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Authors: Christine Riccio

Again, but Better (23 page)

BOOK: Again, but Better
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7. There’s a Glow Off the Pavement

We wander quietly through narrow, cobblestoned alleys, full of old buildings and crammed with tiny parked cars.

“So, how much have you thought about time travel since we got here?” Pilot quips.

“Let me think. I thought about it a few days ago, and again today, so … just about every other minute since we got here.” I smile sweetly.

He snorts.

I shake
my head. “
Breaking Bad
hasn’t ended here, and
Game of Thrones
hasn’t even started! I saw a sign for it on a bus when I was walking to class the other day. It’s mind-boggling!” I vent. “Have you seen
Hot Tub Time Machine

He narrows one eye. “Yes?”

“You know how they release all these hit songs before they were actually released?” I grin. “How funny would it be to do a cover of ‘Wrecking Ball’
and put it on YouTube and just see what happens? We could do that!”

Pilot huffs. “While we’re at it, why don’t we film our own pirated version of
Deathly Hallows Part 2
and release it in May?”

“Pies, they’ve already released a trailer. Everyone would know it wasn’t real.”

A real smile spreads across his face.

We walk on: down more tiny streets, past closed shops, occasionally bumping shoulders.

I scuff the cobblestones with my foot. “So, why did you stop doing music?”

Pilot takes a moment to ponder this. “I mean, I worked on it a lot the summer after London. Did some little gigs in New York.”

“I thought you were going to invite us to those so we could come watch you play? We never heard from you. Even when we sent messages…”

He sighs. “It was complicated.”

“The album you released
in September that year was great. Babe and I had a little listening party in our living room when you uploaded it. I know we tweeted you, but we never got to talk about it in person.”

“Damn, a musical endorsement from a doctor. This is big,” he says through a small smile.

I push him sideways. “Shut up.”

He laughs, but then in a more serious voice, he says, “Really though, thanks. That was my
last one.”

“Why, though? What happened? What happened to the Swing Bearers?” I smile.

He shrugs. “I don’t know. I got busy. Senior year was tough, and I had a lot to juggle. It’s not like people were really listening.”

were listening. You could have made them listen! I could have helped. I can help. You can start a YouTube channel! I was a blogger, I’m internet savvy. YouTube can open up
so many other opportunities. I’ve seen it happen! We could kick it off with a ‘Wrecking Ball’ video, and then you can just perform your originals after it goes viral.”

He grins at the ground.

“Do you miss it?”

“Of course. I mean, I still play sometimes on the side.”

“Do you miss writing?” I ask.

He slows to a stop and looks at me hard, with his lips mashed together. Heat flashes down my neck.

“Do you?” he asks.

I hold his eyes. “Yeah I really, really do. I didn’t realize how much till I went to class on Wednesday. I’ve been dragging myself through the motions of what I thought I needed to do for so long, I forgot how great it
feels to do what I
want to do
.” I shake my head slightly. “I miss that feeling you get when you create something, you know?”

He drops his gaze, and we start
moving again. He nods slowly. “I do know.”

We emerge into an open square—to my surprise, rising before us in the night is the Pantheon. I suck in a breath, taking it in. It’s colossal and extra-impressive without the usual sea of tourists. I stride ahead, skirting around the fountain at the center of the square to stand right before the hulking structure.

Pilot’s jacket brushes up against my
arm a minute or so later. I smile at him. “I wish I had my camera. I could get some damn good night photos right now.”

He walks off behind me and takes a seat on the wide steps that encircle the fountain. I shuffle over to join him, crossing my ankles straight out in front of me and leaning back on my palms.

“We haven’t really talked about what happened in the caf
the other day,” he says quietly.

My cheeks warm. I try and keep my eyes on the Pantheon.

“How many guys have there been since study abroad?”

I resist the urge to scoff. “Why are you asking?”

“Because you’ve been with other guys. You’ve had other crushes. You don’t still feel … that way,” he says hesitantly.

I turn to him. “What?”

“Don’t pretend you’re not attractive and smart and funny and…” He trails off. “You don’t still
feel that way,” he repeats insistently.

I meet his eyes, which is difficult, because a windstorm of anxiety just materialized in my chest. How do I explain how rare it is for me to feel so ferociously about
a crush

“Pilot, I’ve dated people, but I’ve had one actual boyfriend … Melvin. And I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to.” I pause, picturing Melvin at the kitchen table, that last morning
we spent together, going on about his latest medical research project while I fiddled around with the poached eggs he made me. He was trying to do something nice, making breakfast. But we’ve been together for four years. Why doesn’t he know I don’t like eggs?
“I’m gonna have to break up with him when I get back.” I curl forward and hug my legs to my chest. How do you break up with someone you’ve
been with for so long?

Pilot’s quiet.

“Of course, I’ve had other crushes, but I’ve never randomly shown up at their place of work.” I stare at a stone on the ground and loose a bemused huff. “I’m a mess. I can’t believe I randomly showed up at your place of work.”

“You’re just going through some stuff. Come on, you’re about to graduate at the top of your medical school class. That’s unbelievable.
You’re going to be a real, live doctor.”

“Yeah, but do I even like being a doctor?” It comes out like a plea. Panic sweeps through me.

I don’t allow myself to think things like that, let alone say them aloud. It’s a second before I feel like I can breathe again. “I don’t know. I thought I was okay with it. It makes my mom really happy, but I’m, I don’t know. I thought it’d make me happier. But
I feel like I’m losing myself a little bit.”

I stare blankly at the Pantheon. Pilot doesn’t respond.

“So, in conclusion, yes, tons of other guys,” I add.

He grins, shaking his head. “I don’t believe you.”

I exhale a breath and let go of my legs, relaxing back into a normal sitting position. As he meets my eyes, a memory resurfaces. An embarrassing, repressed, secret chapter of my Pilot chronicles.

“There was this one guy I met the summer after study abroad.”

He raises his eyebrows, the hint of a smile on his lips. “Oh yeah?”

I heave in a load of oxygen. This has been locked up for a while. “Me and a high school friend went to visit our friend, well, more her friend, Matt, at college. The three of us went out to this bar. We got a table, and one of his friends from college ended up meeting
us there.

“And my jaw dropped when he walked in, because he looked
just like you
. I clammed up for a second because I was so confused when he came over to our table and started talking to Matt.”

I snort. “I sat there like some flabbergasted idiot. Like,
what the hell is Pilot doing here and how does he know Matt?
But then Matt introduced us, and his name was Rob. I swear to god, Pies, he looked
just like you.”

I shake my head and focus on the Pantheon again. “The four of us tried to talk while we had a drink, but it was a loud bar and the conversation wasn’t going anywhere. And he kept looking at me, and it was driving my brain insane. I could not compute that it wasn’t you.

“My friend and I decided to go dance, and the guys came with us … and eventually this guy and I ended up dancing

I take a beat, dropping my head to stare at the cobblestones. “And then he kissed me, and we were making out on the dance floor, and my brain was in emotional overload. Like:
This guy I’ve liked for ages, is making out with me, and we’re dancing, and it’s freaking great.

“It was this whole weird, fake rush, and then we got off the dance floor and … he wasn’t you.”

New breath. “If
it were you, afterward we would have laughed and talked about random shit. But when we walked back to Matt’s place, this guy kept talking over me and my friend, and making a point to only talk to Matt. And then he barely said goodbye before disappearing back into his apartment, and we never spoke again.

“And that high I was riding, that trick my brain was trying to pull, just crashed. ’Cause
study abroad was over. You hadn’t been responding to any of our silly group messages over the summer, and … I … I went abroad to make bold decisions and be brave and do things I was always scared to do, but in the end, I didn’t even tell you how I felt. And it hit me as the high crashed, that this fake version of you was probably the closest I was ever going to get.

“I don’t typically tell people
I like them. I actually have a track record of complete and total secrecy.” I huff a sad chuckle. “So that whole caf
ordeal was kind of a big thing for me.”

My eyes are now trained on a spot near Pilot’s feet. I think I’ve ceased being Shane and become pure embarrassment. I shouldn’t have shared that. Instant regret.

I slowly raise my head to face his reaction. His mouth is slightly agape.
His eyes are round and conflicted, a dark forest green in the night. I swallow, unsure of what to say or do.

Babble into another subject, Shane.
I open my mouth. I can’t think clearly
with him looking at me like that. “Um, well, anywa—” I’m cut off as his lips catch mine. Startled chills run up my calves.

The kiss is slow and careful. After a second, I kiss him back. My lips part. Head tilts.
His hand glides over my waist. My skin … burns? In a good-fire way. I didn’t know there was a good way to be on fire.

I thought people were making shit up when they described kisses like this. This is some Eiffel-Tower-at-6:00-p.m. shit. I’m glittery fire. And I like it. I break away and scoot back. Swallow. Pilot looks like he’s been hit over the head with a rock.

My heart’s playing hopscotch.
“What was that?” I breathe.

“I … I didn’t like that story with doppelg
nger jerk version of me.”

It takes a few seconds to spit it out, but I do. “Pilot, you’re with Amy, in our time and in this one.”

His breathing picks up. “I am with Amy.” He drops his head in his hands. “Shit. Shit.” He gets up and starts pacing back and forth. I watch him for a minute before I remember Melvin.

Did that
count as cheating on Melvin? In 2011, we haven’t even met yet. Maybe I should send a preemptive breakup message? I could mail it to his parents’ house.

Pilot’s been pacing for four minutes when I decide to stand. It’s gotta be almost 4:00 a.m.

“We should go back,” I suggest.

He looks up with a pained expression and nods. We walk back in silence. My entire being feels alight and aware, awake.
I keep looking over at Pilot, but he’s lost in thought.

The sun’s rising when we slip silently into our respective beds (Pilot grabbed the key from Babe earlier). My brain has that kiss on a loop. It takes a long time to fall asleep.

8. Where Do We Go From Here?

Someone’s shaking my shoulder. I shoot upright.

Babe leaps away from my bed with a gasp and a hand to her heart. I watch as her dark hair resettles around her face. “Jiminy Cricket, you scared me!”

I squint, taking stock of the room. Sahra’s laughing as she runs a brush through her hair in front of the mirror.
Rome. Pilot and I kissed last night.
He’s not in
his bed.

A yawn muffles my response. “You scared me.”

“Did you forget to set your alarm?” Babe asks.

“I must have. Where’s Pilot?”

“Shower,” Sahra answers. “We planned to leave in fifteen minutes.”

I scramble out of bed.

Babe hangs back with me as we walk to the Colosseum. Today, she’s dressed in a bright red peacoat (Babe owns four different-colored peacoats) with a sash at the waist and
matching red lipstick. I feel like the living dead, and next to her, I must look like it. She sidles closer and loops her arm through mine. “What happened last night?”

“Nothing, don’t worry … I couldn’t sleep, and we walked around.”

“You were out so late!”

“Babe, I don’t really feel like talking right now,” I mumble.

“Okay,” she sighs. She unloops her arm and quickens her pace to catch up
to the others.

My shoulders roll forward. Great, I’m eroding the fragile base of friendship we’ve formed thus far. I yank my hair up off my neck and pull it up into a puffy high ponytail.

The morning blurs. We go to the Colosseum. Pilot wanders around looking behind artifacts and under balustrades for the button like some sort of amateur Sherlock Holmes. I follow lazily. I find myself drafting
and redrafting a breakup letter to 2011 Melvin in my head:
Dear Melvin: We haven’t met yet, but when we do, maybe don’t ask me out. XO Shane. Dear Melvin: We’re not together yet, but in January 2017 I’m breaking up with you. Sorry sorry sorry! This is so hard. XO Shane.

We move on to the Roman forum. Pilot quietly inspects everything we pass. I glance about and move on. Babe provides a constant
stream of oohs and ahs. Sahra ventures off, taking pictures of things, always slightly separated from the group. I haven’t taken any pictures.

This is not like the first time.
Are we ruining the Rome trip?

Well, it won’t be ruined once we reset. My chest feels hollow. As we near the end of the trail, Babe pulls me aside onto one of the surrounding grassy areas.

“Shane, seriously, tell me what
happened last night. You’re clearly not okay, and Pilot’s acting like a mute. You need to stop moping. We’re in Rome!”

I look at the ground, ashamed. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Just let me help. What happened?” She takes my shoulders, her eyes roving over me like they’re going to locate some unseen wound that’s causing my pain.

I try to twist my expression into something less dreary. “We walked
around and talked all night,” I tell her again.

She folds her arms over her peacoat and eyes me wearily. “Then why do you look like your dog just died?”

I blow out a resigned breath. “We kissed last night.”

Her arms drop. “
You kissed?
” she exclaims, way too loud. My eyes bulge.

“Babe!” I hiss.

I whip my head around. Pilot’s inspecting the base of an ancient Roman
temple, and Sahra’s taking
a picture of the same Roman temple from a different point of view.

“Sorry! But holy crap on a cracker! You said nothing happened!” she hisses back.

“Well, I was afraid of how you’d react,” I say pointedly.

“Who kissed who?”

“He kissed me, and then we were just kissing.”

“Is he breaking up with Amy?”

“Not that I know of.”

Babe looks at me with a sad expression and wraps me in a hug. “I’m
sorry, Shane.” I hug her back. She pulls away to look me in the eye. “That sucks. But pick yourself up, you’re strong. Stop moping. How many times do you get to go to Rome? Try to enjoy yourself!”

I soften, nodding. “It’s just the combo of this with the sleep deprivation. I need a latte or something.”

“Then we’ll get you a latte. Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine! Pilot has to figure out what
the hell he’s doing.”

So do I.

We end up at the same empty Italian restaurant for lunch. Babe orders a pitcher of wine for the table. I order a cappuccino. When Babe shoots me an encouraging smile across the table, I can’t help but grin back at her. Nowadays, we only really talk via phone call—I forgot how nice it is to be around her positive energy. It’s contagious.

After a minute Pilot “drops
his fork.” I roll my eyes as he swoops under the red tablecloth to search the floor. He comes up empty-handed.

The waitress returns to take our lunch order bearing gifts—my cappuccino and the wine. I order ravioli again before tentatively taking a sip of the hot drink. I have to dump in a good three packets of sugar, but once I get some caffeine in me, I start to feel more alive.

Babe tells
us a story I’ve never heard before about her friend who had an internship at Disney World. Said friend worked the Haunted Mansion ride. Apparently a lot of people get on the ride and dump their loved one’s
ashes halfway through it over that balcony that overlooks the ghosts dancing in the ballroom. When that happens, everything has to be shut down, cleaned, and re-dusted, with clean, non-dead-human

“That’s so weird! I would never think that would be a thing.” I snort.

Babe laughs, and takes another sip of her wine. “Happens all the time.”

“They want to haunt the ride forever.” Sahra smiles.

“Guys, that’s actually in my will, so…” Pilot comments. I scoff and Babe cracks up.

When the time comes, a swarm of waiters surround the table. Like a group of dancers, as one, they carefully
place hot plates of food in front of us.

The ravioli is delightful. I stab a second one, leaning over my plate and positioning my head sideways to bite into it. When I do, my teeth crash over something hard. Pain shoots through my jaw, and my free hand flies up to cover my mouth.

What the fudge?

“Shane?” Pilot eyes me with concern.

“Shane?” Babe echoes. Sahra watches me carefully.

I gag.
A mouthful of ravioli and a metal, half-dollar-sized object spill out into my hand.
holy shit
. It’s some sort of locket with an inscription on it. A bolt of fear rams through me. I clasp my fingers over the thing.

“Are you okay?” I hear Sahra ask.

My head snaps up. Babe’s fork hovers over her lasagna. Sahra’s waiting for an answer. Pilot’s staring at my closed hand.

“Shane?” Pilot repeats
more forcefully.

I bound out of my seat and break into a run. A second later, I’m outside, boots slamming against the cobblestones, sprinting back up through the ruins.

What in the hell am I doing

I run until I’m far enough away that I feel confident in my solitude, then I veer off toward one of the massive ancient structures along the trail. A plethora of steps lead up into an expanse of
crumbly archways. I clamber all the way to the top step and drop to the ground in a heap, breathing hard.

Slowly, I peel back my trembling fingers.

In my palm sits a thick, round silver locket. I’ve been gripping it so tightly, there’s an imprint on my skin. The bottom of it is flat, but the top’s rounded. The inscription’s on the flat side; it circles around in a spiral formation. I wipe away
remnants of sauce and cheese with my hands and shine the silver clean against my black shirt. I hold it up for examination, slowly rotating the piece to read the inscription.

Open and press upon the heart

You’ll return to the start

The adventure gained will be lost

Every shortcut has its cost.

I turn it over. The front’s plain silver. It looks like it belongs on a necklace.

“Shane!” Pilot
jogs toward me up the stairs. I tense as he comes to a stop a few steps away. He’s shed his jacket, now sporting today’s green-and-black plaid button-up.

“What happened?” he asks, catching his breath. “Is that it?”

I nod. He sags in relief, stumbling up the final few steps to sit beside me. Stones crunch under his sneakers as he leans forward and settles his elbows on his knees.

“Okay,” he
resolves after a moment. “Let’s do it, then. Press it.”

I look down, my hand closing back over the medallion.

“I…” I trail off, feeling childish.

“You what?” he prompts.

Dread. Anxiety. Fear. They balloon in my chest, making it hard to breathe. I don’t want to. I don’t think I want to go back.

“I don’t know,” I whisper.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“I just—don’t,” I finish lamely.

“You don’t want to push it?” Bits of frustration leak into his voice. “Shane, why would you want to stay here? You want to redo a whole year and a half of college and then four years of med school?”

No, no, I don’t. But I don’t want to go back. Not yet.

“Why do you want to go back so badly?” The words reluctantly twist their way out of me.

“Are you kidding?” he asks in disbelief. “Haven’t we
already been through this?”

I shift to face him, expression hardening. “Have we? I remember you going off on me out on the street for quote ‘disrupting your life,’ but we never really
about why we’re here. Do you really think we both would have been chucked back in time to the very same moment if we both didn’t
and/or need, to be here?”

He glares at me. I glare right back. Frustration
pulses in the space between us. I stand up. He joins me a moment later.

“There’s a part of you that wanted to come back. Your whole ‘
brought us here’ theory, that’s bullshit.
brought us here. I’m not ready to go yet.” I spin in an angry circle, throwing my hands up and letting them fall to my sides. “Are you living your best life? What are you dying to go back to? Your job? Amy?”

He squeezes
his eyes shut for a second. “Why are you dying to stay? Are you that afraid to break up with your boyfriend?” he blurts.

“Are you?” I growl.

“What?” he shoots back in confusion.

“Clear this up for me: Our first day here, we went on that walk together, you remember?”

Pilot’s lips grind together in annoyance. “Please, just hand over the button, Shane.”

“Do you remember?” I repeat.

More glaring.

“We almost kissed that first night, and you said nothing about a girlfriend. We talked for over an hour by ourselves, and then we stayed up with the rest of the flat playing games and you said nothing.

“We were together the entire next day, you said nothing. We went out together again the day after that and you said nothing. It wasn’t till that night that Atticus,
not you
, brought up the fact
that you had a girlfriend at all!
when we were surprised, you said you’d only been dating for three months, that
you were going to see what happened
! Who says they’re
going to see what happens when they’re in love with the person they’re seeing?” I yell the last few words.

His expression goes blank. “You’re making a scene, Shane.”

“What happened to seeing what happened? Did something change?
Six years later, are you guys in love yet?”

His lips twitch.

“We have a reset button that will erase this and bring us back to the point where we started. A literal fail-safe switch. Why would we use it already? We get a second chance to do life, and we’re going to waste it five days in? What are you so afraid of? Take a risk, Pilot! Make a change! Break awa—”

“You’re yelling a Kelly Clarkson
song,” he interrupts.

I stop short and swallow. “I didn’t mean for that to turn into a Kelly Clarkson song. Why do you even know that song?”

“Everyone knows that song.”

“Well, she’s says some good, poignant stuff in it—” I cut off as Pilot takes a step closer. I stumble backward. “Hey!”

He raises his hands in surrender. “Can I just see the button, please?”

“No,” I respond automatically.

“Please, just let me see it with my eyes.” His arms flop to his sides. “Shane,” he says gently, “I promise I’m not going to press it right now.”

I suck in a slow breath, trying to relocate a semblance of calm. “I’ll let you see it if you let me hold it,” I tell him, raising my button hand and holding it out.

“Shane, I can’t see it with you holding it. It’s too far away—” I shove it toward him
at the same time he takes a step forward, and he rams face-first into my hand.

“Sorry!” I blurt as he exclaims, “Jesus!” He briefly touches a hand to his forehead and retreats a step.

“Sorry,” I repeat sheepishly.

A small smile plays at his lips now. “Can I just…” He steps forward and carefully takes my wrist, holding it steady. My skin heats at the contact. I imagine glitter seeping up my

I’m not quite sure why this feeling amounts to glitter. It’s like my skin’s sparkling.

His head tilts from left to right as he reads the poem. Finally, he looks back up at me with wide eyes. “The adventure gained will be lost? So, we won’t remember any of this?”

I nod. “That’s what it sounds like.” He holds my gaze for a moment.

“Okay.” He lets go and stuffs his hands into his pockets.
I bring the medallion back to my side.

“Okay what?” I ask quietly.

“Okay, let’s hold off on the reset,” he says simply.

“You want to hold off on the reset?”

“That’s what I just said.”

“No, you just said, ‘Let’s hold off on the reset.’ Do
want to hold off on it?”

“Let’s hold off,” he says quietly.

“Okay … I want to hold on to this thing, okay?” I add softly.

He nods. “Okay. Should we
make a rule?”

I quirk an eyebrow. “What kind of rule?”

“We can’t press it without the other’s knowledge; we have to discuss it beforehand.”

I nod. “Sounds good.”

“Shall we rejoin Babe and Sahra, and do Rome?” he suggests.

BOOK: Again, but Better
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