"What in the world was I thinking?" Shen asked herself, drawing the glances of the two other passengers on the train. Shen, whose full name was Shenandoah Kingston, blushed and stared out the window. "How different can California be from Kentucky?" she continued in her mind.
Shen checked her watch, subtracting three hours from the time still set in the Eastern Time Zone. According to her calculations the trip would end at San Francisco in about five hours. With a deep sigh, she turned her cerulean blue gaze to the other passengers in the car. The majority of people had already gotten off and she figured that the time was a significant factor. Not many wanted to travel from Denver at 2:39 AM. There were two other passengers aboard, both men. One appeared to be about her father's age, with white hair and snores emanating from his now sleeping form.
The other proved to be more intriguing. He had multiple piercings; one in his chin, two in his tongue, and one on the bridge of his nose almost between his eyebrows. Her own eyebrows raised as she noticed his black, silver, and blue hair. Even his clothes were unusual. A pair of jeans, a tank top, combat boots, and a trench coat –all black- contrasted his lightly tanned skin. His eyes were a striking green, the colour of Irish grass. When those eyes met hers she looked away quickly, a faint red colouring her cheeks again.
Movements out of the corner of her eye and a flash of black made her turn her head to the seat beside her. The man in black had plopped right down into the said seat and was grinning. She stared at him a moment, a little stunned by his audacity. "Hiya. I'm Zet," he said, holding his hand out.
Shen took it and gave it a little shake. "I'm Shen…is your name really Zet?"
"Nah. My real name is Leopold."
"I see why you go by Zet," she said with a smile.
He chuckled. "Your name really Shen?"
"Shenandoah. Shen is shorter though."
"Pretty but I see your point. Shenandoah doesn't exactly roll off the tongue." He studied her face a moment and she felt embarrassed, running her hand through her shoulder length red hair. "You really need some sleep," he declared suddenly.
Shen's eyes narrowed at this remark. "I'm surprised you made it through the metal detector," she retorted, evoking a grin from him.
"I didn't. They took one look and waved me around." The pair both began to laugh. "So, where are you from Shen?"
"Kentucky, a little town you've never heard of," she said, staring down at her hands. Her nails were barely over the nailbed, kept short by a near constant state of worry. The stress of school, applying to colleges, and studying for standardized tests had taken its toll. Finally she was on her way to the University of California at Berkeley after achieving a 34 on the ACT and a 4.2 GPA.
"Kentucky? A little far from home aren't you?"
"Just a little. I'm going to U of C-Berkeley."
"What a coincidence, that's where I'm headed. I went out to Colorado to visit my mom. I'm a Californian though." As he spoke the train began to gradually slow down.
"Are we there?" Shen asked, looking at her watch and wondering if she had miscalculated.
"Just a pit stop in Reno. Then it's about 4 hours to San Fran," Zet answered as he stood up and reached his hand out to her. With a smile she took the offered hand and stood, glad for the support when her knees suddenly buckled from hours of sitting.
"Hey!" he exclaimed, reaching his other hand out quickly to steady her.
"Thanks. I guess I didn't realize how long I'd been sitting." Shen released his hand and stretched, much like a big cat that had just awoken from a nap. When she was finished the pair went to the doorway of the train and exited into the chilly desert air. The train station, which was actually on the outskirts of the town, was brightly lit. A few people were standing on the platform as their luggage was loaded, but the two passed them and went into a small store.
Inside Shen picked out a Vanilla Frappachino and two small bags of BBQ chips then waited for Zet. "Whadda ya think Shen? A 100 Grand or a Babe Ruth?" he asked, holding one in each hand.
"How about door one," she said, pointing towards the King size 100 Grand bar.
"Door one it is." He replaced the other bar and grabbed a Vanilla Coke. They paid for their purchases and returned to their seats on the car. A few minutes later it jerked as the trip began again. The two sat in silence as they ate their 4 AM fuel. "So why did you pick California?" Zet asked after a few minutes more.
She shrugged. "I wanted something new. Everyone was going to community college and I knew I could do better than that. Besides, I seriously prefer having no winters."
"Well we do have winters just not snowy ones, on the bay anyway. I'll have to take you boarding up I the mountains."
"Yeah right, I'm about as coordinated as an elephant in a glass house." Shen laughed then spoke again, "Where in California are you from?"
"San Luis Obispo. It's about 4 hours south of San Fran on train."
"So you're not that far from home, huh?"
Zet nodded and they fell back into silence, albeit a more relaxed one. Shen felt her eyes begin to close and she gave into the urge, having caught only a few hours of sleep spread out over three days of train travel. In what seemed like minutes in her dream a jerk of the train caused her eyes to open. She felt an unnatural weight on top of her head and the scent of leather from her makeshift pillow.
First she glanced down and saw that her head rested on Zet's shoulder. Next she looked upward and to the right, glimpsing the side of his neck and jaw. From this she determined that sometime after she fell asleep her head had fallen onto his shoulder. Then he had fallen asleep and his head had slipped down to rest on top of hers. The train gave a jerk and she looked out the window, seeing that the sun was up but covered over by fog. Zet sat up and stretched with a loud groan.
"Looks like we're here," Shen commented.
Zet nodded. "The fog gives it away."
Shen smiled then stood up, sliding her messenger bag across her chest. Her blue t-shirt and jeans were rumpled while the bottoms of her Vans sneakers felt plastered to the floor. Zet also stood, moving into the aisle then waiting for her. Together they walked out into the morning sun, wincing at the sudden brightness.
Their bags were piled nearby. Neither had more than two since Zet's family was bringing his stuff up and Shen planned to buy her things that week. At last they were standing at the curb of the road as their bags were loaded into taxes. They stared at each other a moment then Zet reached out and gave her a bear hug. "Welcome to California, Shenandoah. Give me a call sometime," he said before stepping back and into his cab. Slightly stunned, it was only as the cab pulled away that she thought to yell, "But what's your number?"
She received no answer and dejectedly got into her own taxi. Later that day as she was cleaning out her messenger bag a piece of white paper fell to the floor. Shen bent over and scooped it up, wrinkling her forehead when she saw part of a train schedule. She flipped it over and saw a phone number written in black ink. A faint smile came over her face as she realized he must have slipped it into her bag while she slept.
The next few months were hectic as Shen began her classes. While she had excelled in high school she knew she was in trouble when a letter arrived informing her that she was on probation for her scholarships. Without them there was no way she could afford to attend the high profile school.
It was in December, just before Winter Break, when she remembered the phone number from her bag. Since her classes were over for the day she sat down at her desk with the scrap of paper. Shen picked up the cordless phone and dialed the digits slowly. After a few moments a voice answered. "Hello?"
"Hi. Is Zet there?"
"No. He's at work. Is this Shen?" the man inquired.
"Yeah, how did you know?" Shen asked in surprise.
"Zet told me about the trip. Hey, if you wanna catch up with him he's at the Mocha Hocha."
Shen thanked his roommate and hung up being familiar with the place. Replacing the phone in its cradle, she grabbed her jacket and shrugged into it before heading out the door. Though San Francisco didn't have snow during winter the winds off the bay were chilly. Outside the dorm, students with books and laptops sat in groups of two or three on the grass. A small group of people was even doing Tai Chi.
Walking across the commons, Shen made her way off campus and down two blocks to the café. Inside she shed her jacket in the warmth and made her way to a window table. As she settled in a shadow fell over the table, followed by a familiar laugh.
"Hey Kentucky girl! What's up?" Zet asked, sliding into the chair across from her.
The sound of his voice brought a smile to her face. "Just tracking down a certain elusive Californian."
His brow raised. "Cheating on me already? Anyone I know?"
"Well I don't know. He's sorta tall, bypasses metal detectors, and the only hint of colour is his hair and eyes. Sound familiar?"
"Just a little. Oh, want anything to drink?" he asked, waving a pencil and notepad around.
"No thanks. I'm broke."
"How's your classes going?" Zet inquired, setting the objects aside.
"Honestly? Not too well. I'm burnt out I guess. It's a lot harder than I thought it would be." Shen glanced out the window with a sigh.
"Are you going home for break?"
She shook her head. "I can't. I'm in a jam because the dorms close and I have nowhere to go."
"Come home with me," Zet suggested with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Are you kidding? You hardly know me and I barely know you!" Shen exclaimed.
"Well you haven't killed anyone yet and I would feel guilty if you got into trouble over break. Besides my sister will enjoy the temporary balance of hormones," Zet laughed, "I'm leaving tomorrow right after my last class at 3."
"My last one is 2:30, so that works out," Shen replied.
Suddenly Zet looked at his watch. "Well looks like my break is over. Be ready at 3 and I'll have a cab go to your dorm."
"Alright, I'm in Manor Hall. And Zet? Thanks a lot."
He nodded and stood, moving away towards the counter. Shen also stood and left for her dorm, already planning what to pack. The next day went by agonizingly slow as Shen finished packing a few minutes before 3. Taking her two bags down to the lobby, she spied the promised taxi. It took her to the train station where she met up with Zet.
The four-hour trip was uneventful. When they arrived Zet's dad met them at the station and helped load their bags into his truck. "I can't believe they're related," Shen thought in amazement. Zet's dad was short with blonde hair and blue eyes. He appeared to be in his early forties. He was very lively and as soon as they all got into the truck he began a conversation.
"Well Shen, you can call me Michael. I hear you're form out east. I'm just glad you're looking past old Zet here's appearance to get to know him, " Michael rambled.
Shen grinned at Zet. "That's right sir, I'm from Kentucky. And I don't think Zet is scary, in fact he's rather like a big teddy bear." Zet cracked up at this comment and Michael chuckled.
"You'll like Rachel, that's his sister. I think you two will get along really well." Michael turned his attention back to the road as he pulled into the driveway of a two-story ranch house. Shen noted that the house appeared well kept but not to the point that it appeared preserved. "It's lived in. I can imagine someone sliding on the floors in socks," she thought. At this she smiled and slid out of the truck, walking back to the bed. Before she could grab her bags the two men had distributed them between the two.
"Hey! I don't want to look lazy," Shen protested.
"Hush you. You're a guest," Zet said with finality, poking the small of her back so she moved toward the house.
Inside her bags were placed in the guest bedroom between Zet and Rachel's rooms. Shen brushed her hair and teeth before going to her room. As she dug through her bags a teenage girl appeared in the doorway. Her golden brown eyes watched Shen's movement. "Hey," the girl said.
Shen jumped and dropped the pair of jeans she had been holding. "Hi… you must be Rachel."
The girl walked forward with a smile. "Welcome to southern California. I can tell you're not from around here by the accent." Rachel sat down on the bed, her face serious now. "What's up between you and my brother?"
"What?" Shen asked in confusion.
"He's never brought a girl home, especially one he just met," Rachel clarified, flipping a stray piece of blond hair over her shoulder.
"There's nothing going on between us if that's what you're asking."
From downstairs a voice called out, "Dinner's ready!" The pair went downstairs and over dinner the four discussed college and how different California was from Kentucky. For the next week Shen enjoyed feeling like she was part of a family again. The last week of the break Shen went along with the Rowland family to the mountains. The first night they arrived, Shen went outside on the porch of the cabin.
She wrapped a quilt around her shoulders as she moved back and forth on the porch swing. Her feet were curled underneath her as she looked out over the snowfield lit with the quicksilver glow of the moon. "You don't realize how much you miss the little things, like snow, until you don't have them anymore," Shen whispered to herself.
"Talking to yourself is the first sign of insanity," a voice said from the door. Zet walked out and sat down beside her.
"You're only insane if you expect the swing to answer back," Shen replied with a smile. He nodded and pulled his trench coat closer around his form.
"Aren't you cold?" He looked pointedly at the quilt covering her tank top and pajama pants.
"I'm fine," Shen protested, even as her body shivered involuntarily.
Zet rolled his eyes and shifted so he sat diagonally across the swing. Reaching out he pulled her next to him, wrapping his coat around her as well. With a faint blush she struggled slightly but quickly gave in, finding that she didn't mind being that close to him.
Hesitantly she wrapped her arm around his chest, growing warmer from their combined body heat. She rested her head against his breastbone, gazing up at the stars and mentally naming constellations. "Cassiopeia, Ursus Major, Little Dip—" her mental list was interrupted as Zet's hand caressed her cheek, angling her face upward. Her indigo eyes met his emerald and they leaned toward each other. As if in sync they tilted their heads.
Their lips met, chastely at first then more intimately. After a few moments they broke apart and Shen buried her head in the crook of his neck. His scent filled her nose, musk and sandalwood, and she could feel his pulse against her cheek. It seemed as though their hearts were beating as one steady drum.
A light snowfall began, prompting them to move inside. The rest of the family had retired to their rooms already. They sat on a couch facing the roaring fireplace, sipping hot chocolate and sharing kisses but mainly just enjoying the company of one another. It was past midnight when they separated to their own rooms.
The next day, while Zet and Shen hit the slopes, Rachel and Michael went into town to get supplies. As Zet and Shen were on their way to the cabin a downpour of snow began. Entering the cabin they were going over the days events. "…And when you plowed into that whole group of kids, it was great!" Zet said humorously, leaning their snowboards against the outside of the porch. Shen couldn't help but laugh as well. However her laughter was cut short as the lights went out. Even the windows provided no illumination as the snowfall blocked out the fading sun.
"Zet?" Shen asked, moving toward where he had last been standing. Holding her hands out in front of her, she felt her palms brush rough material.
"Woah there!" Zet cried out, grabbing her hands. Shen realized she must have been holding them a little too low. With a deep blush she moved to stand next to him. A flashlight clicked on, illuminating the area around them. "The snowstorm must have knocked the power out, if it's that bad then dad and Rachel won't be able to get back tonight." Zet shuffled over to the phone and picked it up. "No ring tone," he announced.
Shen nodded, having gone through Appalachian winters before. "How long will it be before it lets up?" She asked, unfamiliar with western snowstorms.
Zet shrugged. "It's untelling." He went to the fireplace and lit it, casting a warm glow on the room. Shen sat down on the couch and Zet joined her. Silence reined, save for the popping and cracking of the fire. Zet shifted so they were stretched along the couch, his back against the arm. Shen was lying on top of him, her head resting on his chest. The sound of his heartbeat and breathing lulled her into sleep.
When she awoke the fire had died to glowing embers, casting a mix of shadow and glow on their skin. She observed his features and leant forward, kissing him lightly. He shifted in his sleep as his arms wrapped around her. Emboldened, her hand began to explore his chest and stomach. With a sound mixed between a growl and groan Zet flipped them.
They slowly explored one another, pieces of clothing shed like liquid. The pair moved to the floor before the fire, spreading a quilt out. Later, Shen lay in the crook of his arm covered only by a thin blanket. The last thing she remembered was the smell of his scent mixed with her own.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, the family having made it safely home. Shen began to dread the end of Winter Break. It meant a return to life on her own and the reality that she could lose her scholarship money. The end of the break came and on the two's return to San Francisco there was a sort of silent mutual agreement to just remain friends.
A month and a half later found Shen sitting in her bathroom staring at the home pregnancy kit in her hand. "You have got to be kidding me," she said softly. But the three tests hadn't lied. She was pregnant. Numbly she threw the evidence away and returned to her room. Determinedly she picked up the phone and dialed a number from memory.
"Hello?" Zet's roommate, Adam, said.
"Is…is Zet there?" she asked softly.
"Sorry Shen, he's out with his girlfriend. Wanna leave a message?" Adam asked.
"No thanks." Shen hung up and sank onto her bed. "I knew he wasn't telling me something," Shen thought to herself. Standing she walked outside into the 62 degree air, making her way to a nearby playground. A few children and their mothers were out, the mothers congregated at a picnic table. Shen sat down on a swing and watched the kid play as she mentally debated.
"I'm a freshman in college, 2,000 miles away from home, and unmarried. I can't have an abortion. This is a human life here, inside me. But can I raise it alone? I can't involve Zet now that he's with someone else…" her mental thoughts trailed off as she watched the mothers gather their children.
With her resolve face on she went back to the dorms and completed all the assignments from her classes. The next morning she went to the Housing Office and informed them of her situation. While her being unmarried posed some problems she was finally given a two bedroom apartment.
At five months she was beginning to show her condition. She avoided Zet, whom she learned was engaged to his girlfriend. However she knew she had to tell him and went to the Mocha Hocha on his shift. When he saw her he immediately slid into a chair. She lowered herself across from him.
"Is it mine?" he asked without preamble.
"Yes. I don't expect anything. I just wanted you to know."
"I'm getting married."
"Yes." Shen looked down at her swollen belly.
"I want to be in its life," Zet said, reaching across the table to lay his hand on her stomach.
"I'm glad to hear you say that." She looked at her watch. "I have to go. And it's a girl."
Zet helped her stand then hugged her. "Call me." Shen nodded then left, feeling as though a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
Four months later and Shen was in a hospital bed, surrounded by Zet's entire family. Her own family had disowned her and the child. A nurse brought the unnamed baby girl in, placing her in Shen's arms. The baby's deep blue eyes were mixed with streaks of her father's green. The soft hair on her head was pitch black and sticking straight up like a mohawk.
Shen locked eyes with Zet, who was standing next to his fiancée. "I want you to name her."
Zet looked shocked. "Thank you… I'll name her Aisling. But you should pick the middle name. Aisling means dream or vision. It was my Irish grandmothers name."
"Aisling Sahira Kingston. A beautiful name for a beautiful girl." Shen smiled down at Aisling, who yawned and stared around the room with her bright eyes. "Welcome to the world my baby."
"Mommy!" Aisling cried, running into the apartment with a concerned expression. In her tiny hands she held a baby duckling. "It's hurt mommy. Can you help it?"
From behind the kitchen counted Shen crouched and drew the child into her arms. She reached her hands around Aisling's. "Where did you find it honey?" Shen asked.
"From the lake. Its wing hurts," Aisling said, looking up with her wide blue-green eyes. Shen took the bird and examined it. She spied a thorn between two feathers and pulled it out.
The duck quacked loudly then settled down as she placed it in Aisling's hands. "Here honey, hold it for a second. I'll fix a box for it to sleep in, okay?"
"M'kay," Aisling mumbled.
Shen stood and made her way to her bedroom. She grabbed an empty shoebox and placed a few old t-shirts in it. Returning to the kitchen she lowered the box and allowed Aisling to place the duckling in it.
Together they placed it in the small but cozy living room. Sunlight streamed into the box, putting the duck to sleep. When that was finished Shen returned to the kitchen. She had made lasagna for dinner. As she cut sliced for them both, Aisling washed her hands then took a place at the table.
Shen sat the plates on the placemats and also took a seat. Together they said a prayer to all Gods. Shen insisted that her daughter choose her own religion when the time came rather than feel obligated to follow in her mother's footsteps.
As they ate Aisling told her about school. She was 6 years old and in first grade. They had painted family portraits. Aisling's hung on the refrigerator door nearby. In one house was Shen and herself while in another on the opposite side of the page were her father, stepmother, and half-brother.
Later that night as Shen stood watching her daughter sleep she thought back over the years. Somehow she had graduated summa cum laude with a major in Equine Studies and a minor in Biology. She now worked at a stable, caring for and training racehorses at a top notch Kentucky farm.
Her family had gradually come around, won over by Shen's persistence and Aisling's charm. Aisling's father, Zet, and his wife of two years now resided in San Diego. Every few months Aisling would fly out and stay a few weeks. They treated her no different than their own son, for which Shen was grateful.
Meanwhile Shen had devoted all her extra time to Aisling, leaving no time for men. She had found that a single mother put off men anyway. Though it was lonely sometimes, she had her daughter and that was enough.
With a shake of her head she stepped back and shut the door. As she made her way into her own bedroom she thought, "I wouldn't change my life whatsoever, especially if it meant losing my little raven haired angel."