Our next option was a steady northeasterly road through the Mescalero Apache reservation. In my grandmother’s time and in Auntie’s youth, this would’ve been no problem, but ever since the nativist revivals during the latter years of the resource wars, one couldn’t be sure how a tribe might treat you if you weren’t one of them.
So that left a road that went northeast for a little while, but then drifted due east across the range. It was a route that would take us into some high altitudes and through towns so small and isolated that they barely hung on as way-stations for travelers. It would be a journey of several days through dangerously isolated country, but I could see no good alternative.
Our first day was uneventful. The road was cracked and broken, but most of it was covered with dirt, and there was a good trail right alongside it. We could see snow at the higher elevations, and Charlene shivered. “Just when I was starting to get used to it not being so cold,” she said. “But it’s pretty to look at, isn’t it?”
I agreed, and for the first time it occurred to me that these might be the last big mountains I would see in a long time, if not for the rest of my life. From here to Kentucky was flat plains, rolling hills, forests, and the great Mississippi River. But as far as I had been able to figure out on any map, there would be no more true mountains. “I almost wish I could take one of them with me,” I said. “I’ll miss them.”
“So draw lots of pictures.”
“I will. Don’t worry.”
We started edging into snowier country by early afternoon. Although the day was bright and sunny, and not really all that cold, the shade of the pines kept the snow from melting.
And the snow preserved animal tracks nicely, giving Charlene quite a scare.
“Trust me,” I told her, “There’s not a single type of wild cat that wouldn’t rather have a rabbit than you.”
Nevertheless, she stayed alert and quiet for a good hour. It gave me time to relax, enjoy the scenery, and think for awhile. I looked all around, taking it in—white pine, ponderosa, aspen, fir. . . I loved it all. Would there be anything like this in Texas or Kentucky? What was I thinking, leaving behind everything I knew? Even during the oil years, life hadn’t been easy in these remote areas. But at least this was land I knew. Out on the plains, I would be as ignorant as Charlene.
Maybe I had been crazy to think I needed to go all the way to Kentucky. It was so far away! I could stay right here in these mountains, settle at the next town or village, and no one from my past would find me unless I wanted to be found. It would mean giving up a dream, but at least I would be in a place I understood. And someone else would take Charlene to Texas. A pretty, cheerful girl like her could always find help.
We stopped in the late afternoon and made camp by a little creek, crusted over in some places with ice, but still flowing strong.
I got us a rabbit for supper, and we cooked it with some potatoes and onions. And then I settled in to read and write for awhile. Charlene leaned over my shoulder.
“Why do you do all that?”
It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder. “Because I can, I guess.”
She sat back, picked up a branch and poked it absently into the fire. “It just looks like more school. I never did like school.”
“Maybe I like to do it because I didn’t get to go to school,” I said. “We didn’t have one in the valley when I was growing up, and I was too busy with farm work to study, anyway. Reading and writing came easy to me, so it was the only thing I could really practice much.”
“Well, you’re lucky you didn’t have to go to school.” Her stick had caught fire and she pulled it out and stared at the flame. “My family wanted all us kids to have the same kind of education they had. So we had to learn math, history, and even about atoms and computers.”
I wasn't completely sure what atoms were, or why they mattered, but computers? “Why computers? Did you have one?”
“My school had a few that still worked. But they broke, eventually. And they didn’t let us actually use them. We just talked about them and had to answer questions on tests.”
“That doesn’t sound very useful.”
“It wasn’t.” Charlene put her branch back into the fire. “That was one of the reasons I left. My family is delusional. They think that the oil will come back, if we can just get the right people in power and if another pandemic kills enough people that there won’t be as much competition.”
“That’s not a nice thing to think.”
“They’re not nice people.”
“So why are you going back?”
Charlene looked at me, her eyes dark in spite of the bright light of our campfire. “Because I’m going to have a baby.”
Suddenly a whole lot of things made sense—her food obsessions and sudden nausea, her anxiety about getting home and the way she ducked into the woods to relieve herself so often that I sometimes worried she was in early stage hypothermia. Even her excessive interest in Isabel and Darrell’s romance seemed clear now. She had never mentioned a husband or boyfriend, so something had obviously gone very wrong for her, and I felt like an idiot for not having realized it before. Unfortunately, all of this brought back memories of being in a situation not unlike her own only a year ago, and I found myself so flustered by my own feelings that I couldn’t think of what to say.
After a moment, she got to her feet. “I’m sorry. I guess I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
She walked away and lay down in the shelter we had made from branches and tarps, leaving me staring into the fire. Damn her, why did she have to tell me? If only I could take all my old feelings and throw them into the fire like the little aspen branch Charlene had been playing with, and let the fire consume them. But that wasn’t possible. I rubbed my face, trying to remember what Auntie and my friends had done for me when I was pregnant, but I couldn’t think. All I remembered was the hatred I had felt for the world and everyone in it. I had worked so hard to come back from that dark place. What right did this dumb Texan girl have to drag me back into it?
I threw some more wood on the fire. I’ll be up for awhile, since I can’t sleep. It’s my turn on watch, anyway, so I guess it’s just as well. And I suppose, too, that I’m stuck getting Charlene home now. I can't just abandon her. It looks like I’m going to Texas whether I want to or not.
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