Maureen O’Donnell and Brian MacDonald

Brian MacDonald
Inspiration piece

The long last train
By Maureen O’Donnell


She sat on a bench at the train station, long neck stretched like an ostrich’s: upright now, ready to crane deep into the sand should the need arise. The wind picked up and whipped over the platform, through short hair that was as fine as down fluff. She clutched a large black bag, false patent leather, against the front of her pastel cardigan. When I started toward the bench, she fixed her attention on the sign over the rails. Pearl Gate.

“Can I check your bag?” I asked.

Her gaze darted towards me, skittish. “What?”

“Baggage check. Most people do, they don’t need much on the train.” I kept to slow, clear instructions. Some people weren’t as well traveled as others. Some people needed time to adjust, figure things out. Maybe she was one of them.

“No, no, I want to keep it for now.” Her voice was so quiet that it was nearly swallowed and lost in the wind and the empty station.

“You sure? I promise, it’ll get where it needs to be.”

“I don’t want no train.”

“Nonsense. You want a train. Everyone does.”

“Not me.”

“Can I see your ticket?”

Slim fingers, stark pale against black vinyl, nudged open the bag. Inside, on top of whatever she’d packed, sat a narrow white envelope. She fiddled with the strap, then the flap of the envelope. She turned it over, double-checked, stretching time before she produced the cardstock ticket. Gwen Lawrence, 18, had a ticket hatched with gold and black lines. Perforations roughened one side.

“It’s processed.”


“You should take the next one. It’s better than sitting here. You’ll be alright, promise.”

“When’s the last train run?”

Her question caught me off guard. “Nobody here knows the answer to that question, not even me. But don’t worry about that.”

She nodded. I turned and went back to the station master’s office. Gwen stayed where she was, alone in the fading light that washed softly over the empty marble platform.


People came in trickles and swells, and left in a rush of clanking parts and the buzz of the third rail: trim dark suits, brightly colored saris, torn jeans, pressed blue uniforms, dusty fatigues. The platform was a kaleidoscope of color that shifted in perfect harmony. Except for one. Gwen got up and mingled with the crowd, but never joined them. She stopped some of them: one instance of an elderly man in a hospital gown, who patted her face with a withered, wrinkled hand; another of a young woman, aged slightly beyond Gwen, who embraced her and begged for her to come along; a middle aged man who spoke to her without removing the scarf around his neck and the lower part of his face. For each, she stood, reached into her bag, and surrendered an item.

To the old man, Gwen gave a chess piece, a black rook, the edges of its crown work smooth with time and use. It fell through his gnarled fingers, but she knelt, picked it up, and placed the rook back into his palm. After she closed his fingers around it, he kissed her forehead and moved on. The woman received a book embossed with a gold cross. She held it as it would bite her, but Gwen smiled, and eventually the woman did too. Gwen pressed a flashlight into the hands of the man in the scarf, and he walked straighter when he moved away from her.

Item by item, Gwen’s cheap black bag shrank, until it disappeared. The platform emptied, the train slid away, and she sat on the bench, in her pastel sweater with her ticket clutched in her hand. She watched me. I swept dust and the debris, left behind by so much human movement, from the platform and I watched her. We played a game of wills, pushing and pulling silence until it stretched between us, like taffy.

“You know, Gwen, you’re not the first one to change their mind.”

“Guess not.”

“But usually they leave. Go back home. You did leave a home?”

“Yeah. I’m waiting.”

“For what? Don’t you know where you’re meant to go?”

“I’m not ready yet.” She frowned, and turned her ticket over. “What about you?”

I felt the question settle in the groove between my eyebrows. “What about me?”

“What are you waiting for?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“That’s real sad.”

“Why’s that?”

“If you’re not waiting for something, you have nothing to look forward to. What’s there left to hope for?”

“I don’t really need hope. I have this.”

“Mister big station master?”

“My friends call me Peter. I help people get where they’re going. Enough hope walks over this platform that I’m not short.”

“What if you weren’t here?”

“Don’t know.” My gaze must have fixed on the ticket in her hands, because her grip on it tightened to white-knuckle, as if she thought I might take it away. “Don’t really like to think about it, but that’s the end for all of us, right?”

“You mean, there is an end for all of us,” she said.

“Right. You know, you can’t worry about that. ‘What happens when you’re no longer around’ – if you ask those questions before there’s an answer, what do you get?”

“I guess… a whole lot of nothing.”

“And that nothing costs too much time. So you just do what you need to, live how you’re supposed to, learn what you can. And that will carry you through it.”

“Through what?”

“The end. The one that no one really knows about, remember?. It’s not an easy thing to trust, but that’s where the faith comes in. Anything else, and you’ll just go crazy. Every answer exists until one’s chosen. So what’s the point in walking a tightrope over infinity?”

She pulled at the sleeve of her sweater, avoided my gaze. “I’ll go when I’m ready, ok? Just let me wait a little longer.”


Most people get on the train. The path is so common the floor should have ruts. They always go where they’re meant to go, but Gwen still sat on the bench.

“Mom?” I heard the boy before he appeared, in zip-up pajamas with a bear tucked under his arm. He walked past me, toward the bench.

Gwen’s face crumpled, dissolved into tears. “Oh, Sammy.”

“Hey Mom. Look, I remembered Thomas. I wasn’t sure if I could bring him, but I could. He sat with me even when grandma fell asleep.”

“That’s good, baby.”

“I looked for you. Why didn’t you come back?”

“I wanted to. I would have, Sammy, believe me. I couldn’t.”

“I do.” Faith rang, clear as a bell, through his voice.

Gwen kissed his forehead. Then she put him on the bench, and began to unbutton her cardigan. She wrapped it around him as she spoke. “This’ll keep you warm, Sammy. And I want you to take this, alright? Hang onto it tight, and you’ll get a train ride.”

“A train ride!” He squirmed, looked toward the track with more interest than he had for the ticket she held out to him.

“Yeah. Now don’t you put it down—“

“It doesn’t work that way, Gwen,” I said. She looked up, her mouth line as thin as piano wire. “It’s your ticket. You can’t give it away. You can swap it if you want, but you can’t give it to someone else.”

“I want him to have it. Then I’ll leave.”

“Do you even understand what that means?”

The corner of her right eye twitched, just a little. “My son is going on that train.”

“And this is what you’ve been waiting for?”

“I don’t have anything left. I can give him this. It’s only fair.”

“You want to give up your spot, for him.”


She gripped the boy closer as I set the broom aside and started toward them. He smiled at me, reached his hand toward my own outstretched one. “Come here, son.”

“Please.” Tears dripped from her voice. “Please, don’t.”

Ignoring her, I knelt, felt the hard, smooth platform through the knees of my itchy white uniform.. He pulled away from his mother and looked me, straight in the face.
He smiled. “Can I see?”

He nodded and let go of my hand, handed me the bear. I turned it over, plush and soft fur, and ran my fingertips along the seam in the back. They caught a corner of paper, gently wiggled it free. A narrow paper ticket, rough on one side, with gold hatches, like his mother’s: Joshua Lawrence, 3.

“Now, you can get on that train,” I said, handing bear and ticket back to the boy. He looked between us.

“I thought…” She stood there, pale, a watercolor version of herself.

“Faith, Gwen. God doesn’t leave anyone behind. You just need a little faith.”

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