Paul widened the blinds between his thumb and index finger, causing the plastic to snap, and peered into the terminal. “How long has he been here?”
“I think he got off the 1 pm coming from De Voit,” said Frank, leaning against the steel filing cabinet flanking the window and drawing on his stubbed cigarette.
Paul checked his watch, the analog face showing the two hours of intervening time.
“What are we going to do?”
Releasing the blinds, Paul pivoted and scowled. “We can’t just leave him there.”
“Should we talk with him?”
“I don’t know.” Paul scrubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t want to get into trouble or frighten him. It could look pretty weird, strange guy talking to a kid like that.”
“What about the police?”
“That’s getting a little serious don’t you think?”
“I think there’s a kid out in the terminal who needs some help,” said Frank, bald head glistening above his raised and bushy brows. “I think we should at least try something.”
“All right, all right. I see what I can get from him.” Paul tugged at his company shirt, making wrinkles vanish in the navy-blue fabric. “Keep an eye on us though, you know, like back up. I don’t want anyone getting the wrong impression.”
“Right.” Frank smashed his cigarette out among the other butts in the ashtray on Paul’s desk before stuffing his hands into his overall’s pockets.
With a nod, Paul strode from his office. Exhaust fumes, heated rubber and carbon monoxide hung in the air like taffy. The hiss of brakes, the thumps of storage compartments being closed, and the shuffle of weary travelers undercut the general malaise dominating the terminal.
Heading for the benches lining the brick-faced wall beneath the flipping arrival and departure sign, Paul slowed. The scarlet CANCELED on one row caught his eye and he cringed. Putting aside the morning’s other debacle, he glanced over his shoulder.
Frank drifted along the walkway behind him, grease smeared jumpsuit dropping over a matted tee shirt. The mechanic gave a thumbs up and a half smile revealing his missing canine.
Dropping his gaze to the crack-etched concrete, Paul sought an appropriate introduction while his work boots carried him forward. A fading, floral scent teased his attention from the ground as he neared.
Perched on the wooden bench beside an Army castoff duffle nearly as big as him, the boy swung his feet like two out of sync pendulums, one-size-too-big loafers dangling. With nimble hands he clasped the stem of a sunny-yellow rose, petaled-head bowed, as if the flower had fallen asleep.
“Nice flower,” said Paul.
The boy’s cobalt eyes wheeled on him, becoming wide like dish plates. His leg swinging ceased and his grip on the stem tightened.
Smiling, Paul lifted his hands, showing they were empty. The boy’s eyes flicked to one and then the other before resettling on Paul’s face.
“My name’s Paul.”
The little boy gulped. “Mine’s Barry, but I’m not….”
“Supposed to talk with strangers?”
Paul unclipped his controller id badge from his left breast and held it out. “I work here.”
Barry released one taut hand from the rose and accepted the badge, pondering the photograph as if it held a mystery. His sandy bangs obscured his downturned face.
“I notice you’ve been sitting here for a while and wanted to make sure everything’s okay.”
“What do you do?”
“I help make sure the buses get where they need to go. Sometimes there are delays or breakdowns or…well…complications.” The scarlet sign up above gleamed at the corner of his vision. “Whatever happens, we have to make things work. Get people where they need to be.”
Barry frowned, and offered back the badge. “Delays mean that people are late right?”
“That’s right. Are you waiting for someone?”
Barry shook his head.
“I got adopted.” He yanked a wrinkled ticket from the pocket of his adult-sized denim jacket, the garment engulfing his twiggy frame. The bus itinerary spoke out through the ripples while handwriting filled the page stapled to the tougher sheet. He hefted both as if the collection weighed a ton.
Paul took the papers. The trip information from De Voit to Anderville confirmed Frank’s observations, but the second note caused Paul’s stomach to seize.
“Dear Barry. Welcome to our family. I’m so sorry we can’t be there to pick you up at the orphanage. Don’t worry. We’ll be there waiting for you at the bus station in Anderville. Love Judith.”
“Ms. Masey said I should bring Judith a flower,” said Barry, staring at the limp rose. “That we’d take another bus…home…together.” Tears began pooling in Barry’s eyes, and he rubbed his sleeve across a now running nose.
“Do you know where home is?”
Sniffing, Barry frowned as if in epic deliberation upon the diverting question. “Match. Molkelson. Mick—”
Goose bumps crept across Paul’s skin as if a shadow had crossed over the sun. “Your new folks were coming from Mitchelson? This morning?”
“That’s what Ms. Masey said when she put me on the bus this morning.”
Exhaling, Paul forced his hands not to wad the papers into a ball to deal with the anxiety flooding in his veins. “I’ll make you a deal. You stay put and I’ll see what I can find out.”
“You think you can find them?”
Paul buried his cringe. “Maybe. I’ll be right back, okay?”
Barry nodded, and sat a little straighter before stuffing a fallen petal into his pocket.
Returning the pages, Paul marched toward his office. “Keep an eye on him,” he said to Frank as he passed by.
Flipping through the Rolodex on his cluttered desk, Paul found the number for the Mitchelson terminal and dialed, each number thumping around the rotary phone.
“This is Mitchelson.”
“Mark? It’s me Paul at Anderville.”
“This has been a crazy morning, huh?”
“Yeah, but I’ve got another little…problem on this end. I was wondering if you could look up a passenger for me.”
“Sure. What do you got?”
“First name of Judith. Leaving Mitchelson for here some time today. Probably going to arrive by 1.”
“No last name?”
“That might take me a bit then. Everyone’s still looking for people here. Paperwork’s been a madhouse.”
“I can imagine. Call me when you find her?”
Paul hung up, and scowled at his desk. He skimmed over the mess of itineraries, mechanics reports, and lingered on the daily newspaper. The morning’s incident, however, had yet to reach print.
His door squeaked as Frank peek inside. “What’s going on?”
“He was supposed to get picked up from someone coming in from Mitchelson. I’ve got Mark looking into it.”
Frank entered, and closed the door. “Were they on the 10 am?”
“I’m not sure. Mark can find out.”
“That’d be terrible.”
Paul crossed his arms, his body rigid.
After a glance through the windows into the terminal, Frank manned his post by the cabinet again, lighting another cigarette off a briskly struck match. “Why’s he on his own anyway?”
“Said he was adopted. Sounds like they sent him here to meet up with his new folks.”
“Who the hell sends a kid on their own like this?”
“Maybe they could only afford to go halfway. You know how hard things are these days. But who knows?”
“Irresponsible, that’s what it is.”
Paul shrugged. “Seems like they were going to meet him here.”
“But they’re not here.”
“No, they’re not.”
Paul’s phone rang, the tinny sound like glass shattering. He plucked the receiver before the second ring ground against his nerves.
“This is Anderville.”
“That was fast.”
Mark sighed. “She was on the 10 am.”
“She’s wasn’t one of the lucky ones.”
Paul sagged into his chair, the casters screeching and back rail giving a groan. “Thanks….”
“Sorry for the bad news.”
“Not your fault. Take care. I hope things calm down for you.”
Paul pressed the pips in the phone’s receiver, while cradling the headset in his hand. Flipping through his Rolodex again, he found the number for city hall.
“How may I direct your call?”
“Ah…do you have a children’s services department or something?”
“One moment.” The line popped with the transfer.
“Health and Human Services,” said a crisp woman on the other end of the line. “How can I help you?”
“My name’s Paul Gafter, I’m a controller down at the bus terminal. I’ve got a little boy here…alone…his parents were in the Mitchelson to Anderville crash this morning.”
“Oh my.” The woman’s voice softened. “How tragic.”
“Yeah. I’m not really sure what to do with him.”
“I’ll send someone down right away.”
“They can come find me,” said Paul, “or, well, he’s easy to spot. He’s the kid with the yellow rose.”