It was only slightly raining when Timothy Dinwiddle began his usual walk to the train station but still he wished he hadn’t forgotten his red umbrella with the purple dots.
The umbrella was a present from his ever-traveling sister, Bertrice, a purple-spotted souvenir from her August trip to Vienna, where she was paid exactly $256 American dollars (“and not one stinkin’ penny more”) to blog about a small piece of public artwork designed by a street artist whose name Timothy couldn’t recall. He was about to think the sculptor went by Snailweather or maybe Snailfeather when a tall man wearing an even taller top hat interrupted this thought by colliding quite forcibly with Timothy’s right foot.
“Pardon me,” said the top hatted man, a breathless, bearded figure made hazy in the modest rain.
“‘s alright,” Timothy replied, unsure where the southern tinge in his voice came from or why he had a sudden and overwhelming need to be someone – and even somewhere – he was not.
“Are you sure?” The Top Hat man scratched at a neatly trimmed beard and glanced down toward Timothy’s foot. “I sometimes underestimate my own strength. I’ve broken many a bone that way.”
“I’m tough’r thin I look,” said Timothy, imagining himself a corn farmer from Nebraska who gave up a life of tilling and shucking to ride trains on rainy days.
“Mmm. I see.” Top Hat sounded intrigued but wary and eyed Timothy beneath a blue-spectacled gaze. “Well, if you’re taking this next train, let me pay your fare. It’s the very least I can do after nearly crippling you.”
Timothy made no objection – his last check from Harper’s Toys & Things barely covered a month of rent – and followed Top Hat to a red-painted train car with three windows awash in pale light.
“Follow me,” said Top Hat, as if he owned the train. The two doors slid open at his long-fingered touch and what came next Timothy had to replay twice over in his mind, just to be sure it was true:
A voice, much rounder than Top Hat’s and much huskier than his own, filled the train car with its sound, blinding Timothy from anything but its thickly laden words as it spoke low like crackling flames:
And still he heard the secret, a song in autumn breeze, be mindful of the wind, my friend, be worthy of the trees.
“Would you like some orangeberry tea?”
Top Hat was leaning over Timothy, a silver kettle sputtering steam in one hand, a white porcelain teacup in the other.
If Timothy was still inside the train he wouldn’t know it; the place where he sat – and how did he come to sit? – appeared more like a library than any transportation car he knew; high walls were lined by elegantly swirling bookshelves, which dipped and turned, unlike the traditional straight-across direction bookshelves so often took, with thin books holding tight inside dark wooden frames. High tables occupied each corner of the long and narrow space, and four red stained-glass lamps provided meager offerings of crimson light. There were no windows, there were no doors and as far as Timothy understood of the strange message that brought him here, there was no good way to escape.
“I don’t drink tea,” said Timothy with all the hardened-farmer bravado he could muster.
“Ah, that’s right. Bertrice mentioned you might not. Scotch?”
“Hey, man! How do you know my sister?” Any trace of Timothy the Corn Farmer was gone and he was back to Timothy the Angry and Broke Toy Salesman as he dug his short nails into the spongy leather armrests he found beneath his hands.
“Yes, you’re right to turn down tea. I’ve got some aged scotch – it’s a fifty-six-year-old McGrimper – that I believe will do the trick!”
Top Hat was giddier than he had ever been in the ten short minutes – or was it twenty? – since Timothy came to meet this man and the abrupt change of state for reasons unexplained left Timothy unable to speak. As Top Hat turned to find his scotch, the kettle and teacup fell from his hands – was that soft giggling coming from the cup? – and instead of a mess of tea and broken porcelain, the teacup split into two clever halves when it reached the ground, catching each bit of orangish water that fell from the sideways kettle as it spouted its orangeberry tea.
“Here you go, Timothy.” Top Hat placed a glass inside a hand Timothy couldn’t remember opening and again found that when he tried to talk, his throat betrayed him by making not a sound. With a squish of leather, Top Hat was sitting in a chair nearby.
“I’ll explain quickly,” he said. “There isn’t much time before your stop.”
“My name is Flannigan Bixby and it doesn’t matter who I am or what I do – none of that would make sense – but it does matter why I’m here: I met your sister, Bertrice, my beautiful Bertrice, when she was writing a story about handcrafted cuckoo clocks in Lichtenstein. It’s a small country, so I knew the clock owners well enough to help her and she was on a tight deadline. I’m embarrassed to say it only took two days for us to fall in love, the kind of freight-train love that just hits you before you’re sure what happened. And by the time – ha! time! – her piece was turned in, we couldn’t deny our affections any longer. I asked Bertrice to marry me two weeks before Time and Travel in Lichtenstein was even published. I couldn’t help it; the question just slipped from my mouth one glorious night as she was conducting research for a follow-up clock story on second hands. She looked at me, a picture more stunning than the full moon shining in the night sky above, and said with her father gone six years, I’d need your permission before she could even think to respond. I came here as soon as I could and found you, knowing that you’re the one person in this world who can see to it that I satisfy the, as you will, ticking of my own heart.”
Timothy felt himself nodding without meaning to, and as he did the scene around him disappeared. Gone were the giggling teacup-halves, the swooping bookshelves and the red glass lamps. He was somewhere far from the train station, under the golden shade of a large, leafy tree. A tender, cool November wind bit at his shirt collar and the morning rain fell in light drips just beyond. More than anything, he wished he could understand what in the Lichtenstein just happened but found only his earlier wish had been granted: With a newly scribbled “thank you” etched into its handle, his red umbrella with the purple dots now sat quietly by his side.