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We had Story Time on Saturday afternoons in the library, and every nanny in the community arrived with their little rug rats. The first few minutes are always chaotic. The Miesen twins, aged six -- and old enough to know better -- inevitably create problems. I had come to dread living across the street from them, fearing the kind of trouble they'd make as they got older. Their nanny -- the fourth one in their six years of life -- didn't look as though she would last much longer, either.
Mrs. Berlin enjoyed doing the readings while Gian and I manned the posts and helped the rest of the people. She had a good voice and a way of holding the children's attention. Sometimes she got my attention, too.
Gian and I had plenty of work, which I appreciated today. I didn't want to think about anything outside the library. Despite Missy's intrusion, I felt as though the building had become a sanctuary. I felt safe here.
Gian wasn't happy. He grunted things when I asked him questions. He shoved magazines away so hard he ripped a cover, and snapped the newspapers back into shape before he pushed them into place. And he glared at me. We began re-shelving books. Gian didn't want to have anything to do with the work and rolled away whenever I tried to make small talk.
When he went back to the desk and happily spoke with Mrs. Berlin, I realized he wanted to get away from me, not the work.
The shock made me ill. I hadn't realized he was angry with me.
"Gian?" I asked as we worked at cleaning the kids' area. He glanced my way, his dark brown eyes glaring. "What did I do?"
"Missy saw you."
"Yes? She saw me what?" But I knew. At first I felt hurt, but the feeling turned to anger in the next breath. I had done nothing wrong. "She saw me drive past the Kimura house on the way back from the park. I got a nice picture of a hummingbird, by the way."
His eyes narrowed and then softened a little. He shook his head. "She told me Akio is there."
"Yes, I saw her arrive. I had stopped to pick some cherry blossoms, but when I saw her, I got the hell out of there."
"Cherry blossoms? From there?"
"Yeah, from there. I . . . I wanted to make amends with Mr. Kimura. I know that sounds stupid, Gian but I felt bad. He lost everything. He was completely alone after Nadine took off. I sure wouldn't want anyone to blame my parents if I did something stupid or cruel."
He blinked several times. The anger disappeared from his face and I felt as though I could breathe again. He stared for a moment and finally shook his head. "I couldn't. I couldn't forgive any of them."
"I don't think you should." He handed me a book from a chair and we went over to the shelves. He kept pace with me and he seemed more troubled than angry. I couldn't imagine everything going through his mind about Akio and her father. "I don't think anyone would expect you to forgive them, Gian. But I don't want to be another Missy and think of no one but myself. I don't want to be anyone but me."
"Good." I caught a glimpse of a little crook of a smile on his lips before he turned away.
I blushed. I know I did. I thought I had grown past that kind of reaction. I also felt very good. I hadn't seen his smile in a long time.
My Gian was coming back again.
We even had fun for the rest of the day. The sky clouded over once more and the rain soon began to pour, which meant we had fewer people during the late afternoon. Mrs. Berlin, the dreaded Library Dragon, went out and bought tacos and we ate them in her office. I think she wanted to help Gian past the awful mood he'd been in. I felt camaraderie with her for the first time and decided maybe I could work a little harder around the library until next fall when I went away to college.
I didn't want to think about the future, not today when things felt so right, here.
An hour before closing we began the final cleaning. We didn't have much left to do. I took about twenty minutes to vacuum, being extra careful to get everything up. Afterwards, I stood and watched the rain outside where the day had gone to a dull gray beyond the windows. I feared Missy might return tonight. I should have expected her to tell Gian about seeing me at the Kimura house. I tried very hard not to be angry at Gian for listening to her.
No one else had come in during the last half hour, so I took a chance and mopped the floor by the door, hoping I wouldn't have to redo the work. I finished and had about fifteen minutes until we truly closed. Mrs. Berlin sat in her office, entering new books into the database. I couldn't see Gian. I found a stack of audio books at the counter and decided to put them away. Busy little person, me. The work helped, and the quiet meant we would likely get out pretty much on time today. Sometimes the library is busy right up until closing.
I found Gian in the periodical section. He had a newspaper on the table in front of him and I knew what he read without looking. I'd seen the story plastered on the front page of the LA Times when I put the paper in the rack earlier. I'd been shocked at first. Sometimes I forget how important AviTen is to the rest of the world and how Seiji Kimura's suicide would draw attention. I had hoped Gian wouldn't see the headlines. Now I wondered if I'd been right to try and protect him.
He turned to me, his face bleak as he pushed back his hair. He used to have longer hair, but he cut it off after the accident. Dark strands curled a little around his face and fell into his eyes. For years I had been jealous of his hair. Mine was mostly straight and ugly. I hate when the guys have better hair than I could buy at a beauty salon.
Gian waved a hand towards the newspaper. "I decided I might as well read what they have to say. Have you?"
"No." I put the audio books on the table. My hands trembled and I didn't want him to see. The reaction came from too much emotional overload today. I glanced at the page but didn't try to read the words. "I don't want to know."
"It's interesting." His voice seemed oddly calm, though he sat too straight, his shoulders tight beneath the pullover he wore. I could see the tenseness in him though he tried to hide his emotions. "Did you know some people are saying --" he leaned forward, his finger moving across a line of print -- "'Deervale is an elitist private community, hiding their secrets behind a veil of riches and anonymity, always one step short of a scandal.'"
"Sounds a lot more interesting than the Deervale where I live," I replied, and then regretted being so flippant -- at least until he grinned.
"They talk about the accident, too." His finger moved over the paper as he searched for the information. I felt my mouth go dry and my heart pound a little harder. I was the one who didn't want to relive what had happened. "I don't remember much from then. I felt strange, reading about myself. They got my name wrong. Gino Calabria? Sounds like someone out of those gangster movies my mother loves."
He seemed ready to talk, so I plunged in. We kind of acted as though nothing had changed, despite the wheelchair. I think keeping a distance from the accident had helped both of us to pretend to normality while we recovered in our own ways.
"What do they say?" I asked, steeling myself for a dark glare and anger.
Instead, I saw a hint of pain in his eyes, which was worse. I wanted to take my question back. I didn't care about the stupid article. I started to reach for the paper --
He caught my wrist in a gentle hold. "No," he said. "Not reading doesn't help. It's long past time I started dealing with everything."
"I can read for myself," I whispered, my voice trembling. I didn't try to pull out of his hold and I was sorry when he let go. I sat in the chair by him because my legs felt wobbly.
"No, I'll read it." He pulled the newspaper closer and I watched him, while trying to gauge his emotions and attempting to control my own. I put my trembling hands on the table and tried very hard to appear calm. "I won't read the stuff about Mr. Kimura. I don't know how I feel about what happened yet. I don't like the way they made him seem a bad guy. You were right, you know. He didn't have anything to do with the accident."
I said nothing. I couldn't imagine being in Gian's place and the turmoil he must be going through. I thought I could blame Mr. Kimura for creating more trouble, but no. I would not blame the victim -- the other victim no one noticed because he wasn't in a wheelchair, too.
"Here." Gian tapped the paper in front of him. I thought his hand trembled and I regretted having encouraged him. "Nearly seventeen months ago the closed and secretive community was rocked by the attempted murder of high school student Gino Calabria. Arrested and charged with attempted vehicular homicide was 17-year-old Akio Kimura, daughter of the late Seiji Kimura. Testing showed Miss Kimura was drugged at the time, and shock over the incident sent her into what doctors and psychologists called a catatonic state. Miss Kimura was remanded to a private facility where she spent the next thirteen months and afterwards went to a private school out of the country." He glanced at me and this time frowned. "Did you know she was out?"
"Yes. She sent me a note from England," I said, and hastily added, "I never read the letter, though. I saw the name and the postmark is all."
"Why do I make you nervous?" I was too used to looking down at him, and I found staring straight into his dark brown eyes disconcerting. Then I felt better, realizing this made us equals once more. "I never used to make you nervous."
"You don't," I answered, which wasn't entirely true. "I wish none of this had happened."
"Well, you and me both." He surprised me with an unexpected laugh. "Let's finish here. I want to get home to dinner. Mama made lasagna today. Want to come over and have some with me?"
"I'd love to." My stomach began to growl at the thought of dinner at his house. His mother was the best chef I'd ever known, and I had missed the wonderful, home cooked Italian food more than I liked to think about. I'd probably lost some weight, though, since I stopped going over. I couldn't figure out how his mother stayed so thin, except she had a lot of work with all those kids.
My stomach growled again.
Gian heard the sound and laughed. It felt wonderful, seeing him happy, even at my expense, so I laughed as well. We finished the work, putting some last books away and cleaning the counter. I prayed no one came in to slow us from leaving, or worse, to bring some news which would ruin the night. I dreaded the possibility with a kind of dull, growing pain every time a car seemed to slow going past.
Mrs. Berlin turned off most of the lights and prepared to lock up as we left. I barely remembered to call home and say I was going to eat with the Calabrias so mom didn't make anything special for me. She sounded pleased, which made me blush yet again and I didn't even know why this time.
Gian didn't bother to call his parents about me coming over. There's always been an open invitation to eat at their house, but I hadn't been there . . . in a long time. I was glad we'd reached some sort of understanding. Then I was more honest with myself and admitted I had found the courage to accept Gian the way he is and not hold on to the memory of the boy who had danced --
I shoved the thought away. I didn't want him to see regrets in my eyes. Not tonight.
"I don't think the rain is ever going to stop," Gian complained as we hovered near the door, waiting for his father to arrive. "I hate being stuck inside all the time, but going out in the wheelchair is uncomfortable. I might be more on my feet in a few months."
"Great!" I worried because I didn’t want him to think I would be unhappy if he wasn't on his feet, but I wanted him to know I cared -- my stomach began to knot at the thought of trying to balance my words.
He glanced at me and frowned again. I began parsing my way through a major speech but his father's arrival saved me from any further distress.
I walked in the rain with Gian as we went down the ramp. A cold breeze blew past as we reached the sidewalk and I shivered at the feel of icy water running down my neck.
"Hello, Mr. Calabria."
"Good evening, Marisha," he answered. He was always so proper, and his accented English very precise. Gian could speak Italian like a native, but he'd lived most of his life in Deervale, and he didn't have an accent unless he wanted one.
"Mar is coming over for lasagna," Gian said as he pulled himself into the car seat.
I saw his father freeze in mid-movement before he gave me the most dazzling smile I'd ever seen from the man. "Good. I'll see you at the house, then?"
"I'll be there in a few minutes. I'm going to take my car home and walk over."
"In the rain?" Mr. Calabria shook his head. "No, no. Take your car home and we'll follow and you can ride with us."
"I only live next door!" I protested with a laugh.
"There is a football field of land between us," he answered and sounded adamant. "We'll wait. No sense you getting wet."
I saw Gian look surprised and pleased. Well hell. I didn't care for walking in the rain much anyway.
"Okay. Thanks! I'll get my car!"
I darted around the side of the building, slowing when I almost slipped. No, no. I had to be adult about this. And not giggle. I wanted to giggle.
I hurried into the lot, past Mrs. Berlin's car and over to mine. One more sat in a nearby spot, and I turned with a start when the door popped open.
Missy stepped out into the rain. Not exactly who I wanted to see, of course, but I'd been watching too many police shows lately, and the door opening had scared the hell out of me. I was so relieved to see Missy that I stood right there while she came at me, her face lost behind the shadow of her wide brimmed hat. She wore those stupid heels and appeared wobbly and half drunk. Maybe more than half. She caught hold of the car when she neared, and for a moment I thought she might pass out before she even spoke.
Not tonight! I was not going to let Missy ruin this evening for me!
"I saw you with Akio," she mumbled the words hardly discernible.
"No, you didn't," I answered. She stopped and I could see her frown, confused. She swayed a little when she let go of the car: drugged, drunk and stupid. And I was stuck with her for the moment. She annoyed the hell out of me this time. "All you saw was me in a car outside the Kimura's house. I never spoke with Akio and, in fact, I never got out of the car."
"Odd you were there when she arrived, don't you think?" she demanded, her words precise. The accent had disappeared. She obviously couldn't manage real words and a fake accent at the same time when she was drunk.
"I don't know. What were you doing there when she showed up?"
She stopped all movement and her breath caught. Apparently she didn't like being accused of the same thing she was accusing me of -- whatever that might be.
"I don't have time for this, Missy. And shouldn't you get out of the rain before you melt or something?"
Her lips drew back in a little snarl. I wasn't sure if she caught the allusion or not. "Gian knows about you and Akio." She leaned closer. I could smell the liquor on her breath this time. "I told him."
"Yes, I know. He told me. We might talk about it more tonight. I'm going to his house for dinner."
"You're lying." Her voice went icy and her eyes focused fully on me this time. Not pleasant. I didn't want that kind of attention. "I told him about you and Akio and he was mad at you. He was --"
The Calabria van backed up and pulled into the lot. They must have thought I was having car problems. Missy stared, shaking her head when Gian stuck his head out the car window.
"Is there a reason you two are standing out here in the rain? Come on, Mar! I want to get home to dinner, and if we don't hurry there won't be any garlic bread left!"
Missy looked as though her brain was trying desperately to figure out what Gian meant. I got into the car and closed the door, though I wasn't going to move until she got out of the way. I started the car and she swayed a little and caught hold of the roof.
I rolled down the window, shaking my head with absolute disgust. I didn't want Missy to ruin my night and I feared Gian and his father would drive away and abandon me with her. I knew we couldn't leave her here, too drunk to drive home safely. I wasn't going to risk Missy getting into an accident and having her stupidity on my conscience.
Mr. Calabria climbed out of the van and walked around the front, ignoring the rain. I had never seen such distaste on his face. He was not a happy man, and I felt bad he had to come out of the car and save me from a drunken teen. I should have shoved her to the ground and driven away. He stopped by Missy and frowned at her before he turned to smile at me.
"Marisha, would you drive the van home and allow me to take your car?"
"Yeah, sure." I probably appeared as confused as Missy. I got back out and handed him the keys. He smiled, though far less brightly than he had when he found out I was coming to dinner. "There's no reason for the two of you to be any later for your food. I have already eaten. Tell Betta I'll be there soon."
"Okay," I said, and took his keys.
Awful trusting, I thought, to not only give me his van, but put his son into my care as well. Gian rolled his window up as I got in, and wiped rain off his face with the edge of his shirt sleeve.
"Let's go," Gian urged. "Dad used the cell phone to call the cops, and I don't want to be here when Missy throws one of her fits. There was no way she should be out in this condition, though. We couldn't leave her, but I don't think you and I want to be here when the police arrive."
"True." I eased the car forward. I had driven my father's SUV a few times, so I knew the feel of larger vehicles. "She's not the only one going to have a fit. Her mother is going to be calling your house at all hours."
"Won't be the first time," he said, and leaned back.
"Yeah. Missy showed up drunk when the hospital transferred me to the clinic here. In fact, she showed up twice. Old Man Avi had a talk with her parents. I wouldn't want to be them, or Missy, when he hears about this one. And he will."
I nodded and kept my foot from pressing harder on the gas pedal, as though I could outrun the backlash from this new problem. A police car went past us as we turned the first corner -- barely away in time. I glanced back to see the police turning into the library parking lot. I hated to worry Mrs. Berlin, but they'd let her know there was no real trouble.
"I wonder why Missy acts this way," I said.
"Because as long as she's drunk and stoned out of her mind, she doesn't have to face the fact she's an annoying little bitch without a real friend in the world."
I braked at the stop sign, glanced at him once, and drove on, saying nothing.
"I sounded awful, didn't I?" He shifted in the chair, but I didn't think the reaction came from physical pain. "I shouldn't be this way, but for the last year she's been trying to worm her way into my world, and I don't want her there. Hell, the first thing she did when I got out of the hospital was offer to get me some coke so I could forget about all my horrible problems."
"You're joking." I had suspected about her and drugs, but he provided proof of the kinds of things she'd gotten into. "Why the hell would she do that?"
He silently stared at his hands but I figured things out quickly enough.
"She's got a crush on you."
He gave a quick, sullen nod. "Yeah. And it's pretty sick, too. She wasn't interested at all until I was in the wheelchair." I saw him swallow and I felt a little ill at the thought, too. "She gives me the creeps, Mar. I have to be careful not to be alone anywhere in school or she finds me."
"Have you told anyone else?"
"No. I don't want to make a big deal out of this. I mean especially now, when there's only a week of school left. I trust you."
My heart beat a little harder. I felt my cheeks flush and wished to hell they would stop! At least he couldn't see clearly in the dark car. "I don't know if I can help you with her. I can't talk to her, Gian. She doesn't care for me."
"I noticed. I thought you ought to know she's been acting stranger than usual the last couple days. Finding out you're coming to dinner at my house might make her angry, if she can find enough brain cells to create a real emotion."
"She seems to do anger just fine." I shrugged and turned on to Doe Drive, heading closer to home. Another car passed us, but otherwise, no one seemed to be out tonight. Time to change the subject. "Is your brother still in Italy?"
"Yes, but he's going to come home for my graduation," Gian replied. His voice softened. "I haven't seen him in a long time."
I heard the whisper of unspoken words. He hadn't seen Pio since the accident. I remembered how Pio who was eight years older than Gian and used to race him around the yard. He taught us both to roller skate. He'd never learned to speak English as well as his father and he jumped at the chance to go to college in Italy. I'd missed him, and I imagined he could have helped Gian if he had been around.
Gian stared at his hands. We were getting close to home.
"You'll be fine, Gian. It's not like you aren't still you," I said, hoping I wasn't overstepping our newly reformed bond.
We reached Badger Boulevard. I slowed. Having the time alone together seemed to be helping both of us. He stopped examining his fingers.
"I've changed, Mar." His face looked bleak, his eyes almost lost. His hands moved to his legs and rested there. "I'm not the same."
He began to get mad but suddenly grinned instead. "You have such a way with words."
"I use precise words. That's what Mr. Tarkin says about my writing, anyway."
"No one wanted to be around me much for a while. I thought I must have changed."
"Damn, Gian." I stopped at the corner, half a block from his house, and turned to face him. I'd been an idiot and he'd suffered for it. "I'm sorry. I really am. I was so afraid I would do something stupid, say something without thinking -- hurt you --"
"Hey." His hand touched my arm. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."
"It's all right. I made a mistake, Gian. I was too worried about how I felt. I'm past that stupidity now."
"Good. Let's get to the house. I'm starved."
I drove the rest of the way and slowed at the driveway, but didn't turn in. "Maybe we should wait at my house and give your father a ride home, since he was going to give me one."
"He won't melt."
"Neither would I."
"Come on, Mar. I'll starve!"
I relented and pulled into the driveway before I considered a new problem. "How do we get you out of here?"
"You bring the chair around and make sure the brakes are on. I get myself into it. Don't worry."
I was drenched from my encounter with Missy and I didn't care. Something had lifted from my heart in the last few hours. I hadn't even known I'd been carrying so much guilt for something I had nothing to do with. Right now, cliché as it was, I could have been dancing in the rain.
We had no trouble getting him into the chair, though we both got drenched, and Mr. Calabria drove by as I pushed Gian toward the door. He honked and we waved. I saw him pull into the driveway and go up to my house. I wondered what he was going to tell my parents.
Gian's mother was at the door with towels for both of us. She fussed a bit, chattering in Italian, and Gian gave her a few quick answers in the same language. I heard Missy's name and saw his mother frown. She patted me on the arm, smiled, and ushered us into the dining room.
I felt wonderful. Accepted.
The food tasted as heavenly as I remembered and I ate way too much. My mother tends to fix good, solid American food. Not a lot of spices, though, and I love spicy food. I tried really hard not to make a pig of myself.
Mr. Calabria came in, coffee cup in hand. He sat at the table with us, which surprised me. I felt as though Gian and I had gone from kids to adults.
"They took Missy home," he said. "She's lucky they did not do worse. The language she used!"
"I can imagine." I forced myself not to stuff more lasagna into my mouth. I even pushed the plate away. "She wasn't happy tonight."
"Such a shame to see a young woman with a bright future take the wrong road," he replied and turned to me. "You are ready for graduation?"
"Ready?" I asked. "Is anyone ever really ready?"
"I would guess not." He nodded, as though I had said something profound.
I caught a glimpse of Marie Lisa and Umberto, the two youngest, hovering by the dining room doorway and watching us. I felt like an alien invited to dinner. So I made a face at them and they ran screeching and laughing.
"Little rug rats," Gian mumbled and looked embarrassed. I probably shouldn't have teased the kids.
"Gian has no patience for the younger ones," his mother said. She sat at the table as well. It was unprecedented.
After I got over the shock, we had a nice long discussion about the weather and school. I had forgotten life could be this good.