The Visitor

March 23, 2011
Chris began to question the wisdom of this trip. Her father had never asked her to visit him. In fact, the hospital staff said he hated visitors, wouldn’t even acknowledge their presence by opening his eyes. But here she was, spending $14 and her long-awaited Saturday on someone she only saw once a year, who refused to take her with him on his travels and turned down every invitation to family gatherings and holiday parties. He hadn’t come to her birthday party or her sister’s wedding, or even bothered to send a card. What was she doing here? Chris leaned against the plastic seatback, watching dry wasteland roll by outside the train windows. They were already past the outskirts of Raelan. Well, it’s too late to turn back.
The train was eerily silent. In the corner of the car a newborn baby’s sharp cries stabbed the air, but the mother shushed it, and all was silent again. Chris was suddenly overcome by a nervous tingle that swept through her body, making it impossible to get comfortable. Now what? She drummed her knees into the floor and sipped from her water bottle, more out of anxiety than thirst, and changed positions every few minutes to ease her cramping muscles. Nothing worked. She was glad she was wearing pants so nobody could see her trembling legs. What was that they taught in yoga? Oh, yes, finding your inner peace…meditation. She shut her eyes and tried to concentrate on taking slow, deep breaths, but her breath came out shaky and labored. Not like meditative breathing at all.
Why am I so nervous? she asked herself finally. What’s wrong with me? All I have to do is sit on this train, visit Dad for a few minutes, then go back to sit on the train again. A simple visit. That’s nothing to get worked up about. She further reasoned that the worst that could happen was that her father wouldn’t want to see her, yet that was what she was most afraid of. She had been anticipating this day for weeks, her first solo journey—she chuckled, one hour on a train she had rode hundreds of times before could hardly be called a journey—and the first time she would be seeing her father, alone, since he’d left the family four years ago.
“He doesn’t hate you,” she whispered aloud, crushing the empty water bottle in her hands. “It doesn’t matter that the doctors said he hates visitors. You’re not just any visitor. He’ll want to see you.” She grabbed her bag and fumbled for her wallet. Inside the wallet’s sticky folds was a picture, unevenly cropped and wrinkled with worn-soft corners, of her and her sister with their father. She was twelve years old in the picture and her sister was nineteen, and the three of them were smiling in front of some army museum in Washington. Proof, she thought. He really does love you—it’s just that he can’t admit it now that he’s gone and left us for so long.
She was almost positive that he regretted his mistake, that he missed her terribly and longed to come back to his family. He was likely as anxious as she was now, not knowing whether he would be accepted and forgiven or coldly shunned, and was still waiting for the right dinnertime to ring their doorbell. Of course, the longer he waited, the harder the task would be. Maybe, she thought, maybe he’d been waiting since that Friday afternoon he’d walked out. Maybe it was this dreadful waiting that had caused the accident last week. Maybe the stress of it all had climaxed suddenly in his mind and made him collapse at the steering wheel, ramming his little secondhand car into the back of the pickup truck and crushing his left leg and chest with the impact. She tried to imagine his feelings as he lay, immobile, in his hospital bed. She imagined him furious and heartbroken, mentally beating himself up over this added month standing between him and his family. No, she told herself. She wouldn’t let that happen.
“Now approaching Queensville, last stop,” the conductor’s voice echoed over the loudspeaker. “Last stop, Queensville.”
Chris straightened up in her seat. She tucked the picture back into her wallet and put the wallet and water bottle in her bag. The train was slowing, and she stood up the moment it came to a complete stop. Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she stepped through the sliding doors and into the sunlight. She walked confidently, and quickly. There was someplace she needed to be.

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