The trolley pulled into Willow Creek and slowed to a halt, but Xander bounded down the steps before they came to a complete stop. He heard the conductor yelling after him as he jumped into the sun-washed street, but he was already gone. The air smelled good – familiar, like home. And it was good to be home. Lola waved frantically at him from across the street.
Xander grinned broadly and hurried over to her, gathering his little sister in a hug. When he pulled away, Lola was surprised to see that his purple cheeks had flushed a pale shade of pink.
“Actually….I’m going by Xander now.” He smiled sheepishly.
Lola looked disappointed. “Really? But why? Xan-Man sounds so cool, like a jazz legend or something!” Lola’s musical inclinations seemed to work their way into all of her conversations these days.
Xander nudged her in the side. “I think we already have a jazz legend in the family. Besides, it’s time for me to grow up – just a little bit! And maybe quit referring to myself in the third person?”
Lola laughed at him, and he ruffled her hair. There was something different about Xander, and it wasn’t just his name. He was glowing, she thought. He smiled from his eyes and he skipped more than stepped.
“So how was Windenberg?”
Xander blushed again and Lola’s eyes narrowed.
“You met someone!”
“Well of course I met someone. The Xan-Man – I mean I – always meet someone. Several someones, actually.”
He was trying to play it cool, but Lola knew him far too well.
“But there’s one someone in particular. I know I’m right, don’t you dare lie to me!”
Xander broke out into a grin as he told her about Annie. They’d been inseparable over the past week, and Xander had even extended his trip to spend more time with her. They’d gone to parties,bonfires, and been dancing – but looking back on it now, Xander knew it would be the quiet moments with her that he would miss the most.
“So when do we get to meet this Annie?” Lola’s voice snapped him back to the present.
“Soon, I hope. We’re doing the long distance thing for now, but she promised to visit as soon as she gets a few days away from work.”
They started for home, and Xander pulled out his phone, flipping to a photo of he and Annie outside the Windenberg library. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
Lola agreed. There was something edgy about Annie, a quality Lola found entirely admirable. Encouraged by Lola’s obvious interest, Xander showed her the rest of his pictures: the ones of the party on The Bluff, he one of he and Annie kissing in front of the ruins, and the one taken in front of a spectacular fountain in the square. By the time they reached home, Lola’s eyes were as big as saucers and wild with excitement.
“I want to go to Windenberg!” She exclaimed, just as Coralie walked outside to greet them.
Coralie hugged her brother tight. “Glad to have you back,” she said. Xander was a goofball, but he’d always had a way of making her feel better.
“Now what brainy ideas are you putting in Lola’s head?” It felt good to smile, she realized. It had been awhile.
Lola exploded into an animated, rambling monologue. “You just have to see Xander’s pictures from Windenburg, Coralie! It’s freaking gorgeous there! So exciting and different, you know? Xander told me all about these raging parties – I mean, he says there’s live music every night! And like.. culture and stuff! When I grow up I’m totally taking my cello and playing all the best jazz clubs in Windenberg!”
Coralie laughed at the excitement in her sister’s voice. She thought of the train tickets Kody had given her. She must have called a hundred times, and texted a million more, begging him to understand – and when that failed, begging him to please take back the train tickets. How could she accept such a gift under the circumstances? But she’d gotten no response, and the tickets were tucked inside her nightstand drawer for safe keeping. She sighed heavily, considering her options. It felt wrong to use the tickets, but Kody clearly wasn’t going to take them back. What point was there in letting them go to waste?
She set her jaw decisively.
“I happen to have two train tickets to Windenberg,” she looked at Lola and then at Xander. “I think you two should go.”
Xander cocked an eyebrow, an unspoken question. But Coralie didn’t want to talk about Kody. She knew her brother, and if she so much as breathed Kody’s name, Xander would push until she told him everything. She leveled her gaze at him and kept her mouth shut.
“They’re your tickets,” he countered. “You and Lola should go together.”
“No, no – I, uh – I need to wash my hair anyway. You can see your new girlfriend – ”
Xander looked stunned (how did she know?!).
“- and Lola can be exposed to some… culture and stuff.”
Lola squealed, but Xander shook his head. “Annie’s working round the clock these next few days, Cora. I wouldn’t get to see her anyway. You two should go together, I insist. A sister’s weekend!”
But Coralie dug her heels in. “How about Mom, then?”
Lola shot her a look. “Come on, Cora! Mom’s like, fine and all, but you know she won’t let me do anything fun! Come on! You used to be so much fun!” She pouted up at her big sister. “It’ll be like Xander said – a special sister’s weekend!”
Coralie sighed and shook her head in defeat. As usual, there was no arguing with her sister.
“Allright!” She smiled despite herself. “Allright. Fine. Go pack your bags. We leave in an hour.”
Maybe this trip would do her some good after all.
The Hasslich sisters had a total of three days in Windenberg, and Lola was determined to make the most of it. While Coralie had vetoed more than a few of Lola’s “cultural activities,” they did manage to squeeze in a whirlwind sightseeing tour of the city, as well as some actual sisterly bonding.
When Lola suggested an “educational” visit to the Ruins (at 2am), Coralie took Lola to the library instead.
And when Lola begged to take “cultural dance lessons” at the disco, Coralie insisted they see the countryside.
But by the end of their third night, Coralie was exhausted. Keeping up with a teenager was no easy feat, as it turned out.
She shot her sister a warning look.
“Lola, I’m about to do something that Mom would absolutely kill me for. So it has to be our secret.”
Lola’s face lit up. She liked the sound of this already.
“I’m going into that bar over there for a drink. And you’re coming with me.” She pointed at her. “The drinking age is lower here, so it’s technically legal. You can have ONE drink, okay? ONE!”
Lola just grabbed her hand and pulled her inside the pub.
Lola spent an extraordinary amount of time studying the drink list before she ordered. If she could only have one, she would have to choose wisely. In the end, she settled on a Flaming Zesty and winked at the bartender when he placed the glass in front of her. She wasn’t the Xan-Man’s little sister for nothing…
Lola gulped her first sip – she gagged and made a face. Coralie laughed, and they quickly fell into a companionable silence. She was glad they had come, she realized. The time with her sister had helped her relax, and moreover, it brought them closer than ever before. She really had needed this.
Lola brought the drink to her lips again, taking a smaller sip this time. “So where did you get the train tickets?” she asked without looking at her sister.
Coralie looked at her sideways, and sighed. “Kody bought them for us to take a romantic weekend together. Before he broke up with me. Obviously.”
Lola turned to her abruptly, a serious expression on her face. “What a piece of absolute plum,” she deadpanned. “I should set his house on fire or something. Plumming plum.”
Coralie opened her mouth to reply – to laugh, maybe, or to scold her little sister for her atrocious language. But her phone buzzed in her pocket, interrupting her train of thought. She looked at the caller ID: it was Kody.
Wide-eyed, she turned the phone to face Lola.
Lola grinned. “Awww, see? I told you he was a sweetheart! I’m a great judge of character, you know. Now answer it, already, will you?”
And Coralie did.
Kody’s breath caught in his throat at the sound of her voice. His palms were sweating. What had he been thinking all this time? Coralie didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She only lied because she was afraid to lose him. He knew that now. Now that he knew how much it hurt him to lose her.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted into the phone. “I’m sorry, Coralie. I was an absolute plum, and I miss you.”
Her voice sounded far away when she spoke, but he heard her loud and clear.
“It’s okay, Kody. I’m coming home.”
And the rest was history.