Authors: Jinsey Reese,J. Meyers
I had been so worried that things might be awkward between us after last night. The downpour had turned into a drizzle, and we’d made our way back to the hostel and said good night. I’d fallen asleep with the feel of Asher replaying over and over again in my mind, no matter how much I tried to push it away.
And I’d felt shy about him this morning, but that had all gone away as soon as I’d seen him in the lobby, a smile lighting his face when he spotted me.
“So why didn’t your brother come with you?” I said now, as we stared out toward the Adriatic Sea, the wind whipping my hair across my face every few seconds. “You never said.”
Asher didn’t respond right away, so I turned to look at him. His jaw muscles were clenching and he looked like he was concentrating really hard. He was obviously upset, and I was suddenly sorry I’d asked.
“Look,” I said, “if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine…”
“No,” he said, his eyes watering slightly. “It’s just…my brother was killed in a car accident about a month ago, right before he would have graduated from college.”
“Oh, Asher,” I said. I wanted to tell him I was sorry, but somehow that always sounded wrong to me—or not
, really, but not
. Even though I
sorry and felt pain for
pain. But I didn’t want him to think I felt pity for him, because nobody wants to feel pitied.
So I reached over to where he gripped the railing and gently slid my hand over his. He opened his fingers and let me twine mine into his. We stood like that for a few moments, silent. I thought about my brother and how awful it would feel to lose him, knowing there was no way I could even fathom what Asher was going through.
My heart ached for him and I wasn’t sure what to do. Asking him questions would just bring up the pain, but at the same time it didn’t feel right to not say anything at all.
“Your brother…what was his name?”
“Josh.” Asher leaned forward onto his elbows, taking my hand with him. The movement pulled me close against his side as he held my hand between both of his. He started to trace patterns on my fingers and the back of my hand.
“Will you tell me about him?” I said.
He was quiet again, his jaw working. He focused on my hand between his while he wrestled back control, then he swallowed and nodded.
“It’s just…hard,” he said. “Still.”
“Of course it is. It just happened.” I squeezed his hands. “I’ll understand if you don’t want to talk about it.”
Asher stared at our intertwined fingers, then said, “He was my best friend.” His arms tightened slightly. “He was a year younger than me, and one of the best people I’ve ever known. He was funny and really quick—he always had a comeback. I loved that about him. And he was just fun to be around. We’d been planning to take this trip together for the past year, and when we got back, we were going to find an apartment somewhere in Florida and look for jobs.” He swallowed hard. “But now…”
Tears stung the backs of my eyes at the raw pain in his voice.
“Josh had always wanted to live in Florida, and I just wanted to live wherever he did. He was going to save the Earth one small section at a time.”
“He sounds like a really great guy.”
“He was.” Asher was quiet as he looked out over the water. “You know, the quests were Josh’s idea. He started that when we were in high school.” He paused, then said, “He made life fun.”
“Then you must be a lot like him,” I said. “Because you do that, too.”
“Nah,” Asher said, smiling sadly. “That’s not me. That’s the European Shine.”
I tried to figure out whether he was right. I was loving Europe and was excited just to be here, that was true…but no, what was making it
“No,” I said quietly, not quite believing that I was about to say this out loud, but he needed to hear it more than I needed to keep it to myself, “it’s you, Asher. You’ve made this fun—and I would feel the same anywhere we were.”
He smiled and something shifted in his eyes. It was a small change, and I wasn’t sure what it was, but I almost felt as if he was looking at me differently, like he was seeing something there he hadn’t noticed before.
“Though,” I said, tilting my head at him, “I do see some room for improvement, if I’m going to be honest.”
A ghost of a smile settled on his lips. “I’m listening.”
“We have yet to look for tacky souvenirs and we’ve been in Venice for almost a whole day.”
He sighed heavily and rolled his eyes, the smile growing. “That Quest is over, Skye. We aren’t going to top the boxers. We haven’t seen anything that even comes close. Trust me on this. I’ve been questing a LOT longer than you have. I have a sense for these things.”
“You have a Quest Sense?”
He nodded, looking totally serious. “And it’s taken years of experience to develop it.”
“I just don’t think it’s right to call a quest over after only one city, that’s all I’m saying. What if we’re wrong? I think we owe it to the Spirit of the Quest to at least keep looking.”
He looked at me sideways. “The Spirit of the Quest?” he said, and I nodded. “Okay. We’ll look, but I want the record to reflect my assertion that the challenge has already been completed.”
“As you wish, Counselor.”
“See, the problem here,” I said as we wove through the souvenir vendors on the street with nothing even REMOTELY as tacky as those boxers in sight, “is that—”
“I was right?” Asher said.
I hit him on the arm and continued. “Is that I think Italy is totally missing out on an entire Tacky Souvenir Empire.”
“Like those hats up there.” And I pointed to these large, bright-colored patchwork Cat-in-the-Hat types and long pointed witch hats above a row of tame-but-lame touristy t-shirts. “They are ridiculous, yes. And anyone would look like an idiot wearing one—oh! Except for you, sir. You look GREAT,” I said to the guy who’d just bought one and was giving me the stink eye from underneath it. Asher threw back his head and laughed so hard some pigeons flew away.
I ducked around the other side of the stand, laughing until tears ran down my face and I couldn’t breathe. I sat down hard on the ground and leaned back on my pack, staring up at the clouds passing by until I could speak again. God that felt good. I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time.
“But the problem I see,” I said, picking up where I’d left off, “is that Italy is severely underestimating tourists. I bet the ding-a-ling boxers are a big seller. I mean, even
bought a pair. But why stop at boxers? Why not have
’s bits and pieces hanging from a key chain?”
Asher had this look of wonder on his face as he laughed.
“What?” I said.
“Josh would have liked you.” He said it like it was a huge compliment. And I took it as such.
Then the butterflies began again in earnest.
That night we wandered the streets, ending up in St. Mark’s square where chairs had been brought out and placed around stages set up along the perimeter. People either sat or stood, listening to musicians filling the air with song. The square was lit all around, the light glowing softly on faces while a sliver of moon hung in the sky.
It was beautiful out, and unbelievably romantic with the stars and music intermingling in the night. Asher looked at me, his gaze going to my lips, and I forced myself to turn away.
Sometimes timing was everything, and at the moment, my timing completely sucked.
fter three days amidst the crowds and the unbelievable art and history of Venice (seriously, it’s like whoa), all I wanted was to find a little town to hole up in for a couple of days of quiet. To get away and immerse myself in the local culture.
I needed it. My senses were overwhelmed—totally in a good way, but still overwhelmed—and I wanted to catch a glimpse of life away from the tourist traps. It’s not like I hadn’t loved everywhere I’d been—I totally had—but in some ways it didn’t seem real. I wanted more—more intimate, more authentic, more Italian. So we picked a little town neither of us had ever heard of and hopped on a bus.
Barolo lay atop a hill, nestled between a few trees and fields upon green fields of grape vines. A visage of mostly white and tan buildings with burnt sienna roofs, it took my breath away as our bus followed the dirt road into town. Cypress trees lined the edges, standing tall and skinny, as if at attention. Lush green rolling hills surrounded it, with houses scattered amidst the patchwork fields.
Picture perfect. I was starting to think Italy was one giant magical kingdom.
The only hotel in town was completely booked with a wine-making group, so we were told to go to the visitor’s office to find a place to stay. The man behind the desk smiled delightedly at us and introduced himself as Alessandro. He told us he had a room and quoted a price so low that I was sure I’d misunderstood him. I was also slightly freaked that he’d said
in the singular, not plural.
“One room?” I said.
” Alessandro said, nodding enthusiastically. He pointed at Asher and me. “I have just the room for you
He waved for us to follow and slipped out the door. Asher and I looked at each other for an unsure moment, but there wasn’t any time to discuss it—we practically had to run to catch up. We followed Alessandro down the cobblestone streets. The stone walls of the buildings were water-smooth and cool under my hands—I couldn’t help but touch them as I watched Asher reaching out as well. Alessandro stopped at a building on the edge of town and went inside.
It was cool and dark. Quiet. Perfect. And my hopes rose. Up a steep staircase, Alessandro pushed open a door and I was stunned into silence. The room was absolutely gorgeous. Like a honeymoon suite—which made me so self-conscious about the thought of sharing this room with Asher that I couldn’t even look at him.
The large bed lay in an ornate wrought iron frame, its blanket a soft cream over crisp yellow sheets. A large window opened up to a view of the countryside beyond the town—fields of grape vines spreading out for miles. The slight breeze lifted the long gauzy curtains into gentle flight.
“Is a good room, yes? Okay?” Alessandro said, and I nodded mutely as my eyes met Asher’s.
Did I want to share a room with Asher? My mind said
Not a good idea
, my body said
. I honestly didn’t know what to do and was trying to figure out whether I should try to find somewhere else to stay. Though in this little town, we were likely stuck.
And what a way to be stuck.
Plus I was a grown up. I could share a room with him. It didn’t have to mean anything was going to happen.
Unless I wanted it to.
Oh my god, I wanted it to.
I realized Asher was waiting for me to say something, so I shrugged and said, “Do you mind sharing?”
“Not if you don’t.”
But he wouldn’t look at me for very long. He was looking unsure again. Or was he nervous? I couldn’t tell. Maybe he was regretting this. We followed Alessandro back to his office to pay for our room. I had no idea how we were going to do this.
“So, food?” Asher said, and tilted his head toward the street. He didn’t seem ready for the awkwardness of our room yet either.
“Sure,” I said, and we went in search of dinner.
Let me just say that the food in Barolo was amazing. We found a restaurant with tables and chairs set up outside on the edge of this little piazza, with baskets of bread to dip in olive oil, alongside fresh mozzarella and pasta. Talking about nothing and everything, we both relaxed. It was such a relief.
“Josh had really wanted to go to Sicily,” Asher said as we talked about the other places in Italy we’d like to see.
“Why Sicily?” I said.
“You know that guy in the
? Vizzini? The little guy who masterminded the plot to kidnap Princess Buttercup? That was one of Josh’s favorite movies as a kid, and he’d loved Vizzini, who was a Sicilian and has this line about how no one can outsmart a Sicilian. When we were planning this, Josh said we had to go to Sicily. He was adamant about it.”