"Hey," Dr. Herschel said, their old black brogues firmly planted on the softly rumbling floor of the train car. Their voice held no indignance, only mild amusement. "You're in my spot."

A 2832 word short story about mistakes, relationships with family, and a conversation between a magical doctor and a college dropout.

Content warning for talk of dysfunctional families and ableism.

"Hey," Dr. Herschel said, their old black brogues firmly planted on the softly rumbling floor of the train car. Their voice held no indignance, only mild amusement. "You're in my spot."

Andrei Tsunakov, an Asian man donning sharp cheekbones, a squat face and rounded chin, and unwashed, uncut black hair, looked up. "Didn't see a sign saying that."

An uneven smile curled up on the doctor's long, gaunt face, making the pipe in their mouth shift to the side. "There isn't one." After a short laugh, they shuffled into the seat across from where Andrei was pressed, almost timidly, against the window. "It's fine, I can share." They swung a leg over the other, slouching, ruffling a hand through their short, tightly curled black hair. The well-worn black dress clothes that they wore hung poorly on their body.

Smoke, of all colors, swirled hypnotically out of the pipe in Dr. Herschel's mouth. They all danced together, a fluid waltz, up and out of the cracked window. Andrei stared.

"You like my pipe, sir?" The doctor smiled, and did not stop even after Andri glared sharply at them for a second.

"It's magic. And I'm Andrei."

"Ah, Andrei. I'm Devora Herschel. And yes!" They took it loosely in a bony hand and tapped their lower lip with it. "I've had it for many, many years." Andrei grunted in acknowledgement.

"You don't have any luggage in here," Andrei said, glancing up at the racks above them. "Why do you say this is your spot then?"

"You don't either," Devora remarked, looking up with him.

Andrei glowered at them. "I don't own anything."

Devora put up their hands in a sign of surrender. "That's fair! I don't own anything 'cause I work on the train." They broke off to chuckle. "Well, I'm not hired or anything, but I've kinda... stuck around for a really long time. I act as the magical doctor in exchange for free whatever on the train."

"Not paid?"

"I am, but I give it away." They puffed at their pipe, watching as the colors burst out and ebbed out into the countryside that flew past the train. The gnarled twists and sinew of ancient trees squeezed on top of karst formations, peppered with light green grasses and brilliant flowers. "I don't really want to be. I'm fine with this. Money would give me incentive to do the things I'm avoiding."

Andrei snorted. "You don't say."

Curiosity began to wash over the doctor's docile eyes, dark and plain. "Why are you on this train ride, anyways? Do you mind telling?"

A grimace twisted Andrei's features, and he leaned forward to rest an elbow on the windowsill. Against the light, he now looked sickly, an unhealthy pallor washed over his whole being. He wore a torn and stained cream jacket and dirty dungarees, and his hair, dirty as it was, seemed to prick up with static. He looked very tired. "I'm going to see my parents. They live on the other side of the country from where I... lived."

"Are you sure you want to see them?"

His fist clenched as he sharply turned to look at the doctor. "Where'd you get that idea?"

Devora gestured at all of Andrei's body. "Your whole attitude. It's fine to not want to see someone, Andrei. Maybe they did something, maybe you did."

"Why do you wanna know?" Andrei seemed guarded, wanting to say but suspicious.

"I'm a doctor who works on a magic train. Emotions can be as powerful as any curse or spell, and sometimes people need me for that." They shrugged. "Also I'm curious. And I wanna help."

Andrei sighed, long and low, his chest bowing. "Alright... Well, yeah. You're right, I kinda don't." He took in a deep breath. "It was something I did."

"Do you wanna say?"

"It was bad. Horrible, even," he said, sleepy-lidded black eyes sad and low. "But if I start talkin', I might never shut up about it."

Devora nodded, but said nothing, and the quiet moment stretched out like molasses. The mountains around the valley that the train ran through were patched with white, the karst digging lines into the rock, making the white limestone poke up like teeth. In the sky, the clouds puffed up, delicate spreading of gas and rain, and the smoke from the train twined gently with the little stream of colorful smoke from Dr. Herschel's pipe, joining those very clouds above.

The hours stretched on. Andrei would stare out the window; Devora would sometimes be called over elsewhere on the train by one of the staff. Being alone felt no less awkward then just sitting in silence with the doctor, and Andrei desperately wished he had something like a book to read. Of anything.

Something, only the gods know what, made Devora leave their little cabin for almost three hours. Evening was beginning to spill darkness and red across the sky, and Andrei felt thoroughly overthought by the time they'd come back in and sat back down, puffing their pipe.

"Do you mind?" Andrei's voice cracked. Dr. Herschel perked up from where they had almost fallen asleep. They nodded. "I had gone to college. It was a really good school, one of the best in the country. I had gone to study history."

Devora nodded, leaning forward slightly.

"My parents..." He held back a sob. "My parents had worked very hard to be able to get me there. I worked hard too. I did fancy classes, worked, got grants and stuff... all the works." His hands, trembling, receded from the windowsill, resting on his sharp cheeks. "I was so proud of myself too, I'd worked myself to the bone. But... But..."

Eyes softening, Devora said "It was too much?"

Andrei turned his face down, letting his hands cover his face, and nodded. "All the stress got to me, or whatever, and I just... lost it. Weird stuff began to happen. Magic stuff. I kept shocking other people, myself, literally shocking them. It overwhelmed me at the most random times. I felt angry, and my whole body ached all the time. Both my parents had come from magic families, so they were poor, but I didn't have anything happen as a kid so I didn't really... know."

The doctor reached out and gently laid a hand on one of Andrei's arms. "If I may... I assume that fancy school wasn't the best environment for a young lad experiencing magic troubles."

Andrei's eyes watered as he looked briefly up at Devora. "Yeah... Other students and teachers began to... be cold to me. I feel like if I hadn't given up as soon as I did, I woulda been thrown out, either because I was magic or because my grades went down the absolute shitter. I dunno."

"Well... that doesn't-"

"I didn't tell them!" Andrei burst out, suddenly encased in a fit of loud sorrow. "I couldn't! So I just... took all the money that they and I had worked hard for... and sat in my apartment... and wasted away."

When Dr. Herschel looked at Andrei, shuffled in himself, weeping, they thought he looked very small. They also thought that he reminded them of someone they knew, and it twisted at their heart in the most unpleasant of ways.

They spoke slowly as they thought about what to say. "Guilt... guilt is hard to deal with. And - listen to me," They broke off as they saw him open his mouth. "Guilt is hard to deal with. But sometimes, life makes us do bad things. It makes us make mistakes, ones that are harder to brush off. Ones that you shouldn't brush off. And... you still deserve to be able to at least move on. Y'know, get better, not make that mistake again, all that jazz. It works like that for any mistakes you make, really, whether it's something small or big, like what you've done.

"I've made mistakes. Horrible ones, ones I haven't fixed, and I have to deal with that, and so do you. Not telling your parents was a bad, bad mistake, yeah, but you aren't a bad man for suffocating yourself in a shell out of pure fear and stress."

Andrei said nothing for a long moment. "...Earlier you said that money would give you an excuse to be better. Now you're telling me this. What do you really mean?"

Devora chuckled weakly. "See? You are a good man."

Rhythmic bouncing shook the train car, and ever so slightly Andrei's unwashed, neglected hair fell even more into his face, shifting only an inch for every movement of the cabin.

"I had... a brother," Devora said. "Have. He's still alive. But I haven't seen him in a very long time, and that was my fault."

They settled back again, and Andrei looked up at them. In that moment, Devora seemed like they would wither away any moment. The smoke that came up from their magic pipe seemed more lively than them.

"His name is Atlas, he's about seven or eight years younger than me. I had to take care of him, as both our parents passed away when he was young. I didn't like them too much; they were very... contradictory. They never seemed to be satisfied with me, because I showed not a speck of magic potential in my body, nor did I excel at any academics in particular. All I did was read and try to help people with problems I couldn't solve. See, even now I do just that, and I use a pipe for my magic.

"Then Atlas was born in practically a fit of magic. Even the most hardheaded of non-magic folk could have felt something off of him. My parents loved him at first, and I felt incredibly jealous. But then... he became too much. He had very delicate senses, the most random of things would stress him out, and having to experience a strange and complicated world made his incredibly powerful magic snap. My parents thought of him and his meltdowns and magic as too much, and cast him aside just as they had done to me, and I felt terrible pity for him.

"He utterly loved me, and looked up to me, and I loved him back. Even though I wasn't any good at academics, I threw myself into medicine to try and help him. He was a lot to deal with, but that's no excuse for just throwing him to the wolves, y'know. He was the most lovely boy, with fluffy black hair and a lazy right eye and a penchant for too-big sweaters. He loved reading and playing with me and... "

They wiped their eyes. Andrei thought they looked very fragile, and forgot about himself for a little while.

"I was prepared to do anything for him. At least I thought I was. I don't have a lot of productive energy unlike some people - you know the ones - and then money troubles came in, and eventually my focus tore from him. His outbursts got worse, and neither he nor I could figure them out. His magic came in the form of the earth, small earthquakes, explosions in the dirt, the works. He felt bad that it was all his fault, and I felt bad that I seemingly couldn't just try hard enough, you know. My best wasn't enough, and it's the most painful thing to realize." They gestured to Andrei. "I'm sure you understand."

He nodded slowly. "Yeah. I love history, and I know a lot, but..." He shrugged.

"That's totally fine. I'm sure you'd be the most brilliant historian if not for all the other facets of your life."

Andrei said nothing.

"Anyways. Eventually I, too, became kind of cold to him, in my distress. I'm sure it was horrible for him, first seeing our parents turn him away, and then his own sister. He wasn't much of a man for fighting, but eventually my actions got him so stressed that he almost levelled a town we were in. And then he just... up and left. That was fifteen years ago."

"Oh." Andrei thought very hard for a moment. "I'm sorry."

The doctor chuckled, and leaned forward, patting his shoulder. "It's fine. I know he's alright. He works as a baker, I saw him in an ad for the restaurant he works at once at a stop in that town. I didn't go see him, but he looked like he was doing well." They looked at him with sad dark eyes. "I'm glad you actually managed to get on the train to see your parents, though. You're doing great."

"I've got a long way to go though... I'm not even sure if I can do it, now that I think about it. The fear still gets to me."

"That's fine. You don't have to."

Andrei looked up sharply. "But... I spent so long just wallowing, and now I can't do it, and I have to turn back, and oh gods- oh gods-"

"Calm down, Andrei-"

"Will I level the train with my magic? Will I hurt someone? Oh gods, will I kill someone - "

"If you do derail the train, there are specialists here to cushion it, Andrei. There are people with magic, just like you, who can help you. You aren't alone in the dark trying to stand, Andrei. We're right here."

"Where will I go, then?"

"Wait until we reach the stop, Andrei, and see if you're ready once we get there."

"Hey," Dr. Herschel said, their old black brogues firmly planted on the softly rumbling floor of the train car. Their voice held no indignance. "You're still here."

"Yeah, I sure am," Andrei said quietly. He had pulled his knees up on the train seat, hugging them to his body. "I couldn't do it."

"That's alright." They sat down with him, relaxed. "Funny that your parents live here. I know someone right at the very next stop whom you may like."

Andrei looked up. "Oh?"

"He's a very sweet guy. He's a baker who works at a small family restaurant." Devora was smirking, puffing at the pipe which let off wisps of gold and sage green. They seemed, oddly enough, amused.

His eyes widened. "Atlas? Are you sure? You haven't seen him in gods knows how long."

"Fifteen years."

"That's a long time."

"It's fine. I've been meaning to see him again, anyways. Just like you." Their eyes crinkled as they smiled at him, clasping his dirty hands. "Maybe you'll be encouraged by me, or something like that."

Andrei smiled back, slowly, his eyes pinched. "Sure."

"Now, let's get that hair washed. Feeling better externally can work wonders for the mind."

A few hours later, the train pulled into a medium sized, but very old looking, station. People mulled about, getting on the train, getting off. Dr. Herschel had shrugged on a black peacoat, old and torn, and had stepped off with Andrei. The magic side of the town was quaint, dirty and imperfect, but it seemed to blossom with heart and earnestness. It was right by the coast, inside of a small sound, and the sight of the island, the ocean, the mountains, was one to behold.

Devora bought a newspaper, and they and Andrei flipped through until they saw an ad for a small restaurant. A medium-height man with fluffy hair and metal growths on his rough skin, with kind eyes - one of which was lazy - and a hand on the waist of another kind looking man with frizzy brown hair, tan skin, and a ponytail. Next to that man, a hand also on his waist, was a tall woman with an afro and a patch of white skin right between her eyes. They all looked very contented.

The two walked through town.

"Wait," Dr. Herschel said quietly. Andrei paused and looked up at them. "Before we go see Atlas."

The two quietly walked along the quaint boardwalk until the rocks of the bay gave way to a small cove of a beach. The doctor took off their shoes as they walked across the hot sand, hopping as their fingers dug into the space between their foot and the black leather. The shoes were discarded off to the side, landing in the dark sand with a soft 'pof!' and nothing more. Blue was the water, cool as it lapped at their legs, and they slumped backwards as they stood in the calf deep water, splashing into it limply, where it lapped up to their shoulders.

Andrei sat with them and watched the sun darken into a fresh red as it descended into the fog and clouds. "Are you ready now?" He said, at last. Maybe two hours had passed.

They let out a sigh that seemed to provide a release in their whole body, and stared up at the sky quietly, watching the smoke from their pipe curl up and up and up, like a plant vying for the sun.