It was the third time that week she sat next to me on the train. I think I was falling in love with her. Not the usual kind, the kind where you fall in love and regret it in a few months. This was the real deal; the kind where you could envision starting a family and actually living out the rest of the fairy tale.
Her name was Mary Burnham, and she wore her hair up in a poodle cut. It was the first time I had ever seen a hairdo like that, but then again, I had only lived in New York for three weeks. Maybe it was making a comeback, the way bell bottom jeans made a comeback when I was in high school. These trends always start on the coasts and then slog their way inward, like a slow-moving storm, ready to take over.
Mary had told me all about her life; she didn’t have money growing up and how her parents had seven children. “It was normal back then,” she would say. “It’s not like it is now, where people can’t afford it. You could afford to feed your family on one income.”
She told me her father had been a welder before he joined the Navy and went off to war. He never came back, and that was awfully hard on her mother. Her older brothers worked odds and ends jobs to make enough so they could eat. I was falling more and more in love with her by the minute.
Every day after work, I couldn’t wait to get on the train. I ended up buying a permanent ticket, also known as an annual pass, for seat 13C, right next to Mary, so I could continue this love affair every night between 5:45 and 6:55 pm. I wanted to marry her. But that would be later. For now, I would settle for a date.
One night, about a week after I started riding the train, I asked her out. “Why don’t we just date here, on the train?” she said.
The lady in seat 14D looked up and smiled an uncomfortable smile.
“Date on the train? What do you mean?” I asked, confused.
“I mean, I think it would be better if we just stayed friends and met here every night,” she said. I could tell it hurt her to let me down like this.
“Well, where do you live?” I asked. I wanted to send her flowers or something. Or maybe even surprise her at her house.
“John, please. We will just be friends, okay? Trust me, it’s better like this.”
I had never been so hurt. I had never been so let down. I wanted to be with her. Even in just a week, I was madly in love with her.
That night I went home and searched her name on the internet. You wouldn’t believe how many Mary Burnhams there are in New York City. I searched for about an hour and found something that made my spine feel like cold steel. I couldn’t believe what I saw, and still don’t to this day.
I found a picture of Mary, followed by her obituary. She had been struck by a train in 1958 and buried in North Lawn Cemetery. The hair on my arms stood up and my throat clicked. I couldn’t swallow.
The next day, I had a pit in my stomach. I didn’t want to get back on the train, but I knew I had to. I had to talk to Mary about what I had found. I needed an answer.
I boarded the train, apprehension swimming in my system. I started to sweat. I made my way to seat 13C, but the seat beside me was empty. I sat down.
“Excuse me, miss,” I said, with some hesitation.
The lady in seat 14D looked up at me with a furrowed brow. “Yes?” she said.
“Have you seen the lady I have been talking to? The one that sits here next to me? I think maybe you overheard her turn me down yesterday. Have you seen her get on or off the train today?”
She wore a muddled look on her face. “What lady?” she replied. “Every night since you’ve sat across from me, the seat next to you has been empty,” she said.
I rode home in silence, looking out at the cold, overcast day, and wondered what could have been with a woman who had been dead for sixty-four years.
Brandon Eldridge is a fiction writer and author of several short stories. His debut novel, Beings, was released July of 2022. He lives with his wife and two children in Indianapolis, Indiana.