Andra reached for her sweater, then paused, pulled her hand back, and went for the hoodie instead. It was still new and soft on the inside and hugged her tight against the misty wind that was always so determined to prick her skin with salt and cold. Mom would want her to wear something nicer to Maggiore’s, something nicer to celebrate her fourteenth birthday. But Mom had left her on her fourteenth birthday, and Dad, too. Just like her best friend Amanda, who’d decided that hanging out with Ty Fields this summer would do more for her future at Seaside High. So Andra was alone with Uncle Ryan, who seemed clueless what to do with her now that she wasn’t just a little kid he could impress with rock candy and carousel rides.
Ryan’s knuckles rapped on her bedroom door. “It’s six-o’clock!”
“Hurry up! They’ll give our reservation away in twenty minutes!”
Andra kicked her sweater out of the way so that she could open her door. Uncle Ryan was standing right there with his lean arms crossed. Since when did he care about being on time? And of course he was ready; he hadn’t even changed out of the faded, rumpled jeans he’d arrived in—the ones whose back pocket his wallet had nearly worn a hole through. His keys had done the job more thoroughly on the front pocket; they poked through a spot that had been reduced to white threads. On top he wore the same T-shirt, one that probably had once been black, but that now looked decidedly less than black compared to his black-brown hair. He didn’t wear a jacket; Ryan never minded the chill when the sun went down and the fog rolled in.
“All right, then,” Ryan said. He took off down the hall toward the front of the rambler.
“Um, the garage is that way,” Andra called after him.
“We’re going out front,” Ryan said, without stopping. “Come on. When your Dad asks how things went this week, I want to be able to tell him about your fabulous birthday dinner at Maggiore’s.”
Andra felt a pang of sympathy for Ryan. He wanted to show his older brother that he could be responsible, that he was finally growing up. He was worried about getting a job now that he was finished with college. Maybe he hoped his brother would help him, but Andra had a hard time imagining her dad recommending Ryan, except maybe as a burger-flipper. No wonder he was worried about getting this right.
She ran out the front door after him. “The van is in the garage.”
“We’re taking my car.”
Andra stopped in her tracks and stood on the front walk with her hands on her hips, facing the driveway. She pointed at the lopsided little navy blue box Uncle Ryan drove—a Dodge Omni from the early eighties. “We’re taking that?”
“They parked the car at the airport, and I am not driving you around in a minivan.”
“Uncle Ryan, seriously?”
“Come on,” he said, opening the rear passenger door. “Get in. Ladies first.”
Andra rolled her eyes and slid into the backseat, then poked her head out to say, “If you’re so worried about looking like a chauffeur, why are you making me sit in the backseat? I’m not that short.”
“I don’t want you to sit in the backseat. Look.”
When she bent her head around the door she saw him pointing to the place where the front door handle ought to be. There was nothing there but a jagged fragment of plastic with one last chip of fake chrome coating clinging to it.
Andra shook her head and crawled over the gear shift, into the passenger seat. She couldn’t help laughing as she watched Ryan try to do the same. His long, thin legs bent almost up to the ceiling before he managed to work them, one at a time, under the steering wheel and stretch them out.
“So the other door handle is broken, too?”
Ryan didn’t answer. Great. What if there was an emergency? Did the broken doors still open from the inside? But then Andra realized something even worse—they were going to have to crawl out of there the same way they got in, right in front of Maggiore’s.
Ryan smiled and started the Omni up. “There,” he said. “Works just fine.”
“Well,” Andra said, reaching for her seatbelt. “I guess Mom and Dad weren’t too concerned about seeing me alive again anyway, if they were willing to leave me with you.”
“Are you going to be this obnoxious all week?”
“Are you going to drive me around in this coffin all week?”
Ryan gave her a look and started tapping the steering wheel to imaginary music.
Highway One cut right through Marina’s sand dunes, and Andra stared out the window at the familiar view of cold gray waves. The first day of summer break certainly didn’t feel like summer. The breeze picked up and blew a gust of sand across the hood. Ryan gunned the engine and plowed through it, and Andra barely saw the Sand City Costco fly by. He really was going to kill her in this thing.
Andra didn’t get a chance to relax her clenched fingers until they entered Seaside and Ryan had to slow to a stop at a red light. She thought of her parents, probably enjoying a nice, smooth flight right now, headed from San Jose to L.A. so they could take off on their fabulous cruise without her. Mom had won the cruise at work. She couldn’t change the dates, she’d explained. And did Andra really want her parents to give up a cruise just because it happened to leave on her birthday? They could celebrate when they got back. All tan and happy and cocoa-buttery after a week in the tropics, while she would be the same pale Andra, rubbing away her goosebumps every time she dared to be optimistic enough to put on a pair of shorts, and wishing the wind would blow the fog away already. Who cared about a fourteenth birthday anyway? It wasn’t like it was a really important one, like thirteen.
The light was still red and Uncle Ryan kept looking at his watch and muttering and tapping the steering wheel, driving Andra crazy. She reached out to turn on the radio, but he said, “It’s broken.”
“Hey, don’t knock it. I bought this thing myself, you know.”
“Yeah, from Grandma Rosie, for a dollar.”
Ryan glowered at her. Guess he didn’t think Dad had talked about Grandma Rosie’s little gift. Not that Andra thought any worse of Ryan for his less than luxurious car. She hardly expected to be given a brand new car for her sixteenth birthday. She’d never have her own car until she’d worked enough to scrounge up sufficient cash for a used heap of junk like this one. It was just that he could’ve driven the perfectly good minivan. How could that possibly be more embarrassing than climbing in and out of this, especially in Monterey? The Omni fit in all right in Marina or Seaside, but Monterey? It was less than fifteen minutes, but a whole world away from Marina.
The sun shone a little brighter once they rounded the corner, officially entering Monterey. It almost always did. As though the tourists, who thought all of Monterey County was Monterey, even had the sun on their side. No amount of renewal and rebuilding could transform Marina, the fog pit of the county, into another Monterey. While Monterey’s morning fog burned off by afternoon, Marina’s held on with its long, chilly fingers, waiting for reinforcements—more fog—to roll in each evening. It was too cruel to sit at home on summer afternoons and know that sunshine was just around the corner.
Ryan parallel parked on Alvarado Street, turned off the car, and grinned at her. Andra cringed, anticipating her humiliation. But Ryan seemed oblivious to the stares and whispers as he squeezed himself out. She kept her head ducked, let her shoulder-length hair fall over her face, and walked past Ryan as though she didn’t know him, as though she hadn’t just emerged from that car like some kind of circus act. Ryan, who couldn’t comprehend the concept of trying not to be noticed, cheerfully greeted the strangers on the sidewalk.
His friendliness could be so infuriating. But it was that friendliness that she had to thank for her addiction to Maggiore’s cannelloni. A friend of Ryan’s knew the owner, and that was how her family had discovered the restaurant.
Andra slipped by and waited for Ryan in front of Maggiore’s with her back to the street and her arms crossed. It was forever before Ryan remembered that he was in a hurry, said good-bye to his new acquaintances, and came jogging over.
Located just a block further than most tourists ventured, Maggiore’s Italian restaurant was wedged between a flashy coffee shop and a surf shop. It looked like nothing but a dark green door, waiting quietly, breath held in, for someone to go to the trouble to open it and discover what was inside. Most people passed right by that door. If they stopped and took a closer look, they’d see that the door wasn’t so plain at all; it was one of those old wooden doors that split in half horizontally. Mounted on the door’s upper half was a small brass plaque engraved with the restaurant’s name.
Ryan knocked on the door. The top half opened and a familiar hostess’s expression morphed from polite to friendly. She didn’t need to check her reservation book. As soon as she exchanged hello’s with Ryan, the lower portion of the door swung open, admitting them.
The warm, garlicky air wrapped itself around Andra like a blanket, and she forgot her graceless arrival in the Omni. Maggiore’s felt like home, perhaps because it was really a house, made up of one small room leading into another, rather than the usual large, open restaurant dining area. The place was crowded, but it consisted of a bunch of little alcoves where she could escape from the world. Since it was just the two of them, the hostess led them to the back, to a rose-colored room bathed in a warm, dim glow much like firelight. There was a fireplace, though it was empty of fire. Bottles of wine with foreign labels lined the mantel.
Ryan pulled out Andra’s chair and smiled at her like the perfect gentleman, and she couldn’t help smiling back. Charming, that was the one word people used to sum up Ryan, while she got quiet or shy. Dad said it had something to do with Ryan being the youngest, but then when she’d asked where being an only child left her, he hadn’t had anything to say other than, “Oh, Andra!”
Andra took her seat, thanked her uncle, and slid her menu aside. She already knew what she was going to order. It was the reason she’d requested Maggiore’s for her birthday dinner weeks ago. When her dad had made the reservation. When her parents hadn’t had other plans. Better plans. Andra sighed. It was immature of her, and she knew it. Let them have their cruise. It was just a dinner.
The hushed voices around Andra and Ryan filled the space left by their own nonexistent conversation. Andra knew that Ryan wanted to make small talk and that he knew she hated being forced to talk when she didn’t feel like it. He was trying to respect that, but she could tell he was really just about to burst. It was a relief when the waitress came to take their order, and to praise Andra’s choice, her favorite, cannelloni.
“So, what did you get for your birthday?” Ryan said once the waitress had gathered the menus and left.
She looked up at him and met his eyes, all lit up with excitement for her. “Nothing.”
His brow creased and his smile disappeared. “Nothing?”
“They said we’ll celebrate when they get back. They want to see me open my stuff, I guess. And they were in such a rush getting ready and they just found out about the cruise and there wasn’t really any time to do it before, you know?”
Wow, that sounded lame. It was lame. Her birthday was lame, lame, lame.
More silence. Then, after a minute, “Excuse me,” Ryan said. “I’ll be right back.”
Restroom, Andra supposed. He was headed in that direction. Relieved not to have to talk anymore about her non-birthday, she poked at the whipped cream topping her raspberry Italian soda. She scooped out a bit and licked it off her finger, then began to stir the drink with her straw. It was better all stirred up.
Andra pierced the bubbly cheese, sauce, and giant roll of meat-filled pasta with her fork, and brought up the perfect bite—a little bit of everything. The ceramic dish was still too hot to touch and the whole thing steamed and roiled, a little sea of flavor. She blew on her bite, willing it to cool faster.
“So, what are you going to do with yourself this summer?”
Andra shrugged. Ryan had finally lost it while they waited for their food to come, and he’d started rambling about the longboard he was pining after, but which—even if he could afford it—would look ridiculous on top of the Omni, the board being much bigger than the car. Andra was mildly impressed that Ryan did realize that on some level the Omni was ridiculous, but she’d only nodded. And now, tired of listening to silence, and then to himself talking, Ryan had given in to his need to have an actual conversation with her.
She put the bite into her mouth prematurely, mostly to avoid answering Ryan. Ouch! Too soon. But so, so, good. While she desperately moved the hot food from one part of her mouth to another, she tried to think of something to say. He was trying so hard. How could she tell him that what would make her happiest today would be to enjoy her cannelloni in absolute silence, without having to worry about whether anyone else thought she was happy, without having to explain why Amanda hadn’t come along as planned, without having to have such things as plans for her summer, without being reminded how utterly boring and alone she was? The most exciting things that happened to her in the summer were the fictional events in the books she read. Inevitably, when she got to the end and closed the cover she sat there and wished something interesting could ever happen to her. Of course it never did. It was incredibly disappointing, summer. That break from the routine of school when she was led to believe—and did dare to hope just a little—that anything could happen.
Ryan took the hint and resorted to talking about himself again. “I’m moving in with some friends until I can find something else, you know? Doesn’t make sense to get my own place yet anyway, until I know what I’m making and where the job’s going to be.” He looked down at his plate as he cut a bite of chicken parmesan. “If I can get a job,” he mumbled at the plate.
“You’ll get a job, Uncle Ryan.” She tried to sound encouraging. It must be scary being out on his own, but Andra didn’t say anymore, for fear of embarrassing him.
A cautious smile spread across Ryan’s face.
He reached under the table, into his pants pocket. She heard a plastic bag rustle. “I got you something.”
The bag was from one of the shops on Fisherman’s Wharf, just a few blocks away. So that over-long bathroom break had really been a trip to buy her a present. Andra took the bag and gently shook it out on the table. A bit of folded tissue slid out. Gingerly, she unwrapped a fine silver chain and a single charm. A charm bracelet. Not the sort of thing she would have thought to want for her birthday, but still, it was pretty. Ryan helped her put it on, then picked up the charm—a carousel horse—and started to work at the tag attached to its clasp. Andra eyed the tag as he did so. Sterling silver, it said. Expensive.
“Uncle Ryan, this is too much. You have to take it back.”
“Oh,” he said, finally freeing the tag and crumpling it between his fingers. “Don’t worry about this. Your dad left me a little something for expenses. I’m sure he wouldn’t want me to skimp on your birthday present.”
Andra laughed. At the same time she wanted to cry. “Thank you, Uncle Ryan. It’s beautiful.”
Ryan attached the dainty charm, the reminder of her outings with him when she was younger and he was the teenage uncle she adored. And then she couldn’t take it anymore. “Excuse me,” she mumbled, then headed for the bathroom.
It was just a single restroom, not the kind with stalls, and it was locked. That just figured. She was about to cry and she had nowhere to go. She tugged at the charm bracelet anxiously.
“Ah, what’s the matter?”
Andra turned around, trying to keep her head down. It was Franca Maggiore herself, the ancient owner of the restaurant. Ryan’s friend had introduced her family to her years ago, but Andra doubted she remembered her.
The woman put a bent old finger on Andra’s bracelet. “Oh, broken, is it?”
“Huh?” Broken? But when she looked down, she saw that it was. The chain had snapped and it was about to fall off. She’d been tugging at it and now her only present was broken, and what was she going to tell Ryan?
“No wonder you are so sad! What a beautiful bracelet. I have just the thing! Look!” She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a silver chain. It was heavier, and at the same time fancier than the one Ryan had given her. “It will be perfect!”
“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”
“Yes, yes, I found it on the ground, you see. And here you are with your chain broken. It was meant to be.”
So Andra stood in silence while the elderly woman, with shaky hands, put the new chain on, hooking the clasp through one of the links so that it was narrow enough for her wrist, and leaving a bit of extra chain to dangle. Then Franca Maggiore unclasped the charm and transfered it onto the new bracelet, and pressed the broken chain into Andra’s hand.
“There. All happy now!”
It sounded more like a command than a question, but Andra answered anyway. “Yes, thank you.”
Andra stared at the dessert menu. She hadn’t mentioned what had happened with the bracelet to Ryan. She felt even less like talking than she had before. She felt—strange. Like she was sinking. Was she that sad? She didn’t think so.
“What’s it gonna be, birthday girl? Tiramisu? Chocolate gelato?”
Andra’s heart still felt like it was sinking. But then a strange warmth swirled through her. She felt a little sick, but light at the same time. Was she going to pass out, right here at the table? Then came floating, a sense of relief. Instead of blacking out, the world was a pot of color, all stirred up, all blurred up. Her vision cleared, her balance steadied, the restaurant solidified around her. Only it was empty. Ryan’s plate was there, but he was gone. All the other diners, gone.
<<<End of Sample>>>