Radiant – Cynthia Hand

Clara’s having visions again. It’s the Fourth of July. If we were back home in Wyoming we’d be celebrating, eating watermelon, and watching the fireworks over Jackson Hole, making fun of tourists. Instead we’re in Rome wolfing down my grandmother’s infamous spaghetti with the whole Zerbino clan, my aunts and uncles and cousins crammed shoulder to shoulder around the table. We’re a loud bunch, the Zerbinos. Borderline obnoxious. The aunts are gossiping about the woman who lives next door, who seems, as far as they can tell, to have three separate-but-equally-serious boyfriends who don’t know about one another. They’re gabbing so loudly about it I’m sure the lady next door can hear them. I look across the table at Clara like can you believe I’m related to these people? but her eyes are completely blank. I ask her a question, and she doesn’t answer. She doesn’t hear me. She’s seeing the future. Does it make me a bad person that I find it funny, the way she stares off into space, a single strand of spaghetti stuck to her chin? But then the fork falls from her hand, clattering loudly onto the table, and my relatives notice that Clara’s not with us anymore. Someone asks her if she’s all right. Someone touches her shoulder, shakes her gently.

She doesn’t respond. The room erupts into a flurry of frantic Italian. My uncle Alberto, who’s sitting next to her, starts thumping her on the back. Hard. My cousin Bella screams something about allergic reactions and paramedics. And Clara just sits there, leaning over the table, her face inches away from her plate. Oblivious. In my estimation she has about two more seconds before they’re giving her the Heimlich. “She’s not choking!” I yell in Italian at my uncle. “Leave her alone! You’re going to hurt her!” He keeps right on thumping.

“Stop, Alberto, stop!” orders Nonna. He stops. Everybody always listens to Nonna. Suddenly Clara takes a deep breath and sits up. She blinks a few times, like she has no idea where she is, how she got here. It must be quite the sight to wake up to, everyone at the table staring at her in alarm. “Sorry,” she mumbles, her face going a lovely shade of red. She clears her throat and tries to smooth her hair behind her ear, and I notice that her hand trembles before she tucks it back into her lap. “I’m okay. Sorry about that.

” More staring. Then Bella says, “What’s wrong with her, do you think?” and everybody starts talking about how she could have some sort of medical condition, possibly narcolepsy, which is a funnysounding word in Italian, narcolessia. They shift to discussing how strange Clara is, even for an American. It could be that she’s out of her head with grief, because her mother died a few weeks ago. Or that she has a delinquent brother who’s missing—how do they even know this, I wonder? Have they been listening in on her phone calls to Billy when they’re talking about Jeffrey? Or maybe, they speculate, she has some kind of drug problem. They don’t think she can understand what they’re saying. But of course she does. She can understand any language on earth. I meet her eyes across the table and try to give her an understanding smile. Yes, sometimes it sucks being an angel-blood, but it’s always good for a few laughs, right? She doesn’t smile back.

She murmurs something unintelligible and slips away from the table. I take a moment to try to explain to my family that (a) Clara doesn’t do drugs, and (b) she doesn’t need a doctor. I take the grief angle and run with it. “Clara’s going through a hard time,” I say. Which is true. I find her upstairs at the little sink in our bedroom, scrubbing frantically, trying to get spaghetti sauce out of her white shirt. “So.” I lean against the door frame. “A new vision.” “Yep.

” Scrub scrub scrub. “What is it this time?” I ask. She keeps scrubbing, but the stain is not coming out; it’s just spreading. “Not much to go on yet. Darkness. A bad feeling.” Of course there’s more she’s not telling me. Clara’s always holding back something. “Oh, so a fun vision,” I say. She gives a humorless laugh.

“Yeah. Let the good times roll.” My visions have never been like hers. I’ve blanked out a few times, the way she did tonight, but it never lasts that long. It’s more of a flash when it happens to me, a set of images that hit me rapid-fire, one after another, always the same: a long path made of checkered purple-and-tan stones, opening to a wide-open area, palm trees, parked cars, bikes whizzing by, the sun high in the sky overhead. Then a set of five wide steps leading to a courtyard of some sort, framed with archways, archways, archways never-ending, and beyond them a larger courtyard. Red flowers. A flash of dark figures standing in a circle. They used to scare me, the dark figures. I thought they might be fallen angels, bad guys, there to hurt me, or stop me from doing whatever I’ve been sent to this place to do, or drag me to hell, or something equally unpleasant.

Then I figured out that I’m seeing Stanford University, and the figures are statues—replicas of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. Stanford has a thing about Rodin. Anyway, the point is, my vision never reveals anything bad. It shows me a bright, sunshiny day and a set of steps. The only thing my vision has in common with any of Clara’s is that at the top of those steps I see a guy with his back turned to me, like she saw the back of Christian in her initial vision— not that she knew it was Christian at the time. I have no idea who my guy is either, but he’s wearing a gray suit, which makes me think that he’s someone older. I’m supposed to give that guy a message. After years of having this vision, all my notes and research and attempts to slow it down and figure it out, that’s about as much as I know. I sit at the foot of the bed and try not to let my envy show on my face. Clara always seems to get important visions, dramatic moments that she’s meant to play out, and then we all have to play along, like she’s the lead in our production.

With her, there’s always some element of danger, a Black Wing lingering nearby, a terrible grief, a purpose behind her purpose. After all, Clara’s a Triplare, a threequarter angel, rare and powerful and desired by everybody, good side and bad, although she doesn’t want to do anything with that power. Clara has this Pinocchio-like wish: deep down all she wants is to be a real girl. A normal girl. Even though she’s anything but. Me, I’m a singing telegram. Nobody to save. Nobody to fight. Just words—words I don’t even know yet. Clara’s the heroine of the book.

I’m the delivery girl. I remind myself that there have been a lot of heavenly messages delivered in the history of man. It’s an important job. It’s vital. It’s not all wrapped up in the personal, like Clara’s is. It’s not about who or what I am. It’s a job I have to do. Simple as that. Easy. But still important.

That’s what I tell myself. Clara gives up on the shirt, tosses it down on top of her suitcase. Sighs heavily. “So, now your family thinks I’m a freak, right?” I shrug. “They already thought that. But they think I’m a freak, too. Too many books,” I say, shifting to Italian. “A girl like her should be going out, meeting the young men, getting a boyfriend, not hiding away in libraries and churches.” She smiles, a real one this time. Freaks love company.

“Okay, then. Just so long as you’re a freak too.” “Never underestimate the power of freaks,” I tell her. She looks thoughtful. “I thought you had a boyfriend, though. In Italy, I mean. Didn’t you?” Like she doesn’t already know that this is a subject I don’t talk about. But I’m a decent actress when the situation calls for it. I grew up in a theater, after all. So it’s not too hard to play the slut card.

I arch my eyebrow at her and angle my body suggestively across the bed and say, “Not that the Zerbinos know about. I’ve had all kinds of sexy Italian studs in here, and Nonna never had a clue.” “Oh. I thought . ” “We’ll have to find you one,” I say quickly. “That’s just what the doctor ordered, I think. A summer fling.” Out goes the light in her eyes. That’s the last thing she wants. She’s still pining for the cowboy, still thinking about him in like half of her waking moments and most of her dreaming ones.

Over the last three weeks, since we’ve been on this trip, I’ve learned all of her wistful thinking-of-Tucker expressions. Clara thinks she’s good at hiding her emotions, but she’s pretty easy to figure out. She wears her heart on her sleeve for everybody to see. And her heart, for the moment, is definitely broken. She doesn’t know the first thing about the state of my heart. Or that it’s kind of broken, too. CLARA We’re on the metro when it happens again, on the way back from the Hard Rock Café in Rome. It’s dumb, I know, going out for a plain old cheeseburger in this city of eternally amazing food, but after almost a month in Italy, pasta’s getting old. I stand next to Angela as the train follows its rickety path under the city, my shoulder bumping hers as we take the corners, the light in the car dim and greenish in a way that makes everything feel like a film noir. We’re talking about how we want to spend our second month in Italy.

Well, Angela’s talking. Me, I’m thinking about Tucker. I’m wondering what he’s doing right at this moment. It’s almost nine o’clock at night here, which means it’s almost six in the morning there. He’s sleeping, probably. Soon his dad will come in and wake him, and together they’ll go out to the barn and milk the cows. The air will smell like sweet alfalfa and horse sweat, and maybe he’ll pause in the middle of the barn and think of me, in the place where we first kissed, and he’ll wish I were there. Or maybe, because he’s a smart guy, he won’t think of me at all. He’ll have realized that being with me is not worth all the angel baggage. He’ll have moved on.

“There’s this one old library I go to in Milan,” Angela’s saying. “I’d love to see if they have something about the . ” She stops, as we’ve agreed not to say the word Triplare out loud in public. “The T-people, in there.” I raise my eyebrows at the term T-people, clear my throat to get some of the Tucker-related tightness out. “Oh come on, Ange, enough with the libraries. We’ve been to a dozen libraries already. I say we go to Pompeii. Embrace the tourist thing.” “Pompeii’s sad,” she says with a been-there-done-that roll of her eyes.

“There are all these plaster casts of people in the positions that they died in. Very depressing.” “I hate to remind you, O-she-whose-entire-wardrobe-is-black, but you’re all about the depressing,” I say. “You know you love a good tragedy.” She gives me a hint of a smile like she’s about to say Yes, yes, I do, but I don’t hear because by that point, just that fast, I’m thrown into a vision. And then bam—I’m back on the train. I inhale sharply, like I’m breaking the surface from underwater. There’s a hand on my shoulder, chipped black nail polish—Angela. She’s guided me to a seat and is sitting across from me, staring at me with knowing, sympathetic eyes. A river of Italian flows around us, so many people simply going about their evenings, unaware that anything is out of the ordinary.

I blink a few times. Everything’s slightly blurry. Angela digs in her bag for a minute and produces a crumpled-up tissue. “It’s clean,” she says, and when I don’t understand, when I don’t respond, she quickly dabs at my face. I guess I was crying. “Are you all right?” she asks in a low voice. I’m still trying to catch my breath. This sucks. What I wouldn’t give to be normal, for once. “We’ll talk about it later,” Angela says when I don’t respond.

“Not here, obviously.” I stare at the floor. I’ve been having this new vision for a little more than a week now, the first time at the Zerbino family dinner (boy, was that ever a spectacle—I should start charging admission), once in the shower, and once when we were on a bus coming back from Venice. Of course Angela’s noticed, but I haven’t really gotten into the details with her. Something about the vision this time, about what I feel inside of it—it’s bad. Like people dying, bad. But not like last time. Last time my vision was marked by grief; this time what I feel is fear. Sharp, heart-squeezing, abject terror. I don’t want to talk about it later.

“Well,” Angela says as my pulse returns to its normal rhythm. “At least you didn’t fall down. I don’t know how I would have explained that to all these people if you—” She stops, the words fading on her lips. Her entire body goes rigid, like she’s been turned to stone, her eyes fixed on something over my shoulder. Or someone. I turn to see who she’s looking at. At first glance I think he’s your typical Italian guy leering at us American girls, midtwenties maybe, olive-skinned, dark eyes, wavy brown hair that’s carefully styled, wearing a simple white buttondown shirt with the sleeves rolled up to below the elbow, and khaki pants, shiny leather shoes. Cute, I think. He’s staring at us with a hint of a smile. I get this weird, unsettled feeling, a tingling along my spine.

I turn back to Angela. She’s gazing out the window where there is nothing to see but the dark tunnel we’re moving through. She pushes a strand of hair behind her ear, then returns her hands to her lap, where she starts twisting the ring on her index finger around and around, a nervous habit I’ve never noticed in her before. I take another look at the guy. He meets my eyes, his smile widening, his eyes knowing, almost laughing. “Ange . ,” I say, turning back to her. “Who is—” Then it hits me. This must be Angela’s secret Italian boyfriend. Aha.

I’ve been wondering if he was going to turn up. I even made a dumb joke about it when we first landed in Rome, like, So where’s Mystery Boy? and Angela gave me a look that would have withered flowers, so I dropped it. I tried asking her about it last week, and that time she acted like she’d had a string of boyfriends in Italy, no special one. But now here he is, in the flesh, and Angela is trying so hard to hide that she is totally freaking out. “Oh,” I say, stifling a smile, relieved that’s it’s nothing dangerous. “I see.” She leans forward and grabs me by the wrist. Hard. “Don’t read me,” she mutters under her breath. But touching me only makes it easier to pick up what she’s feeling.

I see a flash of this guy in her mind’s eye, a memory, a close-up of his face, his eyes, which are a beautiful chocolate brown, his breath warm against her cheek as he steps closer, looks from her eyes to her lips. I jerk my hand from Angela’s. A voice overhead announces the next stop, and the train begins to slow. We’re still two stops away from ours, but Angela jumps up. “Let’s get off,” she says loudly. “It stinks in here.” I don’t argue. The train stops and the doors hiss open. I follow her out, and even though she’s trying to act all casual, I don’t miss the I-could-care-less-about-you look she casts the Italian guy’s way. And I don’t miss the way he nods back at her, still smiling.

Like he’s calling her bluff.

.

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