"That's the game." Zoya told me. "That's life. You can't just say, 'I don't like that part of the game, I won't take it'. You either accept the whole thing as it is – or you get out."
"It's not so much that." I paused, trying to explain. "It's just – I thought there was more to it."
"A simple mistake," she smiled. "One we often make."
Sometimes I wondered how she knew so much. Because lying in that dingy hotel room, it seemed like there was nothing left and we couldn't escape anyway, not even if we jumped out the window or ran through the walls. What brings you here? She asked me the first time, as if she knew I was lost.
"What are you thinking about?"
A shaft of light came through the curtains and when it touched my nose I answered.
"The shards of the universe."
I woke up in bed (not mine). I had a groggy memory of being shouldershaken on the bridge, one of my friends talking to me gently, leading me back to the hotel. Maybe Costa. I suppose it's because I have a reputation for this sort of thing by now that it doesn't bother me much anymore. I rolled over onto my side (the crack was still there) and stared at the book. It was right there where I'd left it, right where I hadn't read it. I sort of wondered if should call Zoya because she was almost certainly worried about me by now so they said back home. Instead I went to get something to eat.
The waiter confronted me the moment I set foot downstairs.
"What are you still doing here?"
He was the only one that spoke English. I think the others did too but they were reproaching me for something or the other and only shot dark glances at me by now.
I sat down at my usual place. "Existing, I suppose."
He didn't appreciate my poetics, muttered something I couldn't really understand and ran off somewhere. Either to talk to the manager or to bring me something or perhaps both (the manager is a very mysterious figure and never comes out, or only come out at certain hours of the night. There's all kinds of whispers about him, that he's a criminal, a secret police agent, a demon, that's he's a superhero, a taxi driver, or maybe even a woman. I saw him once; he was very thin and tall and stood under a streetlamp. But I didn't talk to him I'm not sure why).
My spot was under the window which outlooked only a few greenish trees (dead) and the concrete courtyard. Sometimes you could see an old woman out there washing things. Clothing (more like rags), plates, strange marble vases. She had very white hair and sometimes a little dog would yap in circles around her but she never seemed to hear; I wonder what happened to her.
Only then the waiter came hurrying up to me; he hadn't brought me anything. I was afraid that this was the turning point.
He scowled (wasn't that his name?) and nearly spat at me: your friends are here again. And I nodded and said I would deal with them.
But as I walked through the hotel lobby I wondered: Friends? What friends? For I have many acquaintances in this town (it's funny they almost seem attracted or morbidly fascinated to me) but no friends, and from all over so it's no trivial thing to decide who's come at any exact time to find me and bother me.
Meanwhile there was someone behind the counter, a certain porter I think, that I passed and greeted but he only shot me a killer look. I wondered what I'd done this time.
As soon as I walked through the glass doors (not automatic; backwards blue Castlestrasse) I knew: it was Lucien and his gang. He didn't notice my wave because he had his back to me and was yelling at somebody and jumping around a lot. The rest were standing around and looking on like it was the main highlight of their day.
"You can't just – "
"How can you possibly know? You know nothing about me. Nothing."
"I'm not saying, I just – "
"You want to go there, do you?"
The valet seemed highly alarmed or confused. "Look. Can you just – "
"You freaks – "
I walked right up to him and grabbed his shoulder. "Hi Lucien."
He spun around and for a second I was afraid he was going to knife me (what knife?) but then a wide grin spread over his face.
"Andrei! Just the man I wanted to see."
I smiled back weakly. "What's up?"
"The world, man." He took me in arms, completely dismissing his dispute with the valet who gaped after us. We were quite a sight, I had to admit. He wore some kind of revolutionary uniform, but with these bright colored rags tied around his sleeve. Red, pink, yellow, green (I wonder what they meant). Dragging me along at a fast clip with everyone else trailing behind. My head was still spinning from last night, and he sauntered in the center of the bike lane without a care in the world.
Where are we going? Where are you taking me? How do you do it? Ran through my head as a bicyclist nearly smashed into me for the tenth time (they just don't give a damn do they?)
"I met the war gamer," I told him instead.
Lucien raised his head (like a wolf spotting a star). "Udo?"
He laughed viciously, the heartless man? and I shook my head because he obviously had no idea what I was talking about. As usual.
"So how goes the battle, prince?"
Lucien was a poet; or at least that's what he claimed. I'm not sure what I would call him instead.
"It keeps getting worse and worse," I complained. "All I dream of are conversations these days."
Precipitously we turned the corner. "That's a tough spot."
I turned my head to take in the buildings. Most of them were of the brownstone type; that is that nice type with steps leading up and shady trees in the little square that passes for a garden out front.
"You have to get out," Lucien continued, "experience the world more. That's how you'll find it."
"Sometimes I feel like I've made a terrible mistake."
"Once you start doubting what else do you have?"
I continued to watch the houses. There were some bikes chained out front, but not a single person walking out. I wondered if people really lived out there, or if it was all just a hoax. Sometimes when I'm alone I even imagine that I'm the only one left in this world, that there's been a terrible plague. That I'm The Last Man.
Lucien took my silence for an answer. "What game?"
I thought back. "It was Reich, I think."
"That's a shame. I'm more of a chess person myself." Lucien considered. "He's got guts though, I'll give him that."
"I can't do it either. I just get too emotionally involved."
"You're such a dramatic one."
"Especially when they take England. I hate that."
The rest followed at our heels like a pack of hyenas. Was there any way to get rid of them?
"You're just bad at it 'cause you're American. Everyone plays better when it's for their own."
"I'm not. Really though." I frowned. "We come in there too."
"Yeah, but you've got to be an idiot to bring them in 'fore '43."
It's true. I usually spend that time sitting at the edge, watching. Waiting. Wishing.
"Ghostly general staff indeed. They'd have me executed, twelve seconds flat."
"You mean you actually imagine it happening?"
"That must be a bitch."
At this point a car nearly hit us. The driver swerved and nearly hit a tree, rolled down his window swearing at us.
"¡Viva la Vida!" Lucien yelled back. I took the opportunity to slip outside his grasp.
His group soon surrounded us. It was sort of menacing, to be honest. I felt like they were waiting for me to slip, waiting for us to break out fighting.
"They should have hung him." My head hurt so damn much.
"Really?" Lucien was watching me. "You think he deserved it?"
"At times I thought he did, no matter what he said. The way he laughed. To sum, it was leading up to so much. But then – nada."
Lucien nodded. "But that's life, you know. Sometimes you just don't get anything."
I don't understand how he read so fast. He just devoured books, everything I gave him.
"I think they were just screwing with him in the end. Everybody in that little resort town."
"I thought it was terrible. How he was just a broken man in the end."
"Broken? It wasn't like that at all."
"But he didn't want to play the game anymore."
"It wasn't like that. You've got it totally wrong."
"He lost, man. That dude devoured his soul." My breath caught. I had to struggle to keep from hitting him. "Don't let it break your heart, prince. I mean spirit."
Why do I get so worked up over these things? I felt my hand go limp. "Can I have it back?" I merely asked.
"Just a mom, Drei. I want to keep it, I want to reenact some bits, you know maybe try a few shots."
I'd forgotten how he was going through this phase.
"You want to be Udo?"
"Hell no." I shook my head. "Is that all you dragged me out here for?"
We were in some kind of deserted lot. His cronies dispersed and we were crushed in between a square of buildings. I felt quite at home though, as long as I could spot the sky above.
"No; not at all exactly." Lucien smiled a bit. "Another reason entirely."
As long as I kept my eyes on the sky I could stay grounded.
"I wanted to introduce you to it."
My mind swam. "Isn't that the entire city?"
"Eventually." He seemed pleased that I got it. "But right now the bicycle path's part of it. So you've passed that test for certain."
"I never said I'd play, you know."
He laughed like it was all a big joke: As long as we play, we remain unobserved. I turned my eyes to him but he seemed to have changed somehow, in some indefinable way.
"There's always a choice."
She ran her hand through my hair but I shuddered at her touch. It was just light. She leaned over and spoke to me; and even though I couldn't hear what she said I took something back from her as a memento.
When I got back to the hotel I had to wait around, sneak upstairs (outside, from the fire escape) so none of the staff would see me. My room wasn't clean at all (as to be expected), and to be frank it was getting a bit disgusting since it hadn't been in such a while. I should really say something except I don't have any right at all too.
(There was something on my door, which I tore off. I avoided looking at it, but I already knew it by heart.)
I sat down gingerly on the edge of my bed and stared out the window for the longest time.