The Silver Year: Chapter 21

Chapter 21

Something in The Sinookas

 

 

Walter​​ awoke​​ to the scent of​​ freshly cut timber​​ and pine​​ needles.​​ The ticktock of the train’s wheels hypnotically​​ clapping​​ atop​​ the train​​ tracks​​ had lulled him and Kourtney to sleep,​​ her​​ shoulder serving as​​ his​​ pillow and his​​ head serving as​​ hers​​ during the ride down the mountain.​​ He​​ stayed still​​ not wanting to​​ disturb her.

Outside the​​ train’s​​ window,​​ dewed over​​ from the clouds they had just emerged from,​​ was​​ the rustic village of their Swiss chalet,​​ Lauterbrunnen,​​ a growing nest of pink roofs on an​​ endless​​ throughway of​​ vibrant​​ green. Guarding over the village​​ were​​ the​​ soaring​​ gray​​ limestone​​ cliffs​​ of Lauterbrunnen Valley, a​​ broad, U-shaped valley​​ ploughed​​ into the earth​​ as​​ if dug​​ by​​ a​​ gigantic​​ ice cream scooper,​​ topped​​ with​​ thick, dark​​ forests,​​ and​​ braided with​​ veins​​ of​​ whitewater​​ waterfalls​​ draining from the​​ bleach white​​ peaks of the Alps cutting jaggedly​​ across​​ the sky.

The​​ train​​ had just​​ come​​ from those peaks,​​ or more specifically a glacier saddle between them called Jungfraujoch.​​ Thanks to​​ a​​ nine-kilometer railway built partially into the mountains,​​ the once desolate​​ mountain​​ saddle​​ had been transformed into a haven for tourists seeking a high-altitude adventure​​ without the work,​​ complete​​ with​​ shops​​ and​​ restaurants,​​ an​​ elaborate manmade​​ ice palace,​​ and​​ even ski slopes where​​ Curt,​​ an avid snowboarder,​​ still was.​​ 

The three of them had​​ taken​​ the train up​​ at​​ the agonizing hour of six​​ that morning, however,​​ Walter’s train​​ to Amsterdam​​ tomorrow​​ would be​​ leaving even earlier.​​ He​​ still​​ hadn’t told Kourtney​​ yet​​ because​​ he​​ still​​ wasn’t​​ sure​​ if​​ he was going through with it.​​ Had he completely lost his mind? Was​​ he​​ really taking cues from​​ illusions now,​​ or​​ his encounter with​​ “Fate” as she liked to call herself?

Kourtney awoke​​ and took her neck off​​ Walter’s​​ head. “So beautiful,” she said stretching her arms​​ and​​ looking​​ out​​ the window.​​ “Are you going​​ to​​ the P-Party tonight?” she asked. P was the theme of the night’s costume party​​ and​​ any​​ extrapolation​​ on what that meant was accepted,​​ but​​ pirate, pimp, and policeman​​ were​​ the most popular​​ picks.​​ 

“No,”​​ Walter​​ said. “There’s something I need to do early tomorrow morning. Are you​​ going?”

“What do you think?” she said smiling.

“Didn’t figure you were, but you asked. The​​ parties​​ aren’t​​ as bad​​ as​​ you think.”

“Yes they are. Especially tonight’s.​​ Remember,​​ I’ve been on one of these before, and at​​ the P-Party on my​​ last​​ tour about​​ a​​ dozen blokes showed up with nothing on, taking P-Party to mean ‘penis’ party. Yeah, not for me.​​ What’s​​ so important to get you up early​​ again​​ tomorrow?”

“Well,​​ I’m still not sure if I’m going​​ through with it.”

“You’re going back to Amsterdam aren’t you?”

“How’d you know?”

Kourtney tilted her head and sighed.​​ “I don’t know​​ exactly,” she said.​​ “Just​​ sensed​​ something​​ in the​​ sinookas​​ I suppose.”

Walter laughed. “I see you’ve taken to​​ Cat’s Cradle,” he said.​​ He had given​​ her​​ his copy four days earlier.​​ “And apparently you’ve experienced quite the vin-dit.”

“Yes,” she said​​ laughing back. “For a fake religion built on lies,​​ it sure speaks a hell of a lot of truth. Because of it—or because I read​​ about​​ it, I realized I might’ve been a​​ wrang-wrang​​ in the wrong direction by convincing you to​​ stay on​​ this tour.​​ Maybe you should do everything you can​​ to find Shiva​​ while you’re still on the same continent as​​ her—or hopefully you still are. It’s actually why I asked you what you were doing tonight. I wanted to talk to you about it.​​ Since Venice, I feel like our karass has been waning into its other wampeter, and now I believe that other wampeter is concerned with​​ finding you love. Not that Curt and I don’t love you, truly we do, but you know, a duprass only has room for one more, and you’re not going to find your ‘one’ with us two.”

“Man, you’ve really gone deep into Bokononism,”​​ Walter​​ said.​​ “And no Kourtney,​​ you were​​ definitely​​ a wrang-wrang​​ in the right direction.​​ I needed these last few days with you and Curt​​ on tour​​ more than you know.​​ Also,​​ strangely in Venice, I got a pretty clear sign from Fate I should go back to Amsterdam too.”​​ 

“What was​​ it?”

“Um...” he said​​ drumming his fingers on the wooden train seat.​​ “Just​​ felt a strong sensation​​ in the​​ sinookas​​ also—or​​ I had​​ a​​ psychotic episode.​​ Either way, I’m pretty sure it meant go back to Amsterdam—I think—I hope.”

“Well,” Kourtney said,​​ “as Bokonon says,​​ 'peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God’.​​ Maybe you should let​​ God​​ lead​​ the dance.”

“But​​ who​​ is God?”​​ Walter asked.

“God is Love.​​ That’s all God has to be.”

“But what is Love?”

“Love is you. And that’s all Love has to be.”

He​​ thought about it. As simple as it was,​​ other than​​ music,​​ it​​ was​​ an argument for God he couldn’t refute.​​ Maybe God did have a place in life.

“Or maybe God is Kurt Vonnegut,” Kourtney said. “Or just the god​​ assigned to you.”

“It would sure explain a hell of a lot,” Walter said. “Is this elevation making you feel as stoned as me?”​​ 

“Would sure explain a hell of a lot.”

They both fell into heavy chuckles,​​ then fell quiet,​​ watching the village​​ slowly​​ grow larger​​ outside the window.

“So​​ you’re​​ for sure​​ going back​​ then?”​​ Kourtney​​ then​​ asked.

“Well, at this point​​ you’ve​​ convinced​​ me Kurt Vonnegut will have it no other way,” Walter​​ said.

“Yes,” she wiped a​​ wayward tear from her face, “but​​ that doesn’t make it any easier​​ letting you leave.​​ What do you say to​​ another​​ romantic friendship date​​ after dinner​​ tonight?​​ There’s a​​ little lookout point​​ in the valley​​ that​​ would be great for a smoke sesh​​ and​​ some​​ stargazing.”

He smiled. “Somehow you always know the way to my heart Kourtney.”​​ 

 

After dinner,​​ while everyone​​ else dressed​​ (and​​ yes​​ in some cases undressed)​​ for the P-Party, Kourtney and Walter​​ found​​ a bottle of wine and​​ some​​ flashlights and headed​​ to an overgrown gravel trail not far from the​​ chalet running​​ alongside​​ one​​ of​​ the valley’s​​ cliffsides.​​ The sky was​​ clear and​​ moonless,​​ encrusted over​​ with​​ stars, and in​​ the air,​​ rumblings​​ and mutterings​​ from​​ the​​ nearby​​ Lütschine​​ River​​ and the​​ many​​ waterfalls​​ beating the valley walls.​​ 

The trail​​ began​​ ascending,​​ leading to a​​ rock​​ opening​​ in the cliffside. Inside was​​ a narrow and steep stairwell, and after a long and sharply zigzagging climb, they emerged onto​​ a platform stamped into the rockface​​ behind a gently​​ flowing waterfall. The​​ village​​ now​​ looked​​ like​​ a​​ tiny​​ globule​​ of​​ stars​​ dripped down​​ into the valley​​ from the Milky Way river crossing​​ overhead. Hanging over the​​ globule​​ was​​ what looked to be a low-flying comet, but in actuality​​ was​​ the​​ spot-lit​​ sprays​​ of​​ a​​ waterfall​​ near the center of town.​​ 

“Oh my God,” Walter said​​ leaning over a guardrail​​ and feeling the underside of the waterfall.

“Right?” Kourtney said. “Lauterbrunnen​​ was the stop I was looking forward to most.​​ Did you know​​ Tolkien’s inspiration for Rivendell was this valley?”

 “The​​ place in​​ Lord of the Rings​​ with​​ all​​ the elves?”​​ he asked.

She laughed.​​ “Yes, that place.”

“I can see it.​​ It’s certainly​​ otherworldly, the​​ most beautiful place​​ I think​​ I’ve​​ ever​​ been.​​ And those stars…”​​ He​​ fanned​​ his hand over them.​​ “I’ve never seen so many.”

“You’re always looking at those stars aren’t you?”​​ she said snuggling closer to him on the guardrail.

“It’s the closest thing I​​ have​​ to prayer,” he said snuggling back. “It gives me perspective on things.”

“So it’s where you​​ talk to​​ God​​ you could say?”

“You mean Kurt Vonnegut?”

They again burst into laughter, their chuckles​​ stretching and contracting​​ against the rock walls and​​ the lapping​​ of the waterfall.

“Curt and I​​ are staying in Paris for a week after the tour ends,” Kourtney said​​ once​​ the laughter died. “Promise you’ll come find us if you don’t find​​ a reason to stay in​​ Amsterdam?​​ You said your plane home takes off from there anyhow.​​ Or maybe​​ we can​​ have the best of both worlds and you and Shiva come find us​​ after you find her​​ in​​ Amsterdam?”​​ 

“Wouldn’t that be the happy ending?” Walter said.​​ “Although it​​ could​​ be​​ just as possible I go all the way to Amsterdam only to discover she won’t leave Mags.”

“Something in the sinookas makes me doubt that.​​ But maybe​​ we should​​ boko-maru​​ so we have​​ Vonnegut on our side​​ for a happy ending.​​ You know​​ how much​​ God loves flattery.”

“Yes, but you also know He ‘never wrote a good play in his life.’”

Again they were overcome with giggles, giggles which only grew​​ louder​​ from the strange sound of their giggles echoing back at them in their rocky​​ outcropping.

“Do we even need to get stoned​​ with this elevation?” Walter asked​​ still trying to control his laughter.

“No,” Kourtney said,​​ “this is perfect enough.​​ This is as close to heaven as I think you​​ can​​ get. I love​​ you​​ Walter.”

“I love you Kourtney.”

They shared​​ a​​ long hug and sob,​​ then laid down​​ on​​ a​​ blanket they brought,​​ and​​ took off their shoes and socks. They then​​ kissed their naked soles​​ together​​ for their boko-maru, laughing​​ so loudly​​ it turned into snorting that​​ sounded​​ like a​​ foghorn​​ farting​​ as​​ it shot off​​ into the dark​​ down​​ the valley.

 

The Silver Year: Chapter 12

Chapter 12

Sisyphus Smiles

 

 

Walter’s​​ seat jerked forward as the airplane clawed​​ the Heathrow tarmac.​​ He grabbed at the empty air in panic as his mind was still unsheathing itself from​​ sleep.​​ He looked out his window torpidly and it dawned on him he​​ had​​ made it;​​ he​​ had​​ landed in​​ London. So far it​​ looked just as he imagined—cloudy and dreary,​​ so dreary in fact he fell back asleep.

“Sir . . . Sir,”​​ his​​ British​​ flight​​ attendant​​ nudged​​ him​​ awake​​ again​​ later.

“Yeah-yeah, what?”​​ Walter​​ said, arising​​ to a​​ now​​ empty plane.​​ 

“As much as I’ve enjoyed having you here, I’m sure you have other places you need to be.”​​ 

“Not right away.​​ This plane’s kind of nice now that it’s quiet and empty . . . But I can’t stay on,​​ can I?”

The​​ flight attendant​​ shook his​​ head amused.​​ “No, unfortunately not. Did you need help with anything?”

“No,​​ I think I’ll be​​ okay,”​​ Walter​​ said standing woozily.​​ He’d overdone​​ the wine trying to make himself fall asleep during the flight. It worked, just​​ not until an hour and a half before the flight landed.​​ “Just a little tired,​​ kind of hungover—just a little of everything right now, that’s all.”

“It was a stressful flight for everyone,” the flight attendant said,​​ “but​​ you​​ especially.​​ That’s why I let you sleep​​ as long as I could.”

In​​ an​​ ominous beginning to​​ Walter’s​​ trip, the elderly British lady in the aisle seat of his row​​ had a​​ heart attack​​ an hour into​​ the flight,​​ forcing an emergency​​ landing​​ in Las Vegas​​ and leaving him​​ with the entire row.​​ The middle seat was never filled​​ by standby.

“I saved you some​​ fruit and muffins​​ since you slept through breakfast,” the attendant​​ said handing him a paper bag.

“Thank you... what was your name again? Sorry, it always takes me two or three times to remember​​ a name​​ and my brain is​​ always​​ at its worst in the morning.”

“Ambrose.”

“Ambrose?​​ Like Saint Ambrose.​​ How’d I forget?​​ Anyway, Ambrose, you’ve been very kind​​ this whole flight. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome sir. Just doing my job.”

Walter​​ picked up his backpack and​​ began​​ moving​​ up the aisle.​​ “Oh,” he said turning back. “Do you know what happened to...”

“Abigail?​​ The hospital​​ said she’s​​ still​​ recovering, but doing fine. The heart attack was just a small one.”

“Oh thank God. You don’t know how happy I am to hear that . . . Well, take care Ambrose.”

“You too Mister Huxley. Also, welcome to London.”

 

After​​ going through​​ customs​​ and​​ getting​​ a​​ coffee,​​ Walter​​ sat on a bench in baggage reclaim to​​ sip​​ it while waiting for his​​ checked suitcase.​​ As he​​ did so,​​ people​​ passed​​ him​​ as if he wasn’t even there. As a test, he took off his hat,​​ leaving​​ his freshly-shaven​​ face​​ unobscured, but still, not even a stare.​​ He​​ was​​ no one again.​​ The​​ bells of his bellbottoms began​​ swinging​​ excitedly​​ beneath​​ the​​ bench.

Once​​ with​​ his suitcase, he​​ walked​​ slowly​​ through the airport, taking in his surroundings​​ without interruption from fan,​​ paparazzo, gawker, or heckler​​ until​​ reaching​​ the​​ London Underground—aka “the Tube”.​​ As he​​ boarded​​ the train,​​ funny English accents chattered​​ like companies of parrots;​​ the trashcans​​ read​​ “rubbish”;​​ someone said his phone battery was “flat”.​​ The most minor of quirks were the first to catch​​ his​​ attention, but were the most​​ affirming of his new​​ existence: he was alone,​​ five​​ and a half​​ thousand miles away​​ from​​ home;​​ a foreigner​​ in a​​ foreign​​ place;​​ an​​ American with an accent.​​ It wasn’t a​​ third world country—the natives even spoke English,​​ but that didn’t​​ mean he wasn’t allowed to be a little culture shocked.​​ He’d also been so caught up in the trip being Amber’s gift that he’d forgotten indeed it was a trip, a trip​​ to a place he’d never been in a world he​​ thought he knew so well.

As the train accelerated, the gray and sooted outer​​ west​​ reaches of the city jetted​​ over​​ the windows, many​​ of the​​ cracked and cobbled buildings looking​​ as old or older than his native country.​​ So used to the full​​ color​​ of the California sun,​​ the muteness​​ made​​ him​​ feel off kilter, as if he​​ were inside​​ a black and white television set.

Nearing the city’s center, the​​ train dug underground​​ and began​​ stopping more frequently,​​ billowing​​ with​​ occupants—drunk​​ occupants, so much so there was a​​ miasma​​ of​​ stale​​ beer in the car.​​ A​​ group of men​​ then​​ boarded with paper masks​​ on​​ of​​ the​​ most​​ well-known members of the monarchy​​ and squeezed in next to Walter.​​ He​​ asked the paper-faced​​ Duchess Catherine​​ the cause.

“Whaaaat?!” the man behind the mask​​ cried.

“What’s going on?”

“What do ya mean what’s going on?​​ The fuckin’ queen​​ mate!​​ The fuckin’ queen.”

That’s right,​​ Queen Elizabeth’s​​ Diamond​​ Jubilee​​ Pageant.​​ Before her heart attack, the elderly lady on his flight had made mention of it.​​ The Queen​​ was​​ going​​ to be carted down the River Thames​​ today​​ for all of London to see in celebration of​​ her​​ being queen for sixty years. But also,​​ it was​​ an ornate excuse to be drunk in public.​​ 

At​​ the​​ stops​​ nearest​​ to​​ Buckingham Palace,​​ the miasma dissipated, and by​​ Walter’s​​ stop,​​ Russell Square,​​ the car was almost empty.​​ A​​ wide elevator—or “lift”—then​​ carried him​​ and his luggage​​ up from the deeply buried​​ station​​ and​​ spit​​ him​​ onto the sidewalk.​​ There, he​​ drew​​ in​​ his​​ first breath of moist, outside​​ London air. The​​ roads​​ around him​​ were narrower than the​​ ones​​ back home,​​ and all the buildings looked to be​​ laid in brick or​​ carved out of stone, earthly shades of red, brown and tan, stained with rain and glossed with moss.​​ Bright green treetops lined​​ the​​ street perpendicular to him,​​ and red and blue Union Jacks hung over the sidewalk in front of him​​ and​​ everywhere​​ he looked.

He continued following​​ the directions provided in his Contiki travel wallet—almost getting run over because he forgot the​​ new orientation of car traffic—until​​ arriving​​ at the Royal National Hotel. The instructions​​ then​​ guided him to an underground side entrance of the hotel labeled “Contiki​​ Basement”.​​ Inside the basement, which looked like an empty nightclub,​​ it was a dead silence​​ compared to the streets above.

“Ello,” a cutely chubby Aussie girl behind a stainless steel counter​​ in front of him​​ said. “Checking in?”

“I guess so,”​​ Walter said.

“Your last name?”

“Huxley, Walter Huxley.”​​ Her eyebrows furrowed as her search came up empty.

“Could it be under a different name?”​​ she asked.

“Yeah,​​ my hitchhiking ghost​​ probably,​​ Amber Evans.”

“Your what?”

“I mean my girlfriend—ex girlfriend. Uh, forget about it.​​ Sorry,​​ I sometimes make these inside jokes with myself and forget there’s other people around.”​​ She looked at him puzzled, but politely humored​​ him.

“Long trip?”​​ she said.

“Yeah…”​​ 

“Where you coming from?”

“California.”

“Oh, lucky you. I’ve always wanted to go there . . . Ah, found it. Sorry about that.​​ Amber Evans and Walter Huxley. I’ve got​​ a single room with a​​ double bed for​​ one​​ night, then have you leaving on our European Horizon tour​​ tomorrow.​​ Is​​ Miss Evans​​ arriving later?”

“Um...​​ no. She​​ actually​​ won’t be arriving at all.”

“Ah,​​ you booked the trip before the breakup.​​ We see that a lot.”

“Actually,​​ there was just​​ this​​ kind​​ of thing, this​​ uh…​​ event. Truthfully,​​ she kinda...​​ she kinda​​ died.”

“She​​ kinda​​ died?

Walter cursed himself for not leaving it at breakup.​​ “Not kinda,” he said, “she just died.”

“Oh my goodness.​​ Like on the way here?”

“Oh, no-no. It was​​ over a year​​ ago.”

“I’m so sorry. You poor thing. And now you’re going on the trip in​​ her​​ memory? That’s so sweet.​​ You must’ve loved her a lot.”

“Yeah” he laughed uncomfortably. “Actually, she became​​ my ex-girlfriend before she diedI mean like,​​ right​​ before she died.​​ She’s not my ex​​ because​​ she died. So she’s​​ kind of​​ like my ex-ex-girlfriend​​ . . .​​ Maybe I should call her​​ Dos Equis.

The counter girl​​ shook her head slowly and was​​ bug-eyed as if he were holding up the place. He​​ couldn’t tell if she was just extremely confused or​​ thought​​ her life was in danger because​​ the only reason he had an ex-ex-girlfriend was he had killed an​​ ex-girlfriend—which he​​ kinda​​ had.

“You know​​ Dos Equis,” Walter said,​​ like the beer—Spanish for two Xs?​​ That’s right,​​ maybe you​​ don’t have Dos Equis​​ over here.​​ But​​ yeah, youre​​ kind​​ of​​ right. We—I mean shebooked this trip before we broke up,​​ then we broke up,​​ then​​ she died, and then​​ I still came​​ . . . I’m sorry,​​ can you just ignore me right now? I’ve​​ gotten maybe an hour or so of sleep in the last​​ twenty-four​​ hours​​ and I’m​​ starting to​​ go a little haywire.”

The girl looked afraid to speak.​​ “Um… yeah,” she said.​​ “So here’s everything you need for the room. Lemme go get your sleeping bags—I mean sleeping bag,​​ just one sleeping bag.”

“Sleeping bag?”​​ he asked.

“Yeah. You won’t need it here, but​​ for​​ some of the hostels you’re​​ staying​​ at​​ during​​ your trip. I’ll be right back,” she said leaving then returning with the sleeping bag. “So that’s everything.​​ If you have any questions, or need some suggestions of what to do here in London just lemme know—I mean let us know, as in the Contiki staff. I obviously won’t be here all the time, but somebody will be . .​​ . Oh,​​ I almost forgot,” she said handing him a printout.​​ “Take this paper​​ to the hotel front desk to get your​​ keycards—I mean keycard because it’s just you​​ now, but you can get more than one still​​ too​​ . . .​​ I’m sorry,” she sighed sharply.​​ “I’m​​ still​​ new here​​ and​​ honestly the whole​​ dead girlfriend—or dead ex-ex-girlfriend​​ thing​​ is throwing​​ me​​ off​​ a little.”

“Hey,​​ it’s okay,​​ Amy,”​​ Walter​​ said reading her nametag. “You’ve been very helpful​​ . . .​​ Well,​​ if I’ve got​​ everything I need, I​​ guess I’ll​​ go​​ now.​​ 

“Yes, you’re all set​​ . . .​​ Hey,​​ I get it now.”​​ 

“You get what?”​​ 

“Your inside​​ joke​​ with yourself. It’s because your​​ ex-girlfriend—I mean, your ex-ex-girlfriend​​ is​​ d…” She stopped. “I’m​​ sorry.​​ I shouldn’t find that​​ kind of thing​​ funny.”

He​​ smiled.​​ “I wouldn’t have said​​ it​​ if I didn’t think it was funny myself.”

 

At his room door, Walter struggled to open it with the keycard​​ he’d been​​ given. Two jockish males dressed like they’d just come from a pool party​​ approached the door to his right.

“Contiki?” one of them asked in an Australian accent.

“Yep, Contiki,” Walter replied.

“CONTIKI!” they both yelled.​​ 

Down the hallway, two more jocks appeared, looking almost identical to the first two.​​ “Contiki?” one of them asked, also in an Aussie accent.

“CONTIKI!” the original two yelled again.

“Contiki,” Walter said after and apathetically.

“CONTIKI!” the other two yelled back.

“CONTIKI! CONTIKI! CONTIKI!” all the Aussie jocks began to chant.​​ 

Just what I expected,​​ Walter thought,​​ frat boys.

His​​ door finally opened after​​ jamming​​ his keycard into the receptacle innumerable times and ways.

“Where ya going mate?” the original Aussie asked.

“My room…” Walter said in a bothered tone.

“Put your stuff away and let’s go drink at the pub downstairs.”

“It’s still a little early for me to start drinking. I’m honestly pretty tired guys and just want to relax for a bit.”

“Ah, don’t be a puss bloke. C’mon, let’s go drink.”

“How about I join you down there later?”

“All right, but you better come. You heading out on Escapade tomorrow?”

“No, I think my trip is called European Horizon.”

“Ah, that’s a bummer; you won’t be with us.”

Thank God, Walter thought.​​ “See you​​ later guys,”​​ he​​ said, and closed his door.​​ CONTIKI, CONTIKI, CONTIKI...​​ they began chanting from the other side as they marched down the hallway.

He​​ set​​ down​​ his bags and stood by the​​ room’s​​ window​​ which had a​​ partial view of the London skyline. Below him, bubble-shaped taxis went down the wrong side of the road and London’s iconic red telephone booths littered the streets. He felt like he was dreaming and the abatement of sleep only heightened it, like the glass in front of him was not a window, but a television screen. Everything on the other side​​ looked​​ like a movie set.​​ Something about it didn’t feel real.

A wave of fatigue​​ then​​ came​​ on​​ again and the bed​​ began​​ tempting him.​​ Must not sleep,​​ he thought.​​ I have too little time here.​​ He then remembered seeing a coffee pot in the​​ hotel​​ lobby​​ and​​ headed there.

The​​ coffee pot, which​​ was​​ left over from that morning’s continental breakfast,​​ had​​ just​​ enough​​ left​​ for​​ a​​ good-sized cup.

“Damn, is that the last of it?”​​ he heard​​ a female Australian accent​​ ask from behind him​​ just as he​​ was about​​ to pour.​​ 

“I think so,” Walter said. “Looks like they​​ already put everything else away. But we can split it.”

He​​ turned around and was met by a girl about his age, but​​ the​​ majority​​ of​​ the hotel’s guests were​​ about his age.​​ A tomboy, she had dark, shaggy, moptop hair, and wore a baggy, black​​ shirt under a plaid flannel. Her face was warm and makeup-free with large​​ pea green​​ eyes and a charming Koala-like nose.

Females are friends​​ only.​​ Females are friends​​ only...​​ Walter​​ chanted​​ to himself.​​ He sort of had a thing for tomboys​​ and​​ was finding​​ her very attractive.​​ However, since​​ this​​ was supposed to have been​​ him and Amber’s trip,​​ he felt a strange obligation to​​ be faithful to​​ Amber​​ during it. But​​ also, he was determined to​​ learn how to​​ keep his blood flow balanced around attractive women, what he was realizing was the root of many of his problems.​​ 

The girl’s​​ mouth suspended open​​ upon seeing him,​​ and suddenly​​ she​​ became nervous. “N-no, that’s okay,” she said. “Take it.​​ There’s not really​​ enough for two cups anyway.”

“No, really,” he said, “We can make two cups out of this.”

A guy with​​ shaggy hair and baggy clothes like​​ hers​​ then came out of​​ the​​ nearby​​ lobby​​ elevator.​​ “Did we miss​​ breakfast?” he asked​​ the girl.​​ His stoney eyes drooped lackadaisically, and he had a permanent and slightly​​ crooked smirk.​​ They looked like​​ they could be​​ relatives, but his accent was distinctly American, twanging​​ somewhere between a meow and Tom Petty.

Woah,” he​​ said noticing Walter. “I see you made a new friend​​ Kourt.​​ Aren’t you going to introduce me?”

Walter tensed.​​ The first American he’d encountered on the trip and already he was recognized.

“Actually,” she said. “I haven’t even introduced myself​​ yet.”

“Why not? You’re​​ his biggest​​ fan.”

The girl reddened.​​ “I just... I just​​ figured this wasn’t the​​ best​​ time for that,” she said looking at Walter. “But anyway,​​ I’m Kourtney,​​ and​​ this is my brother Curt.”

“Just like...”​​ Walter​​ started to say.

“No, different spellings,”​​ Kourtney said.

“I see.​​ Well,​​ nice to meet you.​​ And​​ I’m just Walter now, in case you had me confused with Quinn Quark.”​​ They laughed.

“Yes,” she said,​​ “and that’s why I wasn’t going to say anything.​​ I figured you didn’t want to be reminded of Quinn Quark​​ right now​​ . . .​​ However,​​ since I have the opportunity, there is something I’d like to ask you related to music.”

“What’s that?”​​ Walter asked.

“What tuning is ‘The MagPi Song’ in?”

“You know about ‘The MagPi Song’? I only uploaded a demo to SoundCloud.”

“Like Curt said,” she smiled bashfully at him,​​ “I’m​​ probably your biggest​​ fan.​​ It’s the only song I haven’t been able to learn​​ on guitar​​ and it’s driving me crazy.”

Friend only, friend only...​​ Walter​​ repeated to himself.

“Um, it’s​​ DGCGCD,” he said, “I borrowed it from ‘The Rain Song’.”

“Ah, that​​ makes perfect sense,” Kourtney said.​​ “How did I not think of that myself?​​ Thank you. So,​​ are you here with Contiki?”

“Yeah.​​ I’m leaving on the​​ European Horizon tour​​ tomorrow.”

“Us​​ too.”

“Wow, and​​ here​​ I​​ was under the impression​​ Contiki​​ was​​ only for partying college kids.”

Kourtney laughed. “What makes you think we aren’t?” she said. “That’s their reputation, which is somewhat earned, but also somewhat exaggerated.​​ It’s really just a great way to travel cheap. This is my second one and I still have friends from my first I talk to all the time.”

“Hey,” Curt said,​​ “Don’t mean to intrude, but either of you going to drink that coffee?”

“You can take it,” Walter said. “I was going to see​​ if​​ they can make a fresh cup at the hotel pub.

“Thanks,” Curt said and poured​​ out​​ all the pot’s contents into​​ a​​ cup.

“Guess I’ll be getting some coffee at the pub too,” Kourtney said to Walter. “But after​​ that,​​ if you don’t have plans,​​ Curt and I are​​ taking a bus​​ to Stonehenge in an hour​​ if you want to join?​​ Tickets​​ are​​ super​​ cheap​​ because of​​ the Pageant. Also...”​​ she brought her index finger to her lips,​​ “...we’re bringing a few joints to smoke there.”

 

On the bus ride​​ to Stonehenge,​​ Walter learned Curt and Kourtney were technically half brother and sister and had spent their​​ whole​​ lives​​ living​​ a part​​ on separate continents. Their​​ father​​ had​​ been a roadie for Dire Straits​​ on​​ their 1986​​ Brothers in Arms​​ tour​​ and​​ impregnated Kourtney’s mother​​ on​​ a stop​​ in Sydney​​ after he told her he was the​​ band’s​​ bassist.​​ But being a rather active groupie in the eighties,​​ by the time her mother realized she was pregnant, she​​ was unsure who the father​​ was, so​​ Kourtney spent most of​​ her life without one. However, after taking an at-home DNA test the year before, she was matched to Curt, and with the help of their parents​​ and the internet, the pieces of the story were connected. Contiki, though, was the siblings first opportunity to acquaint themselves in-person.  ​​​​ 

Once​​ arrived,​​ Stonehenge was nowhere near as exotically isolated as it looked​​ in pictures. Instead,​​ it was surrounded by ropes, a walkway, parking lots, and of course a gift shop, but the​​ trio​​ was able to find​​ some​​ solitude atop one of the many surrounding burial mounds that sprouted up from the countryside like lumpy land warts.

“How’d you get weed on the plane?” Walter asked Kourtney after she pulled out a joint.

“In tampons,” she said.​​ “I could’ve waited until Amsterdam, but I wasn’t going​​ to​​ go to​​ Stonehenge​​ and not get stoned.”

After sparking up,​​ they leaned​​ against the land wart​​ to smoke.​​ Passing the joint, they sucked in the​​ verdant​​ expanse of English​​ countryside​​ speckled with sheep​​ in front of them​​ and the​​ endless quilt of cloud​​ above them.

“This is some really great shit,” Walter said​​ taking​​ a toke.​​ “I’m so​​ glad I met you guys.​​ Fate’s​​ been dealing me​​ a lot of shit hands​​ lately, but​​ just in time it deals me Curt and Kourtney.​​ It​​ kind of​​ reminds​​ me​​ of​​ something from this book​​ I’ve been reading called a karass.​​ It’s​​ when​​ a group of people are​​ cosmically​​ connected​​ for a purpose, but they may never know fully what that purpose is or everyone involved.​​ I just feel​​ like​​ I’ve known​​ you​​ guys​​ much longer than I have.”

“I know that book,”​​ Curt​​ said,​​ “Cat’s Cradle​​ by Vonnegut.​​ It’s one of my favorites.​​ If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons, that person may be a member of your karass.’”

“Of course you would​​ know it,” Walter said​​ smiling. “You’re a​​ member of my karass! It was also a favorite of a close friend of mine’s​​ who’s​​ sort of ​​ the reason I’m​​ on this trip.​​ That’s why I brought the book along with me.”

“I guess that means I should read it too,” Kourtney said.

“Don’t worry,” Walter said. “I should be done soon and I can give you my copy.​​ Man, this is going to be a great trip. It already is.”

 

When they returned to the Royal National Hotel that evening for their​​ pre-trip meeting​​ in the Contiki Basement, however, Walter’s great​​ trip​​ was rained on.

“Hey, it’s Quinn Queer!” a short American serviceman—judging by his crewcut—shouted as​​ Walter​​ entered the basement. “Where’s your dress?”​​ He,​​ along with two other servicemen he was with, then​​ erupted in laughter, but in Walter’s mind it was everyone in the room.

He​​ tried to laugh it off, but inside he was drowning and the laugh came out sounding like a gag for air,​​ then​​ tears began filling his eyes​​ uncontrollably.​​ His European safe harbor was collapsing.​​ 

“Are you crying?” the serviceman said, and began laughing harder. “Oh my god, you really​​ should be in a dress.”

“Okay enough!” a female Contiki representative barked like a​​ British​​ drill sergeant​​ as she went to the front of the room. “I know the meeting isn’t supposed to begin for another couple minutes, but let’s make something very clear upfront; there​​ is​​ zero tolerance for disrespect.​​ And maybe you’re not offended by the name Quinn Queer,” she said​​ directly​​ to the serviceman,​​ “but​​ as a gay woman,​​ I am.​​ And if​​ I hear you say that name again or make​​ any other​​ derogatory remark, it​​ will be my absolute pleasure to send your ass packing.​​ Got it?”

“Yes ma’am,” the serviceman said soberly as his friends chuckled under their breaths.​​ 

“Thank you,” she said. “Well, with that out of the way, let me introduce myself. My name is Anna,​​ and​​ I am your tour manager,​​ but​​ not your babysitter. Before we start roll​​ call, there’s a few things you​​ should​​ know. Our bus,​​ along with another group’s bus,​​ will be leaving from the hotel courtyard at eight a.m.​​ sharp​​ tomorrow, but you need to be there no later​​ than seven-fifteen so we have time to weigh everyone’s luggage. Please keep this time in mind if you go out drinking tonight. Also, hopefully you already weighed your luggage at home as the European Union requires all bags to be under twenty kilos or forty-four pounds each. After weighing the luggage, both buses will then travel together to the channel ferry in Dover, then once we arrive in France, our bus will continue to Amsterdam…”​​ 

“Hey man,” Curt whispered to Walter, “once this shit’s done, Kourt and​​ me are going to Camden Town. You in?”

“I guess,”​​ he​​ said.

“Come on, cheer up. You’ll love it. There’s a reggae show tonight that’s rumored to be 420-friendly. You know another joint and some music will get you smiling again.”

Walter’s face was able to make a half-grin until…

“Amber Evans,” Anna said​​ calling roll. ​​ “Amber Evans . . . Is there an Amber Evans here?”

Unthinkingly,​​ he​​ stood from his chair and ran for the exit.​​ 

 

Outside on the street,​​ Walter​​ began pacing and breathing heavily like a disorientated drunk, bumping into people and tripping over his toes. His mind felt like a sock in a dryer, unable to orient its spinning surroundings.

Almost by accident, he​​ then​​ stumbled into one of London’s famous red phone booths and fell to the floor. There he huddled into his knees and​​ stayed​​ until Curt and Kourtney eventually found him.

“I’m sorry,” Walter said as they opened the door. “I think I might be—may be-be-be—having a mild to severe anxiety attack right now. I’m not sure. I just don’t know what to do. I want to run away, run away back home, but I can’t. Back home is even worse. I just want off this planet right now. Is it too much to ask to have one place in the world where nobody knows you, where I’m not Quinn​​ fucking​​ Quark? I hate this! I fucking hate this! I don’t want to be here anymore—”

“Stop it!” Kourtney​​ said​​ and​​ grabbed him forcefully by the shoulders. “What are you getting so worked up about? No one’s out to get you, calm down. You’re just famous, not at war. And that guy back there is a complete asshole and everyone knows it. You are a good, kind, extraordinary person, and anyone who can’t see that isn’t worth your worrying, okay?​​ They’re probably just jealous or insecure about themselves,​​ and it’s not your responsibility to make them feel better.​​ Now, we​​ already gave Anna your name for roll, so you don’t have to go back.​​ So what​​ do you say​​ we get​​ some music and weed in you, then see how you feel once you’re thinking straight?”

Walter smiled at her. She smiled back.

“I love you,” he couldn’t help himself from saying. There was a brief​​ pause,​​ then they all erupted in laughter.

“Come on,” she said helping​​ him​​ to his feet.​​ “I love you too Walter,” she said hugging him. “I already did as an artist, but now as​​ a​​ friend. And...” she gave him a knowing eye as if his hug had told her something he wasn’t willing to say “...just​​ as friends. I know I don’t need to, but something tells me I should​​ let you know I’m gay.”

Walter exhaled, partially relieved, partially​​ disheartened. He then smiled and said, “The good ones always are.”