“Remember the rules,” Frank said, and took another drag of his crooked cigarette. The thin paper had wrinkled in the fog. “Keep your eyes down.” Frank took the damp cigarette out of his mouth, squinted at it in the yellow train station light, and let out a small sigh before putting it back between his lips.
For once in my life I was too tense to smoke. The weather made it worse, oozing up from the south. I guess that was it, the fog reminded me of the smoky, underground room that had got me into this mess in the first place.
“How long?” I asked Frank. The tip of his cigarette drooped sadly downward, and glowed as he inhaled.
“Dunno,” he said, releasing a puff of smoke.
I looked both ways up the track, squinting as if it would help, then settled on staring at my shoes. Glossy black leather, the smartest shoes I’d ever owned. They had cost an entire paycheck. I was proud of them, and that increased when I noticed the scuff across Frank’s plain leather sidewalk beaters. Maybe he and I weren’t so different after all.
“Been doing this long?” I said.
“I’m not here to make friends Eric.”
“It’s Elric, not Eric.”
Frank dropped the cigarette butt to the cracked concrete and stamped it out with his ugly leather shoe.
Three minutes later, the train arrived. The light built slowly on the track, and with it, the rumble of I don’t know how many tonnes. It slowed, but the train continued on, silhouettes of passengers blurring by. Just when I thought it would continue on and leave me on the platform with Frank, the train stopped.
“Remember the rules,” Frank said, and put out a cigarette I hadn’t seen him light. He started towards the train, black duffel thrown over one shoulder.
The porter opened the door to the last car and jumped down to the platform, then placed the metal stairs. I grabbed my bag and slung it over my shoulder. The weight of it hit firmly against my back forcing out a huff.
“All aboard,” the porter shouted.
There was still time to run.
The porter took Frank’s ticket, squinted at it, then tore it in half and gestured inside. “Right this way, sir,” he said, far too chipper for midnight. Frank nodded and stepped up into the car, then turned the corner and headed out of sight.
I realized I hadn’t moved and suddenly it was hard to breathe. The bag weighed on my shoulder, threatening to drag me down, probably all the way to hell.
“You boarding?” the porter called.
On legs I couldn’t control I walked to the door. My shiny shoes, on feet I could not feel, flashed in and out of my peripheral vision. I gave what I hoped was a convincing smile as I passed the porter and stepped up the ladder into the car.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and my grip on the bag’s strap tightened. “What’s wrong?” I said in my mind, but all that came out of my mouth was a puff of air.
“I need to see your ticket,” the porter said, hand extended.
I grasped around in my pocket and handed him the crumpled paper. When he was satisfied he tore it in half and returned a piece to me. “Don’t lose that,” he said.
In the bright car light I saw just how young the porter was, he could be my kid for chrissakes. It made me feel better, and I tried to nod, but I’m not sure if anything moved.
“Go along to your seat, we’re off soon, sir,” he said.
I managed a grimace before turning the corner into the car after Frank. He was already seated, ten rows back, newspaper up.
I remembered the rules and stared at the seat numbers as I walked.
“First time?” the porter said from behind me and I flinched. “First time on the train, sir?”
The porter led me toward a seat in the back. Frank watched me over the edge of his paper as we passed.
“Here you go.” The porter pointed to number seventy three. I moved to sit, and put the bag on the floor.
“You’ll want to store that overhead. Leaves more room to sit, sir.” He grabbed the bag’s strap, hardly managing to lift it. I jumped from the seat and pulled the bag away.
“No, it’s alright.”
“Jeeze, whaddya got in here, bricks?” He released the bag which fell and pulled my arm taut, jarring my shoulder.
“They’re books,” I said, clenching the handle tighter. “I’ll read them on the way, so I’ll hang on to it.”
“Suit yourself,” he said, and looked toward the bag. “If you can read all those before we arrive, you must be some kind of genius.”
“Thanks,” I choked out, and put the bag between my feet, squeezing tight until the porter had gone up the aisle and into the next car.
The train started to creep forward, slowly at first and then fast enough to smear the streetlights into passing phantoms.
I leaned back into my threadbare seat and tried to relax, but the bag weighed on me even from the floor. I opened my eyes and caught Frank looking at me. He held my gaze for long seconds, then turned back to his paper.
My stomach heaved, but the thought of dragging the bag to the bathroom carried a discomfort that outweighed it, so I stayed.
Four hours until Canada. Five hours until I could be rid of the bag and on my way back home. By this time tomorrow, I’d be in bed with a firm drink in my stomach and forget any of this had ever happened.
I repeated those thoughts to myself, a mantra to match the vibration of the train, but I knew I was wrong.
Nothing was ever easy for me, or I wouldn’t have ended up here in the first place.