“Oh. Oh, well then.”
Jane did not yet know the old man’s name, and in fact she would never learn his name. When he had first appeared to her those many seconds ago, her hyperactive mind had instantly begun to refer to him as ‘Robert’. In the precisely two minutes of silence that followed, Jane and Robert seemed to be thinking the exact same thing. Their sight flitted on every person in the room, realizing that hundreds of stories existed in this small space, and that there was not one which Jane was qualified to write. The woman in the corner had two symmetrical scars on the back of her neck. The man sitting along the counter was lost deep in thought, his pock-marked cheeks shuddering silently. The barista steaming milk whistled a tune that nobody else recognized. In the room was a killer, a parent, a saint, a bastard, a druggie, a thief, a lover, and an insurance salesman. Jane slowly understood the gravity of her situation. She felt her fingers fall flat away from her keyboard.
“What makes you different?” Robert pressed. “You have a past as well.”
“Yes,” Jane began deliberately, “but that’s not my story. It can’t be.” As she waited for that statement to land, she wondered just how much this stranger understood. How wrong it would be for her to write somebody else’s story. She wondered if he could see behind her eyelashes the childhood she never used, everything that had ever been stolen from her, every time she had ever tried and failed to hate or to love. She was willing to believe he saw it all. How writing that down would put an ending to her story. She was not yet a character fit for a page. By the way his yellow fingernails had begun tapping on the cover of his paperback, Robert seemed to understand.
“W-what’s your story?” Jane proffered.
“That’s not your business to write,” Robert responded, gently, sorrowfully. Jane nodded. They sat another half-second until the younger noticed her unwitting companion’s latte cup was empty. He noticed as well. Slowly, thoughtfully, for what seemed longer than their entire minute but meaningful interaction, he began to get ready to depart. He shifted in his chair, and pulled out a long, narrow piece of paper to tuck between the pages of his novel. Suspense, then movement, suspense, then movement, this was Robert’s pattern, as if he thought through every action, but never more than one step ahead. Suddenly there was a burst of movement – he placed his book on Jane’s table.
“I sincerely believe this will help you.” Before Jane could look from his face to this unexpected gift, the door to the coffee shop had rung open and shut. The man was gone. Jane ran her hands over a hundred thin pages before reaching the bookmark. As the crinkled spine of the book fell open, the words of the slip became clear. It read:
As she slowly understood, a smile came across Jane’s face, faded, and returned. One way or another, she would have her story.
It was three in the morning and the wind was rushing through narrow alleyways, tearing leaves from their rest and creating a soundtrack for sleeping people’s dreams. Somewhere in a small suburb of Buffalo, the twin bed of a studio apartment was empty. The sheets were left bundled, the only disorder within the four white walls. Dishes were stacked in cabinets, windows were locked, and the closet was full save for a grey sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. The apartment offered an eerie feeling similar to a museum after hours. It would remain this way for another two weeks, when the landlord entered in an attempt to find an evasive tenant.
Jane stood outside a slatestone building. The ragged cotton of her similarly-colored sweatshirt was all weighing her down to the earth. Beneath her feet, the sidewalk splintered backwards and upwards like jagged teeth. They did not smile. Neither did Jane – rather, an energy seemed to emanate from her pores. Her breath bounced. As her ticket to a future drove up, she could hear the blood pulsing through her heart and to her brain. She stepped daintily onto the open step, and handed the driver her ticket. A feeling of discovery and adventure finally hit her, the same way a glass of cold water punches an empty stomach. Jane took her seat among a dozen other people, each of whom was making a personal journey, presumably. As she sat down, she felt a presence over her assigned seat, like the first time the tooth fairy left her a dollar coin, and she’d known that some being had been standing over her, their hand under her sleeping head, the night before. She had quickly spent the gold on a bag of sour candy, which she did not finish. These were the childhood memories, the specific senses, the elaborate metaphors, that seemed to roll away as the landscape passed quietly by. She clutched an old man’s book tightly to her chest, but did not read it.
At 7:14 am, Wednesday, February 19, a Greyhound bus experienced a fault in its brake lines. Deep in the heart of Pennsylvania, the driver lost control. Sparks flew up as metal skidded along the highway bridge. Three passing cars called 911. Ambulances arrived on the scene three minutes later. Two passengers and the driver perished. Others were in a range of critical and non-critical conditions.
Jane died in pursuit of a story that would never be. Years gathering details, inconsequential. A mind full of ideas, vanished. Her name and face appeared in news stories, and it was not next to any active verbs. In a way, she will always be on her way to Denver. The only story she had become a part of was an anecdote deep in the mind of one of the accident analysts – a young EMT, who will always remember the bloodied girl clutching a yellow paperback book of entirely blank pages.
I have tried to create a story for this young woman, this Jane Doe. On a Greyhound full of survivors and identifiable bodies, she was alone, dark red flowing from her forehead almost tranquilly, staining an empty, untitled novel. Without a pulse, her body was ignored for hours in favor of bracing and transporting potential survivors. Finally, a final ambulance came. We drove her to the mortuary with no sirens on. Her body remained there for weeks. No parents ever came and saw their child’s body. No friends filed a missing persons’ report that matched her description. Our station got one tip, after weeks of news broadcasting a digital recreation of her face. Fifty-year-old William Robertson. He came to us, claiming to recognize our mystery crash victim. He said he’d met her, just the day before, in downtown Buffalo. He did not pass our psychological capability exam, and was quickly disregarded.
She haunts me. The idea of a person with a body but no story. No ties. I know nothing of her life and it would not be fair to push my own experiences and realities upon her. I’m so sorry. I have imagined so vividly, so deeply, that you longed to have your story recognized, and I could not craft one for you. Perhaps the two days we can piece together from public surveillance, and pure imagination, will suffice. I’m sorry, Jane.