MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 2
Our room was on the third floor. Italians don’t count the ground level, so it was actually the second floor, a cultural oddity that someone could have mentioned before we rode the elevator up and down searching for our room.
“Ta da!” My dad dragged our fat suitcases out of the hallway, wedging them between twin beds in the main room. “Our first place in Italy. Whaddya think?”
The room was underwhelming but functional, the same as the rest of Italy so far. Besides the beds, the room was furnished with a rickety desk, a faded plaid chair, and an ancient TV atop a bureau. Through the small window, I glimpsed a faint trail of smoke rising the top of a nearby mountain.
I tried to conceal my disappointment. “At least it’s clean.”
“Yep. Not too bad, though.” He nodded down the tiny hallway. “I’ll take the bedroom. You two’ll have to share this room until we find a place to rent.”
“Dibs!” Troy threw his backpack on one of the beds. “As long as there’s a bathroom, I’m good.” He stalked down the hallway, opening and closing a few cabinets until he found the right door.
Seconds later, Troy yelled, “Hey, why are there two toilets?”
Dad chuckled and stretched his arms, stifling a yawn, then awkwardly tucked his t-shirt back into his jeans. I wasn’t used to seeing my dad in “civvies.” When I was a kid, I didn’t even recognize him when he wasn’t in his fire chief uniform. The fire department was a part of him.
I trundled backward with a thud. A second later, the stiff springs of the mattress bounced me up again. I pulled a scratchy orange pillow to my chest.
Dad sank onto the foot of my bed. When he took his glasses off, it was easy to see the resemblance between him and Troy. My brother and I shared my mom’s golden-colored eyes, but otherwise, Troy was a younger version of my dad, with the same athletic build and broad shoulders, long nose and easy smile. If you ignored Troy’s purple streak, they even had the same chestnut-colored hair, although my dad’s was sprinkled with gray.
Dad wiped his glasses on his shirt, which he always did when he had something emotional to say. He set the glasses on his lap and, rubbing his eyes, he said, “It’ll be good, Eden. It was time for us to move forward. For me to move forward. Without your mom…” He cleared his throat and sighed. “Once I find us a nice house, I promise you’ll like it here. We all will.”
My lower lip quivered. “I know.”
I wanted to assure him that I’d give it my best shot, but I couldn’t find the words. I knew I shouldn’t base my first impressions of Italy on its crowded streets or the weird guy in the lobby, but a cold uneasiness lurched through me. I hugged the pillow tighter and nodded.
“Okay, good.” Dad placed the glasses back on his face and stood. “I’m gonna unpack a little bit,” he said, retreating down the hallway. “Try not to fall asleep, okay? ‘Sposed to help with the jet lag and we have those ICR classes in a few days. Need to be alert.”
“Isn’t that what espresso’s for?” Troy emerged from the bathroom and plopped onto his bed, kicking his backpack aside. “God, it stinks here. Like rotten eggs,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “Wasn’t me, I swear.”
A memory washed over me, of our grandmother washing dishes and telling me stories about the Roman Gods. I sat up a little and rested my elbows on the pillow. “No, you’re right. Did Grandma Cleo ever tell you about Solfatara? It’s a volcano right near here.”
“You mean Vesuvius.”
“No, I’m sure it’s Solfatara. You know, like ‘sulfur.’” I peered out the window in the direction of the smoky haze on the hill. “Hmm, that might even be it.”
Troy rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Is this a long story? ‘Coz I might fall asleep.”
I ignored him. “A long, long time ago, the God of the sky and the Goddess of the earth had six daughters and six sons.” The story tripped off my tongue, and I could hear my grandmother’s voice in my head. I’d heard it so many times, each detail was as vivid to me as if I’d lived it myself. “They were the Titans. One of their sons, Saturn, became the king of the Titans, and married his sister–”
Troy groaned. “Yuck. You lost me.”
I threw the pillow at him. “Come on, just listen. Anyway, Saturn had three daughters and three sons of his own. The Olympians. You know, like Mount Olympus.”
“That’s in Greece, so what’s your point?” he yawned.
“Grandma Cleo said the Gods may not have lived in Greece. Hence Roman mythology…”
Troy propped his head onto one elbow. “Yeah, okay.”
I sat up and leaned in. It was nice to have Troy’s attention for something other than torture. “Anyway, the king of the Gods, Jupiter –”
“You mean Zeus.”
I shook my head. “You’re older. You really ought to know this stuff. The Romans called him Jupiter.”
Troy patted his hand over his mouth. “Is this over yet?”
“Right, so Saturn was kind of a tool. He believed his kids would overthrow him because of some old prophecy, so he swallowed them…”
Troy fell backward and smothered his face with the pillow.
“Long story, you’re right, whatever,” I said. “Anyway, Jupiter and the Olympians fought for control of the universe against Saturn and the rest of the Titans–”
He peeked out from the pillow, arching an eyebrow. “The clash of the Titans?”
“Exactly. And the stinky, sulfurous springs of that volcano,” I pointed in the direction of Solfatara, “are the wounds of the Titans. Scars from their war with Jupiter. A warning against future battles.”
Troy chewed back another yawn. “You don’t believe that stuff, do you?”
“Grandma Cleo says stories become legends because there’s a kernel of truth in them,” I said quietly.
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Not like we’ll ever know.”
I thought about my mother’s mythology books, which Grandma Cleo had given to me when I was little. Even though she died when I was a baby, I imagined I could hear my mother’s voice when I read them. And now they were shoved into some packing box with coats and dishes.
Troy picked up the cumbersome rectangular TV remote and, with an electric groan, the ancient TV flickered and a grainy picture emerged. Scantily clad models filled the screen, dancing with a dopey Italian show host. Every few seconds, the show cut away to an audience member wiping away tears of laughter.
“I don’t get it.” Troy clicked the remote again to a cartoon. A line-drawn silhouette of man bounded around the screen, speaking gibberish Italian. “Aren’t there any normal shows?” He flipped back to the game show, propping the pillow under his arms.
The sun glowed pink through the red sheer curtains and, in a matter of seconds, the remote clattered onto the floor. Troy snored above the noise of the wacky game show.
I stretched across the bed and clicked the TV off, my body heavy with fatigue. The clock on the wall chimed three times and my eyes drooped. How am I supposed to stay awake?
I forced myself up and scraped the desk chair across the floor to the window. Fresh air. Get some fresh air.
I grabbed the handle of the window and pulled, but nothing happened. I flipped it up and down. Nothing. With the handle sideways, I let go.
The window fell away from its frame at a 45-degree angle, thumping me on the head. I wrestled the window back up and messed with the handle again until it opened like a door, frame and all.
If I can’t even open the windows, I will never understand Italy. I settled my forearms on the window sill, breathing in the sulfur fumes of Solfatara, the Titan’s battle scars. Between the wide brown boxes of the neighboring apartment buildings, laundry lines swung gently in the afternoon breeze, framing sun-speckled hillsides in the distance. The Bay of Naples was somewhere on the other side of the hill.
The tiny alley below echoed with cars honking and brakes squealing from the main road. A skinny white cat rooted in the garbage, submerged to its shoulders. With a sharp yowl, it sat up. Hissing and spitting, the cat glowered at me with yellow eyes.
I shook my head. Italy did not seem to like me. Not that I cared.
Three more years….
A burst of wind whipped through, and a Vespa rumbled into the alley, two boys on the back, scaring the cat away. The driver wore a black helmet emblazoned with flames. Behind him, shaggy blond hair poked out from the passenger’s red helmet.
The Vespa skid to a stop and the passenger jumped off. His eyes darted around the alley suspiciously and I ducked my head so he wouldn’t see me. After a few seconds, my curiosity got the best of me and I peeked back down.
“There!” The passenger pointed to a length of broken cinderblock in the middle of the wall opposite the American Hotel.
The driver shrugged, clutching one handle of the Vespa with one hand, feet on the ground to hold it steady. He took a phone out of his jacket, disinterested. Like a getaway driver.
The other guy crouched and rapped at the crumbing wall. A small chunk of cinderblock fell off and the boy retrieved something out of the hole that I couldn’t quite see. With his back to me, he sat still for a half-minute, then stuffed the chunk back into the wall. Tucking his hand in his jeans pocket, the boy climbed back on the Vespa and they sped away.
I sat back. What the – ? Was that a drug deal?
My brain was fuzzy with the odd details of my first day in Naples: the blinding flash of light from the elevator; the tall, creepy guy in the lobby; suspicious activities in the alley; and the story of Solfatara.
I grabbed Notebook 19, hoping to quell my nerves.
Other people had diaries or blogs or hyperactive social media, but I kept notebooks. Not a journal; journals were for girls who gushed about boys or gossiped about other girls or complained about school or made weird lists of all their favorite things or whatever. My notebooks were filled with sketches and dreams and overheard conversations. My notebooks burst from their seams, edges ragged, unable to lay flat on a table, hardly able to contain everything I wanted to say. I’d already filled 18 notebooks by the time my dad took the job in Naples, so Notebook 19 was still mostly empty, except for a few angry collages and today’s sketches.
I pasted a receipt from the airport coffee bar on my drawing of the lobby. At the bottom of the page, I drew myself, adding a flourish of purple hair along my neck with the words three years… On the next page, I made a rough sketch of the alley, adding the boys on the Vespa and the mangy white cat with the yellow eyes. At the top, I scrawled La Dolce Vita?
Troy snorted and rolled onto his stomach, sound asleep. I muffled a yawn and set Notebook 19 face up on the bed to keep the glue from sticking.
The breeze picked up, whistling through the narrow space between the buildings. I rested my elbows on the windowsill, following a trail of leaves on the breeze. My eyes grew heavy as watching them tumble between the tangle of laundry lines. Papers and cans and bottles rattled like a percussion section.
I was so tired, the whistling wind sounded like words.
I set my head on my arms, unable to keep my eyes open. My thoughts weighed upon me like a jumble of strange images: the man in the lobby, the boy in the alley, the cat with the yellow eyes.
My eyes fluttered open. The American Hotel and Troy’s slumbering body were gone, replaced by a lush field at the edge of a sea cliff. Waves crashed nearby, lapping at the rocky shore. An ancient oak tree climbed high into the night sky. I moved toward the old oak. At the very top, a glass jar perched among the tallest branches. It flickered, glowing for just a half second.
An urgency rose within me: I wanted to climb the branches, to peer into the shiny jar. I needed to get that jar.
The jar flickered again. Where is the mark?
The words came as thoughts, but they weren’t my thoughts.
“Who are you?” I strained to see what was in the jar, but the tree was too high, the flickering light too far away. Still, I reached for a branch and began to climb. “Are you a firefly?” I desperately wanted to open the jar.
The flickering stopped. Speak to me with your thoughts, child, the jar buzzed.
I breathed in as I heaved myself up, concentrating on my words, thinking: Do you know me?
The light quivered. Everyone knows you, child.
I shuddered, stalling on a low branch. Was I awake or asleep? My thoughts jumped to the man in the oversized suit. Was that you in the lobby? I thought.
The firefly laughed, taunting me. The hair on my neck stood up.
It’s your destiny, the firefly said, circling the glass with its tiny dot of light.
You cannot escape until you release me. The firefly’s words dissolved into a high-pitched buzzing. It was the same sound that had haunted my dreams in San Diego, a cross between metal grating on metal and the hiss of a cobra about to strike.
The light scuttled around the jar in angry bursts. Release me, child! Do it now!
Fear shot through me and I fell from the branch. Winded, I raced to the edge of the cliff, but all I could see was the moonless sea and, beyond that, nothing. I could run, but where was I?
The ground quaked and I screamed. Sharp sticks scratched at my shins and I looked down. The tree’s roots had slithered up from the earth like wooden serpents and were coiling themselves around my legs.
“No!” I kicked at the roots but they dragged me back to the tree, clasping my arms around its trunk. With a furious squeeze, the roots stretched my arms in opposite directions, scraping me into the rough bark, splinters of wood piercing my skin. Each time I kicked, the coiling roots bound me tighter to the base of the tree. The jar swung precariously above me.
I have waited for you to come, the firefly said, its words throbbing through my own thoughts. And now that you have, the prophecy has begun.
The firefly buzzed furiously, flying back and forth, the glass jar undulating between branches until it fell from its hook and shattered on a lower branch. I ducked my chin into my shoulder as a shower of glass pelted my head.
The tree’s scaly roots tugged my left arm away from the tree, nearly out of my shoulder socket.
“Stop!” I screamed. “What do you want?”
The firefly flew toward me, its body glowing red. Where is the mark, child?
“What mark?!” I wriggled, trying to loosen the root’s grip on me.
Enough of your ignorance! The firefly closed in on me. I’ll mark you myself.
With a hiss, the firefly pierced the skin of my forearm, scalding my skin in circles and dots. A bubbling venom glowed on my skin in thick patterns, a constellation of pain burned into my arm.
I tried to scream, but the pain numbed me into darkness. I stopped struggling and my body went limp, even as the pain ebbed and flowed. The firefly circled my face, shouting cruel riddles as I hovered between consciousness and darkness. Muse Warrior? it cackled. How wrong you were, Apollo…
* * *
I startled awake, clutching my arm. The firefly’s words echoed through me.
Muse Warrior. How wrong you were, Apollo.
Over the thump of my heartbeat, I heard cars racing past the alley below and the sounds of television shows and muffled conversations from other rooms at the American Hotel. Normal sounds, nothing unusual. Troy was still snoring, face down on the bed.
It was just a dream.
Once, when I was little, Grandma Cleo told me, “Dreams are a dance between reality and the truth.” In other words, dreams are a mess of what’s real and what’s in your thoughts.
A dance between reality and the truth…
Troy snorted and turned.
Right, reality: I was talking about Solfatara and the wounds of the Titans, right before I fell asleep. So, of course I dreamed about Apollo, the God of light; he was an Olympian. And muse? Because… mythology. It made perfect sense, but it didn’t explain one thing.
Why did I still feel the firefly’s sting?
In the garish glow of the alley’s floodlights, I couldn’t see anything unusual on my skin but it tingled, prickly to the touch. I reached for the lamp on the desk.
A horrific metal clatter rose from the alley and my heart felt like an electrical storm; I thought for sure I was having a heart attack. Below me, the skinny white cat had jumped onto a trash can, throwing it off balance.
“What is your deal, cat?” I snarled, then clicked on the lamp, bathing the room in soft light.
With an angry growl, the cat reared up and swiped a paw at me. The whole thing – cat and trash can – swung back and forth and I braced myself for its fall, holding my hands over my ears. In slow motion, everything smashed to the ground.
“What the – ?” Troy bolted up, hands drawn into fists by his face. He blinked, eyes adjusting to the light. Breathing heavy, he slurred, “You still awake?”
Outside, the white cat’s snarls echoed through the alley.
“I, uh, the cat woke me up,” I lied.
He scratched his head and sleep-stumbled toward me, closing the window and blinds. “Night-night, crazy alley cat.”
The white cat skittered out of the alley in a fit of yowls and hisses.
I wanted to tell him about the dream and the firefly and the marks on my arm. But if Troy didn’t believe in mythology, then he wouldn’t believe how real the dream had been.
Which would be okay. I needed some convincing.
“Troy, I had this crazy weird dream –”
“Whoa, me too…” he yawned, settling back onto his bed. “Was it about the tiny cans of Coke? Coz they freak me out, man. I dreamed I was a thirsty giant and all I could find were those mini cans…” He punched at the pillow and laid on the crook of his elbow. “Italy.”
“No, it was about an oak tree… and a firefly in a jar… and it burned my arm…” I held up my left forearm. “It marked me –”
Troy grabbed my arm and twisted it toward his face, like when he used to give me an Indian rope burn.
“Stop, you’re making it worse!” I said, wiggling my arm.
He touched the skin with the tip of his index finger and squinted, leaning closer. “Huh.”
“It’s just… There is a mark. See? It’s really faint.” He traced a small, raised circle on my arm. The skin stung and I took a breath, ready to tell him the details of the dream.
Then Troy shook his head and thrust my arm away. “Now you’re making me see weird things. You probably just slept on it funny.”
He lay back on the bed and pulled the pillow over his head. In a matter of seconds, he was snoring again.
How is that even possible?
I moved to the desk lamp and held my arm under the light. The circle was hardly visible now, just a small raised bump like a mosquito bite.
Mosquito bite. Right. That would explain the buzzing insect and the sting of the “firefly.”
I clicked off the lamp and crawled between the scratchy sheets. As I lay in the dark space between waking and dreaming, I convinced myself that the sting on my arm was just a bug bite. I even tried to dream of thirsty giants in a land of tiny soda cans.
But the firefly’s words hovered over me.
I have waited for you to come. And now that you have, the prophecy has been set in motion.
It made no sense. Like most dreams.
I flipped over and tried to get comfortable on the rock-solid mattress. Thoughts came and went like skittering leaves, starting with questions – What prophecy? Why would a firefly be waiting for me? – and ending with yawns.
The harder I tried to hold onto them, the faster my thoughts evaporated, until finally I fell into a deep, firefly-free sleep.