A must-read book for those who enjoy novels with heart
For her entire life, things were easy: school, the violin, making friends, keeping the peace. Ryder Stephens is a popular and accomplished girl who tumbled through her thirteen years with effortless ease.
That is, until her center fell. After witnessing her mother's death, Ryder takes to the streets to right the wrongs thrust upon her by an unjust world. Hardships lead to foolish decisions, which snowball fast. Starving and failing, pieces of Ryder's shattered ego spill onto the NYC streets. All is lost until that one freezing morning, peeking from behind the stone lions at the central library, she spots Jack.
Inviting her into his home, Ryder makes a decision: no more flashbacks, no more grief. With one click, she deletes her past. As different and complicated as Jack’s family is, a fake family is a good deal better than no family at all.
Then, the unthinkable happens.
Social service replaced the police, who replaced the ambulance, who had replaced my mom, and nobody came to take her place. My father never showed. Gone was the life we were meant to begin, and in came these people: officers, social workers, funeral clerks, more and different, and foreign and confusing. They crowded my life and crammed my thoughts, and nothing stopped me from seeing my mother’s face.
And then she came, that woman with the same face, but wrinkled, a woman who took me by her arms only to hold me at their length. She nodded as if my presence now confirmed my existence. And then she barked orders to the funeral home, instructions to the movers. She authorized social services to take me away.
The funeral ruined everyone’s Christmas, I heard them say. Thank God, they got it done by Christmas Eve. Did you get the flight back? I still haven’t wrapped the presents. One by one, people I didn’t know strolled out the synagogue’s doors, chatting and laughing as if Samantha Stephen’s life had only been a show.
“It’ll be okay,” a voice whispered in my ear.
It was Katherine’s, the young and quiet social worker assigned to my case. Only she had the guts to stay by my side, to walk me away from the woman in the box, to hold my hand as she diverted my eyes.
I sat rod-straight in her car as it merged into the San Francisco traffic. Clenching my stomach when it lurched forward, then stopped, the need to vomit harder and harder to hold. We moved on, slowly picking up speed as we crossed the bridge to Oakland, the tires pulsing with each rivet they passed. Da-duh, da-duh, on repeat. A punishing thud. I covered my ears and focused ahead, watching the shipping cranes stretch their necks as if there was something worthy in life to see. A bird dove towards the water; a boat zoomed further away. Nobody wanted to be close to me.
Katherine steered away from it all, snaking into postal codes only meant for TV. I saw parks with weeds and graffiti on walls. Boys in baggy shorts crowded around a couch. “It’ll be okay,” she mumbled, repeating the only phrase she seemed to know. “We’re here.”
No. I clutched my hands between my knees, refusing to grab the handle that would toss me into this world. I wouldn’t walk around the plastic toys littering the yard, wouldn’t hear the screams of too many children circling the house.
Katherine inched up their walk, her measured steps contradicting her reassuring words. A door flew open.
“Get back here!” Shouted a woman in pursuit of a toddler. He was naked and filthy, with little streams running from his nose. I followed them into the streets, then whipped my attention to the old man coughing as he walked from around the side. His eyebrows were bushy and pants too loose; he wore suspenders that belonged to a farm or a rodeo or anyplace else besides a home.
He held out his hand, and Katherine’s shoulders collapsed. “Mr. Smyth?” He nodded and then she sighed, grateful to finally unburden her load. She relinquished control, passing a sturdy binder to this tall and skinny foe.
“We’ll hold onto that there violin, too” the old man said as if it were natural to break off a piece of someone’s soul. “There’s a time and a place for music. We prefer the music of the gospel. Do you know any Christian songs?” He asked, pointing to the portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall.
Katherine left, abandoning me in the middle of the afternoon with nothing but fear to guide me into the night.
Lonely, scared, and responsible, the burden of fault hit hard. It stole my grief and replaced it with guilt. For all the times I rolled my eyes and turned up the TV. For when I didn’t thank her for picking me up, dropping me off, for making me dinner, I supposed I earned my penance tossing around this unfamiliar bed.
Unable to sleep, I inched towards the master bedroom, letting their spastic snores cover the sounds of my search. I slid open the closet, peaked into their bathroom. Making little headway, I hopped over a dog bed, and there it was. My violin thrown aside as if it were worth no more than an animal’s toy. Cruel. Uncivilized.
I felt my way into the kitchen, tiptoeing over the laminate flooring that was old from wear and weathered from time. The sight of that binder sealing a decision I had already made. I filled one pocket with pink and white cookies, the other with a wad of cash. Both found in jars, both mine now.
Outside, I inhaled a breath of freedom then choked back the heartache of pursuing it alone. I ran. Pounding my feet hard against the pavement, I thought of the friends I missed, the life I needed. My chest heaved to catch up with the breaths that came from the sprint, from the sobs, from the confusion that pushed me down this nameless street. I clenched my eyes, and still, I saw their faces. My friends. Their looks changing from elation to confusion to question, wondering why, how. I couldn’t go back to Seattle.
I needed to see my dad.
Rumbling and noisy, a means arrived, and I chased it down that dark and deserted street until risking more, I thrust my hand between its closing doors. “I need to go to another state.”
Gruff, annoyed to be working this early the day after Christ was born, the bus driver flicked two fingers in the air before the doors converged.
“Two. I take the number two?” A nod, I think, and I waited because I didn’t know what else there was to do.
The darkness around me was an unexpected calm, the approaching headlights a sudden worry. I pulled my hands out from under my arms and picked up my violin. Ready. “Can you tell me when we get to the main bus station?”
“You mean the Greyhound terminal?” Kinder, this bus driver waited for me to find a seat before putting the bus in gear.
I sat in the front row passenger side nervous about missing my stop, of not missing it. “I’m going to see my father in Las Vegas.”
The signal light flashed left.
A child alone, boarding a bus at the break of dawn on the day after Christmas, who clutched a violin and shouldered a backpack. She was heading to the Greyhound bus terminal to buy a ticket to take her to the city of sin, and all he could say was, “Good for you.”
Too involved in their own lives, all of them, the entire world. This bus driver had one duty to fulfill, to drive in circles and pick up people who needed to be someplace else. Katherine was tasked to do the same: drop off the girl orphaned by death. She was ordered to settle yet another kid rejected by their father.
“Temporary,” Katherine said. “Until we can find a more permanent placement. We’ll find you a familiar home.”
No. I had a permanent home, already familiar, with my father. Katherine, you didn’t understand. He was just sick or injured or caught up in work. I knew my father. He might not be a man who cheered on the sidelines or sat through his daughter’s concerts, but he was a man who cared about his family, about his wife, about his only child. Somebody just didn’t tell him the facts. That was all!
“He’s at the Bellagio again. They comped him a room,” the memory of mother’s voice rang loud in my head. She had sat me down the night he didn’t show, explained why he was in Vegas instead of San Francisco, how he would come later, why there was nothing to worry about. Calm and soothing, when she wandered over to the desk to do whatever it was that she needed to do, I let her be. Only now could I see all that I missed, all that she hid.
Driven by panic, once that bus arrived in Las Vegas, I shoved my way through the crowd, zeroing in on the fountains and colors of the Bellagio’s show. I flung open the door. People everywhere laughed, doubling over, an entire world unburdened by grief. I swiveled my head from side to side, searching for my father, for the security, for an end to this nightmare that wouldn’t stop. Nothing.
I stepped towards the slot machines. No, he liked card games, my mother’s uninvited voice reminding me. I spun, heading for the rows of tables. Futile. How did I think I could walk into a room crowded with hundreds, in a city jammed with thousands, and find the man who gave me life?
A hand gripped my shoulder. “Sorry, kid, you need to be twenty-one to be on the floor.”
I swallowed, my day traveling in silence making it hard to speak. “Um, I’m not going to gamble.” I shifted my feet, which only revealed my innocent ways. “I just need to find my father. His phone’s turned off.”
The guard sighed, a tell-tale sign to indicate how many times he had done this before. “What does he like to play?”
“Blackjack.” Another pearl from a woman who was no more.
I followed his finger, which pointed left. “I’ll walk with you and let you have a look.”
But he need not bother. Up ahead was a man who stood tall because he knew the way to succeed, who raised his fist in the air because he knew how to win. From behind, I smothered him in a hug.
A stranger’s face mocked mine, his hands shoving me away. A vulgar mouth poured insults into my open wound.
Heat rushed to my head. “Sorry, sorry.” And I crashed into the security guard, dropping my violin case with an unforgiving bang. “Sorry, sorry.” I anchored my foot, ready to bolt.
“Hold on there, young buck.” The guard’s teeth clenched into a brazen grin. “Why don’t I just help you to call your mom?” My heart shattered into a million pieces, tumbling to my feet faster than I could run for the door.
Outside, a Santa Clause crossed my path, his dinging bell out of sync with time and reason. Christmas had passed, along with my chance. My stomach growled; my hands shook. With my senses overpowered, I lost control.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
Horns and chimes, and cheers and drunkenness—too much to process. I caught my breath; surely, I heard that wrong. I worked my way back through the revolving door, following the familiar voice. “Dad?” The button-down was rumpled, but the colors I knew: sea-blue stripes, sea-blue eyes. “Dad?” Closing in, I tripped on his heels.
That same security guard slipped between me and the man who would never break my heart.
My father thrust his chest forward, commanding the authority I knew he had. “You’re supposed to be inahome.” They hung there, the words that slurred together. He swayed, then braced himself against the guard. His hand slipped, falling inside the guard’s collar, which lassoed his neck, which forced a gag. Snickers, people laughing at my dad. The guard pushed him off. He fell. “I said watthehell you doin’ here?” Drool collected beneath his lip.
I buckled, crumpling against this hardened guard.
My father’s vacant face slowly wilted. “Go!” And then he climbed back to his feet, which pointed wrong. “Go.” The repeat command was weak, muffled by the unforgivable distanced growing between this reckless parent and his orphaned child.
He gave up his kid for drugs. Willingly, and without remorse or sympathy or—I looked again over my shoulder to see a different ending. Laughter and bells and no, the agony of betrayal slammed into the torment of grief. Bastard!
Too hurt to cry, I ran. Never stopping. By the time I reached that filthy, smelly blob of a building they called a bus terminal, the only thing I knew as fact was how far I needed to get away. I called the long shot. And with all of seconds behind my decision, I mimicked my father and tossed bills at the agent. I would travel twenty-five hundred miles in fifty-nine hours. I could go no further than New York.
The city of dreams would replace that city of sin. What would happen, how I should dress, where I should buy my food, perhaps something I should have considered before boarding that bus. But if I kept my eyes pointed earth-bound, and raised my voice no louder than a mouse, maybe even I wouldn’t notice my trembling hands.