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Authors: Christine Riccio

Again, but Better (22 page)

BOOK: Again, but Better
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5. Reaching in the Dark

The hustle and bustle of Victoria Station streams around me as I make haste for the Gatwick Express. My backpack bounces lightly against me as I weave in and out of swarms of travelers. I giddily make eye contact with strangers as they stride by. Some smile back, a lot of them abruptly look down. I don’t care, I’m feeling wonderfully empowered right now—free.

I haven’t
been able to stop grinning since I left the
Packed!
office. I just re-interviewed for my internship. I forgot how cool the office was. I forgot how much I liked Wendy. When she teased the idea of writing a piece about studying abroad in London, my heart flew around in my chest all over again. Now, I can’t stop picturing my name under an article in their magazine. I’ve written some stuff for scientific
journals these past four years … but I don’t know. I don’t know why it feels so different for me with this travel magazine. But it does. The scientific journals felt like an obligation. An obstacle I had to hurdle for my impending medical career. This feels like a goal. A finish line I’d like to cross.

It’s not till our plane has taken off and we’re up there in the atmosphere that I remember
the button
. I’m not just going to Rome for the weekend. I’m headed on a wild goose chase for a mystical button.

We’ve been flying for about forty minutes. I’m currently treating myself to a free mini bottle of white wine. Beside me is the same drunk couple as last time. The two of them are chattering away, but all I can hear is the roar
of the plane in my ears. The uncaged feeling from earlier
saps with every passing mile. Pilot’s a few rows back in a middle seat across the way. I thoughtfully swig another mouthful of wine before turning to steal a glance at him. When I hitch myself up and twist around, I find him looking right at me.

Instinct is to drop back into the chair, but I fight it.
I don’t have to hide
. Instead, I raise my eyebrows. Pilot dips his chin hello before dropping
eye contact. I slide back into my chair, finish off this mini wine, and unbuckle my seat belt.

I stand the best I can to catch the attention of the drunk couple. “I’m sorry. Could I get out, please?”

Once free, I take the few wobbly steps to Pilot’s row. He watches me curiously. The middle-aged woman sitting in the aisle seat next to him looks up at me. I put a hand to my heart.

“Hi!” I knit
my brow. “Sorry to bother you. I just, that’s my brother, and he’s holding it together right now, but he has a crippling fear of flying. I can see he’s having a really hard time, and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind switching seats with me so I can be next to him? I can calm him down when he’s hyperventilating and stuff.” I jut out my bottom lip.

She looks to her right, at Pilot. My eyes
flit to him as well. He’s gaping like I just grew two new heads.

The woman turns back to me. “Oh my goodness, of course we can switch. What seat were you in?”

I feel crappy about the lying, but I need to take advantage of this Babe- and Sahra-less time to discuss our current predicament. Thirty seconds later, I flop into the aisle seat next to Pilot with my backpack. Up ahead, the nice middle-aged
lady scoots in past Tweedledee and Tweedledrunk to my window seat.

“What the hell was that?” Pilot asks.

Hmm, how to begin?
I angle myself sideways so I can see him more easily.
Hi, Pies, so I’m not so sure about this reset button thing.

I cluck my tongue and loose a sigh. “Pies, we haven’t done shawarma yet.”

This is valid.

“What?” His eyebrows furrow.

“We didn’t. Get. Shawarma this week,”
I try to enunciate, but my words bleed a bit more than I’d like.
Am I tipsy from that baby wine?

He swishes his head from left to right. “So…”

Where am I going with this?

“So … we should have gotten shawarma.”

“Did you switch seats to get this very important message to me before we landed? Do you need shawarma when we land?” he asks blandly.

My head tilts slightly to the left as I consider
this. I burst out laughing.

“Shane?” he asks calmly.

I compose myself. “I came over here because I wanted to talk to you.”

“About shawarma,” Pilot says, eyebrows raised.

I choke on another laugh. “You remember in
Avengers
—you saw
Avengers
, right?”

He nods.

“Remember when Iron Man was like,
Let’s get shawarma
, and then they did get shawarma?”

“Yeah.” His lips turn up.

“Yeah, all I could
think about when that happened was the amazing shawarma we had here.”

“Shwenesdays,” Pilot confirms nostalgically.

“And now it’s all mainstream, you know. Everyone’s all,
Yeah, shawarma like in
The Avengers, and I’m all like,
No, I knew about shawarma before it was cool.

He closes his eyes and shakes his head. “You know, you’re completely right. How dare the Avengers want shawarma; we invented
that.”

I keel forward, cackling at the angst in his voice. “Yes! Totally ripped us off. But, there ain’t no shawarma like Beirut Express shawarma! Because Beirut Express shawarma is da best!” I sing-talk.

Pilot’s expression flatlines as he executes a dramatic blink: “Did you just make a random S Club 7 reference?”

My eyes ignite. “Did you just pick up on an S Club 7 reference?”

He squints,
grinning now. “Touch
é
.”

I smile. “Have you had good shawarma since London?”

“Are we back to this?” he asks the seat in front of him.

“I’ve had okay shawarma, but not excellent shawarma, and I’ve tried like five different shawarma places.”

He twists to face me. “You’ve said the word
shawarma
at least fifty times since you’ve sat down, and you’ve been here for like three minutes.”

I smother
another bout of laughter. “Well, I just wanted to say that we should have gotten shawarma.”

“Sorry, so to clarify, you made a woman switch seats so we could discuss shawarma.”

“Well, I came over so we could chat because we’re about to go on some ridiculous mission through a foreign country to find a button to reset ourselves forward in time, and we haven’t really thought out a plan.”

“I tried
to suggest a plan, and you said we could just”—he raises his hands to do air quotes—“‘figure it out.’”

I lean forward. “Well, I was still kind of reeling from the whole we’re-back-in-time reveal. I needed time to process.”

“What is this conversation?” He scoffs in disbelief.

“What do you think we should do about the button?”

“We’re going to find the button, and use it, so we can go back to
our normal lives.”

I click my tongue playfully. “But how will we find it? I’m assuming it’s going to be somewhere we went the first time around.”

“Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Do you think she left clues maybe?” I widen my eyes dramatically.

His forehead scrunches up. “No?”

“If there were clues, this would like be just like
The Da Vinci Code
!” I beam. Pilot laughs toward the ceiling and I deflate.
“Oh yeah, I forgot you haven’t read that one.”

His lips twitch. “Actually, I did read it a few years ago.”

“What?” My heart does a little jig.

“Yeah, I’ve read all his books now.” Color floods his cheeks. “You raved about them enough while we were here.”

“Oh, man.” I look at the seat in front of me while I process this. “Okay, come on, don’t lie, the prospect of a baby
Da Vinci Code
is kinda
exciting.” I grin. He smirks back.

We fall into silence after theorizing a bit more about the mysterious button. I’m hoping it looks like one of those Staples
Easy
buttons. That would be nice and clear. But what if it looks like something else—like a random sewing button on the ground or if it’s camouflaged to look like its surroundings? She wouldn’t do that, right? That’s too complicated.

I lose myself in button-centric thoughts, and then we’re landing. I’m treated to a new swell of dread in my gut as we descend.

“You okay?” Pilot asks quietly.

Great, Pilot can sense my dread.

“Yeah, this is all still freaking me out a little bit,” I whisper.

“Hey.” He puts his hand on my knee. My eyebrows jerk up. “Just a little longer, and we’re going back home.”

I swallow hard.
Sentence
so unhelpful in quest to ease dread. But hand on knee making heart perform “Swan Lake” across chest cavity.
A jolt shakes the plane, vibrating up through our seats as we touch down. Here we go.

6. What a Lovely Night

Babe tugs at my arm, pulling me back as we make our way through the Rome airport. I slow my pace to match hers. We trail a healthy distance behind Pilot and Sahra.

“Shane!” she stage-whispers. “What happened on the plane? I saw you move to the seat next to Pilot. You made someone switch?”

Shit, I forgot I’m not invisible. “Oh, um, yeah, I needed to talk to him.”

“Is something going on between you two?”

“Ah…” I run through potential excuses as to why I would have had to sit next to Pilot:
I found out he stole my wallet
.
I accidentally stole his wallet. I lost my wallet, and I thought he might know where my wallet was
.

“Umm…”
Maybe he needed a piece of gum. Something with gum?
“Gum!”

“Gum?” she repeats skeptically.

“He lost his gum. And I had gum, and
he wanted a piece.”

“You made a woman switch seats so you could give Pilot a piece of gum?”

“I, yeah.”

“How did you know he needed gum?”

“I … looked over and saw that he wasn’t chewing any.”

“You didn’t ask me if I’d like gum.”

“Uh—”

“Shane, is something going on between you two?” Babe demands.

I make a split-second decision. “Um, kind of.”

“Oh my god,” she gasps. “Are you serious? Are
you like—”

“No! I mean, I don’t know. It’s so new so nothing’s happened yet, but something’s kind of happening, a little,” I ramble. This way, when we need a few moments alone to be mysterious time travelers and look for the dubious button, maybe Babe will more easily give us some space.

She juts her chin forward, eyes doubling in size.

“I, um, I’ll keep you updated. I don’t know what it is
yet,” I fumble.

“Please do! Oh Mylanta! This is insane. He has a girlfriend!” she exclaims quietly.

My stomach drops.
Crap
. I’m too worried about the damn button to remember the girlfriend. Backtrack. “Yeah, no, I’m exaggerating. Nothing’s happened, so don’t worry about it.”

“But something might happen?” she inquires dramatically.

“No, I mean, it’s just a stupid crush I have on him, that’s
it. He’s not available. Nothing’s happening.”

“But I think he might also have a thing for you!” she continues. Up ahead, Pilot throws a glance back in our direction.

“Whaaat!” I say dismissively.

“Yeah, I’ve caught him looking at you a bunch of times these past few days.”

Pilot throws another look this way, clearly trying to get my attention.

“Look, he’s doing it right now, Shane!”

“Shhhhh!”
I exclaim. Babe chuckles as we power walk to catch up with the other half of our group.

When I’m on his right, Pilot turns to me. “Do you think we have to search the airport?”

“No.” I glance around. “This isn’t Rome; this is the airport,” I answer conclusively. We cannot search an entire airport for
a button.

“Okay.”

“Okay,” I echo.

I grin as our bags thump to the floor of the inn. This
room’s just as happy and colorful as I remember.

“Shall we food?” I suggest eagerly.

“Yeah, definitely, but first, I kind of want to explore the Colosseum. We just drove by it. It’s got to be super-close,” Sahra proposes.

“Oh my gosh, let’s! We can get some great pictures,” Babe adds, digging the camera out of her bag.

“You guys go ahead. I’ll meet you out there. I need to make a call,” Pilot
says quickly. He plops down onto a bed.

“Okay,” Sahra agrees easily. She looks to Babe and me. “I’m gonna head out and look around. I’ll be right outside.” She picks up her purse and marches out the door.

“You need to make a call?” I shoot Pilot a confused look as I sling my pack off the floor and back onto my shoulder.

“Do we even have service here?” Babe asks.

Pilot raises his eyebrows pointedly.
I drop my bag back to the floor.

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll stay behind too. You shouldn’t be walking around alone in a foreign city.” Pilot scoffs.

“Maybe we should just all wait, then,” Babe adds. She glances anxiously from me to Pilot and back to the door. I give her an it’s-fine-go-on nod. She doesn’t move.

“It’s fine, go ahead,” I encourage her forcefully. “We’ll be right there.”

“Shane,” she
says with concern.

“Babe.” I shoot her another look.

“Okay. I guess we’ll meet you at the Colosseum.” Babe backs out of the room, wearing an extremely mom-like expression. The door closes very slowly behind her.

I turn back to Pilot. He’s already on the floor, rummaging under his bed.

“Pies, don’t we want to eat before we go tearing the room apart?” I put my hands on my hips. He’s prying around
near Babe and Sahra’s bed now.

“Shane, this is important. Come on, let’s find this thing.” His voice is muffled by the blankets he’s tearing through. I’m too hungry to argue, so I search the room halfheartedly.

Ten silent minutes later—no button. Added bonus: Now it looks like
the room was ransacked by thieves. Pilot straightens near the door, studying the mess with crossed arms and a flustered
expression. I pull the sheets back up onto my bed and walk over to stand next to him.

I break the silence. “Well, that was fun.”

“It’s not here.”

“It would seem that way.”

Pilot sighs. “This is going to be difficult.”

“Agreed.” We stare at the room a beat longer. “Food?”

“Food.”

We meet Sahra and Babe down the street, outside the Colosseum, and head to the little trattoria I remember from
Rome: Take One. I keep my purse on all through dinner, just to be safe. We all share a pitcher of Italian wine. I get my usual: ravioli. The four of us cackle and chat about YU—how we’re so lucky to be here in Rome for the weekend, while all the other poor schmucks are still in New York. College-era nostalgia settles over me. I feel it like a tangible thing on my skin. The memories are sticky.
I try to shake them off with laughter and wine, but they cling to my face, arms, legs, until I’m just one big collage of random moments, decisions, and regrets.

The four of us grow quiet as we mosey our way back to the room. It’s late, but I’m not the slightest bit tired. Instead, I’m jittery and anxious like I’ve had too much caffeine. When Babe hauls open the giant castle door with the appropriately
ancient key, I stay rooted at the foot of the shallow stairs. Babe slips inside, followed closely by Sahra. Pilot puts his foot in the door and turns back to hold it open for me.

“Coming?”

“I don’t really want to.”

Pilot disappears into the inn. He reappears a few seconds later, letting the door shut behind him. He skips down the steps, hands jammed in his pockets.

“What’s up?” he says with
a tilt of the head.

I scuff my boot along the ground. “I don’t know. I mean, we’re in Rome. We’re in Rome again … and we may be leaving.” My voice wavers. I clear
my throat. “We could be leaving at any moment, and I just want to make the most of being here. I don’t want to go to sleep if there’s a chance we might be gone tomorrow morning.”

Pilot takes a few steps down the street and looks back
at me. “Then let’s stay out and explore.”

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