(An excerpt from "Small World", a novel about four military dependent high school kids who witness an event just a week before their graduation in Naples, Italy. Inevitably, their paths scatter them in different directions, but as they come to terms with what happened individually, the past rises from the grave and demands their attention. (The Blurb is a Work In Progress) (Also this is a rough draft, keep that in mind.)
She realized she was still staring at the cryptic letter when her computer chimed, and a notification appeared. The email was from a vaguely familiar address. It clicked, when she clicked on it. Her stomach tumbled in a way she hadn’t experienced in nearly twenty-five years, when Rook appeared in the seat next to her on a train bound for Austria.
Eryn would never forget the way the sun hit his face that day. She had her forehead against the window, watching the world go by. The seats on the train were baby-poop brown, two-facing-two as if strangers wanted to meet and chat. On the wall under the shared window was a weird illustration of shoes covered by a giant red circle and slash, the universal symbol for “don’t”.
Rook slid into the seat across from her, pushing her propped up feet against the wall. It took her a minute to recognize him- graduation had been two weekends and an entire lifetime ago. The fading light of the day came into the train car from behind her, bouncing solidly off every one of his features, making him appear to glow. Mostly, she remembered how completely and perfectly blue his eyes were.
“You’re not supposed to prop your feet up on the seat,” he’d said, matter-of-factly.
“What are you, the Carabinieri?”
“Just trying to keep you out of trouble.”
“That’s interesting,” she’d been upset by the comment, upset by the insinuation that she was, in fact, in any kind of trouble. “Why are you even here?” she’d asked.
“Last ditch effort to see the world on my terms, I guess. Why are you here?”
She couldn’t remember how she’d answered that question, and she couldn’t remember what else they talked about on the train that day. She remembered only that by the time they arrived at their shared destination, Rook had moved into the seat next to her, close enough that she could smell the laundry detergent his mom used. They spent three weeks on that Outward Bound trip together, keeping each other entertained and motivated, warm and safe. They’d talked about Joey and Trinity and Adam and Dr. C, about what it all meant and what they saw and heard that day. They both promised to stay in touch, and they both knew they were most likely lying. As suddenly as he had appeared, Rook was gone.
The email was nearly as abrupt.
So, are you going?
Her palms were sweaty, her hands shaking ever so slightly as she typed an equal response.
It would appear I have no choice.
No greeting, no signature. Eryn hit the send button before she could rethink it, before she could say more, or say less, or say nothing at all. But she had so much more to say to him.
It appeared he wasn’t done yet, either. She hadn’t closed the email window, so her computer dinged and filled the screen with the newly received email.
Can we talk?
She hated short emails, and honestly if this was going to happen, it might as well happen over text. She emailed him her phone number and indicated that she couldn’t talk at the moment but he could feel free to call her later. As she suspected, her phone alert went off moments later.
A 505 area code? You live in Albuquerque?
It’s a long story. Yes.
Three dots appeared and she realized she was glued to them, fixated on whatever it was Rook was saying. It was insane, after all she’d been through, that she felt like a teenager passing notes in class again.
Not going to ask me where I live?
Are we really playing twenty questions right now?
I know, I’m sorry. The letter is weird, right?
Did you get a thumb drive too?
What’s on it?
I haven’t looked yet.
You should look.
The thumb drive that arrived with the letter and travel arrangements was a generic brand. It hadn’t occurred to her that anything on it could be disturbing. Eryn instinctively felt like this was something she shouldn’t involve her highly secured, hardwired work computer in. She opted to grab her bag and pulled out her personal laptop.
Her phone continued to vibrate with new messages while the computer came to life. The thumb drive appeared in the finder and she again clicked before contemplating the ramifications of her actions. A folder opened. In it were seven pictures. She clicked on the first one, the thumbnail of the image too dark to identify immediately. The image filled the screen, and the butterflies in Eryn’s stomach were drowned by immediate nausea. She clicked on the second. The third. Her world disintegrated beneath her.
She grabbed her phone.
Are you looking?
Let me know.
So you see.
I’m freaking out.
Who sent this?
Is this some kind of horrible joke?
Please calm down.
Go somewhere you can talk.
I’ll call you, okay?
Minutes passed, Eryn’s head buried in her hands, eyes overflowing. Her phone buzzed again. Once. Twice.
She took a deep breath, let it out, reached for a tissue.
I go by Eryn now.
Give me five minutes, I’ll be in my car.
Catching up with Rook under these circumstances felt oddly normal; their lives only seemed to intertwine around that one strange, hot morning in Naples. By the time the phone call ended, she felt calm and protected. She’d given him her flight information and they’d agreed to meet before the proceeding described in the letter. Eryn was looking forward to seeing him. She Googled him again, smiling at the resurgence of his presence in her life- and got nothing. No pictures, no accounts, no links. For all she knew, he was a ghost.
Not twenty-four hours later, Eryn was on a plane bound for Houston. He said he’d be driving, but he didn’t say from where. She kicked herself for not asking more questions. They’d been texting each other nearly non-stop since that first exchange, and she was nervous at the prospect of losing the connection to him while in flight. His messages were a lifeline, and the only thing she could cling to at the moment.
We’re about to take off. I’ll let you know when I land.
He replied with a thumbs up and a smiley face. She put the phone in airplane mode, popped in her ear buds and chose a playlist: 90’s hits. That would do.
Maybe it was the stress of the mysterious request, the short notice of the required trip, or simply the past having it’s way with her- Eryn fell asleep before the plane breached ten-thousand feet to the mellow voices of PM Dawn and woke up to Guns N Roses just before touchdown.
Eryn yawned, sheepishly wiped the sides of her mouth and thanked God she had a window seat to lean against.
As soon as the wheels hit the runway, she turned her phone’s signal back on. The plane was parked, its passengers waiting impatiently to disembark. Her phone buzzed several times in a row. She knew a few of them were work related; her abrupt departure had left a few things in a lurch. She’d lied and said there was a death in the family. She scrolled through the mix of sentiments and questions from colleagues and clients, her heart speeding up like junior high school kid with a crush when she saw his name. She clicked on his notification.
Two pictures popped up. One was a screen shot of a flight tracker, a green line on a terrain map with a dot somewhere over a road that appeared to be miles away from Houston. The other was an airplane, so high in the sky that its metal reflected the sun so brightly, it could’ve been a star in broad daylight. After the pictures, a text from Rook:
You’re going to beat me there for sure.
And this is the closest I’ve been to you in years.
Three dots appeared... her eyes filled again, this time with some sort of feeling of overwhelming comfort that didn't make sense. She remembered the last campfire in Austria, the way they both smelled of sweat and smoke that night.
I'm sorry I waited so long.