Shacks and shanties had been built of any material the people could lay hands on: wood, adobe, old signs, scrap metal, brick and even tires.
It seemed amazing to me that a rail town could be so poor.
But when we got nearer the town center and the depot, we saw that it was nicer here. The buildings and streets were few in number, but clean and orderly.
The shops and official buildings were of that simple design that was so popular during the early years of the resource wars, when the federal government was sending people to the rail towns to make improvements so goods and troops could be moved across the country as fuel for trucks and airplanes dwindled.
“I guess the town grew too fast,” I told Charlene. “People came for the rail jobs and they ran out of buildings before the feds could build enough for everyone.”
It was all the same to Charlene. “Let’s find a place where we can get some food.”
I was tempted to point out that it wasn’t my fault she had refused breakfast back in camp and was now hungry, but I had promised myself that I would quit trying to make her feel bad and instead suggested a street vendor across the way.
Charlene made a face. “I don’t know what kind of meat he’s got on those sticks.”
Deep breaths. I was going to be patient with this girl if it killed me. “Okay, then. I’m sure there’ll be something near the depot. We’ll go there.”
Sure enough, there was a little café near the tracks. It was dingy, but clean. While the waitress went to get us some coffee, we read the menu, written in chalk on a blackboard. It was a limited offering, but Charlene was excited about the prospect of an omelet. She seemed disappointed, though, when I didn’t order anything.
“I already had breakfast, remember?” I sipped my coffee and wondered how long our money was going to hold out if Charlene ordered restaurant-cooked food every time we stopped in a town. Like it or not, I was going to have to have a serious talk with her about how she was managing her money.
I had hoped to ask the waitress a few questions about the area and how to get through the mountains, but she was pretty busy. So after Charlene ate we went looking for a store. The first one was near the depot and was expensive. Since I didn’t want to buy anything here if I didn’t have to, I didn’t think it right to ask the shopkeeper a lot of questions. So we went searching the town to see what other choices we had.
We didn’t do too badly. We bought some potatoes at one store and got directions to the main road through the mountains. At a market in an old gas station, we got some cheese and eggs. For a little extra, the vendor said she would hard-boil the eggs for us, so we waited and talked to her for awhile. She was a gold mine of information, and recommended passes, stopping points, and alternate routes through the mountains, even drawing us a map.
“Will there be another town when we get there?” Charlene asked. “What’s on the other side?”
The woman smiled indulgently. “Las arenas blancas.”
Charlene and I looked at each other in confusion. “White sands?”
She nodded. “Desierto. Si buscan pueblos. . .” She took the map back from me and made a few more marks on it. “Están aquí y aquí."
I asked a few questions about the towns, but she didn’t know much, other what goods were best to trade in each village. I wanted to know which was the best place to pick up a road heading northeast, but since I still hadn’t been able to figure out who this town was affiliated with, I thought it best to remain vague as to our destination.
As we were leaving it occurred to me that I hadn’t written to Auntie in a long time and maybe I should send her a note on the train. “Would you like to send a message to your family?” I asked Charlene. “I could code it in my letter to Auntie, and she would make sure it got to Texas. She’s in a neutral area and has excellent Unitas contacts.”
Charlene shook her head. “I don’t know what I would say.”
“Just say you’re on your way.”
“No, I left under bad circumstances, and I’m coming back under worse ones, so I think I’d rather just show up unannounced.”
So I wrote my letter to Auntie, telling her I was safe and not to worry. I wondered if I should mention that Will had turned maverick, but figured she had probably already heard. If she hadn’t, she would soon enough, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the one to tell her. Poor Auntie. After all the trouble she went to, Will and I sure have turned out bad. She acquired another orphan before I left Estrella—a smart little girl named Kitta. I hope she turns out better than me and Will.
As I was mailing my letter, Charlene let out a little cry of surprise. I thought for a moment she had seen some sign of danger and I reached for my gun. But instead, she pointed to the calendar behind the postmaster’s head. “We missed Valentine’s Day!”
The postmaster gave her a big smile, but I couldn’t help sighing in disgust. “Valentine’s Day is for babies. It’s for village children, not grownups.”
“Well, where I’m from, it’s for grownups.” She leaned against the counter, crossed her arms and grew pensive.
While the postmaster counted my money, I looked at the calendar more closely. “Cheer up,” I said. “It looks like we missed my birthday, too. So it’s not like we forgot Valentine’s on purpose.”
“You had a birthday?” She perked up. “When? How old are you?”
“Yesterday. I’m nineteen.”
The postmaster handed back my change. “Happy birthday.”
But Charlene frowned. “I thought you were older.”
“So do I, sometimes. Let’s go. We ought to be able to reach the foot of the mountain before sunset.”
Charlene would hear nothing of it. “We’re celebrating your birthday tonight. The mountain will still be there in the morning.” She turned to the postmaster. “Where’s a good bar? And where can we get a cheap room for the night?”
As it turned out, the postmaster’s sister ran a boarding house for rail workers. Charlene was all for paying for the privilege of a room, but I cut a deal instead to help with the housework. Since we were only staying for a single night and there wasn’t another train due until the end of the week, the postmaster's sister was happy to put me to work scrubbing while Charlene took a nap.
I had finished my chores and was just settling in with my diary when Charlene tracked me down. “There you are.”
“Yeah. Isn’t it supposed to be my birthday? How come I worked while you slept?”
She shrugged in total unconcern. “Because I was tired and you wouldn’t let me pay for the room.”
That was true enough. I rubbed a smudge on one of my drawings.
“Get cleaned up and let’s go that bar the man suggested.”
I had never thought of bars as being much fun. They had always meant spy missions to me, and I didn’t like flirting with strange men. But I let Charlene talk me into putting on my dress and fixing my hair. Then we went to the little place the postmaster had suggested.
We ended up having a great time. Charlene made friends with the bartender, and in return, he kept an eye out for us, sending safe men to dance with us and warning off ones who might give us trouble. Charlene was hilarious, telling crazy stories and making up silly dances. She even found a way to get herself included in the band, where she sang a few songs, substituting words of her own where she didn’t know the real ones, turning the songs into comedy and making everyone laugh.
By the time we made our way back to the boarding house, with an escort kindly provided by Charlene’s new bartender friend, my stomach hurt from laughing so much. When we got to our room I threw myself on the bed. “That was the best birthday I’ve had in a long time.”
Charlene collapsed into a chair, pulled off a bangle bracelet and toyed with it. “I think it might’ve been the best birthday I didn’t have.”
I closed my eyes and felt the room tip. “I have a feeling tomorrow morning isn’t going to be much fun.”
“Oh, Diana.” Charlene sat up and looked at me. “Has life always been all business for you? Can’t you ever just relax and have a good time without worrying about things?”
I was too sleepy to care what she thought, but I tried to answer honestly. “It’s a mean world. You can’t go through life like a grasshopper.”
“Grasshopper!” She giggled like she had never heard the word before.
I felt my eyes closing again, but tried to open them. “What kind of place did you grow up, where you didn’t have to worry about tomorrow?” When she didn’t answer, I let my eyes close. Thankfully, the room stayed still this time. “Maybe when we get to Texas, I’ll stay there with you. It must be nice to live someplace where things aren’t always so serious.”
“Texas is a serious place. It’s my own head that isn’t serious.”
“I can’t live inside your head, that’s for sure.”
Charlene was silent so long that I had time to begin dozing off. “You wouldn’t want to,” she finally said.
I didn’t answer, but rolled over and went to sleep. When I awoke an hour later to use the latrine, Charlene was asleep on the bed beside me, her head resting on her arm. I tried to nudge her into a better position, but she only rolled over and snored. So I turned on my solar lantern, had some water and figured I’d sit in the chair for awhile and look out the window. What a beautiful moonlit night!
I waited long enough, gazing at the moon like a fool, that finally Charlene quit snoring. Maybe I can now get back to sleep.
Happy Belated Birthday to Me.
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