I hummed, noncommittal, and he returned his attention to the sky.
“Yeah, I guess Roberta has everything she needs in Vermont,” he said.
I attempted to steer us back to safer territory. “Then why did you and Luther come to London?”
“Luther always wanted to go.”
“No wonder he’s so excited.”
It was Sam’s turn to hum and the silence swallowed us up. Sam was right, though. The more I looked for them, the more stars I saw. In a rare twist of nostalgia, I remembered lying in bed while Dad read Peter Pan to me, and we picked our favorite illustrated page. Mine was Peter Pan peeking in the window, seeing the Darling family embracing. Dad’s was Wendy and Peter fleeing in the night sky, sailing clear past Big Ben.
Out of the quiet, Sam’s voice rumbled over me. “Want to hear something crazy?”
Interest piqued, I turned my head to see him. “Sure.”
“I mean.” He exhaled slowly. “Really crazy.”
I paused. My world for the past ten years had been a bubble: the same five people orbiting around me in a tiny, tourist community. For nine months out of the year—all but the summer—we were Hicksville, California. We never heard any crazy stories—unless they were about my dad—and I rarely saw or heard those anymore, Nana ensured it.
“I think Luther is dying.”
Shock passed over me in a cold wave. “What?”
“He hasn’t said anything. I just . . . have this sense, you know?”
I barely knew Sam, barely knew Luther, so why did this possibility feel devastating? And what must that feel like? To sense someone close to you was dying?
The only person I knew who died was Safeway Bill. I didn’t even know his last name, just that he was a regular at the café and when he wasn’t sitting at the corner table getting free pie, he was sitting near the Safeway, panhandling and probably drunk. I think Bill lived in Guerneville even before Nana did; he looked about a hundred years old—leathered and with a tangled, messy beard. Tourists used to give him a wide berth when they passed, headed to Johnson’s Beach with their inflatable rafts and white sunscreened noses. Bill was the safest thing in that town; way safer than any of the frat boy tourists coming through, getting messy drunk and harassing people just minding their own business at the Rainbow Cattle Company on Friday nights. Nothing made me madder than seeing people look at Safeway Bill like he was going to stand up and turn violent.
Nana heard from Alan Cross, who works over at the post office, that they found Bill dead near the bus stop one morning. Nana showed her emotions in these tiny rare flashes. She stared out the window when Alan said this, and asked, “Now who’s gonna love my peach pie the way he did?”
But Luther was nothing like Bill. Luther was vibrant and alive and right upstairs. He worked and had a family and traveled. I’d never known anyone who looked healthy like Luther and just . . . died.
I was quiet too long, I think, because I heard Sam swallow in the dark. “Sorry, I guess I just needed to say it to someone.”
“No, of course,” I said in a burst.
“He’s not my grandfather by blood—I mean, I guess you figured that, since I’m white and he’s black. He’s Roberta’s second husband. They both raised me,” Sam said, and then reached back to tuck his hands behind his head again. “Him and Roberta.”
“Could you ask him?” I said. “Whether he’s sick?”
“He’ll tell me when he wants to tell me.”
God, this conversation was surreal. But it struck me that Sam wasn’t self-conscious about discussing this with someone he hardly knew. Maybe the fact that I was a stranger made it easier to talk about.
More words bubbled to the surface. “Would it just be you and Roberta, then? If . . .”
Sam took a deep breath, and I squeezed my eyes closed, wishing I could pull the words back in my mouth and swallow them down.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “That’s none of my business.”
“Neither is Luther being sick, but that didn’t stop me.” While my brain chewed on this, he shifted beside me, scratching his ear. “It’s just me, Luther, and Roberta, yeah.”
I nodded in the darkness.
“As the story goes,” Sam continued, “a young woman from the Ukraine named Danya Sirko came to the States and found herself in New York.” Sam paused, and when I looked over, I caught his wry smile aimed at the sky. “Danya became the nanny to Michael and Allison Brandis’s three young children in Manhattan.”
I could feel him turn to look at me, waiting.
“Okay . . . ?”
Sam hesitated meaningfully. “Incidentally, Danya was also very beautiful, and Michael was not a faithful man.”
Realization settled in. “Oh. Danya is your mom, not Allison? Michael is your dad?”
“Yeah. He’s Roberta’s son. Luther’s stepson.” He laughed. “I was the dirty little secret, until my mother was deported—by Michael, sort of. I was two, and he wanted nothing to do with me, but Danya wanted me to be raised here. Luther and Roberta took me in when they should have been retiring and taking it easy.”
My stomach bottomed out. There he was, spilling the soap opera version of his family’s history, and I wasn’t even allowed to talk about mine. It felt unfair.