcile. When they were all together in Savannah, it was a different story.
Jim thought about what it would be like to spend time in his father’s house without his sister around. Yet, when he and Melanie went with their mama to Savannah, she put on a subdued front while attempting to be pleasant. He knew it was because Suzy had moved into their old home. She was ten years younger than his dad and eleven years older than Jim. Nothing was the same anymore. Whenever they arrived in town, their mama would go to the door with them and put on an unkind, bittersweet, “bless your heart” attitude. She’d leave within five minutes and run off to see old friends, or so she said. After she dropped them off, their dad would take them down to the river for ice cream and fishing. They never caught anything, but that wasn’t the point. The idea was to sit and fish while remembering Christina.
As he dozed off on the train, he pushed his thoughts into a less personal direction to the bird-lady in Savannah. She always wore moss-colored outfits. Some days, she’d feed the birds, and others she’d root around in her shopping cart.
He awoke when the train’s forward motion turned to an abrupt halt. Squinting toward the aisle, he saw the sun glint off something. When he became more conscious, he realized the light was reflecting off a single red stone on a young woman’s necklace.
“Excuse me, do you mind if I sit here? The train is packed except for this seat and one in the back. The other guy looks creepy.”
“No, please sit… Sorry. I dozed off without putting my bag away.” Jim moved his backpack off the seat and placed it between his legs. He couldn’t help noticing the long, luscious, auburn hair curling down over the front of one side of her shoulder. She looked about his age, or a little younger. Nineteen or twenty, he guessed.
As her slim figure settled next to him, he said, “I guess I’ve been asleep for a while. Where are we?”
Her silky Georgia accent brought pleasant memories and some homesickness for Savannah to the forefront.
“I hear it’s a nice beach town.” Jim raked his hand through his wavy hair, attempting to appear presentable. It was strange, in a good way, waking up to such a perfect smile.
“It is. I love walking along the water. I always take the Palmetto train to travel back and forth to Jacksonville and Charleston.” She sat down and placed a cloth floral bag on the floor between her legs, then held out a paper carton. “Do you want some hot French fries?”
“No, thanks. They make me thirsty.” He instantly regretted refusing.
“Okay. I got these in the station. They also sell sodas and food on the train.” Her thin silver bracelets clicked together over a tattoo on her wrist, which seemed to glow on her ivory skin. He was so distracted, he almost forgot to respond.
“Thanks. I’ll stick with the water and sandwich in my pack. I’m on a strict diet.” More like a penny-pincher along with a low-budget life, Jim reflected. “Where are you heading?”
“Oh, me, too.” Jim realized he sounded lame.
“Are you from the South? I don’t hear an accent.”
“I’ve been away too long,” Jim said.
“Oh, I guess that makes sense.” She ran her hand down her hair. “I’m a student.”
“Nice.” He smiled. “Which school?”
“SCAD. I’m starting my fourth year in September.”
“Right, the Savannah College of Art and Design.”
“You know it? I’m impressed.” She brought out some yarn and needles from the bag on the floor.
He noticed a monogram with the letter S on her bag, but couldn’t decipher the rest. Next to it, he noticed her curved calves. “Are you making a scarf?”
“Sure am.” She started stitching away with the multicolored yarn. Her head moved up and down between stitches during the conversation. After a bit, she stopped looking and fingered her way through the pattern.
His mama used to knit, so he was familiar with the movements. This woman somehow made the motions look sexy. “I know SCAD,” Jim continued. “I grew up nearby, right off Forsyth Park.”
“Oh, whoa, that’s a fine area.”
“Yes.” He paused for an awkward moment while he drank in her Southern accent. “I moved away about—hmm—about six, no, seven years ago.”
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