* * *
Ten hours later, the foreman gave each of the workers a nod as they passed by. In his hands he held a thick stack of thin envelopes, and he handed one of these to each man as they passed.
Danni knew better than to rip the envelope open right away. The foreman might be a cheap skinflint, but he knew better than to rip off his workers. He told them all how little they were going to make, and then paid them precisely that. If he tried anything else, he’d soon be without a crew.
“Hey, Flame-head,” called out a voice next to her.
Danni glanced over at James, the skinny, scrawny youth jogging to catch up with her. The young man looked half-starved, like always, but he still put on a grin as he loped up beside her – and Danni’s smile in return was genuine.
“Hey, Skinny-bones,” she replied, the nicknames affectionate rather than insulting. “How was your long day of grueling labor?”
“Oh, same as always,” the kid replied with a shrug. His back was still a bit hunched; that tended to happen after spending the whole day picking up the nails that the other workmen dropped. He, unlike Danni, had already ripped open his pay envelope. Danni could see the end of it sticking out of a pocket on his oversized, baggy canvas trousers.
“So,” James continued after sucking in another breath, “what are you going to do tonight? Are we hitting the town? Living it up like kings?” He bounced a little as he trotted along, making the pockets of his pants jingle with the change inside.
Danni couldn’t help but smile at the kid’s exuberance, but even though she was only a year older than him, she couldn’t help feeling wiser by many years. “Yeah, maybe later,” she dismissed his suggestion. “But first, I gotta go visit my mom.”
James’s eyebrows rose. “You know, I’ve never gotten to meet your mom?” he said, his tone turning the words into a question.
Danni stopped and just looked at him for a minute. Even for those few seconds, she could see the man growing uncomfortable, his shoulders pulling back a little, but he didn’t back away.
“Okay,” she finally said. “Follow me.”
A half hour later, they both stood in silence, looking down at the smooth stone in front of them.
When James finally spoke up again, his voice was hushed, muted of its usual enthusiasm. “Sorry, Danni,” he said quietly. “I didn’t know.”
“That’s okay,” the girl replied, reaching out and patting her friend on the shoulder. Her eyes, however, never left the stone in front of them.
When they arrived, she had bent down and carefully cleared away some of the weeds and taller blades of glass, making sure that the stone was visible. It wasn’t properly carved, but she’d paid off the tab of one of the masons in town, and he’d chiseled some words into the stone in exchange.
“Might not be carved proper, but at least it’s good granite,” he had remarked as he finished hammering in the words that Danni requested. “Should last a while if you keep the roots off it.”
And the girl had done so. Every two weeks, while the rest of her work crew headed down to the bars to fritter away their meager pay so that they could live like rich folks for a night, she would make the hike up to this hill and carefully clear away any errant plants encroaching on the stone.
After another few minutes, Danni opened her mouth again. “She wanted me to make something,” she said, not looking over at James.
“What, like a house or something?”
She shook her head, the long strands of red hair falling out around her face. “No, of myself.” She gestured around, out at the skeletal frames of buildings in the distance, at her dusty and stained clothing. “She wanted me to be more than just another little poor girl.”
James opened his mouth, but the boy found himself at a rare loss of words. “Yeah, but no one gets outta here,” he finally said, truth winning out over tact. “I mean, nobody leaves – there’s nothing else out there. At least here there’s work, enough to get by.”
He saw Danni nod, but the woman didn’t reply. “All the money’s owned by the rich folks up north,” he went on. “And they keep it all in banks, so you can’t even rob ’em! So we’re all kinda stuck here.”
The girl had straightened up a little, and glanced back at him. She was taller than James, and as she looked down at him, James thought for a moment that he saw a queer glint in her eyes in the dusk.
“What?” he asked, confused.
After a second, though, Danni shook her head. “No, it’s nothing,” she said. “Forget it.”
But as they headed down the quiet hill, back towards the hustle and activity of the town, an idea was growing and flowering in her head…