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 11

Sam didn't hear the words that Harrison had uttered; the pronouncement that caused Brooke to frown and get up from the table was completely lost on her. She only knew that something had made Brooke upset, and she guiltily acknowledged the part she played in causing it.

It had all gotten completely out of hand. Somehow one of her usual skirmishes with Brooke over dominance in their ongoing petty rivalry had exploded into an actual war, and Sam had just realized that the outcome of this particular battle truly mattered to Brooke. The evidence was in the defeated set of Brooke's shoulders as she rushed from the dining room; this was serious, and Sam wondered when the rules of engagement had changed. She felt herself deflate a little bit at the thought that Brooke actually cared whether or not she was Harrison's choice, that his wasn't just another way for the two of them to safely come together in a clash of wits, sarcasm and one-upmanship.

Now Harrison was speaking to her and Sam couldn't for the life of her decipher the words coming out if his mouth. Maybe she excused herself, maybe not, but the next thing she knew she was out of her seat and chasing Brooke out of the restaurant.

Brooke had definitely emerged victorious in the contest over their appearance. As Sam followed Brooke out onto the sidewalk, she couldn't think of a time when her nemesis had looked more beautiful all dressed up for the prom, which they both knew Brooke would be attending with Harrison. Or did they? What the hell was even going on? Then everything but disapproval and annoyance left her mind as she watched Brooke step off the curb and into the street, not even looking to see if her way was clear. Look left, right, then left again was what every preschooler was taught when learning to cross the street, but Brooke had obviously forgotten this lesson as she stepped into the road, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings.

All at once Sam heard an engine roaring with way more horsepower than necessary for the semi-suburban neighborhood where the fancy restaurant Brooke had chosen was located. Her eyes tracked the sound to a large and powerful foreign car, eating up the road at an alarming speed. Glancing back at Brooke, Sam realized that if Brooke and the car continued on their current paths, they would be intersecting in a potentially horrific and fatal way.

"BROOKE!" She screamed, their history of discord instantly forgotten, leaving her rooted to her spot in fear for Brooke's safety. Reality slowed down and Sam watched the events unfold like stop motion photography, seconds ticked by like minutes, images of carnage imbedded in her brain and crystallized in sharp relief.

She was unable to move as she watched Brooke respond to her name being called, turning and finally noticing the car bearing down on her with an ungodly swiftness. In the split second before impact their eyes met, Brooke looked sad at the inevitability of her certain fate, but she didn't look scared.

Sam heard a sickening crunch; if she had any intelligence she would have closed her eyes at that moment, but she didn't. She saw everything that happened in excruciating detail. The chrome fender of the luxury car connected with Brooke's knee and under such violence she seemed to snap in two, her body crumpling onto the hood and into the windshield. She was still in motion as the car's velocity sent her over the roof and into the air, limbs flailing, as if she was a rag doll. When Brooke finally met with the earth again, she landed on her side, her upper arm and shoulder bearing the brunt of the impact before she rolled onto her back.

The car was gone; at that speed it could have been in Nevada already, not that Sam was thinking of the vehicle or its driver at that point. She found that her body could move again as she ran the few steps to where Brooke lay in the middle of the road. "Brooke, Brooke, can you hear me?" she asked breathlessly as she fell to her knees at Brooke's side. Sam could hear footsteps behind her and cried, "Somebody call an ambulance! Please!" before directing her attention back to Brooke.

An inarticulate moan was all that could be heard from the motionless body of the only girl she considered to be her equal. Sam made a cursory examination and saw that with the exception of the grotesque way her leg was bent, Brooke's body was intact, and there didn't seem to be any bleeding. That was a good thing, right? She tried to keep calm despite the rising panic that she knew absolutely nothing about medical stuff. How would she even know what Brooke needed? Maybe she should ask. She looked down at Brooke's pale face; if she didn't know better she would think the girl was sleeping.

"Brooke? Are you in pain?" Jesus Christ, the girl had the starring role in a head-on collision, of course she's in pain, Sam berated herself before trying again. "What can I do to make you comfortable?" she asked, before realizing that even people who had never seen an episode of ER would know not to touch her anywhere to avoid doing more damage. She had no idea what to do and was besieged by helplessness. The terror was overtaking Sam, and her next words were laced with hysteria. "Brooke! Please, say something. Just be okay, please. God, please! Brooke!"

Brooke chose that moment to open her eyes and Sam nearly wept with relief. She blinked a few times, then her eyelids fluttered closed.

"Sam," Brooke choked out weakly, her voice sounding garbled and strange.

"Oh Brooke, thank god!" Sam heard the distant wail of sirens. "You're going to be fine, there's an ambulance coming," she looked around for the emergency vehicles, hoping like hell that it wasn't for another life and death traffic accident in the greater Los Angeles area.

"Sam, shut up. Listen," Brooke wanted to say something; her voice had gained strength but still had a distressing gurgly quality to it. As the stricken girl opened her eyes with effort, Sam realized she loved the changeable quality of Brooke's eyes, which were a muted dull brown at the moment.

"What is it, Brooke?" Sam knelt on the pavement so that her face was inches from Brooke's. She didn't want the girl expending any more effort than was necessary. Reaching out a tentative hand, Sam brushed a few strands of blonde hair away from Brooke's face and lightly brushed away a smudge of dirt on her cheek.

"Sam, this is not good," Brooke started.

"I know, but I'm going to get you help, Brooke, don't worry-"

"Sam! Listen!"

Sam stopped talking and waited for Brooke to go on.

"I'm going to die, Sam. There's a lot of my body that I can't feel right now and what I can feel is more painful than you could ever imagine," Brooke was calm, as if she were relaying facts from a biology text.

"Brooke, you're not going to die! You can't!" Sam had to interrupt. She couldn't let Brooke continue talking this way.

Brooke couldn't speak anyway, she began to cough. At first it was just a few involuntary rattles sounding deep in her chest, but then it got worse and Brooke succumbed to open-mouthed hacking for a few moments. Sam was so close that she could feel the spray of Brooke's expectorating, and it wasn't until she saw Brooke's teeth stained red that she realized her face was now speckled with Brooke's blood. That can't be good. Which was better - bleeding internally or from actual visible wounds? Somehow Brooke managed to swallow and continue talking.

"Sam, I want to tell you this before I pass out." Brooke opened her eyes and focused directly on Sam. "I want to tell you that I'm sorry. I'm sorry we couldn't get along; it's never what I wanted for us. I think you are wonderful." She paused to smile, except it came out as more of a grimace, and Sam felt tears well up in her eyes as she watched Brooke stop to draw in a shaky breath.

"Please, Brooke, you can tell me this later, you need to save your strength," Sam begged her.

Brooke winced as she tried to shake her head. "Ever since you came to live with us I found myself liking you, but every time I tried to get close we would argue."

"Oh Brooke, I'm sorry we fight all the time." Sam's tears were falling freely. "You're going to be fine. Please don't say this now."

"I have to," Brooke insisted, laboring to say all she needed to. "I need to tell you because it has to be said before I go, otherwise it'll be too late." She paused, clearing her throat and spitting up blood, which rapidly trickled across her cheek.

"You're not going anywhere!" Sam used the pause to interject forcefully, alarmed by Brooke's Herculean effort to speak. Trying to wipe the blood from Brooke's face, she only succeeded in smearing it over her jawline, like garish rouge on the wrong part of the cheek. For the first time it occurred to her that Brooke might not make it.

"I love you, Sam." Brooke seemed to relax as soon as she said it. "I feel better already. It's okay, I'm ready now."

Sam was stunned by Brooke's revelation, and instantly knew that she returned Brooke's feelings. Everything made sense now. Her heart was gladdened by Brooke's bravery, because she would never have been able to recognize her own feelings had it not been for Brooke divulging hers first. But her happiness at hearing Brooke's confession of love was overshadowed by the resignation in the words that followed, and she was livid. She was furious that fate had shortchanged them this way, that divine comedy and tragedy had coincided at the same moment to give them the gift of love only to smack it out of their grasp a moment later. Fate had a sick sense of humor. And she was infuriated by Brooke's defeatist attitude. This wasn't over yet. Brooke had to fight.

"You're fucking ready now? You're just going to give up? Wait for Patrick Swayze or whoever to come down from heaven to escort you into the great beyond or something? That's just awesome," Sam raged. "Well, how about this? I love you too, Brooke! And now you're going to check out on me and make me live the rest of my life knowing it could have been different?" She slammed her fist against the pavement in frustration. "Fuck you! How can you leave me now? I love you!"

"You do?" Brooke croaked.

"Yes! I love you! Don't you get it? This is fate! We are destined to be together, can't you see? Now we're supposed to be together so you can't die," the faulty logic made perfect sense to Sam.

"Sam, it hurts…" Brooke's eyes closed.

"Brooke! Stay with me," Sam pleaded. "You have to get better. You can do it. We can do it. I'm going to help you. We're going to make you better."

The paramedics had finally arrived. A man and a woman rushed over to Brooke carrying a big orange board with a stationary hard collar and a huge plastic case that looked like a giant tackle box. They nudged Sam out of the way and began to work on her, one of them asking, "You know this girl?"

"Yes, she's mine," Sam stuttered. "I mean, she's my step-sister."

"What's her name?"

"Brooke McQueen."

"What happened?"

"She got hit by a car! It didn't even slow down, maybe it even sped up, I don't know. She's going to be okay, right? She's not bleeding very much so that's good, right? She was just talking to me, but then she stopped," Sam hovered around the pair, helplessly watching them put Brooke back together again.

"Miss, can you please step back? We need a little bit of room here," the woman paramedic said, then directed her next question to Brooke. "Okay, Brooke, can you hear me?"

Sam stepped back right into Harrison. He put his arm around her, and she flinched before realizing who it was. "Oh god, Harrison, what if she's not okay?"

"That Jaguar came out of nowhere," Harrison said heatedly. "People get an expensive car and they think they own the road."

The police arrived on the scene and made a beeline for Sam and Harrison. An officer with a handlebar mustache asked, "Did you see what happened?"

"Yes, she got hit by a car," Sam said for what seemed like the twentieth time. He was in her way; she couldn't see what they were doing to Brooke. "Harrison, will you take care of this?"

"Sure, Sam. Then I'm going to go to your parents' house to tell them, okay? I don't think they should hear about this over the phone."

"Yeah, thanks," Sam said distractedly, barely listening.

Harrison turned to the police officer to tell them everything he knew and Sam was free to hover around Brooke and the paramedics again.

After checking her vital signs and talking back in forth in a kind of short hand that Sam couldn't understand, the paramedics strapped Brooke to the spinal board, carefully placing her head and neck between the two foam rubber bolsters of the hard collar. Sam stared as they loaded her into the ambulance, Brooke looking like a corpse with her peaceful pale countenance and ramrod straight posture. The woman paramedic turned to Sam, "Are you riding?"

"Yes," Sam got in and scooted to the rear part of the ambulance and perched on a narrow bench close to Brooke's head. The paramedics were stationed on either side of Brooke and quickly began working on her before the driver was even behind the wheel. One paramedic inserted a needle into Brooke's arm and connected it to an I.V. hanging by her shoulder, then started attaching round white pads to Brooke's chest and hooking them up to a monitor. The other spoke urgently and deliberately into a walkie talkie attached to her lapel, advising the hospital of Brooke's status, while drawing some kind of liquid from an ampoule into a hypodermic needle. The heart monitor was turned on and Sam could hear a regular series of beeps that represented Brooke's heart rate.

As the paramedics attended to their tasks, Sam bent low, positioning her mouth right at the ear hole in the orange bolster that kept Brooke's head motionless, and began speaking softly in her ear. "Brooke, hold on, we're going to the hospital where they're going to fix you up good as new. Better than new. You just have to promise me that you'll try. We can do this together. I'm going to be there every step of the way helping you to get better, okay?" Brooke's eyes were closed, but Sam could hear her moan. She took it as a sign that Brooke was listening.

Sam abruptly looked up at the paramedics, needing to know more information about Brooke's condition. "How is she doing? Is she going to be okay?" she didn't recognize her own voice; it was high pitched and tight and thin with anxiety.

The woman answered, "It's hard to say at this point. Emergency will do their best to stabilize her so she can go directly into surgery. They're all ready for her." She gave Sam a quick smile before returning to her work. "We're doing the best we can for her. Keep talking to her, the longer she responds, the better it is."

Sam bent again to Brooke. "You hear that, Brooke? You've got everyone waiting for you. They're going to fix you up, good as new, so we're not going to talk about dying anymore, okay? I'll be there when you get out of surgery, I'll be waiting, and then I'm going to help you get better. I'll be there every minute; you're going to get sick of seeing me. I love you, Brooke. You have to get better, please. Get well for me, do it for me so we can be together, okay? It's fate." Sam just kept talking, repeating what she had already said, wanting Brooke to hear her voice, wanting to give the girl something to hang on to, something to live for. "I love you. Please don't die."

The monitor started screeching, a quick staccato dinging that hurt Sam's ears.

"She's coding! Check her airway! Start bagging her!" The male paramedic shouted.

The woman picked up what looked like a clear plastic football with a mouth piece attached to it and started manually pumping air into Brooke's mouth. The man flipped the switch on a portable machine and began chest compressions. After a few moments the woman shook her head, "Nothing. I'm going to intubate." She suddenly had a ghastly metal L-shaped object in her hand and she ordered Sam to get out of the way as she moved up to Brooke's head. Sam thought she would throw up as she watched the woman insert the tube, it looked like it alone could kill Brooke. After the female paramedic had attached the clear plastic football to the tube, she repositioned herself at Brooke's side.

The male paramedic now abandoned the chest compressions and prepared a hypodermic needle. "We have to defib! I'm giving her eppy." While the man administered the shot, the woman prepared the paddles Sam had seen so often on medical dramas on TV. She knew what was coming next. When the machine was fully charged, the man said "Clear," and laid the paddles on Brooke's chest. The charge was so strong that it lifted Brooke's body off the gurney for a moment. A steady beep could be heard from the monitor for about three seconds, then hell broke loose again. "Again. Charging," he said, almost as a warning. Another blast of electricity went through Brooke's body in an attempt to get her heart beating regularly again.

Sam could only stay out of the way of the flurry of activity. Brooke was dying and there was nothing she could do. She felt the tears coming again but wiped them away, trying to be strong for Brooke.

"It isn't working, we're losing her," the female paramedic said. "Let's get her ready to move." The ambulance came to an abrupt halt and the paramedics prepared to transfer Brooke as the doors flew open and the entry way was filled with people in blue scrubs. The woman paramedic started relaying information at a rapid clip, hardly any of which Sam could understand, but she did understand when the woman said, "There's a lot of damage, it doesn't look good."

Brooke was whisked away by the paramedics, nurses and doctors who would continue to try and save her, but Sam could see the handwriting on the wall. The ambulance driver helped her out of the rear of the vehicle, steadying her as she nearly tripped over her high-heeled shoes, and pointed to the entrance to the Emergency Department.

Sam approached the glass doors with steps that slowed until she had stopped in the middle of the ambulance bay. She had always considered herself a pragmatist, and didn't see the point in shying away from the reality of the situation. Brooke was going to die. Nobody, not even Brooke, could survive a head-on collision of that force and severity. Brooke was going to die right after they had figured out what they could have meant to each other. Sam wasn't sure what that would have included, and she started to cry again when she realized she would have a lifetime without Brooke to wonder about it. She didn't know who to blame for acquiring a love she hadn't known existed only to have it snatched away from her minutes later.

She stopped on her way to the doors to gaze through the wall of glass at a trauma room where a swarm of people surrounded Brooke, one of whom was cutting away the beautiful prom dress that Sam had admired not a half hour before. How in the world did they get here? She felt sobs welling up in her as the material was thrown to the floor, leaving Brooke exposed and bare to the alien hands and fingers that poked and prodded at her. It seemed that in these strangers' attempt to save her, they were dehumanizing her to the point where she was just a body on a table, a chaotic collection of bones and organs and tissue in disarray that needed to be returned to order. She watched as the team worked with cold precision, zeroing in on someone whose features were cloaked by a surgical mask and cap making an incision under Brooke's ribs with efficient brutality. Sam recognized that these people were just doing their jobs, but to her it looked like they were killing Brooke. Then she realized: they were either killing her, or she was already dead.

One of the nurses on the periphery of the group that surrounded Brooke looked up and saw Sam staring through the glass. Pausing to look at her in sympathy, the woman drew a privacy curtain across the trauma room, effectively shutting Sam out of the proceedings that she now knew she didn't want to see anyway.

She turned from the window and walked away from the emergency room doors, withdrawing both physically and emotionally from the reality of witnessing such a harrowing ordeal. A short distance away in that building, Brooke's body was lying on a table, but Sam's muddled brain now refused to believe that the body on the table was actually Brooke. It was someone else, some other girl who had been hit by a car. Sam was sorry for that girl, but that girl wasn't her Brooke. It was impossible to think that the vibrant and vivid Brooke who could at once frustrate, annoy and thrill Sam with a few well chosen words was the same as the pallid and battered Brooke who at this moment was fighting to stay alive. So in Sam' numbly confused brain, she simply wasn't. And if her Brooke wasn't the one lying on that table, then there was no point even entering the building. No, her Brooke was around here somewhere, and Sam would just wait out here for her to show up and tell her that this was all a mistake.

Instantly, I'm awake. I sit up in bed, breathing heavily, sweating profusely, and realize that I am in a bed in a hotel in Paris with a very much alive Brooke sleeping beside me. The room is dark but dawn is peeking through the opening in the curtain, and I can see the outline of Brooke's body under the covers less than a foot away from me. We had fallen asleep wrapped in each other's arms but must have separated in the night, a fact for which I'm grateful because otherwise I would have awoken Brooke with my movements.

The force and clarity with which my memory has returned overwhelms me and instead of the tears in my dream/memory, I am silently weeping for real. I quickly get out of bed and retreat to the bathroom so I won't wake Brooke. Sliding down the cold marble wall, I sit on the even colder floor, the memory of the night of the accident as fresh as if it just happened. I weep for Brooke's pain and for the months she spent suffering alone, waiting for me to show up and "be there every step of the way." I weep for my aborted good intentions and the way my brain chose to deal with the trauma of seeing Brooke nearly dead before me. But most of all I weep for the forgiveness Brooke has shown me, and how I am so undeserving of it.

Shame presses down on me, nearly robbing me of breath. I force a deep lungful of air into me and try to control my tears. God, I could really use a cigarette right now.

I'm still trying to come to grips with what happened that night and the enormity of my cowardice. All those promises I made that went unfulfilled. I wonder if all of my assurances to Brooke that I would be there for her after the surgery had any bearing on whether she lived or died. Because in that ambulance bay that night, I was utterly convinced that she was, if not dead already, then very close to it. And in my fear and weakness I turned my back on her and did the very thing I admonished her not to do. I gave up on her.

I could argue that in order to cope with the shock of seeing Brooke broken and bloody before me, I had blocked out the memory of it, that it wasn't really my fault that I wasn't there for her. My mind was simply protecting me from something I couldn't deal with. But I am disgusted with myself for even thinking it. There is no defense for this. For once I have to own up to my responsibility in this whole tragic story. I deserted the person who means the most to me, the girl I love, at the moment when she needed me the most. How can I live with that? How can she?

I wrap my arms around my chilled naked body, oddly comforted by my discomfort. Now that I have come face to face with the hard evidence of what kind of person I am, I haven't the faintest idea what to do now. I'm ashamed to say that my first impulse is flight. The notion of picking up my things and leaving is an attractive one. Once a coward, always a coward, I suppose. But I discard that idea almost as quickly as it occurs to me. That is not the way to start making things right, much as I think that Brooke would be better off without me.

The important thing is to do what is right for Brooke. I ponder what that might be for awhile but I have even less an idea of what is going through her mind than I did last night. I decide that I will avail myself to whatever her wishes are. Our future will be in her hands.

I get up from the marble floor and go to the sink. I wipe the tears from my eyes and wash my face, trying to make it look a little less swollen and ravaged than it is. I look at my reflection, seeing my true self for the first time since the accident. It is humbling to be confronted with my flaws head on. If our positions were reversed, and Brooke had abandoned me when I needed her, would I have acted the same? Would I have eventually forgiven her as her actions last night seem to indicate she has forgiven me? But maybe I'm assuming too much. Maybe Brooke has not forgiven me. Maybe she just wanted a little action and I was a convenient warm body. The thought stops me cold, but then I reject it. I refuse to believe that last night was just a hook-up of opportunity. It was too beautiful to be something fleeting and without meaning.

The only person who can answer these questions is Brooke. And much as I am scared shitless of how she will respond to the knowledge of my returned memory, I'm not going to budge until she tells me to.

I return to the bedroom and approach the bed. I watch Brooke sleeping, her easy, even breathing lulling me into a near hypnotic trance. I want to get in bed with her and hold her close, but I know that if I did, I would wake her, and I'm not prepared to hear my fate just yet. I want to prolong this sweeter version of purgatory for as long as she sleeps. I won't wake her.

Throwing on a shirt and shorts, I retreat to the chair closest to the bed. I promised her last night that I wouldn't leave her, and I will never break another promise to her as long as I live. Watching as a narrow shaft of sunlight from the break in the curtains slowly crosses her beautiful, scarred body, I take up a vigil that should have started a year ago in the hospital where Brooke recovered without any help from me.


Part 12

I watch as Brooke ascends to wakefulness, rolling over onto her back from her left side, which I know is most comfortable for her injured right shoulder. She reaches out toward the other side of the wide bed and raises her head in confusion when she comes up empty. I am warmed by the knowledge that I am the first thing she looks for this morning.


She turns her head and sees me sitting in the chair, then lets her head drop back against the pillows. "What are you doing over there? Come back to bed, it's early," she smiles.

"Okay," I don't hesitate, even though I should confess right away. I shove the guilt to the back of my mind. What harm will a few more minutes do?

She is close to the edge of the bed so I clamber over and lay down beside her. Immediately I am pulled into a full body hug that lasts for a good long while. I have never felt anything nicer. I just want to stay like this forever.

"I just want to stay like this forever," Brooke sighs into my shoulder.

Whoa. That was freaky, but cool. "Me too."

"Can we?"

"What – stay like this forever?" I take her question at face value even if she is asking something else; something that makes my heart beat a little bit faster. "I think we might develop bedsores."

Brooke giggles. "Yeah, and we might have to go to the bathroom eventually."

"How would you eat with your mouth practically attached to my neck?"

"And you'd probably start to smell a little funky after a while."

"Me? You too, sweetheart," I object, laughing.

She retreats slightly from our embrace and gazes at me thoughtfully.

I think she's going to comment on my term of endearment, which just kind of slipped out in jest, although I do mean it. I'll call her every cutesy name in the book if she wants me to. But she doesn't say anything about that.

"What's this all about?" she asks, plucking at the fabric of my shirt. "And why were you sitting over there?" she nods towards the chair. "Do I snore? Or kick?"

"No!" I protest violently. "I just woke up and couldn't get back to sleep. I didn't want to wake you, that's all."

Brooke looks dubious.

"Okay, I woke up because I had a bad dream," I admit. I'd like to leave it at that, but Brooke wants details.

"A bad dream?" she prompts.

"Well, not a bad dream so much as a…" God, how do I explain? "Brooke, I'll tell you about the dream thing in a minute. First I have to tell you something else, something really important."

Brooke waits silently for me to continue, her features schooled in a grave expression.

I hesitate. She looks like she's bracing herself for bad news and it tears at my heart. I can't blame her for thinking I'm going to disappoint her again, but my hesitation comes from not knowing how she feels now. She loved me once; have her feelings changed? Does she still love me? Much as I would like reassurances from her, that won't be possible this time. She courageously stepped into the breach to tell me how she felt the night of the accident and now it's my turn. I now realize that she's always been the brave one and I've always been the coward. How she could possibly want me after the hell I've put her through is a mystery. Whether she does or not I can't go another minute without telling her. I'm the one that has to take the leap of faith – right here, right now.

"I love you, Brooke."

Her eyes close and she remains completely still. I can't gauge her reaction from this. Absurdly, I wonder if maybe she hasn't heard me, though her ear is inches away from my mouth. It becomes imperative that she understands what I'm saying.

"I said, I love you," I repeat. Then I break forth with a torrent of words that I didn't know was waiting to come out. "And not just a sisterly kind of love, or the kind of love you have for a best friend. Not that I don't want to be your friend; I totally do, but I want to be more than that. I want to be your, um, girlfriend. I want to go on dates with you and make out with you at the end of them. I want to get into bed with you at the end of the day and maybe do stuff like we did last night and wake up with you in the morning. I want to make you dinner even though I can't cook, agonize over what presents to buy for you at Christmas, write you pages long love letters, and ask your opinion on the most trivial matters in my life. And I want you to be able to rely on me for everything. When your shoulder hurts I want you to use my body as your pillow."

Eyes are still closed. Is that a good sign or bad? I press on.

"This may seem kind of sudden, this outpouring of emotion, but it's been brewing for a long time. You and I both know it. I love you. And I really mean it, just like I meant it when I said it before."

Those hazel eyes have opened and are now looking deep into mine, they are changing color as she soberly regards me; and there is a crease between her eyebrows that tells me there's a problem somewhere.

"Which leads me to the bad dream," I continue. "It wasn't a bad dream. It was a memory. It was THE memory. It all came back like it happened yesterday: the restaurant, the accident, I saw it all," the tears come and threaten to spill over. "I saw you, everything that happened to you in horrifying detail, Brooke. It was so scary."

"You remember now?" Brooke asks, her voice neutral like Switzerland. Her eyes are two emerald drills boring into me.

"Yes. You were so brave. You told me you loved me and I knew it was true. And I told you I loved you and I meant it. I made you so many promises that night and I didn't keep any of them," I'm crying now, but I can't stop talking, I have to get it all out. "But I did – I do – love you. I'm so sorry, Brooke. I wish I was there. I wanted to be there like I promised." It sounds so feeble, how is she ever going to know I'm for real? "I don't know what I could ever do to prove how sorry I am. If I had it to do over I would be with you every second. I don't know if you could ever forgive me, if it was me I don't think I could." I try to press her to me, clutching her back into a hug like we were a few minutes ago but she is resistant.

"You remember now," it's a statement this time, not a question. I feel her pulling out of my embrace. She sits up and swings her legs out of bed, grabbing my robe from last night and sliding it over her shoulders, tying it tightly around her. "Now you remember." She gets up and walks to the French doors, throwing the drapes open to reveal the bright light of morning. "The timing must be significant," she says softly, almost to herself. Brooke stands before the stunning view of the city in silence, arms folded. I can't even imagine what the expression on her face looks like.

After a few moments she speaks, and I endeavor to compose myself so that I can give her my full attention. I scoot to the edge of the bed and rest my feet on the floor, sitting up straight with my palms on my knees in an attitude of alertness.

"You know, Sam," Brooke starts conversationally, "in the past year or so I've thought a lot about fate; about destiny, and chance, and signs, and about finding meaning in seemingly random occurrences. Actually, you're the one who put the idea in my head in the first place. Remember, Sam? That night? You said it was fate. But of course you remember. Because you remember NOW." Her voice has gradually sharpened to a razor edge. "Now, just when I think I've found a way to live with the capriciousness of fate, when I finally learn to let go of some of this anger that has been eating me alive.…" She turns to face me and exhales, her breath directed upward and blowing a few blonde wisps from her eyes. The edge is replaced by weariness when she says, "I had my cards all lined up, ready to play by the rules of the game. At last I was able to be content with my hand, happy with it, even, until you took the rest of the deck and flung it up in the air. In case I thought I had any control over what fate deals me, your little pronouncement this morning is the emotional equivalent to fifty–two pickup."

"Brooke, I'm so-"

"Sorry. Yeah, I know."

She sounds so sad.

"The thing is, I'm sorry too." Brooke leans against the glass and gazes at me. "We are in quite the predicament now, Sam."


"Just listen for a second. I don't think you know where I'm coming from and I have to make sure you understand."

I nod.

"Up until very recently, I have hated you," she states bluntly, making me flinch. "And I'm sure you know that it wasn't some namby-pamby kind of hate like when somebody says they hate arugula or Tom Cruise or doing laundry. It was a visceral, consuming hatred that kept me company while I was in the hospital, gave me energy to get through the days, fueled my dreams at night. I'm not kidding, it was intense."

"I know."

"Yeah, well, now you know why I despised you so much, right?"

"Yes," I answer miserably.

"I had good reason," Brooke asserts.

"Yes, you did," I acknowledge hollowly.

"I couldn't believe you didn't remember. I just refused. At first I thought there had to be a reasonable explanation why you weren't there. Maybe you got hurt too. Maybe you were lying in another room in a different wing, incapacitated or something. I didn't know. The things that went through my head," she laughs harshly, it sounds like sandpaper against rust. "Then I wondered if I was making it all up, that the touching scene by the roadside was simply a figment of my imagination. There wasn't much head trauma but sometimes the brain does funny things. But I knew what I said and I knew what you said back to me because I wasn't remembering with my brain, I was remembering with my heart. And yeah, my heart took a severe beating and for awhile it couldn't be counted on to reliably pump all that blood through the ventricles and aortas and whatever, but it believed you when you said you would be there. My gullible heart," her eyes are pinning me, holding me in place with her valid indictment of my cowardly inaction, but then they drop to the carpet. "Yours is dyslexic, mine is gullible. We're both impaired."

"Brooke, please-" I start.

"So there I was in that hospital bed, like a schmuck, waiting for you to come," she continues, mowing over my interruption. "And you never fucking did," her voice has started to rise. "And every time the door would open I'd get my stupid hopes up that it was you and it never was. It was only someone bringing me a message from you: 'Sam says hello.'" She snorts in derision. "Do you have any idea how that made me feel?" she demands. "After all that you said - and I remember everything from that night – all you could spare me were three words not even said by your own lips. Three words. They were the wrong words, Sam."

"I'm sorry," I whisper.

"How could you not remember when I remembered it all?" Brooke looks genuinely puzzled. "I remember how angry and freaked out you were. You said so many wonderful things, things that made me want to keep on living, but you didn't deliver on any of it," the unforgiving angry tone is replaced by sorrow again. How many hours ago was it that she was gazing at me with fondness and, I know I didn't imagine it, love?

"When I finally got out of the hospital," she says, "I took comfort in the fact that I wasn't the only one who had changed, you had too. You weren't the girl I fell in love with. You were, like, forty percent of that girl. All watered down. If I wasn't so filled with poisonous hate I would have been sad for you. As it was I was glad that you didn't get away unscathed."

"You were different too, you know," I feel obliged to say.

"Of course I was, but I had an excuse. I was in a life-altering accident," Brooke replies reasonably. "I don't think I'll ever completely be that person again."

"No, I don't suppose you will," I say slowly.

"Much as I hated to admit it, the one aspect of me that survived was this absurd and unexplainable attraction I still had to you." She shakes her head in wonder. "I was so into you, Sam. And you never picked up on it. Before the accident I would do anything to have some interaction with you. I would pick a fight with you just to see your mouth twist while you thought up another put down. I was entranced by the sight of you running your fingers through your hair; I wanted to laugh with delight when you emerged triumphant in a battle of wits with Nic. It didn't happen very often but it was really cute the way you acted so smug for the rest of the day," Brooke does this little half smile in remembrance.

Before I can say anything she frowns. "But it doesn't change the fact that you hurt me more than anybody ever has, even Nic, and I hate you for that."

She thinks my crime is greater than Nic's. The thought suddenly occurs to me that there may not be a way for this to end happily.

"Hate is so strong," she adds. "People are right when they say that there is a thin line between love and hate. It takes just as much energy, maybe more, to keep the fury and anger going. And I was thinking of you just as much after the accident as before, only there was this steady stream of blackness bleeding over everything, ruining it all.

"But love is strong too. And when we started traveling together I started to remember the things that drew me to you in the first place. You had changed, but at the core you were the same. After my screw-up with the money you were kind to me even though I had been nothing but bitchy. I really wanted to stay and see the things I had read about and you didn't have to be so nice. So thank you for that."

"You don't have to thank me," I say, embarrassed.

"And I tried really hard to get along with you; you had done me this huge favor. But it wasn't hard at all. I found that I was falling in love with you all over again, although it was a different you: timid, fearful, sullen, reeking like the quality control department at a Marlboro plant."

"I don't know how when you describe me like that," I sigh.

"A charming combination," Brooke says dryly, with a grudging smile on her face. "At least for me. But I guess I was predisposed. You were more subdued, less fiery, but there was still a spark of the old you. Plus you were so endearingly vulnerable, awkwardly telegraphing your desire so blatantly."

"You could tell?" I redden at that.

"It's why I felt the overwhelming urge to kiss you that night," Brooke nods. "So I relaxed and just tried to go with it, telling myself that it was okay because you didn't know what you had done. It was nice to let myself have those feelings again, to let go of the anger. And it had been so long, I didn't think your memory was ever going to come back. I built this elaborate rationalization that I could let myself feel for you again only because you didn't remember. It was like you weren't guilty of abandonment if you didn't know that's what you had done." She sighs, "I know it doesn't make any sense but I wanted fate to be telling me that this could be a new start. I really wanted it to be, even though I knew I was fooling myself.

"And now you remember. And my wobbly house of cards comes down around me and all I can think about is lying in that hospital bed all alone, the pain of not knowing what I did to drive you away slowly mutating into hatred for what you had done to me." Brooke does this half shrug with her good shoulder. "And that's where we are."

"That's where we are?" I repeat, and watch her nod in confirmation. "So where does that leave us?" I ask, fearful of her response. I get up from the bed and stand in front of her.

"Honestly? I don't know." Brooke says noncommittally, straightening from where she was leaning against the window.

Okay. I can live with that, it's better than an outright dismissal of the idea of us being together, but I need to know. "Brooke, can I ask you something?" She gazes at me, waiting for me to continue. "Do you still love me?"

The question hangs in the air, she doesn't answer. I need to fill up the silence to cover my fear that she's going to end it right now. "Because I love you. I'll love you forever. And if you need time to figure out how you feel, I can wait however long it takes. I know you have every right to hate me; I hate myself for what I've done to you. And I don't want to make excuses for it because there could never be a good enough reason, but the only thing I can come up with in my defense is that the shock of seeing you almost dead in front of me was something I couldn't face. A little portion of my brain, or maybe it was my heart, wouldn't let me acknowledge that possibility, so it shut down completely, refusing to even contemplate a reality where you didn't exist anymore."

"But why didn't you come afterwards?" Brooke asks plaintively. "I can understand your being freaked out right after the accident, but I was in the hospital for five months! I really needed you."

"I don't know," I say helplessly. "I just don't know."

Brooke's eyes fill with tears. "That's not good enough."

Emotion wells up in me at the sight of her distress and the knowledge that I am the cause of it, and I nearly start crying as well. "I know, I'm sorry." I want to put my arms around her and comfort her but I can't. I'm the reason why she's so upset.

I take a deep breath. "Brooke, you'll never know how sorry I am. I failed you and I failed myself. I'm so sorry, but I can't change what has happened. I would like your forgiveness but I know it's a lot to ask. Once trust is lost it's very hard to get it back, I know this. I'm so ashamed of my spinelessness, but maybe I can learn something from it, and become a stronger person because of it. I'm not afraid to say that I love you. If you give me a chance I'll never stop proving it to you." I stop abruptly, having run out of things to say.

Brooke slowly shakes her head in the negative. "I want to forgive you, Sam, but I can't get past my anger right now," she says, almost apologetically, but with finality.

My heart falls. "I understand." It's over. I step back and give her some room. I don't know what to do with myself. I go to the bed and start making it, pulling up the sheets and straightening the pillows. Brooke doesn't move, just watches me from over by the window.

"That's not to say that maybe someday…" she ventures uncertainly. She's trying to let me down easy, I can hear the pity in her voice.

"It's okay, Brooke." I finish with the bedcovers and sit down at the foot of the bed. I'm hit by a wave of grief and I try to mask my weeping by hiding my face in my hands, not wanting Brooke to feel bad.

She comes over and sits beside me, starts rubbing my back. Now I've put her in the position of offering me comfort when it should be the other way around. I'm such an asshole. It makes me cry even harder when she puts her arm around me and soothes me with unintelligible words.

"What are we going to do now?" I wail, my face pressed against her shoulder.

"We'll do what we were going to do anyway," Brooke replies calmly. "We're going to see Paris and wherever else we decide we want to go, and then we'll go home and go to school and live our lives."

Apart. She forgot to add that to the end of her sentence but it's understood. It sounds like a death sentence. I have to try one more time. I hate the way my voice sounds when I protest, "But Brooke, this morning when we were in bed you said you wanted to be like that forever. Was that a lie? Weren't you happy?"

"It wasn't a lie, and yes, I was happy," she states. "Sam, you are so dear to me, but when I look at you now I see all the desperate sadness and disgust that ruled me before. Maybe this is good. Maybe you regaining your memory will help me let go of all that bad stuff."

Brooke tilts my head back and looks me in the eyes. I'm a sniveling mess, all tearstains, and puffy eyes and snot, but she kisses me anyway. She presses her lips to mine in the sweetest saddest kiss. I close my eyes and focus all my senses on her, cognizant that this may be the last time we ever do this. I try to imbue it with all the love and longing that I feel for her. It's over way too soon.

After she pulls away she says, "I did love you, maybe I still do, but I can't be with you and have those romantic feelings for you while I'm still extremely pissed at you. It would ruin it. Let's just be glad that we had this, and that we can come away from this not hating each other anymore. I'm so tired of that, Sam."

"But we could have so much more!" I can see it's over; her mind is made up. "Is there anything I can do to change your mind?" I ask despondently, already knowing the answer.

"No, there's nothing to be done," Brooke exhales, then squeezes my shoulder before removing her arm from around me. "You know, maybe I'm just looking for a sign or something, fate telling me that this is right. But it doesn't feel right, not right now anyway. I'm sorry, Sam."

"What kind of sign?" I ask miserably, "I can make you any kind of sign you want."

Brooke laughs a little, but changes the subject. The conversation is over, negotiations are closed. "Come on, you're a mess," she says tenderly. "Go get in the shower and I'll order breakfast. Now that we have some money, let's do some hard core sight-seeing today."

Numbly I head for the bathroom and go about making preparations for the day. I brush my teeth and go to the bathroom and take a long shower, hoping that Brooke can't hear me sobbing over the sound of the spray.

"There is so much money here," Brooke marvels, fanning out her stack of Traveler's Checks and counting them again.

We are in the customer service area at the American Express office, sitting in two low blue chairs by the window, both signing each check of our share of the money that Mike has provided.

"I kind of padded the amount a little," I confess, "and it looks like your dad kicked in a bit more."

"This is almost as much as what I started with," Brooke crows.

As soon as I got the money I divided it up evenly. I don't want to be in control of the finances anymore. I put the wad of checks in my pocket, resolving to find a place to buy another money belt. I've gotten used to the security of having it, even though it's geeky as hell.

"So what do you want to do today?" Brooke asks. "I really want to go shopping. Do you think we could go back to some of those stores we went by the other day?"

Shopping. Some things never change. I watch as Brooke continues chattering happily while she signs her checks, a desolate sadness stealing over me. This is not going to work.

"Then maybe for lunch we could go to that place we saw that looked like it was a prototypical French bistro," she continues. "We could sit and drink coffee and talk about anarchy or something. We could even smoke some of those French cigarettes, what are they called – Gauloises?"

"I'm trying to quit," I say. I did have a cigarette out on the terrace while Brooke was in the shower. Hopefully my last.

She looks up from her task. "That's good, Sam. I'm glad," she smiles. "So does that sound like a plan?"

I pause, not wanting what I'm going to say to sound like sour grapes. "I don't think I can do this, Brooke."

"What?" Brooke queries warily, sounding like she was half-expecting this.

"Look, I want you to have fun and do everything you want to do. Now that you don't have me holding the purse strings you're free. You don't need me tagging along. In fact, I kind of want to be by myself for awhile," I try to smile to show there are no hard feelings.

"You don't want to travel together anymore?" She looks at me, her pen frozen in mid-stroke.

"Brooke, you attract people like ants to a picnic. You won't have a problem finding someone to hang around with," I reason.

"But I want to hang around with you," Brooke responds mulishly.

"I can't do it. You can understand that, can't you?" I ask, silently pleading for her to make this easy for both of us.

Brooke regards me seriously, then relents, sort of. "Okay, but we'll still do stuff together today, won't we? We don't have to check out of Hotel Fancypants until tomorrow morning. We can go our separate ways then, right?"

I shake my head. "I'm going to do my own thing today, if that's okay. You go shopping, have fun. I'll see you tonight back at the hotel."

"You'll definitely come back tonight?" she wants to be reassured.

"All my stuff is there, Brooke, of course I'm coming back."

"We'll have a celebratory farewell dinner tonight, all right?" She asks gently, then jokes, "Maybe this time we'll actually eat what we order."

"Yeah," I answer distractedly. I don't know how I'm going to get through sharing the room with Brooke tonight. I pick up my daypack and sling it over my shoulder. Suddenly I want to get out of here as quickly as possible. "See you later."

"Wait," Brooke stalls me. "What are you going to do today?"

I frown; I hadn't actually thought about it. "I don't know," I say honestly. "But I've got my guidebook, I'll figure it out. Bye, Brooke."

I'm already halfway to the door when I hear her say, "Bye Sam." I don't turn around.

It's funny how even when you're a visitor in a place like Paris, with all the things that make it famous like Notre Dame, the Louvre, and Sacre Coeur you still seek out what's familiar.

I guess that's why, after crossing the Seine and walking around all morning and most of the afternoon, I find myself on the left bank in a Starbucks. I've covered a fair bit of the sixth and seventh arrondissements, but I couldn't give a very detailed report about what I've seen. I just came in to give my feet a break and to get some bottled water, but once I had sat down I found it very hard to summon the motivation to get up again. My guidebook is in front of me open to the same page as when I first retrieved it from my bag, and I've been doing more looking out the window than looking at words.

I wonder for the thousandth time what Brooke is doing. I picture her in a black turtleneck, drinking real French coffee in a café, discussing Sartre or Camus with some scruffy Frenchman, having a real French experience.

I run my fingers through my hair and resolve to get her behind me, so to speak. We only traveled together for two weeks at most; I can go back to doing the solo thing easily. But I know I'm deluding myself. There's no going back to the way things were, there will just be me attempting to find a new way to live without Brooke. I suppose I'll have many distractions when I start school, and Brooke will be so far away at her own school I'll hardly see her. Which is a good thing.

Enough! I have to stop dwelling. All of this is my own fault and I just have to live with the consequences. I pick up my guidebook and concentrate on the words. I find that I'm close to an art museum, a perfect low-impact way to waste the rest of the afternoon. I stuff my things back in my bag and go.

A few minutes later I weave my way through the disproportional number of foreigners meandering all over the sidewalk that announce better than any sign that I am near a major tourist attraction. The Musee D'Orsay used to be a train station from the nineteenth century that was converted into a museum in the eighties. It's cool because instead of focusing on a particular period or media, it houses all kinds of art from around 1850 – 1915. So it not only boasts some of the heaviest hitters from Impressionist painting, but also has important collections of sculpture, decorative art, furniture and photography from the same time. It is an obvious art fan favorite, as it is packed with people even in the waning hours of the day.

As I get my bearing in the soaring central hall, a long, wide corridor capped by a vaulted glass ceiling, I feel myself relax a little bit. I amble over to one of the side galleries and begin to immerse myself in the beautiful things that populate this remarkable space. I make my way through the ground floor rooms, inspecting each item, passing quickly by the things I don't like and lingering over the things I do. Wishing that Brooke were here to explain some of the more inexplicable objects is inevitable, but I shove the thought away and go on.

Entering a room of familiar impressionist paintings, I take my time examining each one. I get as close as I can to observe the brushwork of Van Gogh's Self Portrait, I'm impressed by the pointillist detail of Seurat's The Circus, and marvel at how Monet used color in his famous paintings of his garden at Giverny. I understand that it's become passé to admire Impressionist art, but I can't help but want to jump right into the worlds that these artists have created. The make a hayfield seem so peaceful, a woman hanging laundry becomes profound.

I approach a painting called Chestnut Trees at Louveciennes by Pissarro, and am immediately struck by my desire to inhabit this painting along with the two figures depicted in the foreground. It is a simple picture of some tall trees, their branches naked and fragile-looking. The snow on the ground and on the roof of the red-brick house in the background reveal that it is winter there, but it doesn't look too cold. The woman and child in the foreground stand hand in hand; their footprints expose the path they took to reach this exact spot where the artist has captured them for all eternity. The thing that gets me though is the sunlight. It is what makes this painting so warm to me. How Pissarro managed to so aptly convey chilly sunlight in a grove of chestnut trees is a miracle.

I close my eyes. I can feel the crunch of the snow under my feet as I walk over to the woman and her daughter, they speak French so I can't communicate that well, but we turn our faces to the sun and feel the heat of its surprisingly strong rays on our faces for a few moments.

I know that when I open my eyes I'll be back in a crowded museum on a sweltering August day, but for these few seconds I just want to be somewhere else. I try not to think about her but as soon as I do she's there with me, her changeable hazel eyes a shade I have never seen before as she looks at me and smiles. Then she turns to say something to the little girl and her breath is visible in the frigid air. She is laughing. I watch her and realize that here in the French countryside in the late nineteenth century, Brooke is happy. And I'm happy too. Something we couldn't achieve in reality.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Brooke turns and asks me, her eyes sparkling in the brittle sunlight.

"So beautiful," I agree. My delusion is so vivid I feel like she's really talking to me.

"Sam?" she speaks louder, her voice is so real-sounding, coming from my right.

I need to end this daydream slash fantasy whatever; it's starting to freak me out. I reluctantly open my eyes, back among the teeming hordes of tourists and sigh as I look again at the painting.

"Look at the way the light comes through the tree branches," Brooke says.

Wait a minute.

I turn to my right and she's there. Brooke is standing next to me, gazing at the painting. She puts her little digital camera to her eye and takes a photo of the canvas, then she turns to me and aims the camera.

I open my mouth but I'm so surprised I can't speak, and wonder if I somehow conjured her out of thin air.

She takes the shot, then puts the camera in her handbag, never taking her eyes from me. "Really beautiful," she says. "Hi, Sam."

"Hi," I manage to get out.

"What is it with us and museums?"

"I don't know." Okay, somehow we are both here at the same place at the same time. "What are you doing here?" I ask, trying to recover my equanimity. "I thought you were going shopping."

"Got bored. Needed some culture."


"And I tried the café thing, but it wasn't much fun by myself."

"Oh. Well…" I'm having trouble holding up my end of the conversation.

"This place is great," Brooke comments, looking around. "So much great stuff all in one place, and it's so much more manageable than the Louvre."

"Yeah." I agree, even though I've never been to the Louvre, and neither has she. I gaze at her in wonder, not caring much about the art anymore. It's only been a few hours since we've left each other in the Amex office but I'm so glad to see her, and the degree of hopeless gladness makes me sad.

"What was it you said when we met in the Uffizi?" she asks, trying to remember. "'Of all the gin joints' or something? That's from a movie, right?"

"Casablanca." I'm disconcerted by the change of topic, but I go with it.

"Right," Brooke nods. "The movie that Harry likes, but Sally doesn't."

"Something like that."

"You've seen it?"

"When Harry Met Sally?"


"Casablanca? Yes. In history class junior year, when we were learning about the Vichy government. Didn't you?"

"No, I didn't have Mr. Fisher for history."

"Oh yeah."

"How does the line go?"

"'Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine,'" I recite.

"Yeah. I like that line."

"Me too. Brooke?"


"What are we talking about?

"I guess…" She stops to think for a second. "Coincidence."


"Mm-hmm. And signs. Like, what are the chances that two people will randomly end up in the same foreign country at the same museum at the same time? And what are the chances that the same two people will meet again in a different museum in a different country just a few weeks later? It certainly defies logic."

This conversation defies logic, but Brooke seems to have some kind of point she's trying to make so I'm willing to follow the convoluted tributaries of her thoughts. I struggle to keep up. "You think it's a sign?"

"Could be."

"A sign of…?"

"Do I need to spell it out?"

"I would appreciate it."

"Before I spell it out for you I just want to apologize for this morning at the American Express office. It was selfish of me to think that you would still want to travel with me. I should have thought about how hard it would be for you. I made a mistake."

I was doing fine until she had to bring this up. "A mistake?"

"Yes. Is there something wrong with your hearing? You keep repeating me."

"No, I just want to be sure I'm getting it all. This has been a strange conversation so far and I don't want to miss any of its twists and turns. Now, you were saying?"

"The thing is, I've been doing some thinking about all the things we talked about this morning and I think I've finally got it. There was nothing deliberate in your avoiding me after the accident, nothing malicious. Your brain was protecting you from what it thought you couldn't handle, and whether I like it or not, I have to respect that. There's nothing either of us can do about it now anyway."

I nod.

"Contrast that with this morning. When you walked out the door I knew exactly how much you were hurting, because I've been there. And it didn't have to be that way."

She pauses to gather her thoughts and I wait patiently for her to go on.

"Do you know what you did for me last night? That was major, Sam. I didn't think I would ever be able to get over what my body looks like now, but you are helping me to do it. For that reason alone I'd be a fool to not try and make things work between us. More than that, when it sunk in that you were really going to leave, I realized I was hurting myself too. Why should I deny myself the pleasure of being with you because of this perverse need I have to punish you? If I'm completely honest, that's what I was doing," she admits, her tone ashamed. "I guess I wanted to hurt you like you hurt me. It's true that I'm still angry at you, but not angry enough to want you to suffer. I love you too much for that." Brooke looks at me assessingly, trying to gauge how I'll react to her brutal honesty.

I smile. "You love me?"

Her features relax with relief at my response. "Yes, get the wax out of your ears," she grins. "I love you."

"I love you too."

"Good. That makes me happy. You make me happy, more happy than angry. Life is too short to not be happy."

"I'm happy too."

"Well, again, that's good," she pauses. "It doesn't bother you that I would deliberately try to hurt you?"

"You had your reasons, and you put me out of my misery after less than a day. I'd say you were very generous with my penance. And anyway, it doesn't compare to the amount of guilt I carry around now."

"We have to get over this," Brooke says soberly. "You, the guilt, and me, the anger. It could do a lot of damage somewhere down the line if we don't deal with it."

"What do you think? Therapy?"

"I'd like to see the therapist who could take on us and our issues."

"There are many."


"No, issues."

"Yep." Brooke agrees.

This conversation is surreal, but I like the way it's going. "Do you want to maybe get out of here? Finish talking somewhere else? I'm getting kind of hungry."

"Are you done? I've been here for a few hours. How about you?"

"Not that long, but I'm done. Maybe we could come back tomorrow and you could tell me everything you know. I missed not having a private art expert at my disposal."

"Tomorrow?" Now Brooke is the one repeating. But she gets it. "Okay, as long as you don't mind me dragging you to a few other museums as well."

"Not at all. It'll be fun. So it's all right if we travel together?"

"Fine with me," Brooke is grinning like a lunatic. She really does look happy.

We start to make our way to the exit. I think maybe I have a really big smile on my face too.

"Wait a second," I suddenly remember, stopping in the middle of the grand central aisle. "Weren't you going to spell something out for me?"

"Oh yes." Brooke clears her throat and says, "Due to the fact that fate has seen fit to bring us together once again, I can draw no other conclusion than we are meant to be together. But I was going to tell you all of this when I saw you at the hotel tonight anyway, so it doesn't really matter if fate has anything to do with it or not. I don't put much stock in fate anymore; I do what makes me happy."

"That sounds very wise."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"You know this isn't going to be easy?"

"Nothing worthwhile ever is," I say.

We start to move again, Brooke reaches for my hand and we stroll out the doors and across the road to a sidewalk that runs parallel to the Seine. The sun is setting and a glorious golden light suffuses the evening sky. If they were alive, one of those Impressionist painters would do a good job of it, I'm sure. I'm feeling hopeful and peaceful and serene, but I also have this jumping out of my skin type feeling that is making me kind of antsy. This must be what love is supposed to feel like.

As we cross the bridge that takes us back to our hotel I say, "Brooke I want to stop right here and kiss you a thousand times."

Brooke stops in her tracks and gazes at me, a smirk playing over her lips. "How about one quick one here and nine hundred ninety nine back in the room?" she bargains.

"Deal." I look around and see a few people sharing the bridge with us, but I don't think they'll mind a little bit of PDA from a couple of wacky American girls. I take Brooke in my arms and kiss her firmly and quickly, reveling in the feel of her soft lips. That I'm even allowed to do this makes me giddy. "There's more where that came from," I promise.

"I'll hold you to that," Brooke gazes at me fondly, holding my face in her hands for a few moments. She looks deep into my eyes and murmurs, "I forgive you."

I make a sound that's halfway between a sigh and a hoot. It's not very dignified. All the tension leaves my body and I feel like my limbs are made of rubber bands. "You forgive me?"

Brooke smiles in amusement, then leans in and puts her mouth right by my ear and loudly repeats, "I forgive you."

I can't decide whether to laugh or cry so I do neither. My arms go around Brooke's waist and I'm squeezing her so tightly. "Thank you," I mutter into her neck. "Thank you."

Brooke doesn't say anything more. When I release her she scrutinizes my face, squinting because of the lowering sun just behind me. She nods her head with an air of finality, of approbation of her decision, and we begin to walk again.

We stroll in comfortable silence, each lost in our own thoughts. Mine are of an exceedingly pleasant nature; I'm imagining all sorts of scenarios where Brooke and I are contentedly doing mundane things together like driving in the car, folding laundry and looking up movie times on the internet. Thoughts like these lead to contemplating a long happy future with Brooke, but my mind inevitably stumbles over an enormous obstacle looming in our paths.

"I just thought of something Brooke."

"What's that?"

"What happens when we have to go to school?"

"Hmm." Brooke doesn't say anything.

"USC is very far from Princeton." I state the obvious.

"It is. How about this: we find a good long distance cellular phone plan, do the best we can, and re-evaluate over Christmas?"

"Sounds reasonable in theory."

"That's all we can ask for."

It's a big thing, and it's happening very soon. We'll be leaving Europe in a couple of weeks and departing for school a few weeks after that. I would expect to feel apprehensive about our imminent separation but I don't. Right now it's enough that we've come this far. We'll use the time we have and somehow make it work the months we'll be apart. I'm feeling confident and optimistic.

We make it back to the hotel but somehow dinner doesn't get ordered until many hours after we return. In case you were wondering, it takes quite a while to get through nine hundred ninety nine kisses.

The End

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