Short Story Competition – First Place: In Between Places

IN BETWEEN PLACES
By Charlotte Nijhuis

Hungaria

The bumping of the carriage on the railway could put me to sleep within minutes. Using my backpack as a pillow and the views flashing before my eyes as a lullaby, it was easy to drift off. Nights in hostel beds made out of little more than a card wood box helped, too. We’d been traveling little over three weeks when we figured out our rhythm: days were for coffee shops and museums; nights for hostel-cooked dinners and dancing; trains for sleeping.

Though we had long left August behind, the summer heat lingered in Hungaria, and even more so in Hungaria’s public transport. In each new place we visited we learned to say hello in the language and bought fruits at the market. This time it was Szia – easy to remember, sounds like ‘see ya!’ – and tangerines. She handed me the paper bag.
“Can you peel one for me? You’re so much better at peeling.”
I peeled while she took pictures. She bent down on the opposite side of the carriage to gain eye level with the seats, and playfully prompted me to look away. Outside, an endless formation of green hilltops unfolded, getting higher as we went on, while on the forefront small ranches alternated fields of cattle. Cows looked the same everywhere.

With her elbow resting on my leg she held up the camera.
“Look.”
I blinked my eyes open.
“What do you think?”
The image was skewed slightly to the left and a bit underexposed, but the composition wasn’t too bad. I showed her some settings – it was my camera she was using – and she got up to give it another try. To the sound of the camera clicking I finally drifted off, my cheek resting against the sunlit window, half a tangerine resting in my lap.

Bukarest, Romania

The small square in Romania’s capital was drenched in a faint morning light. The wind blew leaves up in a whirl; a miniature hurricane unfolding right in front of us. Minus the destruction. We were sitting in a café on the western side. Outside at first, until we had no tea left to warm our hands and decided to move to a spot by the window. We ordered another round – with milk and sugar, the lady decided for us. Personalized drinks are a Starbucks thing, not a Bukarest thing. We discussed bus timetables and laundry and how we should probably buy warmer jackets soon, carefully tiptoeing around the one thing neither one of us dared to address: this little bubble would pop sooner or later. The next stop was Bosnia.

Sajarevo, Bosnia

We first met in Prague. On the fourth floor, or maybe the third, of that club I didn’t want to go to in the first place. I asked her to dance – she was a ridiculous dancer, her head wouldn’t move in synchronicity with her body – and she told me she’d never seen a girl as pale as me. We exchanged formalities; where were we from? – Ireland, Mexico –, where were we headed? – Bratislava, anywhere –, what did we think of the Czech Republic?
“I love it here,” she yelled over a high-pitched Beyoncé song. “Don’t you?”
I left the next morning for Bratislava, slept my way through the six-hour journey. I hadn’t forgotten about the girl named Isabella with a uniquely high tolerance for tequila shots, but I convinced myself I would, soon. Two days later she walked into the kitchen at the hostel during breakfast time. A sign from the universe, she said. And: we should travel together.

Five countries later I still hadn’t asked her about jobs or plans or her idea of a future beyond backpacking. It didn’t seem to matter; the present kept us busy. Sarajevo was filled with history I had never found in my high-school textbooks, and architecture that called for elaborate photo shoots. It was here, in Bosnia, where I first realized how lucky I had been. How, maybe, us meeting again was a sign from the universe. Or maybe that was just her, and her almost childlike willingness to believe in miracles, rubbing off on me.

Hvala means thank you,” I read out loud, “and molim is please.”
I flipped through the Lonely Planet that we’d found lying around at the hostel. We were standing in line for the Jewish museum.
“How do you say ‘sorry’?”
“Let me see, I probably won’t pronounce this right … Sorry is oprostite.”
Oprostite.” She echoed.
We were silent for a while. I skimmed the history & religion chapter. Two more steps and we’d be standing in the sun again.
“I’m sorry.” It sounded like a question.
I flipped another page. “Do you think they list verbs in here or—”
“I am going home.”
It took me a few moments to understand she meant home home, Mexico home, not the hostel a couple of blocks down the road. The line moved forward.
Home home?” I thought I’d make sure.
She nodded. “I got this job, so I need to come in on Monday… I never thought I’d get it, to be honest.” She paused. “I am flying out to Brussels tomorrow, in the afternoon.”
I realized I was still holding up the Lonely Planet, open, with two hands. Closing it would mean I’d have to look up.
She placed her hand on my lower arm. “I really am sorry.”

I got on a train to Vienna that same night.

Vienna, Austria

It is a truth universally acknowledged that leaves change color before they fall. Autumn is a time embellished by warning signs: shades of red and orange where we first saw green. Winter may come sooner or later, and in the height of spring it may seem like it never will, but it does, and we always get a warning.

She is not a tree. She is quiet blue on one day and screaming pink the next. She turns from fiery red to sunflower yellow to the pale pastel hues that fill my mom’s closet. At night she’s dressed in silver; she wakes up in rusty crimson. She leaps from summer to spring to fall. And I never saw this coming.

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