Sunday, July 8, 2007

Thirty Two

Diana dressed in the dark, as if going on watch. Amalia was accustomed to Will and Diana’s nocturnal comings and goings and didn't wake up.

Once she was in the tunnel, Diana paused. Hearing nothing, she glanced at her map. She had already memorized it, but looking at it again reassured her as she ventured into the darkness. Just around the first bend she saw the glow of Sachi and Pepsi’s lantern and she ran to catch up. "I'm glad I found you."

"Yeah, I wouldn't want to walk through here alone," Pepsi said. "I don't know how Coyote does it."

"You know how he is. He senses things."

"I wonder if Macy thinks that's weird," Sachi said.

As they walked, they found that Macy had marked the route with cairns of piled rubble.

"Nice of her," Sachi murmured.

"She's turning out to be real smart," Pepsi added.

The girls lapsed into silence, following the path's dips and turns and finally trudging up a long incline where the air became fresher and colder with each step until they found themselves under the stars. Macy was waiting for them, the sacks of gifts at her feet.

They went to the corral, caught their horses, and set out by the light of the moon. They tried to keep talking to a minimum, but couldn’t resist the occasional comment about how still and beautiful the night was, how surprised Sputnik was going to be, and how laughably simple it had been to escape undetected.

"I had no idea it was this easy," Pepsi said. "We'll have to do this more often."

"I don't know," Sachi said. "Seems like a bad habit to get into."

"The boys do it, and it's not like we have any other bad habits."

"That's true. Who has time?"

They arrived in town as the bell in the church tower tolled nine o'clock.

"It's still early," Macy said.

"We'll be back before anyone even misses us.”

Diana led them through the narrow streets. As they approached the house, she waved a hand for silence. They tethered their horses to some trees at the edge of the lot and walked to the back of the house. Diana went to Robert's window and tapped on the glass. "You don't think they gave him any pain meds tonight, do you?" Sachi whispered. "If they're giving him opium, he might not wake up very easy." Diana hadn't thought of that. She tapped again, louder this time. A shadow moved behind the glass and Robert pulled back the curtain. Seeing the four girls looking up at him, he struggled with the lock and slid the window open. "What's this?"

"Happy birthday!" Diana said.

He gave her a confused smile. "It's not my birthday."

"So? You must've had one sometime."

"That goes without saying."

"We thought we'd have a birthday party for you."


"Why not? Let us in, okay?"

Robert stepped back from the window with a bemused look on his face while the girls hoisted themselves onto the windowsill and scrambled in. Diana shut the window and shivered. "Sorry we let in so much cold."

"That's quite all right. So who is who?” He looked at the little group. “I remember you, Macy. I took some reports from you in Jonasville when you were much younger." He started to shake her hand but ended up hugging her instead.

Macy blushed. "I don't want to ever see that place again."

"And you must be Sachi."

"We need to recruit more Japanese if I'm ever going to be able to go incognito."

"And you...?"


Robert shook her hand and refrained from asking how she got her code name. "Now that I know everyone," he said, sitting on the edge of the bed. "I hope you'll forgive me..."

The girls dropped their packages, shed their jackets and fussed over him like a flock of mother hens. After they had gotten him under the covers and everything was smoothed and tucked to their satisfaction, they stepped back and admired their work in a little huddle of feminine approval.

"Now it's time for food and presents," Diana told him.

"I get presents?"

"It's not a birthday party without presents."

"I told you it's not my birthday."

"But it will be eventually."

"If I live that long."

"You're getting better. I'm sure you'll live to be a hundred."

“Another San Eusebio, and I’ll be lucky to reach thirty.”

"How old are you?" Pepsi asked, fumbling with a bag.


Macy set the box of chocolate in his lap. "Really? Even in Jonasville, I didn't meet many men your age. Not ones with all their limbs, at any rate. You're lucky you weren’t drafted for the resource wars."

"Yes. I escaped that fate so I could die in our internal squabbles instead. But if I'm going to risk my life, I'd rather do it for my own people than for some out-of-control war machine thousands of miles away." While the girls nodded in agreement, he opened the foil-covered box. He stared for a long moment before speaking. "This is a very expensive gift. The only way I can accept it is if you take the first piece."

Macy started to shake her head, but Diana nudged her to go ahead.

With a pleased smile, she selected one from the box. Nothing else would do but that the other girls should each have one before Robert took one for himself. While they were all enjoying their candy, Diana laid her gift in his lap. She had wrapped it in a scrap of colorful cloth and tied it with a hair ribbon. "I'm afraid it's not nearly as impressive as Macy's present.”

"But it looks homemade. That makes it special." He removed the scarf from its wrapping and examined it.

There were no fancy stitches— Diana's domestic skills were limited. But it was neatly made, and the gray cashmere was soft and warm. "This is exactly what I needed," he told her. "That little brazier in the corner doesn't do much at all. In fact, I think I'd like to wear it now, if you'd help me."

There was something in his eyes that made Diana think he wanted to say more. He touched her hand, and it didn't feel like the other times he had touched her. This was a warm liquid glow she felt in the pit of her stomach and all the way to the soles of her feet. She couldn't breathe, but suddenly didn't care if she never breathed again. She adjusted the scarf around his neck. "I'm glad you like it," she said, hating herself for saying something so trite. To cover for her embarrassment, she pushed Pepsi forward with her gift.

Pepsi had tied a bow to the handle of the cane, which was the most she could do by way of packaging, but Tiffany had painted it nicely, with black and orange Indian patterns at the base of the handle and near the tip. "We heard your leg was still healing," she said, clumsily laying the object in his lap. "We figured you should have something nice for getting around with."

Robert had been watching Diana curiously, but now he picked up the cane and examined it. "This is much more attractive than the crutch I've been using. I may have to put off getting well, so I can get the most mileage out of it. You'll let me try it out later though, right?"

"Of course. We only just got you back to bed."

"Besides," said Sachi, "the food is ready." She had reheated the empanadas on the brazier and piled them on a decorative plate she found on a bookshelf. "Sorry I couldn't make you a cake, but cakes are hard to make in a solar box cooker."

Robert picked up an empanada and took a bite. "You're damaging Diana's credibility with these. She told me you never had anything good to eat in camp."

Diana turned away, blushing, while Sachi explained that her empanadas were hardly an example of typical camp fare. Meanwhile Pepsi rummaged in a bag and produced a bottle of whiskey. "We can't eat without something to drink."

"Where'd you get that?" Diana asked.

"Aguilero showed me where the guys keep their stash. You don't really think they obey all the camp rules, do you?"

"Are there glasses for all of us?" Sachi looked around.

Macy did a quick survey of the room, which in addition to the glass of water by Robert's bed, produced a dirty coffee cup, a decorative bisque teacup, a small bowl, and a canning jar with a bit of dried jelly stuck to the bottom. There was a jug of water beside the nightstand, so the girls cleaned everything out, and soon everyone had a drink. But when Pepsi went to add some whiskey to Robert's glass, he stopped her. "None for me, thank you. It's bad for the liver."

Pepsi frowned. "Are you sure of that?"

"Sounds like an old wives' tale to me," said Sachi.

Macy nodded. "Too much of that stuff, and your liver swells up. I've seen it. But that takes years." She looked at Robert. "You sure you don't want just a little?"

After some wheedling, he allowed them to pour a bit into his water glass, and then the girls clamored around him to enjoy their feast. Diana and Macy sat on the bed while the other girls pulled up chairs. They finished off the empanadas and had a few more chocolates. The girls topped off their drinks, whispering and teasing each other.

After her second drink, Pepsi stood up and suggested they sing a song. Macy jerked her back into her chair, giggling and hushing her. Sachi found a deck of cards and tried to deal out hands for poker, but the cards kept slipping from her fingers. Diana amused herself by plucking feathers from Sachi's braids and arranging them in Robert's hair with all the earnestness of an artiste.

Half an hour later, Pepsi was singing "Happy Birthday," with Macy harmonizing, and Diana was adjusting the feathers, staring into Robert's eyes and wondering if she dared kiss him. Suddenly the bedroom door flew open. Señora Varamendi stood in the doorway, sizing up the scene as Diana scrambled to her feet, Sachi’s cards scattered across the floor, and Pepsi and Macy fell silent.

"¿Qué es esto?"

"I'm sorry, Señora," Robert said, pulling the feathers from his hair. "This is all my fault."

"No it's not," Diana said. "It's our fault. We wanted to give him a surprise party." She tried to collect her thoughts as the room swayed. Auntie was going to be furious. "We're going to clean up now and go back to camp."

"Pos, see that you do."

"Sí, señora. Lo sentimos." Diana looked at the other girls and they nodded agreement, murmuring their own apologies.

When Señora Varamendi had gone, Diana laughed and threw herself on the bed. "Auntie is going to have my head! But that'll teach her. We wanted to do this the normal way, in the daytime and with la señora's permission, but Auntie said..." She raised herself on her elbows and looked into Robert's feverish eyes. "She said it would be too much for you." She sat up, serious this time. "We’re making you tired, aren't we? We better clean up and go back. We weren’t planning on staying long, anyway. They'll miss us."

While Sachi fumbled to pick up the cards and collect her feathers, the other girls cleaned the dishes, packed their bags, and tidied the room. All of this had to be done carefully, because the whiskey was making a mockery of the sizes and distances of things. Finally they were satisfied they had everything back in order.

"Is there anything you need before we leave?" Diana asked. "Can I help you with your medicine?"

Robert shook his head. "This has been the best medicine. If this is the kind of attention I'll get in camp, I can't wait to get well."

The girls giggled at the compliment and each gave him a tipsy kiss, whispering good wishes for his quick recovery. Diana approached the bed last. She was startled all over again by the sensation that coursed through her at his touch. She brushed her lips against his, hardly daring to breathe, then she lowered her eyes and looked toward the window where Sachi was watching. "Go on," Diana said. "I'll hand the bags out to you." After Sachi had scooted out the window and Diana passed her their few remaining items, she turned away. "I forgot something," she lied. "Get the horses and I'll catch up."

Without waiting to see if Sachi had gone, Diana returned to the bed.

"What is it?"

She ducked her head, wondering if he knew. But of course he knew. How could he not have felt what she felt? She leaned over and kissed him, really kissed him this time, stretching out beside him and twining her fingers in his hair, hardly aware of what she was doing, but achingly conscious of his arms pulling her close and his lips devouring her. Time melted and disappeared, and it took Robert, nearly choking on the words, to remind her, "You need to go. The others are waiting for you."

Diana took a trembling breath and sat up, looking around the room as if it might have changed. "Can I come back tomorrow?"

"I'll be mad at you if you don't."

"What about la Señora?"

"Fixing problems is my job, remember?"

Diana got to her feet and leaned over for another kiss.

"No. If we start that again, I won't let you go home tonight."

Diana walked toward the window, a smile playing about her lips. "I'll see you tomorrow, then."

"Thanks for the party."

Diana jumped out the window, closed it behind her and went in search of the others. She found them a short distance away, waiting near some trees. "Why didn't you get the horses?"

"We were waiting for you," Sachi said, with an odd mixture of curiosity and anger.

But Macy was all knowing smiles as she said, "That was fun, wasn't it?"

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Alice Audrey said...

Everything was fine until they pulled out the whiskey. Does he die? I mean before Will comes home and finds he's been snaked.

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

No, Robert doesn't die. The whiskey is about to cause other problems, though.

I like this chapter, though. A fun little party, just before everything goes to hell.

Alice Audrey said...

That is your style.