“Excuse me, Miss?”
“Hmm?” Scarlett swiveled around in the coffee shop barstool and wiped the coffee cream off of her lip. Tugging on her sweater sleeve was a young girl in denim short overalls. Under her arm she held onto a sketchbook, and in her hand was a beaten-up straw hat. The pink ribbon tied around it was sun-bleached and beginning to fray. “Yes?” Scarlett asked.
“And who is this?” the bartender asked.
“I’m Katie,” the young girl replied. “I’m grown up now, so I’m exploring all kinds of new places!”
“That sounds wonderful,” the bartender said with a grin. He set the dishrag and dirty coffee mug from his hands on the counter. “I’m Brewster. Is there anything I can do for you?”
Katie shifted from one foot to another shyly. “I was actually going to ask Missus Mayor something,” she said, looking at the ground.
Scarlett shifted over a seat and patted the one she’d been seated upon. “Have a seat, and ask away.”
“Thanks!” Katie beamed, scrambling into the tall chair and setting her hat and journal on the counter in front of her. Scarlett slid her coffee cup and saucer in front of her. Brewster reached into the breadbox beside the sieve and took out a piece of lemon bread, which he handed to the enthusiastic explorer. “Thank you,” she said politely, nibbling on the corner.
Scarlett took the last drink of her coffee and pushed the saucer away from her. “So what can I do for you?”
“Well,” Katie said through a mouthful of bread, “I’ve been exploring Ecclesia for a while this morning, and I was wondering if you knew any good places I could go to visit next?”
Brewster took Scarlett’s cup and picked up his dishrag, wiping it clean. “There are quite a few towns around here, you can get to all of them by train,” he said. “The conductor can give you ample help as to where to get on and off at the train station.”
“Thank you, Mister Brewster sir,” Katie said, swallowing the last of her treat. “That’s how I knew how to get here. The conductor was very nice to me, he even gave me this,” she said, opening her sketchbook and flipping through the pages until she landed on one with a very large, round sticker stuck to the center of the page. On the sticker was the silhouette of a train on a track, passing by pine trees, beside a cliff. Around the circumference of the sticker was the phrase, “See the world, ride the rails.”
“That’s a cool sticker,” Scarlett said, angling the journal towards her.
“I like it a lot,” the girl said with a small smile. She flipped through the pages and skimmed the crayon drawings. There were trees and rivers, flowers and bugs, sketches of Katie with people Scarlett had never met. Villagers from other towns that Katie had visited, their mayors. “The conductor is a huge help with train etiquette and stuff.”
“That’s a very big word for such a very small girl,” Brewster said with a proud smile. For a brief moment he thought back to the days of working in a museum basement, where the curator was known for his expansive vocabulary.
Katie replied, “Mommy says I’m very smart.”
“Why do you need my help traveling, then?” Scarlett asked.
“Well, the conductor is good for teaching me manners and how to ask for help and who to ask and things like that, but he isn’t very good at telling me where to go. He doesn’t know that much about exploring, I guess… So I need you!”
“Yeah! I want you to take me to see another town, somewhere super cool!”
Scarlett sat up a little straighter. It had been a while since someone had asked for her help. At least, someone who wasn’t Isabelle asking for public works funding.
“Oh! I mean, please take me somewhere super cool?” Katie said, correcting her demanding tone.
Scarlett slid out of her seat and extended her hand. “Follow me,” she said.
The train wheels rattled quietly as the car passed through the tunnel. The car’s lights flickered every now and then, making the journey seem more mysterious. Katie sat criss-cross on the train seat across from Scarlett, her hat on top of her journal in her lap. She stared out the window at the rock wall of the tunnel, lost in thought. Scarlett leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes.
She’d left Isabelle in charge for the rest of the day, telling her that she had important errands to run in the next few towns over. Katie had nearly jumped into her arms when she told her that she knew the perfect town for her, and that she planned to explore a bit as well.
The train conductor came by, handing the travelers in his car bags of peanuts before quietly re-entering the control room. Katie handed her bag to Scarlett. She was allergic.
Scarlett slipped both bags into her backpack as the train came out of the tunnel and into the early winter sunlight. It flew past pine trees and fruit trees of all kinds, past one… two… three stations before it began to slow down. A few hours had passed.
When the car finally came to stop, it had begun to snow. The small white flakes landed silently on the boughs of the peach trees that were visible from the tracks. Scarlett took Katie’s hand and led her out of the train car and down the steps of the station into the town of Bately. Underfoot, a combination of autumn’s left over dead leaves and the permafrost in the grass made slight crunching sounds as they walked. Katie, brimming with excitement, dashed around in the grass, kicking up small, windblown piles of snow in explosions of feathery white dust.
Scarlett unfolded the map the conductor had given her. She skimmed the residents’ houses until she came upon one that she was familiar with, and called to Katie.
“I’m going here,” she said to the heavily breathing child. “You’re more than welcome to come with me, otherwise you can run around here until I’m done.”
“I’m gonna go visit the coffee shop,” Katie said, adjusting her hat on her head and gripping her book tightly in both hands. “I want to draw the snow.”
“Very well,” Scarlett said, closing the map. “I’ll come find you when I’m done.”
Katie shook her head. “No need, Missus Mayor. I can take it from here.”
“Are you sure?”
And with that, she ran off towards the bridge over the river. Scarlett exhaled, her breath forming a cloud in front of her that quickly dissipated. She marched towards her destination with determination, despite the cold cutting through her sweater.
When she got to the house, she knocked twice and called inside, “Anyone home?”
“Come in!” a voice returned.
Scarlett pulled open the door and stepped inside, a grin stretched across her cheeks. Her eyes lit up when she saw her old friend Maple sitting on her couch in her new home, watching a soap opera on TV.
“I brought you peanuts from the train,” she said, closing the door behind her. “It’s so good to see you again.”