Her mother had sat with her sipping coffee while she filled out all the applications, had driven her to the tiny post office to mail them away, hugging her daughter after. They had walked together through the small streets, at times waving to shop owners and chatting with families out on walks on that Saturday. Junko applied to colleges that night months ago.
“I am so excited for you” Atsuko had said smiling across the pile of forms and pencils.
“Thanks mom. It is crazy to be even doing this but here it is” Junko had replied.
“Just are you sure about that one? You know the Tokyo one..” Her mother’s voice trailed off.
“I don’t know. Maybe ..maybe not.” Junko had hoped her mother did not see the falsity of this smile.
Junko that night applied to all five. She waited till mom thought she was done and had hugged her goodnight to do the last one. It felt dirty but she felt something inside she had never known tied to this place, its name, its reputation and something about things as yet unborn. It was almost the span of the country away. It was a city too far to just visit or return from. It was possibly where she would intern then work then go to graduate school. This might be the rest of my life she thought as she filled the forms out and sealed this last envelope and snuck into bed to mail it later with the rest on her own. Sorry mother Junko had thought as she kissed her mother’s forehead and then went to bed to wake early.
Junko waits alone for the train. There once were more people that waited: mothers and children, couples out to the city for a night, men off in the early hours to work in the city an hour and so many rumbles and turns away. They’re all ghosts now. Some passed away from old age like the man who her mother used to check in on. Others stopped riding trains to stay in town as their lives shifted to smaller things, quieter days, paths to work or retirement in the tiny hilltop town alone. Most just over the years moved on, moved away, drifted to the city and new social vistas like a kind of plankton in a great invisible tide. Junko sits waiting on the wooden bench on the slab of cement to wait like she has all these years.
The train will come soon enough. The day will fill in bit by bit as they do. She got into that school she wanted the most. All of the years of early trains alone and study and tutoring had paid off. It came in an envelope so thin as to almost seem empty, a gasp of air with stamps and nothing more. The others she shared with mom. This one she hides away. Not yet. Not yet. Mom lost dad only two years ago to an accident far off in the city. They never found his body. Mom is her best friend now .The town is to the two together a sort of sweater for two, a cozy small comfort amongst it all. At least it was.
Junko is a senior now. Her mom has helped her since she was a kid with her homework and class projects as much as possible. Her mom one Wednesday night last school year opened up as to deeper things she wished to see in her daughter’s future and hints as to more of why
“I will die in this town Junko. I know this. I have mourned it and come to accept it.” Atsuko said.
“Mom, I hate when you talk this way, you never know.” Junko said looking at her mother across the kitchen table.
“ You are 16. I am 51. Some things just become clear after a while.” Atsuko said staring down at nothing in particular.
Junko in that moment searched for things to say but it was something her mother never talked about and she had nothing. She also had sensed the same thing but had decided to never speak of it. The town to her starting at some point in her first year of high school had revealed itself to be shrinking, to be constricting, dying slowly. She had hoped that her mother had either planned to leave someday and begin something else or was content in the little shops and conversations with the older families still remaining as many had begun to drain away.
Junko waits for the train. She has her school uniform on under her thick heavy coat as it is a cold morning in the snow. She has her backpack and lunch. She has her timer on her phone set for the 3 stops away after departure nap she has so loved for years. She has a tiny pillow in her backpack along with her books, paper and pens. She sits and waits. 5:45. It will arrive as it almost always does at 6:10. She also carries with her the odd sting of where her mom shaved her neck, almost as though she was with her in the cold still cutting away along that line. She sits thinking of little tasks ahead in her day as the snow crunches under her shoes. Her hair was cut in a tight bob by the young woman at the cool shop in the city. It was a long journey but to her so worth it, the childhood long straight hair shorn away to something else, something new, something of who she wanted to be, of that hazy unborn cloud of future with no clear details. Her mom shaved her neck last night for her as the recent cut had begun to lose a bit of its angular, severe shape. Her mom did not tell her of the shiver of odd fear and loss as she buzzed away the wild tiny follicles, something of years ahead, of things beyond her control, of her alone.
The snow fell heavy a few nights before, a great burst that came with winds from calm. The storm rubbed its belly low along the hills and big rains that flooded streets far away brought thick, heavy and big flaked snows pasting the hills and trees. It was the only one in now almost two months to not only survive, but thrive, strengthen, rage even.
Junko early in this senior year had a class actually taught by a robot. It was an experiment of course and a team of money men and engineers sat in the back of the class like an unwelcome clot. They tried to blend in as best suits could. The robot looked like a 23 year old woman and smiled and had nice synthetic hair. It had a few jokes and had a nice briefcase to carry notes and homework to return each day. She had a name. She was also named Junko. She did well for a few weeks with a few minor glitches. She smiled and lectured on poetry and semi-colons. She watched for cell phones hidden under desks with state of the art motion detection. She even explained quite clearly the concept of allegory with really nice allusions to Plato, George Orwell and cloud patterns.
The first problem that arose was she ran out of jokes. They ran out far quicker than anticipated as the students were very tired in the first class and the robot sensed a need to be more entertaining, to search and implement those files. For a time it was to many students awkwardly endearing, a crack in the veneer, a dull spot in the shine, something real as in failure and error, that trip on the stairs, that drooling nap in a class called out, that wrong thing said to a crush in the halls. The robot could not register this kinship unfortunately, it was not in the programming at this point. The robot was a bit confused as groans emerged from politeness as joke 4a-7-64.2 was told a fourth time on a foggy morning during mid terms. Later was the incident when the teacher bot was told a story that was meant to mock it and excuse an absence at once while referencing a video game. The sarcasm sent a twitch in its eye camera #2. This was not the incident that took it all down though, it was a spectacle to behold.
Junko looks up and the train is arriving. Right on time. She waits for the third car like always. The door opens and she comes on. The conductor will come to see her pass as he has all the times before. Junko pulls out her phone to look at a funny video her friend sent a link to in a text and to post on her Facebook about the thing that celebrity did again. Her phone buzzes with a text from a classmate with a question about a math assignment. She will get to it later, after her nap. Junko looks out at the snow now about to recede away gradually to the city , lights shimmering soon like always, like a swarm of gilded insects in all directions.
The conductor comes and checks her pass. Nods. He heads back to the front car. A bird rustles in a tree outside the now closing doors. It sends a shower of thick heavy snow from branches like a storm in miniature. Junko puts her phone away and waits till the nap sequence. She has her pillow beside her now, looking forward to it a bit more than most days as last night she did not have the best night sleep. That dream returned, that one about things falling, the one of a carnival on a mountain top that she went to every year denying her and pointing her to something far away, of a storm shearing apart as it heads toward the hilltop, of her mother dropping a cup of coffee in tears, something missing, breaking , falling somehow. The dream seemed forever and seconds only breaking to the alarm on her phone and early morning. The train rumbles on, ever forward, destination bound.
Junko’s mother sleeps bundled up in her bed by the back window. Junko’s bed is the one across the room. This arrangement just made comfort and sense after dad passed away, best friends together. She made sure to see her daughter off earlier like every school day and is back in bed to sleep till 8 like every other weekday. The cold outside from the snow is oddly a kind of comfort and makes the flower patterned comforter and covers feel that much more like a little protective cave of warmth amongst it all, cozy, safe, tranquil to the edge of bed and window.
Atsuko is 52, had her daughter a bit later in life. The truth she would some day tell Junko is how Junko would have had a much older sister but she was lost in pregnancy, between beginning and end, Her little crib and clothes kept hidden away even now in a box of old things. Atsuko carries other secrets even as she shares almost all of life and her days with her daughter that she loves more than anything. She sleeps curled around her pillow like it is to speak to her, hold her, wake her before her aging alarm clock.
Junko is almost at the stop where her nap can commence. The snow is patchier now. The train rumbles around its biggest curve as her eyes begin to sag, pulled by the lack of sleep like a kind of gravity. She does not know the driver has his job now only because of her. She has seen over the years a decline in riders sure. She figures others come at the stops along the route and into other cars as hers for a while had been empty. Maybe they come and go in my nap time too. That is another town that mom used to talk a lot about. Maybe the car is full while I dream then they all go to some job site before I wake up.
The train rumbles along in the cool and dry early morning hours. The mountain town shrinks away in the distance behind the train and its lone passenger. Junko is nearing nap time, just a few miles to go, a few empty stops away. She does not know that there actually was a meeting in a big city by a group of executives in the dry last month to decide what to do with the older routes no longer financially viable. Four were closed forever by the first of January. One had been running for 80 years. The routes were of another time, of the same geography, the same cartography, as things long had been. The towns had lost their main populations from the mid to end of the twentieth century. The technology updated with newer trains and little gadgets and safety elements but otherwise things were as they were, as things are. Then they were not. When she stops riding this train it and the whole line will cease, will die, will meet their end. She is the only passenger, this has been the case for a while. Maybe it is good public relations one exectuive argued. Maybe it is the a gesture of respect for the past era of railroads about to die forever when this one girl finishes high school argued another.
Junko nears sleep now as the train reaches the stop her timer begins at. She does not notice that nobody gets on, assumes it is again the other cars as she loves the back, the last bit of things rumbling behind, emerging far ahead. Her mother is having that dream again far back in the town that she has not told her daughter is losing more families every year, is down to just enough businesses to live a life ancient and rustic not quite by design.
Her unborn sister would have been celebrating her birthday this day, would have been 30. She first was to be the one named Junko but she got stuck in a place between: too early and too late. The tiny grave her mother has never revealed to her daughter, it lies in the forest west of the house toward the train and stores. Her mother holds other things inside, just not the right time, of a past, another world now, too much worry to burden her best friend and daughter. Her mother will wake up to an alarm and work in the last grocery story in town.
Junko loves her mother now as a best friend. They are a unit, a team, a body sometimes almost of 4 arms and legs. It was not this way when she was a young child. Her father was an angry man and her mother often retreated to that back bedroom they now share while the man raged or sat silent and angry like a slow coal fire of a man at a sad little table in a kitchen in the snow in a dying town. The town decades before had tourists, a park with rides, a growing number of restaurants and gimmicky shops selling trinkets for the people there to experience some impossible snowy past sold to them stupid globe by doll by silly candy that nobody in town dared eat.
Her father had shut off the kind young future engineer long ago that lost its way inside , killed it in him to drone away. Even little Junko as a kid saw all these things. Mom broke somehow when the man died, clearly loved him more than anyone else knew, a love young of that stranger with his name in old photos, a love buried in the wreck and ruin of the man as an older salesman in a shop selling garbage to people who would never return. Mom brought Junko to live in that back room at first as a kind of gauze on a wound half a room sized. Now they have become best friends, this love has grown around the things before, not replaced them.
Junko naps now, she has these 15 minutes, a pause from beginnings and endings, the logistics and data of a day, the bare bones and math of paths and time, trains and chairs, books and pens, tasks and return home. She does not know that the conductor is retiring soon, that he writes sad poems about snow in a journal he dreams of publishing someday, that he thanks her every day without words for his still having a job.
Riding in Junko is the truth of that far off and increasingly close future. She rushed to the tiny town post office for days to catch the one that was the most far off architectures of future, the dream school her mother secretly hoped on one level would deny her beloved daughter and not steal her best and only true friend away. Junko had a thought half asleep, almost a speech to her mom as yet unsaid:
I have known for a couple of years now that I must get away. I have know more than anything that my adulthood is miles away from home. The best college for me only gets rain, never snow. It is in a city lit with clubs and restaurants and companies and streets clogged with people. I have dreamed of it for as long as I can recall. But it means leaving a town and mother behind for visits then to never return. Things work certain ways, things move forward or die. Even I know that
and now I am here.
She got in. Tokyo. Dorm with room mate. Scholarship. A life on the other side of an island country. Also a dark divisive secret born of a form filled out that mom thought she threw away. A chasm inside.
And mother. I found that grave. I discovered it playing in the snow. She even had my name.
The robot incident must be told. It was something the engineers are still analyzing, the computer scientists are still discussing at conferences, one engineer is still crying in his sleep over and telling no one. Junko the teacher had been prepared for many years, was full of data and tests and modernity and its best tools and machinery. One thing the experts forgot was the unknown and its joys and chaos, things far beyond data and measure, like the fluke behaviors of some winds and storms, and of the shot arrow forward of a human life. The repeating jokes was something the engineers felt was a minor issue, a small anomaly, a setback. The inability to process sarcasm, derision and teasing was a bit more of a concern but still not too deeply concerning as they took notes and did diagnostics. She was teaching well, even had a surprise string of lectures the machine cobbled from bits of data in collisions not programmed, more on the fly, one based on metaphor. The poetic example surprised the engineers that morning:
“Rain may fall from an empty sky sometimes. This is not fiction. It is the rain still falling from a dying storm. Sometimes things seem immediate that are ghosts of something of past. Sometimes they may be of something far off making its presence in a slight sense known. This has data to prove it as history and science”
Junko the robot shut off its facial features for a moment, looking blank to convey that this was quite serious and important. Some of the high school students had gasped. Some smiled for once as this was a break from the information just streaming every day from a thing that was not human, was a mimicry of them and their possible adult selves. It might even be part of what would kill the dreams of the two students who said first day the might want to teach someday. The robot went back to file 34-i on geography and the glitch did not happen again, fascinating and curious as it was.
The thing is that this made Junko the human student of a small town and big secret cry. The robot saw her come up at the end of session and it was odd as to why this was happening. Junko came right up to android Junko and pointed her finger sad and angrily
“Why do good things have to make things die then? Do your circuits have an answer for that? Huh?!”
Junko teacher bot paused to access a reply and said “ Death is a part of life, this is logical and true”
This enraged Junko the young student.
“ I have to break my mother’s heart to find myself? I have to abandon all she has to make something of myself and help her out! If I stay my mother and I will have nothing, all this education and all the long dark train rides will be nothing. This is logical? This is a simple analogy in a lecture and nothing more?”
Junko ran crying and punched the door then paused to see what the thing with her name would say.
The engineers watched intently to see what their data, their shiny progress , their shining future line of teacher bots first gleam would do in this unexpected test. They looked at each other a bit stunned but confident the fast data brain would have a response as Junko the student paused and glared now at the door.
The machine searched files, cross references, ran diagnostics, did top notch facial scans to see the emotional state of the girl with the same name and grasped 3 of the main emotions and shifted contextual parameters immediately, it brought up even two metaphors from a program one engineer added secretly, not where the one earlier had come, that was not programmed, but of helpful advice, metaphors for young people from a book by an expert with a phd. The digital brain spun behind those realistic eyes for a long and deadly awkward moment. The machine found no connection that now made sense. It would be platitudes. It would be now in fact illogical. There was no file or connective data analogs for such a dark relationship of positive and negative, of future to kill past.
Junko the robot said nothing. Turned and walked to the engineers and waited to be turned off for transport. Somewhere inside error messages were raging like great storms of rain and snow. Then it was shut down for the day.
Junko’s mother sleeps warm in a bed ,sure her daughter is choosing one of the small colleges not too far out of the hills, a slight chill creeping in from the cold outside that back window. Soon her daughter must tell that she will move away, perhaps to never return, to let the town die in her to memory. Love led her to study and work for things to pull from the ether of some life beyond all this, of the adult stranger named Junko to look back from 23, 40, 52 and beyond.
The storm that once dropped all the snow that is beginning to melt is carried ever forward as things are. The train rattles on, someday within less than a year to be killed by progress as things are to be. Time will pass as it always has. This should be a sort of comfort. The past will shrink anxiously forever away while future, ever unaware, dumb cyclops, will come.
Junko sleeps now. She dreams for a bit of being a child in a long past snowfall playing with her mom, a small grove of trees, how everything for a moment felt so miraculously close and wide open at once.