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Authors: Georgia Bockoven

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BOOK: The Year Everything Changed
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“You’re going to have to tell me about it some other time, hon. I need to get back before Judy comes looking for me. Remind me tomorrow, okay?”

“It’s not important.”

“Sure it is. You wouldn’t have said something if it wasn’t. Now, I want you to go upstairs and take a nice long bath and feel sorry for me that I’m stuck here and not there with you.”

He would forget about the letter, and she would let him because reminding him would be something Judy would do, and Ginger worked harder at being Judy Osborne’s opposite than she worked at anything else in their relationship. “I’m headed that way now.”

She said good-bye but held on to the phone. It was nine-thirty in Denver. Her father would be in bed, but her mother seldom joined him before midnight. Deciding the letter was a rare opportunity to include her mother in something that had happened in her life that had nothing to do with Marc, Ginger dialed the number.

Before Ginger could get to the reason she’d called, she had to convince Delores she was okay and not laying the groundwork for devastating news by calling so late. “Mom, really, there’s nothing to worry about. I just wanted to tell you about this weird letter that came today.”

“Someone is stalking you?”

Ginger laughed. “Not even close.”

“I was just reading an article about how vulnerable single women are, how men zero in on them and—”

“I don’t have a stalker, Mom. The letter is from an attorney who represents this man who thinks he’s my father.”

A thick silence filled the line. Ginger waited. “Mom?” she prompted.

Several more seconds passed before Delores answered. “I’m here.”

“Don’t you think that’s funny?”

“What else does the letter say?”

This was not the reaction Ginger had expected. “He’s dying and wants to see me. Well, not me, his daughter.”

“Did they give you his name?”

She reached for the letter. “James Reed—no, not James, Jessie.”

Another long silence followed. “What are you going to do?”

Puzzled, Ginger was beginning to wish she hadn’t called. This was supposed to be fun, not an inquisition. “I guess I’ll call and let the attorney know she has the wrong person so she can keep looking.”

“You don’t have to call. It’s not your responsibility. She can figure it out for herself when she doesn’t hear from you.”

“The guy is dying, Mom. I’d feel bad if I was the reason he didn’t find his daughter in time.”

“Don’t get involved in this, Ginger.” It wasn’t a suggestion, it was an order. “Just throw the letter away and forget about it.”

“I have to return the ticket, or at least let them know I won’t be using it.”

“Ticket?”

“This guy is so desperate to see his daughter, he sent a plane ticket from San Jose to Sacramento. I could drive there faster and with a lot less hassle.”

“Then send it back with a note. Just don’t call.”

“Why? What possible difference could it make?”

“It’s for your own protection. I’ve read about people who run scams like this. When they find someone who—”

“Mom, it’s just a letter sent to the wrong person. You’re making way too big a thing out of it. If I’d known it was going to upset you like this, I never would have told you about it.”

“I know about these things. I read more than you do.”

“All I’m going to do is call the attorney and tell her that she has the wrong person.”


Damn it, Ginger. Just this once would you please not argue with me and do what I say?
 ”

Ginger blinked. Her mother rarely raised her voice, and she never swore. Something wasn’t right, and it had nothing to do with stalkers and scam artists. “Okay. If it means that much to you, I’ll just return the ticket.”

“Thank you.” Delores’s relief was almost palpable.

“I’m going to hang up and take a shower.” Before Delores could question her abrupt departure, Ginger added, “I went running before I called and I stink.”

“I love you, Ginger.”

“I love you too, Mom,” she said automatically.

“I mean it. I really do love you, Ginger. More than I could ever tell you. I don’t know what I would do if anything ever happened to you.”

“Would you please stop worrying about me? And stop reading those articles.”

“Go take your shower.”

Ginger said good-bye, grabbed a plum from the counter, and headed upstairs. The plum was sour, but she ate it anyway, calling it dinner, saving calories for the weekend, when she planned to talk Marc into taking her to the spa in Sonoma that she’d read about in the Sunday newspaper.

She was in the shower and laying the groundwork she’d use to convince Marc to take off for the weekend when her mother’s voice intruded into her thoughts.
Damn it, Ginger. Just this once, do what I say.

Why just this once? What made this letter so important?

The answer came on a wave of stunning logic too painful to be believed, too obvious to be denied. Still, she fought knowing. She couldn’t say the words, not to herself, and certainly not out loud.

She was wrong. She had to be. All her life she’d been told that her dark blue eyes were just like her Aunt Louisa’s, that she had inherited her father’s temper, that she should take calcium supplements because Reynolds women were prone to osteoporosis. She was related to John Quincy Adams on her great-grandmother’s side of the family. Her mother wouldn’t lie to her about something like that.

She finished washing the shampoo out of her hair, taking her time, telling herself that it was the plum making her sick to her stomach. As soon as she was out of the shower she would call her mother back, and they would laugh over Ginger believing, even for a second, that she wasn’t Delores and Jerome’s child, that Billy wasn’t her brother, that she wasn’t really related to John Quincy Adams.

Ginger told herself that it was late in Denver and therefore not an indication of panic if she skipped her normal after-shower beauty routine and called as soon as she dried off. She called from the bedroom. “Hi, it’s me.” She didn’t know what to say next. After a long pause, she added, “I was just thinking about that letter.”

“I figured as much,” Delores said.

She clung to one last hope, giving her mother one last chance to tell her she was wrong. “Why did it upset you so much?”

“I’m tired. I’ve had a long day.”

“It was more than that. Please . . . just tell me. Is it true?” She almost choked on what came next. “Is this man my father?”

“Your father is right here in this house with me.”

For an instant, the space of a heartbeat, all was right with her world again. But something—a need for clarity or conclusion—pushed her toward one last question. “But is he my biological father?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

A chill traveled Ginger’s spine. “It’s true then?” she asked, her voice little more than a whisper. “I’m adopted?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Delores repeated.

“You’re wrong.”

“Why?”

“Because it means everything about me is a lie.” Ginger stood, walked the room, and then pressed herself into a corner.

“I understand why you’re upset. But once—”

“How could you lie to me all these years?” Quick, fierce anger kept the pain from overwhelming her. “I trusted you.”

“We had to promise we would never tell, not you, not anyone. It was a condition of the adoption.”

“That’s bullshit. It might have mattered back then, but not after thirty-six years. What could they possibly do to you now?”

“I thought about telling you. But then I would—”

“Who is she?”

“She’s gone, Ginger. She died when you were seven.”

“Then who
was
she?”

Delores didn’t answer.

“What possible difference could it make if you told me now?”

“Barbara Winston.”

She recognized the name but didn’t know why. “Who—” And then it clicked. “The singer?” Not just any singer, an angelic beauty, an icon who had guaranteed her place in music history by dying in a plane crash with her band on her way to perform her nominated song at the Academy Awards.

“Yes.”

“And this man, this Jessie Reed, is he my father?”

“Yes.”

Slowly the information that her father was alive sunk in. “He agreed to the adoption? So that means he didn’t want me either?”

“All we knew about him was his name and that he was aware of what was happening. The lawyer told us he’d signed a paper promising he would never try to contact you.”

“Well, he changed his mind.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t go. You’ll regret it if you do.”

Thirty-six years and her mother still hadn’t figured out that the one sure way to get her to do something was to tell her not to.

Chapter Three
Christina

Christina Alvarado sat on a cracked leather sofa in the living room of the two-bedroom bungalow she shared with Randy Larson, her feet propped on the piece of painted plywood that passed for a coffee table. Her hand at the back of her neck, her index finger twirling a strand of bright pink hair that her beauty-school dropout girlfriend had convinced her was the perfect way to welcome a new century, she slowly reread the letter delivered by courier only minutes earlier.

Randy stood in the arched doorway that led to the kitchen, a can of tomato sauce in one hand, a pot in the other. “So, what’s it say?”

“My father’s dying.” She struggled to make sense out of something that made none. “He wants to see me.”

“Enrique’s dying?”

“My real father—Jessie Reed.”

“I thought he was dead already.”

“He is—he was. At least that’s what my mother told me.” Her father couldn’t be alive. Second comings were the providence of Jesus Christ—not Christina Alvarado’s father.

“Why would Carmen lie about something like that?”

Carmen treated truth like a too-tight shoe, either stretched to fit or tossed. Christina opened a second envelope and unfolded an airline ticket to Sacramento, California. “Who knows why my mother does anything.”

“Call her and ask.”

“She’s not talking to me.”

“Now what?”

“I told her I couldn’t come home for her birthday.”

“Did you tell her why—that you’d be in rehearsal?”

Randy was missing the point. A father rising from the dead took precedence over a petulant mother. “She said it’s only community theater and that I had no business taking on the assistant director job when I knew it would interfere with my promise to her.”

“Maybe if you told her you’d be there if she sent money to pay the rent?”

“Like that’s even a possibility.” Christina had Enrique to thank for paying her way through school in the States, even though it was more self-serving than philanthropy. Separating mother and daughter brought him the peaceful household he longed for. To her mother money was like a cold, something you shared accidentally.

“There’s got to be someone else you could ask about your father.”

He’d been a forbidden topic when she was growing up. What little she knew came from a cousin. “My Uncle Mario was in business with him. That’s how he met my mother.”

“Yeah? What kind of business?”

“Strawberries.”

Randy laughed. “Your uncle was a farmer? I thought he was some big wheeler-dealer in the import-export business.”

“He found the growers in Mexico and my dad found the buyers in the States. They were the first ones to figure out the demand and made a killing until the market became glutted and collapsed.”

“And that’s why your mother dumped him?”

“I think it was more that she hated living in San Diego. When he refused to move back to Mexico, she went without him.” Now Christina questioned even that family lore. “At least that was what I was told.”

“More likely she left when the money did.”

She glared at him. “Why do you do that?”

“What?”

“Slam my mother. You don’t even know her.”

“I know how she treats you.”

“Maybe she has her reasons.”

“Like she needs a reason to be a bitch where you’re concerned.”

“Too far,” she warned.

Randy put the can and pot on the table, grabbed one of the mismatched chairs from the table, and straddled it. “So, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.” Her father was alive. She should be happy, ecstatic. When she was a child, this was the man she’d gone to in her dreams when she needed to feel loved, worthy. Why wasn’t she excited? Why wasn’t she eager to see him again?

Because, if he was alive, it meant that he’d abandoned her on purpose. The man she’d loved and missed all these years would never do that to her.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she answered.

“What do you
want
to do?” he tried again.

“Direct a Steven Spielberg film,” she shot back. She put her feet on the floor and leaned forward. “How the hell do I know what I want to do about something like this when I can’t make up my mind whether to junk my car or get the transmission fixed?”

“Junk it.”

She’d have more confidence in his answer if he weren’t balancing the money she’d use on the car against money they could use on the film. The tighter their finances, the more protective Randy became of
Illegal Alien
.

Christina examined the airline ticket that had come with the letter. “Whoever this guy is”—she couldn’t accept he was really her father—“he must be serious about wanting to see me. The ticket’s first-class.”

“Ticket?” Randy crossed the room and sat next to her, plucking the paper from her hand and studying it. “Holy shit. Is that really what it costs to fly first-class from Tucson to Sacramento?”

“Apparently.”

“He has to be nuts to put out that kind of money when you could drive up there for a couple hundred dollars.” He stared at the ticket for several more seconds, then looked at Christina, a sly smile in place. “Nuts—or rich.”

“Or desperate. The attorney said he’s dying. He probably thinks this is his last chance to see me.”

“You gonna go?”

Her stomach did a slow roll. What if she got there and it turned out this man was her father and she did something stupid—like forgive him? “It’s not a good time. Rehearsals start next week, and Harold said he’d fire my ass if I missed another shift.” Harold threatened to fire his waitresses on an ongoing, rotating basis, but Randy didn’t know that. He only knew that if she lost her job, he might be forced to find one.

“Shit—it’s not like he’s asking you to move in with him and call him Daddy. Think about it. Wouldn’t you rather be sorry you went than regret you didn’t?”

“Why do you care?”

“Self-protection.” He gave her an unconvincing smile. “I don’t want to have to listen to you whining that you should have gone after it’s too late.”

“I have to think about it.”

He took the letter and read it. “It says here that he’s paying for a car and hotel, too. If you want, I could go with you. We could trade that first-class ticket for two economy and probably have money left over.” After several seconds he flashed her a conspiratorial smile. “Or . . . you could turn this in and we could use the money for
Illegal Alien
.”

Their independent film, a documentary—
Illegal Alien
—had consumed every dime and dollar she’d managed to earn, beg, and borrow for the year and a half she’d known him and was still months from being completed. To help him, Christina had gone from the relative comfort of Enrique’s monthly stipend during the five years it had taken her to earn her degree at the University of Arizona to working two part-time jobs and living on the edge of poverty.

She was twenty-six years old, and it was getting harder and harder to maintain the fantasy that her big break would come when the film started winning awards. She either got to L.A. in the next year or settled for growing old in Tucson directing community theater productions and staring in underpaid, late-night used-car commercials.

“If I turn in the ticket”—could she get a refund on something she hadn’t bought herself even if her name was on it?—“how would I get to Sacramento if I decided to go later?”

“Put up a notice at school and see if anyone is headed that way?”

“Why not UPS? A little bubble wrap, a couple of Power Bars, I’d be set. And if you had me delivered to the office, we might be able to get a refund on the limo, too.”

“Look, all I’m saying—”

“I know what you’re saying. And I know what you were thinking—but there’s no way in hell I’m going to hitch a ride with some pervert so you have money to go back to Texas for a couple of pickup shots.”

“All I need is a couple of days, a week at the outside.”

“Then get off your ass and get a job. If those extra shots are that important, it seems to me that you would be willing to flip burgers for a month to pay for them.” They could be having a playback of the argument they’d had a dozen times already. She didn’t think the shots were necessary, Randy believed they were crucial. She liked mean and lean, he liked long and lingering.

He put his arm around her shoulder and drew her into his side. “Think about it, Christina,” he said, effectively ignoring her outburst. “With that kind of money not only could we get the scenes we need, we could get some more footage of that cop in Phoenix.”

Randy wouldn’t leave Tucson until
Illegal Alien
was in the can, and she’d stupidly promised she wouldn’t go without him even though they could finish the editing as easily in L.A. as in Tucson. She grounded him. She was his inspiration, his drive to succeed. Besides, he loved her. And if she was into believing everything she was told, she might as well buy into the line that thong underwear was comfortable.

She was his meal ticket, pure and simple. She knew it, and she put up with it because she wanted the film finished even more than he did. Not only had she worked on it as hard and long as Randy, she’d contributed every spare dime she’d earned and all the Christmas and birthday money her mother sent every year because it was too complicated to send actual presents from Mexico to Arizona.

“Why don’t I call the airline.” Before she could say anything, he added, “Just to see if they’d let you exchange this for coach and what kind of refund you’d get.”

Bottom line—whether it was first-class or on a bus, she would go. She had some questions for Jessie Reed. Starting with where the hell he’d been the last twenty-three years.

That night was the best sex they’d had in weeks. Randy was high on the possibility they’d be back to work on
Illegal Alien
and as solicitous of Christina as he’d been after she’d agreed to pay all the household bills with a second job so he could put all his time into the final edits. He’d prepared dinner, put candles and flowers he’d filched from the neighbor’s yard on the table, and even insisted on doing the dishes himself while she studied the director’s notes for her upcoming play.

Later, spent from their sexual gymnastics, Randy put his arm around her and held her close, her head on his shoulder, his chin nestled in her hair. “What kind of memories do you have about your dad?”

Although sated and languid and seduced by their intimacy, she hesitated in answering. Her memories of her father were like her dreams of flying, intensely private and vulnerable. Awake, she knew she couldn’t hop into the air and flap her arms and disappear into a cloud, but knowing this did nothing to diminish the wonder and freedom she felt when it happened in her dreams. It was the same with her father, or at least the way it had been before today. Thinking about him was like going to a secret place where she felt special and loved. She would close her eyes and feel the warmth of reaching up to put her hand into his, see eyes that radiated joy when he looked down at her, and hear a deep and gentle voice tell her the man in the moon hadn’t smiled until the day she was born. Her life changed after he disappeared. All that was special and tender and forgiving became memory, childhood armor in the hostile world she inhabited without him.

She’d gone through a time when she doubted her memories of him. At two months shy of her fourth birthday, could what she remembered be real? Was the Jessie Reed she carried in her heart someone she’d made up to make herself feel loved?

“Memories?” she repeated. “Hardly any.” Facts she would share. “He and my mother divorced when I was two. That’s when she moved back to Mexico to live with my grandparents. I only saw him a few times after that.”

“And Carmen never talked about him?” He traced the circle of her belly button with his finger, then stopped to tug gently on her navel ring.

“Never. The little I know is all bad and came from my cousin, Ricky—my Uncle Mario’s oldest boy. He hated me.” She smiled. “With good reason. I was really mean to him when we were growing up. He retaliated by telling me things about my mother and father he knew would hurt me.”

“Like?”

“My mother was pregnant when she met my dad. Her father had thrown her out of the house and she was living with Ricky’s family. Ricky said the only reason my dad married her was because no one else would and he felt sorry for her.”

“Wait a minute. I thought you said Jessie was your real father.”

“She lost that baby. I was born a year later, after they’d moved to San Diego.”

Randy propped himself up on his elbows and fixed her with a stare.

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

“That he might be richer than we think. If he made it big once . . . well, maybe he did it again. I’ve read about guys like him and your uncle. Having a business go belly-up doesn’t faze them, they just start over. Sometimes even doing it three or four times before they hit on something that sticks.”

“So?”

“So what if it’s not guilt he’s feeling but something else? Like not having anyone to leave his money to except some charity—or you? Maybe you shouldn’t change the ticket.” Randy warmed to the idea. “You might give him the wrong impression.” He sat up. “You don’t want him thinking you’re only there because of his money.”

“Like he’s going to think I’m there for any other reason.”

“Oh, man, this is unreal.” He shook his head in wonder. “You can’t even say it was luck. What are the chances your old man would still be alive and rich and ready to kick off and leave it all to you? Sweet Jesus, this could be the answer to all our prayers.”

Randy either thought she didn’t care how callous he sounded or he was oblivious in his excitement.

“You
are
his only kid, right?”

“As far as I know. But he could have had a dozen after me.”

“Not at his age. Even if he did drop another kid or two, who cares? God, Christina, think what this could mean. Anyone who spends money the way he does has to have a lot to spend.”

His excitement growing, Randy jumped up and stood in the middle of the bed, straddling her. He reached to pull her up to join him. She resisted.

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