“Rise and shine, Cupcake!” Dad’s voice was way too cheery for— what time was it?
I looked at my alarm clock and groaned. “Five AM? Seriously, Dad?”
“Tahoe is far away, Miranda.” He ruffled my hair and went to get the car started.
Right. Tahoe. With any luck, maybe I’d get eaten by a bear.
“Randy!” My sister’s face appeared in the doorway, eyes bright with excitement. “We’re going on a road trip!”
I sat up in bed and glowered at her. “Did I say you could come into my room?”
“Road trip! Road trip!”
“Cordelia, get out!”
“Get out of my room, you little insect, or I’ll—”
“Miranda Jade” Dad appeared behind Cordelia in the doorway. “Be nice to your sister.”
I sighed. “Yes, Dad.”
He set a hand on my sister’s shoulder to stop her from bouncing up and down. “Cordelia, I know you’re excited, honey, but remember what I said about Randy?”
“She needs time to wake up,” said Cordelia.
“Exactly. Come on. Help me put the food in the car.”
A couple hours into the trip, Dad was listening to lounge jazz. Cordelia, for all her excitement, was fast asleep. Ten years old and she could still fall asleep in almost any situation.
“How does she do that?” I asked my dad.
“Honestly, I think she gets it from your mom,” said Dad. “Once after a long day at Disneyland she got so tired that she fell asleep on the bench by the Matterhorn.” He chuckled. “No idea how she did that. Disneyland benches are anything but comfortable.”
“Was that before or after you got married?”
“It was actually just after we’d gotten engaged. The trip was an engagement present from your grandparents.”
I turned to look in the backseat. Cordelia shifted her head and muttered something about pancakes. I turned back to Dad. “Do you think Cordelia remembers her?”
Dad continued to stare at the road, and I watched the rows of a vineyard pass by before he answered. “I don’t know. She was only three.”
I didn’t ask my next question. The question I’d been asking myself for seven years.
Why did she leave?
On the radio, Frank Sinatra was singing “Fly Me to the Moon.”
“Cordelia looks up to you, Randy.” Dad turned down the radio. I said nothing. I’d been a little harsh to her this morning. Dad put a hand on my shoulder. “She wants to hang out with you because she thinks you’re cool. Sure, she can be a handful, but—”
“I know, I just need to be a good example to her.”
“I know it’s not always easy. But I can count on you, right?”
“I’ll… do my best.”
“That’s my girl.”
A yawn came from the backseat. “Are we there yet?”
My dad laughed. “Not yet, Deedee. It’ll be a couple more hours at least.”
I turned back toward the backseat. “Hey, Cordelia?”
“I’m sorry I yelled at you this morning.”
Cordelia gave me a smile. “That’s ok. I know you get crabby in the morning.”
“Yeah… but that doesn’t mean I should take it out on you.”
Her grin turned impish. “If anything, you should yell at dad. He’s the one who woke us up so early.”
“Hey now,” said Dad.
I laughed and held out a fist to Cordelia. “Are we cool?”
Cordelia bumped my fist with her own. “We’re cool.”
We came up toward the South Shore of Lake Tahoe just after lunch time. Cordelia and I rolled down our windows. The air was clear and crisp and smelled of pine trees.
“Look!” Cordelia cried. I followed where her finger pointed and saw a hawk landing in a tree. The hawk screeched and another echoed its cry.
“That’s a red-tailed hawk,” said Dad. “Did you know that most of the time when you hear a bird of prey calling in a movie, it’s a red-tail?”
“Really?” Cordelia was craning her neck to keep the bird in view as we continued down the highway. “Why do they do that?”
“Well, Deedee, if you were in charge of making sound for movies, would you want to go find each and every bird and record their call?”
“Maybe… rats!” Cordelia sat back down again. “I can’t see it anymore.”
“Forget the hawk,” I said. “Look at that!”
“Look at— Oh wow.”
The trees had opened up and Lake Tahoe came into view, sparkling blue in the afternoon sun, the wind sending ribbons across the smooth surface. Boats skimmed the waves, adding their own wake lines as they sped off to the far reaches of the lake. Dozens of cabins dotted the lake shore, some with their own personal docks.
We reached Camp Richardson and began setting up. Our campsite was just a short walk from the bathrooms and showers. Dad put the food and toiletries in the bear locker while Cordelia and I tried to set up the tent. I was just straightening out the tarp that would form the base when I felt a poke on my shoulder.
“Ha-ha!” Cordelia stood in an en garde position, a long stick in her hand. “I got you!”
I raised an eyebrow. “Did you, now?” I looked around for another stick. When I found one, I leapt to my feet. “Lady Cordelia, have at thee!”
“I accept, Lady Miranda!” Cordelia lunged toward me and I parried her strike. We pranced around the campsite, laughing, neither one landing any substantial blows, until I eventually let my guard down enough for Cordelia to strike me in the shoulder.
“Ack! I am wounded!” I made a large show of clutching my shoulder and toppled back into the pile of sleeping bags.
“I win!” Cordelia raised her arms in the air and did a little dance around the pile, throwing her stick behind her. She came over to help me up, but I pulled her down into the pile and poked her in the ribs. She squealed and tried to return fire, but I grabbed her retaliating hand and continued to tickle her. Soon we were both breathless with laughter.
“What happened to the tent?” Dad wandered over, his tasks finished.
“Cordelia challenged me to a sword fight,” I said. “I couldn’t say no.”
Cordelia nodded. “Then she lost.”
I poked her again and she recoiled, shrieking with laughter.
“All right, well I’m glad you girls are having a merry old time, but I don’t really want to sleep on just a tarp tonight, do you?” Dad helped us both up. “Let’s get this tent set up and then I’ve got a treat for you. There’s an ice cream shop not far from here.”
Cordelia’s eyes lit up. “Ice cream!” Setting up the tent went quickly with the three of us working all together. As we walked over to the ice cream parlor, Dad taught us a song about the birds we might see in the forest. The ice cream was amazing. The ice cream parlor’s portions were enormous. I ordered the kids scoop and I swear it was bigger than Cordelia’s face. The rest of the day was spent exploring the woods around our campsite. When it started to get dark, we set up the campfire and skewered hotdogs for dinner. When we finally crawled into our tent, Cordelia fell asleep almost immediately. I lay awake, my mind drifting back to my earlier conversation with Dad.
Why did she leave?
I’d been seven years old. It was Halloween. Mom and Dad had taken me and Cordelia trick-or-treating. I had dressed as Alice and Cordelia was the Cheshire Cat. For some reason the memory that stuck out to me was that I’d really wanted to sleep in my Alice costume that night. Mom had said no.
“But Mommy, I wanna be Alice!”
Mom had smiled. “Honey, it’s been fun to pretend, but you can’t be something you’re not forever. You need to be yourself. Be Miranda.”
After some more coaxing, I’d eventually settled for wearing my normal pajamas and gotten in bed. Mom had tucked me in and plugged in the night light.
As she left, I had called out: “Good night, Mommy. I love you.”
“Good night, Miranda. Sweet dreams, kiddo.”
I never saw her again.
The next morning, I’d come out into the kitchen to find my dad sitting at the kitchen table, eyes red and a small slip of paper in his hand.
“Daddy? Where’s Mommy?”
“Come here, Cupcake.” Dad had patted his knee. When I reached his chair, he’d pulled me up onto his lap. “Mommy went on a trip.”
He just shook his head.
“When will she get back?”
“I don’t—” His voice cracked, and he’d pulled me tight into a hug. “I don’t think Mommy is coming back.” Dad had never shown me the note. I don’t even know if he’d kept it. If Mom had told him in the note where she was headed, he’d never shared with us. It was probably for the best.
I rolled over and curled myself into a fetal position. If he told me now, would I even care? Would I want to look for her? What about Cordelia?
I woke up to sunlight streaming through the tent’s window. The cold morning air smelled of pine and the smoky memory of the campfire. I rolled over and saw a lump of sleeping bag on the other side of the tent. Dad must still be asleep. I turned to Cordelia.
She was gone.
I shoved my way out of the sleeping bag and made my way to the door of the tent. I poked my head out, and all the residual warmth from my sleeping bag disappeared from my body.
Snuffling around our campsite was a black bear cub. Its ears perked and it looked in the direction of the restrooms. Around the bend came Cordelia, whistling cheerily. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the bear. They regarded one another, the bear cocking its head.
“Hello, little one,” Cordelia said, not moving. “What are you looking for?”
“Cordelia!” I hissed. The bear turned toward me.
Cordelia shuffled her way around the campsite, doing her best to stay away from the cub. She was halfway around when a low grunt sounded from the bushes behind her. Cordelia turned her head slowly and blanched. It was the mother bear.
“Dad!” I screamed.
Dad sat bolt upright and detangled himself from his sleeping bag as he moved to the door. In an instant, he took in the situation. “Cordelia.” His voice was much calmer than I could have managed. “Move toward me, honey, slowly.”
Cordelia shakily made her way toward the tent. The mother bear snorted and slapped the ground with her paw.
Cordelia made it to the tent. I grabbed her and pulled her inside, placing her behind me. The baby bear crawled over to its mother.
Dad stood up out of the tent, holding his jacket above his head, and yelling “BOO! GO AWAY! GET OUT OF HERE!”
The she-bear lowed, then turned and trundled into the woods, cub in tow.
A breath I didn’t know I’d been holding escaped my lungs. I turned toward Cordelia and pulled her into a hug. “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine,” she whispered. “Good thing the mama came back for the cub, huh?”
We both sat back and stared at the tent flap.
“She’s not coming back, is she?”
I poked my head out the door. Just Dad, making sure we hadn’t left any food behind. “No, she’s—” Oh. I turned back to Cordelia. There were tears in her eyes. “She’s not coming back.”
Cordelia dropped her eyes to the ground and nodded slowly.
“Hey.” I pulled her close again. “I’m here for you. You don’t have to pretend like everything is fine all the time. And I promise that if I do ever go anywhere, I will come back.”
Cordelia sniffled. “I love you, Randy.”
“I love you, too, Deedee.”