Snout was the first thing they saw.
After a painfully long full minute of ever slower rolling, the train had finally come to a stop. The doors of the compartment had attempted to lurch open but had ceased moving, leaving what appeared to be a large dog nose pressed into the small gap between them, feverishly sniffing.
Passengers in the farther end of the car made no moves to gather their belongings or prepare to do battle with the beast that was attempting to join them in the old compartment. Only the two men sitting directly opposite the now jammed doors, the outsiders, appeared to change their body language and show signs of concern.
The snout was now accompanied by a long tongue, licking up at the rivulets of water flowing down each door. It had been pouring rain with intermittent thunder for the last leg of the journey and since there was no covered platform extending over the tracks, the water was freely running down and puddling inside the doors. One rough squeal and two thumps later, the doors freed themselves and rattled to their fully open positions.
The snout was released.
It was attached to a drenched german shepherd who took two steps into the car, stopped to shake off, then immediately cut left. The two splattered strangers had been bracing themselves for a possible incident, but instead were privy to what was clearly a regular occurrence. The dogs tail was upright and friendly, beating against the benches next to the passengers who were giving him his daily greetings, rubs and scratches. The animal moved from one passenger to another, taking extra care to sniff at the cage containing two chickens laying at the feet of an elderly woman who was sitting in the corner.
As the two men across from the now open doors stood to leave, the dog rapidly approached them. Reaching for their overhead bags, they allowed it to sniff them, working their garments up and down without attempting to be too intrusive. Passengers from the rear of the car were moving forward, but paused before they got to the obvious Meet And Greet session taking place before them. Sensing the oncoming group, the dog herded the two men out of the train car and led them to the overhang protecting the doors that led in to the station.
Another quick shake, then Max used his whole body to push the swinging door open. He took pride in performing what had become one of his regular tasks at the station. Run to the train, play the stuck snout game (his favorite part), enter and greet his friends. Say a special hello to Abagail in the corner, check out the days poultry and escort any new people inside.
The two newcomers observed the big dog with amusement and dutifully followed him through the station door. They had gotten wet walking from the train to the entrance of the station. No surprise since neither had opened an umbrella and the rain was still coming down heavy. What was surprising were the people bustling about inside this depot.
Everyone was wet. Not just wet. Soaked, dripping, some on the edge of drenched.
Puddles dotted the wooden floor between the footprints of various sized shoes and boots. A small group of women stood working around a table covered with boxes that were overflowing with plastic greenery dotted with bright red bows and the water dripping from their various garments was actually forming a small pond below them. Max was quick to take up cleaning duty.
Soggy people were coming and going, dripping people were removing bunches of corn from walls and doors, quickly replacing them with wreaths, both fresh and fake. Those who were not involved in the obvious job of holiday decoration switching were stopping to gab, say hello and talk about the weather. The elderly lady with the chickens, Abagail, joined an equally aged woman at a corner table donned with “SALE” signs on each end. The tone in which they spoke cut through the other voices. It was clear they were none too happy with one another.
Each of the new men looked on the new scene with curiosity, but there was a more pressing matter at hand.
They needed to find a phone.
Fifth removed his hat, exposing his freshly buzzed scalp, and stuffed it in to the handle of one of his bags. A subtle breeze from an overhead fan reminded him that he was sporting much less hair now than when his day had started. The beginning of the day seemed like months, even years ago. He gave himself no time to consider this and instead moved across the station to a clump of people at the far side of the expansive room.
The group stood silently observing the entertainment before them. Fifth joined the back of the small clump of people, not able to get an unobstructed view of whatever had their attention. All he could see was the back of a figure perched upon a stool and the top of an easel placed before it. Shifting to a better position, he was able to see that there was a young woman sitting on a wooden folding chair not too far in front of both. She was staring straight ahead, unmoving, and seemed to be fully concentrating on one particular point in front of her face.
He could also now view the arms of the figure perched upon the stool at the easel, which held an oversized art pad. They were moving rapidly. Broad strokes up and down, with the right one forming a large arc upward, then down to the right. He looked at the young woman, then at the work on the easel, then back to the young woman. Not bad.
The artist removed the work from the pad in another large sweep of the arm, indicating the work was complete. Onlookers murmured their approval and rapidly moved off. Fifth wanted to ask for the location of a phone from one of these dripping people. Instead, he watched the young woman, the art subject, break her trance and rise. Taking two steps to another chair, she gracefully bent to gather her belongings. A handbag, a small tote, a coat and an umbrella.
As she walked away into a small corridor, Fifth could not help but notice one striking feature about the artists latest subject.
She was bone dry.
Val had wandered over to the table with the two older women and the chickens. He was curious about their table and their squabble, but was more interested in their knowledge regarding the closest phone. One of the most striking notes about their time on this latest train was the complete lack of cellphones. None of the passengers were chatting, texting, listening to music. Nothing. It was as if that technology did not exist in this part of…where they were.
Max had accompanied him and kept at his heel until they drew close to the chickens. He loved their smell and moved off to get a closer whiff as they both approached the table. The two women greeted and chided the dog, barely looking up as the man in too-new clothing approached. Finally breaking her engagement with the dog, Abagail briefly glanced at him, then began pushing small corn husk dolls towards Vals side of the table. They were On Sale. He should Buy One. Get three at a Deep Discount.
No thank you. I think not. I will pass.
In the end, Val walked away with three dolls bedecked with country attire in fall colors, a few coins and directions on use of the pay phone in the far hallway. Max padded along beside him, only stopping once to lap at water on the floor. He needed to keep up with his new companion.
Fifth was sitting in the folding chair, staring at the earring.
It reminded him of a spinner. He had always loved to fish. Hadn’t done near enough of it lately. The planning, preparing the rods, the bugs. He loved it all, and staring at this earring dangling from the artists ear was bringing it all back. He wasn’t sure how he came to be sitting as the artists next subject, but did not care. There was one fish, years ago…
There was a wet snout nuzzling his hand.
Val was standing next to the easel, looking directly into Fifths eyes, trying to break his gaze. Max pointedly pushed his face further up Fifths hand until he could dart his tongue under the jacket cuff, breaking whatever thought process Fifth was in.
Looking at the art pad, Val could see the beginnings of a face. A rough hairline, the first strokes of jaw and shading where the eyebrows would be formed. The distinct pattern of a scar appeared on the forehead, which had not been apparent on Fifths face before the haircut. Val supposed there were struggling artists everywhere, even at work in obscure, rustic train depots.
He had instructions from the rather aggressive women on where to locate the pay phone and summon up a cab. This might have been a straight forward process any place else, but not here. Insert your change, dial the number written on the index card taped next to the phone, wait for a call back. Should take five minutes, tops. Unless it didn’t, in which case, they would just have to wait.
Val relayed this information to a somewhat distracted Fifth, who gave a faint nod. He began to walk off in the direction of the pay phone but stopped in his tracks at the sound of an angry growl. He turned to see Max, this formerly agreeable animal, pulling Fifth from his chair by the cuff of his new coat. The dog appeared to be using a good amount of strength to unseat Vals now alarmed traveling companion. Not wanting to match the animals aggressive posture, Fifth rose and moved towards Val.
Moved is a kind description. In reality, Fifth was led by the arm to stand face to face with his concerned friend. Max released his cuff from his jaws, and replaced it with Vals sleeve. It happened so quickly as to take both men by surprise. In the time it took for a few rapid heartbeats, Val was landed in the folding chair. Max gently released his jacket and returned to Fifths side, nudging him to where the pay phone was.
Val gave Fifth the few coins he had and watched as the dog led him away. Trying to work the scene over in his mind, he chose a point ahead of him to focus on. He found that if he blocked out any distractions, he could process things more efficiently. This was a strange place, no doubt. It had been a strange day. The old depot reminded him of a place he had stopped in years ago. On a fishing trip.
Fifth dialed the number, listened to the recording, then hung up the hand set. Wait five minutes, that is what it said. Max accompanied him back out to where Val was sitting. Since Val was being occupied by the artist, he now had an opportunity to take a better look around. The Thanksgiving decorations had been mostly removed now and replaced with Christmas themed wreaths, bows and garlands. The people still remaining in the station appeared somewhat drier, though he had not noticed the departures of all of the other people who arrived on the same train he had.
Each door had a wreath, each arch had a swag. There was one wall, however, that had no decorations. This was the wall directly behind where Val was now sitting, caught up in some fishing adventure in his mind. The wall had portraits from the art pad. They were hung with tacks and it did not take Fifth long to unravel their common theme. While they were clearly sketches of individual people, they all looked rather similar. Each had a smear of red and a slash of blue somewhere within them. The faces, many male and a few quite feminine, had the same familiarity.
The display was not uniform. There were empty spaces. Obvious holes in the landscape where portraits belonged.
He began to count them, but had not completed when the pay phone began to ring. Moving to return to it, Fifth nearly fell right over Max, who was blocking his way. As he regained his footing, the dog again took hold of Vals sleeve and growled.
Again, the two men were returned to a state of absolute alertness. Max helped Val to rise at the exact moment the artist did. While being escorted to the ringing phone, the latest sketch was removed from the easel and tacked to the wall. It was placed in s vacant spot in the display, right next to the drawing of the man with over sized sunglasses.
When the two newcomers returned from the phone, the artist was packed up and stood waiting at the previously unobserved back door. Guitar case in one hand that was streaked in blue, a single key in the hand dotted with red. Max trotted over and gleefully pushed the door open. They were finally ready to go.
The two old women were done with their sale. They boxed their merchandise and took down their signs. The weather was not improving, they agreed, but it was a good day all the same.
If today was any indication, Train Station 13 was going to have a lively season.