“And that’s when I told her I didn’t care what Tony said, I was going to do it anyway. So then she said...”
Jesse stared at the woman beside him, whose loud voice and even louder laugh was audible even through the music cranked in his headphones, hoping she’d take the hint. He’d stared down teachers, cops, and high school bullies, but the woman beside him seemed completely oblivious. She patted his arm as though he’d actually said something in response to her chatter, throwing her head back in laughter as she continued telling him what her friends had said. Turning away or closing his eyes and pretending to sleep had no effect, and the thought of another three hours on the train with her had him seriously considering opening the window and jumping out.
“I need to pee,” he announced, loud enough that the woman across the aisle gave him the stink-eye. “Ma’am? Please stop talking and let me out.”
She shifted aside to let him into the aisle without pausing in her flow, turning her attention to the woman across the aisle as he hurried down the car towards the bathroom. A dark-haired guy around his own age, sitting a few seats down, gave him a sympathetic smile and he felt himself blush to the tips of his ears. He gave an awkward smile in return and ducked into the bathroom, locking the door behind him and dropping down onto the closed lid of the toilet with a sigh of relief. He briefly debated staying in there for the rest of the trip into Toronto, but the cramped little room smelled of disinfectant mixed with the results of too much processed train food, and he didn’t want people thinking that smell came from him.
A quick glance in the mirror revealed he looked like he’d been on a VIA Rail train for the past two days and five hours. He ran his fingers through his flat blond curls and washed his face in the sink, straightened out his T-shirt, and remembered to flush the toilet before venturing back out into the car. When he saw the woman in the seat beside his was still talking, and that everyone around her was beginning to look desperate, he decided he’d behaved himself long enough.
He put his hand on her shoulder as he moved past to his seat and said quietly, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to sleep until we reach the station?” He applied just enough magic to cut her off mid-sentence and she blinked up at him sleepily. “You’ll be well-rested to meet your...?”
“Granddaughter,” she murmured. “You know, she’s about your age.”
“So’s a good chunk of the world. A nap sounds good, right?”
She nodded slowly. “It does.” Her eyes slid closed and she began to snore, loud and steady.
Jesse waited a moment and dropped his hand, absently wiping his palm against the leg of his jeans. Quiet settled over the train car again and he relaxed back into his seat, turning the volume on his MP3 player down just enough so it wasn’t deafening him. He dozed for an hour, then got up and wandered down to the snack bar to get something to silence his growling stomach. As he was heading back down the hall to his car, his head down as he tried to get through the reinforced plastic packaging surrounding a drooping tuna sandwich, he nearly walked head-on into the dark-haired guy with the sympathetic smile.
“Shit, sorry.” He almost dropped the sandwich and awkwardly caught it, backing up. “Didn’t, uh, wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”
“No worries,” the guy said, displaying perfect white teeth in a broad smile. “I was taking up the whole aisle, I know. I’m Elliot.”
“I’m, uh, Jesse,” Jesse replied, after a moment trying to remember his own name. “You heading to Toronto?”
“That’s where the train’s heading, so yeah.”
Jesse felt his face heat up. “Right. So. Just visiting or do you live there?”
“I’m kind of wandering around the country before I go back to school next year. Pre-med.”
“Of course you are,” Jesse said before he could stop himself. “I’m staying with my sister for the summer. She has a farm. Outside Guelph.”
“I’ll be in Guelph for a few days. Maybe I’ll see you around.” Elliot smiled again and slid past him towards the door into the next car.
“’Kay,” Jesse managed. “I mean, maybe. If I’m not too busy.” He watched Elliot until the door closed behind him, then shook himself and went back to his seat, where the woman he’d put to sleep was still snoring lustily.
He was wondering if the snoring wasn’t worse than the talking by the time the train finally pulled into the station and he could escape with his bags. He spotted Dmitri standing on the platform as he left the train and raised a hand in a wave, then looked back as someone caught his arm, tugging him gently out of the flow of people exiting.
“Hey,” Elliot said. “If you’re not too busy in the next couple weeks, give me a call. I’ll buy you a beer.” He pressed a folded piece of paper into Jesse’s hand, gave him a wink, and walked away into the crowd.
“Who was that?” Dmitri asked, leaning down to pick up the hockey bag Jesse had dropped.
“Nobody,” Jesse muttered, shoving the paper deep into the pocket of his jeans. “Where’s Jules?”
“She got called away for a job, so you’re stuck with me for a couple of days.” Dmitri grinned. “And that didn’t look like ‘nobody’. You’re bright red.”
“I can have male friends,” Jesse said, more sharply than he’d intended. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Dmitri stared at him for a moment, one eyebrow arched. “Never said it did, kiddo. If you need to talk to someone, you know I’ll listen, right?”
“I don’t need to talk, I need food.” Jesse spotted the woman he’d been sitting beside leaving the train and grabbed Dmitri’s arm, dragging him towards the exit. “Buy me a burger or something.”
“Right, I’d forgotten what it’s like to be ordered around by a Morgan already.” Dmitri slung the hockey bag over his shoulder like it weighed nothing, drawing an admiring glance from a pair of young women standing in line at one of the counters. “I’m glad you’re here, Jess. It’ll be nice to have some help around the farm.”
“Are you going to make me clean up poop?” Jesse asked, following him out into the cool evening air.
“All day, every day.”
“I hope you know that’s cruel and unusual punishment.”
“You’ll survive.” Dmitri tossed the hockey bag into the back of his pickup and climbed into the driver’s seat.
Jesse watched out the window as Dmitri drove, trying to see if anything had changed since his last visit to Ontario, nearly three years ago. Juliet had already moved out when their parents had decided to relocate to Alberta the summer before Jesse started grade 9, and the visit three years ago had been to see the farm she and Dmitri had bought. As far as he could tell Toronto and the GTA looked pretty much the same, if a little more developed in some areas.
They stopped at a roadside diner for dinner once they’d left the outskirts of the city. Jesse almost inhaled a burger with all the trimmings and a pile of onion rings as big as his head, leaning back when he was done and patting his full belly with a contented sigh. Beside him Dmitri ate his own burger with one hand and texted on his phone with the other.
“That Jules?” Jesse asked, leaning over to see the phone’s screen. “Ew, I didn’t need to know that about your sex life.”
“Then don’t read other people’s messages,” Dmitri said mildly. “I’ll tell her you said hi. She wanted to make sure you got in okay.”
“I’m not a baby. I think I can handle a train ride.”
“She’s your sister, kiddo, she cares about you.” Dmitri slid the phone back into his pocket and finished his burger. “Ready to go?”
“Just roll me out to the truck, I’ll be good.”
Dmitri laughed. “Come on, up.” He offered Jesse a hand and heaved him to his feet, then led the way back out to the truck.
Jesse dozed the rest of the way, waking when the truck slowed and turned onto a gravel road. As he opened his eyes a shiver traced its way up his spine, making the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a bright speck of movement and turned just in time to see a shooting star streak across the dark sky. He smiled and after a moment’s thought made the wish that the summer would hold more excitement than just mucking out the stable, laughing a little at himself.
“Something funny?” Dmitri asked, turning into the long winding driveway that led from the road to the farm.
“Private joke.” Jesse covered a yawn. “Man, I’m wiped.”
“I set the spare room up for you, so you can head straight in and go to bed.”
“Shower first,” Jesse said, thinking of two days spent on the train.
“Sure. I have to do night check on the animals, then I’ll be in for the night if you need anything.” Dmitri parked in front of the rambling old farmhouse and flashed Jesse a smile. “I’ll even let you sleep in tomorrow.”
“You’re my favourite sister’s boyfriend.” Jesse opened the door and slid out of the truck, swinging his backpack onto his shoulder. He hauled his hockey bag out of the back of the truck and let himself into the house, heading up the stairs to the second floor. “Hi, Athos, Porthos, Aramis,” he said to the pygmy dragons curled up on the bed in the guest room. “Do I get to sleep there too?”
Athos lifted her head and yawned, revealing a startling pink tongue, but the other two ignored him completely. Figuring that was the best answer he was going to get, Jesse left them where they were and went to have a shower, gradually relaxing under the hot water. He grudgingly got out only when the water started to run cold, wrapped a towel around his waist, and went back to the guest room to kick the dragons out. Pulling on a pair of sweatpants and an old T-shirt, he crawled under the blankets and settled himself comfortably. The last thing he remembered before sleep claimed him was the feel of the dragons returning and settling themselves around him like tiny living furnaces.