Page One: English Architecture
All books start with page one. The first word, the first letter—it's your point of entry. That's something every avid reader knows.
Caroline Hastings sighed, slammed her pen onto the table, and glared at the distance in frustration. There was absolutely no way she was getting this essay done in time—not when she so badly wanted to write poetry instead. Call her weird, but she usually liked essays. Just not today.
The air was cool for a summer's day, the sky bright and blue, spotted with clouds children fantasized about living in. In a little town called Overton, life was good. People walked past, busy, going about with their lives. Music wafted in through the cracks in the ancient buildings, coming from who knows where. Frankly, Caroline thought, it was a bit of a boring day.
Ronald Anders stepped off the subway, shrugging his backpack straps higher up his shoulders. "I'll see you around then, mate," some teenager he'd been talking to on the ride called to him from the distance. Ron raised his hand in a salute. "I doubt it," he muttered, as he turned away.
It didn't take a lot of time for him to run up the cold, grey steps. He dropped his change into the guitar case of some street musicians on the way without a second thought. He hopped onto the bus just as it was leaving, and gave the driver a shiny new pound coin. "Keep the change," he said.
Ronald Anders went straight to the top of the double decked bus and sat at the very front. He stared out the windows and watched as his breath fogged them up, catching glimpses of his own reflection. His black hair was a disheveled mess, and the two spots on his nose still hadn't disappeared. He looked strange wearing his prescribed contact lenses instead of glasses. He blinked. They were quite uncomfortable.
It wasn't long before people decided to sit in the empty spot next to him. First came a little girl, blonde with her shirt untucked, wearing a little black jacket and decked from head to toe in brightly colored beads. She glanced at him and made a face before turning up the volume on her iPod, so loud Ron could hear it over the chatter. Next came a man with a buzz cut, wearing a raincoat and jeans that looked like they were about to fall right off his waist. He soon left and was replaced by an older woman, her hair dyed orange, wearing a flowery dress and a rose-pink cardigan. Ron amused himself by watching the people get on and off the bus as he waited for his own stop. When long periods of time went by without anyone getting on, he'd watch the buildings instead. They were so full of layers of history and architecture—what's not to interest?
Arion road, he thought, as he pressed his thumb to the button that indicated for the driver to stop. He slung his backpack across his shoulder and raced down the steps, tripping on the last one. "Thank you!" he smiled at the driver, before hopping off, breathless with excitement. Just as the doors were about to shut, he cried, "wait!"
The bus driver turned, a sly smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Can I help you, sonny?"
"Yes, um, do you know a good place to stop and grab a snack?"
"There's something called McDonald's," the driver laughed, giving Ron an almost patronizing wink. "But if you want something healthier, Klaar om te Eten is a good place."
Ron turned around, nodding and mumbling to himself. He spun around. "Thank you! T-thank you," his voice trailed off as he realized that the electric doors of the towering green bus had shut, and that the green monster had already vroomed its way off to its next destination.
The lanky boy with a girlish face slipped and slid through the gaps in the small, moving crowds, craning his neck to see any signs that could possibly lead him to a place called Klaar om te Eten.
After a few minutes of craning his neck, Ron began to feel uncomfortable aches. He found a sign, intricate looking and old fashioned, painted a deep, rich red. It was held up on wrought iron, the letters gilded and golden. Klaar om te Eten. The building sporting the sign was old, almost haunting. It was made partly of wood and partly of rough grey stone, much like the buildings along its narrow lane. It looked different from the rest of Overton that he'd seen so far—much less modern looking—and Ron wondered if that specific part of the city was kept that way on purpose.
He walked toward the crowd, confident that today would be a very good day.
Caroline Hastings heard a thud and the quiet scraping of chair legs against the concrete paving. She scribbled a little more frantically, the ink spurting out of her pen, staining her fingers. "Ugh," she sputtered. She finished scribbling the last word and dotted the full stop with a triumphant flourish. "Ha!" she exclaimed, mostly to herself. She looked up and saw a face hauntingly familiar. Her eyes widened for a few moments, and then resumed their level stare. "I'm sorry," she said. "Did you need something?"
"No, nothing. I—I just—can I buy you a drink?" the boy who sat in front of her stuttered, as his eyes fell on the cup of herbal tea that had long gone stale. The chilly winds on that Overton summer's day could make anything go cold in five minutes, especially when you were seated outdoors.
Caroline raised an eyebrow, amused. "How do I know I can trust you?"
"Oh, come on. Do I look like I'm going to put something weird in your drink?" he rolled his eyes, his American accent thick.
"Well, I wouldn't really know, would I?"
"Okay, fine," he smirked, putting his hands in the air. "How about you go inside and choose your drink, get it yourself, and I pay for you? Sound good?"
Caroline laughed as she got out of her chair. There was something so familiar about this young man. She walked back outside into her seat with a cup of piping hot peppermint tea, and the boy got some Greek yoghurt, as well a cheese and mushroom croissant he was already stuffing down his throat.
"So," she began, wiping her ink stained hand onto the sides of her already dirty beige skirt. "Where are you from? You certainly don't sound like you're from around here."
"Well, neither do you," he taunted. "You sound like someone who's used to speaking with an American accent, slowly acquiring a British one."
"Ha ha, very funny," Caroline rolled her eyes. "But you haven't answered my question."
"Very well then, Little Miss Ink Stain, I will answer your question. I am—was—a student in San Diego—I'm applying for college here next term. But I'm from Soleil."
"Ah, that explains the accent. Funny, I used to live in Soleil. I had a friend who moved to San Diego, too. Did I know you? You look very familiar."
Caroline noticed the boy's eyes falling on her hands, then her notebook, and then her clothes. She could feel his gaze running up and down her fingers, the stains, the coffee rings. She suddenly became very much aware that she had been wearing the same sweater for two days, and that her dark brown hair was falling out of its hasty bun.
"So do you," he whispered.
Caroline gulped. She knew who this was.
"There's only one person I know who ever scribbled that much, and there is only one person I know who loved words so much she'd be willing to let the world end as long as she got to finish that one last paragraph."
The familiar pair of bottomless black eyes bore into Caroline's brown ones. "Ron," she breathed, now certain.
"Caroline," he smirked.
"Oh, my God!" Caroline laughed, throwing her arms around his neck. "It's so good to see you again! After all these years! Fancy meeting you in the one place you missed going to on that school trip."
Caroline gathered her papers and stuffed them into her satchel. It was a bit of a challenge. Her papers kept threatening to fly off—it was windy even though the sun was in the sky, much like every other day in Overton. Glancing up, she saw that the clouds were moving slowly closer to each other, in that sort of movement that you don't notice until they've moved a long way. They were slowly graying toward the middle. Caroline could bet that there would be a light shower sometime that afternoon.
Caroline straightened the collar of Ron's white shirt. "You always were a mess, Ron," she sighed.
"Hey, look in the mirror first."
Caroline gave him a playful shove, and the pair of friends walked away to find the nearest bus stop, chatting about the things that have gone in the past. Ron and Caroline had been best friends in middle school, but Ron moved to San Diego for high school, and Caroline hadn't heard much from him since. Caroline, meanwhile, had finished her senior year in London and was planning to go to college right here in Overton. She shared a flat with a couple of roommates and had settled in pretty well. She'd made some friends, and her grades were as good as they'd always been—better, even. She was even taking extra coursework for the summer; that was why she'd been trying to finish that essay.
"Says the girl who always scored perfectly in every possible assignment, even back in middle school. And you say you've gotten better? Is that even possible?"
"Shut up, Ron."
In return, he told her about his life. He'd gotten less lazy, he declared. The academic standards in his school in San Diego were much higher than the ones they'd had in middle school. His grades had gotten better too, but that was to be expected. He was currently staying in a hotel and he was looking for more permanent lodgings.
They crossed the street and waited in line at the bus stop. Two minutes until the next bus arrived.
"Hey, is that River College?" he asked, gesturing toward the fogged up peaks of an ancient building.
"Yep. Overton is full of amazing places that you didn't get to see when you decided not to go on that trip. But I promise I'll show you all the places we visited, and maybe more. There's more than enough time before the new term begins in September."
The green bus labeled number 5 pulled over in front of the stop, and like rolling wave the line of people simultaneously lurched forward, flowing into the opened electric doors. Caroline brushed her key card over the scanner and Ron dropped another pound coin into the open palm of the bus driver.
"Remind me to get you a key card," Caroline smiled, turning around for a second before returning her focus to find a seat at the back of the bus.
Caroline moved a little way to the side, giving Ron room to sit. He sat down, asking, "So where are we going?"
"We're going to see if I can get you that more permanent lodging."