John gone, p.17
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       John Gone, p.17

           Michael Kayatta
 

  Chapter 14

  “Sixteen,” Amandine answered.

  “Me, too,” John replied.

  The teens were lying on their backs, staring at the stars that lit the night sky, draping like a blanket above them. Since fleeing to the center of the estate’s vineyard, they’d been asking each other simple questions about anything other than the afternoon’s tragic events. Amandine had spoken about her school, last year’s trip to Scotland, and did her best to explain the concept of terroir to John, who knew nothing of wine and vineyards.

  Sometimes during her stories, Amandine would accidentally drift into her native tongue, then giggle at her mistake before returning to English. She’d asked John about his own interests as well, but when he’d spoken to her briefly of computers and video games, he’d noticed her boredom and stopped. After that, he’d been content just listening to her speak instead.

  It was as if nothing horrible had happened beneath the tent at lunch, and John was happy not to speak of the blood-soaked afternoon they’d shared. Fixating on the death of this girl’s family, crying, worrying, or panicking wasn’t going to fix or change things. He knew the impact of what had taken place was going to hit Amandine eventually, possibly soon, and that letting her talk and laugh while she could was probably the best thing for her.

  The lea in which they rested was expansive and verdant. John looked west past the vines and saw a warm light in the distance suddenly flicker out, leaving nothing but starlight and moonlight to define the grounds. A soft, glowing blue washed over the back end of the vineyard, making its long, evenly spaced rows of plants stretching out toward the horizon seem blurred and unending. He inhaled deeply through his nose. The air smelled of honey and flowers.

  They’d neither seen nor heard from the Advocates since reaching the vines. Amandine had assured John that her father’s grounds were enormous, containing numerous leas, stables, pastures, wine cellars, sheds, and woodlands to keep his pursuers occupied.

  She’d also had the idea to hide flat beneath the vines, as they’d be able to see anyone approaching between the plants long before she and John could ever be seen themselves. Amandine said she’d learned of the advantage as a small child when looking for somewhere to hide from her nanny. He felt lucky to have found someone so familiar with the terrain.

  “John, no more avoiding,” Amandine said. Her question broke the silence that had grown without warning. “Who are those men?”

  John propped himself onto his elbows. “Avoiding?” he said. “I’m not avoiding. I thought you didn’t want to talk about it.”

  “Well, I don’t,” she admitted, “but I still want to know.”

  “They came for me,” he said.

  “Yes. Why?”

  “They think I stole something from them.”

  “Did you steal?”

  “No.”

  “Can you not say that to them?”

  “No. There’s a loaded gun in their hands by the time they get within two hundred feet of me.”

  Amandine nodded. “Why are you in France?” she asked bluntly.

  “That question is a bit more complicated.”

  “Do you not have time to explain?”

  “I was kidnapped,” he lied. “A man brought me here to frame me and make those men think I stole something from them. Now, I’m stuck here with no passport, money, or phone. And I don’t speak French, as you already know. It’s a terrible situation.” John didn’t like lying to Amandine, but explaining everything wasn’t much of an option. This way was easier, he thought, and the lie wasn’t hurting anyone.

  “Framed?” she asked, drawing a rectangle in the air with her fingers.

  “Pretend,” John explained. “He wanted to make it look like I stole it.”

  “Okay,” she said. “But, I still don’t understand.”

  “I know,” John said. “Honestly, neither do I.”

  She looked at him with concern. “What are you going to do?”

  “I’ll be fine,” he answered. “What are you going to do? I mean, after everything that happened. It’s terrible. I’m sorry about your family.” His next question was more timid. “Are you alright?”

  “Yes,” she replied, “and I do feel sad. Very sad.” She looked distantly toward the horizon, speaking to the darkness instead of John. “It is always a shock to lose someone whom you love. My family and I spent much time together. But what you must remember is that all of those moments we shared had already passed before what happened today. I still have them in my memory, and now, all that is different is that I will have no more of those moments with them in the future.”

  Amandine sat up and stretched her back. She moved her eyes to John’s. “It is sad I will spend no more time with them now, but is that something to cry for? Misery comes only from expecting. But, what if you expected nothing? A bird would be sad if she woke up tomorrow and found that she could no longer fly, but would you weep in the morning from the same? No, because you never expected to fly.

  “That is how I try to live, without expecting. I try to appreciate moments as they happen, not just when they’ve gone. And if they do go, then that is life.” She chuckled to herself. “C’est la vie. There is something beautiful about the short-lived things. If you expect them to stay forever, you take something beautiful from them.”

  A thick cloud passed across the moon, cloaking Amandine in darkness. She stopped speaking as if she’d actually disappeared. John took the moment to digest the girl’s earlier words. He couldn’t grasp their full meaning, but at that instant, he understood that Amandine’s capacity for dealing with life and loss surpassed his own. Whether that capacity came from wisdom or callousness, he couldn’t tell.

  The cloud broke apart, and Amandine returned. “I am frightened, though,” she said, turning her body toward John. “How long do you think we must stay here before things are safe?”

  “I don’t know,” he answered.

  “You said they’ve come after you before today?”

  “Yes.”

  “What did you do then?”

  “I waited and hid, just like we’re doing now. Once I was in a boat. This is much more relaxing.”

  “You do not call the police?”

  “I can’t.”

  “Why not?”

  “It’s complicated. I’m sorry. I wish I could explain.”

  “It’s okay.”

  “Listen,” he said, “when I leave, they’ll leave with me. And I’ll leave tonight. Late tonight. Then you’ll never see them again.”

  “You do not have to go.”

  “I do.”

  “Where is your family?”

  “Florida, in the United States,” John answered. His eyes followed a short breeze as it weaved through the girl’s thick, chestnut curls. They bounced and tussled as it travelled them.

  “I know where Florida is,” Amandine said. “Do you live with them?”

  “It’s just me and my mother. We live on a small island full of old people. I’m the youngest person there by at least thirty years.”

  “Oh,” she said. “So there is no one else in your life but your mother?”

  “I have a really good friend who lives on the mainland. She’s about thirty minutes from where I live,” he answered.

  “A girlfriend?” she teased.

  “No,” John said, “but I do have one of those, or at least, I did until recently. She didn’t understand the situation I’m in and broke up with me.”

  “It sounds like no one understands this situation you’re in,” Amandine said through a laugh.

  “Tell me about it,” he said, stretching his arms and legs as if making a snow angel in the grass.

  “I’m sorry she broke up with you,” she said reassuringly. “How long were you together?”

  “Twenty-five days, though the last three are something she might disagree with if you asked her the same question. Let’s call it twenty-two,” he said.

  “I’m sure you
ll find someone else.”

  “I don’t know about that. She was my first.”

  “Your first what?”

  “Girlfriend,” John said, wondering to what else she thought he could have been referring. “Embarrassing, right? I shouldn’t have told you that.”

  “I’m just surprised. It’s not embarrassing, though. I haven’t had what you would call a ‘boyfriend’ either,” she said. “You wouldn’t think it, but boys I meet want to start dating so seriously. They want to bind you to them; like we are supposed to get married someday soon and tell our kids how great it was that we found each other at such a young age.” She shrugged. “What is the point of it anyway?”

  John laughed. “Yeah, maybe. But you never know when you’ll find the right one, so you may as well start looking early, right?”

  “So, if you disagree with me, why did you wait so long to get a girlfriend?” she asked.

  “Well, it isn’t like I was sitting around rejecting girls until I was sixteen. Molly, that’s her name by the way, was just my first opportunity,” he explained. “Like I said, I grew up homeschooled on an island inhabited by senior citizens. It was hard to find a friend my age, let alone a date. My mom finally let me enroll in public school for the first time earlier this year.”

  Amandine looked at him sympathetically. “I know what you mean. I was homeschooled here. I don’t get much opportunity to leave the estate,” she said. “Was Molly special to you?”

  “I think so,” John said honestly, “but it’s hard to tell.”

  Amandine laughed at the confession. “How hard is it to tell? She either was or was not.”

  “Well, I’m definitely upset about it,” he said. “But then again, I’ve always had a thing for ‘firsts.’ So maybe that’s it.”

  “Firsts?”

  “Yeah,” John answered. He rolled onto his side to face her and she did the same toward him. A cool breeze shook the vines on either side of them, surrounding their conversation with the soft sound of stirring leaves.

  “I feel like there’s just so much that I’ve never had a chance to do. Most of my life has been spent in front of a computer screen. That’s even where I met Ronika, my one friend. It’s only a coincidence we lived so close in real life. People say the internet is a window to the world, sure, but that’s just it. It’s a window. I’ve spent most of my life looking at things, never able to touch or take them. I’ve read about things, and I’ve seen videos about them, but I’ve never actually done them. So, every time I get to experience something new, I try to take note of it, really enjoy it, since ... ” John trailed off. He was going to finish his sentence with, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to do it again, but instead, stopped and thought about the words Amandine had spoken to him just minutes ago. Maybe he did understand her.

  John looked at Amandine’s face, bordered in moonlight. Thick tendrils of her dark brown hair sailed softly in the wind against her cheeks. She was smiling at him, doe-eyed and contented. It was then that John knew he could have told her everything when she’d asked. He could have explained the watch and his adventures, and she would probably still be lying there, her face inches away from his, lying on her side in the cool thin grass, not judging him, smiling the same smile he was enjoying now.

  John thought of the men chasing him and how, even then, in that perfect moment, they could appear to end everything. Yet, to even his own surprise, he let the thought of them slide cleanly past him and kept his focus on the beautiful French girl in the yellow sundress whose gentle breaths he could feel against his face between the gusting breeze.

  “John,” Amandine said quietly. Her hand floated to his and grabbed his wrist where the watch was stuck to him. The cool grip of her fingers depressed the small knob on the watch’s side.

  Was this what it was supposed to have been like with Molly? he wondered.

  John suddenly realized that Amandine was speaking to him. Something had escaped her lips after his name, but he couldn’t remember what it was. He hadn’t heard it. He stared into her eyes, wondering what he should say when she leaned her face close and brought her lips against his.

  John embraced her as they kissed, and his clutch sent both of them tumbling gently into the grass. They rolled twice beneath the vines before stopping with Amandine on top of him, staring down past his eyes into something beyond them. Her long hair cascaded down from her head and tickled the sides of his face as it swept lightly against his skin. He felt a drop of water land on his cheek and noticed that it had fallen from one of Amandine’s large brown eyes.

  “Did I do something wrong?” he asked.

  “No,” she said. “But this is one of those times that we can’t expect again tomorrow. I won’t be sad when you are gone, but I will remember you fondly, as long as I can.”

  Amandine leaned down and kissed him again, this time harder than before. Their lips remained pressed as a cloud drifted between their bodies and the moon, shrouding both of them in darkness. That night in the vineyard, John experienced one more first, and from that point forward never thought about Molly again.

 
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