Story continued from here.
“—and what about your own?”
I realize Mr. Baecker’s been speaking to me. He’s guiding us through the station, away from the platform. I guess I won’t be leaping back onto the train.
“Excuse me. I’m sorry,” I stammer. “I must be more tired than I thought.”
“Understandable,” he says. “I was asking about your family.”
“Dead.” It’s best to say it bluntly. That way, the hurt that shoots through me comes fast, hard and short instead of slow and seeping. “They died of typhoid last year.”
It was three months with no word, no response to my packages and no acknowledgement of the cash, before I finally got word from a neighbor. By that time… by after the first month, really… I suppose I already knew the truth in the bottom of my stomach. Knew it like you know when you’re eaten a piece of bad meat, even before it sends you running for the privy.
I’m about to ask Mr. Baecker about his own family when we step out of the station and toward town. It’s my first real view of Frank and it’s like nothing I expected. I should have learned better on the train ride. I should have looked out the window at those tiny mining towns we passed yesterday — toeholds on mountainsides — and known I was going to one just like them. It was the name that mislead me, I suppose. A civilized man’s name. That, and a soap bubble of romantic hope in the back of my mind that glistened with a wildflower meadow, a creek, green fields like those I remembered from when I was small.
Now, with my first look, that bubble bursts. I can almost hear it pop. Frank is brown, and pocked, and divided into rows of greying miners’ huts in perfectly symmetrical lines between mud-streaked streets. Each hut is propped by an identical set of wood plank stairs and topped with the same brown chimney. There are only a few larger buildings off to one side. I suppose one of those must be the boarding house.
Mr. Baecker is watching me again, reading my face.