Summer of Fire Excerpt

Chapter One

 

Groggy. Queasy. That’s how Del felt as she struggled to wake up and make sense of an announcement in German. One word – Hamburg – pumped alarm through her. This was her stop; if she missed it, who knew where she’d end up?

She jumped up and tugged her suitcase off the shelf above the train window. It bumped her shoulder on the way down and she staggered against the leather seat across the aisle. She grabbed her backpack as her erratic heartbeat rapped out her desire to be at home. To be anywhere but here.

The train stopped. The passenger in front of Del pressed a button on the side and the doors opened. Del hoisted her suitcase and lurched onto the platform. After the silence of First Class, the noise bombarded her.

She stood on the platform – that’s where her sister, Cassandra, had said she’d be – and gaped. She’d traveled with her parents so was used to big airports but she’d never seen a train station this colossal. Arched steel beams and glass. Tracks and more tracks, each pair with a platform running between them, a set of stairs and escalators at one end with another set a football field away. At both ends, the stairs led up to stores. People everywhere.

Del’s train pulled away. She searched for Cassandra or Mathias but no familiar faces greeted her. She started looking at signs. A big one above the train maps read Hauptbahnhof. The word sounded familiar. Del groaned as her sister’s directions came to mind: Don’t get off at Hauptbahnhof. We’ll meet you at the next station.

She told herself not to panic. So she’d gotten off the train one stop too soon; she was in the right city. A city she’d never visited. A city where people didn’t speak English. She only spoke English. Maybe panic was a good option.

A double-decker train stopped on the other side of the platform. People gushed out of blue and yellow cars like running water. As they surged past Del wondered if she should follow them. At least she’d be moving. The thought made her muscles freeze. A cramp seized her right calf. She pushed her red suitcase over, sat on the hard shell and massaged her leg. She wanted to cry, but not in the middle of the busiest train station she’d ever seen.

Black shoes stopped beside her. A balding man in a navy uniform with a red “DB” on the pocket said, “Brauchen Sie Hilfe?

Had she done something wrong? Del felt her brow wrinkle. “English?”

He motioned toward someone behind Del, then gave her a slight smile. “Mein englisch ist not so good. I ask if you want help.”

“Oh. That’d be great.”

A woman in a matching uniform joined them. He spoke to her in German and she crouched by Del. “Are you hurt? Do you need help?” Her sandy hair was in a tight bun so she looked like a grouchy librarian, but her voice was kind.

Del was so relieved to hear clearly-spoken English that words tumbled out. “I got a leg cramp, but my real problem is that I got off the train too early and my sister’s waiting at the next station, only I’m here and I don’t know how to get there. I don’t even know where there is.”

The woman straightened, so Del also stood. The woman addressed her partner in German. After he responded she asked, “Were you not to get off in Hamburg?”

“No. I mean, yes. I’m supposed to be in Hamburg, just not here.” Del pointed at the Hauptbahnhof sign.

Ach so. You were to disembark at Dammtor Station?”

“That sounds right.”

“And your sister waits there?” Del gave a small nod. The woman asked, “Has she a mobile phone?”

“Mobile? You mean a cell phone? Yes! I have the number.” Del set her suitcase upright, rested her backpack on it and fished out her wallet. She handed a piece of paper from the billfold to the woman. “Can you help me call her?”

The woman spoke to the man again, then led Del toward the centre of the platform. “My partner will continue our rounds. I will help you, then rejoin him.”

“Are you police?”

Polizei? No. We are security for Die Bahn.” She tapped the “DB” insignia. “The train company.”

The woman pointed Del to a sickly pink phone, showed her the right change and helped dial. Del’s leg jittered. Her shoulders slumped when the voice mail recording came on. Cassandra was on the phone. Del hung up and rubbed her stinging eyes. She dialed again, held her breath. “It’s ringing.”

“I will leave you. If you need more help go to our office by the main entrance.” The woman pointed across the station, then strode away before Del could thank her.

“Fedder,” a sharp voice said.

Del hesitated. It sounded sort of like Cassandra. Before she could speak, angry German words battered her ear.

“Cassandra?”

The German cut off mid-stream.

“Cassandra, is that you?” Del hated how timid she sounded.

“Of course it’s me. Where the hell are you, Delora James?”

“I … got off the train too soon.”

“Tell me you’re at least in Hamburg.”

“Yes. In this absolutely huge –”

“You’re at Hauptbahnhof? Mathias said that’s what happened, but I assured him I’d told you not to get off there. I tried calling Die Bahn to confirm you’d gotten on the train.”

Cassandra’s brusque tone irked Del. “You thought I’d take off? Thanks a lot.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. What happened?”

“I was sleeping. We pulled into the station and all I heard was the announcer saying something about Hamburg. I guess I wasn’t quite awake and got off without thinking.”

A sigh. “Well, stay put. Mathias was so certain you debarked there he’s on his way. I’ll wait for you two here. Where are you?”

“Where the train unloads.”

“On the platform? Don’t move. I’ll call Mathias and tell him where to find you. Stay where you are.”

“You’ve said that three times.”

“Mathias should be there soon. I don’t want any more mess-ups, Delora.”

“I’ve told you that I don’t like that name. I don’t call you Cassie.”

“Don’t argue. Look, if I’ve been rude … I just get tense when things go wrong. Stay by the phones so Mathias can find you. I’ll call him now.”

The line went dead.

Del dropped the receiver into its cradle. Talking to Cassandra was like talking to their mother. It left Del feeling wrung out, and it didn’t help that she was so tired she felt sick. She laid her suitcase down again and sat, backpack hugged to her chest. She fought to keep her eyes open.

Mathias was a few metres away when Del spotted him. She’d only met him three times when he and Cassandra had come home to visit; her impression had been of a quiet, serious man. Now he looked grim-faced. Del stood and exhaled, expecting to be bawled out.

Her brother-in-law halted within arm’s length, looked Del up and down, then gave her a smile that crinkled out from his pale blue eyes. “Wilkommen, Del. Welcome.”

Del returned the smile. “I thought you’d be mad at me.”

He picked up her suitcase. “Yours was an easy mistake. Come, we must get to Dammtor before Cassandra calls out a search team.”

 

Chapter Two

Gaze fixed on Mathias’s back, Del practically sleepwalked upstairs, through the train station, outside, then down to another platform. Minutes later they were riding a red train between two lakes, a small one on the left and much larger one on the right. They were barely past the lakes when Mathias said, “Here we are.”

Unlike Hauptbahnhof, with its dozen or more platforms, Dammtor Station only had two platforms and four tracks. The high, multi-paned windows were church-like, and painted with dull lustre by the mid-afternoon sun. Mathias rubbed the stubble on his jaw and motioned for her to lead the way down a flight of stairs. She almost stumbled on the last step. He cupped her elbow and gave her a questioning glance. She pulled away. “Where’s Cassandra?”

“By the main entrance. This way.” Mathias wheeled Del’s suitcase left then swung right down a corridor lined with stores. Vague impressions of more old-fashioned glass and dark wood panelling sank into Del’s awareness.

The sight of Cassandra stopped Del. She’d grown her blond hair out and the ponytail was similar to their mother’s hairstyle. She crossed her arms like Mom; stood rigid like Mom; lifted her chin and looked down her nose like Mom. Del’s legs itched with the urge to head the other way. She swore under her breath.

Mathias left the suitcase with Cassandra and returned to Del’s side. He whispered, “Come. She won’t bite. She was just worried.”

That showed how little he knew. Before Del could speak, Cassandra said, “Couldn’t you follow simple directions? I was expecting a call at four and it’s quarter after. It’s a twenty-minute walk home. We need to go.”

Walk? Del’s knees almost buckled. Cassandra had taken two steps toward the exit when Mathias said, “No.” She spun around. He added, “Look at your sister, Cassandra. She’s exhausted. She was nine hours on an airplane followed by over five hours on a train.” He turned to Del. “Have you eaten?”

Del thought. “No.”

“Then we will introduce you to a Hamburg specialty. Backfischbrötchen. Fish on a bun.”

“A fish burger? Those things taste like cardboard.”

Nein. You cannot dismiss a Hamburg fish sandwich without tasting it.” Mathias steered Del forward. She saw the McDonalds at the end of the hallway and grimaced – he was going to feed her North American fast food? He turned into a store beside the entrance. It looked like a sub joint, with a glass counter, plastic chairs and tables. Mathias began to order for her.

“Hey,” Del said. “How do you know what I want?”

He pointed at the German menu. “What would you like?”

Del glared at the unreadable signboard and sat at the nearest table. Cassandra joined her and drummed her fingers on the table. “How are Mom and Dad?”

Del lifted her shoulders. “Same as always, I guess. Busy.”

“So … Nothing’s new, then?”

Del hesitated. Something in Cassandra’s tone implied knowledge. Del stowed the backpack between her feet. “You’ve spoken to Mom and Dad more than me lately, while you were planning my prison sentence. You tell me: anything new?”

“A summer in Hamburg is hardly a prison sentence. I … thought you’d like the chance to get away.”

Cassandra’s chin lifted but her eyes seemed shadowed by hurt. That surprised Del.

Mathias sat to Del’s right and placed a wrapped bun and a bottle of something orange in front of her. He set another bun in front of himself but didn’t touch it. “Go ahead, eat.”

Del unwrapped the paper. The slightly lemon tang wafting up certainly smelled better than any fish burger she’d had. One bite—crisp coating and tender white fish—and she was sold. She swallowed. “This is really good.”

Mathias smiled. “Of course. The fish is fresh. That’s the difference.”

“Can’t she eat as we walk? I want to get home,” Cassandra said.

“Then you should go,” Mathias replied. “Del needs to revive before she can walk.”

Del was puzzled. “Didn’t you drive to the station?”

“This is Europe—parking is difficult. It’s far easier to walk or bike and take the train. We don’t live far. But today we should have driven. It isn’t fair to ask you to walk after such a long travel day. Perhaps we should hire a taxi to get home.”

The surprise on Cassandra’s face suggested that they rarely used taxis. “If that’s the case, I’ll wait. That’ll be as fast as walking.”

Del finished the sandwich and Mathias pushed the second one toward her. She eyed it as she drank some fizzy orange juice, then decided she was still hungry. Mathias and Cassandra spoke quietly in German while Del ate the second sandwich. Energy seeped into her limbs and her brain fog lifted. She felt like she could manage a walk, but decided a taxi was better.

Tension vibrated between Cassandra and Mathias. Whatever they were talking about, Del figured it concerned her. She downed half of the orange drink and said, “I’m ready to go.”

Mathias led them across the station to a different exit. The sidewalk radiated heat beside a U-shaped driveway jammed with beige taxis. The smell of exhaust was heavy. Across the road a wall of greenery looked like the border of a park. To her left, beyond a patio, a pedestrian ramp sloped up, forking into two walkways, one curving right to the park and one spanning a busy road farther left. To her right, a tall building jutted at least fifteen storeys above the trees. Beyond that was a tower that reminded Del of the CN Tower in Toronto, but shorter.

Cassandra called impatiently. Del purposely strolled toward the taxi where Mathias waited by the open back door. Del pointed at the tower. “What’s that?”

“The television tower. Closer is the Congress Centre’s hotel. They’re the tallest buildings around. If you’re walking they’re good markers: head to them and you’ll get to Dammtor Station.”

“Unless you’re at Dammtor Station,” Del replied. Mathias gave a cheerful nod.

Cassandra leaned across the back seat and peered out. “Is the tour guide finished?”

Mathias’s right eye half closed — the first indication Del had seen that his calm exterior could be ruffled. He replied, “This is your sister’s first time in Hamburg, Liebchen.” Cassandra retreated into the interior of the cab with a sigh.

Del turned her back on the taxi. “This station looks really old.”

“It was destroyed in the war, then rebuilt to look as it did in the late 1800s.”

“Cool.” Actually, Del didn’t care about old buildings, but she took a moment to study the facade, the row of archways along street level, the tall windows above that let light flood the station’s train platforms.

The taxi driver’s gravelly voice startled Del. She slid into the back seat.

Cassandra whispered, “Must you be so purposely inconsiderate?”

Del replied, “Must you be such a clone of our mother?” She looked out the window as Mathias got in the front and gave the driver their address.

They drove past a grassy park the size of a city block where a soccer game was in progress. Mathias gave a running commentary.  “We’re going north. This street is Mittelweg. As you can see, it’s the business area for this district, which is Rotherbaum. We live east a few blocks, on Pöseldorfer Weg. It’s hard to get lost because if you miss our street, you end up in a park beside the big lake we saw from the train, the Aussenalster.”

Del eyed him curiously. She’d never heard him talk this much. Cassandra looked increasingly irritated. Finally she said, “Is this really necessary?”

“Yes,” Mathias replied in a matter-of-fact way that Del was beginning to appreciate. “I’m trying to help Del orient herself. She will need to know how to navigate.”

The exchange switched to German — Del hated how they could exclude her from the conversation — and she returned her attention out the window. Everything blurred as she thought about her home in Edmonton and her best friend, Serena. When they pulled up to a two-storey house with four-storey townhouses on either side, Del had no clue where they were.

While Mathias paid the taxi driver, Cassandra unlocked a pedestrian gate beside a gated driveway, also locked. Del followed her sister up a sidewalk of red paving stones to an oak door set with two rows of oblong windows. Cassandra said, “We rent the top floor from Professor Konrad, who teaches in the same department as Mathias at the university. We share this entrance. Our staircase is in the front hall. We’re quiet when we enter so as not to disturb the professor. Understood?”

Del just wanted to get to her room — if she was going to have her own room. What if she had to sleep on a sofa for two months? She’d go crazy without her own space.

Mathias carried Del’s suitcase inside. A metre-wide strip of tiles marked the entry; beyond that was a hallway with a gleaming hardwood floor. Mathias indicated that the right door led to the garage and the left to Professor Konrad’s kitchen. The rest of the professor’s quarters were down the hall. Beside the kitchen, an open staircase of wood and iron led upstairs.

Home, sour home, thought Del as she followed Cassandra to the second floor. A landing surrounded the open stairwell and accessed five doors. Cassandra pointed at each successive door: living room, bathroom, kitchen, spare room (Del’s), master bedroom. The landing was empty except for coat hooks, a boot shelf and umbrella stand between the bedroom doors.

Before Del could retreat to her bedroom, Cassandra opened the living room’s frosted glass door and said, “We have to talk.”

Del almost groaned. Mathias said, “This can wait until tomorrow.”

“No, it can’t,” Cassandra insisted.

Del dropped her backpack by the steps and trudged into the living room. She sidled between a black loveseat in the middle of the room and a square coffee table, and sat in the corner of a burgundy loveseat pushed up against the wall. Beside her, a door opened to a balcony and felt like a possible escape route. Del studied it and waited for the lecture. With their mother, the kind of tone her sister had just used always preceded a lecture.

Cassandra sat on the other loveseat. Mathias retreated to the other side of the room, to a black leather computer chair beside a desk. Del wished she could tell what he was thinking, but his expression was as smooth as the leather under her fingertips.

Her sister cleared her throat. “I want to be very clear on this, Delora.” She held up her hand. “I mean Del. We won’t tolerate any shenanigans.”

Del drew circles on the leather and arched her eyebrows as high as they would go. “Shenanigans. Is that some fancy college term?”

Cassandra’s chin rose a fraction. “Don’t play games with me. What term do you prefer? Crap? We won’t put up with any crap.”

What had their parents said? Del attempted to sneer. “Care to define that?” She continued to trace circles, bigger and smaller and bigger again.

“Mom and Dad said you were sneaking out to raves, getting involved in who knows what. And, my God, Del, they caught you having sex with a guy in their TV room.”

“Not a guy. The guy. My boyfriend.” She maintained her sneer, but anguish squeezed Del’s lungs. She pressed one arm against her churning stomach, held herself still so none of the pain of loving Geoff could leak out. “And did they tell you they scared him off with threats and now he won’t answer my texts or calls or anything? They ruined my life. And to top it off they sent me here. None of this is any of your business.”

“I’m your sister.”

“Who’s been gone from home for eight years.”

“And you’re in my home now. So what you do is my concern.”

“Only for the next two months.” Del silently added, If we last that long. She said, “Why did you let Mom and Dad ship me here? Two stinking months away from my friends will kill me. I don’t want to be here. Tell Mom and Dad that I’m their problem, not yours.”

“Your self-centeredness is appalling. Do you ever think of anything but yourself?”

“I’m a teenager. Thinking about me is what I do best.”

“Don’t you dare use that mocking, snarky attitude with me. The last thing Mom and Dad need right now is extra worry. You know full well I agreed to this so they could have the summer to try to save their marriage.”

Del’s finger stopped circling. Her whole being froze, even the air in her lungs. It took a few tries to make her voice work. “What do you mean?”

The moment stretched as the sisters stared at each other. Cassandra said, “You didn’t know?”

***

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