Trastevere, Rome, bustled with life as another day gave way to another night. The lights on the Ponte Sisto Bridge reflected in the Tiber River below, bringing to mind romance and vitality. For Cassidy, it had all been intoxicating upon arrival, but now it was all as bland and familiar as home. She was spending a year teaching English as a second language, and had happily settled in Rome. As she was weaving her way home from dinner one evening, she saw him: Paul, her brother, who had gone missing fifteen years ago. She brushed it off, noting how, in the months and years following his disappearance, she often imagined she saw him on every street corner, saw his smile or his eyes on every stranger’s face, heard his laugh in the corridors of every building. They locked eyes, and he maintained contact just a beat too long before looking away and vanishing into the throng of tourists. Early the next morning, after espresso and cornetti, Cassidy sat by the fountain in the Piazza di Santa Maria, enjoying the early-morning streets, still asleep, the empty cobbles echoing with the solemn church bells ringing out hour by hour through the centuries. That’s when he emerged again. He caught her eye and paused.
“Buongiorno,” Cassidy called out. He said nothing. “Do you speak English? Lei parla l’inglese?”
“Si. Parlo l’inglese.”
“Okay. So let’s,”
“Perche? Why should we, if you speak Italian?”
“Are you Paul Carson?” Cassidy said. The man started. He laughed to himself, then sat on the edge of a step on the fountain. Clasping his hands together between his knees, he observed the edifice of the old church, and said,
“How did you find me?”
“I wasn’t looking for you. I stopped years ago. Everyone thinks you died, you know,” Cassidy said.
“That was the game plan. It’s strange, speaking English. I haven’t in a long time. It’s like trying to fit into an old pair of trousers. You should be able to, and you recognize it as your own, and yet…it’s not quite right.”
“I can’t speak Italian well enough to grill you like I need to,” Cassidy said.
“I know, I know,” Paul held up his hands.
“So, what the hell, Paul? What happened?”
“First, my name isn’t Paul. Okay? Paul Carson is dead.”
“I refuse to call you Paolo.”
“It’s Giovanni. Giovanni Giancarlo.”
“Good Lord, that’s pretentious,” Cassidy muttered. “You know who I am, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. Cass. I’d recognize you anywhere,” Paul said, with a tenderness that would have made Cassidy want to hug him if the urge to slap him wasn’t so strong.
“I don’t even know what to say to you right now. I mean—do you know how heartbroken we all were?”
“In your case, I’m surprised,” Paul chuckled. “I thought you hated me.”
“Yeah, sure, in the usual way a girl hates her older brother. It’s nothing real. I wanted you to stop being such a lazy, cocky asshole, that’s all. I didn’t want you to get hurt—and I certainly never wanted you to die.”
Paul was in college when he disappeared. He was an active member of the Georgetown scene, then one spring break he disappeared. Hide nor hair was ever found of him, and friends, family, and strangers took sides among those who thought he was out there somewhere and those who thought, if he was ever found again, it would be as a corpse. His mother refused to relinquish hope, while his father preferred to face what he called “cold, hard facts.” The problem was, very few cold, hard facts existed in Paul’s case. Everything was hazy, uncertain. His friends last saw him down by the Potomac waterfront, drunkenly serenading people at the Key Bridge Boathouse. They left him there for some reason, and never saw him again. People walking by the boathouse said he tried to climb into a kayak, but they restrained him and put him in a taxi. Allegedly he gave an address that turned out to be his ex-boyfriend’s. Later, certain of Paul’s possessions were found at the ex’s apartment: the tie he was last seen wearing; a few textbooks; and, damningly, a blood-stained shirt, which DNA tests confirmed belonged to Paul.
Cassie joined her father and many people in assigning blame to Freddy, the ex, who maintained his innocence, insisting the bloody t-shirt was a result of chafed nipples.
“He’s a marathon runner! Half his shirts are bloody. You should see the state of his socks.”
Freddy was not convicted, with much of the community citing his wealth and his family’s political connections as the reason for this, rather than the reasonable doubt standard.
“It’s hard for family members of a murder victim to see reason,” someone said, trying to be helpful. Maybe so, Cassie thought, but how could someone be put away for murder when no body was ever found? Circumstantial evidence couldn’t—and shouldn’t—land someone in the electric chair.
Several years later, Freddy sat for the Virginia Bar and was denied admission for failing to disclose this brush with the law. Law students across the country rolled their eyes, scoffing at how he thought he could get away with that.
“If I have to report a damned speeding ticket, you have to report a murder charge,” one Maryland Bar candidate commented. Freddy later took his life, and people stopped talking about him. As a result, people stopped talking about Paul, too. Years passed, Cassidy grew up, attended college in California, then took a teach abroad opportunity in Italy. The apparent death of her brother caused an irreparable rift in her parents’ relationship, and their marriage ended. Away from the ghosts that lurked throughout DC, in their home, on the metro, and all across the National Mall, Cassidy came to terms with the past and moved on with her life.
Then, suddenly, Paul appeared on the ancient cobbled streets of Rome.
“You know people think Freddy killed you,” Cassidy said.
“Freddy helped me escape. He’s a good friend.”
“He killed himself.”
Paul paled, but recovered quickly, a smile returning to his face. “No, he didn’t.”
“He swallowed a bullet in his parents’ basement.”
“That’s what he wants you to think.”
“Jesus, Paul. They found his body, okay? They buried him. He didn’t vanish. You ruined a lot of lives, you know that? And for what? A clean break? What, you were too chicken to live the life you wanted and be judged for it?”
“Keep your voice down, will ya?” Paul snapped. The siblings sat quietly for a moment, each fuming with private thoughts as they watched pigeons scour the cobbles for snacks. “It isn’t what you think,” Paul said. “I didn’t just get bored one day and leave.”
“In Freddy’s testimony, he said you were always whining about how you wanted to disappear.”
“I didn’t know you were such a big fan of Freddy’s.”
“I’m not. I spent the last fifteen years thinking he murdered you. I was horrible to him whenever we ran into one another, and then I see you here, healthy as can be, and I think of the fact that people hounded that poor guy for no reason, apparently, and now he’s six feet under and still tarnished for a crime he, evidently, did not commit.”
“Right, Cass, now if you would just step down from your soapbox and let me speak, you would see I didn’t have a choice.”
A beggar holding a child appeared at their side, out of nowhere as they always seemed to do, and smiled at them, hand outstretched, waiting for money. Cassidy had learned to ignore them in the last year, though she still felt badly when a small child was involved; Paul, however, who had clearly had much more experience, snapped at her,
“Basta, ehi? Vada via, adesso!”
The woman wandered away, and Paul turned back to his sister, shaking his head and muttering, “porca puttana.”
Cassidy raised her eyebrows at his foul language. She crossed one leg over the other and cocked her head, waiting for Paul’s explanation. He cleared his throat and looked down at his weather-worn leather shoes as he scratched the palm of his hand, a nervous gesture Cassidy recognized from long-ago.
"I was stupid back then, okay?”
“Only back then?” Cassidy said.
“Hey, come on.”
“Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. Carry on.”
“I thought I was smart and all,” Paul laughed mirthlessly, glancing over his shoulder as if afraid they were being watched. “The summer after junior year, I interned on the Hill. I never had any political ambitions myself, but I wanted to work behind the scenes. I dunno, something like chief of staff, you know? So, anyway, that summer I made friends with some sketchy characters.”
“I’d say most characters on Capitol Hill are sketchy,” Cassidy interjected.
“Can you save the snark, please?”
“The more uncomfortable I am, the snarkier I become. It can’t be helped.”
“Suffice it to say, I got in over my head. I thought I was doing something, I dunno, something impressive. Something exciting. I lead this secret life, and I made some money. That’s when I started going out with Freddy,” Paul paused on the name of his ex.
“Was Freddy one of these sketchy characters?”
“No, no, of course not. Freddy’s an angel, he would never—” Paul shook his head. He glanced over his shoulder again, biting his lip, scratching at his palm. “My relationship with Freddy was the light. My side-job with the fellas on the Hill was the darkness. I did end up telling Freddy about it, after a few months. It was around Thanksgiving when I finally told him what all I was involved in.”
“What, exactly, were you involved in?” Cassidy asked.
“Drug trafficking, to put it simply,” Paul said. “Before I knew it, I was caught up in a web of organized crime. The kind of shit that’s meant to be glamorous on TV and in John Grisham novels. I finally got scared and realized what I mess I was making of my life. I stopped cooperating with the guys, hoping it would all just go away. But, see, that’s just further proof that I was a naïve idiot. That stuff doesn’t just go away. You can’t ghost organized crime factions.”
“I would imagine not,” Cassidy muttered, trying to wrap her mind around the insanity spewing from her brother’s mouth. Part of her wondered if he had just taken too many drugs himself and imagined this whole thing, but his demeanor was genuine. His confidence had vanished, his eyes were far away with remembrances of his past. Guilt, remorse, and a bit of fear came through in his voice. Paul continued,
“They started threatening me, but I wasn’t having it. I’d never dealt with people like that before. Of course, I guess normal people would be frightened into compliance—it’s people who are used to those dealings who would call a bluff. But, you know what I was like. King of the world. Spoiled and unprepared,” Paul cleared his throat. He took a deep breath, waiting for a group of people to pass by before he continued,
“So, they started threatening to harm Freddy. They found where he lived, sent me pictures indicating as much. Well, I couldn’t let them do that, but I didn’t want anything to do with them anymore, either. I was trapped. So the only option was to do what I should have done before I got involved with them anyway.”
“Vanish into thin air?”
“No, are you really that stupid?” Paul snapped. “I went to the feds. Told ‘em all about it. Haven’t you heard of the Witness Protection Program?”
Cassidy nodded slowly, considering this revelation as a pigeon landed on the step between her brother and herself. The Witness Protection Program. Of course.
“And Freddy? I mean, you said you told him. Did he know you were going to turn yourself in? Did he know you were going to disappear?”
“Yes and yes. He and I broke up around Christmas. I could tell it was eating him alive, knowing what I was involved with, and I hated it. I promised I would get out of it, but he didn’t see how that was possible. We stayed friends, and I confided in him about everything. We would meet up at his apartment and talk about it. That was dumb, too. I put him right in the path of danger—”
“There was nothing suspect about his death,” Cassidy said, surprised at the warmth in her voice.
“Maybe not. But he still wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t put him through all that,” Paul said, laughing bitterly. Cassidy couldn’t think of anything to say. She wiped the sweat from her forehead and moved her hair from one shoulder to the other, trying to combat the brutal Italian sun.
“So, that’s it,” Paul said. “Spirited away under the cover of night. New life, new identity. I always thought I’d go back one day, after enough time had passed. But, I don’t know. Maybe it would be too painful.”
“Are you allowed to go back?” Cassidy asked. “You’re not breaking the law right now, are you? Telling me all this stuff?”
“No. I don’t work for the CIA. It’s not like that. I can go back to my old life whenever I want,” Paul shrugged. “Sounds so easy, doesn’t it?”
“Do you ever miss it?”
“A little. I’ve missed you, and mom and dad. How are they?”
“Divorced,” Cassidy said. “But okay, individually.”
Paul nodded, his brow knit together as he considered this news.
“What happened with Freddy?” Paul asked, his voice childlike in its sadness.
“How much do you know?” Cassidy stammered.
“Nothing,” Paul said. “I was told not to look anything up. No internet presence, no reading the papers regarding my supposed demise, nothing. I haven’t—seeing you is the first time I’ve had any contact with my old life since I left.”
“Well,” Cassidy sighed. She cleared her throat and shifted her seat. “As I said, everyone assumed you were dead. Foul play seemed likely, and they found stuff at Freddy’s apartment.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Oh, just some things. Textbooks, the tie you were wearing the night you vanished, a bloody t-shirt…that’s what got him in trouble, that t-shirt.”
“He said it was from chafed nipples.”
“He was right,” Paul said. “I guess no one believed him.”
“I don’t know if no one believed him. But I didn’t. Dad didn’t. Mom never gave up thinking you were still alive somewhere.”
“See, never doubt a mother,” Paul shook his finger. “Mothers always know, somehow. It’s like they’re endowed with magic powers when their children are born.”
“Anyway, he wasn’t convicted. Looking back with a cooler head, of course he wasn’t. It was sort of absurd that he was ever arrested anyway, considering they never actually found a body.”
“Good old American justice system,” Paul said. “When did he—you know.”
“Oh, three, four years after you disappeared?” Cassidy said. She explained the Virginia Bar’s refusal of Freddy’s application on the grounds of withheld information. That, in addition to years of speculation around the city, had ruined him.
Paul hung his head. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. He let out a short, self-deprecating laugh and said, “I don’t know what I’m getting so upset for. We were only together for a few months.”
“You don’t have to apologize for being upset. The whole situation’s a mess.”
“That’s true. Poor Freddy. How anyone could think that man would be capable of murder is—he was a lovely man. I wish you could have gotten to know him. I wish he’d never gotten tangled up in my mess. Or, really, I guess I wish I’d never been so stupid in the first place.”
“No use regretting, I guess,” Cassidy said. She patted her brother’s back. It was odd, how natural it felt to comfort him, when for all intents and purposes he was a stranger. “Do you think you’ll ever come home?”
“I am home,” Paul said, a sad, resigned smile on his lips as he glanced around the Piazza di Santa Maria, coming to life now as the church bells struck 10:00. “There are worse places to hide away, I suppose.”
“Certo,” Cassidy said, offering her brother a friendly smile, which he returned.
“How long are you here?” Paul asked.
“Until Christmas,” Cassidy said.
“I’d like to see you again. If that’d be okay,” Paul said.
“Yeah. I think I’d like that, too,” Cassidy said. She wondered about Paul’s life here in Italy, whether he ever had a boyfriend, or any friends at all. Perhaps it was easier to live out his life in solitude, so as not to draw anyone into his complicated situation, or perhaps he simply never spoke about his past. Maybe, to him, Paul Carson really was a different person, and he was someone else. From his expression, she assumed he had never quite gotten the events of fifteen years prior off of his chest before. There was something of serenity and relief in his face, but also pain.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Cassidy said, leaning in and holding her brother’s gaze so he knew she was serious. He was safe, until he chose to come home. He smiled and nodded his thanks.
Cassidy rose to her feet, noting the time and the fact that she had yet to create lesson plans for the week. Paul rose as well.
“Good to meet you, Giovanni,” Cassidy held out her hand.
“Piacere,” Paul shook it. The siblings smiled at each other, letting the secrets of the past marinate between them. Cassidy gave Paul her phone number and address and walked away from him, following the cobbles back to the top of Via Garibaldi, to face another day in this strange, foreign world.