FAST FREIGHT

Joan Stephens


Devinís eyes snapped wide open, the sound of old fast freightís wheels running noisily over the tracks still echoing in his ears. It was the some old dream that he had dreamt off and on over the years. It had returned to harry him only two weeks ago. He passed a weary hand over his face. He could ask why; why now, when he had everything he had ever desired. But he knew why; he was at a turning point in his life. His very own mid-life crisis. He had unresolved issues to settle, but what he really wanted to do was to run away, to ignore those issues. It was what he had always done in the past, but this time he had more to lose than to gain if he neglected them.

With a heavy sigh, he sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and found the floor cold to his bare feet before he could find the throw rug beside the bed. Wriggling his toes a little to warm them, he glanced over his shoulder at the woman sleeping on the other half of the bed. Ah Penny, I do love you, he thought as he disconsolately hung his dead. He sighed once again.

A soft, warm hand came to rest on the bare skin of his back. "Same dream, love?" she asked with concern.

He nodded then quickly said, "Yeah," when he remembered that she couldnít see in the dark like Vincent.

"Want to talk about it?"

"No, not yet," he replied then waited for the inevitable shift of the desire to run to turn into the desire for something much more immediate and pleasurable. When he couldnít control it anymore, he whooped, "Ready or not, here I come." And as he turned to her, he heard her throaty chuckle and knew that she had been patiently waiting for him to come to her.

*

For the next few days, Devin was uncharacteristically pensive and quiet until one evening when they were sitting in front of the fire. "Penny-love?"

The use of his pet name for her told her that he was ready to talk. Raising her blue-grey eyes from the book she had been reading to smile understandingly into his, she asked, "Ready to talk?"

"Yeah."

She placed the book on the small table beside the sofa and, giving him all her attention, nodded for him to begin.

"You know Iím from New York."

"Uh huh."

"But Iíve never told you just where in New York."

"No."

"I have been bound by a secret that has kept me from telling you until I was sure just where this relationship was going."

At this statement she smiled broadly. "And youíre sure now?"

"Oh yeah! I want you in my life forever, and that means that you have to know all there is to know about me. And some of that knowledge is about the early years of my life."

"Ok, go ahead."

"Iím duty bound to ask this of you even though I know the answer. What I am about to tell you, you can tell no one else, not even your family. Will you keep my secret?" He knew what her answer would be, but the promise was required of all who learned of the hidden world.

"You know I will," she replied.

"Yeah, I knew." He stared into the fire for a few minutes collecting his thoughts. There would be no problem explaining the tunnels but how could he adequately explain Vincent. He was beyond all her experiences. "I was born in New York City in a secret world that exists under the sidewalks of the city."

Puzzled, she asked, "World?"

"Uh huh. There are miles and miles of tunnels under the city: natural and manmade." Taking her hands in his, his eyes glowed as he said, "Oh Penny, itís a fabulous place, full of beauty and mystery. And amid all that beauty there is a community of remarkable people: people who have left the uncaring world above to live a life of hardship and freedom."

"But, Devin, it must be impossibly dark."

"It is, but we push the darkness back by candlelight and torchlight. When I close my eyes, I see the golden comforting glow of dozens of candles in the library."

"How did you come to be born there?" Her curiosity about him was to be satisfied.

"My father helped to build the community and now is its leader. There are people who have been there most of their adult lives, some were born there like me, and we have several dozens of children all the time."

"Children? You mean you keep children down in those tunnels." She was beginning to get a little afraid that he was involved in something illegal.

"We donít keep them, Penny," he explained, understanding her confusion. "We find these abandoned children, give them the home, education and love that they have never had before. Most of them decide to return above eventually but some have stayed."

"Oh good, for a minute there you had me frightened."

"I know that this is hard for you to understand, but everyone, and I mean everyone, is free to go when they wish. They only have to promise not to say anything about the tunnel world. We are not like the topsiders as we call them."

He stopped and let her assimilate all that he had told her. "I think Iíd like to meet your father and see your world."

"I was hoping you would say that but not yet. Let me continue."

"Thereís more?"

"Yeah, my little brother." He chuckled to himself as if he was enjoying a private joke.

She cocked an eye at him, "Whatís so secret about him?"

"Heís a living, breathing miracle. Thatís what he is. You have never met or even imagined anyone like him. In fact, there is no one like him."

Facetiously, she asked, "What is he, an alien or something?" She was surprised by his sober look and answer.

"Something. We donít know what he is or where he came from. He was found in the trash behind St. Vincentís Hospital. Left there to die, I guess."

"How awful."

"But it wasnít meant to be. He was taken to my father who simply refused to let him die and raised him as his son." She sensed some dark, unhappy secret behind those quietly spoken words and reached over to squeeze the hands held so tensely on his lap.

Acknowledging her gesture, he squeezed back. "I donít know if I can do him justice, but let me try to describe him. Heís quite tall, well over six feet, as strong as three men, but from his lean body you would never believe it. Other than that, heís built like all men." He noticed the twinkle in her eyes. "Yes, even that way too. But thatís where the similarity to humans ends."

"Heís not human?"

"Oh, heís quite human, but most people who look at him canít get past his differences."

"Whatís different about him?"

"His outward appearance, mainly. His body is covered by a layer of short, fine, golden hair. His face is beautiful to me but others donít see that beauty." Searching her eyes, he said, "I know this will be hard for you to believe, but believe me, it is the truth. He looks like a human lion with a muzzle, split upper lip, cheeks and chin covered by soft, golden bristles, and canines that would rival a dogís. But the most arresting thing about him is his eyes: gentle, blue, caring eyes that can turn viciously black when he is aroused by some danger to his world or those he loves. And his hands." Devin spread-eagled his hands. "His fingers are tipped with hard, sharp nails almost like claws, but they can be as gentle as a snowflake alighting softly on your skin."

She stared at him for a while assessing what he had told her. "You love him."

"Yeah," he answered with quiet intensity, "more than anyone in the world." He flashed a radiant grin at her. "Until you."

Flinging herself against him, she kissed him. "Oh Dev, I love you."

"Back at ya, Penny-love."

"Is he one of your unresolved issues?"

"My absence hurts him even as he understands. But heís all right: happy and contented. He finally has the kind of life Iíve always wanted for him. He canít live Above but through some kind of miracle he met a woman, Catherine, saved her life, and they fell in love. So, heís not alone anymore."

I wonder if Iíll ever meet them? Penny thought.

Not noticing her pensive attitude, Devin continued, "My father is the biggest issue."

"Why?"

"While growing up in the tunnels, I didnít know that he was my biological father. I thought I was just like Vincent."

So that was his name.

"A foundling."

"But you werenít."

"No, my mother died in childbirth. Penny, I need to find out, once and for all, just where I fit in Fatherís life. I always felt that he favored Vincent over me."

"Were you jealous?"

"Of Vincent? I suppose so. Sure, but I could never blame him. He consciously tried to defend me and stood by my side. Heís my best friend and heís a great guy."

They sat in silence for a few minutes and then Penny said, "You want to go back home to find what truths you need to build a settled life on."

He nodded. "Iím tired of running. Besides, thereís you. If I keep running, Iíll lose you and I donít want that. I love you, Penny-love."

With a gentle kiss on his lips, she patted his cheek. "When are you leaving?" she asked.

He grabbed her and hugged her. "Oh love, what did I ever do to deserve you?"

*

The next morning while topping off Devinís first cup of morning coffee, Penny asked, "Want me to make a reservation for you, honey? Plane or train?"

Smiling up at her from his place at the kitchen table, he shook his head. "No."

"Why not?"

"I think I want to end this the way it began."

She turned an interested eye to him and slid into her chair opposite his.

"When I ran away from the tunnels, I spent the first few years riding the rails."

"Wasnít that dangerous?" she expostulated.

"Very. But I was lucky and came under the protection of One-eyed Joe, the fairest and most honorable rail rider Iíve even known. All the bums and hobos knew him to be honest but also the toughest of the Red Bandana Gang."

She raised a questioning eyebrow.

"There are three gangs of rail riders: The Blue Bandana, The Red Bandana, and the rest of the hobos. The Blues are the elite and the Reds are the ones that enforce the rules of the road. Some are even assassins but not One-Eye. He was above all that."

"Well, thank goodness, he took you under his wing or I wouldnít have you with me today." She reached across the table to clasp his hand.

Settling a hand over hers, he squeezed affectionately. "Yeah. He was great."

"Do you think heís still around?"

"I donít know, but the rail riders know me to be as honest and fair and as tough and hard nosed as he. He taught me all he knew. I know how to take care of myself. Iíll be all right."

As she rose to get the coffee pot from the stove and walked by him, he pulled her into his lap. He could feel that she was shaking, and he kissed her long and deep. "Iíll come back, Penny-love. Nothing can keep me from you."

She buried her face in his neck, not wanting him to see the fear in her eyes, and nodded. Wrapping her arms around him, she hugged him tightly to her.

Brushing a lock of blue-black hair from her cheek, he kissed her gentled. Then he lifted her from his lap and stood up. "Iíve already packed my backpack. We canít face a long goodbye, love. Give me a kiss and Iíll be on my way. The sooner I leave, the sooner Iíll be back."

A quick kiss and he was out the door. Penny stood in the doorway watching him stride jauntily down the long driveway of the farm. At the meeting of the driveway and the gravel county road, he turned and waved and then disappeared over the ridge. Hurry back to us, Penny thought as she pressed her hand against her belly. She could have told him that he was going to be a father but her womanís intuition told her that he needed to close the door on unhappy memories and accept that no one was perfect. With a sigh, she began to clear the table.

*

Devin called regularly and she was able to track his route to the Big Apple. Sadly he informed her that One-eyeíd been killed falling during a Ďcatching out.í He had missed a rung on the freight car he had been trying to hop. But the older rail riders still remembered Devin and his reputation as a fighter and spread it around that he was be left alone. Then the last time he called; he warned her that he would not call her for two weeks. If he hadnít settled his problems in that length of time, he never would. His last words were, "Love ya, Penny."

"I love you, Devin, Come home as soon as you can." Thoughtfully, she hung up, rubbing her stomach with her hand. Devin had a big surprise waiting for him when he got home. But waiting for her in the kitchen was a 25 lb. box of tomatoes that she had bought yesterday. They arenít going to can themselves, she thought as she washed her hands and picked up the paring knife.

*

The days slowly drifted by. She kept herself busy putting up jars and jars of fruits and vegetables for the winter. The apples hanging heavily in the trees outside the kitchen door would still be waiting for Devin when he got home.

The odor of fresh brewed coffee mixed with the enticing aroma of frying bacon teased her awake. She was one of the lucky ones: no morning sickness. Bounding out bed, she hurried to the kitchen. Her hand flew to her neck when she saw Devinís figure sashaying from the refrigerator to the stove. There was a lightness to his step that she had never noticed before. Gliding up behind him, she slipped her arms around his waist and leaned her head against his back. "Youíre home," she said, needlessly.

"Sure am," he answered happily. Turning around with a spatula in one hand and a spoon in the other, he kissed her exuberantly.

"Youíre back early, arenít you?"

"Yeah, when everything was settled, I wanted to get home right away."

"No more itchy feet?"

"Nope! I intend to stay right here for as long as youíll have me."

Tossing her head, she looked at him with a jaundiced eye, "Would 80 or 90 years be all right?"

"If thatís the best you can do." Laughing heartily, they hugged each other happily.

Extricating himself from Pennyís loving but tenacious embrace, Devin seated her at the table. "Breakfast is almost ready. Are you hungry?"

"Suddenly, Iím starving," she answered.

In a few minutes a loaded plate was placed in front of her and Devin settled into his chair. They couldnít keep from glancing at each other and smiling broadly. Her smile held a hint of curiosity; she wanted desperately to ask him what had happened. But waited patiently until they were through. Finally, everything was eaten, the dishes were stacked in the sink, and he was leading her into the living room. Seated on the couch, facing him, she blurted out, "Did it go well?"

A pleased, reflective smile blossomed on his handsome face and he nodded. "Penny-love, it went better than I even hoped it would."

"Well, tell me," she insisted.

He pulled her into his arms and rested her head on his shoulder. "Well, I arrived unannounced as usual, but Vincent met me at the threshold. He always seems to know when Iím coming. God, Penny, it was so good to see him again. And you know there was a peace and contentment about him Iíve never seen previously, and when I got to his chamber, I found out why. Catherine, the woman I told you about, has left the world Above and lives with him and their son. And, Penny, that child is as normal as any kid I know. Heís beautiful: blond and blue-eyed, and he has his father wrapped around his little finger. I just broke down and cried; I was so happy for him. He was so proud. If heíd had buttons on his vest, he would have popped them all off."

"Thatís wonderful. Do you have pictures of them?"

"It took a bit of persuasion, but I finally got a picture of the three of them." Fishing in his shirt pocket, he pulled out a photo of the happy family and gingerly handed it to her, unsure of her reaction to Vincent.

"Heís beautiful, Devin."

"Yeah, he looks like his mother."

"I thought you said that no one knew who Vincentís parents were?"

"We donít." Then he smacked his forehead with the heel of his hand. "Oh! You mean Vincent."

"Sure. Did you think I meant the baby? By the way, whatís his name?"

"Jacob, after the old man. And yeah, I thought you meant him."

"Nope. How could anyone look at Vincent and not think him beautiful?"

"Well, honey, you donít want to meet him in a dark alley when youíre trying to harm someone close to him. His roar, long canines, and wicked claws can scare the bejeepers out of you."

She shrugged. "I donít think Iíll have any trouble that way." Wondering about her own baby, she looked at the picture again. "Catherine is beautiful, too; so, it stands to reason that the baby would be beautiful."

"Yeah," Devin said proudly, "and heís my nephew. Uh, our nephew," he amended after an elbow gouged him in the ribs. "Anyway, Father heard us talking and came in. It was a little strained until he opened his arms to me and we hugged." He shook his head. "Every time I see him he looks a little bit older. This time I was determined to set things right between us."

"And you did."

"Yeah. It took a lot of talking, sometimes long into the night, but the night before I left he finally told me everything. Why no one knew that I was his son." Placing a kiss on the crown of her head, he paused, remembering how he felt when Father finally admitted why he had denied him for so long. It still hurt like hell, but at least, he understood his father a little better.

"Which was?" Penny broke into his reverie.

"He was ashamed. Itís as simple as that. Oh, he felt horrible that he couldnít save my mother, but what really ate at him was that he felt he had betrayed his wife, Margaret, by having a one-night stand with my mother."

"Lots of people have one night stands, Devin. Why would that bother him so much?"

"I know. The marriage had been annulled by her father, but my fatherís Victorian morality inflamed his conscience. That and having my mother die was a double damnation. Nobody knew about Grace and him, and he wanted to keep it that way. Every time he looked at me, I reminded him of what he considered his biggest moral failure and it ate at him."

"Oh Devin, how awful for you."

"I could never do anything right and I never knew why. The only bright spot in my life was Vincent. He loved me unconditionally and I loved him the same way."

"But even that wasnít enough."

"No. Eventually I had to leave, and I searched the world over for love until I found you."

"Still you needed his love and acceptance."

"Yeah. And he needed my forgiveness and understanding."

"So things are all right between you two."

"Uh huh. I never saw him cry before, but after he told me, he cried like a baby, and I cried right along with him."

"Sometimes tears wash away all the rancor and ill-feelings and leave a clean slate to write on anew."

"I suppose youíre right, but sometimes it still hurts. Although with each day, it gets better. Father, I know, feels as if a huge weight has been lifted from his soul. And you know what? I know that he loves me and understands that everything Iíve ever done has been a search for his love and approval, and I have that now."

Penny squeezed him happily. "Iím so glad that you and your father have finally found a way to be friends. Thatís what you are you know: friends. That gives you a basis to build a firm relationship on."

"Yeah, and it feels so good." He laid his head on the back of the couch and laughed out loud in joy. "Now, whatís been going on here while I was away?"

"Not much. I canned the tomatoes, green beans, peas, peaches, pears. Let me see. Did I forget anything?" She paused, but for effect only, and said, "Nope, but I waited for you to return to help me pick the apples. And weíre going to have a baby."

"I noticed that the tree was . . . Weíre what?" he yelped.

"Weíre going to have a baby," she explained patiently.

"A baby? A real, live gosh-darned baby?"

"Uh huh."

"Oh, Penny-love. You never fail to surprise me." He grabbed her and kissed her ecstatically. "Ha! Vincentís not the only one who can give the old man a grandchild. Just wait until I tell them."

Jumping up, he dashed to the front door, threw it open, and joyously shouted, "Hey World, Iím going to be a father. Me, Devin Wells, son of Jacob Wells."

Penny wormed her way in under his arm and yelled. "Iím going to be a mother, and Iím Penny Wells, wife of Devin Wells."

Laughing, they collapsed against each other, alive with the joy and wonder of what they had created.

*

Devin awoke to the sound of train wheels clacking over a railroad track. Slowly it faded away as he sat up on the side of the bed. Yawning, he stretched his arms out and over his head. As they dropped to rest against his side, he felt Pennyís warm hand lightly caress his back. He could hear the concern in her voice as she asked, "The same dream again?"

As he returned to her side and cuddled her against his breast, he said, "Uh huh, but this time I was coming home to stay."

Fini