This is a short story I wrote around Valentine’s Day. It’s sad, sweet romance told mostly in flashbacks. I’m pretty proud of it, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.
I held out my wrist to be scanned before boarding the train and finding Marie, my wife, in the far corner of the car. I sat next to her and she pointed to a man who was boarding.
“I wonder what his story is,” she said.
The man was an interesting character, to be sure. He slipped into a seat and turned immediately to looking absently out the window, fingering a deep red rose in his left hand. He was elderly, probably well into his seventies, and his chin was rough with grey stubble.
A young man stood on the porch in the rain, a deep red rose in one hand and an umbrella in the other, waiting for his fiance to come outside. She slipped out the door and he held the umbrella over them both as they stepped out into the rain and rushed to the car.
He opened the door for her and she slid in. He rushed around to the other side and got in himself, closing the umbrella and setting it in the back seat.
“How are you?” she asked, running a hand over her short brown hair.
“I’m good.” He smiled at her as he started the ignition and buckled up. “How are you?”
“Always good, with you.” She smiled back and buckled.
They drove off toward the auditorium, where Valerie would be singing in an hour.
They arrived and he grabbed the umbrella, unfolding it and walking around the car to open the door for her and hold the umbrella over her. He’d set the rose on top of the umbrella and picked it up at the same time, and now he held it out.
“Oh, this is for you. Sorry.”
“It’s fine.” She smiled and kissed his cheek. “Thank you.”
He offered his arm and they walked inside.
“I have to go get ready,” she said, pulling away.
“I’ll see you on stage,” he said with a smile.
She returned it before entering a rehearsal room.
He walked into the performance room and took his seat, looking up at the stage. He’d seen Valerie sing on that stage many times, and she never ceased to amaze him. Her voice was the most beautiful he’d ever heard.
He sat and waited as others filed in and took their seats. A couple of violinists were tuning up on the stage. His toe tapped as he waited, silent, for Valerie to take the stage.
She came out of the wings at precisely seven, and people clapped as she headed to center stage with a broad smile on her face.
“Thank you,” she said. “Welcome. I’m glad to see you all here. I recognize the majority of you. But in this small town, how could I not?”
A ripple of laughter fluttered through the auditorium.
“Anyway, you’re not here to listen to me talk, so I’ll get started. My first song is one that my brother wrote specifically for this occasion, and I’m happy to share it with you. Without any further ado, here is Valentide.”
The violinists gave an intro and Valerie eased into her part, starting soft and growing stronger as she reached the chorus. Her voice was clear and beautiful, and the young man smiled as he listened and was put in awe yet again at her beauty and talent.
He sat in dumbstruck admiration for the entire concert, and barely managed to shake out of it when she left the stage. He headed over to the rehearsal room, where he knew Valerie would be flooded with fans giving her flowers and some even asking for an autograph so they could brag about it when she was famous.
For all their faith in her, she didn’t want to become famous. She only wanted to make people happy with her music. She could be famous, everyone knew it, but he loved her even more for her humility.
He stepped into the room and looked around, spotting Valerie in the middle of a mass of people. They were respectful of personal space, thankfully, but there were a lot of them. He waited at the back until they’d dispersed, watching her gracefully accept bouquets and compliments.
She set the flowers on the piano and slipped on her coat, walking over to him as she did so.
“What did you think?”
“You know what I thought. It was absolutely beautiful. You’re absolutely beautiful.”
She picked her flowers back up and he offered her his arm, which she accepted. They walked back outside to see that the rain had faded. Starlight glittered overhead and made the world glisten from its recent rain.
“It’s beautiful,” Valerie murmured.
They walked around to the back of the auditorium, where red and white lights were strung up between lampposts for Valentine’s Day, and he brushed the worst of the water off of a bench for them to sit on.
“I almost forgot!” she said. “I got you something.”
She pulled a small box from her coat pocket and handed it to him. He opened it and pulled the watch from it. He put it on and grabbed a nearly identical box from his own coat pocket and handed it to her.
“I have something for you, too.”
She opened it and lifted the necklace from it, careful with the delicate chain. A heart locket hung from it, and she smiled.
“Thank you, Tristan.”
She set the pendant on her hand and opened it. There was a picture of the two of them in one side, and the other side was engraved. She read the engraving.
“February fourteenth, five-thousand fourteen. Yours forever, Tristan.”
He held his hand out for the necklace and she handed it to him, turning so that he could place it around her neck. He clasped it lovingly and smiled softly.
“I love you, Valerie.”
“I love you too.”
I jolted awake as the train stopped. I glanced over at the man for some reason. He was still there, and still just looking out the window absently.
“Good morning,” Marie said.
“We left at midnight, so yeah, it’s morning.” She chuckled.
“He was awake the whole time?” I asked, wondering.
“I don’t know. I fell asleep, too. We passed several stops while you were asleep.”
“Where are we now?”
She pointed up and as if on cue a voice came over the loudspeakers.
“Disembarking at Aneta.”
No one from our car got up to leave, and the man kept gazing out the window as if he’d never heard. Was he deaf, or just entirely lost in thought?
A few passengers entered our car and took seats. A little girl waved to us, and we waved back. I saw her look at the old man as she took her seat. Her gaze lingered on him and became interested, almost concerned. After a moment she turned and whispered something to her mother. Her mother nodded and she got up and walked over to the old man, taking a seat next to him and putting a hand on his.
He turned to her and smiled wearily.
The old man turned to the little girl and gave her a weary smile.
“Hello, my dear.”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Tristan. What’s yours?”
“Kasey. Are you okay? You look sad.”
“I am a little sad. It’s Valentine’s Day, you know, and I’m going to see my wife.”
“Then why are you sad?”
The train started moving.
“Because my wife isn’t alive anymore.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right. Where are you headed?”
“Vacation with my parents.” She pointed. “We’re going to Alexandria Bay.”
“Oh? That sounds fun.”
“Yeah. We go every year whenever Daddy gets time off work. That’s not very often. He has to be careful how he spends it so we can go on vacation. He told Momma.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I’m used to it. And I won’t be too disappointed if we can’t go on vacation one year. It’s no biggie. Do you ever go on vacation?”
“I do sometimes. Not very often anymore.”
“Where’s your favorite place?”
“For vacation or in general?”
“I like Alexandria Bay for vacation, too, but my favorite place is Abbotsville. That’s where I first met my wife.”
“That’s cool. What was her name?”
“Did you and Valerie have any children?”
“No. We both wanted them, but we couldn’t have any.”
“Yes, it is. But we loved each other, and that was enough.” He gave a small smile. “Do you have any siblings?”
“Not yet. But Momma’s gonna have another baby soon. I’m hoping for a baby brother.”
“Brothers are a lot of fun.”
“I think so. My best friend has an older brother and a baby brother and they’re both fun to play with.” She smiled.
“That’s nice. I had an older brother, but he passed away several years ago.”
“Yes. Are your parents missing you?”
“No, they said I could stay over here. How did you meet your wife?”
He smiled at the memory.
“We met a long time ago, in choir.”
“Choir. That’s for singing, right?”
“Yes. And she was the most amazing singer I’d ever met. I still haven’t heard any better, actually. She had a beautiful voice.”
“Who would like the solo for Path of Moonlight?”
A girl in the back raised her hand, as did a couple other people. She had brown hair cut shoulder length, and her brown eyes sparkled with life.
“Valerie. Would you do it?”
She nodded eagerly and the director beckoned for her to come to the front.
“Let’s take it from the top,” the director instructed.
Tristan could see that Valerie was preparing herself for her solo as she sang by the way she tapped her finger against her thigh and the extra deep breaths she took between lines.
When it came time for the solo, Valerie sang rather softly, but as she gained confidence her voice expanded in power.
Everyone in the choir was awestruck. Her voice was beautifully light and clear.
The solo ended and Tristan stumbled back into the song. The song finished and the director smiled at Valerie.
“Thank you, Valerie. That was beautiful.”
Valerie smiled shyly and blushed down at the floor.
After class, Tristan walked up to her and tapped her on the shoulder. She jumped and turned around.
“Sorry,” Tristan said. “I just wanted to tell you how beautiful your voice is.”
“Thanks.” She gave him a shy smile. “I can always hear you in the bass part.”
“No, no, no! It’s cool! You have an amazingly deep voice! It was a compliment.” She bit her lip a little.
“Oh. Well in that case, thanks.”
“We became friends not long after that, and we were engaged by the end of high school,” Tristan said with a smile.
“Did you two keep singing?”
“She did. I didn’t, really. I was a lot more into the writing of music than the singing of it, although I still enjoy singing to this day.”
“What kind of songs do you like to write?”
“Different things, depending on my mood. Some are sad, some are sweet, some are powerful and loud. It all depends.”
“I’d like to hear your music sometime.”
“I might just have to share it with you sometime.”
She smiled and he returned it.
His stomach growled.
“Oh! I suppose it’s time to refill the tank.”
“I guess so. Do you mind if I eat with you?”
“Ask your parents.”
She nodded and skipped off to ask, returning in a moment and sliding back into her seat next to him.
“They said it’s fine.”
“You have very trusting parents.”
“Do they have any reason not to trust you?”
“No, but if I were them I might not be so trusting.”
“They’re just right over there.” She shrugged. “They can see us, they’ll know if you do anything bad. And I know you won’t. You’re a good guy.”
“Well, thank you.” He smiled and hailed the attendant as she moved to leave the car.
“Two breakfasts, please.”
She nodded and left, heading for the dining car.
“You made pancakes?” Valerie asked, coming down the stairs in her pajamas and slippers.
“It’s our first morning as husband and wife, I figured it was worth celebrating.”
He smiled and gave her a kiss.
“You didn’t forget the chocolate chips, did you?”
Tristan gasped in mock hurt.
“Me? Forget the chocolate chips? Never!”
He held out the batter bowl, which held perhaps a few too many chocolate chips.
“It looks perfect.”
“Yeah, let’s just hope it tastes perfect. I’m not the most amazing cook in the world.”
“Here, let me help.”
“No, that’s okay. I’ve got it. You just sit down. This first batch is almost done.”
She smiled and took a seat at the table.
“If you insist.”
He scooped the first three pancakes onto a plate and handed them to her, grabbing a fork for her as well.
“There you go. Enjoy.”
She took a bite and nearly spit it out.
“Tristan! This is completely raw in the middle!”
“I’m so sorry!”
She spit it into a paper napkin and threw it away.
“How about letting me do the rest, okay?”
He nodded and stepped away from the stove as she chuckled.
“Well this is why,” she said. “You’ve got the stove turned up too high.”
She turned it down.
“It’s okay.” She smiled. “I completely understand. I’m actually a little surprised you didn’t burn them, turned up like that.”
“Was that a backhanded compliment?”
“Yes, that was a backhanded compliment.”
Tristan smiled at the attendant as she placed a plate in front of each he and Kasey.
“This looks delicious!” Kasey said, picking up her fork to dig in.
“Now aren’t you forgetting something? Or don’t people say grace anymore?”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“That’s all right.”
She closed her eyes and folded her hands and he said grace.
“Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for this trip and for the time we get to spend with each other and for this delicious breakfast we’re about to eat. Amen.”
She opened her eyes and got straight to work on her pancakes.
“Is it good?” he asked.
She nodded vigorously.
“Don’t nod so hard you choke.”
She held back a laugh so as not to spew pancakes everywhere, but her eyes gave it away.
”Thank you for breakfast,” she said when she’d finished her bite.
“No problem.” He smiled.
“So, why couldn’t you and your wife have children?” She took another bite.
“The government wouldn’t let us.
“Why not? That seems silly.”
“I think so. But I suppose it makes sense. She had a terminal illness and I am not the most emotionally stable person in the universe. They didn’t think we were suited to be parents.”
“What does ‘terminal’ mean?”
“It means they already knew she would die from it.”
“How did they know?”
“Something in her blood or something, I guess. I don’t know for sure.”
“I’m sorry. What would have happened if you’d had a child anyway?”
“We would have had to put him or her up for adoption.”
“I was adopted.”
“Oh really? That’s interesting. How old were you?”
“About two, I think. I don’t really remember. I’m six now.”
“You’re a grown up young lady then.” He smiled.
“Not really. I’m not as old as my Momma yet.”
“Well, good luck catching up.”
“Tristan?” Valerie whispered, easing open his office door. He was asleep in his chair, a book in his hand. “Tristan.”
His eyes opened and he looked over at her.
“I need to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
“I said I’m pregnant.”
“But we’re not allowed-”
“I know. So we’ll have to give up the baby.”
He stood and embraced her as a tear ran down her face.
“I don’t want to give him up.”
“I know sweetheart. Neither do I.”
“Is there any way we can avoid it?”
“Not one that we’d be comfortable with doing.”
“You know they’ll encourage us to abort.”
“I know. But we won’t.”
“We have to go tell them.”
“But why? They’ll find out soon enough anyway, won’t they?”
“Yeah, and we’ll get in trouble if they do. They’ll think we tried to hide it or something. We have to tell them now.”
“Tristan, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to.”
“I know that, I do. And I don’t want to go either. But we have to.”
She nodded, wiping tears from her cheeks as they were replaced by fresh ones.
“Let’s go then,” she said. “In the morning.”
“Let’s go to bed.”
The attendant cleared away their dishes.
“I need to scan your chip, sir,” she requested.
He held out his wrist and she scanned it.
“No, thank you. Breakfast was delicious.”
“Well I didn’t cook it, but you’re welcome.”
She headed out of the car.
Kasey leaned her head against Tristan’s arm and closed her eyes.
“Eating made me sleepy.”
“That’s okay. You can rest.”
He smiled down at her softly and she was soon asleep.
“I wonder what they’re talking about,” Marie asked.
“Me too,” I replied.
The doctor entered the hospital room with a clipboard in his hand.
“So, you two are ineligible to become parents, correct?” he asked.
“That’s correct,” Tristan replied.
“Then I’d encourage you to abort. If you don’t, you’ll have to give up your baby as soon as it’s born.”
“We’re aware. And we won’t be aborting. It’s a human life, and we won’t be taking it.”
“Very well. But I will warn you that the next nine months will be very uncomfortable for you.”
“You think we don’t know that?” Valerie asked, tears running down her face. “We’re pregnant with a baby we’re not supposed to have, and you think we don’t know that carrying a baby that isn’t allowed to be my own is going to be ‘uncomfortable’? It’ll be worse than uncomfortable! It’ll be nearly unbearable! It will probably be the most pain I’ve ever been in! We know it will be ‘uncomfortable’!”
“I’m sorry ma’am. I understand.”
“Do you?” she croaked, her voice overtaken by tears.
“There’s more news,” the doctor said.
“About what?” Tristan asked.
“About Valerie’s illness.”
Valerie looked up at the doctor.
“What about it?”
“It’s begun to develop sooner than we expected.”
“How long do I have?”
“Two years, more or less.”
“Is there anything you can do to slow it down?” Tristan asked.
“I’m afraid not. I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” Valerie said.
“I’ll leave you alone now.”
The doctor left the room and Valerie collapsed into tears again. Tristan didn’t say anything, just sat next to her on the hospital bed and put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her against him and holding her close.
Kasey stirred and Tristan looked down at her as her eyes opened.
She smiled up at him.
“Hi, Mr. Tristan.”
She sat up and glanced over at her parents. Her father was absorbed in a book, and her mother gave her a smile.
“What do you think each of these passengers are like?” she asked. “That girl over there, for instance.” She pointed to a teenage girl with blonde hair cut short. She had earbuds in her ears and was doing something on her tablet.
“What do you think she’s like?”
“She looks lonely. She also looks like she likes music, and music is always good.”
“Not always, but nearly always, yes.”
“Your turn. Pick someone and tell me what you think.”
“I don’t think I should. What if we assume something completely wrong and they hear us and are offended? We don’t want to hurt anyone, or to make assumptions.”
“Don’t you make assumptions automatically? Doesn’t everyone?”
“I suppose so, but there’s no need to say those assumptions out loud. Let’s do something else, all right?”
“All right. Like what?”
“Can you read?”
“Of course I can read, silly! Why? What are we going to do?”
“There’s a newspaper stand over in that corner.” He pointed. “Let’s see if we can find a crossword, shall we?”
She nodded with a smile and headed over to the stand, grabbing a newspaper and bringing it back to Tristan, taking her seat. He pulled a pen from his pocket and uncapped it, flipping to the crossword.
Valerie held a newborn in her arms. The baby was completely healthy and smiling up at his mother, but Valerie was pale and had dark rings under her eyes.
“We’ll be taking the baby now,” the nurse said. “I’m very sorry.”
The nurse held out her hands for the baby, but Valerie didn’t hand him over.
“This is my baby.”
“Yes, but you and your husband have been told you’re not allowed to have children. We have to take the baby and send him to an orphanage. It’s protocol.”
“I know, but he’s mine.”
A tear rolled down her face and dripped onto the baby’s. She brushed it away with a trembling finger.
“I understand the pain you must be feeling. If you knew you weren’t allowed children, perhaps you shouldn’t have gotten pregnant.”
Valerie’s head snapped up and she glared at the nurse.
“How dare you make this out to be our fault! So I have a terminal illness. So what! While I lived I would still love the baby. And Tristan would take perfect care of him both while I was living and after I died. As for his ’emotional instability,’ who knows? Maybe the baby would have helped him with that!”
“Or it might have made things worse. Mrs. Wickersham, hand over the baby.”
Her defenses collapsed and she began to sob. The nurse wrenched the baby from her arms.
“No! Please, no…”
Tristan held her, allowing her to cry into his shoulder as his own tears dripped into her hair.
“I’m so sorry, Valerie.”
Her eyes fell closed and she went limp. He laid her down, beginning to panic.
“Four across is ‘potato,'” Kasey said, pointing.
“So it is.” Tristan filled in the word. “And that completes the puzzle.” He smiled at her and she smiled back.
Tristan glanced out the window a moment.
“It’s getting rather late. You should probably go have lunch with your parents.”
Kasey nodded a bit, disappointed, and headed back to her parents’ table, taking a seat next to her mother.
What a sweet girl, Tristan thought, gazing out the window as he thought back to the last night he’d had with his wife.
Tristan held Valerie’s hand, tears threatening to spill down his face. She was unconscious and had been for hours, but he hadn’t left her side.
“Valerie. You might die tonight, and there are some things I want to tell you before that happens. I don’t know if you can hear me or not. First, I love you. I always have and always will, and ‘even death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.'” He chuckled a bit and a tear escaped. “You introduced me to that movie. Even if you do die tonight, I know I’ll see you again. The best thing you ever did for me was lead me to Christ.” A few more tears streamed down and he wiped them away with his free hand. “I honestly don’t know what to say. The love of my life is dying, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m helpless.” He shuddered with a sob. “I love you, Valerie.”
He cried until he fell asleep, and the last thing he heard before he fell asleep was a weak, “I love you too, Tristan.”
Kasey came back over to Tristan an hour or two later.
“Tristan, Abbotsville is on the way to Alexandria Bay, and I was wondering if I could come with you to see your wife. My momma and daddy already said it was okay. They said I should keep you company.”
“You’d like to come with me?”
Kasey nodded, her blue eyes earnest.
“All right. Are you sure it won’t hold up your vacation?”
“No. It’ll be fine. Daddy said so.”
“Well all right then.”
Kasey smiled and skipped back over to her seat with her parents.
When Tristan woke up, Valerie’s hand was cold. He glanced at the monitors. Nothing. Flatlined.
A tear slid down his face, releasing a series of sobs like a floodgate.
The doctor came in a few minutes later.
“I’m sorry Mr. Wickersham. We left you alone for the night so as not to disturb you.”
“You should have woken me.” Tristan’s voice was husky.
“I’m sorry. And I offer my deepest, heartfelt apologies. I’m afraid we have to handle the body now.”
Tristan fought down another sob at the words. ‘The body.’
“I’m going to need you to leave, Mr. Wickersham. We’ll let you know when the funeral is arranged.”
Tristan nodded, leaving the room. He gave one last look over his shoulder at her peaceful face, nearly as beautiful in death as it had been in life.
“Embarking at Abbotsville!” the conductor announced over the loudspeaker.
Tristan got up, grabbing his bag from under his seat. Kasey skipped over to him and slid her small hand into his.
“It’ll be all right,” she said.
The rose he had brought was beginning to wilt by now, but it was as deep red as ever.
“Are your parents coming?” he asked.
“Yeah. They wanted to give you some space, though.”
“Tell them we’re going to Lindenfall Cemetery so they can follow us.”
She nodded and walked back to tell them before returning and slipping her hand back into his.
“Let’s go, then,” Tristan said, stepping out of the train with her and walking over to the shuttle deck. He paid for a shuttle and the two of them slid inside.
“Lindenfall Cemetery, please,” he instructed the shuttle. It gave an affirmation in a mechanical voice before moving off onto the road.
They arrived at the cemetery in ten minutes and stepped out of the shuttle.
“Wait,” Tristan instructed the vehicle.
He led Kasey between the cold stone grave markers to one made of marble. It was collecting dirt, and moss was growing in the letters. Tristan knelt down and wiped it off, pulling the moss away.
Valerie Peterson Wickersham.
May 27th, 5617-February 14th, 5658
“She died on Valentine’s Day?”
She got on her knees next to him as he rested the rose against Valerie’s tombstone and gently fingered the lettering. Tears slid down his face and she placed a hand on his shoulder. She saw her parents come up a few feet behind and stop out of the corner of her eye.
“I still miss you,” Tristan said. “Always. But I know you’re home now. I just wish I was home with you, sometimes. I love you as much as ever.”
Kasey sat quietly and listened as he spoke, giving him silent support.
A few minutes later they rose and headed back to the shuttle to drive back to the train station.
“I’ll miss you, Tristan,” Kasey said.
“I’ll miss you too, sweetie.”
She smiled a little.
“I’ll see you around, won’t I?”
“Maybe. Maybe I’ll come to Alexandria Bay sometime and see if you’re around.”
“That would be fun.”
“Kasey really connected with you today,” Kasey’s mom said. “She’s usually rather shy. You helped her come out of her shell.”
“I was glad to do it. You have an amazing daughter. She’s very tenderhearted.”
“Goodbye,” Kasey said, hugging the old man and kissing him on the cheek.
“Goodbye, Kasey,” he replied, embracing her back and kissing the top of her head.
Kasey and her family boarded the train.
“Departing Abbotsville!” the conductor announced.
As the train pulled away, Kasey leaned out the window and waved to Tristan. He smiled and waved back before turning back toward the shuttle deck and heading to his hotel. Kasey was a girl he’d never forget.