Behind Schedule

Three people sat inside the otherwise empty train depot. The ticket agent had gone home half an hour earlier. The space was large, and the three people were sitting as far from each other as possible. Whether their positioning was intentional or just a matter of the subconscious wasn’t important. It wasn’t something that any of them were giving thought to at the moment. Each was absorbed in their own thoughts, the only sound the whistle of the wind through the crack under the double doors that lead out of the building.

In the corner nearest the door was Eloise Harker. She was wearing a long trench coat and had it tied tightly around her. Her bright red hair, almost orange, lay just over the collar of her coat, almost touching her shoulders. Most people would guess her to be in her late thirties, and very few would believe that she was almost forty five years old. She held an open book between her hands, her light green eyes glancing up over the page every now and then to look at the clock on the wall. She didn’t wear a watch, and as evidenced by the actual paperback book in her hand (as opposed to one of those fancy new electronic books her only sister kept trying to get her to buy), she wasn’t real concerned with keeping up with technology. Growing up below poverty level with a single father, practically raising her sister, she never had time for such things.

She cleared her throat and turned the page of her book. It was a decent book. Not as good as anything she’d ever written herself, but still pretty good. She looked up at a flickering light, letting her mind wander a bit, and wondered how a book like this was able to be published, yet no one would even look at any of her works.

On the far wall, directly opposite the entrance of the building, a small bench ran along side each side of a pair of restrooms– “his” and “hers.” On the bench next to the sign marked “his” sat a younger man, probably four or five years younger than Eloise. Despite the chill in the room, carried in on the wind under those doors, this man wore no coat. In fact, he was dressed only in threadbare jeans, a lightweight t-shirt, and a pair of hiking boots. With his black hair hanging over his eyes, almost touching his nose, it was hard to tell if he was awake or not. Judging by his posture, he was more likely than not to be sleeping. His head was leaned back against the wall, his mouth opened slightly, and his body leaning to one side.

Conner (not Connor with an ‘O,’ but Conner with an ‘E’) Doogan was aware of how he looked. He was wide awake, staring at the ceiling. He had learned early on that if people thought you were asleep, they wouldn’t bother you for things like the time or to ask if you knew when the next train was scheduled to arrive. So, he sat there, the ceiling above him not doing anything to particularly hold his attention, yet staring at the ceiling anyway. He was waiting for the last train to arrive and depart, leaving him alone in the building so that he could use the restroom to wash himself.

He hated living like this. He really was alone in the world, and he had no one to turn to for help. Ever since he’d returned from Afghanistan, he’d been struggling, holding on to the will to live. His disability checks were enough to live on, barely enough to feed himself, much less pay rent somewhere. He’d tried selling his body a few times, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that anymore. It wasn’t that the experience itself was horrible, he just didn’t like feeling like some kind of whore. Just some piece of meat. Besides, with his limp and the speech impediment caused by the trauma he’d suffered overseas, finding guys willing to pay for sex proved to be harder than it should. So, for now, he’d go on using public restrooms to bathe, continue sleeping on whatever bench he didn’t get kicked off of, and keep on spending his little bit of income on food.

In the corner opposite Eloise was the ticket counter. It was designed so that three ticket agents could work behind it during busy times. Tonight wasn’t busy, so instead of three, there were none. Next to that counter was an empty newsstand. At one time, it had been a place to buy the morning paper, but now it was just an empty space with a stool behind it. On this night, that stool was occupied by Harris Long. It was a convenient spot for him because it allowed him to set his laptop computer on the counter in front of him and use it with some comfort. Where Conner was a few years younger than Eloise, Harris was about that much older than she was.

Harris Long. Everyone knew his name, no one knew his face. Well, those who worked with him knew his face, obviously, but the general public wouldn’t recognize him if he were sitting in the same room with them. The lack of interest by both Conner and Eloise proved that fact. At almost fifty years old, he was one of the wealthiest men in the state. He’d come from being an orphan on the street- literally- to someone who owned those same streets now. In a heavy pea coat that had cost him nearly $400, he was snug and warm in his little spot in the station. The only part of him that was feeling the cold in the air was his bald head, and that was only because he’d left his hat at home that morning. The temperature didn’t bother him, though. He was too busy reading a manuscript that was on the screen in front of him to really notice anything at all.

This was good. These words in front of him had him hooked. From across the room, if anyone were looking at him, they would easily see his dark brown eyes darting back and forth as he read. No one was looking at him, though, and he read undisturbed.

Minutes passed and more minutes passed. The only person who took any notice of the absence of the long overdue train was Conner. He’d stopped staring at the ceiling and was watching the clock on the wall. The train, he realized, should have come and gone well over twenty minutes earlier. With this realization also came the realization that he had to pee. Looking around, he took notice of the other two people in the room and sighed. The interruption of the silence caused Eloise to look at the younger man. He looked back at her and gave her a half smile. He didn’t really feel like smiling, but he’d learned that scowling usually led to trouble. A scowl drew attention, attention meant police were called, and police meant being run off because there was no loitering allowed here, wherever “here” might be. He slowly drew himself up.

He grasped the arm of the bench and pushed himself up. Once standing, he carefully stretched his right leg out behind him, then straight out in front of him before placing his foot back on the ground and putting his weight on it. It was on cold days like this one that he wished he had a cane to lean on. He’d had one at one time, right after coming back to the states, but some street thugs had decided one night that it would look better in their hands than in his.  Carefully, he took a step to test the strength of the leg before letting go of the bench. The leg held, and he made his way into the restroom. As he entered the bright white room, it surprised him how much warmer it was in here than in the waiting area. The maintenance guy must have finally fixed the heater in here, he thought to himself.

He stepped up to a urinal and reached up to hold on to the dividing wall with one hand while freeing himself from behind his zipper with the other. His leg was starting to feel weak, and the last thing he needed was to fall to the ground while he was draining his bladder. He tried to hurry the process, and managed to finish his business and get everything tucked back in and zipped away before his leg gave out. Now, sitting on the tiled floor, he shook his head. That was close. At least I’m still dry. He was now faced with a decision. He could call out for help, which is the last thing he’d ever do. He could reach up and use the lip of the urinal to pull himself up, but who knew the last time that thing had been actually been cleaned?

And then there was his third option.He looked over at the sink area and decided shame was the least of his worries since there was no one to see him embarrass himself. He groaned a little as he made his way into a crawling position, then slowly crawled over to the sinks. He reached up with both hands and pulled his good leg underneath him, and made his way back to a standing position. He then turned around and gave a small hop so that he was sitting on the sink counter. “I might as well sit here and keep warm until those other folks are gone,” he muttered to himself. “I wonder where that train is.” He leaned back, reached across his body, and turned on the sink to wash his hands, then dried them on his pants.

In the waiting area, Eloise had just finished her book. She looked up at the clock and was surprised to see how late it was. Surely that wasn’t the right time. She looked over at a well dressed man who was busy on one of those portable computers. “Excuse me,” she said a little louder than she’d intended. The man took no notice. Eloise cleared her throat and tried again. “I said excuse me, sir. You. On the computer.”

Harris looked up to see Eloise looking at him with a disapproving look on her face. “Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t hear you. I’m afraid I let my work get the better of me. What was it you needed?”

Just as Eloise opened her mouth to ask him if he had the time, just so she could confirm what was on the wall clock, someone threw open the door, letting in a big gust of freezing air. Eloise was just about to complain when she noticed that the person was holding a gun in his hand.

From across the room, Harris noticed the gun before he noticed the cold. He looked at the face of the person holding the gun and was actually startled to see that it was the face of a child. A teenager, really, but a child none the less. A boy, about fifteen years old. “A caucasian male, not much older than Huck Finn,” Eloise would write later.

“Son, you don’t need that gun in here. Whatever you need, we can-”

The boy pulled the trigger of the gun.

From the restroom, Conner was suddenly felt a sense of hyper-awareness. He forgot all about his leg pain and jumped off the counter, rushing for the bathroom door.

In the distance, a train whistle sounded. It was clearly still far off, but it was only a matter of time before it arrived.

Eloise clasped her hands over her mouth, determined not to scream. Harris calmly closed his laptop. The kid with the gun lowered it before speaking.

“I ain’t afraid to shoot none of you. Wouldn’t be the first time. Here’s what we’re gonna do right now. I ain’t got no time to be messing around. That train’s coming and I’m gonna be gone before it gets here, cool? Now, you,” he said, lifting his chin in Harris’ direction, “you bring me that laptop. Take out your wallet while you’re at it. A suit like that, you gotta have some cash on you.”

He looked over at Eloise. “What are you, some kind of nun? What you dressed like that for? Damn, you’d be looking kind of good if you wore some real clothes! Why don’t you take that long ass coat off and let us see what you look like under there?”

Before Eloise could protest, Conner’s voice came from across the room. “Hey kid, you should leave.” He was leaning against the door frame of the restroom, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world. He didn’t even look at the kid. Instead, he was looking at his fingernails, like he was trying to find that hangnail that he could feel, but couldn’t quite see.

“The hell?” the kid said. “Where’d you come from?”

Conner looked up and smiled. “I came out of my mother’s womb, fool. Where’d you come from?”

“Dude, you crazy or something? I got a gun. Don’t you see I got a gun? You want me to shoot you? Shut the hell up and sit down over there.”

Still smiling, Conner spoke again with ice in his voice. His eyes said that his mindset didn’t match the smile on his face. “Shoot me? Go for it. Been shot before, you punk assed bitch. More than once. If a sniper rifle couldn’t take me down, you think that baby gun you got there’s gonna do it?”

The boy in the doorway paused before opening his mouth again. “What you talking about? Where you see snipers?”

Conner laughed. “I never saw any snipers. If I’d seen them, they wouldn’t have shot me. But they did. They shot me. But you know what? After they shot me, I got up and walked away. That’s what Marines do. We get shot, we walk away. You shoot me, I’m going to walk over there, then I’ll take that toy away from you and shove it so far up your ass, you’ll have to use a toothbrush to pull the trigger the next time you decide to shoot someone.”

The gunman didn’t say anything. He moved the gun to his other hand.

“Now see,” said Conner, “you’re playing with it. Someone who shoots people doesn’t play with their gun. They hold it firm in one hand, kind of like you hold your pecker at night, and they show people that they know what to do with it, again, kind of like you and your pecker at night. The truth is that you’ve never shot anyone before, and you’re not going to shoot anyone today. Now, I might be wrong. You might shoot someone today just to prove to me how wrong I am. But, kid, I’m telling you, you pull that trigger again, you’re not walking out of this building on your own.”

Before Conner finished his last statement, the kid with the gun turned and ran out of the building.

The doors weren’t even fully shut before Conner slumped to the ground in pain. He hadn’t even felt the pain when faced with the scene that had just unfolded, but now that it was gone, the pain was back. He looked up at the man and woman who were standing next to him. “So, uh…care to give a guy a hand?”

As the two helped lift the Marine off the ground, they could hear the train much closer now. They both had the same thought running through their heads. They both thought Conner was a hero, and if what he’d just said was true, he was a hero in more ways than one. They both wanted to know his story, and they both thought it could be a story that others would want to hear.

“Dear Lord,” said Eloise, “you’re not hurt are you?”

“No ma’am, not by what just happened. I won’t lie and say I’m not in pain, because, well, you can see that I am. But no, I’m fine for the most part.”

Harris took off the coat he was wearing and put it around Conner’s shoulders. Conner protested. “Sir, I appreciate it, but you don’t want to do that. I don’t exactly smell spring fresh right now. Truth is, I was waiting for you folks to leave so I could go in there and give myself a sponge bath,” he said, pointing to the restroom he’d come out of moments before.

The older man smiled and shrugged. “Friend, I don’t care if you smell like a fresh pile of horse manure, the coat is yours, and I won’t hear another word about it. How is it that you’re a Marine, yet here you are, dressed like that, in this weather?” He was aware enough not to mention Conner’s dirty hair, his foul breath, or his filthy jeans.

“Sir, that’s a long story,” he said quietly, as the train pulled into the station.

Harris held out his hand. “It’s a story I’d love to hear.”

Eloise interrupted. “Oh, yes! So would I! If you don’t mind, I’d like to take notes, too!” She hadn’t been so excited to write something since the last time she’d written something, two days ago.

Conner shook his head. “You folks don’t understand. I’m kind of what you’d call a loner. I don’t accept pity or charity or anything of that sort. I didn’t do anything just now that any other-”

Harris was the one to interrupt this time. “Shut up.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said shut up. You obviously have a story to tell. This young lady obviously wants to write about it. And if it’s anything like I’m picturing it in my head, it’s probably something I’d be interested in publishing. So, shut up. The three of us are going to get on that train, go into the city, and I’m going to buy you both dinner while you tell us about these snipers you never saw.”

A sly grin crossed Conner’s face. “Well, actually, I did see them. I mean, after they shot me, I couldn’t just let them get away with it, could I?”

Eloise pursed her lips. “You shot them back.”

Before Conner could reply, the train conductor walked in to the station. “You folks headed to town? We’re behind schedule and need to get going.”

Harris held out his hand and helped Conner stand up. He put his arm around the other man’s waist to help support his waist. “Friend, I have a feeling you don’t really have any plans for tonight, so after we’ve eaten, you’re coming home with me. You’ll shower, get a good night’s sleep, and tomorrow I’m taking you to see my doctor about that leg.”

Conner shook his head. Hadn’t he just told them he didn’t accept charity? “No sir, I can’t let you do that. I can go to the V.A. hospital just as soon as I get my next check.”

“Bullshit. I know the V.A. hospitals. If they did their job, you wouldn’t be in this much pain right now. Don’t argue with me. I know you don’t know who I am, but I’m not a man to be argued with.”

Eloise cleared her throat. I do that a lot, she thought to herself. “I think we’d better hurry. The conductor just climbed back on the train.”

Together, the three of them headed for the exit. One by one, they climbed aboard the train, Harris helping Conner up the steps of the passenger car. In the end, things happened just as Harris had said they would. They had dinner and Conner told his story. It took a couple of hours, and Eloise wrote everything by hand in her notepad. When Harris offered her the use of his laptop, she waved him away. After dinner, she went her own way, and the two men went back to Harris’ home, a penthouse with a view of the city.

The next morning, clean and well rested, dressed in clean clothes from the closet in a guest room, Conner visited Harris’ doctor.

Seven months later, Conner sat by Eloise’s side as she signed copies of her book. The book about Conner’s life and his time in the war. In a chair off to the side, Harris smiled at his new best selling author. The woman could write, there was no doubt about it. He looked at Conner and the smile grew. The two had become more than friends. He supposed a discreet person might say they were companions. Whatever they were, Harris was thankful to the young guy with the gun for bringing Conner Doogan into his life.

A week later, the train depot was closed permanently with no fanfare or mention.

Author’s note: I realize the ending is rather trite, but it was supposed to be a short story and I was on the verge of starting a novel.

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