Challenge: Growing Backward

Here I go, late again but damn it, I finished. As no one probably noticed, I didn't set a theme for this month. I've been thinking of doing something a little different with this short story writing spree, but until I figure out more of the details I'll leave it at that and move on with the show.

This newest work is a story about growing up and being different, two topics I think a lot about and which often reoccurs in my life in various ways. I'm not entirely pleased with this piece, but for how much I struggled with writing it, I think it turned out pretty good.

Anyhow, without further ado I present,

Growing Backward

     A young woman sits alone in an old train car, her wool hat in her lap and her eyes more on the reflection in the glass than on the snow covered pine trees outside. The car is warm, but she hasn’t taken off her yellow jacket even though she had gotten on board five or six stops ago. Her name is Eliana, but sometimes it’s Jimena or Natalie, but Eliana is her favorite. She has dark eyes, and dark hair, and dark olive skin. Her features are of the sort where no one can quite place them. She could be from the far-east or the jungles of the south or even the ice covered north. The ambiguity suits her.
      The yellow jacket could be seen as a statement when so many on the train wear gray or black, but she hadn’t meant it that way. In fact, the bright yellow is a remembrance of an old life. One filled with bright colored scarves and skirts, loud music, crystal balls, perfume oils, and midnight bonfires.
     Her favorite life. She lays a hand on her stomach.
     A life behind her, now.
     It’s taking her a while to get used to the reflection in the glass. The same face; a new face. Her eyes are the hardest to change. Instead of dancing dark depths they need to be the eyes of someone who sees what’s there at the tip of their nose and no deeper. Her dark hair waves, but it’s brushed and clipped and pinned so that not even the smallest strand can escape which only makes her features look sharp and strict. She doesn’t look like the woman who, only a fortnight ago, was dancing naked under full moons. It’s perfect in that it was her intention, but it’ll take some getting used to.
     The last stop was a small town, but that was before they started cutting through the mountains. So, it is strange – or at the very least worth taking note of – when the cabin door slides open.
     There is nothing outwardly strange about this person. She’s an old woman wearing a long black coat and a black fur hat. He wrinkles are the kind that crinkles around the eyes and still dimple when she smiles which she does when she sees Eliana staring.
     “Can I sit down?”
     The old woman is already moving toward the bench across from her.  
     As she sits, the frilly ruffles of a bright yellow skirt peek out under the hem of her long coat.  
     “It’s noisy in my car, but that’s what happens when your husband is fat. He insisted on sitting right next to the dining car. I suppose it’s my fault.” She leans in close. “The secret is cake. A person will agree to anything after they’ve had a big piece of cake and some hot chocolate.”
     After an assessing stare, she pats the air out of her jacket and adds, “You look like you could use some cake.”
     The woman she was before, she might have something to say. Nothing mean or angry but something that would be accompanied by her lips teasing at a smile – a smile to completely mask the twinge of annoyance underneath. Then again, if this old woman happened in on someone wrapped in colorful scarves and fingering the long string of beads around her neck while contemplating a scattered array of crystals on the seat beside her, she wouldn’t have remarked about that woman needing cake.
     After a time, the old woman takes off the fur hat. Her hair is cropped short and pale purple. She mumbles to herself and then takes off her jacket. The yellow skirt is accompanied by a frilling cream blouse. It’s an outfit a younger woman would wear and it looks awkward on the older woman. So much so that Eliana almost smiles.
     But, she’s not that woman anymore.
     The old woman primps her hair. “The color is new. But these old things.” She tussles her skirts.  “Well, they’re better than whatever drab you have under that coat of yours.”
     It is drab. She’d found it in a well-traveled trunk in cargo before boarding.
     She pulls back her shoulders. “They’re sturdy and sensible.” Still not right. The inflections are all wrong.
     “They’re a big lie that’s what they are.”
     “Excuse me?” Yes, better. “I don’t believe I asked your opinion.”
     The old woman shuffles around a little more before producing a deck of cards from a pocket in her skirt. These aren’t normal playing cards. Eliana knows them instantly as something arcane, but who she is wouldn’t know what they are so she pays them no more than a passing glance. But, it takes more effort than expected to show no interest in the cards.
     The old woman holds one up, showing a red robed figure holding a scythe. Number thirteen: Death. Eliana smiles. It’s a hard, amused line but, damn, it touches her eyes.
     “Oh, you’re one of those.” She was too, once. “I won’t be conned into forking over whatever valuables I have to avoid some ill-conceived future.”
     “Who said anything about the future? The only thing worth finding out about people on the move is the past.”
     Eliana smacks her tongue on the roof of her mouth.
     She looked back out the window where the snow whitewashes the near distance but keeps her ear on the quick snap, snap, snap of the old woman’s cards being laid out on the seat beside her, punctuated by a tut or an, “ah,” and, “I see.”
     Eliana claps her hands on her Sunday school teacher skirt and huffs.
     Number two: The High Priestess. The old woman’s finger taps it twice. The image is of an older woman, breasts hanging loose where an arcane charm of one sort or another hangs between them. She holds a crystal ball in one hand and a scroll of some sort in the other, and the full moon shines bright behind her unclipped and wild gray hair.
     Eliana recognizes the dancing light in the picture woman’s eyes and feels a yearning for it. But, no. That’s behind her now because she has to be. Instead, she puts up her nose and says, “She looks irresponsible and silly to me.”
     The old woman waggles her finger.
     Number sixteen: The Tower – In other words, forced change. The old woman’s finger sweeps to the next, five of cups, and stops at last on Death. She lifts a skeptical eye.
     “What was it?”
     “What was what?”
     “The thing that put this stick up your ass.”
     Her cheeks burn. It isn’t right. It doesn’t fit either the woman she was or the woman she is playing.
     The train rocks and the lights flicker. The old woman keeps unblinking eye contact. It takes Eliana a minute or two to shape her features again into the unamused smile.
     The old woman shakes her head. “Whatever it is, it can’t be worth all this regret. You look like a woman in chains.”
     “Old woman, I don’t understand a single thing you’re going on about.”
       Of course, she does. Her heart is pounding.
      “You know I changed my hair because it’s different. No one likes different. It shakes up right and wrong and makes everyone question their comfortable boxes. If the world had its way, we’d all live in identical houses and dress in matching suits just to protect our own sense of comfort. I thought you might be like me.” She shakes her head nice and slow. “How disappointing.”
        Eliana laughs all wrong. It’s bitter yes, that’s right, but there’s too much emotion in it.
        “There’s nothing disappointing about me.” She could become a new person in the span of a day and she could do it on the cheap using thrift shops and lost and found bins. Her exterior, if it was a boring copy of everyone else, well it was because she made it that way. Her heart, that was a multi colored fire.
     “There’s nothing ordinary about you. That’s what you meant to say.” The old woman holds up the five of cups. “You gave up.”
     “I moved on.”
     She shuffles and draws. The eight of cups –a man walking with purpose away from a stack of cups. “This is what it would look like if you were moving on. This,” she waggles the five of cups. “This is what it looks like when you give up.”
     She collects the cards – all but death which puts face up on top of the deck.
     The reflection on the glass is all wrong now. The clothes don’t fit. Her hair is pulled so tight her head aches and all she wants to do is rip the pins out and feel her hair on the nape of her neck again. The wind gusts and it rocks the train car. If the storm gets worse the conductor will have to stop and Eliana dreads that because then she will have to sit with the old woman even longer and her new face and her old face – all of them are slipping.
     “The first card isn’t giving up.” She regrets that she snaps, but the words are freeing. “It means looking back at all that’s lost.” Like the midnight moon and the twirling, colorful skirts and the singing, chanting, and drumming in the woods during a time where cars were in plenty and magic is a passing fad.
     “I won’t let it keep me there any longer.”
     The old woman snorts.
     Eliana goes on. “Maybe if you drew the card alone you could say I’m still dwelling, but drawing the eight of cups beside it, well, I am moving on and I’m leaving the dead behind me.”
     “See, I knew there was a kindred spirit in you.” The old woman bares her teeth in a not unfriendly grin. Despite herself, Eliana smiles back, but it’s a smile she hasn’t worn in a very long time – warm, as a friend.
     The storm lets up and, at long last, the lights of a small town peek through the snow heavy trees. The train pulls into the station and the breaks screech. The old woman, she puts on her hat, hiding her purple hair, and folds the black jacket over her arm.
     “Tell me, what did the tower represent?”
     Eliana hesitates for a while. She has never been an honest person and the truth feels strange on her tongue. She says, “I want my child to have a mother she can be proud of.”
     The old woman pauses in the doorway then turns and places the deck of cards in Eliana’s hand. “I can’t imagine having a child. I never could have one. I imagine it’s terrifying to suddenly be responsible for another life. But the world is so full of dull, unhappy people. Maybe it’s okay to be wild and crazy. That way the children can see both sides and know that you’ll love them no matter how strange they think they are. Otherwise, we’re just teaching them to be afraid.” She pats Eliana’s hand, then pulls on her jacket to become a secret in the crowd one more time.
     The town is high on the mountain. They sell coffee, tea, and hot cocoa at stalls outside the train’s open door. Eliana buys a cup after collecting her bags from the platform and, for a while, wanders aimlessly through the snow fall. She takes the pins out of her hair. It’s cold and the thickness of her dark locks keeps her neck warm. She likes the feel of the wind moving freely through it even if the woman she’s supposed to be wouldn’t have time for such whimsical things.
     The old woman is still in her head. Not just the purple hair and the silly clothes, but the way it simply vanished under a fur hat and a long black coat.
     She tosses the Styrofoam cup into a waste basket and pauses momentarily to gaze at her reflection in a shop window. If she turns just right and presses the yellow jacket close, she can just make out the small bump in her stomach.
     The old woman kept the cards wrapped in a light purple cloth with white stars and moons on it. Eliana pulls it out of her pocket and peels back the corner. It’s an old deck – likely old as the old woman. There’s a curious fold of paper that sticks out from behind the death card which is still on top. She pulls it out. On it is scrawled a local address. Under it, a hastily scribbled note.
     -Come have some cake when you’re settled in. – Josephine. –
      Eliana smiles up at the falling snow and feels it on her face. She takes a deep breath of frigid air, smiling, and the colors rush out around her.
     She starts walking to where, she doesn’t know, but she imagines a heavy bag of regrets behind her – a bag filled with so many masks, and disguises, and lives.   
     She will have to wear something a bit more comfortable when she visits Josephine.
     Maybe something a little silly.
     And, with a great deal more colors.  

Thanks for reading everyone. I know this one was a bit late, but I'm still going to try and get the next story ready for next week in time. I'm not sure how well that will go, but, there's no harm in trying right?

If there's anything you'd like to challenge me to write about leave a comment. I'd love to try writing about something I wouldn't be able to think of myself. If you're interested in knowing what challenge I'm talking about, check out the link here. Otherwise, you can find me on Wattpad, Booksie, and  twitter @elixssamrose .


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