We stayed with my grandparents in the summer of 1992 because Dad had just died and Mom needed some time to “figure things out.” Why she couldn’t figure things out with me and Jay there, I don’t know. But I was kinda glad to be at Grandma and Grandpa’s. They lived in a woods and had a house with ten rooms. And their garage had an upstairs. We didn’t even have a garage in Barstow.
It took a week to drive there, with mom in the front seat crying most of the time. I just read books. Jay had his headphones on the whole time. But we saw the country, I guess. I didn’t care. I just wanted to swim in my grandparents’ pool and see the creek that ran down in the valley behind their house. It was only our second time in Michigan; the first time, I had only been seven. But I remembered it as if it were a movie I’d watched two dozen times. The images from that first trip unspooled in my brain for weeks at a time. It was the best trip I’d ever had. Michigan was so green. It smelled like fresh rain water all the time, even on the sunniest days — the kind of rain smell that meant, “Things are growing here. There is life here.” I loved it.
So after Dad died, when Mom said we were going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa for the summer, I smiled. It was the first smile I’d had in a long time.
I didn’t need much, just my books. And staying at my grandparents’ meant I could get that awesome rain smell all the time.
Jay was a different matter. He wasn’t too happy about the summer vacation in faraway Michigan. He had friends in Barstow, so I get it. For me, friends weren’t things I had to worry about.
What I couldn’t figure out was why mom had left Michigan in the first place. She and dad grew up in that green place. They had smelled the fresh rain smell. Why would they ever leave? It was impossible for my eleven year old brain to comprehend, though I spent the week-long car ride trying to figure it out. I also spent it reading three books from my book bag. I made sure to pack every book I owned into a huge duffle bag before we left Barstow. Mom thought I was crazy to waste space on books. She couldn’t believe I was only taking four outfits with me (plus a swimsuit). Mom didn’t understand books. She especially didn’t understand fantasy. Why she thought my Ballantine and Ace paperbacks were so bad, I’m not quite sure. She called them “escapism” but what was she doing except trying to escape the pain of Dad dying?
Anyway, I brought all my books with me. I was also secretly hoping that there might be more books at Grandma’s.
It was on that first trip to the grandparents’ house, back when I was only seven. I had found an old box in one of the spare rooms. It was shoved into the back of the closet. It was filled with a bunch of useless junk, but at the very bottom were two musty old paperbacks. One had a emerald-green dragon on the cover. The other had a crazy cover with a castle on the front, and huge black spiders crawling along the edges, a staircase leading off to nowhere, and a blue flamingo standing in some water. It reminded me of one of my dad’s old Yes record album covers.
I found out from Grandma that the books had belonged to my aunt Isabel. She was the reader in the family, Grandma had said. Grandma let me have the books. She said she’d tell Isabel about it the next time Isabel and Uncle Jim came over for dinner. Aunt Isabel had stayed in Michigan. She and Uncle Jim only lived a few miles from Grandma and Grandpa’s. They never had any kids and I always wondered why.
My plan for this new summer at Grandma’s was to find more old boxes. Aunt Isabel had probably left more books in the closets. After all, there were ten rooms where old stashes could be. I had read the book with the green dragon on the cover and loved it. But it was the second one in a big long series, and I was hoping to find the first. A series always works better if you can read it in order. I never really read the book with the weird flamingo on the cover. I started to, but it wasn’t really a story; it was more like a bunch of essays and stuff. But I took it out every once in awhile just to stare at that cover. Something about the staircase leading to nowhere caused me to get a little obsessed. I wanted to know where that staircase went. I wanted to somehow get to that place. It was like a bridge to another world.
We got to Grandma and Grandpa’s on a Saturday evening. It was summer, so it was still light out even at 8:00 p.m. I had never noticed until that trip how much lighter 8:00 p.m. in Michigan was than 8:00 p.m. in California. Grandpa tried to explain that it had to do with the time zones and Michigan’s position in the western part of the Eastern Time Zone. I didn’t care. I only loved the fact that by 9:00 p.m., the light from the setting sun was still leaving a glow over the world, and I could wander around the huge expanse of lawn, looking for fireflies.
Mom was going to stay for a few days, and from my secret perch at the top of the stairs, I could hear Grandma and Grandpa urging her to just stay the whole summer. “After all,” they said, “we have enough rooms. You can have all the privacy you need.”
But the next day, Mom was gone, off to grieve for Dad and do God knows what else. I guess she didn’t like Grandma and Grandpa trying to tell her what to do.
I immediately began my summer vacation searching closets for old books. The bedroom Jay and I shared didn’t have anything. Our two closets were filled with lots of Grandpa’s old clothes and a few moth-balled raincoats. But then Grandma turned my plans upside down.
“Why don’t you and Jay ride bikes up to the Book Depot,” she said. This was news to me. A bookstore. Within bike-riding distance.
“Does Jay have to come?” I asked. I knew Jay wouldn’t want to go to a bookstore. All he had done since we got to Grandma and Grandpa’s was play his Super Nintendo.
“No, I think you’re old enough now for a solo bike ride.”
“Where is it?”
“You know where the Farmer Jack’s is? It’s in that same strip mall. If you cut through the Wildwood subdivision and go down the path behind the middle school, you can get there quicker.”
Grandma smiled and then went back to grating cheese. Grandma’s home base was the kitchen. She was always either cutting up vegetables, rolling out pizza dough, cooking spaghetti sauce, or experimenting with some new recipe she read about in Better Homes and Garden. If we couldn’t find Grandma in the kitchen, then she was either out in her vegetable garden or shopping for more food. Cooking was Grandma’s one and only hobby.
I grabbed a hunk of ungrated Romano cheese and ran out the front door. There were three bikes to choose from out in the garage: An old mountain bike that must have belong to Mom’s brother, Uncle Paul; a kids’ bike that was extremely pink and had purple training wheels on it; and the ancient blue bike with the curved handlebars and chrome splash protectors on the wheels. The blue bike was the one Grandma would ride down her long driveway to go get the mail. We would always hum the Wicked Witch of the West song whenever she rode it. The bike just seemed like the dorkiest thing in the world. But when I sat on Uncle Paul’s mountain bike, I noticed right away that the tires were flat. There was no way I was riding a bright pink bike with training wheels all the way to this bookstore — it was going to be a mile at least. That left the blue witch-mobile. I sighed and hoisted myself up on Grandma’s ridiculous blue bike.
It was actually a pretty smooth ride. I glided down the long driveway that led out to the Wildwood subdivision. The way my grandparents’ house was situated meant that it existed in this kind of in-between world. On one side was a subdivision with a bunch of nice houses and woodsy lawns. Then there was my grandparents’ house, which was surrounded by the woods that had existed over the whole area — before the subdivision was built and most of the forest was cleared out. But Grandma and Grandpa had built the house before the subdivision came along, so they still got to keep some of the woods — about five acres of it. On the other side of the woods was a main road and the border to another town. My grandparents had paved a huge driveway that ran from the big main road out to the subdivision. It was their connection to the outside world.
I rode out to the subdivision, to the quiet houses that had all been built back in the 70s. It was once a pretty nice subdivision, but over time, nicer ones had sprung up and Wildwood became one of the “old” subs — old houses and even older people. It seemed like any time I saw people outside their houses, they were old people. Gray-haired and on social security. But as I rode down Wildwood Trail, heading toward Silverbirch Street and the path behind the middle school, I saw something I wasn’t expecting.
He was riding his own bike on the other side of the street. It was hard to tell just how old he was, but he looked pretty young. Like me. I only got a brief glimpse, a blurring flash as he rode past. His hair was dark, almost black, and his skin was the color of creamy coffee. I guess I was staring, because somehow our eyes met. Deep brown, shining like marbles, his eyes met mine. I looked away, completely embarrassed. I peddled harder. It was then that I realized, he’d seen me on the Wicked Witch bike. I almost melted into the saddle at the embarrassing horror of it.
But the boy was gone. He was heading in the opposite direction. I did that thing I do where whenever something uncomfortable or embarrassing happens, I let it slip completely out of my mind. I just blocked it out. Cast it from my head like a bad dream. It never happened. Hopefully, I thought, I’ll never see that boy again.
The path that led toward the middle school was an uneven sidewalk that passed through a little tree-lined lane. It was secluded, and the crappy sidewalk was so narrow and uneven that I had to get off the bike and just walk it through the path. For a second, I had a twinge of nervous fear, wondering if some kind of creeper was going to molest me while I was defenseless and hidden in this thicket of trees. But I just walked faster, eyes focused on the clearing and the sunlight ahead. Pretty soon I was out of the narrow lane and out in an open field. The sidewalk widened here and led down a little hill through the field. Further ahead was the middle school, empty now. Its football and baseball fields were empty too, the harsh glare of the sunlight casting an accusing glow over them. School yards in the summer are like ghost towns.
I could see now how the paved path led past the school and out toward the strip mall. Pretty soon, I was riding up to the bookstore.
The Book Depot. There was a huge painted picture of a train in the front window. It was a small little hole-in-the-wall, sandwiched between the grocery store and a pharmacy. I parked the Wicked Witch bike against the front of the store. Nobody was gonna steal that thing.
The door to the bookstore was propped open and anyone who passed by on the sidewalk could see an unholy display of candy and MAD magazines lining the front shelves. It was too blinding and brilliant to look at without shielding my eyes. Pop Rocks, Bazooka Gum, Big League Chew, Ring Pops, Nerds, Gobstoppers, Blow Pops, Hot Tamales — it was a who’s who of every mass-produced candy ever made. And next to the mountain of candy bags and boxes were two twirling stacks of MAD and Cracked magazines. I stood in front of the candy/magazine nirvana just gazing with slack-jawed awe for at least five minutes. Then the grumpy, white-bearded store clerk cleared a three-pound lougy out of his throat and peered down at me from his position behind the check-out counter. The counter was strategically placed right next to the candy display, most likely to ward off slippery-fingered kids.
“Gonna buy something?” the clerk said. He had beady eyes that along with his long white beard made him look like some kind of sinister Santa Claus. He also had on suspenders over a sweaty, slightly discolored white t-shirt that was stretched tight over his huge belly. I laughed a little to myself, thinking how worried I was about creepers on that wooded bike path when the real creeper was here in the bookstore.
“Yeah,” I said, my candy display trance now broken. “Where’s your fantasy section?”
“Around the corner. First three rows.” Then Mr. Suspenders perched on his three-legged stool behind the cash register, picked up his newspaper, and ignored me.
There was no one else in the store. I was kinda glad. I hated the looks other people gave to those of us who frequented the fantasy/sci-fi sections. We were the freaks of the book-reading establishment. Especially an eleven-year-old girl who read fantasy. I was the most incredible and freakish of them all. Snooty bookstore people always looked at me like I was a pink unicorn or something.
The book spines glittered with bright colors and titles that promised adventure. There were lots of titles that mentioned dragons, caverns, quests, and kingdoms. All the best things. I knew I was a bit out of my depth; these were books for adults, with page numbers to match. Everything seemed to be at least five hundred pages, with tiny print and very big vocabulary. But I was ready for them. I wanted to enter the forbidden worlds that these books promised. There was something dangerous about these books. They weren’t the safe children’s stories about King Arthur and magic cupboards that I was used to reading. These books offered a wider, wilder world.
I only had enough money for one paperback. I had a few bucks saved and Grandma gave me a couple more, but each of the books I looked at cost at least five dollars or more. I would have to choose one. The guy at the counter must have thought I was crazy — if he had been paying attention to me. I wandered up and down the rows of books, looking over and over again at the same few covers. I just couldn’t decide. One book was part of a series called DragonSword, and its cover had a warrior wielding a huge black sword while flying on the back of a red dragon. It was six hundred and fifty pages long and had two maps included in the front. Maps were always good. But another book had caught my eye too, and that one had three maps, and its cover promised a huge elvish city high in the treetops of a forest.
Then my eyes caught a glimpse of another title. The Last Song of Avalon. Something in those words made me catch my breath. Maybe it was Avalon, the way it conjured up for me a place lost in the mists of time. Maybe it was the way the words “Last Song” made me think of death — but not the horrible, drawn-out, mundane death my dad went through, but death as something beautiful, something that lived on after the pain, one last note of life before the end. Maybe it was just the jeweled letters along the spine, fiery reds and sapphire blues, cascading down the dark paperback background.
I grabbed the book from the shelf and looked at the cover. It was different from the other covers. No dragons, no swords, no castles or elves. Just a grassy field against a blue sky, one lone apple tree sitting plaintively on a hill. It was an old-looking cover, like something from the 1960s. It didn’t match with the other covers and their sharp lines and hyper-detail. It was soft and hazy, like something out of a dream. I held it in my hands and could almost feel the story inside waiting to seep out. The corners of the book were worn, the edges marked by age. The book itself looked as old as the artwork on its cover. I glanced back to the front of the store, to see if the clerk was available, but he still had his face buried in the newspaper. I didn’t think they sold used books at this place…
I had forgotten the DragonSword book and the one with the elvish city on the cover. I clutched The Last Song of Avalon and made my way to the cash register. I fumbled with the money in my pocket, hoping that would get Mr. Suspenders’ attention. But he didn’t even flinch. I finally got him to notice when I set the book and my cash on the counter with a thud.
He peered over the edge of the newspaper. “Hmm… Last Song, eh? I didn’t realize that one was still in print.”
“The book looks kinda old, actually. Do I get a discount?”
Suspenders grunted. He picked up the book and looked at the price on the back. “Says $4.99. It’ll be $4.99 plus tax.”
I had already put all my money on the counter.
“Out of $6.00…” the clerk said lazily, taking up my cash. As he rang up the book and counted out my
change, he stopped suddenly. “Are you sure you want this one?” he said, staring me straight in the face with his beady eyes. “The writing is… difficult. Maybe try one from the Elf-Orbs of Shangri-La series. That’s probably a better fit for you.”
“I’m a good reader,” I answered. “Besides, I like the cover.”
He shrugged. “Fine.”
I took my change and I took my book, and on the way out, I thought about taking one piece of candy from that huge display. I almost reached out my fingers and grabbed a Blow Pop. Mr. Suspenders wouldn’t have even noticed. He was too busy reading the news and being smug. But at the very last moment, my conscience butted in and I left without becoming a petty thief.
The bike ride back was a harder slog because all I wanted to do was start reading my book. I almost stopped in the baseball field behind the school, ready to throw myself down into the grass and begin reading. But the emptiness and solitude of the field still frightened me; I felt like I would be sitting there exposed to every watchful and evil eye around. I kept riding. I tore into the wooded bike path, determined this time to ride through its wobbly, uneven pavement without stopping. I had almost made it too, except right at the end, when the path opened back up into my grandparents’ subdivision, I crashed right into another rider. We both went tumbling down in a heap of scraped knees and gravel. I had a juicy gash on my elbow and another longer but less bloody one on my left knee. It was only after I got up and winced a little from touching my elbow wound that I realized who had been my accidental victim.
He didn’t seem to have gotten any injuries, just a rumpled t-shirt and dirty shorts. He also didn’t seem to recognize me.