I must have looked away for a moment, to watch the planes taking off behind the glass. There was a jumbo jet teetering on its back wheels, black fumes hanging in the air behind. There was another lining up to go. Your hands must have been quick, tipping it in. Did you use any kind of distraction technique, or was nobody looking anyway? It was some kind of powder, I suppose, though not much of it. Perhaps it looked like sugar. It didn’t taste any different.
I turned to see you walking back, smoothly avoiding all the coffee-carrying passengers who stepped out in front of you. You didn’t look at any of them. Only me. Perhaps that’s why nobody else seemed to notice. You moved too much like a hunter, padding silently next to the row of plastic plants as you made your line toward me.
You put two coffees on the table and pushed one in my direction, ignoring the other. You picked up a teaspoon and twirled it idly, spinning it around your thumb, then catching it again. I looked at your face. You were beautiful in a rough sort of way, but you were older than I’d realized. Too old for me to be sitting there with you really. Early to mid-twenties probably, maybe more. From a distance, when I’d seen you at the check-in line, your body had looked thin and small, like the eighteen-year-olds at my school, but up close, really looking, I could see that your arms were hard and tanned, and the skin on your face was weathered. You were as brown as a stretch of dirt.
“I’m Ty,” you said.
Your eyes darted away then back again before you reached out your hand toward me. Your fingers were warm and rough on the palm of my hand as you took it and held on to it, but didn’t really shake it. You raised an eyebrow, and I realized what you wanted.
“Gemma,” I said, before I meant to.
You nodded as though you already knew. But, of course, I suppose you already did.
“Where are your parents?”
“They’ve already gone to the gate; they’re waiting for me there.” I felt nervous then so I added, “I said I wouldn’t be long — just getting a coffee.”
One corner of your mouth turned up again, and you laughed a little. “When does the flight leave?”
“ ’Bout an hour.”
“And where’s it going?”
“Vietnam.” You looked impressed. I smiled at you, for the first time, I think. “My mum goes all the time,” I added. “She’s a curator — kind of like an artist who collects instead of paints.”
I don’t know why I felt I had to explain. Just habit, I guess, from all the kids at school who ask but don’t know anything.
“He works in the city — stockbroker.”
“Suited and booted, then.”
“Something like that. Pretty boring, looking after other people’s money . . . not that he thinks so.”
I could feel myself starting to babble, so I took a sip of coffee to shut me up. As I drank, I watched a small trickle of sweat travel down your hairline. You couldn’t have been hot, though; the air conditioner was beating directly onto us. Your eyes were flicking nervously all over the place, not always able to meet my gaze. That edginess made you seem shy, made me like you even more. But there was still something about you, hovering in my memory.
“So,” you murmured. “What is it you want to do, then? Get a job like your dad? Travel like your mum?”
I shrugged. “That’s what they’d like. I don’t know. Nothing really seems right.”
“Not . . . meaningful enough?”
“Yeah, maybe. I mean, they just collect stuff. Dad collects people’s money and Mum collects people’s drawings. What do they really do that’s theirs?”
I looked away. I hated talking about my parents’ work. We’d been talking about it on the flight from London, Mum going on and on about the paintings she wanted to buy in Vietnam. Right then it was the last thing I wanted to discuss. You half laughed at me again, your voice breathy. The teaspoon was balancing perfectly on your left thumb, hanging like magic. I was still wondering whether I should be there, sitting with you. But it was weird, you know, it felt like I could tell you anything. I probably would have, too, if my throat hadn’t been so tense. Often I wish it had ended just then, with your smile and my nerves all bundled up tight.
I glanced around, checking to see whether my parents had come looking for me, although I knew they wouldn’t. They would be happy enough waiting at the gate and reading the selection of journals they’d brought, trying to look intelligent. Besides, Mum wouldn’t want to admit defeat over our clothes argument by coming to find me. But I glanced around anyway. There was a swarm of nameless faces slowly being drawn toward the drinks counter. People, people, every where. The grind and hum of the coffee machine. The squeal of small children. The smell of eucalyptus coming off your checkered shirt. I took a sip of my coffee.
“What does your mother collect?” you asked, your soft voice grabbing my attention back again.
“Colors, mostly. Paintings of buildings. Shapes. Do you know Rothko? Mark Rothko?”
“Well, that kind of stuff. I think it’s pretty pretentious. All those endless squares.” I was babbling again. I paused to look down at your hand. It was still on top of mine. Should it be there? Were you trying to pick me up? No one at school had ever done it quite like that. As I looked, you lifted your hand up quickly, as if you’d only just realized it was there, too.
“Sorry.” You shrugged, but there was a twinkle in your eye that made me smile back. “I guess I’m . . . a little tense.”
You put your hand down again, next to mine this time, inches away. I could move my little finger across to touch it. You didn’t have a wedding ring. No jewelry at all.
“What do you do?” I asked. “You’re not still in school, then?”
I winced as I said it. We both knew how stupid it sounded. You were obviously older than any other boy I’d talked to like this. There were tiny sun-wrinkles around your eyes and mouth, and you’d grown into your body. You were more confident than the awkward boys at school.
You sighed and sat back. “I suppose I sort of make art, too,” you said. “But I don’t paint squares. I travel a bit, garden . . . build. That sort of thing.”
I nodded as if I understood. I wanted to ask what you were doing here, with me . . . if I’d seen you before. I wanted to know why you were interested. I wasn’t an idiot; it was easy to see how much younger I was than you. But I didn’t ask. I was nervous, I guess, not wanting you to be weird in any way. And I suppose it made me feel grown-up, sitting there with the most handsome man in the café, drinking a coffee he had just bought for me. Maybe I didn’t look all that young really, I thought, even though the only makeup I wore was lip gloss. Maybe you just looked old for your age. As you glanced out the window, I untucked the bit of hair from behind my ear, let it fall over my face. I bit my lips to make them redder.
“I’ve never been to Vietnam,” you said eventually.
“Or me. I’d rather go to America.”
“Really? All those cities, those people . . . ?”
Your fingers twitched then as you glanced at me, your eyes darting to the hair I’d just released. After a moment you leaned across the table to retuck it behind my ear. You hesitated.
“Sorry, I . . . ,” you murmured, unable to finish, your cheeks reddening a little. Your fingers lingered on my temple. I could feel the roughness of their tips. My ear went hot as you brushed against it. Then your fingers moved down to my chin. You pushed it up with your thumb to look at me, almost like you were studying me in the artificial lights above my head. And, I mean, you really looked at me . . . with eyes like two stars. You trapped me there like that, kept me stuck to that spot of Bangkok airport as though I were something small drawn to the light. And I had wings fluttering away inside me all right. Big fat moth wings. You trapped me easily, drew me toward you like I was already in the net.
“Wouldn’t you rather go to Australia?” you said.
I laughed a little; the way you’d said it sounded so serious. You moved your fingers away immediately.
“Sure.” I shrugged, breathless. “Everyone wants to go there.”
You were quiet then, looking down. I shook my head, still feeling your touch. I wanted you to keep talking.
“Are you Australian?”
I was puzzled by your accent. You didn’t sound like any of those famous Aussie actors. Sometimes you sounded British. Sometimes it sounded as though you came from nowhere at all. I waited, but you didn’t answer. So I leaned over and prodded your forearm.
“Ty?” I said, trying out your name, liking the way it sounded. “So what’s it like anyway? Australia?”
You smiled then, and your whole face changed with it. It kind of lit up, like there were sunbeams coming from inside you.
“You’ll find out,” you said.
Things changed then. I slowed down, while every thing around me sped up. It’s amazing really, what a tiny bit of powder can do.
“How are you feeling?” you asked.
You were watching me, your eyes wide. I opened my mouth to tell you I was fine, but I didn’t understand what came out. It was just a jumble of noises, my tongue too thick and heavy to form words. I remember the lights turning into blurs of blazing fire. I remember the air-conditioning chilling my arms. The smell of coffee smudging into the smell of eucalyptus. Your hand was tight around mine as you grabbed me and you took me and you stole me away.
Excerpted from STOLEN © Copyright 2011 by Lucy Christopher. Reprinted with permission by The Chicken House, an imprint of Scholastic Inc. All rights reserved.
- paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: The Chicken House
- ISBN-10: 054517094X
- ISBN-13: 9780545170949