MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 3

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 3

“Dad, can’t I just stay here?”

I was still thinking about the firefly dream a few days later, en route to our final day of Intercultural Relations (ICR): a guided tour of downtown Naples.

“In the hotel? By yourself?” My dad pressed the crosswalk button and we waited for the light to walk across the street to the main gate of the base. From what I’d seen, Neapolitans didn’t seem to stop for lights or pedestrians or anything else, but my dad liked to follow protocol.

“Yeah, it’s just… I started a drawing,” I lied. “And, uh, I kinda want to finish it.”

The light turned green and my dad motioned for Troy and me to hustle across. “ICR’s mandatory, Eden. Unless you have a doctor’s note.”

“Yeah, come on, E,” Troy said. “A big group of Americans riding a train into the middle of Naples… What could go wrong?”

I ignored him and turned to my dad. “Okay, look… I didn’t want you to worry, but… I… I have a stomach ache.” I clutched my abdomen for effect. The strap of my bag, heavy with Notebook 19 and a fistful of markers and pens, fell off my shoulder.

My dad grabbed my bag before it dumped into the middle of the street. “Watch your stuff, Eden. Naples has a reputation for gypsies and thieves.”

“Yeah, and it’s not a stomach ache. You have a Wayne Miller ache,” Troy teased.

I punched him in the ribs.

The Millers had moved into the American Hotel a few days before us and were in our ICR class. They were nice enough: Jim Miller was a sergeant on the base and his wife Beth was a sturdy Midwestern woman with a penchant for floral shirts and phrases like, “Good gracious me.” The Millers had three kids – Shawna, Wayne and Jamie – so we got lumped in with them for every activity.

Which was fine for Troy. Shawna, the lone blonde in a family of redheads, looked more like Taylor Swift than Taylor Swift did. Since they were both going to be juniors in the fall, she and Troy gravitated toward each other immediately, leaving me with her lame 14-year-old brother Wayne. I would have rather been with Jamie, the Miller’s bespectacled six-year-old. Sure, he picked his nose a lot, but he was quiet.

A guy in a rusted Fiat 500 laid on his horn as we reached the curb. My dad nudged us away from the street.

 “It’s completely normal to get flu-like symptoms when you travel over so many time zones,” he said. “You’re just battling the last of your jet lag. When we get back to the hotel, you don’t have to do anything else today. Scout’s honor.” He gave me a mini-salute. “Besides, tour day is the fun part of ICR. Come on now, don’t roll your eyes.” He put his arm around my shoulder and guided me toward the main gate.

I didn’t have a problem with ICR. It was like “Italy 101,” a mandatory weeklong class for all military personnel and their families, designed to help ease their transition into the Italian culture. We’d already spent a few days in a classroom learning basic phrases and how to count in Italian. Besides getting stuck with Wayne, it wasn’t too bad. At the least, it distracted me from drawing endless sketches of the firefly’s jar and the guy in the oversized suit and the American kid in the alley doing God-knows-what. I didn’t want to admit it to my dad, but without ICR and left to the weird thoughts in my brain, I’d probably go bat-poop-crazy in the hotel room.

And, as much as I didn’t like Wayne, my stomach ache wasn’t about him, either. Something didn’t feel right. “Dad, it’s not that, it’s just –”

“Hey, Loony Bins!” Wayne Miller loped toward us, his carrot-colored faux-hawk blazing in the morning sun.

In a perfect world, I could have overlooked Wayne’s stupid hair, his mouth breathing, his “I practically invented the internet, so….” personality. I would have even been okay with him being a year younger than me. But I hated how, no matter how many times I told him our last name was DellaLuna, he insisted on calling us the Loony Bins.

Ugh.

I rolled my eyes. “I hate you for this,” I hissed at Troy.

Wayne circled in front of me and stopped, holding his sides, the front of his striped Chicago Bears jersey unbuttoned over a white t-shirt. “I ran all the way down the block to catch up. Guess you didn’t hear me.” He sucked in a series of deep inhales to catch his breath, mouth wide, and I noticed bits of his breakfast stuck in his braces.

Troy gave Wayne a quick head nod. “Your sister back there?” To me, he said, “You know, ‘coz Shawna’s my partner and all...”

Before I could protest, Troy maneuvered his way to Shawna, who twirled a golden lock of hair around her finger like a flirting pro. My dad fell in step with Sergeant and Mrs. Miller, who held Jamie’s hand tightly as they walked toward the base. And there we were, alone, Wayne and me.

“Guess we’ll be buddies again,” Wayne said, standing up straighter and wiping sweat from his forehead. “Sweet. You can sit next to me on the train.”

I exhaled all the breath in my lungs. God help me.

I slouched behind Wayne as we joined our motley tour group in front of the main gate. Our Neapolitan ICR teacher Antoinetta click-clacked past the ever-present black-uniformed Carabinieri, Italian government guards. The Carabinieri ignored us completely, hands on their shotguns as they patrolled the sidewalk.

“Buon giorno, tutti!” Antoinetta said brightly. Even in steep black stiletto heels, Antoinetta was a foot shorter than most of the women in our group. She smoothed the sides of her elegant ponytail and tucked her leather handbag discreetly under one arm. As always, she smelled of a combination of cigarettes, espresso and perfume, and she was impeccably dressed in a crisp white shirt and tailored skirt, better suited for an office job than trekking around the city with a group of Americans.

In contrast, most of our group wore jeans and t-shirts. I cringed when I noticed one woman was rocking a yellow fanny pack. So much for blending in.

“Allora, today I will show you my Naples, taking you into the very heart of Napoli,” Antoinetta said in a lilting mezzo-soprano voice. She checked her watch, then spun on her heel and waved a hand above her head. “Andiamo!”

Wayne stuck a wad of gum in his mouth. “Guess it’s go time. Shall we?”

I gritted my teeth at Troy and mouthed, I will kill you for this. He gave me a thumbs-up and winked.

Our group straggled to the end of the block, half-jogging to keep up with Antoinetta’s brisk pace. The sidewalk dead-ended at Squeeze Alley. Buses and cars, scooters and motorcycles zipped in and out of six or seven disorganized lanes, sometimes veering onto the sidewalk, until they converged in a two-lane bottleneck.

 “Excuse me… I mean, scusa, Antoinetta,” Mrs. Miller said, gripping Jamie’s hand while she eyed the bedlam on the street. “Is there a crosswalk?”

“Must be,” said a female officer with a severe blonde bob. A Vespa zipped perilously close to the curb and she clutched her chest. “Otherwise, how do the locals get across?”

Antoinetta marched her fingers through the air like little legs. “You walk, they stop!”

“But it’s anarchy out there,” the fanny pack lady said, hand over her heart. “You’re joking, right?”

“Miei amici.” Antoinetta smiled. “My friends, you are no longer in America. And if you cannot cross a street in Italy, you will never get anywhere.” She charged to edge of the curb and pointed to her eye, a gesture that meant “watch.”

Waiting a beat, Antonietta scanned the street in both directions and then, as the driver of a single-seater Piaggio truck paused to honk at an motorcyclist, she bolted forward at an even clip, eyes firmly on the other side of the street. As Antoinetta’s tiny frame teetered across the street, every car blared its horn and drivers screamed out their windows, a wild symphony of Neaopolitan street life.

Sure enough, traffic stopped.

“Venite!” Antoinetta yelled and we hurried after her, a parade of Americans throwing caution to the wind. “Andiamo! We must hurry to catch the train!”

“Cool, huh? This is how I always cross the street,” Wayne said, panting. The driver of a city bus revved the engine as we passed. Winking at me, Wayne thumped the bus with his fist.

The low horn, like a tug boat, made Wayne jump. When the driver cursed at us, veins throbbing at his temples, Wayne shrugged. “Happens a lot.”

We reached the crumbling sidewalk and followed Antoinetta up a steep hill. Overgrown trees swatted our heads and we kicked aside broken bottles, discarded newspapers and cigarette butts. Across the street, two grimy-faced men huddled around a campfire in a pile of tires. They stopped to stare at me.

Tired of being a weirdo magnet, I folded my arms across my chest and crossed to the inside of the path, averting my eyes. Up ahead, a woman with a dark complexion and intense stare rocked back and forth on a square of cardboard laid upon a cinderblock wall. She’s lived a long, rough life, I thought, judging by the dirt-flecked grooves in her face. A ratty blanket was spread out on the concrete, dotted with faded postcards and tarnished metal objects, a paltry sidewalk sale.

As our group filed past, the woman squinted with kohl-rimmed eyes. The deep wrinkles of her leathery face were framed by brassy hair, and the buttons of her threadbare sweater barely anchored it across a tattered pink nightgown. Wayne’s little brother Jamie blurted, “Yuck!” and the woman cackled, mouth open, showing off more gum than teeth. Mrs. Miller yanked Jamie’s hand and darted to the front of the group.

“Gypsy alert,” Wayne loud-whispered. “Hold onto your purse!”

“That’s politically incorrect,” I said. “She might be Romani, but we don’t know.”

“Like, from Rome?”

“No,” I answered, but ‘you noob’ was implied. “It’s a race of people from India, I think, or Eastern Europe… Travelers, nomads, tradesmen—”

“Huh. I thought gypsies were girls who wore flower crowns or fortune tellers.”

Ugh. He couldn’t see me but I rolled my eyes for my own benefit. Talking to Wayne was like tossing pearls to pigs.

The woman’s withered face brightened as she inspected our group. With each passerby, it was the same quick assessment: her black eyes sparked with hope, head moving as though she was searching for something, muttering under her breath; judgment made, her eyes narrowed and the spark receded. Clucking her tongue, she turned to the next person.

What is she looking for? Is she Romani? Her eyes were so expressive, I retrieved Notebook 19 from my bag, wanting to draw her. Antoinetta was already halfway up the hill, my dad and Troy on her heels. There was no time to sketch… but if I could grab a photo on my phone, I knew I could sketch her later, when I wanted to avoid Wayne.

The woman adjusted her cardboard chair. I juggled Notebook 19 in one hand and reached for my phone. “I’ll only be a second,” I told Wayne.

He turned his head toward our group, steadily growing smaller as they hiked up the hill. “But they’re leaving. I mean, I’ll wait, but be quick.”

“You don’t have to wait—” I said, annoyed, but a necklace on the blanket caught my eye. With its delicate gold chain and hourglass pendant, it stood out against the haphazard jumble of cracked dishes, toys, dirty clothes and tools.

I hopscotched over a dented pot and Notebook 19 tumbled onto the blanket.

“Barf!” Wayne blurted. “Don’t touch that! It’s probably infected.”

“By what?” Ignoring Notebook 19, I picked up the necklace, too captivated by the simple vines etched on the dusty gold casing of the hourglass to be sarcastic. I scraped off a thin layer of dust with my thumbnail, revealing a tiny circle with a dot on one end of the hourglass and a half-moon on the other. I spun the hourglass around, turning it upside down, but nothing happens. Broken or not, I could use it in my art.

Wayne shifted his weight. “I dunno, Romani germs? But come on, we’re gonna miss the train!”

“Fine.” I tossed the necklace back onto the blanket. “I’ll get something downtown.”

“Don’t forget your book. Hey!” A blur of white fur bolted between Wayne’s feet and up the wall. “Stupid cat!”

I reached for Notebook 19 and the cat hissed, its eyes narrowed to yellow slits, before disappearing into the woods. It didn’t make any sense, but I knew that hiss. It had to be the cat from the hotel alley, the one I saw before the firefly dream.

My skin prickled and I could hear the firefly’s words in my head: Come here, release me.

“Signorina!”

The woman huffed toward me, gesturing wildly, the loose flesh of her upper arms shaking. Her dark eyes lit up, their spark like a bonfire. She stood at my shoulders’ height, as wide as she was tall. With the orange cast of her wrinkled skin, she resembled a human pumpkin.

Jabbing her finger toward my neck, her eyes widened, staring at my violet hair. “You come! You come!” she said. Her accent was thick, but not Italian. She reached a hand toward my hair. “I have waited…”

The back of my neck twitched and I recoiled. The firefly had said: I have waited for you to come. “What did you say?” I asked.

“Lemme handle this.” Wayne leaped between us and pointed to the necklace. “KWAN-to COS-to?” he demanded. “How much?”

The woman ignored him, settling her hypnotic eyes on me. I sank into her gaze, unable to move.

“You come to find what the darkness seeks,” she said. With her eyes steady on mine, she crouched down to grab Notebook 19. Flipping through its pages, she paused at the sketch of the man in the lobby. Her cracked lips stretched into a gummy smile.

I snatched my notebook from her hands. “Look, I don’t know you and I don’t care what ‘the darkness’ seeks…”

She cackled. “Oh, but you do.”

“Speak English, lady,” Wayne said. “All she wants is that old necklace.”

I turned to Wayne. “She is speaking English.”

“Eden, she’s all blabbity-boo and blabbity-doo. It’s not even Italian. Do you speak gibberish?” He blinked at me, wrinkling his freckled nose. “You okay? You don’t look so good.”

My muscles tensed and I stammered, “You… you can’t understand her?”

The woman fixed her eyes on my left arm and seized it, tapping the raised bumps with a calloused finger. “You have met the Messenger!”

“Whoa, whoa!” Wayne tugged my other arm. “Hands off, lady!”

“It’s a mosquito bite.” I batted the woman away, struggling against her surprising strength and clutching Notebook 19 so hard, my fingertips felt numb.

Releasing my arm, she bounced on the tips of her toes. “Soon you will have the mark!” Then, with a tsk-tsk, her eyes began to water. “Your poor mother, sent to the world beyond this realm…”

My stomach dropped. “My mother?” I asked, voice shaky, and the old woman raised a painted eyebrow.

“Eden, we’d better go.” Wayne tugged my arm.

“No!” I pushed him away, eyes on the old woman. “What do you know about my mother?”

Her face twisted into a grotesque version of the tragedy drama face. Fat tears of black mascara streaked her cheeks like railroad tracks. “Fratello… Sibylla…” she blubbered. In a low voice, she said, “The war of the worlds begins with one muse.”

That word again. I wanted to run but my legs stiffened. “Muse?” I asked.

“Eden? Eden!” Wayne shook my arm. “Look, I gotta get your dad. This wacko’s got her hoodoo guru all over you.” He sprinted away from us, screaming, “Help! Eden’s being attacked by the gypsy… I mean, Romani… Whatever she is!”

But his words were a faint echo.

I stared into the woman’s dark eyes. She’s crazy, she must be…

But another thought struck me: what if she isn’t?

“Can you talk to the dead?” I asked. “Does my mother have a message for me?”

She crooked a finger at my chest, lips quivering. “It is time. The end is near.”

Two sets of footsteps slapped at the sidewalk in the distance. The woman held my hand in hers. “For you,” she said, and dropped an object into my palm. “I will watch you.”

“What’s going on?” Troy lumbered onto the blanket, clanging into mismatched silverware, frowning. The white cat appeared on the wall, spitting and fussing.

“I, uh…I just wanted to buy a necklace,” I stuttered.

“I got this,” Wayne interjected. “That ugly cat tried to scratch us to death and then the hobo grabbed Eden and accused her of stealing some junk.”

The cat yowled at Wayne and vanished into the hillside.

“Andate!” The old woman spat on the sidewalk and shooed us away. “Andate subito!”

Troy jerked his neck toward the rest of the group. “Forget the necklace. If we don’t get back, Dad’ll send out a search party.”

“Agreed,” Wayne said, deepening his voice.

As Troy led me away, I glanced back at the old woman. She placed one finger next to her eye, slowly and deliberately.

“I hope you weren’t scared,” Wayne panted. “I have a black belt. Woulda saved ya. Troy was just back-up.”

We ran all the way to the train station, with a few minutes to spare before the next train. I stepped away from the group to catch my breath and opened my palm to find a bumpy package wrapped in a brittle brown leaf. Checking over my shoulder, I carefully lifted one side of the leaf.

The hourglass pendant tumbled out.

I stared at it for a long minute, trying to make sense of it. How did the old woman get the necklace from the blanket into the leaf, and then into my hand?

“You okay?” Troy tapped my shoulder.

I shoved the leaf and necklace into my front pocket. “Yeah, I’m good.”

Running a hand through his hair, he ruffled the purple hair at his neck. “What did that lady want? She was kind of intense.”

I bit my lip and looked away from my brother, thoughts churning. I wanted to tell him the truth, to say, She said I was here to find what the darkness seeks. She said something about the war of the worlds and a muse. She knew our mother was dead.

I wanted to show him the hourglass. I wanted to tell him about the firefly dream and the white cat and how I understood the old woman’s language. More than that, I wanted him to tell me that none of it was real, but the words caught in my throat.

I felt Troy’s eyes on me. For a brief moment, I thought he knew I was keeping something from him. He waited, his honey-colored eyes searching mine for answers.

“Train’s coming!” Shawna called. The train whistled into the station.

With a sharp inhale, I shook my head. “Just a crazy old lady.”

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 4

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 4

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 2

MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 2