The night comes, and when the sun rises again it rises over a motionless desert, over streets full of rusty, broken-down automobiles, over tumbleweed towns filled with derelict buildings, signposts twisted and bent so that their arrows become nonsensical, pointing into the dirt or up into the sky, billboards whose sunny images and colorful words flap unglued in the breeze, shop windows caked with the grime of decades, bicycles with flat tires abandoned in the middle of intersections, their wheels turning slowly like impotent tin windmills, some buildings charred and burnt out, others half fallen down, multistory tenements split down the middle, standing like shoebox dioramas, pictures still hanging on the upright walls, televisions still in place on their stands teetering over the gaping edge of the floor where the rest of the living room has collapsed to the ground in great mountains of concrete and dust and girder like the abandoned toys of a giant child.
Indeed, to look at the landscape you might think not that the world has undergone a devastation but rather that it has been put on hold in the middle of a construction, that, in fact, the Builder’s holy hand has been halted temporarily, that the skeletal structures speak of promise and hope and ingenuity rather than of wreck and ruin.
But there are other places too, what used to be travelers’ oases, clusters of gas stations, fast-food restaurants, motels. The windows are intact, the electricity still flowing, the sliding glass doors still operational, the recorded music still playing on tinny, distorted speakers. Ghost towns. Lost to the world entirely, these places are so dead that even the dead don’t inhabit there.
These towns Wilson and his men treat with quiet respect, as though tiptoeing through a graveyard. There is something ominous and lonesome in this kind of wholesale abandonment. Ghostly, the way the rot and decay have not found their way here through the wide desert. Being left behind by devastation is still being left behind.
They reach Longview, Texas, when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. The burn is dry and purgative, and it feels like her skin is being sanded smooth by the weather.
The center of town is barricaded, and there are men stationed with guns, but when they see the train they wave, and someone moves the city bus they use to block the tracks. When the train is within the barricade, the bus closes off the tracks once more.
Three by three, Wilson says. Nine city blocks they got secured here. Biggest stronghold east of Dallas. This is your stop if you’re still plannin on heading south.
There are children playing in the street, and when they see the train, they drop their bicycles to the ground and run toward it, their mothers admonishing them not to get too close. But it’s not just children. People of all ages and sorts emerge from the doorways and storefronts to gather around the train as it grinds to a slow halt.
Wilson’s men know the women here, and they find one another in the crowd and move off together in pairs, some of the women slung cackling over the shoulders of the men, their behinds stuck in the air and slapped like you would slap a sack of grain.
Other townspeople help the refugees down from the boxcars, and Wilson himself consults with a man and a woman, the elders of the town, to decide which of the refugees should stay and which should be taken on to Dallas.
Once the train is emptied of its passengers, the children begin playing Cowboys and Indians, using it as a massive prop.
I’m huntin a nice cool drink, Lee tells her. You want one?
I reckon Maury and me’ll just look around a bit.
Suit yourself. But try not to beat up on anyone while we’re here, what do you say?
She stands in the middle of the street for a while, not sure what to do with herself. Her place, it’s been proven over and over, is out there with the meatskins and the brutishness, not here within the confines of a pretty little peppertown. She tried that before, and it didn’t work out. What she really wants is to feel that gurkha knife solid in her hand—her palm is sweating for it—but she keeps it sheathed so as not to frighten the children.
She tries folding her arms over her chest and then she tries clasping her wrists behind her back, and then she tries stuffing her hands in her pockets, but nothing seems quite right, and she wishes it were just her and Maury outside where she would know there was something to be done, like building a fire or hiding from pursuers or slaughtering a meatskin.
After a while a boy approaches her. He is a little taller than she is, and he’s wearing a plaid shirt tucked into his jeans and a belt of braided leather strips with a big silver buckle that has a horse on it.
My name’s Dirk.
Are you going to tell me your name?
Sarah M—Temple, I guess.
You guess? You don’t know?
It doesn’t come naturally to her, but she’s trying out the truth since this seems like such a trusting kind of place.
It’s Temple, she says.
Where are you from? he says.
Lots of places.
I mean, where did you grow up?
I know where that is. I’ve seen it on a map in school, I mean. I was born here, and I haven’t been anywhere else except for Dallas once on the train. It isn’t safe other places.
Safe ain’t something I’m used to.
Temple, you shouldn’t say ain’t.
It’s poor grammar, he says as though he’s quoting something. It speaks to a lack of sophistication.
Poor grammar’s the only kind of grammar I got.
How old are you?
I don’t know. What day is it?
Dirk looks at his digital watch, which also shows the date.
It’s August fourth.
Reckon I’m sixteen now. My birthday was last week.
She tries to remember what she must have been doing on the day itself, but being on the road swallows up the lines between days.
Sixteen! he says happily. I’m sixteen too. Do you want to go with me on a date?
We can go to the diner and get a Coke.
They always serve it with ice.
Okay, let’s go on a date.
They walk to the diner, and Dirk insists upon holding her hand. He is disappointed when Maury begins to follow silently behind them, but she refuses to leave him. The diner is a real diner, with a counter and stools and booths and everything, the kind she’s seen only in a state of dusty decay on empty roadsides. Dirk wants to sit in a booth, but Temple doesn’t want to pass up the opportunity to sit at the counter—so the three of them take stools next to one another and Dirk orders three Cokes and, having decided to play a more chivalrous role, unwraps Maury’s straw for him.