Jennifer Q. Hunt
The first crisp fall day held a tang of woodsmoke in the air and seemed a day full of possibilities.
Shoowop! Abby dodged an overfilled luggage handcart with a distracted porter and stepped into a pile of horse manure.
“Oh!” She let out a wail and glanced at the train, which was already chuffing. If she missed the 3:10, she’d miss the wedding tomorrow. But how could she board with manure-covered boots?
A day full of possibilities? Ha! This was a trip she’d been dreading for months, and now things had taken a turn for the worse. Maybe she should just stay.
She turned her head at the masculine voice and looked up to see a man with an easy smile and concern in his gray eyes.
“Ernest?” He looked taller and broader than she remembered.
“Yes ma’am. On my way to your brother’s wedding, as I reckon you are?”
She nodded and pointed down at her high-heeled boots. “I guess. I’ve run into a situation.”
“Here,” he led her to a bench. “Take off your shoes, and I’ll wash them off at the pump. You find us seats, and I’ll be there in a flash.”
“No time to argue,” he insisted, taking the offensive footwear the minute she removed it.
Find us seats? How awkward would this be? Just two years since she’d seen her brother’s taciturn best friend, but everything had changed since then. A war and a pandemic would do that.
She tiptoed in her stockings across the platform and up the steps into the mostly empty passenger car. She’d planned to spend the journey pasted to the window, looking at fluffy clouds traipsing across the azure expanse, drinking in Ozark hills covered in hues of scarlet and sienna, hoping the beauty of autumn could help her forget that it was last fall—that gray, hopeless season—when her world had fallen apart.
Ernest returned with the boots, shining if a bit damp, and sat down across from her as the train pulled out of the station.
“I didn’t know you were in Independence,” she queried. “I’ve been working in Kansas City but spent the night here with a nursing school friend.”
“Had an errand,” he replied.
It would be a long trip.
He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry about Fred. He was a good man.”
“Thank you,” she murmured, glancing out the window at a golden field of wheat where harvesting machines were at work.
They’d all left together—her brother and Ernest and her fiancé Fred—following Uncle Sam’s call to “make the world safe for democracy.” Fred had died of infection in a field hospital last fall, the same time she’d been working eighteen-hour shifts at Saint Luke’s, trying in vain to stop the wicked Spanish Flu from claiming yet more victims. She hadn’t been home since then. Not for Christmas, not for her mother’s birthday. She’d ached to return, yet . . .
He cleared his throat. “You—you wanna hear about home?”
Doubting he would manage more than a sentence, she nodded. But as the miles rolled by, he filled her in on all the news from Hawthorne Valley. Slowly their conversation turned to the momentous events that had replaced their innocent childhoods with answerless questions.
“It was hard for you,” he stated. “To be a nurse at such a time. To see so much death. To feel so helpless in the face of such disaster.” His tone suggested he knew about these things himself from his time in the trenches. “But we’re going home now, right? A new start?”
The news butcher came by, and Ernest bought them each a mug of apple cider. It tasted of home, the smell of the orchards in the fall, the thrill of riding on the wagon mounded up with huge Ben Davises. It was a scent that transported her to Mama’s kitchen where they’d canned apple pie filling for days on end—hot, sticky, rewarding work.
“Thank you.” She noticed Ernest’s gray eyes watching her closely. “This is good.”
“Must be. That’s the first you’ve smiled this whole trip.”
“It reminds me of us all young and carefree.”
“We’re not old yet, Abby.” Something in the way he said her name made her meet his eyes.
She chewed her lip. “What was your favorite part? About fall?”
“The bonfires and husking bees. Although I do have one regret.”
“That husking bee when I found the red ear of corn.”
“You never claimed a kiss,” she remembered. “We all thought you were too shy.”
“There was only one girl there I wanted to kiss, and she was taken. I saved the red ear though.”
The train began slowing, and Abby realized she’d never put her shoes back on. Quickly she laced and tied the right boot.
“Truth is,” Ernest said suddenly, “I came to Independence to ride home with you. ‘Cause I know how hard it is to go back when everything’s changed. When you’ve changed. I didn’t want you to have to face it alone.”
Abby nodded, eyes misty, wondering if it was fellow-soldier-loyalty to deceased Fred or something more that made Ernest look out for her. “I—appreciate that.”
He rose and grabbed her bag from the overhead rack. She tried to pull on her left shoe, but there was something in it. She pulled out a red ear of corn and stood, staring at it.
“Sometimes you need to tell people what you’re thinking before you lose the chance,” she challenged. “That’s what I’ve learned since I left here.”
“And sometimes,” he offered, his free hand closing over hers and the corn, his head bending to hers, “no words can say it.”
“Oh,” she breathed, and the syllable parted her lips just enough for him to brush his own against them with the tenderest apple-scented kiss—brief, sweet, and promising so many more if she wanted. Then with his hand gently on her back, he guided her out of the train into that perfect autumn day.
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