Title: Innocents Abroad
Author: Green Quarter
Archiving: http://www.realmoftheshadow.com/greenquarter.htm Copious credit to Kim for kindly caring for my crap.
Disclaimer: Characters of Popular belong to someone who is not me.
Feedback: Always appreciated, at above address.
Shoutouts: Many thanks to Carla for taking a look and giving me some much-needed input. Eternal gratitude goes to Junebug for advice on all topics medical, grammatical & plot-ical.
Notes: This fic is set in a Post Season Two Junior Prom World. The accident has brought a few changes to our favorite characters and things are a little different here.
“Here’s a hundred Euros.” I hand Brooke a wad of bills after I return from the Bureau de Change.
“Thanks, Sugar Momma,” she says sarcastically and puts the money in her pocket. She’s been minding our stuff while I change money, sitting on the floor near her backpack in a not so heavily trafficked spot against a column at the Termini in Rome. This is by far one of the busiest train stations I’ve been in. It’s immense. Pigeons are flying above us, lazily gliding from rafter to rafter as if they are flitting about the treetops. The bustle of people going places is a constant white noise in the background, along with the chimes that precede the announcements made over the public address system, first in Italian, then in English.
Our dealings over money have become the sticking point in this new, tentative alliance we have been building over the last week. It’s not like we’re ready to become contestants on the Amazing Race or anything, but at least we are amicable most of the time, and bordering on civil the remainder. But distributing the funds is always hard for me because I don’t trust Brooke enough yet. I give her spending money every few days and keep the rest in my money belt, taking care of paying for meals and accommodation for the both of us. I know it is not an ideal solution to the problem; I don’t want her to feel like she’s in Kindergarten or something with her name and address pinned to her sweater, but I don’t know what else to do. Part of me just wants to give her half and be done with it, but what would happen if she blows it all again and becomes stranded? She sure as hell wouldn’t stick around once she had the cash, and how would she get in touch with me if she needed help? Not that I would look forward to bailing her out again.
“Last chance for gelato. You want?” Brooke asks me, gesturing towards the Gelateria a little further down the concourse.
Of course I want. I nod.
Brooke gets up, dusts off her rear end and moves off. “The usual?” she asks, over her shoulder.
“Yeah,” I reply. “Wait. Here’s some money.”
She keeps walking, dismissing me with a wave of her hand.
If there is one thing that has bonded us through our travels in Italy, it is this. Sweet, delicious gelato. This rich, creamy, intensely flavorful Italian version of ice cream has done what our parents and friends could not accomplish in three years. It has made us forget our differences. When we eat gelato, there are entire ten-minute stretches of time when we are in complete harmony. We quickly discovered while still in Florence over a week ago that if relations between us were escalating to the point of physical harm, as they seemed to about every half hour in the beginning, we merely needed to turn to this heaven in a waxed paper cup to calm us into a more conciliatory mood. Enormous amounts of gelati were eaten in the last week. Enormous amounts.
Brooke returns with two small cups, tiny spoons sticking out from the top. She hands me mine and flops back down on her bag.
“What’d you get this time?” I ask.
“Lampone,” Brooke says mysteriously.
And so begins our little gelato ritual. She holds out her cup and I take a taste, trying to figure out what her Italian flavor translates to in English.
“Raspberry,” I say almost immediately. It tastes like the berries were picked this morning.
“Yup.” Brooke looks at my cup. “I’ll never understand why you go for the same flavor every time when there are a million different kinds of yummy gelati out there.”
I hold out my cup and Brooke digs her spoon in. She never declines, even though I’ve chosen the same flavor since our second trip to the Gelateria. “Call me boring if you will, but at least I know what I’ll be getting. I like it. You do too.”
“I didn’t mean it was boring, exactly. And I do like it. It’s good to know that if I go out on a limb and get something I don’t really like, at least I’ll have one taste of your baci.”
“Yes. It is the most perfect gelato flavor,”’ I say smugly, as Brooke dips her spoon into my cup again. The raspberry is very good too, and my spoon finds its way back to her cup. “But I take issue with your saying ‘one taste of my baci.’ Remember liquirizia? You hogged almost my whole thing because you didn’t know yours was licorice flavored.”
“Well look who’s had three bites of my raspberry so far. Licorice was the one misstep in my budding gelati-eating career. You’re just lucky that there are so many good flavors. There’s hardly any I don’t like.” Brooke glances at me, grinning, then continues eating. “Although it is hard to beat chocolate and hazelnut,” she concedes contemplatively, “especially the way the Italians do it.”
“How can you resist a flavor that is the Italian word for kisses?”
“I don’t resist it. I get to have some of yours, remember?”
“I’m too nice,” I sigh, in a highly dramatic and not serious way.
Brooke gazes at me for a moment but doesn’t agree. She doesn’t say anything, instead she looks away.
The lighthearted conversation dies, something that happens pretty frequently with us. Things will be proceeding nicely, we’ll both be enjoying ourselves, and then Brooke will pull back as if she’s remembering that she can’t like me. I’ve been bending over backward trying to get along, but it’s like Brooke won’t let herself release her grip on her dislike of me. I’ve tried not to take it personally, but how much more personal can her intermittent veiled hostility get?
“Should we get going?” I say after we finish eating in silence. We are catching a high-speed train to Milan where we will transfer to a night train that will put us in Paris in the morning. I’ve let Brooke pick our next destination in another example of how I’m trying to make this work. I’ve radically altered my traveling style for Brooke. We’ve been staying in one place for longer than I’m accustomed to, taking day trips to outlying areas so we’re not always moving around with our big backpacks. It actually has been good to slow down a little, I’m not as tired as I was when I was going at such a frantic pace, and I have the time to get to know a place a little better.
I stand up and heave my pack to my shoulders, then hold out my hand to help Brooke up. She stands and slings my daypack over her shoulder and we each pick up a strap of her backpack and start towards the platform, carrying her bag between us.
“What do you mean, you didn’t reserve a couchette?” Brooke is pissed. Again.
“Just what I said. I reserved us two seats, not two sleeping berths.” This is the way I usually do it, but I’m sensing that Brooke does not travel this way. “The couchettes are way too expensive, Brooke.”
“So we’re just going to be as uncomfortable as we can possibly be the whole time? Jesus, Sam, I know you’ll go a long way to save a buck, but at the expense of your own comfort?”
“It’s not that bad. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and your compartment won’t even be full,” I say defensively. We are in the Milan train station, about to board our Paris train. The platform is a zoo, the train is going to be packed, and the likelihood of getting a compartment to ourselves is about zero. “I got us non-smoking seats,” I offer in appeasement.
She rolls her eyes at me. “Let’s go.”
Hey, at least we have seats. The first time I did this I didn’t know about needing to purchase a separate seat reservation along with my Eurail pass and spent the night sitting on my backpack in the corridor. It sucked.
I lead the way to our predictably full compartment, where four of the six seats are already occupied. Brooke and I are forced to take the two middle seats facing each other. Luckily there is still space in the overhead racks and I heave our packs up onto them. I settle down in my seat and avoid looking at Brooke. Maybe I should have asked her what she wanted before making a unilateral decision.
There is an old woman sitting next to Brooke in the window seat, and a man in a suit reading the Italian newspaper La Stampa on her other side. In the window seat next to me is a young guy, loud techno music leaking out of the headphones attached to his ears, and on my right is another man of indeterminate age. The leather jacket he’s wearing is oddly out of place in the July heat.
Brooke strikes up a conversation with the woman on her right. It turns out that she is traveling with her grandson, techno boy, and their destination is a small town in Switzerland. Brooke speaks to her in schoolgirl French, bravely stumbling over vocabulary and grammar learned in a southern California classroom and the woman is pleased by her effort and patient with her.
I have seen this again and again since we’ve been traveling together. Brooke is like a magnet for cultural experience. She thinks nothing of asking a stranger on the street a question, talking to people in bars, searching out the places where the locals go. I took French for four years too, but while she blithely forges ahead with her badly accented French, I sit mutely, afraid of making an ass out of myself.
The train starts moving and I watch idly as we pull out of the station. At least this means that two seats will be free relatively soon. I pull out my guide book and start reading about Paris. Brooke and I have been pretty compatible with the sights we have wanted to see so far, and I doubt our agendas in Paris will be very dissimilar. I know she will want to visit a lot of the art museums; I’m looking forward to that. Having Brooke with me while touring the Vatican and about twenty other churches in Rome was a great learning experience. It was like having my own personal tour guide. She was a fountain of information and had details about artists at her fingertips, plus she put her information within the context of the historical period, which made it all so much more interesting. Brooke would make a wonderful teacher. She must have done a shitload of reading while she recuperated.
I’m feeling restless. It’s getting stuffy in here and I need some air. I get up and leave the compartment, sliding the door closed behind me. I move to the window in the corridor and pull it down, immediately feeling better with the cool breeze in my face. I rest my arms on the window and listen to the rhythmic clacking of the wheels against the track and watch as the train curves around a bend. I can see light coming from the windows of the cars in front of this one, and a waxing moon hanging brightly above in a darkened sky. We are traversing the Alps, and are frequently passing through long tunnels blasted through a mountain’s worth of sheer rock.
I hear the door slide behind me and turn to see Brooke poking her head through.
“Sam, we’re going to play cards. Do you want to play? We need a fourth.”
I probably should, but I really don’t feel like it. I’m not feeling particularly sociable right now. Maybe I’m moody today but I don’t relish the thought of making nice with people I don’t know and will never see again. “I was just going to have a smoke, you’d better find someone else.”
She scrutinizes me for a second, then nods and shuts the door.
I walk down the corridor into the next car, which happens to be a smoking car. I take up my usual position by the window and light up.
I return to the compartment about an hour later, lingering in the smoking car because I inexplicably feel like being alone. Brooke is reading my guidebook. She’s sitting in the window seat where the old woman had been, and the businessman in the suit has moved to the window seat opposite her. My daypack is on the seat beside her, and she’s thrown her sweater on the far seat, effectively claiming the whole bench for us. Leather jacket guy is sleeping in his same seat. I sit down next to her.
“Hi. I tried to get you the window seat, but he moved too fast,” Brooke says apologetically.
“That’s alright. I snooze, I lose. The Swiss people are gone?”
“Yeah, at the last stop.”
I gesture to the guide book. “Anything interesting?”
She nods. “Paris is going to be expensive.”
“But worth it. Who knows when we’ll be back?”
“Are you thinking hostel or hotel?”
“I don’t know, what do you want to do?” If I was by myself in a pricey place like Paris I would go to a hostel, no question. But I’m willing to defer to Brooke’s wishes as long as we can afford it.
“Well, there is this place out in Montmartre that has double rooms at about the same price as a hostel.” She points to a listing in the guide book.
I glance at it, noting that it was the one I had read about and was going to suggest as a compromise. “Sounds good.”
There is a knock on the compartment door and it is thrown open by the conductor and a border patrol agent. Brooke gets out her documents from a side pocket in her pack and I pull my money belt out from behind the waistband of my pants. It feels good to remove that extra inch from my waist, the thing gets so sweaty and gross it’s nice to air it out once in a while. I remove my Eurail pass and passport and show them to the men, as do Brooke and the other occupants of our compartment.
I shove my passport and train pass into my back pocket when they finish inspecting them, and leave my money belt outside my pants but pull my shirt over it. I can’t be bothered to tuck everything away again right now; I’ll fix it later.
Brooke is talking to the businessman. He was their fourth for cards and they are being social with each other. He offers her an apple, and then one to me as an afterthought. We both take them, and I offer him some grapes I bought in Rome that are looking a little bedraggled. He declines.
Soon the only thing heard in our compartment is the regular sound of the train gliding on the tracks. The businessman falls asleep; we are the only ones awake now. I can see Brooke getting sleepy, her head falling forward then snapping back as she tries to fight it. I get up and sit in the middle seat across from her, so there are three of us on one side and only her on the other. “Brooke, why don’t you stretch out and sleep?”
“I can’t. I can only sleep on my side and I can’t if I don’t have support for my head. Because of my shoulder.”
Oh god. I’m such an asshole. Of course that’s why she needed a sleeping berth. “How about my sleeping bag? You could use that.”
“No. It’s too much trouble.”
“It is not. Don’t be a martyr,” it comes out more harshly than I intended.
“I’m not,” she glares at me. “If I leave it in the bag it will be too hard and if I take it out it’ll be too squishy.”
“Well how about some clothes or my daypack? Or you could rest your head in my lap…” Why did I say that? “If you want,” I finish lamely.
“Your lap would probably be the most comfortable if you wouldn’t mind,” Brooke replies. “But don’t go getting any ideas that this is going to make me indebted to you or anything.”
“I won’t.” I say and get up. She moves over and I turn off the compartment light before sitting in the window seat. Brooke lays down on her side facing the upholstery, her head resting on my thigh, her face inches from my hipbone. Her legs are scrunched up a little and her butt is kind of hanging off the bench. “Are you comfortable?”
“As much as I can be,” she grunts.
We are quiet for a little while. Brooke closes her eyes but I don’t think she’s asleep yet. It feels nice to have her this close to me. I resist the impulse to run my fingers through her hair. Since we started traveling together I’ve had this growing feeling of affection for her, even when she’s being moody and bitchy. Not that I would ever tell her. I do still feel guilty about the whole sleeping berth thing.
“If I knew some of the reasons why you need specific things, like a sleeping berth for instance, I could make better decisions.”
She doesn’t say anything. If she had her own money she wouldn’t be forced to have me making these decisions for her at all. I feel miserable. I am compelled to say more.
“I’m really sorry. I’m sorry that I don’t know anything about the accident. I’m sorry I don’t know more about the things that are hurting you now. I’m sorry that I didn’t visit you in the hospital. I just couldn’t. But I have no idea why I couldn’t. You don’t know how hard I’ve tried to remember what happened that night. I would give anything to remember.”
I wait for her to say something, but she doesn’t. She is listening, though. In the semi-darkness I can see that her eyes are open and as far as I can tell she is deeply absorbed by the beige material of my money belt that is peeking out the bottom of my shirt.
“Do you remember things from that night?” I ask.
After a minute, “I remember everything,” she says.
I can’t believe it. She goes through the trauma of being hit by a moving vehicle and can remember, but all I do is witness it happening to her and I can’t.
“Can you please tell me what happened? I can’t take not knowing anymore, Brooke. I feel like I’m incomplete.”
She closes her eyes. It takes so long for her to answer I think that she has fallen asleep, but then I hear her quiet reply.
“I’m sorry, Sam. I can’t do that.”
Her rejection hurts more than I thought, although I was half expecting it. Tears come to my eyes and I whisper thickly, “Would you mind telling me why?”
“I just can’t. I’m sorry.”
The conversation is over. After awhile I feel Brooke relax against me and her breathing becomes heavy and regular. I’m not the least bit tired, although it has to be at least two in the morning. I look out the window at the dark shadows rushing by which at this hour constitute scenery, and when we pass under streetlights I momentarily see my face reflected back at me. I come to a decision. In the morning I will give Brooke half of the money for her to do with what she pleases. It’s not doing her any good forcing her to stay with me. We’ll both be better off going our separate ways.
I hear the click of the compartment door sliding home and I’m instantly awake. I look blearily around the compartment in the dim light of early morning coming through the window. I am alone. I remember the businessman leaving sometime around three. I was still awake and we said a polite goodbye to each other. I must have fallen asleep shortly after that. The guy in the leather jacket who could sleep through anything is gone, and so is Brooke. Maybe she stepped out to get some air. I stand up and stretch, noticing that we are traveling through an industrial area. My first glimpse of France in daylight is huge lots of tractor trailer containers and heavy equipment. Pretty.
Something feels different to me. I stand there in the middle of the train compartment and think. All of a sudden my hands go to my waist. My heart plummets to my feet. My money belt is gone. The thing that has been my constant companion, that I so carefully safeguarded and took everywhere with me, which contained all my money, my emergency phone numbers, my passport, my Eurail pass and all the things necessary for traveling, is gone.
And Brooke is gone too.
Okay. Just calm down for a second.
I force myself to take a few deep breaths. I close my eyes and just stop and think. I am alone on a train with no money and no proof of identity. Wait. No, I had some money in my pockets. I thrust my hands deep in my pockets and come up with about forty-five Euros and change. At least that is something. Then I remember the border check last night and I slap my rear with both hands. The reassuring feeling of some impediment between my hand and my butt fills me with relief and from my back pocket I draw out my passport with my Eurail pass folded around it. I could cry I’m so happy.
I sit down because I realize I may fall down if I don’t. Brooke has left and taken all of my money with her. How could she do this to me? Suddenly I’m filled with such rage that if she were standing in front of me I don’t think I could stop my hands from grabbing her around the neck and choking the life out of her. I tried to be nice, I didn’t have to give her anything. And this is how she repays me.
All right, I can’t think about her now. I need to figure out what to do. My pack! Is still here, thank god. Looking up at the overhead rack I see that Brooke’s pack is still here too. She wouldn’t have left without her stuff, would she? Now I’m confused.
The compartment door slides open and Brooke bursts in awkwardly carrying two cups of steaming coffee. “Sam! I was just talking to this guy in the dining car and he said we could…” She stops talking at the look on my face, I guess. “What? What is it? What’s wrong?”
Brooke did not steal my money. I’m sure of it now. The blood rushes to my face for thinking that she would do something like that to me. I’m suffused with guilt for thinking she could, and also relief that she hasn’t. But it doesn’t change the fact that we now have virtually no money. But maybe…
“Brooke, please tell me you have my money belt.” Maybe she’s just holding it for me, my heart swings wildly towards hope.
“Your… No, Sam, I don’t,” Brooke frowns in confusion, then realization crosses her features and she says, “Oh no.”
“Yes.” I say flatly.
“Oh my god.”
“All the money. I still have my passport and my Eurail pass.”
“Well that’s something, at least. That man in the leather jacket, it had to be him. He was still in here when I went to get coffee.”
He was? Maybe he’s still on the train.
“This is all my fault,” Brooke continues wretchedly. “I shouldn’t have left you here alone. I even saw that your money belt was all twisted around and showing but you were sleeping and he was sleeping and I thought I would only be gone a minute. I’m so sorry, Sam!”
The train is slowing down. We’re pulling into a station and I’m thinking that if I have any chance to get my money back it’s slipping away as she is speaking. “It’s okay, it’s not your fault. It’s totally mine,” I answer. “But he may still be on the train, wait here I’m going to see if I can find him.”
“But Sam, what if he has a weapon? He could be dangerous.”
“What do you want me to do? He has our money! I have to get it back and this is the only way,” I’m beyond frustrated and just want to start looking for the creep.
“I’m coming with you. No, we should split up. You go one way and I’ll go the other,” Brooke says quickly and starts for the door.
“No.” I put a hand on her arm to stay her. “I’ll go; you stay here with our stuff.” I don’t want Brooke mixed up in this. It’s my stupid fault this happened.
“I’m helping,” Brooke asserts. “You can’t stop me. Now let’s go, we’re wasting time.”
The train has just about stopped. We split up in the passage way, I go towards the front of the train, Brooke, the back. I glance into all the other compartments as I rush by but I’m almost positive he’ll be getting off at this stop. My movements are hampered by slow moving people with baggage who are clogging the corridor as they prepare to disembark. I realize that I’m never going to find him this way.
I jump off the train at the nearest exit and scan the platform. The stop is a small station on the outskirts of Paris and it is jammed with commuters who are waiting for a fast train to take them into the city. Every other person I see is wearing a leather jacket. My other problem is that I can’t clearly recall what the guy looks like. He was so unnoticeable that all I remember is the damn jacket. I look around for anyone who is walking quickly or furtively but it’s impossible. I move about the platform and look into the faces of the people milling around, searching their Gallic features for a familiar nose or the lank sandy colored hair (I think) of the man who took my money. It’s hopeless.
I turn around when I hear the All Aboard and fight against the tide of bodies, trying to get to one of the train doors. They all seem to be crowded with people getting on the train so I continue down the platform to find a less crowded entry.
“Sam, what are you doing? Get back on the train!”
I stop and look up. Without realizing it I’ve walked past the car where Brooke and I have spent the night. She’s back in our compartment and has her head out the window, a train conductor standing next to her.
“I’m making a report,” Brooke says. “I couldn’t find him,” she adds apologetically.
“Neither could I,” I reply. “I’m trying to get back on the train.”
The conductor says in heavily accented English, “You must hurry, mademoiselle, the train is about to go.”
Just then I hear the doors automatically close.
“It’s too late,” the conductor says.
“Can’t you get them to open the doors?” Brooke asks frantically.
I run over to the nearest door and pound on it. Nothing happens.
If this were the movies this would be that dramatic scene where the door magically opens as the train begins to move and I run alongside while Brooke holds out her arm for me to grab onto. I would put on a final burst of speed and pull myself up with her help just as the train gathers momentum, collapsing in her arms, breathing heavily, grateful to have made it.
But this is not the movies and the door does not open. I go back to the window where Brooke is leaning out, watching me. I walk alongside the train as it begins to move. “This train terminates at Gare du Nord. Wait for me there. I’ll be on the next train. Okay?”
Brooke nods, her hands gripping the window ledge hard. She looks worried.
“Don’t worry, Brooke. I’ll be there soon. Everything will be fine,” I say with more conviction than I’m feeling. I start to jog as the train picks up speed. The conductor is still standing beside her and I direct my next words to him. “Will you help her get our bags off the train? She has a bad shoulder.”
“Of course,” he says stiffly.
“Be careful, Sam. Be safe,” Brooke calls to me. She’s frowning, an expression of concern, maybe.
“See you soon,” I gasp, at this point I’m running flat out. I slow down as the train pulls away with enormous speed, watching Brooke as she leans out the window as far as she safely can. Our eyes lock for as long as we are in each other’s sight, then she is gone, and I am alone on the platform among hundreds of people, breathing hard and bent over from exertion.
The desire for a cigarette overwhelms me as I straighten and walk back to the station, intent on finding a timetable that will tell me when the next train leaves. This has to be the shittiest day of my life and it’s not even seven AM.
“You have reached the McQueen residence. No one is able to take your call, please leave a message and we’ll get back to you. Thanks.”
It’s a bit strange to hear Brooke’s voice in my ear when she’s standing not three feet in front of me, silently regarding me through a transparent sheet of plexiglass as I prepare to leave a message in a Parisian public phone box. “Hi, it’s Sam. There’s been a little mishap here in Europe. Don’t worry, both Brooke and I are fine, but we were robbed on an overnight train and we don’t have any money. We’ve tried both your cells and now you guys aren’t at home either. I’m getting a little bit worried. I guess we’ll try your work numbers next. Um, bye.”
I come out of the phone box in front of the American Express office on the Champs Elysees and give Brooke the news. She hands me her list of phone numbers. “I have my dad’s office number but not your mom’s,” she says apologetically.
“Let’s try it,” I sigh.
Our luck has been unbelievably bad since we had met up again. When I arrived at Gare du Nord a few hours after we were separated, I practically leapt off the train and searched the station for Brooke. I had found her sitting on a bench near the huge arrivals board reading my guidebook, our bags neatly stacked next to her.
A feeling of relief washed over me when I saw her, and I rushed over only to stop before I reached her. She looked up and smiled with relief too, rising from the bench and coming toward me, but she also hesitated as she approached. Halting a safe distance in front of me, she reached out and grasped my shoulder, saying “I’m glad you’re here.”
I grabbed her around the waist and hugged her, unable to stop myself. She was stiff for a few moments, her arms awkwardly at her sides before she relaxed and hugged me back. I know she probably wasn’t cool with my show of affection but I couldn’t help it. Even though we were both less than minty fresh from our night on the train she smelled so good to me and I closed my eyes and inhaled surreptitiously, hoping she wouldn’t notice.
When the hug ended Brooke stood back and held my gaze for a minute. “Are you okay?” she asked me. After I nodded, she immediately launched into telling me our plan of action. First, she said, we needed to report the theft to the police, then we could go to the American Express office to see about getting the uncashed traveler’s checks replaced, then we should call our parents. This was all perfectly reasonable, and we set out to make it happen, but the reality didn’t match with the hypothetical.
Filling out a police report took hours, but we eventually got it done. Next was an expensive cab ride, with money we couldn’t afford to spend, to the American Express office. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be getting any money from Amex because a receipt for the checks was needed, and I didn’t have it because it was safely tucked away in my money belt. None of this would be such a problem if we could get a hold of Brooke’s dad, who would surely replace the money so we could at least finish the trip, but getting in touch with either parent was proving more difficult than it should. After using a cell phone with programmed numbers at home for so long, I could barely remember my mom’s phone number, much less Mike’s office. Swiftly calculating the time difference, I realized that it was very early in Los Angeles right now, but Mike was usually at work by 7AM to keep tabs on the east coast markets. I hoped whoever picked up there would accept a transatlantic collect call from a non-blood relative. Maybe Brooke should be doing this.
“Brooke, you want to try this time? I’m sure your dad would like to speak to you.”
Brooke takes my place in the phone booth and places the call. She looks so serious, staring at the strange-looking phone with its instructions written in French. I have this urge to start hopping around making monkey faces at her so she’ll laugh, which I stifle. Our situation is dire, but it would be so much worse if we weren’t together. I get an inkling of how Brooke must have felt when her money was running out.
She’s talking to someone now but I can’t hear a thing. She stops talking, then looks up at me, raising one finger in a “just one second” gesture. Someone comes back on the line and her eyes are cast downward again as she starts talking. She’s not smiling. Long after the time when she should be smiling she’s not smiling. She rings off much sooner than she would if she was speaking to her dad, giving him the latest from our madcap adventures in Europe.
“The parentals have taken Mac and gone on a spur of the moment trip to Costa Rica,” she announces, a note of disbelief evident in her voice.
“Yeah. Glynnis said your mom found them some great deal so they just decided to take off for a week.”
“Who the hell is Glynnis? And when the hell will they be back?”
“Glynnis is my dad’s assistant. I told her the deal and she said she’ll call the hotel and track them down, but it’ll take awhile since it’s one of those no-phones-no-TV-back-to-nature Central American safari kind of places. She said to call back tomorrow.”
Great. Just, great. “They picked a fine time to start being spontaneous,” I remark. “Well I have about forty Euros-“
“And I have nearly a hundred,” Brooke jumps in. “We should be okay if we can get a hold of them tomorrow.”
“But what if we can’t? And with the time difference it might be after business hours before we get this all sorted out. And then it will be the weekend and we’ll be stuck without money, food, and a place to stay in one of the most expensive cities in the world!” Our situation is definitely hitting me now, and I’m panicking. “I can’t believe how stupid I am! How could I have slept through some guy pawing at me like that? What if he did something else and I don’t even know? God, Brooke, I’m sorry I got you into this mess, I’m such an idiot. I can’t believe-“
“SAM!” Brooke shouts at me, getting my attention and pulling me back from the cliff of hysteria. “This is not your fault. You are the victim here.” She puts her hands on my shoulders and looks me in the eye. “Everything is going to be fine. We can make it a few days if we have to. After all, we have a free place to stay every night, we can do the picnic thing for breakfast lunch and dinner, and we’ll put off the sight-seeing until we’re flush again.” She gives my shoulders a little shake. “So calm down, you’re freaking me out.”
“Sorry.” I relax my shoulders and take a deep breath, but Brooke doesn’t let go. The feel of her hands on me and her rational words have soothed me, and I want to hug her again, but I don’t. I’m so glad she’s here. “What do you mean we have a free place to stay every night?”
“The train, dummy,” Brooke answers, her kind smile taking the sting out of her pejorative, not that it isn’t true.
“Oh, yeah,” I smile in return. Things don’t look so bad right now. “So there’s nothing we can do until tomorrow.”
Brooke nods, her expression turning serious. “So what can we do to occupy ourselves, if we have about a million hours until we can get a night train somewhere and we can’t spend any money?”
I look around. We are in the heart of Paris, our bags locked up at left luggage back at the train station, it’s a bright sunny afternoon, and I’m with Brooke. Things could be worse. “See that old guy feeding the pigeons over there?” I nod to a grouping of benches where the birds are swarming around the man like something out of Hitchcock.
Brooke sees him and looks at me uncertainly.
“Let’s go steal his bread,” I say, my voice earnest and my expression grave. “Those pigeons are fat, they don’t need it. And we might if we run out of money.”
She looks at me dubiously. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“I am. It’s already stale. We can keep it until we really need it. Just in case. And that guy has a cane. We can totally outrun him,” I can’t believe I’ve kept a straight face for so long.
“Sam, I’m not going to steal that man’s bread,” Brooke states emphatically.
Her expression is priceless, like she’s wondering if she packed a straitjacket in her luggage for me, and I can’t do it anymore. I burst out with a huge guffaw right in her face. She’s so surprised by it she just stands there agape. By now I’m a minute away from rolling around on the ground, laughing like a crazed hyena on nitrous.
“I can’t believe you!” she yells, and hits me in the arm a few times, but she’s smiling now. “You had me worried, I thought you were having a meltdown.” She starts to giggle. “You are a complete nut. Plain and simple.” My arm receives another blow from her fist, but it is more affectionate than anything.
I look at her and smile, I love that I made her laugh. “Come on.” I grab her by the hand and pull her down the street. “Let’s go hang in the Tuileries for awhile. If we’re going to be bored and miserable, we might as well be somewhere pretty.”
“Sam, I’m bored and miserable,” Brooke stops her pacing and faces me. “And I’m cold!”
“Sorry Brooke.” I look up from her copy of The Agony and the Ecstasy that she has loaned me. I’m sympathetic but there isn’t anywhere else for us to go, really. It had been warm and sunny, the weather turned freakishly chilly once the sun went down. “The train will be leaving soon, can you think of a better place to wait than the platform?”
We were booted out of the warm, cozy waiting room at 11PM, our train leaves just after midnight. The criteria for picking our destination was only one thing: find a place where no one wants to go so we can get a compartment to ourselves. From the looks of the deserted platform, I think we succeeded. We picked a town called Caen, not to be confused with Cannes. There wasn’t much written about it in the guidebook, but its location deep in the north of France guaranteed a long slow ride on a local train that would get us in around six in the morning. We could turn around and take a high speed train back to Paris in a couple of hours.
“Can I wear your sweatshirt?” Brooke asks me.
“Then I would be cold.” Our only misstep had been not arriving back at the train station before the left luggage office closed. We had left our packs there, not wanting to lug our bags around the city, so we were without toiletries, fresh clothes, and my sleeping bag, which would have been nice to have right about now. My daypack was all we had, and Brooke hadn’t thought to bring a sweater.
We wandered all over, but stuck mostly to the right bank. Exploring the wide avenues, the Place de la Concorde, strolling the Champs Elysees all the way up to the Arc de Triomphe was a terrific way to spend the day. The window shopping got pretty intense, with Brooke writing down addresses of some of the most exclusive boutiques in the city to return to when she makes her fortune, and me salivating at patisserie displays. We stumbled across a McDonald’s right at the moment when our feet absolutely needed a rest and our hunger pangs could be ignored no longer. Brooke instantly wanted a Royale with Cheese, and I had Le Big Mac. We called each other Vincent and Jules for the rest of the day. We didn’t argue once and I don’t want to start now.
“Tell you what, why don’t we share it?” I say, tossing the book aside and getting up, moving to stand close in front of her. I take her hands in mine, they are really cold, and put all four of them in the front pocket of my hoodie I hold onto her hands, trying to warm them with my own and with the fleece that surrounds them. I can hear my heart beating in my chest and wonder if she can hear it too. “Better?” I ask, looking up into her eyes.
She’s looking at me very soberly. Maybe I’ve overstepped my boundaries here, but something is happening to me and I hope to Brooke as well. I think we’ve leapt beyond being just friends to something more intimate. It’s crazy. I’ve been thinking about it all day, how this has been coming on since we started traveling together. I can hardly comprehend it myself, much less put it into words should she ask me to explain myself. All I know is that I want to be close to her, I want to forget all of the things that we’ve done to each other over the years and just bask in her nearness. I don’t know what the feelings I’ve been having for her mean, I don’t want to think about any of it right now. My biggest hope is that I don’t say something that will screw it up, and that Brooke will keep her guard down long enough to let me in a little bit. She hasn’t said anything, her hazel eyes intense in their regard, searching mine for an answer to some unspoken question.
“Are your shoulders cold?” I ask, pulling my hands out of the pocket and wrapping my arms around her. Her hands remain ensnared between us, wrapped up in my sweatshirt as I pull her close, burying my face in her hair and neck and sighing with contentment. But I can feel the tension in her, she’s not as comfortable as I would like her to be.
Brooke clears her throat. “You sure you want to be this close to me? It’s been awhile since I last had a shower.”
I take a conspicuous sniff. “Is that what I smell?”
She nudges me in protest.
“I don’t mind,” I say. My hands slide down to rest at the small of her back, my arms encircling her and trapping her arms in a pretty intimate embrace. “Besides, you could say the same about me.” My voice sounds muffled, coming from so close to her body.
“It’s only my exceedingly good breeding which has prevented me thus far,” she declares dryly.
I smirk in reply, even though she can’t see it. “Are you warmer now?”
I feel her nod.
“That’s good, but we have a little problem.”
“Now my hands are cold,” I say as I slide them under the hem of her shirt and rest them against the warm skin of her lower back.
Immediately Brooke tears her hands from the pocket of my sweatshirt and breaks out of my hold, stepping back away from me as if I just told her I had bubonic plague. She doesn’t look at me as she retreats to where I had been sitting previously. She sits down and picks up the book she lent me, the book she has already read, and opens it to the page I marked and begins to read. Or pretends to read, anyway.
“I’m sorry,” I offer, “was it something I said?”
She shakes her head, but doesn’t look up, doesn’t say anything.
Slowly, I take off my sweatshirt, experiencing goose bumps on my arms as my body registers the cool night air. I drop it in her lap as I walk off down the platform, giving her as much space as she could want before our train arrives.
These tiny ashtrays are a joke. This train that we are on, currently bound for Caen, has been around the track a few times. The interior design is a bit shabby and dated, but they have these clever fold-down seats in the corridor right by the window with a handy ashtray built into the paneling within easy ashing distance. However, four butts and the thing is overflowing. I guess they didn’t plan to accommodate chain-smoking American teens trying to escape from awkward situations by sitting in a smoking car corridor and ingesting the same amount of pathogens as if one had worked twelve hours in a tar factory.
Guilt consumes me for leaving Brooke all alone in the otherwise empty compartment we found, but I just can’t face her right now. I feel like an idiot. I’ve been out here for an hour or so, watching the darkened scenery roll by and evaluating my position.
I can no longer deny that I have developed certain feelings for Brooke. Within the last twenty-four hours I have gone from believing she would steal from me to wanting to kiss her on the lips like a boyfriend would. Talk about a 180 degree whiplash-inducing turnaround. But actually, I’ve wanted to kiss her for quite a while now, if I’m honest with myself. I’ve completely let go of all the hostility I once felt towards her; it’s replaced by an uncontrollable desire to get her to like me, to win her over, to show her I’m someone worthy of her. Right now all I can think of is how ludicrous this all is. My feelings have changed but I don’t think much has changed for her. She still cannot stand me. Sure, she’s been nicer lately, and today seemed like a breakthrough of a kind, but it’s only because she needs me. Isn’t it?
When I think about the awesome day we had together the one thing that strikes me is the difference in Brooke. It was like she forgot that she didn’t like me today. We laughed, we talked, we enjoyed ourselves. Was it the early morning trauma on the train that brought us closer? A hardship we are sharing that makes us feel united against the world?
I don’t regret the impulsiveness that led me to that embrace on the train platform, and Brooke didn’t back off until I made the mistake of touching her bare skin, I realize now. She told me only days ago that she doesn’t like that. The fact remains that I did behave impulsively and I need to apologize to her.
I pull back on the handle of the door that leads to the compartment where I left Brooke but it won’t open. The curtains are drawn so I can’t tell if she’s inside. Maybe it’s the next one down, but I could have sworn it was this one.
“Sam? Is that you?”
I hear Brooke call to me from inside the compartment.
“Yeah, are you okay?”
There is a pause, Brooke does something to the door, then slides it open. She has my bandana in her hand.
“Sorry. I tied the door closed.” Brooke turns and uses the bandana to fasten the door to a handle on the door jamb.
“No, no. That was a good idea. Real good. We should have done that last night.”
“What, and keep the robber inside with us?” Brooke asks incredulously.
Shit. I’m so not thinking straight. “Oh yeah. No, that wouldn’t have worked,” I mumble. I watch Brooke as she sits in one of the window seats and picks up the book she was supposed to have finished reading, holding it in her hands unopened.
“Do you want your sweatshirt back?” she asks, gesturing to the neatly folded article of clothing on the seat beside her.
I shake my head; I’m not cold, I’m warm.
“Where were you?” she then asks.
“I was just in the smoking car, um, smoking.” I sit down across from her and lean in. “Listen…”
Brooke rears back in her seat, reestablishing some distance between us, and pulls a pack of gum out of her pocket. “No offense, Sam, but you smell like an ashtray.” She holds out a stick of spearmint gum.
I’m sure a blush blooms across my cheeks as I take it, simultaneously sitting back so my breath won’t knock her flat anymore. Jesus, how embarrassing.
“I wish we at least had our toothbrushes,” Brooke watches while I put the gum in my mouth and vigorously chew.
“Yeah, me too. You have no idea how much right now,” I say, chagrined. “Look, Brooke, I just wanted to apologize for before. I’m sorry. I like how we’ve been getting along lately, I’m having a lot of fun traveling with you, present circumstances notwithstanding, and I don’t want to do anything to mess it up.”
She listens to me and doesn’t comment.
“And I’m sorry I left you in here all by yourself for so long,” I add. “That was kind of stupid, after what happened last night, but I’m glad you locked yourself in.”
Brooke nods. That’s it. Nothing else. Apology acknowledged, if not accepted. I wish I could figure out what’s going on in her head. She doesn’t let anything slip, not ever. Maybe that’s part of her allure for me.
“Here,” she says, handing me the orange-covered The Agony and the Ecstasy.
“Are you done with it? I don’t want to take it from you if you’re not.”
“Yeah, I’m done. I just needed to be distracted for awhile. What do you think of it so far?”
The book is a novelization of Michelangelo’s life. It goes into great detail about his family, his upbringing, how he began painting and sculpting, and the many great works he created during his lifetime. “It’s interesting. A little schmaltzy in places, but I like it. Thanks.”
“Yeah. I liked it too, but it kind of bothers me that they gloss over certain aspects of his life.”
“Really? Like what?”
“Well, rather than be honest about Michelangelo’s sexuality, they vague it up with references to a special ‘friend,’” Brooke uses air quotes to make her point.
“Oh. You mean his friend was really his boyfriend?”
“I think the evidence points to him being more homosexual than heterosexual,” Brooke says. “But the man lived so long ago, it really doesn’t matter now, does it?”
“I don’t know,” I muse. “Speaking journalistically, I don’t particularly care for a whitewash of history, any history, even something seemingly unimportant like a great artist’s alleged sexual proclivities. Even though this is a fictionalized account, we’re talking about an actual historical figure. I’d like to think that what I’m reading is factual.”
“Why do you say ‘alleged sexual proclivities’ like you don’t believe me?” Brooke’s tone is argumentative. “And ‘proclivities’ suggests something distasteful. Why do you use that word? Do you think it’s something shameful?” she demands.
I’m taken aback by her vehemence. I hardly know what to address first. I don’t even know if we’re still talking about Michelangelo. “I have no reason not to believe you, Brooke,” I begin gently. “Of the two of us, you are unquestionably the authority on all things cultural. I guess I said alleged because there is no way it can be proven now, with him being dead for hundreds of years, as is anyone who could verify or disprove the contention that Michelangelo was gay. Also, I respectfully submit that the word ‘proclivity’ has neither a negative nor positive connotation; it simply means a natural tendency towards a certain behavior. It’s taken from the Latin, proclivus, which literally means inclined, or leaning forward. And anyway, his sexual identity doesn’t take anything away from the fact that he is arguably among the most influential artists who ever lived.”
“Ever the reporter, Sam. Impressive,” Brooke concedes, with a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. But before she can say anything else, I have one more point I want to make.
“As for your last question, I absolutely do not think that being gay is shameful. How could I when I’ve been questioning my own sexuality?” That last part just kind of popped out, but I’m not really sorry it’s out there. The repetitive sound of the train running over the tracks has become deafening in the stillness that follows my disclosure. I’m intensely interested in Brooke’s reaction.
I nod. Harboring a severe crush on the stepsister I’m supposed to be hating, and who hates me, definitely falls under the category of questioning my sexuality, if not my sanity as well.
Brooke somehow doesn’t seem that shocked, or surprised, really. “Interesting. So,” she asks nonchalantly, “how long have you been questioning? Have you carried out any experiments to get answers to your questions?”
“A while,” I answer evasively. I hardly know myself. “What do you mean by experiments?”
“What do you think I mean? Have you gotten any action?” she asks acerbically, then looks away as if afraid of my answer or embarrassed at herself for asking.
“Action?” I’m nonplused. Does she mean have I hooked up with any girls? The only girl I want to hook up with is her.
She sighs in exasperation. “Yeah, action, McPherson. Have you tried it on to see how it fits? Have you kissed Lily? Carmen? Slept with one of your freak buddies from the smoking wall?” When I hesitate before answering, she must take my surprised silence for unwillingness to kiss and tell. “You know what? Never mind. It’s none of my business.”
“No. I have not done any experimentation,” I answer her question anyway even though she retracted it. I decide I’m going to be as honest as I can with Brooke from this moment forward. “I don’t have any smoker friends. Right up until graduation they still thought I was a narc,” I confess. “And maybe once I could have gone to Carmen or Lily about something like this, but not anymore. The three of us aren’t as close as we once were. Or rather, I guess I should say, I’m not as close to them as I used to be.”
“Really?” Brooke frowns. “Coulda fooled me. You’re always with them.”
“Well, not so much, anymore, really. It’s not like they would ever desert me or anything, but I did something they disapproved of and our friendship has never been the same,” I struggle to explain it to Brooke. “A wall of judgment has been erected; I’m on one side, and Lily and Carmen are on the other. There’s just some distance there now.”
“That sucks,” Brooke says quietly.
“Yeah, it does,” I sigh. I’m still chewing the gum but I’m already craving another cigarette. I try and blow one of those pitiful Wrigley’s bubbles but only succeed in almost spitting it out on my lap.
“Do you mind if I ask what it was that drove the wedge between you guys?”
“No, I don’t mind.” I look directly at Brooke. “After the first month when you were in the hospital they started asking when I was going to go and see you. They thought that I had stayed away long enough. They thought it was really mean of me to continue avoiding you. They’ll never forgive me for not stepping through those hospital doors and visiting you.”
Brooke is staring intently at me. I wait for her to say it. I’m expecting her to ask “Why didn’t you visit me, Sam, you complete and utter fuckup?” and I have no idea what I will reply. The refusal of my body to enter the hospital seems ridiculous, she’ll never understand, never accept that as a valid reason. But when she opens her mouth to speak, she doesn’t say the expected.
“They came to see me often. Even in the early days when I was pretty much catatonic.”
“I know. I gave them messages for you; did they tell you?” I ask, even though I’m embarrassed now by the stupidity and irrelevancy of my ‘Sam says hi’ message. Always the same, always a feeble offering, and never enough.
“Yes. They told me you said hi,” Brooke says coldly.
Here is the opportunity to explain, but I’m frozen. I should be telling her how I was there, a small distance away, just not right in the room with her, but it sounds so horribly lame. So I don’t say a thing.
Brooke continues, her voice brittle with a fake sounding breeziness. “Even Nic came to see me in the hospital. I wouldn’t see her, of course, but she tried anyway.”
If that’s not the most damning evidence of my failure as a friend and stepsister, I don’t know what is. I should steer the conversation back to me and what I failed to do, but I honestly have no reply, no reason that would even begin to sound plausible. I should at least make the attempt to explain but the excuses seem paltry and wholly inadequate in my mind. Why couldn’t I just walk through those doors and see her? The task of justifying my actions, or inaction, really, is too daunting and I take the coward’s way out. I allow the conversation to follow its course. “Have you spoken to Nic? Since the accident?”
“No. She’s tried to talk to me a few times but I’ve never responded. I know she wants forgiveness but I’ll be damned if she’ll get it from me. She ruined my life; I’ll never forgive her,” Brooke’s voice is hard as nails. She turns her eyes from where she was looking at our reflections in the window to regard the real me. “I’m exhausted. You think we’ll be able to get any sleep tonight?”
“Why, are you worried about another robbery? Brooke, we have nothing left to steal.”
“No, I’m not worried about that. Are you?”
I shake my head. “Do you think you could sleep if you put your head on my lap again?” I would do anything to make her comfortable right now.
“Would you mind?” she asks, a little apologetically.
“Not at all,” I’m glad to be of use to her in any way. We arrange ourselves much as we did the previous night and Brooke is soon sleeping easily against my thigh. She has taken the news that I might be gay with very little comment, but then what was I expecting from the queen of heterosexuality? At least she didn’t react with disgust. I can’t help thinking about where our conversation went tonight and how much more remains to be said about the night of the accident and its aftermath. As I gaze down at her and think of the betrayal that was my absence during her recovery, I wonder just what it will take for Brooke to find it in her heart to forgive me.
The station in Caen is a dismal little affair. Two platforms flank parallel sets of track, and the whole thing is covered by cantilevered slabs of concrete that protect would-be passengers from the elements. At half past six in the morning, the place is deserted. There are no benches, no Tourist information kiosks, and the ticket office is shuttered. The only things around to break up the unrelenting gray concrete is a bulletin board and a bank of small lockers, the kind you rent by feeding coins into a slot to release a key.
I’m so groggy, five or six additional hours of sleep would be a thin slice of heaven, but the concrete doesn’t look that cozy. Brooke is looking somewhat refreshed, but I must admit that the dark circles under her eyes mar her beauty just a little bit. She has braided her hair into two plaits and covered it with my bandana, looking like a sweet, innocent farm girl, on her way to pick peaches in the back forty or something.
“What now, Kemosabe?” Brooke asks me, hands on her hips, turning to face me after watching the train pull out of sight.
I quickly think through our options. We can stay here and crash while waiting for another train to arrive, or we can go explore the town, not that anything will be open at this godforsaken hour. It’s possible that we might find somewhere better to catch some more sleep, like a park with benches, maybe, and finding a place to get some breakfast provisions would be a good idea too. But first things first.
“Let’s see if they have a train schedule posted anywhere,” I say, shouldering my daypack and moving toward the bulletin board. Brooke follows and as I determine when the next train to Paris departs she idly peruses the rest of the board.
“The next train back to Paris leaves at just after ten. That gives us four hours to kill,” I report.
“Sam! Look! Bungee jumping!” Brooke turns to me, eyes wide with excitement.
Oh, hell no. It’s way too early for this. I glance at the advertisement picturing some fool, a strained rictus covering his features as he dangles from a rubber band over a rushing torrential river. “Cool,” I lie, “too bad we don’t have any money.” For the first time I see the bright side of being robbed.
“Oh yeah,” Brooke deflates as reality punctures her eager expression. She stares at the flier a little while longer. “Look, there’s a little map to the jump site, Sam. It’s not that far from the train station. Let’s go check it out anyway.” She tears the page from the bulletin board and looks at me expectantly.
Visions of some nice soft grass in a park somewhere evaporate in the face of Brooke’s resolve. “What’s the point? We don’t have the money to jump,” I want to get my objections on the record for when this turns out to be a waste of good sleeping time.
“Come on, you said we had four hours to kill, it doesn’t cost anything to go and look.”
“Well I don’t want to lug my bag around. You carry it,” I hold it out petulantly. I can’t explain my sudden grumpiness, all I know is that it has nothing to do with a fear of jumping off a high place into nothingness, no way. We can’t jump anyway, we have no funds. And I’m sure Brooke’s past injuries would prevent her from doing something as strenuous as taking a flying leap off a bridge.
“Fine.” Brooke takes my daypack and stows it in one of the lockers on our way out of the station, depositing a few coins and pocketing the key. “A little early morning exercise will do us good, don’t you think? I’m feeling a little stiff, this will loosen me up.” She strides off purposefully, map in hand, and I have no choice but to follow.
Twenty minutes later it is clear that the map is not anywhere close to scale, and it also doesn’t account for elevation, as we’ve been walking at a steep incline almost since leaving the train station. “Brooke, wait up,” I huff; I want to know if it’s time to cut our losses. And I want a cigarette.
Brooke stops and waits for me to catch up. She’s been about ten paces ahead the whole time. How is she so fit? She could barely walk eight months ago.
“Let me see that map,” I hold out my hand for the advertisement. Brooke hands it over and I look at it, taking care to read all the text. “They have a shuttle from the train station, Brooke! We could have gotten a ride.”
“Yeah, but we would’ve had to wait until they open, which isn’t until nine o’clock,” Brooke counters, “and they probably would want us to pay beforehand. This way, we get to see it for free. Come on, we must be nearly there.”
I trudge behind her, falling further and further behind as we ascend a winding road. It’s actually quite pretty if you look away from the industrial town of Caen. After about fifteen more minutes I hear Brooke calling to me.
“Sam, it’s right up here. You’re almost there!”
I feel justified in lighting up a celebratory cigarette at this news and keep walking. Brooke disappears from sight as she rounds a bend but I don’t hurry, she’ll still be there when I eventually arrive.
Presently I pass a gravel parking lot with a timber hut where the Bungee jump company’s office is located. There’s a souvenir shop with hats and t-shirts in the window and a tiny snack bar.
Of course, nobody’s here yet.
I keep walking along the road towards the two lane bridge that spans a gorge just up ahead. The gorge is very narrow so the bridge looks to be only about 500 feet or so across, with iron pylons that jut about four feet above the road’s surface evenly spaced on either side for support. The wind is really whipping up here; we must have gained a couple of hundred feet in elevation.
As I get closer I see Brooke standing on one of the iron pylons, the bandana in her hair flapping in the breeze. She’s just standing, her feet close to the edge, then I see her bend perilously over and look down.
I freeze. I have a sudden image in my head of Brooke lying motionless on the pavement in her prom dress, her leg bent back at the knee at an unnatural angle. Like a pulse, it lingers in my brain for as long as a heartbeat, then it is gone.
All of a sudden I’m running. When I reach her I don’t hesitate; I grab her by the arm and wrench her off the pylon, fury clouding my eyesight and hampering my powers of speech. “What the… what the fuck do you think you’re doing!? Do you have some kind of death wish, Brooke? You could have fallen, and then you would have died, you know that? Jesus! Of all the stupid things…” I sputter, finally running out of steam.
“Thanks a lot, Sam,” Brooke is rubbing her shoulder as she glares at me. “Just pull me by my bad arm, scaring the crap out of me while you’re at it. I wasn’t going to fall, asshole, I was perfectly fine up there.”
“You do have a death wish, don’t you? Just like in Florence when you nearly got us killed on that scooter, the accident has removed the fear impulse from you.” My heart is just starting to beat normally again and I light another cigarette to calm me down.
“Spare me your internet armchair pseudo-psychological diagnosis. I do not have a death wish. If anything I have a life wish. I want to experience my life, be a participant in it. Not just sit back and avoid getting involved in it. You have the death wish, not me.”
“What are you talking about? I’m not the one who was just casually looking over a drop hundreds of feet down in a high wind.”
“Whatever, Sam. You’re just doing it the slow, passive-aggressive way, the gutless way. If you want to kill yourself why not be brave about it and just do it?” With these harsh words Brooke steps close to me and rips the cigarette from my mouth, tossing it over the side of the bridge.
I have nothing to say to her. Tears burn in my eyes. She just pretty much told me I should go kill myself. It hurts. God, it hurts. I turn around and begin walking away.
“What happened to you, Sam?” I hear her call out to me. “You used to be the most fearless person I knew. Now you’re a shadow of that gutsy girl who drove me crazy: timid, and hesitant and afraid.”
“What happened to you!?” I scream in retort, whirling around and coming back to confront her. “You used to be a decent human being! You used to be nice! Why are you so angry, Brooke? You’re pissed off at the world. Is it me? Am I the reason why you’re such a goddamned bitch? What did I do? Please, god, tell me, because I can’t take it anymore. I see the accusation in your eyes every time you look at me. I know it’s my fault so would you please just put me out of my misery and tell me what I did?”
“Your brain knows, Sam. I’m not going to tell you, not while I have a shred of dignity left in this poor excuse for a body. I’m always going to be bitter, I’m always going to be angry, so get used to it!”
She’s pretty much all up in my face now, and while my brain is poised to hurl another volley of abuse, my heart actually hears what she says and it makes me feel unbelievably weary. I take a step back. I don’t feel like doing this anymore. “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard, Brooke,” I say quietly, calmly. “You can choose not to be angry. Why waste all that energy?”
She’s a little confused by my regained composure, I can tell. “Well you can choose not to be such a scaredy pants sad sack freak so what’s stopping you?”
“Damned if I know. I didn’t know that’s what I was, thanks for enlightening me.” I take out another cigarette and light it defiantly, staring Brooke down as I inhale. How is it that I like this girl? How can she inspire in me these feelings of devotion when she’s such an all-consuming bitch?
“Your welcome.” Brooke gazes into my eyes for a second before shifting her weight to lean up against the pylon. She is quiet for a moment, even the wind seems to have died down in the wake of our epic unrest. “You know, the old Sam would never have taken that from me. The name-calling, the taunting, the bitchy-ness, it would have been Semtex on an already blazing conflagration.”
“Are you saying that you were deliberately provoking me?” I can’t believe we’re calmly talking about this after screaming at each other like a couple of Bengal cats.
“No, not this time. I was just surprised when you pulled me down, but then you started in with that death wish crap and that really pissed me off. I’m sorry I said that other stuff, it was totally uncalled for and I didn’t mean it.”
I nod, still wounded by her words.
“It’s just that I don’t know why any reasonably intelligent person would take up smoking, Sam,” she says earnestly. “You have to know what you’re doing to yourself.”
“Spare me. You sound like my mom. I’m just glad you didn’t use that specious second hand smoke argument.”
“Well at least you know where I stand on the subject.” Brooke stops talking, her eyes, which had been trained on me, now look past me. I turn around to see what she’s looking at.
Two men walk by us, each carrying two heavy-looking gear bags. One nods in greeting, the other gives us a cheery “bonjour.” They obviously work for the bungee company. We watch as they continue about halfway across the bridge where I now see a platform jutting from between two pylons. Quickly going about their business, they begin to somehow attach thick cords of bungee to the platform.
A thought occurs to me. “Hey Brooke, you said you didn’t provoke me this time. Does that mean that you have in the past?”
Brooke smiles, maybe for the first time today. It’s a genuine smile like the ones that used to grace the countenance of pre-accident Brooke.
“Guilty,” she says, not sounding guilty at all, but gleeful. “I used to stir the shit with you all the time and you never caught on. This was a long time ago, during the first year or two when we first began living together. After I got used to the idea of sharing my space with an interloper like you,” she grins to show she’s kidding, “I kind of liked having you around. You were so different from anyone I had known, getting all fired up about something at the drop of a hat; it was a revelation to us buttoned-down McQueens. So I would deliberately start something just to see you become lathered up in outrage and indignation. You were the only person I knew who actually got more articulate the angrier you got,” Brooke’s smile fades as she continues. “But you don’t do that anymore. Now you just shut down and turn inward. I kind of miss it sometimes.”
Okay, Brooke’s words have taken my power of speech several times today, and the sun is still barely over the horizon. I honestly don’t know what to say to the news that Brooke used to intentionally argue with me. I’m charmed by it, actually. “That’s pretty twisted, Brooke,” I finally say, smiling.
“Yeah, I can’t believe I told you that,” Brooke doesn’t look embarrassed, she looks happy. She gazes at the two men working further down the bridge. “Hey Sam, let’s go see if we can get a free jump.”
“Not on your life, there’s no way I’m jumping off a bridge.” I knew this was coming but I’m still not down. “Anyway, won’t you do something to your injuries if you jump?”
“Maybe. Only one way to find out,” she says fatalistically. “Come on, you big chicken, we have to at least try,” she coaxed. “When are we going to get an opportunity like this again?”
“Brooke, there is no way they will ever let us jump for free,” I say emphatically.
“Care to make a wager on that?” Brooke asks confidently. “If I can get a free jump for the both of us, then you have to jump.”
“And if you can’t?”
“I don’t know,” Brooke shrugs, “name your terms.”
I can’t think of anything. “You have to do one thing that I say, to be named at some future date because I can’t think of anything right now, and you can’t refuse.”
“Ordinarily I would never agree to something as vague as that, but I’m so confident in my ability to do this that I accept.” Brooke takes off down the bridge, slapping her hand against the pylons as she passes them.
I watch as she approaches the men and talks to them for a few minutes, her posture giving nothing away as to what’s being decided. Soon she gives them a little wave and starts back towards me. She’s looking downward, so I assume she was unsuccessful. I start thinking of things for Brooke to do to fulfill her end of the bet and hope I can contain my gloat quotient.
“What’s the matter, are they the only men in France not interested in sexual favors?” I ask as she gets within earshot.
“Oh no, they totally are, but they’re not into blondes so you’re going to have to take one for the team,” Brooke says seriously. “Get over there, then they’ll let us jump.”
“You’re joking,” I say warily.
“Yes, I am,” Brooke confirms. “They so don’t care about money, Sam. Those two guys are going to be up here whether people are jumping or not so they may as well not be bored and have some people jump.”
Great. We find the only two altruistic tour operators in Europe. “They actually agreed to do it for free?” I ask in disbelief.
“Yup. But they only want to do the setup once so we have to jump together.” Brooke’s got this shit eating grin on her face.
“Together?” I ask faintly, the reality of what’s about to occur is beginning to sink in.
“Yeah, let’s go. This is going to be so great. I’ve always wanted to do this.” She turns to look at me. “You’re not going to punk out, are you?”
As much as I want to, my pride won’t let me. I shake my head in the negatory. “Let’s get this over with.”
An incredibly fast fifteen minutes later, Brooke and I stand side by side, attached to a single bungee cord. We got the three minute instructions, signed the waiver relieving the bungee company of any responsibility should we perish by reason of colossal stupidity, and now teeter on the edge of a tiny platform, moments away from plunging one hundred feet down over a tributary of the Orne, somewhere in Normandy. I know that with Brooke nearly crackling audibly with electric excitement beside me, there will be no way to back out of this. We wait only for the countdown by altruistic bungee Frenchman number one.
I seize Booke’s hand as we simultaneously leap out into thin air, my breath catching in my throat as we swan dive into free fall.
“Brooke, that was so amazingly, incredibly, stupendously, astoundingly, marvelously AWESOME!” My effusive exclamations haven’t stopped all the way back to the train station in Caen.
“All right, already,” Brooke laughs, “enough with the adjectives. You don’t have to thank me for forcing you to enjoy yourself.”
The adrenaline is still coursing through me like an electrical current and I can’t stop grinning like a fool. “We should call home now. Maybe your dad sent the money already and we can pick it up here. Then we could pay for another jump!”
“Okay, if you want,” Brooke says affably. “But it’s still the middle of the night in Los Angeles, Sam, what do we do until then?”
“Dammit!” I exclaim, grinning at her. I’m annoyed, but nothing can dent this platinum-plated exuberance I’ve got going right now. I look around at the not-so-scenic town of Caen. “I really don’t feel like hanging around here, do you? We can always come back some other time. What do you want to do?”
“I would kill for a shower and some clean clothes,” Brooke says immediately.
“Yeah, me too,” I say. “How much money do you have left?”
Brooke pulls some bills from her pockets. “Almost fifty Euros.”
“And I have about twenty. You want to go back to Paris and blow it all on a decent meal and a hostel?
“We need a safety net. We can’t spend everything,” Brooke says pragmatically. “Even I, the financially irresponsible one, know that.”
“This is getting really old,” I sigh.
“You can say that again,” Brooke cuts her eyes over to mine, “but don’t.”
“I won’t,” our situation is dismal, but I’m not unhappy. I smirk at Brooke. “So back to gay Paree, mon frere?”
“Oui. We’ll fit right in,” Brooke jokes.
“Well I will, at least. We can get our bags and clean ourselves up somewhere, then we’ll decide our next step. How does that sound?”
“Bon. Let’s go.”
Eight hours later, my adrenaline sits quietly with its hands folded as I find myself on yet another train. Brooke and I glumly sit with one other passenger in our compartment, a young woman of either American or Canadian extraction, as our train swiftly carries us to another random destination.
I am so sick of train stations and trains. Just for a change I’d like to travel by boat, or by bicycle, or maybe even something as weird as a car. Even one of those seesaw things that run on train tracks would be better than this Eurail-induced malaise. It’s probably just going from the extreme high of a bungee jump this morning to the low of not hearing any news from home that has me hating life at the moment, but knowing that doesn’t make it any less depressing.
At the train station in Paris this afternoon we finally collected our bags and while Brooke washed up in the public restroom, I contacted Glynnis again, who had nothing new to report. She apologetically told me that she had left several messages at the parentals’ hotel but hadn’t heard back yet. That was when the last vestiges of euphoria from our jump this morning really wore off for me. She sounded really sorry and asked for an email address so she could send a message as soon as she knew anything; I guess not realizing that we didn’t exactly have easy access to the Internet. She also asked for the amount of money that had been stolen so that she could tell Mike and get things rolling as soon as he checked in. For some reason I gave her a figure that was double the amount that I had left in my money belt at the time of the theft.
When I joined Brooke at the bank of sinks in the washroom, her hopeful face fell at my grim expression. Telling her that we were still penniless was not the highlight of my day, but she took the news stoically and immediately began brainstorming options for a plan of action. After some discussion we realized that we didn’t really have any option but to continue our life of near vagrancy, and get on another train. So now we are heading south to Nice on another overnight train, to spend some time at the beach while we await the saving grace of Mike’s checkbook.
“Brooke, when we get to Nice in the morning, maybe we can find a place to do some laundry,” I say into the silence. Other than a brief hello to our traveling companion, we haven’t said much for the hour that we’ve been moving.
“What’s the point of washing our clothes when we haven’t washed our bodies in about a million hours?” Brooke sighs tiredly.
Oh yeah. Good point.
“Excuse me, did you say Nice?” the girl who sits quietly by the window asks us.
“Yes,” I say.
“This train is going to Marseilles, and it arrives at 1AM,” she informs us.
“No, I think you’re mistaken,” I pull from my guidebook the Chinese takeout menu that has the train information I scrawled in the margins. “Nice Locale, departing 20:45, track 23, arriving 5:55.”
“This is the Marseilles IC, it left ten minutes after the Nice train from track 24, right across the platform,” the girl says, shrugging her shoulders.
I look out the window and notice for the first time how fast we are going, much too fast for a local train.
“She must be right Sam, look how fast we’re going, and this train is newer than all those rickety local trains we’ve been taking.” Brooke is looking out the window at the scenery rushing by too. “This must be an Inter City Train.”
“But, but I don’t know how I could have made a mistake,” I stammer. “What are we going to do in Marseilles at one in the morning? Brooke, we’re going to have to get a hotel that we have no money to pay for.” I try to swallow the panic that is bubbling up through my esophagus.
Brooke turns to me, keeping calm. “Maybe we can hang out in the train station until morning. We have your sleeping bag this time.”
Her calmness allows me to continue thinking. “Or maybe we can catch another train going somewhere else, although I don’t know what our chances are at that time of night.”
“Can I make a suggestion?” the girl at the window interjects.
We both look at her in silence, waiting for her to go on.
“I know you don’t know me from Adam,” she starts, “but I’m a very nice person. My name is Rebecca. I’ll be a junior at USC in the fall and I’m living in Marseilles taking a language course this summer. You are welcome to crash at my place tonight if you want.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Rebecca. I’m Brooke, and this is Sam.” Brooke’s manners take over. “It’s very kind of you to offer your place to us, but you don’t know us either. We could be very unscrupulous people who are setting you up so we can take advantage of your kindness.”
I look at Brooke like she’s crazy. “We’re not, though,” I feel compelled to add.
Rebecca smiles. “I get the feeling that you guys have been struggling lately. And I heard you say something about not having enough money,” she nods to me. “It’s true I don’t know you, but if I needed help in a foreign country, I would want a Good Samaritan to lend a hand. And Karma’s a boomerang.”
She’s so nice. And she’s pretty too. She’s slim and fair with a mop of long curly red hair, tied back with cornflower blue ribbon. She’s wearing a white sleeveless top, jeans and flip flops, and the skin on her arms and face is a sun-kissed coppery color that still allows a smattering of freckles to show through. How come I didn’t notice her before?
“You can stay the night and hit the beach tomorrow, I’ll even tell you what bus to take,” she smiles in this totally disarming way and I can’t help but smile back at her.
“I’m going to be a freshman at USC this fall,” I disclose shyly.
Before Rebecca can reply Brooke grabs my arm and drags me toward the corridor. “Could you excuse us for a second?”
When the door to the compartment is firmly closed behind us I crow, “Can you believe our luck? We got a free place to stay tonight!”
“So you want to do this?” Brooke gazes at me somberly with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Well, yeah, don’t you? I mean, what other choice do we have?”
“Do you not trust her? Is your spidey sense tingling?”
She shrugs again.
I frown; she’s not giving me anything here. “I know this is something that we wouldn’t normally do, but do you really want to spend the night in a creepy, cold, unsafe train station?”
Brooke is still regarding me with uncertainty. I put my hand on her shoulder in reassurance, and her eyes slide over to where I’ve placed my hand, then back to my face. “You know when we jumped off that bridge this morning?” I ask, and watch her nod. “I can’t tell you how much my body was fighting against it, how petrified I was, how much I wanted to throw up.”
“I know,” Brooke grins, “I could see. You were the greenest I’ve ever seen a human being get.”
“But I jumped anyway, and I’m so glad I did. You taught me something today. You want to know what it is?”
“Sometimes you’ve got to take a leap of faith,” I say ponderously, squeezing her shoulder and letting go.
“I taught you that? You sure you didn’t read that in Reader’s Digest while you were in the bathroom one day?” Brooke asks with a laugh.
“Laugh if you will, but I think it applies in this situation,” I say loftily. I know I’m a huge cornball but I can’t help it.
“All right, but any sign of leg irons or ancient torture devices and I’m out the door,” Brooke warns.
“And I’ll be right behind you,” I say and slide the door open and follow her back inside. “Rebecca,” I sit down across from our new temporary roommate, “we’d like to take you up on your offer. We really appreciate it.”
Rebecca puts down the magazine she was reading. “That’s great, I’m glad I can help.”
“You have no idea how much you’re helping,” I say, peeking bashfully at her sunny, smiling face. Rebecca seems to be one of those people who you just want to like you. I can tell she’s an interesting person. “So, do you like Marseille?”
“Yeah, it’s a pretty cool place, I’ll show you around tomorrow if you want.”
“That would be great,” I enthuse, looking over at Brooke. “Wouldn’t it, Brooke?”
Brooke is sitting by the door with her nose in the guidebook. “Yeah, great,” she monotones, not looking up.
Rebecca turns her attention to Brooke, then back to me. “You two are friends?”
“We’re step-sisters,” I reveal. I don’t know what is up with Brooke. Usually she’s the one to initiate the conversation and I’m the one who chooses not to participate. Maybe we’ve switched personalities for a little while.
“And you’re starting USC in the fall, Sam?” Rebecca questions.
I blush at her use of my name. “Yeah, maybe you can give me the inside scoop. I’m returning to the States just a few days before I need to be at Freshman Orientation.”
“No problem. Do you know what dorm you’re living in?”
“Not yet. I guess I’ll find out when I get home…”
And we were off and running.
What a great day today had been. It started with jumping off a bridge and ended with the unexpected beneficence of a stranger, who is fast becoming a friend. Rebecca’s flat is teeny tiny, not much more than one room with a bed and an even smaller kitchenette, and a bathroom down the hall that she shares with four other people. The one weird thing about it is that it has no windows, so it is really, really dark in here as I settle myself on the floor in my sleeping bag. I let Brooke share the full-size bed with Rebecca, she’s been suffering with her shoulder for two nights now, and anyway, I’m so tired that I could be sleeping on a pile of rocks and it would feel like Sealy Posturpedic. God, it is so dark in here that I can’t see a thing, not even my hand as I wave it in front of my face.
I have never had a shower that felt as good as the one I had tonight, even though the hot water ran out about halfway through. Nothing beats feeling clean. Even Brooke perked up a little bit after she got out of the shower and ran a comb through her wet hair. She was very quiet throughout the journey to Marseilles, but then Rebecca and I didn’t give her much of a chance to get a word in edgewise. It turns out that Rebecca is an English Lit major, and she said a lot of courses in the Journalism major overlap with hers. She gave me info on the best profs to take and which ones to avoid like the plague. Then we started talking about books and movies and it turns out our tastes are really compatible. We really have a lot in common. She’s so sweet. If I had met people like her in the earlier pre-Brooke part of my trip I would have had a much better time. I even got the feeling that she was flirting with me a little bit. I could be completely wrong, god knows I have no experience with that sort of thing, but how amazing would that be? Actual interest from a member of the same sex.
I stretch, pointing my toes and reaching my hands above my head, and prepare to sleep. But, as tired as I am, my mind continues to wander back over the events of the day. I think about Brooke’s and my confrontation on the bridge this morning, before we jumped. Do her claims that I’ve changed have any validity? She said that I’ve become timid and afraid. I chew on that for awhile. Maybe it’s a little bit true that I’ve become somewhat withdrawn lately, but it’s only because I got completely fed up with the stupidity of high school. Even as I try to rationalize it to myself I know Brooke is right. She put a mirror up to my face and I can’t help but see what she sees. I’ve become gutless.
It’s funny. I spent so much time analyzing everything that Brooke does that I have neglected to notice the changes in myself. I guess I can admit now that the reason why I’ve been so hung up on figuring her out is because of this attraction that has kind of spiraled beyond my control at this point. That could be called progress of a sort. At least I’m not lying to myself anymore about Brooke. But the emotion she inspires in me, the reaction my body feels when I’m close to her is hopeless. I’m glad we are getting along now, but escalating this to the point where I confess my feelings to her is an exercise in futility. Plus I have this image in my brain of Brooke laughing in my face that I kind of want to avoid. Not to mention that we are supposed to be sisters. A sisterly bond is something I’ve never shared with Brooke, and I guess I could settle for that if it was my only option, but it wouldn’t be my first choice. Not by a long shot. I sigh, folding my hands behind my head and try to put it out of my mind, sleep is fast approaching and I’m not going to fight it.
I wake to the sensation of hot, soft lips pressed against mine. In the absolute stillness of this tiny room, and the inky blackness that envelopes me, I am being kissed. Two hands have pinned my arms to the floor over my head and all I can feel is a sweet intense pressure on my mouth. After the initial surprise of waking up this way, I focus on what is happening. I can’t see anything, so I concentrate on the lips and tongue that are skillfully breaking down my resistance. The mystery lips surge against me with desperation and urgency, a silky tongue forcing my lips easily apart to explore the recesses of my mouth. Time and place have no meaning in the darkness and before I know what is happening, I’m responding; kissing back with a fervor that I didn’t know I could feel. I am wholly possessed by this phantom suspended over me, who is drowning my senses in stimuli. I am hyperaware of the rough brush of a tongue against mine, of hot breath expelled over my cheek, of teeth that pull gently at my lower lip, and those lips, those lips that are crushed to mine that I want to feel all over my body.
And just as quickly as it started, it is over. The lips are gone; the hands remove themselves, freeing my arms from their imprisonment over my head. I feel a cutting loneliness even as the pounding of my heart insures me that I’m awake and alive. I can hear myself breathing heavily, harsh gulps of air filling my lungs, compensating for the long moments when I forgot to breathe while I was being ravaged by a ghost in the darkness. Adrenaline buzzes through my veins in equal amounts to this morning when I jumped off a bridge.
It wasn’t a dream. It was real. I’ve had little experience in the art of seduction, and the soaring raw emotion this phantom infused me with has put to shame my past feeble attempts at romantic intimacy. Somebody just kissed the life out of me, in a way I’ve never been kissed before. The question is: who?