The following short story was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ bi-monthly genre event–Rendezvous: A Literary Celebration of Historical Romance. Please enjoy.
Elisa waited until everyone who had boarded the train with them back in Baltimore had departed, most of them in Philadelphia and Pittsburg, waited until the train car was nearly empty. There was a stop in east rural Ohio, and it was after this that Elisa took one final shuddering look around her, pulled her suitcase from the rickety shelf above her seat, and walked to the powder room. This should’ve been done back in Baltimore, she thought bitterly, but they had had to run, and hadn’t had time. Under the nerves, Elisa smiled. She thought about her first History class, three years ago.
* * *
Had they not been seated beside each other in that class, Elisa and Helen might never have met. As it was, they did sit beside each other, and wasted countless bottles of ink passing notes through their first year. Helen had lived in a different dorm than Elisa, and together they learned every secret passage at Mary Beth’s. Through corridors, court yards, and empty classrooms, they snuck to each other each night and by candle light passed the year with the stories that Mary Beth’s found unsuitable for young girls. Helen had a copy of something new from England, the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, banned in Baltimore, and would not tell Elisa how she’d acquired it. Elisa had the Song of Solomon, which her father had very long ago, like many fathers, removed from his daughter’s Bible.
* * *
The train jolted and Elisa stumbled in the little boxed room, came back to herself, even as she caressed Conan Doyle’s book, nestled in her suitcase, the only one they’d dared to bring. “We have to pack our whole lives,” Helen had said. “There will be plenty of books in Kansas City. Some we’ve never heard of.”
But Elisa wasn’t sure. She didn’t know anything about Kansas City, only that her father called it a godless place. Elisa lifted the book and removed the scissors from beneath it.
* * *
If their first year at Mary Beth’s had been all secret reading, the second year was all talking. Elisa and Helen had found an attic room where they first heard all of each other’s dreams—of seeing the world, travelling Asia, India, taking trains to anywhere. Elisa confessed she had never left Baltimore.
“We’ll go everywhere,” Helen had said. “We’ll see it all together.”
Helen’s eyes were the color of chocolate, and as sweet, always full of smiles and encouraging words. Elisa told her father and mother of her school friend when visiting home. Couldn’t she come stay with them, she would ask, and her parents would only laugh at the petty things that preoccupied a young girl’s mind.
But the young girl was soon a young woman. In their third year together at Mary Beth’s, Helen and Elisa continued their habit of sneaking around. This time they didn’t do any reading. They didn’t do any talking either. Elisa often thought of things like sin and condemnation during those sleepless nights, but somehow, when Helen would wind up her fingers in Elisa’s hair, the thoughts were not frightening. Helen made her brave.
* * *
The dirty glass that the train passed for a mirror reflected Elisa’s work.
It was a mess, she thought, and she was taking too long. Every time the train jolted the scissors missed their mark, and if a conductor came round and she was missing, or if someone came calling to the powder room door—
Elisa gave herself a shake. It was good enough, she thought, and began the tedious process of undressing. So many layers, and as each one was pulled away she breathed a little easier.
* * *
Their fourth year together at Mary Beth’s was meant to be Elisa and Helen’s last, and Helen assured Elisa, in letters kept in a secret box, that the year would be spent planning their life of adventure together. Elisa had been reading just such a letter when her father came to her door.
“Come downstairs,” he had said. “Your mother and I have a surprise for you.”
Elisa had suspected that her parents had given up, decided she would have to be a teacher or governess, with her broad shoulders and strong form. Elisa had a face almost boyish. Both her older sisters had married easily, but Elisa had had no suitors, until now. Matthew Morgan had come to call—he was her surprise, waiting in the parlor for her.
And what of her final year at Mary Beth’s?
“There is no need,” her father explained in a voice that was maddeningly calm. “Mr. Morgan thinks you are educated enough as it is. We’ll put the tuition for your last year towards your wedding, and your first home.”
“There’s no reason to have him hold off and go find someone else,” Elisa’s mother petted her hair at night as she cried in her bed, and tried to explain. “Be grateful for the short engagement. Be excited.”
Elisa’s tuition was placed with the rest of her dowry on the mantel the eve before the wedding. She shouldn’t have waited, she thought, for that last night. It was cruel to Matthew, who meant her no harm. But she needed the money, for the train ticket, and everything after. It was more than enough to begin a new life, Elisa’s mother told her, and that’s exactly what Elisa intended to do.
* * *
It was a rushed job, but Elisa smiled in the mirror. Had her parents not discovered the missing money, had the chase not been so frantic that morning in Baltimore, it would’ve been a better job, but as Elisa examined her strong shoulders and square jaw she thought it would do. The trousers felt odd, new, but not so unnatural. The corset she’d altered to bind her chest wasn’t so uncomfortable. She wondered if they’d reach a place someday so far west that it didn’t matter, that she could wear what she liked. Until then, Elisa gave the powder room one last cursory glance, pulled open its little corner window, and threw her dress and petticoats into the countryside that soared by.
Elisa found her way past the seat she’d taken when she boarded, continued down five more rows, counting them, and sat in her new place, after settling her brown leather suitcase above her beside a flower print carpet bag. Elisa tucked her train ticket into the inner pocket of the stolen coat. She wanted to shriek with delight, to throw her arms round the warm body beside her, but she must act natural, and so only sat quietly. A hand, smaller and fairer than Elisa’s, found her knee and sat there for a few moments before pulling away.
The train lingered in Columbus just a quarter of an hour before moving again. The train conductor came round calling for tickets. Elisa met Helen’s eyes just once, briefly, and they smiled—it was their first test.
Helen handed her ticket to Elisa, who pulled her own from her coat pocket and handed them both to the conductor.
The conductor squinted at Elisa’s ticket and laughed. “Elisa and Helen Smith?” he asked.
Elisa cleared her throat again and spoke in the voice that, back at Mary Beth’s, she’d practiced: gruff and deep.
“Elias Smith. And going back to Kansas City where a body knows how to spell a man’s name.”
The three of them laughed, and the conductor passed on. Helen’s hand found Elisa’s, and they watched the countryside pass by.