“Bill, do you seriously expect me to believe that bullets just go whizzing around Portland all the time, and it had nothing to do with us?”
Bill set his gaze on me, saying nothing.
“Did a war start in Oregon when I wasn’t looking? Is the National Guard out gunning down insurgents? What?” Behind Bill’s head I saw the landscape rushing by, full daylight now. Green brush and brown fields washed in weak yellow sunshine.
He looked down at his hands.
I sighed. “Look, what are we going to do when we get to California?”
“Get off the train, I expect.” Bill looked up again, his eyes suddenly watery.
I spent an hour sitting rigidly in my seat, arms crossed in disapproval. Anyway, wasn’t there someplace I was supposed to be? An appointment niggled at my mind but stayed just out of reach.
“Bill,” I finally said. “Tell me a story from your life.”
He thought for a bit. “My daddy was a dog breeder. Hunting dogs. Big animals.”
“What was that like?”
“It was my job to feed the critters and clean the pens after school when I was eight or nine. Took hours. I hated it. Then one day a bitch got loose while I had her pen open. Daddy said ‘Go get her, boy.’”
“When you were eight??”
“Yeah. So I went after the dog but she turned on me. So I ran. Never try to outrun a dog. Jesus.”
“Did she hurt you bad?”
“Got some good chomps in before Daddy got hold of her collar and dragged her off. I have an impressive scar on my behind that I can’t show you. Not here, anyway.” The light glinted off of Bill’s blue eyes, or maybe I made that part up, thinking back.
“I have hated dogs ever since,” he declared.
Finally, eventually, the train halted, with no announcement or forewarning. Bill and I descended the steps and found a single sign without so much as a shelter.
The sign read Crossroads, California.
I shaded my eyes with my hand and scanned the buildings nearby. There was a candy shop, a newspaper stand, a convenience store with a painted Indian in the window, and a bar called The Kitchen.
Turning back, I gasped out loud. Trains are not small things. Trains are not quiet things. But in the scant few seconds I’d spent looking around, our train had soundlessly and thoroughly departed.
“Where the hell are we?” I put my hands on my hips.
Bill shrugged, setting his white hat on his head. “Crossroads.”
We picked up a newspaper at the stand. Bill skipped past the first two sections to the classified ads.
“What are you doing?”
“Finding us a place to stay,” he said, flipping pages.
“Can’t we just check into a hotel?”
Bill gestured up the dirt road to the ramshackle houses in the distance. “This look like a tourist town to you?”
It did not. I brushed the dust out of my hair as we read the classifieds, finally settling on an ad for a rooming house offering clean linens and a lemonade porch. We set off towards the residential part of town at a slow walk, wrapping our minds around a near future in California with no ocean in sight.