A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
“Nicole, hurry up! The train is leaving!” Alex shouted to me across the empty platform number four of Prague’s Main Train Station.
It was almost midnight. John and Philip had already disappeared into the entrails of an interstate express.
“I’m on my way!” I yelled back, contemplating whether it wouldn’t be wiser to miss it. It would have been, but I didn’t.
By the time my sweaty and exhausted self caught up with my companions, they were squeezed into a compartment, making themselves comfortable with bottled beers.
“I see you made it,” Philip observed without a hint of concern.
“I bet you secretly wished I hadn’t,” I berated him, gasping for air.
“That’s not so,” John, my only sibling, said. “I swear he begged the conductor to wait for you, or else he would have no one to squabble with and annoy us doing so.”
“Yeah, that sounds like him,” I muttered breathily.
John raised his beer and proposed a toast. “To our journey! The rules are simple: no cell phones-”
“You took them from us, genius,” Phillip, the main querulant, interrupted him.
The speaker remained unagitated, as he was too used to his complaints to worry about them. “No other transport than our legs,” he continued.
“As long as you don’t deny us the alcohol,” Alex stressed his only condition.
“I would never...,” confirmed John and went on with his speech. Man, did he like to listen to himself. “My friends, I have nothing to offer but sweat, tears, and blood, but it’ll be worth it.”
“Churchill, brother, really?” I couldn’t help but comment on the inappropriateness of that quote.
Philip backed me up this time and said ironically, “To the summer of our dreams.”
This unfortunate adventure had begun seven hours ago, when two of our friends, brothers Alexander and Philip, came over. It wasn’t much of a surprise, as they used to hang out at our place, engaging in all sorts of troublesome activities, while our parents were out chasing divorce lawyers and new courtships. That time it had felt different, though. They were aimless and frustrated.
“You should have done something,” one scolded the other.
“Like what? Hit my own father in the face? Trust me, I wanted to.”
“Yeah, me too,” Philip admitted and slouched down in an old rattan armchair on the patio.
“What happened?” John asked, even though he had a pretty accurate idea, as did I.
“The usual.” Alex waved his hand. “We’re just full of it.”
My brother nodded and after a short reflection suggested, “So why don’t we get out of here? For the summer?”
“That’s actually not a bad plan.”
“Have you known me to have any?” John deflected Philip’s praise.
It took me a while to process the shift of their conversation. “To go where?” I looked up from my book, bewildered.
Philip gave me that ”you are overthinking it, again,” look of his, and Alex shrugged carelessly. “Does it matter?”
They were stubborn, all three of them, so it had been pointless to try to convince them otherwise. And I’ll admit that the idea of escaping this meager bohemian village for some time was not that beside the point. Things have been falling apart for me lately. Friendly neighbors turned into ruthless gossip machines after the explosive news of my parents getting a divorce had been released, which didn’t help my already miserable social life.
Of course, it must have been Alex, a psychology major college student, who had taken that fatal purple pin from our mothers’ sewing kit and –accompanied by fierce cheering of “south, south!” – stuck it in the middle of the map of Europe.
“You can’t be serious about spending the summer in Montenegro’s wilderness,” I protested when they started to argue whether it’s better to take the night train to Budapest or the morning one to Hamburg.
“I hope that was rhetorical because I have just bought four tickets to Podgorica,” Alex said.
“You’ve known that for quite a while.” He winked at me.
I was too responsible for such madness, but staying home alone wasn’t an option either. “Ok, whatever, let’s go.” I ended up adopting their heedlessness.
“Our bus leaves in an hour,” Alex informed us.
“Very well then, take your sleeping bags, bowls, bottles, mats, solid shoes, and that is all we need. We walk, sleep under the stars. Any gadgets or other nonsenses, I will donate to charity.” On the way out, John fulfilled his threats, took our cell phones and hid them in the closet next to his old football gear.
It was no easy task to travel with them. That is what they proved right away on the train when an elderly German lady came at us for being noisy, which we were, and not allowing her to sleep, which again, was a justifiable complaint.
“What the hell was that?” Phillip asked after she had left.
“What do you think? She urged us to shut up.” I took the liberty to translate her statement loosely. My German was not good enough to catch details.
“Well, yes, I got that. But what about the rest of it? She was babbling for like ten minutes.”
“That was the litany on the topic of the lack of manners in youth, rudeness, ruthlessness, alcoholism...” explained Alex, clutching an empty bottle.
“So nothing unusual,” John stretched his arms. It was not the first time he had heard that. The last reprise was from the lips of our beloved father, right before he grabbed his suitcase, young lover, and flew south as if he were a bird. “She wasn’t wrong about the alcohol. Maybe you should have offered her a drink.”
“Well,” I wanted to say something but was silenced by Philip’s large hand placed over my mouth, so nothing but a mumble came out. I tried to push him away, red with anger, but couldn’t compete with his strength.
“Don’t you start,” he said and let me be. “We’re on holiday, for God’s sake.”
I put as large a gap between us as I could and raised a warning finger: “If you ever lay your filthy hand on me again, I swear!”
“I didn’t lay a hand on you!” Philip dismissed my accusation.
“Yes, you literally did.” As much as I understood his arrogant outlook on the world, given his family background, I found most of his behavior preposterous.
“Just prevented you from speaking nonsense,” he said.
“As if you had any idea what I was going to-”
“Sure I did. One of your lectures on our bad behavior.”
“That is not the truth!” I defended myself, even though it kind of was.
“What are you going to do with your lives? You can’t just sit on our porch and drink beer forever. How about a college application?” he provocatively recited some of the statements I might have used in the past.
“How about getting a job?” my brother deceived me and joined him.
“You’re both idiots.”
“We know you mean well.” Philip saw my anger and softened a little.
I must admit that overprotectiveness had been an issue for me. “Then you know as well that I can do much better.” I switched on self-irony because there was no other way out of it that I could think of, “Who do you think will clean up this mess after you? This house ain’t no brothel, Philip! Watch out before you get syphilis,” and made them laugh as I knew I would.
“Wait, we all remind him of STDs all the time,” Alex added, “with no success.”
“I want a pass for the entire summer, are we clear?” Philip looked at me warningly. “Not one remark on productive years or unfulfilled potentials... Jeez, you and your words.”
“Ok, ok,” I threw my hands in the air, “I’m on holiday too, you know. You think I enjoy always having to look after you?”