NOTE: This story assumes previous familiarity with Will, Diana, and their world.
“It’s the thought that counts.” Diana smoothed the lumpy wool scarf. “She knows I’m not good at knitting.” She pointed to the wooden object in Will’s hand. “What’s that supposed to be? A javelina?”
“A horse.” He shoved his attempt at carving under a blanket. “It was harder than I thought, okay?” He lay back against his thin pillow. “This won’t do, you know.”
Diana lay beside him, resting her head on his chest as she had nearly every night for six years when she was a scared ten year old orphan. “Where would we be without Auntie? We’ll have find something else.”
In the silence that followed, Will stole an arm around her, positioning his hand so that his fingers grazed her breast. She didn’t notice, and he wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved.
“I know what she’d like,” Diana said. “A book.”
By now their guardian’s birthday was the last thing on Will’s mind, but he asked where they would get a book on short notice and with no money.
“That town we passed on the way up here, where they had the cholera epidemic. They had a library.”
“That town was deserted. We don’t know there’s still any books there. And it’s a two hour ride. Probably three in the dark. We wouldn't be back in time for our turn on watch.”
Diana sat up. “I bet the library still has books. You go get the horses and I’ll find someone to cover for us. It’ll be easy.”
* * *
The overcast night and pitted asphalt road made for slow going, but country darkness was familiar to them. The rustle of small animals in the brush and the occasional howl of a coyote meant there were no other humans nearby. Stumbling across a group of refugees would’ve been no matter, but an enemy patrol might capture them or worse. Although Diana rode relaxed, relying on her instincts, Will kept anxious watch from behind, pistol at the ready just in case.
The town looked different than when they passed through the week before. Crumbling buildings and weed-choked lots hid secrets, and over it all the bell tower of the adobe church brooded malevolently.
Diana shivered, although the night wasn’t cold. She opened her mouth to speak, but pointed instead to the low stucco library on the next corner.
They found the double doors locked. “Maybe there’s another entrance,” Diana said.
They checked. It was locked, too.
“Want me to just shoot it?” Will offered.
“Doesn’t seem right to make noise.”
They found a broken window and climbed through it.
Inside was still and dusty, the silence almost tangible. They picked their way toward the stacks, their footsteps muffled by the dusty carpet, the beams of their flashlights barely lighting the way.
“What are we looking for, exactly?” Will whispered.
“Anything you think she’ll like. Something the pages aren’t falling out of.”
They split up. Diana shone her light on the book spines one by one, leaning close and squinting to make out the titles. Automobile racing. Well, that was certainly useless. Engineering principles. Too bad it had nothing to do with trains. Weather forecasting. That might be helpful, but when she tugged on the spine, a scorpion skittered away and she dropped the book and the pages fell in a sheaf at her feet.
“That you making noise?”
They met at the end of the row. “Find anything?” Diana asked.
“Just something about how to trim bushes to look like animals.”
“That could be fun.”
“Damn worthless unless you can eat them.”
They were about to start down another row when something caught their attention. Will crouched over the charred books and examined them more closely. “Doesn’t look real recent. Probably just someone passing through.”
Diana nodded and began searching the next row, but now she was uneasy, starting at shadows and the ordinary whisper of scurrying mice. At the sound of a book falling to the floor, she stifled a shriek. “That you?” she called out.
“Thought it was you.”
She took a few breaths, trying to calm her rapidly beating heart. “Maybe it’s a raccoon.”
“Just hurry up and find something, okay?”
Diana bent her head toward the titles. Child care. How to select a pre-school. Ideas for children’s birthday parties.
Auntie had no need of this.
She selected another shelf. Wedding planners. More uselessness.
She was about to move on when she heard a cautious footstep. She told herself it was a feral cat or some similar creature. And the sound like someone breathing? That was Will, for sure.
A shadow moved. A man-sized shadow.
She heard scuffling on the other side of the stacks. Will’s voice answered hers, but not from the end of her row.
She drew her gun and fired at the shadow and at the same time heard Will’s gun go off from the other side of the room. “Run!”
Books forgotten, she fled toward the broken window, stumbling into things and tripping over clutter on the floor. Heavy steps came after her and she leaped an overturned chair. As she reached for the windowsill, someone grabbed her arm.
“It’s me,” Will said. He lifted her so she could scramble out, then launched himself after. They grabbed their horses and took off at a gallop. A pack of feral dogs bounded out of a ruined store, snarling and barking. Will fired into their midst and kept going.
The sound of gunfire drew the last dying residents of the town to their doorways, haggard and cursing at the strangers who galloped past with no offer of food, medicine or assistance. One man staggered to his gate with a rifle, but his shot went wide.
Once they were safely out of town they slowed their horses and Will pulled up to Diana’s side.
“This was a dumb idea,” Diana said, her hands shaking as she clutched the reins. “I’m sorry.”
“At least we got a book.”
“You did? What book?”
“I don’t know. I grabbed it as we were running out.”
“I hope it’s a good one.”
“Why wouldn’t it be? Mother will read almost anything.”
They rode back to camp in silence, but as they were putting their horses in the corral, their unit commander strode up. “If this was a real army, you’d have been considered AWOL.”
“We covered our watch,” Diana said.
“That’s not the point, and you know it. Where’d you go, anyway?”
“To get Mother a birthday present," Will said. "It’s day after tomorrow, you know.”
Harley mumbled a curse. “I guess I better get her something.”
“Yeah, a woman doesn’t like it when her boyfriend forgets her birthday.”
Their eyes met for a long moment. “I can’t just ignore this,” Harley finally said. "You’ll be on extra watch tomorrow. And you. . .” he turned to Diana, “Are on chow duty.”
“But I don’t like—”
He waved a hand for silence. “I’ll give you your assignments tomorrow, and then as far as I’m concerned, tonight is forgotten. Next time, tell me when there's a special occasion, okay? I might’ve liked to have gone with you.”
Chastened, Will and Diana returned to their tent. Amalia still wasn’t back. “Probably fell asleep in Harley’s tent,” Will muttered.
“I’m just glad she didn’t find us gone. Let’s see what you got.” Diana held out her hand for the book. By the dim light of a solar lantern, she puzzled out the title. “Etiquette Essentials for Office Success.” She flipped through a few pages, her lips moving as she read the words in a whisper. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Will. We’re a sniper unit. I bet Auntie doesn’t even know what a fax machine is.”
“Well, at least I got one. You didn’t get anything.”
Diana shoved the book under her pillow, then reached into a leather pack and pulled out the unevenly knitted scarf. “Maybe if I add some fringe. . .”
Will nodded and retrieved his botched wood carving. “If you really think it looks like a javelina, she’ll never have to know it was supposed to be a horse.”
“Since I'll be on chow duty, I’ll see if I can make a dessert or something.” She crawled into Will’s lap and flung her arms around him. “It’ll be a good birthday for Auntie, no matter what we give her, don’t you think?”
Will ran his fingers along the braid that trailed between Diana’s shoulders. He pulled her closer, relishing the smell of her hair and the warmth of her skin.
“Of course,” he said. “It’s the thought that counts.”