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I stared at a black-painted door. I’d traveled two thousand miles from Nowhere, Georgia, to get to this place: a black door. Beyond the door was my fate. Beyond the door held the key to everything. Beyond the door lived my brother.
Or at least that’s what I hoped.
Did I hope that? My hand was up, fist curled, ready to knock, but my brain wasn’t sending the right signals. There I was, having traveled all that way just to meet my brother, yet I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t knock.
I was fixing to turn around and walk my way back to Georgia when the door opened on my frozen fist. A tall woman stood in the doorway. She was absolutely stunning. With red hair, blue eyes, and classically good looks, I suddenly felt unworthy.
“Oh!” The woman jumped back when she saw me, a trash bag in her hand. I eyed the trash bag, my hand still poised to knock. I coughed, bringing my hand from knocking position to my mouth.
“Excuse me miss,” I said. “I’m lookin’ for Vic Wall. Does he live here?”
“Vic!” the woman yelled, turning her head back into the apartment. She dropped the trash but didn’t leave the doorway. “A woman is here for you. Do you have another wife I don’t know about?” Leaning casually against the frame, the woman brought her attention back to me. “Do you mind if I ask how you know Vic?” She tilted her head, smiling warmly.
I swallowed. I’d prepared myself for the inevitable confrontation with Vic, but not for this woman. I had no idea how to respond to her. Time ticked past in slow motion as I thought of what to say. Do I tell the truth? Do I stall? Do I outright lie?
“I’m not his wife,” I said, trying to make a joke. The delivery was bland because I was nervous and scared.
“Oh of course not!” She laughed playfully. Her laugh faded and we settled back into an awkward silence. She smiled at me kindly. I smiled back, like a dumb mute. As I opened my mouth to speak, not prepared for what was going to come out, I was saved by the sound of another voice.
“Oh ha ha, Lenny. I only had the one hidden wife.” My stomach dropped. Despite the constant slew of pep talks running through my mind, I still wasn’t ready to meet Vic.
My big brother.
My only sibling.
My last real family.
He’d abandoned me, left me all alone with Daddy, and moved on to greater things. He sounded happy. He sounded fulfilled. No doubt he was, living with a supermodel and having the time of his life.
I realized then that I hated him.
“One is really more than enough,” the woman—Lenny, apparently—replied dryly. I was barely paying attention to their conversation. All I could concentrate on was the inevitability of my brother’s appearance as she stepped aside to make room for him. I panicked. I tripped back, trying to exit before he appeared.
“You know what…” I started to form an excuse, any excuse to not have to see him. Even if it meant I had to leave and go back to my horrible life, it was better than seeing him in that moment.
“Who is—” Too late. Vic rounded the corner and upon seeing me his face dropped and his tongue tied. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with filial hangups. “Grace?” Vic spoke my name so quietly it barely registered.
“Grace?” The woman looked from Vic to me and back to Vic. “Who is Grace?” She looked at me, eyebrow raised. “You’re Grace? I’m missing something, obviously.”
“I am. I’m…” My tongue seized in my mouth. What am I doing here? I had no place to stay. No job. No lick of the kind of life I was interrupting. I wasn’t welcome.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come.” I turned around without another word and dashed down the hallway, disappearing down the staircase. By the time the heavy iron door clanged shut, I was already two flights down and nearing the exit.
I’d made a huge mistake.
I sat alone at a coffee shop, drinking water because I didn’t have enough money to buy coffee. Five dollars for a small—excuse me, tall coffee? When did being a Rockefeller become a prerequisite for ordering coffee? I had really wanted coffee. I was tired from the bus ride, having only slept a few hours total in the past couple of days. Instead of coffee, though, I had to settle for water. At least the cool liquid was refreshing.
Staring at the wall in front of me, which was decorated with French paintings, I couldn’t keep my mind still. It seemed like dreams were mixing with reality, and it was becoming harder and harder to control my thoughts. Memories were slipping past my usual defenses.
“What is that?”
“It’s a backpack.”
“I know what it is. Why do you have it?”
“Are you fucking serious?”
“Could you not cuss at me please?”
“Sorry…it’s just, I got word that you were leaving, but I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe you would just leave like this.”
“What did you think was going to happen?”
“Hey? Excuse me? Hello?” I blinked lazily, my mind caught in the past. A hand waved hurriedly in front of my face, trying to get my attention. I blinked some more, willing my thoughts to return to the present, and followed the hand to its owner: a woman with inky black hair, macchiato skin, and freckles dusting the shoulders that peeked out from her off-the-shoulder shirt.
“I apologize,” I said, voice sluggish. “What do you need?”
“Did you see who took my bag?” the woman asked, eyes darting furiously around the shop.
“What?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard her properly.
“Over there.” She pointed to an empty couch, eyes still trained on me. The couch was the kind where people were supposed to lounge, drink coffee, and compose the next great American novel. “I left my bag there and now it’s gone. I was wondering if you saw someone take it. It must have happened in the last five minutes while I was in the bathroom.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, no. I was kinda lost in thought.” Lost in memories, more like. No matter how far I went, I still couldn’t escape them.
“Well that’s just fuckin’ great ain’t it?” The woman huffed a sigh and turned her attention back to the couch.
“I’m sorry,” I offered meekly.
“It’s not your fault,” the woman said, frowning. “I mean, I’m the idiot who left her bag alone. Welcome to California, right?” She put her hands on her hips, frowning at the empty spot on the couch.
“You’re new to California?” I set down my waning water and watched the woman. She looked young, probably around my age. She had big brown eyes and one arm of her coffee-colored skin was covered in colorful floral tattoos.
She reminded me of the type of Spanish paintings done on mosaic tiles, where women with long eyelashes and big smiles wore red flowers in their hair and were dressed in turquoise. I imagined that’s what she would look like when her bag hadn’t just been stolen.
“Yeah,” the painting continued. “I packed up my shit, said goodbye to my asshole boyfriend, and drove to the Sunshine State.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s Florida.”
“Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to have to go back now. Back to stupid, Bum-Fuck-Nowhere, Louisiana. That backpack had all my cash, my ID, and my last Snickers bar.”
“That sucks.” I watched her with tired eyes. I wished I could offer her more than my sympathy, but sympathy was all I had to my name.
“Right?” She crossed her arms. “I’m fucking hungry.” We sat in silence for a few moments. She watched the empty space on the couch, her intense stare willing the backpack to return. A plan began to form in my head. A reckless plan. A stupid plan. But then, I’d played it safe my whole life and that hadn’t stopped the bad from happening. This vivacious stranger appeared like an answer to all my problems.
“You have a car?” I asked. She turned back to me, her dark eyebrow raised.
“A shitty car,” she answered, eyeing me suspiciously. I didn’t have a car. I’d come all the way on a bus. I had about thirty dollars left to my name (and really wasn’t looking forward to hitch-hiking back home with my tail between my legs when that ran out), a five hundred dollar credit limit, and no where to go. I had no friends. I was one sip of water and one more dose of bad luck away from being in her exact situation.
“I don’t have a car,” I said.
She lifted her eyebrow higher. “What, you want to take my car, too?”
I shook my head. “I came all the way from Georgia. I only have about thirty bucks to my name.”
She folded her arms, still not getting where I was going. “So you want a lift to the shelter?”
“Let’s team up,” I said.
A smile formed on her face that lit me up from the inside out. She sat down next to me, closer than strangers should sit, and reached her hand out. I noticed the bright red nail polish. “I’m Vera.”
I gave her my hand. “Grace.”
“Oh look at that one!” Vera pointed animatedly at the computer screen, her bright red nails making small dents in the monitor.
“It’s three thousand dollars. A month.”
“But it’s nice right?”
I squinted at Vera. “I’m starting to understand how you lost your backpack.”
“Okay…” Vera clicked another listing. “What about this?”
After agreeing that neither one of us were serial killers (a discussion that had taken about ten seconds) we’d hopped in Vera’s car and driven to the public library. Vera had a smart phone and was able to locate the place easily.
I didn’t have a cell phone, much less a smart one. After leaving home, the only things I had to my name were a backpack with a few changes of clothes, a toothbrush, some shampoo, some books, and my brother’s address that I had to steal out of Mama’s things.
Not like she’d notice.
I let Vera do the navigating with the computer. I hadn’t grown up with them. Now, that didn’t mean I didn’t know how to use them, just that I was nervous with ‘em. I felt like a lot of people knew all kinds of shortcuts and cheats on computers, and I was just lucky if I could get to Google without typing “Google” into Google.
People get really judgmental about computers. If you don’t use them well you’re an idiot. So if I was using a computer, I was using it privately. Maybe that made me a coward—wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve been called.
Vera nudged me, prompting me to read the listing she’d brought up. Once again I’d been caught in my own thoughts. I read the listing thoroughly, which didn’t take long. There was no picture and very little information.
“It doesn’t list the price and it already has a tenant,” I stated.
“So?” Vera shot back. “It means we can bargain and it means cheaper rent. What’s the number? Never mind, I see it.” Before I could respond, Vera was punching numbers into her phone. “I hate this thing, it’s such a knockoff piece of—hello? Yes, I’m callin’ ‘bout the listing. Is it still available? Great! Me and my friend want to rent it. Four hundred for both of us? Oh, four hundred each. Hun, that’s ridiculous.”
Mesmerized, I watched Vera work. She bargained with whomever was on the line like it was second nature. There was no anxiety in her voice and she didn’t back down once. While examining her cuticles, she cut the price in half.
“Two hundred, great. We’ll see you in a bit, Chad.” Vera hung up the phone, her cool negotiating demeanor now replaced with bright glee. “Two hundred a month? Okay! Don’t mind if we do! Let’s go see our new home.”
Vera linked her arm in mine and pulled me out of the chair. She led my stupefied body through the glass library doors. Vera was so full of life, so sure of herself, and she was as foreign to this land as I was.
“What if it’s a dump?” I said, still being led like a puppy dog.
“Then we’ll look elsewhere. Still, I thought we should lock that shit down. Know what I mean?”
“Right.” I nodded, getting into her car. “Shit and stuff.”
Vera keyed the engine and glanced at me. “You’re a weird girl, Grace.”
I shrugged. “The weirdest.”
The drive to our potential new apartment was heart-pounding. Vera blasted the radio to some bubbly, beat-filled tune that I loved the minute it came on. She sang every lyric with precise timing and melody. Her voice was spectacular.
“I don’t kno-o-o-o-w!” Vera sang, taking her eyes off the road to serenade me. Driving with Vera was hilarious, albeit a little terrifying. She kept ignoring the road to sing to me. I couldn’t help but laugh, even if inside I felt like we were going to crash any minute.
Even though I’d never been to Santa Barbara, I was barely paying attention to our surroundings. Vera was a tourist attraction in and of herself. The way she slapped the steering wheel to the beat—occasionally honking on accident—and howled with the song was impossible to ignore. She kept trying to get me to sing with her, but that was not going to happen. I didn’t even sing in the shower.
Vera stopped singing and turned off the radio. It was so sudden it was like being doused in water. I looked around for a towel to dry off with.
“We’re almost there,” Vera supplied. She spoke normally as if she hadn’t just been rocking harder than anyone I’d ever seen before. In a car, even.
“Oh,” I responded. Oh? I wished I could have said something better. Being with Vera was another reminder of how little experience I had with people.
For the first time since I’d hopped in the car, I looked outside. Most of the houses had orangish red roofs and white facades. Bright purple, blue, and red plants decorated their porches and the lawns were sprawling green. It was unlike anything I’d seen before. I was fascinated, it was like stepping into a magazine.
“This is nice,” Vera said, slowing to a stop.
I looked away from the window and back to Vera. “Why are you stopping?”
“We’re here,” Vera said, taking the key out of the ignition. Here? My mouth fell open. This couldn’t be where we were going to live. It looked like paradise. Through cracks in the houses I could see blue—ocean blue. It was impossible that we were going to live here.
“I know,” Vera said. “It must be a mistake. This place is too beautiful. But let’s check it out at least.” Vera popped open her car door and stepped out. I followed suit, still overloaded by the beauty.
As we walked up to the big white buildings, I couldn’t have felt like more of an outsider. People in swimsuits and sundresses strolled along the sidewalk, too happy and carefree to notice our uncertainty. Vera pulled out her phone, checking the address one more time before we ascended the steps of the biggest building on the block.
“This one?” I asked.
“Looks like an apartment or something,” Vera said, peering at the tall white structure with suspicion. “He said he was on the first floor and to just ring when we got here. So, here goes nothing.” Vera pressed the ringer with determination.
It was only a few beats before the door opened and revealed a tall, scraggly looking young man who couldn’t have been much older than me or Vera. He had shaggy brown hair and blue eyes and looked to have just woken up.
“You Vera?” he asked.
Vera nodded. “Are you Chad?” He nodded, opening the door wide for us to walk in. Vera and I glanced at each other once before stepping across the doorway. With just that one look, we crossed the threshold and didn’t look back.
Chad walked us through the one-story apartment. He kept saying things like “I know, it’s not that big” and “sorry, it’s not much”, but I didn’t understand what he was going on about. The place was huge. It had a kitchen, a living room, a bathroom, and three bedrooms. Plus, the patio opened right on to the beach.
The beach was the first thing I saw and it took me a solid minute to take my eyes off it. When I first noticed it Chad was sayin’ something about how the microwave didn’t work right, but I couldn’t hear it. I was too busy starin’ at the big blue expanse in front of me.
The waves crashed in a continuous cycle and people were playing in it! I didn’t know how they did that. Weren’t they afraid? Weren’t they worried that once they stepped in the deep blue they’d never come out? I kept wondering, watching little kids and big adults jump around as white foam crashed over their heads. I only stopped cause Vera dragged me away by the elbow.
“I’ve got two extra rooms,” Chad said, gesturing at two open doors. “They’re pretty much the same except one overlooks the beach and the other overlooks the street.”
Vera grabbed my arm so hard I swore she drew skin. I pulled it back with a squeak, giving her a look. “What’s that for?”
“Can I have the beach room?” Her brown eyes grew round and wide. “Please, I’ve never seen the beach but in pictures. Please!”
I massaged my arm. “Yeah, okay.”
Chad squinted at us then shrugged. “I guess that’s it. You’ve seen everything. I’ve got to head to school in an hour, so, uh”—he placed his hands in his pockets and teetered on his heels—“just have the cash ready by the first of the month.” Without another word Chad disappeared into the room across from ours, shutting the door.
Vera and I exchanged looks. “He’s a bit off his rocker, right?” Vera asked.
“Maybe that’s how people act out here,” I offered, not wanting to believe the man we were agreeing to live with was even remotely odd.
Vera nodded. “Maybe…” She shook her head, replacing her frown with a smile. “Let’s move in!”
“Do you even have anything to move in?” I certainly didn’t. All I had was a backpack with a few changes of clothes and a toothbrush I’d bummed off a church in Colorado.
“You know what I mean. I’m checking out my room!” Vera disappeared into her bedroom, leaving me in the living room. I stared at the open door that led into what was now my room. From my vantage point in the living room I could discern the outlines of a few objects, but not much. I should have gotten it over with and just walked in, but it was the oddest thing; my feet were somehow stuck to the floor.
Like I’d stepped in taffy.
I’d never had a room. I mean, I’d had a room that I’d slept in before, but never my own room. Daddy was very clear on that. It wasn’t my room, it was his room. Everything belonged to him. Even I belonged to him. Eli was the only one who’d ever made me question that; he was the only person who’d ever made me think I could belong to myself.
Vera squealed, startling me from my thoughts and memories.
“What’s wrong?” I yelled, still not moving from my spot.
“I have a closet and a dresser. Do you?” I couldn’t answer her as I still hadn’t gone into my room. Twisting my mouth into a determined frown, I stepped from the spot and into the room.
The walls were blank, no pictures or anything to speak of. Three were painted bone white while one was a stark contrast in aqua. The room had only one window and it overlooked the street. If I craned my head hard enough I could faintly make out the blue of the ocean. The ocean. The actual blue, vast, and apparently never-ending ocean.
Mostly I just saw the deep black tar of the street, dotted with cars of all colors. People walked along the pavement, some dressed only in swimsuits, as they made their way to the beach. They were smiling, pushing their friends, and laughing. I turned from the window and back to my room.
I still couldn’t believe it. My room. To do anything I wanted with. The bed was already made with white sheets and a faded blue quilt on top. A light wooden dresser, like the color of wheat grass in the noonday sun, was pushed up against the wall. A long mirror hung over the back of a door. I went to that door and opened it.
“I have a closet!” I called back to Vera.
“And a dresser?” she questioned.
“And a dresser!” I replied. Seemingly content, Vera didn’t reply and silence hung in the air. Faint sounds from the street outside drifted in. Like whispers of happiness, I could hear people’s laughter and joy. As I sat down on the faded quilt, messing up the neatly folded corners of the bed, I couldn’t help but think it was too good to be true.