A new voice from Indianapolis, IN, "The Assurance Salesman" marks R.J. Sullivan's first professional sale. An early draft of this story won a collegiate fiction award. Revisiting the original story a couple of years ago, R.J. found much room for improvement. He thanks his wife, parents, Debra Holland, Mike Wiltrout and Geof Nichols for their advice. "The Stranger" has ended up in a good place.

 

Shadows flicker across the walls of the train; visiting spirits peeking in on the doings of the living. All is silent except for the steady churning of the iron wheels, the grinding rhythm echoing in the ears of the five travelers seated in the car.

    The passengers stare in a dazed stupor, lulled by the train, content in their own space with their own thoughts.

    On one side of the car, bodies entwined, are the newlyweds, Janet and Kevin McConnell. He stares at some fixed point on the wall while cradling her in his arms. She is the only one comfortable enough to actually doze, finding solace with her husband, her blond head nestling against his shoulder.

   On the same bench as the newlyweds, Mr. Stewart Collins, an elderly, distinguished gentleman dressed in black formal wear, pats the knee of his wife Lucy. Even with an obvious layer of makeup hiding the wrinkles around her eyes and a stylish emerald hat covering most of her auburn hair, Lucy Collins still has the ability to turn heads. They sit with their backs straightened in perfect upper-class grace.

   The fifth passenger, Gary Finn, reclines alone on the bench across from them; his young face turns toward the window even though it's too dark to see outside. Gary clutches his heavy brown jacket, having found it an inadequate pillow. In spite of his frequent business trips, Gary had long ago found it impossible to sleep on a train. After a month on the road, parted from April, his beloved wife of seven years, his mind simply races. The longing, which he has held in check for so many days, cries out within him. It canÍt be ignored. Soon. He will be with her again soon.

    When he arrives home he will undress and crawl into bed beside his wifeÍs slumbering form, with the warmth of her body next to him, he will finally slip into a sound sleep. Knowing she is once more beside him, he will dream, something he has not done in thirty days. The rest will wait.

   Gary looks over at Kevin, acknowledging him with a slight nod. HeÍs envious of KevinÍs apparent comfort. He observes that Janet has no problem relaxing on a train, her chest moving slowly with her even breathing, in, out, in...

   Gary catches himself staring, and, embarrassed, glances back over at Kevin. He doesn't seem to notice.

   Mr. Stewart stirs and reaches for his pocket watch. Solid gold. He bragged about it when daylight shone through the windows, and they were still talking.

   Click; the lid opens. Stewart groans, snaps the watch closed, rubs his tired eyes, and shakes his head.

   Gary dares a whisper. "What time is it?"

   "Three. We should be in London in another two hours."

    Two hours, Gary thinks. Two more hours of shadows, of being lulled by the chugging of the train, of small dozes, but never really falling asleep, as the train beats out the steady rhythm of a false lullaby.

    A grunt; Janet's head jerks, and her eyes snap open, fully awake.

   Gary smiles at her. "I hate it when that happens." His voice sounds hollow and distant in his own ears. "I can never sleep on these damn things, either."

   Kevin's arm tightens on her shoulder. She grips his other hand; her eyes close, and her face relaxes into a look of ecstasy.

   As he has done countless times tonight, Gary reaches into the folds of his jacket and pulls out the picture from a hidden pocket. He canÍt clearly see the image anymore„the soft brunette curls, pouting lips, the pink chiffon dress she wore especially for the occasion. His fingers trail across the cheap frame of beaten plastic, anyway. He has kept her memory in tight reign for so long. It's a game of discipline he plays with himself. When he has to travel, he simply puts the photo away along with all thoughts of her. It lessens the longing during the days. But not the nights, when her disembodied voice speaks to him over the phone, for he calls her every evening without fail. He dreads the word "goodbye," when he must hang up the receiver and face the specter of her memory as he lies alone in his quiet hotel room. As usual, he never looks at the picture the entire trip. As usual, in the last twelve hours, he canÍt put it down.

   The older man, Mr. Stewart, speaks. "Nothing like returning to the woman you love." He smiles from across the compartment and places his hand on his wife's knee. "I remember when I'd have to be gone, sometimes two months at a time, there'd be my Lucy, standing in the doorway with a martini and a smile, and that was all."

   "Stewart!" She tries to sound shocked, but sheÍs too tired. Stewart's laughter lightens up the dreary mood of the train. Gary, embarrassed, slides the photo back into the pocket of his bundled jacket. "It's not the going home I mind, it's the wait. I almost wish„"

   The compartment door opens. A wild wind gusts through.

   Lucy starts, grabs at her hat. Janet sits upright.

   A man enveloped in a black cloak flows into the room, turns, struggles with the door behind him.

   Gary, indignant about the interruption, clutches his coat tighter.

   Black-gloved hands grasp the door handle. A protest of metal; the door slams shut. The man stands in the middle of the room, looking around the small compartment. The room echoes with his harsh breathing; the features of his face covered by the shadow of a wide-brimmed hat.

  Gary waits in expectation, not daring to breathe.

   "Excuse me," the stranger says. His voice rumbles, a sound that bounces off the walls. The shadow spirits seem to flee for an instant, returning only reluctantly to eye this newcomer. The stranger reaches up and removes the black hat, exposing a shock of dark, wavy hair. His sallow skin and thin, youthful face stand in sharp contrast to piercing eyes, which gaze about the room at each passenger in turn.

  Janet squirms as his stare falls upon her. "My apologies. I did not mean to awaken anyone. I tried to sleep in the other car, but..." He trails off. As the stranger shrugs, the cloak shifts. A quick lift and toss, and the hat drops into the upper compartment. Slowly the stranger turns. He claims the empty space next to Gary and smiles at each passenger. They all remain silent.

  Frequent travelers know that cliques formed at the beginning of long journeys are sacred for the duration. For many hours, this group has formed such a comradeship. The man had no part in that bonding, making him unwelcome. For a long time, nothing is said; the shadows dominate the room, flickering, gliding from corner to corner, across the weary faces.

  To Gary, the pulse of the train is louder now, weighing him down, pounding in his head. Or maybe itÍs the way the stranger keeps looking at him, a queer half-smile on his face, the dark gaze traveling from one to the other.

  Gary takes up the thread of the previous conversation. "Yes, Mr. Stewart„" To him, his voice sounds shaky, an imitation of the drowsed stupor he felt moments before. He senses a whiny hint of anxiety in it, a desperation to clear the chill. "I-I'm sure April will be waiting for me when I get home, though at„" his voice fails entirely, then starts back up again, "„a-at six in the morning, I doubt she'll have any ideas like that."

   Stewart seems confused; he has forgotten the previous conversation. Then it all comes back to him, and he smiles again. "I suspect you'll have to wait 'til this evening for the real welcome home."

  "Oh, I rather think not." Gary cradles the jacket in his arms, the trembling already gone, the intrusion forgotten with the silence of the intruder. "Right now, the best welcome home I could get would be her arms around me in bed, body next to mine, whispering ïI love youÍ 'til we drift off to sleep together. But I'll settle for her quiet breathing as I fall asleep next to her. That's what I want."

  "Those moments are always nice, too," Stewart says. "Gets the strength back up for the next time we can„"

  "Stewart!" Lucy elbows her husband, which seems to be about the only thing sheÍs done the entire trip. "Your lechery is becoming tiresome," she scolds. "These young people have no interest in the bedroom habits of an old man."

   Stewart grunts, but holds back a reply.

   Janet speaks in a timid voice from her corner of the car. "You like the tender moments, too?" Her eyes are half-open, her cheek once again tucked against the warmth of her husbandÍs shoulder. "Have you ever noticed, people don't talk about tenderness these days?" She grips Kevin's hand. "It doesnÍt even seem to be a part of love anymore. Even in the so-called ïRomancesÍ„" She stops, giggles, her mind seems to wander, then come back. "You know those books, detail after detail of all the romping and heavy breathing parts, and just when they commit themselves to a true, loving relationship, the book always ends." Her hand strokes her husband's fingers.

   Kevin's face comes to life. He looks down at her, attentive to her expression, her words, everything about her. Janet beams. "Moments like this, him, and me, just being with him, and I'm in heaven."

   Gary flushes at this public proclamation of love. Kevin seems just as stunned, and leans down towards her. His lips graze her forehead. Gary averts his eyes, letting them have their moment. His gaze falls upon the stranger. What right did the man have to be here, to witness this display with the others, those who had talked with Kevin and Janet and developed a respect for their relationship? The stranger continues to watch, unmoving, with no regard for his invasiveness.

  "Strange, don't you think?" Janet says, interrupting his thoughts. "The books I've read, the movies and tellie shows, theyÍll go to great lengths to show the sex, something just as private. Do you wonder if some people just donÍt know what real love is?"

   Gary gives a neutral answer, unsure of Janet's point. "Sex does seem to be all some people have, or care about." He sits up in his seat, uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, but not wanting it to stop. Talking makes the shadows go away, both the ethereal ones and the solid one still seated next to him. "Rather often, I've wondered why there seems to be such an emphasis on it, the sex manuals, the voyeuristic shows. Has sharing become so boring?" He poses the question as a statement into the air, not really expecting an answer.

   He jumps when the deep voice next to him speaks. "Perhaps you don't really understand love."

   Nobody answers. The statement lingers in awkward silence until Gary shifts uneasily and turns to the stranger. "I-I beg your pardon?"

   A disarming smile crosses the stranger's face, taking the sting from his remark. "What I mean is, perhaps you don't understand how love works." He raises a hand. "I mean no offense, merely a speculation."

   Gary blinks rapidly in the dark, floundering. "You have me at a disadvantage."

  "I merely suggest that perhaps your ideas of love are just one aspect of a much more complicated concept. What you see around you, your parents, your friends, acquaintances, the media, even those you see in this train car, all represent differing, unique aspects of that one concept we call love," The stranger said, motioning to indicate the other passengers. "Think of love as a multi-headed serpent. YouÍve familiarized yourself with one aspect. But others linger just beyond your scope."

   GaryÍs anger flares, then dissipates just as fast as the smile remains on the strangerÍs face. He leans forward on the bench, reining in his audience as he places his elbows on his knees and folds his gloved hands together. He looks relaxed, comfortable in the spotlight. Gary challenges that smile. "I don't think that you„"

  "IÍm merely trying to come up with an answer to your confusion." the stranger says. "You were wondering why youÍve never seen love portrayed the way you experience it. IÍm suggesting that it's possible you've never experienced love."

   JanetÍs face turns a deep shade of red. She sits up, pulling out of the cocoon of KevinÍs arm. "I think you'd better leave." The words hang in the air, trapped in the confines of the car. The man does not move, so she continues. "Your insinuation that love can be nothing more than hot sex and paying the electric bill is quite insulting."

  The stranger leans back and folds his arms, intent on driving his point home. "Is it so baffling, my dear, to learn there are people who are not overly thrilled at the idea of spending the rest of their mortal existence with only one other person, and are happy to embrace the pleasures of temporary happiness? Far more likely than the fairytales instilled into us. ïAnd they lived happily ever afterÍ indeed."

  Something about the stranger's deep laugh sends a shiver of empathy down Gary's spine. He senses a hidden pain behind the scoffing remarks. The stranger addresses the couple. "I suspect you two are simply too young and naive to know any better. What happens in a couple of years, once your hot-blooded passion dies down? Will you even put up a fight to save your marriage?"

   Kevin jumps to his feet. "You bastard!"

   Gary leaps up, throwing his body in front of Kevin's.

   Kevin shoves hard against him. "He has no right to say that. He's just talked himself into a free trip right out the door." He glares. "Out of my way, Gary."

   "Hold it, hold it!" KevinÍs anger propels the two of them across the car. Gary feels a lumpy bag fall against his head from the overhead compartment. He can smell the worn leather. KevinÍs heavy breathing is harsh in his ears.

   GaryÍs heart beats wildly as he tries to talk Kevin down. "Let's not have any trouble here. There's no need for that."

  Gary turns, looking down on the stranger. He feels supported by everybody in the car; this makes the black-dressed man seem small, indeed. "You're not wanted here. I suggest you leave."

  "Hold on a second. Let me explain myself before you call the porter on me." He settles back in his chair, not quite as confident. One hand reaches into the folds of his cloak as he speaks. "I was only speculating, and I wasn't trying to insult anybody. I tried to make a point, and perhaps went about it the wrong way. But what I have to say is very important. You should all find it rather interesting."

   Gary turns to face the stranger. Odd, he thinks, how the stranger's eyes appear so blue up close, yet so dark from a distance. "Please, sit down and hear me out."

  Reluctantly, Gary and Kevin retreat to their corners.

  One hand still hidden in the folds of his cloak, the stranger meets Janet's eyes before he speaks. "YouÍre right, Janet, that was a stupid thing to say, and you're correct to be insulted." Gary sees her eyes widen at the strangerÍs use of her familiar name. He canÍt recall anyone saying it since the stranger entered the car. But then, so much has happened since then, he can't be sure.

   The stranger nods, still addressing Janet. "I happen to agree with you. Only a very foolish man would say that there is nothing more to love than sex. A very foolish and unloved man indeed. Without those tender moments, love would be nothing more thanƒ" he struggles to find a word, "stress-relieving."

   There is a chuckle from StewartÍs corner. Janet giggles.

   "It is that too, my good man," Stewart calls out.

   The smile reappears on the strangerÍs face; heÍs pleased to have defused the tension of the moment. "Quite right, so it is. My reason, then, for debating you, good sir, was to make another point entirely." The stranger turns toward Janet; his question shoots across the compartment. "Janet, do you love Kevin?"

   She jumps in her seat. "Uh, what? Yes!"

   "Are you sure?"

   "Yes, absolutely!" KevinÍs arm tightens around her.

   "Does he love you?"

   "I know he does."

   "Do you? You know this for a fact?"

   "Yes." A grimace of impatience crosses her face, briefly smudging her pale beauty. But she cannot turn away. "This is ridiculous."

   "I see. So youÍve felt true love before, and were loved just as strongly back."

   Janet opens her mouth to speak, but stops herself. The stranger drops to one knee in front of her seat, their eyes locked together.

   "Oh, but that canÍt be, can it? Somehow it didnÍt work out, or you wouldnÍt be here with Kevin."

   "Iƒknow he loves me. He doesnÍt need to convince me of that." Both of her hands grip her husbandÍs, knuckles turning white from the strain.

   "How? Have you developed telepathy? Some way to get inside his mind?"

   "I feel„" She stops, groping for the words, "„different with him than I have with anyone else. Unlike IÍve ever felt before."

    "So, because of this, you automatically know his feelings?"

    "Wellƒyes. Our connection, itÍs like our thoughts and emotions are merged. I can feel my own love for him reflecting back at me."

   "Ah." The stranger nods his head. "I see. But thatÍs the real dilemma, isnÍt it? Your proof is based on feeling. You donÍt mean youÍre truly linked to him in some psychic manner, do you?"

   JanetÍs brows furrow. "Well, no, not literally."

   The stranger pauses, leaning forward. "Your proof of his love is based on your own feelings, not his. You know nothing for certain."

   Janet trembles. "Well, I suppose youÍre right, but thatÍs all anyone can possiblyƒ" She stops in mid-sentence, unable to continue. Her eyes tear up. Kevin glares at the stranger. Gary tenses, afraid that KevinÍs going to jump again, but he doesnÍt. For the second time in as many minutes, Gary wishes the stranger would leave the compartment and just go away.

   Kevin pulls her close. "I think youÍve said more than enough." The stranger refuses to back down.

   "Why? Are you afraid of what IÍm proposing? Think about it for just a second. What if Janet only thinks she loves you?"

   "I rather think her reaction here proves her love. Not that she ever had to. And if it werenÍt for her interest, IÍdÍve thrown you out of here."

   "Yes, she is awfully upset. Maybe because she realizes I could be right."

   The train pounds out its rhythm in the dead silence; the shadows seem to sneak back, as if wondering what happened to the drowsy existence that overtook the room minutes earlier. The stranger speaks again, turning toward Gary.

   "And you, young man, what about the woman waiting for you?"

    "DonÍt start on April. I know she loves me." gary answers.

   "Do you?"

   "Yes."

   The stranger smiles again. "So sure of yourself?"

   "Yes, I am. Damned sure. And I donÍt need you or your word games to try and confuse the issue." Gary can feel his own gorge rising as he continues. "Okay, so love is no guarantee. Love is based on faith and trust alone. You know when you have it; you simply know. What more do you want?"

   "And yet, werenÍt you the one who seemed confused earlier? You were confused by the way youÍve seen love portrayed. Maybe you canÍt see whatÍs so obvious to everyone else. Maybe youÍre missing the whole picture?"

    GaryÍs thoughts spin in confusion. "All right, damn you, I get your point. No, IÍm not April. I canÍt get into her head. I donÍt know with absolute, one hundred percent certainty that sheÍs as in love with me as I am with her. But she shows all the signs to me, she tells me she loves me, she acts as if she loves me; I have faith in that."

   "Wwhat if you could be certain?" The stranger withdraws his hand from his cloak, clutching a small object.

   Janet and Gary watch, their eyes locking onto the blue-colored rose in his hand. Sculpted of transparent crystal, the petals surround a glowing blue sphere. The rose itself would be enough to capture anyoneÍs attention, but the sphere's inner glow makes the entire car bright; the shadows dissolve in the overpowering light.

   "Wh-whatÍs that?" Janet whispers as the stranger extends the crystal in front of her pale face. Lucy Collins also leans forward.

   "Ah, it glitters," says the stranger. "You see how we suddenly have the girlsÍ attention?" The stranger settles back, allowing the fist-sized object to remain exposed in his hand, gripping it by its curved silver stem so that all in the car can see it. Gary thought the center was transparent. Looking closer, he can see now that it is clouded with a swirling blue smoke.

  The stranger sighs. "This little beauty„diamond, pendant, crystal, charm, I donÍt really know what„is rather special. It took away all my doubts about love." His eyes harden. "ItÍs also why IÍm currently without companionship."

  They all wait. The stranger delights in the lingering moment before continuing. "You see, this rose is magical. I donÍt know how it works, I only know that it does. I found it on a train rather similar to this one, under a seat, and I was ready to give it to the stationmaster when I accidentally discovered its powers."

   "A charlatan." Stewart speaks, shaking his head. "YouÍre a con artist. I shouldÍve known better."

   "Oh, no. No gimmick here. Although IÍm sure youÍll think so at first. Somehow, the crystal center can tap into the mindÍs eye of another person. I donÍt pretend to understand magic. Imagine, though, an object that can read your mind, find out who you love, and present you with an image of yourselfƒfrom that personÍs mind." He extends the glowing blue rose, tantalizingly, in front of JanetÍs widened eyes. As it inches nearer, she bites her lip.

  Stewart chuckles loudly. "Of course. And how much do you ask for this miracle?"

    "Fifty pounds for one gaze."

    "ThatÍs ridiculous." Gary says. "For a silly parlor trick?" But his voice cracks, exposing his lack of conviction.

   "IÍm sure it makes you feel better to keep insisting that, and I can even see why you would be afraid. Which is why„" The stranger spaces his words carefully, aiming them directly at the transfixed woman. "„Janet can have a free look. Once youÍve taken her word for it, IÍll take your fifty pounds, each in turn."

    "Really?" Gary says, feebly, "and what makes you think itÍs really worth fifty pounds?"

   "Fifty pounds to know the unknowable? To make faith fact? IsnÍt that worth fifty pounds to you?"

   JanetÍs hands are already clasped around the folded petals, which direct the light to make her face shine an eerie blue. She looks at the stranger uncertainly. "What do I do?"

    The stranger releases the rose into her hands. As she leans away from him, the stranger blends into the darkness. "Close one eye, and focus directly into the center. DonÍt worry about light, it works even in total darkness. The image will be perfect."

    Janet holds the rose close. The stem burns against her trembling fingers; she needs both hands to steady herself. She can see the center, not simply clouded, but filled with smoky, animated, swirling, mist. An actual light of unknown nature within the rose causes the blue glow. She hardly has time to reflect on this when the mist clears, and she finds herself staring at an imageƒof herself. She is seated in the train, as she was moments earlier, leaning against her husbandÍs shoulder. Only Kevin is not in the picture, at least not his face. Her breath leaves her body as she realizes that she is seeing through KevinÍs eyes, looking down on his new bride. She can see her own face from his viewpoint. She remembers the daily routine of seeing her own face in a mirror, angry at the puffiness of her cheeks, at the way her hair would never settle just right. In the rose, the flaws remain, but filtered to the point of insignificance. She sees herself, all the features are the same, but there is an image, a golden glow over her face and body that is almost angelic. A finger caresses her cheek, and the skin„her skin„feels the softest, smoothest, most beautiful silk she has ever touched. Images superimpose themselves rapidly over her body. She can see herself in her nightgown on their wedding night, a sense of pleasure mixed perfectly with tenderness. Purity and passion somehow become one and the same, and she is the source. She tries to force the flaws she sees in herself, the hair, the weight, the temper tantrums. They donÍt exist in this image. She sees herself, but now she is his perfect woman, sexy, funny, beautiful, giving, Everything.

  The rose drops from her hands into the strangerÍs. She buries herself in KevinÍs arms, the joy in her sobs tearing from her. "iloveyouiloveyouohgodhowiloveyouƒ" Her arms squeeze her husbandÍs shoulders as she cries. ThereÍs no shame left, nothing to hold back, not now and not ever again. Her sobs soon reduce themselves to gentle sniffs. The rest wait in an uneasy silence.

  Gary chokes up, both over her delirious happiness, and at the vulnerability paired with it. JanetÍs voice is barely a whisper in KevinÍs shoulder. "IÍm sorry. I should never, ever have doubted you. I just got so confused. I knew you loved me, I did, and I love you so much, but I didnÍt know you saw me like that. I donÍt deserve it."

   Kevin hushes her softly. "ItÍs okay. I know, love, itÍs okay." He murmurs to her until she quiets down.

   "Well," says the stranger, his fingers stroking the petals like a pet rabbit, "I trust thereÍs no doubt as to the authenticity of the view."

   He looks over at Stewart, whose face is still pale from JanetÍs display. "Do you still deny the powers of this crystal, Mr. Stewart?"

  "ItÍs a-a trick. It has to be." His gaze remains on Janet, her shaking frame cradled in KevinÍs arms.

   "Perhaps you would suggest that the young lady and myself planned this ahead of time to sucker you. Do you believe her capable of that?" says the stranger.

   Janet sits up. "No, I didnÍt!" she explodes. "IÍve never seen this man before in my life, I swear."

   "Its okay," Stewart says. But Gary hears the uncertainty in StewartÍs voice and sees the slight trembling in StewartÍs hands. Stewart reaches toward the rose. "ItÍs a trick. Maybe with mirrors."

   The stranger pulls the object away. "Cost you fifty pounds to find out."

   This time, Gary has no doubt he sees the strangerÍs eyes flash from black to an eerie blue, the same blue as the rose. The strangerÍs voice takes on a chastising tone. "This is not a charity, Mr. Stewart. I give out one free demonstration. I certainly wonÍt make an exception to somebody I know damn well can afford it."

   Grudgingly, Stewart reaches into his pocket and begins shuffling through some bills. Lucy watches his actions, wide-eyed.

   "What on Earth do you think youÍre doing?" Her voice is little more than a whisper, but more powerful than the loudest scream.

   "You get this conditionally," Stewart says; his mouth curls down in a scowl. "Only if I am unable to find a sign of deception."

   The stranger nods. "You are an educated man. Your word should have more than a little power on the others." His blue eyes peer at Gary, then back. "Perhaps Mr. Finn can hold the money. He can be trusted." Gary starts, suspicious of how the stranger could have come to such a conclusion.

   "Agreed." Stewart extends the bills in GaryÍs direction. Gary takes the money without taking his eyes from the stranger. Then he sees it„when the rose changes hands, the strangerÍs eyes darken. In fact, the strangerÍs entire form seems to fade.

   Lucy places her hand on StewartÍs arm. "Stewart, wait. This is silly."

   The rose glows brightly in StewartÍs hands. When he turns to look at her, his face is a blue sheen of light. "WhatÍs silly about it, my dear?"

   "IÍm just saying, itÍs a stunt. I didnÍt want you spending money foolishly."

   Stewart shrugs. "ItÍs already done, dearest one. A gentlemanÍs word, and all that."

   "Stewart, donÍt!" He focuses his eyes on the blue-glowing center. "Stewart, Stewart, stop!"

   The mist parts. Stewart faces an old man with sad brown eyes, slightly resembling himself, but stooped. He hobbles across a large living room, money hanging out of his pocket. As he watches, a ravishing young woman dances across the floor, her long auburn hair flying as she turns. As she waltzes by, her hand snatches a fifty-pound note.

   The old man keeps walking; he doesnÍt seem to notice. The image dissolves to another room. Stewart recognizes their bedroom. The old man is adjusting his tie in the mirror. Lucy„actually a woman of startling beauty who bears little resemblance to the real Lucy„lies in the bed, talking about the next cocktail party. A ghostly image is superimposed over his face as the scene continues.

   Now the tie becomes a blindfold, covering the old manÍs eyes. Stewart can see the young woman in bed. Somebody else is with her. He has red hair, dark eyes. They are under the covers, kissing, laughing. She pulls him on top of her; the laughter stops. There are other sounds„of a more primitive nature. The figures are locked in an embrace; she rolls on top of him, but he now has a different face, blond hair, blue eyes. She points at the blind old fool and laughs, a hoarse, cackling sound of mockery. Her lover fingers a string of beads around the womanÍs neck, a birthday gift from the old man, she says, and worth a lot of money, too. They fall against the mattress, ready to finish, but now the lover sports a beard and displays a tattoo on his left shoulder„

   "Mr. Stewart?" He jumps.

   The stranger leans in front of him; his dark eyes, which earlier appeared greedy, now register concern, compassion. Stewart realizes that everyone is staring at him; the sound of the train beats through the walls as the seconds tick by. The strangerÍs hand grips StewartÍs arm on the other side, nails cutting.

   "YouÍve been staring into space for nearly thirty seconds," the stranger whispers, taking back the rose.

    "What did you see, darling?" Stewart hears the voice of the woman who talked of her expensive necklace. "Stewart? D-darling, whatÍs wrong? What did you„"

   Stewart jerks his arm. He pulls away, but then stabs a finger in front of her face. "Shut up!"

   She shrinks back. She tries to speak, but he stops her with a look. He swallows, stands. The stranger rises to his feet, anxious, waiting. Stewart stands to his full height, straight and tall. He blinks away tears. He has never stooped, he is not yet old, but heÍs been blind. He takes a couple of steps toward the door. He will not stoop now, either.

   "Mr. Stewart„" Gary also rises, placing a hand on StewartÍs shoulder. Stewart can read the compassion on GaryÍs face. "I thought, if you wanted, I could help you„"

   "No." StewartÍs voice sounds quiet in his own ears. He draws a deep breath to put power behind his next words. "No, for awhile at least, I am going to be alone." His hand clasps GaryÍs arm. "But only for a little while."

   "Stewart!" Lucy speaks from the corner. "Whatever you saw, i-it was a trick, remember? You were going to prove it was wrong." Tears well up in her eyes. "It was wrong. It has to be."

   Stewart releases GaryÍs arm, twists the handle of the door. His eyes travel the room one last time, and linger for a few moments on the stranger. "Gary, pay the man."

   Lucy cries, slumped against the now-closed door as the shadows take inventory, unnoticed. The missing presence is felt by all; no one dares look at the sniffling figure. No one, save the stranger. Lucy feels his gaze drilling into her. She turns to him in fury. "Damn you! Damn you and your magic! You had no right to come here and ruin my life like you have! How dare you!" She screams. Leaping to her feet, she swings at him, her clawed fingers cut the air toward his face. He catches her wrist in mid-swing, holding it there.

   His gaze never wavers as he speaks; the words fly at her like daggers. "No, how dare you. You could have had any rich man whoÍs looking for a sick woman just like you to bury in diamonds and furs for the rest of his life, as long as you share your bed with him. Why did you have to pick one who actually loved you?"

   Her mouth opens in outrage. "HeƒIƒ"

   "I only hope after this is over, that Stewart doesnÍt give up on love„as those men have."

   She pulls her hand free, adjusts her hat, and gathers up her imagined dignity. "I have to go talk to him."

   "Yes, you do." The stranger turns, crosses the room to his space next to Gary. "Perhaps you can convince him to let you keep the Rolls Royce."

   She opens the door in a huff. The wind cuts in. Nobody moves. No sympathetic faces turn in her direction as the door shuts with a staccato slam. Silence permeates the cabin. Even the stranger seems at a loss for words.

   Gary pulls at a loose string on his jacket, waiting. The strangerÍs hand comes down on the pile of bills in GaryÍs lap. Gary notes the blue color in the strangerÍs eyes, but lets the stranger take the money without comment. When Gary looks over, he sees that Janet and Kevin are staring at him. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat. There is movement, and he knows the stranger is near. He does not turn to face him.

   "Mr. Finn?"

   "No." Gary shakes his head, trembling. He looks back toward the closed door. He draws his knees up and continues to shake his head. "I„I donÍt want to know. I donÍt. Just leave me alone."

    The stranger nods and waits. The blue light from the rose pulses across his face. Gary shivers, but it is not from the cold. Janet sits up straight. KevinÍs hand weaves through her hair. Gary can barely make out a tear trickling down JanetÍs face. The light from the rose glows even brighter now. The stranger says nothing. Why wonÍt he say something, Gary wonders. Why wonÍt he agree? Or disagree? Or talk about something else„ GaryÍs hand reaches into his pocket. He withdraws the money with trembling fingers. The picture slides out with it. He realizes with both anger and relief that he is short the needed money. He puts the money in his lap, strokes the picture. "April." He speaks out loud. "You love me. I know you do." He can see the outline of her smiling face, pink chiffon„ His eyes lock with the strangerÍs defiantly. "Well, she does!" Defensively. "She does." Desperately. "DoesnÍt she?" He has to know now, but„ "I-I only have thirty pounds," he says.

   The strangerÍs eyes harden at the news, his gaze falls back upon the crystal rose in his hand. Gary wonders if the stranger will slip the rose back into his cloak.

  "It will suffice, Mr. Finn." says the stranger, taking the money from Gary's lap. "Even for a prize such as this, I cannot take what you cannot give." He extends the rose, and one note. "The bargain is sealedƒat twenty pounds, should you decide you would rather eat alone this morning after youÍve seen the truth."

   Gary says nothing, realizing the cynical reason behind the salesmanÍs gift„the stranger expects an unpleasant outcome for him. The money is in the strangerÍs hand, and the rose is in GaryÍs. His breath comes in sharp jerks. He licks his lips, looks around the room. Janet averts her eyes, burying her face in KevinÍs shoulder. Kevin shrugs helplessly. The stranger nods. The shadows wait. The petals surround a center that now burns brightly in his vision; the mist parts.

   For many seconds, there is nothing but solid blue. Then the light dims to complete darkness, almostƒexceptƒ A single candle lights the room. The orange flame flickers from a slight wind. There is a woman. Sitting, no, lying across, cushions. Pillows. It is a bed, their bedroom. In their flat. The image closes in.

   He sees his wife, April, lying awake on the bed, staring at the flame. The clock on the night-desk reads 4:07. This is right now, the early morning. And sheÍs awake. His own thoughts interject, reacting to the strangeness of the vision. April is always asleep when I come home. Or is she?

  But here she is now, awake. Nervous. Even desperate. He can feel that her stomach has knotted. He experiences the fluttering as if it were his own, magnified by his own sudden distress. IÍve made up my mind. IÍm telling him tonight. I canÍt bear keeping this secret any longer, and it is far past time he knew. IÍll tell him as soon as he gets home. ItÍs time Gary knows that IÍve gone to see him. A flush of fury pours over Gary. He almost pulls the crystal away, wanting to bury the truth, but the furious, betrayed part of him wants to know the rest. April continues her internal monologue, unaware of the trespasser into her deepest thoughts. In a little over an hour, my secret will be out. Amazing how quickly the time has gone. GaryÍs called every night, and I just couldnÍt bear to tell him. You donÍt break this kind of news to someone over the phone. ItÍs not right. And as soon as he walks through that door, IÍll tell him. I just donÍt know how heÍll act. He may even be upset at first.

  At first? Gary thinks. Again a fluttering response in her gut. A nervous response so painful that she reaches down and strokes a hand across her stomach. No, not her stomach. Her abdomen. Calm down, little one. Daddy will be home soon, and then weÍll tell him all about our trip to the doctor. And wonÍt he be so very surprised?

   And with that, she curls herself up against the bed, overwhelmed by simultaneous joy and sorrow. Alone, she cries out once again to her missing husband, needing the other half of herself, who is always so strong for her. As she tries to be strong for him as well, knowing when they separate itÍs never by choice, but simply what he must do. Truthfully, he has always provided for them. And they have always taken full advantage, good time after good time. Because of those great joys, she puts on her happy face when he leaves, when she must endure living in a daze„a half stupor. She knows without the slightest doubt that he will always return. No matter where his travels take him, or how long they must endure their parting, he always returns. She can rely on that. Just as he can rely on her being here, waiting for him. It is the foundation of their bond these last seven years. Most burning passions cool after a few years, but theirs has never burned out. Never. And added to that heat over the years is something more precious than any lost desire: complete and total trust.

   April caresses her abdomen. Her pregnancy, already two months along, was discovered only a couple of days after he left. ItÍs been too long. He will know tonight. She knows that the news will shock him, reel him, for just a moment. Until he realizes that they will face this as they have all things, together, supporting each other in all ways. He can count on it. ItÍs just going to be a rocky few minutes. She picks the clock up. HeÍll be coming home soon, little one. Daddy will be coming home soonƒ

   The rose drops into his lap. He senses that the others, his companions, are on the edge of their seats. He blinks away tears (realizing for the first time that he is crying).

   Janet watches, biting her lip. Gary tries to say something, anything, but no words come. He realizes that he has said nothing for many moments; the others are waiting for him to speak. Janet, particularly, looks distressed.

   "I„IÍm going to be a Daddy," is all he can manage to say. It is enough. Janet squeals with joy, Kevin laughs, and the strangerÍs hand clasps against his shoulder. And as exhaustion settles over him, Gary decides that he has paid enough for the privilege of his own private vision. He will keep the rest to himself.

   "I am happy for you," the stranger says, slipping the rose into the folds of his cloak.

   Gary nods, saying nothing. The stranger prompts him. "Please speak. I am curious to know what is going through your mind."

   Gary shakes his head, as if waking from a dream. He rubs his eyes and blinks. He looks at the stranger. "I know what love is," he says. "I always did."

   The stranger nods. "Yes, I suppose you did."

   Gary chuckles, thinking back to when it all started. It seems years ago. "It's true, what I said earlier. Love is based on faith. I didnÍt need that rose. Without it, IÍd still be in love. IÍd still be happy."

   The stranger says nothing for a moment. Then he flings his head back and laughs„loudly, madly, standing, shaking his head. "Faith? You think what you have now is faith?"

   "I had faith in April," Gary insists. "If I had never met you, it would still be just as strong with or without the rose."

   "Of course you had faith." The strangerÍs head nods in agreement, and then his finger raises with the word "But! You had faith because that was all you could have. Until I could offer you proof."

   The stranger reaches up over the railing for his hat. "Now, you answer me this. Was there any one couple here that refused a look at the rose? Did anybody here say, ïNo thank you, sir, I have no need for your magic. I know the truth without it.Í?"

   Gary starts to speak.  "With conviction, Mr. Finn," interrupts the stranger. Gary stops, his determination broken.

   The stranger grasps the door handle. "IÍve seen this over and over again. Janet was offered a free look. She took it without hesitation. Mr. Stewart discovered firsthand the negative side of trading faith for fact. And I even got twenty pounds from you, Mr. Finn."

   Gary bristles. "So what does that prove? For a moment, you gave us a peek into our loversÍ innermost thoughts. You think your crystal is a final answer? ItÍs no such thing."

   The stranger leans toward Gary. "IsnÍt it?"

   "Of course not," Gary scoffs. "What have you proven? Love isn't frozen forever in time. Ten years ago, April and I were like Kevin and Janet. And ten years from now, in spite of everything, we could end up like the Stewarts did tonight." As if to dismiss the stranger, Gary turns from him. "What have you truly provided me? A few months, a few weeks, maybe only this moment in evidence? Beyond that, faith will have to get us through. Trust." Gary risks a glance toward the the stranger. "There'll be no rose tomorrow, will there? Not for me, at least."

    Their eyes meet. No longer tapping into the power of the crystal, the strangerÍs face is pale, his eyes sunken. What price was he paying to possess such dark magic?

"Maybe youÍre right, Mr. Finn." The stranger shrugs, his cloak rising and falling with his shoulders. An odd flickering of shadow and light passes over the strangerÍs face. He turns the handle, the door unlatching with a loud click. The stranger flashes his charming smile. "Then again, maybe youÍre not. What can I offer but some...assurance?"

Have a good evening, all of you." And he is gone, on to the next car, leaving the three remaining passengers to the mercy of the flickering shadows and the privacy of their own thoughts.