Pods of Love Blossom in the Night By Nathan Dunn approximately 4100 words Greg sat in the little booth off the main concourse of the podway. A large screen dominated his workspace, but Greg's attention was on the wilted flowers that remained in a vase on his desk. Tonight. She'll come back tonight. # Greg had been one of the last employees of the City 38 Transit Authority who was still working on the bus lines. He was in charge of routing the sole remaining bus, but when ridership dropped below fifty per day the Transit Authority closed the line. Greg was transferred to the podway. He had requested to be put on the night shift. He had gotten used to the slower pace and solitude of the bus line – not that he told this to the hiring manager. Keeping an eye on the few pods that happened to be running in his sector and chasing off bums seemed a lot more his speed than the hustle and bustle of daytime commuter traffic. So Greg worked through the night, keeping a loose eye on his monitor to make sure that the pods didn't crash into each other or take the wrong route. There was the occasional possum that wandered onto the track and set off the pressure sensors, but there were deterrents in place that usually kept that from happening. Generally it was an easy – albeit boring – job. The biggest perk of the job was Megan. # Greg hadn't known her name at first, of course, but he saw her the night that he started at the podway. It was just after two in the morning. There had been a few people through the station – on their way home from the bar, judging by the way that they were hanging on each other and giggling – but it had been pretty quiet so far. Greg was playing around with the monitoring system. It was essentially the same as the software that he'd used for the bus line, with pods on a rail instead of buses on the street. He heard footsteps echo in the empty station – quick and sharp, some kind of dress shoe – and he looked out of the window of his booth to the main concourse. A young woman was walking quickly through the station. She reached the platform and pushed a button on a post there. Momentarily, a metallic car slid along the rail into the station. It stopped at a painted area marked “1”, and a door on the side slid open. The woman stepped into the waiting pod. Greg could see her through the open door as she slid a magnetic card through a slot on the dashboard of the pod and touched the screen that appeared. The door slid shut and the pod moved along the rail, out of the station, and into the night. # Greg spent the next two weeks building up the courage to talk to Megan. He just needed an opportunity. Typically, people didn't talk to him unless there was a problem with the podway, so he created one. # The podcars had been running smoothly all day, no delays, but it wasn't unheard of for the station to be empty, all the cars either occupied or waiting at other stations. Greg, knowing that Megan would be around by two, sent all of the empty cars from his station to the furthest one in the city, which was a good half hour away. Megan walked into the station at 2:12AM, right on schedule. She walked past Greg's booth, glancing inside as she passed, just as anyone would. Greg smiled at her and gave her a quick nod, then went back to his monitors. Megan smiled back and walked on by. When she saw that the track was empty, she pushed the “CALL” button on the post next to the track, and waited. Five minutes went by, then ten. Greg tried to look disinterested, focused on his work, but he couldn't help sneaking glances at her as she waited. She was playing with her phone, maybe sending a text or checking the news, and tapping her foot. Megan slipped her phone into her pocket and sighed. She looked at Greg's booth, and he shifted his eyes back to the closest monitor. “Excuse me,” she said, standing right outside his window. Greg looked up, and smiled at her. “What can I do for you?” he asked in his best customer-service voice. “How much longer until a pod gets here? It's not broken or anything is it?” Greg laughed, cringing a bit at the inappropriate volume of it in the silent station. “It's not broken, looks like...” he checked his monitors, “...you've got about fifteen minutes. The pod's coming from the main hub at the center of the city.” Megan sighed. “Yeah, OK, thanks.” She turned to walk away. She's leaving, Greg panicked. “I'm Greg!” he blurted. She stopped and turned back. “Megan.” “Uh, how's it going?” Idiot. “Other than having to wait for a pod, I'm fine, thanks. You?” “Doin' OK,” he gave his standard answer. “You live nearby?” “Work, actually. The Hive, about a block over.” “Ah, yeah, I've been there once or twice. Nice place.” “It's all right,” she glanced at the track. “Get good tips at least.” “You're a waitress?” “Bartender.” “Oh.” Megan looked back to the track. “Well, I guess I'll go wait for my pod.” “Yeah, sorry 'bout the wait. Must've called them away for maintenance or something. Have a nice night.” “You too!” Megan walked back to the platform and leaned against the railing. Greg exhaled and slumped back in his chair. His heart was racing and his palms were sweaty, but he thought he did all right. It could have gone a lot worse, anyway. A tone sounded, and a silver podcar slid into the station. Megan got in and the pod slipped away into the night. Greg watched it on his monitor until it stopped. 20th Street. # Greg didn't risk trying that trick again, but that night had led to a series of friendly “Hello”s each night when Megan came through the station. It was nice, but Greg wanted more. He decided to go to The Hive. It was two months after they had spoken. Greg used some vacation time and took a Friday off. It was a nice night for mid-December, mid-40s with no wind, but Greg wore his overcoat anyway. He was very aware of his weight (“Not fat,” his mother told him, “Just big.”), especially in the button-up shirt and vest that he was wearing, and wanted to give the best impression that he could. The bouncer's stool at the door was empty, so Greg just walked into the bar. It was fairly crowded, and incredibly loud. Greg immediately felt sweat drip from his armpits. Great. I'm a fat, sweaty mess. She's gonna love me. Greg felt a hand on his shoulder, and he stiffened. “ID,” someone said. Greg turned to face the speaker, a short, muscular, bald man wearing a black T-shirt that said “The Hive” on the left breast. “Yeah, uh,” Greg rifled around in his pocket, “It's here somewhere.” He pulled out his ID card and handed it to the bouncer. The bouncer shone a flashlight on it, nodded, and handed it back to Greg. He went and sat on his stool without another word. Greg pocketed his card and looked around the barroom. The bar itself was central to the room. There was a small stage off to the left, and pool tables to the right. There were wooden honey-comb shaped plaques hung sporadically on the walls. The back of the room was filled with tables. Greg made his way toward these. There was an empty table near the back, so Greg sat on one of the metal stools and looked toward the bar. Megan was there, wiping a glass with a towel and talking to one of the patrons. She laughed, and for a second Greg thought that their eyes met. He could feel his shirt getting damp. “What can I getcha?” someone shouted in his left ear. Greg straightened and twisted on his stool. A young woman was standing next to him, eyes sparkling and a grin plastered on her face. “Oh, um. Yeah, hi, can I...” Greg looked back at the bar to the tap pulls. “Can I get a Guinness?” “You got it! Need a menu?” “No thanks.” Greg thought of his waistline again. One beer would be OK, but no food. The waitress hurried off to get his drink, and Greg wiped his hands on his pants nervously. He watched his waitress approach Megan and say something in her ear. Oh God, how did she know? I should just leave. Megan didn't even look at him, she just slid a glass under the Guinness tap and pulled the handle. Dark liquid poured out, until the glass was about two-thirds full. Megan let up on the tap, and left the glass sitting there. She took another order – some kind of mixed drink – and when that was delivered she went back to the tap. She pulled the handle again, topping off the glass. She picked the glass up, set it on a tray, and resumed talking to the guy at the bar. Trying to seem like just another dude in a bar, Greg looked around at the patrons. It seemed like everyone knew each other except him. They were clustered into obvious groups, but the groups seemed fluid. Occasionally someone would leave this one and join that one. Everyone was laughing and smiling. No one looked like they felt the way that Greg did. “Here ya go!” The waitress again. She set Greg's beer on his table. “Anything else?” Greg looked at the glass of Guinness. He felt his heart skip a beat; there was a heart-shaped design in the head of the beer. “N-no,” he stammered. “OK, let me know!” she smiled, and moved to check on her other tables. Greg stared at the heart in the foam. Megan had seen him after all! He looked back to the bar, but she wasn't in sight. Greg grinned, and took a sip from his glass. He leaned back against the wall and watched the crowd. # He had intended to have one beer, but somehow he found himself finishing his third, and feeling a little drunk. Megan was back behind the bar. Greg decided that now was the time to approach her. He dropped a twenty on the table and got to his feet. The crowd seemed thicker, pressing in from all sides. Greg maneuvered between groups, past tables, and landed on a stool at the bar. He no longer noticed that he was sweating, he was too focused on the task at hand. He pulled a ten from his coat pocket and set it on the bar. After a moment, Megan appeared. “Oh, hey Hon. Got the night off?” Hon. “Yeah, I thought I needed a break. Had some unused vacation time, so...” Greg shrugged. “Oh, that's great, you deserve it. Need a drink?” “Guinness?” “Coming right up.” Megan turned away from him and started the ritual of the pour. Greg's head was swimming. This is going so well. Megan left the glass under the tap and came back to Greg. “That's five,” she said, sliding the ten off the bar. Greg watched her walk down to the register, ring up the sale, and walk back. She set five ones on the counter, and Greg pushed them back to her. “That's yours,” he said. Megan grinned. Greg stared at her perfect teeth. “Thanks Hon!” She threw the bills into a pitcher behind the counter, which was already half-filled with cash, and went to top off his beer. She came back and set it on the counter, and Greg nodded at the heart in the foam. “I love that,” he said. “Aww,” Megan said, “Only for you.” She winked. Greg felt his chest tighten and was once again aware of the sweat under his arms. “Um, hey, so-” “Oops. Hold that thought.” A woman at the end of the bar was signaling for a bartender, and Megan rushed down to serve her. Greg sipped his beer and watched Megan work, waiting for her to come back. He tapped his hands on the bar in time with the music playing over the speakers, and wiggled a little in his seat. By the time Greg finished his beer, Megan was neck-deep in orders and struggling to keep up. As she walked past him, she pointed to his glass and raised an eyebrow. Greg shook his head. It was time to go. He stood up, and found that his bladder had finally outpaced his sweat glands. After fighting the crowd and successfully using the men's room, Greg stepped out onto the street. The beer and the encounter with Megan had him nearly dancing down the street, back to the podway. He waved at Bill, who was covering his shift for him (Thanks Bill!), and hopped into a pod. The door closed with a whir once he had programmed his destination, and the pod began carrying him home. It was on the way that he started formulating Megan's grand surprise. # Megan was closing the bar on Valentine's Day. It had been a busy night, but most people seemed to have left with someone, some even with the person that they came with. Megan hummed along with the tune that was playing in the empty bar, and wiped down the last glass. “Anything else you need from me?” she asked James, The Hive's owner, who was counting down the cash register. “Nah, take off. Here,” he handed her some bills. “Your tips for the night.” “Thanks James. I'm ready for bed. So much for a romantic Valentine's day, huh?” She smiled sadly. “Maybe next year. Have a good night.” “You too.” Megan shrugged on her coat, slung her bag over her shoulder, and walked out into the night. It was cold, and the wind tearing through the streets didn't help. She hunched herself against its icy touch, and stuffed her hands deep into her pockets. It was only a block to the podway, not that bad. She walked into the station and sighed, feeling the warm rush of air hit her face. She shook off the cold and stamped her feet. She blew into her hands and rubbed them together as she walked through the station. The nice overnight guy was in his booth, as always, and she gave him a friendly wave as she walked by. What was his name? Gary? Gary looked nervous and happy. Maybe he'd had a date before work, or was headed to an early-morning one when he got out. He waved back at her, and smiled. She smiled too, thinking that it was nice that he had someone in his life. Good for him. Megan walked up to the first pod in line and slipped inside. She slid her pass-card through the reader, causing the control screen to light up with a map of the area. She pressed her finger against the screen and made a swiping motion, which moved the map to where she needed it. She touched “Station 105: 20th Street and Avenue J”, and a line appeared to show her path, accompanied by a dialog box. # Total Trip Time: 20 minutes Cost: $2.50 Is this right? YES NO # Megan pressed the YES button on the screen, and the door of the pod slid closed. She leaned back in her seat and watched as the station moved away from her. Her route took her all the way down to 20th Street, then cut over three blocks to hit Avenue J. It was a boring ride, completely underground, but it beat walking or dealing with a cab. To kill the time, Megan took her phone out of her pocket and pressed the button on the top to wake it up. She swiped her finger across the screen, unlocking it, and found that she had some “Happy Valentine's Day!” messages from her friends. Completely absorbed with replying to everyone, she barely noticed when her pod made a turn. That was fast, she thought, pressing SEND. She turned off her phone, put it back in her pocket, and looked at the control screen. What the hell? The line that showed her route had changed. Megan touched the screen to move the map, but it didn't respond. According to the map, she was headed back out of the city. She tapped the screen frantically, but the pod kept on its silent journey. There was a metal plaque on the bottom of the door: # In Case of Emergency: Pull red handle. Door will open. Pod will slow. Remain seated until pod has come to a complete stop. # Megan found the red handle and pulled it. Nothing happened. She pulled it again, harder. Still nothing. She banged the door once with her fist, then sat back. Her phone. Megan pulled it from her pocket and unlocked it. One bar. Shit. She dialed 911 and hit SEND. It rang once, then silence. “Hello? Hello!?” Megan said. No sound. She pulled the phone away from her ear. NO SIGNAL. This is wonderful. Resigning herself to riding the pod to its destination, Megan made herself comfortable and waited. # When the pod finally turned onto a station loop, the map showed that Megan was well outside of the city limits. The track had emerged from underground ten minutes before, but her phone still had no service. Megan looked through the window at the approaching station. It looked like a re-purposed train station that had been since abandoned. The map didn't even show a name for it. It was hard to tell in the little light that spilled out from the station, but it looked like the track hadn't been maintained in years. The pod had no trouble moving along it, though, and easily pulled up to the platform. The door slid open, and Megan felt a mix of relief and apprehension. She could leave the pod, but to where? She tried swiping her card through the reader again, but nothing happened. Everything was completely unresponsive to her. She checked her phone again – still no signal – and stepped out of the pod. Some kind of red leaves laying on the floor formed a trail leading away from the platform. Megan bent down and picked one up. Rose petals. What's going on around here? She hesitantly followed the trail. The petals led her through a door into what must have once been the waiting area of the train station. There were dozens of candles flickering in the middle of the room, and she smelled food. As her eyes adjusted to the dimness of the candlelight, she could see that there was a long table dominating the room. Either end of the table was covered with candles. In the middle of the table were two place-settings, positioned across from each other, and a handful of serving dishes. Megan took a tentative step toward it all. “Hi, Megan,” someone said. She jumped. “Who's there?” “It's me.” The speaker stepped into the candlelight. He looked familiar, but it was hard to tell. She thought it was... “Gary?” He winced. “Greg.” He looked less sure of himself now. “Uh, hey.” “Hi...” she said. “What is this?” “I made you a Valentine's Day dinner. It's, uh, roast beef and potatoes, and I did some eggplant cutlets, because I didn't know if you even eat meat. There's corn, and-” “Greg.” He looked at her like a puppy who wasn't sure if what he just did was a great trick or an unforgivable act. She decided to reassure him and keep him calm. “This is sweet, really, but I've got to get home.” “Oh,” his face fell, “but I thought...” “Maybe another time, Greg,” Megan said, taking a step backward, keeping her words and face calm. “Wait!” Greg shouted, and winced again. “Sorry. Uh, look, don't go, let's eat. It'll be good, I promise.” He took two steps toward her as he talked. “No, really. Thank you. I have to go now. Will you unlock the pod for me, please?” “Oh man, uh, yeah. Yeah, just, uh, yeah, hold on.” He walked toward her. She stepped out of the way of the door so that he could pass. She slowly put her hand into her jacket pocket and gripped her house keys, letting each key stick out of her fist from between her fingers. As he approached her, he stopped. “Greg,” she said, allowing a bit of a plea into her voice. “Are you sure?” he asked, and she noticed that his eyes were wet. “Yeah, I really need to go.” He thought for a minute, “I wish you would stay,” he said, and reached out to touch her arm. She recoiled involuntarily, pulling her fist from her pocket. Greg lifted an eyebrow and frowned. “What are you doing? Do I repulse you that much? Do you think I'm dangerous?” “Greg, you kidnapped me.” “I... what!? No, no. You said it yourself, I'm being sweet. Only for you! You said that. Come on, let's eat.” He reached for her arm again. She jumped back. “Don't touch me,” she hissed. “But I thought you liked me! Don't you like me?” Megan had totally lost her calm demeanor, and it was all should could do now to not completely lose it on this guy. “I'm leaving,” she said, “Don't follow me.” She kept her fist at the ready, and moved around Greg to the door. He seemed to be contemplating her, and she wasn't sure what he was going to do. She kept a steady pace, opened the door behind her, and backed out onto the platform. She looked at the podcar on the track. I'm not trapping myself in there again. She turned the opposite direction, and could see the beginning of a road just inside the illumination of the station. Road it is, she decided, and started walking. # Greg stared in disbelief at the door as it swung closed behind Megan. His throat felt constricted and his eyes were burning. What just happened? She didn't even know my name. Only half-aware of what he was doing, Greg shuffled toward the table and blew out the candles. He left the table and the food there in the darkness and went outside. The cold air numbed his face, but it couldn't touch the burning in his chest. Megan was nowhere to be seen. He called her name once, without much passion, then headed for the podcar. He took his tablet and a USB cable from his bag. He plugged the cable into the tablet, then into a port under the seat of the podcar. The screen of his tablet became the podcar's map, with the word “LOCKED” displayed in red across it. Greg touched the center of the screen, typed a password, and “LOCKED” was replaced with “UNLOCKED” in green. This faded away, and the podcar came to life. Greg programmed his station as the destination, and the car took him back to work. # Despite the way that he felt, Greg managed to get himself to work the next night. He stopped on the way and bought a bouquet of flowers for Megan. The least that he could do was apologize, and if she didn't want to see him again, he could respect that. He set the flowers on his desk. The first three hours of his shift dragged by. As it grew later, and two o'clock was nearing, he fidgeted more and more in his chair. Two came and went. Two-fifteen. Two-thirty. Still no Megan. Greg waited for her all that night, and the next, and many more after that. The flowers wilted and dried, dropping petals and leaves. Each time one fell, Greg scooped it up and saved it. She would want them when she came back. Greg waited.