Saturday, March 30, 1963:
The restaurant stood at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, and it all started on the front steps. Everything else happened because Aundrew Glass was left behind there on the impossibly blue morning of his eleventh birthday.
He stood and watched his father’s car. It was a half-block away and moving in the other direction, and then it turned the corner and was gone. It was a red-and-white Plymouth Belvedere, and there was no doubt about it being the right car. His mother had broken one of the tail lights with a hammer, so it flashed white when the brake was pressed. His father said he hadn’t the time to have it repaired, but Aundrew thought it would never get fixed, because both of his parents secretly enjoyed the reminder of hurt feelings that had led to the hammer incident.
A huge sign stood on the restaurant roof. Giant letters said the place was called ‘Carolina Pines’, and a tall line of real pine trees behind the building underlined the fantasy. The name made no sense for a restaurant in the middle of a seaside desert, but since it was Hollywood it made perfect sense. They served grits, hush puppies, and hash browns twenty-four hours a day, and a lot of people seemed to want those things because it was always busy.
Aundrew had asked the waitress for sweet cereal and milk, which made his mother angry. She said he could have had that at home, (which wasn’t true since she only allowed Weetabix or Shredded Wheat). His father interjected that the whole point of Saturday morning breakfast in a restaurant was to enjoy whatever you wanted, and his mother said there was no point in being exposed to other cultures if you were just going to ignore them. You didn’t go to the Deep South to eat cereal. In the end, both parents had retreated into stony silence and his mother had barely touched her strawberry waffles, to prove her point.
After they had finished breakfast, his father went to the register to pay the check and his mother had gone out to the car. Aundrew had started to follow her, but caught a barely perceptible headshake and turned back. As he started for his father, he felt his pocket and realized it was empty. His Secret Decoder Ring was missing.
It was a birthday present, a redemption-by-mail of Ovaltine labels and twenty-five cents. It had looked a lot better in the grainy advertisement image. The real thing was silver-colored plastic with tiny wheels that got stuck when you tried to turn them. So far it hadn’t given up any secret messages, but he had waited a long time for the mailman to bring it and he didn’t want to lose it.
He had been playing with it during breakfast until his mother told him to put it away. He went back to the booth, still laid with their dirty dishes, abandoned and forgotten and left behind. It made him a little sad, looking at them. He got beneath the table and found the ring, wedged into the vinyl seat cushion where he had been sitting. When he resurfaced, the cash register was empty. His father and the waitress were both gone.
Outside on the steps, he had been just in time to witness the Belvedere disappearance. Each of his parents was undoubtedly convinced he had accompanied the other and was sitting quietly in the back seat. Aundrew was all alone.
He looked back inside the restaurant, though the plate glass windows. The tables inside were filled with strangers. A man in a brown fedora came out and looked at him incuriously as he passed. What had seemed warm and inviting just a few minutes before was now alien and strange. Aundrew figured nobody was going to come back looking for him, not any time soon. He was a quiet boy, and there was no telling when his mother or father might notice his absence.
He had just about decided he might as well investigate the pine trees behind the restaurant, when a slender girl about his age came through the glass doors.
She stopped in front of him.
Her hair was in ringlets, just past shoulder-length and a little bit wild. It was brown, with golden highlights from the sun. She was a pretty girl, but she had a solemn face that made her look as though she knew a lot of things she would rather not know. Her skin was the color of expensive honey and she had eyes so dark they were almost black. They danced like a couple of barely suppressed giggles, and it belied the gravity of her expression.
“They forgot you, didn’t they?” she asked. “What’s your name?”
She stood very still and watched him while he thought about it. It was two questions, and he didn’t know which of them he should address, so he stuck with the one he had an answer to.
“Aundrew,” he said. “Aundrew Glass.”
“You’re from England,” the girl said. Her interest seemed to ratchet up a notch. She tried it, tasting the vowels. “Aundrew Glah-ss.”
He felt the familiar blush creep up from his shirt collar. He hated his name. It wasn’t even a real name, he was sure. It was something his mother had made up because she thought it sounded cultured. He had never in his life heard of anyone else who was named that. He detested being called ‘Andy’ even more though, so he was stuck.
“I’m not from England,” he said. The girl was making him angry. “I’m from California, just like you.”
The girl looked at him for a long time, as though she was making a decision. Then she shook her head, once.
“I’m not from California,” she said. “My name is Cora, and I’m from the Moon.”
He looked at her stupidly, and for no reason thought about the Secret Decoder Ring in his pocket.
“Come with me,” the girl said, and put out her hand.
Against everything that he was normally inclined to, Aundrew took it. Her skin was cold.
“This could be seriously good,” she said. “Never mind how much fun.”