Night Owls

By: Jenn Bennett

THE LAST TRAIN WASN’T COMING. IT WAS ALMOST midnight, and for the better part of an hour I’d been clutching my art portfolio and what was left of my pride at the university hospital Muni stop alongside a handful of premed students, an elderly Chinese woman wielding an umbrella like a weapon, a chatty panhandler named Will (who lived in the hospital parking garage), and an enthusiastic drunk street preacher who either wanted to warn us about a fiery apocalypse or sell us ringside tickets—maybe both.

“A two-car N-Judah train broke down in Sunset Tunnel,” one of the medical students read off his phone. “Looks like we’re stuck riding an Owl.”

A collective groan passed through the group.

The dreaded all-nighter Owl bus.

After hours, when light-rail train service ends in San Francisco and most of the city is sleeping, Owl buses take over the surface routes. I’d ridden an Owl only once, right before summer break started. My older brother, Heath, had mistakenly tried to cheer me up with tickets to a sing-along of The Little Mermaid (glow sticks, shell bras) at the Castro Theatre, and after a midnight dinner at a greasy spoon, we’d missed our regular train. Owl buses are slower, dirtier, and filled with people leaving parties, clubs, and closed bars—automatically upping the chance of encountering fistfights and projectile vomit. Riding an Owl when Heath was with me was one thing; risking it alone was another, especially when no one knew where I was.

Yeah, I know. Not the brightest idea in the world, but I didn’t have cab money on me. I chewed a hangnail and stared up at the fog clinging to the streetlight, hoping I didn’t look as anxious as I felt.

Just for the record, I’m not supposed to take mass transit after 10:00 p.m. That’s my mom’s scientific cutoff for avoiding violent crime. It’s not arbitrary. She’s an RN and works graveyard at the ER right across the street three or four times a week (where she was at that very moment), so she knows exactly when the gunshot victims start wheeling in. And even though Heath has the same curfew, I’m plenty aware that my Victim Odds are higher because I’m small and female and not quite eighteen. So, sure, I might be a statistical easy target, but I don’t usually prowl the city after midnight, giving my precious teenage life the middle finger. I mean, it’s not like I was taking that big of a risk. It wasn’t a bad part of town, and I’d been riding Muni since I was a kid. I also had pepper spray and an itchy trigger finger.

Besides, I was sneaking around for a good reason: to show my illustrations to the professor who runs the anatomy department and convince her to give me access to the Willed Body Program. At least, that was the original plan. But after waiting hours for someone who never showed, the whole thing was looking more like a stupid waste of time.

As the med students bet on the arrival time of the Owl bus, Panhandler Will gave me a little wave and made his way over. Fine by me. I’d feel safer with a familiar face between the drunken preacher and me; he was making me nervous when he breathed fire in my direction.

“Hey, man,” Will said as he approached.

Man? Before I could answer, he’d shuffled on by as if he hadn’t even seen me. Wow. Snubbed by a homeless guy. My night was getting better and better.

“What up, Willy?” a male voice answered cheerfully. “Pretty late for you to be working.”

“Hospital rent-a-cops are making the rounds. Just waiting for them to clear out.”

Curiosity got the better of me, so I turned around to see who’d snagged Will’s attention—some shadowy guy leaning against a telephone pole. Will was blocking my view, so I couldn’t make him out all that well, but the two of them chatted for a moment before Will even noticed me.

“Sad Girl,” he said with a toothy grin. That’s what he calls me, because he thinks I’m depressed. I’m not, by the way. I’m just pleasantly dour and serious, but it’s hard to explain the difference to someone who sleeps in a cardboard lean-to. “How’s it going?”

“Not that great,” I said. “I don’t have anything tonight.” Sometimes I give him my change, but if I had any cash, I’d be in a taxi headed home by now.

“No worries. Your old lady treated me to dinner on her way in to work earlier.”

That didn’t surprise me. Maybe it was the nurse in her, but Mom had a thing about feeding everyone in her line of sight and was practically obsessed with leftovers; if it was larger than a grain of rice, it was either stored in the fridge, packed as part of someone’s lunch, or distributed to neighbors, coworkers—and now, apparently, the ever-popular Panhandler Will, who had spotted someone else he knew and was already heading over to greet them, leaving me stranded with his shadowy friend.

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