Copyright© 2016 by AA Nemo
Saturday – Sunday May 2-3, 2015
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
And go to your Gawd like a soldier.
The Young British Soldier – Rudyard Kipling
Matt Kipling drove his two-year-old F-150 up Interstate 15 California, headed north out of San Diego, his destination over five hundred miles away - a place called Lodi. His mission was to meet a girl there named Rashmi and deliver a silk Pashmina, a gift to her from his friend, newly promoted Sergeant Tom Moore USMC, who couldn’t deliver it in person. Tom was not long out of the hospital but was deployed again.
Matt was in no hurry, so he’d selected the longer route which took him north to San Bernardino and continued through the Mojave desert and the Sierra Nevada to Bakersfield and then straight north on Highway 99 up California’s Central Valley to Lodi. Over two days, this route would take him well to the east of Los Angeles and its traffic and endless sprawl, plus it was more interesting with its options of two-lane roads through mountains and deserts. After what he hoped would be a brief stop in Lodi, he’d continue north to Red Bluff where he’d been invited to spend a few days with Tom’s parents on their ranch. After that? He just didn’t know.
He had no desire to return to west Texas where he grew up – there was no one there now except a few cousins. His parents had sold the ranch and moved to a place called Tyler east of Dallas to retire and be closer to his older sister Emily and the grandkids. That didn’t appeal either. Matt had plenty of money and time on his hands. That caused him to smile - that sounded like a recipe for trouble. He shook his head – no, he’d had enough trouble over the last ten years. It was time for some peace and quiet.
Today was his second day as a civilian in ten years – his choice. He was twenty-eight and no longer Chief Petty Officer Kipling, he was just Matt. Last night – Friday - he’d been hosted and roasted by his SEAL comrades in arms and their spouses and girlfriends and a few others he’d befriended over the years. He was glad for the dark aviators he wore against the bright morning sunshine – the party had been raucous and the alcohol free-flowing.
He took a long and much-needed drink from a liter bottle of water as he considered his future. He didn’t have either a spouse or girlfriend, but not for want of trying. As romantic as it sounded to some women to be dating a SEAL they quickly discovered they were always second to the other members of the team and the absences were long and usually without communication. He envied the guys who got married and stayed married. It took a special woman to share that kind of life, and there was no guarantee her husband would return unscathed, or at all.
His thoughts briefly turned to Jo Archer. He loved her and she loved him. Why hadn’t he been able to keep her? He wondered if he would spend the rest of his life thinking of her as the one who got away. He forced those thoughts away and tried without much success to concentrate on trying to come up with a plan for his future beyond the next few weeks. He just didn’t know what he was going to do.
As he drove north up the valley to the east of the coastal mountains the last verse of the Rudyard Kipling poem, ‘The Young British Soldier’ flashed through his mind. He was sure he’d remember it for the rest of his life. It had been displayed over the door of the mud-brick building his team had called home during their last deployment in Afghanistan. Actually he had returned to the US before the rest of the team, suffering from wounds and frostbite, but that was another story.
The bright red letters stenciled on a couple of pieces of wood from a box of eighty-one millimeter mortar ammunition seemed to mock all those who lived there. They also spelled out the grim truth. There were many ways to die in that desolate and violent place – Kalashnikovs, RPGs, roadside bombs all wielded or manufactured by turban-wearing tribesmen who would seem right at home in the Twelfth Century. Their dark-clad women, no more than chattel, hated the ‘Crusaders’ as much as their men. No one doubted the truth of Kipling’s words and no one wanted to be left behind, dead or alive.
Matt doubted he was related to the British poet and author, although sometimes he took some good-natured ribbing about continuing the Kipling family tradition of spending time in South Asia. Matt had certainly spent enough time in the godforsaken mountains and valleys of the place to know that the poet’s words still rang true even one hundred twenty years after they were written. Afghanistan was a wild, disease-ridden, lawless and corrupt place which had defeated the British Army in the early Nineteenth Century, the Russians in the twentieth, and now it appeared that the Americans would be next, leaving the place much as they found it in 2001. He’d had enough.
Matt had been sent in harm’s way in Afghanistan and in Iraq several times, and on occasion to other remote backwaters – anywhere a SEAL Team could operate. On his last operational deployment he had been teamed with Corporal Tom Moore, who he had never met before, but who would become his friend.
On that day in early December a mixed force of Recon Marines and SEALs had ridden in a couple of Army Blackhawk helicopters, escorted by two Apache gunships out to a remote mountaintop Afghan army base. There, he and Tom and others would spend a couple of weeks shoring up local defenses and training some of the troops. It was just coming onto dusk and things went to shit as soon as their Blackhawk set down on the makeshift landing zone which in other times was probably a small soccer field. They should have been suspicious when there were only armed uniformed men at the edge of the field to greet them. Typically when helicopters visited, children flocked to them hoping for some candy or gum from the soldiers. There were no children in sight.
As soon as the wheels touched down on the hard-packed earth, Matt and Tom got out, keeping low and out of the way of the rapidly turning blades, fighting their way through the rotor blown dust. Suddenly, a badly-aimed RPG sailed over the top of the Blackhawk, missing the rotors by several feet. Two more of their team dropped out from the other side of the helicopter as the quick-thinking pilot stepped on the gas and lifted off, but not before a second RPG went through the open door on one side and out the other without touching anything inside. A machine gun soon joined in, its tracers eventually finding the aircraft. The helicopter quickly disappeared over the side of the mountain streaming a thin trail of smoke. It all happened so fast that the door gunners never got off a shot, nor had any other members of their team, which included their radioman, managed to get out of the rapidly departing bird.
The second helicopter, which was orbiting while waiting to land, was taken under fire by some concealed heavy machine guns but quickly flew out of range. So within a minute of setting their boots on the landing pad Matt and Tom and two others, Gunny Smith and a Lance Corporal, Matt didn’t know, were on their stomachs in the dirt without any cover. They didn’t hesitate to open fire with their M4 Carbines but their position in the open was untenable from the beginning. They were taking fire from the group near the LZ as well as from several mud brick buildings nearby.
Fortunately their attackers were poorly trained and overconfident, but when you are confronted by more than a hundred insurgents all firing hundreds of rounds even if inexpertly aimed (in what our forces called spray and pray tactic) someone was going to be hit. The Lance Corporal was killed almost immediately and Gunny Smith wounded a few seconds later. The only reason any of them survived the initial assault was the arrival of the two Apache gunships which fearlessly rolled in and began thoroughly working over the place with their thirty millimeter cannons and barrages of seventy millimeter rockets. The group that made up their hostile reception party was savaged before they could scurry for cover.
During the mayhem that resulted from the Apache attack, Matt and Tom jumped up, and at a crouch dragged Gunny Smith to the nearest mud-brick house which, sat precariously on the side of the mountain near the LZ. Fortunately it was abandoned, half of its roof missing.
As explosions rocked the area, Tom glanced out the small glassless window in the front, removed his rucksack and then moved to the door.
“Where in hell do you think you’re going Corporal?” shouted Matt.
“I’ve got to get the Lance Corporal. We don’t leave our people behind!”
“The Lance Corporal is dead and you’re going to be next, so don’t even think about it!” He yelled at Tom over the sounds of gunfire and explosions from outside.
Matt remembered looking at Moore and seeing anger and finally resignation. He knew that retrieving the body was futile.
“Corporal, I need you to tend to the Gunny while I see if there’s another way out of here while those Apache pilots keep these assholes busy.” Matt moved to a doorway that seemed to lead to the back of the house. There he found what he was looking for – a porch of sorts with a set of wood steps that led to a staircase carved into the side of the mountain. So far it appeared no one had figured out where they had gone, and there was no one keeping watch out back. He knew it was going to be tough carrying the Gunny down those rough-hewn steps in the rapidly fading light, but there wasn’t much choice.
As he came back into the main room he saw Tom kneeling next to Gunny Smith. He had removed the Gunny’s helmet and his blood-soaked body armor and was in the process of removing his dog tags. Tom looked up and shook his head. Matt remembered that he felt guilty for being relieved they didn’t have to carry Smith down what looked like hundreds of steps. The two of them stood a much better chance of getting away now. Tom completed a search of the Gunny’s pockets to make sure nothing was left behind and then stood up holding the dog tags and the Gunny’s Glock .45 ACP pistol. That was the first time Matt noticed blood soaking the left sleeve of Tom’s combat utility uniform.
“Tom apparently didn’t understand and nodded to the where the Gunny lay on the floor which was covered with small dirt-covered tiles. “He was a good man.”
Tom looked at his arm, seeming to notice it for the first time, and then he looked at Matt, “Scratch.”
Matt quickly assessed the Marine’s condition. He wasn’t pale from loss of blood or going into shock. He then stepped closer and removed the battle dressing from Tom’s first aid kit and quickly and expertly wrapped it around his upper arm, not bothering to cut the sleeve away – no time. Tom didn’t say a thing, but he kept his eyes on the door.
As he wrapped the wound Matt explained what he’d discovered outside. “It’s starting to get dark and we need to get a ways down those steps – hate to do it in the dark...”
At that point there was a huge explosion outside which shook the ground.
“Ammo dump?” asked Tom
“Yeah, and our exit call. Let’s go!”
Matt grabbed Gunny Smith’s rucksack and slung it over one shoulder. He was sure they would need the extra water and rations while they tried to make their escape through the wintry mountains. He had moved to the doorway to the back of the house when he noticed Tom wasn’t following. He turned and saw that Tom had removed two fragmentation grenades from the Gunny’s grenade pouches and Matt watched as he pulled the retaining pin on one and carefully placed it under Gunny Smith’s body. He did the same with the other grenade. The weight of the body would prevent the ‘spoon’ from flying off until the body was moved - a very unpleasant surprise.
Tom saw Matt watching. “The Gunny had a sense of humor.” With that he got up and slung the Gunny’s M4 across his shoulders, stuffed the dead Marine’s extra magazines into his cargo pockets and followed Matt through the doorway and then to the steps outside.
They were exposed, but so far unobserved as in the settling darkness as they made their way down the steps carved into the mountainside. As they descended they looked up and saw the top of the mountain swathed in dust and smoke. The Apaches had ceased their attacks, probably because they were out of rockets and ammunition. Regardless, they had done their job. Now it was up to Matt and Tom to escape.
They worked their way down the steep rock-cut steps as fast as they could without falling headlong. The wind picked up and it got cold in a hurry as the light faded. But there was no time to get warmer clothes from their packs. They needed to put as much distance between themselves and any possible pursuit. After more than an hour they reached the valley floor. It was dark by then and the night sky was clear with an amazing celestial display. They paused to put on their parkas and drink some water. Matt activated his locater beacon. Unfortunately a blizzard delayed their recue for several days, during that time they fought the Taliban and the weather.
Matt’s family had been ranchers in west Texas for generations as Tom’s family had been in northern California. During their Afghan odyssey they had shared their stories and developed a bond through adversity. In truth they saved each-other’s lives more than once. Tom was six years Matt’s junior, but over the week when it was uncertain they would survive he showed his mettle. Matt concluded the young recon Marine was almost good enough to be a SEAL.
It was only mid-morning but Matt’s stomach told him it was finally time for breakfast. He’d left his still-sleeping friend’s house in San Diego a couple of hours before without much appetite, grabbed a Starbucks and got on the Saturday morning’s quiet freeway. So one-hundred plus miles into his trip at the intersection of Interstates 215 and 10, Matt decided it was a time for a break. He stopped to top off the tank and then went across the road to the Denny’s Restaurant. It was a beautiful spring morning so breakfast seemed in order, and his still slightly hung-over body demanded more coffee.
Right after a bored waitress took his order he first saw the girl (woman?). She was a tall attractive Latina made taller by high heel pumps and very dark hair that had been teased high on top. She wore very tight jeans, a black sweater that had a tough time containing her breasts, and enough makeup to make it difficult to tell if she was fifteen or twenty-five. On her wrists she wore several gold bangles and she carried a large name-brand tote. The overall look didn’t really appeal but he stared anyway. She did have a gorgeous figure and he suspected that somewhere under that facade hid a very pretty girl. She came from the direction of the restrooms and took a seat in the red vinyl-covered booth next to his; joining a man he couldn’t see. He was a little surprised that her perfume wasn’t overpowering. It was subtle and exotic and probably expensive.
He was most of the way through his bacon and eggs and pancakes when he noticed their voices. Up until then they had been mostly silent or had talked quietly, but now they were at each other in a torrent of Spanish. Matt’s west Texas Spanish was okay but it was hard to keep up. He did catch words like ‘bitch, ‘ ‘whore’ and ‘liar.’
A lover’s spat? Maybe, but certainly not his concern. He left cash on the table for the meal and stopped in the restroom. When he came out he noticed the couple was gone. In the parking lot the two were standing by the open door on the passenger side of a fairly new black Escalade, and the argument appeared to be continuing. She had covered her shoulders with a denim jacket with some intricate embroidery on it. The man was a tall, thin Latino with slicked back black hair wearing an expensive gray suit and was probably twice the woman’s age. She stood facing him with hand on hips shaking her head, “Enrique, no voy!”
“Entrar en el coche!” He demanded she get in the car.
“Matt watched as Enrique grabbed the woman’s arm just above the elbow and tried to force her into the SUV. It was obvious from her expression he was hurting her. She turned and slapped his face hard. Enrique didn’t let go but only paused for a second showing little emotion before he caught her on the side of the face with a right hook. The woman was knocked back across the front passenger seat of the Escalade.
Without a thought Matt moved in and grabbed his arm as he drew back to punch her again as she struggled to get out of the Escalade. Even though he was surprised, Enrique reacted very quickly but Matt was ready. As he threw a punch Matt used the man’s his own momentum to twist his arm and push him to the ground with Matt’s knee landing in the middle of his back. That took the air out of him. As Matt got up he snatched the small stainless pistol from the holster the man had tucked under his belt at the back. The man groaned and rolled onto his side, losing his breakfast.
The woman, fire in her eyes and holding one hand to her face, began kicking the man with her pointed-toed shoes and screaming at him in Spanish. Matt had to suppress a smile but eventually he simply got behind the screaming woman and lifted her off her feet. Even then she struggled and continued to kick at the man. She finally calmed a bit and he put her back down across the parking lot near where he had parked his truck. He couldn’t help but notice how nice she smelled, and her firm behind against his front elicited the natural response from a healthy young male.
Disheveled, she turned and looked to see the person who’d dragged her away. It was pretty obvious from her expression that she was arguing with herself about what her reaction should be to being manhandled by him. He was relieved when she smiled and said, “Gracias.”
He smiled back and said, “El gusto es mio.”
She looked at him for a few seconds, her dark brown eyes sizing him up.
At that moment the Escalade went careening out of the parking lot and headed for the ramp to the west-bound interstate back toward Los Angeles.
“Bastardo!” she screamed as she shook her fist at the fast disappearing SUV.
Shaking her head, she walked across the parking lot and retrieved her bag and jacket from where she’d dropped them during the altercation. He heard her say, “Cobarde,” as she looked in the bag and retrieved her phone.
Matt walked over to where she was standing, now with her pink-covered phone held to her ear. She was cursing in rapid-fire Spanish into the phone and frowning. Up close he decided she was much younger than he first thought – maybe twenty.
She threw her phone into her bag and muttered, “Damn, damn, damn.” As she looked in the direction the Escalade had disappeared. Finally she turned and looked at him. “He took my maleta ... suitcase.”
Matt didn’t know what to say to that so he went with, “My name is Matt Kipling. I’m sorry about what happened. Is there anything I can do?”
“Not unless you can make my maleta and my guitar magically reappear.” She spoke in slightly Spanish-accented English.
“Sorry, but I could give you a ride.” He pointed to his truck.
“Where are you going?”
“Lodi, but don’t you have family, or someone, somewhere, I could drop you?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m alone.”
Matt looked at her for a few seconds. He sternly reminded himself that he had vowed to stay out of trouble and to seek peace and quiet. So much for that. “Okay. But I don’t plan to stay in Lodi very long.”
She was quiet. “I won’t be any trouble, and I suppose I can find a job there as well as anywhere.” She paused, and finally added, “I don’t know where Lodi is.”
He turned and pointed, “North about four-hundred miles.”
“But still in California?”
“Okay. But I need to go back into the restaurant...” Her voice trailed off.
“Sure, I’ll be in the truck.”
She looked uncertain. “You won’t leave?”
Matt shook his head. “No.”
Settling back in the seat, he spent the next few minutes checking his emails and searching for someplace nearby where she might be able to buy some clothes. He frowned, thinking about what kind of impression he might give if he showed up in Lodi with a woman made up and dressed like a hooker, especially one with a bruise on her face. Tom’s friend Rashmi would probably not be amused. That got him thinking and he reached around for the cooler behind the seat.
He heard footsteps approaching and looking up from his phone felt his jaw drop. Gone was the hooker wannabe, replaced by a beautiful young woman. The clothes were the same and she had the denim jacket draped over her shoulders, but the makeup and false eyelashes were gone and her glossy hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She looked like an all-American Latina. He almost laughed at the dichotomy, but in California all-American girls probably looked a great deal like the vision in front of him. Suddenly he was uncertain about his decision, she looked very young. Was she even of age? He suddenly realized he didn’t even know her name.
Matt quickly got out of his truck and came around and opened the door for her. He held her hand as he helped her into the cab. That got him a brilliant smile, even though it must have hurt to do it with the swelling along her left cheekbone from Enrique’s punch. He noticed she hadn’t washed off the perfume though – she still smelled delicious, and he chastised himself for admiring her nice backside and legs in the tight jeans as she got into the truck. Jailbait? He wondered. He really hoped not. Stay out of trouble, stay out of trouble he kept telling himself. Yeah right.
When they were safely buckled in he handed her a quart-sized Ziploc filled with ice. She looked briefly puzzled but then held it to the side of her face. “Gracias.”
He nodded and said, “You’re welcome. Now that we’re going to be traveling companions maybe we could go through introductions. Like I said a few minutes ago, my name is Matt Kipling.” He put out his hand. She hesitated, but then smiled again and with her free hand she shook his. He noticed her hand was slightly rough and very cold. “I’m Sofía Torres. Gracias por ayudarme.”
“You’re welcome, but I don’t know how much I helped you, with your suitcase gone.”
Still holding the ice bag to her face she shook her head. “You saved me from that evil man and ... and his amigos.” He could see her fighting back tears.
Matt started the truck as she fished in her bag for a tissue.
“I have an idea, why don’t we find you some clothes and then you can tell me your story – if you want.”
As he drove toward the freeway he told her, “There’s a big outlet mall about thirty minutes from here down I-10. Maybe we could find you a few things.” He noticed she’d slipped off the high-heel pumps and was rubbing one of her feet. “Maybe some more comfortable shoes to start?”
She smiled slightly and said, “Yes, that would be good.” She frowned, and then that frown turned to a look of embarrassment. “Oh ... I don’t have much money.”
It flitted through his mind that maybe he was being scammed, but he quickly dismissed the idea. Taking a punch to the face from a gun-toting thug would hardly seem like the best setup to try to scam some stranger. He inwardly sighed. He’d always been a sucker for a pretty damsel in distress.
“That’s okay. I’ve got some money and I’d be happy to get you some clothes.”
She looked at him with a frown. “That’s what Enrique said. We went shopping and he bought me these. She looked down at herself. And then he went with me to a salon where they did my hair and makeup.”
“Enrique being your friend from the restaurant?”
“He’s no friend. He wanted me to go to Phoenix to meet some men!”
“Okay, I understand. I don’t expect anything in return for the clothes, so how about I loan you the money. You can pay me back as soon as you get settled in Lodi.”
She looked at him with those dark eyes and then simply nodded.
They traveled in silence for a few minutes. Finally he asked, “Where’s your family?”
Sofia stared out the side window for a full minute. About the time he figured she wasn’t going to answer she replied with some bitterness, “My mother dumped me off with my older sister in Bell Gardens last summer and then took off with her latest boyfriend. I don’t think she liked the way he was looking at me – I didn’t either.
“It’s southeast LA between the Five Freeway and the Seven-Ten.”
“Oh.” Matt had no idea where that was, never having figured out the maze of freeways in and around LA except for Interstate Five.
“My sister wasn’t very happy, but then I became the live-in babysitter for her two brats and when I wasn’t doing that I was working with them on their food truck. I got to sleep in the garage on a mattress on the floor. She told me I was lucky they even took me in. They didn’t pay me either, and I couldn’t even go to school and I didn’t know anyone there.”
“I’m sorry.” It was hard to fathom such a thing. He’d grown up on a ranch and the work was hard and year-around but he had a loving supportive family. Well, they were supportive until he announced the week after his high school graduation that he had joined the Navy so his college plans would be on hold – his parents had not been pleased about that!
Sofia was silent for a couple of minutes and then she said, “I did get away every Sunday because I sang in the choir at St. Gertrude’s, and played guitar too.” She paused, “That’s how I met Enrique. He would always come up after Mass and tell me how well I sang and pretty soon he would bring me little things like a crucifix on a gold chain or a silk scarf. Then he started visiting me at the food truck. He bought me an iPod filled with álbumes de salsa and he said I should learn to sing like Celia Cruz and Cecilia Noel. I listened to their music when I worked, and at night in the garage I’d play my guitar and sing those songs. Sometimes when Enrique would come to the truck I’d go outside and play my guitar and sing salsa for him. He said he liked my singing, and I should be on the radio. My sister was a little afraid of him since he was a big man in the neighborhood, so she didn’t bother me when I was talking to him.” She paused and then asked, “Do you have some water?”
“Sure, behind the seat in the cooler.”
She reached around and deposited her ice bag in the cooler. She got two plastic bottles opened them both and put one of them in the center console for him.
“Thanks.” He took a long drink.
Sofia sipped her water and then held the bottle to her cheek. “Two weeks ago I had my eighteenth birthday and he took me out to dinner at the big casino there. It was a very nice place – I had steak and lobster. I’d never eaten in a fancy place like that – all those plates and silver and cloth napkins. I’d never eaten lobster before, or even had a steak like that. He even bought me a dress and nice heels. Everyone said I was lucky to be with him. After dinner he told me about how he knew these men in Phoenix who were always looking for new singing talent and he told me salsa music was very popular there. He asked if I was interested in meeting them. I said yes and he even took out a contract which showed how much money I could make. I couldn’t believe it. She shook her head – her glossy ponytail swinging. I shouldn’t have believed it.”
She took another sip of water. “This morning I told my sister I was leaving. We had a terrible fight. She told me Enrique was nothing but a chulo ... a pimp, and a gangster and he would make me into one of his putas. I didn’t believe her and I told her I’d rather be a puta for Enrique than have her husband ever put his hands on me again. She called me a liar and all kinds of names and tried to hit me but I just pushed her away. She told me I was desagradecida and to never come back. I told her I never wanted to see her and her brats again and I was no longer going to be their esclava. When Enrique came for me I was waiting outside her house. I could hear my sister inside cursing me and her husband.”
“I’m sorry it came to that.”
Sofia considered his comment for a few seconds. “I am too. She tried to warn me and she was right, but I couldn’t stay. Her husband was getting more and more ... exigente?”
“But I remembered what my sister said about Enrique and when we were in the restaurante, he told me about his big shot amigos in Phoenix and we’d meet them at a resort and I needed to impress them and be nice to them and that’s why he bought me the clothes and had my hair styled. If they liked me they’d buy me things and get me audiciones, and take me places on their jets and boats, but it was very important that I do what they said.”
She looked out the window at the desert landscape before continuing. “I knew then that my sister was right. He was going to make me a puta and give me to his amigos. He was smart. He knew I had nowhere to go and little money so he didn’t think I’d resist...” Her voice trailed off and she wiped her eyes with a tissue. She took another sip of water.
At that point he saw the signs for the outlet mall and took the exit. Once he saw the sprawling complex of stores, he was stunned. The website said one hundred eighty stores, but it was hard to take in the size of the place. It was Saturday and the parking lot was busy.
Sofia looked around in amazement.
“Where to first?”
“Shoes,” she said firmly.
He had good parking karma for a change, and a space opened right in front of the Nike store.
Retail therapy and comfortable shoes seemed just the thing for Sofia’s spirits. She’d never been in a place like this but quickly learned the ropes and over the next two hours he made three trips back to the truck with her purchases. He did note that she was not free with his money but sought out bargains like a pro. He really didn’t care since he enjoyed seeing her smile and she was delighted when he approved of her purchases.
Right after shoes they went to a lingerie store. She was embarrassed so he trusted her with his credit card and several minutes later she came out smiling carrying a couple of bags. Not long after that he noticed her breasts no longer strained the sweater. She eventually caught him staring and laughed – she had a nice laugh, and then she blushed and giggled. “Enrique made me wear a ... a push up brasero, it was very incomodo ... uncomfortable.” Matt thought she looked better, more proportioned and he told her that. She gave him a sweet smile.
Somehow as they shopped she started putting her arm through his. Matt liked it. She said she was eighteen, and even though he was too old for her it was nice to wander the crowded outlet mall and see the looks she got from men and women. She seemed unaware and her smile was genuine. Eventually, instead of holding onto his arm she took his hand. It just seemed natural, and anyone observing them would have thought the tall man with short blond hair and the beautiful Latina were long-time lovers who were extremely happy walking hand in hand in the bright afternoon sunshine.
As they strolled he gave her an abbreviated history of his military service. He tried to make it lighthearted and she listened, but her reaction was a serious one. Finally she asked, “A SEAL, like the movie ‘American Sniper?’”
“Is that what you did?”
“I wasn’t a sniper, but I was in Iraq and other places...”
He could see she wanted to ask more questions, but she was perceptive enough to know that subject was closed. Sensing his discomfort, she pulled him into a menswear store and helped pick out some new polo shirts and jeans to replace the ones he was wearing. “Hey, these are comfortable,” he argued. She gave him one of those raised-eyebrow looks that he had seen repeatedly from his mother and sister, so he surrendered. She also had him get some new boots. The desert combat ones he was wearing had seen a lot of miles and she pointed out they were not stylish.
Insisting he wear his new purchases, Sofía used some of her limited funds to treat them to a gelato and she laughed when he told her some funny stories about growing up on a cattle ranch. She admitted she’d never seen a live cow.
While they were seated Sofía retrieved the receipts for all her new purchases from her purse. She put them in a neat stack and reviewed each one. There were several, but at the end she simply took out a pen and wrote the total amount on the last one. She had not written a thing on any of them or used a calculator. She pushed the pile of receipts toward him along with her phone. He noticed the screen was cracked, probably from being dropped in the parking lot. “I think the number is correct, but you should check.”
Matt shook his head. “How do you do that?”
“I don’t know. I just know the numbers stay in my head like on a screen on a calculadora,” she pointed to her cellphone, “and then I just add them up in my head.”
For a few seconds his approval made her smile which seemed to light up the room, then she frowned. “When my sister found out she made me take care of their books.” She paused looking at him guiltily. “I could have cheated them but then the books would have been wrong ... so I took a little money each day from the tip jar.”
Matt touched her hand. “Sofía, even un esclava deserves some pay.”
Her smile returned.
When they finished their gelato they decided to have a look at Palm Springs. Neither of them had been there, so they drove the twenty miles into the town and found a bistro that served late lunch. During lunch she asked him, “Do you have family?”
He smiled and answered, “I was the youngest of three – a girl and two boys. My older sister is a nurse in Tyler Texas, that’s east of Dallas. She’s in an Army National Guard medical unit and not long ago she served a tour in Afghanistan in an evacuation hospital.”
“Did you see her?”
“No, never did, but I talked to her a couple of times on a satellite phone. My older brother is an engineer and he works for an oil company out of Odessa Texas.”
“What about your parents? Do they still live on the ranch?”
“No, they sold the ranch and retired to Tyler. They live near my sister and her husband and their twin girls.”
Looking wistful, Sofía thought about that. “It must be very nice for the girls to be so close to their abuelos. I never knew mine. My mother got pregnant with my older sister when she was sixteen and ran away with her boyfriend ... my father. He didn’t stick around very long after I was born.”
There wasn’t much he could say to that. Her story did help him understand why she’d take a chance with a stranger.
After lunch they walked the small town center, again hand in hand. Once back in the truck, they took a little time to drive around and rubbernecked like the tourists they were, as they drove down streets named after Hollywood stars of years gone by.
Eventually, they decided to continue their journey. Matt enjoyed watching Sofía who had never seen deserts and mountains close up before. His navigation system took them out of Palm Springs, through the Morongo Valley and to the Joshua Tree National Park. Matt had seen enough deserts for a lifetime, but they took on a new perspective when seen though Sofia’s eyes. They skirted the Marine Corps Training Base at Twenty-nine Palms and then drove across the Lucerne Dry Lake. Eventually they reached Barstow where they intersected highway 58, which took them through the Mojave Desert and then up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They would have made better time, but Sofía insisted they stop at just about every lookout and scenic marker. Matt really didn’t mind. Her enthusiasm was infectious and she would hug him in delight as they marveled at the sights and then she would insist on a photo.
It was getting dark by the time they had covered the two hundred miles to Bakersfield. Matt had called ahead and reserved a room at the Holiday Inn Express there.
Sofía discovered Matt’s pillow in the back seat, and by the time he pulled up in front of the hotel she’d been asleep for about thirty minutes with her jacket wrapped around her. She looked so peaceful that he decided not to disturb her while he checked in. When he returned to the truck he got in and moved the truck to the parking lot. She was still asleep so he took her hand and said, quietly, “Sofía, Sofía, wake up.”
She came awake slowly and when she realized where she was and he was holding her hand she smiled. “I guess I was tired.”
“Yes, I think you’ve had quite a day. We’re at the hotel in Bakersfield.”
Suddenly she looked alarmed and pulled her hand away. “Oh, the hotel...”
“It’s okay Sofía. The room has two beds and if you’re uncomfortable with that arrangement I’ll get you your own room.”
She looked at him for a few seconds, deciding. “No Matt, one room will be fine.”
He grabbed his small canvas duffle and her new roller bag which held many of her purchases and led her to the room. She seemed relieved when she saw there were two beds. They discussed dinner but after their late lunch in Palm Springs neither was especially hungry, so they settled on some crackers and fruit and cheese from his cooler.
When Sofía went into the bathroom to get ready for bed Matt heard the shower running, so he took the opportunity to look in her purse for her wallet. He pulled out a leather clutch and took out the driver’s license. He was relieved to see her name really was Sofía Torres and she was eighteen as of last month. To be safe he took out his phone and took a photo of the license. He also looked at her cash reserves. She had ninety-eight dollars and change – hardly enough to get her set up in Lodi. He felt guilty he’d let her buy the gelato at the outlet mall.