Cessyna could hear the train rattle by on the tracks as she sat in her chair next to the open window, sipping on inexpensive red wine poured into a little purple plastic cup.
She was feeling lonely. Two deaths and one break-up in the space of the last month were taking their toll on her emotions. She was a smart girl, and recognized that she was still at the ‘shock’ stage of grief. The counselors had told her she would soon become angry, and then accepting. They had even suggested a time table for her emotions.
They were fools.
How did anyone ever get over that kind of shock? The red wine and the sleeping tablets weren’t helping her sleep through the night, no matter how many she took. Loss still found a way to slip into her dreams and jolt her awake.
There was music drifting through the window, carried on the back of the cool night air. It was happy jazz. She could hear people talking, there was the occasional laugh.
Cessyna pulled a light blanket around her. Her name – Cessyna Brighton – was embroidered on the blanket. It was an unusual name. She had spent quite a few hours of her life explaining to inquiring minds that she wasn’t named after the Cessna aircraft brand.
An Internet search of her first name (as a surname) told her that Cessynas kept fruit stands and lived short lives. The same name interpretation website suggested that – for just a few dollars – she could see if anybody famous was ‘hiding in her family tree.’ There were pictures of celebrities scrolling across the screen, all of them respectable clandestine relatives. Amelia Earhart was one of them. Cessyna thought that ironic, as her name was so frequently confused with Cessna and Earhart had been an aviator. Of course, Earhart piloted a Lockheed Electra, not a Cessna. So, her interest fizzled out quickly.
The music slipping through the open window was enticing. She hadn’t heard laughter for a while.
And the train station was only a few blocks away. It was early enough in the evening that Cessyna felt safe walking outside in the quiet, cool air. So, she stood up, put on a bright red jacket, and headed towards the station to see what the celebration was all about.
The turnstile was open. A guard gestured her through. “Come on in,” he called out cordially.
Cessyna walked onto the platform. Coals Station was the last above-ground station before the train plunged into the underground system. It had a good amount of concrete ceiling, especially as the tracks descended into the ground, but there was open air overhead the above-ground section of the platform.
The open-air area had been filled with colorful open umbrellas. They made a make-shift roof for the station. People milled about on the platform, talking. A small band was playing enchanting jazz music, just off the main platform and beside a ticket booth.
“I didn’t get a flyer that these festivities were going on,” Cessyna said to a passer-by.
“None of us did,” the young woman replied to Cessyna. The young woman moved back into the crowd.
Cessyna looked up. The umbrellas were in all different colors; most were multicolored, with numerous slivers of pink, orange, green, red, and baby blue fabric filtering the light. Some were more uniform in their color. Others were gray or white. The gray and white umbrellas were much smaller.
Cessyna couldn’t figure out what was holding the umbrellas up. Fishline must have been suspended above the station platform.
There was a rumble, and the lights of the station went off for a moment. The jazz band announced they were taking a break. The people on the platform ceased talking and laughing, as the sound of screeching metal wheels on metal tracks echoed through the station. The lights at the edge of the track changed to red, indicating an incoming train.
An empty train, a good twelve or fourteen cars long, pulled up. It doors opened.
People began to become agitated. Many surged towards the train.
As the people moved, Cessyna saw the umbrellas from the rooftop swoop down and closely cover them. The large umbrellas encumbered most of the would-be passengers, preventing them from approaching the open doors.
Handfuls of people, mostly covered by the smaller white umbrellas and a few of the gray ones, managed to duck down and squeeze between the occluded doorways. The train doors closed, and the white and gray umbrellas fell to the ground.
The unfilled train departed. Those at the platform edge looked unhappy and restless.
The umbrellas swooped back up again, resting in the night sky, filtering the moonlight.
“What just happened?” Cessyna asked an older man, standing next to her.
“We’re still too covered,” he complained. “It takes time, but eventually we’ll get on the train, I promise.” He looked upwards, gesturing to a baby blue umbrella of moderate size; there were stripes of white interspersed among the blue. “I’m getting there.”
“What about me?” Cessyna asked. “I’m so confused…”
“Try to get on the next train,” the old man suggested. “I can’t tell just by looking at you what your cover looks like.”
He shuffled off and took a seat on a long bench.
Cessyna looked around. There were a lot of people here. She looked for a clock, to figure out what time it was, but there was no clock.
Then she looked for an exit.
But there was no sign of an exit.
Just a multitude of people, anxious for the next train.
There was the sound of another train approaching. The lights at the platform edge again turned red.
As before, people surged forward.
The umbrellas descended in force, like a flock of hungry birds sensing grain scattered on the ground.
The train arrived, stopping. The doors opened.
Cessyna began to move forward, thinking she would simply walk on the train. She would show this odd throng of people how to board a train.
As she moved, a large, multi-colored umbrella flew down and settled right above her head. It covered her, keeping her from navigating between the people around her. Its circumference was significant; it retarded her motion so much that she ended up unable to move in any direction. She could hardly see, much less move.
She heard the train doors close, and several umbrellas fell to the floor. As the train departed, her own umbrella flew back up into the air, re-joining the other colorful umbrellas.
A little man and an even smaller woman came along and picked up the white and gray umbrellas that had fallen when the last train departed. They placed the umbrellas in a black bin mounted on wheels.
“Excuse me,” Cessyna asked, as she approached the tiny woman.
The woman looked up. Her eyes had no irises; they were completely white.
Cessyna was only momentarily shocked. She had too many questions to be shocked for too long.
“What is the deal with the umbrellas?” Cessyna asked.
The woman looked directly at the umbrella that had covered Cessyna.
“They’re pretty, yes? All those pretty umbrellas, filtering the light. Yours is still big and bright. You’ll be here a while longer.”
“What do you mean?” Cessyna asked.
“You just got here?”
“Yes,” Cessyna answered.
“They’re holding onto you,” the woman nodded. “You were very loved. Well, to be more accurate, many of the people around you wanted to appear to be loving. They love receiving sympathy now, even though they didn’t know you. Adulation by proxy. It’s an emotional prize. That sort of holding on to you can go on for years, way past the natural time ordained for such things.”
“I still don’t understand.”
The woman looked at her cohort, picking up the small white and gray umbrellas left as the last train had departed. She was eager to get back to work.
“You had a lot of these new relationships? The computer things?” The woman asked, she moved her hands as she spoke, as if she was working a computer keyboard. Cessyna noted that the woman’s fingers had no finger nails.
“I was connected to quite a few people.” Cessyna replied, trying to ignore how odd the little woman was.
“Family and real relationships are okay. Those usually fade as appropriate. People who really knew you know how to let go, eventually,” the woman said. She had no teeth either. “To get on the train, you don’t need to have no umbrella. Just a basic one will suffice, representing the real memories … a simple white umbrella. All those fake relationships gone. Or, if there are no memories — nobody who remembers you — a gray one. The gray ones usually get on board quickly. It’s both happy and sad.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“The colors,” the woman said. “In the umbrellas. They represent how many hold you in perpetuity. The ties must be untied from the dock, not the boat, for the boat to set sail, yes? But there are so many connections, now. That’s the thing with networks that persist in perpetuity. You can stay on the platform a long time while those ties are being disconnected. A very long time.”
The woman picked up an armful of gray umbrellas. She mumbled to herself as she cradled them in her arms.
“But I don’t want to be here a long time,” Cessyna replied. “I want to get on that train and get out of here. Or a boat, since you mention it. I just want to leave.”
With any exit seemingly blocked by the sea of people, getting on the train was now the only obvious way off the platform.
A little ping pricked her spine. Cessyna looked up. There was a sliver of white in her umbrella.
“There, there,” the woman comforted. “At least one person has let you go. Accepted your journey. Still quite a few left, though. Yep, you’ll be here a while. Pretty girl like you. You must have had thousands of virtual friends.”
“I can’t get on the train until my umbrella is small and white?” Cessyna asked, still not sure how or why she was here. It did occur to her that she had not been hungry or thirsty since arriving at the platform, and that she had no need to visit a restroom; nor did she feel tired. She heard the jazz band began to play again.
“That’s the way it works,” the tiny woman with no irises, finger nails, or teeth replied.
“And I can’t do anything about it?”
“Nope. It’s all in their hands. Trust me, this sort of bedlam,” the woman motioned around the platform, teeming with people, “Never happened in centuries past, save for a handful of famous folk. That’s the problem with your time. You’re all celebrities now.”
“But I just want to get on that train.” Cessyna watched her large, beautiful umbrella descend as the next train entered the station. It covered her, restricting her sight and her movement.
“Should have thought about that before you made yourself so popular,” the woman said.
The woman bent down to pick up more white and gray umbrellas, as Cessyna’s umbrella re-ascended. Cessyna looked up at her umbrella, large and replete with vibrant colors.
She found herself focusing on the sliver of white in its fabric.
When the next train entered the station, Cessyna didn’t even bother to move towards it.
She knew she was going to be waiting a very long time.
BIO: Laura Campbell the winner of the 2007 James B. Baker Award for short story for her science fiction tale, 416175. About three dozen of Mrs. Campbell’s short stories have appeared in Under the Full Moon’s Light, Well Said O Toothless One, Pressure Suite: Digital Science Fiction Anthology 3, Spinetinglers, 200ccs, and other venues. Her two novels, “Blue Team One” and “Five Houses” are currently available online. Laura Campbell lives with her husband, Patrick Campbell, and children Alexander and Samantha in Houston, Texas. When she is not writing speculative fiction, Mrs. Campbell can be found distance running or attending hard rock concerts.