This story is part of the second Sudden Writing Challenge that Ricky Anderson and I formulated. Volunteers are given three required elements and 48 hours to write a story. The elements were 1) a Santa hat, 2) a chance encounter and 3) the title “The Beggar’s Billions”. So there you go.
Much like Ted’s attitude, the air in the subway felt desolate. To many, these tunnels were transportation to wherever they needed to go. To him, it was a wasteland, and at this point in the night, it looked the same.
Ted wasn’t a fan of people, especially at this time of the year, so it worked just fine for him to have nobody else around. Work had exhausted him, especially these late nights, but he knew that it was nothing compared to the exhaustion that would come from being with relatives on Christmas. Maybe the wasteland wasn’t a bad place to be tonight. Maybe the quiet was actually a gift.
The gift couldn’t last for too long, of course. Eventually somebody else would show up, or a train would blow through and disrupt the peace of the wasteland. And almost as soon as it started, it ended, with the arrival of a man wearing a red Christmas hat.
He shuffled in and took a seat at a bench near Ted. The two made eye contact and gave a casual nod, then returned their gazes to the ground. The polite thing to do. Maybe this man sitting here wouldn’t break up the quiet after all. The wasteland could stay silent.
Something was bothering Ted, though. This man was dressed the part, but carried himself in the same exhausted way that Ted was on this night. He looked just as defeated. He looked as though the wasteland was where he belonged as well. This confused Ted just slightly. Just enough to break the silence.
“You seem to be in the Christmas spirit.”
The man’s head shot up, confused. “Huh?”
This was a mistake, Ted thought. Too late to turn back now. “The hat. You seem to be in the Christmas spirit.”
The man chuckled. “Oh. I gotta be honest, I totally forgot I even had it on. I really can’t stand Christmas.”
“Same here. So why wear the hat?”
He took the hat off and stared at it in his hand. “I was helping out at one of those events where they pack shoeboxes for kids who don’t have much. I guess I thought wearing a Santa hat would put me in the spirit a bit more. It didn’t help much and now I just have hat hair.”
The man was definitely younger than Ted. In fact, he looked like he wasn’t even out of his twenties. Ted’s distaste for the Christmas season didn’t really start that early, so he wasn’t sure what had caused this younger man to feel the weight of the world at his age.
Ted nodded along with what the man said. “Yeah, you can’t force enthusiasm. It’s like you’re a clown trying to just paint a smile on your own face. People can see it’s not real.”
The man looked at Ted and smirked. “A beggar can’t just pretend that he’s a billionaire. I get it.”
On the opposite side of the platform, a train sped in and stopped. The two men looked at as the doors opened and nobody moved. Ted had ridden on these trains enough to have the patterns basically memorized. This train was heading the opposite direction from where he needed to go, and its arrival meant that within two minutes, Ted’s train would show up and he could leave the wasteland behind.
“You know,” Ted wondered outloud as the train left the platform, “I sometimes think it would be nice to hop on that train and go the opposite direction and just see where I could end up.”
The man nodded and looked at the empty tracks. “Yeah, you’re not alone in that. Sometimes it seems like a better alternative than to go home for the holidays and deal with family or all the people who are so demanding.”
“Odd mentality for a dude packing shoeboxes,” Ted laughed.
The man sat back in his seat with a smile. “Yeah, no kidding. But hey, helping people out, right? That’s what it’s all about.”
Ted looked down at the ground and shrugged to himself. He actually hoped that the man didn’t see him do it. Judging by the momentary silence, it seemed like the move had gone unseen. The man soon spoke up again.
“You know, you make an interesting point.”
“About painting on smiles. Like, I tried to paint a smile on my face tonight when packing boxes. I dunno, maybe I figured I would look better if I was happy about it. But it wasn’t true.”
Ted wasn’t sure where he was going with this. He looked over, and the man was staring blankly at the wall, his mind clearly working through things. It was as though he didn’t care about talking to Ted so much as he cared about figuring out where his train of thought was going.
“I don’t need to be happy.” He looked directly at Ted, as if he just figured things out. “I don’t even need to know where those boxes are going or how the kids react when they get them. I just know that I’m doing something and not getting a reward out of it other than the fact that it’s done. Instead of trying to paint a smile on my own face, I can turn it around and paint a smile on this sad, sad world.”
Ted’s face was slightly twisted, trying to comprehend what the man was even talking about. “Sad world?”
“Yeah. Sad world.” The man rung his hands together as he spoke. “The world has a lot of hurt, you know? And I do too, but, well, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to help out the hurting out there, right? I don’t have to be happy to try to make people happy. I don’t have to be a billionaire in order to make the other beggars around me feel like they are rich. I don’t have to smile myself as I try to paint a smile on this sad, sad world.”
Ted looked directly at the man. He spoke with conviction, but it was a shy conviction. He spoke as a man who didn’t expect anything out of the world except an opportunity to lend a hand. Ted didn’t have that sort of conviction. He hadn’t had it for quite some time. Maybe his cynicism had taken too much of a control. Or maybe he never realized that he could work around his cynicism.
“Eh, I’m sorry,” said the man, “I’m rambling. You got family to go visit?”
“Yeah, sure do,” Ted said with a cracking voice. He thought about his mother, who had basically raised Ted by herself. He thought about how she hadn’t been in the best health this past year, and how every time he showed up for Christmas, it put a smile on her face. He hated Christmas, but she didn’t.
“I bet they’re looking forward to seeing you.” The man was smiling. It was a genuine smile, the first he had shown all night, and the first Ted had seen in a while.
Ted smiled as well, and he really felt like he meant it. His train had started to pull in, so he rose to greet it. “Yeah,” he said, “they probably are.”
He walked all the way to the open door of the train before turning around. The man hadn’t moved from his seat. “You not getting on?” Ted asked him.
The man looked at him with the same smile he had been wearing. Ted noticed that while it was genuine, there was still a weakness behind it. It was almost a struggle for him to keep it on.
“No,” the man said, “I’m actually going the opposite direction.”
“What? Why in the world didn’t you get on that train earlier?”
“You seemed like you needed somebody to chat with for a minute. This place can be a wasteland otherwise.”
Ted stared at him. He felt like he should say thanks, but he wasn’t really sure what words needed to come out of his mouth at all. He stood in the doorway as the doors started to close.
“Uh, merry Christmas!” he awkwardly spouted out while the man could still hear his voice.
The man smiled.