“So… you’re gonna be all right… right?”
I looked up to see my dad standing, yet again, in the doorway of my bedroom.
“Yes, Dad,” I assured him, and continued packing.
“You’re sure you’re okay with this?”
I nodded and then tried my best to ignore him. He was making me uncomfortable. Uncomfortable. U-n-c-o-m-f-o-r-t-a-b-l-e. Uncomfortable. I rummaged through my chest of drawers. Thanks to Holly, our housekeeper, everything smelled of Gain and Downy.
“I’m hungry,” my dad said. “You feel like grabbing a bite when you’re done here? It will be our last—” His voice caught, but he continued, “last dinner together for a while.”
Oh, brother. Melodramatic. M-e-l-o-d-r-a-m-a-t-i-c. Melodramatic. I had a nice mental laugh, which helped me not get upset. “Sure,” I said.
My childhood therapist (that my dad insisted I see right after my mom left) had always encouraged me to express myself. She’d tell me to let others know what I was thinking and how I felt. “Don’t make them guess,” she’d say. “Make it clear. Spell it out for them.” Since I loved spelling and was already participating in bees, for fun, I took her advice literally. To my surprise, it ended up being great therapy. I still catch myself doing it today, only now—thank God—I spell inside my head.
“I’ll meet you in the car,” my dad said.
I tossed everything into my bag and zipped it, grabbed a sweater and headed outside.
I gazed thoughtfully at my dad for a moment as he drove, feeling like I needed to study him, so I wouldn’t forget exactly how he looked while we were apart. Because what if I never saw him again? The rational part of me knew I was being ridiculous, but when your mom takes off when you’re a kid, it tends to make you fear the worst in most situations. I could hear my therapist’s voice in my head, “Abandonment issues, blah, blah, blah…”
My dad was tall and fit and still had most of his hair. He made decent money selling insurance and would probably never retire, even though he could afford to. I don’t know why my mom ever left him. Of course, I still couldn’t figure out why she’d left me. How do you walk away from your own child? Even though I still spent most of my time being angry at her, I wished I had studied her more when I had the chance—her mannerisms, the way she looked—so I could remember her better.
The ding of the blinker pulled me from my thoughts and we coasted into the parking lot of Chan’s China Bistro. It was a quaint, little restaurant sandwiched in between a postal store and a nail salon.
As I had expected, it was chilly and dark inside. Multicolored paper lanterns hung from the ceiling, and my dad sighed as he sat down and gazed up at them. I knew what he was thinking before he even said it. “Your mom used to love coming here.”
I still missed my mom some, but not near as much as he did; and the little bit I did was mainly for his sake. My dad deserved better. I felt sorry for him.
Before he even opened his menu, he asked me once again, “You’re sure you’re OK with everything? I can back out if you want me to.”
He had plans to travel with a group of friends. They were going on a Flintwood Tour of Europe for the summer, so I was going to stay with my aunt and uncle. I was feeling a little anxious to say the least, but I was doing my best to hide it.
“I think it’s a great idea you’re going, Dad. I want you to go. You never do anything for yourself. I mean, when’s the last time you took a sick day, much less a vacation?” He needed to go for another reason, too—to find someone special to grow old with. He had a few good friends, but he was an introvert, which made it almost impossible for him to date. He needed more in his life than just me and his handful of male friends. I was hoping he might meet someone on this trip. Now that I was old enough to start dating, it would be nerve-racking enough without having to worry about my dad at home alone.
His face didn’t look as worried now. “Thanks, Ronnie. This means a lot to me. I’m really looking forward to it.”
I felt relieved. Relieved. R-e-l-i-e-v-e-d. Relieved.
While we waited on our food, he made small talk about where he planned to visit. My own thoughts accidentally drowned out his voice. I was preoccupied with the fact I was going to be spending my entire summer with relatives I hadn’t seen in forever. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I only knew I was going to get lots of opportunities to earn future tuition. I would be a senior when school started in the fall, and college would be here before I knew it.
I planned on getting a part-time job, and my dad said Uncle Bill and Aunt Pam had some things for me to do as well. One of which was babysitting my little cousin Danielle.
“…and Rachel wants to see the Eiffel Tower
“Wait. What? Rachel? Rachel is going too?” I interrupted.
“You knew that.”
“No. I’m pretty sure I would’ve remembered. I thought you were just going with Ed, Tommy and James.”
“There are women in our bowling league, too. This whole trip was Rachel’s idea. Were you paying attention during any of our past conversations?”
“Apparently not. That woman is dying to get you to the altar. You’d better not elope. Not with her.”
“Would that be so terrible?”
“Uh… she’s a bitch.”
“Sorry. But you know it’s true. And she doesn’t suit you at all, Dad.” I knew I wouldn’t be living with my dad much longer, but I couldn’t imagine sharing our last year together—with her. She was a very loud and obnoxious woman. The three of us had only gone out once, and Rachel had been incredibly rude to the waiter. Before we left, she’d had the manager at our table and every eye in the restaurant on us. I’d promised myself I would never go anywhere with her again.
When we finished our meal, my dad said, “This was fun. Let’s plan to do it again the minute we both get back.”
I smiled. “OK.”
In no time, we made it back to our tiny little one-story wedged between other identical houses.
“I’m pretty tired; I’d better hit the hay. See you in the morning, sweetie.” He turned to go, but then stopped and picked up one of my many spelling bee trophies proudly displayed on the fireplace mantel and looked at it teary eyed, like I had just died.
Sheesh. “Goodnight, Dad.”
I let my thoughts wander as I enjoyed a small bowl of chocolate-chip ice cream for dessert.
It was true—I was little nervous about being away from my dad and not knowing what to expect with my relatives, but there was another reason I was feeling anxious. The last time I’d visited my aunt and uncle on Thorton Island was just before my mom had left, so I was pretty young. My mom, dad and I had taken a tour of Thorton Mansion, and on the tour, I’d seen a man—or at least I thought I had, dressed in an old-fashioned suit. No one else seemed to notice him, much less care that he’d followed us around the entire time.
Towards the end of the tour, he came so uncomfortably close to me, I started to cry. He’d frightened me. I was just a kid and I believed he wanted to hurt me. I remember reaching out to my mom, so she would hug me. Not only did she not comfort me, I’d embarrassed her so much, she wouldn’t even acknowledge me. I tried desperately to explain to her through my tears how scared I was of the man I’d seen. I heard her tell my dad in an angry, hushed whisper that I was lying. That I was just throwing a tantrum for attention. As always, my dad ended up being the one to console me. And he believed me when I told him about the man even though he said he hadn’t seen him.
That was one of the last memories I have of my mom. So many times, I’d wished I could go back and change the way I’d behaved. If I hadn’t acted like that or said anything to her, maybe she would still be here. She’d thought I was a brat, a liar and probably crazy. Who would want to deal with that? It was my fault my mom had gone, and my dad was lonely. And to this day I’m not really sure what happened on that tour. I was pretty sure I’d seen a ghost.
I sighed and rinsed my dish before placing it in the washer. Everything was going to be fine. I needed to earn money and there would be plenty of work opportunities to keep me busy and my mind off ghosts. So, I had to stay positive, for myself and my dad.
I locked up before heading upstairs to my room. When I slipped off my sweater, the crinkling of cellophane reminded me I had stuffed my fortune cookie into my pocket. I’d always enjoyed Chan’s fortunes because they weren’t “for sissies,” as my dad always joked. While other restaurants gave benign fortunes that said, “Have a happy day,” and “Good luck is coming your way,” Chan’s had always had more of an edge.
I cracked it open with anticipation and pulled the little white paper out.
Adventure awaits, but so does danger. Be leery of strangers.
“I know you don’t remember a whole lot about your Uncle Bill, but he was the best little brother a kid could have.” My dad smiled as he tossed my duffle bag into the back of my Jeep. “You’ll love him. You always did when you were a kid.
“And your Aunt Pam—aw, she’s great, a real peach. I can’t tell you much about their daughter, Danielle. She was a toddler the last time we were around her. I know she’s quite a bit younger than you, but I hope you two can form a friendship. Oh, when I talked to Bill earlier this morning, he gave me details about one of the jobs he has lined up for you, if you’re interested.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“An elderly neighbor of his needs someone to check in on her to make sure she takes her meds, and help her out a little around her house. That sounds right up your alley, future RN.”
I’d told my dad that I wanted to be a nurse when I was like ten, and he’d held me to it for the last seven years. The truth was, I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
He gave me a giant bear hug that took my breath away just before I slid into my Jeep and fastened my seatbelt.
“I feel like I should drive you. Are you sure you know where you’re going?”
I pointed to my GPS. “I’ve got this, Dad.” At least I hoped I did. I suddenly felt so alone and scared, but smiled to hide what I was feeling. If my dad thought for a second I was upset, he would drop his plans and cancel everything. I couldn’t let him do that. I had to be brave.
“You do, don’t you? That’s my girl, always so strong and independent.” He grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly. “I love you, Ronnie. Have fun and please be careful.”
“You do the same. I love you, Dad.”
I wiped a tiny tear from the corner of my eye as I drove away, then turned my radio up. Thank God, an upbeat song was on. My mood suddenly lightened. I couldn’t believe it—I was going on my first road trip. In three hours, I would be on Thorton Island. I picked up speed in my excitement and the wind whipped my hair around.
* * *
The closer I got, the more my excitement turned to anxiety. Anxiety. A-n-x-i-e-t-y. Anxiety. I wished for a moment that I was heading to a vacation destination like most of the kids I went to school with, and not to my relatives’ to work.
When I finally saw water out my window though, my spirits lifted a little. Even if I wound up being miserable, at least I was going to be miserable near the beach.
My phone began to play a melody. “Hey, Dad.”
“Are you there yet? You should be close.”
“I haven’t pulled in their driveway yet, but I know I’m on the right track. I see water.”
“We’re about to board—so, we’ll have dinner at Chan’s just as soon as we can.” His voice was smiling.
The bridge to the island was so tall, I felt like I was on a roller coaster. I held tightly to the wheel with both hands.
Boats of all sizes passed beneath me, and I tried not to notice. I looked straight ahead until I’d made it safely across. From the center of an esplanade, a large sign surrounded by yellow and red hibiscus bushes welcomed me to Thorton Island.
Large palm trees lined Main Street. Everything looked so bright and manicured, I felt like I was entering a Polynesian-themed section of an amusement park and leaving the real world behind. How did I forget how great this place was? I guessed I’d just been too young to appreciate it before.
I glanced at the clock on my dash. I was ahead of schedule, so I pulled into The Lunch Box for a quick bite.
I carefully carried my tray out onto the sunny patio, took a bite of chili and looked around. My breath caught when I noticed Thorton Mansion in the distance. I felt my stomach twist as I admired its high-pitched roof, jetting up past most everything around it and looming over the town square with a watchful presence. It was a magnificent work of art, but I’d seen on the news that it was no longer open to the public. Someone was actually living there again. I couldn’t imagine calling a house that big home. And I couldn’t help but wonder if they ever saw the ghost I’d thought I’d seen.
“If you think that place is cool, you ought to see the old orphanage.”
I turned to see a heavyset girl my age in a Lunch Box uniform standing in front of me. She had wavy, chestnut hair pulled up high in a long ponytail. She sat down at my table and proceeded to take the tomatoes off her salad. Apparently, she was on her lunch break. Great. I didn’t usually prefer the company of females—or anybody for that matter.
“These things are acidic. If I eat them I will have heartburn the rest of the night.” She glanced over at my bowl of chili. I had topped it off with shredded cheese, chives and diced onions. “If I ate that—oh my gosh! Trust me. You don’t want to know.”
I could tell by the grin on her face she was proud of the reaction she’d gotten from me. “You laughed. I guess that means we’ll have to be friends. I’m Antonia. But if you dare call me that I’ll pretend I don’t know you. I swear I think my mom was high during my delivery.”
“What do you want me to call you then?”
“I don’t care. Mable—just anything but An-ton-ia.”
I laughed some more.
“Just call me Toni like everyone else.”
“I’m Rhonda, but I go by Ronnie.”
“Our nicknames are both boy names. I wonder what else we have in common.” She took a long sip from her straw. “So, are you from here?” She stuffed her mouth with a forkful of lettuce.
“I’m visiting. I just got here. This is my first stop.”
She swallowed dramatically. “You drive?”
I nodded. “That’s my Jeep over there.”
“Wow! I’m supposed to get my license next month. I have almost enough saved for a used car at Smith Auto. I can’t wait. For now, my mommy still drives me everywhere I need to go.”
I felt a twinge of jealousy.
“Toni, we need you,” called someone from behind the counter.
“That’s my manager. I hate this job,” she whispered. Toni frantically closed the lid on her salad, so she could take it with her. “You wanna get my number so we can hang out? I’m still kinda new around here myself; it would be nice to have someone to do stuff with for a change. We can tour that orphanage I was telling you about.”
“An orphanage tour—how can I possibly say no?”
She giggled as I entered her number into my cell.
“Today!” snapped her manager.
“See ya!” she yelled.
I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I was usually a loner, but Toni had to be about the easiest-going person I’d ever met. I had a pretty good feeling, too, that with her, what you saw was what you got. I didn’t sense anything fake about her, unlike some of the girls I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to be friends with at school.
* * *
I drove a little under the speed limit while I listened to my GPS guide me to my aunt and uncle’s. I made a few turns and then entered their neighborhood. Colorful, petite houses lined the streets. I was pleasantly surprised when I turned right, and the trees thinned, and I could see the ocean. The voice on the speaker told me to stop in front of a beach house. I knew they had moved to another house within the neighborhood, but I didn’t know their new house was on the beach.
I doubled-checked the address before I got too excited. Yes! This was it. Hesitantly, I eased out of my Jeep. With every step, I began to regret my decision to come. I barely remembered them. What if I couldn’t stand them? I suddenly felt so homesick, I considered jumping back in my vehicle and leaving. Homesick. H-o-m-e-s-i-c-k. Homesick. I stopped and took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Was I insane? This place was beautiful. Everything was going to be OK.
Just then, a woman with brown, sun-streaked hair waved at me from the balcony.
“Ronnie, is that you?” She said as she came down the steps.
“Aunt Pam! I didn’t recognize you from way up there.” As she came closer and her face came into focus, my memory suddenly flooded with thoughts of us building sand castles and having picnics on the beach. I remembered her kind eyes and how friendly she’d been.
She threw her arms around me and squeezed tightly. “Let me take a look at you,” she said as she pushed me away. “Oh, my goodness, you are simply beautiful.” She gently grabbed a handful of my hair. “With all these long blond curls, you’ll fit in just fine around here. Where are your things?” She peered around me.
“I don’t have much.” I stepped back toward my Jeep and took out my duffle bag.
“You travel light for a girl. I like that.” She smiled.
I shaded my eyes from the sun as I gazed up at their beach house. “I love your home, Aunt Pam. What a great place to get to spend my summer!” I smiled.
“Oh, that’s our place, hon. You’re more than welcome up there, but that’s your place over there.” She motioned with a nod of her head.
My place? Her words rang in my ears. Did I hear her correctly? A much smaller version of their beach house sat off to the side and back a little way, closer to the water.
“I hope you won’t mind being by yourself over there.”
“Are you kidding me? This—is—awesome!” I couldn’t control my smile as I admired my new home.
She laughed. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”
Aunt Pam explained why she and my Uncle Bill had moved as we walked up the wooden steps to the little beach house where I’d be staying. “We got this property from my parents. They’re both still around but these stairs are too much for them now. They still live here, in Light House Cove—they just switched houses with me and Uncle Bill.”
She pointed. “That’s obviously the main house there. They built this place a little later to rent out to tourists during the summer for extra income. Bill and I will eventually do the same after we get it fixed up. We were actually hoping you could help us with that.”
“Sure!” I said enthusiastically.
She pulled a key from her pocket and unlocked the door.
“Be warned. It’s not fancy and like I said, it needs work.” She opened the door and let me pass.
With wide eyes, I looked around. It was completely empty, which was fine by me. That meant I wouldn’t have to sort through anything or haul any stuff down the stairs. There were windows everywhere, and French doors on the back wall opened up to a deck that wrapped completely around the house. A tiny kitchen was on the left and a cozy den to the right. I peeked through a door down a short hallway and saw a tiny bathroom with a bedroom next to it.
“The roof and the deck are new. We would like you to put a coat of waterproofing sealant on the deck and stairs to protect them. You ever do anything like that before?”
“I’m a fast learner.”
Aunt Pam smiled at my answer.
“It’s easy. You just brush it on like paint. And speaking of paint… we wanted a new coat on the inside. The outside was just done, right before we added the new deck and staircase.”
“I painted mine and Dad’s house.”
“That’s what your dad said. He said you did a really good job, too. Anyway, it will probably be young people who want to rent this place, so we were thinking… You’re young—who better to decorate it? We thought we could give you a small budget and you could hit some flea markets around here.”
“I don’t know how good of an interior decorator I am, Aunt Pam, but I would love to try.”
“That’s the spirit! So, I put a couple sleeping bags, blankets and pillows over there for you.” She pointed to a corner in the den. “You can sleep in here or out back on the deck. There’s some lounge chairs out there that would make a nice bed. I put a few groceries and things you might need in the kitchen, soap, dishes, utensils, small appliances. And some toiletries in the bathroom—you know, the basics. Oh, and next to the hall closet is a utility room, so you can do your laundry. You’ll see the detergent and fabric softener on the shelf.”
“Thanks for everything, Aunt Pam. I can’t wait to get started!”
“You just got here. Take a minute to get settled.” She looked at her watch. “Bill should be home from the station in about an hour. I know he’s dying to see you.”
She started to go and then turned back. “Oh, that reminds me. There’re some kids in the neighborhood he’s going to ask to help you. I think he’s hoping to keep them busy and out of trouble.” She laughed. “Anyway, he said if they accepted the job offer he would bring them by and introduce them to you today.”
“Sounds good,” I lied, and watched my aunt walk back to her house.
Great. Everything had been going so perfectly, and now this. I hated working with people. The only time I ever did was when I was forced to in school. And, it was always the same—I did all the work, and everyone shared the credit.
I hoped Uncle Bill wasn’t going to bring over a group of girls. That never turned out well for me. I’d never quite fit in with any clique at school. My dad worried it was because of my broken relationship with my mother. I just thought it was because I couldn’t stand drama, drill team or cheerleading. I’d learned that having no friend was better than having a bad one. And reading a good book was a better way to spend my time. I was never even embarrassed to go to the theater alone.
I took my bag to the bedroom. There were hangers in the closet, so I took everything out but my socks and undergarments, and hung them before they could get too wrinkled. I placed my extra shoes on the floor and closed the door, then turned on the ceiling fans and bumped the thermostat down, just enough to kick on the air. My very own place. I couldn’t believe my luck!
I stepped out onto the balcony and lay back in a lounge chair. As the wind tossed my hair around, I decided I was definitely going to be sleeping out here tonight.
I must have dozed off, because I was startled awake by someone calling my name.
“Ronnie! Hey, Ronnie!”
I looked down to see Toni, from earlier today, stepping out of my uncle’s squad car and waving up at me.
“I can’t believe you’re Officer Bill’s niece! He just asked me to help you out this summer! I told The Lunch Box sayonara.”
My uncle Bill closed his car door and waved at me too. He looked a lot like my dad, only younger. I went downstairs to greet them.
“Ronnie! How are ya?” he asked.
“Fine!” I said as he gave me a big hug.
“So, Toni here was just filling me in. I hear you two met earlier today.”
“Yeah, at The Lunch Box. I stopped there when I first got here.”
“Well, she lives here in Lighthouse Cove and I asked her to give you a hand.”
“Great!” I said, but this time I meant it.
We all turned to look when a car pulled into the drive.
“Oh good, the others are here now,” said Bill.
My stomach twisted in a knot as I watched two guys and a girl get out.
“Officer Easton. What up, sir?” said the biggest one. His auburn hair was buzzed off, making his face look a little pudgier than what it actually was. He shook hands with my uncle and then looked at me.
“And you must be his lovely niece.”
“Ronnie.” I smiled as he took my hand. I thought he was going to shake it, but he kissed it instead.
My uncle pushed him back playfully. “Yeah, okay. Enough of that, Jimmy.”
Jimmy laughed and then turned to Toni. “Hi there.” He grinned before kissing her hand as well.
I thought she was going to turn purple before she quit blushing.
“This is Jade,” said my uncle.
Jade had black, shoulder-length hair and she looked annoyed.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hey,” she mumbled without making eye contact.
“I’m Dane,” said the other guy in a low voice.
That was when I really noticed him—his dark, wavy hair, broad shoulders and chocolate eyes.
“Hi.” I smiled.
Jade took a step toward him. I think she was claiming her territory. Me-ow. Could she get any more catty? Her green eyes even resembled a feline. I knew at that moment the two of us weren’t going to be touring orphanages together anytime soon. Dane was definitely good looking, and he seemed nice, but birds of a feather. If someone like Jade could be his girlfriend, he must be a real jerk. I liked Jimmy, though.
“If it’s OK with you, Ronnie, we’ll go on up now and I’ll explain what needs to be done.”
I nodded and we all followed my uncle. He gave us all the same rundown Aunt Pam had given me earlier.
Toni whispered, “I can’t believe you have your own Jeep and your own place.” We giggled with excitement. This really would be a fun summer after all.
* * *
“If you guys could get started on the deck tomorrow, that would be great,” said Uncle Bill.
Before everyone left, we agreed to meet around ten.
Toni stayed behind to visit. “Jimmy is so cute,” she said, all smiles, when we were finally alone. “I recognize them all from school, but we don’t hang out.” She paused just long enough to take a breath. “Did you see the way he kissed my hand? Do you think he likes me?”
“Definitely.” I smiled.
We stepped out onto the back deck, then each sat in a lounge chair and listened to the waves as they rolled in.
“I could get used to this,” I said.
“No kidding,” Toni agreed. She bolted up. “Hey, we should go to the boardwalk tonight! We could grab a bite and they have rides on the pier and—”
“You don’t have to convince me. I’m in.”
We vegged for a while longer and then Toni left to get ready.
“I’ll be back soon,” she said excitedly.
“I can pick you up, if—”
But she was already bouncing down the stairs.
I threw on some shorts and a cute top, made sure my nails weren’t chipped and slipped on my sparkly flip-flops.
Toni knocked and let herself in just as I finished fluffing my hair and adding a quick coat of lip gloss.
“You look cute,” I told Toni. She and I were dressed similarly, but her thick brown hair was pulled back in a fat French braid.
“Thanks.” She smiled.
I grabbed my keys from the kitchen counter and gave them a little jingle. “Ready?” I asked.
Toni squealed and softly clapped her hands while bouncing on the balls of her feet. “I can’t believe you can drive. And you have a Jeep! This—is—so—awesome!”
Driving was still pretty exciting for me too. “Let’s go!” I smiled.
* * *
A thin, pale crescent moon was already starting to show itself in the clear sky. It was going to be a beautiful night, so we rode with the windows down.
The traffic was a little heavy, but we managed to find a place to park. Soon we were flowing with the current of pedestrians. The sun was about to set, and it made the sky the color of cotton candy. It was a beautiful backdrop for the lights of the giant Ferris wheel. It was so tall, it made my stomach tickle just looking up at it.
“We’ll have to ride it,” said Toni when she saw me looking.
As anxious as it made me feel, I wanted to ride it too. “Definitely,” I agreed.
Noisy games, buzzers and bells filled the air, along with the smell of popcorn. And, lively music pumped through speakers tethered to poles high above us.
“Whatta ya want to do first?” I asked, not sure which way we should turn.
“Come on!” Toni grabbed my hand and pulled. We didn’t stop until we were standing in front of a huge funhouse.
“I don’t know,” I whined a little. I hated funhouses. They creeped me out. Whenever I walked through them, I got the same feeling as when I’d toured Thorton Mansion.
“Oh, come on,” she coaxed. “Don’t be such a chicken. I’ll buy. Besides,” she whispered, “Merv looks lonely.” She laughed.