The bus ride from Meridian to DC was supposed to take twenty one hours and thirty minutes. That seemed like an eternity to Shane when he’d bought the ticket, but as they cross the Blue Ridge Mountains, the excitement for starting this new journey gave way to dread about what was to come. It wasn’t so much fear of where he was going as much as it was the fear of the unknown. But he had to admit, whatever was to come had to be better than what he was leaving behind.
It was hard to believe that only a month had passed since his parents had kicked him out. He’d never seen his mother so mad. He knew that she would be angry if she ever found out he was gay, but her reaction to walking in on him and Daniel kissing was worse than he’d imagined. The screaming had been so bad the neighbors called the police. But rather than calm her down, all that did was convince her all the more that he had to go.
“Now that the whole town knows you’re a filthy sodomite, I’ll never be able to show my face at church again.”
That was what he heard as the very kind police office led him out to her patrol car. She put him in the back along with his small backpack and asked if he had any place he could go. He had texted his friend Emma, and she said he could stay there for a few days until his mother calmed down. They both felt that once the initial reaction was over, she would relax, and it would all turn out ok.
But Rebecca Foster had not calmed down. She’d had the locks to the house changed, and Shane’s phone was disconnected. His neighbor texted a picture to Emma a couple of days later that showed the entire contents of his bedroom on the sidewalk in front of the house with a sign that said “FREE, must haul away yourself.”
Emma’s mom was kind enough to allow him to stay until he figured out what to do. Shane was an only child, as were both of his parents, so there was no extended family to run to. All of his other friends were somehow connected back to his parents, so unless they too wanted to be on the receiving end of Rebecca Foster’s wrath, they all knew to stay clear of the “situation with Shane” as it had become known.
With the money he’d saved up from his job at the local grocery store, Shane had managed to get a prepaid phone. When he tried to return to work, his boss had told him that his mother had already been there to collect his last check. At the bank, they said she’d tried to empty out his savings as well, but since she wasn’t directly on the account, they wouldn’t let her, no matter how many times she yelled, “But I’m his mother,” and “Let me speak to your manager!”
The only sense of comfort he’d had during this time was the kind man he’d met online. They’d struck up a conversation shortly after Shane had downloaded some apps on his new phone, and despite being twice Shane’s age, Cole was always there to listen when Shane needed to talk, and provided some much needed sympathy.
“It’s not like 32 is THAT old,” he’d told Emma when she asked about who he was texting all the time.
“It’s not that old if you were 25. You’re 16. What do the two of you even have in common?”
“We have lots of stuff in common. We like the same music. We both love theater.”
“Wow. Two gay men bonding over show tunes… what are the odds?”
“Fine. You can be snarky all you want, but Cole really cares about me.”
“He cares about nailing a guy half his age.”
“It’s not like that. He’s never even sent me a picture of his junk.”
“Who’d have known? Gentlemen do still exist.”
The online friendship between Shane and Cole continued to grow, as the rest of his world seemed to be collapsing around him. Emma hadn’t realized how much it had grown until Shane told her the news.
“Cole thinks I should move to DC and stay with him,” Shane said, running into her bedroom.
“To DC? That’s a long way from here.”
“Maybe that’s what I need. To get out of the reach of my mother.”
“But what will you do there? Are you just going to be his little boytoy?” Emma asked.
“I told you, it’s not like that. He said I can stay in his spare bedroom until I get my own place.”
“How are you going to get your own place? DC is expensive.”
“Cole said he sent my pictures to a friend of his who is a photographer. Cole thinks I can be a model.”
“And you fell for that?”
“What? I could be a model.”
“Watch one SVU marathon, and you’ll understand. It won’t take three episodes, and they’ll be some kid who has been raped and murdered by a guy saying he’s going to make them a rich and famous model.”
“That’s TV. It’s not like that in real life.”
“Yeah, real life is way worse.”
“Whatever. Cole isn’t like that. He just wants to help me out.”
“Do what you want, but don’t come running to me when Olivia Benson is picking your body parts out of the Potomac.”
“SVU is in New York, and how would I run anywhere if my body parts were in the river?”
“You know what I mean. I just think you should learn more about this guy before you run off to DC.”
“I’m not running. I’m taking the bus. I already bought my ticket. I leave in the morning.”
“Are you nuts? Why did you do that?”
“We have it all worked out. I’m going to catch the bus to DC. He’ll pick me up at Union Station, and then I’ll go see his photographer friend. Don’t worry about it. I got a good feeling about this.”
Despite the objects of Emma and her mother, Shane boarded the bus to DC the next morning. Most of the trip had been uneventful. There had been a young mother who looked thoroughly exhausted as her baby cried the entire way across Tennessee. And there was a ridiculously sketchy bus stop in southwest Virginia where he had to change buses. The guy having a very heated conversation with his duffle bag had everyone in the station sitting on the opposite side of the room until the police arrived. The remainder of the trip had consisted of eating the snacks Emma had packed for him and texting with Cole about how much closer he was getting to DC.
Watching the sun come up over the Blue Ridge had him bouncing between the excitement of meeting Cole face to face, the wonder of what life as a model would be like, and the creeping fear that Emma had planted about ending up raped or murdered.
“Why did she do that to me? Everything is going to be great!” he kept telling himself. “I’ll get there in a few hours, go back to Cole’s and clean up, then off to get some pictures taken.”
The bus pulled into Union Station just as rush hour was winding down. Shane bought a bagel and Coke at a kiosk in the station and sent another message to Cole.
“Just arrived. Where should I meet you?”
It hadn’t really worried him too much that Cole hadn’t responded to his last couple of messages. He just assumed that he was getting ready to pick him up and maybe he didn’t have data where he was. Cole hadn’t given him a phone number, and they’d only been chatting through the app, so it was probably just a data thing. Cole was between wifi signals on his way to pick him up. That was all.
As lunch time came and went, Shane’s text started getting a bit more emphatic. “Hey. I’ve been here a couple of hours. Where are you?” “You said you’d come get me this morning. It’s not morning anymore. What time are you coming?”
Shane was sitting on a bench in front of the station around 3:30 when a heavyset man in his late 50s sat down beside him.
“You waiting on someone?” he asked.
“Yeah. My friend. He’s running late,” Shane replied.
“I’ve seen you sitting here for a couple of hours. I work at the newsstand inside. Everything ok?” the man asked, sliding a bit closer to Shane.
“Like I said. My friend is running late.”
“Oh. I was thinking you might be working.”
“You know. Looking for customers here in the station.” He ran his hand along the back of Shane’s.
Shane jumped up and stared at the man. “I’m waiting for my friend. That’s all,” he said.
“Well, if you change your mind...” The man stood and started heading back inside the station. “I can be very generous,” he added, looking over his shoulder as he pulled open the door.
It wasn’t until around 5:00pm when the reply, “This user no longer accepts messages” came through that Shane started to panic.
“I don’t know what happened. We were chatting. Everything was fine. Then he blocked me,” Shane told Emma, fighting back tears. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“You’re going to go back in the station, and buy a ticket for the next bus home, and you’re going to get your ass back here where it belongs.”
“With what money? I used all I had to come here.”
“Let me work on that. Call me back in an hour. I’ll see what I can do. Don’t worry. I love you, Shane.”
“I love you too, Emma,” he said, hanging up and sliding the phone into his jacket pocket.
The bustle of homeward bound workers filled Union Station for the next couple of hours. He walked around, waiting on Emma to call back. She texted him a couple of times, saying she was trying to get the money for a ticket together, but it wasn’t happening as quickly as she’d hoped. It was beginning to look like he was going to be spending the night at the bus station.
As he wandered around looking in the shops, he noticed the large man from outside the station. The man made his way over and asked, “So, did you change your mind?”
“No. I’m just looking for something to read,” Shane replied.
“What happened to your friend?”
“He got delayed. He’ll be here later.”
“Well, my shift is over now, so if you’d like to wait at my place…”
“I’m fine,” Shane said and headed out into the throngs of people in the main station.
“What is taking her so long? Why hasn’t she called?” he asked himself, reaching into his pocket. “Shit. Where’s my phone?” he said, out loud this time, as he frantically began searching all of his pockets. “Where did I put it?” When the search of his jacket, jeans, and backpack all yielded nothing, he quickly began backtracking to all the places he’d been since he’d last texted Emma. No one in the newsstand, the ticket window or the deli had seen a cell phone, and the station’s lost and found had nothing as well.
Shane made his way to the nearest restroom, locked himself in the furthest stall in the back, and he began to cry. Emma had been right. Coming here was the biggest mistake of his life. He spent the rest of the night locked in the men's room stall, hoping no one would notice he was there.
The banging on the stall door work him up around 5:00AM.
“You can’t sleep here. You have to go. Now.”
He gathered his stuff and saw an angry janitor staring him down as he exited the stall.
“No homeless people here,” the man said as Shane washed his hands, hoping he'd think he had just taken a long time in the stall.
“I’m not homeless,” Shane said, walking toward the restroom door. “But I am,” he thought to himself. “I am homeless. I have no money, no phone, and nowhere to live.”
Shane spent the rest of his day wandering around Washington DC. He was happy to discover the museums were free, and no one bothered him when he sat and stared at the painting or exhibits. He could sit for hours without worrying about anyone harassing him. But as the museums began to close and his stomach began to growl, he made his way back to the bus station. He’d decided that the bathroom stall would have to do for his second night in DC, but he’d try to make it out before the janitor arrived.
As he was leaving the bathroom on the third morning, his way was blocked by the large man.
“Still here, I see,” he said, reaching up and caressing Shane’s cheek, who flinched and reflexively pulled away.
“Yeah,” he replied, barely loud enough for the man to hear.
“My offer is still good, and you know where to find me,” he said, but this time, there was not so much a lecherous tone as a sense of sadness. Shane quickly made his way out of the station and began his day in the city.
The next two days continued much the way the previous ones had. The little money Shane had left was gone by the end of the fourth day, despite his rationing it as best he could and barely eating. On the fifth morning, as he exited the bathroom, the large man was waiting for him again. This time, however, he handed Shane a paper bag, caressed his cheek, and walked away. Shane waited until he was out of the bus station to look inside the bag. Inside were two sandwiches, an apple, and a bag of chips. Also in the bag was a note that said, “It looked like you needed this. Tony.”
Not quite sure what to make of the man and his gift, Shane knew one thing was true: he certainly needed the food. He ate one sandwich quickly, but stowed the rest in his backpack to save for later. He spent the rest of the day walking around the National Mall, trying to figure out what the man’s angle was. Why had he started off thinking Shane was a hooker, but now he was giving him food? Why was he suddenly being so nice?
He stayed away from the bus station until he was certain Tony’s shift was over. He snuck back into the restroom, and locked himself back into stall for the night, still unsure what was going on.
The next morning, as he left the restroom, he spotted Tony again, this time sitting on a bench across the station, another paper bag beside him. He smiled and nodded at Shane. Still not sure what he was expecting, he walked over and sat beside the older man. Looking down at his feet, he said, “Thank you” so quietly that the man barely heard him as a tear rolled down his cheek. “You’re welcome,” he replied, standing up, and patting Shane on the head as he walked away, the bag still sitting on the bench.
When he finally opened the bag, he found more sandwiches and fruit, but this time there was a $25 gift card to a donut shop as well. Shane spent the day trying to figure out what he should do. As he thought things over, again and again, he realized he had no options left. He returned to the bus station around 5:00pm and found Tony, walking out of the newsstand, his shift just finishing.
“Hi,” Shane said meekly.
“Hi,” Tony said.
“Thank you for the food.”
“You’re welcome. I thought you could use a meal or two.”
“Yeah,” Shane said quietly.
“Your friend never showed up, did he?”
“You a long way from home?”
“I thought so.”
“Is that, um, offer still good?” Shane asked, trying to not let the catch in his voice be heard.
“Yes, it is,” said the man, gently.
“Okay,” Shane said.
“Okay,” replied the man.