BITTERROOT • by V.J. Hamilton

How I long for those smoky-blue mountains of Montana. Born and raised in the west, I have an almost visceral hunger for wide open places and the endless sky. I can think I’ve adjusted to the city, this agglomeration of high-rises and low tunnels, of skyscrapers and ground-gougers, but really, it boxes me in. Stifles me. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the need to close my eyes and see again the cobalt fringe of Bitterroot Range jutting up in the distance, not so far from my hometown.

Last week, on my way home on the train from a hard day at work, I closed my eyes. I write “last week” but it could have been yesterday or a month ago. The doctor informs me it was actually ten days ago — although he emphasizes I mustn’t stress about exact dates and times. Not just yet. (He informs me by writing on the whiteboard because my hearing is so damaged. Compared to the others, I am lucky.) Anyhow, some days ago I was on my way home from work on the train and was lucky enough to get a seat, so I leaned back and closed my eyes. Work is exhausting, not physically, but mentally, because I am constantly goading people. Politely pushing them forward, like a good herd dog. I’m a project manager for a pharmaceuticals firm so my life revolves around meetings, assessments, and after-work libations.

I opened my eyes, feeling uneasy, as if I’d felt a stranger pressing so hard on my personal-space bubble it would burst, although, in truth, no one had touched me. I looked around the train and saw the tired drawn faces of the other suppertime commuters. Some were watching their cellphones, some were reading, some had their eyes closed. Of the few who were glancing around, one man’s eyes darted quickly away.

Aha. It was him — the one who’d been staring intently at me. Of that I was sure. A tall strap-hanger, other hand presumably clutching his briefcase (there were heads and bodies partially obscuring my view). He was fairly young, pale, clean-cut, including a meticulous beard. In an eerie way, he reminded me of my missionary great-grandfather. His stance or maybe his expression; hard to say why I made that connection. His glance veered to the train ads (WHY RENT WHEN YOU CAN OWN?), to his shoes, and back to the train ads (NUMBER 1 DOCTOR FOR TUMMY TUCKS, FACIAL PROCEDURES, BUTT-LIFTS). Curious how I remember these ads but not other events; I guess they’ve burnt themselves into my retina. Sickened by the ads (I suspect), his glance moved again to the faces of others. He seemed contrite, embarrassed that I had noticed his eye on me. New to commuting etiquette, I’d wager.

I closed my eyes again, this time picturing a scene at my aunt’s dude ranch. (Remember dude ranches? Their heyday was in the 80s, when yuppies came out in droves to be pretend-cowboys.) As a teen I was cashier in the tuck shop. In exchange I got room and board and all the riding I wanted. In my fantasy I was riding Tiberius, the roan, while a tanned shirtless man was riding the dappled gray, Cicero. We were galloping across the grasslands, which rippled like the sea under the wind’s insistent breezes. The train car swayed as it picked up speed.

My eyes flew open again. I caught the man watching me — but the expression on his face was neither mocking nor lascivious — only sad. I couldn’t be angry, could I? In some ways, I could share his sorrow: I could no longer return to my childhood Montana, could I? Perhaps I reminded him of a lost wife or sister. (Sorrow or regret? I can’t tell the difference between the two.) In the duration of a breath, I imagined the youngish man had had a shouting match with his new wife. “Oh yeah?” she’d said, picking up her coat and running into the street, blinded by tears, straight into the path of an oncoming car.

The train groaned and lurched. Many got off, a few got on. The train jerked forward and the standing passengers wordlessly redistributed themselves. My day had been long, and I felt Montana pulling me back. My eyes closed. My tanned shirtless man and I never spoke, we just rode and rode in verdant green meadows, our legs stretched over the solid warmth of our horse’s backs. I turned my head so I was facing the window.

My eyes didn’t stay shut for long; the whooshing train had entered a tunnel, which provided an opportunity for maximum people-watching. You know the trick: look at a window when it’s dark outside. Almost everyone thinks you’re trying to see outside, but really, it’s their ghostly reflections in the glass you are watching.

My gaze reverted to the solitary intense man. I saw his reflection stare at the back of my head a second or two longer, until he found a new, sleeping face to gaze upon. He looked sadder, nearly tearful. Then he shifted his grip on the attaché case. From the way he moved, it looked heavy. I turned away from the window to get a better look at the real thing. I remember thinking: you don’t look like someone who would carry a big black attaché case. It must be something valuable, since it’s handcuffed to your wrist. But if it’s valuable, why do you look so damned sad? That’s when I noticed a small red wire snaking out from the side.

I had just enough time to dive out the train doors as they opened.

After sojourns in Germany, Japan, and New Zealand, V.J. Hamilton currently calls Toronto home. Her work has been published in The Antigonish Review, The MacGuffin, and The Prairie Journal, among others. She won the EVENT Speculative Fiction contest. Most recently, her fiction appears in The Last Line magazine.

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