Another car sped down the highway without slowing down. Terry spit in the dirt between his feet, trying not to look antsy.
Terry watched the Packard crest the horizon, then disappear in a cloud of gravel and dust. The suit they had given him was ill-fitting; he didn’t even have to hike the sleeve to check the time on his old man’s watch. Eight years to the day since he’d worn it, still ticking away. A goddamn miracle.
2:45. He thought his message had said 12:30, but he had started doubting himself an hour and a half ago. Maybe the telegraph guy had missed a key and typed 2:30 or something. Maybe the guy did it on purpose, just to fuck with him. That would make sense; that would mean Jerome was only fifteen minutes late. Otherwise…
Terry slumped back down onto the bus stop’s lone splintered bench. The booth had long ago been stripped of whatever meager roof it had been born with, and offered exactly zero relief from the afternoon’s stifling heat. He studied the yellowed schedule posted on the pole opposite his seat for what seemed like the twentieth time. The Greyhound headed for Houston had passed through an hour ago; the next one wasn’t scheduled until tomorrow. The state’s bus ticket rested heavy in his coat pocket, but he wouldn’t be needing it. Jerome had given him his word.
“Carry this water for us, T,” Jerome had said, in that way he had. He didn’t even have to ask; he said, and it was. “You carry this weight for us, Terry, carry it strong, and I’ll be there waiting the day you get out.”
Terry brushed past the bus ticket in his pocket, pulled out some paper and rolled a thin cigarette. He licked the seam tight, then struck a match on the heel of the small cardboard suitcase at his feet that he had been given to hold all the rest of his worldly possessions. He had all but quit smoking back some ten years ago, but had picked up again on the inside. Now he was up to nearly two packs a day; it helped with his nerves.
Jerome had been responsible for Terry’s first cigarette, too. First day of school in the seventh grade, Terry the new kid in school, his fifth in three years, the old man moving up and down the Gulf Coast looking for work. Jerome dropped a cigarette on the floor, just dicking around, just as Father Riordan turned back from the blackboard.
“Whose cigarette is that, boys?” he thundered, the Angel of Death in his words. “Don’t make me ask again.”
The whole class looked around, eying each other nervously. No one seemed able to meet Jerome’s eyes.
“It’s mine, sir,” Terry heard himself say, just as surprised to hear it as everyone else. Even twenty years later, he wasn’t sure why he did it. It just seemed like this kid Jerome would be a good friend to have.
Jerome was waiting for him on the sidewalk in front of the school after Terry’s detention ended. “That was a real solid you did for me in there, kid,” Jerome said. “Real stand-up. I won’t forget it.”
The hiss of an overtaxed set of airbrakes snapped Terry out of his memories, just as a bobtailing eighteen-wheeler downshifted to a stop in front of him. The truck’s driver leaned a thick, hair-covered arm out of the window. “Need a lift somewhere, podna?” The driver had to yell to be heard over the idling engine.
Terry looked up, shook his head slightly. “I’m all set, thanks.”
“You sure? Next bus ain’t ‘til tomorrow morning.”
“Nah, I got a friend pickin’ me up any minute now.”
The trucker made a show of looking around in every direction. Nothing but nothing as far as the eye could see. “Sure,” he said.
Terry didn’t know what to say to that. He leaned back on the bench, arms crossed, the brim of his hat pulled down low over his eyes.
The driver shrugged. “If you’re — look, it’s pretty clear it’s your first day back in the world. Don’t worry about it — shit, I did a nickel in Sugarland myself.” Terry didn’t answer — the guy pressed on. “Just wouldn’t be very Christian of me to leave you out here to starve or thirst to death or what have you.”
Terry finally looked up. “If it’s all the same to you, mister, I’m gonna set here a while longer. My friend’ll be here soon enough.”
The trucker shook his head. “Suit yourself, podna,” he said, dropping the shifter into first gear. Terry watched the truck rumble down the highway until it was no bigger than one of the Matchbox cars his mother used to bring back from the Five and Dime uptown.
Terry felt a twinge of something in his chest as the truck disappeared. He figured maybe it was regret; that was a feeling he hadn’t dealt in much. Then, just as quickly, the feeling was gone, replaced by one Terry knew all too well: shame. How could he have even thought about taking that ride? Jerome was coming; he had given his word.
He checked the old man’s watch again. 3:15. Jerome would be there soon. Of that, Terry had no doubt. He believed it with all his heart.
He had to.
Frank Byrns is the author of two collections of short fiction, Requiem (2006) and My Father’s Son (2004). He is also the editor and publisher of A Thousand Faces, the Quarterly Journal of Superhuman Fiction. His third collection of superhero stories, Things to Come, is due in 2009.