“I have never met anyone actually named Sheila,” the Australian guy says. “I didn’t think it was a real name.”
“Shelly,” she says for the third time. “My name is Shelly.” Not like she believes his stupid story. No one in Australia named Sheila. The beer here is bitter and thick, and her ears have been popping like soap bubbles all day long. She knows she is gullible, prone to accepting the most blatant lies, but this guy is too much.
“No one in Australia would ever name their kid Sheila,” he continues, ignoring her. “It would be like naming your daughter Bitch.”
The word cuts through the air like a bullet. Shelly sits up straighter. Bri’s new friends Caj and Benno laugh along with the Australian through their crooked teeth. Shelly thought he was hitting on her at the beginning of the conversation, and she was grateful enough just to have someone speaking English to her after two days of being foisted off for double dates on a reluctant, inscrutable Caj. Now she feels like she has been punched in the gut.
What is she doing here? Really? When she first thought of Berlin, it was tinged with romance. Any place other than home had to be exotic and enticing, based on the simple fact of its not being home. But now she sees that half this city is a tourist trap, and the other half is filled with people she hates.
Even Bri, who used to be closer to her than a sister. Bri laughs the easy laugh of someone in on the joke and chugs the awful house brew. She looks sophisticated in the fractured street lights poking through the small bar window. Grown up. Not like the nerdy Macon hick who was Shelly’s college roommate. And Shelly hates the sight of her.
Shelly rubs her stomach and tries to hide from their laughter in the dark. It doesn’t seem very funny to her. She repeats the vile word in her head a dozen times, the way she did when trying to learn sie deutsch with a Rosetta Stone knock-off. As if there is a secret meaning there.
Finally, Benno checks his watch with an intense squint. “Come,” he says in thick English, the one language all five of them could generously be said to share. “Is time to go.”
It is one in the morning, and they are going to climb Teufelsberg. Shelly can think of nothing she wants to do less right now than stumble up a man-made mountain built on Nazi ruins in the dark. There are one hundred stairs up to Benno’s tiny flat, where she is staying. Ten floors, and no one here ever heard of such thing as an elevator. And now they want to climb a mountain. Okay, it’s not exactly Everest, but God, she is tired. Still, she tries to be grateful that the attention has shifted away from her once more.
“Come on,” Bri says, brightly, pulling Shelly up by the arm. “You’re gonna love it. Best view of Berlin.”
This is what she traveled across the world for, right? Adventure and culture and dangerous views in foreign cities. But she feels dull and heavy, following the impatient men and Bri, who is slimmer and taller and shines brighter here than she ever had back in Georgia, as if breathing in the air of another country for a few years has changed something in her DNA. The flashlight beam bobs weakly in front of Shelly’s stumbling feet. She aches to not feel lonely anymore.
In January, when Bri invited her to visit, she promised Shelly art museums, coffee shops, all of those lovely, safe things listed by Frommer’s. By the time Shelly arrived five days ago, Bre greeted her with a new fiancé (Benno), a flat smaller than their old dorm room with no space for Bible-belt modesty, and a sudden itinerary change that included binge drinking, dance clubs in condemned buildings, climbing up this stupid fake mountain in the dark.
She should have gone to France. An artist with thick black curls would have called her Michèle and fed her grapes as they lay in the sunshine of a Paris afternoon. She should have gone to Thailand. Found a man with skin the color of coconut shell to seduce her on the beach by crystal blue waters. She should have spent her hard-earned money, two years of minimum wage from retail purgatory, and gone anywhere else. Anywhere she wouldn’t have had to listen to Bri and Benno going at it through the night, whispering dirty German words and moaning through clenched teeth when they believed her to be asleep.
The Australian and Caj are rowdy, louder than they need to be in the fragile darkness as they race recklessly up the rutted track. Bri and Benno hold hands and he supports her up the slope. No one supports Shelly, and the climb is steeper than she imagined, but she wouldn’t let these men touch her if they tried.
Her feet are numb through the thin soles of her sneakers. A small part of her tries to enjoy this night, mark it in the ‘Experiences’ column of her life, a pitifully small list that she keeps inventoried in her mind. But that part is being choked out by the cold, her sadness, her sheer, stubborn sullenness.
Sooner than she expected, halfway up, the abandoned NSA tower looms above her, stabbing against the chalkboard sky. And there are the stars. Billions of them.
Shelly stares down at Berlin, a bowl ringed by light, and it almost seems beautiful. Like it could actually be whatever she came here looking for. But when she turns to look back at the ugly, crumbling shell of the tower and the barely visible path up the hill, she knows that she is kidding herself once more. She is being left behind again.
And they are the same stars as anywhere.
Heather Morris lives in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. She has been published in Every Day Fiction and Bards And Sages Quarterly, and reviews books at The Bastard Title.