A stranger changes Jane's life forever.
Path of Open Doors
CH-CHINK-CH-CHINK... The rhythm of the subway rattling down the cross town line lulled Jane into dark preoccupation. Her neutral gaze veiled the fervent yet vain attempts to ignore her father's booming voice in her head. Searching for distraction, she scanned the overhead advertisements. One claimed an omnipotent cure for headache. HA! AVOID HEADACHES -- DON'T HAVE KIDS! The next ad promoted a weight loss program. NO ONE LOOKS AT YOU OR YOUR FLAB!
The train veered in the tunnel; a metallic screech accompanied the occupants' collective sway to the left. Jane's eyes settled on a poster for an online travel agency. She stared wistfully at the palm trees flanking the slogan. Fantasizing about roaming the planet's distant lands was a temporary escape; but the voice prevailed. CAVIAR DREAMS FOR A CHEEZ-WHIZ KID!
Jane squeezed her eyes tight against the sting of her father's incessant commentary as the train approached a station. It slowed to a halt and she heard people moving about. As the doors closed her in again, Jane opened her eyes. A new passenger sat across the aisle. He was staring at her, radiating a calm that penetrated her being and silenced her father.
"I like your scarf." His quiet voice cut through the din with surreal clarity. "That blue pops against all the shades of gray in here."
"Thanks." She grinned at the floor, noticing colorful flecks splattered across his sneakers. Feeling bold, she asked, "Are you an artist?"
A smile broke across his face that seemed to give off light and heat. "Starving artist, to be exact."
Their conversation continued until the train pulled into Union Station. In unison they stood, and chuckled. Gesturing widely he said, "After you."
A gloomy sky greeted them when they emerged from underground. Turning, he held out his hand. "I'm Alex, by the way."
"Jane." His smooth hand wrapped warmly around hers.
"There's a coffee shop across the way, can I buy you a cup?"
Jane couldn't remember why she had come this way in the first place. She accepted his invitation, and they started across the street.
"So, your name is Jane?"
"Yes," she answered. "Well, actually, my birth name is 'Jayna'. My mother passed when I was a baby. My father raised me. Apparently, he decided 'Jane' fit me better. I've never been called anything else."
"He's wrong, Jayna."
Blushing, she looked down.
"So, Jayna, what do you do?"
She shoved her hands into her pockets, watching her boots hit the pavement with each stride. "I answer phones at Mutual of America insurance."
"Insurance, huh? That's a bland industry," he said, reaching the coffee house.
Jane's eyebrows knit together. "Funny you said 'bland'. I use that word all the time to describe my job." She returned his smile as Alex held open the door.
The dimly lit coffee house felt otherworldly with its heavily draped walls and dark furnishings. The air hung in hazy ribbons; somewhere a heady incense burned. Alex led Jane to a table and motioned to a server.
He ordered. "Two coffees, don't leave room for cream. Thanks."
Jane narrowed her eyes. "How'd you know I drink my coffee black?"
Alex smiled. "Lucky guess?" He leaned closer, his smile fading. "Jayna, an artist's work adds beauty to the world." He paused. "When you discover your medium, you'll begin to do the same."
The server returned with two steaming cups. Jane's tight smile barely touched her lips. "I'm no artist, Alex."
A light behind them danced on the dense air and outlined Alex with a radiant glow. An intoxicating energy suddenly permeated the space around them, vibrating in Jane's head and erasing the room. His intense sapphire eyes became inky pools of knowledge, diffusing silent truth like a statue in a church. Mesmerized, Jane reveled under his spell. When Alex spoke, she swore his lips weren't moving.
"Release yourself from your father's hold. Life is a path, a series of doorways to pass through. Your father suffers a difficult path. His pain has influenced you for too long. It's time to choose a door, claim your path, and cross the threshold to your destiny."
Moments crept by before the surrounding murmurs and clanks of cups on saucers reached Jane's ears again. The electric hum in her head subsided, leaving ripples of serenity in its wake. Alex sipped his coffee. Something magical had just happened; the hairs on the back of Jane's neck stood in affirmation.
She wanted to be alone to reflect on his words, and excused herself to the restroom. As she stood, Alex reached out and caught her wrist. "Make your dreams come true." When he let go, her arm tingled.
Minutes later, Jane returned. Two women sat at her table. The waitress filled their cups, between which lay a large pile of torn sugar packets.
Jane approached the waitress. "Excuse me. Why are those women sitting at our table? And where did my friend go?"
The server regarded Jane impatiently. "I'm sorry, your table? They've been here since my shift started. They're on their third refills." She added over her shoulder, "I don't know you or your friend."
What? Jane's stomach fluttered madly. She bolted outdoors into the brilliant sunshine. The drastic change in weather added to her disorientation. Shielding her eyes, she scanned the street, but Alex had disappeared. Jane stumbled forward, and stopped.
The building adjacent to the coffee shop bore a notice that read:
Immediate position open for overseas project.
Great benefits, training.
Above the intercom, an etched brass plate bore the company logo: two palm trees on either side of the words 'International Cooperatives'.
Make your dreams come true.
Her heart pounding, Jane stepped forward and pushed the button.
A tinny voice answered. "I.C. May I help you?"
"I'm interested in the overseas position," she stammered.
Her reflection watched her from the brass plate. "I'm Jayna Williams."
A buzzer sounded and Jayna pulled open the door.
(WC: 992, +4 in title)