Inspired by Alice in Wonderland
Miranda Brooks grew up in the stacks of her eccentric uncle Billy’s bookstore, solving the inventive scavenger hunts he created just for her. But on Miranda’s 12th birthday, Billy has a mysterious falling-out with her mother and suddenly disappears from Miranda’s life. She doesn’t hear about him again until 16 years later when she receives unexpected news: Billy has died and left her Prospero Books, which is teetering on bankruptcy, and one final scavenger hunt.
The last time I saw my uncle, he bought me a dog. A goldenretriever puppy with sad eyes and a heart-shaped nose. I didn’thave her long enough to give her a name. One moment she wasrunning around my living room with the promise of many adventures together and the next she was gone. It was the sameway with Uncle Billy. One moment he was waving goodbye ashe reversed out of my driveway. Then I never saw him again.
Mom never wanted a dog. I’d begged her, promising to walkthe dog every day, to scrub the living room rug after any accidents, but Mom was insistent. It wasn’t about the rug, or thecountless shoes the dog would ruin. It wasn’t about love, either.She had no doubt I would love the dog. Of course, she wouldlove it, too, but a pet, like any relationship, was about accountability, not love. I was on the brink of my teenage years, ofboys and friends who mattered more than allowance, more thandogs, more than family. We’d been over it. No dog. I knewthis. Uncle Billy knew this, too.
The dog was a birthday present. For my twelfth birthday, myparents had rented out an arcade and batting cages in CulverCity.It was the beginning of 1998. We always celebrated in January,since I was born so close to the end of the year.
My friends crowded behind the plate, cheering as I nudgedthe batting helmet out of my face and timidly stepped intothe cage. Dad offered me last-minute advice to keep my feetshoulder-distance apart, my right elbow up. I expected Momto remind me to be careful, but she was at the concession stand,making a phone call.
All right, Miranda, you can do this, Dad said after a swing and amiss. Mom appeared at his side and whispered something intohis ear. I swung at the next pitch once it had already sped pastthe plate. You should know by now not to count on him, Dad said toMom.Miranda, he called tome.Keep your eyes open.
He promised he’d be here, I heard Mom whisper.
Let’s not get into this now, he whispered back.
He shouldn’t make promises if he isn’t going to keep them.
Suze, not now.
I tried to focus on my cocked elbow, my loose knees, justas Dad had taught me, but their hushed tones distracted me.There was only one person who made them whisper like that.I hated when they talked about Billy that way, like they weretrying to protect me from him, like he was someone I neededto be shielded from. I turned away from the pitching machine,toward my parents. They were leaning against the cage, staring each other down.
The impact sounded before I felt it. An incredibly loud clapand then my shoulder ignited. I screamed, falling to the ground.Two more balls whizzed by my head. Dad shouted for someoneto turn off the machine as he and Mom raced into the cage.
Sweetheart, are you okay?Mom pulled the helmet off my headand brushed the sweaty hair off my forehead. The pain hadknocked the wind out of me. I panted on the cold cementfloor, unable to respond. Miranda, talk to me, she said a littletoo frantically.
I’m okay, I said between exerted breaths. I think I just needsome cake.
Normally, this would have made them laugh, but they continued to cast concerned and disappointed looks at each otheras if the welt rising on my shoulder was somehow Billy’s fault,too. Mom huffed at Dad, then stormed off to the concessionstand to collect my birthday cake.
Is Mom okay? I asked Dad as we watched her talk to the teenager behind the counter.
Nothing a little cake can’t fix, Dad said, ruffling my hair.
After the cake was devoured and the bag of ice Mom mademe hold on my shoulder had melted down the front of myT-shirt, I joined my friends in the arcade, ignoring the sharppains that shot down my arm as I rolled the skee-ball up itsnarrow lane. Between rolls, I glanced over at my parents. Theywere cleaning up the remains of my birthday cake, Mom furiously scrubbing the plastic tablecloth until Dad pulled heraway and held her in his arms. He stroked her hair as he whispered into her ear. I couldn’t understand why she was so upset.Billy often didn’t show up when he said he would. In fact, Icouldn’t even remember the last time he’d been to one of mybirthday parties. If an earthquake hit in Japan or Italy, he’d beon the first plane out with the other seismologists, engineers,sociologists. He didn’t usually have time to let us know he wasleaving. Instead of disappointment, I felt pride. My uncle wasimportant. My uncle saved lives. Mom taught me to see himthis way. After a recital or debate, a Sunday barbecue without Billy, she would tell me, Your uncle wants to be here, but he’smaking the world a safer place. He was my superhero. CaptainBilly, who saved the world not with superhuman powers butwith a superior brain. Even when I was too old to believe insuperheroes, I still believed in Billy. I thought Mom believedin him, too, yet there she was, crying over a birthday party.
My best friend, Joanie, and I went to bed early thatnight. I was half-asleep and hazy, but the ringing doorbell was real, the tiptoes downstairs, the whispers. I slipped out of bed,into the hall where I saw Mom at the front door below, hersatin bathrobe pulled snugly around her small frame. Billy stoodoutside on the porch.
I started to run toward the stairs, ready to pounce on Billy. Iwas getting too big to jump on him, yet I thought even whenI was an adult I would greet him that way, breaking his backwith my love for him. When I got to the top of the stairs, Mom’swords startled me.
What the fuck is wrong with you? It’s 3:00 a.m. I froze. Momrarely raised her voice. She never cursed. You’ve got some nerve,showing up in the middle of the night and blaming me. Some fuckingnerve.
I stood paralyzed at the top of the banister. Her anger wasglorious, unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
You made things this way. She tried to keep her voice down.You hear me? This was your choice. Don’t you dare blame me.
Billy turned away as Mom continued to yell about the hour,telling him he was an asshole and something called a narcissistand other names I didn’t understand. When he spotted me atthe top of the stairs, his cheeks were red, his eyes were glassy.Mom followed his gaze to me. Her cheeks were pale and shesuddenly seemed very old. I looked between their expressivefaces. They weren’t fighting about my birthday. Something elsehad happened.
Honey, go back to bed, Mom called to me. When I stalled, sheadded, Please.
I darted back to my room, disturbed and inexplicably embarrassed by what I’d seen.
Joanie tossed when she heard me crawl into bed beside her.
What time is it?It’s after three.
Why is someone coming over so late?
I don’t know.
Joanie rolled over, mumbling incoherently. I couldn’t fallback to sleep. Mom’s words raced through my brain—somefucking nerve and asshole and don’t you dare blame me. This wasyour choice. Sunlight bled through the curtains as dawn becamemorning. I’d stayed up all night, and I still couldn’t figure outwhat choice Billy had made, what he’d blamed on Mom, whatI had witnessed at our front door.
Later that morning, Dad took Joanie and me for pancakes.
Where’s Mom? I asked Dad as we got into his car.
She’s sleeping in. Mom never slept past seven, but Dad’s tonediscouraged further questions.
When we returned from breakfast Mom was still in her satinrobe, her auburn hair tangled around her face as she foldedchocolate chips into batter. Normally, singing was an essentialingredient in any recipe. Mom’s mellifluous voice would weaveits way into a pie or lasagna, making the cherries or the tomatoes sweeter. As she continued to flip the cookie dough, overand over again, the kitchen was painfully silent.
She looked up when she heard me in the doorway. Her eyeswere puffy, her cheeks still colorless. How was breakfast?
Dad let us get three different kinds of pancakes.
Did he? She returned her attention on the bowl of cookiedough. That was nice of him. I wanted her to start singing, tobreak her own trance. She continued to watch the dough thudagainst the sides of the mixing bowl, and I wondered if thecookies would taste as good without her secret ingredient.
We didn’t hear from Billy for a few weeks, not until hestopped by to take me out for my birthday. I had no idea wherewe were going. That was the fun of a day with Billy. Whateveractivities I would have proposed—an afternoon at the pier or Six Flags—wouldn’t have been half as exciting as whatever adventure he had in store for us.
The labored breaths of Billy’s old BMW echoed through thehouse. I waited for the familiar sounds of his car door shutting,of Mom rushing to meet him at the front door, peppering himwith questions. Where were we going? Would there be otherchildren? Were there cliff edges or high distances I could fallfrom? Seat belts? Life jackets?She never seemed completely satisfied with his answers.
That afternoon,Billy honked his horn and Mom called, Billy’shere, from behind her closed bedroom door.
Don’t you want you say hi? I shouted to her.
Not today, she shouted back.
I hesitated before I left the house. Mom’s bedroom door remained closed. It didn’t matter, anyway. Billy didn’t ring thebell, just waited in the car with the engine still running.
There’s my favorite girl, Billy said as I hopped into the car.He always called me that, his favorite girl. It would have embarrassed me if my parents said anything so sappy. With Billy,it made me feel like the kid I still wanted to be but knew attwelve was no longer cool. We turned out of the driveway, andmy house retreated into the distance. I wondered if Mom waswatching us leave from her bedroom window.
Boy, do I have a surprise for you.Billy shot me one of his oversized smiles. I searched his face for any of the strain I’d seen onMom’s. Billy looked content, giddy.
A surprise? Although I never would have admitted it to Joanie,a surprise from Billy was still a greater thrill than stealing lipstick from the drugstore, a better rush than driving too fastdown Highway 1 with Joanie’s older sisters.
Hey,reach in there for me. Billy pointed toward the glove compartment where a black envelope rested on top of his car registration. It was the right size to hold tickets to Universal Studiosor a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, but Billy never would have given me a present so straightforwardly. There’d be no fun init. I had to earn his gifts through solving his clues.
I tore open the envelope and read the riddle aloud. My flag isred, white and blue, though I’m not a land you call home. You mightthink it a lozh’—I didn’t know how to pronounce that word—but at my closest point, I’m two and a half miles from American soil.
France? I guessed. Billy looked dubiously at me. Canada?
Canada’s flag is only red and white. You’re getting warmer, or shouldI say colder, much, much colder.
Russia? I asked uncertainly.
Vernvy! he said in his best Russian accent.
You’re taking me to Russia? Was there an earthquake? I picturedBilly and me in shearling hats, trekking through snow to survey the damage to a remote town.
I think your mom would have my head for that,Billy said.
With the mention of Mom, Billy and I quieted. I knew wewere both remembering how our eyes had locked while hefought with Mom in the middle of the night.
Is everything okay with you and Mom?
Nothing for you to worry about. He paused, began to say something, then paused again before rolling to a stop outside abuilding on Venice Boulevard that looked condemned. Now,let’s see about that clue.
This is where we’re going? I asked, counting the storefront’sboarded-up windows. Usually, his adventures involved stateparks and mountaintops, secluded beaches. Something in thatbuilding has to do with Russia?
Vernvy! He hopped out of the car and bowed, motioningme toward the metal front door. It was unlocked, and he heldit open for me.
Are we allowed to be here? I hesitated, peeking behind him intothe dark interior. It looks closed.
It’s not open today, but the manager owes me a favor. It’s alwaysmore fun to have a museum to yourself, don’t you think? He walked inside and waved me to follow. Trust me, he called. Trust me.His mantra. And I always did.
The front room was dimly lit. Glass cases lined the austerewalls. Opera played softly from hidden speakers. The case beside the door was filled with taxidermy bats, moles and othersmall rodents. The next case held shimmering gemstones.
It’s modeled off nineteeth-century oddity museums,Billy explained.Science, art and nature displayed together for the well-rounded mind.
A wunderkammer, if you will.A wunderkammer. I tested the word in my mouth, waitingfor its magic to hit me. Billy’s eyes drifted toward a case in thefar corner of the room. It was filled with miniature figurines—painted elephants, clowns, a ringmaster, acrobats. The case waslabeled The Russian Circus.
I peeked inside the glass, searching for something a miss, a figurine that didn’t belong, a riddle scribbled across the circus tent.Sure enough, the next clue was taped to the back of the case.
Like the fabric of my name, my title is lowly yet noble.
I’m named not for the rough wool I bear but the origin
of a river in Northumberland.
Billy laughed when he saw the bewildered look on my face.He rubbed my head and guided me into the next room. It wasas overwhelming as the first room was sparse. The walls werecluttered with detailed renderings of dogs in garish frames.There was one portrait of a person, a faded painting of a manwith a beard and top hat called Baron Tweedmouth. Beside hisportrait, a placard offered a brief history of the lord, a Scottishbusinessman and member of the House of Commons.
Rumor has it, Billy said, in 1858 Lord Tweedmouth went to a Russian circus where he saw this fantastic performance by Russian sheepdogs. After the show, he made an offer to buy a pair of dogs, but theringmaster refused to separate the troupe. So,story goes, Tweedmouthbought the whole lot and bred those sheepdogs to create the retriever. Billy gestured toward a filing cabinet beside the portrait. Openit. It’s part of the exhibit. I tore through reproductions of BaronTweedmouth’s papers, fairly certain where this was headed. Iloved that about Billy’s adventures. Even though I always figured out where the quest was going before we got there, herefused to let me rush through the lesson. Billy stopped mewhen I discarded a copy of the baron’s breeding records. Historians found those records in the 1950s and realized the Russian circuswas a myth. Billy pointed to a description of a retriever’s keennose. See here? Retrievers were already used for tracking before 1858,so Lord Tweedmouth couldn’t have bred Russian sheep dogs to createthe retriever. His finger continued down the page, tracing thelineage of Tweedmouth’s dogs.Instead, he bred the retrievers healready owned to produce the perfect hunting companion.
Does this mean what I think it means? I danced like I had to pee.
Depends on what you think it means.
I flipped over the breeding records and found the next cluewritten on the back.
Don’t call me a beauty, a goddess, the prettiest of thelot.
You might consider these pet names the same butonly one has a certain ring to it.
I examined each portrait until I located a tweed water spanielnamed Belle. Beside her portrait, a plaque explained that Bellewas bred with Nous, a yellow retriever, to create the goldenretriever.
No way, I shouted. No freaking way. I jumped up and down, hugging Billy, screaming unintelligibly.
Not so fast, Billy cautioned. You have to find her first.
I searched the crowded room for an envelope that may havecontained the next clue. On the far wall, a photograph of amodern golden retriever hung between its ancestors. Its simpleblack frame pulled away from the wall. I slid my hand into the empty space, removing an index card. It listed an address onCulver Boulevard.
Outside, I didn’t wait for my eyes to adjust to the light, justtook off down Venice past other storefronts that looked condemned and auto-body shops.
Miranda, slow down, Billy shouted, panting as he raced tocatch up with me.
At the light at Culver and Venice, I jogged in place like arunner trying to keep her heart rate up. A dog, a dog, a dog, adog, I said. The light changed and I sprinted across the street.
Billy’s laughter trailed me as we raced past the historic hotel,the restaurants that lined Culver Boulevard. The address was afew blocks down, a pet shop that sold parakeets.
The owner also breeds goldens, Billy explained as he caught hisbreath.
Inside, the store smelled faintly of nuts. A large, balding manstood behind the counter reading the paper. When he saw us, hedisappeared below the register, returning with a golden retrieverpuppy. I carefully lifted the dog from his hands. The puppy’s bodywas warm and emitted a sweet barnyard scent. She was drowsyat first. As I nestled her against my chest and rubbed my cheeksacross her silky fur,she roused to life, offering me sticky kisses.I did my best to keep hold of her, but she was too excited forthe embrace. The storeowner suggested I let her run around thestore. We watched her sniff the dusty corners and pounce at themetal bases of the birdcages. Billy rested his arm on my shoulders,and I was ready to tell him that he was positively, absolutely myfavorite person in the world, then I remembered Mom.
You talked toMom? She’s okay with this?
Billy lifted the dog off the floor, laughing as she lunged athis face. How could your mom say no to this face?
Seriously, UncleBilly. She said I can’t get a dog.
You want a dog, don’t you?
More than anything.
Billy put the dog on the floor and put his arm around me.Sometimes your mom needs a little help seeing things clearly. Once shesees how much you love this dog, no way she’ll say no. Trust me, okay?
Even as he said it—Trust me—I knew I shouldn’t. Mom wasnever going to let me keep the dog. But I wanted to believe inthe power of Billy, the magic that everything would turn outfine simply because he promised it would. And I wanted Momto believe in it, too.
Joanie’s going to be so jealous, I gloated on the drivehome. A puppy. A freaking puppy. Uncle Billy, this is the best birthday present ever.
We pulled up outside my house, and Billy held the puppy asI lugged the dog supplies out of the back seat. When I went tocollect the dog, he didn’t let go. He rubbed behind her ears,suddenly serious. I’m sorry you had to see that, between me andyour mom.
It’s no big deal, I said uncertainly.
It is a big deal, he asserted. The dog squirmed in his hands.
Things with me and your mom, whatever happens, I just want you toknow it isn’t your fault. I tried to take the puppy, to run into thehouse so Billy would stop talking, but his grip was too firm. Ithadn’t occurred to me that anything was my fault until he saidthat.Just keep her out of your mom’s shoes, and your mom won’t be ableto resist her. Billy handed me the dog. I’ll see you soon, and I decided to trust those words more than the ominous ones that preceded them. We would see Billy soon. Everything would be fine.
Mom, I screamed asIran inside. Mom, come quick, you won’tbelieve what Billy got me.
Mom tore open her bedroom door and raced into the hallwayabove the foyer. She was in her robe. Dark circles engulfed hereyes. Jesus, Miranda. She put her hand on her chest. You frightened me. I thought something was wrong.
Look. I held the dog toward her.
Stillness immobilized her face as she looked between me andthe yelping puppy. You can’t keep that. Mom raced downstairsand lifted the puppy from my hands. We’re taking this back immediately.
You haven’t even met her yet.The dog licked Mom’s face. See,she’s sweet?
You know it’s not about that, Mom said. The puppy continued to bark.
I just thought once you saw her you’d change your mind.
Miranda, we’ve been over this. We’re all too busy to take care of adog.I’ll take care of her by myself. You won’t have to do anything.
It’s too much responsibility, she said.
I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t need you to tell me what’s too muchresponsibility. My tone shocked us both. Mom waited for meto calm down. When it became clear she wouldn’t engage,I stomped upstairs, screaming, You won’t let me do anything. Iknew I was being dramatic, prematurely acting the temperamental teenager, but I slammed the door so hard my bedroomfloor shook.
Mom threw open the door.Don’t you slam this door.Her voicewas calm, her golden eyes clear and furious. You broke the rules.You knew you weren’t allowed to get a dog. You do not get to throwa tantrum.
I knew she was right, but I was at that age where it didn’tmatter if she was right, not if it meant I couldn’t do what Iwanted.
Where’s the dog? I said instead. She was no longer holding it.
Crap. Mom raced downstairs and cooed to the puppy. Miranda,she called up to me, where’d Billy take you to get this dog?
I’m not telling you, I yelled. When she didn’t shout back, I admitted, A pet shop in Culver City. I didn’t tell her it was a birdstore.
Once Mom had left with the puppy, I called Billy to tell him what had happened. He didn’t answer his car phone, so I triedhim at home. You won’t believe it, I screamed into his machine. Mom made me return the dog. She’s such a bitch. After I hung up,Ifelt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I’d never called Moma bitch before. I said it again to our empty house. You’re sucha bitch. I kept saying it, hoping it might feel fair. It never did.
All afternoon, I stayed in my room. I heard Mom come home.I heard Dad return from the tennis club. I heard them talkingin the kitchen. I knew she was telling him what had happened,that Dad would come upstairs and act the mediator.
At six-thirty, Dad knocked on my door.
I’m not hungry.
Dad opened the door and sat on the bed beside me. I knowyou’re upset. We’ve been over this. It isn’t the right time to get a dog.
That’s bull—Dad shot me a look. It’s never going to be the righttime.
Maybe so. You have to respect that, Mimi. We’re a family. We makedecisions together. Why don’t you come downstairs. We’ll have a nicedinner. I think that will be best for everyone. Dad nodded approvinglyat me, a gesture I knew well. I would make the right decision.I wouldn’t disappoint him.
At the table, I watched Mom poke her chicken breast without taking a bite, uncertain what I should say to her. I wantedto apologize for calling her a bitch even if she hadn’t heard me.
Instead, Mom broke the silence. I’m sorry we fought. Billyshouldn’t have put you in that position.That wasn’t fair of him.
I stabbed a bite of chicken and threw it into my mouth, chewingaggressively. So this was how she wanted to play it. It wasn’t myfault. It sure wasn’t her fault, either.It was all Billy. He had chosento buy me the dog, just like he had chosen to do whatever it wasshe’d blamed on him the night of my birthday party.
So,this wasBilly’s choice,too? You’re saying I shouldn’t blame you?I’ll never forget the wounded expression on Mom’s face as she realized I was referring to the fight I’d overheard, that I wasusing her words against her.
It doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault, Dad said. We can all takeresponsibility for our actions.
I’m sorry I slammed the door, I said, but the damage was done.Mom nodded, accepting my apology. Accepting what hadshifted over that dinner.
Later that night,I called Billy again.
Me and Mom are done, I shouted into his machine. I’m goingto stay mad at her forever.
When Billy didn’t return my message, I figured he probably didn’t want to risk Mom answering if he called me back.I tried him again the next day. He didn’t pick up, so I told hismachine, I’m going to call you tomorrow at exactly 4:15. Make sureyou’re home, so we can talk. The following afternoon, he stillwasn’t there. The only other place I knew to reach him was atProspero Books.
In addition to his work with earthquakes, Billy was the ownerof a neighborhood bookstore, not in his neighborhood in Pasadena, but in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. Billy called seismologyhis real job, Prospero Books his fun job. When I asked himwhy he didn’t make his fun job his real job, he said he had aresponsibility to protect people because he knew how to learnfrom earthquakes what others couldn’t.
On afternoons when he hadn’t planned a scavenger hunt, hewould take me to Prospero Books, and the store was its ownkind of adventure. We’d walk through the maze of shelves, andBilly would tell me to pick a book, any book, but to choosewisely for I would only get one. It was there I discovered Anneof Green Gables, Mary Lennox and, more recently, Kristy,Claudia, Stacey and their friends in the baby-sitters club.A male voice that wasn’t my uncle’s answered the phone.Prospero Books, where books are prized above dukedom.
It was probably the manager, Lee, but I didn’t want to getinto a whole conversation with him about how he couldn’t believe that I still hadn’t read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Is Billy there?
I think he’s at the lab. He’s planning to stop by on Sunday.CanI take a message?
I hung up before Lee realized it was me.
Sunday was still five days away. I couldn’t wait that long, soI tried Billy’s house again that night, once Mom had gone tobed and Dad was in the living room watching the nightly news.Billy? It’s your favorite girl, I said pathetically into his machine.Are you getting my messages? I really need to talk to you.
After a few more messages, I started to panic.
I tried to keep the dog, I pleaded into his machine. You have tobelieve me.I did everything I could. You know Mom. You know howshe is. Please don’t be mad at me. Just call me back. He didn’t returnmy calls, and by the weekend, I knew calling him again waspointless. Billy’s silence spoke louder than words. He wouldn’tbe coming over for Sunday barbecues, not any time soon. Hewouldn’t be picking me up for any more adventures.
I decided I needed to see him in person. He couldn’t look mein the eye and banish me from his life.I knew where he was goingto be on Sunday. I knew I could find him at Prospero Books.
Joanie helped me plot the route across the city. SilverLake may as well have been San Francisco, it took so manyfreeways to get there. The bus took the residential route, SantaMonica Boulevard all the way until it ended at Sunset Junction.No transfers necessary. If everything went smoothly, it wouldtake an hour and a half.
I told Mom I was staying at Joanie’s where the supervisionconsisted of her teenage sisters sequestered in their rooms. I’dgone there enough times without anything terrible happening that Mom had stopped calling Joanie’s mother to make sureshe was home.
Before I mounted the bus steps, Joanie smothered me in a hug.You’re sure you’ll be okay?Remember, when the bus passes Vermont,you have two more stops.
Thanks, Mom, I said sarcastically, and she stuck her tongueout at me.
The bus wasn’t as crowded as I’d expected. I found an emptyrow and sat by the window.Traffic was slow along Santa MonicaBoulevard as we passed BeverlyHills into West Hollywood andthe grimier blocks of Hollywood. At Hyperion, I got off thebus and headed toward the sign at Sunset Junction, pretendingI was the daughter of an artist or musician, the type of kid whogrew up in Silver Lake. Prospero stood tall on the sign abovethe bookstore, staff in his right hand, a book in his left, purplecape and white hair windblown behind him. I stopped outsidethe storefront, looking through the picture window filled withbooks. Jitters rose in my stomach, same as every time I saw thestore’s lime-green walls. I had a relationship to this space thatno one else had, even if they came here every week, every day.Billy didn’t tell anyone else to pick a book, any book, free ofcharge, as though the books were waiting just for them. I threwopen the door, certain I would see Billy and everything wouldbe fine.
Prospero Books wasn’t a large store, but with high ceilingsand well-spaced shelves, it seemed vast, even spacious. It had aunique smell, different from Billy’s home in Pasadena, unlikeany other bookstore. The earthiness of freshly cut paper mixedwith the white musk perfume of the pretty girls who frequentedthe store and a trace of coffee that was almost floral.
Miranda? Lee said when he noticed me by the door. What anice surprise. Is Billy with you?
I thought he was here. I didn’t see Billy’s leather satchel beneath the desk chair or his mug with the San Andreas Fault markingCalifornia like a scar on one of the tables in the café.
I could feel Lee watching me. I didn’t meet his eye becauseI already knew what he was going to say.
I’m sure he’s on his way, Lee said. Let me go call him.
Lee told the woman working in the café to get me whateverI wanted. She winked as she handed me an enormous chocolatechip cookie, like it was some sort of secret between us. I tookthe cookie to a table in the far corner and watched Lee behindthe front desk, talking on the telephone. He glanced up andfound me watching him, a conflicted look contorting his face.
Billy can’t come in today, he said when he sat down at my table.He told me to call your mother. She’s on her way.
You called my mom?The lies raced through my brain. I wantedto pick up the latest Baby-Sitters Club. Dad said I could come.They were transparent lies that would only make Mom angrier. I’d told her I was at Joanie’s, then taken the bus to SilverLake when I wasn’t even allowed to take the bus within ourneighborhood. I’d gone to see my uncle even though I knewthey were in a fight. I’d totally and completely disobeyed her.I was beyond dead. Grounded for eternity. But that wasn’t theworst of it. What truly wrecked me was that Billy didn’t wantto see me. I fought back tears. I was twelve, which was almosta teenager, which was almost an adult. I was too old to cry.
Hey now,Lee said when he noticed I was crying. What do yousay you and me pick out a book?Would you like that?
Okay, I said even though I didn’t want to pick a book, anybook, not with Lee. I followed him to the teen fiction sectionwhere the spines were bright, the titles blurred from my tears.Lee showed me a few thrillers—R. L. Stine and ChristopherPike, not the type of books he normally tried to get me to read.I shook my head at every offer. I had thought that by the timeI graduated high school I would have read every book in Prospero Books. Now I didn’t want to read any of them ever again.
Lee had to ring up a customer, so I returned to my chocolatechip cookie, no book in hand. I broke the cookie into pieces,then I broke the pieces into pieces, too upset to eat.
The tables around me emptied and repopulated.Lee remainedbehind the front desk. Every once in a while, he stood andchecked the café to make sure I was still there. The sky beganto darken and I started to worry Mom was so mad she’d decided not to get me.
What felt like hours later, the bell on the door chimed. Ilooked up to find Mom scanning the crowded tables. Reliefwashed over her face as she spotted me. When our eyes locked,I forgot I was mad at her and ran into her arms. I took in herwarmth, the sweet lilac smell of her skin, feeling like a childand not caring who saw.
I’m so sorry.
She kissed my forehead. I’m just glad you’re okay.
I understood then that my plan had been doomed from thestart. Even if Billy had been at Prospero Books, he’d made hischoice not to call me back. Here I was blaming Mom when shewas the one to come to my rescue, not Billy.
Along the I-10, I could tell Mom wanted to tell me allthe ways I’d been stupid, how Silver Lake was dangerous andsomething could have gone terribly wrong. Instead, she asked,What were you hoping would happen if Billy was there? She didn’tsound mad, simply curious.
I don’t know, I admitted. I want you guys to make up.
It’s not always that easy with adults.
Mom’s hands gripped the steering wheel. Billy and I have acomplicated relationship.
What are you talking about?What happened when I saw you guysfighting?
Her face softened as she turned her attention away from theroad toward me. It’s too difficult to explain.
Will you try? I held my breath. This was Mom’s chance to tellme her side of their fight. I was willing to believe anything shesaid about Billy, no matter how terrible.
Mom’s eyes narrowed as if she was having difficulty seeingthe traffic ahead.
You’re too young to understand. She said this gently, but it wouldhave been better if her words were harsh, if she’d intendedthem to bruise rather than to protect me. I didn’t want to beprotected.
Will you work it out? I asked.
I honestly don’t know, she said.
She did know. Whatever had passed between her and Billy,it had been too much for them to forgive. They’d said thingsthey couldn’t unsay. They lost each other in that fight. Ormaybe they’d been lost to each other for years. I had no ideaanymore. One thing I did know, what I felt acutely, was thatBilly had lost me. I didn’t want to be his favorite girl. I didn’twant to hear why he’d sent Mom to Prospero Books, why hehadn’t met me himself. Even if he turned up next Sunday, ourrelationship would never be the same.
Turns out it didn’t matter what I wanted because Billy didn’tstop by our house the following Sunday or the one after that.He didn’t pick me up for an afternoon at Prospero Books. Hedidn’t take me on any more adventures.
For months after he disappeared, I searched for signs of hisimminent return. Instead of clues that would lead me to him,I found markers of his absence. The cloisonné plates Billy hadbought us in Beijing were no longer displayed in the livingroom. The photograph of Billy and me at the aquarium wasreplaced with one of Dad pushing me on a swing. The cupcakesfrom the Cuban bakery in Glendale that Billy always broughtover, no longer dessert at our Sunday barbecues.
By the time I reached high school, I stopped looking forBilly. He became a person of my family’s past, someone I virtually forgot. When he finally returned, I hadn’t thought abouthim in at least a decade. And at that point he was already dead.
But Billy’s death wasn’t the end of our story. It was only thebeginning
"It’s clear that Amy Meyerson is a lover of books due to the layers upon layers of great literature featured throughout the story. Part mystery and part drama, Meyerson uses a complex family dynamic in “The Bookshop of Yesterdays” to spotlight the importance of truth and our need for forgiveness." - The Washington Post
“Meyerson writes beautifully, with lush descriptions of LA and believable interactions between characters. Prospero Books is warm, inviting, and populated with lovably quirky employees readers will want to get to know. A lovely look at loss, family, and the comfort found in a good bookstore.” -Kirkus Reviews
"In her heartfelt debut, Meyerson brings readers on a scavenger hunt full of literary clues and family secrets…. Filled with quotes from and allusions to The Tempest, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Jane Eyre, Meyerson’s evocative novel is a fun homage to book lovers and the eclectic spirit of L.A." -Publisher's Weekly
(Pin Post to Pinterest)
If you would like to be a guest blogger, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Subscribe to Padmore Culture mailing list to receive updates on new arrivals, featured products and must reads
Are you leaving already? Sign up for new books and products, offers and bookish news.