This book, first in the River of Time: California duology, releases April 8, 2016.
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Paperback, as well as other e-versions (Nook, etc.) will be available on or after April 8.
THREE WISHES, by Lisa T. Bergren, CHAPTER 1:
“It’s all yours. The apartment. The restaurant. She left it all to you.”
I stared at him. I knew I was doing little more than blinking, but so many words came to my head at once…and yet none seemed to add up to complete sentences.
“I’m only seventeen,” I finally spit out. Which pretty much summed up all my scattered thoughts. There was no way I could do this alone. How was I supposed to figure out my next steps without my abuela?
Señor Rodriguez blinked back at me, his bushy gray eyebrows like caterpillars above his eyes. “You’ll be eighteen in a couple of months, Zara. Graduated. By the time the state catches up, you’ll be officially independent.” He said it as though this was the best news possible.
He reached out and patted my hand, this lawyer who had been to mass with us every Sunday of my life. His knuckles were thick with age, as my abuela’s had been. “Your cousin, Mirabel. You can live with her a few months?”
“They have no room,” I said, my eyes shifting to the window, with my guitar perched beside the frame. I thought of Mirabel’s tiny two-bedroom apartment and three children under the age of five. Her husband, who drank tequila from the time he came through the door after work until he passed out on the couch. “She said she’d look in on me here,” I said, forcing a confident nod. “I’ll be fine.”
“Well, better here,” he said, putting some of his papers in an old briefcase, “than in a foster home or orphanage. I see no sense in that for two months. Your abuela…” He made the sign of the cross from his forehead to his ample belly and then from shoulder to shoulder and shook his head once. “She wouldn’t have wanted that for you.”
I frowned. She wouldn’t. Neither would I. “But what about the restaurant?” I asked.
He shrugged, raising ham-like shoulders to his ears. “Run it. Your abuela taught you everything she knew, sí? You’re young. Strong.” He lifted a hand and made a sweeping motion. “Or sell it. I know of some people—”
“Sell it,” I said firmly. “I’ll sell it,” I said, more softly this time. I looked to the window again. “It’s too much, you know? Too much hers. To be in that kitchen, without her there…” I shook my head. “I think I’d cry every day.” Even the thought of it brought tears to my eyes. I’d be rolling out masa for tortillas but missing her beside me—poking me when I left it too thick, swatting me on the butt when I got it too thin. Making me smile through it all.
“The sale could help a little with college, though after we pay all your abuela’s bills, I wouldn’t count on much.” He patted my hand again. “There’s no need to rush. Shut the doors for a while. Wait to make a decision until you’re certain. There’s no hurry. But now, dear girl, I must go.” He rose wearily. “It’s very late.”
“Sí, sí,” I said, rising with him, guiltily glancing at the clock. It was past three in the morning. My grandmother’s friends and family had stayed until after two, drinking up her tequila, eating everything I put out. Few made an effort to help clean up. The restaurant downstairs was a disaster.
I followed him to the door. “Gracias, Señor Rodriguez. I appreciate your guidance.”
He turned and gave me a weary smile. “When you decide on the restaurant, I’ll help you through. And if you need me, you call. For anything.”
He paused, looking out to the empty, dimly lit street. We heard nothing but the sound of crickets and distant waves on the beach. He looked back to me. “You’ll be okay, Zara?”
“I’ll be okay,” I said, with more confidence than I felt. “I’ll just pretend she’s here.”
He nodded, as if that was all he needed to hear, and walked down the steps with a lurching gait. His knees must hurt. It was so much like the way Abuela had moved…I hurriedly turned away and shut the door, leaning my head against it, my hand still on the cold knob. The tears flowed then. I’d last watched my grandmother climb those stairs three days ago. After a long night in the restaurant below. It had taken us forever to climb the fifteen steps, and I wanted to scream in frustration. And now—now, all I wanted was to watch her do it again. To feel her pat my cheeks. See her look on me with love. Hear her soft goodnight. “Buenas noches, Grillita.”
Grillita. “Little cricket.” She’d always called me that, for as long as I could remember. And as much as we hated finding the noisy nasties in our apartment, she always made my nickname sound like something admired and cherished. Like no one else had ever made me feel.
I straightened and moved woodenly toward her rocker, her knitting half-finished in the basket beside it. Forever unfinished now, because I never was any good at that kind of thing. But I picked it up and pulled out the long needles, setting them on my lap, yarn still looped around one, and lifted the finished portion up to my cheek, closing my eyes. “Oh, Abuela, Abuela,” I said, more tears running down my face. “How could you leave me?”
I cried for hours, until the tiniest glimmer of pink began to light the eastern horizon, and knew I needed to get out of the apartment. To walk. Run. Then and only then might I sleep. The memories in here, her presence, felt smothering, as if they were closing in on me, wanted and yet unwanted. I needed some space to breathe before I could find my way into and through them.
Rising, I pulled off my sweater, which smelled of yesterday’s work in the kitchen—smoke and lard and onion and cumin—and reached for my abuela’s thick shawl, beautifully knitted from soft black and red yarn, and wrapped it around me like a hug. I still wore the black cami and long maxiskirt from yesterday’s funeral and figured I’d be warm enough on the beach. If I kept moving, anyway. Even if I got chilled, it’d be good in a way. It’d remind me I was alive, through and through—that a part of me hadn’t died with my grandmother.
I hurried down the street in the near-dark, glancing into shadowed doorways, keeping an eye out for troublemakers, thinking I ought to have brought my pocket knife. But most everybody was asleep at this hour. At the bottom of the street, I turned right and walked along much finer homes that lined the beach and those across the street, forced to content themselves with peekaboo views over their neighbors’ rooftops. The houses here were big and stood inches away from their million-dollar neighbors, in an effort to make the most of the space. But up ahead, a wide public beach loomed, the white of cresting waves visible even in the relative dark.
As I got closer, I thought about visiting here with my grandmother. Collecting shells and sea glass—a mound that began to dominate our entire coffee table over the years. And yet she never complained. She’d encouraged it. Oohed and ahhed over each find like it might bring us money, in time. Loved me, and loved my passions. Whatever they were. Playing the guitar. Singing. Clouds. Weather.
If it hadn’t been for her… My dad was in prison for life, a murderer. My mom had been young when she got pregnant with me. Dumped me with her mother and ran away, then never saw either of us again. I don’t think Abuela ever got over that. That, more than anything, made me tear up. To the very end, I think Abuela waited for the phone to ring. For a knock at the door. For a sweet reunion. Somehow, she thought that if Mom came home, everything would fall back into place. The family would draw together. We would all find a measure of peace.
But it wasn’t to be.
I wiped angry tears from my eyes, rubbing them as if I was mad at myself for grieving Mom’s absence again—even if it was for my grandmother, who believed until the end it was all going to work out.
I knew what Abuela craved. She wanted something like we saw every night in the restaurant. Families, thick with children of all ages, doting grandparents, playfully bickering parents, aunts and uncles and cousins. It seemed the birthright of a hundred families we knew. But not ours. Not ours.
I kicked off my flats and picked them up with two fingers, loving the feel of cool, damp sand squishing between my toes. I could see the horizon now with the rising sun behind me, even with the dense morning marine layer that shrouded the sea in billowing, misty clouds. They rolled inward, past me, over me, bathing my skin in moisture, like Neptune’s own cold breath.
My feet moved as they always did, toward the rocks at the far end of the bay. There I’d find the tide pools my grandmother had loved. Perhaps some sea urchins or anemones. Bright orange or deep purple starfish. Those had been her favorites, which had become mine. How dedicated she’d been, I thought. Raising a baby, a toddler, a girl, a teen. Keeping the restaurant going, to bring us income, when she should have been sitting back, relaxing.
But she’d done it all. For me.
Where would I have been without her?
“Thanks, Father,” I whispered skyward, taking a deep breath past the lump in my throat and crossing myself, as Señor Rodriguez had done. “For giving me Abuela. Even if I wanted her longer. Take care of her for me, okay?”
I thought about the last conversation I’d had with her, three nights past, when we’d finally made it upstairs. I helped her to her rocker, took off her shoes as she asked, and rubbed her swollen feet, something I’d always hated. But she loved it so much, was so appreciative, I’d never had the guts to admit my reluctance. She sat back and closed her eyes, her face a mixture of pain and glory as I rubbed the knots from her arches, from her heel.
“What is it you want most, Grillita?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” I returned, tired and wanting only to slip into my bed.
“From life. If I could give you anything, what would you want?”
“Besides a scholarship to UCLA or Texas A&M?” Or even an acceptance letter…
“After a couple of years at the community college, they will accept you. You’ll see.”
Abuela had more faith in the system than I did, given my 3.5 GPA. But I was sick of worrying about it. “How ’bout an introduction to a handsome prince?”
“You don’t have to wish for that,” she said, her brown eyes twinkling as she peeked at me. “A girl as pretty as you—”
“I want adventure,” I said, giving in to her little dream-session at last. “To experience more than this little town. To see the world and learn more about the people in it.”
Her gray eyebrows shot up as she considered me. She’d spent her whole life here, never left the county. Then she nodded once. “That’s good, yes. It is common for the young to hunger for such things. Pero Grillita, a veces la aventura se puede hallar exactamente en el lugar donde te encuentres.” But Cricket, sometimes adventure can be found right where you are.
“Right,” I said, squinting at her. This was a different sort of conversation than our usual chatter. She didn’t understand. I wanted adventure-adventure. To be the Next Big Thing on the Weather Channel. Chasing tornadoes, on a raft in a flood zone, picking up a handful of dust in a drought-ridden field, riding in a helicopter over houses leveled by a tsunami, looking for survivors to save…
“How ‘bout we play cards for a while? Gin rummy?” I asked her, trying to bring my head back to the present.
“No.” She snapped her fingers in front of my face, nodding her gray head. “¿Qué más?”
“What else do I want?”
“Sí, sí,” she said, waving at me in irritation for not continuing.
“Okay, uh… Love, I guess,” I said. “You know. I’m not really after a handsome prince. He doesn’t even have to be handsome, although if he was, that’d be cool. I just want to know what it is to really fall in love. And for a guy to fall in love with me. Real love, you know? Not the teenage stuff.”
“It’s as good as done,” she said with her gap-toothed smile. “We simply have to wait for the one worthy of my girl.”
I smiled with her and shook my head. My grandmother had always thought I should be the target of every man’s affections. Whether the dude was eighteen or eighty-three, she’d routinely ask, “Isn’t my granddaughter beautiful? And she’s smart, too.”
“What else?” she asked, sitting back and closing her eyes.
It was then that I noticed the color of her skin, oddly gray. And she was way more tired than she usually was after closing. “Abuela, are you okay?”
“Sí, sí,” she said, waving away my concern, still with her eyes closed. “What else, Grillita? What is your third wish?”
I hesitated. The thought was clear in my head, but I didn’t want to bring her pain in voicing it.
She peered at me through one squinted eye. “Zara? Tell me,” she said softly.
“Family.” I shrugged and rubbed a bit harder. “I mean, family like you and I both wanted, forever. Like the Medinas and the Garcias. Good families. Loving families. Families all up in each other’s business. And yet willing to do anything for each other. You know,” I said.
“Yo lo sé,” she agreed softly, reaching out to touch my cheek.
“I don’t mean to make you feel bad, Abuela,” I said, guilt flooding through me.
“You don’t make me feel bad,” she said, patting my cheek and leaning back. “I wanted it once too. And someday, Grillita, you shall have it for both of us.”
I smiled. “There you go again, promising me the moon, Abuela.”
“You will have the moon, Zara,” she said, head against the back of her rocking chair, eyes closed, even as she lifted her index finger. “Trust your abuela. When you get to a certain age, you know such things.”
“Does my abuela know she must get to bed?” I asked.
“Sí, sí, she knows it.”
I helped her stand and walk to her room, wincing with her as her legs, stiff after sitting, objected to the exertion. She’d been so tired, she insisted in getting into bed without undressing. Without brushing her teeth or her hair, something I’d never seen her do before. “Just leave me, Zara,” she said, pulling up the blanket to her wrinkled cheek. “I only need to rest.”
Should I have done something then? I’d known something was wrong. I felt it. But I was so tired myself, so bone weary, I could barely cover her and make it to my own room. So I bent and kissed her forehead, whispered good night. Perhaps she whispered the same, but to my shame, I couldn’t remember.
And when I awoke, she was dead.
The EMT said she passed peacefully, never waking. It looked like she had. Like she’d just been dreaming about heaven and walked right on up there. It made me a little angry, actually. That she hadn’t tried to fight it. To call out to me. Given me a chance to call 911 before it was too late. Tried to stay with me. Sure, I was almost eighteen. But eighteen really wasn’t that old. I was old enough to strike out on my own. Go to college. Find a job. But not really old enough to be without anyone at all who loved me, truly loved me.
I reached the dark lava rocks, pockmarked by the sea’s constant rub and wash, and made out the dim silhouette of a fisherman about twenty yards away, casting his line off a long rod. Beside him was the five-gallon painter’s bucket the locals favored, probably full of surf perch or croakers by now. He looked about fifty years old, short and spry. Asian.
I’d never seen him here before, and I thought I knew all the locals. Maybe he usually was done fishing before I got to the rocks during my morning walks. After all, I’d never been here this early.
He glanced in my direction, and I lifted a hand in greeting. Then I crouched to peer into the first tide pool. Three massive starfish, two purple and one orange, clung to the edge, half in the water. I smiled and moved on to the next. There I found four orangies and two purplies. I gasped and looked up at the fisherman as he moved past, hauling his heavy bucket. I’d never seen six in one pool before. Abuela would have loved it…
“You like sta’fish?” he asked in a heavy Asian accent.
“I do. They…they remind me of someone I loved very much. There are six here!”
“Hmm,” he said, studying me with a stroke of his beardless chin. He moved away, suddenly, when a wave crashed toward us. The wash narrowly missed him. I watched it recede, and then felt the older man’s gaze still on me. A shiver ran down my back, and I slowly rose. What was his deal? What did he want?
“You like sta’fish, go to pool over there,” he said, nodding to one closer to the water. “Befo’ tide comes in.”
I smiled, relaxing as he moved on, wondering why I’d suspected the gentle old dude was up to anything bad at all. Another wave washed over the rocks. With a glance out toward the water, I thought I might have just enough time to check out the pool the fisherman had gestured toward before the next big wave came through. I picked my way forward, jumping from high point to high point among the rocks. When I arrived, I looked down and let out a small cry.
He’d been right. The pool was teeming with starfish, several layers thick. Orange and purple, and a couple that were red and gold. Even a few brittle stars, with their long arms. I’d never seen anything so amazing in all my life. It was so beautiful, so cool, that I ignored the wave that came in then, striking the boulders in front of me. I barely felt the spray across my face and hair. A wash of water covered the pool and went up to my knees. When the bubbling foam receded, I laughed at the massive starfish, all moving at once at surprising speed.
But then I frowned as two edged in opposite directions. Was that…?
Another wave crashed against the boulders, the tide clearly intent on retaking the rocks. Again I ignored it, intent on the pool before me, waiting for the white froth to recede and clear water to show me I’d been wrong…seeing things. I squeezed my fingers impatiently, waiting, waiting.
But when the water was once again clear to the bottom, I saw that the starfish had moved away from the center, all clinging to the edges now. It made no sense. Starfish were too slow, edging quietly over a rock in the course of an hour, not minutes. I looked to the center of the pool and frowned. There, nestled among the rocks and sand was the glint of gold.
Not starfish gold. Gold-gold.
I didn’t hesitate. I stepped down and into the pool, my skirt rising around me, and leaned down and grabbed the edge of the object. It lifted easily, as if it’d been placed there just for me, and I looked around for the fisherman, now gone, even as another wave crashed against the rocks and thoroughly soaked me.
I clambered out of the pool and waited for the wave to recede back to the sea, leaving my path exposed. Then I hopped from rock to rock again, until I was at last climbing on soft sand between the big boulders that rose on this side of the beach. Safe from view of any early-morning runners, I sat down heavily, pushed aside my dripping curls, and studied the golden object. It looked like a small oil lamp, encrusted by a bunch of tiny white sea creatures of some sort on one side. It was clearly old, really old. I looked out to the Pacific, wondering if it was a remnant of some ancient galleon that had run aground, crashing on the reef that bordered the coast or even in our small cove. In all my years of walking this beach, I’d never found such an object—or heard of anyone else finding one like it either.
I used my nails to try and pry off some of the ocean muck that clung to it, then ran my fingertips over the soft, golden lip and then across the worn, foreign lettering that wound around the width of it. The lid was missing, and there had clearly been a spout at one time, giving it almost a genie-lamp feel, making me think of my abuela and her questions. What do you want most, Grillita?
I cradled the lamp to my chest, memories of her so vivid, her voice in my head so loud, it was like I was with her again.
What had I said? What had she said?
Adventure…to know true love…to discover what it meant to have a real family.
A blinding flash of light made me blink, and the ground seemed to shift. I reached for the nearest boulder, wondering if we were having an earthquake. My stomach twisted, and I felt a wave of nausea. Then my ears popped, and popped again, like when we were driving up and down from the mountains. But as I waited, there was nothing more.
Well, that was weird. Seriously weird.
I winced, holding my stomach as it settled, wondering what exactly was going on with my body. But then the heavy object in my hands distracted me again. What would a treasure like this be worth? Could it pay for my college? Maybe the guy at the pawn shop could tell me something…
I rose and walked around the boulder, looking down to the main part of the beach, wondering when Glen, the old leather-skinned lifeguard, would show up for duty. He’d think this thing was cool.
I sucked in a quick breath, blinking rapidly.
There was no lifeguard tower.
No runners on the beach, like there usually were by this time.
The million-dollar houses that had lined the cliffs above the beach when I got here were gone—only waving grass greeted my eyes on the bluff above. I glanced out to sea, wondering if somehow, I had walked up the wrong beach, distracted by the golden object in my hands.
I turned in a slow circle, eying the cliffs and the water. It was my beach for sure. It had to be. Except it didn’t look like my beach. The tide pools were gone. The beach was wider and strewn with washed-up logs. And halfway across the broad expanse was the broken, skeletal frame of a shipwreck.
I frowned, shook my head and turned around in another slow three-sixty. “Wh-what’s going on?” I muttered, now thinking I was hallucinating or something. Maybe I was just so tired…maybe this was some weird response to grief over my abuela…
I studied the bluff and the rocks beside me. It was the same cove, the same beach. My cove. My cove. It had to be.
But it wasn’t. It was different. Radically different. Raw and undeveloped and—
A gunshot startled me—a gunshot? I flinched and peeked around the big volcanic boulder, down toward the long stretch of beach the surfers favored. Now what? Some sort of gang—
My eyes widened in shock. In the distance, there was a man on horseback, charging in my direction, four men on horseback behind him—in pursuit?—galloping at the same pace, hooves tossing up clods of sand behind them. Another gunshot cracked through the air, the only other sound besides the wash of the waves.
I could feel the rumble of the horses’ hooves beneath my own bare feet and saw the men approaching at a frightening pace.
Everything was wrong. Terribly wrong.
I sank back between the big rocks, desperately seeking some sort of shelter. I glanced up the dunes to the bluff above and knew there was no way I’d make it up there in time. And even if I did, there wasn’t a house to run to, a door to knock on…
I peeked around the edge of the big boulder again, watching as the first guy galloped ever nearer. I took in his tailored, tightly buttoned jacket and his dark good looks before pulling back around the rock, attempting to hide. I crouched down, eyes wide, waiting for him to pass.
The mare kicked up clods of sand that pelted the rock beside and above me. I thought the rider glanced under his arm at me, our eyes meeting for a second, but he never paused. He definitely wanted to get away from those who pursued him, which made my heart pound. What is happening? His saddle was clearly an antique, all gorgeous tooled leather, inlaid with gold and red in an old-Mexico feel. Everything about him and his horse said Old Mexico, when I thought about it.
Maybe they’re shooting a movie. Maybe this isn’t my beach. Maybe I passed out, the waves moved my unconscious body to another beach…one I haven’t ever been to.
But I’d been on every beach within twenty miles. I looked up the bluff again. This was my cove. Tainter Cove. It had to be. It had to be, but…
I sank back an inch further, wishing I could become one with the rock as the others finally passed by me, in pursuit of the first man. There were four of them, and as they passed, they were shouting in Spanish. “¡Cerrémosle el paso! ¡Separémonos! Debemos matarlo antes que llegue al límite del rancho.”
Cut him off, I translated in my head. Divide up. We must kill him before he reaches the rancho border.
Rancho? There hadn’t been ranchos in this part of California for more than a century. I remembered that much from my state history class. Sure, there was Rancho Cucamonga, and Rancho Santa Margarita and Rancho Palos Verdes, but those were just nods to the past…a developer’s romantic name for sprawling subdivisions of suburban houses. Right?
But their Spanish had sounded odd to my ears. Crisp. Formal. Not anything like our slurred, local Spanglish. Not even like the Spanish they spoke down across the border, in Tijuana. More like Spanish-Spanish. Old Spanish.
And they had been in odd clothing too. Tight pants, worn boots, cropped jackets, and trim hats like the vaqueros used to wear. And one had passed near enough for me to take in more finely tooled stirrups and another saddle like I’d never seen—not that I’d seen a ton of variation when I worked at camp one summer and hung out with the girls who ran the trail rides. The saddle hadn’t been as elegant and elaborate as the first man’s, the one they pursued. But old.
Movie. I have to be on a movie set. The director dude is going to be so pissed when he finds me here. They’ll have to crop me out, or shoot this whole scene again…
But then where were the cameras? The track running alongside the horses to catch the shot? The sound guys with those long sticks and microphones?
On shaking legs, I rose and dared to edge out again, looking up the beach, where the four in pursuit were just urging the horses up the dunes and over the edge, never looking back. I had to figure this out. Maybe I was dreaming.
I gathered up Abuela’s shawl, shook it out, and wrapped it around my shoulders. It was like she was with me now, giving me courage, comfort. I grabbed the golden lamp and, crouching over, scurried away from the rocks and toward the nearest dune. There I hunkered down, panting, my heart thundering in my chest, waiting. But there was no sound other than waves on the shore and wind rustling the summer-dry grasses by my head. Except for…the lowing of cows?
No honking of horns or traffic.
No thunder of a train racing down the tracks that bordered the beach.
I swallowed hard, then forced myself to scurry up the next dune and the next, until I reached the top and peered over toward the PCH.
I gasped and blinked.
There was no Pacific Coast Highway. No buildings. No railroad track. Just miles and miles of grass and trees. A herd of cattle, not too far off.
In the distance, I could see the men, still in pursuit of the other. But now more men were riding toward him, down from another hill, as if to meet them. In battle? To defend the first? Or to finish him off?
I turned in a slow circle, letting the shawl fall, trying to make sense of what was all around me. It felt like home, but it was all so very different.
So wrong. So foreign…and yet so familiar, too.
My knees gave way, and I collapsed to the sand and rocks, cutting my hand as I fell. But I gave it little notice, grabbing hold of the golden lamp and staring furiously at it. Intuitively, I knew that all of this…around me…had something to do with this, in my hands.
I thought back to the flash of light, the popping of my ears. What I’d been thinking right before that. About Abuela. About what I’d wished for most. A passionate, adventurous life. True love. Family.
And what had I gotten?
Some sort of odd transport to a place that seemed farther from those things than ever before.