Henry’s car was engulfed in its own dust cloud as he came to a stop in the empty parking lot. The cloud blew on into the sun-bleached Arizona countryside, dissipating among the scrub brush and cactus. Getting out of the car, Henry squinted as the mid-day June sun glared off of the small windows of the pueblo-style restaurant. The faded rooftop sign proclaimed that this was Montezuma’s.
A bell on the restaurant door jingled as Henry stepped inside, blinking to adjust his eyes to the dark interior. The walls were thick with plaster and photographs. Clean but mismatched tables and chairs studded the worn wooden floor. A long bar dominated one wall, complete with a large patinaed mirror and shelves half-full of bottles.
As Henry wandered over to the bar, a girl strode out from the kitchen archway behind the bar.
“Hi there!” she said. “Welcome to Zuma’s.” She smiled, her cornflower blue eyes dancing below blonde hair twisted up into a bun, and waved her hand at a bar stool.
“Thanks,” said Henry. He ran his fingers through his hair as he sat.
“Where are you headed?”
“I think it might be here,” he said.
“Really? Most people who wind up here are lost.” She arched an eyebrow. “Are you looking for someone?”
Henry swallowed as caught the scent of vanilla. “Not really. I’m Henry, by the way.”
“Brooke,” she said. “So why are you here, Henry?”
“There’s a research team coming, from Duke University, to do a dig on some local ruins. I’m volunteering.”
“I heard about that,” she said. “You know you’re about two weeks early, right?”
“Yeah. I didn’t have anything else to do so….”
“So you came to a dead-end dust bowl in the middle of nowhere?”
Henry shrugged. “It beats going home.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, anywhere but home. I so get that.” She picked up a pitcher of iced tea from behind the bar. “Drink?”
“So what’s Duke like?” asked Brooke as she grabbed a glass.
“It seems like a nice place,” he said. “I don’t actually go there yet. Next year.” He gestured to her t-shirt. “Are you at Arizona State?”
She shook her head and handed him a glass full of ice and brown nectar. “Next year for me too. What do you want to study?”
“I don’t know yet,” she said. “I’m really only going to make my dad happy.”
Brooke frowned. “What’s so funny?”
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s just that, in a way, I’m not going just to piss my dad off.” He took a sip of the cold, sugar-laden tea. “So, you don’t want to go to college?”
“I do,” she said. “I just want to travel first, you know? See the world for a while.” She sighed. “But I’m the first in the family who’s got a chance to go to college, even if it is just State.”
Henry nodded. “My dad wants me to become a lawyer. If he had his way, I wouldn’t be allowed to be anything else.”
“Yeah.” Henry raised his glass. “Here’s to parents demanding we live their lives, instead of our own.”
Brooke laughed, then leaned in against the bar and locked eyes with Henry. “So, what are you going to do for the next two weeks?”
He smiled. “I would love to play tourist,” he said, then sighed. “But, to be honest, I’m running low on cash. Is anybody hiring around here?”
She shook her head. “There’s really nothing around here, except orange groves.”
Henry snapped his fingers. “I passed a couple of trucks full of oranges as I drove in. Any chance of a job picking fruit?”
“That’s a bust-ass job,” she said. “Have you ever done anything like that before?”
“No, but it beats going home, which is the only other thing I can do.”
“Well,” she said. “The valencia’s are running late this year, and a lot of the field-hands have already moved on. Galliard might be hiring.”
“Galliard Groves. It’s owned by Milt Thompson. They’re a few miles down the road.”
Brooke grabbed a notepad and pulled out a pencil hidden in the bun of her hair. She shook her head and her blonde hair cascaded around her shoulders as she sketched a map. As Henry inhaled another wave of vanilla, his heart thumped in his chest. She handed him the map and gave him a warm smile.
“Good luck,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said. “I really appreciate this. I’ll stop by later? Let you know how it went?”
Brooke’s smile echoed Henry’s. “I’d like that.”