“Where are we going, please?”
“There’s a park a couple of blocks away. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to find a grassy spot that’s clean enough to sit on. And if we’re even luckier, the water fountain will be working, and we’ll be able wash the taste of this stuff out of our mouths.”
“If the food isn’t good, why would you eat it?”
Hannah almost laughed at his puzzled expression. “Because it was probably the best in the store right now, and I’m starving. Just consider all this an adventure, and enjoy the new experiences.”
“An adventure.” Michel smiled and nodded.
They walked the two blocks in silence, Michel staying close beside her. Hannah noticed that a light pleasant fragrance seemed to be staying with them. At first, she thought there was something flowering nearby, but flower scents would drift on the slightest breeze and eventually fade away. And this didn’t smell like any flowers she was familiar with.
As they entered the park, she took a quick look around. Someone had left an advertising circular on a bench and she grabbed it. “Table cloth and napkins,” she said, wondering whether Michel would be offended. The way he dressed, he was probably the fastidious type. She found a spot where the grass still covered the surface of the soil fairly well, and that had no signs of recent use by animals. She sat down and Michel followed. He watched her spread a page of the circular on the grass between them, and put the hot packs down.
“Your choice, since you’re the guest. Beef pot pie, chicken pot pie, chop suey. They probably all taste exactly alike.”
Michel took one, at random, then simply held it, obviously lost.
“Look. You tear this open and take the spoon out. Then you press hard on this tab.” Hannah demonstrated with her own package. “Wait for it to get hot, then zip the top open and eat. Just be careful when you open it, so it doesn’t spill on you.”
Michel followed her instructions, dipped his spoon in and took his first bite.
Hannah waited for his reaction.
“It’s . . . It’s strange. It doesn’t taste like anything I’ve had before. It doesn’t taste like . . .”
“Anything,” Hannah jumped in.
“Yes,” Michel agreed, crinkling his forehead. “It doesn’t taste like anything.” He opened his eyes wide and started laughing.
Hannah joined him, relieved that he hadn’t just spit it out in disgust.
They demolished the fake food and then shared a candy bar. Michel had been looking around the park as they ate, and now he ran his hand over the grass, fingering grass blades, and examining them with interest. Hannah wrapped all the garbage in the circular and threw it in an almost overflowing trash container. She sat down again and watched him play with the grass.
“May I break off a piece and look at it?”
“Of course. It’s just grass. Why is it so interesting?”
“I have never sat on grass before or had a chance to see any this close.”
Hannah didn’t know what to say. Michel was becoming more of a puzzle all the time. “How could you not have a chance to sit on grass? It’s everywhere.”
“Not where I lived. There was no outside.” When he saw her looking at him with curiosity, he turned away and seemed nervous. He held the blade of grass that he had plucked very lightly, as if it was something precious. “In Chicago, there isn’t very much grass and most of it is dead. The grass that’s alive has little chains around it and signs telling people to stay off.”
“Oh. That’s sad.” Hannah watched as he sniffed the blade of grass and then licked it. “That’s not a good idea, Michel. It’s probably pretty dirty and germy.”
“I wanted to see if it had a taste. And germs don’t bother me. I thought you would know that.”
“I do, but it’s all kind of new. I forgot that you wouldn’t get sick easily.”
Now that the meal was over, Hannah felt awkward again. Michel showed no sign of wanting to leave, and she didn’t know what to do with him. Little by little, a conversation tottered along, the clumsy but polite attempts of two people who don’t really know each other. Somehow, they got onto the topic of art. Michel told her about the museums he’d visited in Chicago and talked about his favorite artists.
“You know such a lot about art. Did you take classes?”
“No, Harris wouldn’t let me do that. But I read a lot. Sometimes, if I want a book, he’ll tell Jasper to buy it for me. Mostly, I read as much as I can at the book store until Jasper says it’s time to go.”
“Jasper? Is he a friend?”
“No, he works for Harris. He’s like a bodyguard.
“Your bodyguard? Does Harris think someone is going to hurt you?”
Michel looked down at the ground, his lips tightly compressed. “He thinks that I might run away. Jasper is supposed to watch me.”
Hannah was shocked at the idea, but when she remembered the animosity between Michel and Harris, it made sense. Would he run away if he had the chance?
The tone of his voice made it plain he wasn’t going to tell her any more and, without warning, he started talking about Chicago’s street vendors as if that was the most interesting subject in the world. “Did you know that people sell thing from carts that they push along, and some of them are fitted up like little kitchens and they cook food right there and sell it to anyone who wants to buy it? There are all kinds of foods that I never tasted before. You would like it, if you went there.”
Hannah eventually started noticing how many times Michel’s conversation suddenly veered off in a different direction. It was something like the way Patrick and Elena used to slide around certain topics, but more extreme. Michel could switch, almost between one breath and the next, from enthusiastic chatter about something he had seen, to a nervous silence. Twice, his face changed completely, with an expression that she couldn’t interpret as anything but fear. What was most disturbing was that it wasn’t always just his expression or his body language that changed. He seemed to revert to someone much younger, almost a child in voice and diction. Even his speech patterns changed and he sometimes sounded as if he was thinking in a language other than English.