Palo Alto Weekly 26th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Young Adult

About Alessandra Occhiolini

Short Story ContestAs a regular Caltrain commuter, I have found the train to be a fascinating microenvironment. Not so much the morning train (everyone is attempting to fit in a few extra moments of sleep), but the afternoon train is always bustling with activity, full of people and their troubles and their conversations.

Surrounded by strangers, people seem to have a sense of freedom. So when two teenagers walked onto the train at San Mateo and sat behind me, I couldn’t help but overhear a few snippets of their conversation.

They got off at Hillsdale, but the dynamic between them stuck with me, and I began to wonder where they were going, who they were—they were not so different from me, after all, we were all students returning home from school. So I pulled out my laptop and started writing, and by the time I got down to Palo Alto (my stop), I had the beginning of my story.

I’m honored to have placed in the Palo Alto Weekly competition.

by Alessandra Occhiolini

“You wanna scoot over?” Leo asks her, tugging on her sweatshirt and grinning like he knows something special, something secret. Mary shakes her head and tries to look put out, but it’s fun to be in demand, fun to be able to refuse.

“No.” Mary tells him, relishing the deliciousness of the syllable, that she has the power over him, just for a second. Even if it’s just because they’re on ugly, sweaty Caltrain, and there are no other girls in sight under the age of thirty.

“Look at the clouds,” Leo says, scooting towards her anyway and throwing an arm around her.

“Pretty.” But he’s looking at her, and she can tell he sure as hell isn’t talking about the pretty clouds anymore.

“Looks like heaven,” Mary says, staring out the window at the clouds, which actually are quite pretty, if pretty is the right word for it. There are great gaps of sun in the stormy gray of the sky, divine windows to some other place and time.

“I’ve never been to heaven,” Leo says, and she thinks he’s joking around and maybe he is, but he sounds almost serious and she guesses that he’s religious, maybe, or once was. He peers back out the window again, actually looking this time, and for a moment his face is transformed into something childlike before it falls back into its leering grins, its perpetual humor.

“Yeah, but well, what it looks like in a movie,” Mary tells him, because she’s never really been to heaven either. She had a game, when she was little, in which she’d imagine she was an angel sent down special to pretend to be a kid. She’d walked around the schoolyard during recess in a sanctimonious manner, nodding approval or shaking her head. But heaven’s never been real to her, even though it’s a nice concept and it would be awful comforting to believe that she’d be going there after she died. All of a sudden Leo is looking at her with this demonic grin, pinching her. Mary just glares at him, and he throws his hands up in fake defeat.

“On the train? I would never,” Leo says, adopting the voice of a stodgy old lady. Then he pokes her waist, drawing away and scooting to the other end of the seat before she can slap him. But Mary doesn’t slap him, just stares at the back of the train.

“What if the back of the train disconnected?” Mary asks him, kind of curious because it was one of those things that they never really got around to talking about in physics class. Sure, there were tons of problems about trains. The one where you toss a penny, the one where you’re walking and someone from the outside of the train sees everything differently, and all that stuff. But people, funnily enough, don’t ever tell you what happens in disasters. What to do, sure—go to the football field during a fire-drill, that kind of crap. They just never talk about the part where flames are shooting up around your desk and burning your backpack and cell phone.

“Then we’d fall off,” Leo tells her, as if it were completely obvious. And maybe it is, maybe he really does know. The simplicity of it is satisfying, the way he’s so sure. Mary peeks out the window again, to check on the heaven-like clouds now that the conversation’s taken such a fatalistic turn, and gets a glimpse of the office building her mom works at in all of its gloomy gray glory. She grabs Leo, drags him over to the window, and points.

“My mom works right there,” Mary tells him, with something akin to pride, despite the fact that neither she nor her mom can stand her mother’s dreadful operator job at Visa, fielding calls about stolen credit cards. There is something about seeing that office there though, right by the train tracks, that grounds her.

“We should visit her,” Leo says, still leaning on her and looking out the window.

“We should not,” Mary tells him, extracting herself from his arms and looking down to shift her backpack.

“Why?” Leo asks, and he’s wearing his little demon face again, that stupid grin that nudges at her until she smiles too, even if she doesn’t want to.

“She’s my mom,” Mary says, not really wanting to explain or even knowing why she pointed it out.

“She’s a nice lady,” Leo tells her, mouth scrunching as he shakes his finger at her, turning it into some type of moral dictum.

“But she’s my mom,” Mary tells him, and rolls her eyes as he continues to wave his finger until he hops up.

“Our stop!” Leo cries, swinging his backpack onto his back and looking around.

“Is this an exit?” Mary gets up and checks out what he’s looking at. “No. No, not really I don’t really think so,” she says, and then realizes that it’s a door to another car of the train, a fake exit, or maybe just a door to something else. Leo heads toward the other end of the car, then runs back to their seat.

“Wait no, this is Hillsdale,” Leo tells her, so they sit back down. The conductor comes back into their car, probably because Leo was practically yelling, and they both shut up and try to look respectable.

“That conductor looks über evil,” Mary whispers into Leo’s ear, and he smiles and laughs as if she’s said something funny.

“This one’s nice, no really I swear,” Leo whispers back, lips brushing her ear. There’s a type of cadence to his speech, a rambling poetry. The conductor passes them with only a suspicious glance, lips twitching and snowy eyebrows wobbling. Mary sighs in relief as he leaves the car.

“Did you hear that time Micah was on the train and he didn’t punch his eight ride pass—before they stopped selling them, see, back in freshman year? Yeah, well this conductor got really pissy and—don’t pinch me, Christ! Well, she got really pissy and…. Yeah. So Micah forgot to punch the thing and she kicked him off the train and gave him a court date, can you believe that? It’ll be on his college app, how stupid is that?” Mary says, almost all in one breath, because she feels some ridiculous need to validate her fear of conductors to Leo, to have him not think she’s some stupid little girl.

“Wow. Yeah, if they tried to pull that on me it wouldn’t fly,” Leo remarks, pulling his baseball cap down lower and kicking at the seat in front of them.

“Oh yeah?” Mary asks.

“Yeah,” Leo tells her, with the same sureness he always does. Everything he says is sure, true. To him at least. He messes up true stuff a lot at school though, like the time they were in history and he claimed Nicaragua was in Africa.

“It’s the law, idiot,” Mary says, trying to shake his sureness, because it’s both fascinating and infinitely annoying to her, the indecisive and ponderous one. And then he pinches her, and she really does slap him this time, but on the arm.

“Come on, isn’t that good?” Leo asks, grinding into her. She can feel him up against her, and it is good despite the fact she doesn’t really want him to, and wouldn’t let him if he’d asked.

“Not really,” she starts, but “hey kinda” slips out as he leans further into her. “What stop are we getting off at?”

“San Carlos, baby. Saaaannnnn Carrrrlloooooosss,” Leo says, grin spreading even wider as somehow he makes a city sound sexual. He pulls away to check his cell phone, which is buzzing. And while he texts whoever it is back, chuckling, Mary thinks of Micah and what happened to him with the conductor.

“Doesn’t that suck though? You forget to punch an eight ride, it goes on your college app,” Mary says, looking out the window. She glances back at Leo, who looks at her blankly, so she elaborates.

“Micah? The time he forgot to punch his pass?”

“Yeah, I guess. I’ll worry about that shit senior year,” Leo says, still looking at the phone. By the time he slides it shut, Mary begins to feel worked up, put out.

“Just whatever, Leo. You’re always just like completely whatever,” Mary says, half-envious of his lack of worry, his carefree mindset. She needed to prove to him somehow that he was wrong, that there would be consequences, that nothing was so sure and he wasn’t right all the time, not even close.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Leo asks. He’s still grinning, but now there’s an edge, something she hasn’t seen in him before.

“It’s just like, our lives are actually kind of starting and some of us focus on shit, and care, and this entire ride you’ve just been trying to pinch my butt and it’s not like if I had no boobs you would even make an effort to look like you’re listening,” Mary says, not sure if she’s angry at him or herself or the whole goddamn world for making up rules that she has to follow.

“Christ, Mary,” Leo says, as if there’s nothing else to say. He’s grinning as hard as he can, but at some point he just breaks down and lapses into the same childlike look he’d worn earlier, when talking about the clouds and heaven.

“But it’s true!” Mary says, because for once she’s the one who gets to state the obvious, to be the direct one.

“Maybe so,” Leo tells her. And then there’s only silence until a voice crackles onto the intercom and announces San Carlos, Saaaannnnn Carrrrrlloooooossss. They pick up their backpacks. They get off the train. Then they just stand, watching the train pull out of the station and move on towards San Jose.

“I’m sorry Leo,” Mary says, sitting down on a bench and watching him as he continues to stare at the train in the distance, something in his eyes.

“You think about the future and crap a lot, I know. I know I’m supposed to, you know. We all know, really. It’s what they always tell us,” Leo says, and he’s mad now, but not at her, just like she was never really mad at him.

“They?” Mary has to ask, surprised by the fact that Leo’s doing this, talking about something that isn’t simple and easy and doesn’t lead to grabbing her butt.

“They, them. Whoever they are, I guess. Those people. Oh, come on, Mary. You think about them all the time, those people. Who knows who they are? They’re everyone. Maybe we’re them too, only we don’t know it,” Leo says, still staring off toward the train tracks, eyes glued on a train that had already left the station.

“I don’t think we are, are we? We don’t make the rules, we just play the game with all our SATs and good behavior and hey, let’s join the French club because I need some extracurricular activities. That stuff,” Mary says, and he still won’t look at her. She’d give anything to have him look at her. She counts to ten twice, but he’s still looking off into the distance.

“It’s not the SATs. That’s kid stuff. I’m talking about our lives, how we’re all going to become stereotypes and how we already are stereotypes right now, sitting here in a smelly train station pontificating about the meaning of life and how much it sucks to be us, because waaahh waaaah, we’re teenagers and we have problems,” Leo tells her, and she cracks up.

“What?” he demands, turning around and watching her grip her sides as she laughs, rolling around on the bench. “What’s so goddamn funny?”

“Pontificate!” Mary gasps out between laughs, “Oh god, pontificate.”

“Yeah, well some of us study for the SATs, even though it doesn’t seem like it., baby,” Leo tells her, and helps her up. She’s still chuckling as they walk down the stairs, down the street and to a coffee shop. And chuckling a little that evening, and the next day. Because there was a beauty to the world’s contradictions, she thought, and even if you lost sight of it sometimes it was rather hilarious once you found it. Pontificate. It was terrific. She’d use that word for the rest of her life, she really would, and whenever she did she would giggle. People would ask why she was giggling, naturally, but she’d never tell them, she’d merely smile Leo’s leering, demonic grin until her cheeks hurt, holding it close to her as a part of her heart, a delicious secret.


Judge's comment

Through strong, well-paced dialogue, the author of “Caltrain—Afternoon Service, Makes All Stops” deftly reveals the delicate, unspoken negotiations of two people who are protecting their vulnerabilities while reaching a moment of trust. .


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