Authors: Terra Elan McVoy
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Family, #Multigenerational, #Social Themes, #Adolescence, #Travel, #Girls & Women, #Social Issues, #General
For every girl who’s trying
to be a real friend to someone else
is the only word I can use to describe it. We haven’t even been in the car for an hour yet, and already we’re singing at the top of our lungs, enjoying the sunshine streaming down through the sunroof, and letting the warm wind whip around us through the open windows. Me and Grandpa Howe have our arms dangling out (Grandma Tess has both hands on the wheel), and when I catch his eye in the passenger-side mirror, it’s hard to tell whose smile is bigger. Being on the road bright and early for an eight-day trip together around California is fun and exciting enough, but that we’re on the way to Monterey first, so my new stepcousin Cassie can join us, makes the whole day shimmer with excitement.
Admittedly it’s hard not to have fun around my grandpa Howe and grandma Tess. The first thing I thought about Tess when she and Grandpa Howe started seeing each other was that she looked exactly like a girl on a merry-go-round in old picture books, except for all her wrinkles. Her vibrancy was a little overwhelming, actually—so different from my gentle nana Lilia, who had died two years before—but it didn’t take long for me to really adore her. The first time she came with Grandpa Howe over to our house, Tess brought my mom a necklace she’d made of beach glass—the kind Mom would never buy for herself but always admires in shops. Immediately, Tess launched into a funny story about how she’d collected the glass on a private beach and almost got arrested for trespassing. By the time dinner and games were over, Mom and Dad and I already wanted her to be a part of our family.
Grandma Tess tells the best stories—some even better than Grandpa Howe, which I didn’t think was possible. There are lots about her early California days as a hippie, but my favorites are about Cassie. I can’t get enough of them. I’d heard so much about Cassie that by the time we finally met at our grandparents’ wedding, I felt like we were already old friends. Well, sort of. But not nearly as close as we’ll be by the end of this trip, I’m sure.
I’m about to ask, mid-song, how much farther it is to
Cassie’s house when Grandma Tess waves her turquoise-laden hand at a sign that’s zooming toward us.
“Ooh, here it is, Howie.”
I’m not sure what she means, but Grandpa Howe apparently does. He reaches for his glasses and the map.
“Redwood City! They renovated the whole downtown,” Grandma Tess explains to me. “It’s so fun to imagine what a town was, and where it’s come from, when you’re looking at what it’s hoping to be, don’t you think?”
I nod and keep singing, mostly to hide the twinge of disappointment I feel. So far I love being swept up in Grandma Tess’s adventures—it’s part of why I’m excited about this trip—but not when it means taking the long way, with extra pauses, to get to Cassie. It’s already been a whole month since the wedding, and I don’t want to wait a second longer for our reunion. There are tons of things I want to discuss—the boyfriend she told me about at the reception, and all the things she’s done this summer, not to mention what we’ll do together over the next week—but I’m also keen to hit the reset button with her as soon as possible.
It’s not that things were bad at Grandma Tess and Grandpa Howe’s wedding. I know we hit it off (how could we not, accidentally showing up in the same dress?!), but toward the end, when the last dances were happening and
everyone was helping to clean up, I thought she seemed embarrassed to be around me. Or mad, or something. Probably I was just being too chatty, which Mom and Dad both say I can get. (They’ve been saying it a lot more lately, since Mom’s headaches started happening.) But I don’t always have to be the one talking; I can be a good listener too. Or we can even hang out, not talking, the way Mom likes doing with her friend Beth. As soon as we finally see each other again, I know things will straighten out and Cassie and I will jump right back on track. We just need to
As Grandpa Howe navigates Grandma Tess through the various stoplights and street signs of Redwood City, and we finally find a place to park, I try to remind myself that this
their honeymoon. It was beyond wonderful for them to want me and Cassie to be a part of it, so I need to go where I’m taken and be cheerful about it.
We get out of the car to stroll the sidewalks of downtown, and I try to look around with “interested eyes,” as Dad likes to say. It’s what he does when he meets a new landscaping client, instead of going in with particular expectations of his own. It works for him, I guess, because he and Mom have so many clients, but since there already is something I’m interested in—my new friend-slash-cousin Cassie—it’s hard to be interested here, too.
Not for my grandparents, though.
“Look at that theater,” Grandma Tess says, tugging Grandpa Howe down the sidewalk. “Gorgeous! I wonder what they have showing. What do you think, Lana? A luxurious morning matinee? With popcorn and Milk Duds, of course.”
I glance at my watch. “Do they really show movies this early?” I ask, thinking of Cassie waiting for us to appear in her driveway in another hour.
Grandma Tess waves away my question, her billowy pink sleeve trailing after her tan, freckled arm. “Oh, I don’t really want to spend that much time here, don’t worry. I’m eager to get to Cassie, too. It was just a fleeting thought.”
She beams at Grandpa Howe, and he puts his arm around her back. His other arm stretches out, gesturing for me to speed up and join them on his other side, so I do, and we walk together like that down the bricked sidewalk, gazing at the renovated theater and the shops along the street.
Maybe Dad’s “interested eyes” trick kicks in, because a sign up ahead of us catches my eye:
“What about in here?” I say, pausing when we get to the wide front window.
Grandma Tess glances at the sign, and the art inside, and shrugs happily. Grandpa Howe holds the door open for us, and we cross into the dark, cool interior.
Most of the things in the store are big: big paintings, big modern-looking couches, big mirrors, big toothy smile on the lady who says hello to us. Near the back, however, there’s a round table painted all over with flowers and covered with jewelry and accessories. On one side is a rack full of gauzy, hand-dyed scarves. I slide a pretty green one through my fingers, admiring the way the light catches the glossy metallic threads woven in. Cassie would like these, I think. Or at least, I can see her wearing one. I briefly consider buying it—a kind of Happy Vacation peace offering/present—but when I turn the price tag over and consider my spending money for the whole trip, I decide maybe she would think it was too big a gesture, anyway. Too babyish and eager.
Still, I like everything on the table. I run my fingers gently across the necklace stands, and the little curved bowls holding earrings, round sparkling pins, delicate silver baubles and charms. A nearby trinket catches my eye: a rhinestone-covered bird, perched on a ribbon of silver that says, in stamped letters,
Be Your Own Peace
. I pick it up and hold the tiny, shining thing in my hand. Mom would like this. Or maybe, I would just like to get it for her. Something small and pretty she could hold in one of the giant pockets of her backpack or cargo pants, a glittering reminder to slow down, be peaceful.
It’s a reminder she could really use. She and Dad are always busy with their landscaping business—they say it’s seasonal but it’s really not, because whenever they’re not planting or planning, they’re dealing with all the paperwork and finance stuff they can’t get done while they’re outdoors making people’s properties prettier and more ecologically responsible. They’re
busy, even at the dinner table.
Most of the time it’s fun to listen to them, because Mom does amazing voices mimicking their clients, and Dad lights up as she talks, chortling and adding in his own bits. The last couple of weeks it hasn’t been the same, though. Instead of funny stories of high-strung housewives, or fretting over whether or not they can get certain bushes locally, more and more it’s Mom lying down with one of her headaches, or Dad and me being quiet so she’s able to nap. Every day, there are moons of purple under her eyes that mean something’s wrong. She says she’s not any more tired than she usually is and that she’s only asking more of me because I’m growing up so much, but she’s never needed me to push the grocery cart in the store before. She steers, and I check the list. That’s the way we’ve done it since I learned how to read. But the other day I was the one behind the cart, pulling things into the basket. She kept rubbing the side of her forehead, and I knew then there
was another reason they were sending me with Grandpa Howe and Grandma Tess on this trip. Something scary. Something they don’t want me to see.
“Why, that’s pretty,” Grandpa Howe says, putting his hand on my shoulder, startling me. “I like what it says.”
I swallow, realizing that thinking about Mom in the grocery store has made a crying feeling happen in the back of my nose and eyes.
“Yeah.” I nod. “I thought Mom might like it.”
“Your mom might like what?” Grandma Tess says, coming over. “Oh, these scarves are beautiful.” She slides one through her fingers like I did just a minute ago.
I take a breath. “She would like a lot of things in here,” I say, trying to make my eyes happy.
Grandma Tess puts her hand on top of Grandpa Howe’s, which is still resting on my shoulder. I can feel them looking at each other over my head. Can feel the happiness pouring off them, now mixed with a sudden concern about me. It’s a feeling I don’t like much—when people see that you’re sad and then get sad for you, too.
I put the sparkling little bird back down in its bowl with the others.
“It’s still early for me to be buying a bunch of souvenirs, right?” I say brightly. “We haven’t even been two hours into this trip! Who knows what we’ll find.”
“That’s right, of course,” Grandma Tess says. “Who knows?” And then, in a gentle way that makes me want her to stop talking: “If you think it’d please your mother, I say go for it. Even if it just pleases you.”
“I know what would please her.” Grandpa Howe winks at me. “We find our way to the nearest ice cream cone, and then get ourselves back on the road.”
I smile up at him, grateful that if he can tell the stuff about Mom is bothering me, he won’t make a deal about it. I squeeze his hand lightly as we thank the lady behind the counter and head back into the sunshine, meandering around the main square until we find a frozen yogurt spot. It isn’t as great as the house-made flavors we’re used to at the Custard Cup down the street from Grandpa Howe and Grandma Tess’s place—so close we can ride our bikes—but it is fun piling on as many crazy toppings as we can and then coming up with names for our hodgepodge sundaes.
We eat on the way to the car, finishing up right there in the parking lot instead of sitting and savoring, so we won’t keep Cassie waiting any longer. Back in the car, I’m feeling a little better, though Mom is still on my mind. Grandpa Howe and Grandma Tess turn the music up and go back to their singing, but I stay quiet in the backseat, watching out the window. I’m used to Mom and Dad leaving me out of things sometimes—jokes or comments they think I
won’t understand or am not interested in—but as we drive farther from my home, I realize this is the first time they’ve ever sent me
. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure they’re keeping something terrible from me.
I’m so distracted with all the awful things that could be wrong with Mom, and then trying to convince myself that I’m just overreacting like I do and surely it’s none of those, that before I know it we’re exiting off the highway again and driving through what must be Cassie’s suburb. As I gaze out at all the expensive boutiques and classy restaurants, the big breezy houses and the sculpted lawns, some of my excitement about Cassie comes back, but I also feel a little intimidated. I knew Cassie was cool, but this is all much more sophisticated than our funky little neighborhood in Berkeley. If this is the way Cassie and all her friends live, then she’s even more glamorous than I thought.
As we pull into her driveway—her house is bigger and fancier than some of my parents’ wealthiest clients’—I take out my phone and quickly text Mom and Dad to say we’ve arrived in Monterey and that it’s already a great trip. As soon as it’s sent, I turn down the volume and tuck my phone back into my bag. Texting your parents every ten minutes, or rushing to the phone when they respond, is probably not Cassie’s idea of sophisticated. Even though I feel a little twinge about it, I don’t want to look dumb,
and I certainly don’t want Cassie to sense that anything’s wrong. Then she’d be the one asking questions, and of course I could never lie to her. I don’t want her pitying me. I want her to like me because of me, not whatever is going on at home.
Besides, I think, shutting the car door and following Grandma Tess and Grandpa Howe up to the front door, she’ll be able to pity me plenty when Mom is dead.