The radio hums silently in the old Mercedes that dad had bought on a whim back when I was seven. I still remember mom's cry of surprise as the engine purred down our gravel driveway and my dad's proud smile to show his prize, like a kid at a school fair.
The top is down, forcing my hair back in billows of long, blond waves. The smell of salt and sand welcomes us as we approach the sign that invites all to "Pueblo, Florida: The beach town of dreams". As a kid, dad used to drive me out here just for fun because he knew how much I liked the view of an outsider looking into our little oasis from the rest of the world. In Pueblo, back then and most likely still now, time seems to stop, allowing its inhabitants to live in a constant state of relaxation and happiness. Divorces, abandonments, and heartbreaks aren't a usual theme amongst the residents, but every once in a while an exception arises.
I try to look around as we drive into the town, hoping that my eyes don't meet my dad's. Back at the airport, I barely said hello to the blond stranger who is my dad and his green eyes had understood. He knows what he did to us back then. He knows that what happened in our family wasn't just an awful nightmare. So, instead of lingering on a conversation that would never happen, he simply took my bags and signaled to where he'd parked his car. At least I give him credit for that.
As citizens mingle with tourists, I don't recognize anyone. Granted, I left seven years ago, but I thought that I'd at least remember someone. My eyes widen as we pass the sweet shop where I spent lazy summer afternoons picking through sour-keys and malt balls. Instead of seeing the same little girl that greeted everyone into the store back when I was ten, a teenager with black hair riddled with blue streaks welcomes the customers.
"You're not the only one who grew, you know," dad says and I nearly jump out of my seat. His voice is gruff, like it used to be when he was amused. The sudden break in our silence somehow eases a tension hanging over us that I didn't even know was there. "That's old Billy Coldeen's daughter, Emilia," he looks at me and his green eyes wink at me quickly. "You used to play with her down at the park every Wednesday afternoon."
"I remember," I say, the sound of my voice coming out so gently surprises me. "Mom used to buy us both anything we wanted from her dad's sweetshop."
Dad nods and continues driving, relishing our solemn moment of conversation. I never thought of dad as a lonely man, but then again, people tend to surprise you.
We pass several more stores and a lot more strangers crossing the streets, walking on the sidewalks, carrying surfboards and roller blading their way through the still cars that waited for the red light to turn green. I silently thank my luck as I realize that the beach is on my side of the car and the sight of the bustling shoreline nearly leaves me breathless. How could I have forgotten such beauty?
Beach houses interrupt my view of the beach every so often, offering glimpses into the world that mom and I had left such a long time ago. A boy, maybe thirteen or so, is waxing his surfboard, while his girl friend, a little brunette, watches in awe. The sight brings a memory out of the corner of my mind that I once dedicated to Pueblo. The nights full of laughter, adventure, and surprises. The goodbyes, the heartbreaks, the tears.
I shake my head and close the dam that holds my overflowing memories in place.
Soon we pass the doll-house beach houses. Their bright blue, red, and yellow decors seem to glow under the hot afternoon sun. Children play safely behind the gates and the large white fence sits as a constant reminder; separating the world of Pueblo from the rich outside world.
"I can't believe they're still here," I say, unable to stop myself.
"Why not?" Dad says, as if there'd been no lull in the conversation. "They may be annoying Richies who like to think that they have control over us, but they're the reason why a lot of the businesses in town are still making money."
Dad had created the term Richies when he was a kid and I'd inherited the nickname. Basically, these people ran the town's finances, but the day that the large fence was created a lot of the residents of Pueblo became skeptical, fearful of the outsiders. I know this because mom would often talk bitterly about it with a friend of hers during some of my play dates.
Dad turns right onto Beachwood Street, where I lived the first ten years of my life, and almost instantly turns onto the same gravel driveway that I learned to ride a bike on. Instead of seeing a front yard invaded by weeds (mom's never been much of a gardener) and toys, I'm surprised to see sunflowers and lilies and bleeding hearts. The lawn is mowed and theres a gate leading to the backyard. The front door is still the same dark blue as before, but now a sign on it reads the house number and a shy angel boy. To say I'm shocked is putting it mildly.
Dad parks the car and gets out without a word. I follow suit, nearly tripping over one of the large rocks decorating the side of the driveway. Dad pauses before opening the trunk, checking to see if I'm okay. After I assure him with a quick nod, he pops the top and starts pulling out my bags. Within minutes we're inside my old house and I am staring into my old bedroom.
"I know you and your mother left this place hoping to never see it again," dad says behind me and I force myself to hold back my tears. "But I hoped for otherwise."
Except for the bedding (which is more modern than the princess ones that once decorated the twin bed), the stuffed toys, and the many posters I once had of teen pop stars and movie stars, my old room is exactly as I'd left it seven years ago. "But how?" I ask, not wanting to meet his eyes. "Why did you do this?"
"Ask your mother."
"You left us, left us alone!" I whisper menacingly, letting the tears roll down my cheeks. "Why would you do this?"
"I didn't leave you. Baby, I would never leave you," he says and for a moment I can smell the scent of whiskey on him, but of course it is only the scent that lingers when I think of who my dad used to be so long ago. "You and your mother left me."