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The Marlbane Manchester Musser Award
  • June 30, 2013 : 23:06
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Riley wasn’t one to dream—sleep came at him like a hurtling truck—and when he felt the hand on his shoulder, the gentle but persistent pressure there, he was slow to come back to the world. He found himself blinking up into the face of the erstwhile Russian, the big man with the careful accent, who was saying this to him: “Sir. Sir, are you awake?”

He blinked again, the phrase I am now coming into his head, but he merely murmured, “Huh?”

The man’s face hung over him, pores cratered like the surface of the moon, tangled black eyebrows, eyes reduced to slits—Cossack’s eyes—and then the man was saying, “Because I must use the facilities and I am wondering if you would watch over the boy for me.” And there was the boy, his head no higher than the seatback, standing right there. Riley saw he was younger than he’d first thought, no more than five or six. “I will thank you,” the man went on, making as if to usher the boy into the seat beside Riley but hesitating, waiting for assent, for permission. Caught by surprise, Riley heard himself say, “Sure. I guess.” And then, before he could think, the boy was sitting limply beside him and the big man leaning in confidentially. “I am grateful. There are bad people everywhere, unfortunately, and one doesn’t like to take chances.” He said something to the boy in a different voice, the tone caustic and admonitory—Spanish, it was definitely Spanish, but then why would a Russian be speaking Spanish, if he was a Russian, that is?—then gave Riley’s shoulder a brief squeeze. “Very bad people.”

Riley craned his neck to watch the man’s heavy shoulders recede down the length of the car behind him before the door to the restroom swung open to block his view and the man disappeared inside. He turned to the boy, more baffled and irritated than anything else, and simulated a smile. He’d never done well with children—to him they were alien beings, noisy, hyper, always scrabbling and shouting and making incomprehensible demands, and he thanked God he’d never had any of his own, though his second wife, Crystal, formerly one of the students in the itinerant workshops he’d given over the years, had twice been pregnant and had actually thought of giving birth before he’d managed to make her see the light. But here was this boy, lost in a nylon ski jacket two sizes too big for him, his eyes fixed on the floor and a cheap tarnished cross suspended from a chain around his neck. Riley turned back to his book, but he couldn’t focus. A minute passed. Then another. Scenery flashed by. And then, over the rattling of the wheels and the shrieking metallic whine of the brakes—were they already coming into the Schenectady station, the stop before his?—he heard the boy’s voice, whispering, a voice no louder or more forceful than the breath expelled from his lungs, and turned to him.

The boy’s eyes jumped to his. ­“Socorro,” he whispered, then glanced over his shoulder before dropping his gaze again. Very softly—the screeching brakes, the shudder of the car, the rafters of the station fixed in the window—the boy repeated himself: “­Socorro.”

It took him a moment—French had been his language, both in high school and college, though he recalled little of it now and had no access to Spanish whatever, if this was Spanish the boy was speaking—­before he said, “Is that your name? Socorro?”

The boy seemed to shrink away from him, down, down into the depths of his jacket and the scuffed vinyl of the seat that loomed over him as if it would swallow him up. He didn’t say yes, didn’t say no, didn’t even nod—all he did was repeat the word or phrase or whatever it was in a voice so small it was barely audible. There was a whistle, a shout, the train lurched and the wheels began to revolve again. ­Riley wasn’t slow on the uptake, or not ­particularly—it was just that he wasn’t used to people, to complication—but an unraveling skein of thoughts began to suggest themselves to him now. He glanced up at the rack above the seat the big man had vacated and saw that the valise was no longer there and then he thrust his face to the window, jerking his eyes back to the platform and the receding crowd there—men, women, strollers, backpacks, luggage, the nuns, a Seeing Eye dog and a woman in dark glasses, all that color and movement, too much, way too much, so that he couldn’t be sure what he was seeing even as the checkered sports coat flickered suddenly into view and vanished just as quickly.

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read more: entertainment, fiction, issue july 2013

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