"Honestly, Steffi," Mom said in an ominous tone as she folded a blouse carelessly and put it in the suitcase, "sometimes I wonder how I've put up with such a mouthy kid all these years."
Steffi stared at the garments going into the battered blue case. "How come I'm only mouthy when I disagree with you?"
"I haven't figured that out yet. It's settled, Steff. I'm going on location to try to earn some money for us. I told your dad he needed more life insurance, but he thought he was going to live forever, and already we've gone deeplyinto what we got just paying off his hospital bills. And you" -- here she paused to look directly at her daughter -- "are going to your grandfather's for a few months."
"I don't know my grandfather," Steffi reminded her. "You don't even know him, really. You only met him a few times, didn't you?"
"Twice," Audri Thomas said crisply, tucking a pair of shoes in beside the blouses and closing the lid. "Here, sit on this and help me get it latched."
Steffi obeyed, but she still felt rebellious. "You didn't like him."
"I was prepared to like him," Mom said. "He didn't like me. From what your father said, his mother and I would have gotten along, if she'd lived, but I was not what he wanted in a daughter-in-law."
"So what makes you think he'll like me? Or that I'll like him? Dad couldn't stand him, and Grandpa was his own father."
"Whatever caused the rift between them has nothing to do with you. He didn't tell me not to send you, so you're going. He'd have said so if he didn't want you."
Steffi bounced on the suitcase until her mother secured the latches, then took a different tack. "Why can't I just stay here with Meggie?"
"She's no relation to us, for Pete's sake. Why should she take you on?" Audri placed another bag on the bed and opened it wide. "She's too old to want the responsibility of an eleven-year-old. Besides, she hasn't asked you to stay. And I'd have to pay her room and board. She's only our landlady."
"And you won't pay room and board at Grandpa's?"
"Well, maybe after I've had time to earn some money," Audri evaded. "We have years to go, yet, to get you raised and educated, and I'm scared to spend any more of the insurance settlement than I have to. There isn't all that much of it left. Come on, Steffi, start packing your own stuff. Nothing fancy, he lives out in the sticks and runs a trailer park or something. Chances are you won't need dressy things, just jeans and shirts."
"Why can't I go with you?" Steffi's lower lip began to pooch out a little.
"I've already explained that! Nobody else will have kids along; there'd be nothing for you to do, and no one to look after you! I'll be working, and we'll probably be moving around a lot. And don't start crying, Steff, it won't work. At this point I'm all cried out myself and I have no patience for more tears."
"Eleven's too old to cry," Steffi informed her, though her eyes were stinging at the injustice of it all. "Just because Daddy died my whole world doesn't need to turn upside down, does it?"
Audri paused in exasperation. "But it does, can't you see that? Daddy's gone, there are terrible bills that weren't all covered by accident insurance, I haven't had a decent job since before he was hurt, and we're broke except for what's left of his life insurance! If this picture is a success, we'll be able to take things easier. There's always a chance a producer will spot me and see that I could fit into his future film plans and..."
At that point Steffi stopped listening. It was the same old pie-in-the-sky that apparently sustained her mother through all the rough places. Maybe there'd be a miracle, she'd be discovered and given a lead role instead of always playing small parts, maybe she'd get big salaries from now on, the way Daddy had....
And maybe nothing would happen at all. It would be a third-rate movie, and Audri's best scenes would end up on the cutting-room floor, as usual, and Steffi would continue to take second place to whatever else was going on.
She turned away, hating the situation in which they found themselves.
It had always been Daddy who earned the big money. Stuntmen, good ones, were in short supply. Steffi had gotten used to having him laid up with broken arms or legs, with casts and bandages and bottles of pain pills sitting around. Those things were part of the price a stuntman paid to be in the business, Daddy had said. It was a fun job, a challenging one, that few other men could do, and Larry Thomas was good at it.
And then something had gone tragically wrong. The faked car wreck had become a real one, and he'd been hurt so badly that he spent nearly four months in ICU before he finally died.
Right up to the end Steffi had believed Audri's promise that he was going to recover. "He's tough," she'd said. "He'll come out of the coma, and the bones will heal, and the burns, and he'll be back to work within a few months."
But he'd never come out of the coma, and the burns had been too severe. Audri had been horrified, as well, when she was informed that her husband had exceeded his lifetime insurance benefits. Neither Steffi nor Audri Thomas were used to worrying about money at all, and now here they were, practically scraping the bottom of the barrel, trying to survive. All without the man who had kept them, most of the time, in the style to which they had all wanted to become accustomed, as he used to say.
It had taken part of the life insurance money to finish paying the medical bills. What was left seemed like a lot to Steffi, but her mother was clearly frightened about their financial future. She was economizing on even small things, like room and board here for Steffi.
It didn't look as if any of the alternatives Steffi had thought of were going to work. She was going to be stuck with spending at least a few months with a grandfather nobody else liked, who probably didn't want her any more than she wanted him.
What a bummer, Steffi thought, and kicked a chair out of the way as she passed it to lift another of the well-used suitcases onto her bed to begin packing it.
And now here she was, on a half-empty bus, rolling through the woods of Michigan, through a strange and different early summer greenery. She did recognize the white-barked birch trees, and there were a lot of some kind of pine, she thought. But mostly it was nothing like southern California.
"Place you want is right around the next bend," the bus driver said over his shoulder. "They're going to meet you at the road, not pick you up in town,right?"
"I guess so," Steffi said. Her mouth was dry, and the panic that had been spreading through her middle was making a cramp in her belly.
"Here you go, then. Hidden Valley Road," the driver told her, and the bus slowed and stopped.
Steffi followed the driver out into a stillness more complete than she'd ever known. Only a faint breeze rustled the leaves around them as the man opened the bay under the bus and hauled out her bags. He set them off to the side of the road. "You sure you're going to be okay now, are you? Nobody here to meet you yet, but we're a little early. This isn't like the city, though, with a crime a minute. You're perfectly safe here, this part of the country."
"My grandpa will probably show up any minute," Steffi said, more to herself than to him.
"Okay. Good luck," he said, and a moment later she was alone with a mound of belongings, watching the bus disappear.
She stood there, motionless, for what seemed a long time. No other cars came along and she looked up at the road sign. HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD, it said. She walked a few yards closer to the beginning of the gravel road and saw the other sign, almost hidden behind the trees.
It wasn't very big, and it was so long unpainted that she could hardly read what it said. HIDDEN VALLEY TRAILER PARK. OVERNITERS WELCOME. V. TOMASCHEK, PROP.
She'd almost forgotten that her grandfather would be named Tomaschek. Before Steffi was even born, her father had changed his name from Ludwig Tomaschek to Larry Thomas. It sounded more American, was easier to pronounce and to spell, and nobody ever commented on it or took him for a foreigner, Mom said.
Well, at least this was the right place. Maybe her grandpa had misunderstood the time she was to arrive. Or he was delayed, somehow. She wondered if she should wait a while, or just start walking.
Carrying all her luggage was out of the question. She hadn't brought many clothes, but there had been favorite books she hadn't wanted put into storage with the rest of their stuff. And she didn't care if Audri did think it was childish, she'd packed her old teddy bear. He wasn't as heavy as the books, but he was kind of bulky. Steffi didn't have enough hands to pick everything up, and there was no telling how far she'd have to walk down the gravel road.
Since she had to leave part of her stuff behind, she decided to leave it all. She moved the luggage, piece by piece, well off the road and behind the trees where it was unlikely anyone would see it and steal it, just in case the bus driver was wrong about crime in the country.
The trees closed in on both sides of the road as she walked, tempering the summer heat. She tried to reassure herself that living in an RV park wouldn't be bad. She'd been in a few of them when Daddy had borrowed Steve Murphy's motorhome. Steve was a character actor, never had the big, juicy parts, but he always worked.
Steve's motorhome was one of those custom coaches that had everything from a microwave to an ice maker, a big color TV, and a tiled bathroom with a shower. It had been fun to travel in, and they'd stayed in some fancy parks. There had been swimming pools that looked like clear turquoise gems under the sun, and tennis courts, and sometimes trails where you could ride horses.
The farther she walked, along the gravel road, though, the less likely it seemed that Hidden Valley was going to disclose such a park. The trees pressed in so closely on each side that Steffi doubted one of those big, high rigs could even travel this way without being scraped by the branches.
She calculated that she'd walked at least a couple of miles, and was wondering if she'd somehow missed the trailer park because it was hidden even better than its name implied, when she finally spotted something at one side of the road.
A rural mailbox. Her steps quickened until she reached a point where she could read the name, also in fading paint that was difficult to decipher.
TOMASCHEK, HIDDEN VALLEY RV PARK.
It was a relief to have found it, but it also meant that any minute now she'd be facing the grandfather who hadn't liked her mother, apparently had hated her father, and probably wasn't going to be overjoyed to meet her, either.
She was beginning to get hungry. Breakfast had been a doughnut and a cup of hot chocolate, early this morning in a bus station a long way back. Something about the sharply pine-scented air seemed to be making her appetite stronger, and she wished she'd fortified herself with a bag of peanuts or a candy bar from a vending machine at the bus station.
She'd left the gravel road. The driveway was no more than a sandy track where the trees pushed in even closer. Steffi's misgivings grew with every step. What if the place was abandoned? Deserted?
But no, that wouldn't be the case. Mom had written to the old man, telling him that Steffi was coming. All he'd had to do if he didn't want her, was to write back and say so.
Then, Steffi thought, pulse suddenly racing as a small snake wriggled across the dirt track in front of her, she would have figured out a way to stay with Meggie. Meggie rented out rooms to boarders. She was middle-aged and fat and cheerful except when someone stiffed her for a board bill. Down-on-their-luck actors sometimes did that.
She waited until the snake disappeared into the weeds on the other side of the drive, then moved cautiously ahead.
They hadn't lived in boardinghouses when Daddy was alive. They'd had a lovely apartment, where Steffi had her own room and private bathroom. Stuntmen earned good wages, and Daddy'd never been stingy about how the money was spent. There had been that beautiful lavender bike for her eleventh birthday, the one they'd sold along with everything else that was worth anything. And clothes, she'd had enough clothes for a princess. Unfortunately she'd been in a growth spurt, and she'd outgrown a lot of the clothes. Mom hadn't wanted to spend the money to replace them until it was time to go back to school.
Mom had sold some of their clothes on consignment. That meant that when the secondhand store sold them, for far less than Audri had paid for them, they would get a share of the money. They'd hoped that would happen and they'd get at least a small check before Audri went off on location. It hadn't happened, though.
Majestic Films wasn't as grand a production company as it sounded but the last picture her mother had done had been with them, and it hadn't been bad. Steffi had gone with her mother to see it when it first came out. Avenger of the Pecos had been a swashbuckling adventure and romance. Audri had played a secondary character, who had died in a shoot-out halfway through the movie. As usual, some of her best scenes had been deleted before the picture made it to the big screen, but Steffi had to admit her mother wasn't bad in the scenes that were left in.
Audri had wanted to leave after her own final scene, with a close-up of her pretty face contorted as she died. But the movie had been interesting enough so that Steffi wanted to stay through to the end, though her mother said she could tell her how it all came out.
"I want to see it," Steffi insisted. Her mother gave in and got another popcorn to last them until the credits rolled.
It wasn't fair, Steffi reflected, to have let her grow up thinking that her opinion, her needs, were important. Not if, the first time anything serious came up, everything that she thought and wanted was overruled.
She mourned the nice apartment, and the bike, and moving away from her friends at school because Meggie's place was in a different part of town. But most of all she missed Daddy.
Her best friend, Sally, had tried to comfort her. "My dad's gone, too. I know how you miss him," she'd said.
Steffi had shaken her head vigorously, denying that it was the same thing. "Your dad didn't die, he just divorced your mom. And you still see him every other Saturday. I'm never going to see my dad again."
It was a mistake to have allowed herself to start thinking about Daddy. Steffi's eyes blurred with tears and she could hardly see where she was going. Remembering Larry Thomas meant seeing him in a hospital bed, swathed in bandages, unmoving, unhearing, unresponsive. Mom said he probably knew they were there, even though he was unconscious, but Steffi didn't believe it. It was impossible to imagine him as a big, good-looking man who laughed a lot, and called her Steffikins as if she were a little girl, and who bought her practically everything she'd ever said she wanted.
It was a mistake, trying to walk and cry at the same time. She tripped over a large root that extended across driveway and landed on her hands and knees, scrapingone palm on a sharp rock.
The next thing she knew, a rough warm tongue was at her cheek.
Steffi sat back on her heels, raising a protective arm across her face.
The dog was big and black, and his breath smelled of fish. Rotten fish.
"Uck," Steffi grunted. "Get down! Sit!"
Obediently the animal lowered his haunches to the ground his tongue lolling out.
And then Steffi realized that someone was standing over them.
An old man, in threadbare jeans and a patched blue plaid shirt, looked down at her. "You lost, girl?" he asked.
She forgot about crying and the stink of the dog's breath. "I don't think so. I'm Stefanie Thomas." And then, as she evaluated the man's age, she added, "Mom said Hidden Valley RV Park. Are you my grandfather?"
Copyright © 1997 by Willo Davis Roberts