These Foolish Things
It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mary Clark looked down at the wrinkled pile of line-dried clothing, and something inside snapped.
She pressed the latch and the door swung open. Outside, birds chirped, happily gathering worms from the recently turned parcel that had served as her vegetable garden for nearly forty years. She grabbed a handful of cookies from a jar on the counter and stuffed them into her apron pocket. Molasses, Sydney’s favorite.
She paused for a quick glance around the one-room cabin. It was quiet. On the mantel, a clock ticked, marking moments of her life, gone, irretrievable. Sucked into some great abyss of meaningless nothingness.
She went for a walk.
By the time she reached the train tracks, it was beginning to rain. She glanced south. Town was south. Stores, the church, Sydney’s workshop. All their friends and neighbors. Mary walked north, following the tracks. The fact that she had no idea where she was headed never crossed her mind. She walked, aimlessly.
Head down, she carefully placed one foot in front of the other, the image of a circus tight-rope walker, traversing the wet, slippery rail. Paying no heed to her surroundings, Mary never noticed the eyes that watched from the cover of distant trees.
A loud crack of thunder released a torrential downpour from the heavens, and sent Mary running toward an abandoned rail car. She hurried to it and slid the door wide to give a look around before she hoisted herself up and in. She slid the door shut. Lightning flashed outside, illuminating the car’s interior from between the cracks of the ancient boards. Rain drummed on the roof. Mary edged to a corner and slumped down into the musty hay that covered the floor.
She let her head fall back against the wall of the car and closed her eyes. What was she doing? She was bored, tired, restless. She needed…something. Something different. And Sydney never looked at her anymore. Not really. And even if he did look, did he SEE?
Mary felt like wallpaper. Something her husband knew was there, had always been there, but when pressed to describe her, did he KNOW the intricate details that made Mary the person she was? And more importantly, did Mary know who Mary was? Or had she been lost somewhere along the way, sucked into that meaningless abyss?
The door of the rail car suddenly slid open and Mary pressed further into the corner, pulling her knees up against her chest. She held her breath. A set of saddle bags flew in first, then a figure rolled inside before the door slid shut again.
A young man stood up, probably half her age. He removed his jacket and flung it over a post, presumably to dry, then began brushing debris from his clothing. Noting his gun belt, fear shot through her, causing every nerve to spring to alert. Since hiding was not an option, Mary chose a different course.
“Cookie?” She lifted a trembling hand toward the stranger.
If she had surprised him, his calm demeanor gave no indication. “Thanks,” he said, accepting the offering and taking a bite. “Didn’t realize this car was occupied.”
Not knowing what to say, Mary shrugged. “Just me,” she added, with a nervous giggle.
“Smith,” he said, shifting the cookie to his left hand and offering his right. “Joshua Smith.” He joined her on the floor.
“Victoria Melbourne.” Why she felt the need of an alias, Mary wasn’t sure, but certainly this man’s name was no more “Smith” than hers was…whatever name she had just conjured out of thin air.
The stranger laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, nothing,” he said, still chuckling. “So, Mrs. Melbourne, you’re interested in geography?”
“Why, yes, I am. But how…” she stumbled to a finish. “Sydney says I read too much, but I can’t seem to help myself. All those books in the town’s new library, pictures of all those far off places I’ll never get a chance to see…”
The young man wiped the smile from his face. “Sydney. That would be your husband?”
“Sydney Melbourne” He chuckled again. “Next time you and Mr. Melbourne choose a couple of aliases, you might want to consider something a little less conspicuous.”
“Ha,” she snorted. “I’ll keep that in mind, Mr. Smith.”
He smiled. “Lots of folks named Smith,” he insisted, tossing his hat aside.
“Lots of folks named Melbourne too,” she countered.
“Not folks named Sydney and Victoria, but, whatever you say, ma’am.”
Their less-than-truthful exchange triggered a bout of self-consciousness. Mary patted at her hair, fixing a few strands that had pulled loose from the knot at the back of her neck. Unsure what to do with her hands, she reached for one of the cookies in her pocket, but her eyes dropped to her waistline and she changed her mind.
“If you’re hungry, you should eat,” Mr. Smith stated, seeming to sense her indecision.
“Maybe later,” she said, and bit her bottom lip.
“If you’re waiting for the storm to let up, it’s likely to be a while, so you might as well get comfortable.”
Comfortable. When was the last time she had felt truly comfortable? Comfortable in her own skin, with who she was and… These thoughts were foolish. Foolish and unproductive. That’s what Sydney would say, if he were here. And where was he now? Did he know she was gone? And why did it matter? Certainly she was free to go for a walk if she chose to do so, and…
Thunder rumbled more softly outside, and the rain softened its pattering.
“Mr. Smith, can I ask you something?”
“Go ahead, but call me Joshua.” He pulled up a crate and settled himself in front of it. Pulling out a deck of cards, he began to shuffle.
“What do you see, when you look at me?” As soon as she asked the question, she wished she hadn’t.
He stopped shuffling to look her squarely in the eye. “‘What do you want me to see?”
She hung her head. “I don’t know. I mean… Forget it. I don’t know what I mean.”
Joshua dealt himself a hand of solitaire.
Mary grew quiet, resuming her self-analysis. She shouldn’t have left the house. Sydney would be worried. And what kind of wife would walk out on her husband, just because she was sick to death of doing his ironing? Not that she HAD walked out, mind you. No, she hadn’t left HIM. Sydney was a good man. A man worthy of her respect. Hard worker, good provider. Tender and kind. Gentle.
Sydney’s wife, on the other hand, was worn out. Her spirit tattered. Mary lifted her hands, chapped and calloused. She shifted position, her knees creaking in protest. “Joshua?”
“Hmmm?” He turned a card.
“How old do think I am?” She swallowed hard and met his eyes.
He laughed yet again. “I might be a gambling man, Victoria, but answering that is a mite too risky, even for me.”
“No really, I need to…”
“Come on,” he said, tucking his cards back into his vest pocket and gathering his coat from the post where it dripped.
“Where are we going?”
“Your home. I’m taking you home to your husband. It’s where you need to be. It’s where you want to be. It’s the place you haven’t stopped thinking about for one second since you got here. And besides…” His eyes softened and he smiled, revealing a charming set of dimples. “Before the sun sets, Sydney Melbourne is going to be out searching for the woman he loves, his beautiful wife, Victoria, and if he finds her in an abandoned rail car five miles outside town with a handsome drifter like me, he’ll probably think the worst and shoot me.”
Mary smiled, for the first time in what seemed like ages.
“You don’t want my death on your conscience, do you?”
“Sure don’t,” Mary agreed.
They walked south, retracing the path Mary had taken earlier that day. The sun had set, but the rain had stopped by the time the cabin came into view.
“Mary! There you are! I was worried,” Sydney cried when he saw her. “I was about to saddle the horse and coming searching.” Upon seeing the young stranger with her, Sydney extended his hand.
“Sydney, this is Joshua Smith. Joshua, my husband, Sydney Clark.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Clark.” Joshua’s eyes sparkled as he caught Mary’s glance. “Your wife, speaks highly of you, sir.”
The man’s shoulders visibly lifted with pride. “I think pretty highly of her myself. Won’t you come in, Mr. Smith? Join us for supper?”
“Sorry.” He shook his head. “My partner’s expecting me and, well, I’ve got to be going.”
“Are you sure?” Mary prompted.
“Very. It’s been a real pleasure meeting you, Mary.”
She hugged the young man. “Thank you, Joshua,” she whispered. “For everything!”
“Forget it,” he answered. “Oh, and Mary.” He winked and gave her a gambler’s grin. “You don’t look a day over twenty-nine!”
“Where were you?” Sydney asked, when they sat alone at their supper table.
“I just took a walk. Lost my way for a while, foolish of me, I know, but Joshua pointed me home again.”
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.