“Hey, Vic! Let me get another cup of coffee before you kick me out,” Ray called across the diner to me. He was a regular, a trucker who stopped in every few days when he got back from his normal route between Miami and the rest of Florida. Tall with a balding head and a scruffy beard, he looked every bit the part, too. He was also the kind of guy you knew would be on your side if you ever needed him. That was nice on nights like this when it was just me, Tiffany, and Sam closing up the place.
The Clock used to be open twenty-four hours, but after years of only drunks coming in at three in the morning and ordering coffee, money got tight and Sam had to cut the hours. It’s a great dive of a diner, but not great enough to be featured on one of those Food Network shows that would draw the masses to this not-so-inviting part of town. The restaurant is literally in the shadow of Interstate 95 that runs past the old industrial part of Miami. It’s the part of town where you pray to God you don’t run out of gas.
“Anything for you, Ray. And you know I’m not kicking you out any time soon. You can stay as long as you want,” I told him. I’d prefer he stay to walk me, Tiffany, and Sam out like he usually did. With bull-dog jowls and white hair, Sam was the kindest seventy-year-old man. A Vietnam vet, his mind still knew what to do to defend himself, but his body just didn’t cooperate anymore. The Clock was his dream when he got back from the war. It was a real hot spot for a couple of decades before the big-name designers took the manufacturing of their work overseas. It all happened long before I was born, but everyone knew the story. Once they were gone from the area, there were no more patrons. A few of the regulars tried to still came by for breakfast on Saturdays, but that faded pretty quickly.
I grabbed the coffee pot and the pie stand and made my way down the counter to where Ray was sitting. “Want a piece of pie to go with your coffee?”
“Sure. Why not?” He smiled.
“Great! I’m having one, too. It’s my birthday pie,” I told him as I grabbed the can of whipped cream from the mini-cooler behind the counter.
“Was your birthday today, Vic?” he asked.
“Yep. I’m the big two-oh,” I laugh.
“Twenty. Wow. What are you doing here? You should have been out with your friends!” Ray cheered.
“That’s what I told her, but she refused to even let me take her out after work!” Tiffany called as she emerged from the storeroom. Next to my brother Gil, Tiffany was my best friend in the whole world. We met in high school and she stuck with me through everything that Gil and I had endured. At five foot ten, she was a good four inches taller than me. Tiffany was gorgeous with long blonde hair and blue eyes. I kept telling her she needed to walk around Aventura Mall and let some photographer or designer discover her, but she combated me with stories about how models with long dark hair and naturally tanned skin like mine were all the rage, even though I stood at a paltry five foot six.
“I’m not a woo-girl, Tiffany, and you know it,” I said. “I never have been, and I never will be.”
“Fine. Then let’s grab a pie and some ice cream from Sam and we’ll go back to your place and watch movies that make us both want and swear off a relationship.”
“That sounds like a great plan to me,” I replied. “Sam! Mind if we pilfer a pie and some ice cream for my birthday?” I shouted back to the kitchen.
“You can have anything you want, Vic!” Sam shouted back. “Happy birthday, doll!”
We closed up the diner twenty minutes later with Ray moseying out with us. He pulled a fifty-dollar bill from his wallet and told me to buy myself a special birthday gift. I tried to refuse but his insistence on it being a bonus tip was stronger than my resolve. I hugged him and we all got on our way.
When Tiff and I pulled up to my building, we did the usual scoping to make sure we weren’t going to be witness to any drug deals or prostitution busts. I didn’t worry about getting bothered by anyone because Gil and I had lived there long enough to have made nice with the neighbors. We all kept our noses out of each other’s business. Yeah, I lived in the crappiest part of town, but Gil and I liked it there for some strange reason. I was sure that would change … maybe … when he finished grad school and had time for a real full-time job. But for the time, we liked our third-floor walkup with bars on the windows and seven locks and bolts on the door.
We moved in there after our parents died in a plane crash almost five years earlier. Gil was living on campus at the time, but when he took me in he couldn’t stay there anymore. So, we took up residence at Chez Derelicte because that’s all Gil and I could afford on both our part-time work income. I offered to quit high school so I could work more, but Gil wouldn’t have it. Once I graduated Sam gave me more hours at the diner, so that helped. We got a settlement from the airline, but hadn’t really touched it except to fund Gil’s grad school and the overseas trip he was currently on for school. Mom and Dad would have wanted that. Gil said they would have wanted me to go to college, too, but I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to go to college, but I promised Gil when he finished his Master’s degree that we would revisit the subject. If all went as planned for him, I had a year to figure out what I want to do.
“Hey, Mrs. Vasquez.” I smiled to my neighbor as we walked past her. Mrs. Vasquez had been there longer than anyone else. She was a jolly shaped woman with a revolving door. Anyone who needed a place to stay had always been able to call on her. She helped three people on our floor with a place to sleep when they got evicted. She was kind and probably the only person in the building I really and truly trusted.
“Hello, mieja. How was your night?” she asked with a sweet smile and a pat on my arm.
“It was fine, thanks. Tiff and I are just going to spend the night watching sappy movies and eating pie. Want to join us? It’s apple!” I said, teetering the box in front of her.
“No, no. I’m watching my girlish figure!” She laughed and shook her generous rump at me and Tiffany. “But I have a little something for you, mieja.” Mrs. Vasquez walked quickly into her apartment, having left it ajar while we waited. When she returned she was holding a large pot of something that smelt heavenly. “I know how much you love it!”
“Oh my god! You made me red beans and rice! I love you!” Tiffany took the pot from her just as I wrapped an arm around Mrs. Vasquez’s neck. “You are the best!”
“Now you can eat like a queen for your birthday, mieja!”
“Thank you so much!” We kissed each other on the cheek and hugged again before she sent us into my apartment to get on with my birthday celebration. It wasn‘t going to be much of a party, but with red beans and rice, pie, and ice cream, it was certainly going to be better than I had originally thought.
I closed the door and locked all the locks as Tiffany walked to the kitchen. I threw my keys and purse on the thrift store table by the door before I moved through the living room and into the kitchen. The only nice thing in our apartment was our living room furniture. Our parents bought it just a few months before the accident and Gil and I had been religious about taking good care of it. We sold most everything else in the house, but Mom had fallen in love with the set and we weren’t about to send it off, so we scrimped and put it into storage until everything was settled for Gil and I to move.
We had strict rules about no eating on the couch, love seat, or chair as a way to honor Mom since that had always been her rule. Sometimes we would do pizza or popcorn but we’d always push the coffee table out and put a tablecloth on it.
Tiffany put the pot of deliciousness on the stove and turned it on low to warm while I put the pie on the counter and the ice cream in the freezer.
“Can I crash here tonight?” Tiffany asked.
“Of course. Why would tonight be any different than every other night?” I laughed. Tiffany still lived at home with her mom and her mom’s flavor of the month. Her mother had always been a magnet for freeloading drug addicts and alcoholics. In a room full of men, Tiffany’s mother had the uncanny ability to find the one guy with a rap sheet as long as your arm. Suffice it to say, Tiffany never liked being at home.
“You’re the best, Vic! You know, with Gil gone for the next three months, maybe I could just move in for a little while?” she asked hopefully. I didn’t blame her and thought it would actually be nice to know she would be here all the time.
“That’s cool with me,” I told her. “I didn’t think you found our couch that comfortable, but hey, it’s yours if you want it!”
“I could move into Gil’s room. His bed is so comfy!” she said with a dreamy smile.
“How would you know if Gil’s bed is comfortable?”
“I’ve heard his bed is comfortable?” she answered sheepishly.
“I don’t want to know,” I told her, making a mental note to beat Gil about the head and neck with his own shoe for fooling around with Tiffany. “It doesn’t matter anyway. No one goes in Gil’s room without his explicit permission and you know that.” More than being particular about his stuff, Gil has research and confidential information sometimes strewn about. Rather than put it away in a secure place, he would leave it out and forbid entry into his room. One time I made the mistake of doing some light dusting in his room. I accidentally knocked over a stack of journals he kept all his top-secret research and notes in and I swear I saw smoke shoot out of his ears like a cartoon character. It wasn’t like it was anything anyone would understand if they picked it up, but it was meaningful and top secret to Gil and that was all that mattered. Gil was an awesome guy and an amazing brother, but his extreme passion for the law sometimes trumped his ability to think rationally about the necessity of things like dusting.
“Fine.” Tiffany pretended to pout, but I knew she understood. “Did you hear from Chad today?”
Chad was my boyfriend of two years who Tiffany said was dragging his feet on making a real commitment to me. We were on-again, off-again and, really, that was fine with me. After Mom and Dad died I pretty well shut down and only let Gil near me. Tiffany broke the door down, which was how she had been able to sustain her position in my life. Chad seemed to always take off when things got uncomfortable or when he thought he’d found the next get-rich-quick scheme that was going to change his life. Gil liked to call that “reason number one why we will never tell Chad about the settlement we got from the airline.” If Chad had any idea how much money we had just sitting in a money market account he would have done everything he could to put a ring on my finger and get a piece of it.
The funny thing was, he could have all the money in the world if he would go to medical school like his ridiculously rich parents wanted him to. His father was a heart surgeon who invented some valve used in valve replacement surgery. Chad basically rejected his family three years earlier just to spite them. He lived off the money he had in his account for a year and then I was “lucky” enough to have waited on him at the diner for his first poor meal.
Tiffany and Sam were the only ones in my life who knew about the money. Tiffany, because she was there when it all went down, and Sam because when things got tough at the diner Gil and I offered to help bail him out. He wouldn’t take the money but our attempted act of generosity solidified us as family in Sam’s eyes.
“No. But I think he was working a construction job in Fort Lauderdale, so he’ll either get home super late, or just crash with a friend. He’ll call … maybe.” I walked to my room without engaging Tiffany further in discussion about Chad. Most days I could take him or leave him, so whether he called me on my birthday or not didn’t really matter all that much to me. “Here, these are yours,” I said, returning from my bedroom with a pair of pajamas for Tiffany. “Time to get our movie on!”
I dished out some of Mrs. Vaquez’s red beans and rice into two bowls and grabbed two bottles of generic soda from the fridge while Tiffany pushed the coffee table out and threw a tablecloth over it. We turned Netflix on and went straight to searching out sappy movies that carried no hope of ever becoming reality for either one of us, and brought back the question that frequently rang in my head: why on earth was I with Chad?
I mentally waved off the question again and moved on with my girls’ night. Chad wasn’t there and I wasn’t going to spend my birthday giving him more consideration than I had before.
By four in the morning we had eaten the whole apple pie and half the carton of ice cream, watched 27 Dresses and The Notebook, and spent the night sufficiently laughing and crying. Tiffany cozied herself up on the couch with a pillow and her favorite of my blankets, and I tucked myself into my queen-sized bed, saying goodnight to the picture of my parents next to my bed as I had since they died. It was the best birthday I’d had in a long time, even though Gil wasn’t there.
When I woke, it was the smell of coffee and bacon that aroused me. I stretched and twisted my body until I felt like I could reasonably sit up and walk to the bathroom to brush my teeth.
“What is all this?” I asked as I stumbled into the kitchen.
“This is your birthday breakfast,” Tiffany answered, handing me a cup of coffee. “Cream and three Splendas, right?”
I yawned and nodded sleepily as I took the first sip. “Mmmm … this is good. Thank you, Tiff. This was so sweet of you. What time is it?”
“It’s a little after two,” she answered. “I figured if we served breakfast all day at The Clock, then we could have breakfast at two in the afternoon if we wanted.”
“Good point. And when is breakfast ever a bad idea?” I chuckled.
Tiffany moved the eggs around the pan as she scrambled some shredded cheese into them. They smelled heavenly and I couldn’t wait to dive in. It reminded me of when I first came to live with Gil. He used to make breakfast for me every Sunday morning. He would read the paper and I would read my latest novel from the library. Those were hard times as we adjusted to our new life, but they were good times, too, as we developed an even closer bond.
“Do you want to go window shopping at Aventura today?” Tiffany asked. Window shopping was all we could do at Aventura, although Tiffany tried on occasion to get me to break out the emergency debit card attached to the money market account for some amazing sales from time to time. If I wouldn’t use the money for a non-crappy place to live, I certainly wasn’t going to use it for a great price on a pair of Prada shoes neither of us had anywhere to wear … even if they were totally badass grommet suede, peep-toe booties.
“Sure. And maybe we can have dinner at The Cheesecake Factory,” I suggested. “Gil usually takes me there for my birthday. It’s the one time a year I let him spend real money on me, but only because it’s worth every yummy bite!”
“It sounds like we’re going to have a perfect day!” Tiffany squealed.
I tied my hair in a messy bun on top of my head and took a quick shower. After Tiffany took her shower and pulled an outfit from the extra clothes she kept at my place, we got ourselves as swanky as we could get for the upscale mall. We transferred our things from our junkie purses to the nicest knock-offs we could afford at the flea market last summer and drove to the mall, parking my car in the far corner of the very top of the parking deck.
“Why do you always park all the way up here?” Tiffany moaned.
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. It was hard to explain the need I had to be in a place where I could take everything in. From that corner spot, there was no one behind or next to me. And when we walked to the elevator, everything was in front of me and I could be aware.
We walked the mall for a few hours, trying on clothes and being aloof with the store clerks. I used to feel badly about acting that way, but they seriously treated you like you’re Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman if you didn’t. Well, I suppose all the stores weren’t like that. We hit Hot Topic about an hour in, where Tiffany bought an ironic shirt that had some boy band on it.
We walked through one of those high-end stores with specialty lines of makeup and fragrances and, of course, Tiffany told the girl at the makeup counter it was my birthday.
“We normally only do partial makeup just to feature a few products from our line, but you have to let me do everything!” The girl, not much older than me, clapped her hands together in excitement while I rolled my eyes. Tiffany gave me a shove and told me to sit down and enjoy being taken care of.
“Fine, but I better not look like Tammy Faye when you’re done!” I laughed. I never dressed up or went any place really nice, so I rarely ever wore makeup. Chad never took me anywhere, really. Sometimes we went to a movie, but if we were going to eat we ate at the diner for free or I cooked for us at my place. I may have rolled my eyes as the makeup girl started, but it actually felt pretty good to close my eyes and let her wave her magic blush brush over me.
When my face had been thoroughly blended with foundation, my cheeks brushed with blush, and my eyes detailed with shadow, eyeliner, and mascara, I was turned around to face the big mirror.
“Oh my god, Vic! You look phenomenal!” Tiffany said with wide eyes.
I did. I looked more amazing that I ever had in my whole life. The best part was that I still looked like me. My naturally tan skin that had always confused people as to my nationality was lightly powdered with a faint rose-colored blush. And my brown eyes that I always thought were just plain brown seemed to pop with the eyeliner she used. To round out the picture, my long brown hair fell over my shoulders and framed my features in a way I had never seen before.
“It’s a shame I can’t afford to buy all of this,” I whispered. “Thank you for this. It was definitely a treat.” That inner voice that sounded an awful lot like Tiffany’s spoke up. You can afford it, Vic. You just choose not to access the funds that would make it possible. I just couldn’t use the money my parents had to die for to buy something as frivolous as makeup. In fact, I couldn’t imagine anything I would feel comfortable using the money for.
“We’re having our ‘Free Gift with Purchase’ right now. Maybe you can get just one or two things and then you’ll get a whole loot of goodies! I would suggest getting the foundation powder and the eyeliner. This one just really made your eyes pop!” The makeup girl held up the two items in my color palate with a huge grin on her face. “The free gift is eyeshadow, lip color, and our famous moisturizer. What do you think?”
I did the math in my head and realized I would be spending almost fifty dollars on makeup. I didn’t think I had spent fifty dollars on makeup in my whole life combined!
“C’mon, Vic. It’s your birthday,” Tiffany encouraged. “Ray gave you fifty bucks last night for your birthday. You should use it! And you’ll get all the other stuff for free.” She smiled at me warmly and I knew that this wasn’t about stuff. It was about Tiffany wanting me to do something nice for myself because I never did.
I twisted my mouth and looked down at my fidgeting fingers for a moment before I looked at myself in the mirror again. “Okay. I’ll get these two and then the rest in the free gift. I guess … I mean … It is my birthday and Ray told me to buy something nice for myself.”
Tiffany threw her arms around my shoulders from the side and pressed our ears together, forcing us to look at our reflection in the mirror. “You look unbelievable!”
“Whatever,” I said as I downplayed my beauty. I leaned my head in harder toward her and closed my eyes. I so truly treasured Tiffany. If anything ever happened to her or Gil, I don’t know what I’d do.
No sooner had we left the store than there were two guys following us. Both looked like total jerks. With dark hair and brown, Cuban skin, they both could have been attractive had they lost the gold chains and creepy thin mustaches, or whatever the fuzz on top of their lips qualified as.
“Hello, ladies,” the short one said. “How are you today?” His slight accent revealed itself with his Rs and the way he lingered at the end of the word today. “We couldn’t help but notice you and wondered if you were already under representation with a modeling agency. We’re with a premiere modeling agency from New York and we’re here scouting out beautiful women like yourselves.”
Oh, please. I looked at Tiffany and we both rolled our eyes.
I gave both of them the onceover before responding. “You’re modeling talent agents?” I asked, knowing both the truth and how they would answer. The taller one cocked his eyebrow up and nodded while the short, creepy one gave a resounding “Mmm-hmmm.” “Really? Who have you worked with?”
“Let’s just say that we’ve worked with one of the most famous Victoria’s Secret models out there,” the tall one lied.
“Wow. That’s impressive. Which one?” I challenged.
“Oh, you know … we’re not at liberty to share client information,” the short one muttered.
“Oh, sure. I totally get it. So you’ve got like, a card you can give us?” They both patted the sides of their linen pants before reaching into their matching jackets, pretending to look for something that all four of us knew wasn’t there. Like we would have given two complete strangers our phone numbers. “Go away. Neither of you is even carrying a wallet. I watched you fold a stack of ones under a twenty and shove it into the inside pocket of your jacket,” I said to Senor Creepy. “Both of you are wearing gold chains – and I use that term loosely – that are literally turning your necks green. And don’t get me started on the Bruno Magli’s you’re wearing from three seasons ago.”
I grabbed Tiffany and left the Mario Brothers standing in the middle of the mall completely befuddled by my response. Mission accomplished.
“How do you do that?” Tiffany asked. “I mean, how did you know that about their wallets and the money? Hell, I didn’t even see them before they approached us!”
“I’m just observant. They were standing in the small hallway where the restrooms are outside the store,” I told her. “I saw him fold the money and put it in his coat pocket. I could see the outline of the money, too.”
“And the shoes!”
“You can take credit for that. Having a shoe whore for a best friend has finally paid off!”
“I can’t help it. An evil fairy cursed me with expensive taste and no money.”
We walked and laughed and window shopped all the way to the restaurant. I knew it was dumb, but it felt kind of nice having a bag in my hand for the first time in a long time as I walked through the mall. It even made me think for a few moments that maybe enough time had passed and Gil and I could start using the money for things other than his school. Getting out of our apartment would be the first thing we would do, that’s for sure. The few moments passed and I came back to the same place I always landed any time I thought about it: how could I possibly profit from my parents’ death by using the settlement money from the airline?
Dinner with Tiffany was really fun. I hadn’t done a birthday dinner with her since before my parents died, so it was nice to celebrate with her again. I had kept it just me and Gil the last three birthdays because it seemed so strange not to have Mom and Dad there. This time, though, it felt like maybe a little baby step had been taken in beginning to be okay without them on special days.
“Oh, mieja!” Mrs. Vasquez swung her door open just as we passed upon returning home. “I forgot to give you something!” She reached inside her apartment and pulled a box through the dingy doorway. “This was delivered for you yesterday. There was no way I way I was going to leave it out here! I knew your brother wouldn’t forget your birthday.”
The postmark on the package was from Gil in Italy. He’d been there three months doing research with a university there on immigration. He was going to make a great international law attorney one day.
“I told him not to get me anything. He doesn’t listen,” I laughed as I tucked the shallow box under my arm.
“He loves you. You know he would never miss your birthday,” Tiffany said, echoing Mrs. Vasquez’s sentiment.
“He’s a great brother. I’m lucky to have him,” I smiled. “Thank you for rescuing the gift. I don’t know what’s in it, but I’m very thankful you kept it safe.” I kissed her on the cheek and we all disappeared into our apartments.
We entered my apartment and flung ourselves onto the couch, both stuffed beyond reason. It was getting late and I could see myself falling asleep in a food coma any second.
“Are you going to open Gil’s gift? I want to see what he sent you!”
“He said he would send me something from Italy since he wouldn’t be here for my birthday, but I told him not to worry about it.” I rolled my eyes as I tore the paper wrapped around the shallow box. “I have no idea what this could be.”
“Well it ain’t a pair of Prada shoes straight from Italy, that’s for sure!” Tiffany laughed.
I let the paper fall to the floor as I finally removed the last of the wrapping from the small gift box. I shimmied the lid off the box and found a leather-bound journal similar to the ones Gil used for his research.
“Oh, that’s sweet. He sent you a journal,” Tiffany said with a sappy tone.
I felt my eyebrows scrunch together, curious as to what Gil was thinking when he picked this gift for me. He knew that, even for being a reader, I was not that into journaling. I picked up the book and felt the smooth, worn leather in my hands. It really was a beautiful journal, and looked exactly like one of Gil’s many. I opened the cover to see if maybe Gil had written a note of some kind but that was not what I found.
This was one of Gil’s journals. His handwriting filled the first pages with dates from the summer since he had been in Italy. Pages and pages of writing that I didn’t stop to actually read followed. My heart began a pounding race inside my chest as I lifted the front and back covers up like a bird and shook the book with hope that some kind of note telling me why Gil had sent me something he had explicitly told me never to touch. Echoes of an off-hand comment Gil made once reverberate in my head: “You can look at my research when you pry my journals from my cold dead hands.”
“Something isn’t right, Tiffany,” I whispered. “Something terrible has happened. Gil is in trouble.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish