The train jerked as it left the station and increased its speed at a steady rate. I made my way down the aisle in search of a good seat, but not really sure what made a seat worthy in my mind. Figured I’d know it when I saw it.
A young couple sat near the front of the car. They leaned into each other as they whispered to one another. A blanket was already draped over their legs and I could see a thermos in one of their backpacks. They seemed to be more than prepared for the trip.
I passed an old man wearing suspenders over his clean white shirt tucked into the waist of his brown pants. He had a newspaper opened and the front pages boasted about being read worldwide. His eye roved over the printed words. He didn’t take his eyes off the text for anything. It was as if he were enslaved by the paper. I guessed he was only going as far as the next station.
A few rows back sat a mother and her young daughter. The young girl stood on her seat, clutching a stuffed unicorn to her chest as she pressed her face up against the window. She oohed and awed while pointing at various aspects of the city as we rushed by on our way out. She recoiled and fell into her seat as we passed another train. Her mother instructed her to stay seated from now on, and the girl listened.
I found an empty spot near the back of the car next to a teen boy. His head rested on his hand as he stared out the window.
“Mind if I sit here?” I asked.
He barely moved as he studied me for a moment before shrugging and returning to his previous task.
I sat and placed my backpack under my legs. Neither of us said anything as the train continued on its ways. The faint clickity-clack of the wheels and the rhythmic rocking of the car threatened to lull me to sleep. It was too early for that. To keep myself awake, I removed my sketchbook from my bag and started drawing the couple near the front.
Time passed. The city faded away to rolling countrysides. Gray clouds grew and spread across the sky. Soon, they blocked out the sun and plunged the world into their shade. I began to believe the weather man’s prediction of snow.
Finishing my first sketch, I reached up to flip to a new page and noticed the boy next to me staring at the picture. When he noticed he’d been caught, he returned to staring out the window. I continued on as if nothing happened and began to sketch the old man and his paper. He’d already gotten off the train, but I could still see him fixated on his reading in my mind.
As I came closer to finishing this sketch, I shifted in my seat and brought a foot up to rest on my other knee for a while. As I did so, I spotted the boy watching my paper once again, before looking away.
“Do you draw?” I asked.
He didn’t respond for a moment, as if pretending that he hadn’t heard me despite being right next to one another. Finally, he shook his head. “No, I don’t.” He didn’t say anything else, so I didn’t bother him again.
I started a third sketch, this time of the girl and her mother staring out the train window. The further I got into the sketch, the more the boy next to me watched. He didn’t try to hide it.
“Do you have any questions?” I asked without looking up from my paper.
He jumped in his seat and remained motionless for a moment before asking, “How do you do that?”
I set my pencil down and looked up. “What?”
“Talk to people?”
My forehead wrinkled as I tried to understand what he meant. That hadn’t exactly been what I expected him to ask. “I move my lips and let the words come out.”
“No, I mean,” he paused and rolled his hands as he thought. “How do you just start talking to someone you haven’t met? I’ve been watching you draw for hours now and just couldn’t bring myself to say how cool your art is.”
A smile spread across my face at the compliment. I didn’t think my sketches today were that great given my working conditions. “Thank you for the compliment.” I closed the sketchbook and put it back in my backpack. “As to your question, I don’t know, I just talk to them.”
“But what if they don’t want to talk to you? What if you are bugging them? It’s so much easier talking to NPCs in video games.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “True, some people don’t want to be talked to, but you can never know until you try. The worst they can say is no.”
The boy’s eyes narrowed. “They could say a lot worse.”
The train charged into the maw of a tunnel, filling the windows with darkness and splotches of light that leaked out from the warmly lit interior. My shoulders slumped and I looked forward. “Yeah, people can be asses sometimes.”
He wasn’t wrong. A person having a bad day, or just someone rude could easily say something awful and not even bat an eye at it. They wouldn’t care how a few harsh words would affect someone else.
But most people weren’t like that. “I like to think people are good at heart, kind of like the heroes in video games.”
The train emerged from the tunnel into a world that looked nothing like the one we’d left. Snow covered the ground and turned everything white. The boy next to me remained silent as he studied the new world we found ourselves in.
“As annoying as it can be in large quantities, I love snow,” I said.
He nodded. “Snow is soft and pure. When it comes around Christmas like this, it almost feels like the world’s way of absolving people of their past misdeeds.” He grimaced and his face grew red. “Sorry, that was dumb.”
I turned in my seat to face him. “No, it wasn’t. It was very thought-provoking.”
His frown deepened as he looked at the floor. “People make fun of me when I talk like that. They say it’s dumb.”
“That was anything but. Have you tried writing poetry?”
He snorted at that. “Everyone makes fun of poetry.”
He had another point. Even I tended to make fun of poetry. It was often just difficult to understand, taking multiple readings to understand a single line.
“People often devalue things that they don’t understand. Doesn’t mean it is actually dumb or worthless.”
The boy remained silent and wouldn’t look at me. It seemed like he wanted the conversation to end, but I wasn’t ready for that.
“If you like something, don’t give it up just because someone made fun of you for liking it.” I leaned forward, trying to edge into his gaze. “And as far as talking to people, you’re doing fine.”
He didn’t respond and returned to looking out the window. His reflection showed a small smile on his lips. In the increasing darkness, the snowflakes looked more and more like stars being stretched as we jumped into hyperspace, growing closer and closer to my final destination.
I removed my sketchbook and began a final drawing. I kept my work hidden from the view of my neighbor as I drew him staring out the window, watching this frozen and beautiful world race by with a smile on his face.
With each passing second, my stop grew closer and closer. Even in the snow and darkness, I could recognize some of the more familiar and well-lit landmarks. I tore my final sketch from my book and folded it in half. Then I picked my backpack up off the floor and began zipping it closed on my lap.
As I did so, the boy looked over. “You’re leaving?” his small smile had vanished.
I stood and threw the bag over my shoulder, holding on to it with one hand. “My stop is next.”
I held the folded piece of paper in my free hand. We stared at each other in silence as the train slowed down. As I opened my mouth to say goodbye, the boy spoke first.
“Thank you for talking with me, even if it wasn’t much of a conversation.”
“It was a great conversation.” I held my hand out with the piece of paper. “Here, I drew this for you.”
He hesitated for just a moment before taking the paper from my hand as if it were an ancient relic that might crumble to dust in the slightest breeze. With care, he unfolded it and stared at the image. His mouth parted and he didn’t say anything.
“You’re not weird for struggling to talk to people, and you’re not dumb for the way you think. Don’t let other people’s opinions keep you from doing what you want to do,” I said. As an artist, I knew exactly how cruel people and their words could be, but I always did my best to never let them keep me down. It wasn’t always easy to get back up after some comments, but I always got back up in time.
I hoped this boy would too, no matter what he decided to do. And I hoped he’d find people who supported him as much as my own friends and family supported me.
The train stopped moving and the boy’s gaze remained glued to the paper he held in his hands.
“Thank you for the conversation.”
With that, I headed for the door. Before I got there, he called after me. “Thank you!” He stood in the aisle and waved with one hand while his other held the drawing to his chest with care.
I waved back with a smile, matching his own, then stepped off the train. I stretched out my arms in the cold night air as snow drifted around me. My stomach grumbled as I walked away from the train, thinking of getting a burger and some steak fries from the diner across the street before heading on my way.
Before I left the platform, the train behind me shuddered and lurched. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the boy with a smile on his face as he watched the world from his window. Our eyes met once more, and I waved as the train pulled out of the station.