“ARE YOU sure you don’t want to come?”
Erik had lost count of how many times his dad had asked. “Dad, I’m sure. You go and enjoy yourself.”
“You know, you could enjoy yourself too, if you just let yourself go for a while.”
He had always been worried about him. Erik was pretty sure his dad thought he didn’t know how to have fun. Just because he didn’t have a lot of friends didn’t mean he didn’t get to enjoy himself. His idea of fun was just different from his father’s.
“Come on, Dad, you know I would only drag you down. I don’t like crowded places, and you can’t even walk in Pamplona during the festival.”
“How could you know that?” he asked, sounding surprised Erik actually knew something about his destination.
“You’ve been going there every year only for the last what? Twenty years? And you think I’ve never watched the running of the bulls trying to see you? I’m not that heartless, Dad.”
“I didn’t say you were. You’ve just never seemed interested in any of it, so I didn’t imagine you would have done that. But I’m glad to know you love your old man enough to care and watch just in case he gets trampled by a bull.”
Erik would have been offended by that, had his dad not been smiling while he said it.
“Yes, yes, I do love you, which is why I want you to go alone and have fun without me tagging along. You deserve that.” And he was serious, as this was the only time of year his dad let himself forget the problems that troubled him at work during the rest of it.
“Thank you, son. There’s no convincing you, I guess. I’m going to go pack. Remember you promised to drive me to the airport.”
Erik couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Yes, just like every year. Don’t worry, I’ll be ready. You know I will.”
“I know, I know,” he said, and with two pats to Erik’s shoulder, his dad left to pack his white and red clothes.
Erik decided he should head to bed. The flight left at a ridiculously early hour, which meant he should go to sleep early if he wanted to be awake enough to drive. After his dad left, he’d have a week all to himself, and he was planning on taking advantage of it, writing nonstop. Not what his dad would consider fun, but putting words on paper was what made Erik happy, and he had a deadline coming up for his next book.
One year and three days later….
ERIK GAVE up trying to fold the map and threw it on the passenger seat. At least he wasn’t completely lost. The guy in the car rental office had told him he only needed to follow the GPS instructions and he would be there in five hours. But the same guy forgot to include the GPS charger, and two hours into the trip the battery of the damn thing had run out, leaving him stranded. He was on a highway, so he kept driving until he found a rest stop.
According to the map, he was somewhere near a city called Burgos, so at least he’d been going in the right direction. If he kept driving without any more stops, he should be in Pamplona in two hours. First, he needed some coffee. He had slept on the plane, but the time difference was starting to take its toll on him. He went into the café and ordered a latte and some kind of prosciutto and tomato sandwich, feeling thankful the waiter spoke English.
Once he had eaten his breakfast—lunch? He had no idea anymore what time it was back home—he made a quick stop at the restroom and returned to the car.
Two hours and fifteen minutes later, he finally encountered the sign that let him know he was entering the city. He’d actually had a nice time driving, and he’d been amazed by the scenery. There were a lot of mountains and green fields; it was all so different from what he was used to seeing in his hometown of Phoenix.
He asked for directions, and after a lot of gesturing and too little speaking in stilted English, an old man explained how to get to the car rental office. He was shocked he managed to find it without having to ask again, and after returning the car and picking up his backpack, he asked the employee at the counter what he needed to do to get to the city center.
“Oh, that’s easy. See that green post out there?” he asked, pointing at something out the door. Erik looked at it and nodded. “Just go over there and wait for a bus to stop. Doesn’t matter which number, since these days the last stop is the same for every one of them, and that’s the closest to the city center you can get.”
Erik thanked him and was headed for the door when he heard the guy’s voice again.
“I almost forgot! Do you have coins or a five-euro bill? They won’t accept anything higher than that.”
Erik was surprised, because back home you couldn’t pay the driver in cash and needed to buy the ticket before hopping on the bus. He thanked the employee again and went to wait near the post.
He only had to wait five minutes for one of the buses to appear. It was already packed. He would have guessed it would be mostly empty, since he seemed to be on the outskirts of the town. After what seemed like an eternity trying to get the correct amount of money from the coins he had, he gave up and shoved his hand at the driver for him to pick them out. He hoped the driver wouldn’t think he was rude, but he just laughed and took the coins. It seemed the spirit of the festival had infected everyone.
There was quite a bit of traffic, so he stood hanging on to a yellow post and put his backpack between his feet. Observing people had always been one of his favorite ways of passing the time, more so after he’d become a writer—sometimes the spark you needed came to you just by sitting in a café and paying attention—and he could indulge in it now.
There wasn’t a prominent age group that he could see. Everyone from babies to grandparents looked prepared to enjoy themselves. All of them were dressed the same: white trousers and shirts and red handkerchiefs. Some of them were also wearing red sashes around their waists. Erik remembered his father taking care of his clothes and the look of desperation on his face when he realized he wouldn’t be able to wear them again.
They are sitting in the doctor’s office, Erik and his dad, waiting for news. At this point, there is no good news. It will be only bad or worse. And from the look on the doctor’s face when he comes in, the latter is the most probable outcome. He can’t listen to him saying the words, can’t stand to hear how long his father has left to live. Erik refuses to look at the doctor, centering his attention on his dad instead, wondering how he can avoid screaming or raging, how he seems so… just so calm.
Erik should know better. Once they are back home, his dad doesn’t make it one step inside before breaking down, and even then he looks sedate, crying silently. But Erik knows him, and he understands how much he is hurting; he inherited his stoic personality from his father, after all. There isn’t anything he can say or do to make it better, so he just hugs him tight and lets his dad cling to him while he cries. His memory takes him to all the times he had done it for Erik as a child, and he promises himself he will do right by him now that he needs someone to lean on.
They get into a routine after that. They don’t mention the inevitable, but it hovers there, on the edge of their minds, all the time. Two weeks later, his dad asks Erik to look for his San Fermín clothes; they are in the attic, and he doesn’t trust those stairs anymore, not now that he is so weak. So Erik goes looking for them and finds them, along with all the festival memorabilia his dad has collected. Thinking about it may lift his spirits a bit, so Erik takes them to him and listens to him talk about the bull running, the fireworks, and the people he’s met there. For a little while, a smile returns to his face, but afterward, Erik sees the desperation in his eyes, the sadness, and the realization that he won’t get to put on those clothes again, and it breaks Erik’s heart.
A woman shook Erik and told him something in Spanish he couldn’t understand, taking him out of his memory. He looked around and saw the bus was empty and the driver was looking at him and pointing at the door. He got the message and hurried off the bus. Apparently, he was in the city center. Now he just needed to figure out where to go from here.