“What about Sage? He saw the one in the bathroom.”
He nodded. “Sage’s mind has been opened to this world. I don’t think either of you will ever be able to unsee them, to unsee the things that cross through the Veil. But with a little luck, you won’t ever have to deal with that.”
It was then that I noticed I was trembling. He gave me a light squeeze and said, “Come on, let’s return you to your man.”
We walked down the aisle, me pausing to pick up my toiletries and clothes, which I’d dropped on the empty seat, and back to our car. Jacob was already asleep, and we didn’t say anything to Sage. What would be the point in making him worry? ‘By the way, when I went to use the washroom, I ended up in the train car to The Twilight Zone and some kind of fucked-up Grim Reaper almost dragged me to Hell. Well, I’m okay now. Good night!’
So Max and I kept it to ourselves. But there was no way I was sleeping alone on the top bunk. I climbed in with Sage in the bottom and tried to get some sleep despite Jacob’s vibrating snores. In the morning we’d be in Rome. Another day to face, another day to die.
Arriving in Rome was like a goddamn breath of fresh air. Not that the air in the city was exactly fresh. But when we stepped off the train and into the baking heat of the station, I felt like I could breathe a bit better, despite the hazy brown smog that sat high above the church domes of the city. Apparently we were entering an early heat wave, but after the moodiness of Paris and the neat façade of Nice, I was ready for something different.
I could tell Dawn was, too. She confessed she hadn’t slept very well thanks to Jacob’s snoring (I was an old pro when it came to drowning that out) and she looked unusually pale, but when she started walking under that Roman sun and we stopped to admire a street performer while Jacob got us a cab, she seemed to perk up a little.
Truth was, I was barely holding it together as it was. I was afraid to let her out of my sight, afraid for each other thing that approached, knowing, always fucking knowing, that something was out there coming for her. Debt collectors were an insistent bunch, and these ones had teeth, horns, and claws.
But I couldn’t dwell on it—I wouldn’t let myself. Jacob was right: I just had to be there for her, that’s all I could do. We had to go on, take that step into each hour, toward the end of each day, and hope that we could handle whatever horrific thing was going to be thrown at us. It wasn’t much of a life, but we had to make do. And tonight I had a show to put on in motherfucking Rome. I had a show to make up for the drunken one I played in Nice. I had a show to prove that I was capable of coming back from the brink.
Those fucks didn’t have us yet, no matter what deal was made.
Our hotel was the best one on the tour so far, a white-and-gold temple, just steps away from the Trevi fountain and a gelato shop that Jacob called the world’s best.
I looked at Dawn as we sat in the backseat of the cab, holding her hand before we stepped out. “Gelato sounds good. It sounds like Rome to me. You ever see Roman Holiday?”
She shook her head, her eyes squinting at the harsh sun coming through the dirty windows.
“You haven’t?” I asked. “Audrey Hepburn? My man, Gregory Peck?”
She gave me a funny look. “Your man?”
“There was no greater hero for me than Gregory Peck when I was growing up. Atticus Finch, man. Almost made me want to be a lawyer.” She still looked confused. “Jeez. Okay, well, let’s live a little. Let’s do fun things today before the show.”
Her brows came together in trepidation. “Are you sure that’s smart?”
I leaned into her and kissed her softly. I pulled away and stared into her eyes. “We have to keep going on. We have to live a little…while we can. Where better than Rome?”
She sucked in her bottom lip but nodded. We got out of the cab and stared at the bustling world around us. Tourists with their knee-high socks and giant cameras around their necks, little boys playing around the edge of the fountain, an old man in a purple suit selling newspapers from a cart. Pigeons everywhere and the scent of coffee beans in the air.
We checked into the hotel and naturally Max had to insist he was staying in our room. The front desk clerk seemed really disturbed at the idea of two men and one woman sharing a room together, especially when she saw the roadies behind us with my acoustic guitars in their arms, but she let it slide. It may have been 1975, but Rome was still a pretty conservative city.
I started thinking about that as we put our bags away in our tiled-floor room. The churches in the city, the Vatican, the Pope, the Holy See. I wasn’t a religious man, though in hindsight perhaps I should have been, considering what I’d been through. But when I was a boy, when my mother was alive, we went to church in Redding every Sunday. She was a devout Catholic, as most of our family in Mexico had been, although my father had no interest. The church-going stopped after she died, but I still held on to a kernel of my faith throughout the years. I wasn’t sure if I was about to rediscover it now, but churches were always a haven for those in trouble, if not a place to seek answers.
However, I didn’t want to bring this up around Max. I didn’t know how he fit into any of it. He admitted to there being a Heaven and a Hell, but he never described himself as an angel, even though it was the closest thing I had to compare him to. A guardian without the angelic part. Even still, I didn’t want him to tell me it was pointless or futile because I would have no choice but to believe him, and the little faith I did have would be gone.
“Let’s go explore,” I said to Dawn, grabbing her hand and pulling her to me. I looked up at Max, expecting him to say something. He wasn’t protesting, but he looked uncomfortable with the idea all the same. “Any objections?”
His eyes narrowed in thought, studying me carefully.
I added, “And I do mean just Dawn and me. I know you probably got off on that little peep show we gave you on the beach, but it’s broad daylight outside. I don’t think anything is going to happen now with all these people around.”
Max and her exchanged a quick but loaded look.
“What?” I asked, feeling like I was missing out on something.
“Nothing,” he finally said, rubbing his lips together. “Yep, fine. I reckon that’s fine. If I heard Jacob correctly, you only have two hours before your soundcheck anyway, so…be my guests. Just…be careful. Don’t let go of each other. And if you come into any trouble…”
“There isn’t some dog whistle we can do?” I asked, feeling like a bit of a jackass as I did so.
He crossed his big arms. He wasn’t amused. “Actually, if she knew how to get into the Veil, she could find me there. But that’s…nothing for her to worry about. Go have fun.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled as she grabbed her purse and we left the room.
As we walked down the stairs to the lobby, she smacked my chest with her hand. “You could be nicer to him, you know.”
“I am nice. I’m a nice guy. I just don’t like him following us around all the livelong day, that’s all.”
“Well, he’s not one of your roadies, you know,” she said. “He’s a lot more useful than you think.”
I pondered that for a moment, wondering if she was getting at something. I decided she wasn’t.
“My roadies are useful, by the way.”
“For getting drugs and stoking your ego.”
“Yeah, well, it all counts.”
Our first stop was the gelato, which was pretty damn good but since they didn’t really serve gelato in California, there wasn’t much to compare it to. Kinda like watery ice cream with a kick. Perfect in the heat, anyway. Next we went on to the Trevi Fountain, where we wrestled aside the tourists to get a prime spot to flick coins into the fountain. The color was so blindingly blue that I thought it would make a fine album cover. Funny that my head was making all these plans for the future when the future seemed so fucking precarious.
After the fountain, we headed for the Spanish Steps. Since she hadn’t seen Roman Holiday, I couldn’t run down it and pretend to bump into her. And every time I attempted to explain the film, she looked at me as if I were missing my testicles, so that quickly shut me up.
And renting a Vespa—that was totally out of the question.
After the Spanish Steps, we wandered the winding streets, past the street kids begging for money, the groups of nuns who seemed to float as they walked, and the vendors trying to sell fruit. It was about then that I started to feel uneasy, like people were staring at us funny, that the gargoyles and statues around us had eyes. I was sure it was just my imagination, but it was enough that I pulled Dawn toward the first church I saw, which happened to be around the corner from the awe-inspiring dome of the Pantheon.
“Where are we going?” she asked as we entered the small white building with its thick door of dark wood. “Is this a famous landmark?”
“No,” I whispered, my body already feeling reverence for the place. It was even smaller inside and sparsely decorated compared to the Catholic church I went to as a kid. It was completely empty, save for a woman in black kneeling in prayer at the front pew, and the air inside had a strange kind of hush to it.
I led Dawn to a row of pews halfway to the altar and we sat down. We both looked around us at the crosses on the walls and the rad stained glass designs, which would have looked amazing had the church had any view beyond the windows. For some reason, it was completely closed in on each side by the surrounding buildings, which gave it a claustrophobic feeling, as if we were in a box of reverence.
“Why are we here?” she whispered, leaning close to me, her eyes never leaving the altar and the woman who was at the front.
“I thought we could find…” I started, not realizing how ridiculous it might sound to her, “…solace in here. Safety. Whether you’re religious or not, churches are a haven. I thought maybe this would make you feel better.”
She seemed to take that all in, nodding slowly. She shot me a sly look. “I never pegged you to be a religious man.”
“I’m not, not really. But my mother believed in it. Believed in it a lot. It never did her harm. I just know what we’re dealing with is…” I looked around me uneasily. “…The Devil.”
Though I was talking in an extremely low voice, the woman in black lifted her head. She didn’t turn, but it was obvious she was aware of us in the church with her, and was suddenly paying attention.
I gulped uneasily and continued, lowering my voice so it was a harsh whisper right in Dawn’s ear. “We know that’s who you made the deal with. Who I made the deal with. And if there’s a Devil, there is a God. I figured, Jacobs aside, maybe he owes us a favor. And even if he doesn’t, maybe this is one place you can be without fear.”
She turned her head to me, her nose brushing against mine. “If that’s the case, then why do I feel so damn afraid?”
Her eyes were watering, her forehead lined. She was afraid. In fact, she was trembling.
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