Short Stories

The Last Train, A Short Story

The alarm clock startled him, and he strained to peer into the blackness, trying to ascertain where the sound was coming from. Eventually he found the iPhone on the bed table next to his head and miraculously, in a stroke of incredibly good luck, hit the snooze button on the first try. The warm blankets mercifully kept out the northeastern winter as the heat was turned down to avoid the ridiculous price of heating oil. Two thousand dollars a month was too much, even for heat in a wicked winter. Lying in the dark, he could almost hear the snow accumulating outside his window.
This was getting old.

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“I have to sell books,” he said aloud to no one in the empty bedroom. The sound echoed off the walls.

He heard the coffee maker peculating away in the kitchen and glanced again at the phone and saw it was 4:15am. Kirk sat up and switched on the light. His eyes winced in pain, which soon subsided.

The phone went off again. It didn’t seem so loud this time and he made sure to disable the annoying alarm. Soon he had splashed some water on his face, brushed his teeth, combed his hair, dressed, and was sitting in his car in the driveway, having just spilled hot coffee on his white sweater. He swore to himself, “Shit, I guess I look the part now anyway.”

He started the car, and shivered in the cold. The old corduroy jacket, a favorite, was no match against the Connecticut winter. Kirk slowly drove the vehicle through the snowy, empty streets to the Metronorth station a mile away, the commuter gateway to New York City. The snowplows were busy trying to stay ahead of the storm and must have been working all night. The white stuff was piled high on both sides of the street, covering the sidewalk like mountains of sugar. A few times he thought he might get stuck as his tires were almost bald; but, he made it and a few minutes later, pulled into the parking lot at the train station.

Kirk was a writer, an author of thriller novels to be exact. He had many readers all over the world but was still relatively unknown. When people heard about his books and read them, they loved them. But alas, his numbers were still too low. This was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life, becoming an author that is. The writing was the easy part. The hard part was selling the books. But Kirk was not a quitter. No, he WOULD be a famous author one day. He was just a few years of hard work away. He could feel it.

He fist parked near the entrance of the vintage train station. The old wooden structure was constructed in the eighteen hundreds but had been refurbished and modernized. He could see the warmth inside, oozing from the windows, seeming to melt the antique glass, and couldn’t wait to get out of the cold. He popped the trunk and quickly unloaded his set-up and supplies. Kirk then drove the car to one of the parking spaces, grabbed his briefcase, and entered the train station. He glanced at the large clock on the wall; it was a quarter to 5am.

Good, perfect timing.

Kirk had learned that the first trains out at around 4am were not usually successful. The people were too tired and paid no attention to him. Things started to slowly pick up at around 5am and got better until approximately 8am when business stopped altogether. For some reason after that, people just didn’t buy books.

He first set up the little folding table he had bought, along with the corresponding stool, in the corner of the station. He didn’t want to be in anyone’s way. If they wanted to talk to him, they would walk over and talk to him. He knew the drill now. Next he set up the portable banner next to the table and took several handfuls of books out of his box and arranged them attractively on the table in front of him. BOOK SIGNING, screamed the banner with his photo underneath, along with the book covers prominently displayed. Then he pulled out his laptop and connected to the station wifi.

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He sat down. He was ready. He waited.

Usually people upon seeing his setup, would try and get as far away from him as possible, like he had leprosy or something. But then he could see them look at the banner, pull out their phones, and search for him on the Internet. Luckily his Google and Amazon search results were rather strong. He had worked hard at that and the first search impression was very positive. Then, one out of three who searched for his name would walk over and start talking to him about the books. One out of two of those people usually bought.

“Great idea for a book signing!” they all usually said, with a smile on their faces. “I always support the arts,” they would add.
“People are always looking for a great book on the train,” Kirk would reply.

This morning was no different. The winter was dreadful this year and people were happy to get into the station to wait on the train, rather than be exposed to the brutal elements. The book-signing dance progressed as expected.

The 5am train came and went with no buyers. The next train was slightly more successful. Now the station was temporarily empty and quiet. Kirk surfed the net and read the morning news. He almost forgot where he was but the station door opened and he was jerked back to reality.

A bearded man walked in, about thirty, and was carrying a backpack. He was dressed rather sloppily in jeans, boots, sweatshirt, and parka. He had a ski cap on his head. Kirk thought nothing of him; he was just another commuter, probably on his way to construction work in the city. He sat all the way in the back on the wooden bench, across the station from Kirk in the opposite corner. Other passengers filed in, one by one. Kirk forgot about the man.

The 5:45 came and went. One woman came up and talked to Kirk. However, she turned out to be just a lonely woman wanting some conversation. She had no intention of buying a book. In fact, she kept other prospective customers away, even when they stood behind her, obviously wanting to talk to Kirk. Then the train arrived and everyone hustled out to board. I missed a few sales, damn! he thought.

A couple hours later, after selling a handful of books, 8am came and the station went quiet for the most part. Kirk began to pack up his things. As he deconstructed the portable banner, the spring-loaded spindle that retracted the banner itself into the floor container became stuck. Kirk had to manually roll the banner into the base. It was an annoying process, taking several minutes. He was almost done when he hear a voice.

“I can tell you where to get that fixed,” a man said.

Kirk looked up. It was the man with the ski cap. He was still sitting in the corner, his backpack on the floor behind him.

“Say again?” said Kirk.

The man pointed to the banner. “The banner, I can tell you where to get that fixed,” he repeated. “There’s a bike shop down the street. They work on those kind of contraptions as well. They can fix that for you.”

Kirk took a closer look at the man. It was strange that he was still sitting here, after the morning commuter trains had come and gone. It was strange he was sitting here with a backpack, and looking like he had nowhere to go.

“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind,” Kirk said. As he studied the man’s face, he noticed that his beard and hair were matted. He hadn’t bathed in a long time. Ahaa, he’s homeless, thought Kirk. It must be difficult in the winter. That’s why he’s here in the warm station. Kirk packed his stuff in the car, left the train station, and proceeded to his day job, which he hated.

The alarm clock startled him again. However, this time he realized exactly what and where it was. He hadn’t been able to sleep for some reason. I might as well get up on the first ring, he said to himself. He went through his morning routine and headed out the door. Soon he was sitting in his car, freezing again. I’ve gotta sell books.

The snow was still coming down. It had been for 36 hours. It was one of the worst nor’easters he had seen. The heater in his car took a long time to get going this morning. It started spewing semi-warm air approximately the time he arrived at the train station. Figures, he thought.

Soon he was sitting at his small table in his usual spot, his portable banner sat proudly displayed behind him. The station was empty. Kirk was deep into his computer when he heard a familiar voice. He didn’t place it at first. “Can I get a signed book from you? It’s for my collection. I have a collection of signed books you know. I’ve got all the major authors from the last twenty years. Of course, I don’t have them myself. My father keeps them for me.”

Kirk looked up. It was the homeless guy. Great… he thought. Just what I need this morning. A homeless guy that won’t shut up and let me sell books.

“Why does your Dad have them?” Kirk asked tauntingly.

“Well, “ the man said sheepishly. “I’ve had some problems. I don’t always make good decision it seems.” The man’s chin sunk to his chest as if he was lost in pensive thought. Kirk didn’t respond, hoping he would just go away.

Then the man looked up. “So can I have a signed book? I read a lot. I really can’t pay for it though.”

Kirk thought for a second. “Sure, here you go.” Kirk handed him a novel after signing the inside cover. Maybe it will make him go away.
The man took the novel, extended his had, and said, “Thanks very much; my name’s Jay.” Kirk shook his hand and then Jay turned and went back to his bench, opened the book, and started to read.

A few hours later Kirk had sold a few books and it was time to leave. The man was still there in the corner, his head immersed in the novel. Kirk felt bad but didn’t say a word and left with his gear for his car, hoping the man wouldn’t say anything else. He got away scot-free.

The next morning it wasn’t as cold and Kirk allowed himself to sleep in. He just couldn’t force himself out of bed until 5:30am and he didn’t arrive at the train station until six. Usually he liked to get set up prior to the crowds arriving but today it wasn’t possible. It happened sometimes. Occasionally his body just refused to get up and said, “No! You need to sleep more!”

The building was already full for the 6:15 train. It was going to take him two trips to bring in all his stuff, as he couldn’t park in front of the station as usual, due to the crowds.

Upon entering the station the first time that morning, the man, who called himself Jay, was there as usual, sitting near where Kirk usually set up. He was reading a tablet this time. He saw Kirk bring in his first load and hopped up to help him. “Where is the box of books?” he asked smiling. “Is it in your trunk?” he asked as Kirk started setting up the banner.

“Why, yes,” Kirk replied when he realized Jay wanted to help. “Thank you.” Jay hurried out the door to grab the box and was back quickly, laying the box gently next to Kirk’s already set-up table.

“How’s sales going?” he asked.

“Well, I think I’ve covered the audience here for a while. I’m selling a few but was thinking of hitting the other side of the tracks tomorrow. Do you know if people are over there in the morning? On the way to New Haven?”

“Oh, no. There is nobody over there. The crowds only hit this side on the way to New York. Your best bet is to stay here. Although the next station down is pretty good as well.”

“Thanks Jay! Much appreciated.”

Kirk sold almost ten books but soon the local prep school kids starting filing in for their 8am bus, which picked them up in front of the station. The noise became deafening with teenage boys and girls shouting over each other while typing on their iPhones, and gossiping about the latest high school front-page news.

“Your book selling time is over now, my friend.” Jay shouted from across the room.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right!”

Kirk began packing up his things. Soon, he was manually rolling up the banner. It was painfully slow.

“You still haven’t taken it to the bike shop, I guess,” Jay commented.
“No, I haven’t. It’s a time thing.”

“I can do it for you. Leave it to me; I’ll have it here fixed in the morning. They won’t charge me anything. I know them as I used to have a bike.”
“Really?” Kirk thought about it. Why not? “Sure, here you go. Thanks again.” Kirk handed him the banner, repacked in the small carrying case. I hope I get it back, he thought.

The next morning, Jay was waiting patiently at the train station, banner in hand, grinning from ear to ear. He was proud of his accomplishment. It seemed he had not been proud of something in a long time. Kirk was genuinely appreciative. He set up the banner and his table quickly. Jay looked on approvingly. “Good as new!” exclaimed Kirk.

“Yes. I’m glad it’s working better,” Jay added, and then proceeded to pull out his kindle and read quietly as Kirk worked the crowd.

He sold a ton of books that day, more than he had in quite a while. It was his best day in over a year. The end total was around thirty plus a few more probably were sold via Kindle on the train. Upon packing up his things, he noticed Jay was still reading. He walked over to him and handed him a couple twenties. “Thanks for your help with the banner. It works much better now.”

Jay’s eyes lit up. “You don’t have to do that, but thank you,” he said.

“Hey, you earned it. Thanks again. I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”

“Sure, see you then,” Jay said absentmindedly as he stuffed the money into his backpack.

On his way out the door, Kirk heard him say, “By the way, I hope you don’t mind but I gave your book to my Dad. He likes to read and it will go in my collection.” Kirk gave him a thumbs up. Great, at least I get another reader for the free book.

Kirk didn’t make it to the train station the next morning. He was just too tired. And, he had too much to do in his day job. The early morning schedule had become too grueling. He needed a break. He didn’t go the next day either as he wanted to give the customers some time off for a bit. Kirk hit the next station down for a few weeks and enjoyed much success. Most of the crowd the next town over seemed to be really appreciative of his efforts.

A couple weeks later, he decided to go back to the train station near his home. He arrived early on a cold winter morning and was sure he would find Jay warming up inside the building. He walked into the station and saw it was empty. Jay wasn’t there. And, he wasn’t there the next day either, or the next. Kirk almost forgot about him after a while. He continued to sell books. Not a lot, but his following was growing. People recognized him. His greatest moment was in the library the previous day when a teenage girl stopped him in the stairway and said, “Hi, aren’t you that author guy?” Kirk beamed about that the rest of the day. But he still needed more readers. He racked his brain trying to figure out ways to increase his exposure, spending a lot of time on social media. However, it was slow going.

On morning while working the station near his house, around a month later at 8am, the loud group of high school kids finally left and got on the bus. The station was empty and Kirk began to pack up his things. He chuckled to himself as he rolled up the banner. The spring still works like a champ. I wonder how Jay’s doing.

Then he heard a voice and looked up. “You must be one named Kirk,” an older man’s voice said.

Kirk responded while he was bent down, stuffing the retracted banner into the case. “Why, yes, I am. Do I know you?” The man was approximately seventy, well dressed and obviously successful. He didn’t seem at home in the train station, like it was a world beneath him. However, he seemed dejected and beaten down somehow.

“No, but I know who you are. My son Jay used to talk about you a great deal.”

Kirk’s face lit up. “Ahhh, how is Jay? I haven’t seen him in a while. Tell him hello for me please.”

The man’s face dropped. “Jay’s no longer here.”

“Really?” asked Kirk. “Where did he go?” Kirk asked, hoping Jay had checked into a home or a halfway house or something, to get the help he needed.

“No, you don’t understand. Jay passed away a few days ago. The transit police found his body in the ditch over there.” He pointed to the drainage area along the train tracks, an area mixed with the sludge of the melting snow and the dirt and grime of the railway. He seemed to be repelled by the thought of his son dying in such a location. “It seems he overdosed on something.” The man thought for a long time and then spoke again. “I really don’t understand. I tried so hard with him. I gave him everything; but, he wasted it, all of it. I don’t know what else I could have done.” He looked up a Kirk with a blank look on his face. “We didn’t get along so well.”

Kirk was shocked and felt genuinely sorry for the man. He was obviously in deep pain, and surprisingly, Kirk felt real pain himself, as if he had lost a close friend. He processed the information for a moment and then spoke, “Well, if it makes you feel any better, Jay was a good person. I could tell that even though I only knew him a short while. And, he respected you very much. I could tell that as well. I considered him a friend.”

“Thank you. I am glad he met you. He spoke fondly of you also.” The man looked away and seemed to ponder something for a few moments and then turned back to Kirk, making up his mind to leave. He stuck his hand out again. “Thanks, Kirk. I just wanted to meet you. Jay said you were kind to him. I appreciate that.”

They shook hands and the man began to move to the exit, buttoning his overcoat.

Suddenly he turned and faced Kirk again. “By the way,” he started. “I read your book and enjoyed it very much. Jay gave it to me. It’s in his collection now. You see, I run a major publishing house in New York. I know all the big authors and Jay knew them as well, at one point anyway. I’d like to talk to you about a book deal when you have some time.”

You can find more information about L Todd Wood’s short stories, novels, and articles at LToddWood.com.

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