The ferry port was a chaotic place, full of garbage and concrete that smelled of urine. Behind the port, the city slept while the sun crept up, its shimmering backdrop outlining Naples, making it appear, for the moment, a simple, straightforward city. On the other side of the harbor, Mount Vesuvius loomed in the distance, looking more like a huge, grassy mound than an active volcano.
Few people at the port seemed to speak English, or maybe it was simply too early for them to be accommodating. As a result, the four of us scuttled from ticket counter to ticket counter, asking for a ferry to Ischia, only to have surly clerks shout, No, no, no! followed by a lot of pointing and unintelligible strings of words.
Theo, it turned out, was unflappable in these situations. “Let’s try there,” he’d say, pointing at yet another counter, not seeming tired or annoyed, just matter-of-fact.
Bernard, an unexpected companion on this part of the trip, didn’t seem to be the type to get ruffled, either. He made it his job to pacify Maggie, who grew crankier by the minute, muttering, Jesus Christ and Oh, that’s helpful.
When Bernard’s alarm had buzzed earlier that morning, he had sat up, his black hair standing at odd angles on his head, making him look even taller than he was. “We’ve got to get to the ferry, right?”
We had all grumbled and hauled ourselves up into seated positions. I looked at the clock-5:30 a.m. The first ferry to Ischia was to leave in fifty-five minutes, and I wanted to be on it. I wanted to be away from Naples and those guys, whoever they were.
“You’re coming with us?” Maggie asked Bernard. She put a hand on his shoulder and rubbed a little, a gesture that made it look as if they’d been together for years. “Don’t you have to teach?”
“Not yet. Not for two more days. So, if you’ll have me…” He and Maggie looked deeply into each other’s eyes, then Bernard seemed embarrassed. He looked around the room. “I mean, if you’ll all have me, I’d like to go to Ischia.”
“Hell, yeah,” Theo said. I nodded sleepily. It seemed that all that Maggie could do was smile.
Then Maggie gasped. She stood and clapped. “It’s Izzy’s birthday! Happy birthday!”
“Damn,” Theo said. “I forgot.”
“So did I,” I said.
“Happy birthday,” Theo said. And then right in front of Maggie and Bernard he gave me a birthday kiss. A really, really, really good one.
“Okay, enough,” Maggie said, pulling me to my feet and into a hug. “Wait, I have your present.” She went to her bag on the floor and rooted around inside it. She pulled out a small package wrapped in green paper and handed it to me.
“Mags, you’re not supposed to get me anything. You’ve been paying for everything on this trip already.”
“It’s nothing big, trust me.”
I pulled off the paper. Inside was a small wooden box, and inside that, a small bag of seeds.
“They’re wildflower seeds.”
I looked at her with a question on my face. I’ve never been a gardener.
“I was thinking,” Maggie said, “that you’re starting your life over right now, you know? So in a way, you’re repotting yourself. And I know you’re going to flourish. But I just thought that you should put some other flowers in with you. Remind you to look around and see how amazing life is and how different it can be. So when we get back home, I have another present for you. It’s a flower box for your roof deck, and we’re going to plant these wildflowers, and whenever you see them, you’re going to remember that you’re growing, too.”
“Mags, you’re a sweetheart!” I stood and hugged her.
Bernard went and found an innkeeper to get a pastry with a candle in it, and I blew it out, surrounded by Bernard and Theo and Maggie and thinking that, so far, it wasn’t a bad birthday at all.
At the dock now, we finally managed to score tickets and boarded the ferry to Ischia. The outside deck was painted white, no seats in sight. Once on the ship, all the passengers trudged inside to a big room carpeted in blue and rows of what looked like airplane seats. At the front of the room, a large TV blared an annoying Italian cartoon. No one seemed to notice. Most of the passengers grabbed seats, threw their bags down and promptly went to sleep.
The ferry pulled out of the harbor slowly, but when it hit open water, the captain must have pulled back on the throttle because the boat picked up speed. Meanwhile, I paced around the ferry ten times, staggering a little when we hit a wave, pulling Theo along with me until he finally declared that the guys who’d run after us last night were definitely not passengers, at least not ones we could see.
Once we got that out of the way, the ferry was rather calming. Theo and I tucked ourselves onto blue upholstered chairs and watched as we sliced through the cobalt sea. Outside our window, Maggie and Bernard stood at the railing, talking fast, not even noticing their surroundings. Bernard had to bend down and lean on the railing in order to hear Maggie.
As I watched them, I smiled at first. Maggie was clearly head over heels, and although it was hysterical to see her with a big bear of a guy like Bernard, it was somehow fitting, too.
Theo took my hand in his and followed my gaze out the window. “So she just met him yesterday?”
“Yeah, he came up right as we got on the train and helped Maggie with her bag. It was so cute because they were wearing the same…” I let my words die away as my mind got stuck on a phrase I’d just uttered-he came up right as we got on the train.
I thought back to yesterday. We’d gotten on the train and Bernard was there immediately. Immediately. Where had he come from? And the train car wasn’t full, so what were the odds that his seat was right across from ours?
“What are you thinking about?” Theo said to me.
I stared out the window at Maggie and Bernard. Suddenly, he seemed not so much a gentle giant, but possibly a sinister one.
“I’ll be right back.”
I went out on the deck. The air smelled sharply of salt and fish. In the distance, we saw little villages perched on rocky outcroppings.
“Mags,” I said, stepping up to them. “Can I talk to you for a sec?”
“You two hang out,” Bernard said in what seemed a friendly tone, but who knew? “Izzy, I don’t mean to monopolize your friend.”
“You’re not monopolizing me,” Maggie said.
I stayed quiet.
“I want to say hi to Theo,” Bernard said. “We really didn’t get to talk or meet properly.”
He went inside, and I watched his back, waiting until the doors closed behind him.
I turned back to Maggie. “You know, he’s right. He is monopolizing you.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Are you jealous, Iz? That’s so cute.”
“I’m not jealous. I’m just concerned.”
I told her what I’d been thinking-how Bernard had gotten on the train so quickly after us, that he was the one person we’d told where we were staying, how those guys had come in the hotel and run after us last night, right after we got back to the hotel with Bernard.
“I don’t get it,” Maggie said. “What are you accusing him of?”
“I’m not sure, but I went to the antimafia office in the morning, and told them I was looking for someone with knowledge about the Camorra. It would have been easy for someone to follow me when I left there. I got you, and we got on the train, and there he was.”
She shook her head. “Still don’t get it. Are you saying he’s Camorra?”
“Who knows? Maybe.”
“He’s Filipino, for Christ’s sake.”
I looked over Maggie’s shoulder, trying to get a glimpse of Bernard inside. He was sitting with Theo, and it looked like a typical guy-bonding kind of conversation-lots of nodding, laughing.
“Iz,” Maggie said, “I think you need to be taking a vacation on this trip instead of…”
“Instead of what?”
“Oh, baby girl.”
I snapped my head back to look at her. Maggie only called me “baby girl” when she was really worried about me. It was what she called her nieces, like the niece I had once babysat. Her name was Kaitlyn, and she was a handful. But even kids like Kaitlyn had bad days, and so if she fell down on a playground and busted a lip, and then had been bullied by a pack of older kids, Maggie would sit her down and say, “Oh, baby girl.” And now she was saying it to me.
“Are you seriously that worried about me?” I asked.
“Well…” She drew out the last word. “You have been…I don’t know how to put it…You’ve been a little off lately, and who wouldn’t be? I mean, this thing about your dad, the thing with the police a few months ago, Sam disappearing a few months before that. You’ve been going through a really hard time. It would be nuts if someone wasn’t, you know…going nuts from all that. I just think you need to take a breath.”
“Are you saying I’m being paranoid?” I wasn’t even insulted. I was in such a tailspin with all this, who knew what was cooking inside my head? And I trusted Maggie to be an objective observer.
“No,” she said. “Not paranoid. I just don’t think Bernard has anything to do with…anything.” She looked over her shoulder and stared at him inside the window. “Except me.” Bernard saw Maggie looking at him. He smiled, waved. She did the same.
“Wow, you are into this guy.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this.”
“I don’t want to jinx anything. Let’s not talk about it. Let’s talk about Theo.”
“What do you think of him?”
“I think he’s the most gorgeous guy I’ve ever seen in person.”
“Hey! We finally agree on a guy.”
“I agree about his looks, but I could never date him.”
“I can’t date a guy who’s better-looking than me. I don’t have enough self-esteem.”
The ferry hit a few waves and the boat lurched. Maggie and I gripped the railing. Inside, Theo mouthed, You okay?
I gave him a thumbs-up and looked back at Maggie. “Do you think he’s prettier than me?”
“I think you guys are sizzling together.”
“ Ischia!” a voice called over a loudspeaker. “ Ischia!”
Inside the ship, passengers began to gather their stuff. Bernard and Theo got up from their seats.
“You ready?” Maggie said.
“I guess.” I only wish I knew what to get ready for.