There is someone else in the boxcar kicking the soles of Jesse’s feet. Jenna is just stirring. A beefy man towers over him, kicks him again. “Get the hell out of my train,” he yells, his voice amplified by the hard walls and floor of the empty freight car.
The man bends down, grabs Jesse by the collar, hauls him roughly to his feet. Jesse tries to break free but cannot. The cuffs him above his ear with an open palm. He is very strong, stronger than Father before he died. Jesse is wrestled to the open doors of the box car. It’s light outside, though the ground is in shadows. The man grabs the back of his collar with one hand and the waistband of his trousers with the other and then Jesse is airborne, thrown out of the train car. He puts his hands in front of him instinctively and crashes fiercely into the ground. His hat flies a few feet away and he scrambles to fetch it. His palms burn where he applied the brakes, his chin had collided with the earth. Rises to his feet, hat in hand now, turns to see Jenna being shoved from the edge of the boxcar, pitched forward, her arms flailing but she manages to land on her feet, stumble a few steps forward.
“Fucking bums.” The man jumps down from the train, landing on both feet. “It’ll be worse if I catch you again.” He tries to kick Jenna but she scrambles away. “Fucking bums.”
Jesse wants vengeance. He starts toward the man, who stands hands on hips, bouncing on his heels, taunting him. Jenna stops him, pulls his elbow away, away from the train and the man who would probably enjoy a good kid-thrashing on such a morning. Jesse knows he could not hurt this man, that Jenna is saving him from himself but pulling him away. He doesn’t want to accept this defeat, this admission, the man’s superiority over him, his laughing disdain.
It makes it worse. But he turns in shame and follows her.
They run toward the town. People are out in the morning light – not many, this is a declining railroad town in the Great Basin – and a handful of cars. Jesse runs ahead, looking for safety. He looks over his shoulder to make sure Jenna is still with him and sees she was hobbling, struggling to keep up.
He stops running. Across the street, a bench next to a building with a U.S. flag flying overhead. He points her to it and she sits immediately, leans forward and begins to rub her knee.
He feels the burning in his palms more, scraped by the fall. There are so many places away from home that he doesn’t recognize, doesn’t understand their purpose.
“What is this place,” he asked.
“Let me rest a minute.”
He walks a few feet to a sign at the front of the building. He has been often told he is not a good reader and doesn’t trust himself to say the words correctly. “You read it Jenna.”
She gets up slowly. She wants to rest, but wants to help. “It’s a library.”
The only library they have ever seen is the room in the school, where some of the books had parts torn out of them. It was an uncomfortable place for him, a tomb of magic he would never understand.
She takes his forearm, leading him to the door. She is fearless, he thinks, but he is still anxious about going inside. It’s not a place for him.
No one seems to be around. There is a fireplace on one side of the room with a two-person sofa in front of it. Some pillows on the floor. And beyond, tall shelves of books. It feels like a small house that’s been taken over by books.
A woman appears from the stacks, asking warmly if they need any help. There is no way Jesse is going to try to explain what they’re doing there.
“Can we read these books,” his sister asks.
“Of course.” She is very friendly for someone they don’t even know. “That’s what they’re here for.” The woman goes to a desk near the entrance, leaving them alone. He follows Jenna into the stacks of books, marveling at the mystery of them, and they all seem to be different. There may no other like them anywhere, he imagines, and then Jenna finds the rest room, and she goes in first while he stands guard.
It’s his turn. He relieves himself, splashes water on his face and contorts to drink straight from the spigot in the sink. His hands still hurt, but he feels a lot better.
Jenna picks out a book and they sit together in front of the fireplace. It is a marvelous story about a boy who walks home on Mulberry Street, filled with wonderful pictures. He has never contemplated anything so amazing and he makes her read it to him three times, each time hearing something different in it. He asks her to teach him some of the words. It was one of the best hours of his life, making it one of the best days of his life, even with getting tossed from a train.
By and by, a small tide of young mothers and their children streams into the library to sit around in kid-sized chairs for story time. Jesse listens, with his sister, captivated as much by the spectacle of moms and kids sharing this experience together with books as by the stories themselves, which were good but, frankly, not of Mulberry Street caliber.
Jenna says they had better be moving along. He doesn’t want to leave their nest before the unlit library fireplace, but he follows to return the last book they’ve been looking at. Near the woman’s desk there is a shelf of very large books. Jenna pulls one out. He has never seen such an enormous book, it must be two feet high and almost as wide. She puts it on the floor, kneels down, and opens it up.
It is full of maps. Jenna finds her way through them to a page that she settles on.
“Shut the front door,” she says under her breath, looks up at him, crooks her finger. Jesse kneels beside her. She puts her finger on a spot and says it’s where they are, and then traces a line from right to left and onto the next page and all the way across it and then turns the page and goes halfway across that one.
“This is Sacramento.”