17 Minutes by Lynne Butler

Finalist in the short story category, Mensa Canada 2020 Literary Contest

Emma squeezed through the subway doors with the rest of the Friday morning commuters and threw herself into an empty seat. She did her best to become invisible, pulling her hoodie up over her head and hunching away from the stranger who plopped down beside her. As usual, the train was over-full, smelly, hot, and depressing. Emma pulled a much-wrinkled paperback from the pocket of her jeans and buried her nose in it. If nobody bothered her, she’d have exactly 17 minutes to read before she reached her stop. As long as no shoving matches erupted and nobody came begging for money, she’d be fine.

These 17 precious minutes were the best part of her day. Her job at the coffee shop was low-paid but necessary drudgery that supported her – barely – as she worked her way through her thesis. Day after day, she’d move, wraith-like, brewing pot after pot of coffee and doling out pastries. By the time she finished her usual 10-hour shift, she was too exhausted even to read on the ride home.

There was nothing and nobody waiting for her at home at the end of the day either, except for a few neighbourhood cats who glared suspiciously at her from behind garbage cans outside her apartment lobby. Her world echoed with loneliness that ricocheted off oblivious strangers on the crowded streets. Sometimes she went weeks not speaking to anyone who knew her name, her customers being her only contact.

But the worlds Emma met in books were wondrous, happy places that invited her to escape and imagine. For 17 minutes each morning she could be anyone, anything, anywhere. She’d choose a book, and for 17 minutes, it would choose her in return.

Emma often wished that a book would swallow her whole. That a book would like her so much it didn’t want to let her go. Maybe the book would somehow just know that she was the right reader to swing through the jungle alongside Tarzan, take up arms against the White Witch with the Pevenseys, or crack tough cases with Nancy Drew. Emma was a firm believer that books know perfectly well by whom they wish to be read and she ached to be chosen.

This week, she was reading Jane Austen’s Emma, for no reason other than having the same first name as the heroine. It contained less physical adventure than Emma usually liked, but made up for that in style and clever social observations. The real Emma envied the fictional Emma Woodhouse her wealth and friendships. What a life that would be. No money worries. Living on the top rung of the social ladder. Lifelong friends. Lovely outfits with hats and gloves and sashes and boots with tiny buttons. Horse-drawn carriages to whisk one down leafy country lanes to tea parties. Emma’s lonely heart wished fervently that this book, this marvelous, timeless, perfect story, would see her, recognize her need, and simply opt to keep her forever in its pages.

17 minutes later, Emma reached her stop. She tucked her book into her reticule. The footman clicked open the carriage door and offered his gloved hand to guide her down the single step. Emma carefully gathered her full-length, ivory muslin skirt to avoid tripping. She nodded to the footman. The butler had come out on the front step and said, “welcome home, Miss Woodhouse.” Emma smiled as she strode toward the steps leading up to the ornate double doors that were thrown open in greeting.