Sergei sat in the driver’s seat of the heavy American-made truck, one hand on the steering wheel, trying to decide if he was annoyed or amused by the child’s constant chatter.
Perhaps a bit of both, he decided after a few minutes. After all, there was no reason why the two emotions had to be exclusive. He would readily admit that he much preferred companionable silence to filling the air with empty words, but the light in Sara’s eyes as her mouth babbled on was enough to warm even his frozen, cynical heart – if only slightly.
She was looking at him in the rear-view mirror, he noticed, and he replayed the last couple of sentences. “Yes? What about mountains?” he asked, not quite sure what her point had been.
Sara huffed, making a little lock of brown hair blow briefly up from her forehead in a cowlick. “I was saying,” she repeated, rolling her eyes as if she was a teacher dealing with an especially slow pupil, “that it’s cool to see them. We don’t have mountains like that in Texas.”
Sergei took his eyes off the back end of Brian and Jaspers’ pickup in front of him, looking around at the horizon. There were indeed mountains, he admitted. Not a patch on the ones they had back in Russia, but vaguely impressive. “Yes. We have mountains like that in Russia,” he offered.
A second later, Sara was squirming as she leaned forward over the center console that separated his seat from Feng’s. “Russia?” she echoed, her blue eyes so wide that they looked like a pair of marbles, about to pop from her head. “Is that where you’re from?”
“Da,” Sergei answered dryly. He glanced over at Feng, wondering what she thought of the exchange. He half expected her to be smiling, but instead found her looking straight ahead, as if the child wasn’t even there.
Sergei was the first to admit that, despite the time he spent with the quiet, doll-like Chinese sniper, he didn’t know much about her. Occasionally, he felt the wild temptation to splash some water on her, see if she’d short-circuit. He could count the number of times she’d laughed on the fingers of one hand, and she never questioned an order.
“What’s it like in Russia?”
Sara again, with yet another question. Sergei sought about for an answer that didn’t involve drinking, prostitutes, raucous shore leave with his mates where they tried to forget everything they’d seen on tours.
“Cold,” he finally said.
Sara frowned at him, perhaps not satisfied with this answer, but then did the thing that Sergei had been mildly hoping against; she turned to Feng, riding shotgun. “What about you? Where are you from?”
For a minute, Sergei thought that Feng might not even answer the question. He could see her just sitting there, a robot that didn’t have the answer to this question included in its programming. But Feng, after a pause that stretched on just a fraction of a second too long, turned to Sara and put on a fake, polite little smile.
“I am from China,” she said, in her soft little voice, her dark eyes not quite meeting Sara’s blue ones.
“China,” the girl echoed. “My dad went to China, once. He didn’t take me, but he said it was about business. He wanted to borrow a big machine that they dug under a mountain to build. But they said it wasn’t done yet, and they wanted it first, he told me.” She frowned, but then brightened again. “But he brought me some cool coins! They have holes in the middle. Is that normal for you? Do you put them on necklaces sometimes?”
Sergei started to tune out again, returning his eyes back to the road. They brought up the rear of the three-vehicle convoy, with Corinne and Henry scouting up front, Brian and Jaspers in the middle, and them covering the rear. He’d initially scowled at the idea of driving these American made trucks, but they were proving to be quite adept, able to handle the occasional venture off-road when they encountered a jam of parked cars along the highway. Too much leather and decoration inside the cabin, but that was Americans for you. They insisted on luxury, even when it was totally unnecessary.
Something in Sara’s chattering, however, caught at his mind. He frowned, playing back what he could remember of her words. “Sara,” he said, interrupting her mid-story as she attempted to explain the dumplings at a local Chinese restaurant to Feng. “You said something about machines, da?”
“Oh yeah, at the Chinese place? It’s so cool! My dad took me back to see it, and it’s full of oil that he said is super hot, and when you drop things into it the oil bubbles and then they come floating up to the surface…”
“No, no, not that machine,” he interrupted. The girl talked nonstop! Were all children like this? Sergei once again mentally patted himself on the back for always using protection when on leave. “A machine in China? Your father went to use it?”
“Oh. Yeah, I don’t know what it was called.” Sara screwed up her forehead in concentration. “But it wasn’t done yet. My dad said it was too bad, because it had a higher energy something, which I guess is good. Ours doesn’t have as much of energy.”
“Yeah, at home in Waxahachie.” Sara turned back to Feng. “Isn’t that a silly name? When we moved there, my dad and I kept saying it over and over to each other on the car ride, and it was really funny. Waxahachie. Go on, say it!”
Feng probably needed him to save her from this onslaught of sociability, Sergei guessed. He’d stepped in before when she was being debriefed, offered his account instead, and she always shot him a faithful glance. Great sniper, but not much for conversation.
“Sara, Feng doesn’t like talking very much,” he began.
The word was nearly inaudible, but it cut through Sergei’s words like a hot knife through butter. He paused, looking over at Feng in surprise.
“Waxahachie,” she repeated, blinking and looking down at her lap. “Yes. Is a funny name.”
There was a strange shift in her tone, something Sergei hadn’t heard before. Risking a crash by taking his eyes off the road, he peered closer at Feng. Could it be that she was…?
Yes. He couldn’t believe it, nearly steered off the road. There was a tear running down Feng’s pale cheek, glistening for a moment in the sunlight shining through the windshield before disappearing into the shadow beneath her small, pointed chin. Feng gave no indication of feeling it, just staring down at her hands, nestled in her lap.
Sergei didn’t say anything to Sara, but perhaps she sensed the change in mood inside the cabin. She pulled back from leaning forward on the central console, returned to gazing out the window. Sergei considered saying something to Feng, but he didn’t have the right words.
Feng, meanwhile, slowly lifted her head, gazing out past the front of the truck. “Waxahachie.” Her lips shaped the word, although she didn’t speak it aloud again. Another tear slowly rolled down her face.
To be continued…