The next few days were almost unbearable for Liberty. Not because of the hard work. She was happy to roll up her sleeves and help to dig trenches and lay pipes, happy to work side by side with the Selvadoradan women, learning to pound corn into a coarse flour and mix it with water to make a kind of tortilla. Nor was the setting intolerable, despite the wet, heavy heat and giant mosquitoes that tore at her skin. In fact, she would trade one hundred mosquito bites for having to share a house with Al Gae.
He complained about everything she did. When she scrubbed the tile floors, she left a residue behind. When it was his turn to sleep in the bed, she hadn’t tucked in the sheets tightly enough.
When she did her best to cook them a meal at the end of a long, grueling day in the sun, he complained that she’d burnt the chicken.
“It is not burnt!” she insisted. “Dude, what is wrong with you? It’s perfect.”
He tore off a chunk of meat and chewed. “It’s so overcooked, it’s like eating jerky,” he said, his mouth full.
“Fine,” she said. “Then from now on, you can do all the cooking.” And he’d accused her of being a spoiled suburbanite!
“Sorry,” said the mission leader when she’d begged to be reassigned. “Remember, this trip is about getting out of your comfort zone and getting along with all kinds of people.”
Liberty was sure that she’d never get along with Al.
Very early one morning, she was awakened from a fitful sleep on the hard living room futon. Was that music she heard? It was coming from outside. She motioned for Katniss to follow her out into the night. There beneath the trees was Al, strumming a worn guitar and singing softly. His eyes were closed, so he couldn’t see her and Katniss peering at him from behind a clump of bushes. She stayed there for the longest time, listening as his beautiful songs spilled out from his fingertips, mingling with the music of the birds hidden in the canopy.
After that, she began to soften toward him. There was clearly so much more to Al beneath the surface, more than the grouch who had been attacking her for small, trivial things.
“Hey.” She tapped him on the shoulder at the end of the day. “You want to join me for some food at the cantina?” He eyed her suspiciously but agreed to go. They ordered meat pies that reminded her of pupusas, and for the first time ever, they carried on a civil conversation. She learned that Al’s family lived down south, which explained the slight twang to his voice. She told him how she’d quit her dull data entry job to come volunteer.
“That was pretty brave of you.” He sounded impressed. “What will you do when you return home?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Write, maybe. I’ve always wanted to write. How about you? What will you do?”
He pressed his lips together, thinking. “I have a degree in Economics. But I don’t know if that’s how I want to spend my life. I was thinking…I might make music instead.”
“Yeah?” Liberty raised her eyebrows, as though she had no idea he had a musical talent. “Are you any good?”
He shrugged. “I could play a little, if you’d like to hear.”
She smiled. “I’d like that very much.” They went inside the little cantina, where a guitar and microphone sat in a corner of the room. Across the room, locals and volunteers chatted and drank at the bar. Al picked up the dusty guitar and began to strum and sing an old song by the Eagles. Liberty listened for a moment, entranced, then turned on the microphone and joined in.
I got a peaceful easy feelin’
And I know you won’t let me down
‘Cause I’m already standin’
On the ground
The other visitors crowded around as they sang, then burst into applause as Al strummed the final note.
“I hope you will come and play for us every night,” said the cantina owner with a heavy Selvadoradan accent. Al gave Liberty a sideways grin. She grinned back. They didn’t argue once for the rest of the night.