It was my fourteenth birthday. We were staying still at the place Flavio offered us at the favelas area.
I had slept in late. When I got up I realized I was alone at the attic. I headed to the small furnished area that served as both our kitchen and our living room, made myself a nice cup of tea and some toast with jam and butter and sat on the wonky couch to enjoy this rare morning of peace and quiet. Boys can be too noisy and loud sometimes, you know.
I had hardly swallowed the first mouthful of tea when the attic door banged open and Alex stormed in.
“Why are you still in your pajamas?”, he demanded.
“Just woke up.”
“Come on, get up and get ready. We have to go.”
“Phoebs, we are wasting time. Come on, get moving.”
“Let me finish my breakfast first.”
He sighed and in three strides was by my side, taking the cup out of my hands and getting me on my feet.
“You’re finished now”, he said pushing me towards my bedroom area.
I gave up. When Alex got like this, there was no reasoning with him. I was dressed and ready in 10 minutes. Alex was waiting impatiently for me by the front door.
“Why you girls take so long to put a shirt on?”
He opened the door and walked out without waiting for an answer. Man, he was weird and on edge that morning. I hurried on behind him.
There was a thruster parked by the side of our building. Alex jumped in and motioned me to follow.
“Where did you get this?”
“Flavio, let me borrowed it for the day.”
He turned the engine on, we got up in the air and soon we left the eastern part of the city behind.
“Where are we going?”
“Where is Max.”
“Attending some important business.”
“What kind of business?”
“Phoebs, you are asking too many questions, you know that?”
“Is that a problem?”
“Right now, yes. I am trying to concentrate on my driving.”
“When did driving and answering my questions at the same time become such a challenging task for you?”, I provoked him. Truth is I was getting really irritated by his bizarre behavior.
“Alex, is something wrong? Did something happen to Max? Cause if it did, I have the-”
“Phoebe, can you keep quiet, please? No more talking for a while.”
My irritation had turned into anger. I couldn’t understand what was going on with him, but I decided to keep my mouth shut nonetheless. For the whole day, just to prove to him that I could be just as annoying as he was.
We flew in silence towards a part of Virtus I had never been to before. The buildings were old but well maintained, with brightly colored fronts and flower beds everywhere. The roads were, in most cases, no more than alleys, but that jut added to the charm of the area. And as far as I could tell, the by passers were far from the posh and fashionable people I used to see in the city centre. They reminded me more of Daisy, with their mismatched and unconventional clothes, their weird hats and smiley faces.
Alex landed the thruster on the rooftop of one of the lower buildings and got out.
“Come on”, he said. “I want to show you something.”
A few seconds ago I was determined to stay in the thruster and completely ignore him, but my curiosity won in the end. This neighborhood was completely different from anything I’d seen by then in Virtus and I was eager to explore it.
So, I did as he told me. I stepped out of the thruster and followed him. Every turn we took brought about a new surprise; every alley was even more beautiful than the one we left behind us. It was like stepping into another world; like being somewhere far away from Virtus. Here the buildings were not made with metal and glass but with stones and tiles. It was truly extraordinary.
“What is this place?”, I murmured.
“This is the old neighborhood, as they call it. Designed and built to resemble traditional villages of the past. The residents of this place are mostly humanitarians and history fans who find the modern architecture and lifestyle too… well, modern for their taste.”
“Unbelievable. How come we’ve never been here before?”
So much for the silence vow.
“It’s not an easy place to spot. It is too far away from the centre and all those skyscrapers hide it from view.”
We strolled around for some time, mooning around and gazing at the wonderfully strange by passers.
“So, this is what you wanted to show me?”
We walked a bit more, until Alex stopped abruptly in front of a shop window.
“This is it.”
A big wooden sign was hanging above the entrance, writing in bright red ink, ‘Antique Shop’. We entered. The place was packed with things, really old things, of the kind you couldn’t find in ordinary shops. Weathered books with yellow pages, hand-wound clocks, old-fashioned toys and clothes, hats and shoes, peculiar-looking portraits, paintings and card postals from the world before the flooding, hand-made notebooks and jewelry, vintage tea sets and cutlery. For me, it was like stepping into Wonderland. Even the owner, an elderly gentleman, who wore a pair of huge round glasses and an old deep green trimmed suit, fitted the place perfectly.
“Happy Birthday, Phoebs”, grinned Alex. “Pick up whatever you want. It’s on me. For your birthday.”
I was speechless. The fact that Alex thought of bringing me here, that he had actually got into the trouble of finding a place like this that reflected my love for the past, well it really moved me. I didn’t know what to say.
“Go on”, he nudged me.
I didn’t need much encouragement. I started browsing the packed selves and counters, getting more excited by the minute. Everything caught my attention. I touched and smelled them and tried them on, relished their feel and their distinct fragrance. And every now and then I would look at Alex who was standing in a corner smiling at my silliness.
It was impossible to choose, so I started putting aside the things I liked the most to go through them once more. In the end, I managed to limit them to six items: two novels, an art book, a woolen purple scarf, a hand-made notebook and a set of beautiful pearl earrings. I placed them on a counter, trying, in vain to decide, which one to buy. Alex came and stood next to me.
“I need more time”, I told him anxiously. “I can’t decide which one I like more.”
“We’ll get them all then.”
“No! I’ll choose! Just give me another second.” He wouldn’t be able to afford all these things.
Alex paid me no attention. He gathered all of them and took them to the till.
“Alex, no! We can’t afford them.”
“I wouldn’t have brought you here if I couldn’t afford it. Stop stressing so much, Phoebs”, he winked at me.
“Alex, really, you don’t have to do this.”
“I know I don’t. But I want to.” He turned to the elderly owner. “We will take them all, sir.”
“Are they for a gift?”
“Yep. For the lovely lady over here.”
The owner smiled broadly as he wrapped my things in a lovely flowery tissue paper. He added a beautiful wooden pen with carved designs to the packet.
“That’s on the house”, he said.
Alex thanked him, paid and then took my hand and we walked out of the shop. Before thinking about it, I turned and hugged him tightly.
“Thank you so much. That was the greatest birthday surprise I’ve ever had”, I mumbled.
“It was my pleasure.”
We stood there for some time and I suddenly became very aware of his arms around me, the smell of the soap he used, and the feeling of his cheek resting on top of my head and I realized that the butterflies in my stomach were never there whenever I hugged Max.
And I knew I was in trouble. Big big trouble.