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The Kid on the R Train

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John Laurens is riding the R train for the first time. He’s taken the subway before, obviously, he’s been living in New York for a month now. But today he’s taking the R, and he’s gotta focus on getting off at the right stop. The announcer’s voice is transformed into an incoherent gargle by the speaker system, so John has to peer out the window at each stop to check the name of the station. He knows he looks like a tourist, especially when the station sign is obscured and he has to rise out of his seat to get a better look. Still, it’s not like his fellow passengers’ opinion of him means very much. But it might. If he gets the job, it might. If he has to commute with these people three times a week for the foreseeable fucking future, he might care a tiny bit if they think he’s a sad, awkward, hick transplant.

Okay, he’s being slightly paranoid. Not to mention, it’s pretty unlikely he’ll get the job, especially since he’s dead set on avoiding his father’s name. Though he still isn’t sure if he’ll lie if (when) a direct question about his family is posed.

“Showf Furry–Whuthill Shrit!” a voice blares, punctuated by heavy static.

John leans to look out the window. Oh. South Ferry–Whitehall Street. So they’re in Manhattan. As he sits back in his seat, he catches the eye of a high school student who gives an amused half-smile before returning to the papers on his lap. Looks like last-minute homework. John feels for the kid, even if he clearly thinks John’s some kind of rube. Do people still say rube? Probably not.

The kid’s well-dressed for a student, in olive green chinos and a grey cardigan, but his ratty backpack gives him away. He’s muttering to himself, running one hand through his short black hair and tapping a pencil against his thigh with the other. The woman beside him looks like she wants to take that pencil and snap it in half, and John has to suppress a smile when the kid’s foot starts tapping as well and the woman’s hands tighten into fists. The kid doesn’t notice. He must be late for class. It’s, what, nine-thirty? Almost ten. Jesus.

“Ructer Shrit!”

Rector Street. John springs to his feet, a little overeager, and almost hits the ground when the subway comes to a clattering halt. He catches himself just in time and grabs the pole with both hands, inelegantly scrambling to get his feet back under him. He hears a soft snort, just audible over the sound of the screeching wheels, and glances over in time to make eye contact with the student, who’s gathering his backpack and standing up. John’s sympathy for the kid evaporates in a millisecond.

Just get out of the damn subway. Focus on the interview.He takes the stairs two at a time, and when he emerges from the station, John finds that the weather has taken a turn for the better. The drab brown walls of Trinity Church seems almost cheerful in the dazzling sunlight, each muddy headstone in the graveyard crowned with a stroke of gold. John takes a moment to admire the sight before he’s practically bowled over by the crowd of commuters behind him.

“Move it, asshole,” one woman mutters, her large bag clipping him on the elbow.

Focus on the interview. Focus on the stupid fucking interview.

 


 

The elevator bank is impressive. John knows it’s naïve, to be impressed by the elevator bank of all places, but he can’t help himself. The walls are white marble, the ceiling has to be over fifty feet, and each door is flanked by a touch-screen that assigns an elevator to John when he selects his floor. But more than that, the people are impressive. Men and women in very fashionable, very expensive suits and blazers gather on the other end of the hall, patting flyaway hairs back into place and murmuring morning pleasantries to one another. He knows there’s some major magazine publisher headquartered in the building, and that that’s probably where the people in pointed stilettos and suede derbies are headed, but he’s still intimidated. A flock of white-haired men in crisp grey suits brush past him, locked in rapid-fire conversation, and John half-expects them to join the magazine people at the end of the hall. He’s surprised when they settle in beside him to wait for the elevator to the 23rd floor.

“You hear what Washington’s new assistant tried to pull?” one of them hisses.

“With Conway? I did. Unbelievable,” another responds.

“He’s a fucking child, that’s what he is,” a third chimes in.

John’s pretty sure this isn’t the sort of conversation he should be overhearing, or at least not the kind he should be caught overhearing, so he sneaks in a small cough. The men abruptly break out of their huddle. One or two give John a sullen once-over. When the elevator doors finally chime open, they take the ride in silence, each man suddenly glued to his iPhone like he’s never seen such a miraculous device before.

Eager to escape the elevator, John is the first one out. He swipes his guest pass and slips through the glass doors emblazoned with the rather unwieldy acronym, “NYCRA.” His new office. Maybe. Probably not. Half of the cubicles he passes are empty, the other half occupied by exhausted young office workers who seem to be typing with their eyes closed. John rushes past them, clutching his heavy messenger bag by the short handle to keep it from banging against his hip. He catches sight of the time on someone’s screensaver.

Crap. Crap crap crap. He’s late. Not ‘late late,’ but definitely, definitively late.

“You’re late.”

John whips around and nearly drops his bag when he sees who spoke. The student. The student from the R train. Fuck.

“You’re—but you—what are you—” he splutters hopelessly.

“I thought I recognized you on the subway. You know, from your passport photo,” the student (no, not a student, definitely not a student) says. “But damn, I thought you’d get here sooner!”

“I was…” John struggles to regain his composure. “I was held up at the front desk.”

The kid (guy? man?) strides forward and takes John’s hand in his own. “Right, I should have realized, security’s a little strict. Alexander Hamilton. And you’re John Laurens.”

John smiles. “I am. Uh, nice to meet you.”

Up close, Alexander looks a little less like a high schooler, though not by much. Like most of the employees John had seen, he has bags under his eyes—his might even be more pronounced than his co-workers—and his eyes are…wow. They are big. Big, round, dark brown eyes that are somehow extremely tired and extremely energetic at the same time. And he’s still shaking John’s hand.

“I don’t want to be weird about the subway thing, but I did see you and I know you saw me so I figured I should say something. And I’m just kidding about the late thing, seriously don’t worry about it. Washington isn’t even ready for you, he’s probably nursing a hangover in the men’s room.” Tiny pause. “That was a joke, don’t repeat that.”

John nods and gently extracts his hand. “Are you his—”

“His assistant, yeah. Only started a couple months ago, but honestly, you get the hang of this place pretty fast, it’s not a very difficult job.”

Washington’s new assistant. Fuck.

“That was also a joke. I mean, half a joke.” Alexander lowers his voice. “Mostly not a joke. My job’s pretty fucking easy.”

“Um. Okay.”

“Not that that’s what you’ll be doing. You’re applying for—” he glances down at a tablet that seems to appear out of nowhere. “—part-time administrative coordinator. Well, that sounds meaningless. What’s with the part-time? You’ve got somewhere more important to be?”

“No, I…wait, are you joking again?”

Alexander grins, eyes still on the tablet as he swipes through what looks suspiciously like John’s résumé. “Honestly, I have no idea. Probably.”

“Are you going to interview me?”

“What?” Alexander looks up suddenly, confused. “God no! Washington is.”

“But isn’t he, like, the president of the NYCRA?”

The assistant groans. “Oh, please never call it that again. We just say Nycra, okay? Like ‘night crud,’ but without the ending consonants.”

“Sure,” John agrees, beginning to lose patience. “Fine. Isn’t Washington the president of Nycra? Why would he interview me personally?”

President of the NYCRA is an understatement. The guy’s famous, and famously hard to meet. Washington would have made the cover of Forbes two or three times by now if he didn’t refuse every interview offer he got. At least, that’s what John’s dad had said.

“Hmm. Yeah, it’s a little weird. Though I’m guessing it has something to do with you being rela—”

“Hamilton!”

It’s like watching the power in a building shut down. Alexander’s mouth flattens into a line and he turns sharply to face the man who’s called his name. Shit. George Washington. Okay, so first of all, he’s like six foot two. He’s six foot two, he’s wearing a suit that practically sweats money, and he’s balder than Mr. Clean. His dark eyebrows are set close together, and they get closer still when he furrows them to shoot Alexander a “look.” John intuitively knows that this isn’t the first time Alexander’s received said look.

“You didn’t tell me Mr. Laurens had arrived,” Washington says.

“Sorry, sir, I was just about to take him by your office.”

Washington steps forward and shakes John’s hand, his grip tense and brief. “Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Laurens. George Washington. Hamilton, you can get back to your desk,” he says, addressing Alexander over John’s shoulder. “I’ll let you know when we’re done.”

And before he can catch another glimpse of the assistant, John is being steered into a glass-walled conference room for a one-on-one interview with George fucking Washington.

 


 

“How’d it go?”

John briefly debates stopping to answer the question; half of him wants to keep walking and get out of this building as fast as possible. But he does stop, because he can’t be sure he bombed the interview, and if he has to come work here he should probably be friendly with Washington’s assistant, and goddammit the guy is kind of cute.

“As well as you can expect,” he says with a forced smile.

Alexander is poking his head out above his cubicle wall, looking very much like a cat in a box. “That’s a non-answer. Come on,” he grabs the sweater hanging off the back of his chair. “Let’s go get a coffee.”

“That doesn’t sound very…professional.”

They’re already halfway to the elevators. “Yeah, I’m not a professional. Is that not clear? I’m trying really hard to make it clear.”

John laughs and follows Alexander into the elevator. “Seriously though, are you supposed to be talking to me?”

“Washington didn’t say I couldn’t,” Alexander says innocently. “And there’s nothing in the employee handbook. I checked.”

“You checked?”

“I checked. While you were in the fishbowl with him. God, that room is terrifying, right?”

“A little.”

“Please. I could see you sweating from my desk.”

John furtively checks the underarms of his shirt, but they’re clean and dry.

“No, relax, it’s an expression,” Alexander says. So maybe he wasn’t that furtive about it. “You’re good, you look good. Really good.”

“…Thanks.”

 


 

The coffee shop Alexander chooses is unusually intimate for the financial district; it’s done up in splintered wood, old chalkboards, and threadbare pillows. The only customers seem to be disenchanted writers pecking despondently at their keyboards. One of the visible screens just reads, “Novel #345: I’m fucked.”

“I think I messed up the interview,” John says once they’ve found seats in the corner.

“I doubt it,” Alexander responds confidently. Is it weird to be that confident? It seems kind of weird.

“How could you know that?”

“I’m real good at reading Washington’s face. He seemed happy when you left.”

“Yeah, I’m sure he was happy when I left.”

Alexander groans. “Not like that! Just trust me.”

John drums his fingers on the desk nervously. Should he say something? He really, really wants to. He probably should. But before he can—

“So, your dad’s a senator.”

Oh. John doesn’t really know how to respond. So he doesn’t.

“I’m assuming it came up in the interview,” Alexander elaborates.

“It did.” He tries not to think about how he’d awkwardly tried to steer the conversation back to himself, how Washington had granted a tight smile and moved on, but not before making a small, illegible note on his legal pad.

Alexander seems to notice John’s reluctance, and mercifully changes the subject. “Was Nycra your first choice for a non-profit?”

“Yeah, I only started applying for jobs last week.”

“Shit, was this your first interview?” Alexander grins. He interprets John’s silence correctly. “Oh my God, no wonder you were so nervous. Hey, but don’t be. Straight out of Oxford, back in the states, and now you wanna work at a civil rights watchdog organization, practically volunteering your time. It all sounds very impressive.”

“Well. A lot of things sound impressive when you say them the right way.”

Alexander looks at him oddly, then smiles again. Before he can respond, a barista shouts for their attention.

“Medium hot chocolate with whip and a small latte for Ham!” she calls out.

“Peggy!” Alexander shouts with equal volume as he walks over to the counter. “Hope you didn’t forget the peppermint, babe.”

The woman, Peggy, rolls her eyes and wipes down the steamer wand with a rag. “We don’t get peppermint till November, Ham, you know that.”

“If you keep calling me ‘Ham,’ I’m gonna burn your house down,” he says with a sweet smile.

“Who’s your friend?”

“Oh!” Alexander reaches back and pulls John forward enthusiastically. “This is John Laurens, Washington’s newest hire.”

“I’m not—”

“Laurens, this is Peggy.”

The woman reaches over the counter to shake his hand delicately. She’s wearing her dark hair in two braids over each shoulder, and she’s got the sort of open, heart-shaped face that people immediately trust. John catches a glimpse of a large color tattoo on her wrist.

“Peggy,” he repeats, “like from Mad Men?”

Alexander and Peggy share a smirk, and she nods. “Exactly like Mad Men. And don’t worry, Ham doesn’t know where I live.”

“Everyone knows where you live, Peg,” Alexander counters, and begins to hum a  familiar tune that John can’t quite place.

“Okay!” she claps her hands together. “Your drinks are getting cold. A latte for the grown ass adult, and a hot chocolate for his infant friend.”

If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to, why don’t you go—” Alexander sings, taking his hot chocolate and dancing back to his seat.

“Shut the hell up!” Peggy calls after him.

John settles in at the table and eyes Alexander’s drink, which is piled high with whipped cream. “Hot chocolate?”

“Okay, it’s September, that means hot chocolate season has officially begun,” Alexander responds indignantly.

“Yeah, you just struck me as a coffee guy, that’s all.”

“I struck you?” He puts a hand to his chest. “I’m flattered.”

John laughs. “Hey, I spent four years in England, forgive me if I sound a little formal.”

“Good point.” Alexander sips his cocoa. “And I don’t drink coffee.”

Is this guy actually a teenager? They talk for a little while longer (though the conversation doesn’t dip below surface-level chatter after that) until Alexander finishes his drink and starts to check his phone every thirty seconds.

“You gotta go?” John asks politely.

“Uh-huh,” he responds distractedly, “I might’ve stayed a bit longer than I should have.”

“Oh, shit, sorry.”

“No need to apologize.” Alexander gathers his stuff and pauses to smile at John. “Lost track of time.”

The bell above the door rings his exit, and John is left sitting alone in a coffee shop, unable to shake the feeling that he’d just had his real interview.