It was the end of the last normal day for Jonathan Fields. He had finished work at five and had come back to his modest apartment without a sense of accomplishment. Having fixed himself a hearty dinner of microwave soup and wrinkly carrot sticks, he sat down on his grey couch and turned on the TV. There wasn't anything on that really interested him, but he got some sparse enjoyment from complaining about the lack of content. He had almost reached that blessed hypnotic state the television could sometimes induce, when his cell phone bleeped and buzzed a tired tune that he had long since ceased to hear. He picked it up without looking at the name.
"Hi Jon! It's Angela. Are you ready to go? I'm super excited! I can't thank you enough for going with me. We're going to have so much fun!"
"I couldn't let you go alone. It's too dangerous. Anything can happen, especially to you."
"Oh, I hope so, Jon! Adventures galore!" Jon rolled his eyes at his friend's indomitable cheeriness.
"I heard that," she said accusingly.
He chuckled. "I'll see you at the airport tomorrow."
"Ok! Bright and early. Bye!" Jonathan flipped his phone shut and sank his head to the back of the couch as his ears were once again filled with the steady hum of nonsense coming from the TV. He turned his head slightly to look at the black luggage by the doorway. Tomorrow at an ungodly hour of the morning, he was going to take those suitcases and get on a plane for London with Angela Fyre.
Angela, though a few years younger than Jon, was his best friend. They had met Angela's freshman year at college and, as often happens, they could never accurately describe when or how they had become friends. Angela would say that the memory of their meeting was misty because they had always known each other. She said that it wasn't a meeting of two people, but of two souls. Jon blamed the foggy memory on marijuana, clove cigarettes, and cheap bourbon. Angela had graduated a few days earlier, and, being an artist, had decided to take an art tour of Europe, starting in London, then moving down to Paris, and finally ending in Rome.
Jon had been an English major in college. He had had some naïve notion of making a living by writing, but then graduation came and he was unceremoniously kicked out of the protective bubble of the university and into the harsh reality of the nine-to-five world. Faced with bill collectors and an empty refrigerator, he had taken a job as a technical writer for a Fortune 500 company. Angela had actually found him the job, saving him from the dreaded fast food counter. For a while, he enjoyed the chance to use his skills as a writer, even if there were not many chances for creativity. Then, as the politics of the cubicle started to intrude, he would rant long into the night with Angela about the injustice and stupidity of his superiors. Jon got sucked into that world of skyscrapers, secretaries, and compromises, changing his tweed coat and poet's beret for a suit and a sensible hair cut.
Angela had not changed very much since Jon had first met her. One of the things Jon admired most about her was that she had never fallen into that trap of self-importance that many modern artists do. She had no delusions of grandeur; when asked why she wanted to become a painter, her reply was simple. "It's fun." Their final project to her introductory art class was to create a coat of arms with a personal motto. Angela had painted a sunflower and a purple rampart unicorn with two words for her motto: Joy and Beauty. She had made a crest for Jon as well, and given it to him when he graduated. It had a lion rampart superimposed over a quill and scroll with a motto from Hamlet: "Words, words, words."
It was hanging above his television now. If he had deigned to look inside himself, dared to care for a few moments, he would have felt the white words mock him. He and Angela had often debated over what book Hamlet had been reading in that scene, and the quote, flickering in the light of the television, challenged Jon to create a book that Hamlet would have found interesting enough to read amidst his great tragedy. If Jon had been paying any attention to his surroundings, he would have seen the silent challenge, but he was lost in his own troubled sea.
While it is partly true that he had decided to go with Angela out of a fraternal sense of protection, the truth was much less noble. Jon had recently been laid off. The economy being what is was, companies were tightening their belts. He wasn't too worried about the money; he hadn't been extravagant and had enough saved up to be able to afford the trip as well as manage for a few months after it. He had tried to care that he was fired, and he had tried to motivate himself to look for similar jobs, but the effort was too exhausting. The only thing that really worried him was how he was going to combat the boredom of doing nothing at home, instead of at work. Faced with this difficult challenge, as well as trying to sort out the tangled plot of a late night soap opera, Jon drifted off to a dreamless sleep.
He managed to meet Angela at the airport on time, mostly because he had remembered to order a taxi to come and get him at the appropriate hour. Bleary eyed and still marginally comatose, he stumbled through baggage claim and on to the plane. He thought he heard Angela talking to him, so he sporadically made a guttural noise at what he thought were appropriate moments. Angela was an enthusiastic person, and listening to her took a little too much effort.
When they touched down in Heathrow, Jon was not only tired, but he also had a whopping case of jet lag. Angela seemed unaffected, and cheerily pulled him through the airport. When she led him to the top of a double-decker bus, Jon started berating himself for being so stupid as to let Angela take the lead in a foreign country. The wind whipped about him and every breath he took stank of diesel fuel. He began to feel nauseous and started to regret joining Angela on her foolish journey. Angela already had her eye glued to her camera as she took picture after picture, gasping with delight at every turn.
"Oh! Look, Jon, look! It's Big Ben! Isn't it magnificent?" He lifted his head and looked at the old building.
"A giant clock. Whoop-de-fucking-do. What's so incredible about it? And please spare the guidebook info." Angela lowered her camera and looked at him with concern.
"Are you alright? You don't look too good."
Jon snorted and pulled his jacket tighter around him. "Of course I'm not alright. I'm tired, hungry, and sick of this damn wind! Why'd you want to sit up here anyway?" He harrumphed and jerked his head at Angela's camera. "Serves me right for deciding to travel with an artist."
Angela laughed and patted his arm, "You poor thing. How much you must suffer." Then she went back taking pictures and left Jon to his sullen thoughts. When the bus pulled up to the hotel, Jon started to show some interest. Jon wouldn't hear of staying in a hostel, even if it meant paying for both his and Angela's rooms. He didn't want to be surrounded by the kind of people that stay in hostels. He wanted a nice, clean, safe environment with a good breakfast and soft beds. As they rode the elevator up, Angela asked him how long he would need before he was ready to go out again.
"I just need about five or six minutes to grab my sketch book and pencils, but then I'll be ready to go exploring," she said, grinning like a schoolgirl.
"All I'm going to do is sleep. Then I might order room service." Jon, whose eyes were half closed, didn't see the flash of frustration on his friend's face. As they went to their rooms, he said offhandedly, "I'll see you in the morning," and shut the door. He let out a long breath and looked contented for the first time since the beginning of the trip. He was alone. He peeled off his dirty travel clothes, turned on the television, and fell asleep.
The next week passed by interminably. Thankfully, Angela had met another traveling American called Max Middler, who enjoyed museums almost as much as she. Jon had no idea what the two of them could find to do in those places that took so long, but he was grateful for Max. As long as Max was getting excited over some paint splashed on a canvas with Angela, Jon could stay in his hotel room and sleep. Even though Angela and Max quickly became inseparable, she insisted on including Jon in mindless activities. She made him ride the London Eye, take a tour of the Globe, as well as spend an entire day wandering around Buckingham palace and watching the changing of the guards. He did not enjoy himself at all. The tourists were all loud, sweaty, and uneducated, gasping in awe at every bit of information presented to them and taking pictures of every little thing that had the least bit of history to it. If Jonathan hadn't been so tired and bored, he would have held them in contempt, but that sort of emotion took too much effort, so he watched them through his sunglasses with his lips slightly curled in an apathetic sneer.
For the grand finale of the boring Buckingham day, the trio went to a traditional English pub. As they sat down at the bar, Jonathan looked around and said with raised eyebrows, "Well, this is antiquated."
Max laughed. "Don't knock it till you try it, Jon. It may not be considered fine dining, but I can guarantee that the food here is phenomenal."
Jon brushed the table with a look of slight disgust. "If I get food poisoning, it will be on your head." He was so engrossed in cataloging all of the sub par details of the pub, that he missed Angela's piercing gaze.
"You're not going to get food poisoning, Jon. Where's your sense of adventure?"
"Your life must be pretty boring if you call eating in a smoke-filled bar most likely infested with all kinds of disgusting creatures an adventure." He glanced down to look at his menu, and gave a loud disgusted groan. "God! Is there nothing edible in this place? No wonder England's empire fell. The food is terrible!"
He looked up from the menu with a disparaging smile. Max was staring at the table looking mildly embarrassed, but Angela was looking directly at Jon, her eyes wide with passion.
"That is it." Her voice and body were shaking with rage. "I have had enough of you! What the hell is wrong with you, Jon? You have done nothing but berate and ridicule everything we have done. You complain when you go out, yet you claim to be so bored and tired when you stay in. Nothing ever satisfies you; you have found something wrong with everything we've done. You've even complained about how the soda! My God! What the hell is wrong with you?" Angela's voice had risen with the tirade, and the pub had gone silent, enjoying American passions. Jon looked at Angela with bored amusement.
"Keep your voice down, Angela. You're making a scene." Angela gripped the table.
"Like your little bitch fest didn't? You don't care about anything anymore do you? All you want to do is sit on a couch and rot away. You don't even write anymore! Do you remember all the stories you wanted to create? All the things you had to say? Where did it all go?" Jon favored Angela with a condescending smile.
"You're so naïve. You have no idea what the world is really like. When the world gives me something to care about, I'll care, but so far I haven't seen anything too spectacular. Really, Angela, your standards must be pretty low to gain amusement from pittances like these."
Angela gave a cry of anger, grabbed a pitcher of beer and chucked it into Jon's face, screaming "You apathetic bastard," and ran out of the pub. Max gave Jon a look of disgust and followed her out. Jon looked around at the faces in the pub, all grimacing with contempt. He gave a nervous laugh.
"I guess I'll get the check then?" People scoffed and turned back to their meals, the hum of the pub rising to its customary level. Jonathan paid a stony faced waiter for the pitcher of beer and walked back to the hotel trying to regain some of his dignity. He changed into some dry clothes and knocked on Angela's door. There was no answer. He knocked and called, but he heard nothing. He wrote her a perfunctory note apologizing, skulked back to his room and slumped on his bed. For awhile he fumed and fussed over sensitivity of Angela and of artists in general, but then a small knowing voice rose up and said that maybe he was to blame. Jon quickly turned on the television to dampen the quiet voice, but he could still feel it in the back of his mind pointing an accusing finger that made him squirm.
He fell asleep uneasily and woke up groggily. He stumbled to the bathroom, but stopped as he stepped on something that was not carpet. He looked down and picked up his apology note from last night. Confused, he flipped it over and on the back was scrawled a message.
"I no longer require you to escort me. I'm traveling with Max. See you back in the states. Maybe. Angela."
For a moment, Jon was stunned, then it suddenly punched him in the gut and he fell down with huff. Horrifying visions of Angela flew around in his mind. He had no idea who Max really was. He could be a psychopathic rapist, a convicted criminal, or who knows what. He jumped up off the floor and rushed to get his things together, moving faster than he ever had before. He felt a terror that shook him to his very core. This was not the kind of fear that paralyzes; this terror gave him wings. He flew to the train station and managed to find and board the train that would take him to Paris. He prayed that she had not changed her plans.
As the train started to move forward and he settled down into his seat, another ball of panic started to form in his gut that, somehow, was even more terrifying than the fear of Angela being hurt. Jon dreaded that Max, instead of being an evil villain, was actually a good man. He trembled at the thought that Angela might be foolish enough to fall in love with Max. He couldn't adequately say why he was filled with such a bottomless dread at the mental picture of Angela and Max smiling together, but it made his chest ache. Jon tried to shut down his mind through sleep, but even his dreams were haunted with horrific images.
He must have eventually fallen asleep, because he was pushed from blackness to blinding color. The train had arrived in Paris, and the passengers were shuffling off. Jon stiffly got up, and then straightened with a jolt. His backpack was nowhere to be seen. He was about to cry thief, and then stopped himself. He must have put it with his other baggage. There had been people around him almost constantly, and if a robbery had happened, surely someone would have stopped it.
Taking a shaking, calming breath, Jon got off the train and was suddenly vaulted into a massive sea of people. He tried to find out where the baggage was being unloaded, but it was impossible to find in the swirling knot of people. Lost and confused, Jon was bumped, prodded, and shoved until he saw a sign for what he believed to be the police. After a good deal of fighting, he came to the station, but found, with dismay, that very few of the officers spoke English. Thankfully, he still had his travel pack, which had been hanging around his neck, containing his passport and a few euros. By pointing at his passport and saying embassy, he managed to get a very confusing map with a circled building placed in his hand, and then he was unceremoniously shoved out.
He wandered around, stopping people and pointing at the circled building on his map, and then pointing about wildly in the universal sign for directions. Each person he stopped pointed him in a different direction, until Jon was wandering down a street that he was certain no decent person should ever go down. Across the road, Jon could see what looked to be a well-tended public park. Weary, hungry, and sore, he collapsed on one of the benches and strove to hold back hot tears of frustration and fright. He held his head in his hands squeezed his eyes shut, vainly hoping that when he opened them, he would be back in his apartment. Instead, he found himself staring into the large eyes of a young girl, one hand in her mouth and the other gripping her mother's hand.
The mother said something to him in French, and he looked up, saying in a broken voice, "I don't speak French."
The woman smiled and said in perfect American accent, "I asked if you were okay." Relief at hearing his native language spoken flowed over Jon like a warm summer breeze, and tears unwillingly sprung in his eyes. He was about to answer the woman, when his stomach gave a long ravenous growl. The little girl giggled, and the woman smiled at Jon's downcast blush. "It seems you need a good meal, young man. Why don't you come along with us?" She held out her hand, while Jon stammered a clumsy thank you. The woman laughed a silvery laugh, and led him to a man holding the hands of two other girls.
The man had a bushy black beard and laughed heartily as his wife came towards him. "I see you picked up a stray, Clara dear." She smiled and came in to give her husband a light peck on the cheek.
"The poor boy needs a decent meal." To punctuate her statement, Jon's stomach loudly grumbled again. The man laughed again.
"I do believe you're right." He clapped Jon on the back companionably. "Come along, my boy. We'll fix you right up." Bewildered, Jon allowed himself to be led off by the lighthearted family to a small apartment. Before going in, Jon pulled the bearded man to one side.
"Sir, I just want to let you know that I'm not a druggie or anything like that. I--" The man waved him off.
"The name is Robert Sprite, young man, and I can tell an addict from a weary traveler. And don't bother with any explanations until after dinner. You're not the only one whose hungry, you know." With that, Robert ushered Jon into his apartment and firmly closed the door.
The next few hours were very surreal for Jonathan Fields. The Sprite's household was warm and filled with loving laughter. In spite of everything that had happened to him that day, Jonathan started to relax, especially when the apartment began to be filled the tantalizing aroma of a home cooked meal. After a loud and happy dinner and a game of Candy Land, Robert and Clara put their three daughters to bed and came back out to the main room. Jon was sitting at the dinner table, and Robert sat down across from him and crossed his arms across his chest.
"Well, young man, if you're willing to tell me, my wife and I are very interested as to how you managed to find yourself at Montsouris Park in such a sorry state."
Jon was very willing to give an explanation, but he found it difficult to begin; however, he found that the Sprites were excellent listeners, and soon found himself pouring his heart out to this kindly couple. When he was finished, they sat in silence for a while, then Robert said,
"Well, it will do you no good to go to the consulate. They can't do much for stolen baggage, except make you fill out a bucket load of paper work. As for finding this Angela of yours, I think that the best thing to do would be to make sure you catch your return flight in Rome. If she's not there, then you can start to worry, but until then, unfortunately, there's nothing you can do." Jon nodded forlornly, knowing this to be true.
"The only problem is that I have no idea how I'm going to get to Rome. The only things I have with me are my passport and return plane ticket." Robert looked over at his wife, and she nodded knowingly. He squeezed her hand and smiled back, while Clara patted Jon's hand comfortingly.
"I believe we can help you with that, Jon," she said kindly. "We're actually going to Rome just around the time your flight leaves."
"I couldn't let you pay for a train-"
"We aren't going by train," Robert said chuckling. "I adhere to the belief that getting there is half the fun. It's only about thirteen hours to Rome from here, and the countryside is spectacular." Jon started to protest again, but Robert cut him off again. "Hush, my boy. You wouldn't be a burden at all. In fact, I think you'll be a great help. You see, my wife and I are working on an exhibit at the Lourve and, while we try to keep an eye on them as much as possible, it would be nice to know that someone else is there, in case Clara and I get caught up with our responsibilities." Jon made a few feeble protests, especially when Robert and Clara insisted that he stay with them instead of finding a hostel, but all of his objections were easily overcome when Clara pointed out that he had no money.
So, Jon stayed with the Sprites for nearly two weeks watching their daughters. They were an amazing family. Robert was an Egyptologist and Clara was an art conservator; they worked together creating and maintaining Egyptian collections around the world. Their children were home-schooled and remarkably well behaved. Jon had no trouble at all keeping them in line and, surprisingly, enjoyed spending time with them. The girls were full of enthusiasm, and adored exhibiting their knowledge to their new found friend. The more time he spent with that incredible family, the more humble and ashamed of himself he became. The shame over how he had acted with Angela was soul crushing, and he began to worry that she might never be able to forgive him. He both longed for and dreaded the flight home.
Finally, the time came for the Sprites to take their trip down the Rome, and all six of them piled into a van and headed off through the rolling countryside. No matter how well-behaved children might be, a thirteen hour trip in the car is never easy. The adults want silence, which the children cannot stand, as a result, nerves start to fray and tempers get hot. When they had run out of games to play, and the girls were starting to fall back on the standard who's touching whom, Jon bribed them into silence by promising to tell them a story. The idea was met with enthusiasm, and he started out with the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but he had forgotten who his audience was. The girls immediately groaned that the story was boring and that they had heard it all before. Desperate for some peace and quiet, Jon decided to improvise.
"You really think it's a boring story," he asked raising his eyebrows and folding his arms. "I bet you never heard of the true version. The version with rocket launchers and robots." The girls squealed with the delight at his statement, and then immediately quieted down after being told that if they weren't quiet they wouldn't get to hear the story. With the help of Robert and Clara, Jon managed to spin a story that kept the girls occupied.
At long last the trip was over and the Sprites dropped him off at the airport with a tearful goodbye. The daughters clung to him tightly and made him promise that he would come and visit. Clara embraced him and gave him a sheet of paper with their contact information. Robert shook his hand vigorously, and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Let us know how things work out and if we can be of any help, Jon my boy. It's been a pleasure knowing you."
"The pleasure has been all mine. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't taken care of me. I am forever in your debt." Another round of hugging ensued, and then he turned and went into the airport, taking care to turn and wave one last time before he entered the doors.
He found the Italian airport much easier to traverse than the Paris train station. As he walked to his gate, he felt his heart sinking. He didn't see any sign of Angela; he felt the panic start to rise in his chest. Just then he thought he heard his name being called and before he realized what had happened, Angela had flung herself against him in a gigantic bear hug. Something suddenly broke inside of Jonathan Fields, and all his conflicting emotions clicked into place with a mixture of elation and despair, for when Angela broke the hug, she turned and grasped Max Middler's hand in way that made Jon's heart sink to the floor.
The first part of their reunion was dominated by Jon repeatedly apologizing to Angela, who responded with tears, hugs, and finally a good solid punch in the arm. Then they each recounted their adventures with each other. Angela was horrified at the theft of Jon's things and was enchanted by the Sprites, while Jonathan insisted on hearing every detail of every museum that Angela visited.
Finally, Jon and Angela's plane started boarding. Max stood and lifted Angela up and kissed her on both cheeks. He and Jon stared awkwardly at each other for a moment, but suddenly, Max smiled and held out his hand. Jon took it, confused.
"You are two crazy kids, and I wish you the best of luck in all your endeavors."
"You mean you're not coming with us?" Jon asked surprised. "I thought that you two
" He waved his fingers back and forth lamely. Max just grinned and shoved them on their flight.
He was in his seat and buckled up before he was able to turn to Angela and say,
" he trailed off feebly.
She smiled and linked her arm with his. "We have a long flight ahead of us. Let's get some sleep," and laid her head on his shoulder. With an expression of delighted wonderment, Jonathan leaned his head back and fell asleep to the rhythm of her breath.
They arrived back in America late at night without incident, and Jon hailed a taxi to take them to their apartments. They arrived at Angela's first, and, asking the taxi to wait, Jon helped carry her bags. After making sure she was settled, he embraced her gently. His heart started thumping, and he pulled back and held her at arms length.
there's something I want to tell you
" She put a finger to his lips.
"I know, Jon. I know." She leaned in and kissed him. After a stunned moment, realization sank in and he leaned forward energetically, but she pushed him away laughing. "The taxi's waiting, darling, and I'm exhausted. I'll see you tomorrow. I promise." She gently pushed him out and closed the door. He arrived at his apartment in a euphoric reverie. He was too tired to sleep. On a whim he went to his desk, got out a notepad and pen, and sat down on his couch. He looked about him, and was surprised to discover that his couch, instead of being a uniform grey, was made up of many black, brown and white threads. He looked up at the crest that Angela had made him, and grinned; then he popped the cap of the pen, and began to write.