MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 4
That night, my dad and Troy walked me down to the lobby with my art supplies and Notebook 19. It was just me and the guy at the front desk, who was on the phone. I set my stuff on a low coffee table and sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor, leaning against the couch.
“Sure you don’t want to come? Bruno –” my dad pointed a thumb at the desk attendant “—said it’s a decent trattoria.”
“Nah, I’m okay.” I showed him an energy bar from my backpack.
My dad set the room key on the table next to me. “You can go up to the room any time.”
“Thanks, but the light’s better here,” I lied. It felt better than telling him I didn’t like being alone in the room with a head full of gypsy nonsense, or that I was afraid of falling asleep and dreaming about the firefly.
Dad leaned his head to one side as I lay my colored pencils and pens on the table. He took off his glasses. “I’m worried about you. You feeling okay?”
“Just tired from ICR.” Another white lie.
My dad rubbed the lenses on his shirt, pretending to inspect them in the light of the lobby. As he put them back on, he said, “You know, Naples isn’t like San Diego.”
“You can say that again.” Troy made an impatient nod toward the door. “Can we, you know, go?”
“Just a sec…” My dad squatted on the floor next to me. “You may not agree,” he said, “but I’ve been thinking that, maybe the quicker we adapt to the idea that we’re not in San Diego anymore, the sooner we’ll get the hang of living in Naples. Everything’s different now. Heck, we have no comfort zone anymore, unless you count the three of us, our little family.”
I chewed my lip without responding. It was easy for him to say that; his life was filled with orders and protocol and standard operating procedures. Even here, in a new city in a new country, his job was basically the same as in San Diego, just a different navy base. His dreams weren’t about fireflies. He wasn’t accosted by gypsies or stared at by strangers.
“What I mean is,” Dad said in a quieter voice, leaning close enough to me that I could see the kindness in his green eyes, “sometimes what we mistake as chaos is simply our own resistance to what’s really happening.” He kissed me on the head. “Anyway, I think if we try to get accustomed to the chaos, maybe someday we won’t even notice it anymore.”
Troy tapped his foot. “Yeah, well, I’m noticing a lot of hunger about now…” He motioned to the door and whined, “Come on, I’m starving.”
By the way he stared at me, I sensed that he could have said more, but I was ready to be alone and draw. So I flipped to a blank page in Notebook 19 and doodled a flower, still feeling my dad’s eyes on me. Without looking up, I waved them off. “Come on, I can’t draw if you’re watching me.”
Dad sighed and he clapped Troy on the back. “Well, call me if you change your mind.”
As the glass door of the American Hotel shut behind them, a lump formed in my throat.
It’s normal to be homesick, I reminded myself. But wasn’t homesick for when you missed your friends or old life? I didn’t really miss Lucy or even San Diego; I missed my home. I missed the feeling of my mother watching over me. Why don’t I feel that anymore?
My heart tightened, remembering the old gypsy woman. How would she have known about my mother? Lucky guess? I slid Notebook 19 closer and wrote her words in inky black thought bubbles:
You have come to find what the darkness seeks
Your poor mother, sent to the world beyond this realm
The war of the worlds begins with one muse
Under the thought bubbles, I scribbled a cartoon of myself, eyes comically rolled upward, hand cupping my chin. Then I re-read the bubbles and it sounded so clearly ridiculous that I actually laughed out loud. Who was crazier: the homeless woman spouting off about darkness and war, or me, for believing she might know something about my dead mother?
Bruno peered at me from the front desk. I held up my phone, as though I read something funny. “Ah!” he mouthed, nodding his head, and returned to his phone call.
Closing Notebook 19, I stretched my arms overhead and rolled my neck a few times. Then I pulled the crinkled leaf from my pocket and unwrapped it. As I opened the leaf, the necklace tumbled out, onto the coffee table. The pendant was a tarnished, gold-colored oval, about the size of my thumb. Details I hadn’t noticed before, a circled dot and the eclipsed moon, were etched on the frames of the hourglass, and the bulbs were held in place by battered gold wire. When I flipped it over, the sand didn’t move from top to bottom. Broken but pretty. I made a quick sketch in my notebook and clasped it around my neck.
With a swift shhh-shhh sound, the leaf slipped to the floor. I thought maybe someone had come into the room, causing a small gust of air to rustle the leaf and my papers. But my notebook was untouched and the room was still empty except for me and Bruno. I reached for the leaf. Like a slippery fish, it did a back flip and scuttled under the table.
“What?!” I blurted, under my breath.
I must have jerked back or made a face because Bruno put a hand over his phone and called out, “Stai facendo tutto bene?”
I guessed he was asking if I was okay, so I gave a thumbs up, even as the leaf shimmied away from me, as though it were natural and normal for foliage to have a mind of its own.
The leaf pulsed as though breathing and I seized it like I was catching a bug, then held it by the stem for inspection. It was a medium-sized leaf, with its edges curled toward the middle where the old woman had made it into packet to hold the necklace. The short brown veins on the back of the leaf squiggled across the surface in wavy lines. If I squinted, they could be symbols. Or letters.
As I twirled the leaf in my fingers, the lobby doors burst open. A burst of air caught the leaf and it sailed out of my grasp toward the floor.
Maybe I was imagining things – making symbols out of leaf veins – but what if I wasn’t? What if the gypsy was actually trying to tell me something?
I crawled around the coffee table and reached for the leaf, but there was a hand already cupped over it. From the ground, all I saw was a pair of green Chuck Taylors. When I looked up, I saw they were attached to a boy in jeans and a loose-fitting, faded Ramones t-shirt. Blond hair stuck out from the sides of his red helmet like it was trying to escape.
“This your leaf?”
“Um, yeah, the leaf… It’s mine. I know, it’s weird, but –”
At first, I didn’t recognize him. I’d never seen eyes the actual color of turquoise before and I guess it threw me off. He reminded me of the boys in San Diego, skaters and surfers, with summer-tanned skin and sand-colored hair. He was probably my age.
And also, he was really cute. Which is why I couldn’t think of what to say next.
He took the red helmet off, and then I knew where I’d seen him before: in the alley. He was the kid on the back of the Vespa, the one poking around the wall in the alley on my first night in Naples.
The boy waved off my comment. “This? Weird? Nah, I see girls crawling around after leaves every day.”
“You’re American,” I said, and he smiled. It was annoying, his smile, beautiful but normal. His teeth were straight enough that I knew he’d had braces, but the slightly crooked teeth on the bottom told me he forgot to wear his retainer. Like me.
“You too.” The boy twirled the leaf in his hand. “I like how you drew the lines and stuff on the back. Like a clue for an old treasure map.”
“I didn’t… I, uh, I’m doing a still life.” I gestured toward my art supplies. “With leaves.”
The boy held out his hand and helped me up. Standing so close to him, I noticed he was about half a foot taller than me. And he smelled really nice. Like soap and apple pie.
His eyes moved toward the back lobby door, which led to the alley. “Hey, listen, are you gonna be here for a few minutes? There’s something I have to do.”
“Yeah, I guess…”
“Okay, be right back.” He walked to the door, helmet tucked under one arm, and glanced back at me. “Don’t leave, okay?”
I lowered myself onto the sofa. He didn’t seem like a criminal, but what did he need to do in the alley?
Curiosity got the better of me. I tiptoed behind him, waiting a moment before I slipped through the back door. Holding the door with my fingers, I watched the boy as he surveyed the crumbling cinderblock wall. Just like the other night, he removed a brick and pulled out a small plastic baggie, then reached into his pocket. As he tucked something into the baggie, I moved to the side for a better view and lost my grip on the door.
Click. The door shut.
I tried the handle of the door. Locked. The only way back into the lobby was through the alley and around the front of the hotel.
The boy reeled backward. “It’s not what it looks like,” he blurted, grimacing.
I walked toward him as casually as I could. Like I meet drug dealers every day. Not awkward at all.
“Why?” I asked. “What do you think it looks like?”
“Uh…” His blue eyes shifted from me to the dilapidated wall to the baggie in his hand and back to me. “Can you keep a secret?”
I crossed my arms. “Depends on how good it is.”
The boy considered this and broke into a smile. “Fair enough. Come take a look.”
The number one rule of “stranger danger” is never to trust them when they say “come look at this.” But the hole in the wall was too small for him to shove me into, assuming he was going to attack me and dispose of my body. I sized him up and knew that, thanks to years of wrestling with Troy, I could take him down if I needed to.
Still, I kept my guard up as I approached the wall and peeked inside. I crouched down and was surprised to see…nothing.
The hole was barely bigger than a fist and crumbled where the cinderblock had been smashed. Other than that, it was just a standard-issue hole in the wall.
I sat back on my heels. “Right, so….What’s in the bag?”
He handed me the Ziploc. Inside was a small notebook and a sharpened pencil. On each page was a list of dates, starting in 2009, and signatures. There were also little notes, mostly in Italian. The final entry was written the night I’d seen him in the alley: Bax.
“Bax?” I asked.
“That’s me. You’re supposed to sign a geocache’s log book so that other people know who’s been there.”
“You’ve never seen a geocache?” he asked. “Before this one, I mean.”
I shook my head.
The boy held up his phone. “It’s an app. Or a couple apps, I guess. Basically, people hide stuff, and other people find it, using longitude and latitude coordinates.”
“What kind of stuff?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. Sometimes it’s just a log book and a pencil, like this one. Sometimes, it’s other stuff.”
“Huh. Like a treasure hunt?”
“Exactly.” He smiled.
I was beginning to like his smile. A lot.
“So it’s not…drugs? I mean, I saw you… the other night… and it looked like—” I blushed.
“Oh God, no!” Through the clear plastic of the bag, he tapped the tip of the pencil. “The pencil was dull. I brought a sharper one back. For good karma.” He took the baggie from my hand and zipped it shut.
Placing it back in the wall, he said, “I can’t get in any trouble. My dad would kill me. He’s the head of NSA on base.” Bax stuffed the brick into the hole, closing it over the geocache bag, and we stood up.
“National Security Agency. They investigate crimes and security breaches, that sort of stuff.”
“But why would he be mad?” I asked. “It’s not like you’re doing anything wrong.”
Shoving his hands in his pockets, Bax lowered his eyes. “Yeah,” he said, letting his shoulders slump forward. “But he’s military. You know how that goes.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, but in San Diego, most of my friends’ parents weren’t in the military; here, Troy and I would be the exception. Before we moved, Dad explained that civilians can apply for positions on other bases if they want to move, but in the military, you’re transferred. So I shook my head and added, “I mean, no, I guess I don’t. My dad’s a civilian.”
Bax stiffened slightly and inhaled. As he exhaled, his gaze passed over my head. “It’s just, it’s not the same overseas. Here, if you get in trouble, even as a kid, it means your mom or dad – whoever works for the base, military or civilian – gets in trouble too. And if you get in trouble, you’ll have to deal with my dad.” Sweeping his bangs across his forehead, he added, “And trust me, you don’t want to meet him.” He raised an eyebrow. That smile again. “Unless you want to meet him, I mean.”
Heat rose to my cheeks, but I played it off. “We’ll see,” I said, shrugging. “I ought to get back.”
We walked through the alley and along the busy sidewalk to the front entrance of the American Hotel.
“So,” Bax said, shifting the red helmet from one hand to the other as we approached a Vespa parked on the sidewalk, “you know my name…” He motioned for me to continue.
“Oh, right. I’m Eden.”
“Cool name,” he said. “Where’re you from?”
He slapped a hand on his leg. “I knew it. You seem like you’re from California.”
I squinted at him. “Meaning?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “You’ve got that cool purple streak in your hair and you’re –” He flipped his hair to the side and his cheeks reddened. “I’m from California, too. Northern Cal, but still. Same state. You going to the high school on base?”
“Uh huh,” I said. “Sophomore.”
“Same.” He lifted his shoulders and glanced around. “You’re here with your parents?”
“Just my dad and my brother.”
“No mom?” he asked but before I could answer, he offered, “Yeah, me too. My parents got divorced when I was 10. My brother and sister stayed with my mom, but I didn’t want my dad to be alone, so—”
“Well, looky here.” Troy sauntered up the sidewalk holding a pizza box, my dad close behind. He draped an arm across my shoulders and coughed.
I elbowed him in the gut. “Bax, this is Troy.”
“Eden?” My dad furrowed his eyebrows over his glasses, looking from me to Bax and back again. “We got the pizza to go. Thought you’d be lonely.”
“Um… well…” I stammered. “Dad, this is—”
“Christopher,” Bax said.
I gave him a funny look and he cleared his throat. “Christopher Baxter.”
“You don’t sound Italian,” my dad said, shaking his hand.
“No sir, my dad’s a captain at the military base,” Bax said.
“No kidding,” my dad said, nodding his head, impressed. “I’m the new fire chief at the airfield.”
“Capodichino?” Bax asked.
“That’s right,” Dad answered. “What’d you say your last name was?”
“Baxter. Most people call me Bax.”
My dad’s eyes grew wide. “Your dad’s Captain Baxter, with the NSA?” my dad asked. He straightened his posture until he seemed to tower above us. “I met him last week during orientation. Nice guy. Well, ah… Nice meeting you, Christopher.” He nodded to the door. “Eden, are you coming up?”
“I’ll be there in a sec.”
Troy whistled as they disappeared through the front door and I groaned, “Sorry about that.”
“About what?” Bax put on the helmet. A few stray hairs covered his eyes and he pushed them back. “Remember, I’m the one following numbers around the city. Don’t tell anyone about that, by the way. My dad’s not a big fan of geocaching.”
“Promise you won’t say we met while I was chasing a leaf,” I said. “I don’t want to be the weird new girl.”
“So you’re a girl with purple hair who stalks guys in alleys… but not weird?” Bax buckled the helmet and his turquoise eyes sparkled. His lips curled into a grin that made me feel like I was the only person on the planet. “Maybe we can hang out sometime, Eden.”
I wanted to jump up and down. Instead, I said, “Yeah, okay.”
I floated back into the lobby and gathered up my art supplies. I tucked the leaf into Notebook 19 as I got into the elevator, dreaming up my next collage: a picture of the spackled gray wall in the alley, the longitude and latitude of the American Hotel, and the name BAX.