Starring a gender neutral protagonist. In workshops I was asked why the non-binary character, as though being non-binary should be a plot point and not just the reality of a person’s life. I opted not to edit out the NB-Ness of Max. People exist out of the binaries and so do their stories. Enjoy.
Passengers on the 305 stood, crammed shoulder to shoulder, except for those fortunate enough to find a seat. Max always in the third window seat from the back, boarded first and exited last. They had forgotten their headphones at home in their rush to the transit stop. Max usually used this time to catch up on procrastinated reading on the way to class. Today that would be impossible. Reading in a space this crammed with chatty people would be like watching a movie with your eyes closed. All sound track and no comprehension.
Today’s passengers were the usual mix of students, seniors, and minimum wage earners. The bus was so full at this point Max was surprised when a sticky small boy squeezed through the sardined commuters. The child’s excitement propelled him to the rear window seat—red raincoat a blur. His blue gumboots dripped muddy water on the seat untill little tea coloured pools formed beneath his toes.
“Mom,” he said. “I can see our house.”
“Charlie. Sit down.” His mother appeared, toting a large duffle bag in one hand and a dripping umbrella in the other. Max turned their head to follow the action. The mother simultaneously yanked on her son’s elbow while taking a seat and stowing her belongings between her feet—the way only a mother could. “Sit down before you fall down,” she said. Charlie sat.
“My bum’s wet,” he said.
“What’s what you get for climbing on the seat,” she said.
*Next stop Burlington Avenue*
Traffic didn’t whiz by Max’s window so much a sludge. Cars were bumper to bumper and barely moving as if caught in thick bog mud. Morning rush hour, where no one rushed at all. At this time in the day is seemed to Max that everyone was out of the house three hours before they needed to be anywhere.
Twelve passengers exited at the main exchange allowing fresh rain laced air to mingle through the stuffy damp interior of the bus. Charlie and his mother remained engaged in some conversation about lady bugs and hot wheels cars. Max stretched a leg out into the aisle for some momentary relief. Traffic lightened as the 305 made its way out of the downtown core towards the university.
“Wow Mom,” Charlie said from behind Max, his voice very loud, “We’re super-fast.”
“I won’t say it again. Sit down before you fall down.” The mother’s tone reminded Max of their own mother.
Max watched the rain pelt the window. Through the droplets, taillights danced like tiny faeries. Vehicles now zipped in and out of traffic, occasionally cut off the bus, but the driver was skilled and barely nudged the breaks. 8:35, Max put their phone back down. Late again. It never matter how early they caught the bus, they were always late, might as well sleep at school.
Did the smell or the sound come first? Metal on metal snapped biting into one another. Hot acrid smoke filled the bus and people were piled on each other in a heap. A blue boot landed in the seat next to Max. A woman shouted. Glass tangled in Max’s hair, rain water mixed with blood seeped towards the partially opened side door. Whose blood?
Max searched their own body for signs of injury, beyond strained muscles, they were okay. Where was the blood coming from? Max grabbed the boot and stared blankly for a moment. He stood up and looked for Charlie. Charlie’s mother lay lumped over, her head had hit the cross bar on the seat in front of her, crimson dripping down. She was unconscious, but her shoulders still moved up and down. At least she was breathing.
“Charlie,” Max said. No response. “Charlie, I have your boot. My name is Max, where are you?” Max heard quiet crying in the chaos, almost like a puppy whimper. Wedged between a seat and the metal rear door guard, Charlie sat curled up in a ball. His knees pulled to his chest, one blue boot and one sock foot, the boy seemed relatively uninjured. “Charlie?” Max said.
Charlie looked up, tear stains on his face. “She told me not to.”
“Not to what?” Max said, reaching for the child who reluctantly crawled out inch by inch.
“Not to stand on the seat.”
“Charlie, this wasn’t your fault. It was an accident on the street. Some car probably wasn’t looking and crashed in front of the bus.”
“No.” Charlie puffed, his face turned red, his lip quivered. “That,” he said pointing at his mother who was still unresponsive. “I, I, smashed her.”
Max crouched down and reached arms out for Charlie. The boy instinctively mirrored the gesture and tucked into Max’s torso. Max closed their arms around the tiny damp body and gave Charlie a gentle squeeze. Charlie’s hair smelled of dirt and rain water. “It’s not your fault Charlie, it was an accident.” In the distance, Max heard the sirens approaching.
Max stayed with Charlie through the entire ordeal. Close to Max’s chest, Charlie wrapped his legs around his new friend’s waste and rested his face on Max’s shoulder. He remained that way when emergency services arrived. The first responders had set up a tent to keep victims with less threatening injuries out of the rain while they dealt with more serious issues first.
“Caucasian woman. Unresponsive. Pulse steady. Breathing Shallow. Ready for transport.”
“Mommy!” Charlie yelled, as the medics rushed his mother past on a gurney. One of the responders approached Max.
“Are you family?” She asked.
“Charlie is,” Max said, frantic. “I mean, this is her son. Is she going to be okay?”
“We’re taking her to St. Anthony’s now to assess her injuries. Unfortunately, I don’t have room for the both of you in the ambulance.”
“How are we supposed to—I don’t even know her name,” Max said. Charlie started to cry.
“Where are they taking Mommy?” He asked.
“To the doctor,” Max said. “Wait!” They shouted at the attendant who had already loaded Charlie’s mother into the ambulance. “How do we get there?”
“You can either call a taxi or wait for the shuttle. It will take whoever requires non-immediate medical attention to Emergency. Should be her in ten minutes or so.”
“Charlie, don’t worry. We’ll see your mom again in a few minutes okay.” Max wasn’t sure if that was true. It didn’t look very good. What if this little boy’s mom never woke up? How would they find Charlie’s family? What if Charlie didn’t have any family?
“Yeah?” Charlie wiped snot on his bare arm as he sniffed.
“Do you know your own phone number or address?”
“Yeah, but sometimes I write my numbers backwards.”
“That’s okay. Numbers can be tricky.” Max walked back over to the tent where a water station had been set up alongside some chairs and a table. “Let’s get a drink while we wait for our ride. When we get to the doctor’s, I’ll get you a pen and you can write me your address okay?”
“Okay,” Charlie said. “But, can I have juice instead?”
Max laughed. This kid should be terrified, and he wants juice.
The hospital was just as crowded as the bus had been, except now Max and Charlie were wedged in between patients with ailments ranging from coughs to cut off fingers. Max, with Charlie still in arms, approached the nurse’s desk.
“Excuse me,” Max said.
“Just a minute,” the nurse said as she typed on the computer. She wore purple scrubs with small lollipops printed all over them. Her name tag said Sarah. “Alright, what can I do for you?”
“Um, we were on the bus that crashed. This little boy’s mom was brought in. I’m wondering if there’s any information.”
“Are you family?” Sarah’s face looked kind.
“No. But Charlie is,” Max said.
“Unfortunately, I can only release medical information to immediate family members over the age of 18. If you take a seat, I can get someone to come talk with you about Charlie,” Sarah said.
“Um, sure. Do you have a pen and paper we can borrow?” Max was disappointed but there wasn’t much they could do. Maybe if Charlie could remember his phone number or address Max would be able to notify family.
“I’ll call you when support arrives,” Sarah said and handed Max a blue ballpoint pen and yellow sticky notes.
“Thanks.” Max took Charlie and returned to the waiting area. A seat next to a table had cleared. They placed the note pad and pen on the table.
“Charlie, can you try and remember your phone number for me?”
“Okay,” Charlie said. The distraction seemed to electrify the little boy. He was excited and eager to help. He picked up the pen and held it awkwardly in his fist. Max watched over Charlie’s shoulders as he tried to write something legible—his tongue gently pinched between his teeth in concentration. “There!” Charlie smiled and held the note up for inspection.
“Well done,” Max said, with a fake smile. The numbers barley made any sense. There weren’t even enough to make a complete phone number, but at least Charlie could write the number 4 perfectly.
“Excuse me,” a voice said.
Max looked up to see an older woman, maybe fifty, holding a clipboard. “Hello,” Max said.
“I’m here to ask Charlie some questions,” she said. Max felt concerned. Why did they need to talk to Charlie? He’s just a kid. What could he possibly tell them that they didn’t already know from the grown-ups at the accident?
“Hi Charlie, my name is Jane. May I ask you about your Mommy?” Jane said.
“Mommy?” Charlie said, his eyes shining. “Is she okay?”
“Your Mommy had a bug bump on her head and is with the doctor right now. They are trying their best to fix it. I need to ask you some questions okay?”
“To help?” Charlie said.
“Yes. It would be very helpful.”
Max didn’t like where this was going, but they barely knew the kid. Surely professionals knew how best to care for a random toddler than a twenty-something stranger.
“Do you live alone with your Mommy?”
“No,” Charlie said, “we live with Jack too.”
“Who is Jack?” Jane said, making notes on her clipboard.
“Jack is my puppy!” Charlie said, proud of himself.
“How old are you Charlie?”
“I’m this many,” he said and held up four fingers.
“Thank you, Charlie. I’m going to talk to your friend for a minute. We will stay where you can see us, is that okay?”
“Yep. Can I keep drawing Max?” Charlie said, his eyes big and trusting.
“Of course.” Max said. Max followed Jane across the seating area just out of earshot from Charlie.
“I’m with social services,” Jane said. “Do you have any information about Charlie’s extended family? There was no information in Ms. Parson’s personal belongings.”
Ms. Parsons.Charlie’s last name was Parsons. “Um, no. I’ve never met them before.”
“Oh, sorry. Charlie just seems to trust you so well. I thought—never mind. Okay then. I’ll take him with me. Thank you, Max, you’re free to go.”
“Charlie needs to be placed in care until his family can be located. As soon as you’re cleared by a doctor, you’re free to leave. Thank you so much for your help. This could’ve been much more traumatic for Charlie had he been alone.”
“Can I sit with him for a little longer?” Max said.
“A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt I suppose. Tell you what,” Jane said looking at Charlie, “I’ll go make a few calls and pick him up in fifteen minutes.”
“Thank you. It’s just, I feel like disappearing on him would be hard for him, you know?”
“I appreciate your kindness. We need more young people like you. See you in fifteen.” Jane walked away. Max watched until she turned the corner and returned to Charlie.
“Come on Charlie,” Max said.
“Where’re we going?” Charlie asked.
“For lunch. We’re going for lunch. Want some McDonald’s?”
“Yes! Can I have nuggets?”
“Of course, you can. Quick, we need to hurry,” Max said. There was no way Max was letting Charlie live with strangers. Max just needed to wait for Ms. Parsons to wake up. In the meantime, Charlie could stay with Max. How hard could it be?
When the automatic hospital doors opened, the sun felt warm on Max’s face. Charlie stomped his blue gumboots in a puddle. They both laughed.