Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part XIV
“We’ll go out the back!” Laurents yelled over his shoulder as he darted down the hallway and up a flight of stairs.
I was unconsciously rubbing the feeling back into my wrists after being tied up, but my short relief at freedom was violently replaced with a fleeting cacophony of panic.
The building’s on fire?
What was I supposed to do?
Go out what back?
I stood up from the chair that was previously my prison and looked around the room in confusion and helplessness. In the midst of my bewilderment, Pia had vanished. I was alone in the room.
Did they leave me?
The heat in the room crept higher and higher. We were underneath it, in the basement. That must have been why we didn’t notice the danger sooner. No smoke, no flames. Fire travels upward, not down. And the temperature change was subtle, devious.
Wait, if fire travels upwards, weren’t we safe here in the base–
“What are you doing?! We gotta go!” Pia appeared, clutching a thick book bulging with notes in one hand and a small duffel bag in the other.
“Aren’t we safer here, though? beneath the fire?”
“We…” she paused, but then tossed me the duffel. I caught it out of reflex, then she grabbed my arm and pulled, “We don’t have time. The fire’s not the real problem. It’s them. They found us. Besides, we’ll suffocate down here.”
She pulled me down the hallway and up the stairs, towards the fire. The small door at the top was closed and I could hear a dull, muffled rumble on the other side. She stopped at the top and studied the door. The air up here was stifling and it was getting hard to breathe. Panicking at her momentary pause, I reached for the doorknob but she grabbed my hand at the last moment. She coughed “Wait,” and then, “give me your shirt.”
I was confused, but she had a confidence in her voice. The song was still there, but had become a focused marching beat rather than a quiet melody.
Coughing, she took the duffel out of my hands while I undressed and handed her my grubby, sweaty top. Dropping the bag, she wrapped the fabric several times around her hand before reaching for the metal doorknob. It hissed as the moisture on the shirt steamed away.
As she pushed open the door, the muffled rumble became a deafening roar. The heat was so intense that it felt like a physical barrier as we stepped though the doorway and into an inferno. I grabbed the bag and followed her as she sprinted left, hugging the side of the room.
“Where’s Laurents?!” I shouted, but my voice was drowned out by swirling blaze. I was about to try again, but my lungs filled with acrid smoke when I tried. She charged forward. All I could do was hold my breath and follow. Soon, the wall next to us transformed from solid structure to dancing flame–slowly at first, then all at once faster than I could believe.
I followed Pia around one corner, then the next. The entire time, she held the notebook tight and hunched herself over it, protecting the pages from the flames. Why hadn’t she put it in the duffel? The bag was far from empty, though. It seemed to be filled with books of it’s own as square corners poked at the fabric and scraped against my arms and legs while we ran.
We came to a split–a hallway that led left to right with us in the middle. So much soot and smoke had started filling the building that couldn’t see the far end of the hall to the left. To the right, I thought I could make out a door. Pia immediately went right with me in tow. As we got to the door, she tried opening it with her makeshift glove, but the knob came right off the door when she grabbed it. She tried pushing the door open, but it wouldn’t budge. I peered through the hole that the broken doorknob had left and saw light outside. This was the exit!
I also saw that the door latch was stuck in place with no mechanism to pull it out and release us.
Pia started banging against the door with one hand while still clutching the notebook tight against her, determined to not let it become fuel for the fire.
But the door wouldn’t budge.
With my fingers, I tried reaching into the opening and clawed at the little piece of metal holding the door shut but couldn’t get a grip on anything.
The smoke thickened and it became harder and harder to breathe as we fought against the door. Such a simple piece of engineering, a door is. And it was all that stood between us and life. But it just stood there, like a silent sentry. Determined to make us face our fate.
Pia’s banging faded. Her arms slid down the door as she curled up, surrounding the notebook, protecting it from the inevitable with her body. The last thing I saw of her face was her tears–just a solemn few–but the heat stole them from her cheeks as soon as they formed.
I kept clawing at the door latch, my fingers poking out through the little aperture, tasting the sweet freedom of clear, cool air with my fingertips.
And then we died.
Ha. gotcha, reader. You should’ve seen the look on your face.
We didn’t die, but I’ve never been more sure of death, friend. Not in the Candlewind during a storm, not in Seattle being confronted by thieves in an alleyway, not even in the trunk of a car in a Chinese border town tied up with a hood over my head.
No, this was the first time I had ever been sure of death, and it was a strange feeling. I looked at Pia, protecting whatever was on those pages. It was a small comfort knowing I wasn’t dying alone, even if it was someone I hardly knew. She leaned herself up against the door, a futile last attempt to get as far away from the hungry flames as she could.
Then, barely detectable over the roar of the fire, I heard a shout.
“–away from the door!–“
Right before it exploded inward, knocking Pia over. I pulled my fingers back in just in time. Otherwise, they might have come clean off.
In rushed Laurents. He grabbed Pia, hauled her to her feet, stealing a confused glance at the book as he helped her out through the now open doorway.
“Grab the bag!” he yelled as they half limped, half sprinted down a nearby side street.
“So, I guess we know what they think of you now.” Laurents sighed and looked out the window of our sleeper car.
After escaping the building, Laurents led us down a few blocks to where he had positioned the car. We piled in and caught our breath as he sped away. I started giving him directions to where the Candlewind was stowed.
“We aren’t going to the Candlewind,” he explained, “That’s where they’re expecting us to go. They smoked us out so they could follow us to it and end it all there.”
I shuddered to think what end it all there meant.
“Then where are we going?”
Answer: the train station.
As we sat there together on the bottom bunks, the sun was setting out the window. We paused our conversation to admire the beauty, a welcome respite and a sign that we had made it out of danger–for the day, at least. We were an odd bunch, three foreigners in an obscure part of the region, smelling vaguely of smoke and wearing hastily bought, ill-fitting clothes that we had grabbed outside the station. We were wearing t-shirts that had English words on them, though they made little sense. The letters were more style than statement, it seemed.
“Well, we have an idea of what their plan is, at least,” Pia rephrased him. She was wearing an orange t-shirt that said “Who shot the Serif?”
“As in: they’ve learned enough about how deep their infection is and they’ve decide to burn it all out.” Laurents’ black shirt simply had “Tuesdays are the best” scrawled across the chest in white letters with no follow-on explanation.
“So then they’re trying to get rid of me and steal back the Candlwind?” My shirt was red, and it was an acronym that ran top to bottom with each word spelled out left to right. FML = “Fries My Life.” We found it in a souvenir shop outside of a chain food place proclaiming it sold the best “west fat fries” in the country.
“The Candlewind is less important to them than getting rid of the mole. Especially since you led them to us, that’s a double win for them.” Laurents sighed, “We have a little bit of respite, though. They have a lot of freedom of movement in China, these are their stomping grounds, but they don’t have total free reign. The government only turns a blind eye so long as they don’t cause too much hassle.”
“If burning a building down isn’t too much hassle, then what is?”
He shrugged, “Gunfire, mass murder? They won’t shoot us down in the middle of the street if they see us, at least.”
“What next, then?” Pia asked. This time, the music had gone entirely out of her voice. She seemed shaken. I guessed she wasn’t quite so familiar with this kind of life as Laurents. This seemed to be his space, the world he knew. Pia and I were just visitors.
What was she doing here in China with Laurents, then?
He leaned forward, clasped his hands, and put his elbows on his knees, “First, we need to get them off our tail. Second, I think we should circle back and grab the Candlewind. Maybe we can use it as some sort of leverage or, at the very least, it hurts their operations somewhat by not having it to run their routes.”
“Shouldn’t we be gathering evidence and going to someone like the police? Or, I don’t know, who handles international crime? Interpol?”
“In time, sure,” Pia added, “that’s what Laurents and I have been trying to do in the long run. In the short run, though, there are people who need help now.” My thoughts turned to Laurents running through the forest with a bleeding arm, unknown second person in tow.
“Besides, what kind of visa are you going to show the authorities?” he looked at me. “You’ll just end up in a foreign prison for being here illegally, plus whatever charges of criminal association they come up with. You had the balloon, after all, and you were there at the fire. They’ll just put it all on you and lock you away.”
“Ok, so we’re on the run,” I thought aloud. “Where do we run to? Where are they?”
Laurents stood up, stretched, and went to the window, “Don’t know.”
“But, How far behind us do you think they are? What are they up to? Wh–“
He shrugged and turned to face me, “Look, this isn’t just some book. You can’t skip to the next chapter and read everything from the bad guy’s point of view. We have to work with what we know. And all we know right now is they want you, and everyone you associate with, dead.”
Everyone I associate with?
“Wait, maybe that’s not true,” Pia sat up.
“What isn’t true?” Laurents leaned against the bunk.
“That we can’t read everything from the bad guy’s point of view,” she grabbed the duffel bag and pulled out my phone. “Laurents took it when he ah, grabbed you,” she said when she saw the confusion on my face. “You said you’ve been talking to Alice, right?” Her mind was working again, she had the same expression back during the building fire when she used my shirt to open the door. The shock and fear had been beaten back, just slightly. “You said her messages were a little weird. How so?”
“Well,” I thought back, “she signed them differently each time. It was weird enough that she signed her messages, but she used a different initial each time. A ‘G’, sometimes a ‘K’, stuff like that.”
“But her last name starts with a ‘D’,” Pia rubbed her temples. I’d have to ask her later how she knew that, “What else was there?”
Laurents jumped back in, “Didn’t you say she added a paper note with the money she sent?”
“Yeah, but it didn’t say anything, just another weird signature. ‘And one for luck’.”
Laurents eyes brightened, “Pia, let me see that phone, and the notes.”
She handed him the small device. Then she dug into the duffel to produce a bulging file, but not the notebook she had sheltered so dearly in the fire.
“I have an idea, I need to charge this,” he hefted the phone in one hand, the notes in the other. “and I need some space to think. I’ll be back in a bit.” And he left Pia and I in the sleeper car.
A seed of silence grew between us, gaining size until it was a tangle of strangling vines that consumed the room.
We were tired and shaken up, at least I was, but too anxious to sleep. I still couldn’t fully believe what I had stepped into. Maybe I should have stayed in Seattle, let lost balloons stay lost.
I shook the idea from my head. Whatever was done, was done. No use in wishing things could change.
Pia sat at the foot of the bed opposite me, leaning against the wall, watching dark shadows of trees go by.
“Hey Pia,” I made an attempt to cut down the consuming silence a vine or two, “Can I ask you a question? What was that notebook you were carrying through the building?”
She turned towards me and I saw utter exhaustion and weariness, her eyes rimmed pink with raw emotion. I began beating myself up inside for bringing up something so terrifying so soon. We were about to die, after all. She probably wanted to block it out of her memory. I sure wanted to, but couldn’t. I kept thinking through every moment no matter how hard I wanted to shut it out.
I was about to apologize, but her eyes turned to a kind of sympathy, “Want to grab something to eat in the food car with me? I’m starving.”
Of course I agreed.
We were sitting at a small booth in the food car. Despite her starvation, all she ordered was a cookie and some soup. I opted for noodles.
Again, I could feel the silence growing, but this time she fought it back.
“So, here’s something I haven’t been able to figure out about you.”
I raised my eyebrows and paused mid-slurp, curly noodles dancing as they dangled from my puckered lips.
“Why are you here?”
My heart sank a little. No, a lot.
“Not in a mean way,” she corrected herself, “You said you were traveling for, what? A post-university gap year of some sort? Decided to travel the country? That doesn’t explain why you’d go off in a hot air balloon with a complete stranger like Alice. Or why you’d then set off again in the same balloon and leave the country entirely.”
She put down her cookie. I slurped the dancing noodles.
“That’s some summer vacation. There has to be more to it. Are you running from something? I don’t get it. I know Alice, she wouldn’t just grab anyone and say, ‘Hey, wanna help me overthrow a criminal underground?’ despite how reckless and wild she can be. You must have told her some better story than, ‘I’m just on vacation'”
I shrugged my shoulders. She was eyeing me cautiously.
“Ok, well…I told her I was looking for a lost balloon.”
Her caution turned to confusion, “Well, you certainly came to the right place.” Every word dripped disbelief.
“Funny, that’s exactly what she said when I told her.”
I took a deep breath and thought for a moment. How do I best explain this…
“Close your eyes and imagine your younger self.”
That caught her off guard, but she played along, “…how young?”
“That age where you believed anything was possible. When you wanted to be an astronaut-veterinarian-singer moonlighting as a mad scientist when you grew up.”
She gave a small chuckle and a sarcastic, “How did you know?”
“Because that’s what we all wanted to be, but you aren’t closing your eyes.”
She sighed, “Ok, fine, but this better be good.” She smiled as she closed her eyes.
And that’s how I explained to her my journey in it’s simplest form, someone just trying to reclaim something I lost as a child.
“But that’s crazy,” she concluded as I finished, “You’ll never find your balloon that way. You have to narrow your search.”
“How do you mean?”
She opened the small duffel that had been next to her feet on the floor. Whatever was in there must have been too important to leave in the room. I assumed the notes that Laurents had taken out of the pouch earlier were their critical findings in pursuit of the balloon’s owners. If so, then what were these new books that Pia was pulling out? They still didn’t look like the notebook she was clutching in the fire…
“Do some reading,” she set down a small pile of thin paperback books. The short tower quickly tumbled across the table, “You could spend your whole life exploring one place,” she picked up one of the books, “Or, you can read about hundreds of places through a hundred different pairs of eyes in a one evening.”
She handed it to me. It was a collection of short stories. Travel stories. I looked at the Table of Contents and found that each chapter was a different place, a different author, often even different years.
Her eyes got sympathetic as she took the book back, “Your balloon could be anywhere. It would be impossible to go everywhere, see everything. The world’s a big, big place.”
A big, big place. That was the first time I had heard that phrase, right there in that little train car cafe.
“Pia, do you carry all these books around with you everywhere?” No wonder the duffel bag was so full when we were rushing out of the building earlier.
“Most of them,” she gave a slight frown, “I…” she sighed, “I was never as adventurous as Alice, though I wanted to be. The things I’d read about, she went out and did. She was always the wild one.”
Another book person. Sondra would’ve liked her. Then a thought occurred to me, “Pia, how long have you known Alice?”
She looked at the window next to us, but whether she was focused on the dark shadows outside or the strange reflection of us sitting at the table, haggard, dirty, and on the run, I couldn’t tell, “You don’t have to call me Pia. That’s Laurents’ thing. But I guess I never told you my first name,” she turned her face from the window and leaned forward a little bit, as though telling me a secret, “I’m Elise.”
“Elise? then why does Laurents call you Pia?”
She sat back again, then waved the train car worker over and asked for two coffees. “I imagine you’re as tired as I am,” she yawned. “Pia is my last name. Della Pia actually, but Laurents shortens it.”
“Elise Della Pia. Almost sounds like royalty,” I smiled. After what seemed like ages, I felt like I was finally able to connect with someone. I hadn’t realized until now how lonely I had been since leaving Moog and Sondra in Seattle.
“Ha, far from it,” she gave a light shrug. “It’s an Italian orphan name. Of the Pieta, which was an orphanage in Venice. There’s quite a story behind it, too. I read about it in one of these books years ago, and I’ve wanted to go visit it ever since.”
Our coffee arrived and for a moment, we just sat and watched the swirling vapors of warmth come off the cups and condense onto the window of our booth, blurring our sad, strange reflections.
“Well, you made it as far as China. That sounds pretty adventurous to me,” I offered. “How much harder can Venice be? We could just drift right through the town in a gondola.”
She cocked her head at me with a raised eyebrow, “We?” she smirked, “You didn’t know my name until just a minute ago.”
“Hey, if you’re going to Venice. You have to take me with you. You owe me.”
Her smirk turned to disbelief, “I owe you?”
“Yes,” I turned my face and pointed at my cheek, “You owe me. Do you know how hard you slap?”
Like lightning, she sat up and reached over, as if to slap me again. Out of reaction I flinched and hid my face, cowering.
We both chuckled, it felt so…nice. A moment’s relief despite the day we’d had. Like our spirits were being lifted, tugged slightly upward by a colorful bouncing balloon.
Pia–no, Elise, began putting the books back in the bag, “I’ll loan these to your later when we get some time.” As she lifted the duffel to put the books away, I spotted it. The notebook that she had been holding in the building.
“You still haven’t told me what that is.”
She put the bag down and looked at me, studied me, not unlike before in the building basement. Clearly, she was judging if she could trust me. Maybe I overstepped my bounds, forgot my place during our short respite.
Suddenly, she stopped focusing on me, her eyes wandered into a middle distance, “It’s…” the sound of her own voice snapped her focus back, “…something I’m working on. I…look, I’ve not been through anything like that before. Like the fire. I’m not like Laurents. I had no idea what to do so I just, reacted. Panicked. I didn’t even realize I was holding it. But I couldn’t lose it in the fire.”
“You seemed pretty on top of things to me.” I thought about how she stopped me from touching the burning doorknob and how she found the exit before we were consumed. How focused and clear thinking she appeared. I never would’ve guessed that she was unsure of herself. If that was her panicking, I was scared to see how formidable she could be when she knew what she was doing.
“Thanks,” she shrugged, “I should’ve left it behind, along with those books, but I couldn’t.”
“So, it’s not more notes on these guys chasing us?”
“No,” she was absentmindedly swirling her coffee, “I’m writing stories.”
“Writing…travel stories? Like the ones in those books?”
“Sort of. It’s, ok,” she took a deep breath before looking at me, “It’s about this person who owns a bar, but the bar appears in a new place each day. The bartender never travels, never even leaves the counter, but every night different people show up, from different countries based on wherever the bar happens to be. And the bar tender hears their stories, learns all about the world through the customers. Travels the world without actually going anywhere.”
“…Like reading travel books.”
“Like reading travel books…but,” her eyes became distant in thought again before she found what she was looking for, “…but drunk.” her nose crinkled in satisfaction.
“Do you write about places you’ve been?”
“No. I told you, I’m not like Alice and Laurents. I don’t really…I’ve never been anywhere other than my hometown and that city you found me in. This is my first time outside the country.”
My jaw literally dropped, “But, but you speak Mandarin like a natural. Wait, how did you end up out here in the first place?”
She dropped her shoulders and shook her head, “not here, that’s a story for somewhere else,” she gestured with her eyes around the open food car. Despite the late hour, there were a handful of strangers in the car with us, scattered around the various tables. “The Mandarin, though, just took a lot of reading and practice. Wasn’t as hard as you’d think.”
Just a lot of reading and practice? That’s it? Wasn’t hard? Who was this person? I was starting to realize just how brilliantly smart she really was.
“So, if you don’t write about places you’ve been, what do you write about?”
She shrugged, “Places I like. Places I would want to visit and live if I could. Places I want to experience…I feel like I can do it through writing. Feel like I’m there.”
My coffee was finished, but I didn’t want our conversation to end.
“Tell me about the others.”
Her eyes lit. It was just a spark. A small ember. But to me it was a wildfire brighter than the Candlewind in a storm, fiercer than the blazing building we had escaped together just a few short hours ago.
She ordered a second round coffee and pulled out the first of the travel books. Venice. Cape Horn, the Alps. When she got to Australia she mentioned my balloon, “Your balloon could’ve been eaten by a crocodile there for all you know.”
“I guess we should add it to our list.”
“Our list?” her smirk returned, “And I told you, it’s too much. You’ll never see it all in one lifetime. Not while giving each place the time it deserves, at least. That’s why I write,” but she kept going, moving on from locations to events: Sturgis in the States. Cherry Blossoms in Japan. Diving in the South Pacific. Winter festivals in Germany and deep sea fishing in Norway. All stories she read, wrote, or planned to write about. All places she secretly wanted to see, but thought were out of reach. All lives she wanted to live out beyond her own. She mentioned places that I didn’t even realize were real. She told me about the cultures and people living on the islands I passed over on the way to China. Foods and events that sounded out of a fairy tale.
Elise, who had never traveled before now, was teaching me just how big and colorful the world could be.
Another coffee for two sir, thank you.
She opened a second book and, all night in the train car cafe, we forgot about the unknowable danger pursuing us. We were too busy planning the rest of our lives together.
Check back in two more weeks for more!