Junie waited uneasily on the platform for the late afternoon train to arrive. Slowly pacing, she was only peripherally aware that she was being ignored by a traveler who sat reading a newspaper on a nearby bench.
I still can’t believe this, she thought to herself. Just when things were looking up. Just when I became comfortable. Just when…
She stopped herself. She reminded herself that it wasn’t fair to expect her brother-in-law and sister to care for their aging aunt for the rest of her life. She resolved again to make the best of it. To be a good caregiver, a good niece, a good sister…..and to not strangle the nasty old harpie with a piano wire. Her aunt was demanding, manipulative, and maddening beyond all logic. One couldn’t tell the woman anything, much less get her to do something she deemed unnecessary. Like take her tonic. Brush her hair. Be civil.
Junie sighed as she thought about it. The longer she waited for the damned train, the longer her mind had to continue winding up on itself. Her stomach began to ache and she paced a bit faster.
The man on the bench who had been reading a newspaper cleared his throat. He calmly folded the paper and laid it on his lap.
“Please tell me, madam….do you intend to wear a channel into that pavement?” He pointed toward her feet.
Junie stopped and looked at the platform beneath her. Only then did she realize that her pacing had become quite frantic and that she had been wringing her hands. She realized that her behavior must look quite strange.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said to the man, her cheeks flaming with embarrassment. “It’s just that…” She bit her lip as her voice trailed off. She looked away, up the tracks.
“Yes?” said the man. “Please, do relieve your conscience. If I may be of some assistance in preventing blisters from forming upon your feet, I would be happy to oblige.”
She closed her eyes briefly and sighed.
“It’s my elderly aunt. She’s coming to New Babbage, and I’m expected to care for her. She is a very difficult woman.”
The man nodded in understanding. “Ah, I see. Your anxiety is understandable then. But surely you have a husband who can assist you in this care-giving?”
Junie shook her head. “No,” she said. “I’m quite alone, as I prefer. This is one reason I’m not looking forward to my aunt coming here.”
“Dear woman, do you mean to say that you would rather be left alone to kick up your heels than to care for a member of your own family? Isn’t that a tad…selfish?”
Junie stood motionless for a moment, stunned at the forward manner with which he spoke to her. Then she clenched her teeth in reflex. Her eyes narrowed as she evaluated the man more carefully.
“Perhaps it is selfish,” she told him. “But do note that I am here on this platform awaiting her train, now standing in judgement by a complete stranger who offered to set my mind at ease. Thank you, sir. Well done.”
She turned her back on the man and was almost relieved to see the engine steaming in the distance. Behind her, the man chuckled lightly to himself.
“I can see I’ve offended you, madam. Do forgive me. You are most obviously prepared to bear the duties placed on you by your family.”
With her back still turned toward the man, Junie harumphed and folded her arms defiantly, determined to show him no further kindness. The man went back to reading his paper.
Brakes screeching as it slowed, the engine pulled into the station in a billowing cloud of steam and coal smoke, towing only two passenger cars behind it. Junie could already see her aunt. She was leaning her head against the window, forlornly, Junie thought, and fogging the glass with her breath. A moment later she was standing, and Junie inhaled deeply in preparation. The door to the passenger car swung open and a porter appeared to help her down onto the platform.
The small woman glared at Junie, her back bowed with years. She wore a black frock and bonnet that were long out of style and the most ridiculous blue velvet shoes Junie had ever seen. Her long white hair was unkempt. Junie smiled at her.
“Welcome, Mumsy,” she said, with all of the sincerity she could muster. “It is so good to see you.”
The old woman looked up at Junie and harumphed. Junie maintained the smile plastered on her face, again clenching her jaw. As she prepared to say something, she heard the man approaching them from behind.
“Mumsy Abigail! I trust your journey wasn’t too taxing?” Junie turned to see the man offering his arm to her aunt. Her face registered the shock that went through her.
“What? Wha-…what is this?” Junie asked, confused.
The man smiled at Junie. “I do apologize for not introducing myself, Ms. Ginsburg. My name is Octavius Palmer, and I’m your aunt’s solicitor. She has retained my services to oversee her interests now that she has arrived in New Babbage.”
As Mumsy began to hobble off with the assistance of Mr. Palmer, she looked up at Junie with a wicked little smile on her thin and papery lips.
“Do close your mouth, child,” she croaked sweetly. “You’re apt to swallow a fly.”