Erica Barnett was so done with being done with Dwayne. She was even done with being done with being…
Yep! There was the crazy loop that her head had been stuck in for—she did her best not to sigh at herself—far too long. Enough was enough, as her best friend was nice enough not to say. Her merely close friends? She’d chased most of them away altogether.
She’d decided to spare those few who remained from suffering through her current lunacy. Which had led to this trip she’d always dreamed of. The Ligurian coast of Italy had fascinated her since forever. And now that she was here…
Well, if there was a cliff handy, she just might be tempted to jump off it, provided it wasn’t a very high one. She’d certainly just come too close to driving off one.
Erica sat on the grassy verge of the road, hugged her knees up against her chest, and tried not to look out at the idyllic Italian olive orchard perched on the steep hillside, backed by the vast Mediterranean and the cobalt blue sky. It all looked so perfect that it was easy to imagine the Roman gods still lived here.
She could smell the rich soil and the dry grass. And she could smell the Mediterranean Sea so close. It wasn’t like the Pacific, where she could smell the freshness of the air that had traveled ten thousand wild miles since brushing by the last person. Or the Atlantic that seemed to smell of the warm tropics it had flowed by on the way up the coast.
The Mediterranean smelled as if it knew things. It had been here before Greeks, Romans, or Egyptians. It predated the Iron and Bronze Ages. It had been here when primitive man had crossed over from Africa to paint images of their hands on the caves of Lascaux, France. She just hoped that the Mediterranean didn’t know so much about her because it would be mortally embarrassing. Pathetic, more like it.
She had come to the land of love—alone! And since she no longer believed in love, Erica decided that this trip could be the dumbest decision she’d made in a long line of them.
For her, it had never been the famous Amalfi stretch featured in every film since Hollywood directors had first discovered it in the 1950s. No, it was the small coastal towns to the north that she’d always imagined visiting. Ones where the bare bones of history lay upon the hillsides in thousand-year-old churches. Bridges and towers that had inspired Monet. Especially the little piazzas where she could sit and watch the world walk by in its elegant, Italian fashion while sipping an espresso with—
But, she’d come here alone.
Which didn’t really matter as that wasn’t the Italy she’d found anyway.
She crouched at the edge of an impossibly twisted switchback—as tight as the snake Ouroboros eating its own tail. From here, she stared over the scrub-brush edge. A crazy path had been carved down the steep, grassy hillside—carved by the tires of her rental car as she’d tried desperately not to die on her first day in Italy.
She’d missed the curve and had plunged a hundred feet down the slope through the orchard. The car had caromed off two aged olive trees, which had slowed her descent from starkly terrifying to alarmingly dramatic. Its final resting place, deep in the land of Really Annoying, lay against the granddaddy of the orchard smelling of hot metal and brutally sharp adrenal panic.
Good riddance. Stomped-on brakes and good fortune had lessened the impact, though she could still feel the harsh line of the seatbelt across her chest.
She’d left the car there and climbed back up to the roadside, but there was no one to flag for help on the remote cliffside road. Her cell phone was still down there in the car, even if she knew who to call. So she sat and glared at the car for lack of anything better to do.
Italian drivers were crazy, but she’d watched enough television travel shows to be ready for that. Tailgaters? No prob. She’d learned to drive in Oakland, the least rational of San Francisco Bay drivers. Manic passing on a curve? Nothing a Boston pro wouldn’t try—as she’d learned when life had led her there for the last decade.
It was the Italian roads themselves she wasn’t ready for. Narrow two-lanes the size of a US backcountry road were the major thoroughfares of the country. Only the massive autostrada toll roads had multiple lanes, which were still painfully narrow. As she’d come here to see the countryside not the highways, she’d taken to the secondary highways at the first opportunity.
Along with every massive truck in the entire country.
The driving was narrow, fast, and terrifying.
Had been. She definitely wasn’t getting back behind the wheel for as long as she was in Italy. The car could rot right where it was for all she cared. Parked in the olive orchard.
Except weren’t olive trees in groves rather than orchards?
And in Italy it would be some other mellifluous word that she’d never remember for three seconds past hearing it. It would end in an “a” or an “i” and sound charming coming from anyone other than her.
Let’s face it. She was probably in shock from having just survived her descent into the olive grochard.
Better than orchove. Maybe orchova. Short “a” or long? Either way: clunky!
Could you tell when you were in shock or not, or did someone else have to tell you? By being able to ask the question, did that mean she wasn’t in shock? Or that she was?
Or that she was losing her mind? Which wasn’t really in doubt at the moment—she definitely was.
The gray-green leaves, from where the orchard continued across the road up above her, filtered the hot Mediterranean sun of May into dappled laser beams among refreshing washes of shade. Below, leaves no bigger than her pinkie clustered and overlapped so tightly that she could barely see the white car down the cliff-like slope. Beneath the trees, grass thick with dandelions sought the sunny gaps. They smelled of spring newness. Filled with hope, so unlike herself.
Maybe she should sit. Except she already was.
She rested her forehead on her knees.
Ironically, it wasn’t the two-lane “highway” with its massive trucks and speeding cars that had defeated her. Instead it had been this isolated one-lane road that wouldn’t have been considered a decent driveway back home. According to her map, this narrow, switchbacked, and paved goat trail was the main road into her randomly chosen destination, the tiny cliffside town of Corniglia perched high above the Ligurian coast. It lay in the heart of Cinque Terre—the “five earths”—that made up her idea of heaven on earth.
Or it used to. At the moment? Not so much.
One blink of inattention for her first ever glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea. Looking back to the road in time to see a tour bus larger than the Starship Enterprise zipping up the hill as she’d descended. Overreaction, a tire out onto the shoulder—except there was no shoulder. And she’d plunged off the edge. The bus had continued obliviously on its way.
“Perfect metaphor for your life, Erica.” And it really was. The moments of inattention had always caused her the worst problems.
So she squatted on the verge and stared at the impossibly blue sky over the miraculously blue sea—and its far-too-knowing smugness—visible through a gap where the road passed through the grovocharda. Erica wondered how hard it would be to get back to the nearest airport and just go home.
Except that was gone too. Right now her belongings (those not down the slope) were filling a corner of her best friend Becky’s garage—a very small corner of it. Her job had imploded due to the worst bit of inattention in history. When her car was stolen, just to emphasize the total and complete failure of the worst week of her life, she’d given up the apartment and come to Italy. She had to be the lamest excuse for a twenty-eight-year-old ever born.
But she couldn’t go home yet even if she still had one. There was the rental car. She should at least let someone know it was there before it disappeared under blackberries or kudzu or whatever it was that plagued Italian ocharovino.
—ovino? A plague of grapevines? Maybe she needed wine…a lot of wine. Like a plague’s worth. How much wine did it take to kill a plague of inattention? It was like she’d caught the disease and couldn’t rid herself of it. What if it was an illness that compounded with age? As a little girl she’d always been told that she focused so well. She’d taken the praise to heart and honed it into a fine business career. Too bad that her personal life seemed to get all of the inattention parts. Maybe there was a fixed amount of inattention in a person and because she’d shut it out of the business part it was…
She was looping almost as badly as she’d done about Dwayne—the guy she’d sworn to never think of again.
Maybe she could find someone who could just change everything back as if it had never happened. The car. The flight to Italy. Leaving Boston. Sleeping with her boss—her married boss, so full of promises and lies.
How had she been so naive? So…desperate? No illusions, she’d let herself be handled and maneuvered by the preying bastard for almost two years. The saddest part of it all was that she still missed him. He’d been the most considerate lover of her life, and the lowest toad in the forest.
Erica double-checked that her little reflective traffic triangle was perched on the road’s edge behind her. “All Italian car,” the rental agent had told her as if it was the most important secret to driving in Italy, “has reflective triangle. Must use if is, ah, incidente.”
It was the only remaining bit of control in her life, placing that foot-high red-plastic triangle beside her on the edge of the road.
Danger! Here sits a disaster of a woman. Approach at your own risk.
Better yet: For your own safety, stay clear of this woman!
Since her car was off the road, its nose crumpled against an ancient tree, she figured it counted as an incidente as well as the worst start ever to a trip. Her pack was still down there somewhere with her cell phone. But, by god, her little red reflective triangle was on the road where it should be.
A smoothly dangerous sound had her turning in time to see a hot pink Ferrari convertible slide to a stop close behind her. A cheery brunette, whose dark brown hair spilled down over her shoulders in lazy waves, leaned out of the car. Their hair was similar in color, but that’s where all similarity ended. Her own was a straight fall to her collar as if it had just collapsed from its own anxiety and desperately needed a Xanax before it could even whimper.
“Are you all right, mia amica?”
“My friend. Let’s face it, luv, you don’t look happy.” The brunette offered Erica a small frown of sympathy that made her look even more lovely. Though the broad English accent was a jarring surprise, Erica wanted to hug her for it.
“I’ve had better days,” she pointed down-slope at her car. An elderly gentleman had come from somewhere in the trees and was inspecting the disaster.
The woman half rose out of her seat to peer over the edge of the drop-off.
Erica couldn’t believe that the first real conversation she’d been able to have with someone in Italy was with an Englishwoman. She’d naively thought much of Italy, at least the parts situated to deal with tourists, would have a little English. England English. She wasn’t so ethnocentric as to expect American English. And why was she clarifying her thoughts in her own head where no one else was listening? At least she hoped to god no one was or they’d all back quietly away.
“Rental,” Erica peeked down the slope to see if it had maybe been stolen by an evil Italian fairy—fairiovino? Drunken Italian fairy?—and would no longer bother her. But there it sat, shining mockingly in the dappled sunlight.
“And you are not hurt?”
Other than her pride, her hopes, the shredded remnants of her soul… Erica shook her head no.
“Oh. Everything is okay then.”