As far as guts were concerned, Miri knew only that certain foods, like raw tomatoes, triggered Irene’s heartburn, and when they did, she’d drink a glass of Alka-Seltzer.
“Anyway, my husband doesn’t want another dog. He’s afraid I won’t want to leave a puppy at the kennel when we travel. It’s true I never liked leaving Goldie, even when she was grown.” She sighed and looked out the window. “It feels like snow, doesn’t it?”
“I hope it does. I’d like to have fresh snow for my birthday.”
“Yes, tomorrow. I’ll be fifteen on the fifteenth.”
Mrs. Stein brightened. “Fifteen on the fifteenth! That’s sure to be a lucky sign. You have to take every bit of luck that comes your way and turn it into something bigger, something lasting.”
Miri was mulling that over when Mrs. Stein touched her arm. “Come with me. I have something for you.”
“Oh, no, really…” Miri said.
“Oh, yes…really.” Miri had never seen Mrs. Stein so animated. Fred trotted up the stairs behind them to Mrs. Stein’s bedroom. Until then, Miri hadn’t seen much of the Steins’ house, which was on the fanciest street in town, where all the houses were big and old and set back from the street, surrounded by stately trees. She was familiar only with the back porch and the kitchen. But this—Mrs. Stein’s bedroom—was bigger than Miri’s living room and bedroom combined, with a chaise longue and two chairs grouped around a coffee table stacked with books and magazines spilling onto the floor, waiting to be read. At the other end of the room were two beds pushed together, attached to a single carved wooden headboard. Mrs. Stein disappeared into a walkin closet behind the bed and came out with a small white box tied with a slender pink satin ribbon. She handed it to Miri. “Happy birthday.”
Miri was embarrassed.
“Open it,” Mrs. Stein sang. Miri half expected her to clap her hands and jump up and down, she seemed so pleased.
Miri opened the box. Inside was a bracelet. Gold with—were they garnets, her birthstone? “But you can’t give this to me. You should save it for your daughter.”
“Her birthstone is opal,” Mrs. Stein said. “Mine is garnet, like yours. And I’ve got more garnet bracelets than I can count. I want you to have this one. It’s delicate, like you.”
Miri had never thought of herself as delicate and wasn’t sure she wanted anyone else to, either. She supposed that next to Mrs. Stein, with her ample bosom, wide hips and plump arms, she could seem delicate, but she wasn’t.
“Thank you,” Miri said. “It’s beautiful.”
“So are you,” Mrs. Stein said.
No one outside the family had ever told her that.
“Have a wonderful birthday.” Mrs. Stein leaned in and kissed her cheek.
Fred barked until Mrs. Stein turned her attention to him.
MIRI WAS ALMOST SURE Rusty wouldn’t approve of Mrs. Stein giving her a gold bracelet with garnets, so at first she didn’t show it to her. But what was the point of having it if she could never wear it? That night she waited until after Rusty’s bath, when Rusty seemed relaxed and happy, humming to herself. “Mrs. Stein gave me a bracelet for my birthday. She said it doesn’t fit her anymore and she has more birthstone bracelets than she can possibly use.”
“Let me see that.” Miri passed her the bracelet. Rusty turned it over in her hand, studying it the way an appraiser might. “Which Mrs. Stein?”
“Phil’s mother. They live on Westminster.”
“Who is Phil?”
“Phil Stein. He’s Steve Osner’s best friend. He was at the New Year’s Eve party.”
“And what’s the connection between you and Mrs. Stein?”
“I drop Fred off at the Steins’ house a couple of days a week.”
“Fred. Mason’s dog.”
Rusty breathed deeply through her nose. “So this is about the dog?”
“Yes. Mrs. Stein likes having Fred around. They had a dog, Goldie, but she died.”
“Does that make Mrs. Stein a better mother than me?”
“What? No.” This wasn’t going well.
“Mrs. Stein probably doesn’t go to business,” Rusty said.
Sometimes no matter what Miri said or didn’t say, Rusty acted as if it reflected on her as a mother. She should have told Rusty that Mrs. Stein would like to work. That she’d like to be a librarian or a clerk at a bookstore. Instead she wound up saying what she thought Rusty wanted to hear. “You’re the best mother.”
“You’re just saying that so you can keep an expensive bracelet she had no right to give you.”
“I don’t care about the bracelet.”
“Good. Then give it back. It’s inappropriate for a stranger to give you such an extravagant gift.”
“She’s not exactly a stranger,” Miri muttered under her breath as Rusty walked away with the bracelet. Miri chased her down the hall. “Mom…”
“You took the bracelet.”
Rusty handed it to Miri.
The next day after school she returned the bracelet. She didn’t want to offend Mrs. Stein. But as soon as she began, “My mother doesn’t think…” Mrs. Stein gave her a kind smile, a knowing smile, and took the box.
“Maybe I will give it to my daughter, after all.”
“I’m sure she’d like it.”
“She’s hard to please.”
“Thank you, Miri.”
There. She’d done what she had to do. She would tell Rusty she’d returned the bracelet and she hoped that would satisfy her. Rusty could be moody but her bad moods rarely lasted.
BEFORE THE FAMILY sat down to Miri’s birthday dinner, Rusty gave her a small box wrapped in blue paper and tied with a white ribbon. “Happy birthday, honey.”
Inside was a gold and garnet bracelet, not exactly the same as Mrs. Stein’s, but close enough. “It’s beautiful,” Miri said, slipping it onto her wrist.
“Now you see why…” Rusty began.
Miri hugged her mother. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s no need to be sorry,” Rusty told her, smoothing her hair. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Miri would never know if Rusty had already bought her the bracelet when she showed her the one from Mrs. Stein, or if she went out and bought it that day. “It looks really pretty, doesn’t it?” She held up her arm for Rusty to admire.
Rusty smiled at her. “It does. It’s delicate enough to go with anything.”
Miri resisted the urge to laugh. At least Rusty hadn’t called her delicate.
LATER THAT NIGHT, Mason stopped by with a birthday present for Miri. After Rusty greeted him, she went into her room, closing the door behind her, so the two of them could have the living room to themselves. “Fifteen minutes,” Rusty called. “Four feet on the floor at all times.” They couldn’t help laughing over that rule, and when they did, Rusty laughed, too.
The present was wrapped in layers of tissue paper and tied with red and white bakery string. Miri opened it carefully, stealing looks at Mason. But he was looking down at the floor. At first she wasn’t sure what it was except it was made of wood. Beautiful polished wood. A spyglass? She held it to her eye. No, it was a kaleidoscope with exquisite pale stones, regrouping into intricate designs as she turned it. This was nothing like the toy kaleidoscopes she’d had as a child. She’d never seen anything like it. She couldn’t put it down. Finally, he took it out of her hands. “It was my mother’s.”
His mother’s. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.” She wanted him to tell her more but she sensed he wasn’t going to.
When Rusty knocked from inside her bedroom door, signaling their fifteen minutes were up, Miri walked Mason downstairs to the front door. “This is the best present anyone has ever given me,” she told him.
“It’s the only thing my mother had to leave me.”
“I’ll keep it safe for you,” she said. “If you ever want it back—”
“Don’t say that.” He kissed her goodnight. Then he whispered, “Don’t ever say that.”
Fifteen minutes, Rusty thought. They couldn’t get into trouble in fifteen minutes, not with her just a room away. Besides, she could hear them talking softly the whole time. They’d known each other what—a month?—but she knew it felt like much longer to them. Everything was heightened when you were young and in love. And she could see they were in love. And so sweet together. It was that sweetness that got to her. She wasn’t going to warn Miri that it couldn’t last. She wasn’t going to warn her they were too young, like the song. Why spoil it? There would be heartache when it ended but Rusty would help her through it. Maybe it was better for Miri to experience first love now than in a few years, when she wouldn’t have as much control over them. Fifteen minutes. Plenty could happen in fifteen minutes when no one was watching and you were in a Nash with a seat that folded back to make a bed.