Exit to Las Vegas Blvd.
Zoe lay between her mother and grandfather and could feel their heat beneath the bedroll, making her feel warm; safe and loved. The others in their group were close by and she could hear their steady breathing and knew they were asleep or getting close to it.
Through the darkness, she could just make out Ethan and Jacob on first watch, holding tight to their only repeating rifles. She snuggled down close and put her arms around granddad and squeezed with everything she had.
He gripped her skinny arms and kissed her forehead. He looked down at her face and saw no hint of sleep; and knew she wanted to hear more stories. Instead he pointed up to the sky and together they gazed at the wonders of the heavenly constellations.
The stars this night painted a canvas of glorious white dots on an ink black back drop. This earth, the heavens; though ravaged – was still a wondrous thing to behold – he thought. God had created this beautiful planet; and he hoped one day that this child in his arms could live on it in peace and comfort - without worry; and no further heartache.
Zoe took in a deep breath – squeezed her granddad again and urged him to share all he knew. She couldn’t get enough; and let him know so on a daily, almost hourly basis.
George chuckled down at his granddaughter and held her close. Though the stars were a wonder – she here in his arms, was a miracle. She, along with his own child – is what kept him going. Without them, he had no desire to live.
He pointed to the night sky again, and watched as her eyes followed the path of his finger. “See, there is the Little Dipper”, he whispered, “and there is Draco alongside Hercules.”
Zoe giggled and whispered back, “Hercules – the strongest man alive.” She flexed her bicep muscle and George playfully scrutinized it and felt its bulge. “One day, I will be as strong as he”, she pronounced.
George countered, “I believe you are almost there.”
After some moments of companionable silence, he returned her attention to the stars. “There now”, he pointed above them, “is Lyra, and look closely – see – its brightest star – Vega.”
Zoe sat up and reached her hand out as if to touch the star, “Vega”, she repeated.
George nodded his head, and pulled her back under the bedroll. “Sleep Zoe; soon we will be in Vega.”
Zoe closed her eyes and shut them tight; willing herself to dream of the brightness of Vega.
Zoe stood next to her mom and the others staring up at the green sign that informed them in large white letters that Las Vegas was five miles away.
The cracked asphalt beneath her feet crunched under her boots. She kicked at the chipped road, anxious to get going. Jasper stood at her shoulder and asked her to read the sign to him again.
“It says, Las Vegas Boulevard – Highway fifteen, five miles”, she repeated for the fifth time. “The arrow says to go this way” – she added with irritation; pointing north.
She kicked again at the ground and looked at the adults. No one was moving. She pulled her mom’s jacket sleeve and received a stern look.
What was the problem – she thought and moved away from the group to sit on the side of the road. Jasper followed her, like the shadow he was and sat down next to her, crossed his legs and picked up stones.
Zoe watched him curiously, and wondered what he was thinking. She rubbed his head with affection and laughed when he pushed her hand away.
Even though Jasper wasn’t really her brother – he kind of was. They had been together their whole lives. She remembered when he was born, and how little he was in her arms; and how his cry was loud and piercing.
When she wanted to get under his skin – she would rub his head; chase him around the ranch and try to pinch his chubby cheeks. He would scream to his mother to help and she would call him a baby.
She looked at him seriously now, as he piled his stones and thought to herself that at ten years old – he was no longer a baby. Still, the baby of the group – yes – but he was growing up and now stood tall at her shoulder.
If his pops was anything to go by – one day he would grow bigger than she.
She frowned then and recalled their fathers. She remembered how they had gone out one day to find food, and never came back. That was two years ago. And ever since then, she had made it her duty to be his big sister; to watch out for him. They were all each other had. No other kids to play with, to learn with or do cores with. It was just them.
She rubbed his head again and watched him squirm.
“What do you think we will see in Vega?” Jasper asked her quietly as his pile of stones began to grow.
She shrugged her shoulders and looked over at the group of adults, who all looked down at their lone map and appeared to be strategizing about what to do next.
“Granddad says there are machines there that cough up coins; and if you hit a jackpot, you win lots of money.”
Jasper lifted his eyebrows and threw a stone across the highway. “What’s a jackpot?” he wanted to know.
Zoe shook her head, “I don’t know; but mom says we will have food – shelter and work. That in Vega things are the way they use to be – before the eight balls.”
Jasper threw another stone, “How were things before?”
Zoe picked up a stone and studied it carefully, “People were happy I think.”
Jasper thought on this, “So, we will be happy in Vega.”
Zoe smiled wide and threw her stone. “Yes – we will be happy in Vega.”
Granddad joined them then and held out his hands. “Come on – it’s been decided. We push on to Vega and should be there tomorrow.”
Zoe and Jasper jumped to their feet; held onto his outstretched hands - joined the others; and took the exit to Las Vegas Boulevard.