Authors: Jen McConnel
To Meghann, Kara, and Mallory: your adventures inspire me!
To: SarahGirl18; CamieLuvsArt222
Okay, girls, get ready for it . . . we're going to use Italy as our home base for the rest of the summer! I've finally convinced the 'rents to let me meet back up with y'all, and my brother and sister-in-law even offered to chip in a little bit toward the travel fund, which means . . .
I've rented an apartment for us in Florence! So, start heading that way, ladies. I should be there in two or three days, if everything goes according to plan. I can't wait to see you both again; it feels like months since we said good-bye in Paris.
If you get to Florence before me, go ahead and pick up the key.
I can't wait for one last hurrah before fall! See you girls soon!
I gaped at the yellow stucco buildings and romantic tiled roofs. Florence was like stepping back in time; if Paris had felt like the nineteenth century, Florence was more like the Middle Ages. My eyes couldn't drink it all in fast enough.
“Come on, Camie, keep up!” Sarah was already half a block ahead of me. I shifted my heavy backpack and hurried to catch up.
“Isn't it gorgeous?” I gushed when I pulled up alongside her.
She nodded, her eyes glistening. “It feels like heaven.” With a self-conscious laugh, she added, “or at least summer.”
She was right; it was hot. The cobblestone streets sent the heat back up at us as we walked, and the morning sunlight was already brutal. I could feel sweat pooling under my backpack, and I suddenly wanted to take a cold shower. “Where's the real estate office again?”
Sarah pointed up the street. “Wait here; I'll see if Joelle's beat us.”
She ducked through a narrow doorway, leaving me on the street. I took a deep breath. Florence smelled like geraniums and sunshineânothing like Paris's damp, springtime smell even in the middle of summer.
Maybe this will be the place I'll finally be able to forget everything that happened in
The beach hadn't done it; I hadn't told Sarah, but I'd woken up in tears most nights. It felt pathetic to cry over a city, but I knew that it was more than Paris I'd been missing.
It was Hunter.
Before I could wallow too much, Sarah popped back into view, followed by a beaming Joelle.
“Ta-da!” she laughed. “I found more than our key!”
Joelle gave me a quick hug. “God, it's good to see you guys. I can't wait to tell you all about Germany!”
I grinned, pushing thoughts of Hunter to one side. “You look like you had fun!” I gestured to her short hair. “Super cute!”
She smiled. “Thanks, did it myself. Yes, I was sober,” she added before I could open my mouth.
Sarah giggled. “Unlike in Amsterdam.”
Joelle touched her nose piercing. “I still like it, at least.”
Sarah smiled and linked her arm through Joelle's. “Good. I like mine, too.”
Before I could ask what Sarah had had pierced, Joelle tugged her arm. “Come on, ladies, let's go home!”
My heart beat with giddy excitement as we followed Joelle down a narrow side street. She stopped in front of a huge wooden door. “Ready?”
Sarah and I nodded, and Joelle pushed the door open. We paused in the dark hallway. It was cold, almost as if we'd stepped into a basement, and the chilly gloom was a big contrast to the oven outside.
Joelle disappeared around a dark corner, and Sarah followed her. Looking around the dim hallway, I trailed after them, but I stopped short.
“What is that thing?” Joelle and Sarah were standing in what looked like a tiny gold cage. There was just enough space for me to squeeze in, if I wanted to, but I wasn't sure I wanted to.
Joelle laughed. “It's an old service elevator. No more braving the stairs with our bags.”
That was a tantalizing thought. Still, I hung back. “Are you sure it works?”
“The landlady said so.”
I eyed the cage. “Will it hold all of our weight?”
“God, Camie,” Joelle rolled her eyes, “just take the stairs if you want. We're on the third floor.”
I paused, but before I had a chance to decide, Joelle slid the grate closed and pressed a button. There was a groaning, creaking, whirring noise, and slowly, the gold cage began to ascend. Annoyed, I looked around and found a set of stairs.
Three flights shouldn't be too bad, right?
I started trudging up, trying to ignore the sticky weight of my bag against my back, but it was difficult. I was almost dead by the time I made it to the third floor, but there was no sign of Sarah and Joelle. What if the elevator had crashed?
“Guys?” I called uncertainly, standing at the top of the landing.
“Up here!” Joelle's voice came from above, and I craned my neck, trying to see.
“One more flight of stairs!”
I wanted to argue with her, to point out that I was already on the third floor, but I just sighed and climbed another flight. I leaned on the wall at the top of the stairs, panting, and Joelle grinned.
“Take the elevator next time, okay?”
“I thought you said we were on the third floor.”
“We are. Italians don't count the ground floor as the first floor.”
I groaned. “You could have told me that sooner.”
She shrugged. “But you're here now.” Her eyes sparkled as she inserted the old black key into an ancient-looking keyhole. “Home sweet home!”
She had to lean on the key to get it to turn, but when the door finally swung open, Sarah and I gasped. Directly facing the door was an open window, and through the frame, we could see the top of the Duomo.
Joelle grinned. “Welcome to our new home, ladies!” She stepped into the room and swept her arm in a grand gesture, and Sarah dropped her bag immediately and started exploring. I paused over the threshold.
“Isn't this expensive?” I asked Joelle, dropping my voice in embarrassment.
She shook her head. “It's actually cheaper than a hotel. There's a hostel in this building, too, and they own all the apartments.”
Before I could answer, Sarah called out from the other end of the hall. “You guys, come see!”
I set my heavy bag down and headed toward her voice. Sarah had parked herself in front of a small washing machine and she was staring at it in awe.
“Clean clothes!” she breathed, like a prayer, and Joelle and I glanced at each other before we started giggling uncontrollably. In a moment, we joined Sarah, laughing in a pile on the floor.
The apartment had two bedrooms, a small kitchen, the little laundry closet, and a combination sitting and dining room. After some discussion, we agreed to rotate sleeping arrangements, since each bedroom had two beds; one of us would sleep alone each night, but to be fair, we'd all swap beds every night so everyone got the privacy and everyone had to share.
“And,” Joelle added mischievously, “we can always change the rotation if anyone brings home a date!”
Sarah and I glanced at each other, and we both shook our heads. “Not likely,” I answered for us both.
Joelle winked. “Who knows, maybe I'll meet somebody!”
For the first night, I ended up with the room to myself, and I dragged my bag into the corner. I realized that I could actually unpack; since we'd be staying in Florence for a while, I didn't have to keep living out of my luggage. That was a tantalizing thought. Looking around the room, I crossed to the windows. They were tall and covered with wooden shutters, and I unlatched them and folded them back only to find another set of shutters. These opened out, over the street, and I leaned out the window, pressing the shutters back against the cream stucco wall, and stared out at Florence in amazement.
Red-and-brown-tiled roofs lined all the buildings I could see, but our apartment was taller than many of the buildings surrounding us. The Duomo was visible from this window, too, and I stared at it eagerly. The building itself was supposed to be a masterwork of art, and I couldn't wait to see it.
Leaning out the window, I tipped forward and looked at the slate-gray street below. An aqua scooter whizzed by, shattering the stillness of our narrow street for a moment. The building was on a corner, and if I leaned farther out the window, I could make out restaurant tables on the wide cross street beside us. I closed my eyes, savoring the moment. Taking a deep breath of air, I coughed, and my eyes popped open. I hadn't been expecting the clump of thick air to hit my lungs. It was hot and humid in Florence, not the crisp freshness I'd gotten used to in Paris, but I decided I didn't care.
I was in Italy, I was with my friends, and for the first time since I'd met him, Hunter was the furthest thing from my mind.
After we got settled, and Sarah ran a load of laundry, we sat down at the kitchen table to make our plans.
“We'll need to get groceries,” Joelle said, looking around the sunny but fairly bare kitchen. “Can either of you cook?”
I shrugged. “I guess, a little.”
Sarah nodded. “I can make some stuff.”
Joelle smiled. “I cook a little, too. So why don't we each make one meal every couple of days, and the leftovers should carry us through?”
We agreed. “Does that mean we'll buy groceries all together, or will we each just buy what we're going to cook?” Sarah asked.
Joelle and I looked at each other and I shrugged. “It's probably easier if we just each shop, right?”
She nodded. “I guess. Then we don't have to worry about making a group list or anything.”
“Sounds like a plan! Who's cooking tonight?”
Sarah and Joelle both called, “Not it!” at the same moment, and then they looked at each other, giggling.
I shook my head with a smile. “I guess I'll do it.” I looked around the sunny apartment and sighed happily. Cooking dinner shouldn't be too hard!
I didn't want to spend my first day in Florence grocery shopping, so I decided I'd pick up food on my way back from exploring. Sarah and Joelle were going out, too, and they invited me to wander around with them, but for my first impressions of the city, I kind of wanted to be on my own. Nobody protested, and we parted ways outside after Joelle handed me the key.
“Since you'll be making dinner, I guess you might be back before us.”
I glanced back at the door. “We only have one key?”
She nodded. “But we should be able to work it out.”
I wasn't so sure, but I didn't want to argue. “I'll be back by, I don't know, four?”
Sarah chimed in. “Take all the time you need. It's not like either of us are going to come back to take a nap or anything.”
Joelle grinned. “Although Sarah might want to sneak back for a hot date with the washing machine.”
We all laughed, and I tucked the key into an interior pocket of my messenger bag. “All right!” I waved at them. “Time to conquer Florence!”
The street was narrow, and it was straight for a couple of blocks, but then it angled sharply to the right. I kept walking, inhaling the rich fragrances of blooming gardenias and pasta and pizza drifting into the street from the various restaurants I passed. It felt quieter than Paris, and once again I had a sense of time travel, like I'd stepped back a few centuries when we got off the train.