• • •
Primrose dozed in the shimmering New Mexico heat. Steve Rogers slowed his bike over the patched and pot-holed two lane highway as it turned into Main Street, passing the Kwik Trip, three bars and a place called “Pinky’s” that looked to be a combination auto repair and barber shop (Free Trim with Oil Change!). A scrawny dog trotted past a clutch of boarded-up store fronts, and Steve realized he’d just seen his first coyote. Thunderstruck, he watched it duck into an alley behind the old post office and disappear into shadow.
A slow smile spread across his face. He’d seen deer in Ohio, eagles in Indiana, buffalo in Kansas and elk in Colorado. When he left New York, he intended to see the country, but never imagined how much nature that entailed. Up until then, his only experience of nature had been at the Bronx Zoo.
Outside Chicago, after swerving around a porcupine, he made a decision. He spent several hours in a gigantic sporting goods store, learning about tents and thin-sulate. That night, he set up camp in a state park, remembering a little of his Army training, but mostly reading directions out of a new Boy Scout Handbook. He squatted by his first campfire and grinned like a dope, feeling more like Ranger Rick than Captain America. After that, he chose scenic routes on secondary roads, always heading west.
Primrose’s big, empty store fronts transitioned into big, empty houses—remnants of better economic times when ranching and mining ruled the area. Toys and dogs littered enough yards to show the town still had a pulse, if only a faint one. Steve turned down a side street, then turned again. He consulted a crumpled scrap of paper and turned one more time down a dead end lane.
Here the desert trees were old, their multiple trunks twisted where they broke through the red rock to guard the clap-board homes around them. It felt like an older part of town, one that Steve might have seen in his own time. An elderly woman watered her thin lawn and looked up at the sound of his Harley. Steve lifted his hand, and she waved back.
He found the house at the end of the lane—neat, mustard-yellow, with a half-story on top. A rock garden took the place of a front yard. Steve left his bike on the street and walked up the blacktopped driveway, stretching the last 400 miles out of his legs and back.
Before he reached the door, it swung open. Amy Coulson appeared in baggy shorts and a dirty T-shirt, her dark hair in a pony tail, her face slack with shock.
“Hi,” he said.
Her hands perched on her hips—a question mark.
Steve shrugged. “I wasn’t doing anything, so I thought I’d come help you pack.”
She shifted her weight to one hip and squinted at him.
“Nice drive out here,” he went on, gazing up the street. “Lots of pretty country.”
Amy continued to peer at him like a bug.
“I even learned how to camp,” he chuckled, waving at the load on his bike.
When he turned back to her, Amy’s face had changed. Her dark eyes flitted over him like little birds.
“I’ve got iced tea,” she said.
Steve grinned at her. “That would be great.”
He followed her into the house, but stopped short. The place looked like the backside of a tornado—books, papers, dishes and debris he couldn’t name covered the dining room table, spilled into the chairs and puddled on the floor. In the living room, electronic equipment lay partially disassembled. Plastic squares—what Steve had learned were this time’s version of record albums—littered the floor like a game of 52 card pick-up. More files, more papers, more books, a toolbox spewing hardware and a bicycle tire. He gaped at the mess, wondering if he’d stumbled into a robbery scene. He looked worriedly at Amy coming back from the kitchen.
“I know,” she said, handing him a plastic tumbler. “I’ve been here a week and I haven’t filled one box. Shut the door and come out back.”
Steve pushed the door closed, then followed her. An open room at the rear of the house looked like an office or a den. He marveled at the desk buried in paper, who-knew-what spilling from the open closet doors, and file drawers gaping open. Amy passed through the room and pulled open a sliding glass door. Steve saw a scrubby ravine beyond the wooden deck. Birds chirped and whistled in the bramble.
Amy took a long draw from her pink tumbler and nodded at the thicket. “Blue buntings.”
Steve spotted the cobalt blue flashes.
“And there’s our resident jack rabbit.”
He followed her pointing finger, but saw nothing. Then, the brown weeds blinked, and he grunted in astonishment. Amy smiled at him then looked back at the ravine. She turned the pink glass around and around between her hands.
“We all lived on campus at the Facility,” she said, “but some of the senior agents rented places here in town. Uncle Phil got this place more for me than for himself. He knew he’d be traveling a lot…” She took another sip. “He also knew the bureaucracy at work frustrated me stupid. He came to my cube one day after he got the house and gave me a key. ‘Now you can commune with real snakes whenever you want to,’ he said.”
She shook her head as if trying to clear it. “Stories. Everywhere in this house, I find stories. I pick up a picture or book to pack and get lost in the story instead. I’m not getting anything done.”
Steve sipped his tea. “There’s no rush, is there?”
“No,” she said quietly. “But you showing up like this… I can’t imagine how it looks. Pretty crazy, huh?”
He could see she was embarrassed and a little worried about his answer. He set the sweaty tumbler on the deck rail. An iridescent bug immediately flew into it.
“You know why I really took this trip?”
Amy watched him.
“To get out of New York.” He fished the bug out of the ice cubes and flicked it at the ravine. It zigzagged out of sight. “That’s where my stories are. Every movie theater that got torn down, every neighborhood that turned into a mall, all the cemeteries where my friends are buried…” He looked at her. “I understand getting lost in the stories.”
She nodded, relieved. “I think I’m glad you came.”
“Perfect,” she finally said. “Here’s Frank Sinatra from 1955.”
“I like Frank Sinatra,” Steve said, the tape dispenser ratcheting over a box.
“Same voice,” Amy told him, “but more complicated.”
She touched the player and a smokey version of Mood Indigo rolled into the room. Steve listened.
“Yeah, you can tell he’s older, and the music is… different.”
“You like music.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Sure, who doesn’t?” He flipped the box over and started on another one. “All the Big Bands played New York. But, I’m kinda partial to Gershwin.”
“Gershwin?” She blinked at him.
“Sappy, I know.” He smiled self-consciously. “Moons and Junes and all that old-fashioned stuff.”
Just how old would something have to be for Steve Rogers to consider it old-fashioned? Amy couldn’t quite grasp that concept, so she let it slide. “The music now must sound like cats fighting to you.”
“I heard some Country Western in a diner on the way out, and that sounded about the same, but the other stuff…” He made a face.
“Well, Uncle Phil has everything, and this is only part of his collection. I promise I won’t go beyond 1955.”
“Thank you,” he said pointedly. Taking a deep breath, he regarded the chaos around him. “So, how do you want to do this?”
“Director Fury wants all the files, so we can pack those.” She glanced uncertainly around the room. “The rest I wanted to sort—you know—stuff to keep for Mom and the boys, stuff to donate.”
“Okay, I’ll pack, you sort.”
She hesitated, uncertain.
He met her eyes and held them. “The stories won’t stop you now, not with someone to tell them to.”
“Have you told anyone your stories?”
He shook his head.
“Will you tell me, if they come up?”
“Fair’s fair,” he said.
She smiled and reached for a box. “Fair’s fair,” she echoed.
Amy knelt in a semi-circle of debris, boxes labeled “Goodwill,” “Library,” and “Home” within throwing distance. The weird feeling of waking up in a too-hot room had faded. Her brain felt less poached, her thoughts less sticky and labored. Still, she cringed every time Steve pawed through a new pile to find file folders, like a really big squirrel digging for nuts.
I’m a librarian, she thought unhappily. It’s my job to be meticulous. How did this happen?
“Who’s this again?” Steve picked up the dining room table and set it to one side, making more room for boxes. Amy stared. He seemed so normal, then did something like that. It was unnerving.
“Oh, uh…” She looked at the CD case. “Gisele MacKenzie.”
Amy sat back on her heels. “Are you hungry?”
“Starving.” He lifted a stack of boxes and moved them to the new space.
“Okay, then.” She got up and tried to look at the room objectively. She could see the floor—that was progress. “I’m going upstairs to take a shower. Then, I’m taking you to Rowdy’s for the Endless Taco Platter.”
Steve smiled indulgently and carried another stack to the dining room. Amy caught the look and realized he’d never let her pay for dinner. She kept forgetting to treat him like her grandpa.
“You can use the bathroom down here if you want to.”
“Is that a hint?”
“How many days have you lived in those clothes?” she asked in return, then started for the stairs.
She looked at herself in the mirror and clucked—shocked eyes, sallow skin. Uncle Phil would be mad if he could see her like this, then horrified to know it was because of him.
“Sorry,” she muttered, running a comb through her wet hair.
She stared through the reflection of her eyes to the place where she pretended he listened to her. “Mom was right. I never should have come back alone. It’s too hard. I miss you too much.” She tilted her head, peering deep into her own eyes. “Did you send him?” she whispered. “Thanks.”
When she finally started down the stairs, she felt more like a human being. She had taken time with her hair, found a kicky little summer dress and her beat-up cowboy boots (perfect for Rowdy’s). She even dug around in the drawer for lip-gloss. Suddenly, she felt like celebrating.
Steve stood up as she came into the living room—such nice manners—and literally gawped at her. Thank you, she thought at him, feeling a little more normal, a little more like a girl instead of a ghost.
“Is this okay?” He spread his hands. “They’re the only clean clothes I have left.”
He wore an Army-green T-shirt tucked into jeans. Amy appreciated his permission to study the effect. She didn’t overdo it.
She smiled at his wet hair combed back neatly. So much like her grandpa.
“It’ll be chilly by the time we get back. Do you have a jacket?” She lifted the denim one on her arm.
“On my bike.” He opened the door for her.
“Do you mind if we walk?”
“No, I don’t mind.”
He came down the walk behind her and angled toward the Harley. Amy watched him rummage through his pack. There was something vulnerable about him—even though he could probably throw the bike across the road. It was something she wanted to respect, but like the jack rabbit in the back yard, she needed to see it.
She came up beside him. “Why did you really come here?”
Steve pulled out his leather jacket and refastened the bungee cords. “I told you.”
He glanced at her, stopped, looked at her again. Amy raised her eyebrows.
“It’ll sound dumb.”
He strode into the street. Amy kept up with him.
“You’re my only friend,” he muttered. His lips tightened into a thin line. “I told you it was dumb.”
Amy said nothing, just trotted alongside him. He kept up the pace for another block before he started to slow down.
“I’m not a Braniac or a spy. Half the time I can’t understand what those guys are talking about. Thor’s a fish out of water, like me, and he’s a decent guy, but…” His voice trailed off. “I like Tasha,” he added as an afterthought. “She’s a trooper, but she scares me a little, you know?”
Amy nodded, biting her lip. She could just imagine how terrifying a woman like Natasha Romanov might be to a stand-up soldier from World War Two. Terrifying, but beguiling at the same time. Which would make her even more terrifying.
“Director Fury’s been swell to me. He tried to make my ‘reentry’ easier, got me an apartment. But there’s always an agenda with him. And he’s more or less my commanding officer.”
“So that left me.”
“Well, I didn’t think you hated my guts anymore.” He looked down at her and smiled a little, struggling with what he wanted to say. “But, I didn’t know if we could ever get past your uncle—that’s all pretty complicated.”
Ahead of them, the western sky glowed of pink fried apples and orange sherbet. Amy’s stomach growled. She couldn’t remember the last time she ate, which scared her. But clicking along in her old cowboy boots with this particular man’s solid heat warming her side kept the fear small and far away. She pointed out a short cut through an abandoned yard overgrown with scrub.
Steve watched her.
Amy ran a hand through her hair and tucked it behind an ear. “It’s more like we all belong to the same club. When you believe in the same things, there’s a kind of shorthand that happens.”
She looked up at him. “We both get lost in our stories because we were taught to care.”
“And we get frustrated with grand-standers and red tape because they get in the way of the real work.”
He let out a little sigh. “Yeah.”
“It’s too easy to say Uncle Phil learned that from you, and I learned it from him. What we believe in, what we work for, is bigger than that. It was there before you came along. It’ll still be there after we’re gone.”
She grunted at her own seriousness. “I guess that’s my way of saying ‘hell yeah, you’re my friend. And we’ve got the membership cards to prove it.’ Pardon my French.”
“Amy…” He watched his feet as they stepped around a big pothole in the street. “That’s not really French, you know.”
She laughed. Not because he was particularly funny, but because he tried to be. And because it felt so good to laugh.
Rowdy’s turned out to be one of the dives Steve had passed on his way into town. Squeezed between an alley and a pawn shop, it looked more like a flea trap than a place to eat supper. When he opened the door for Amy, the smell of beer and hot grease wafted over them, and he had doubts about the Endless Taco Platter. But, he held his tongue and followed her in.
Steve’s eyes adjusted immediately to the dark. A horseshoe bar stuck out from one wall. Booths and tables filled the rest of the space. A stage and dance floor took up the back. The place was already full—working people and their families. Toddlers wandered around the sticky plank floor, welcomed and sent off again like pinballs. He relaxed a little.
A middle-aged waitress with sky-high hair waved at them from the bar. “Sit any where,” she hollered. “Some tables in back.”
Amy wove back that way, her little skirt swaying. Steve told himself to stop staring. She had knocked the wind out of him with that little skirt, and before he could recover she did it again.
Why did you really come here?
The question shocked him into saying more than he meant to, but that turned out okay. Again. Amy seemed to accept him no matter how he fumbled or what he felt.
Why did you really come here?
I came because you’re the only person who seems real.
Amy stopped by a table at the edge of the dance floor. “Is this okay?”
Steve eyed the empty stage. “You’re not going to make me dance, are you?”
“Oh, God, no!” She pulled out a chair. “I can’t dance.”
“Me neither.” He sat across from her, relieved.
“You mean you never learned all those jitter-buggy moves?”
He tapped his chest. “Asthma.”
“Oh, right. That must have been awful.”
“I missed a lot of school as a kid.” He smiled at her. “And I would have given anything to have a dog. Our next door neighbor had a beagle—boy, was I jealous.”
“We had a mutt from the pound—Flippy. He could do somersaults in the air.” She twirled her fingers. “Uncle Phil brought him over when Rick started to have trouble in school. He said Rick needed something other than himself to worry about.”
“Stories,” Steve said.
Amy’s eyes widened. “Everywhere. I told you.”
The harried waitress buzzed their table. “Platters?”
“Yes,” Amy answered decisively.
“Drinks?” She pinned Steve to the wall with a look.
The waitress scurried off.
“I thought you didn’t drink,” Amy said.
“I don’t get drunk,” he corrected.”
“Oh, so you just want me to get drunk.”
Horror rushed him. “No! I didn’t…”
“I was kidding.” She started to reach for his arm, but stopped. “I’m sorry. I forget sometimes that you won’t think things like that are funny.”
He frowned at the salt and pepper shakers. “You can’t censor yourself all the time, just because I can’t take a joke.”
“We’ll figure it out,” she said easily.
Before he could think about that too much, The Star Spangled Banner blasted from his jacket on the back of the chair. He jerked his cell phone out and bobbled it. Irritated diners glared.
“Hello?” he finally managed.
“Hey, Cap,” Tony Stark said. “Did you make it to the Golden State?”
“I didn’t go to California,” Steve said carefully.
“I’m in New Mexico.”
Silence answered him. Steve looked at Amy, who was taking mugs of beer from the waitress. A huge plate of tacos appeared in front of him.
“Interesting,” Stark said. “Fury’s in New Mexico. You might want to give him a call.”
“I put his number in your directory.”
“What’s going on?”
“Not sure. But you’re better at getting information out of him than I am. We have issues.”
“It might be because you bugged his computer.”
“Give me a buzz back if you learn anything.”
“And Cap? Say hi to Amy for me.”
Steve felt his ears burning as Stark cut the connection.
“Who was that?” Amy asked around a taco.
Scowling, Steve replaced the phone. “Tony. He said the Director is in New Mexico.”
“He’s probably at the Facility site.” Amy mopped her mouth with napkins. “After the explosion, there was still residual Tesseract energy. The scientists were worried about it.”
“That sounds more like Stark’s area of expertise.” He picked up a taco. Chili-colored juice ran down his hand. “Why would he want me to talk to Fury?”
Amy licked her fingers. “Because you’re the team leader.”
Steve started to protest, but shoved half a taco in his mouth instead.
He chewed awhile. “In battle, maybe. But not now.”
“Don’t do that humble thing.” She lifted the beer mug with both hands, her eyes slitted and studying him. “If there was a problem and you asked the others to come back, would they?”
“Would they do that for Stark? Or Thor?”
Steve frowned at her.
“You’re a leader. You always were.”
He finished the last taco on his plate. “If that’s true, it changes everything.”
“It means I need to stay informed. I need to know what they’re working on, what Fury’s working on.”
Amy smiled and signaled the waitress. “So, calling the Director might be the right thing to do.”
“Yeah. And maybe I should ride out to the site tomorrow.” Steve sat back as another steaming plate thumped in front of him. “Will you come with me?”
“Ooo! Can I be your Gal Friday? Rosalind Russell to your Cary Grant?”
Steve laughed, delighted. He got that reference. It was as if his compass needle started pointing true north again. He had work to do and responsibilities. This cock-eyed era was starting to make a little more sense.
They walked home under a new moon, black in a black sky dotted with pin-prick stars. Once they left Main Street, the streetlights were just as dark. The high desert air turned chill, but it felt good after the hot bar and hotter chilies. Clipping along beside Steve in a comfortable silence, Amy thought their excursion had been as helpful for him as it was for her. He seemed easier, not as stiff, more ready to laugh. She figured the buttoned-down attitude was his way of coping—she was amazed he could even walk and talk at the same time. But, she took it as a good sign that he had laughed out loud at dinner. She liked that he felt comfortable enough with her to relax that much.
They reached the street outside Uncle Phil’s house, and Steve went to his bike. Even in the dark, she could see him unpacking.
“What are you doing?”
“I’ll set my tent up in the back, if that’s okay.”
“Oh, you don’t need to. You can use Uncle Phil’s room.”
The rustling stopped. “I couldn’t do that,” he said.
“I know he’s got clean sheets in the closet, I’ll just change those and…”
“No, Amy.” He sounded distressed. “You’re a single woman alone in the house. I can’t sleep there.”
“What? I know you’re…” not going to attack me, she almost said, but bit it back. “… an honorable and decent man.”
She could hear the steel seeping back into his voice and didn’t want to undo all the good work they’d accomplished tonight. Grandpa, she told herself. Treat him like Grandpa.
“Suit yourself,” she said. “Do you need anything?”
“Okay. Goodnight,” she called over her shoulder, heading for the door. “Thanks for supper.”
Up in her room, she watched out her window as he set up, the black dome of the tent barely visible against the dark of the ravine. Finally, she cranked open the window and called out.
“Watch out for the jack rabbit! He sleep-hops!”
She heard him laugh.
Now she could go to bed.
• • •
Click here to read Part Three—In The Desert.