Dawn breaks silent over sleeping autumn hills. A simple rhythmic pause like the beating of a heart or the natural drawing of a breath; silence and then cadenced stirrings choreographed since time eternal.
There is a sudden flash of blue light followed by a loud bang; a short report that fades in dying echoes. Nearby birds cry out and scatter, briefly darkening the dawning sky.
A train, the Mercury, phantom black, chugs over tracks shrouded in tully fog. The train approaches a trestle spanning a river and blasts its horn, black smoke belches from its chimney.
Niles, a young appearing man, gazes out the window of his passenger car. His image is as an apparition reflected in the glass as he looks through it to a church with a white steeple nestled in a cove of trees.
“Your church?” an aged conductor asks.
“It was,” Niles answers without turning, “Annie and I were married there over sixty years ago. I proposed to her on a picnic behind the church. She was wearing a lavender dress, I remember because it matched her eyes.”
“Sounds like a wonderful memory.”
“I...I gave her a cameo as a promise we'd always be together. She wears it always. We raised our family on a farm just down the road – built the porch myself.”
The conductor nods, glancing at his watch. “Your stop is around the next bend.” He puts his watch back in his vest. “The Mercury turns right back around…”
“I know. I took this very train a year ago.”
“Your ticket says there will be two of you.”
“Yes, Annie and myself.” He pauses. “Annie’s been alone for a year now, you know.” The conductor nods knowingly and moves on.
Niles continues to look out the window; familiar scenery flashing by like flickering scenes in silent movie. The jostle of the train rocks him, jogging memories...
“I thought I’d find you out here.” Niles lets the screen door squeak shut behind him and moves out to the porch overlooking the valley. With halting movements, he settles into a rocker next to his wife with a sigh.
Evening is closing with gray autumn clouds building upon the western horizon. The sun momentarily breaks the haze and the vaporous air turns translucent gold. A flock of geese, a black V against the gold, glides across, crying out, flying south.
Annie glances at him and smiles. Without thought, she reaches over and places her hand atop his.
He raises her hand to his lips. Her skin is cool, parchment thin and deeply veined, the fingers slightly bent with arthritis. He kisses it. “Penny for your thoughts.”
Annie fondles the cameo suspended around her neck. A natural and unnoticed habit acquired over six decades. Behind them, through the opened window of the parlor, a radio gives the news and events of the day in static muted segments.
“I was thinking back upon our lives.” She pauses. “I couldn’t bear life without you next to me.”
“What brought this on?”
“I don’t know. Watching the leaves fall from the trees, possibly. In the summer, they seem so secure upon the limbs - helps to make the tree whole. They give it beauty neither could have without the other. Then seemingly unaware, in autumn, they fall.” She turns, smiling wistfully. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound so sorrowful, because I’m not.”
“Not at all; I love sharing your melancholy moods.” He squeezes her hand. “You’re trembling; you must be cold.” He gets up. “I’ll fetch your sweater.”
“No don’t…don’t leave me.” She clings to his hand.
“Nonsense. I’ll be but a moment.” He leans over and kisses her cheek. “Of course I’ll never leave you. I promise.”
A chill wind sweeps the porch, creaking the screen open and quietly banging it closed as he enters the house.
Annie stares out over the valley still burnished with the golden sky – the geese now lost behind the distant hills. Dying leaves, brilliant lanterns in the forest’s canopy, quiver in swirling pirouettes and fall to the woodland floor. And behind her, unaware, the house becomes suddenly still.
The train chugs to a stop, awakening Niles from his reverie. He looks out his window to see Annie, flush with youth and anticipation in her eyes. She is dressed in the same lavender dress of some sixty years past; and is clutching a cameo hung around her neck.
The Mercury pauses but for a moment for her to embark. The promise restored
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