They planned to meet at the train station that morning. Thomas had read tips online, that it was a good place to hook up; he hadn’t gone the dating site or hookup app route. He just couldn’t take any chances. Knowing his own luck, someone, somehow, would find out. He wasn’t ready to announce himself to his friends and family, let alone the world, which all the advice websites said was the ultimate goal. The train depot was perfect, at least for the time being. It was a hub for the nearby parishes, slightly bustling. He could sit and await knowing eye contact, and if by chance he saw anyone he knew, he’d practice his rehearsed claim that he was on the way to a job interview, or catching a bus to New Iberia to visit his aunt and uncle.
Lawrence caught his eye right away: early forties, very neat. His moustache was freshly trimmed, his blue plaid shirt neatly tucked into black slacks. After a handful of half-gazes and smiles, he’d gotten up from his seat across the depot and sat next to Thomas. He asked Thomas where he was going. Thomas replied that he didn’t know yet, and laughed when Lawrence asked if he was a runaway. His jeans and shirt weren’t new, but they were definitely clean.
“Seriously? Do I look run down?”
“Not at all. I’m Lawrence.”
Thomas didn’t consider a fake name; he introduced himself truthfully.
“Lawrence” explained he was visiting from Houston, and had several hours to kill before his Greyhound boarded, and winked when he asked if Thomas wanted to go somewhere. He said he knew a pretty spot in the woods, not even ten minutes away.
Years later, Thomas kicked himself for being so naive. Lawrence had no luggage. He had a car in the parking lot.
He held the passenger door open like a gentleman. They drove in silence and what Thomas hoped was mutual anticipation. Lawrence pulled down a side road with the ease of having been there at least a couple times before, and parked under a heavy canopy of Spanish moss.
Thomas wanted to reach out and touch him right then and there, but Lawrence, sensing his eagerness, smiled. “Let’s walk down just a bit.”
The woods were quiet and shaded, seemingly untouched save for a small, deteriorated shed in the distance.
Lawrence leaned against a tree. Thomas cupped his cheek in his hand, unsure how to make the first move, but trusted instinct to lead the way. His body shook as he leaned closer to Lawrence. He gasped as Lawrence put his hands on his shoulders and shoved him to the ground.
Lawrence said this calmly, conversationally, as if making a remark on the unseasonably cool afternoon.
“What the fuck?”
Lawrence kicked him in the stomach, enough to knock the wind out of him, but, like his tone, gentle enough to be more scary than full-on wrath, as if he were doling out the extent of his danger. Thomas was both frightened and keen. He didn’t know what to expect, but knew he was in serious trouble.
“Looking for a good time, huh?”
Lawrence slid down, his knees on Thomas’s chest, holding him down on the ground. He grabbed his hands and pinned them over his head.
“Wonder what I should do with a little boy like you.”
“I’m nineteen, asshole.”
Thomas would laugh at himself years later. In the face of robbery, rape, murder, whatever Lawrence had in mind, Thomas felt the need to defend his adulthood, not his safety.
He spit in Lawrence’s face.
“Little pansy wants to play rough.”
They locked eyes. Lawrence’s eyes were clear, almost thoughtful, inquisitive. Thomas glared, tried to make himself look scary and tough, awaiting the next move or taunt, when they both heard the thwack. Lawrence’s head jerked back.
“FUCK!” He screamed up into the trees, jumped off Thomas, and looked straight ahead. Thomas propped himself on his elbows and followed Lawrence’s stare. Some yards ahead, outside the clapboard house that Thomas mistook for a shed, stood an old man. He positioned his armpits on a pair of crutches, calmly loading a stone into a slingshot. He was in his late sixties, as best Thomas could guess from the distance. His dusty black pants were loose on his slender frame, the right pant leg safety-pinned below the stump of his knee. His glasses were crooked on his face, but his line of sight was clear. He loosened his clerical collar, adjusted the slingshot, and zipped another stone at Lawrence’s forehead. Lawrence stumbled back and screamed again.
“That’s it. I’m going to fucking—”
The old man didn’t flinch, or acknowledge this threat. Instead, he reached into his pocket and withdrew another stone. He wasn’t the slightest bit agitated; his face looked annoyed more than anything.
Lawrence stomped toward him. The old man pulled back. Lawrence held up his hands over his eyes and forehead. He could deal with a body shot. Instead, he felt the sting and ricochet in his mouth, a miniature firework of blood and teeth. He fell down, then held himself up with one hand and brought his undershirt to his mouth with the other.
The old man cleared his throat and finally spoke.
“I suggest you run along now.”
The old man was ready with another stone. Lawrence staggered to his feet, took a step toward him, then jumped as the stone smacked the leaves at his feet.
“I’ll be back,” Lawrence slurred, his mouth bloody and dripping. “Gon’ fuck you up. Just wait.”
“I suggested you run along. Now I’m telling you to run along.”
Lawrence ran back up the small hill to his car and drove away.
Thomas waited a few moments, then slowly got up. Aside from a small rip in his shirt, and grass stains on his jeans, he was fine. As he dusted off his clothes, the old man was already hobbling back toward his house. Thomas watched as he eased himself into a wicker chair, then propped the crutches against the wall, next to the entryway. Thomas inched his way toward him.
“You’re welcome. Have a seat if you need to catch your breath.” The old man pointed at an overturned bucket on the other side of the door. Thomas sat, ready to thank the man again, to apologize for intruding on his space, but the words didn’t come out. Instead, Thomas buried his face in his hands and started to cry. The sobs grew louder, echoing in the woods, an ugly, guttural release he made no attempt to stifle, save for his hands over his eyes. The old man said nothing, dug a cigarette from his shirt pocket, and lit up. He smoked while Thomas wept.
Thomas stood up, coughed out another “thank you,” and ran across the woods, back toward the road.
Thomas went back two days later. This meant returning to the depot; it was the only way he could retrace his steps to the old man’s house. He mentally prepared himself to find Lawrence there again, waiting for revenge, or a new target. In his backpack, he packed two packs of Marlboros, a bottle of whiskey, and a Swiss Army knife, taken from his father’s cabinet. His father wouldn’t miss the cigarettes or the fifth of Jack, but Thomas planned to return the knife to its drawer when he returned, cleaned or unused.
He walked the sidewalk outside the depot, looking ahead, looking back, peeking into the windows as casually as he could. Lawrence was nowhere to be found.
He turned left on the road and walked on the shoulder, shuddering at the whip of the occasional car speeding by. He waited for one to slam on its brakes, to see the busted-tooth sneer, to have to flee into the woods or brandish the knife. But nobody stopped. He saw the familiar knot of Spanish moss and slipped into the opening, down the small hill, and into the clearing.
As soon as he saw the small house, he saw the old man, reclining in his wicker chair. Thomas was glad he wouldn’t have to knock or intrude. The old man looked up. Thomas waved as he came closer. The old man nodded.
“I never told you my name. I wasn’t exactly right in the head the other day. I’m Thomas.”
“May I sit?”
Thomas pulled the backpack off his shoulders and sat on the bucket. He unzipped it and brought out the cigarettes.
“I got these for you. I remembered you were smoking the other day.”
Brother Stan smiled. “Normally, I’d say no, but I don’t know when I’ll be back in town. So thank you.” Thomas set them on the small table near the wicker chair.
“I should’ve brought a sandwich or something. I have a bottle of whiskey if you want it.”
“Son, it’s fine. I don’t need gifts. Also, I don’t drink. But thank you.”
Thomas nodded. One of the cigarette packs was open; he took out two. Brother Stan pulled the lighter from his pocket, lit his, then held the flame out to Thomas. They inhaled and exhaled, almost in unison.
“Where do you preach?”
Brother Stan shook his head. “I don’t preach. A Brother is different than a priest. I haven’t been with the church in a long time.”
“So you’re retired?”
“Let’s just put it that way.”
“How long have you lived out here? It’s so far away. I mean, you’re by the road, but I don’t see any other houses.”
“Son, can I be honest?”
Thomas tapped his ash by his feet and looked up.
“I’m glad I helped you, but you don’t need to stay here to make me feel better. I’m glad you weren’t hurt, but if this is your conscience bothering you, if you feel you need to be here to make something up to me, it’s fine.”
Thomas stared out into the clearing. The two men sat quietly and smoked.
“I’m probably the biggest sinner you’ve met in a long time. Out here on your property, with some guy I just met. I know that’s a sin.”
“I don’t believe that. You’re young. I guarantee my soul needs more saving than yours.”
“Are you going to pray for my soul anyway? Isn’t what I do wrong?”
“You just need to be more careful. Son, what we normally think of as sins ain’t really sins.”
Thomas’s throat tightened. “You mean that?”
“Brother Stan, will you pray for me now?”
The old man sighed and shifted. He reached for his crutches, pulled himself up, and stood in front of Thomas.
“I’m only doing a general blessing. If you think I’m praying for who you are, or what you do, no.”
Thomas looked up. “A general blessing is fine. Please.”
Brother Stan closed his eyes, propped himself on the crutches, and put his hand on Thomas’s head.
“Our father, who art in heaven…”
James Yates is a contributing editor to Longform.org, and received his MFA from Roosevelt University in Chicago in 2015. His fiction has appeared in Hypertrophic Press, Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, WhiskeyPaper, and other publications. He currently lives and writes in Lafayette, Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter at @chicagoexpatjy.