| | Prologue | |
I can still remember them telling me that my parents were dead.
I was eleven years old, spending summer break with my grandparents while my parents went on a vacation to the Bahamas to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary. They always did something special every year for their anniversary, but never anything this extravagant, and my mother nearly broke out in tears when my dad showed her the plane tickets. Next thing I knew, Mom was kissing me on the cheek and Dad was telling me to be good for Gran and Gramps.
The vacation lasted a month and then they were supposed to come home. My older brother, Niko, was visiting from university and had taken me out the day my parents were due to come back. It was actually a lot of fun, spending time with him. Niko and I were always close, despite our large age gap, and it was sad seeing him leave for school, so any chance I got to be with him, I took advantage of it. We went to the movies and he let me get any candy I wanted, and even bought a large popcorn with extra butter, just the way we like it. Afterwards we went to the arcade in the mall and spent the rest of the afternoon there.
However our fun outing was short-lived once Niko got a phone call from my grandmother demanding we come home. We did as she said, not realizing what devastation lay ahead.
Niko pulled up in front of my grandparents' small cottage home, the gravel crumbling underneath the tires. We exchanged looks of confusion and fear. Had something happened to Gramps? We knew he had some heart problems—had he had a heart attack, or maybe a stroke?
When we walked inside, the atmosphere felt very heavy. It was as if, at any moment, the floors would suddenly break apart and swallow us up. It was quiet, and Niko called out for my grandparents.
Gran greeted us at the door, wrapping us in her arms. I heard her sniffling.
"What's wrong?" asked Niko.
"Is Gramps okay?" I asked. Gran parted from us and we could see just how bloodshot her eyes really were. Her cheeks were blotchy and stringy strands of silver hair fell in her face.
"Gramps is fine," she managed to say without choking on her sobs.
"Gran, what's going on?" Niko demanded.
She reached for our hands, squeezing them tightly. My stomach wouldn't stop flip-flopping, and at the same time, I felt like someone was trying to squish it down with a rock. A lump formed in my throat. We'd known Gran was emotional, but this was extreme. Something was severely wrong.
She pulled us to the living room, where Gramps was sitting in his armchair, staring blankly at the wall.
"Sit down, dearies," she said to us, gently. We did and she sat on the coffee table in front of us, never letting go of our hands. She looked into our eyes, filling with tears before she closed her eyes and tilted her head down, letting out another long sob. Niko embraced her and Gramps came over to stand by her.
"Something terrible has happened," Gramps said. "There's been an accident."
"An accident?" Niko asked.
"With the plane."
Gran cried even more and I started to as well. The lump was stuck in my throat and the rock was flattening my stomach into a pancake.
"Where're Mom and Dad?" I whimpered.
Gramps closed his eyes and sighed heavily. I could see the tears pooling at the edges of his eyes before he covered his face with his hand. I looked at Niko. He sat in disbelief, no trace of any emotion etched on his face. He'd known it right then, and part of me knew it too, but I refused to believe it.
"Where are my mom and dad?" I asked again.
"They're gone," Gramps said softly. "In a better place."
I shook my head and burst into tears as I ran out of there. I ran to my bedroom and slammed the door, diving onto my bed and releasing my sobs out into my pillow.
So that was it. They were gone.
Part of me was angry with them for taking that trip. They didn't need to do anything extravagant like fly to the Bahamas. Coronado had nice places too, including luxurious beaches. Why couldn't they sip their coconuts locally?
There was a knock on my door. I grumpily told them to go away, but they didn't listen and opened it anyway. I turned and saw Niko with his hand on the doorknob. I wiped my tears and sat up as he closed the door behind him. He sat on the edge of my bed with me.
"It's not true, right? Mom and Dad, they're not …" I couldn't even finish that. The word alone seemed deadly.
"The plane wasn't inspected carefully enough. Apparently something went wrong with the controls. They fell just flying over Florida. No one survived."
I was sent into another whirlwind of heaving sobs.
Niko wrapped his arm around me and hugged me close to him, pressing his cheek into my hair.
I stopped talking to most people after that day. Niko and I stayed with my grandparents for a while. We couldn't afford our old house on our own, so we moved all of our belongings and sold it. Niko still went to school, but he started working nights at a bistro, serving coffee and making Panini sandwiches for night-owls. He didn't make much, but it was something. He began selling a few of his paintings as well. Niko was an aspiring artist, and a damn good one at that, so it didn't take long for him to sell his work.
Niko was the only person I could talk to about what happened, or about mostly anything. My grandparents were frustrated with my silence, but they didn't harass me about it. And while Niko was gone at school or at work, I usually stayed either in my bedroom, reading fantasy novels or writing stories, or out on the beach, which was practically outside my grandparents' front door. I'd walk along the shore by myself, sometimes twirling with my arms in the air, dancing.
I used to hate my dance classes that my parents put me through, but only because my instructor was an idiot and treated us like three-year-olds. I actually loved dancing. Niko's passion was art; mine was dance. And while Niko expressed his pain in his paintings, I did through my movements.
It had been a few months into my sixth grade year when Niko rushed home, bolting through the door with such a surprised look on his face. It was evening, and I thought he was running late to go to work, but that wasn't the case. He'd seen me in the living room, one of the rare times I was ever in there, only because Gran had locked my bedroom door so I couldn't spend all day in there. The first couple of times she did this, I threw a fit like a toddler, but afterwards I just stopped talking to them too.
I was working on homework when he poked his head through the archway leading into the living room.
"Mika! Where's Gran and Gramps?" he asked quickly. I pointed towards the hall. Niko could understand me even when I didn't speak up to him either. "Their room, got it."
He rushed towards their door and I heard him knocking.
"Nikolai, what are you doing home?" I could hear Gran ask. "Shouldn't you be going to work?"
"I've got amazing news," he said excitedly.
"What's going on?" Gramps came to the door.
"Come out to the living room so I can share it with Mika too."
The three of them returned, and I stared at them, curiously. Niko sat my grandparents down on the sofa on either side of me and he stood in front of us.
"I was pulled out of my art history class today," he began, "by an owner of one of my paintings. Now, get this: he's a gallery owner, and he wants to supply me with my own gallery, fully paid for and everything!"
My eyes widened. Gran gasped.
"A gallery where?" asked Gramps.
"In San Diego, right on a boardwalk next to the beach. He showed me pictures of the place. It's very nice."
"And you'd drive all the way down there just to work your gallery?" asked Gran. "What about school, your job at the bistro?"
"I was never going to keep that job forever, Gran. You know that," Niko said. "As for school, it is a long commute, but this gallery will be worth it. I can sell my art, sell supplies, make money to support myself."
He was really excited, and I was excited for him. Niko always fantasized his art being hung in museums and galleries, and now he was actually being offered his very own.
"What about your home? Are you going to move down to San Diego?" asked Gramps.
"Actually yeah," Niko said, and my heart sunk a little. It was bad enough that he used to live on campus, but now he was moving away for good? Suddenly this gallery idea wasn't looking too exciting.
"The gallery is two stories. The top is actually a studio. Preston, the guy who bought my art, said that the previous owners used it as a coffee shop and lived upstairs. There's a kitchenette, a bathroom, and space for a bed and small living room. It's perfect."
"You'll be able to pay for living expenses and school?" asked Gramps. "And, not to mention, the supplies you'll be selling?"
"It'll work, Gramps. Trust me. This is something that I've always wanted." Niko smiled desperately. "My dream is already coming true."
I didn't say anything about what would happen with me. Even though I was upset that Niko was going to have his own gallery, I didn't want to ruin the moment for him. He was twenty-three and already offered a once in a lifetime deal.
"Again, the rent is already taken care of. Preston's some millionaire who invests in aspiring artists. I only have to give him twenty percent and it's settled. He's a really nice guy, genuine, and not trying to con me. Trust me, I thought about that already. He gave me a list of people he's helped, and encouraged me to give them a call. He's real."
"And did you get in contact with these other people?" asked Gramps.
"Of course I did! I had to make sure he wasn't joking. They all said the same thing: that he really helped them and it wasn't a scam. It's funny; they all thought it was too good to be real too. Some people really are kind-hearted."
My grandparents looked at each other for a long time. I sat there in between them, looking down at Niko's entwined fingers. I felt bad that I wasn't happier for him, but the moving away part was hard. Who knows when I'd see him again?
"Well, if this is something you truly want, and you believe that this is a safe idea, then your grandfather and I will support your decision to move to San Diego. We just really want you to be careful, Nikolai," Gran said. Niko widened his toothy grin and hugged Gran and Gramps. Then, he looked down at me.
"There's one more thing, though," he said, and I looked at him, curiously. "I want Mika to come with me."
My face lit up, eyebrows raised to my hairline, and, for the first time in a while, I smiled widely. But just as quickly as he made me smile, my grandparents brought me back down.
"I don't think that's a good idea," said Gran.
"She's eleven years old, and you're barely twenty-three. She needs proper parental care, son," said Gramps.
"She's almost twelve," Niko defended, taking the words right out of my mouth. "And we've been through a lot together." He looked down at me again and spoke gently. "It wouldn't be right to leave her again."
"What about school? Clothes? Food for two? All of her belongings? You can't support Mikayla and yourself with your gallery and university. That's too much for you, dear," Gran argued.
"We have all of our things from our house," Niko said. "And don't worry about the money, Gran. I've saved up, and I'm making lots from my paintings. You know how often they're being sold."
"It wouldn't be right for you to raise her," said Gran. "You're too young."
"She's my sister and I'd do anything for her."
"No, Nikolai, you can't take her," Gran said firmly.
I hated hearing that. I wasn't going to let Gran and Gramps let my brother go away without me. He had been right; we'd been through so much already. He couldn't leave me again. He just couldn't.
"Gran—" Niko argued.
"Nikolai, listen to your grandmother. Mikayla is staying with us," Gramps ordered.
Finally, I spoke up.
"I don't want to stay with you," I snapped, and my grandparents looked at me, taken aback. Niko smiled softly.
"Mikayla Stewart," Gran growled.
"If Niko goes, then I go to," I demanded, standing from the couch with him.
"Mikayla, go to your room," Gran ordered.
"I can't go to my room. You locked it," I retorted.
"Mikayla, enough of your antics. Leave this room right now!" she shrilled, pointing towards the door.
I glared at her, and then at Gramps, before stomping off. I slammed the front door behind me and ran to the beach.
I hated them. I hated them for keeping me away from my brother. I'd already lost my parents, wasn't that enough? I had to lose my brother, my closest friend, too? I didn't want to stay in Coronado anymore. I didn't care about changing schools. I didn't care about leaving my grandparents. Wherever Niko was, I wanted to be there too. I wanted to go to San Diego with him. I wanted to start new.
I sat in the sand, pulling my knees to my chin and watching the tide rise while the moon shone on the black water. I dug my feet in the wet sand, letting the water crash over my ankles when the waves rolled in. I couldn't even begin to describe how horrible a summer this had been. One bad thing after another. The misfortune just wouldn't stop. If there was a god, he surely didn't like me.
I heard footsteps shuffling in the sand behind me, but I didn't look back. I'd known who had come to me.
Niko sat beside me, mimicking my pose as he raised his knees to his chest.
"I know you must hate them," he said to me, "but you've got to realize that they only want what's best for you."
"You want what's best for me too," I stated. I didn't need to ask.
"You know I do. They also want what's best for me too, you know."
"I wouldn't be a burden, I promise," I said, turning to him. I was pleading now. "I'd be really good. I'd help clean up, do laundry, learn to cook so I can make dinner. I'd help out around the gallery too. I'd do really well in school and always get good grades. I wouldn't cause you any trouble, I promise."
Niko laughed and ruffled my hair.
"You're ridiculous," he said. "And you always do well in school anyway, don't you? Mom and Dad used to give you money for your grades, even! All those straight A's … you're bound to get into an Ivy League when you graduate high school."
"Ivy League?" I asked, unsure of what he meant.
"They're very prestigious colleges. Only the best of the best get into Ivy League schools," he explained.
"But aside from that," he continued, "you don't have to promise me anything. I already know you're a good kid, and I would love nothing more than for you to come with me. After all, we need each other."
I looked back out into the ocean, heart sinking down to my stomach. I couldn't help the tears pooling at my eyes and I mentally cursed myself for being such a baby as I slapped my tears away.
"Will you visit me?" I asked softly. Niko chuckled and held me close to him.
"You knucklehead," he laughed. "I won't need to."
I pulled away and looked at him with wide eyes. My heart was pounding in my chest.
"What?" His smile widened.
"You're coming with me!"
Suddenly, everything changed, but for the better. Though Gran and Gramps weren't keen on the idea, they agreed to let Niko legally adopt me as my primary guardian. It was a long process, but at least it was final. Niko would never leave me again, and that was exactly how I wanted it to be.
Some things didn't change, though. Niko was still one of the only people I opened up to about anything and everything, and he always made time for me. The death of my parents stayed fresh for a long time, and I had a hard time talking to anyone. I managed to make only a couple of really good friends, and even then that seemed difficult for me. It was a while before they knew why I was the way I was, but they respected that, which I was grateful for. Slowly, things were getting better, until one summer I had met someone new. And as cliché as it sounds, he wasn't like anyone else I knew. I thought maybe, just maybe, he'd help me let go of the pain that I carried with me for seven years too long.