THEY ARE SITTING IN A TRAIN. In Spain. Sharing a pair of headphones and a weird-
tasting coke. It’s Queenie and Penrose, and across the aisle reading a book is Jill. Unfortunate Jill. Unfortunately, Jill. The book is pink, and Jill’s facial expression is too stupid, too focused. And for such a pink book.
Jill leans over, “When do we get there?”
“Three hours,” Queenie spits back.
Barcelona to Seville. Barcelona was a bust. Jill had booked the hostel, and one of them should have looked after her.
The first night: gunshots. Before that: blisters. That’s one thing they didn’t account for about Europe. In their schoolgirl dreams, tucked tight in their lacy beds, thinking of the glamor, the romance. Sitting in the street sipping cappuccinos, gazing at the art. But then, with the hours spent lost, wandering, street signs and maps and relative directions, they were exhausted. Jill had tried to go up the down escalator in the metro.
At the hostel, the beds were narrow and the floor was cold, and Queenie and Penrose had huddled together in a single, afraid that someone might come through the window, or break down the door. Jill slept in the bed on the far side of the room, impervious. Snoring, lightly. She didn’t have her own guidebook, so she kept asking to look at Queenie’s.
“Maybe,” Penrose whispered to Queenie when Jill was in the bathroom, “Maybe you should just give her yours so she would know not to book us in the bad parts of town.”
“Too late,” said Queenie.
The next day they had paid way too much for sangria, and traipsed around Park Güell in the rain. There was Jill, in her marshmallow-man raincoat, dragging behind. She kept stopping, asking them to take pictures of her walking down this path or that.
The three met through the exchange program at Lancaster, spending the spring semester in the chilly North of England. Penrose was used to it, having grown up outside Montreal. She was waifish with lank blonde hair and a love of rap music. Her French was horrible, mostly because she had an English mother, but also because she was achingly shy.
Queenie was from Kansas City, but her French was pretty good. She was a dark-haired beauty and a Tri-Delt and would have had a string of boyfriends by now if it weren’t for her right hand. She was born with three fingers instead of five, and spent life hiding that hand in pockets or in the folds of her skirt. Sometimes in photos, tucked in her jacket like Napoleon. Men made her self-conscious. She pictured her three fingers wrapped around a penis like an alien claw, like tentacles.
Queenie and Penrose came together first, in the vegetarian line, at the exchange student orientation dinner.
Jill came later, shaking hands with Queenie and saying, “Wow, for a moment I thought you only had three fingers.”
Queenie held up her right hand, “Shark attack,” she said.
“Oh my god! I’m so sorry,” said Jill, blushing hard, “That must have been horrible.”
Queenie let her think this for several hours before coming out with the truth. A birth defect, nothing more.
Jill was from North Carolina and wrote poetry and ate meat. She had bangs like Bettie Page and was large. Almost six feet. When she wore her parka in that Lancaster freeze she was enormous.
They had thought Jill would be more fun than she turned out to be. They flew to Dublin over Valentine’s and she was dauntless. Their hostel was an old church, haunted, and Queenie and Penrose were scared out of their minds. They shared a bunk bed because of it. But Jill, intrepid Jill, slept in the bunk next to them like a log—passport and wallet under her pillow. When they woke, Jill was the first to try the shower.
Later in the evening, Jill got her wallet stolen between pubs and she chased the guy down to retrieve it. She tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, sir. May I please have that back?” He dropped it at her feet.
For the rest of that night, through pubs and then clubs, she told every man she stood near about what had happened to her wallet, and it turned them all off. The men were disappointed because she was too hyper to make out with them. Queenie and Penrose didn’t want to admit it, but despite Jill’s girth, she was quite beautiful. They watched her flit around the smoky room, and soon they joined her. All three holding hands, doing the serpentine from man to man, like schoolgirls. Like best friends.
“Don’t get separated,” they spoke loudly into each other’s ears, over the music. They had seen the movies, read the stories on CNN. Rape. Don’t walk out at night alone. Don’t trust strange men. Pay attention on cab rides, in case the driver takes you somewhere you did not intend on going.
After that, they made a plan to stick together over their monthlong spring break. To split rooms and cabs and meals all over the continent. To have each other’s backs. It was going to be great, they thought. Three against the world.
Seville isn’t any better than Barcelona. Jill packs bread and cheese from the hostel breakfast in her purse to save money on lunch. After a few hours, the cheese begins to smell.
She keeps threatening to grab an orange off one of the hundreds of trees lining the streets and eat it. When finally she does, it makes her wretch up her breakfast and cause a scene. She keeps mixing up Spanish words with other languages.
Running late for a walking tour, as they sprint to the starting point, Jill yells, “Ándale! Ándale!” Spaniards turn their heads. Queenie and Penrose are mortified.
Italy is next, Venice, and if they thought Spain was hard to navigate, this is worse. Jill falls asleep on the water bus.
“It’s dangerous,” Queenie says, looking at Jill, a drop of drool condensing on her lip. “Can you imagine what she’d do if we left her here?”
“She’d never make it,” says Penrose.
Jill begins pestering them with a chorus of, Hold ons and Wait whats. She doesn’t know a thing. Weighing them down like another piece of luggage. A suitcase. A big dumb deadweight with a trendy haircut and a misplaced sense of humor. They stop talking to her so much. They share more food, more clothes, more beds, more seats on the train.
In Florence, they notice Jill has started doing her makeup like Penrose. A little sparkle at the corner of the eye. They laugh at Jill when she isn’t looking.
In Vienna, Jill decides that she wants to be vegetarian too, and they look at each other like Jill has gone crazy.
In Salzburg, thanks to a mix-up at the hostel, they are given separate rooms. Jill in a single where she can read that pink book all night long if she wants to. Queenie and Penrose share a queen next door and practice speaking French to each other. Paris is coming up soon, in less than two weeks. They take hot showers and trade clothes.
“It should have just been you and me all along,” says Penrose.
“You’re so right,” Queenie says. “It would have been better if Jill never came with us at all.”
They drift to sleep, warm and smelling of shampoo and Woolite, thinking of the Champs-Élysées, of Louis Vuitton, of springtime flowers and walking arm in arm, Jill never there to begin with.
The daily routine: Jill’s alarm wakes everyone but Jill. She forgets something or other in the room, and they have to go back for it, always when they’re already out on the street. She steers them in wrong directions. When she speaks at mealtimes, Queenie and Penrose hold hands under the table and squeeze, neither minding Queenie’s three fingers. How idiotic, they think. How unseemly she is. They read each other’s minds.
Jill has gotten in their dreams. They wake up and whisper to one another, so close, so quiet, lips nearly brushing ear, “We can’t escape her! Jill is everywhere!” In their dreams, Jill holds them by the ankles and they miss their trains. She takes their passports, their wallets, and loses them. There is nothing they can do.
In Germany, they visit Dachau. Rows of tiny beds and furnaces made special for humans. Queenie and Penrose are somber, disturbed. They talk very little. Jill snaps photos left and right, intrusive, insensitive. On their way back, Queenie and Penrose sit close and whisper about death.
“I’m horrified,” Queenie says.
“Me too,” adds Penrose.
“It was uplifting to me,” says Jill.
“How on earth could you say that?” snaps Queenie.
Jill looks bewildered. Stupid. “Well, I just mean how they’re committed to not letting it happen again. I mean, they’re so open about it.”
“That’s not what it was about at all,” Penrose says. “It was awful.”
“Well, that’s just my interpretation.”
On a day trip to Neuschwanstein Castle, they watch Jill meet a boy. He is American and cute. He has on a long sleeved henley and fitted jeans, and carries a Nikon around his neck. On the tour, Jill and the boy separate from the group, and Queenie and Penrose lock eyes. Could this be it? But she pops back up like a bad habit in front of the bathrooms on the way out, still with the boy, still standing close and laughing hard.
Jill and the boy sit next to each other and talk loudly on the train ride back. He tells the story of a childhood injury, of the time when a dog ripped off half of his scalp.
“I have scars running all over my skull, you just can’t see them for my hair.”
“You know, that’s pretty hot actually,” says Jill.
Later on they hear Jill suggest that if the boy is ever in the UK, to look her up. How desperate, they think. How shamefully transparent.
When they get back to Munich, Jill holds them up getting the boy’s phone number. They hope he will never call her. They hope Jill will be disappointed.
Finally, Paris. The first night, they see the Eiffel Tower glittering and think: We have arrived. Then Jill says, “Who wants to see the catacombs?”
“No way,” they say, “What do you want with those? That’s disgusting.”
But after a day, Jill is resolved. She meets a fat Australian girl and an older American man on a walking tour, and tells Queenie and Penrose she will go to the catacombs with them.
“Suit yourself,” say Queenie and Penrose, almost gleeful. What pleasure, a day spent more than five feet away from Jill.
Queenie and Penrose bask in their beautiful alone time. They share crêpes by the Louvre and take their stroll down the Champs-Élysées, arm-in-arm. They slip in and out of extravagant shops, fingering the expensive handbags, picturing them under their own arms and thanking the universe that Jill isn’t there to get them thrown out.
When they get back to their hostel that night, after splitting a bottle of wine in a little cafe near Montmartre, they find Jill on her bed, smelling like death from the catacombs.
“How was it?” they ask her.
“Brilliant, amazing,” she says, “Did you know there are over six million sets of bones down there?”
“We didn’t want to.”
The next day Jill tells them she is going to the Moulin Rouge, and they say fine and take a train to Versailles. They wander through the labyrinth of ornate rooms, drink more wine, sit in the English garden and take pictures of each other, smiling next to a bush, next to the marble statue of a bare-breasted woman. They buy postcards to send home to their mothers.
When they get back, they find Jill sitting on her bed in a black-and-white striped shirt and a powder blue beret. Queenie taps Penrose’s foot with her own. They don’t need to say a word.
The next day Jill leaves their room early and doesn’t tell them where she’s going, but they don’t care. They picture her out on the street, using her pitiful French to find a place to eat.
“Baguette?” she would say, accosting every person she met until someone tells her where to go.
They put on dresses. Penrose in green, Queenie in black. Warm enough for it, finally. They spend the morning sipping cappuccinos outside, and the afternoon looking at art. Penrose has gotten some color in her cheeks, and several men approach on this street or that. They shake each one off with disdain.
“You look so pretty today,” Queenie tells Penrose.
Penrose kisses her on the cheek, “You too, chérie.”
They drink so much wine that they can’t quite remember how they get back to the hostel, falling into Queenie’s bed, tangled together, still with their dresses on, their flat walking shoes. They also don’t notice that Jill never comes back that night at all.
In the morning they see her bed, still made, and feel angry. Jill is going to make them miss their train. They check under her bed, and her backpack is gone. So are most of her things, her clothes, her shoes, that pink book. Her hairbrush still rests on the corner of their sink, knotted with Jill’s brown hair. Of course Jill would leave that for them to clean up.
They try to call her cellphone, but it goes straight to voicemail. She has been using Queenie’s charger this whole time, forgetting her own back in Lancaster, across the water.
Checkout time comes, and they leave for Gare du Nord. Their train to London departs at 4 o’clock that afternoon. They don’t want to miss it.
“She’ll probably meet us there,” they say, thinking of Jill running through the station at the last possible moment, pushing fashionable French people out of the way, plopping down in her seat just as the train begins to move, sweat gleaming on her forehead.
They buy another coke for the journey, and wait.
At 3:30, Penrose says, “Are you sure we shouldn’t look for her?”
“Where would we look? If you ask me, she’s on her own now.”
They think about this for a while, Jill stranded in Paris, losing track of time with that fat Australian girl and the American man. Or worse, lost somewhere and crying, without a map, or even a clue of where to buy one. Or more horrible still—they know the stories.
At 3:50, they settle into their seats, side by side, opening their coke bottle. Jill isn’t there. The doors close, but Queenie and Penrose know they could still get off, still go look for her. They could come to the rescue.
Instead, they just sit.
When the train pulls out, gaining speed, rolling through the outskirts of the city, buildings turning into wasteland turning into countryside, they say, “You know, this will be good for her.” Getting back on her own will teach Jill a thing or two. How to be a little more worldly. To be a little more savvy. And besides, Jill has people back in North Carolina. They’ll notice if she doesn’t show up after a while. She will be fine.
When Queenie and Penrose get back to campus, they go to their separate rooms in their separate flats, and stay that way for exactly one day. After that one day, they decide that they don’t like being apart much at all, so Penrose packs up her clothes and shoes and books, and crams them into Queenie’s tiny closet. They share meals, they watch TV in Queenie’s bed. They imagine what they’ll say when they see Jill again, how they’ll scold her. Maybe yell.
Every once in a while, they try to call her. Usually late into the night, when they both have had a few glasses of wine. Each time, the call goes to voicemail, the inbox is full. They check her Facebook too, no updates. Just the same inane photo, walking on the street in Dublin in that gigantic coat.
Exam time comes and they still haven’t seen her. They think they should have by now, clomping around campus in her combat boots, her loud laugh echoing down corridors. They call her phone once more, but the line is disconnected. They begin to think the worst. Maybe they should report her. Tell someone she’s gone. They had gotten separated at a train station. It was nobody’s fault.
But instead, they stop talking about Jill. They take the bus to town for cupcakes. They study for exams, but not too hard. They take a weekend trip to London, perfect from beginning to end, from the Tate Modern to Buckingham Palace to the Globe. Soon, they feel, it is too late.
And then the semester is over. Through tears and tight hugs Queenie and Penrose promise to write, and for a time, they do. Classes are hard, the winter is so cold! I’m thinking of Paris! Love, Queenie. I have a cat now, her name is Duchess. Remembering London! Love, Penrose. But those too stop, after a time.
Back in Kansas City, a fraternity boy will take notice of Queenie’s big eyes and silky hair and high, round breasts, and he won’t much care what her hand looks like on his penis. She will start saying silly things to him, I love you so much my heart might burst, and when she hears herself say these things out loud, she will think of her—of Jill. Isn’t it just the kind of thing she would do? Queenie will get pregnant and drop out of school just before graduation. Stupid. Thoughtless.
When Penrose graduates with her degree in psychology, she will get a job at a school in Old Montreal where she will talk to students in her botched French. When she makes mistakes and the students laugh at her, she will feel just like Jill, and hate herself for it. After a year, she will gain the courage to move all the way to Vancouver and work in a bakery. Though when she really thinks about it, this too is something Jill would do. Or would have done.
Queenie will get married young to raise her daughter, and when she hears her whimper, when she sees her take an unsure step, she will think of Jill, and she will hold her small daughter in her arms and feel overwhelmed with care. She will clean up this girl’s messes. She will teach this girl how to survive. At the grocery store, through a chorus of Hold on Mommys and Wait, look Mommys, she will hold on. She will wait. She will love her through it all.
Penrose will greet customers coming in and out of the shop, and when she spots one in a parka, or a beret, or with those Bettie Page bangs, her heart will leap and she will think, this is it, Jill has found me. Jill will never walk into that bakery, but she will be there for Penrose all the same, in the men, and then the women she meets and loves and takes into her bed. Jill will be there in the hearty laughter. In the adventurous eating. In the uncouth observations that now make Penrose laugh too.
Far away, separated by space and by time, Queenie and Penrose will become only fleeting memories to each other. A forgotten friendship. A college fling. Only Jill will linger, flooding their past and present and future with her possibilities. They are Jill. They love Jill. They can’t escape her, and they wouldn’t want to. Now, together and apart, they only fear that they’ll never deserve her.
ANNIE JOSEY earned her B.A. in English and Creative Writing from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she also received the 2011 George B. Wynne Award for Fiction and the 2012 Max Steele Prize for Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Bird’s Thumb, Watershed Review, and Spires Magazine. She currently lives in Durham, North Carolina.