DISCLAIMER: Characters of Popular belong to someone who is not me.
SHOUTOUT: Many thanks to Carla for taking a look and giving me some much-needed input. Eternal gratitude goes to Junebug for advice on all topics medical, grammatical & plot-ical.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Innocents Abroad
By Green Quarter


Part 7

These tiny ashtrays are a joke. This train that we are on, currently bound for Caen, has been around the track a few times. The interior design is a bit shabby and dated, but they have these clever fold-down seats in the corridor right by the window with a handy ashtray built into the paneling within easy ashing distance. However, four butts and the thing is overflowing. I guess they didn't plan to accommodate chain-smoking American teens trying to escape from awkward situations by sitting in a smoking car corridor and ingesting the same amount of pathogens as if one had worked twelve hours in a tar factory.

Guilt consumes me for leaving Brooke all alone in the otherwise empty compartment we found, but I just can't face her right now. I feel like an idiot. I've been out here for an hour or so, watching the darkened scenery roll by and evaluating my position.

I can no longer deny that I have developed certain feelings for Brooke. Within the last twenty-four hours I have gone from believing she would steal from me to wanting to kiss her on the lips like a boyfriend would. Talk about a 180 degree whiplash-inducing turnaround. But actually, I've wanted to kiss her for quite a while now, if I'm honest with myself. I've completely let go of all the hostility I once felt towards her; it's replaced by an uncontrollable desire to get her to like me, to win her over, to show her I'm someone worthy of her. Right now all I can think of is how ludicrous this all is. My feelings have changed but I don't think much has changed for her. She still cannot stand me. Sure, she's been nicer lately, and today seemed like a breakthrough of a kind, but it's only because she needs me. Isn't it?

When I think about the awesome day we had together the one thing that strikes me is the difference in Brooke. It was like she forgot that she didn't like me today. We laughed, we talked, we enjoyed ourselves. Was it the early morning trauma on the train that brought us closer? A hardship we are sharing that makes us feel united against the world?

I don't regret the impulsiveness that led me to that embrace on the train platform, and Brooke didn't back off until I made the mistake of touching her bare skin, I realize now. She told me only days ago that she doesn't like that. The fact remains that I did behave impulsively and I need to apologize to her.

I pull back on the handle of the door that leads to the compartment where I left Brooke but it won't open. The curtains are drawn so I can't tell if she's inside. Maybe it's the next one down, but I could have sworn it was this one.

"Sam? Is that you?"

I hear Brooke call to me from inside the compartment.

"Yeah, are you okay?"

There is a pause, Brooke does something to the door, then slides it open. She has my bandana in her hand.

"Sorry. I tied the door closed." Brooke turns and uses the bandana to fasten the door to a handle on the door jamb.

"No, no. That was a good idea. Real good. We should have done that last night."

"What, and keep the robber inside with us?" Brooke asks incredulously.

Shit. I'm so not thinking straight. "Oh yeah. No, that wouldn't have worked," I mumble. I watch Brooke as she sits in one of the window seats and picks up the book she was supposed to have finished reading, holding it in her hands unopened.

"Do you want your sweatshirt back?" she asks, gesturing to the neatly folded article of clothing on the seat beside her.

I shake my head; I'm not cold, I'm warm.

"Where were you?" she then asks.

"I was just in the smoking car, um, smoking." I sit down across from her and lean in. "Listen…"

Brooke rears back in her seat, reestablishing some distance between us, and pulls a pack of gum out of her pocket. "No offense, Sam, but you smell like an ashtray." She holds out a stick of spearmint gum.

I'm sure a blush blooms across my cheeks as I take it, simultaneously sitting back so my breath won't knock her flat anymore. Jesus, how embarrassing.

"I wish we at least had our toothbrushes," Brooke watches while I put the gum in my mouth and vigorously chew.

"Yeah, me too. You have no idea how much right now," I say, chagrined. "Look, Brooke, I just wanted to apologize for before. I'm sorry. I like how we've been getting along lately, I'm having a lot of fun traveling with you, present circumstances notwithstanding, and I don't want to do anything to mess it up."

She listens to me and doesn't comment.

"And I'm sorry I left you in here all by yourself for so long," I add. "That was kind of stupid, after what happened last night, but I'm glad you locked yourself in."

Brooke nods. That's it. Nothing else. Apology acknowledged, if not accepted. I wish I could figure out what's going on in her head. She doesn't let anything slip, not ever. Maybe that's part of her allure for me.

"Here," she says, handing me the orange-covered The Agony and the Ecstasy.

"Are you done with it? I don't want to take it from you if you're not."

"Yeah, I'm done. I just needed to be distracted for awhile. What do you think of it so far?"

The book is a novelization of Michelangelo's life. It goes into great detail about his family, his upbringing, how he began painting and sculpting, and the many great works he created during his lifetime. "It's interesting. A little schmaltzy in places, but I like it. Thanks."

"Yeah. I liked it too, but it kind of bothers me that they gloss over certain aspects of his life."

"Really? Like what?"

"Well, rather than be honest about Michelangelo's sexuality, they vague it up with references to a special 'friend,'" Brooke uses air quotes to make her point.

"Oh. You mean his friend was really his boyfriend?"

"I think the evidence points to him being more homosexual than heterosexual," Brooke says. "But the man lived so long ago, it really doesn't matter now, does it?"

"I don't know," I muse. "Speaking journalistically, I don't particularly care for a whitewash of history, any history, even something seemingly unimportant like a great artist's alleged sexual proclivities. Even though this is a fictionalized account, we're talking about an actual historical figure. I'd like to think that what I'm reading is factual."

"Why do you say 'alleged sexual proclivities' like you don't believe me?" Brooke's tone is argumentative. "And 'proclivities' suggests something distasteful. Why do you use that word? Do you think it's something shameful?" she demands.

I'm taken aback by her vehemence. I hardly know what to address first. I don't even know if we're still talking about Michelangelo. "I have no reason not to believe you, Brooke," I begin gently. "Of the two of us, you are unquestionably the authority on all things cultural. I guess I said alleged because there is no way it can be proven now, with him being dead for hundreds of years, as is anyone who could verify or disprove the contention that Michelangelo was gay. Also, I respectfully submit that the word 'proclivity' has neither a negative nor positive connotation; it simply means a natural tendency towards a certain behavior. It's taken from the Latin, proclivus, which literally means inclined, or leaning forward. And anyway, his sexual identity doesn't take anything away from the fact that he is arguably among the most influential artists who ever lived."

"Ever the reporter, Sam. Impressive," Brooke concedes, with a smile that doesn't quite reach her eyes. But before she can say anything else, I have one more point I want to make.

"As for your last question, I absolutely do not think that being gay is shameful. How could I when I've been questioning my own sexuality?" That last part just kind of popped out, but I'm not really sorry it's out there. The repetitive sound of the train running over the tracks has become deafening in the stillness that follows my disclosure. I'm intensely interested in Brooke's reaction.

"You have?"

I nod. Harboring a severe crush on the stepsister I'm supposed to be hating, and who hates me, definitely falls under the category of questioning my sexuality, if not my sanity as well.

Brooke somehow doesn't seem that shocked, or surprised, really. "Interesting. So," she asks nonchalantly, "how long have you been questioning? Have you carried out any experiments to get answers to your questions?"

"A while," I answer evasively. I hardly know myself. "What do you mean by experiments?"

"What do you think I mean? Have you gotten any action?" she asks acerbically, then looks away as if afraid of my answer or embarrassed at herself for asking.

"Action?" I'm nonplused. Does she mean have I hooked up with any girls? The only girl I want to hook up with is her.

She sighs in exasperation. "Yeah, action, McPherson. Have you tried it on to see how it fits? Have you kissed Lily? Carmen? Slept with one of your freak buddies from the smoking wall?" When I hesitate before answering, she must take my surprised silence for unwillingness to kiss and tell. "You know what? Never mind. It's none of my business."

"No. I have not done any experimentation," I answer her question anyway even though she retracted it. I decide I'm going to be as honest as I can with Brooke from this moment forward. "I don't have any smoker friends. Right up until graduation they still thought I was a narc," I confess. "And maybe once I could have gone to Carmen or Lily about something like this, but not anymore. The three of us aren't as close as we once were. Or rather, I guess I should say, I'm not as close to them as I used to be."

"Really?" Brooke frowns. "Coulda fooled me. You're always with them."

"Well, not so much, anymore, really. It's not like they would ever desert me or anything, but I did something they disapproved of and our friendship has never been the same," I struggle to explain it to Brooke. "A wall of judgment has been erected; I'm on one side, and Lily and Carmen are on the other. There's just some distance there now."

"That sucks," Brooke says quietly.

"Yeah, it does," I sigh. I'm still chewing the gum but I'm already craving another cigarette. I try and blow one of those pitiful Wrigley's bubbles but only succeed in almost spitting it out on my lap.

"Do you mind if I ask what it was that drove the wedge between you guys?"

"No, I don't mind." I look directly at Brooke. "After the first month when you were in the hospital they started asking when I was going to go and see you. They thought that I had stayed away long enough. They thought it was really mean of me to continue avoiding you. They'll never forgive me for not stepping through those hospital doors and visiting you."

Brooke is staring intently at me. I wait for her to say it. I'm expecting her to ask "Why didn't you visit me, Sam, you complete and utter fuckup?" and I have no idea what I will reply. The refusal of my body to enter the hospital seems ridiculous, she'll never understand, never accept that as a valid reason. But when she opens her mouth to speak, she doesn't say the expected.

"They came to see me often. Even in the early days when I was pretty much catatonic."

"I know. I gave them messages for you; did they tell you?" I ask, even though I'm embarrassed now by the stupidity and irrelevancy of my 'Sam says hi' message. Always the same, always a feeble offering, and never enough.

"Yes. They told me you said hi," Brooke says coldly.

Here is the opportunity to explain, but I'm frozen. I should be telling her how I was there, a small distance away, just not right in the room with her, but it sounds so horribly lame. So I don't say a thing.

Brooke continues, her voice brittle with a fake sounding breeziness. "Even Nic came to see me in the hospital. I wouldn't see her, of course, but she tried anyway."

If that's not the most damning evidence of my failure as a friend and stepsister, I don't know what is. I should steer the conversation back to me and what I failed to do, but I honestly have no reply, no reason that would even begin to sound plausible. I should at least make the attempt to explain but the excuses seem paltry and wholly inadequate in my mind. Why couldn't I just walk through those doors and see her? The task of justifying my actions, or inaction, really, is too daunting and I take the coward's way out. I allow the conversation to follow its course. "Have you spoken to Nic? Since the accident?"

"No. She's tried to talk to me a few times but I've never responded. I know she wants forgiveness but I'll be damned if she'll get it from me. She ruined my life; I'll never forgive her," Brooke's voice is hard as nails. She turns her eyes from where she was looking at our reflections in the window to regard the real me. "I'm exhausted. You think we'll be able to get any sleep tonight?"

"Why, are you worried about another robbery? Brooke, we have nothing left to steal."

"No, I'm not worried about that. Are you?"

I shake my head. "Do you think you could sleep if you put your head on my lap again?" I would do anything to make her comfortable right now.

"Would you mind?" she asks, a little apologetically.

"Not at all," I'm glad to be of use to her in any way. We arrange ourselves much as we did the previous night and Brooke is soon sleeping easily against my thigh. She has taken the news that I might be gay with very little comment, but then what was I expecting from the queen of heterosexuality? At least she didn't react with disgust. I can't help thinking about where our conversation went tonight and how much more remains to be said about the night of the accident and its aftermath. As I gaze down at her and think of the betrayal that was my absence during her recovery, I wonder just what it will take for Brooke to find it in her heart to forgive me.

The station in Caen is a dismal little affair. Two platforms flank parallel sets of track, and the whole thing is covered by cantilevered slabs of concrete that protect would-be passengers from the elements. At half past six in the morning, the place is deserted. There are no benches, no Tourist information kiosks, and the ticket office is shuttered. The only things around to break up the unrelenting gray concrete is a bulletin board and a bank of small lockers, the kind you rent by feeding coins into a slot to release a key.

I'm so groggy, five or six additional hours of sleep would be a thin slice of heaven, but the concrete doesn't look that cozy. Brooke is looking somewhat refreshed, but I must admit that the dark circles under her eyes mar her beauty just a little bit. She has braided her hair into two plaits and covered it with my bandana, looking like a sweet, innocent farm girl, on her way to pick peaches in the back forty or something.

"What now, Kemosabe?" Brooke asks me, hands on her hips, turning to face me after watching the train pull out of sight.

I quickly think through our options. We can stay here and crash while waiting for another train to arrive, or we can go explore the town, not that anything will be open at this godforsaken hour. It's possible that we might find somewhere better to catch some more sleep, like a park with benches, maybe, and finding a place to get some breakfast provisions would be a good idea too. But first things first.

"Let's see if they have a train schedule posted anywhere," I say, shouldering my daypack and moving toward the bulletin board. Brooke follows and as I determine when the next train to Paris departs she idly peruses the rest of the board.

"The next train back to Paris leaves at just after ten. That gives us four hours to kill," I report.

"Sam! Look! Bungee jumping!" Brooke turns to me, eyes wide with excitement.

Oh, hell no. It's way too early for this. I glance at the advertisement picturing some fool, a strained rictus covering his features as he dangles from a rubber band over a rushing torrential river. "Cool," I lie, "too bad we don't have any money." For the first time I see the bright side of being robbed.

"Oh yeah," Brooke deflates as reality punctures her eager expression. She stares at the flier a little while longer. "Look, there's a little map to the jump site, Sam. It's not that far from the train station. Let's go check it out anyway." She tears the page from the bulletin board and looks at me expectantly.

Visions of some nice soft grass in a park somewhere evaporate in the face of Brooke's resolve. "What's the point? We don't have the money to jump," I want to get my objections on the record for when this turns out to be a waste of good sleeping time.

"Come on, you said we had four hours to kill, it doesn't cost anything to go and look."

"Well I don't want to lug my bag around. You carry it," I hold it out petulantly. I can't explain my sudden grumpiness, all I know is that it has nothing to do with a fear of jumping off a high place into nothingness, no way. We can't jump anyway, we have no funds. And I'm sure Brooke's past injuries would prevent her from doing something as strenuous as taking a flying leap off a bridge.

"Fine." Brooke takes my daypack and stows it in one of the lockers on our way out of the station, depositing a few coins and pocketing the key. "A little early morning exercise will do us good, don't you think? I'm feeling a little stiff, this will loosen me up." She strides off purposefully, map in hand, and I have no choice but to follow.

Twenty minutes later it is clear that the map is not anywhere close to scale, and it also doesn't account for elevation, as we've been walking at a steep incline almost since leaving the train station. "Brooke, wait up," I huff; I want to know if it's time to cut our losses. And I want a cigarette.

Brooke stops and waits for me to catch up. She's been about ten paces ahead the whole time. How is she so fit? She could barely walk eight months ago.

"Let me see that map," I hold out my hand for the advertisement. Brooke hands it over and I look at it, taking care to read all the text. "They have a shuttle from the train station, Brooke! We could have gotten a ride."

"Yeah, but we would've had to wait until they open, which isn't until nine o'clock," Brooke counters, "and they probably would want us to pay beforehand. This way, we get to see it for free. Come on, we must be nearly there."

I trudge behind her, falling further and further behind as we ascend a winding road. It's actually quite pretty if you look away from the industrial town of Caen. After about fifteen more minutes I hear Brooke calling to me.

"Sam, it's right up here. You're almost there!"

I feel justified in lighting up a celebratory cigarette at this news and keep walking. Brooke disappears from sight as she rounds a bend but I don't hurry, she'll still be there when I eventually arrive.

Presently I pass a gravel parking lot with a timber hut where the Bungee jump company's office is located. There's a souvenir shop with hats and t-shirts in the window and a tiny snack bar.

Of course, nobody's here yet.

I keep walking along the road towards the two lane bridge that spans a gorge just up ahead. The gorge is very narrow so the bridge looks to be only about 500 feet or so across, with iron pylons that jut about four feet above the road's surface evenly spaced on either side for support. The wind is really whipping up here; we must have gained a couple of hundred feet in elevation.

As I get closer I see Brooke standing on one of the iron pylons, the bandana in her hair flapping in the breeze. She's just standing, her feet close to the edge, then I see her bend perilously over and look down.

I freeze. I have a sudden image in my head of Brooke lying motionless on the pavement in her prom dress, her leg bent back at the knee at an unnatural angle. Like a pulse, it lingers in my brain for as long as a heartbeat, then it is gone.

All of a sudden I'm running. When I reach her I don't hesitate; I grab her by the arm and wrench her off the pylon, fury clouding my eyesight and hampering my powers of speech. "What the… what the fuck do you think you're doing!? Do you have some kind of death wish, Brooke? You could have fallen, and then you would have died, you know that? Jesus! Of all the stupid things…" I sputter, finally running out of steam.

"Thanks a lot, Sam," Brooke is rubbing her shoulder as she glares at me. "Just pull me by my bad arm, scaring the crap out of me while you're at it. I wasn't going to fall, asshole, I was perfectly fine up there."

"You do have a death wish, don't you? Just like in Florence when you nearly got us killed on that scooter, the accident has removed the fear impulse from you." My heart is just starting to beat normally again and I light another cigarette to calm me down.

"Spare me your internet armchair pseudo-psychological diagnosis. I do not have a death wish. If anything I have a life wish. I want to experience my life, be a participant in it. Not just sit back and avoid getting involved in it. You have the death wish, not me."

"What are you talking about? I'm not the one who was just casually looking over a drop hundreds of feet down in a high wind."

"Whatever, Sam. You're just doing it the slow, passive-aggressive way, the gutless way. If you want to kill yourself why not be brave about it and just do it?" With these harsh words Brooke steps close to me and rips the cigarette from my mouth, tossing it over the side of the bridge.

I have nothing to say to her. Tears burn in my eyes. She just pretty much told me I should go kill myself. It hurts. God, it hurts. I turn around and begin walking away.

"What happened to you, Sam?" I hear her call out to me. "You used to be the most fearless person I knew. Now you're a shadow of that gutsy girl who drove me crazy: timid, and hesitant and afraid."

"What happened to you!?" I scream in retort, whirling around and coming back to confront her. "You used to be a decent human being! You used to be nice! Why are you so angry, Brooke? You're pissed off at the world. Is it me? Am I the reason why you're such a goddamned bitch? What did I do? Please, god, tell me, because I can't take it anymore. I see the accusation in your eyes every time you look at me. I know it's my fault so would you please just put me out of my misery and tell me what I did?"

"Your brain knows, Sam. I'm not going to tell you, not while I have a shred of dignity left in this poor excuse for a body. I'm always going to be bitter, I'm always going to be angry, so get used to it!"

She's pretty much all up in my face now, and while my brain is poised to hurl another volley of abuse, my heart actually hears what she says and it makes me feel unbelievably weary. I take a step back. I don't feel like doing this anymore. "That's the saddest thing I've ever heard, Brooke," I say quietly, calmly. "You can choose not to be angry. Why waste all that energy?"

She's a little confused by my regained composure, I can tell. "Well you can choose not to be such a scaredy pants sad sack freak so what's stopping you?"

"Damned if I know. I didn't know that's what I was, thanks for enlightening me." I take out another cigarette and light it defiantly, staring Brooke down as I inhale. How is it that I like this girl? How can she inspire in me these feelings of devotion when she's such an all-consuming bitch?

"You're welcome." Brooke gazes into my eyes for a second before shifting her weight to lean up against the pylon. She is quiet for a moment, even the wind seems to have died down in the wake of our epic unrest. "You know, the old Sam would never have taken that from me. The name-calling, the taunting, the bitchy-ness, it would have been Semtex on an already blazing conflagration."

"Are you saying that you were deliberately provoking me?" I can't believe we're calmly talking about this after screaming at each other like a couple of Bengal cats.

"No, not this time. I was just surprised when you pulled me down, but then you started in with that death wish crap and that really pissed me off. I'm sorry I said that other stuff, it was totally uncalled for and I didn't mean it."

I nod, still wounded by her words.

"It's just that I don't know why any reasonably intelligent person would take up smoking, Sam," she says earnestly. "You have to know what you're doing to yourself."

"Spare me. You sound like my mom. I'm just glad you didn't use that specious second hand smoke argument."

"Well at least you know where I stand on the subject." Brooke stops talking, her eyes, which had been trained on me, now look past me. I turn around to see what she's looking at.

Two men walk by us, each carrying two heavy-looking gear bags. One nods in greeting, the other gives us a cheery "bonjour." They obviously work for the bungee company. We watch as they continue about halfway across the bridge where I now see a platform jutting from between two pylons. Quickly going about their business, they begin to somehow attach thick cords of bungee to the platform.

A thought occurs to me. "Hey Brooke, you said you didn't provoke me this time. Does that mean that you have in the past?"

Brooke smiles, maybe for the first time today. It's a genuine smile like the ones that used to grace the countenance of pre-accident Brooke.

"Guilty," she says, not sounding guilty at all, but gleeful. "I used to stir the shit with you all the time and you never caught on. This was a long time ago, during the first year or two when we first began living together. After I got used to the idea of sharing my space with an interloper like you," she grins to show she's kidding, "I kind of liked having you around. You were so different from anyone I had known, getting all fired up about something at the drop of a hat; it was a revelation to us buttoned-down McQueens. So I would deliberately start something just to see you become lathered up in outrage and indignation. You were the only person I knew who actually got more articulate the angrier you got," Brooke's smile fades as she continues. "But you don't do that anymore. Now you just shut down and turn inward. I kind of miss it sometimes."

Okay, Brooke's words have taken my power of speech several times today, and the sun is still barely over the horizon. I honestly don't know what to say to the news that Brooke used to intentionally argue with me. I'm charmed by it, actually. "That's pretty twisted, Brooke," I finally say, smiling.

"Yeah, I can't believe I told you that," Brooke doesn't look embarrassed, she looks happy. She gazes at the two men working further down the bridge. "Hey Sam, let's go see if we can get a free jump."

"Not on your life, there's no way I'm jumping off a bridge." I knew this was coming but I'm still not down. "Anyway, won't you do something to your injuries if you jump?"

"Maybe. Only one way to find out," she says fatalistically. "Come on, you big chicken, we have to at least try," she coaxed. "When are we going to get an opportunity like this again?"

"Brooke, there is no way they will ever let us jump for free," I say emphatically.

"Care to make a wager on that?" Brooke asks confidently. "If I can get a free jump for the both of us, then you have to jump."

"And if you can't?"

"I don't know," Brooke shrugs, "name your terms."

I can't think of anything. "You have to do one thing that I say, to be named at some future date because I can't think of anything right now, and you can't refuse."

"Ordinarily I would never agree to something as vague as that, but I'm so confident in my ability to do this that I accept." Brooke takes off down the bridge, slapping her hand against the pylons as she passes them.

I watch as she approaches the men and talks to them for a few minutes, her posture giving nothing away as to what's being decided. Soon she gives them a little wave and starts back towards me. She's looking downward, so I assume she was unsuccessful. I start thinking of things for Brooke to do to fulfill her end of the bet and hope I can contain my gloat quotient.

"What's the matter, are they the only men in France not interested in sexual favors?" I ask as she gets within earshot.

"Oh no, they totally are, but they're not into blondes so you're going to have to take one for the team," Brooke says seriously. "Get over there, then they'll let us jump."

"You're joking," I say warily.

"Yes, I am," Brooke confirms. "They so don't care about money, Sam. Those two guys are going to be up here whether people are jumping or not so they may as well not be bored and have some people jump."

Great. We find the only two altruistic tour operators in Europe. "They actually agreed to do it for free?" I ask in disbelief.

"Yup. But they only want to do the setup once so we have to jump together." Brooke's got this shit eating grin on her face.

"Together?" I ask faintly, the reality of what's about to occur is beginning to sink in.

"Yeah, let's go. This is going to be so great. I've always wanted to do this." She turns to look at me. "You're not going to punk out, are you?"

As much as I want to, my pride won't let me. I shake my head in the negatory. "Let's get this over with."

An incredibly fast fifteen minutes later, Brooke and I stand side by side, attached to a single bungee cord. We got the three minute instructions, signed the waiver relieving the bungee company of any responsibility should we perish by reason of colossal stupidity, and now teeter on the edge of a tiny platform, moments away from plunging one hundred feet down over a tributary of the Orne, somewhere in Normandy. I know that with Brooke nearly crackling audibly with electric excitement beside me, there will be no way to back out of this. We wait only for the countdown by altruistic bungee Frenchman number one.




I seize Booke's hand as we simultaneously leap out into thin air, my breath catching in my throat as we swan dive into free fall.


Part 8

"Brooke, that was so amazingly, incredibly, stupendously, astoundingly, marvelously AWESOME!" My effusive exclamations haven't stopped all the way back to the train station in Caen.

"All right, already," Brooke laughs, "enough with the adjectives. You don't have to thank me for forcing you to enjoy yourself."

The adrenaline is still coursing through me like an electrical current and I can't stop grinning like a fool. "We should call home now. Maybe your dad sent the money already and we can pick it up here. Then we could pay for another jump!"

"Okay, if you want," Brooke says affably. "But it's still the middle of the night in Los Angeles, Sam, what do we do until then?"

"Dammit!" I exclaim, grinning at her. I'm annoyed, but nothing can dent this platinum-plated exuberance I've got going right now. I look around at the not-so-scenic town of Caen. "I really don't feel like hanging around here, do you? We can always come back some other time. What do you want to do?"

"I would kill for a shower and some clean clothes," Brooke says immediately.

"Yeah, me too," I say. "How much money do you have left?"

Brooke pulls some bills from her pockets. "Almost fifty Euros."

"And I have about twenty. You want to go back to Paris and blow it all on a decent meal and a hostel?

"We need a safety net. We can't spend everything," Brooke says pragmatically. "Even I, the financially irresponsible one, know that."

"This is getting really old," I sigh.

"You can say that again," Brooke cuts her eyes over to mine, "but don't."

"I won't," our situation is dismal, but I'm not unhappy. I smirk at Brooke. "So back to gay Paree, mon frere?"

"Oui. We'll fit right in," Brooke jokes.

"Well I will, at least. We can get our bags and clean ourselves up somewhere, then we'll decide our next step. How does that sound?"

"Bon. Let's go."

Eight hours later, my adrenaline sits quietly with its hands folded as I find myself on yet another train. Brooke and I glumly sit with one other passenger in our compartment, a young woman of either American or Canadian extraction, as our train swiftly carries us to another random destination.

I am so sick of train stations and trains. Just for a change I'd like to travel by boat, or by bicycle, or maybe even something as weird as a car. Even one of those seesaw things that run on train tracks would be better than this Eurail-induced malaise. It's probably just going from the extreme high of a bungee jump this morning to the low of not hearing any news from home that has me hating life at the moment, but knowing that doesn't make it any less depressing.

At the train station in Paris this afternoon we finally collected our bags and while Brooke washed up in the public restroom, I contacted Glynnis again, who had nothing new to report. She apologetically told me that she had left several messages at the parentals' hotel but hadn't heard back yet. That was when the last vestiges of euphoria from our jump this morning really wore off for me. She sounded really sorry and asked for an email address so she could send a message as soon as she knew anything; I guess not realizing that we didn't exactly have easy access to the Internet. She also asked for the amount of money that had been stolen so that she could tell Mike and get things rolling as soon as he checked in. For some reason I gave her a figure that was double the amount that I had left in my money belt at the time of the theft.

When I joined Brooke at the bank of sinks in the washroom, her hopeful face fell at my grim expression. Telling her that we were still penniless was not the highlight of my day, but she took the news stoically and immediately began brainstorming options for a plan of action. After some discussion we realized that we didn't really have any option but to continue our life of near vagrancy, and get on another train. So now we are heading south to Nice on another overnight train, to spend some time at the beach while we await the saving grace of Mike's checkbook.

"Brooke, when we get to Nice in the morning, maybe we can find a place to do some laundry," I say into the silence. Other than a brief hello to our traveling companion, we haven't said much for the hour that we've been moving.

"What's the point of washing our clothes when we haven't washed our bodies in about a million hours?" Brooke sighs tiredly.

Oh yeah. Good point.

"Excuse me, did you say Nice?" the girl who sits quietly by the window asks us.

"Yes," I say.

"This train is going to Marseilles, and it arrives at 1AM," she informs us.

"No, I think you're mistaken," I pull from my guidebook the Chinese takeout menu that has the train information I scrawled in the margins. "Nice Locale, departing 20:45, track 23, arriving 5:55."

"This is the Marseilles IC, it left ten minutes after the Nice train from track 24, right across the platform," the girl says, shrugging her shoulders.

I look out the window and notice for the first time how fast we are going, much too fast for a local train.

"She must be right Sam, look how fast we're going, and this train is newer than all those rickety local trains we've been taking." Brooke is looking out the window at the scenery rushing by too. "This must be an Inter City Train."

"But, but I don't know how I could have made a mistake," I stammer. "What are we going to do in Marseilles at one in the morning? Brooke, we're going to have to get a hotel that we have no money to pay for." I try to swallow the panic that is bubbling up through my esophagus.

Brooke turns to me, keeping calm. "Maybe we can hang out in the train station until morning. We have your sleeping bag this time."

Her calmness allows me to continue thinking. "Or maybe we can catch another train going somewhere else, although I don't know what our chances are at that time of night."

"Can I make a suggestion?" the girl at the window interjects.

We both look at her in silence, waiting for her to go on.

"I know you don't know me from Adam," she starts, "but I'm a very nice person. My name is Rebecca. I'll be a junior at USC in the fall and I'm living in Marseilles taking a language course this summer. You are welcome to crash at my place tonight if you want."

"It's nice to meet you, Rebecca. I'm Brooke, and this is Sam." Brooke's manners take over. "It's very kind of you to offer your place to us, but you don't know us either. We could be very unscrupulous people who are setting you up so we can take advantage of your kindness."

I look at Brooke like she's crazy. "We're not, though," I feel compelled to add.

Rebecca smiles. "I get the feeling that you guys have been struggling lately. And I heard you say something about not having enough money," she nods to me. "It's true I don't know you, but if I needed help in a foreign country, I would want a Good Samaritan to lend a hand. And Karma's a boomerang."

She's so nice. And she's pretty too. She's slim and fair with a mop of long curly red hair, tied back with cornflower blue ribbon. She's wearing a white sleeveless top, jeans and flip flops, and the skin on her arms and face is a sun-kissed coppery color that still allows a smattering of freckles to show through. How come I didn't notice her before?

"You can stay the night and hit the beach tomorrow, I'll even tell you what bus to take," she smiles in this totally disarming way and I can't help but smile back at her.

"I'm going to be a freshman at USC this fall," I disclose shyly.

Before Rebecca can reply Brooke grabs my arm and drags me toward the corridor. "Could you excuse us for a second?"

When the door to the compartment is firmly closed behind us I crow, "Can you believe our luck? We got a free place to stay tonight!"

"So you want to do this?" Brooke gazes at me somberly with her arms crossed over her chest.

"Well, yeah, don't you? I mean, what other choice do we have?"

Brooke shrugs.

"Do you not trust her? Is your spidey sense tingling?"

She shrugs again.

I frown; she's not giving me anything here. "I know this is something that we wouldn't normally do, but do you really want to spend the night in a creepy, cold, unsafe train station?"

Brooke is still regarding me with uncertainty. I put my hand on her shoulder in reassurance, and her eyes slide over to where I've placed my hand, then back to my face. "You know when we jumped off that bridge this morning?" I ask, and watch her nod. "I can't tell you how much my body was fighting against it, how petrified I was, how much I wanted to throw up."

"I know," Brooke grins, "I could see. You were the greenest I've ever seen a human being get."

"But I jumped anyway, and I'm so glad I did. You taught me something today. You want to know what it is?"

Brooke nods.

"Sometimes you've got to take a leap of faith," I say ponderously, squeezing her shoulder and letting go.

"I taught you that? You sure you didn't read that in Reader's Digest while you were in the bathroom one day?" Brooke asks with a laugh.

"Laugh if you will, but I think it applies in this situation," I say loftily. I know I'm a huge cornball but I can't help it.

"All right, but any sign of leg irons or ancient torture devices and I'm out the door," Brooke warns.

"And I'll be right behind you," I say and slide the door open and follow her back inside. "Rebecca," I sit down across from our new temporary roommate, "we'd like to take you up on your offer. We really appreciate it."

Rebecca puts down the magazine she was reading. "That's great, I'm glad I can help."

"You have no idea how much you're helping," I say, peeking bashfully at her sunny, smiling face. Rebecca seems to be one of those people who you just want to like you. I can tell she's an interesting person. "So, do you like Marseille?"

"Yeah, it's a pretty cool place, I'll show you around tomorrow if you want."

"That would be great," I enthuse, looking over at Brooke. "Wouldn't it, Brooke?"

Brooke is sitting by the door with her nose in the guidebook. "Yeah, great," she monotones, not looking up.

Rebecca turns her attention to Brooke, then back to me. "You two are friends?"

"We're step-sisters," I reveal. I don't know what is up with Brooke. Usually she's the one to initiate the conversation and I'm the one who chooses not to participate. Maybe we've switched personalities for a little while.

"And you're starting USC in the fall, Sam?" Rebecca questions.

I blush at her use of my name. "Yeah, maybe you can give me the inside scoop. I'm returning to the States just a few days before I need to be at Freshman Orientation."

"No problem. Do you know what dorm you're living in?"

"Not yet. I guess I'll find out when I get home…"

And we were off and running.

What a great day today had been. It started with jumping off a bridge and ended with the unexpected beneficence of a stranger, who is fast becoming a friend. Rebecca's flat is teeny tiny, not much more than one room with a bed and an even smaller kitchenette, and a bathroom down the hall that she shares with four other people. The one weird thing about it is that it has no windows, so it is really, really dark in here as I settle myself on the floor in my sleeping bag. I let Brooke share the full-size bed with Rebecca, she's been suffering with her shoulder for two nights now, and anyway, I'm so tired that I could be sleeping on a pile of rocks and it would feel like Sealy Posturpedic. God, it is so dark in here that I can't see a thing, not even my hand as I wave it in front of my face.

I have never had a shower that felt as good as the one I had tonight, even though the hot water ran out about halfway through. Nothing beats feeling clean. Even Brooke perked up a little bit after she got out of the shower and ran a comb through her wet hair. She was very quiet throughout the journey to Marseilles, but then Rebecca and I didn't give her much of a chance to get a word in edgewise. It turns out that Rebecca is an English Lit major, and she said a lot of courses in the Journalism major overlap with hers. She gave me info on the best profs to take and which ones to avoid like the plague. Then we started talking about books and movies and it turns out our tastes are really compatible. We really have a lot in common. She's so sweet. If I had met people like her in the earlier pre-Brooke part of my trip I would have had a much better time. I even got the feeling that she was flirting with me a little bit. I could be completely wrong, god knows I have no experience with that sort of thing, but how amazing would that be? Actual interest from a member of the same sex.

I stretch, pointing my toes and reaching my hands above my head, and prepare to sleep. But, as tired as I am, my mind continues to wander back over the events of the day. I think about Brooke's and my confrontation on the bridge this morning, before we jumped. Do her claims that I've changed have any validity? She said that I've become timid and afraid. I chew on that for awhile. Maybe it's a little bit true that I've become somewhat withdrawn lately, but it's only because I got completely fed up with the stupidity of high school. Even as I try to rationalize it to myself I know Brooke is right. She put a mirror up to my face and I can't help but see what she sees. I've become gutless.

It's funny. I spent so much time analyzing everything that Brooke does that I have neglected to notice the changes in myself. I guess I can admit now that the reason why I've been so hung up on figuring her out is because of this attraction that has kind of spiraled beyond my control at this point. That could be called progress of a sort. At least I'm not lying to myself anymore about Brooke. But the emotion she inspires in me, the reaction my body feels when I'm close to her is hopeless. I'm glad we are getting along now, but escalating this to the point where I confess my feelings to her is an exercise in futility. Plus I have this image in my brain of Brooke laughing in my face that I kind of want to avoid. Not to mention that we are supposed to be sisters. A sisterly bond is something I've never shared with Brooke, and I guess I could settle for that if it was my only option, but it wouldn't be my first choice. Not by a long shot. I sigh, folding my hands behind my head and try to put it out of my mind, sleep is fast approaching and I'm not going to fight it.

I wake to the sensation of hot, soft lips pressed against mine. In the absolute stillness of this tiny room, and the inky blackness that envelopes me, I am being kissed. Two hands have pinned my arms to the floor over my head and all I can feel is a sweet intense pressure on my mouth. After the initial surprise of waking up this way, I focus on what is happening. I can't see anything, so I concentrate on the lips and tongue that are skillfully breaking down my resistance. The mystery lips surge against me with desperation and urgency, a silky tongue forcing my lips easily apart to explore the recesses of my mouth. Time and place have no meaning in the darkness and before I know what is happening, I'm responding; kissing back with a fervor that I didn't know I could feel. I am wholly possessed by this phantom suspended over me, who is drowning my senses in stimuli. I am hyperaware of the rough brush of a tongue against mine, of hot breath expelled over my cheek, of teeth that pull gently at my lower lip, and those lips, those lips that are crushed to mine that I want to feel all over my body.

And just as quickly as it started, it is over. The lips are gone; the hands remove themselves, freeing my arms from their imprisonment over my head. I feel a cutting loneliness even as the pounding of my heart insures me that I'm awake and alive. I can hear myself breathing heavily, harsh gulps of air filling my lungs, compensating for the long moments when I forgot to breathe while I was being ravaged by a ghost in the darkness. Adrenaline buzzes through my veins in equal amounts to this morning when I jumped off a bridge.

It wasn't a dream. It was real. I've had little experience in the art of seduction, and the soaring raw emotion this phantom infused me with has put to shame my past feeble attempts at romantic intimacy. Somebody just kissed the life out of me, in a way I've never been kissed before. The question is: who?

Part 9

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