The dim lighting in the pub was making her sleepy. Kaila had made the flight from Bangkok to London the night before, and the jetlag still weighed heavily on her. That on top of her gloomy demeanor ensured that no one tried to talk to her. That was alright. She was expecting friends.
Kaila turned to see Sophie standing behind her, arms open wide. Kaila accepted the huge hug, but winced a bit as the sweater she was wearing rubbed against her raw arms. Her unscheduled dip in the Samrong Canal had left her covered in a nasty rash. The long sleeves and turtleneck covered it, but didn’t stop the itching.
“Sophie, good to see you. Hey, Oliver.”
Oliver shook one of Kaila’s free hands while Sophie continued her hug. “It was great to hear you were in town again, Kaila. How was Thailand?”
“Eventful. Hey, Rose. How’s it going?”
“Hey, Kaila. Life’s great.”
Kaila hadn’t failed to notice that Oliver’s other hand was entwined with Rose’s. A small smile played across her face.
Sophie finally released Kaila from her enthusiastic embrace. “So, where are we sitting?”
The whole No Frackin’ Way troupe was not present tonight, but there were still enough of them to take up more than one booth. Oliver, Rose, Sophie, Harrison and Kaila took seats at one booth together. As usual, Sophie started the dialogue again.
“So we’re all dying to know, Kaila, how did your adventure go? Were you able to find November Skies? Is he really Jeffrey Oliver? Tell us!”
Kaila felt the edges of her eyes burning, but the weariness in her soul offset the threat of actual tears. Instead she sighed. “I didn’t find him. November Skies, my father, whoever “he” is. He wasn’t anywhere to be found.”
“Well, that’s a bloody shame,” Harrison muttered. “Did you spend the whole week looking for him?”
“Sort of. I spent most of my time travelling with Craig, asking all the people he worked with if they’d heard or seen anything, but I got nothing. No one knew him. It’s like I’m chasing a ghost,” Maybe her father really was dead. Kaila felt sick at that thought.
Rose took her hand sympathetically. “There, there, it’s alright. There’s no reason to give up hope yet.” Suddenly her arm stiffened. “What happened to your hand?”
Crap. The rash had spread there too. Kaila groaned, opening up her purse and taking out her pills. No point in hiding the medicine now. It was time for her next dose anyway. “It’s nothing. I fell in the Samrong Canal.” With a quick gulp of ice water, she downed the pills.
“You what?!” Everyone was shocked.
“The Samrong Canal?” Sophie gasped. “Kaila, are you crazy?”
“That river is loaded with pollutants, both natural and chemical!” Oliver’s eyes were full of concern.
“Do you know what you were exposed to?” Harrison asked. “Greenpeace did a survey of the canal in 2010, but no recent chemical reports are easily accessible to the public.”
“Look, guys, I was in the hospital for a couple days, but they cleared me, I’m fine. It’s a long story.”
Rose’s eyes were firm. “Start at the beginning.”
Even though Kaila had already gone through the story with Phoebe, there was something cathartic about recounting it to her friends in England. Phoebe had been so shocked by the whole thing that she’d spent most of her time on the phone gasping and exclaiming that Kaila should never have done something so dangerous. She’d even cried a bit, which had made Kaila feel just terrible knowing she’d scared her friend like that.
The members of No Frackin’ Way were different. They listened calmly, asking only clarifying questions, waiting for Kaila to get the full story out. Their calm had a soothing effect on Kaila, and by the end of the story she felt that some of the tension had left her shoulders. It was good to get it all out there.
“That’s quite a story, Kaila,” Sophie said solemnly at the end. “You should be proud,”
“Proud?” Kaila exclaimed. “I was an idiot. I fell off the side of a freaking canal and almost got myself killed!”
“But you did it to save that little boy, Chaisai,” Rose interjected. “You were being brave,”
“But don’t you guys get it?” Kaila said in exasperation. “The whole trip was a waste! I learned nothing at all about November Skies or my father. If anything, I’ve become convinced that November Skies doesn’t exist at all. If November Skies really was my father, I should have seen some more evidence by now, heard about him reaching out to old contacts. This whole trip was a mistake. I thought that I had everything figured out, that I’d just sneak off to London and surprise my father and everyone else. Then when I got here and he was nowhere to be found, I stupidly convinced myself that I could fly even further around the world and find him in a country where I didn’t even speak the language! Who does that?”
“Barely anyone ever does something like that, Kaila,” Oliver answered. “Most people are too scared, too afraid that they’ll mess up or that they won’t be strong enough.”
“I wasn’t strong enough. I messed up, big time.”
“Messing up doesn’t mean you aren’t strong, Kaila. So your trip round the world didn’t go as planned. Are you really surprised about that? You shouldn’t be focusing on your plans not working out as expected. Life’s always like that. You should look at what you found that you didn’t expect.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you found us, didn’t you? And you found Craig, Somchai, Apsara, Chaisai…. And you’ve helped people too. You helped us with our protest. You helped Craig in his work with the homeless, and you saved Chaisai’s life! When we met you two weeks ago, you said you were just a girl from San Bernadino who’d barely been anywhere else in her life. I bet you don’t see yourself as that girl anymore, right? You’ve come a long way in a short time, Kaila. I think that’s what Sophie meant when she said you should be proud.”
Sophie raised her glass. “Well put, Oliver. Cheers!”
It was a funny feeling having her friends so proud of her when Kaila herself felt so defeated. She wasn’t sure if she could feel as successful as they made her out to be, but Oliver was certainly right about one thing: this trip hadn’t been a waste, because she had met so many amazing people along the way. Kaila sat with her friends for about another hour at the pub, but she was still pretty worn out from her travels. She soon called it a night, said goodbye to Sophie, Oliver and the others, and headed back to her hotel. When she got to her room, she was too tired to bother changing or even setting an alarm. She immediately zonked out.
Her cellphone’s incessant ringing woke Kaila up around 2:45 AM. Kaila groggily picked up the phone to answer it. Who could be calling her at this hour? Her heart jumped up into her throat as she saw the caller ID: Mom. Kaila pressed the Accept Call button and gingerly placed the phone to her ear. “Hey, Mom, what’s up?”
“Kaila, where are you?” Aileen Chancellor’s voice was near panic. “I just ran into the Callahans at the grocery store. They said you haven’t been with them since the first few days of your trip, that you told them you were going to England to visit relatives. What in the world have you been doing? Where are you?”
Kaila’s mind raced for an appropriate response. She couldn’t tell the truth. That would just get her in a world of trouble and hurt her mother. There was no point in mentioning her father since she’d found nothing to support her theory. She had to think of something else, start with some basic facts.
“I’m in England, Mom, in London,”
“What have you been doing there these past two weeks? Why didn’t you tell me you were planned to travel separately from the Callahans?”
“I wanted to surprise you.” That much was true, but she had to think of a different surprise than showing up with her father. What would her mother want to hear?
“You see, Mom, this whole time I’ve been… looking at colleges.”
“Looking at colleges?” Her mother sounded skeptical. “Why would you want to do that alone, without telling anybody?”
“Well, I know how upset you and Grandfather were with me for dropping out of USC so suddenly.” Kaila lunged for her laptop. She needed some college names stat. “I want to go back to school and complete my education, but USC just wasn’t a good fit for me. I thought if I could try a change of pace, something really different in a new country, I could find what I’m looking for. Something like… UCL, or King’s College or Imperial College. I’ve done a lot of college tours, and I think I might really be onto something by coming here.”
“Did Phoebe know about all this?”
She had to clear Phoebe of as much blame as possible, but make it believable.
“She did. She didn’t think it was a good idea not to tell anyone, but I make her promise not to tell you. I thought of taking the trip with her, but that would have just made her sad about me moving so far away. This was a trip that I needed to take on my own,”
Her mother’s sigh was a mix of relief and resignation. “Well, I’m glad you’re safe, and I’m happy to hear you’ve been thinking about your studies again. Your grandfather will be pleased to hear about your interest in London,”
Kaila’s throat tightened. “Did you tell him about seeing the Callahans?” She could throw her mother off her scent, but her grandfather would be sure to make calls and inquiries at universities that would reveal Kaila’s story as a sham.
“No, I called you right away. I wanted to make sure that you were safe, that all those emails I’ve been receiving have really been you.”
“Could you hold off on telling Grandfather? I shouldn’t have kept the truth from you, but I really would still like to surprise him.”
“Well, alright. You’re not in any immediate danger, so I guess there’s no harm in that. You’re coming home soon though, right? Bobby and Clarissa have been asking about you,”
So those little stinkers did miss her. Still, she wasn’t quite ready to come home, not with her thoughts still so jumbled up in her head.
“I bought a ticket for a flight home next week,” Kaila lied.
“Alright. No extending your trip beyond then though. You’ve already been gone long enough.”
“Ok, Mom. Sorry I scared you. I… I love you. You know that, right?”
“Yes, sweetie, I do. I love you too. I want to hear all about your college tours when you come back, OK? And send me pictures of London! I’m sure you’ve been doing a lot of sightseeing even though you haven’t been able to post the pictures online.”
“Yep. Definitely.” She’d need to get some major sightseeing in tomorrow. “Well, it’s late here, so I’m going to go back to bed. I’ll call you again tomorrow.”
“Alright, I’ll be expecting your call. Sleep well, honey,”
“I will. Goodnight,” Kaila hung up the phone and let out a deep sigh. She had really dodged a bullet there. Still, she’d have to make sure to thoroughly reinforce her lie. That’s what she would do with the rest of her time in London: tour colleges and the city itself in order to thoroughly document her three weeks away in just one week. She’d make a plan of action tomorrow. With that, Kaila set the alarm on her phone, rolled back under the covers and fell back asleep.
Big Ben was beautiful. Kaila snapped a few pictures of it on her phone. It was beautiful, but her stomach wasn’t up to climbing all those stairs to the top. Ever since her dip in the Samrong Canal and the subsequent bouts of vomiting, she hadn’t had much of an appetite, and her inner constitution remained a bit fragile. A sudden puff of wind sent a shiver racing through Kaila’s body. She had to get inside for some shelter from the wind. Kaila scrolled through her pictures. Her mother also wouldn’t be convinced of her touring activities if all her pictures were taken from the outside of famous buildings. Kaila pulled out her map to see what else was nearby. Westminster Abbey: perfect.
A brisk three minutes walk, and Kaila stood in front of Westminster Abbey. The Gothic architecture on the outside of the abbey was gorgeous. Kaila took some more pictures. Her mother had always loved old churches. There weren’t many in the States, certainly not many in California besides the missions. Kaila smiled. It would’ve be nice to be here with her mother; she would have loved it. Bobby and Clarissa on the other hand would probably have been totally bored. Robert would have found somewhere to take them to distract them for a few hours while the two women took a tour. Kaila didn’t feel much like going on a tour by herself. Perhaps she’d just wander around in there for an hour or two.
Once she stepped inside, Kaila found that there was enough in Westminster Abbey to easily occupy the rest of the day. From the looks of it, Westminster Abbey seemed to have hundreds of graves and memorials to all sorts of people, from ancient kings and queens to national historical figures to poets and bards. Apparently Sir Isaac Newton was buried here as well as Charles Darwin. William Wilberforce, who led the abolition movement in England, was also buried here, and even Chaucer had a grave here. There was a Poet’s corner for all of England’s greatest wordsmiths, and gorgeous statues of monarchs now long gone could be found aplenty. The floors were covered in epitaphs. Kaila stopped by a tomb for The Unknown Warrior, where an unidentified British soldier killed in WWI had been buried. Even the nameless were not forgotten here.
As Kaila took a seat on one of the pews, she found her thoughts turning inward. Every person buried in Westminster Abbey was remembered for doing something great, something that changed the course of history. It made her think back to why she’d taken this journey in the first place. She’d thought that she wouldn’t find her purpose in life without finding her father, that something would always be missing from her if she never met him herself. It was like she’d gone on a pilgrimage of sorts through this journey: walking in her father’s footsteps, seeing the kind of man he was.
Jeffrey Oliver had always been a beautiful dream to Kaila: the brave, intelligent, charismatic father whom she had never met. When she had started this journey it was the hope of finding her father which had inspired her, but now that November Skies seemed no more than an ephemeral phantasm, Kaila found herself thinking back not on the disappointment of not finding her father, but rather about the adventures she’d had.
Driving across England with newfound friends in No Frackin’ Way and speaking out for change in the world… Kaila would never have gone out of her way to do that back in college. Working with Craig amongst the homeless and impoverished even though it made her uncomfortable… growing close to Somchai’s family… spending all of her time among people who didn’t even speak the same language as her…. she had done all of that these past few weeks. It might have started out strange and uncomfortable, but everywhere she went Kaila had found that though she thought she was alone, there was always someone willing to help her, willing to teach her and watch her grow. She’d made a lot of friends these last few days. When she went back home next week, she didn’t want to lose touch with them. These people were part of her life.
Their causes were part of her life too. She’d been keeping up with news on fracking in Lancashire during her time at internet cafes in Bangkok, and now that she was back in England she had been looking for articles on Thailand, searching for news on efforts to help the homeless along the Samrong Canal. She couldn’t just forget about all these issues and turn a blind eye once she got home. This trip had changed her. Kaila looked up at one of the Abbey’s stained glass windows and watched the dust particles dancing in the beams of light shining through. She was a different person from the one who had stepped on that first flight to Germany.
The condition of the Samrong Canal was horrendous. The people who lived by it had no power to change their situation, but maybe she could. Kaila had checked what Harrison had said about the Greenpeace article on the Samrong Canal from 2011. It was the most recent information she could find on the matter, and what it said was minimal, certainly not enough to incite a casual reader to action. If there were a more recent article though, a story about an American falling into the Samrong Canal and needing to be hospitalized afterwards, that would get people’s attention. Something good could come out of her whole ordeal. She could affect change. It was worth a shot. Kaila quickly stood up from her pew and strode down the aisle. She had to get back to her hotel room to write this story. Quickly, before she lost her nerve.
The rest of the day passed by feverishly for Kaila as she toiled on her article. There was so much to say, and yet so much self-editing to be done. This article had to look professional. It had to be heartfelt and articulate, but well-informed. She couldn’t just post this on a blog where any twaddle could be put up. She needed to be backed by someone respectable, a news publisher. She needed World News Today. Kaila pulled up all the articles on the Samrong Canal she could find. Every fact, statistic or datum she could find was cataloged and referenced. She looked at her father’s old articles and at November Skies’ work, searching for ways to better articulate her feelings and give an impassioned plea to the world to help bring change to the Samrong Canal and the people who lived by it.
When she realized it was almost 10 PM, Kaila ordered room service, then hunkered down to her work once more. It was 1:37 AM when Kaila finished her first draft. She took a long swig of coffee. She still needed to proofread it. It was past 3 when she believed she was starting to have something passable. At 4:47 in the morning, Kaila finally opened up Safari and prepared to send her article to World News Today for consideration. Her hands froze on the keyboard. What name was she going to submit this article under?
It couldn’t be her own, not if she wanted to keep this trip a secret. Not only would the truth of Kaila’s trip hurt her mother, but her grandfather would never forgive her. No one crossed Eamon Arthur and got away with it. If he found out that his granddaughter had not only travelled around the world on his dime without his permission, but had also written an article advocating “tree-hugging” (as he would put it), he would never let Kaila see the light of day again.
What name could she write under then? Kaila pursed her lips as her tired mind brainstormed. It had to be something believable, a female name since she had mentioned she was a woman in the article. She wanted something that was easy to remember, but not weird or eccentric. Something to honor this trip and commemorate this moment. Judy? Allison? What about Autumn? She’d always liked that name, and it would be fun to give a secret nod to November Skies for starting this whole thing. Autumn…. Autumn what? Kaila looked down at her bed. Sometime in the last couple hours she’d spilled out the contents of her purse looking for a stick of gum. The Westminster Abbey brochure dangled on the edge of her bed. West! Autumn West would be a great name! In a few minutes, Kaila had a new email set up under her pen name. She attached the article’s file to the email and took one final deep breath. This was it: the culmination of her trip. In the end, this was what it had all been for.
Kaila rolled her cursor down the screen and pressed Send.