Love & Gelato
THE HOUSE LOOMED BRIGHTLY IN the distance, like a lighthouse in a sea of headstones. But it couldn’t be his house, right? We were probably just following some kind of Italian custom. Always drive newcomers through a cemetery. That way they get a feel for the local culture. Yeah, that must be it.
I knit my fingers in my lap, my stomach dropping as the house got closer and closer. It was like watching Jaws emerge from the depths of the ocean. Duuun dun. Only it wasn’t a movie. It was real. And there was only one turn left. Don’t panic. This can’t be it. Mom wouldn’t have sent you to live in a cemetery. She would have warned you. She would have—
He flipped on the turn signal, and all the air came rushing out of my lungs. She just didn’t tell me.
“Are you okay?”
Howard—my dad, I guess I should call him—was looking at me with a concerned expression. Probably because I’d just made a wheezing noise.
“Is that your . . . ?” Words failed me, so I had to point.
“Well, yes.” He hesitated for a moment and then gestured out the window. “Lina, didn’t you know? About all this?”
“All this” didn’t even come close to describing the massive moonlit cemetery. “My grandma told me I’d be staying on American-owned land. She said you’re the caretaker of a World War II memorial. I didn’t think . . .” Panic was pouring over me like hot syrup. Also, I couldn’t seem to finish a single sentence. Breathe, Lina. You’ve already survived the worst. You can survive this, too.
He pointed to the far end of the property. “The memorial is that building right up there. But the rest of the grounds are for the graves of American soldiers who were killed in Italy during the war.”
“But this isn’t your house house, right? It’s just where you work?”
He didn’t answer. Instead we pulled into the driveway, and I felt the last of my hope fade along with the car’s headlights. This wasn’t just a house. It was a home. Red geraniums lined the walkway, and there was a porch swing creaking back and forth, like someone had just gotten up. Subtract the crosses lining the surrounding lawns and it was any normal house in any normal neighborhood. But it wasn’t a normal neighborhood. And those crosses didn’t look like they were going anywhere. Ever.
“They like to have a caretaker on-site at all times, so they built this house back in the sixties.” Howard took the keys out of the ignition, then drummed his fingers nervously on the steering wheel. “I’m really sorry, Lina. I thought you knew. I can’t imagine what you’re thinking right now.”
“It’s a cemetery.” My voice was like weak tea.
He turned and looked at me, not quite making eye contact. “I know. And the last thing you need is a reminder of everything you’ve been through this year. But I think you’ll find that this place grows on you. It’s really peaceful and it has a lot of interesting history. Your mother loved it. And after being here almost seventeen years, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
His voice was hopeful, but I slumped back in my seat, a swarm of questions taking flight in my mind. If she loved it so much, then why didn’t she ever tell me about it? Why didn’t she ever talk about you until she got sick? And for the love of all that’s holy, what made her leave out the teeny-tiny detail that you’re my father?
Howard absorbed my silence for a moment, then opened his car door. “Let’s head inside. I’ll get your suitcase.”
All six foot five of him walked around to the back of the car, and I leaned over to watch him in the side mirror. My grandma had been the one to fill in the blanks. He’s your father; that’s why she wanted you to live with him. I probably should have seen it coming. It’s just that good old buddy Howard’s true identity seemed like the sort of thing my mother would have at least mentioned.
Howard closed the trunk, and I straightened up and started rifling through my backpack, buying myself another few seconds. Lina, think. You’re alone in a foreign country, a certifiable giant has just stepped forward as your father, and your new home could be the setting for a zombie apocalypse movie. Do something.
But what? Short of wrestling the car keys from Howard, I couldn’t think of a single way to get out of going into that house. Finally I unbuckled my seat belt and followed him to the front door.
Inside, the house was aggressively normal—like maybe it thought it could make up for its location if it just tried hard enough. Howard set my suitcase down in the front entryway, and then we walked into a living room with two overstuffed chairs and a leather sofa. There were a bunch of vintage travel posters on the walls, and the whole place smelled like it had been soaking in garlic and onions. But in a good way. Obviously.
“Welcome home,” Howard said, switching on the main light. Fresh panic smacked me in the face, and he winced when he saw my expression. “I mean, welcome to Italy. I’m so glad you’re here.”
A tall, gazelle-like woman stepped into the room. She was maybe a few years older than Howard, with coffee-colored skin and rows of gold bracelets on each arm. Gorgeous. And also a surprise.
“Lina,” she said, enunciating my name carefully. “You made it. How were your flights?”
I shifted from one foot to the other. Was someone going to introduce us? “They were okay. The last one was really long.”
“We’re so glad you’re here.” She beamed at me, and there was a thick moment of silence.
Finally I stepped forward. “So . . . you’re Howard’s wife?”
Howard and Sonia looked at each other and then practically started howling with laughter.
Lina Emerson. Comic genius.
Finally Howard got himself under control. “Lina, this is Sonia. She’s the assistant superintendent of the cemetery. She’s been working here even longer than I have.”
“Just by a few months,” Sonia said, wiping her eyes. “Howard always makes me sound like a dinosaur. My house is on the property too, a little closer to the memorial.”
“How many people live here?”
“Just us two. Now three,” Howard said.
“And about four thousand soldiers,” Sonia added, grinning. She squinted at Howard, and I glanced back just in time to see him frantically running one finger across his throat. Nonverbal communication. Great.
Sonia’s smile vanished. “Lina, are you hungry? I made a lasagna.”
That’s what that smell was. “I’m pretty hungry,” I admitted. Understatement.
“Good. I made my specialty. Lasagna with extra-garlicky garlic bread.”
“Yes!” Howard said, pumping his arm like a housewife on The Price Is Right. “You decided to spoil us.”
“It’s a special night, so I thought I’d go all out. Lina, you probably want to wash your hands. I’ll dish up and you can meet us in the dining room.”
Howard pointed across the living room. “Bathroom’s over there.”
I nodded, then set my backpack on the nearest chair before practically fleeing the room. The bathroom was miniature, barely big enough for a toilet and a sink, and I ran the water as hot as I could stand it, scrubbing the airport off my hands with a chip of soap from the edge of the sink.
While I scrubbed, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and groaned. I looked like I’d been dragged through three different time zones. Which, to be fair, I had. My normally tan skin was pale and yellowish-looking, and I had dark circles under my eyes. And my hair. It had finally figured out a way to defy the laws of physics. I wet both my hands and tried to smash down my curls, but it seemed to only encourage them. Finally I gave up. So what if I looked like a hedgehog who’d discovered Red Bull? Fathers are supposed to accept you as you are, right?
Music started up outside the bathroom and my nervousness kindled from a flame to a bonfire. Did I really need to eat dinner? Maybe I could go hide out in a room somewhere while I processed this whole cemetery thing. Or didn’t process it. But then my stomach roared in protest and ugh. I did have to eat.
“There she is,” Howard said, getting to his feet as I walked into the dining room. The table was set with a red-checkered cloth, and an old rock song I sort of recognized was playing from an iPod next to the entryway. I slid into the chair opposite them, and Howard sat down too.
“I hope you’re hungry. Sonia’s such a great cook, I think she missed her calling in life.” Now that it wasn’t just the two of us, he sounded way more relaxed.
Sonia beamed. “No way. I was destined for life at the memorial.”
“It does look good.” And by “good,” I meant amazing. A steaming pan of lasagna sat next to a basket of thickly sliced garlic bread, and there was a salad bowl piled high with tomatoes and crisp-looking lettuce. It took every ounce of willpower I had not to dive right onto the table.
Sonia cut into the lasagna, placing a big gooey square right in the center of my plate. “Help yourself to bread and salad. Buon appetito.”
“Buon appetito,” Howard echoed.
“Buon appe . . . something,” I mumbled.
The second everyone was served, I picked up my fork and attacked my lasagna. I knew I probably looked like a wild mastodon, but after a full day of nothing but airline food, I couldn’t help myself. Those portions were miniature. When I finally came up for air, Sonia and Howard were both staring at me, Howard looking mildly horrified.
“So, Lina, what kinds of things do you like to do?” Sonia asked.
I grabbed my napkin. “Besides scare people with my table manners?”
Howard chuckled. “Your grandmother told me you love running. She said you average about forty miles a week, and you’re hoping to run in college.”
“Well, that explains the appetite.” Sonia scooped up another piece, and I gratefully held out my plate. “Do you run at school?”
“I used to. I was on the varsity cross-country team, but I forfeited my spot after we found out.”
They both just looked at me.
“. . . When we found out about the cancer? Practice took up a lot of time, and I didn’t want to leave town for all the meets and stuff.”
Howard nodded. “I think the cemetery is a great place for a runner. Lots of space, and nice smooth roads. I used to run here all the time. Before I got fat and lazy.”
Sonia rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. You couldn’t get fat if you tried.” She nudged the basket of garlic bread toward me. “Did you know that your mother and I were friends? She was lovely. So talented and lively.”
Nope, didn’t tell me that, either. Was it possible I was falling prey to some elaborate kidnapping scheme? Would kidnappers feed you two pieces of the best lasagna you’d ever had? And if pressed, would they give you the recipe?
Howard cleared his throat, snapping me back to the conversation. “Sorry. Um, no. She never mentioned you.”
Sonia nodded, her face expressionless, and Howard glanced at her, then back at me. “You’re probably feeling pretty tired. Is there anyone you want to get in touch with? I messaged your grandmother when your plane arrived, but you’re welcome to give her a call. I have an international plan on my cell phone.”
“Can I call Addie?”
“Is that the friend you were living with?”
“Yeah. But I have my laptop. I could just use FaceTime instead.”
“That might not work tonight. Italy isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of technology, and our Internet connection has been pretty slow all day. Someone’s coming by to take a look at it tomorrow, but in the meantime you can just use my phone.”
He pushed back from the table. “Would anyone like some wine?”
“Yes, please,” Sonia said.
“Uh . . . I’m kind of underage.”
He smiled. “Italy doesn’t have a drinking age, so I guess it’s a little different around here. But no pressure either way.”
“Be right back.” He headed for the kitchen.
The room was quiet for about ten seconds, and then Sonia set her fork down. “I’m so happy you’re here, Lina. And I want you to know that if you need anything, I’m just a stone’s throw away. Literally.”
“Thanks.” I trained my eyes on a spot just over her left shoulder. Adults were always trying too hard around me. They thought that if they were nice enough they could make up for the fact that I’d lost my mom. It was kind of sweet and horrible at the same time.
Sonia glanced toward the kitchen and then lowered her voice. “I wanted to ask you, would you mind stopping by my place sometime tomorrow? I have something I want to give you.”
“We can talk about it then. Tonight you just focus on settling in.”
I just shook my head. I was going to do as little settling in as possible. I wasn’t even going to unpack my bag.
After dinner Howard insisted on carrying my suitcase upstairs. “I hope you like your room. I repainted and redecorated it a couple of weeks ago, and I think it turned out really nice. I keep most of the windows open in summer—it’s a lot cooler that way—but feel free to close yours if you’d prefer.” He spoke quickly, like he’d spent all afternoon rehearsing his welcome speech. He set my bag down in front of the first door.
“Bathroom is right across the hall, and I put some new soap and shampoo in there. Let me know what else you need and I’ll pick it up tomorrow, okay?”
“And like I said, the Internet’s been pretty spotty, but if you decide you want to try it out, our network is called ‘American Cemetery.’?”
Of course it was. “What’s the Wi-Fi password?”
“Wall of the Missing. One word.”
“?‘Wall of the Missing,’?” I repeated. “What does that mean?”
“It’s a part of the memorial. There are a bunch of stone tablets listing the names of soldiers whose bodies were never recovered. I can show you tomorrow if you’d like.”
Nooo, thank you. “Well, I’m pretty tired, so . . .” I edged toward the door.
He took the hint, handing me a cell phone along with a slip of paper. “I wrote down instructions for dialing the States. You have to put in a country code as well as an area code. Let me know if you have any trouble.”
“Thanks.” I put the paper in my pocket.
“Good night, Lina.”
He turned and walked down the hall, and I opened the door and dragged my suitcase into the room, feeling my shoulders sag with the relief of finally being alone. Well, you’re really here, I thought, just you and your four thousand new friends. There was a lock on the door and I turned it with a satisfying click. Then I slowly turned around, steeling myself for whatever Howard had meant by “really nice.” But then my heart practically stopped, because wow.
The room was perfect. Soft light glowed from this adorable gold lamp on the nightstand, and the bed was antique-looking, with about a thousand decorative pillows. A painted desk and dresser sat on opposite sides of the room, and a large oval mirror hung on the wall next to the door. There were even a bunch of picture frames standing empty on the nightstand and dresser, like they were waiting for me to fill them up.
I stood there staring for a minute. It was just so me. How was it possible that someone who hadn’t even met me had managed to put together my perfect bedroom? Maybe things weren’t going to be so bad—
And then a gust of wind blew into the room, drawing my attention to the large open window. I’d ignored my own rule: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. I walked over and stuck my head out. The headstones gleamed in the moonlight like rows of teeth, and everything was dark and eerily silent. No amount of pretty could make up for a view like that.
I pulled my head back in, then took the slip of paper out of my pocket. Time to start plotting my escape.