The train whistle shrilled and a jolt ripple through the cars. The snow-covered station roof slipped out of sight as the wheels slowly turned, carrying the young woman away from home and into the deep valleys of the mountains.
Sighing she turned from the windows. She didn’t want any reminder of how soon she’d be so far away from everything.
She wasn’t ready for this. Why had she agreed?
Gripping the rails on the wall, she made her way unsteadily to the dining car.
Were there no other passengers?
She slipped hesitantly into a booth, trailing her finger over the smooth, velvet seat. She’d never felt anything so soft and fine before.
Her eyes flicked toward the windows as the train jolted around a curve. Snow dusted peaks. Tree tops frosted over. Icicles hanging from rock ledges. Nothing familiar. Nothing like home.
Sighing, she dropped her gaze and fingered the hem of the tablecloth. Her foot tapped a rhythm on the slatted floor. She wasn’t usually this nervous…
A small scream stuck in her throat and came out a shrill yelp as she pushed herself further into the seat.
Ben. It was only Ben.
Gasping, she looked up. Ben’s worried eyes met hers, and he quickly shuffled around a table to stand next to her.
“Claire, what…? Are you okay?”
“I’m just… I don’t know Ben.”
Neither spoke a word.
Ben slid into the booth opposite her and leaned against the headrest. Waiting.
Claire fidgeted with her hands, looking everywhere but Ben’s face. Something happy flickered on her lips for a second when she saw a familiar sight at the end of the table – a child’s menu with three crayons. How many times had she scribbled on those with her father?
Reaching out, she took the red crayon and rolled it between her fingers, the half-smile turning sorrowful.
Ben reached out and touched her gently on the arm. “Hey.”
Claire looked up.
“Is it Michael?”
“No, no.” her brother was the least of her worries now. It was just…
“You can tell me. We’re best friends, remember? We have been for years. Ever since I pulled your braids in the third grade.”
His teasing failed to lighten her spirits. They had been darkening for days, and no amount of friendly chatter would brighten it.
“Ben, I just can’t anymore.” Claire’s words tumbled out, as if they wanted to escape her mouth before she thought better than to let them.
“Can’t… what?” Ben’s brow furrowed deeply.
“I can’t do this! Any of this! My life… it’s not mine. I’m living some other girl’s life. I was never meant to be the People’s Voice. The real me, the one on the farm, in overalls and bare feet, the one who was happy with just my family and my dog… she’s fading away. And I want her back.”
Claire found a piece of paper from her pocket and absently drew. It was so familiar, the slide of the crayon over the paper, the imperfect line it left…
“I don’t feel like this is really me. I’ve… I’ve made up a person to be in front of people, and I can’t live a lie like that.”
Ben’s confident tone made it sound so easy.
“It’s not that simple! I can’t just change all the sudden on people, and let the Counsel down.”
“Why not? Why not just be yourself?”
Claire shook her head. “Because… because I don’t know who I am anymore.” She looked down at what she’d drawn.
A heart. A little tilted to the left, too narrow at the bottom.
Slowly, she drew a heavy, jagged line down the middle of the heart, pressing harder and harder.
The crayon snapped.
“I’m like this,” Claire whispered, holding the short end out to Ben. “Broken.”
Tears slipped down her cheeks and dripped onto the paper
Ben didn’t speak. Gently, he took the bit of crayon from her and bent over her drawing. He began to fill in her lop-sided heart, the edges smoothing out, the crooked line disappearing. When he’d finished, he slid the paper back over to Claire.
A perfectly shaped, beautifully colored heart lay on the table before her. She looked up at Ben questioningly.
He gave her the little fragment, closing her hand around it.
“Broken crayons still color.”