MUSE WARRIOR - Chapter 1
From what I’d seen in the short trip from the airport to the oddly named American Hotel, across the street from the main gate of the Navy base, Naples was nothing like I expected. I guess I’d wanted the Italy they show you in the movies: vineyard-lined hills, rustic farmhouses, and men in floppy white chef’s hats flipping pizza dough in the air. Instead, it was crowded, chaotic and smelly, a city covered by a gloomy blanket of smog and sulfuric smoke. Rectangular buildings lined homely streets, competing for space with piles of smoldering trash and an endless barrage of honking cars.
As Dad checked us in, Troy slumped in the chair beside me, playing a game on his phone. He wore a faded Padres shirt and khaki cargo shorts, his long legs stretched out on the faded brown carpeting. When he yawned and turned his head, I could see his purple streak of hair, just like mine, at the nape of his neck. Violet, as in bright purple, a weird birth defect. Well, maybe not a defect so much as a recessive trait passed down from my mother’s side of the family. At least, I wished it was recessive and not so conspicuously dominant.
Some girls in the lobby pointed to it, then to me, whispering. Quickly, I gathered my hair in one fist and twisted it into a knot with a hairband.
“Tell me this is a dream,” I muttered, which was strange for me to say. My dreams were borderline nightmares lately, in which dark, hooded figures grabbed at me and pulled me into the darkness. Each dream was punctuated by a strange noise that made my ears ring. Sometimes, the dull buzzing of my dreams went on for hours after I woke up.
Troy didn’t look up from his phone. “It’s only three years, Eden. Chill out.”
My stomach pitched with homesickness. Three years. It sounded like a death sentence.
It’s funny, though. My best friend Lucy swooned when I told them my dad got the fire chief’s position in Italy.
“You’re so lucky!” she cried. “You’ll become a famous artist and fall in love with some awesome Italian guy and ride around on a mint-green Vespa…”
I didn’t have the heart to mope in front of her, but now my heart pitched with homesickness. I missed Lucy, of course, but I also missed the walls of our house in San Diego, the shady spaces of the rose garden, the stillness of my room at night, the feeling that my mother was still watching me, wherever she was…
To keep myself from crying, I pulled my bag onto my lap and opened Notebook 19. On the first empty page, I scratched out the details of the wood-paneled lobby, outlining the room: a small bank of archaic payphones, a rickety-sounding elevator, a spinning metal postcard display on the registration desk. Toward the back, a balding man in a white shirt and black vest laboriously wiped down the counter of a tiny coffee bar. A cluster of customers leaned against the bar, slurping from impossibly small cups. The earthy smell of roasted coffee beans filled the room as steam sshh-sshhed from the espresso machine.
I sighed and glanced around the lobby. A group of Eurailers had taken over the center of the lobby, splayed on backpacks and each other’s legs, chattering loudly, earphones dangling from their ears. They were about our age – I’d just turned 15 and Troy was a year older – but they were so easygoing, joking with each other and laughing. No cares. No worries.
The elevator creaked open, grating metal on metal. I squinted at the sharp sound as a flash of light burst through the room, like a firework on the Fourth of July. When I blinked, it was gone.
I thumped Troy’s leg. “Did you see that?”
“See what?” he mumbled, not looking up from his game.
Before I could speak, a tall man in a dark blue suit emerged from the elevator. Again, I blinked. Something wasn’t quite… right.
For one thing, the man didn’t move. He glided. His feet didn’t even seem to touch the ground. And he didn’t look normal either: under a stringy copper fringe of hair, his face was ashen, almost powdery, like he had on a thick layer of foundation. I couldn’t see his eyes; they were hidden under gaudy Elton John-style sunglasses. Even his crumpled suit was weird; a shiny, baggy, shoulder-padded affront to the cliché of well-dressed Italian men.
As the man moved toward the payphones, I shuffled to a new page in Notebook 19 and a wisp of light appeared, which wasn’t unusual. My drawings sometimes came to me like that – faint images spreading across the page – and all I had to do was follow the light.
I watched the strange man at the payphones.
Who is this guy?
As I drew, my eyes fell to the hems of his pants, dragging along the gray tiles of the hallway. Something glittered beneath his feet, like a coin.
I set down my pencil and watched more closely.
The man plucked the receiver from the closest phone and held it to his ear. He didn’t put coins in the slot or dial a number, just leaned casually on one elbow, inspecting tourists as they hustled by with rolling suitcases and overloaded arms.
Someone tapped my chair and I jumped. Two girls from the Eurail group stood next to me, sharing a single set of earphones connected to an iPhone, bobbing to the music. One of the girls was a brunette with shiny Botticelli curls spiraling down her back. The other was a pretty blonde with blue eyes, who kept twisting around to check out my brother.
“Sei Americana?” asked the brunette.
The blonde girl pointed to my ponytail and whispered to the brunette.
“My friend likes your hair.” The brunette tapped her forehead. “The color is… ah… Come si dice? Pear-pull?”
I felt a zing of electricity. The man in the ill-fitting suit turned sharply in my direction.
Flustered, I covered the back of my head with one hand. “Yep, purple.”
The blonde smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. “Mi piacciono i tuoi capelli.”
I nodded with a weak smile. The girls glanced once more at Troy, who was buried in his game, oblivious to their attention. I returned to Notebook 19 and sketched furiously, scratching out a field of flowers to calm myself. When I looked up again, the man hadn’t moved. His gaze was still fixed directly on me.
I don’t know you, do I? I thought. The man gave a slight nod.
“Oh my God, he can hear me,” I mumbled, trying not to move my lips.
“What are you babbling about?” Troy ran a hand through his hair and put away his phone, yawning.
I whispered sideways, “That guy at the payphones. He can hear my thoughts. No, don’t look!”
“Who, that guy?” Troy craned his neck and together we stared as the man picked up the phone and held the wrong end of the receiver to his head without speaking. He scratched at his hair which, surprise surprise, looked like a wig.
“He’s dressed weird, that’s for sure. Maybe it’s a cultural thing or whatever,” Troy said, settling back into his chair. “But you need to chill out. You’re like, overly observant with your little notebook and your sketches.” He waved a hand at Notebook 19, shaking his head and shrugging. “Everything’s fine, Eden. No one’s out to get you.”
Across the room, the man’s eyes bore a hole in me through his dark glasses.
“Troy, I’m not even kidding.” Panic filled my throat and my voice shook. “He’s listening to us right now.”
My brother leaned closer to me, a serious look on his face. Without moving his lips, he said, in a robot voice, “You sound like a crazy person.” Before I could answer, he jumped on top of me and noogied my head. The Eurail girls giggled.
I flailed my arms, trying in vain to punch him. “Stop it, you idiot!”
Troy noogied me one more time and flopped back into his chair. “You’re imagining things.”
“You’re right. I know you’re—” A hand gripped my shoulder and I froze.
“Eden, relax,” my dad said, jingling the room keys, a broad smile on his face. “Ready to start our Italian adventure?”
He pulled Troy and me into a bear hug and we stood up to gather our bags. Overly observant or not, I happened to notice something else as we started toward the elevator.
The man in the oversized suit was nowhere in sight.