Written for the 2014 Cotton Candy Bingo square 'Public Transportation'. My Boston and MBTA knowledge is mostly internet-gained. My apologies for any errors.
"You can find your own way home, dickhead."
A hard shove sent Elijah toppling out of the passenger seat and onto his ass. Momentum kept him rolling, but he caught himself with his palms, scoring them on the grit that littered the street. Tears of helpless pain filled his eyes so that the departing car was a blur of white as it streaked away. The pain was less from his abraded flesh, however, than his abraded emotions. He'd thought, he'd honestly thought, that Michael might be the one. How could an MIT graduate student with an IQ of 145 be so stupid? How, he thought with despairing humor, could he have agreed to date a guy from Harvard? Some genius you are, Elijah Wood.
But in fact, there was nothing remotely funny about his situation. After leaving the jazz club over Elijah's protests, Michael had driven to this seedy section of Boston to buy drugs. Which was the point at which Elijah had balked and dug in his heels, demanding to be taken home - instead, Michael parted company with him right then and there.
Elijah's palms stung and burned but he ignored them and climbed, somewhat shakily, to his feet. He looked around him at the nondescript brick warehouses, silent and empty at this late hour, or, to judge by the number of broken windows leering like jagged-toothed crones, long ago abandoned, and wished he'd paid better attention while Michael was driving. He wasn't at all familiar with this area of Boston. But then, he never expected to be pushed out of the car onto his ass and left to fend for himself.
He consulted his watch. It was almost one o'clock in the morning. Elijah decided to call his roommate, Dom. Thankfully Dom kept the same crazy hours as he did and would still be up. First he'd have to GPS his exact location, though. Elijah pulled his iPhone from his back pocket and let out a soft exclamation of dismay. The front screen was shattered. He must've crushed it when he fell on his butt. iPhones could be surprisingly resilient, though. It still might work. Hopefully, Elijah tried unlocking it, but the screen remained an unresponsive black. He pressed the power button and no glowing Apple logo leaped into view. It appeared his phone was well and truly dead.
A frisson of fear ran through Elijah as he returned the lifeless iPhone to his pocket. He was now completely cut off from friends and family. But he reminded himself that human beings had managed fine for hundreds of years without cellphones, GPS or the Internet. It was stupid to panic simply because he didn't have access to technological crutches. He did have his own two feet, after all. If, that is, he could figure out in which direction home lay.
He was a decent astronomer, too, but the sky was completely overcast, making it impossible to steer by the stars. But perhaps luck would be on his side and he'd strike some main road or see some landmark that he'd recognize. The Charles River would be ideal. He was owed some luck, he thought, after the disaster with Michael.
He set out at a stiff walk, abused muscles making themselves immediately known. He felt very small and alone, very aware of his physical limitations. He wasn't a fighter, never had been. He was a geek earning a PhD in nanoelectronics. Fat lot of good that would do him if someone tried to mug him, although he supposed he could try boring his attacker to death with a lecture on GMR, TMR and non-volatile main memory.
Luck, alas, turned out not to be on his side. Whatever direction he was headed, it didn't seem to be toward the Charles. After wandering aimlessly for twenty minutes through a maze of old industrial complexes, he ended up on Southampton Street, but the name meant nothing to him. But at least it was a street, even if the businesses he passed were dark and locked up tight, and the only people he saw were a few shadowy figures sleeping in doorways that he didn't dare to disturb.
He trudged wearily on, across some railroad tracks, and sudden hope flared in his chest when he saw a pay phone. Energized, he ran to it, only to discover the receiver dangling from a shredded cord.
More helpless tears, these of frustration and fear, burned his eyes and he was on the verge of sitting down on the curb and giving in to despair when he heard the rumble of an engine. He wasn't keen on hitching a ride with a stranger, nor was it likely anyone would stop. But like a vision of an oasis to a thirsty man in a desert, what came into view was the distinctive bumblebee yellow of a MBTA transit bus.
Elijah fairly flew up the sidewalk to the corner where the bus stop was located. Taking no chances, he stood halfway out in the street and waved his arms wildly to get the driver's attention. As the bus grew nearer, he could clearly see the orange LED sign above the windshield. It read: Out of Service. His heart plummeted to his toes. Was his last best hope going to drive right past him? He was desperate enough to consider jumping in front of the bus and forcing it to stop, but no such drastic measure was necessary. Elijah went weak with relief as the bus slowed and stopped opposite him. The air brakes let out a familiar, comforting hiss and the door folded back.
"Everything okay?" the driver asked, looking at him in concern from under his navy blue cap with the white T logo. He had a nice face, thought Elijah, a very nice face. The kind that immediately inspired trust.
"I'm lost," Elijah said simply. "And my phone is broken and the pay phone is broken and I don't know the way home and... I need help. Please?"
The bus driver smiled at him. "Sure thing. Get in."
"Thank you!" Elijah fairly vaulted up the steps, restraining an urge to fling his arms around this modern-day white knight dressed in a navy blue uniform and hug him. Instead, he dug his wallet out of his front pocket. "Two dollars, right?" he asked, fumbling for some bills. "I don't have my CharlieCard on me."
"Forget about it. The bus isn't in service right now. No one is going to know if you get a free ride." The man's Boston accent was pronounced. His eyes, a warm hazel with lines deeply graven at the corners, held a kind smile. "I promise not to tell if you don't." Then his gaze fell to Elijah's bloody palms and his eyes widened with dismay. "You're hurt. Were you mugged?"
Elijah had almost forgotten his injuries, having more important things to worry about. "No, not mugged. Date gone wrong. He pushed me out of the car and drove off and left me." He shrugged as if it were no big deal, but it was an awkward shrug that would fool no one.
The driver's expression darkened. "In this area? Jesus, what a shitty thing to do."
"Tell me about it. I've only been in Boston a couple months and I really don't know my way around the city very well. I've been wandering in circles, I think."
"Well, you're safe now," the bus driver said gently, and Elijah felt safe, beyond what could be accounted for by the door that was now closing firmly behind him. There was something about this man, he decided. He wasn't particularly tall or broad, but solid and capable-seeming, as if life couldn't throw anything at him that he wouldn't handle.
"You need to clean up those hands so you don't get an infection." He bent forward and retrieved a white metal box from under his seat, and held it out to Elijah. "First aid kit."
"Thanks." Elijah took it and sat down, not behind the driver's seat but on the opposite side where he would have an unobstructed view of his savior. "My name's Elijah Wood, by the way. And honestly, I can't thank you enough. Are you sure you won't get in trouble for giving me a lift?"
"Sean Astin," the man replied, putting the bus into gear and pulling slowly away from the curb. "And like I said, I won't tell if you don't. Where are you headed, Elijah? If it's on the way, I'll drop you off. Otherwise I'm afraid you'll have to ride back to the terminal with me."
Elijah had the first aid kit open on his lap and removed an antiseptic wipe. "MIT. I don't suppose that's on your way."
"Afraid not. We're going the opposite direction," Sean apologized. But Elijah didn't mind at all. His disaster of a night had definitely taken a turn for the better. He wouldn't mind riding around with Sean, maybe get to know him better.
"You're a student at MIT?" Sean asked.
"No, idiot," replied Elijah bitterly. He swabbed at the cuts on his palms, welcoming the bite of pain. He deserved it. "A genius wouldn't have been such a naive jerk."
"I'd say you're being a little hard on yourself. Who among us doesn't have a dating disaster or two on his resume?"
"True," Elijah admitted.
"I'll tell you about one of mine if you like," Sean offered.
"Sure. Maybe it'll make me feel better about what happened." But mostly, he just wanted to hear Sean talk. He liked Sean's voice, deep and warm. He liked everything about Sean, as a matter of fact. He was older, a little chubby a la Ralph Kramden, only far more good looking. His hands on the large steering wheel were sure, the sweeping turns as he maneuvered the maze of streets made with smooth competence.
A bus driver, Elijah mused. Not exactly what he previously would have considered his type, but he'd considered Michael his type and look how that had turned out. Some genius you are, Elijah Wood, he thought again.
Sean began, "Okay, so here's my disaster: I once went on a dinner date with a guy who asked me back to his place afterward for a drink. We'd hit it off pretty well, so I said yes. When we got to his place, he excused himself to 'change into something more comfortable', as the saying goes, and when he returned he was wearing a pink and blue wig with a purple unicorn horn and a glittery purple dress. Turns out he was a major Brony - you know, one of those guys obsessed with My Little Pony. He was role-playing a pony called Twilight Sparkle and he wanted me to dress up as another pony called Fluttershy and have pony sex with him. Let me tell you, surreal doesn't begin to describe it."
Elijah laughed, imagining the scene, and suddenly he did feel better about what had happened - not least by this confirmation that Sean batted for the same team. "So did you?"
Sean shook his head. "No, I contracted a very sudden onset and highly contagious illness and got the hell out of there. Live and let live and all that - who am I to judge - but My Little Pony isn't exactly my cup of tea. I’m more of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle type." His voice grew serious as he went on, "But I hope you don't think I'm trivializing what happened to you, Elijah. It's no laughing matter, and I'm sorry."
"Why should you apologize? You're not the one who pushed me out of that car." Elijah tore open a packet of antibiotic ointment, squeezed it onto the now more or less clean cuts, and lightly rubbed it in. The sting was fading, and so was his belief that the pain was merited. Like the balm, Sean had a healing, soothing effect.
"When I hear a story like yours I somehow feel compelled to apologize for the entire human race, I guess," Sean replied. "People can be such total shits."
"But not you," Elijah argued. "You're nothing like Michael. He threw me out. You stopped and gave me a lift. Why did you stop, Sean?" he asked curiously. "Shouldn't you have driven right by?"
"You looked like you were in trouble. There's no 'should' in a situation like that."
"Even if it means risking trouble for yourself with your employer? I bet they have rules about this sort of thing."
Sean shrugged. "If they don't like it, they can fire me. It's not the only job in Boston."
Elijah was silent for a moment, watching the dark buildings pass on the other side of the window. "You really mean that." What did it say about Sean's ethics and his nature that he would unquestioningly take such a risk? A lot, and all of it good.
Sean glanced over his shoulder at Elijah and said very seriously, "Absolutely I mean it. How are those hands doing?"
Elijah held them up palms out. Both were now cleaned, daubed with ointment, and covered with large adhesive bandages. "A lot better."
"Good. Tell you what, if you don't mind waiting a few minutes while I clock out, there's a twenty-four hour cafe nearby with great coffee and some mean buttermilk pancakes. I usually stop there for a bite to eat after my shift. You're welcome to join me and then I can give you a lift home." He quickly added, "No ulterior motive, I promise. Just a friendly meal and a ride."
Crazy to feel such a flutter in his heart at Sean's suggestion. Michael? What a fool he'd been, misled by his cookie-cutter GQ good looks. But maybe he actually owed the guy for being an over-privileged, arrogant, drug-using asshole. Otherwise, he wouldn't have met Sean and had his faith in basic decency and kindness restored - for starters.
"I'd like that very much, Sean." Elijah hesitated and then threw caution to the winds. It had been a night of revelations, bad and good - and the good far outweighed the bad. "But just so you know, I wouldn't mind if you did have an ulterior motive." He added, a little shyly, "I might have one myself."
The look Sean cast him then made Elijah glad he'd acted on his impulse. His hazel eyes glowed with pleasure. "Honestly?"
The bus slowed and Sean turned into the terminal parking lot. He drove around back and parked between two other buses. The engine's rumble died into silence. Sean turned in his seat and fixed Elijah with a look at once vulnerable, apprehensive and hopeful, like a dog expecting to have his dinner snatched away from under his very nose.
"Elijah," he said quietly, "I'm no genius. Just an ordinary guy in a uniform, working hard to make ends meet. I'm not going to be able to wow you with my erudition, or discuss particle physics or string theory or whatever."
"Nanoelectronics, actually, and I don't need you to discuss that with me. I get more than enough at school between taking and teaching classes." Elijah shut the first aid kit and stood, fingering the cool metal. "Sean, I promise I'm no Sheldon Cooper. I'm just an ordinary guy like you." He smiled. "Okay?"
At that, Sean smiled back. "Okay. I like The Big Bang Theory, but I definitely wouldn't want to date Sheldon." He got up and took the first aid kit from Elijah. "Hungry?" he asked, after restoring it to its spot under the seat and picking up his navy blue carry-all.
"Starving," Elijah said. "Bring on those buttermilk pancakes."
And as he followed Sean down the bus steps, he thought, Some genius you are, Elijah Wood, and this time he meant it.