As the bus drove on through the night, Lena alternated between letting her head bounce against the vibrating window and looking out through it in wonder. There were no walls there to see, no tall barbed wire fence. There was only the grass and trees, and occasionally a barn, along this highway through the darkness. Above it all, there was the moon, full and round, shining a ring of white light against the clouds.
It was big out there, the world. Bigger than her. Maybe too big. Her world had been so small the past five years.
Had it been five? Sometimes it felt like fifty. But the face that occasionally stared back at her from the window, in the moments when it was darker outside of the bus than inside, was not the face of a sixty-plus-year-old. Assuming she remembered what they looked like.
Lena pulled her gaze away from the window and the world beyond, and returned it to the piece of paper in her lap, with its torn edge and its deep creases from repeated folding and unfolding. She looked at the picture there for a moment, focusing on the trees and the one-sentence caption. Simple. Succinct. More digestible than a too-huge world lit only by the ring around the moon and flying past her at sixty-five miles per hour.
That was where she was going. That was where she’d have her fresh start. She’d lost track of the miles long ago, just as she’d lost track of the years, but she hadn’t lost sight of where she was going. That, she couldn’t afford to do.
The bus came to a squeaky, whiny stop in the darkness, near a bench at the top of a slowly-sloping hill.
“Here’s your stop,” said the driver.
There was no one else on the bus that he could have been talking to, but Lena didn’t get up, looking out the window.
“This is Duckburg?” she said. What she saw didn’t seem to fit the name.
The driver opened the door, waving a hand in a sort of sarcastic shrug at the bench, and the hill, and the small collection of houses at its base. “What there is, is what you see.”
Lena zipped up her coat, carefully tucked the picture into her pocket, and pulled her backpack over her shoulders.
As soon as she was on the ground, the driver closed the door and the bus pulled away. There was no turning back now, even if she’d had anywhere else to go. Lena tucked her hands under her arms and did her best not to shiver.
Footsteps coming up the hill, crunching in the gravel that passed for a road, called her attention to someone else’s arrival out of the darkness – someone in a warmer coat than hers, and wearing gloves, one of which was holding a cup of coffee, while the other held open a folder of papers.
He only half looked at her, his frown mostly devoted to the papers. “Lena de Spell?” he said, in an overly-lisping but still more or less comprehensible voice.
“Just Lena is fine.”
The moonlight glinted off a badge on the man’s coat – a sheriff’s badge, star-shaped, like on movie posters.
When he didn’t say anything, Lena did: “Warden Halverson said he would call ahead.”
“Yeah, sure, I got a call from the prison,” said the sheriff. “But to be honest, Miss de Spell, if the bus hadn’t left, I would’ve put you back on it.”
Lena tried to force a joking smile, but her teeth threatened to chatter if she did. “There something wrong with this place?”
The sheriff barked out a derisive laugh. “Look around you!” he said, sweeping a hand down the hill in the same way the bus driver had. “Duckburg’s a ghost town. There’s nothing here. Not even a cell tower.”
Lena hesitated. “The warden said that –”
“I really don’t care what the warden said, Miss de Spell. He’s not the one freezing his tail off at this bus stop, now is he?”
“No sir,” said Lena, wishing he would stop calling her that.
“So why’d you choose Duckburg?”
Lena said nothing.
“Miss de Spell –”
“Fine, then, Lena. It’s my job to know why you’re here, okay? So why Duckburg?”
Lena took the folded paper out of her pocket.
“I tore this out of an old travel book someone donated to the prison,” she said, handing the sheriff the paper, her fingers reluctant to let go.
He unfolded it, looking over the picture and reading the caption aloud: “Autumn colors along Copper Creek near Duckburg, Wisconsin.” He exhaled in what might have been a laugh, and passed the paper back to Lena. “You’re a little late.”
“What, has the creek dried up?” said Lena, stashing the page back in her pocket, safe again.
“It’s frozen,” said the sheriff. “And the fall colors are long gone.”
“I hope to be here when they come back,” Lena said, trying to sound confident.
The sheriff rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, in the meantime, I don’t know what the heck I’m gonna do with you.” He took a sip from the coffee cup and made a face. “If that isn’t insult to injury – cold coffee.”
Then he paused, an idea glinting somewhere in those grumpy eyes.
“Grab your things,” he said. Lena tugged at the backpack straps pointedly, and the sheriff paused again, as though only just now noticing that that was all she had with her. He recovered quickly enough from his surprise and led the way down the hill and into town – not that there was much of a border between nature and the streets.
Lena followed the sheriff through Duckburg and a light curtain of midnight snow. As they passed the one-and-two-story houses, she had the distinct feeling of being watched, by the windows in the houses, and the faces she couldn’t see hiding behind their curtains, peeking out to stare at the newcomer.
“Good,” the sheriff said suddenly, “there’s a light on over at the Sunchaser.”
The sheriff pointed ahead, at a long, two-story building at the edge of town – it hadn’t taken any time at all to cross from one side to the other. “It’s your best chance for a job, and besides the local jail, it’s got the only guest room in town. Lucky for you, Uncle Scrooge’s burning the midnight oil.”
Lena didn’t ask who Uncle Scrooge was. She had a feeling she’d find out soon enough.
Uncle Scrooge was the old duck coming onto the back porch as the sheriff and Lena stepped onto the front, passing beneath a large sign with a red painted plane and the words The Sunchaser Grill. Or rather, he was trying to come in – but his arms were laden with firewood, and his foot wasn’t quite dexterous enough to open the door, leaving him teetering on the edge of the porch.
“Uncle Scrooge?” the sheriff called ahead as he pushed his way into the grill, crossing towards the back porch. “I saw the light. You still up?”
“No,” said Scrooge.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so.” The sheriff grabbed the door, and Scrooge stomped in without so much as a thank-you. Lena observed that the sheriff didn’t seem to expect one.
She turned her head, looking around the inside of the Sunchaser. It was a diner, not a large one, but then nothing in Duckburg was large besides the trees that surrounded it, and so this cramped room of tables and chairs could probably still hold the entire town at once if it had to. At one end there was a long kitchen counter, with tall diner chairs on one side and a kitchen space behind it. In the corner, a staircase led upwards into shadow. Though most of the building was wood and brick, some parts of it seemed to be made of long pieces of red metal instead – maybe it was fatigue from the long day on the road, but Lena could have sworn that there was a propeller in the corner by the stairs.
She returned her attention to the sheriff.
“You know, Uncle Scrooge,” the sheriff was saying, “you could use a waitress this winter.”
“Another body in here won’t make me any younger, Donald,” Scrooge replied in a strong Scottish accent, sitting heavily in one of the tall chairs at the counter.
“The firewood isn’t going to walk by itself.”
Scrooge’s frown deepened. “I’m perfectly self-sufficient, lad, and you know it.”
“Come on, Uncle Scrooge. You know I wouldn’t come to you about this if I had any other options.”
“Oh yes, I know.”
Scrooge looked across the room at Lena, who was doing her best to seem like a part of the furniture.
“Do you remember the summer I took in that stray dog for you, and I had to replace all my carpets?” he said.
“Yeah, well, this time I’m pretty sure I’ve brought home something housebroken,” said Donald.
Lena said nothing.
Scrooge sighed. “Just so you know, I’m not making any promises.”
The sheriff beckoned to Lena, who took a few steps towards the two men.
“Lena,” he said, “this is Scrooge McDuck.”
Lena and Scrooge looked at each other in silence.
“Looks like you’re all set,” Donald finally said. “Thanks, Uncle Scrooge. I owe you one.”
“I’ll add it to the list,” said Scrooge.
Lena turned her head to watch Donald leave the grill and the front door swing shut behind him. When she turned around again, Scrooge had already begun his way up the stairs, and she had to scurry to follow.
“The bathroom’s at the end of the hall,” Scrooge said, not turning around. “There’s plenty of hot water, but not if you dawdle, so don’t go wasting it. There’s an extra blanket in the cedar chest if you need it. I give you breakfast at six. Work starts at six-thirty sharp. Anything else you need to know will keep till then.”
And then he stepped into a bedroom and closed the door behind him, leaving Lena alone in the dark, narrow hallway. She walked down it to the only other room with a bed, and almost nothing else besides – four empty white walls, a spartan cell. Lena half thought she might have gotten turned around on the bus and wound up back where she’d started.
But there was the window.
Lena dropped her backpack on the bed and approached it, pulling back the blinds and pushing up the glass. Cold air flowed in, but she paid it no mind, stretching a hand through this window with no bars, twisting her fingers in the moonlight.
Then she closed the window, drew the blinds, and let the darkness lull her to sleep.