This week’s Flash Fiction Challenge at Terribleminds was to choose an item at random from each of two lists and use them in a story. A random number generator gave me (3) “A mysterious-perhaps even magical-photograph” and (8) “A plane or train ride.” The story I came up with is a letter, relating the true story of the night a couple first met. It’s touch over 1100 words, and was a pleasure to write.
I found the envelope on your kitchen counter, held in place with a bottle of sherry. I had never tried sherry before, but the dark, mysterious bottle was intriguing. On the envelope, you’d written “Drink Me” in your finest penmanship.
You passed away earlier that night, and I was lucky to be in the room when you did. I was new to my residency, and that was the first time a patient of mine had died. I was surprised at how much it affected me. As I write this the memory has so much more weight, alleviated only by knowing the purpose of this letter.
You were so charming to visit on rounds. You told such fascinating stories, and had such a sharp wit, I looked forward to visiting your room each day. When you passed, I looked in your purse for your sister Marcie’s number. I couldn’t find your address book, but I did find your keys. On the chain was a photo of you and Bertie, the spaniel you told me about many times, and I was worried the poor thing was alone in your flat.
I finished my duties quickly, went off shift, and proceeded to your apartment, where I found no dog. I hadn’t considered the age of the photo, much less the attractive woman in it. If I’m being completely honest, I’m certain I had considered that, but at the time Bertie was the only reason I had to justify going to your apartment.
It was such a warm, inviting place, and walking into it was like entering my own home. After finding the bottle and no dog, I browsed your books and the art on the walls. I shied away from your photo albums, that felt like too intimate an intrusion. I stopped at the poster of John Coltrane, remembering when Marcie came to visit and you talked about sneaking out of your parents’ to see him at L’Olympia. You both laughed as you told me about spotting a young man you’d never seen before, waving to you from the train while the two of you stood on the platform at Pigalle. You spoke of your surprise at running into him again outside the theatre after the show, and how he told you he’d wandered the streets of Paris after seeing you, searching for the girl of his dreams. Marcie spoke of it with amazement, while you spoke with such wonder and joy.
Something in that story, among the others the two of you told, resonated with me. I’m not religious, but the way you marveled at the flash of light that drew your attention to the train and the meeting it led to was charming. In the way you spoke, and the way you laughed, I could understand how that young man would be enchanted by you. I felt he must have been very lucky.
I saw your copy of Alice in Wonderland, the one you bought in London, on the coffee table. I smiled, remembering the note you left with the sherry, and went back to follow your instruction. I toasted your memory, and tasted the sweet wine. I found it pleasant, and I admit I indulged in a second glass. After setting down the bottle, I took up the envelope and turned it over. It was unsealed; the only item inside was a photograph.
I understood even more why that young man was so drawn to you when I looked at that picture. It was of you and Marcie, on the platform at Pigalle, laughing. The image was blurred slightly with your movement as you laughed with your whole body, but I could see such warmth in you. It made me smile, as I remembered how that laugh sounded.
I finished the second glass of sherry before going to the Metro. I found a seat in a nearly empty car and took my coat off. When I was folding it, I found I had slipped the photo of you into my pocket. I considered returning to your flat and putting it back, but the train pulled away from the platform. I sat down and stuck the picture in the frame of the window, to watch how the light flashed past behind it. The long day, the emotion from losing you, and the sherry all overwhelmed me, and I fell asleep.
I was awakened by a flash, and by being jostled. A young man with a cheap Kodak was apologizing profusely to me in terrible French. He was a tourist, and trying to explain that he was leaning in to take a photo. I turned to look where he gestured, and saw you and Marcie, looking at the train in confusion. I waved. I should have gotten off, but I was dumbstruck. The photo was gone from the window, and you were there instead. A moment later the train pulled away.
By the time we reached Abbesses, I had struck up a conversation with the man with the camera. He was visiting Paris for the first time, and I offered to buy him a drink and tell him some sights to see around the city, aside from the normal tourist spots. A couple of drinks in Le Dorner later, he got up to use the bathroom. I took his wallet and the camera. Years later I sent both to the address I found in his wallet, along with more money than I took from him and a letter that may have sounded more crazy than this one. I felt terrible borrowing them, but as you can see I needed both the money he carried and the picture he’d taken.
I rode back into the city, both anxious that I had stayed too long with the American and certain that I hadn’t. The whole experience was astounding, which I imagine is how you feel reading this letter, and how you will feel when you see me at the hospital. I stood outside L’Olympia, hearing brilliant jazz bleed through to the street, and waiting for you to come out.
I know this is all a shock, so soon after I’ve passed. For fifty years there was so much more to the story of how I saw you from the train, and found you in front of that theatre. I wanted to tell you countless times, and show you the photo, and share this moment, but the unbelievable truth meant telling you things I had no business to, until now. I am enclosing with this letter the photo of you and Marcie. I don’t believe I need to tell you when to arrange the things I’ve mentioned above, I feel the same impulse will grab you that convinced me to go to your apartment that night. When it does, and if you can forgive me holding all of this back for so long, please leave it on the kitchen counter, with the sherry we bought in Barcelona.