Element

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THIRTEEN

When he woke up, the room was spinning. But he blinked and it came under control. He was lying on his back, still dressed in the clothes he’d worn the night before. He glanced at them. Remarkably, they weren’t wrinkled. He guessed you got what you paid for. He also suddenly realized that this was the first time he’d really looked at the room’s ceiling. It looked like the ceiling of a freshman dorm. Cardboard with holes poked into it. But it was intact so it looked all right. He didn’t dislike it.

Turning over slightly, he felt his body’s various aches. His back was sore. And his chest felt heavy. So heavy. Like he’d had all the life sucked out of him. My word. He glanced over at his duffel bag. It was the only item he could see without tilting his head. Through the slightly ajar window curtains, a jagged sunbeam glowed blindingly across the parallel lines of the wooden floor. So, he was really here. He closed his eyes and let his head sink into his pillow. He was very tired. He lay like that for a long time and then gradually, opened his eyes again. He looked at his duffel bag once more. The yellow cover of Eileen P. Gunn’s Your Career is an Extreme Sport rested on top of a shirt. The title was pretty self-explanatory. Behind the large white letters of the title, there was a silhouette of a man hanging from a cliff. John really liked that cover.

His hiking bag was resting against his feet. He looked at that next. It was blue. Jammed into one of its side holsters was a green Nalgene bottle that dated back to his freshman year as a rower. His little mental anchor to home. Strange. He felt so cut off over here. But that scratched Nalgene bottle was here with him. Waiting patiently to perform double duty as a subtle security blanket.

I guess it’s about time I got up he thought at last. He propped himself up on the cot. His back felt so tired. And then suddenly, he remembered what had happened the night before. It was hard to believe.

Lowering his feet to the floor, he stood up and went to the door, turning its handle gingerly so as to not make any unnecessary noise. John liked to be quiet. He gingerly pulled the door open and peered down the hall. There was no one else moving. He went into the hallway and searched for the bathroom. He found it a few moments later and went inside. This was what brought him fully back to reality. The room smelled like urine. Ugh. He thought he was going to gag for a moment. He promptly abandoned any notion of taking a shower, emptied his bladder and just got the hell out. Brushing his teeth would suck.

When he was back in his room, he leaned over his duffel bag and tried to figure out what to wear. He found a pair of dark green cargo pants. They would work. All he needed now was a shirt, which he chose after a small amount of effort. No black today. He was trying to be upbeat after all. With those pressing matters taken care of, he got to work taking things out of his backpack and setting them on the cot. Extra things like the unnecessary sleeping bag, the blanket. He had some granola bars in the side pockets but he left those. He might need them later. He wished he’d brought a smaller bag. He couldn’t carry this thing around. It’d look ridiculous. He suddenly frowned. No no no. He formed a new plan, withdrawing from it a map, a writing utensil, a small pad, his phone, and one of the granola bars. He then put on a jacket and put the items into his pockets. At last, satisfied he was reasonably well prepared, he checked his watch and sat down on the cot to consult the map of London.

MI6 looked like its picture. Big and tan, with official looking windows. He was just about to take a picture when he saw a large sign that read, Official Defense Building. No Photography. Eh, what the hell. He took one anyway. He didn’t even notice the camera on the black pole above him as it swiveled on its mount and centered itself on him. Unknown to most people in the world, England was actually one of the most heavily monitored countries on the planet, with roughly one camera for every dozen human beings, placed at strategic locations… pretty much everywhere. It was fitting then that throughout history, many of the more noteworthy pieces of dystopian fiction were set there. At this point in time, if it so chose, the British equivalent of the American FBI, MI5, could track vehicles as they moved anywhere in the country, just by reading their license plates.

But what did he care? He was just a sightseer. It was a little odd that he was alone but hardly damning. Cameras followed him for a few blocks, but he wasn’t showing any of the classic body language of a shifty person. The computers didn’t think so anyway. And so, after about ten minutes, his observers lost interest.

After that, he went to Buckingham Palace. It was surrounded by a tall fence. In front of the building, a Queen’s guardsman stood motionless. John stopped to take a picture of him too. It was hard to fathom having the self-control to remain perfectly at attention for hours. He was suddenly tempted to put a granola bar in one of the soldier’s pockets but he held back.

The palace didn’t really float his boat actually. So he went to a bus stop and waited until, to his delight, a red double-decker bus arrived in front of him. Getting on, he took yet another picture. He was so obviously a tourist. He found a seat. A second later, an oldish woman sat down next to him, eyeing his silver digital camera.

She asked if he was a tourist. John responded that he was. She smiled. Her accent was very British. Alarmingly so. She asked him if he was Canadian and he hesitated a moment before admitting that he was American. She looked him over. She got an expression, as if to say, seems harmless enough. John was glad he seemed harmless. He turned to look out the window and spent the rest of the bus ride in silence. By the time he’d reached the Tower of London, he was hungry. The bus got to his stop and he stepped off, starting down the sidewalk, hands in his pockets. The sun had disappeared behind some clouds. The wind flapped his jacket. He thought for a few moments about what to do tomorrow. He could stay in London for a while longer. There were a lot of things he wanted to see. But he also wanted to see more of Europe. So… okay, he would stay one more night and then go to France. Maybe.

A little later, he noticed a collection of food venders, selling all sorts of food, from Thai to vegetarian, in a big food court. He hadn’t come across it in his research so he was a little curious. At first eyeing it from a distance, he entered into a crowd of people who were issuing from and entering into various sub-street level doorways. He got a panini, which he ate with relish on a bench. To his left, a pigeon cooed. He realized he felt very warm and laid his jacket down on the bench. He had a few brochures with him and he laid one out on the table, turning its leaves as he ate. When he’d finished eating, he laid his chin on his arm for a little while and closed his eyes, listening to the chatter of hundreds of people.

Opening his eyes again, he decided Scotland Yard, his next intended destination, could wait and went into some shops, looking at the various things they had to offer. He walked past one doorway and his nostrils were doused with incense. Beads, posters, British flags, rings, flashlights, Chinese stress balls, no thanks, have a pair, old-fashioned film, shirts, hats, coffee mugs. So much stuff. He bought a bunch of things including a sleek pair of sunglasses that he instantly fell in love with. Oh yes. Now he was something. The lenses were polarized and turned the sky a rich, tannish blue. He went into more stores. At one point, he picked up a journal. He realized he should document his adventures.

By the time he was finally on his way to Scotland Yard, he’d used up almost all of his allotted spending cash for today and tomorrow and was a little worried. He needed to stick to his budget. But then he saw the real, actual Scotland Yard, and didn’t care. It looked just like on TV, signature black cube turning on its base.

When he got back to the hostel, the old lady had closed her booth again and so John went upstairs to his room, which was still empty aside from his belongings, and dumped his recent acquisitions on the cot. Then it was off to have dinner. He hadn’t had breakfast, so he was ready. This time, he tried a more traditional-looking restaurant. He had lobster bisque. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to return home with a gut.

After dinner, he found a pay phone and called home. His parents were happy to hear from him and they had a nice long conversation with a nearby night club in the background, which he explained away as karaoke night among the firemen. His parents seemed to buy it. Then he told them it was his turn to sing and hung up. All too easy.

He went into the night club, drank more alcohol. Thankfully no one old hit on him. It was more of a pub really. He felt odd drinking alone but banished the thought as unproductive and did his best to enjoy the genial voices around him. He had three shots and then walked out early, stumbling upon a video arcade, which raised his eyebrows as high as they would go. It was like the gods had known exactly what he needed. Most of the games were familiar, too. Terminator Genisys, X-Men Days of Future Past. There was already a pair of kids on the latter but when he gestured to an empty slot, they told him to go ahead and, thanking them, he joined them. Odd as it might have sounded, it was the best part of his trip so far.

The next morning, John found an info cafe and settled into a chair behind a new-looking Dell. It didn’t have AOL Instant Messenger installed but he circumvented that problem easily by logging into AIM Express. He glanced around the kiosk. There were several other young people. John made a decision. From now on, he was going to start introducing himself to other people, because otherwise, this trip was going to drag on, and he couldn’t come home early. One way or another, he was here for the duration. He took a determined sip of his lime colored drink.

He was pleased to see that Scott was online and was just about to message him when his friend beat him to it.

Nordictrax: Ah so you’re still alive.

John laughed.

AngryLabMonkey: Indeed. I didn’t know for a minute back there though. This forty-something biologist tried to pick me up.

Nordictrax: WHAT?!

John laughed again and explained what had happened. When he was finished, Scott was quiet for a minute.

Nordictrax: You gotta watch out for sketchy people like that. You’re all alone.

John replied in agreement and sat forward in his chair. Scott always worried a lot. It would be his undoing. It was one of the few fundamental differences between them. He was a chronic worrier. Couldn’t just enjoy a good thing.

Nordictrax: Man, I envy you. You’re in my home country.

AngryLabMonkey: You should’ve come.

Scott didn’t answer. John changed the subject, bringing up noteworthy current events in Connecticut. Predictably, there weren’t any. As he waited for Scott to finish typing something, he perused the latest headlines on CNN. Forest fire out west. A big one. There was even talk about evacuating Los Alamos. John frowned. Sucked to be a firefighter right now. Hahahaha. Zing. That was when Scott asked him about the postcards. John verified that nothing had really changed in terms of how to distribute them. It was all still nice and airtight.

Nordictrax: So where are you going to go now?

John said that he had his eyes on France and that he would do some more sight-seeing in England and then leave by train sometime that afternoon. As he wrote it, it dawned on him how exciting it all sounded, and how nonchalant his language was. He mused on this as he perused his buddy list. There were several other people online who John said hello to. Predictably, people were pretty much amazed his little scheme had worked. It had sounded far-fetched. But then again, this was John Marshall. Through preparation, charm, and sheer force of will, he usually got what he wanted, as long as it was sufficiently ridiculous. Ridiculous was easy.

He smiled. It was good, necessary, to reconnect. Know that he had a support network back there. As charming and exciting as any new place was, when the adrenaline wore off, fatigue set in, and you once more had time to think, you were still far from your home. You were still a foreigner. You could forget that people cared about you, even after only a few days. In that one way at least, the Internet was good. It gave you a way to easily stay in touch. He decided he would keep tabs regularly. But he had to go now. He was going to have to hurry if he was going to make it to Waterloo Station in time for his train. He gave Scott a verbal salute and logged off, without giving the other teen a chance to respond.

The sleek yellow Eurostar was like nothing John had ever ridden on before. The inside of the train was breathtakingly silent, even though they were cruising at close to one hundred sixty kilometers an hour. He did a quick mental calculation. One sixty divided by one point six zero nine came to… oh fuck, um… about one hundred miles per hour. He could’ve been more precise but he didn’t want to spoil the view. The trees and landscape out the window shot by with consciousness-altering speed. Every once in a while the train would turn and he would feel it, more subconsciously than physically. It was remarkable. Somehow they had managed to damp out all the inertia. As they neared a private airstrip, a little white Cessna came down roughly parallel to them and then fell out of view. They had just outrun a Cessna. So many adjustments to make here.

All of a sudden, a concrete embankment rose up on either side of the train. John couldn’t be sure what was happening but he could gue…. He didn’t have time to finish the thought. With lightning quickness, the world went black. And then, just as quickly, a haze of rectangular white lamps machine-gunned past the windows. The Chunnel. So now they were heading underwater.

John normally didn’t suffer from phobias. But since he was all alone, he was willing to admit something to himself. He really wasn’t fully comfortable torpedoing beneath a thirty-one mile open water body at race car speeds. He found himself looking away from the windows. The train trembled momentarily but then returned to its previous stillness. Not feeling so good, he got up and ambled aft, to where there was a restroom. As he moved, white and gray streaks flashed ahead of him. He was careening down a submerged concrete tube. If they hit something… Anything… He got to the bathroom and closed the door.

It was several minutes before he opened the door again and lumbered back to his seat. How much longer would this trip take? He started doing the math in his head. How long had it been already? Oh hell, he really didn’t care. He knew what to do. He took out his black iPod Nano and put on a little music. Making himself pay attention to the lyrics, he tried not to think about all the stone and water on top of him. Eventually, the music helped. And then they came out of the tunnel.

Gare du Nord was a flurry of activity and John was anxious to get to his hostel. Everything was in French now which was going to make things interesting. He’d taken it in high school but hadn’t been particularly motivated. Luckily, however, he still remembered a fair number of phrases. It took some effort, but he figured things out and got from the train station to the hostel in one piece.

The new hostel was a lot bigger than the old one. It even had a small cafeteria big enough to hold maybe twenty people. It was more populated as well. John watched people come and go as he waited for his room key. Two men, perhaps in their thirties, walked over to the cafeteria and picked up cardboard trays. A short time later, a group of people in their mid to late twenties came down a flight of stairs and walked out the front door. John followed them with his eyes and then rubbed his forehead. Getting a little tired. The man behind the desk handed John his passport back and presented him with a key with a tag on it. Taking the key and passport, John thanked him and hefted up his duffel bag. The man then gave him a slip of paper with the Wi-Fi password. John thanked him again. Brushing by a television screen on the wall, he went upstairs to his room.

As he approached it, he was surprised to discover that the door was ajar. Hesitating a moment, he opened the door.

And that was how he met Joshua.

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