Bomb by Kevin Singer:
I tell a puppy-dog kid to move his suitcase from the door. I flinch at the sight of it, despite myself. Threat levels raised; any one of these bags could be hiding a bomb, but we’ve got to keep it hush-hush, as always. The kid’s startled. He mumbles an apology and lurches the suitcase away. I move into the next car, trying my damnedest not to think about bombs.
Up ahead my nephew Nick slouches in an aisle seat. He’s on his new shiny-as-Christmas iPhone and whatever he’s looking at gives him a shit-eating grin. On his lap is the briefcase he got just for his job, Italian leather, his full name embroidered on the flap.
“Is he too dumb to remember his own name?” My sister Clare said. “Maybe he should put his cell number there too.”
Kid’s fresh out of college and already he lands a job at Goldman Sachs. When he was little he’d cheat at Monopoly and then lie about it to your face. Yeah, he’ll go far in this world. I think of Lucas in that hospital bed. It burns me up.
It’s the 6:05, Northeast Corridor line from New York to Trenton, all stops. They’re all crammed in – even the middle seats are taken. You’ve got the Indians and the Chinese. Probably IT, cause they aren’t dressed the best and they’ve got their laptops out. You’ve got the college kids commuting back home, headphones blaring so loud I can hear every word of their crap music. Then you’ve got the rich ones—mostly white—with their suits and cufflinks, skirts and blouses and heels. All pressed and clean, always, like they never feel the heat, like nothing could ever break them.
I shuffle over to my nephew. He pulls a staged double-take and nods, “Hey, Uncle Ray.” His pass isn’t even out. I beckon and he fishes it from his name tag bag. That smirk. Just like my brother Kenny’s. I force a smile. He’s still just a kid, after all.
“How’s Lucas?” Nick asks.
“Holding his own.”
“Tell him I’m gonna come by this weekend. I got the new Call of Duty. It’s killer.”
“Sure thing.” The smirk is gone, and now I see how much his blue eyes are like his father’s, and mine, and my sister Clare’s. “I gotta keep moving.”
Tanya meets me halfway down. She’s only three years on the job. Chunky and chatty, but sweet. “You talked to your friend Brad lately?”
I shrug. They met up at a barbecue I had last summer. Brad got what he wanted. She wanted more. I don’t wanna get involved.
“Not in a while,” I lie. I don’t tell her that me and Brad grabbed a couple of beers two weeks ago after I left the hospital. “You don’t seriously want to waste the next twenty years of your life working for NJ Transit,” he said while eyeing a Dominican chick three stools over. “Doesn’t it kill you being there, knowing that life’s passing you by?”
I didn’t tell Brad about the box on the front seat of my beat-up Mustang. I wouldn’t tell him how I waited till Lucas was asleep before doing it. I had no right. Forgive me. No, I had every right.
“I thought you and him were best friends.” Tanya says.
I half nod. Brad finished college and got into real estate. Now he rehabs old houses. I didn’t make it past sophomore year once Suzanne got pregnant with Lucas. Everyone said I’d need a job with benefits, so I got a job with benefits.
I keep punching tickets, trying to get away from her.
“He’s a sweetheart,” she says. She never had a chance, not with Brad. He never sticks it out for the long haul. His idea of long-term is three months. Sometimes I think guys like Brad have it right.
We leave the tunnel. The car shimmies on the track as it picks up speed. The red sunset bleeds into the windows. Jersey now. Past the meadowlands: mucky nature in a tangle of highways and rail lines. A heron’s next to a clump of reeds, white feathers a stain on the brown swamp. There’s some brown fuzzy hair growing on Lucas’s upper lip. Gotta remember to bring a razor and some shaving cream.
I cross into the next car. Same faces. Same but different. Some nod off. Peaceful. I hate them for that. Suzanne could always fall asleep anywhere, drop of a hat. I was the insomniac. “You worry about crap that’s never gonna happen,” she told me, just before she split for Miami, leaving me with two kids to raise. When Lucas was diagnosed she jetted back. Damned if I’d let her stay at the house. She’s at her sister’s. Two peas in a rotten pod.
“Hi Ray, how’s things?”
“Swell, Coop.” Mr. Cooper’s an antique. He smells of nicotine and coffee but he always smiles, like he’s proud of his ultra-white dentures. “Call me Coop, everyone does,” he told me the hundredth time I checked his pass.
“And the kids?”
I don’t tell him how Suzanne took Alicia to the mall yesterday. My sister Clare always takes her clothes shopping but Suzanne insisted it was her job, not Clare’s, like she suddenly remembered she was someone’s mother. So I come home and my little girl’s wearing shorts a stripper would wear. “She’s twelve,” Suzanne said. “She needs to feel good about her body.” I tossed them in the trash. Alicia still wouldn’t speak to me this morning.
“Growing like weeds. You know how it is.” I pat Coop’s shoulder. Gotta keep on moving.
The train rocks and I smell vanilla. A blonde ponytail girl licks tiny spoonfuls staring out the window. I should bring Lucas some ice cream. Häagen-Dazs. None of that hospital crap. His appetite is picking up. Doc says that’s good. Labs are good. Everything is good. But the words coming from her mouth don’t match the look in her eyes. No donor, no hope. What if I get on the intercom and ask all these people? Lottery odds, but who knows? Maybe ice cream ponytail girl.
I cross into the next car and then I see it: a blue duffel bag, gash on the side stitched with red thread, alone on a two-seater.
An old man sits across the aisle. “Sir, is this your bag?” He looks up from his crossword like I’m talking Italian. “Your bag, sir?” He shakes his head. All I can think of is that dummy bomb they found on the tracks in Kenilworth last month, right after Osama got that pork-coated bullet between the eyes. I thought things would quiet down after that. They didn’t.
I keep it in my hand and back out of the car. Tanya bumps into me. “Unattended,” I whisper.
A wrinkled woman, Chinese maybe, runs up to me. “That’s mine.”
I don’t like her tone. “Ma’am, you can’t leave your bag unattended.”
“I just went to bathroom. Not unattended.”
Tanya’s hand is on my shoulder. She pushes forward. “It’s alright. Just a misunderstanding.”
I’m burning up. I know she’s thinking about last month when I found that envelope on the ground, and the white powder on the seat near it. Anthrax. Well, it could’ve been. Ever since all this craziness started, I feel like death’s waiting around the next bend in the tracks. Even Alicia’s noticing it in me, and she’s just a kid.
I’ve got an audience of faces staring at me. I need a breather, so I head to the end of the car. I slide the window open a hand’s length. The air doesn’t stink as bad as I thought it would. I touch the white envelope jammed into my back pocket, the one I wish I never opened. Damn Clare and her big mouth. “It’s funny, we all got the same blue eyes, me and my kids, Kenny and his boys. You, Alicia. But not Lucas.” She had too many glasses of Chablis at Kenny’s barbecue a couple months ago. That’s what she’s good at – guzzling wine and running her mouth. “Suzanne’s father has brown eyes,” I told her. Then she got this embarrassed look on her face and said, “Oh, but he definitely has your scrawny build.” That’s when I began to wonder, and I couldn’t stop wondering.
The train lurches to a stop at Newark. I key my door open and step onto the platform. Bodies get off, bodies get on. All those years ago when I started I’d play a game where I’d try and remember as many faces as I could. That game got old. Now 15 years gone by. How many of those faces got fired? Won the lottery and moved to Hawaii? Ran off with their secretaries? Died? If I had to do it all over again…
I finger the envelope. GenView. I found them on the Internet. They mailed me a brown box with two cotton-swab sticks in plastic tubes. One sample from each subject and $199. Plus tax.
Stu’s outside the front car. He flashes his light – all clear. I flash mine back and step into the car, key the door shut, and we rattle on down the Northeast Corridor.
A new batch of bodies. I walk down the aisle. Two men. Dark. Hairy. Sweaty. Skinny and tight, eyes ahead, bags on laps.
I glare at them. “Tickets.” They flash their monthly passes. Their eyes are blank. The dead stare of a true believer dreaming of his 72 virgins, or the dead stare of a used-up office drone? I hold their stare. One of them shifts in his seat and looks down. No bombs. These guys are legit. I just know.
I hope to God I’m right.
I laugh out loud. God. Sitting on his big ass throne, playing with his toys. My second cousin Martha was the last one tested. One hundred and forty seven blood relations and not one damn match. What did Lucas ever do to you, Oh Mighty Lord? That’s when I stopped the Sunday visits with him and his flock.
I walk on through the car, checking tickets of the new bodies. I pass my nephew Nick again. His eyes are closed, slightest of smiles, lost in his music. Sure, he can be a cocky sonofabitch, but he’s a good kid at heart. I look at him and feel the pull of blood. Sweet dreams, kid. Enjoy your peace while it lasts.
At the end of the car three suits talk with the volume turned to 11. Tomato faces, most likely fresh from some whiskey-sick happy hour, each holding a bag-wrapped tall boy. I know the type: second generation Irish—sons of cops or firefighters—who muscled their way onto Wall Street.
One is hippo huge. He’s holding court – loud, slurring, beer breath. He spits while he talks. When Lucas was born I held him in the hospital and he sneezed in my face, spattering me with his baby spit. His first sneeze. It scared him and he howled. “He’s the picture of you,” Suzanne told me. I was so cocksure I would protect him from any threat. Turns out I’m powerless. And a fool.
“Tickets,” I say again.
“Yeah I heard you the first time buddy.” Not even looking at me. “So I says to her…”
“Sir, I need to see your ticket.”
“What’s your problem?”
What’s my problem, this prick wants to know. My son’s body is failing him, and today I found out that I’m not really his father, that’s my problem. “Just doing my job, sir.” I spit out sir as if I’d said asshole.
He turns to his buddies. “I swear, these government workers. No good hacks in it for the fat pension.”
My heart’s clawing out of my chest. How the hell am I gonna tell Lucas? “Sir, keep your voice down or I’m gonna have to–”
“Don’t you tell me what to do.” He jabs a sausage finger in my face, closer, closer. Then he touches my forehead. Contact. That’s it. I grab his finger hard. He yelps. He’s twice my size but I don’t care. Then he shoves me, his white-shirted belly slamming against my rib cage. I stumble back and fall, his body sloppy on top of me. I knee him. He yells. Then he pulls a box cutter from his pocket. A box cutter? What the fuck? I clamp on his wrist and push it back but he’s bull strong. He grunts and lunges. The hand inches lower and he swipes the blade on my face. Pain sears my cheek. I buck. I kick. Then an arm gets him in a headlock, pulls him off me. It’s my nephew Nick. The man drops the blade, gasping for air in Nick’s hold.
Tanya runs up. She calls for help on the intercom. Stu comes. So do Leroy and Charlie. They slap cuffs on the fat bastard—he’s heaving now and looking tragic—and Stu radios to Linden for the cops. They’ll be waiting when we pull in the station. Dickhead’s gonna need a good lawyer.
Tanya pulls tissues from her pocket and presses them against my cheek. It burns. “You’re gonna live, hon,” she says.
Yeah, I’m gonna live. Drops of my blood are on the floor. Just a few. I stare at them. I can’t do it. I won’t do it. I reach into my back pocket and pull out the white envelope.
“What’s that?” Tanya asks.
Lucas – my poor, brave boy. It doesn’t matter one bit whether he has my eyes or not. All I know for sure are these two things. One – he’s mine, no matter what some piece of cold dead paper says. And two, when he’s gone from me it’s gonna be a bomb exploding in my life.
Jesus. How do I get ready for that?