Twice in a Blue Moon

“No wonder he’s so excited.”

It was Sam’s turn to hum and the silence swallowed us up. Sam was right, though. The more I looked for them, the more stars I saw. In a rare twist of nostalgia, I remembered lying in bed while Dad read Peter Pan to me, and we picked our favorite illustrated page. Mine was Peter Pan peeking in the window, seeing the Darling family embracing. Dad’s was Wendy and Peter fleeing in the night sky, sailing clear past Big Ben.

Out of the quiet, Sam’s voice rumbled over me. “Want to hear something crazy?”

Interest piqued, I turned my head to see him. “Sure.”

“I mean.” He exhaled slowly. “Really crazy.”

I paused. My world for the past ten years had been a bubble: the same five people orbiting around me in a tiny, tourist community. For nine months out of the year—all but the summer—we were Hicksville, California. We never heard any crazy stories—unless they were about my dad—and I rarely saw or heard those anymore, Nana ensured it.

“Sure.”

“I think Luther is dying.”

Shock passed over me in a cold wave. “What?”

“He hasn’t said anything. I just . . . have this sense, you know?”

I barely knew Sam, barely knew Luther, so why did this possibility feel devastating? And what must that feel like? To sense someone close to you was dying?

The only person I knew who died was Safeway Bill. I didn’t even know his last name, just that he was a regular at the café and when he wasn’t sitting at the corner table getting free pie, he was sitting near the Safeway, panhandling and probably drunk. I think Bill lived in Guerneville even before Nana did; he looked about a hundred years old—leathered and with a tangled, messy beard. Tourists used to give him a wide berth when they passed, headed to Johnson’s Beach with their inflatable rafts and white sunscreened noses. Bill was the safest thing in that town; way safer than any of the frat boy tourists coming through, getting messy drunk and harassing people just minding their own business at the Rainbow Cattle Company on Friday nights. Nothing made me madder than seeing people look at Safeway Bill like he was going to stand up and turn violent.

Nana heard from Alan Cross, who works over at the post office, that they found Bill dead near the bus stop one morning. Nana showed her emotions in these tiny rare flashes. She stared out the window when Alan said this, and asked, “Now who’s gonna love my peach pie the way he did?”

But Luther was nothing like Bill. Luther was vibrant and alive and right upstairs. He worked and had a family and traveled. I’d never known anyone who looked healthy like Luther and just . . . died.

I was quiet too long, I think, because I heard Sam swallow in the dark. “Sorry, I guess I just needed to say it to someone.”

“No, of course,” I said in a burst.

“He’s not my grandfather by blood—I mean, I guess you figured that, since I’m white and he’s black. He’s Roberta’s second husband. They both raised me,” Sam said, and then reached back to tuck his hands behind his head again. “Him and Roberta.”

“Could you ask him?” I said. “Whether he’s sick?”

“He’ll tell me when he wants to tell me.”

God, this conversation was surreal. But it struck me that Sam wasn’t self-conscious about discussing this with someone he hardly knew. Maybe the fact that I was a stranger made it easier to talk about.

More words bubbled to the surface. “Would it just be you and Roberta, then? If . . .”

Sam took a deep breath, and I squeezed my eyes closed, wishing I could pull the words back in my mouth and swallow them down.

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “That’s none of my business.”

“Neither is Luther being sick, but that didn’t stop me.” While my brain chewed on this, he shifted beside me, scratching his ear. “It’s just me, Luther, and Roberta, yeah.”

I nodded in the darkness.

“As the story goes,” Sam continued, “a young woman from the Ukraine named Danya Sirko came to the States and found herself in New York.” Sam paused, and when I looked over, I caught his wry smile aimed at the sky. “Danya became the nanny to Michael and Allison Brandis’s three young children in Manhattan.”

I could feel him turn to look at me, waiting.

“Okay . . . ?”

Sam hesitated meaningfully. “Incidentally, Danya was also very beautiful, and Michael was not a faithful man.”

Realization settled in. “Oh. Danya is your mom, not Allison? Michael is your dad?”

“Yeah. He’s Roberta’s son. Luther’s stepson.” He laughed. “I was the dirty little secret, until my mother was deported—by Michael, sort of. I was two, and he wanted nothing to do with me, but Danya wanted me to be raised here. Luther and Roberta took me in when they should have been retiring and taking it easy.”

My stomach bottomed out. There he was, spilling the soap opera version of his family’s history, and I wasn’t even allowed to talk about mine. It felt unfair.

“I’m sorry.”

He laughed lightly at this. “Don’t be.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do. But I have to think it was worlds better to be with Luther and Roberta than Michael, even if that had been an option.”

“So . . . you don’t know your dad?”

“No.” Sam blew out a breath and arced a smile over at me. He let the confidence settle between us for a few quiet beats. “What about you?”

My heart slammed against my breastbone, and Nana’s stern warning expression was printed on the inside of my eyelids. This was where I always played my part: My dad died when I was a baby. I was raised by Nana and Mom.

But the thing was, I’d spent my whole life with the truth trapped in my throat. And with Sam’s enormous backstory out there between us, I didn’t want to lie again. “Me?”

Sam tapped his knee against mine, setting off an electrical storm along my skin. Even when he wasn’t touching me, it was impossible not to feel how close he was. “You.”

“I grew up mostly in Guerneville.” The truth rattled a cage inside my ribs. “It’s a super small town in Northern California. I’m moving to Sonoma for school—which isn’t very far.” I lifted my hands in a shrug and let a hint of the truth slip out: “I was raised by my mom and Nana.”

“No dad, either?”

I swallowed. The easy, familiar lie was right there, on the tip of my tongue—but I was under the London sky, thousands of miles from home, and a rebellious, impulsive flash streaked through me. This had always been such a bigger deal to Nana and Mom than it had ever been to me; why was I still protecting their story? “He sort of . . . fell away.”

“How does a dad fall away?”

I became aware, while I was lying beside this completely earnest stranger on a damp lawn, that it was weird that I’d never really talked about this. In part, I didn’t talk about it because I knew I wasn’t supposed to. And in part, because it was unnecessary: the one person in my life who learned about it—my best friend Charlie—watched the drama unfold in real time, in bite-sized servings that grew spaced farther and farther apart. I’d never needed to summarize it or spin it into a story. So why did I suddenly want to?

“My parents got divorced when I was eight,” I told him, “and Mom moved me back to her hometown. Guerneville.”

“Back from where?”

I peeked over the edge of this canyon, and I didn’t know what it was about that garden or Sam but I decided: fuck it. I was eighteen and it was my life, what’s the worst that could happen?

“LA,” I said.

I blinked in the direction of the hotel again as if I expected to see Nana racing toward us, shaking her fists.

Sam let out a low whistle, as if this even meant anything yet. And maybe it did; maybe to a farmer from Vermont, LA seemed as exciting as it could get.

I had only tiny, pulsing memories of living in the city: foggy mornings, hot sand on my bare feet. A pink ceiling that seemed to stretch into space above me. Over time I’d started to think maybe I remembered LA the way Mom remembers childbirth: all of the good parts, none of the obvious pain.

The quiet swallowed us again, and in it, I felt the adrenaline ebb. I grew aware of the contrast of the cold at my back and the heat at my side. I’d shared a tiny slice of my history and the sky hadn’t opened up and rained fire. Nana hadn’t materialized from behind a tree, intent on dragging me back to California.

“So, divorced parents, Mom moved back to Guerneville. Now you’re on your way to Sonoma? I told you about adultery and a secret love child. I’m disappointed, Tate,” he teased. “That wasn’t very scandalous.”

“That’s not exactly all of it, but . . .”

“But . . . ?”

“I don’t know you.”

Sam rolled to his side, facing me. “Which makes it even better.” He pointed to his chest. “I’m nobody. I’m not going back to Vermont of all places and telling everyone this beautiful girl’s secrets.”

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