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The Escape Artist MAG
The sound of laughter around the corner made Jed jump. For a moment he stood squinting in the dim light of the streetlamp. Then he leaned back against the wall with his arms crossed. He checked his watch. Only thirty seconds had passed since he last looked. Exactly nine minutes and twenty-three seconds since Talia had said she was going to the washroom. Exactly eighteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds until their train left Vienna for Lucerne, Switzerland.
He watched the digital numbers tick by, more anxious with each passing second. She'd now been in there ten full minutes. They still had to walk back to the hotel to get their bags and check out before hightailing it to the station. At least he'd insisted on packing before they left. Girls always took longer in the washroom – something Jed never understood but grudgingly accepted – but this was getting ridiculous.
Jed's patience, already worn, snapped. He said the only German swear he knew under his breath before charging up the steps to the bar two at a time.
The first thing that hit him when he opened the door was the smoke. It pricked his eyes and squirmed its way up his nose and down his throat. He stood still, waiting for his sight to adjust to the dim, ghostly blue light. Coupled with the haze of the smoke, it made him feel like he was underwater. The buzzing of fifteen different conversations did not pause to acknowledge him.
“Talia?” he said so timidly it was more a plea than a call. Unsurprisingly, no one answered.
He found her sitting at the bar, legs crossed gracefully with one heel tapping absently on the stool. Her skin, usually a warm brown from her mixed heritage (a mix of what, he'd never asked), looked slightly pale under the lights. His anger evaporated as soon as he saw her – something she always did without fail or effort.
Jed slid in next to her, but she didn't look at him. Her eyes were glued to the television while she sipped a drink.
“I thought you were going to the washroom,” he said with as much fake resentment as he could muster.
“I did,” she answered. “Then I came out here to watch the game. It's the World Cup Final, you know. Only comes around once every four years.”
“You don't even like soccer,” he countered.
She smiled back, her teeth gleaming light blue. “This is Europe, Jed. Everyone likes soccer here.”
“We're not from Europe.”
This seemed to strike a chord. She turned to him with such burning exasperation, he might as well have insulted her. “But we're here now, aren't we? We're traveling the world. Loosen up and live a little!”
They fell silent for a moment. Her eyes drifted back to the TV.
“We're going to miss the train,” he muttered.
“Then just leave without me,” she responded acridly.
But Jed didn't want to go anywhere without her. He could not tell her what made her so alluring to him. In her, he saw an escape from a dead-end job (where they'd first met) and especially from his mother, who nagged him good-naturedly but incessantly to be a “good Christian.” If God was anything like Jed's father, he must be tired of being brought into arguments that he had long ago escaped from and never returned.
He liked everything about Talia, down to the sweat drying on the back of her neck. He'd seized so completely on her whim of backpacking around the world that he'd convinced himself it was his idea. But while he'd dreamed of postcard-picturesque cabins in the mountains, she'd kept them in urban jungles.
He wanted to bring them together. She just wanted to lose herself.
He cleared his throat. “How much did the drink cost?” Money was always an issue. He was surprised his mother hadn't frozen his accounts.
She grinned mischievously. “It was free.”
“Courtesy of that fine gentleman there.” She nodded at a man sitting at a table against the far wall. When he caught her eye, she pursed her lips and sucked on her maraschino cherry. Then she winked at him.
“Stop it,” he snapped, failing to hide just how much it bothered him, and she laughed. She'd already known, which made her smile wider.
On the TV, someone scored. Talia cheered. She probably didn't even know who was playing. Jed shifted in his seat. If he tried to make her leave, she'd cause a scene and everyone would automatically take her side.
Reluctantly, he ordered a drink from the bartender. If he was staying, he might as well try to enjoy it.
For once tonight, he had her full attention. “What are you doing?”
“Have it your way,” he grumbled.
“What?” she asked, bewildered even though he was sure she'd heard him.
“I said, have it your way. I'm staying with you.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it quickly once he realized he couldn't answer. He looked away.
Something flitted across her eyes like the phantom of a strange and foreign emotion. If he was kidding himself, he'd say it was love. But he knew that it was fear – fear of being clung to and weighed down until one day she found herself caged. Sitting here in a smoky Austrian bar, they'd already cut it too close.
She turned to the TV again, her voice toneless and her face as impassive as stone. “When does the train leave again?”
He looked at his watch. “In thirteen minutes. We'd have to get our bags and check out of the hotel anyway.”
His drink arrived, and the bartender turned away before Jed could thank him.
“How long does it take to get back to our hotel?”
“Five minutes, maybe.”
“And from there to the train station?”
“Then we still have two minutes to spare,” Talia said with her trademark grin.
Jed knew better than to think she was joking. “You're crazy.”
“And you're the last person to figure that out. Come on, I'll race you to the hotel.”
She jumped up and ran to the exit. He emptied his wallet of all the change and dropped it on the bar, hoping it was enough. Then he tore after her.
As back on the street, he caught sight of the tail of her dress whipping around the corner. For a moment, he stood motionless at the top of the steps. He was tired of this – tired of succumbing to her every whim that brought him more anxiety than joy.
It was stupid. They weren't even officially together – not that he hadn't pretended. Especially late at night, when they slept in the same bed – to save money (fully clothed, of course). She'd roll around in her sleep until her arm pressed against his, and no matter how sleepy he was, he'd force his eyes open just to savor every moment it lasted.
He charged down the steps two at a time, nearly twisting his ankle. The door to the bar slammed open, and it took Jed a few sentences of loud, furious German to realize he hadn't paid enough for the drink.
Jed took off for the hotel, hoping against hope that the bartender wouldn't bother chasing him but too afraid to check. Instead, he fixed his gaze on the black dress that was already a block ahead. At least he'd learned more German today.
He would not let her escape, no matter how good at it she was – and she was a veritable artist. She'd had a lot of practice too. He could tell that in the way she opened the door ever so slightly and slowly before walking out to where she insisted he wait at the bottom of her driveway. He could tell in the way she'd make him drive around a few times before she'd let him drop her off at home – ten times once when the light was on. He could tell, and it broke his heart.
And that was the real art of it – not the actual escape, but the way she always managed to make him chase her without saying a word or lifting a finger. Well, he'd chase her wherever she went. He'd chase her if both his ankles were broken. And he'd chase her around the world until the day he died, collapsed from dizziness.