Stranger on a Train (Ch 5 2/7)

This is a new version of the story I submitted for the Winter Stories Contest. It’s twice as long and very different, though it begins the same way.

(1)

The weatherman on Channel 7 had forecast snow for this evening— “4-6 inches falling from 7PM until about 2AM” in that absurdly cheery voice, as if everyone watching was just dying to get out there and do even more shoveling—but that wasn’t going to stop Stephanie from getting where she needed to go. Not tonight. Tonight was just too important to her. Oh, there had been other occasions she had blown off due to snow, to be sure; just last week, for example, she had decided not to go to Ali’s party when the storm hit just during rush hour. And last winter she had been practically a shut-in; aside from work, she didn’t venture into the winter weather at all. Thank goodness someone invented grocery deliveries. But tonight was the office Christmas party, and just about everyone believed that Justin was going to propose to Stacy, and she wasn’t going to be the one who missed it. Not after all of the office drama and gossip over the last six months. No way.

“Looks like Mommy’s going to be very cold tonight,” she said as she rubbed her little calico, Willow, behind the ears. The cat purred her appreciation. “No, I don’t want to leave you, but that’s how it goes.”

It was, actually, a huge concession for Stephanie Alder to be heading out into the snowfall and temperatures in the teens. Stephanie Alder hated winter with a passion so hot she was always amazed it wasn’t enough to warm her up all by itself. Once, when she was a child, she had contentedly built snow forts and skied and skated, but those days were so far behind her she could hardly remember them at all. Now her skis had been given to charity and her skates hadn’t been sharpened in years, and she didn’t even build snowmen in the park with her little niece and nephew when her sister visited. Chicago’s winter chill had defeated her, made her less adventurous.

Stephanie wasn’t one of those wishy-washy Chicagoans who complain about the weather in every season, either. She detested those people. It wasn’t reasonable, she thought, to live here and constantly complain about the weather. It’s OK to hate one season, but not all of them. She had long ago decided she was a warm weather girl: give her sunny and 80° and she was a happy camper, and if it happened to climb into the 90s, well, there was always air conditioning. But the winter? It was brutal and nasty and unforgiving. She dreamed of moving somewhere like southern California where it was warm all year long. Her friends always said she would miss the changing of the seasons, but she thought: if I want to see colored leaves, I know where the airports are.

Truth be told, though, it wasn’t just the bitter cold itself that Stephanie hated. She hated how her diapers always chilled so quickly and felt so awful. Stephanie had been bladder incontinent since birth and used diapers all the time to control the leakage. On a warm day, all she needed to do was switch to a cloth-backed brand to feel comfortable. In the cold, nothing worked. She’d be warm for a few minutes right after going, but the cold air would take over and soon she’d be walking or sitting in something that felt as if it had been in a refrigerator. And God help her if a diaper leaked in the winter. It had happened more than once, leaving her with a stream of iced urine running down her leg under her pants or, oh God!, leggings. She’d experienced that enough for one lifetime.

It had been a problem all of her life, but until she’d moved away from her mother’s Highland Park home into her own Evanston apartment, she didn’t really appreciate just how much her mother had helped her out with it. Of course she’d been changing her own diapers for a long time now, since middle school anyway, but the emotional weight of having to wear them sometimes got to her, and never more so than in the freezing chill of Chicago winter. On cold days as a child, she could count on her mother’s having made hot chocolate to warm her up and having a clean diaper ready. On cold days, even through sixth grade, she let her mother change her; it made her feel somehow warmer and definitely more loved.

Once she got to middle school, though, by some unspoken agreement between them the diaperings stopped. It was as if both of them suddenly decided she was just too old for that kind of intimacy. Then cold days grew just a little colder to Stephanie; something warm in her life had vanished. The truth was, however, that there was one thing that warmed Stephanie Alder about cold weather, and that was Christmas time. She believed in Santa Claus long after the other kids her age had stopped believing; the magic of the season meant the world to her. But it wouldn’t last. Her ultimate disappointment came in seventh grade. She wrote a letter to Santa asking for only one single gift: freedom from diapers. When it didn’t happen—when she got more clothes and electronics, etc. instead—she finally understood: her friends were right. Santa didn’t really exist after all. She still loved the holiday, but she had to admit some of the magic was gone. And the diapers continued to be part of her daily existence.

For tonight she had chosen a particularly thick diaper with teddy bears and other stuffed animals on it; her favorite was a little snow leopard blowing bubbles. She’d found them online back in college and bought them ever since because they were adorable and because they made her smile. Something about this needs to. She knew she’d be drinking at least a bit at the party and hoped she could get by without a change; in fact, as she had often done, she wasn’t even bringing a spare with her so she could go without a purse. No way was she bringing one tonight, not after the last big party she attended when she’d put it down somewhere and couldn’t find it to save her life at the end of the evening. It had taken over an hour and the help of half the party guests to locate it; she wasn’t going through that again. Besides, not having one forced her not to stay too late and helped make life easier as the party wore on: even if someone wanted to make it with a girl in diapers, he wasn’t going to when she was soaking wet, so she was safe from predators. For an emergency, she kept a Depends Silhouette in her coat pocket; it was the only thing she had that was small enough to fit. It would never last her very long, but it would do in a pinch.

Since it was a Christmas party, she had decided to get dolled up in red and green. On a whim, she had purchased a pair of Christmas-themed tights with snowflakes sparkling down her legs. Above them, she put on the outfit she had been given when she was only fifteen and now wore just for fun at least once during every Christmas season: a deep green velvet skirt with a velvet top that was red trimmed with gold. If she put a Christmas barrette in her hair, as she did tonight—a shiny one with green, red and gold foil strips layered and slightly fanned out—she thought she looked very cute. In point of fact, as petite as she was, Stephanie Alder dressed for this party was utterly adorable. It was another self-defense mechanism, like the single diaper: she wanted to have fun at this party, but not worry about any negative consequences. This outfit, which had made her look younger when she was a junior in high school, still had the same effect. Then, it was undesirable—what high school girl wants to look like a middle schooler?—but now, since she looked mostly the same as she did back then, it served a new purpose: fending off unwanted advances. It was odd. People knew she was an adult, but when she looked a bit younger, they left her alone. Something within Stephanie’s mind understood that simple algorithm; thus the choice of these clothes tonight.

Her girlfriends at work thought it was a cute outfit, though. They’d seen it at a little get-together last year, when she’d worn it (as usual) on a whim, and Gemma had even asked her earlier in the week whether she would be wearing it to the office party.

“Of course,” she’d told her. “If I want to enjoy myself without the guys all over me, it’s the best thing I’ve ever found.”

The tall brunette had smiled. “I know what you mean. Sometimes I wish I had a choice like that myself. Anything to make myself still look cute but less desirable, you know? I’m a bit jealous of you. I’d love to ask Santa to let me look younger when I wanted to.”

“I get that,” Stephanie had told her. “But it’s not always so great when you’re already small. It’s a real pain when they don’t believe me that I’m over 21 at restaurants—I’m almost thirty, for crying out loud—good thing I like Coke so much. Anyway I do hate the meat market thing, so I never even try going to bars.”

Gemma shook her head. “But how much of any of it do you really like, anyway?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, you know, the drinking, the showing off for the guys, all of it. You don’t like the meat market. You’ve told me how much you hate the feeling of being sick when you’re too drunk. So i’m just wondering: wouldn’t you just rather have a quieter time, talking maybe, hanging out without the social pressures?”

“That went out in seventh grade.”

Gemma rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”

“Yeah,” Stephanie said, “Until Santa decides to really make me young again, parties like this are all I have, and I feel I need the extra protection. Hence this outfit.”

“Don’t you already have, like, extra protection?”

“Very funny.”

Gemma was a good friend. She was the first person Stephanie had met when she started at Hemming & Klatch, and they’d hit it off immediately. It almost made the accounting job palatable. Almost. Every single day, though, Stephanie found herself wishing at some point she’d majored in something else. In school she’d liked math, loved working with numbers, manipulating them, seeing the secrets they could conceal. Geometry mesmerized her—all of those shapes governed by predictable fundamental laws! She almost lost her way during a trig class taught by a very poor teacher (if she closed her eyes she could still hear him droning on about sines and secants), but her love was renewed by the joys of calculus, where Mr. McGregor had taught her theoretical math and she’d been in seventh heaven, spinning two-dimensional shapes around on an axis to see what kind of volume they would occupy if they were three-dimensional: God it was fun back when she was first learning that stuff.

Who knew that a career in a math-related field would mean a job as dull as dirt? She’d had a nice business teacher in high school, which is why she’d chosen accounting in the first place, but good God she wanted to kill herself every time she walked into the office. And it didn’t help any that the entry level positions were mostly data-crunching. Maybe someday things would change, but she couldn’t see how. Sometimes, she wondered what her life would be like if she had made a different decision, chosen a different direction. At least she had her friends though. Along with Mandy and Jess, she and Gemma always went to lunch together and almost always managed to have a blast. And the three of them were the only people in her life right now to whom she had ever confided about her incontinence. It was either that or try to explain why she never went to the ladies’ room with them. And besides, she felt she could use a bathroom buddy to watch out for others. So she’d told them one evening over drinks at Louie’s and all three of them told her it was no big deal: friends don’t care about silly things like that.

But they do care about the outfits you wear to the annual Christmas party, she thought, examining herself in the mirror after yet again transforming herself into the image of someone much younger.

“You like it too, don’t you?” she asked Willow, who was once again sidling up to her as she stood and rubbing against her thigh. “Does that velvet feel good to you?”

How many times now had she worn this outfit? She had no clue, but she knew one thing: this was going to be the first time she’d worn it to Hemming and Klatch. Last year, her first at the firm, she’d missed the party due to illness. Not tonight. She smiled at her image in the mirror. No way I’d even get into a bar tonight. Good thing the booze was going to be at the party and she didn’t need to pay.

Stephanie grabbed the outfit’s final touch, the shiny black flats with the bows at the toes that she’d found at DSW last year that were perfect, put them into a grocery bag, and slipped her feet into a pair of black boots for the journey. The shoes completed the outfit in an innocent, simple way instead of adding a touch of sexuality as heels would have. Then she put on her winter coat, grabbed her keys, her phone, a twenty dollar bill, and her Metra card and shoved them into a pocket, petted the cat once more, and headed out the door. She was bringing only what she absolutely needed. Easy peasy.

The weather was every bit as uncomfortable to her as she’d thought it would be, but at least she didn’t need to be out in it for long. The train stop was just down the street both from her apartment and from the office at the other end; if it hadn’t been such a lousy evening she might have braved lighter outer clothing. But the faux fur was her choice for tonight; she wanted to be as warm as she possibly could.

A homeless woman stood, shivering, near the train station, a hand extended toward her. She’d seen this woman before; she was often here: she stood hunched over as if from years, but she wasn’t that old. Her tangled, unkempt brown hair hung everywhere all over her face, sticking out from the filthy blue knit cap atop her head. She’d found a winter coat somewhere—Stephanie was sure she didn’t have it last time she was here—but it fit so poorly that she couldn’t zip it up. At least her thick boots looked as if they’d keep her feet warm. They were an odd green color, but they looked nicely lined.

“Something to help me eat, Sweetheart?” she said as Stephanie approached. It was clear from the intonation that she didn’t expect anything.

Stephanie didn’t answer at first, but she didn’t move on either. She’d found herself entranced by the woman’s eyes, reflected in the light from the train station. One of them was green and the other was very nearly amber, a color she’d never seen on a person before. Willow’s eyes were that color.

“Well?” the woman asked.

Stephanie realized she’d probably been staring. “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry. It’s just—it’s a terrible night to have to be outside. Isn’t there a shelter or something?”

The woman smiled. Several of her teeth were brown. “Going there,” she said. “I need to eat first.”

Her friends, Stephanie knew, never gave money to the homeless people.

“They just waste it,” Jess had said. “Better to buy them food, or donate to shelters.” It was an easy stance to justify except when the weather was this shitty and this broken woman was standing in front of you.

She reached into pocket before she remembered what was in there. After a moment’s hesitation, though, she pulled out the twenty. When the woman saw what it was, her eyes grew wide.

“Promise me that you’ll get yourself some food and head for the shelter so you can get out of this weather,” she said as she held it out.

Taking the money, the woman looked at Stephanie. “You’re an angel, Sweetheart. An absolute angel. God bless you.”

As Stephanie entered the station, she turned a backward glance toward the woman. She was still standing where she had been, staring at the departing girl as if she were some kind of miracle.

Re: Stranger on a Train

I love this and a longer format will give you more room to play with the idea

Re: Stranger on a Train

Thanks. As you can see even from this section, it goes in new directions.

Re: Stranger on a Train

(2)

On the train, she sat in her favorite place: the end facing seats. She always took them in the hope that no one would sit in the opposite seat, thus giving her the equivalent of two full seats to herself. She unfastened her coat buttons for comfort, plugged in her headphones, and sat back for the half-hour ride. On this night, luck wasn’t with her; the seat across from her was taken at the very next stop by a woman about her grandmother’s age.

“Excuse me, Dear,” the woman said, piling an oversized purse and a shopping bag onto the seat. “Just doing a bit of last minute shopping.”

Stephanie smiled, acknowledging her, and would have gone back to her music, annoyed by the fact that there were open seats elsewhere, if the woman hadn’t immediately continued, returning her smile and obviously admiring her Christmas outfit.

“That’s a beautiful outfit,” she said.

“Thank you,” answered Stephanie. “My mother gave it to me.”

The old woman seemed lost in thought for a moment. “My youngest lives in Wilmette, but I’ve always loved shopping in Evanston.”

Stephanie popped her earpieces out. “Yes,” she said, “I think it has a great downtown.”

The woman smiled. “Do you live there, Sweetheart? Do you go to Evanston Township High School?”

Although she knew she looked young, Stephanie was nonetheless unprepared for someone actually thinking she was still in high school. She wasn’t sure quite how to react, so for a moment she was just silent. Then she said, simply, “No. I mean I do live in Evanston. But I’m not in high school.”

The woman looked surprised. “Oh, my!” she said. “When you get to my age, sometimes it’s hard to tell ages correctly. I thought you looked high school age.”

Stephanie shook her head. “I’m not.”

“Well, don’t worry,” the woman said. “You’ll get there. It can’t possibly be more than a year or two away, right?”

Sitting across from the woman, Stephanie was astonished. She knew she looked younger, but high school age was incredible. And now, given the knowledge that she was not of high school age, this woman assumed she was younger still? Was she nuts? At this point, though, it was clear to her that the old woman was just being nice, even if she was sort of weird, and correcting her would embarrass her, so she decided to play along. What can it hurt?

“Um, no. I mean I’ll be there next year,” she said, feeling really foolish.

The woman nodded. “You’ll like it. I went to ETHS back in the day. It’s a really good school. I’m sure it’s only gotten better, at least from what I read.”

Stephanie could see the woman’s sincerity. “That’s what my, um, mom tells me,” she said.

“I really enjoyed the theatre department. Do you act?”

She shook her head. “Never tried it.”

“You really should. I’ll bet you’re really good at improvisation; you seem as if you could just roll with anything.”

Stephanie’s eyes went a bit wide. Was the woman toying with her? Did she know that Stephanie was no middle schooler? She tried to search for anything like sarcasm or meanness in the woman’s eyes but there was nothing there. The woman was innocent as the new day. So Stephanie keep “rolling” with what was happening.

“I suppose,” she said. “My friends tell me I’m pretty quick.”

“I’ll bet you are,” said the woman, now looking at her a bit more carefully. “Can you give me an example?”

It was such an odd conversation, Stephanie thought, and not only because she was pretending to be thirteen years old. This woman seemed weirdly interested in her. Ah well; it’s passing the time. So she considered what she could tell the woman that would be true to the middle schooler she thought she was. Realizing that the best lies are the closest to the truth, she decided to tell the story of how she got out of a jam with some random guy at a party last month.

“Well, there was this boy I met at a friend’s party, and at first he was really nice, but as the party wore on he got kind of grabby, like he wanted to get to second base and such, right there in the living room.”

“And you didn’t want that.”

“No! Not at all.”

“What did you do?”

“I have an alarm on my phone that sounds like it’s ringing, you know? And I can set it off with just one click, so I did, and I pretended to be talking to my mom and arguing with her about having to come home right away. Then when I got off the phone I told him I needed to leave and I did.”

The woman smiled. “Clever girl.”

Stephanie shrugged. “It worked.” She was beginning to enjoy this little game, silly as it was, so she was glad when the woman continued it.

“What’s your favorite class?”

“Well, I’ve always liked math,” she responded without thinking, but then she thought about how dull and repetitive her life was and amended her answer. “But I’m finding English really interesting too. All the character stuff and all. And reading out loud.”

The woman’s smile grew broader. “I knew you were a little actress at heart.”

“Well I’ve never tried it, as I said” Stephanie said, “but I always thought it looked like fun.”

“You should try it,” the woman said. “You’re a natural. Promise me you’ll at least take a theatre class once you get to high school.”

Stephanie hated making a promise that was an outright lie, but, hey, in for a penny… “I promise!” she said with all the enthusiasm she could muster.

The old woman sat back and smiled to herself.

“Do you mind if I ask you a very personal question?” she asked.

Stephanie was a bit taken aback. Why should this woman, whom she’d just met ten minutes earlier, even want to ask personal questions. But she’d indulged her so far, and something nagging at her inside told her to continue to do so.

“Um…it’s weird, but I guess not.”

The woman leaned forward again. “Promise you won’t get upset.”

That was certainly unexpected. What the heck? But Stephanie stayed the course. After all, she was getting off the train in a couple of stops and she’d never see this woman again. “No, I won’t. Ask me anything.”

Still leaning in, the woman lowered her voice. “Have you always needed diapers?”

Stephanie’s face went pale. How can she—? She looked down at herself, at the way she was sitting. There was the faintest mound where there shouldn’t be one in her crotch, but nothing noticeable under dark green velvet.

“No, don’t worry,” said the woman as if reading her mind. “It’s not something obvious. It’s just…when you’re old and you’ve changed a ton of diapers and you find you need them again yourself, you notice. You know how they say gay people have gaydar? I have diaperdar.”

It would have made Stephanie laugh, but she was still too freaked out to do so.

“So, have you?” the woman asked? “Always needed them?”

Stephanie nodded. “Y-yes. I’ve been…” she whispered the next word “…incontinent all of my life, and medication doesn’t work.”

The woman’s eyes looked sympathetic. “Must have been hard.”

Stephanie startled herself by laughing. “That is the understatement of all time. I even wrote to Santa once asking to get rid of them, but of course no go.”

The woman looked confused. “Why ‘of course’?”

“Well, you know, Santa.”

“Ahh…and you’re too old for all of that, right?”

Stephanie shrugged. “Let’s just say he didn’t deliver. Anyway I am too old to believe in Santa.”

“Well, of course you are. May I ask: was that the reason?”

“Excuse me?”

“The letter you wrote. When you didn’t get your Christmas wish that year, is that what caused you not to believe?”

Stephanie thought about it for a moment. “I guess so. But really: once you know the truth it’s all pretty obvious.”

“How so?”

Stephanie couldn’t believe she was actually making a logical argument why there was no Santa Claus. This was the weirdest day ever.

“Well, for starters, how about the fact that, right then, I stopped getting gifts ‘from Santa’? Or that my parents never did? I mean I hadn’t noticed that before, of course, but it was a glaring omission afterwards. My parents are good people; why would Santa skip them…if he existed?”

The old woman shrugged. “Ever hear of a self-fulfilling prophecy?”

“Sure,” Stephanie answered, nodding. “The kind of prediction that you make that, by the nature of the decisions you make following it, is bound to come true.”

“Exactly,” the old woman said. “Santa’s wishes are a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Let me ask you another question: have you written to Santa since that letter he didn’t answer?”

Stephanie shook her head. “What would be the point? He doesn’t exist.”

“You’re so certain. Couldn’t it be that, by not writing him, you failed to ask for anything, thus you didn’t get anything? And your parents, I’m assuming, don’t write to him either.”

Still trying to get her mind around the woman’s last bit of argument to see if it was in fact logical, Stephanie simply said, “Never.”

“There you have it,” said the old woman. “Self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Stephanie finally waded through the logic puzzle and found its flaw. “You say that the lack of a letter is why it wasn’t answered. OK, fine. But this all began because he didn’t answer a letter I did write.”

The woman smiled. “Did you ever stop to consider that maybe he had reasons?”

The conversation was fascinating. Indulging this woman was interesting, but it sure wasn’t easy. “What possible reasons?”

“Well,” she said, “maybe it’s just beyond his skillset. I mean he is a toymaker, after all, and you asked for a miracle. Wrong Christmas icon to pray to, I’d say. But beyond that, maybe he just thought there were life lessons you still needed to learn.”

Stephanie thought back to when she was really twelve or thirteen years old, back to when she’d sent that letter. “Like what?”

The woman’s smile was gentle. “Perhaps, in high school, you might come to understand that there are many, many people in the world who would trade their positions for yours. Perhaps you might even discover that under certain circumstances being diapered can be a positive thing. And maybe, in college, you might learn things that allow you to actually enjoy being diapered.”

Stephanie was stunned into silence listening to this woman summarize exactly what had happened to her in her life. She thought back to high school, the first time she started becoming comfortable with herself. Oh, she was jealous of the girls who could complete the wonderful, sexy images the media threw at them with the taut, flat crotches and round, sensuous behinds, but she had never thought of herself as much of a sexual girl, so the images were more academic than anything else. In her diapers she could be cute; that was always good enough for her even if no one else got to see it. And she had learned about so many other people around the world who spent their lives suffering, so many to whom her small issue would seem a picnic.

Of course it was in high school too that she had first discovered that diapers could be a protection against unwanted advances. It wasn’t that she let the boys see them; it was that she knew they were there and thus was way more cautious than she otherwise might have been. Oh, she did drink, but she learned her limits and stayed strictly within them. She decided that she’d know the boy who was right for her because he’d be the one she felt comfortable telling her secret to; no such boy ever emerged, not even in college, where she had indeed discovered the cute diapers that made her needs less painful and a little more fun.

How could this woman know all of this?

“Um, pardon me, but that’s a lot of really specific information. What’s going on here?”

“You’re a really good girl, Stephanie,” the woman said.

Did I tell her my name? I don’t remem—

“You wanted nothing more than a quiet train ride to your party, but you indulged an old woman for no reason other than the kindness in your heart, even when I asked ridiculously personal questions.”

“Well, I—”

“Well, nothing, Sweetie. You’re a good person. You’ve spent your whole life being a good person. Your friends know it, and I think you know it too.”

Stephanie was stunned. “My…whole…life?”

The woman tilted her head to one side and winked. “Oh come, now, Stephanie. We can stop playing now. I know you’re not in middle school.”

“You…do?”

“Of course. Though I wasn’t kidding that you are adorable enough to pass as someone much younger than you are, seventh grade was sort of pushing it a bit.”

“So you’ve just been messing with me?”

The old woman smiled. “More like getting to know you better.”

“You don’t know me at all,” Stephanie said. “You just met me.”

The woman nodded. “True, true. But it feels as if I’ve known you for a very long time. I think maybe you remind me of someone I used to know.”

Stephanie was silent for a long moment. The conversation, odd from the start, was getting way too weird, and now there was a touch of sadness in the woman’s voice.

“Someone…you’ve lost?”

The woman smiled gently. “Yes, but not in the way you’re thinking. You remind me of a much younger version of myself.”

Stephanie considered this for a moment. “In what way?”

“You have all the desire and dreams in the world, but life keeps building walls to keep them away. Isn’t that right, Dear?”

Can she read that from my face? Stephanie wondered. There was no doubt about its truth. She was only 27, but life was already feeling to her like one example of settling after another. She begrudgingly accepted her incontinence because there was nothing to be done about it. Oh she’d tried all the medicines on the market; the only result was that the insurance companies got richer. And she’d stopped even looking for a guy; who would really want her anyway? And then there was her job: how she’d managed to trap herself into life in a dull cubicle in an accounting firm sometimes astounded her; it certainly wasn’t what she wanted back in high school when she dreamed of a very different life. She may have loved working with numbers, but she had no taste whatsoever for drudgery. She’d only gotten a C in one quarter of that geometry class despite how much she loved it because she refused to do the busywork the teacher assigned. And despite what she told the old woman, she’d always wanted to be an actress. She just never had the guts to try it out. And one thing led to another and…life built its walls.

“I guess it is,” she said, “but isn’t that true for everyone?”

“Not necessarily. Some actually realize their dreams. But that isn’t what defines a successful life.”

Stephanie was puzzled. “What is?”

“Being happy in the life you’re living. What else could anyone ask for?”

“But I’m happy.”

The old woman smiled wanly. “Are you? Do you feel fulfilled by what you do for a living?”

For at least the fifth time, Stephanie felt herself taken aback by the woman’s remark. Either this woman was an excellent judge of character or she knew things about Stephanie. But how could she know?

“I’m an accountant doing mostly data entry,” Stephanie offered, going for a light joke. “How fulfilled should I be?”

Again there was that same small smile. “I think that, if you were meant to be an accountant, you should feel quite fulfilled indeed. But maybe there was something else you wanted? Something you changed your mind about or never tried? A road not taken?”

Stephanie’s mind flashed back to her sophomore year in high school. She was sixteen and looked younger, and her social life was inhibited still by the incontinence; she’d not yet learned to have fun despite it. She did have friends though, and both Cammie and Patricia were attempting to talk her into trying out for the school musical. They were doing Fiddler on the Roof and her friends thought she’d be perfect for the part of the second youngest daughter, Chava. On the day of the audition, though, she chickened out. Cammie ended up playing Hodel and Patricia was in the chorus, and inevitably they made new theatre friends and grew apart from Stephanie, who watched the musical a bit jealous of them and the girl who did get the part of Chava.

“There might have been some things,” she admitted.

“You know there have been as well as I do,” said the old woman. “There is nothing about sitting in a cubicle all day playing with numbers on a screen that fulfills anything you ever dreamed about.”

“How do you—? OK, now, this is too much. How can you know so much about me that I haven’t told you? What’s going on here? Are you just messing with me?”

“No, not at all, Dear. That is not in my job description. No, I was sent to find out if you are indeed the person we thought you are. And—good news!—you are.”

Stephanie was utterly lost. This conversation, in which she felt relatively comfortable, had taken a turn for the weird that she simply couldn’t fathom.

“You were sent— Who…who are you?” she asked.

The woman smiled broadly. “Ah, you’ve asked the six million dollar question, the answer to which will make everything make sense. Well, maybe not sense exactly, but at least there will be some sort of logic involved. Have you no guesses?”

By this point, Stephanie had come to the conclusion that she was most definitely in the Twilight Zone. Or dreaming. This could easily all be a dream. She reached down and pinched her arm.

“Not a dream, Sweetie.”

“But you’re…you’re not normal, are you?” Stephanie asked.

The old woman laughed. “If by that you mean, am I just an old woman who was out Christmas shopping? Then the answer is no, I’m not.”

Stephanie tried to understand. Suddenly It’s a Wonderful Life popped into her mind. “Are you my guardian angel?” she asked.

Another laugh. “Wrong Christmas movie. No, think of me as a kind of emissary.”

“Emissary?”

“We know you’re Nice. Sometimes it’s just necessary to send someone to find out just how nice you are.”

Stephanie shook her head. “Emissary from whom?”

The old woman just smiled. “You know, Stephanie.”

“But that’s impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible. Haven’t you noticed that we’ve been traveling for nearly half an hour from Main and haven’t even reached Ravenswood? If anything is impossible, that should be. But time isn’t really important to us. If it were, he couldn’t get around to everyone in one evening, could he?”

Stephanie knew what the woman was suggesting, but it was absurd. There’s no such thing as Santa Claus.

“That’s where you’re dead wrong, Dear,” the woman said, responding to the statement Stephanie had not made aloud.

“What?”

“There is a Santa Claus.”

Stephanie tried to remember if she had eaten anything odd that afternoon, anything that could account for the bizarre hallucination she was obviously experiencing, but she could think of nothing. She stared at the old woman, trying to make any of this make sense.

“Right,” she said. “And he’s the Spirit of Christmas and he’s going to make all of my wishes come true even though he’s been missing from my life for years.”

“We’ve been over that,” said the old woman.

Stephanie grew irritated. “You expect me to believe in Santa Claus. You realize that doing that is practically the stereotype for crazy, don’t you?”

“Not crazy. Childlike. And come on: you are dressed in an outfit you got when you were fifteen.”

Stephanie was exasperated. For the first time, she lost her temper with the woman and raised her voice. “Stop that! How can you know things like that? Have you been stalking me or something?”

The old woman’s smile, consistent until now, dropped. She looked sad, as if she’d just lost an important contest. Slowly, she shook her head. “I’d hoped that, since you intentionally maintained so many vestiges of innocence, you might— But of course not. The others were right. 27 is too old to rescue.”

“Rescue?”

“That’s why I’m here, Stephanie. But he let this test go on far too long and now you’re way too jaded.”

The old woman started gathering her things.

“What are you doing?” Stephanie asked, feeling an unaccountable panic at the thought of this woman’s too-soon departure.

“Leaving. You’ve made up your mind.”

“Oh come on!” Stephanie practically yelled. “That isn’t fair. You just sprung all of this on me. I need a chance to process it. And you’ve got to admit it makes no sense at all. You claim he’s real, but the North Pole is just ice sitting on top of an ocean; no one lives there. And what about the fact that parents do buy the presents marked ‘From Santa’? That’s demonstrably true. I was able to find where they hid them from the moment I discovered that he…”

“…didn’t really exist? You can say it. We’re all used to it. I won’t take offense and neither will he. The answers to your questions are easy: you people said he lived at the North Pole; he never said that, and he doesn’t. It’s way too cold up there anyway. And he always sneaks his gift in with the rest: if parents notice it (and you’d be surprised how many don’t) they write it off as some mystery relative fulfilling the child’s wish.”

Stephanie shook her head. “This is ridiculous.”

“Is it more ridiculous than living your life as an unhappy number cruncher when you had other dreams, like that acting bug, you wish you had pursued?”

This was too much, and Stephanie snapped again. “How can you know that about me?”

“I know everything about you, Stephanie. It’s in my job description.”

“And what is your job exactly?”

“Elf.”

This was getting more and more absurd by the second. “I thought elves were, like, small?”

The old woman laughed. “Some of us, yes. The toymakers, for sure. But what do you think Santa himself is? Human? Living for hundreds of years? Some elves are just bigger than others is all. And when he needs to send emissaries into the world, he sends the ones who will blend better.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes while Stephanie processed everything she had just heard and the old woman waited patiently.

“OK. Suppose I believe all of this—” Stephanie began, but the old woman interrupted her.

“You do,” she said simply.

Stephanie sighed. “OK. Say I do. What now? I mean, I still don’t understand why you’re here.”

The old woman smiled. “To answer that letter from so long ago,” she said.

Stephanie’s eyes went wide. “You mean you can take my incontinence away?”

“Yeah, I was fibbing about the miracle thing. He can grant them. It’s a once per lifetime deal though and only for the Very Nice, but you qualify. If you still desire it.”

Of course I do!”

“Not so fast,” said the old woman. “You’re old enough to know that everything has a cost and there are always choices to be made. I’ve listened carefully to you and I’m going to offer you three choices. Don’t decide on a whim. Think it through. Tonight, before you go to sleep, make your decision; it will be so when you awaken.”

Heart pounding, Stephanie asked, “What are the choices?”

“First choice: Santa will indeed remove your incontinence. But the price you pay for that is that every other aspect of your life remains unchanged. You will still be 27 and stuck in a job you hate, staring at decades of pushing numbers in an accounting firm.”

“And the other choices?”

“Second choice is a different life, the one you’d have had if you had chosen the road you didn’t take. I don’t know what that road was. Maybe it was acting; maybe it was something else you discovered in college. Whatever it was, you entertained it for at least a while and abandoned it. If you choose this way, you’ll awaken to what life would have been if you’d made that choice instead. You will still need diapers, but you’ll most likely enjoy your life more.”

“And my third option?”

“That is a major reset. There were only going to be two options, but you slipped so easily into seventh grade tonight that it got me thinking I should offer that to you. So your third option is a return to seventh grade, with all of high school ahead of you to try out anything you’d like, including acting or whatever, building a different kind of resumé to send to colleges than the one you had before. Again, you’d still be incontinent, but your life will be very, very different by the time you reach this age again.”

Stephanie looked intently at the old woman. “Can you tell which is better?”

She shook her head. “That is not for me to say. It’s for you to make happen as life happens to you. Anyway, this is my stop.”

Stephanie found that the train was slowing down. The old woman gathered her things for real and stood up as Stephanie considered everything she had just been told. As she was getting ready to head through the exit doors, Stephanie spoke. “Why me?”

“Oh, you’re not the only one,” the old woman said with a smile. “But sometimes it does take us awhile to get to all of the Christmas wishes we receive. Yours took fifteen years because Santa wanted to know who you’d become first. As I said, he only grants miracles to the Very Nice. He likes what he sees.”

With that, the old woman pushed the button on the double doors, which parted with a whoosh, and she vanished between them as they closed. As the train left the station, Stephanie watched her walking away with her parcels.

Re: Stranger on a Train (Ch 2, 1/26)

oh come on you tease that was a horrible thing to do leaving the audience with a cliffy like that… Dare i say your such a mean butt :wink:

On a more serious note good job well done and all that can’t wait to see what comes next. Especially Stephine’s internal dialog when making the choice…

Re: Stranger on a Train (Ch 2, 1/26)

Wow, you got me hooked! Can’t wait to know which decision she takes. And I really like the way you describe things, it flows so nicely.

I’m eager to read the next chapter ^^

Re: Stranger on a Train (Ch 2, 1/26)

[I]Thanks for the nice words. This isn’t a long story (five chapters total), so we’re reaching the central action now. Let’s see what’s happening…

/I

Gemma sipped a cocktail. Stephanie wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but it was red and there was a cherry in it. She herself was nursing some eggnog; there was brandy in it, but not too much. It was her second glass though. Mandy and Jess each had a glass of red wine. Pentatonix’ Christmas CD was playing, the newly engaged Justin and Stacy and some other couples were dancing, and the four women had commandeered a table in a corner to talk.

“She said she was from Santa Claus?” Mandy asked. “Like North Pole Santa Claus?”

Stephanie shrugged. “Well she said he doesn’t really live there, but is there one at the South Pole I haven’t heard of?”

“No, it’s just that—”

“She knew stuff,” Stephanie argued. “I mean she knew intimate stuff. About me. About my life. Things she couldn’t possibly have known.”

Jess shook her head. “And she just came and sat down with you?”

“Like I was her destination. Which I guess I was.”

Gemma reached out and placed her free hand on Stephanie’s. “OK, Steph. I think we get what you’ve been saying, but you have to admit it’s pretty wild.”

Stephanie looked at her friends’ faces one at a time and realized that she was seeing concern. They were worried about her.

“I’m not losing my mind, guys,” she said. “It happened!”

Mandy smiled. “I don’t doubt that for a moment, Steph. But maybe you’d had some, like, wine or something before leaving home? Maybe some of it was alcohol talking?”

Stephanie sighed and shook her head. “No. It wasn’t that. I swear I didn’t have a thing to drink. You know me: I don’t ever drink to excess. I don’t like to be vulnerable.”

Her friends had to acknowledge that much was true.

“But that still didn’t mean you had a sit-down on the train with Santa’s helper,” Jess said.

“Yeah,” Mandy agreed, shaking her head. “I mean I’m not the world’s smartest chiquita, but like one thing I know is there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.”

Stephanie turned to Gemma, who was polishing off her drink. “Hey, don’t look at me,” the taller woman said. “I never believed in him in the first place.”

“Never?” Stephanie asked. “Even when you were a little girl?”

“What can I say?” Gemma smirked. “Mom didn’t believe in teaching us to believe in fairy tales.”

Jess laughed. “And thus we have Gemma, the Woman Without an Imagination. Perfect for this job, I’d say.”

“I have an imagination, thank you,” Gemma retorted. “I could imagine you as a friend, couldn’t I?”

All of them laughed this time, but Stephanie regained composure quickly.

“Come on, guys!” she begged. “I need help here. What should I do?”

Gemma got up to get another drink. As she did, she looked seriously at Stephanie. “Well, it seems to me that you have two questions to deal with.”

“Which are?”

“First, do you believe she was on the level? And second, if so, which of her options do you take?”

Stephanie slowly drank from her own glass as Gemma walked away. Leave it to Gemma to treat this thing logically. She didn’t honestly know if the old woman had been what she claimed. In the moment it sure seemed so, but as she recounted it to her friends it all just seemed so…silly. And yet…

Mandy interrupted her thoughts. “Are you actually entertaining the thought that this woman may have been legit? I mean, like, an elf?”

Stephanie looked up, confused, and shrugged. “She was a strange person who knew too much about me to be any sort of coincidence. Guys, she even knew I used to dream about acting! No one knew that. Well, I mean except for you. How is that possible without there being something…” She really didn’t want to say the word out loud. “…supernatural about it?”

Jess spoke up. “Maybe you should just assume the old woman was Santa’s emissary? I mean if she wasn’t, then no harm no foul, but if she was, then…”

“Then you’d have a major life decision to make tonight,” Mandy said.

“Oh God.” Stephanie drained her eggnog and got up to get a third glass. “I just wanted a nice evening with you guys and now it’s my whole future.”

She walked over to the eggnog table, smiling as her co-workers commented on how “cute” her outfit was. That’s what I wanted. Looking back across the room at her friends, it suddenly struck her that most young women her age would have gone for sexy but she went for cute. What does that say about me? She wandered back to her friends with her refilled beverage.

“Steph,” Gemma, who had returned while Stephanie was gone, said, “We’ve been talking.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I mean, what are you leaning toward?”

“You mean which option?”

“Yeah,” Gemma said.

Stephanie smiled. “That’s easy. The first one. I get to keep all of you as friends and lose the diapers. Easy peasy.

She raised her glass as for a toast, but no one followed. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

Gemma’s serious expression was echoed on the faces of the others. She continued. “It’s just that…we’re not sure it should be that easy.”

“What do you mean?” Stephanie asked.

Mandy answered. “You’re not really, like, happy.”

Jess added, “You never have been, as long as we’ve known you.”

Finally, Gemma picked up the refrain as “The Little Drummer Boy” came on. “I mean we can deal with the mindless drone work, Steph. You just don’t seem to be able to. I think you need something more.”

“More?”

“I don’t know,” Gemma said. “Maybe like she said: maybe you made the wrong choices.”

“But I always liked math!” Stephanie protested.

“Maybe that’s not enough?” Mandy asked.

Stephanie pictured the countless hours she had already spent poring over sheets of numbers, entering them into computers, crunching the results, analyzing what came out, printing it all as reports and shipping it off upstairs so she could start again with new numbers. Then she pictured years and years more of the same drudgery. They were right. It wasn’t enough. The only time it had even been interesting was the day last year when she’d caught that egregious error in the Bellamy account. She knew right away that someone had made a horrible mistake and, sure enough, there was all sorts of commotion upstairs as a result of it. There were a few other, smaller moments along the line, but most of the time it was enter, crunch, analyze, print, ship, again and again and again and again and ag—. This was her life. This was not what she wanted from her life.

“But I’d have to keep the diapers,” she complained. And then with a sudden realization: “And I’d never see you guys again.”

Her friends looked at each other, some secret passing among them. It was Jess who spoke up, a tear in her eye. “We talked about that. We hate it.”

“It, like, absolutely sucks,” Mandy agreed.

Jess went on. “You’re our best friend. But that’s why we think you should do this. Friendship is about thinking of the other person, not yourself.”

“Fine,” Stephanie said. “Think of me. I don’t want to lose you all! It would hurt too much. Hell, it hurts that you could imagine life without me.”

Gemma put her hand on Stephanie’s. “We can’t,” she said. “But we don’t have to. If you hit the reset button, we’d never have known you. We wouldn’t know what we were missing at all. Heck, you might not even know. And as for the diapers, you’ve always had them anyway; nothing different there.”

“Yeah,” Jess said. “We’ve had this much fun together. Time for you to get some more enjoyment out of your life. And tomorrow we won’t even realize that you’re…gone.”

She choked back a tear on the last word, and Mandy gave her a hug.

“God that’s weird,” Gemma and Stephanie said simultaneously and then, after a brief pause, burst out laughing.

Gemma raised the glass she’d procured while Stephanie was refilling her eggnog. “To Stephanie!” she said. “To friendship and silliness and the single most bizarre way to end a relationship that anyone has ever heard of.”

Everyone raised their glasses. “Hear, hear!”

“Well,” said Stephanie, “let’s stay as long as my diaper holds out and enjoy ourselves, OK? If this is the end of my time with you and perhaps the end of my 20s, at least for now, I might as well have a good time.”

“I’ll drink to that too!” said Jess, and they all raised their glasses once again.

Re: Stranger on a Train (Ch 2, 1/29)

The ride home was less dramatic than the ride to the party had been. No unusual elf-woman sharing her seat, for starters. But it didn’t matter. Stephanie had a lot to think about. The choices that the woman had laid out were certainly tempting. With the first choice, the money saved alone on not having to buy diapers would make a world of difference to her, not to mention the freedom of not having to wear them. With the second, well, who doesn’t want to see the road not traveled, she thought? But see it, not necessarily live it. What if it were not a life she’d want? [I]Well, this one isn’t a life I want anyway, except for my friends.

[/I]
My friends. How could she just give up her friends? And her cat! Willow suddenly popped into her mind. Until this moment she hadn’t realized either of the drastic choices would mean she’d no longer have Willow! Well, maybe we’d end up together anyway. Who knows? But even as she thought it, she knew it was a silly notion. Choosing either of options two or three, the ones her friends thought she should choose, would lose all of them.

[I]If any of this even means anything. If she was even an elf.

[/I]
She shook her head, hardly believing she was realistically thinking that thought. It was the most insane idea she’d ever entertained before; was she losing her mind? Well, if I am, so are my friends, she thought, as the train rolled into her station.
Bundled up in her faux fur and a scarf tied over her face, Stephanie almost missed the pile of rags and cardboard tucked into a break between the buildings. The cardboard offered privacy and acted as a break for any wind that came directly from the east, as the buildings effectively blocked all other directions. Another homeless person outside on a night like this. It was heartbreaking. And it became all the more heartbreaking when she noticed the green boot extending slightly outside of the ragged blanket under the cardboard lean-to. The same woman. There must have been no room at the shelter, or she didn’t even try to go. And this is her life: days begging for what she can get and nights sleeping between buildings in the cold. A tear ran down Stephanie’s cheek and she instinctively reached up to wipe it before it could freeze. What did she do to deserve this? she thought.

There was nothing she could do to help the woman now, so she crossed the street and headed back to her condo. Where I’ll be safe and warm, she thought.


She sat on her sofa with a glass of wine. Drinking way too much tonight. It was a problem, but she was home and alone, so she didn’t need to worry about anything. She did need to think, though. She had a decision to make; her mind should be clear. But it’s OK, she thought. [I]The eggnog was really weak; it’s already worn off.

[/I]
When it came right down to it, though, the choice was simple: in for a penny; easy peasy. If she was going to reset her life, she might as well be the one with some agency in it, making all of the conscious decisions that would determine what that life would consist of. The “road not taken” option ultimately was a crapshoot, she thought. But a hard reset at age thirteen would leave all roads untaken; she could decide for herself.

“Maybe I won’t ever meet you, Willow,” she said to the cat. “Maybe you’ll be adopted by someone else and live with them and give all of your purring and love to them.”

The cat rubbed her face against Stephanie’s arm. “Yeah, you’re sweet, that’s for sure. No question if I’m somewhere else tomorrow morning you’ll be fine. I’d say I’ll miss you, but I’m not sure I’ll remember. I don’t know; maybe I will.”

For the first time, she realized she didn’t know if she’d be heading back into her life or just becoming younger today. Assuming it was true, She decided it had to be her own life. Santa must realize the other way would create enormous complications. A child alone? And she really didn’t know if she’d remember things. Guess I’ll find out, she chuckled. [I]Or not.

[/I]
It was a bit ironic, she thought. The last time she was thirteen years old, she’d lost her faith in Santa Claus. Now she might relive that age because of him. [I]Did my thirteen-year-old self even know what irony is?

[/I]
She stared across the room at her small Christmas tree, decorated with ornaments from her childhood and from what thus far had been her adulthood. With a few sips of the wine in her, she felt the warmth radiating from the tree’s light. Stephanie loved Christmas trees; they brought back the magic she had lost so long ago. Maybe I’ve found it again? she wondered. This had all started with a letter to Santa so many years ago. Wouldn’t it be perfect to bring it full circle and write a new letter?

She got up and found some paper and a pen before returning to the sofa. Laying the paper on the coffee table, she began to write:

Dear Santa,
[I]Thank you for this opportunity. I have decided to take the third option and return to seventh grade to start again in the hopes that the decisions I will make might lead my life in a different and more fulfilling direction.

[/I]
She stopped.

What was she doing? She rose from the sofa and walked to the large front window. Looking down, she could see the train station across the street. She couldn’t make anything out in the shadow between the buildings, but she knew the homeless woman was there, sleeping in the chill.

[I]I need a different direction in my life? God, all I am is bored! She’s starving and freezing!

[/I]
Still uncertain about any of this, Stephanie Alder returned to her table and took a large sip of her wine. Then she crumpled up her letter and started a new one.

Dear Santa,
Thank you so much for the opportunity you offered me. I don’t know if this is possible, but if it is could you please take Option 2 and apply it to the homeless woman who sleeps in the alleyway near the train station? It seems to me that, if anyone needs to discover what the road not taken would have been like, it’s someone like her.
Thank you,
[I]Stephanie A

[/I]
She picked up the letter and read it through. Satisfied, she folded it, wrote “To Santa” on it, and placed it under the tree before downing the rest of her wine and heading to bed.


In the morning, Stephanie awoke with the oddest sensation she had ever felt: she needed to go to the bathroom. It was a fairly strong urge, and she understood it for what it was though she had never known it before. When she took her diaper off, she was stunned to see that, for the first time ever, it was dry. What’s going on here? Confused, she quickly did her business and taped the unused diaper back on before getting dressed for work, shooing Willow off of her bed as she sat down to put on her clothes.

“No, baby: I need that spot.”

The little cat jumped right back onto the bed, but this time stayed a couple of feet away as it curled up, allowing Stephanie to get read and go outside.

The homeless woman wasn’t in her usual place—maybe she went to the shelter after all—and Stephanie’s ride into work was unmarred by any miraculous beings engaging her in conversation. When she got there, all three of her friends met her in the break room.

“What gives?” Gemma said. “I knew as soon as I woke up that it was either all a fraud or you chose Option 1.”

Stephanie smiled. “I honestly don’t know. I mean I didn’t choose Option 1. I didn’t choose any option, not for myself.”

She explained to her friends about the homeless woman and about how her morning had been going.

“So you’re not incontinent any more?” Jess asked her.

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “I woke up dry, that’s all. It was weird, but a coincidence. Besides, I didn’t even ask for anything. And if I had I was going to ask for Option 3.”

“Yeah,” Mandy said. “Makes sense. Start over so you can control what happens.”

“Something like that. I’d have missed you guys, though. Do you think you could have befriended a little kid?”

Gemma smiled. “If she was you? Of course!”

Jess interrupted. “We’d better get out there. They said we’d be getting a visitor from upstairs today. We don’t want to look lazy.”

“True that,” Gemma said. She raised her cup. “Welcome back, Stephanie. It’s like you never left!”

Everyone clinked cups and headed out to their cubicles.

About an hour later, Stephanie looked up to find her immediate superior, Bella, standing there.

“You look busy,” Bella said.

Stephanie smiled. “I’m always busy.”

“That’s actually what I’d like to talk with you about. Could you step into my office for a few minutes?”

Stephanie was apprehensive. Had she done something wrong? She may not like this job but she certainly couldn’t afford to be let go. Still, she didn’t allow her concern to show on her face. Smiling, she followed Bella into her office. To her surprise, there was someone else already there, an older woman, sharply dressed, with close-cropped brunette hair. She was a very attractive woman, but there was something a bit odd about her that Stephanie could not place.

“Stephanie Alder, this is Lauren Neumaier, one of our Vice Presidents of Human Resources. You probably haven’t had the opportunity to talk with her before, but she has asked to see you.”

Human Resources. They are letting me go. Shit!

Lauren Neumaier held out her hand with a smile, which confused Stephanie. “Please sit down,” she said.

Once everyone was seated, it was Lauren who began.

“You’ve been on my radar for a long time, Stephanie. Most of the people down here do their jobs and go home. I don’t blame them; we all know that this work is pretty uninspiring.”

Stephanie didn’t know if she should agree with that or not, so she kept quiet.

“You, on the other hand: well, you may find it just as boring as everyone else does, for all I know, but you approach it with enthusiasm. You even stay late when there is an especially difficult case to deal with.”

Bellamy. She’s talking about Bellamy. I’m not being fired after all.

“We were all impressed with the work you did on the Bellamy case. The account manager and three others before you had missed that error, and it could have cost the firm millions.”

Stephanie’s face reddened. “It was just my job, what I do.”

“Yes,” Lauren agreed. “But you do it very, very well. I started watching you then and I’ve noticed that you’ve caught several other, smaller errors as well. Individually they are not Bellamy, but together they’d have amounted to even more. You’re very good, Stephanie, and you deserve a reward.”

Bella, from behind her desk, interjected at this point. “Mrs. Neumaier would like to offer you the position of junior account manager. It comes with an office, your own accounts, and of course a pretty significant raise.”

Lauren, whose attention had gone to Bella, turned back to Stephanie. “Are you interested?”

Stephanie was almost in a state of shock. Her dead-end job was over? She might be doing much more interesting things with her numbers than merely checking them over for errors? Of course she was interested!

“Yes! I mean, yes, I’d love to accept that offer.”

Both of the other women smiled. Lauren stood up and said, “Great! You’ll begin Monday. Find me on 23 and I’ll get you situated.”

As Stephanie stood and shook the woman’s hand, she suddenly realized what was unusual about Lauren Neumaier: she had different colored eyes, one green and one very nearly amber. Stephanie stared at her as she walked away.

That’s impossible.

“Stephanie?” Bella’s voice sounded as if it was in a fog. “Stephanie?”

She suddenly turned back to her boss…at least for today. “Oh, sorry. Lost in thought there.”

“Well, I can hardly blame you. Congratulations! Why don’t you use today to clear out anything you can. We won’t send you anything new. If there are still things left by, say, 4:00, let me know and I’ll shift them to someone else so you can clear out your desk and stuff and then enjoy the weekend. OK?”

Stephanie nodded. “Thanks, Bella,” she said, and headed back onto the floor.

Re: Stranger on a Train (Ch 4, 2/5)

Brava, this story has more twists than a bag of rotini. I like the character development, and the unique take on Santa as well as the unexpected path.

Re: Stranger on a Train (Ch 4, 2/5)

Thanks. :slight_smile: One more chapter to go…

Re: Stranger on a Train (Ch 4, 2/5)

(5)

“Oh. My. God!” Mandy said as they waited for their tacos. “Are you, like, kidding me?”

All three had squeed their congratulations after hearing of the promotion, but this was the first time Stephanie told them about who had delivered it.

“Are you sure she’s the same woman” Gemma asked.

“No,” Stephanie said. “But how many brunettes have one green eye and one amber eye?”

“Holy shit!” said Jess. “Ho-ly shit!”

“That’s not all,” Stephanie told them. “I’ve been to the ladies’ room again. And I was still dry!”

“OhmyGod, OhmyGod, OhmyGod, OhmyGod, OhmyGod,” Mandy stammered. “This is amazing!”

“‘Amazing’ doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Stephanie said.

“Incredible,” offered Jess.

“Astounding,” said Gemma.

The game was on and it was back to Mandy. “Unprecedented,” she said.

Stephanie jumped in. “Mind-boggling!”

Jess threw in “Unbelievable!” before Gemma jumped in with “Phenomenal!”

Then Mandy said, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!”

Everyone laughed, and Mandy added, “What? I mean, if ever there was a time that word was, like, appropriate, this is it.”

When the laughter died down, and the tacos had arrived, it was Gemma who asked, “What now?”

“What do you mean?” asked Stephanie.

“Well I think you’re technically our boss,” she said.

“Oh, poo! Like I care about that.”

Jess swallowed a bite of her food. “It will change things,” she said. “First time one of us has to do work for you. It’ll change things.”

Stephanie considered. “You may have a point, but can we all agree to do our best not to let it? I mean things don’t have to change between us just because work crap changes.”

Mandy nodded. “We can try,” she said, and they all agreed.

Gemma pulled a folded piece of paper from her purse.

“What’s that?” asked Stephanie.

That,” Gemma said, “is the trifecta. Your job is more fulfilling. Your incontinence is gone.”

“That remains to be seen,” Stephanie interrupted.

“Well, I’m being optimistic. And now for the last piece of the puzzle.”

She handed her friend the paper. “I found this online and printed it out for you. I’ll do it if you will.”

Stephanie unfolded it and found an ad for an improv class run by Second City. It was an open class; no experience needed. She smiled. Trifecta. She reached over to hug her friend.

“This is the best day of my life,” she said.

As they finished their lunch and got up to leave, Stephanie noticed a familiar face at the bar.

“Guys, I’ll meet you back at work, OK? There’s something I need to take care of.”

After the others left, she wandered over to the bar and took the seat the old woman had left vacant for her.

“I ordered you a Coke,” the woman said. “Shouldn’t be drinking at lunch.”

Stephanie picked up the Coke with a smile and took a sip, unsurprised that it was the best one she could ever remember drinking.

“You have questions,” the woman said.

“You have answers?” Stephanie asked.

Nodding, the woman indicated that they should move to a booth for better privacy. Once they were there, she smiled. “I guess you’ve had a heck of a day.”

Stephanie’s smile matched the woman’s. “I’m sure you know just exactly the day I’ve had.”

“Yes,” she said. “As I said before, I know everything about you.”

“You do realize how completely creepy that is, don’t you?”

The woman laughed. “There’s a lot about Santa that’s creepy, if you take it that way. He knows when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. I mean! And how about the dude sneaking around your house in the middle of the night? How about his close relationships with all of the world’s children? If you wanted to build a case on circumstantial evidence, well, let’s just say it’s there. But that’s not what you want to talk about.”

“No. What happened? I didn’t wish for anything for myself. I wished for that homeless woman, that Lauren Neumaier. And anyway I was going to choose Option 3. What’s going on?”

The old woman smiled somewhere from so deep within her that Stephanie could swear she could almost she her soul. “Santa was more than impressed. As I told you, you were not the first person ever to be offered a miracle. You were, however, the first person ever to reject the offer. That action moved you from Very Nice to Utterly, Ridiculously Nice.”

“There is no such thing.”

“OK, you caught me. But if there were, you’d have made the list and it would be a list of one.”

“So what then?”

“When Santa saw what you did, it moved him. And you have to understand he’s seen it all: he’s not easily moved these days. So he granted your wish for the homeless woman, as you know.”

“Yeah,” said Stephanie. “And she works where I do. Coincidence?”

“In my experience,” the old woman told her, “there are no such things. Anyway, you clearly deserved help as well, so…I see the incontinence is clearing up—it won’t be perfect for awhile yet, but I’ll bet you’ll be out of diapers this year—and your job is more fulfilling, and you get to explore acting.”

“But I thought you said no one could have more than one miracle.”

“Did I? Well…who said any of these things were miracles anyway? Maybe the incontinence was just due to clear up. Maybe this Neumaier woman, who has worked at your firm for years, and you can check personnel records if you don’t believe me, just had her oddly colored eyes on you because she liked what she saw. Maybe Gemma offered you the improv class because she’s your friend. None of that needs to be a miracle.”

Stephanie shook her head. “You know as well as I do what it was.”

“Do I? And what would that be?”

“Santa Claus, of course!”

“You do know how crazy that would sound if anyone heard you,” the old woman said.

Stephanie was exasperated. “I know you’re making me crazy.”

The old woman smiled and rose from the booth, followed by her younger companion. Grabbing her handbag, the old woman zippered her coat and turned to Stephanie.

“You’re an amazing person, Stephanie Alder. You deserve all of the joy that is coming to you. Be well.”

As she turned to leave, Stephanie reached out and touched her sleeve. “What about you? Will I ever see you again?”

“That’s doubtful,” the old woman said. “I’ll always be watching over you, of course—it’s my job—but I really need to move on now. There’s this family of five in Belize that really needs my help, and you wouldn’t even believe how Nice all of them are.”

Stephanie smiled, shaking her head slightly. “You have to bring up Belize, don’t you? Just when I was beginning to really like you.”

The old woman laughed. “It’s OK, Dear. Winter won’t last forever. And if it’s any consolation they’re having an off-season tropical storm right now.”

Stephanie shook her head. “Can’t find consolation in that, sorry.”

“Of course not. You wouldn’t be you if you could.”

“Thank you for everything,” Stephanie said after the shortest of pauses.

“You’re very welcome,” said the old woman as she turned and walked out of Stephanie Alder’s life.


The letter was gone from under the tree. Stephanie hadn’t even noticed that this morning, in all of the craziness with her new bathroom needs, but it still boggled her mind, as did all of the events of the last 24 hours. In the grand scheme of things, she supposed that the missing letter was a very low-ranking mystery. Best not to wonder. Maybe she never even really wrote it at all. I could have dreamed it. I did have a lot to drink. But that didn’t explain away today. And it didn’t explain the old woman. Nothing explained the old woman.

She poured a glass of wine, turned on the TV, and put in Miracle on 34th Street. She’d had her own miracles, she was sure. And as Willow cuddled up in her lap and Kris Kringle tried to convince the world that he was the real Santa Claus, she, an adult who believed in Santa Claus, let herself slip gently away into the only place she knew where dreams were always real.

Re: Stranger on a Train (Ch 5 2/7)

That was a plesantly unexpected ending, I loved it! And I’m glad she and Willow didn’t have to break up ^^

Re: Stranger on a Train (Ch 5 2/7)

Okay, I put off reading this for too long.

Wow.

I liked the first version, but it did have some issues.
This, however, is top notch. Everything just comes together in such a satisfying way. And what a wild change from the original. Talk about the road not taken eh?

I love it.

Re: Stranger on a Train (Ch 5 2/7)

Thanks! I put a lot of effort into the revision; the original was decent but I think it is a much better story now.

Re: Stranger on a Train (Ch 5 2/7)

Wow, I’m really happy I took the time to read this. Definitely an inspiring sort of piece, and also quite unpredictable. My favorite part about it, though is a pretty cool coincidence: I was actually born in Highland Park. Based on that alone… this is probably one of the most memorable stories I’ve ever read.