It was sometime during an overwrought half-hour changing of the guard that she decided his laugh sounded like the woodpecker in that old cartoon. The old guard marched out and the new guard marched in so slowly the Swedes could have hauled out every scrap of artwork in the castle before they broke formation. It was all flair and little function, and though it was meant to be a serious and precise if not exactly practical exercise, he giggled all the way through it.
The replacements finally in place at their posts, the gates opened, allowing entry into the courtyard. They followed the mass of onlookers onto the grounds, glancing only briefly at the magisterial edifice around them as they continued on toward St. Vitus Cathedral. As they entered the central square where the cathedral stood, she stopped to take it in—the gothic spires and arches, the mosaic mural on its side inlaid with gold.
“Come on,” he said, grabbing her by the arm. “Let’s go in before there’s a line.”
Despite their haste, a queue had already formed as they reached the massive doors. It moved quickly, however, and he pulled her along to keep up. She might have appreciated the towering ceilings and the ornate organ more had he not rushed her through the place like herding a kindergartener to the cafeteria. She might have visited the grand hall where horse races were once held in a room no bigger than a Lower East Side deli. She might have bought a book in the tiny house on the castle’s perimeter where Kafka once imagined how it must feel to be a bug.
They’d been hurrying their way through Prague since they landed. Dinner with his European colleagues and a few of their clients the first evening. Old Town on the first full day, from the astronomical clock and Old Town Square to the Powder Tower, the Municipal House and Kinsky Palace. A trip to Ceske Budejovice to tour the Budvar brewery on the second day, a nod toward his personal goal of visiting a famous brewery or distillery in every country he visits. And now crossing the Charles Bridge to the Kafka museum, the Proudy pissing fountain (at which he laughed like a third grader) and finally the castle, from which Kings of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperors once ruled.
They’d met only a couple months earlier, set up by friends, and though he was a little younger, they’d hit it off over a mutual appreciation of obscure indie rock bands, Wittgenstein and alcohol. He was from somewhere down south, some town the name of which she’d never heard before, had gotten an internship in the city right out of college and parlayed it into a career. It might have seemed that things progressed quickly if they hadn’t been in various stages of drunkenness most of the time they were together. They’d slept together after their second date, and if his parents had still been alive, she was sure she would have met them by now.
It was only when he asked if she’d join him on this little adventure—a business trip, he said, but one that wouldn’t require much actual work—that she began to feel the wind in her hair, but the train doesn’t stop on a dime once it’s built up speed. Besides, she had a bunch of vacation time built up, and she’d never been to Europe.
Now, as they left the castle and passed a trio of street musicians playing what she supposed must have been a traditional Czech singalong to a semicircle of clapping tourists, she began to second-guess her decision. He seemed preoccupied, as though the business involved with this trip was more serious than he let on. And there were worrying rumblings of some virus that was causing airports and train stations to be shut down across Europe, though not yet in Prague. The band finished their song with a flourish and an exhortation she didn’t understand, and she’d begun to step away when she heard him yell “Free Bird!” She kept walking.
He caught up with her at a railing at the edge of the road, where she stood with nearly the entire city below her, a patchwork of red-tiled roofs and spires piercing the sky far into the distance. She’d always prided herself on her ability to see people for who they were. It had helped her build a career, dealing with and writing about mayors and city councilmen, police commissioners and school board members. She saw through their bullshit. But as she felt his hand on the small of her back, she felt her skills failing her.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, cursing herself for using such a vague description, and again for the cliché to follow: “Words don’t really do it justice.”
“Yep,” she heard him say. “It sure is.”
She looked back toward the castle with its rows of windows and tried to imagine which of them the Catholic regents had been thrown from four centuries ago in a fit of righteous fury by a group of Protestant lords. They’d been angered by the Holy Roman Emperor’s decree halting the construction of Protestant chapels on royal land, she recalled from her college days as a history minor, but her classes hadn’t shared any information that might have helped her locate the right window, or if it even still existed.
It’s the sort of thing Miles would have known, with his infuriating habit of sharing arcane facts at inopportune times, like the middle of an argument or lying in bed while she was trying to fall asleep. It was as though he was trying to test her knowledge, to prove that he was smarter because he knew the average temperature on Venus off the top of his head. It was only later, after the divorce and the therapy, that she realized it had been his way of trying to hold her attention, to prove he was worthy of it. She turned back toward the city and began the walk downhill.
She’d nearly reached the river by the time he caught up with her, and she ducked into a pub before he could object. It looked like a place for locals, with its outdated curtains and dusty floors, a rack of brochures just inside the door its only acquiescence to the need for tourist dollars. She grabbed a handful of them as he followed her inside.
She slid into a table by a window as he turned instead to the bar, ordering what she knew would be an Old Fashioned for himself, with Michter’s if they had it this far across the pond, and a Moscow Mule for her. It embarrassed her to think she’d become so predictable that he’d order without even bothering to ask, and she was relieved to see him return to the table with two Budvars, knocking back half of hers with one gulp. He seemed pleased with himself but said nothing, picking at the label on his bottle.
“Tell me about your meeting tomorrow,” she said. “Is it a big one?”
“Not really,” he said. “Just face time.”
“Are things going well so far?”
“I hope so.”
He glanced around the room as he answered, not meeting her eyes. Clearly, he didn’t want to talk about it. She returned her attention to the brochure, whose recommended sights she’d mostly already seen. As he peeled his label off and stuck it to the table, she found an item on the castle that included a brief history of the defenestration, along with two others of which she hadn’t been aware. A judge, burgomaster and half the town council were hurled to their deaths from the New Town Hall by a Hussite mob two centuries before the episode at the castle, and a foreign minister was thrown from the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs three centuries later, in 1948.
The history of the country seemed to be connected by the dots of three incidents of bodies falling from high places. It was poetic in a way that the story of her own country was not, with its linear progression from muskets to six-shooters to M-1 rifles to nuclear warheads. Life expectancies had grown but life, fickle as it is, seemed shorter than ever. Mankind had developed medications to make the plagues of the Middle Ages seem like a campfire tale, all while developing bigger and more efficient weapons with which to kill each other. They’d find a vaccine for this new virus too, she knew, and before long there’d be people claiming it caused autism, or high blood pressure, or acne.
The skies darkened as they left the bar. They’d shared nearly as many beers as words, as he’d appeared lost in thought and she’d struggled to think of anything to say that wouldn’t have sounded needlessly mean. She wasn’t sure why he was irritating her so much. She was just tired. And he seemed as though he’d have rather been somewhere else. Things would be better once he got the business out of the way.
“You want to get some dinner?” he asked as they walked up the sidewalk. The hotel was only a few blocks away. She could see its name in illuminated lettering shining from the corner of the building. All she really wanted was to take off her shoes, get into her PJs and go to sleep.
“Let’s just call it a day,” she said, flashing what she hoped would look like an appreciative smile. “I’m tired.”
He looked disappointed but did not object, trudging alongside her toward the hotel, hands jammed into his pockets. They covered the last two blocks in silence, barely breaking stride as the automatic doors slid open to permit them entry. As she crossed the lobby toward the elevators, he hesitated, falling off her pace, and she glanced over her shoulder to find him looking wistfully toward the bar.
“Maybe one more drink?”
She felt the frustration of an entire day rise up into her throat. The anger rolled onto her tongue and pressed against her lips, working to pry them open and escape. What part of “I’m tired” did he not understand? But she pushed it back down inside and buried it, allowing herself only a disgusted shake of her head as she turned and punched the elevator button.
He joined her as the doors slid open and they stepped inside. They rode to the sixth floor and walked up the hall in silence, and it was only when he brushed past her with the card key and shoved open the door of their room, slamming it against the wall inside, that she sensed that she wasn’t alone in her irritation.
It was almost unbearably hot inside the room, like coals shoveled into a furnace, and she couldn’t find a thermostat. He’d taken off his jacket and sat on the bed, fumbling with the lining. She finally gave up and raised a window, propping herself against the sill to catch what breeze there might be outside. She shuddered from the sudden chill of it, but she found that stepping away from the window felt like walking into a wall of flame, and so she sat and rubbed her bare arms.
He was up off the bed now, pacing around the room like a caged animal for no apparent reason. She worried suddenly that he’d sensed what was going on inside her head. Surely, he couldn’t be as dense to what was happening around him as he seemed. Surely, he’d felt the distance between them growing. She looked for signs of anger in him, balled fists or hardened eyes, but his hands hung harmlessly at his sides and he kept his head lowered, staring at the floor.
She found herself again reminded of Miles, and how he wouldn’t look at her when he was upset. It infuriated her to be in the middle of a righteous argument, her evidence assembled and ready for exhibit, only to be met with the top of his head. She felt her fury burn itself out every time, smoldering into ash, and she’d stomp away disgusted with herself. Then one time she held her ground, screaming for him to look at her until at last he did, and she saw his eyes were not aflame but wet. “Why do I stay with you?” he asked her, almost in a whisper. “Give me one good reason.” Struck speechless, she had nothing for him. He left her standing there and never came back.
Outside, the lights shone up at her from the city below, the spires reaching up from its depths, a distant industrial-looking tower hovering above all, considered modern in Prague but dated by Western standards. She should never have come. But he was moving toward her now and she jerked backward in surprise and maybe a second of fear, catching herself by the window casing. The sill was narrow. and she could just picture herself falling backward off it, back-flipping all the way down to the alley below.
Surprise turned to confusion as he lowered himself on one knee before her, and confusion turned to shock as he opened the ring box. “I’ve been trying all day to think of how to do this, what to say,” he started, and though his mouth kept moving, all she could hear was how wrong she’d been, how long it’d be before she ever got home, how most of the good things in her life had ended because she hadn’t recognized them for what they were or found the words to save them. And then his mouth stopped moving and she saw his clear blue eyes and the floor gave way beneath her as she felt herself falling, falling, awkwardly falling.
Mike Herndon is a former journalist who earned an MA in Creative Writing from the University of South Alabama and now teaches future journalists there that past-tense verbs are their friends. His fiction has appeared in Aura, Oracle, Literary Bohemian and other magazines, with another story accepted for an upcoming issue of The Blue Mountain Review. He also recently completed his first novel, if he’ll ever leave it alone.