He paused and hunched over, hands on his knees, panting for breath, trying to use his last few moments to think clearly and make the right decision.
An electronic tone chimed from the speaker in the station’s covered platform. Winston looked east and would have cried with relief if he weren’t so worried about the agents overtaking him. A white-muzzled train rounded a gentle curve, still mostly screened by a line of trees. Winston watched it approach as he straightened. He wasn’t sunk. Not yet.
“Come on,” he growled at the train. “Come on!”
The FBI agents struggled on less than two blocks away. Both clearly suffered, but the charging bull in front, his lips pulled back across clenched teeth, face now a deep crimson, showed every sign of running until his lungs burst. Winston suspected he logged loads of time on the Stairmaster but didn’t rack up many miles lugging all of that muscle around the track. His smaller companion lagged several steps behind, right hand pressed to his side.
With one more glance at the oncoming train, Winston made up his mind. He would wait. His fingers clenched with impatience as the tip of the train entered the station.
The lead agent clearly mouthed the word “no” just as the slowing train’s first car overtook Winston. The rush of air from its passing rustled the strings of his jacket and chilled the sweat on his face. He scooted closer to the edge of the platform, as if even inches might make the difference between capture and escape.
The train glided to a crawl and finally stopped. For an agonizing couple of seconds, it did nothing, leaving Winston pinned and only dimly aware of a Nike advertisement running along the length of the train. Two or three people trotted quickly from the nearby parking lot. Then a pair of descending electronic tones rang out, bing-biinnnggg, and eight sets of doors swung out and pulled aside. Even as the doors started to move, Winston smacked impatiently at them.
At last, he ducked into the third of four train cars, took one last look at the agents, now barely a hundred yards away, and ducked out of sight. He crawled on his hands and knees as fast as he could. Only a few other passengers sat in this car, but he felt sure they were all staring at him. The corrugated texture of the car’s floor bit into his palms and knees, and he stifled a groan of disgust as his hand came down on a half-hard mound of gum.
The two tones sounded again, this time in ascending order, just as he crossed over the circular hinge plate dividing the third and second cars.
“Doors are closing,” announced the train in a pleasant female voice.
Still moving forward, Winston rose from his knees to his feet, careful to stay in a low crouch below the level of the seat backs. He looked over his shoulder.
The big agent came on at full speed. He was ten steps away. Eight. Six. His partner limped on fifty yards back, hobbling and clutching his side, face pinched into a mask of pain.
The big agent would make it. Winston could hear his bellow of determination, a final, guttural, all or nothing “aaaaghhhh!”
Winston lunged forward.
Four steps. Two.
A short, mechanical pop sounded as all of the train’s doors activated and began to swing shut.
Winston’s left hand caught the nearest pole by the door. His body pivoted around it, accelerating, like a comet speeding up as it raced around the back of the sun. Keeping as low as he could, Winston dove between the closing doors just as the agent thudded onto the train’s floor.
Winston resisted the urge to curl into a roll and managed to keep his feet under him as he scrambled the few yards across the platform and banged up against the side of the coffee shack. He heard the train doors snap shut as he whipped around the tiny building, trying to stay out of sight to both the agent on the train and his partner now stumbled onto the platform.
With a rising buzz and two more chimes of its bell, the MAX train slid into motion and left the station. Winston chanced a glance around the coffee stand’s corner and made out the back of the burly agent, head turning from side to side as he searched for a boy who was no longer there.
# # #
Winston crouched on one knee, palms flat on the ground, almost like a runner prepared to launch out of a race’s starting blocks. His chest burned with the need for more breath, but he didn’t dare gasp or pant. He felt the vibration of the train receding into the distance. Even though he couldn’t see Agent Smith from his position behind the snack stand, the man’s gasps and moans were almost dramatically loud as his thudding footfalls came to a halt.
Winston heard a quick, high-pitched beep followed by a crackle of static.
“Smith!” said a deep but nearly breathless voice from over the agent’s radio. “I don’t see him!”
A moment passed as Smith continued to struggle for air.
“Smith, do you copy?”
Winston heard the click of a metal clip releasing, then a flash of static as Smith hit the transmit button.
“I copy,” the agent panted. “Keep looking. No…sign of him…here.”
In the silence, Winston imagined the large agent pacing up and down the MAX train. Had anyone noticed when he dove out of the door? Would anyone tell the agent?
“Are you sure?”
Smith groaned in exasperation. “Yes, Lynch…I’m sure! I can see…the whole platform.”
“I hope your eyes work better than your legs,” growled Lynch. “You just got run into the pavement by a grade schooler.”
Winston found that a bit offensive given that he hadn’t been a grade schooler for sixteen months.
“Only because I stopped…to pick you up…off the linoleum.”
“Any sign of the other kid?” asked Lynch.
After a pause of ten or fifteen seconds, Smith said, “Moving west. He… I think he’s on the train with you.”
“Roger that. I’ll sweep again and…”
A passing truck obscured the agent’s words. Winston cupped a hand behind his ear, trying to hear better. Several seconds passed before he could make out the conversation again, although it seemed fainter now. Smith must be moving away from him.
“…split up? Can you…”
Winston dared to lean out just beyond the coffee stand’s corner until he could see Smith’s back. The agent limped badly as he shambled back to the parking lot.
“…mother. Get back to…”
Smith slowly made his way through the lot and jaywalked across the far intersection. Soon, he passed entirely out of both sight and hearing.
“All clear!” said a woman’s voice right above Winston.
He jumped and nearly fell over sideways. The woman looked to be in her early twenties. Her hair was raven black with streaks of pink. A silver hoop pierced one eyebrow and a stud punctuated her face between her chin and lower lip. A basket brimming with plastic-wrapped pastries hung on one arm, and she held a ring of keys in her hand. As she inserted one of these into the stand’s side door, she said, “You can stand up now.”
“Oh,” was all Winston could think to say. “Thanks.”
She gave a small, one-sided smile and opened the door. “Parent problems?” she called from inside the shack.
“Something like that.” Winston crossed back behind the little building and peered inside the open door. There wasn’t much to the store, just a coffee maker, espresso machine, small refrigerator, a stool, and several rows of snacks that would still be fresh ten years later.
“I don’t open for another few minutes,” she said while shelving handfuls of muffins and scones. “But if you don’t want coffee and have cash, I can sell you something.”
Winston’s stomach grumbled in answer. He heard sneakered footsteps slap the ground as they approached and saw Shade trot across the MAX tracks. His friend still panted from his long sprint, but his eyes were large with excitement.
Shade waved and cried, “Food!”
“Yeah, I guess I’ll have a few things,” said Winston.
Shade walked up, threw his arms around Winston, and buried his face in Winston’s chest. “My phone!” he wailed. “My poor, lonely, lonely phone. I feel like half my brain is gone.”
“Too bad that was your last half,” said Winston, prying his friend away. “I’ll take four apple juices, two bananas, and two blueberry muffins.”
He paid for the food, realizing this was the first of what would probably become many slices out of his father’s only legacy to him. The woman gave him change and closed the door between them. As they stood there, Winston became keenly aware of the early morning stillness. The air was brisk, almost stinging Winston’s sweaty face, hinting at the autumn chill only a few weeks off.
The boys split up the food and looked at each other quietly.
“You sure about this?” asked Winston.
“Sure as an ovoviviparous nurse shark sucking on its yolk sac.” Shade took a long swig from his juice.
Winston stared at him. “I have no idea what you just said, but I’ll take that as a yes.”
Shade grinned, showing off the gaps between his impressively white teeth. “Say you’re a baby nurse shark tethered to your yolk sac.”
“It’s not like you have a lot of options on where and what to eat, right?”
“Please stop now.”
The two set off in search of a taxi.