Better Than Starbucks Fiction
The Time it Took to Tie My Shoes
by Sarah Farmer
I was pulling the orange cardboard Nike box down from the windowsill above my bed when mum called up from the kitchen. Even though I’d told her exactly what I wanted for Christmas, she still managed to buy me the wrong shoes at first. Last week, I finally convinced her to trade those in for white leather Air Forces.
“Jamie, did you hear what I just said? Your dad’s already waiting for you outside by the car,” she called up once more, as I began to knot the laces of the first shoe.
“I’m coming. Just give me a sec.” I pulled against the laces to ensure they wouldn’t come undone before standing; I didn’t want to step on them and get them grungy before school started again. Rocking back and forth as I looked in the mirror, I watched the new leather crease as I shifted my weight to my toes. I tucked my hand into my pocket before switching off the light, ensuring I had my headphones. I closed my door behind me before heading down the stairs, knowing how Mum liked to go through my things whenever she had the chance. She never really understood personal boundaries. I paused in the small corridor at the top of the steps before descending, brushing my fingers against the white paint of the door that used to be Olivia’s room.
Olivia was only partially buried. Some of her body parts were still missing from the blast when they lowered the sleek black box into the ground. I was twelve when she died. At the time, my parents thought sixteen was old enough to be treated like an adult and go to a concert in Manchester on her own with a friend and her mum. But she wasn’t an adult when the bomb went off, and now she never would be. In a flash of heat and color, I went from being someone’s kid brother to an only child, and her room became a mausoleum.
I still couldn’t bring myself to open the door. If I didn’t enter, I could imagine her lying on her stomach in the middle of the floor, binging on YouTube makeup tutorials and Monster Munch. So instead, I offered my silent penance from the safety of the hallway, allowing myself to forget for a few moments a day that she wasn’t on the other side of the white-washed wood, music drowning out the world from her headphones. The soles of new leather squeaked on the wooden steps; I had been saving the trainers for the first day back to class after the holiday, but that was before dad insisted on a trip into London. He turned fifty-two the following day, and his only birthday request was some one-on-one time with me. I didn’t really have a choice, but I sure as hell wasn’t wearing my dutty creps from last year into the city.
As soon as my feet hit the bottom step, Mum started with her hovering. She fussed a lot more now that Olivia was gone. She shoved a dark red jumper in my face, yet another unfortunate result of Christmas. “You can’t leave this house like that. You’ll freeze.” I knew better than to argue with her about something like that, so I shrugged it on over my t-shirt, using the cover of the exchange to hide the rolling of my eyes. I didn’t make it two steps toward the door before she’d caught my arm. “You know better than to leave this house without a proper goodbye,” she scolded, pulling me back toward her. It was a rule she’d adopted two years ago. I still don’t think she knows the difference between me being fourteen from when I was four. I quickly pressed my lips to her cheek, mumbling a half-hearted goodbye.
“We’re already late,” I replied, throwing her own words back at her. I pulled against her grip slightly, attempting to escape the fingers wrapped around my arm.
“And whose fault is that?” she retorted, not having any of my cheeky shit. “Jamie,” she said through a sigh, noticing my annoyance in the tension of my jaw. “I know spending your last Saturday before school with your father isn’t what you want, but tomorrow’s his birthday. At least pretend to enjoy it? Who knows, you just might.”
“If you say so,” I answered, unable to come up with a more convincing response. I tugged the door open, silently thankful for the jumper she’d forced upon me as I breathed the January air. It was less than a week into the new year, and the winter was already in full force. My dad, however, refused to be fazed by the weather, his nauseously radiant smile beaming from the car to the house. He wore a green jumper, identical to my own except in color; no doubt my mum’s doing. He had been overly chipper for the last year and a half. Normal people turned to their vices in times of loss and turmoil, but Dad did the opposite. Ten years of alcoholism was buried with Olivia. Her death fueled a righteous resolve within him to become a better person, a better father. Too bad I was the only one left to bear the brunt of his character overhaul.
“Time to scoot, little newt,” he said, one foot already stepping into his side of the car. I feigned a smile, wondering if he’d ever drop the phrase. It wasn’t mine. Even with Livi gone, it was still ‘just a habit’ he kept from her childhood. ‘A way of keeping her with us,’ or something like that. Mum waved from the porch as I slid into the passenger seat, reciting her normal mantra about being safe and texting her when we got there. I fastened my seat belt before dad had a chance to whinge about it, nestling into the familiar leather of the front seat. I didn’t have to fight to sit there anymore.
We hadn’t even left the drive before dad began babbling about God knows what. I slipped an earbud into my ear opposite him and played the part of a diligent son, nodding and mumbling agreement whenever called for. Perhaps I should have been listening instead of texting Georgie from my math class. By the time we reached the train station, left our car in the carpark, and made it up to the till, we’d missed the train to London by five minutes. Dad brushed it aside with a joke, “Maybe I should reteach you how to tie your shoes to speed you up a bit.” Instead of laughing, I turned and headed onto the first platform, leaving him to buy the tickets on his own.
A woman with a small child rushed past me on the platform, the little girl stepping directly on my toes. “Oi, watch it,” I hissed, leaning down to rub the marring black scuff mark from the leather. “I should have faked ill,” I muttered under my breath. We hadn’t even left Surrey and I already wished for the day to be over. Apparently, Dad decided to use the extra five minutes before the next train to grab a latte at the Café Nero express. He returned with a coffee for himself and extended a shaking hand with a Pepsi Max for me. An unsuspecting person may have thought his hands tremored with nervousness or excitement because the honest truth was less pleasant. A decade of alcoholism gave him the shakes, rendering him unable to complete even the most menial of tasks without a slight wobble. As I tugged the bottle free from his grip, he noticed the headphones pressed into my ears and simply offered a silent smile. Rather than continuing to stand quietly, he struck up conversation with the smartly dressed woman on his left. I turned the volume higher on my phone, attempting to drown out the sound of their meaningless chatter.
“Please stand back from the yellow line. The train now approaching Platform 1 is the 9:20 SWR service to London.” The speakers hummed with a familiar warning, “Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.”
Dad stepped up at my side, his peppering hair forced out of his face by the wind of the approaching train. Perhaps I should have delayed our journey further with a trip to the toilet or one last attempt to convince him to abandon the trip entirely. Instead, I kept silent, my hands tucked defiantly in the pockets of my jeans. The train slowed to a stop in front of us with a shrill metallic sound, the small automatic door sliding open. My dad stepped aside, holding an arm out in front of me to allow the woman to step inside first. We entered a car already brimming with people, silent passengers on one train going traveling a thousand different journeys.
“It’s okay,” Dad said, lacing his free hand around a security bar above the aisle. “We can just stand.”
I turned to look at him as he lifted his latte to his lips. “For forty-five minutes? You’re turning fifty-two dad, not twenty-five.”
His knees would have begun to ache before we ever reached Paddington. That’s all his thirty years of being a community fireman had given him before he was forced to resign to paper pushing at a desk job. “I’ll walk down a car or two and see if I can nab a couple of seats. I’ll text you?” I crossed into the next car before he could answer, taking his silence for compliance. Near the end of the first car, I found a pair of seats unoccupied and slid into the one nearest the window. I sat my bottle of Pepsi Max in the empty seat at my side, serving as a placeholder until my father came to join me. I texted a brief message that I found some seats before glancing to the trees blurring beyond the window.
Several minutes passed, and my father’s incessant smile never peaked over the heads of the passengers in front of me. What is the distance between train cars anyways? Five yards? Ten? Or is the distance further, so unattainably far and tumultuous that it can’t be bridged by a mere mortal? “Jamie?” someone called out, but I didn’t recognize the voice. My gaze remained trained on the houses passing beyond the windows until I felt a cold hand tugging against my shoulder. My brows furrowed as I looked up to see a woman with frizzy red hair twisted back into a knot on top of her head. Her eyes were wide, and I had to remove an earbud to hear what she was saying. “Are you Jamie?” she asked, her voice wavering unsteadily.
I paused for a moment before answering, trying to sort how she could know my name. “Why?” She didn’t wait for more of an answer, pulling me from my chair. “What the hell?” I protested, stumbling forward into the aisle. She stood behind me, pushing at my back, edging me back toward the next car while she began a stream of dialogue too fast and scattered for me to understand. I glanced back at my unopened Pepsi bottle in my seat and thought about turning back to nab it when two of her words caught my attention. Your Father.
The car door slid open as I approached, and I walked into a wall of chaotic sound. The red-haired woman at my back continued her senseless explanation, “I’m so sorry, I don’t even know what happened, they just bumped into each other and his coffee spilled, and then they were yelling and the other guy pulled a knife, but now he’s just asking for you over and over and I didn’t even know who to look for—” I’m sure she was still talking, but I couldn’t tell you a single word. Her voice joined the hum of the others, shouting and questioning all at once, and yet all I heard was a dull buzz like radio static echoing in my ears. The crowd had parted enough for me to see a body in the aisle, overshadowed by a man kneeling over it. I noticed my dad’s jumper first.
I was still wearing its twin, but his was meant to be green like olives. Instead, a dark coffee stain and the iron color seeping from his stomach was dyeing it to match my own, a deep shade of crimson. Then I was on my knees with music still playing through the one earbud tucked into my left ear. I ripped it out as my father’s lips parted, “Jamie.” My father whispered my name, one word in place of all those left unsaid. His eyes scanned my face as if to capture a picture he could carry into the next life.
“Jamie,” he repeated, nearly choking on his own blood that had begun to pool in his mouth. I tore my eyes away for a moment, noticing the fabric held against his neck. My eyes followed the foreign arms up to the face of a stranger, holding his scarf against the deepest wound on my father’s neck. Like the jumper, its pale color was being overtaken by a growing dark stain. My hands found my father’s, and I tightened my grip. The last time I’d held my father’s hand on public transport, I couldn’t have been more than four.
A voice shouted, “I’m on the phone with the Met. They have officers waiting at . . .”
The man with the scarf spoke up, “I think it’s his artery. There’s just too much blood . . .”
Then another, “I told you to stop him! Now he could be anywhere on this bloody train . . .”
Yet another, “Shhh, Katie, it’s okay. Everything’s okay,” a mother cooed to her inconsolable child.
“Shut up,” I barked, spinning back toward my father. “Everyone just shut the fuck up.” The police weren’t on the train. They couldn’t help; no one could. The mother was a liar. Everything was not okay, but maybe a hopeful lie was better than a helpless truth. “You’re okay,” I told him, not finding anything else to say. When Olivia died, there wasn’t time to say anything. “You’ll be okay,” I repeated. It was supposed to be his birthday, not his funeral.
“Time to scoot,” he managed to start before coughing, bubbles forming at the corner of his lips. His eyes flickered open, slower this time, fighting for every second. The end of his favorite phrase slipped from my lips, unable to leave it unfinished.
“Little newt,” I continued, but his eyes had already drifted closed. I still don’t know if it was a goodbye for me, or a greeting for my sister.
The train was held at the next station where the Metropolitan Police were already waiting, detaining each passenger on the platform for questioning. One of them came into the now-empty train car, introducing herself with a name I can’t remember. “Jamie,” she said, reaching out a hand. I glanced down at my own, my fingers still laced through my father’s. “Jamie,” she started again, “we’re contacting your mother and asking her to meet us here. Why don’t we go ahead and pop out for some fresh air?” I must have nodded because she stooped down to pull me up. She stood beside me, waiting for me to follow her from the car. Maybe she thought I was looking at my father’s hands that had finally stilled after ten years or at his eyes that wouldn’t open again. But my gaze was trained on the crushed Caffé Nero coffee cup that had rolled next to me as the train stopped, the unexpected culprit of an untimely death. An accidental brush of two strangers on a train, one with a crushed coffee cup and the other with a bruised ego, but only one walked away. My eyes drifted from the cup to my once-new, once-white trainers, standing in a muddled pool of coffee and blood, stained with the cost of the time it took to tie my shoes.
Sarah Farmer is a recent graduate of Valdosta State University’s English department. She will begin a master’s program this fall. This story has been previously published in her university’s literary magazine, Odradek Literary Journal. This is a print journal only circulated on campus.
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