By Max Johansson
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write vignettes on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The seventh theme was "Horror"
We met on the train. I was going home for the weekend, having ploughed through five days of mindless work at the provincial archives. It could be a fun job at the best of times, but sorting through old filing cabinets and re-wrapping all the files for storage in new cabinets was hardly the best of times. So it was a sense of relief, more than anything, that welled over me as I sat down, alone in the six-seat compartment, and watched the Oder winding past the track outside my window.
I suddenly saw a pair of stockings opposite my feet, and then a red dress and brown overcoat, and then a face.
Reader, if I live to be a hundred and ten, I will not forget that face.
“Oh, sorry,” she said, “did I wake you?”
“No, that’s alright. You didn’t. I was just… deep in thought. No worries.”
She held back a giggle, and I held back another one.
We rode on in silence for a few minutes, me continuing to look out the window – and trying not to stare at the contours of her face, a view that far outdid the river and the distant foothills – and her reading a book. I broke the silence after I let my eyes stray from both, and noticed what book she was reading.
“Is that The Flight of the Moor you’re reading?”
“Yes it is. I love König – I’ve read all his books except White Death.”
“So have I! Which one’s your favourite?”
“Good question. I don’t know, it’s hard to pick one. I’ve loved all of them so much.”
“Even Shadows at Dusk?”
“Well, no. Did anyone love that one? I still don’t know what he was thinking with that ending.”
“I completely agree. Oh, and just you wait until you get to the ending of this one. They actually-“
“Stop it,” she said. “I want to find out for myself.”
“Fair enough.” She picked the book back up, but with the floodgates open, he couldn’t stop himself. “So what do you think of the Moor as a character?”
“Oh, I love him. Killing his foreman – if he did kill his foreman” – he did, but I managed not to blurt that out – “obviously isn’t right as such, but you can tell it was motivated. He did it to protect not just himself, but all his people.”
“I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes the right choice is still terrible, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to make it.”
She was somehow even more lovely when she was talking enthusiastically than she’d been when I first saw her. It didn’t hurt that, from literature to films to everyday life, we hardly seemed to disagree on a thing.
“So what do you do for a living?” she asked me. Outside the window, the bright countryside was beginning to change into industrial darkness.
“I’m a junior archivist. It’s dull as dishwater sometimes, and the pay’s not great, but at least I’m officially a civil servant. There’s practically no way to fire me.”
“I wish I could say that. I’m probably going to lose my job at the department store in a few weeks.”
“Oh, you know. They like to let you go just before you hit the 90-day mark, that way they won’t have to provide for you. The opposite of your situation, really.”
“How different things would be if only I’d gotten into university.”
I wanted nothing more than to know why she hadn’t gotten into university, but I could sense that she didn’t want to talk about it – bitterness, I assumed – and so I lapsed into silence again, and let her pick up the book.
The view from the window was nothing but chemical plants, freight yards and grim housing estates, so I let my eyes wander. Mostly they stayed on her bright red dress, which matched perfectly the shade of her lips, and her light brown overcoat, a few shades lighter than her long, wavy hair. She was almost perfect. So much so that when she stretched out and I saw the yellow star in the lining of her coat breast, it barely passed notice.
I fell asleep in perfect, indescribable bliss. The contrast to my dreary week at the archives, and the equally dreary weekend with my parents in our home village that lay ahead, couldn’t have been greater. My serenity was interrupted only twice, first when a couple got into the compartment, and second when I caught a glimpse of a station announcement.
“Next stop, Auschwitz. Please make sure your belongings are with you before leaving the train. Auschwitz next.”
I drifted back to sleep, and woke up a few minutes later to find her gone.