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Last Train

Matias Travieso-Diaz

We can be deported. We have no motherland.

Life is full of things he cannot control so he must adapt. My boy has to survive.

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko



          One late evening in the summer of 2012, Elsa was walking back to her apartment from the office and cut across the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, a park near the Termini. As was her custom, she tried to make it swiftly across the park before it got dark. Her attention, however, was drawn to noises coming from the dry fountain near the edge of the park. She detoured in that direction and, as she came closer to the fountain and its hideous sculptural group of tritons, dolphins, and octopuses (derisively dubbed the "fritto misto" by the locals), she realized that a group of vagrants had gathered around the fountain and were talking loudly, while one or two were playing musical instruments.

          Coming closer, Elsa saw that the men were dressed in rags and showed signs of dire poverty. She guessed that this was a group of Middle Eastern refugees, maybe Syrian. Without realizing it, her eyes became moist. The Islamic music the derelicts played had a wistful quality that reminded her of a song from a Spanish operetta she had watched as a teenager: “Canta mendigo errante, cantos de tu niñez, ya que nunca tu patria volverás a ver.” (Sing, wandering beggar, songs from your childhood, for you will never see your homeland again).

          Elsa was not sentimental, but the melody stirred her nostalgia for the Caribbean land she had left as a young woman. She walked towards the motley group and approached a youth with mussed hair and a thin beard who was playing something that looked like a fat bottomed lute. “Excuse me, but where are you people from?” she asked him.

         Terror registered on the youth’s eyes, and he stammered in almost incomprehensible Italian: “Am sorry… don’t understand… Catania, we come from Catania.”

          Elsa narrowed her eyes readying a rebuke, checked herself, and replied in a friendly whisper. “Have no fear. I won’t turn you over to the carabinieri. You got to Catania, that’s in Sicily, by sea, from some other place. Where are you originally from?”

          The youth’s voice was at first almost inaudible. “I from Ghouta. Government kept attacking us with all they had… planes, tanks, guns, fire bombs. I and some friends was able to escape to Lebanon, and been travelling through Cyprus, and Malta, and Catania. Nobody want us.” He gasped and broke into a wail: “All my family, they dead” and began sobbing.

           Elsa was seized by a feeling of compassion mixed with some obscure yearning. Boldly, she put her arm around the boy’s heaving shoulders and asked: “Are you hungry?”

“Yes” he stammered.

“Come home with me, I’ll make you some pasta.”

“But friends….”

“They won’t miss you. Let’s go, it is not far.”

          As the youth followed her across the park, she turned to him and asked: “What’s your name?”

          “I is called Aland.” After a pause, he asked: “How you called?”

          The quick falsity of her answer surprised her: “Isabella.”



          Elsa lived in a small apartment on the fifth floor of a building on Via Principe Amedeo, very close to Rome’s Termini Station. From her apartment she could hear the trains arrive and depart from the station, and sometimes the hubbub of taxis and travelers reached her ears. It was far from ideal housing, but rent was low and she was close to the offices of the magazine where she worked.

          When they arrived at the apartment, she had Aland plummet himself on the sofa while she boiled water and opened a package of linguini. She was not much of a cook but in her years of living alone had developed some basic skills. A search of the cupboard and the refrigerator revealed a can of Ragu, Parmesan cheese, and butter. She set to work.

          While the pasta was cooking, she went to the wine rack and selected a bottle of Valpolicella. She turned to Aland and asked: “Do you drink alcohol?”

“Yes. I Christian.”

“Would you want some?”

“Si, prego.”

          Aland devoured the steaming bowl of linguini and even scrubbed the sides of the plate with a piece of bread she put on the table.

“Do you want some more?”

“Yes, please.”

          After two bowlfuls of pasta, Elsa had to ask: “When was the last time you had a meal?”

          There was some hesitation. At last, Aland allowed: “Ate some cheese in Catania.”

“When was that?”

“Week ago.”

          Elsa grasped Aland’s arm and dragged him to the bathroom. “You need to take a bath. While you are doing that I will wash and dry your clothes, and will get you a razor and soap so you can shave.” From a closet, she took out an old robe and handed it to him. “Wear this when you come out, while your clothes are getting cleaned.”

          Aland gave her an astonished look, but obeyed.

          Elsa took his filthy clothes to the laundry room in the basement and put them in the washer. She then went out to the convenience store across the street, bought shaving gear, cologne, snacks, and more wine. By the time she came back, the clothes were ready to go into the dryer.

          “Why am I doing this?” she asked herself. “I am no Samaritan.” She did not know the answer, but something in her heart told her it was the right thing to do.

          When Aland emerged from the bathroom, clean and beardless, he was another man. Elsa noticed that he was very handsome, though quite thin. He had an aquiline nose, dreamy amber eyes, unruly dark curls, and an innocent expression that had survived the war’s horrors. “How old are you?” she asked, while pouring him a second glass of wine. “Twenty-one” was the reply.

          “What did you do before… before the war?”

          “I musician. I play oud” he answered, pointing to the fat lute leaning against the sofa.

          “Do you have any other skills?”

          “What is skills?”

          “Things you know how to do. Fixing cars or making chairs or doing electrical work.”

          “In Ghouta, after government attacked, I learned to repair houses.”

          “Good. If you have any chance of being allowed to stay you will have to show you have employable skills.”

          A few minutes later, Elsa led him to the sofa and went to the bedroom to find a pillow and blankets. When she returned, he was fast asleep.



          Aland was still asleep when Elsa went to the lobby to pick up her copy of Il Messagero. Back at the apartment, she made espresso and began thumbing through the news. In the Cronaca section that ran local stories, her attention was drawn to this headline: “Blitz al campo nomadi nel Fritto Misto: 11 arresti.” The story described how during the evening a police contingent had raided the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II and rounded up a number of Syrian illegal immigrants, who were taken into custody for potential incarceration or deportation.

          Elsa shook Aland awake and showed him the article, asking: “Are these your friends from the park?”

          Aland stared uncomprehendingly at the article, but the story was accompanied by a picture of a policeman dragging an old bearded man away, and Aland roared in recognition:

          “Nazir! What done him?!” He began shaking with fear.

          It took Elsa a few minutes to calm the boy enough so she could explain what had happened. “Someone called the police and reported the gathering in the park. The authorities these days are cracking down on undocumented aliens, and your friends will probably end up in a tent city where Africans, Syrians and other illegals are confined. Some of these camps have been open for years.”

          “We try to find way to go to Germania” he started. Then a new thought assaulted him: “Will police come for me?” He began trembling again.

          Elsa tried to be reassuring. “Do not fear. Nobody knows you are here. You can stay until we can figure out how to solve your situation.” Deep inside, she began worrying about the mess she was getting into but brushed the concern aside.

          “Grazie, grazie, Isabella” repeated Aland, overwhelmed. She gave a tight smile in response.




          In the next few days, Elsa researched how to get Aland to stay legally in Italy or, failing that, how to find a way of moving him out of the country and into more hospitable destinations like Germany or Scandinavia. The results were frustrating: while Italy recognized an alien’s right to obtain asylum in appropriate cases, the procedures for securing asylum were time consuming and complex, particularly since the agencies charged with evaluating asylum petitions were swamped. There was also a growing bias against allowing any additional immigrants to come into the country “to steal jobs from Italians.”

          Aland was opposed to revealing himself to the Italian authorities. His arrival in Sicily had been the work of smugglers, who later had carried him and his companions to Fregene, a beach town an hour’s bus ride from Rome. Having failed to present himself for evaluation as a potential asylum seeker, he feared he would be immediately sent to a detention center.

          Trying to get him out of the country was just as perilous. The normal means of transportation – bus, train, airlines – were not available since there would be immigration controls at various points. There were probably smugglers who, for a price, could accomplish the human transfer but Elsa did not know any and trying to find one was difficult: the few sites for which she could find links on the internet seemed suspiciously like scams meant to defraud the desperate or their relatives. Aland had tried to contact his friends in exile for potential leads but had not been able to find anybody; the smugglers in Lebanon who had brought him into Italy seemed to be out of business.

          Aland’s stay at the apartment stretched uncomfortably from a day to a week and then two weeks. He gained weight and lost some of the haunted look that had set on him during the war, but remained restive and anxious to get on with his life. Meanwhile, Elsa had become more of a homemaker than ever before. She tried cooking new dishes for him, and some of her culinary attempts were successful.

          Elsa had made frantic inquiries from just everyone she knew, but nobody could steer her in the right direction. The closest thing to a workable suggestion was offered by Elsa’s immediate boss at the magazine where she worked, a no-nonsense widow who had seen her share of domestic entanglements. Her curt advice was: “Marry him, get him papers, and then divorce him.”

          Elsa was startled by the suggestion, but not as surprised as she ought to have been. After weeks of living with a handsome boarder, her romantic juices had started to flow and resignation to the life of a spinster had become harder. She had liked Aland from the start, and affection had grown into infatuation. She often caught herself wondering what married life with a pretty boy half her age would be like.

          Aland, for his part, was in awe of this efficient woman who knew all the answers and took good care of him as if he were an exotic pet. But romance between them never crossed his mind.

          So it was that, on a Saturday night over veal scaloppini and Chianti, Elsa presented the problem to Aland and described a potential solution.

          “Aland, you have been hiding in this apartment for six weeks and we have found no way of getting you safely out of here. We need to do something.”

          “I understand. I leave tonight.”

          “That’s not what I had in mind. There is a potential way out of this situation, but it’s a bit extreme. We can get married.”

          Aland’s mouth dropped. “Like husband and wife?”

          “Yes. The spouse of an Italian citizen may apply for Italian citizenship after he has legally resided in Italy for at least two years. That will be also the minimum processing time for the application, but at that time you will become a legitimate Italian.”

          “But I don’t want to get married.” He stopped short of mouthing it, but the words “to you” were implicit.

          “It would only be a temporary thing, but we would need to go through it to get your application approved.”

          “How would it work?”

          “First, we would get married. I can sneak you out of here early one morning and take us to my parish priest, Father Carlo, to marry us and initiate the process. Then I would take the marriage certificate issued by the parish to the Town Hall for registration. Then we would have to round up, or generate, a number of documents relating to you – some would have to be created and others secured through some means. As I said, the process, after the application is filed, would take two years.”

          “We would have to live together for two years?”

          “Yes. Maybe longer. Italian bureaucracy is terrible.”

          “Meanwhile you support me?”

          “I would.” Aland said nothing, but his face registered great distress. Elsa sought to reassure him: “We don’t need to decide on this tonight. Let’s go to sleep and talk some more in the morning.”


          The promised conversation, however, became a game of cat and mouse. Elsa pressed gently, but Aland remained non-committal. Sensing this, Elsa tried to avoid a confrontation that might turn out for the worst. She expected that Aland would ultimately say yes.

          Five days later, he went away without warning. Elsa found a scribbled note on the breakfast table: “Cara Isabella: I go now. I have much respect for you. You have been like mother to me. I could never love you or live with you for two years. Nazir is out on street and found a smuggler to take us to Germania. We take train north tonight. I took Euros from your purse for smuggler. I pay you back. Thank you for everything, Aland.”




          Aland’s departure was a staggering blow. Elsa was certain that she could have made their relationship work, if given a chance, but she never had the opportunity. Her self-esteem was shattered by the realization that she was not attractive enough to get a man interested in her, even under the extreme duress that Aland was experiencing. She was sorry for the boy, who might be out only hours before getting captured or worse. And, what she had failed to acknowledge before, she loved Aland and would always miss him.

          For the first time in years, she called in sick and got herself into bed wearing only her nightgown. It was only morning, but she fell into an unquiet sleep amidst bouts of crying. Late in the afternoon, she opened a bottle of scotch that she kept in case special visitors arrived and drained it little by little. She then drew out a chair and sat at the balcony, watching with unseeing eyes as the sun sank behind Rome’s skyline.

          Night fell, but Elsa did not move from the balcony, even when it got increasingly chilly.

The sounds of the evening rush slowly died out.

          Finally, Elsa gave a deep sigh and got up. She felt very old and tired.

          As she stumbled to move the chair indoors, she heard the rumbling of trains at the station.

          It was 11:27 PM, the departure time for the last trains from Termini to Venezia, Milano and Firenze.

          Her last train was also gone. Yet, unlike the trains at Termini, there would not be new departures for her.

          She wondered what it would feel like to drop from her fifth-floor perch. Leaning over the iron grille, she looked down. She contemplated the ground below, right at the entrance of the station. She raised herself over the grille, took a deep breath, and jumped.




          Rumor has it that the Termini station is haunted. Every night after eleven, when the last trains get ready to depart, a disheveled woman wearing only a nightgown meanders from train to train, looking for someone. When travelers or station personnel approach her, she ignores their inquiries and disappears before anyone can reach her.

          Meanwhile, in the Dormodosola crossing between Italy and Switzerland, an apparition brings chills on clear nights to custom officials from both countries. A spectral youth seemingly tries to board a train heading north towards Zurich, but vanishes into the night air before reaching it. Some of the older Swiss patrolmen say they recall the time, years ago, when a foreign boy tried to run out of a train as officials walked through the wagons checking passports and opening bags for contraband. An official fired a warning shot into the air and accidentally struck the boy in the back, killing him.

          The spectral boy continues his eternal flight, but never tries to move towards a

southbound train coming into Italy.

Matias was born in Cuba, and migrated to the United States as a young man. He became an engineer and lawyer and practiced for nearly fifty years. After retirement, he took up creative writing. Over one hundred of his short stories have been published or accepted for publication in anthologies and paying magazines, blogs, audiobooks, and podcasts. Some of his unpublished works have also received "honorable mentions" from several paying publications. The first collection of his stories, “The Satchel and Other Terrors” was released in February 2023 
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