Delaney stopped picking at the skin on her pimply nose to give me the stink eye in the passenger visor mirror. She’s Mom’s accomplice, but after their fight this morning, who knows.
“Lily Bear,” Mom said. “I can’t believe you’re nine years old today. Has your mustache started to come in yet?”
“Funny Mom. No one gets a mustache when they turn nine years old. Especially girls.”
Mom looked at me in the rearview mirror like I’d told her I had a cough or a splinter. “I can’t believe Delaney didn’t tell you. Ask her. Girl mustaches are silvery whiskers, sort of like a cat, you can sense danger with them. She made us shave hers off.”
“Really Delaney?” I said. She threw Mom a glare, then stuck her tongue out at me, which either meant Mom lied again or Delaney didn’t want to tell me the truth. I hated Mom’s lies. She added in enough truth, so I never knew what to believe. Like the time she told me my blue birthmark was a permanent ink stamp from when I arrived as a baby on a cargo ship from Madagascar. I’d never met anyone with a blue birthmark, not one with squiggle lines in the shape of a ‘3’ and a ‘W’. Maybe I wasn’t born in Connecticut, but on a mysterious island with friendly lemurs and those giant trees that look like carrots growing upside down. Sometimes I wished her stories were true.
“That’s your idea of a birthday gift, Mom? Dragging her around Ventura for the hundredth time on your made up history tour and freaking her out about facial hair?” Delaney said. I closed my eyes, waited for mom to comment. I heard Delaney whisper, “Fail”. The car moved faster.
I ducked my head behind the front seat, pretended to pick something up off of the floor, touched my fingers to my top lip. Smooth like velvet. No prickly hairs. Liar.
“Get ready,” Mom said, raised herself up in her seat. “We’re coming up on the first stop of our Magical Ventura Tour.” The groaning sound from the steering wheel made me think maybe the car didn’t want to be on the tour either.
“Mom, can’t we do something else for once?” Delaney said. “We know all of your ridiculous stories already. I bet Lily doesn’t even want to be here and it’s her birthday.”
“Lily Bear, is this true?” We sat curbside in front of City Hall, the engine coughed like a bear with a cold. Mom rammed the shifter into park, peeked around the front headrest at me. I turned to the window. The weird smiling marble faces carved all along the front of city hall laughed down at me. I hate birthdays. I wished Dad were with us.
“No, it’s okay,” I said. “Tell the story, Mom. Reminds me of when we moved here.”
“Well, few people know this but Ventura City Hall was built on top of an ancient Chumash burial site.”
“Not true,” Delaney said. “I asked my social studies teacher, he’s from here. He said ‘no’.”
My stomach hurt. I thought about my cake in the fridge with my name written in blue cream cheese frosting. Dad and I both loved carrot cake.
“Mr. Carver?” Mom said, brushed Delaney’s bangs out of her eyes.
“Honey, Mr. Carver drinks. He can’t be trusted. Grab yourself some Midol from my purse. You’ll feel better.”
Mom turned back around to wink at me. Delaney sighed like a movie star, crumpled into a sulking pile.
“Anyway, Lily Bear, the city planners built city hall on an ancient Chumash burial ground, then carved the faces of the Franciscan friars who founded the mission on the outside of the building. They did this to honor the men who wanted to civilize the native Chumash right out of their own culture.”
“What’s wrong with civilizing someone?” I said. Two girls in my class, Annabel and Janie, were in cotillion. When I asked, they told me they went to dances to learn how to be civilized. I tried to imagine the Chumash natives ballroom dancing together in grass skirts and white gloves.
“Depends on your definition of civilization. But the Chumash people got revenge. Know what they did?”
I did know, but I wanted her to tell me like she did every birthday. Mom started the Ventura “Her-story Tour” the first year we moved here, on my fifth birthday. In first grade, I had to write a special report after I told the class pirates put up Serra Cross, not missionaries. Mom made me a cross birthday cake that year, with vending machine toys baked inside.
“Nope,” I said.
“They cursed the land. When the rare blue moon rises in the sky, those friar’s faces come to life and tell all the secrets kept within the walls of City Hall!”
“When’s the blue moon? Has anyone ever seen them come alive?”
I felt the familiar thrill rise up inside. My mother’s magic held me.
“I have a question since you know about all things secret and mystical.” Delaney’s voice jabbed at our mother. My palms started to sweat. Unlike her usual pouty, dramatic self, a new Delaney voice came out.
“Where’s our father?”
Dammit Delaney. It’s my birthday! You need to do this now? Awesome.
“Excuse me?” Mom said, her voice like a policeman instead of a tour guide. She turned, faced Delaney head on.
“Our father. The one who used to live with us but one day never came home again. Where is he? And no more made up stories. How about some truth this time? Where’s our father?”
I stopped taking full breaths, picked at the scab on my elbow. The sun poked out above the trees. I felt the beams burn on my shoulder, but unsticking my bare legs from the car seat meant ripping at my sunburn from yesterday, so I stayed still. I made a birthday wish my window wasn’t stuck closed. We never talked about Dad, just like we never talked about earthquakes, the great white sharks spotted around the river mouth or the drought.
“Your father is out to sea.”
The car rolled away from the curb.
“For three years? How does someone go out to sea for three years?”
I can remember a lot from when I was six. I remember one time Delaney sat on top of me after I had eaten a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream, tickled me until I laughed so hard I puked all over her legs. I remember Tommy Leone from down the street threw my green Matchbox car into the sewer drain. And I remember when I won my goldfish Percy at the school carnival, even though he only lasted a couple of days. But as hard as I try, I don’t remember what Daddy’s voice sounded like.
“He got on the wrong ship,” Mom said. “He was supposed to be going out for an overnight fishing trip to Santa Rosa, but instead he got on a ghost pirate ship. This ghost ship was disguised to look like all the other fishing boats. Not his fault. Now he’s sailing around the world.”
We sat dangling at the stop sign on the top of California Street, below the sea stretched out like a silver blanket in front of us. Floating in the mist like scoops of whipped cream, were the Channel Islands. How fast would we have to go to fly out over the pier and the sea, to get to those islands?
“They say sometimes the ghost ships return to their original port, but I don’t know if that’s true. Your father always wanted to see the world. I guess this was a wish come true.”
We moved down California Street, headed for the beach.
Aside from wishing the car window open, I had also birthday wished for a new bike, a puppy and for Daddy to come home. I asked God to cancel the earlier three and put all my wish juice towards Daddy.
“No Mom.” Delaney’s voice sounded stretched like a balloon filled with water. “The truth this time. We don’t want any more stories. Please.”
Mom yanked the car over to the side of the road, we skidded a bit when the tires hit the sand. Thrown into park the car jerked forward.
“What exactly do you want me to tell you, Delaney? What do you want the truth to be? Does it feel better to know City Hall is built on nothing more than dirt? The truth is cold and boring and doesn’t ever go away. I don’t know where your father is. He told me he was going fishing, a man who never owned a fishing pole mind you, decided to go on a fishing trip with a suitcase in his hand. Then I never saw him again. There. Does that feel better or any more real than he’s on a disappearing ghost ship?”
Delaney burst out of the car, ran toward the massive sand dune in front of the water. Mom said the ‘f’ word, kicked her door open and marched across the sand toward Delaney.
When I caught up to them at the bottom of the dune, both of them sat in the sand. A scrunched up Delaney sobbed in Mom’s arms, Mom whispered into her ear, stroked her hair, rocked her back and forth. I wanted to pop the heavy empty bubble inside of me, so I squished myself in between them both.
We came up for air, a wet, snotty, sniffling mess and I birthday wished a box of Kleenex for us all.
“Come on,” Mom said. “The sea wants to give a girl a birthday kiss.”