What is love? It is that powerful attraction
towards all that we conceive, or fear, or hope
~ Percy Bysshe Shelley
Dark eyes locked on hers. He'd found her. The room narrowed. Voices faded. They breathed together.
A waiter with a tray of eggs crossed between them. She was cut off. Stephanie swirled her orange juice and checked her phone, but her mind was on him: middle aged, tall, navy suit, black hair cropped short. He carried himself with a noble, confident ease. Was it too early to flirt? She smoothed her unruly curls and adjusted the collar of her dress shirt. Stephanie risked a glance back towards the cappuccino machine. Instantly, his magnetic gaze captured her again.
She and her children had been in Padua for a couple of days. After flying into Milan, they'd driven east to the Veneto region. According to legend, Padua, the oldest city in northern Italy, had been founded by a Trojan prince. Subsequently fought over by Huns, Germans, Austrians, and other Italians, the city had endured. Although overshadowed by nearby Venice, Padua had its own quiet charm and artistic riches. Among its attractions, Stephanie had seen her share of handsome businessmen. None had been interesting enough to distract her from the climate conference. This man, however, held her entranced.
A clatter at her table broke the spell. Her teenage son, Ben, had dropped his fork on the floor and his older sister, Maggie, looked like she wanted to sit anywhere other than near him. Ben ignored the utensil - not needed to appreciatively rip apart a croissant or snag a strip of bacon. Maggie delicately ate her yogurt and fruit, book in hand. The heavy Russian classic fulfilled the dual purpose of summer reading assignment for a literature class and a good way to ignore her mother.
Stephanie contemplated a raisin in her muesli. It, along with a boiled egg, was her usual breakfast. Maybe she should rebel and have a pastry for a change. Maybe she should go and talk to that guy. Could she do that, in front of the kids? Stephanie turned - and froze. He was there, right beside her. In a fluid crouch, her mystery man retrieved the fork from the floor. His eyes were a luscious deep chocolate and she caught the scent of rosemary and citrus. His fingers brushed hers with a tingling warmth as he pressed the fork into her hand. The current of his touch raced through her body.
Another, older, man approached and spoke rapidly in Italian. His features were set in a coldly severe frown that flowed into a long mustache and neatly rounded beard. When he looked at Stephanie, surprise flickered one arched eyebrow. He had quite the menacing presence. He leaned in uncomfortably close and raised a hand, as if about to take her chin.
Her mystery man pulled his companion away before he could touch Stephanie and said firmly, "No, Ezzelino." They glared at each other in a sinister contest of wills, until Ezzelino spun on his heels and stalked out. Before following, her stranger nodded at Stephanie and said, "Arrivederci." His voice was as deeply alluring as his touch.
"Mom?" Maggie had put her book down and was actually talking to Stephanie. Her daughter's glossy, brown hair was pulled back in a practical pony tail, and her tone was very serious. Maggie had her dad's meltingly soft blue eyes and a wide smile that Stephanie wished would appear more often. Maggie was diligent about keeping up with studying and working out, even during summer break.
Stephanie dragged her gaze away from the sleek backside of her businessman. Well, now she was awake, no coffee necessary. Had he meant 'arrivederci' in the 'good bye' or in the 'see you again soon' sense? Either way, his sensuality left a trail that drew her like a moth to a lamp. It was hard to resist the urge to go after him.
"I'm taking Ben to see the market and the Giotto frescoes today. Tomorrow I want to go hiking. I need some exercise," said Maggie insistently.
"Hiking - why?" mumbled Ben through crumbs.
There was already way too much art and archaeology to get through in one trip to Italy. Stephanie hadn't considered the outdoors - that had always been Noah's territory. Would it be painful for Maggie to go without her father? Stephanie wished she'd studied some psychology or at least gone to a parenting class. She hadn't taken that sort of thing seriously. Equations and data she got, but her teenagers were hard to decipher. Since their father's death, Maggie had been relentlessly occupied with school and activities. Ben talked to his mom a little, in between video games. Was it normal?
Maggie frowned at the croissant on her brother's plate. Stephanie thought that if she could just get Ben to eat more fruit and Maggie to eat some bacon, then she could claim nutritional balance. Oh well, they were on vacation.
"There's a via ferrata tour that leaves right from the hotel. It's a popular route in the Dolomites. And it has the war history, for Ben, you know, the soldiers fighting in the mountains. The route is totally secure, with ropes and safety lines." Maggie spoke with the confidence of an experienced hiker.
"Is this about the college dude who leads the trip?" asked Ben. He ignored Maggie's icy look, then reconsidered which side he should be on. "Yeah, the via ferrata could be fun. We'd be really careful, Mom. I mean, those old guys did it yesterday, and they can barely walk." With a voice that was way too loud, he indicated a couple at a nearby table.
"They aren't that old and a knee brace doesn't make you an invalid!" Stephanie whispered.
"Anyway, they survived, and we," Maggie cast another disapproving glance at Ben, who was into his second cup of hot chocolate, "are, basically, in shape."
"Why do you need ropes for a hike?" asked Stephanie.
"It's not really climbing, Mom. We'll be walking mostly, attached to a safety line the whole time. There's some fun stuff, like a zip line," offered Ben. His look was apprehensive, as if he could think of all kinds of reasons why she'd say no.
Ben's height, that he still carried a bit awkwardly, came from his dad, topped off by her unruly hair. He was pretty cautious. Maggie would jump right in to an adventure but Ben thought things through first. He was even tempered and it was rare for him to get angry. There was the time a crotchety neighbour, wielding a broom, had chased a skinny stray cat into their yard. Ben had practically flown over, snapped the broom in half, and scooped up the orange tabby. He had easily convinced his dad to let him adopt the cat, and they'd been best friends since.
Stephanie considered. Boundaries on teenagers were so much harder than boundaries on computer models. Their father, Noah, who'd been passionate about climbing, was really strict about safety. Would he have approved the via ferrata? And was Ben really up to it? "What if a rock hits you on the head or a storm comes up? Those fixed lines are basically long lightning rods. How about the rope park - thirty feet off the ground instead of a thousand?"
"Mom, you know how crazy it is just crossing the street here?" asked Ben.
"Point taken," agreed Stephanie. Surviving Italian city traffic required the nimbleness of a mountain goat and the timing of a hawk. In the end, faced with her kids actually working together to convince her, and exacting a promise to do the same on the hike, she relented. After all, Ben was fifteen and Maggie seventeen and they were here to experience the country, not use up data on their phones all day. "I'll go with you. The conference can do without me for a day."
Maggie cringed. Ben's brow furrowed in surprise. Stephanie was trying, but she was very aware that she was a day late and a dollar short when it came to family participation.
"Uh, Mom, are you sure, remember that time you went camping with us?" Ben asked.
"How was I supposed to know that bears make themselves at home in the campground? You guys could have warned me," said Stephanie defensively.
"Everyone knows that about Yosemite, Mom," said Ben. He shook back his mop of sandy blonde hair. "You made us leave. You and Dad didn't talk to each other for the whole eight hour drive." Ben sank down in his chair, his deep brown eyes skeptical.
"It was way too cold for you and anyway, this trip is different," Stephanie said. "We will have quality time, memories made. Besides, we don't have to sleep outside and no bears will be after our food - right?"
"Not too many bears left in the these mountains. A marmot might get your peanuts," responded Ben.
"Then it's settled. I'm going," said Stephanie.
Maggie grimaced with a murmur of objection and went back to her book.
Ben said, "Let me show you a video of the course. The suspension bridge is super long!"
Stephanie stifled a groan. The last suspension bridge they'd crossed, in Vancouver, had left her dizzy and embarrassingly rigid with fear. In her opinion, bridges should never even creak, yet alone sway. It didn't help that Ben had lingered in the middle, trying to rock the bridge. Stephanie, fixated on getting to solid ground, had gripped the side and woodenly pushed past a Japanese tour group. Well, she'd have to deal with it. Surely it would be safe and she'd try to have fun.
Stephanie realized that she was still tightly clutching the fork that the stranger had picked up. As she put it on the table, something else dropped out of her palm. It was an intricately patterned silver key. Why had he given it to her? What would it open in a modern hotel of electronic locks? With a thrill of excitement, Stephanie knew that she would see her mystery man again. She glanced around the table. Maggie was reading and Ben was absorbed in his phone. Stephanie zipped the key in her purse. She would find him.
Standing by the window of her hotel room, Stephanie watched a young couple strolling on the cobbled street towards the Piazza dei Signori. They were probably on their way to meet friends in the square, as people had been doing for centuries. It was a splendid setting, dominated by the palace clock tower of the former Venetian rulers. The pair held hands and paused by a fountain for a kiss. It was a sweet picture, but she didn't envy their innocence. Real life would soon intrude.
Stephanie pivoted away from the window and looked into the mirror over the desk. Her gaze was guarded, holding no yearning for romance, and that was fine. Right now, basic desire, a thrill, would do nicely. And in her palm, she held the key. It didn't make any sense, but the warmth of his touch lingered on the silver metal.
In the evening, Stephanie, Maggie, and Ben had walked along the colonnaded market square and stopped for gelato. They'd met a colleague of hers, Dr. Paul Donatello, at the University of Padua. Founded in 1222, the progressive school had hosted the likes of Galileo, Copernicus, and Dante. The kids were only mildly interested in Paul's research into the effects of ocean acidification on plankton. The plankton were tiny, yet the consequences of the foundation of the ocean food chain dissolving away were not. They perked up when he took them to the anatomy theater. During the Renaissance, despite a ban, medical students had watched the dissection of cadavers. Naturally, Ben had asked where the bodies came from.
"Criminals," said Paul, and then added with a straight face, "and those who don't pass their entrance exams."
Paul had asked her to dinner and Stephanie had brushed him off with an excuse about getting ready for her talk. She'd known Paul for years and he was very attractive. He typically wore a blazer and perfectly creased trousers. In contrast, his black hair, streaked with grey, grew down to his shoulders in a wavy mane. And, of course, there was his lovely accent. Why hadn't she seduced him? They'd come close, at the geophysical society conference in Boston the year before. It would have been so easy to slip away from the talks for a few hours. Her husband wouldn't have cared. Now, her thoughts were for a man whose name she didn't even know.
Stephanie stretched up tall. Her feet were sore from all the walking. However, wishing for a car on the way back to the hotel wasn't exactly the best way to reduce her carbon footprint. She used to ride her bike a lot, until nearly being mowed down by a distracted driver in a pick up truck. After that, Stephanie only felt safe on dedicated bike paths, and there weren't nearly enough of those to make for a reasonable commute. It was much easier to do without a car in Europe, with all the trains and bike friendly streets.
Stephanie was perusing the conference schedule when her phone buzzed. It was her friend, Laura, calling from San Diego. Many years after graduation, she and Laura had met by chance, at a swim team organizational meeting. They should have had nothing in common - the former track star, now a devoted stay at home mom versus the former math team star, now an academic workaholic. The old Stephanie would have been dismissive of all the time that Laura spent volunteering. And Stephanie would have expected to be judged as a parent by someone like her. Except Laura was really understanding and kind. Stephanie had made herself give the friendship a chance. She'd had to, because the row of team parents in the bleachers was more intimidating than a faculty panel.
Laura had helped her through the labyrinth of rules and expectations that went with high school sports. In the past, Noah had dealt with all the details, which as it turned out, were much more involved than she'd ever given him credit for. Stephanie had been oblivious to the number of hours her husband had put in at the team fundraising snack bar, where to buy the right goggles, who to give the banquet money to, and so on.
She and Laura often went out for late evening walks with their dogs. Laura's big black greyhound rescue, Zeus, would trot along, side by side with Sally, Maggie's lab mix. Usually the kids and Noah took Sally out, so she'd cocked a quizzical ear the first time that Stephanie had clipped the leash on. But the dog was happy to lead her to all the fascinating scents between their house and the park. The walks became a refuge. In the dusk, when Venus shone first in the sky and the sweet scent of jasmine flowed over the sidewalk, Stephanie enjoyed listening and even opening up a bit.
Laura was constantly helping others. Anything from organizing uniforms to chairing a theater committee - Laura jumped in. Stephanie was convinced that it would be better for her friend to be a little more selfish. Laura would certainly get more sleep if she said 'no' occasionally. That kind of caring reservoir had been absent in her family. Stephanie's physician mother worked hard and spent her money on a big house and luxury cars. So Stephanie didn't volunteer for anything beyond the mandatory faculty time at the student tutoring center. She'd never known her dad - that topic was off limits, even now. Maybe he would have taught her the appeal of community involvement.
Stephanie had been sympathetic when Laura had shared details of her deteriorating relationship with her husband, Ted. The fact that Ted had done nothing more around the house than roll the garbage cans out once a week, was such a contrast to Noah, who had run their home as smoothly as the gears on his prized mountain bike. She was the one guilty of ignoring chores, like the dishes and laundry piles. Unfortunately, Laura's marital troubles had gotten worse. It had escalated to disappearing investments and unaccounted for late nights. Ted accused Laura of being controlling when she questioned him.
Stephanie's hand hovered over the phone. This call wouldn't be about something routine, like debate team arrangements. Laura's life had been ripped apart by her divorce. She was barely keeping her head above water emotionally and was completely underwater financially. In the space of weeks, Ted had changed account passwords, refused to pay the mortgage, and painted his wife as a free-spending slacker who spent her days shopping and having her nails done.
Never in a million years would Stephanie have guessed how coldly manipulative this charismatic man could be. It was like now Ted spent all his time scheming about how to punish his wife. So what kind of a friend was she - thinking of not taking the call because it would be depressing? She didn't want to be bothered? And then there was the guilt of what she'd thought but never voiced - couldn't Laura have figured out a way to stay in the marriage? It would have been so much easier for the kids. It would have been easier to be her friend. Stephanie took a deep breath. At least she could listen.
Bright and early the next day, at the activities desk, Stephanie did paperwork. She'd already found the lead guide and quizzed him about his climbing experience. Despite his college age youthfulness, he'd listed an impressive series of treks and certifications. While Stephanie signed off on every possible way to meet an untimely end on a mountain, he smiled over her shoulder at Maggie. Her daughter was fashionably athletic in high performance charcoal hiking pants, a teal jacket, and rugged trail shoes. Book still in hand, Maggie appeared oblivious to the guide's attention. With her swimmer's athleticism, Stephanie had no doubt that her daughter could handle the mountains.
Ben on the other hand, determinedly avoided what he considered the useless running around of sports. And Stephanie worried about the cough that flared up sometimes. In the past, when Ben had caught yet another respiratory bug, Noah had stayed home to care for him. There'd also been time in the hospital. Fortunately, Ben didn't have any trouble keeping up with academics. However, activities like robotics were hard when he'd get sick right before a tournament. Stephanie had asked Ben about bringing an inhaler, just in case. He'd told her, in no uncertain terms, that he was better and didn't want any special treatment.
Ben had chosen sweatpants, running shoes, and a souvenir black hoodie from his San Francisco band trip. Stephanie tried to think like a sensible mom. Maggie was set, but any rain and Ben's cotton clothes would get soaked and stay that way. She made a mental note to throw a light rain jacket and extra socks in her backpack. She flexed her shoulders and sighed. Parents needed to be half pack mule.
They sat in the lobby, waiting for the bus to take the tour group to the trailhead.
"Dad would be proud of you guys, doing a via ferrata," Stephanie said. It was a lame attempt to see if the kids wanted to talk about Noah. Ben and Maggie looked knowingly at each other and then returned to their devices. After a few moments of silence, she tried a new topic. "So the guide seems nice?"
"Don't worry, Mom, I'm not going to get distracted from school," responded Maggie curtly.
"Yeah right, Maggie is going to get a personal tour and the rest of us will have to fend for ourselves," joked Ben.
Stephanie's cell distracted her from Maggie's death ray stare. At first she couldn't understand the heavily accented, rapid fire request. Then she figured it out and groaned. There'd been a mix up, and the conference organizers wanted her to present today. She filled the kids in, suggesting that they postpone a day.
"There's supposed to be a storm tomorrow," said Maggie quickly. "Ben and I will be fine on our own." She was clearly not heartbroken at leaving her mother behind.
"Storm? I don't want you guys out there in bad weather," said Stephanie.
"You're not the only one who can read a forecast," responded Maggie.
Stephanie was already on her phone, checking the weather service data. "Well, the low pressure system isn't supposed to move in until tonight."
"And we will be off the mountain by four," said Ben. "Why don't you tell them you won't switch your talk?"
"Not going to happen, Ben. It's mom's work," Maggie scoffed.
"I can tell how much you'll miss me," Stephanie said. It was nice that at least Ben wanted her to go, but part of her was relieved. There was that monster suspension bridge after all. She'd lain awake at four in the morning, wondering how to manage it. It wasn't like she was chickening out - it was her research. Stephanie reminded herself that the kids were old enough to do this and she had to trust them. Besides, how would they be any safer with her along? "All right, I'm counting on you two to check each other's equipment, wear your sunscreen, stay hydrated..."
"There's the van," interrupted Maggie.
"You're sure, Mom?" Ben asked quietly.
Stephanie stood. "Yes, it's important."
"Yeah, not like we are," mumbled Ben. He followed his sister out.
Stephanie sighed - that hurt. Even worse, was Maggie's smug look of confirmation. Maggie didn't expect anything from her mother. Stephanie had an unfamiliar urge to ditch work and run after her children. While she hesitated, the van pulled away.
Back to business. Stephanie took stock of her quick dry athletic shirt and capris and decided a change was in order. She hurried to her room and chose a navy skirt and bright pink blouse. A quick brush failed to impress her wavy hair. She hadn't been as disciplined about styling it while traveling, and it was rewarding her with maximum frizz. Hair spray tamed it a little. Smoothing her skirt and blouse over her curves, Stephanie was satisfied with her professional look, accented by the attention drawing splash of pink. However, when she leaned in close to the mirror to examine her mascara, she faced brown eyes flecked with green and uncertainty.
Stephanie was used to projecting drive and confidence. With Noah's loss, though, she was no longer shielded from everyday family concerns like sarcastic kids, dentist appointments, and grocery shopping. She'd been in a cocoon. A frown crinkled along the wide lines of her forehead and pinched her full lips. This tension wasn't doing her any good. She'd had to be smart and tough to get where she was, keeping her emotions in check.
Walking to the elevator, Stephanie mentally ran over her research results. The numbers were controversial but solid. She had to be meticulous about getting everything right. There were plenty of climate change deniers ready to jump at the chance to call her an alarmist. What she didn't get was why some people were perfectly willing to accept the science that permeated the rest of their lives - computers, cars, medicine and so on. Yet they called climate science unsettled. It made no sense to pick and choose which science was convenient to believe in - it was all math, physics, chemistry, and biology. Head down, laptop open, she stepped into the elevator and bumped right into the chest of her mystery man.
He grabbed her computer before it toppled to the floor. His cool features were offset by a cocked eyebrow. "Your talk is tomorrow?" he asked.
"Uh, oh, thank you, grazi," stammered Stephanie. "Actually they switched me to this morning. It's kind of a nuisance. I mean, I'm ready, it's just that I had some plans with my kids. Not that they were actually disappointed to go without me." Stephanie willed herself to stop rambling. She clutched her computer with one hand. He held the other, as if ready to lead her in a dance.
"I was not informed," he said gravely. He studied her face intently.
Stephanie stared right back. Facts and figures went poof. Her universe narrowed to his hot touch. He lightly caressed her hand. She moved to him.
The elevator halted with a bump and the doors slid open to the noisy lobby. Once again, reality intruded on them. Stephanie stepped away and smoothed her skirt. Was she blushing? What had flashed through her mind made her feel rather unprofessional. "Well, I'm Stephanie Berner - "
"Yes, the distinguished professor from San Diego, speaking on the modeled effects of sea level rise on the northwestern coast. I will escort you." And before Stephanie could bolt from the elevator, he took her arm and guided her toward the conference rooms. "I'm Giovanni Racca. This is my hotel." He swept her into one of the rooms and up the aisle to the podium. He handed Stephanie an embossed business card, with scrolling red print on a cream background. "I must make a call. I will return for your talk." Giovanni indicated a seat right in the front.
Stephanie watched him leave, her eyes hungrily lingering until the door closed behind him. That sexy derriere was terribly distracting. A man in the back cleared his throat. She yanked her attention away from the scent of his aftershave, his touch. Ignoring the curious looks, Stephanie busied herself with set up. So she'd met the owner of the hotel. He was being courteous and she was behaving like a smitten teenager. She focused hard on her computer, nose practically on the screen. The plot showed how much sea level would rise due to thermal expansion and the loss of the Greenland and Antarctic glaciers. Here was reality, not some handsome Italian fantasy. These numbers didn't lie, didn't play games.
No one fell asleep during her presentation - always a good sign. There were some insightful questions, including a couple from Giovanni about the specific effects of sea level rise on erosion and water quality in the Cinque Terre region. A man in the back, with a Russian accent, asked about the resolution of her model and the statistical analysis. He was all trench coat, beard, and piercing gaze that seemed to be plumbing the depths of her knowledge. He unnerved her, and Stephanie had to take a moment to gather her thoughts. She noticed Giovanni glance sharply at him. As soon as she answered, the Russian slipped out through a side door.
When her time was almost up, a woman sitting to the side, who'd glared fixedly at her the whole time, stated pompously that Stephanie's model was rubbish. With conviction borne of ignorance, she loudly proclaimed that the next Ice Age would take care of global warming. Stephanie agreed that while this was true on a geologic timescale, from a human perspective, thousands of years was a long time to wait for relief.
It was time for the next talk and Stephanie moved into the hall. She waited, prepared to tackle more belligerent questions. Fortunately Paul intercepted her first. He was eager to show her some recent data on saltwater intrusion into coastal wells. Like Southern California, and really the world, there was a scarcity of fresh water in the Mediterranean region. Water recycling was another one of Paul's projects. He was fond of pointing out that there wasn't any more fresh water now than there had been at the time of the dinosaurs. Paul invited her to continue their discussion at a university cafe.
Ben watched his sister take off on the zip line spanning the chasm. The slate grey cliffs towered over the green glacial valley below. Tectonic forces had pushed these mountains up, but right now gravity was the force that Ben was concerned with. Falling was clearly not on Maggie's mind as she flew fearlessly across the gap, hair streaming, one hand held out to the wind. Her wide smile was infectious and good to see. Their lead guide, Simon, waited attentively on the other side. As Ben had predicted, he'd stuck close to Maggie. His sister had guy friends but no time for a boyfriend. Was that about to change?
Ben had actually wanted to ditch the hike, last minute. He'd been waiting at a table in the outfitter's office, when a leanly muscular man sat down opposite him. Ben glanced up from his phone and instantly wished he could melt into the pile of ropes in the corner. This guy exuded the kind of soulless menace that should only exist in Halloween horror movies. When the stranger grabbed his wrist, any idea Ben had of shouting was beaten back by the chill in his captor's expression. He'd examined Ben intently before pushing him away in a begrudging manner, as if his fun had been ruined. Ben's group was supposed to be the first on the course, but the man had shoved ahead. With spider agility, he'd moved away so quickly that he barely touched the cliff.
There was no way that Maggie would take Ben seriously, if he told her that he had a bad feeling about some stranger. So he'd made an excuse about the storm coming in too fast and shouldn't they cancel. Of course, she didn't buy it.
Maggie had patted his helmet. "We'll be having lunch in the village way before it rains."
He'd kept up with Maggie, until he'd lingered too long on a platform, peeking over the edge at the specks of people far below. Then he was blocked by an Austrian couple who, despite being well padded retirees, seemed to think that their nationality gave them a natural supremacy on the course. They'd elbowed past Ben, muttering insults. He knew what a klutz was.
However, the husband, full of such blustery bravado at the trailhead, was taking plenty of coaxing to get on the zip line. He was trying to cover up his fear by asking a million questions about the equipment. Ben sighed and sat on a rock. He'd checked Maggie's gear as Mom had asked, and no worries, Simon never let her out of his sight. As far as who was checking on him, well, Maggie occasionally looked his way, to see if he gave her a thumbs up. The second guide, Kristoff, was already cranky at having to deal with the Austrian slowpokes, who argued vociferously with each other in between giving him a hard time.
Maggie hadn't lied to their mom, but she hadn't exactly been completely forthright about the difficulty and exposed nature of the via ferrata. For Maggie, it would be another worthy accomplishment to add to a list that included several triathlons, club leadership, and the national honour society. Meanwhile, he read another book and played another video game. Maggie had even made him wear a helmet-cam, so he could record her epic journey. So, as the anonymous guy with the camera who followed the star around, he'd been obediently taking pictures. Ben tugged on the strap of his helmet. He'd snugged it up pretty tight and it was digging into his chin.
Traversing the route was seriously pointless, unless you were trying to sneak up on someone in the next village, as soldiers had done during the war. Nowadays, they could have taken the cable car to the top. At least if he did this, it might help convince his family that he was fine, that they didn't need to freak out every time he coughed. He'd been sick so much that his dad had stopped asking him to go biking or hiking, taking only Maggie. So Ben had spent a lot of time hanging out in his mom's office, she immersed in her work, he in his book. Anyway, he was done being sick. He was breathing hard but that was normal at this elevation.
When it was finally Ben's turn, he carefully clipped on the line and tested it. As long as he knew logically that the zip line was secure, the height didn't bother him. He was about to push off when he heard an angry shout. He looked up from his equipment to see a man coming toward him on the zip line. Bizarre - the route was clearly marked as one way. Dressed in black soldier-type clothes, he didn't appear to be a confused tourist. He swung expertly up beside Ben and clipped off.
"Hey, you're not supposed to - " Ben began indignantly.
The climber turned to scowl at him. It was the guy from the outfitter's office, looking even more grouchy than before. Ben regretted saying anything. A stare that flickered with a strange inner redness bored into him. Ben swallowed hard. Despite the brisk breeze, he felt hot. He stepped back - onto nothing. With a yell, he went over the edge of the cliff. Ben dangled, flailing on the line. His chest heaved in fear until he remembered that he wasn't going to fall. But it was not fun hanging helpless above the valley. He clawed at the cable, trying to pull himself up.
"Be still!" The stranger reached down and, with agile ease, lifted Ben, holding him up by his harness. "Go back," he ordered. "Now!" He dropped Ben.
Ben scrambled to a stable spot and leaned over, hands on shaky knees. When he looked up, the man was gone. The tour fine print didn't warn of wrong way zippers, but Ben hadn't been in any real danger - that was the point of always being clipped on. He could have worked himself up, hand over hand, the way Simon had showed them in the safety talk. Why had the climber insisted he go back? The zipline was obviously fine. Ben felt a rush of anger - seriously, like he was going to listen to some crazy dude?
He'd better get across, before he ran into another wacko. Checking everything again before pushing off, he took a quick glimpse at the distant valley floor and then focused on what lay ahead - like food. The line went right past a thundering waterfall cascading off a ledge. He twisted to get a maximum soaking as he went by, unlike Maggie, who'd carefully avoid getting her head wet.
The rest of the group waited impatiently on the other side. The Austrian retirees glared at him. What, did they think he should have flown over? Ben seriously considered living up to the rude American reputation and giving the guy a kick in the shins. Lucky for him, Kristoff intercepted Ben and apologized for what had happened. Ben supposed that client tumbles would look really bad in online reviews.