Element

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THIRTY-THREE

Josh didn’t like it at all. “We just talked to this guy. Now he wants to talk to us again?” He was sitting in front of a jumbled abstract painting.

“That could just mean he’s getting into it,” Katie said.

“Still.” Katie’s arms were crossed and she was looking at the floor. “Also, I think maybe we should lay low for a while.”

“You might be right,” Viktor said, to everyone’s surprise. He was sitting halfway off a radiator. They looked at him. “Maybe we should lay low. How’s our boy Stover?” It seemed to come as an afterthought.

“Trying to save face by going to a Greenpeace rally.”

“Heh. Good luck with that. Where is the drop?”

“Paris, at a library.”

“We’ve never done a library before,” Viktor said.

“We’ve done hotels.”

“Yeah, ones with doors right there. A library has a lot of confined spaces.” John saw where this was going.

“Are you... armed?” he asked. This brought everyone’s gaze to his face. He looked at them, half involved in the conversation, half not.

“Yes,” Viktor said. André coughed. It suddenly seemed like all the air was used up in the room.

“I think it’s a little paranoid to assume this is some kind of trap,” Erika said at last. “I mean, that would mean someone got to our source, somehow found out about the network and imitated him, following all the protocols. I mean, is that really likely?”

“I’m not saying I think it’s a trap,” Viktor replied. “I just think in principle it’s risky.”

“I say we go,” Katie said. “What do you say Brian?” He shrugged. “Erika, I assume you say we go.” She sighed and nodded.

“André?” He wavered for a few moments so they decided to come back to him. Now they turned to Viktor.

“I mean, I’ll go. But like I said, it sounds a little risky. I hope we’re not pushing our luck.”

“John?”

“I… heh. I actually have to go home soon.” All the bodies turned towards him. Their mouths were open. “I was gonna tell you guys tomorrow. I hafta go home. Apparently, my parents know I’m here.”

“Oh no.”

“You’re nineteen man. You’re not a baby anymore,” Viktor said.

“I know. I know.”

“Aww John…”

“Fuck.”

“How much longer are you gonna be here?”

“Well… I was planning to spend tomorrow here, then take the train to London and fly home the day after.” It was a lie, he’d been planning to leave before that. He’d put off telling them too long. He’d had all day to do it. Now he was telling them what they wanted to hear to save face. Fuck. You didn’t do that to people. You didn’t do that to yourself.

“Oh okay, then if we go tomorrow, you can come with us, and then we can say goodbye.”

“Yeah, we can drop you off at the Gard du Nord maybe, when we’re leaving Paris, if you want to leave a little early. Upturned eyes in his direction.

“Yeah, that’d work,” John said. Goddammit, he thought. He needed to go home. While he still had a home. He looked at Erika who looked back at him. It was a weird look. Just slightly. But he picked up on it right away, while it was still a stem cell. And wondered how long he had until it differentiated. She likely wasn’t even aware of it yet herself. He needed to keep it that way. He looked away from her before he stared too long. He had to tell himself he hadn’t seen it. If he wasn’t consciously aware of it, he wouldn’t react to it. He didn’t know how though… Scott had always been better at it than he was. He wished he knew how. He looked at her again and took a deep breath. No need to start thinking. Stop thinking John. Just for one more day.

By early next morning, they had packed up most of their bags and loaded the cars. It was more somber today for everyone. Everyone but Viktor anyway, who seemed pretty much normal. It was strange sharing a room with Erika. John found himself packing quickly, then slowly. His airline ticket, now in need of changing, was smushed at the bottom of his duffel bag. At first he hadn’t been able to find it. When he did find it, he held it up for Erika to see.

She smiled and nodded. He sighed and watched her pack. Was it possible that such a thing as their romance was really coming to an end so abruptly? Did it even matter then? Of course it did. What an idiotic question. John had no time for existential crises. He had more important things to think about, like spending the entire morning with her. When she finished packing her bag, and he was done packing his, they sat together on his bed, hands in their laps, and leaned against one other. He didn’t think he loved her, because he didn’t know what love was, he assumed. But whatever he was feeling, it was the strongest feeling he had ever felt. Strange, it didn’t even have a name. But it was so strong he ran to the nearest close approximate.

Brian walked into the room with his backpack and leaned against the door frame. John glanced at him but didn’t really pay him any attention. He hoped Brian didn’t see it as rude. In any event, he didn’t leave. Just stood there, with his hands in his pockets, looking at the place where the door frame and the floor met. Above them, the ceiling fan swished around and around.

When they finally piled into the cars and rode off towards Bibliothèque nationale de France, John rode in the Volkswagen. It was kind of a mess inside and this had irritated him before. But now he didn’t mind it as much. The peace symbol dangling from the mirror was a nice touch. Plus Erika handled the troublesome stick shift like a pro.

Bibliothèque nationale de France was actually comprised of four very tall buildings arranged in a rectangle by the Seine. Each building was L-shaped, so that they resembled open books. The gang found spots next to the library and parked. They were a bit of a ways from the actual buildings though, and to John, the open space seemed like an awfully large distance to cover in an emergency. He watched Viktor and Katie get out.

“I kinda wanna go too,” John said to Erika. “You wanna come?”

“Eh, I’m ok,” Erika said.

“K.” He got out and walked after Viktor. “Hey, mind if I come?” Viktor hesitated.

“Yeah sure,” Katie said. Viktor frowned and kept walking. John glared at him. You really are an asshole.

John walked beside them up a slope, to a broad, flat area between the four pillars of glass. It was sublime and beautiful. Reaching a flight of stairs, they went down and then walked through a set of automatic doors. On the other side, they were frozen by a blast of cold air. John hunched his back and breathed in hard, following Viktor and Katie. It suddenly occurred to him that they were walking faster than usual. He grew anxious with this realization, glancing around himself with subtle pans of his eyes, observing his surroundings with his peripheral vision. Katie was consulting directions on a sheet of paper. Leading them down a set of stairs, she pushed through a door and took them into a room filled with journals.

Looking down at the piece of paper, she steered them to the right. They came into a room with dozens of automated archives. Walking back and forth for a little while, she disappeared around a corner, Viktor and John running to keep up.

She halted and pressed a button on one of the bookshelves. What happened next would have no doubt terrified a man from the Middle Ages, John thought. Like high tech magic, the book shelves slid to the side, opening a path for them. Katie walked down the opening. John regarded the space warily and hung back for a moment. He’d never liked these things. It was a long aisle too. If the building was hit by lightning or there was a short circuit… He moved to follow. Katie was bent over, hand on her mouth, reading the titles. Finally, after a long time, she tapped Viktor on the shoulder and pointed to the shelf. He leaned forward a little bit and extended a hand.

There was a click from a shelf. John turned towards the way out. His heart raced. But upon regaining his wits, he saw that the shelves across an isle were the ones that were moving. He exhaled and looked back at Katie and Viktor. Viktor was putting the packet of papers into his backpack. When he was finished, he slung the backpack over his shoulder. Katie walked up to John.

“Let’s get out of here.”

“Just left!”

“Oui, mademoiselle.”

“SHIT! Did he say where he was going?”

“Non, mademoiselle.”

“Did you at least see which way he went?”

“I’m afraid not. I’m sorry.”

“…It’s all right.” Elle walked out of the hostel. One bloody hour ago. She’d just fucking missed him. She leaned on the roof of her car. Apparently, he was traveling with a group of other people. Whoever they were, if they had left the hostel, it was a fair bet they were leaving the city. And if they were leaving the city, she would have to wait for him to come back online. And start again from scratch. Check one hostel at a time. Unless she managed to finally catch him online and send him a message. She closed her eyes. She felt like Inspector Zenigata, chasing Lupin the Third across Europe. This comparison elicited a brief and unexpected smirk. It was all quite theatrical, wasn’t it? Someone else might have even found it amusing, on some level. She couldn’t though. She was missing time from work. Dipping into her vacation time. Spending thirty dollars a day on the car, and a thousand dollars on air fare. No, not this trip. More than anything, she was just amazed that she had actually almost caught him.

Sighing, she straightened up and fished in her purse for her car keys. Unlocking her underpowered, purple rental car, she settled into the driver’s seat. One hour. Unbefuckinglievable. She glanced at the map of Paris on the seat next to her on which she had circled several points. Somewhere in that mesh of streets, her brother might have been having breakfast, that very instant. Joyfully oblivious to her presence. She shook her head. How did someone get so bloody irresponsible? Inspecting the map for a few moments, she shifted into drive, pausing to make way for a bicycle. She was going to head back to her hotel. First, though, she needed a bagel and some goddamn coffee.

They leaned over the hood of the Baja in the back parking lot of a restaurant. Behind them was a park where a gaggle of kids were playing on a swing set. André had set his laptop on a car seat where it was sheltered from the sun and was kneeling down in front of it.

“That’s a hike from here,” André said.

“I know,” Katie said.

“It’s twelve and a half hours away. If we left now and booked it, we could get there by midnight.”

“But we still have to drop John off at the train station,” Brian said.

“That won’t take long,” Katie said.

John looked down at the map on the hood as it flapped in a breeze. The sun’s glare off the windshield blinded him. He put on his sunglasses. He was about to go home. They were about to go on without him. As he looked on, their methodicalness bothered him. Not that it was cold. But it still made him feel slightly alienated. That wasn’t true of course. But it was a thought that had crept into his mind and now wouldn’t leave. He glanced at Erika who was looking down at the packet of papers from the library. The truth, the real truth, was that he was just upset. And when you got upset, you couldn’t think straight. And all manner of worries crept into your head. That was why goodbyes always sucked. No matter how well you planned them. Or not. There were surely exceptions, he admitted. He rubbed his forehead. The volume was going up again.

There was another breeze. John looked into the wind. Imperceptibly at first, the sky began to darken. Clouds appeared from nowhere, a ridge of them. But he barely noticed them because the sun was still there, beating down on them with radiant intensity.

André looked at the Google map. “We’re going to pass near Barcelona. Nice.”

“Hmm,” Katie said.

“Once we get past the mountains, we sort’ve criss-cross west.”

“So we’re definitely going?” Cory asked.

“I assume so.”

They were going to Spain. To a semi-arid dot north-east of Madridejos. At the moment, there was water rationing in effect there as a result of extreme drought conditions. There was a large agricultural facility called Alvaro that produced fruits at its orchards, which were vast, as was necessary, considering the poorness of the soil, itself complicated by major erosion. And apparently, the people there were ignoring the rationing, despite the fines that could be imposed. They hadn’t gotten caught because they ran their sprinklers at night. So the team’s goal was to get a full length video of the sprinkling. John was amazed by the simple stupidness this trip would require. He wasn’t used to easy tasks anymore he guessed. Ever since he’d decided to embark on this vacation, he’d had the bar of audacity continually raised. But now things were going back to the way they had been before. He was leaving too…

It all suddenly seemed so well planned. The metaphor was fully consistent. He leaned against the hot hood of the car and put his hands on his knees. This would be so easy. Katie said something about snake kits. Erika said they weren’t very good. Josh looked at him and walked over.

“Hey, you all right?” John looked at him and shrugged. Josh looked at him for a moment and then nodded.

After this was over, they were going to swing past Valencia for some R&R. Together. Was it a sin if you envied your past self? They kept talking for quite some time. John glanced at his watch. Katie saw him.

“What time is your train leaving? Are you gonna be late?”

“Hmm, in like an hour.”

“Okay. We should go. We can talk at the station.”

John breathed in deeply. “Well, hey... My uh ticket is good for any Ryanair flight out of London. There just might be an added cost. So… if you guys plan to be in Spain for a while… I suppose I could stick around for another day.”

Katie regarded him. “All right. Sounds good.” John looked to Erika who smiled at him.

“What changed your mind?” Katie asked. John shrugged as nonchalantly as he could.

“Gotta die of something.”

They finalized their plans by the quarter hour and folded the map up, climbing into the cars, John with Josh, because he decided he’d been neglecting him lately. Josh seemed to appreciate it. By then, the sun was intermittently visible. The clouds were thicker, their bases pale. Their view was limited by the skyline but not so much that they couldn’t make out what was approaching on the horizon.

Somewhere, far away, a source of light lit suspended droplets of water. This was followed all too quickly by a thunderclap. Deafeningly loud. The clouds in the direction from which the sound had come were immensely dark. The wind had picked up and they suddenly noticed it as it cooled their skin to an uncomfortable degree through the open windows and flapped the trees around them, the sweat on their arms long since evaporated. The last ray of sunlight faded as the clouds converged over them, the boundary fringe of a powerful, wandering specter, as indifferent to them as the birds it tossed about. Speaking of birds, he suddenly noticed they were no longer chirping. Many other sounds seemed to have diminished too. As if the natural world was now bracing itself for the incoming weather.

They pulled out of the parking lot, the first drops of rain pattering on their roofs. Towards the thunderstorm.

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