Authors: Natalie Whipple
Fish Out Of Water
Copyright 2015 Natalie Whipple
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means electronic, mechanical, printing, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author, except for use of brief quotations in a book review.
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Edited by Jenny Jacoby
Cover Design by Melissa Williams Cover Design
Cover image Shutterstock
Author Photo by Michelle D. Argyle
For my grandma Carole, who, though I never quite
understood her, I loved just the same.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
About the Author
The goldfish are uneasy, but who wouldn’t be when their potential killer stares them down so gleefully? The little boy bounces in front of the tank while his mother looks at bowls. I stand at my little island in AnimalZone’s Aquatics department, hoping they’ll leave without buying one of my precious fish.
“How many goldfish can live in these?” The woman holds up a one-gallon bowl, seeming slightly irritated by her squealing son.
“Actually…” I glance at the boy, who is now banging on the guppy tank and giggling as the fish scatter, “those bowls are intended for betta fish. That’s not big enough for one goldfish. They need at least ten gallons to do well—twenty, for some varieties.”
She gives me the “Are you crazy?” look. “Really?”
I nod, wishing I could point to where my nametag saysAquatics Expert. “They produce a lot of waste, so it would be most humane for the fish to live in a filtered, large aquarium. The ten-gallon starter is only fifty.”
“Well, aren’t you the little saleswoman…” She glances at my nametag. “Mika. I’ll take the bowl, some fish, and some food.”
“Okay.” ApparentlyAquatics Expertmeans nothing to this woman. I do as I’m told, not bothering to recommend some rocks and plants in the bowl. That way the fish could hide when her son comes to enthusiastically torture them each day of their short, horrible lives.
“That one! No, that one!” the boy screams as I try to capture the fleeing fish. He’s pointing to the one with the black spot on its forehead, but I really like that one and can’t send him to his death. His mother tells me to grab three of whatever and hands him a candy.
I bag each fish and say a prayer that they’ll go peacefully. People like to think fish don’t have feelings, but as I watch the last guppy squirm in his bag his eyes plead with me to put him out of his misery. I get the sense he knows just as well as I do that bad things are on the horizon.
“It would be good to buy water conditioner,” I say as I hand over the fish. “The chlorine in tap water can kill them.”“Right. Thanks.” She takes the fish and heads to the front, not even a glance at the conditioner.
There will definitely be a fish funeral in less than a week, which is why I don’t mention they can return dead fish within two weeks for a replacement. At least not to people like that, who are clearly here for a “cheap, easy pet.”
I check on the remaining goldfish guppies. They’re huddled in a tight mass, traumatized by the little boy. I don’t blame them—it’s like a crazed maniac coming into your house, flailing and screaming, and then leaving just as quickly as he came. How can you not huddle there in shock?
I whirl around, finding the storeowner, Clark Wainwright, at my station. He’s a nice guy, despite his looking a little shady—I blame the creepy mustache and gold watch. But I couldn’t ask for a better boss.
There’s a new face next to him, one that doesn’t seem particularly excited to be here. He doesn’t look at me while I take in his dark eyes and messy hair that walks the line between brown and blond. He wears the signature ugly AnimalZone uniform—lumpy black polo and pleated khakis.
“New employee?” I ask.
Clark nods. “This is my nephew, Dylan. He just graduated and will be working here for at least the summer, maybe longer.”
“Notlonger,” Dylan says. He makes no effort to be friendly, as if he’s pretending with every fiber of his being not to be here. I can’t tell what he’s like past the serious slouching problem and sullen expression.
“Better get your act together if you think that. Probably couldn’t get a job at all without nepotism.”
Clark looks back at me. “He doesn’t have much work experience, but he’ll pick up on things quick.”
“Cool.” I try to put on a nice face, though I doubt he’s right. “If he’s anything like you I’m sure he will.”
“Suck up,” Dylan coughs under his breath.
Hard as it is, I ignore the comment and smile, which earns me a disturbing glare. “I’m Mika, by the way.”
“Figured, since it’s on your nametag,” Dylan says.
So he’s gonna be a jerk like that. Great.If Clark weren’t here, I’d ask Dylan if he were PMSing, but instead I force my smile wider. “Oh good, you’re observant. That’ll help.”
Clark pats him on the back. “I’ll give Dylan the run-down today, but I thought we’d start him on Aquatics for training, since you’ll be volunteering at the Aquarium this summer, right?”
“Yup.” I beam, not at all embarrassed to show my excitement. My parents are marine biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and I finally convinced them to let me “intern” with them. It’ll look amazing on my college applications. “Sounds great. I’d be happy to train him.”
“Don’t underestimate her, Dylan.” Clark points to me. “She might be younger than you, but she knows her fish and you better listen.”
Dylan doesn’t answer. I have a feeling listening isn’t one of his strong suits. As I watch the two head back down the aisle, I regret agreeing to train him already. He’s clearly going to be a pain in my side.
After a quick lunch and wardrobe change, I hop on my bike and head for the Aquarium. The weather is beautiful now that the morning fog has worn off, and even over traffic the ocean can be heard. AnimalZone is pretty close to the Aquarium, so it doesn’t take me more than ten minutes to hit Cannery Row in all its touristy glory. It sits right on the water, a collage of old industrial buildings that don’t quite match with the beachy bungalows in this area of Monterey. What were once canning factories for seafood products are now rows of outlet shops and restaurants. It’s one of the “must see” places for visitors, so it’s always bustling with people and choked with traffic. The Monterey Bay Aquarium stands at the very end, a monument to all the environmental repairs made to the bay after the canning industry nearly destroyed it.
Even if it’s kind of fake, I don’t mind so much. My parents told me a long time ago not to be one of those jaded locals who complains about the tourists. Mom and Dad would be out of jobs without them, since the Aquarium is non-profit and depends on people visiting.
I lock my bike outside the entrance, where Mom told me to meet her today. She and Dad usually work at the research facility nearby, but she often comes to check on the Aquarium animals in the public buildings.
After I get through the line, I use my season pass to get in. Since I’m the daughter of prominent and long-time employees Stan and Yumi Arlington, I’ve had a free pass for as long as I can remember. This place is almost like a second home, the Living Kelp Forest and Outer Bay exhibits as familiar as my own bedroom. I’ve always dreamed of volunteering here, but you have to be at least eighteen. Except all that’s about to change. Finally,finally, Mom and Dad have given into my constant begging though I’m still seventeen.
Mom stands by the information desk, chatting with an obviously star struck receptionist. She has that effect on people. With her long black hair and youthful face, she oozes intelligence and beauty all at once.
“I hope it will be a busy summer!” she says, her Japanese accent barely there. She tries hard to mask it at work, but I love that it still slips out, a reminder of where she came from. She spots me and smiles wider, leaving the desk to meet me. “Mika! There you are.”
“Hey,” I say as she gives me a hug. “So what are we doing today? Checking on the otters? Taking water samples? What?”
Her face lights up. “Actually, I have good news to tell you first!”
I tilt my head, unable to imagine what could make this day better. “What?”
“Do you remember that grant from Stanford we applied for?”
I nod. Of course I do. I was drooling over the proposed studies they’d be doing in the bay. There was supposedly a lot of stiff competition for the money, but Mom and Dad are rock stars in their field. “Did you get it?”
“We did!” She bounces a little, she’s so excited.
I join in. “That’s awesome! Please tell me I get to help.”
“We have to take on a few interns, but as far as I know, yes.”
“Sweet!” I selfishly hope they are attractive male interns. “I didn’t think this summer could get any better!”
Mom puts her arm around me. “You’ve earned it. You’ve worked hard at the pet store, and you take such good care of our aquariums at home. We know how serious you are about pursuing this, and we’re so proud.”
“Thanks, Mom.” I lean on her shoulder, soaking in the moment. “What are we doing today then?”
She laughs. “Well, I hope you aren’t too disappointed, but your father and I actually have a meeting with the grant administrators in about thirty minutes. So you’ll have to wait a little bit longer until we get all the details worked out.”
“No worries.” While I’m a bit disappointed not to be starting right now, it’ll be worth the wait. “I guess I’ll just have to go home and be lazy or something.”
“See you later.” I float out of the Aquarium. I’m so high on the awesomeness of my impending summer that I treat myself to some ice cream and decide I deserve a present. I end up back at AnimalZone. My eyes dart back and forth as I check to see who’s on the floor. I hope Clark doesn’t spot me. He always teases when I come in after my shift, especially when I come back for the reason I have today.
Dylan stands at my Aquatics island, looking as bored as humanly possible. It takes him a second to recognize me in my sundress and leggings, but when he does his eyes go wide. His sour expression comes back as he says, “Aren’t you off for the day? Or do you live here?”
I clench my jaw, determined to hang on to my good mood. “Thought I’d come back and give you a test.”
“A test. Sure.” He says it like it’s a joke. It was, until he mocked the idea.
“Yes, I’d like to buy a fish.”
He rolls his eyes. “Which one?”
“Something easy to keep.”
“A goldfish then.”
“No.” I put my hands on my hips. “So fail. Big time fail. No fish is easy to take care of. They all have specific needs, and if you don’t respect those needs then you’ll kill the fish.”
He sighs. “Great, I have to work with a crazy fish girl. Is this hell? I think I’m in hell.”
All my happy feelings vanish.I get the strongest urge to push him out of my spot and tell Clark I’ll never train him. He obviously doesn’t care, and there’s nothing I hate more than people who don’t care about what they do. It shouldn’t matter if you work at a pet store or in the White House—you should do your best.
“Yes, I’m a crazy fish girl. Get used to it.” I tip my head up with pride. “Don’t ever tell a customer fish are easy to care for—they already come in with enough misconceptions. It’s your obligation to make sure those fish get the best possible care.”
“I thought I was obligated to sell pets.”
My eyes narrow. “And if those fish keep dying, we not only lose money through replacements but people stop coming here to buy them. Healthy fish and educated customers make this place money.”
His upper lip curls, but he says nothing.
I smile victoriously and head for the goldfish guppies. “I’d like the one with the black spot on his forehead. Clark taught you how to bag a fish, right?”
Dylan grabs the net and stands, stalking over like I challenged him to a duel. He looks over the fish. “I don’t see one with a black spot.”
“Right there.” I point to my fish. “So much for observant.”
His look is all daggers, but he sticks the net in and attempts to catch my fish. It takes a ridiculously long time, and I almost feel guilty for enjoying his struggle. After several failed attempts, he throws the net on the ground. “Get your own damn fish!”
I stare at him as he heads back to the island. He has his back to me, and his shoulders rise and fall with angry breaths. I pick up the net, wondering what the hell his problem is. “Can’t put a contaminated net in there.”
He flips me off.
“I’ll have to talk to Clark about your customer service skills.” I lean over the island to rinse the net. “Because, wow, that was a serious mantrum.”
Double flip off.
I seriously wish I hadn’t come back here, because it’s ruining my good day. Dylan acts like I’m the one at fault here, and it makes me mad. He should at least be grateful his uncle is giving him a job, but he’s not even trying. I almost point this out, but it doesn’t feel worth it. So I prepare a bag of water and net my spotted friend in seconds. Then I give it a puff of air and tie it off. The guppy swims around happily—at least there’s one thing in this situation that’s nice. Smiling at my new fish, I head for the front counter to pay my twenty cents.
“You really wanted that fish?” Dylan says when I’m half way down the aisle.
I stop and turn around. “Yes.”
His face softens only slightly, as if he’s curious. “So you weren’t just messing with me?”
I shake my head, patting my water-filled bag. “I almost had to send this guy to an early grave this morning and decided he needs a real home. Everyone deserves one of those, right?”
One of his eyebrows quirks. I don’t know what to make of the expression, so I wait for an explanation. Dylan just stares at me. A tiny part of me hopes for some kind of apology, though he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who says sorry. When it’s clear an answer isn’t coming, I continue on my way.
Our place is a quaint beach house that’s, ironically, not very close to the beach. Juniper bushes guard our small front yard, which is zenned-out with rocks and sand, raked to look like water ripples. A single cypress tree shades the path to our door, and I park my bike on the porch.
The house is quiet, or at least as quiet as it can get with so many aquarium filters humming. Dad jokes that if an earthquake hits, our house will flood from all the tanks breaking. I never found it funny as a kid, picturing all my fish friends meeting such a traumatic end, but now that I’m older I get his joking. We have at least one tank in every room, if not several. Five of them are mine, and that’s not including my koi pond in the backyard.
I head for my room, where my tanks are lined up against the wall. Each one contains goldfish—from comets to bubble eyes to blackmoors. It probably looks like overkill to most people, but there’s just something about goldfish that makes me happy.
My new guppy is tiny. When I hold up his bag to my “Baby Fish” tank, I worry he might be too tiny even for that. I don’t want him getting pecked at, so I decide it’s time to move the biggest fish over to my “Teen Fish” tank. Opal, a pretty white fish with an orange forehead, doesn’t protest much when I scoop her up and place her bag in the adjacent tank. I do the same for my new fish, watching him as I decide on a name.
I smile wide as the image of Dylan’s mantrum flits into my head. He was totally out of line, and though he ruined my mood it was nice to put him in his place. I laugh to myself like a dork. This poor fish will forever be tied to that memory. “I’ll have to call you Dill, sorry. Hopefully you won’t be as sour as your namesake.”
The doorbell rings, and I shoot up from my bed in surprise. Not that we don’t have visitors, but my best friends—Shreya and Olivia—are either working or on vacation. Everyone knows my parents wouldn’t be home. I creep to the door and peek through the peephole, expecting a salesperson.
All I see is a fluff of gray hair and the beginning of an old woman’s forehead. Our only elderly neighbor is Mr. Choi across the street, so I’m not sure what to expect when I unlock the door and turn the knob.
“Hello, is this the Arlington residence?” she asks, looking me up and down in a way that makes me uncomfortable.
“Yes?” For a second I wonder if she could be a reporter interested in my parents’ grant, but she seems a little too old and her clothes are more like pajamas than business attire. She can’t be here for an interview.
“Are you the daughter?” I don’t have a clue who she is, but it feels as if she’s picking apart every inch of my face, clothing, and frame. “There are so many Orientals around here it’s hard to tell. You all look the same.”
My eyebrows shoot up, and my tongue goes dry. Not that I’ve never heard a racial slur before, but most people at leasttryto be respectful.
“Well?” she says when I stay mute. “Do you speak English? Or did your mother only teach you Japanese?”
“Um…” I force myself to swallow the shock. “Who are you again?”
She sighs. “You don’t recognize me at all?”
I try to look past her words, try to focus on not letting my anger boil over. I don’t know how old she is, but she looks at least as old as myObaachanin Japan, who we video chat with every couple weeks. Her lips are completely gone, she’s heavy, and she sports a fairly visible mustache. Her eyes are a pretty hazel, even though she scowls at me. I can’t recall ever meeting her in my life. “I’m sorry, I don’t. Maybe you got the wrong Arlington?”
Her frown deepens as she scratches her head, then her face goes oddly blank. Finally, she nods. “I could have. Sorry for taking up your time.”
As awful as her comments were before, her apology is so sincere it takes me off guard. “Don’t worry about it. Hope you find who you’re looking for.”
“Me, too.” She heads back down the path, makes a left onto the sidewalk, and I watch her as she reads house addresses. For a moment, I wonder if I should take her in. She didn’t seem dangerous. Maybe she’s really lost—majorly lost—and needs to call the police for help. Not that I have much to go on, but something felt off about her.
Then I’m closing the door, and I’m back on the couch in front of my laptop, looking at Instagram and getting super jealous over Olivia’s pictures of some beach in Tahiti. Her mom has been saving up for years, but still. I want to be in Tahiti, not alone in my bedroom on a perfectly nice day. I remind myself I’ll soon be out on the bay, studying with my parents—that makes me feel much better.
The home phone rings, and I pick it up even though no one important ever calls on it. “Hello?”
“Uh, hi. Is this Mika, I’m guessing?”
“Yes?” I swear I know the voice but can’t quite place it, so I decide not to hang up.
“Great—I figured, since it’s summer and all. This is your Uncle Greg. Do you remember me?”
“Yeah, of course!” That’s why he sounded familiar. Uncle Greg is Dad’s younger brother who lives in Seattle. We used to visit him every fall break when I was a kid, but it’s been years now. Dad’s not very close to his family, for some reasons I know and some I don’t. “How are you?”
His laugh is a lot like Dad’s. “Okay. I was just wondering if your dad’s cell number changed, because the one I have isn’t working.”
“Well, he got a new phone a couple years ago…”
“What’s the number?”
I rattle it off, trying not to think about Uncle Greg having a cell number that’s over two years outdated. I may not have siblings, but I hope I’d talk to them more often than that if I did.
“Great, thanks, Mika.” He hangs up without a goodbye, which makes me wonder what would be so urgent that he needs to talk to Dad right now.
As I set the phone on its charger, the doorbell rings yet again, and the peephole reveals the same fluffy hair. When I answer, the woman examines me just like before and says, “Is this the Arlington residence?”
I sigh. This woman is obviously lost and a little off her rocker. If I don’t help her, who will? “Come in, ma’am. I think it’s time to call the police.”
Her eyes bug out. “Oh no, I’m just looking for the Arlingtons. Please don’t call the police.”
I look at the clock in the living room. It’s ten to five. An hour at least before my parents get home, but I hate to think of this poor woman wandering the streets more than she already has. She seems harmless enough. “My parents aren’t home just yet, so how about dinner? Are you hungry?”
Her eyes glisten with tears. “That would be lovely.”
“I’m Mika.” I hold out my hand, and she takes it. “What’s your name?”
Without thinking, I pull my hand from hers, too shocked to speak. It can’t be a coincidence, and now that she’s said her name I can see traces of Dad in her features even though I’ve never seen so much as a picture of my grandmother. Dad hasn’t spoken to her in decades, and I can’t imagine he’ll be excited to see her now.
I only know a few things about my dad’s mom, and none of them are good. When I was old enough to realize I was missing a grandma, I asked about her. All my dad said was, “Mi-chan, Grandma Arlington wasn’t happy that I married Mommy, so we can’t talk to her until she gets over that.”
I didn’t quite get it back then, but I took his word for it. As time passed I’ve learned to read through his carefully constructed statement. Because there are only a couple reasons why someone would disapprove of my intelligent, beautiful, kind mother, and those would fall into the racist category.
From the few words I’ve exchanged with my grandmother today, it’s clear I haven’t been wrong about her prejudices all these years. But now that she’s in front of me I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do about it.
“So…” I manage to get out. “Betty, I take it you’re my dad’s mother?”
“Is your dad named Stanley?”
She sighs, like this is more disappointing than exciting, the first face-to-face with her granddaughter. “Told him his kids would look nothing like him.”
I want to tell her she’s wrong, that I got things from my dad that are super obvious, like my stubby fingers instead of Mom’s skinny, long ones. I have a bigger bridge in my nose like him, too. And my hair is wavy, not my mom’s never-gonna-curl-ever hair. But I don’t tell her. I just stare, trying to figure out if I should make good on my dinner offer or not.
“Aren’t you gonna let me in?” she asks.
I jump out of the way before I can find the courage to say no. It won’t be long. At least I hope it won’t, because I already don’t want to be around her. She inspects our entryway with the same hard glare, and I head for the kitchen to find something decent to cook. It’s not as if my parents are champs in that field. They usually grab take-out on the way home.
“You can sit here,” I say, pointing to the kitchen table. “Is there anything you don’t like or are allergic to?”
“Nothing ethnic or spicy, please.” She sits, looking exhausted. “There are a lot of fish in this house.”
“Marine biologists and fish go together, right?” I open the fridge and inspect the boxes of restaurant leftovers, wondering what exactly she means by “nothing ethnic or spicy.” Does that include pizza? Because that’s Italian and pepperoni is spicy to some people. What about the enchiladas? And would Dad’s beloved Polska kielbasa also be ethnic? Or is it just the non-European stuff?
I shouldn’t have offered to feed her.
“I thought the fish would be a phase,” she says, smiling at the nearest tank with a dreamy, far off look. “If I’d known that book on marine life would have sparked all this…”
“You don’t like Dad’s job?” I settle on a can of chicken soup. Surely she can’t complain about chicken soup being anything but standard.
She purses her lips. “His job is fine, except that he had to go away to college, and then on that internship to Japan, and work all the way across the country. Why he couldn’t just stay in Vermont…”
I didn’t know she lived that far away. “Isn’t Vermont landlocked?”
I turn to the soup, deciding it’s better not to point out that a person who studies marine life might want toliveby the ocean. If she understood these sorts of things, there wouldn’t have been problems to begin with. As I stir with one hand, I pull out my phone with the other. Even from the first ten minutes with this woman, I can tell Mom and Dad need a warning text.
Did Uncle Greg get hold of you?I figure that’s why he called—he somehow found out that Betty was on her way here.
Yes. Is everything all right?Dad sends back.
We have an interesting visitor.
We’re on our way.
I breathe a sigh of relief. There is no way I’m capable of handling this situation, and honestly, I don’t want to. Betty doesn’t hide her displeasure with pretty much everything around her. Why did she even come? She’s obviously not here to make nice.
“So your name’s Mika?” she says, but it sounds likemy-kuh.
“Mee-ka,” I say as I set the soup in front of her. No complaints, which I feel bad for expecting, but they do seem to spill out of her.
“Have a middle name?”
She nods. “Do you know why you got that name?”
“Dad said he liked it.”
She slurps down a spoonful of soup. “Of course he does. Grace was my stuck-up, free-thinking sister who thought everything he did deserved a trophy.”
“Was?” I can’t bring myself to eat my soup, so I keep stirring it around and around. “Did she die?”
“Twenty-five years ago.” Her spoon splashes soup onto the table when she sets it down. “And good riddance.”
It’s kind of funny that my grandmother’s name is Betty, because all I can think when I look at her isbitter.She reeks of bitterness. I have no connection to this woman, even if I share her genes. It seems like I should have some positive emotions about meeting my grandmother, but I can’t feel anything but annoyance. An image of Dylan pops in my head, and I try not to laugh at how similar they are. He should be related to her, not me.
We eat in silence for a while, and then I hear Mom and Dad’s car pull up in the driveway. Their footsteps are hurried, and when they reach the kitchen it looks as if they’re expecting to walk in on a scene from a horror movie. Dad in particular, his curls wild and mad-professorish. He even has his lab coat on still.
“My, Stanley, you’ve gotten old,” Betty says.
Mom looks to him, as if everything hangs on what he will say. I suppose it does.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
“Is that any way to greet your mother?”
Dad clenches his jaw and it looks like he has a lot pent up, though nothing comes out. Finally, he takes a deep breath and attempts to tame his hair. “Yumi, Mika, if you wouldn’t mind I’d like to talk to my mother in private.”
“Of course, honey, take your time,” Mom says.
I open my mouth to protest, but Mom already has me by the wrist and half way out of the kitchen. I manage to get free by the time we reach the hall. “I want to know why she’s here! I’m the one who got to spend all this time dealing with her.”
Mom puts her finger to her mouth. “He’s just trying to protect us. We’ll find out more listening to them from here, anyway.”
Trying not to smile, I lean next to her on the wall. Sure enough, Betty makes no attempt to be quiet, her voice carrying through the house. “Looks like you’re pretty comfortable here, Stan. Gotta admit I hoped to find you divorced and eating humble pie.”
I imagine Dad pinching the bridge of his nose, which is what he does when I talk back. “What do you want?”
“Who said I wanted anything?”
“You wouldn’t be here otherwise!” Dad’s voice is almost a yell. I have never heard him yell. “What do you need money for this time? Did you lose the trailer? Because I was shocked when Greg said you flew here.”
“Jenny’s got the trailer. She kicked me out.” Betty says this as if it’s no big deal, but Jenny is Dad’s older sister. My aunt. Never met her, either.
Dad scoffs. “And you thought I’d be more sympathetic?”
“No.” The spoon and bowl clatter in the sink. “Just figured you’d have more money than your tree-hugger brother. What is it with you two and nature?”
“I told you ten years ago I wasn’t giving you any more money.” Dad’s voice is so cold it’s hard to believe he’s speaking to his mother. He doesn’t talk like that to anyone.
“I don’t need money. I need a place to stay.”
“Well, you ain’t got much choice, son, because I have Alzheimer’s and nowhere to go and no money to get there anyway. Spent the last of it flying here.”
Dad doesn’t answer, and suddenly his footsteps are approaching. Mom and I scramble for my bedroom, shutting the door just in time to hear Dad stomp past and lock himself in his room.
I sneak out of the house early next morning, deciding not to attempt breaking the angry silence that has fallen over my place. Last night my mom coaxed Betty into the guest room. I’m not sure how Mom ignored all the comments about ruining the family and the importance of staying loyal to one’s country and race, but she did. And then we all took to our rooms like the cast of some soap opera.
“We clean the more populated tanks every day,” I say, though Dylan makes no attempt to listen to me. Instead, he tosses a pen, higher and higher each time. I try to take it from him, but he dodges. “Do I need to call your uncle?”
“You’re the kid who used to tattle on people at recess, aren’t you?” He holds the pen up, way out of my reach.
“No.” I give up, going back to the tank I’m cleaning. I so don’t have the patience for this today. “But this is work. We’re being paid to do a job, not to mess around.”
He snorts. “Yeah, babysitting fish is majorly important.”
“Itisimportant. Every job is important.” I have a strong urge to grab the mop so I can scrub out my aggravation. Between Dylan and Betty showing up, my summer has turned into a disaster overnight.Think of the grant and the bay and the potentially hot college interns…it’s not all bad.
There’s a long pause, but finally he says, “Why take such good care of an animal that can’t remember you for more than a few seconds?”
I stop scrubbing, and for some reason Betty flashes through my mind. I don’t know much about Alzheimer’s, but I do know it makes you forget until your brain shuts down entirely. Maybe I don’t like her, but I do feel sorry for her. Even so, I hope Dad won’t let her stay with us. “Even if that were true—which it isn’t—shouldn’t we make every moment they remember a good one?”
Dylan’s face does that same thing it did yesterday when I took my new fish home. If I knew him better, I might understand what it meant. It’s a mystery, and it remains one, since he walks away after that. I go back to work, happy not to have to deal with him more than absolutely necessary.
Right before lunch, Clark shows up at the Aquatics island. He’s still brushing hair off himself, probably having just fed the cats or dogs. “Hey Mika, how goes the training?”
“Say no more. Dylan is a pain, but try not to judge him too badly.”
“Yeah, he’s making it hard.”
Clark gives a tired sigh. “Let’s just say this summer isn’t turning out how he expected. I think we can win him over, though.”
“With what? The catnip?”
He laughs. “Maybe. Hey, so I know you’re about to clock out, but Tanya called in sick. You mentioned your parents’ study in the bay has been delayed—would you mind covering a couple more hours for a few days?”
As much as I don’t want to be around Dylan more this afternoon, I figure it’s just as bad as going home to Betty. The idea that she’s still in my house at all makes me uncomfortable. “I guess I can do that.”
“I’ll be back after lunch then.” I hate going out in public in my AnimalZone uniform, but I need somesaag paneerjust as much as I need Shreya. So I bike over to her family’s Indian restaurant, Shades of Bombay, where the noon rush is just slowing down as people head back to work. The tiny eatery is crammed between a nail salon and a tanning place, almost invisible in the non-descript strip mall, but all the locals know it’s the place to get curry.
The front door dings as I walk in, and Shreya smiles when she sees me. “Mika! We’re still a bit packed but I’ll sneak you in back.”
“Thanks.” As I head toward her, I try to ignore the angry glares of a few people waiting. My mouth waters at the smell of this place—the richness of the spices comforts me. Shades of Bombay is practically in my blood, what with my best friend owning it and my parents’ insatiable appetite for anything not cooked at home.
Shreya gives me a warm hug when I get to her, and I sigh. “You have no idea how bad I needsaagright now.”
“Uh oh.” Her warm brown eyes fill with concern. It’s funny how the color is about the same as mine, and yet I always see hers as warm and mine as cold. Maybe it’s the difference in skin tone—I’m paler, like my dad. “I have a break in ten. I’ll meet you then, ’kay?”
“Mom! Mika’s coming back!” she yells.
“Okay!” I hear from behind the kitchen door, and then Shreya is off to tend tables.
The kitchen air is hot and thick with curry. Her father and three older brothers work the line, and her mother stands at the pass making sure all the food goes out perfectly. She analyzes me when I sit at the table in the corner. Her long hair fights to escape the scarf she uses to cover it. “Let me guess…saag paneer.”
I smile. “How did you know?”
She holds up her hands. “It’s a gift. Or I’ve taken your curry order for years.”
I laugh. She probably has my family’s favorites memorized.
Shreya comes in just as her mom sets down my food. I grab thenaan,warm and soft and the best of breads, and stuff my face. I’ve learned if I go for the curry first, I’ll burn my tongue and ruin the meal. As I spoonsaagand rice onto my plate, everything feels better. It may look like green mush with white bits in it, but it’s magic. I take a bite, and the spice with the silkypaneercheese makes all the bad feelings go away.
“Do I need to get you a room?” Shreya asks, one of her thick eyebrows arched.
“Yes.” The food garbles the word, but I don’t care. “AndThe Princess Bride.”
She laughs. “Did you break up with a secret boyfriend? It’s been a while since you had one.”
“You speak as if I’m never single.”
“I just thought you’d have found someone else by now. You broke up with Cyrus, what, two months ago?”
I nod. It was right before Prom, since I didn’t want to complicate things with him going off to college anyway. “It wasn’tthatlong ago, though I gotta admit I really miss the kissing and—”
Shreya plugs her ears. “I’m not listening!”
“Fine, fine.” This is why I need Olivia to not be in Tahiti. We respect that Shrey isn’t ready to date, but I need someone to talk to and Olivia is wilder than I’ll ever be. A month without her is too long.
“So if not a break up, why are you insaagmode?” Shreya asks.
“Where do I even start?” By the end of my tale, her jaw is slack and she’s stopped twirling her long black hair.
She stands. “Let me get you more curry.”
“Butter chicken!” I call, suddenly craving it after all thatsaag.I almost feel guilty for horking it down so fast, but it couldn’t be helped.
Shreya shoves her way into the little kitchen, and her brothers yell at her in Hindi. This means they don’t want me to know what they’re saying, because they speak English perfectly well. I get them back by insulting them in Japanese. They shoot me glares, but they treat their friends in the kitchen just as much as Shreya treats me.
“Idiots.” Shreya puts the fresh curry in front of me, and I dab mynaanthere while I wait for it to cool. “I wish they’d get married and move out.”
Shreya’s brothers are all much older than she is—by at least ten years—and they were born in India before her parents saved up enough to come here. Despite the sibling squabbles, they really care about her, making sure they’re always around for school events and whatnot.
“So, I need to know one thing,” Shreya says as I dig in. “Is this Dylan guy cute?”
I nearly choke on a piece of chicken. “Shrey, c’mon! Are you kidding me?”
She holds up her hands. “I’m just saying. Youhavebeen single for a whole two months, and it’s not like you have much to look at during work, between Supervisor Clark, Old Lady Miriam, and Tanya the Gumsmacker.”
“Do not mock my co-workers.” I shake my head, trying not to laugh at the ragtag AnimalZone team. “They are lovely people.”
She wears a smug smile. “I didn’t say they weren’t, but attractive they are not. So what about Dylan?”
“I don’t know.” I lean back, the curry sloshing inside me. “I was too distracted by his overall hatred of the world to notice.”
“Perhaps I’ll have to make my own assessment.” She leans in to whisper. “If I can ever get off work, that is.”
“Tell me we’re still on for Saturday at least.”
“Of course. That’s, like, our thing.”
I laugh. “Pretty much. I better get back to work—Clark needs me to fill in for Tanya a couple hours.”
“I gotta get back out there, too.” She stands with me. “Don’t you just hate Olivia right now? If she posts one more picture of Tahiti…”
“Seriously.” But at least Shreya and I can share in our no-vacation summer misery. This is my only comfort as I bike back to work. When I get there, Dylan is still lounging at my Aquatics island, messing with the pens. Old Lady Miriam mans the register, where she cheerily chats with a lady about her ragdoll cat. She may be the slowest checker on the face of the Earth, but she is also the sweetest. Tanya the Gumsmacker works the shift after me, so I don’t see her often, but I do get stuck with her hours or Miriam’s when they can’t come in.
I don’t want to deal with Dylan, but I force myself back to my station. He might be slightly more tolerable than Betty. Maybe I should be grateful I don’t have to go home. “Did you have lunch already?”
He doesn’t look away from the pens. “None of your business.”
“I was just asking because now that I’m back you can get out. Sorry for trying to be considerate.”
“I heard you talking to my uncle earlier,” he says. “I know he’s trying to get you on the fix-Dylan train. Don’t bother. I don’t need fixing.”
“I have no clue what you’re talk—” My phone rings, but when I pull it from my pocket I don’t recognize the number, so I let it go. “Look, I’m just trying to do my job, and I really hope ‘fixing you’ isn’t part of it, because that has a very different meaning in a pet store, you know.”
That earns me a disdainful glance.
“Though I hear fixing dogs really calms…” Whoever it was leaves a message, and I decide it’s better to listen to that than deal with Dylan. The voice I hear is definitely not one I expected.
It’s my neighbor, Mr. Choi. “Hi Mika. I couldn’t get a hold of your parents, so I thought I’d try you. Um, there is a strange woman in front of your house ruining your zen garden. I tried to ask her about it, and she called me a rather distasteful name and said it was her house. I thought I should call you before I called the police. Call me back if you can.”
My lungs can’t seem to get air. My parents left Betty alone at the house? Are they insane? I assumed at least one of them would stay with her. And my mother’s zen garden! She is obsessive about getting those lines just right. I redial the missed call number, and he picks up immediately. “Hi, Mr. Choi? Don’t call the police—she’s my grandmother. Yeah, my dad’s. Yeah, that’s the one.”
Dylan’s ears perk up at this, and I’d rather not have him hear about my new family drama. I take a few paces away from him and speak quieter. “My parents are probably in meetings. Let me talk to my supervisor and see if I can get there before she destroys the whole thing.”
“Police, huh?” Dylan says when I hang up. “And here I thought you were a tight ass.”
I give him my best glare instead of flipping him off like I want to. “Don’t. I have more than enough to deal with right now. Try not to kill any fish while I’m gone.”
Clark is kind enough to let me go early, even though he needed me to cover Tanya’s hours. Then I speed off to whatever disaster my grandma is causing.
I have a feeling it won’t be the last time.
When I pull up to my house, I can barely believe what I’m seeing. How can an old woman do so much damage in so little time? Betty has managed to shovel all the gravel into piles, like tiny mountains scattered about our yard. And now she’s digging at the packed dirt below for no reason I can guess.
Across the street, poor Mr. Choi stands nervously in his driveway. He’s been such a good neighbor, and sometimes I babysit his grandchildren when his kids come home for holidays. I better get his account before I attempt to break Betty out of her furious digging.
“How long has this been going on?” I ask as I wheel my bike across the street.
“Since this morning. I was returning from my early walk when I spotted her. At first I thought perhaps your parents hired someone to tend the yard, but then I realized it would probably be a younger person.” His eyes might be wrinkled with age, but they still show a hint of anger. “She called me a dirty Jap when I asked her what she was doing. I’m not even Japanese, but still.”
I cover my mouth in surprise and embarrassment. He’s Korean-American, but it seems Betty is one of the many people who are happy to lump all of Asia together. And use racist words while they’re at it. “I’m so sorry. She showed up yesterday. I don’t think my parents realized her condition was this bad.”
“She said she has Alzheimer’s.”
“Ahhh.” He nods, some compassion returning at the news. I’m not sure I should be happy about that or not. Does her disease exempt her from being kind to my neighbors? That doesn’t seem fair. “I swear we’ll make it up to you. Treat you to dinner or something.”
He shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it. I just knew Yumi would be upset.”
“Yeah…” Mom loves the zen garden. It’s her only real hobby. She says it gives her peace, sitting out on the front porch with her tea most every evening. “Maybe I can get it almost back to normal before they get home.”
“Good luck.” He straightens his glasses, looking over my shoulder at Betty. “Perhaps your parents should take her to a doctor.”
“Yeah. Thanks for calling.”
He nods, and I head back to my house. Betty doesn’t look up from her work as I lock my bike to the porch. I watch her for a second, still unsure of why she’s digging a hole in our yard.
“What are you doing?” My voice is angrier than expected.
She looks up at me, seeming confused by my presence, until it clicks. “Grace, you’re back.”
“Actually, it’s Mika.”
“Oh…I’d rather call you Grace.” She goes back to digging. “Did you know that’s my sister’s name? I love my sister. We make dollhouses together.”
“You told me about her yesterday. Except you said you’re glad she’s dead.”
“What?” She laughs. “No I didn’t.”
I roll my eyes. “So is there a reason you piled all the gravel into little hills? Because my mom will be pissed about that.”
“Who has rocks in their front yard? You need grass. And more trees.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Are you seriously crazy enough to think you can re-landscape our yard?”
“If I want it done right I have to do everything myself—that’s what my mom always says.” Her arms strain as she works, and a gust of wind blows her unpleasant scent right in my face. She’s drenched in sweat.
“You can’t do this. It’s not your yard. You don’t have a right to change it just because you don’t like it.” I grab her arm, though there’s no way I could pull her up.
She freezes, then slowly turns her head to me. All the pleasantness in her expression drains. “Don’t touch me!”
“I was just—”
“I don’t want your dirty hands on me!” She stands up, looking surprised by her surroundings and the trowel in her hand. “I need a bath.”
Words fail me. Maybe because I’ve never been so insulted in my life, and by my own grandmother. Mom prepared me for prejudice from strangers, not from my own blood. How am I supposed to handle this?
Betty disappears inside before I can figure out what to say, but I know one thing for certain—my parents were right to cut her out of their life. She’s awful.
I get to work on the gravel, which is surprisingly heavy. How Betty got all this piled up is beyond me. At least I’m used to the lifting, what with how much I haul at work. I only get five mounds smoothed out when I hear, “Grace! Grace! Help!”
Shooting up, I run for the house with no clue what I might find except that it must be bad. I don’t know enough about Alzheimer’s to deal with her. And I don’t want to. I rush through the door, where I’m met withwaymore old lady flesh than I ever wanted to see in my life. “You’re naked!”
“I don’t have any clothes!” She’s crying like a child, soaking wet from what I can only assume was her bath to clean off my dirty touch. “I think someone stole my clothes.”
“Ugh.” I shield my eyes, wishing I could go back to work. Stupid Dylan is better than this. Barely.
After all that digging, she really doesn’t have any clothes that aren’t dirty. She didn’t even have a purse when she showed up yesterday, which makes me wonder how she managed to get on a plane and all the way to Monterey. I head into the living room and grab a blanket. “Here. Let me see if I can find you anything.”
She nods slowly, wrapping the blanket around her chest.
I head to my parents’ room in attempts to find something for her to wear. The search doesn’t go well. Betty is not a small woman, and my mom has never been bigger than a size two. Even my dad is thin and lanky, and none of his stuff looks remotely big enough. But I have to get her something because I can’t handle her naked, on top of everything else.
It comes down to the kimono my mom wore for her big twentieth birthday celebration or my dad’s favorite bathrobe. Seeing as one of my mom’s prized things has already been destroyed today, I grab the bathrobe. At least now it’s even.
“How’s this?” I ask her, holding out the robe.
She smiles meekly. “Yes, thank you.”
I look away as she dresses right in front of me. “Can you not ruin anything else now? Just watch TV or something.”
She frowns as she grabs the remote. “I don’t know how to make it work.”
I sit her down and show her how to use the remote. It seems to take her more than normal time to understand, and my patience is long gone. This isn’t fair. I shouldn’t have to be doing this while my parents are working. They’re the adults—they should be here.
After I start the washer to clean her sweaty clothes, I sit in my dad’s recliner and let out a long sigh. Betty watches the TV, but she glances at me, seeming confused. “Where’s Martin?”
“Who?” I ask.
“My husband. Do you know where he is?”
I shake my head, exhausted with her. “I don’t know anything about you. Watch your show.”
Betty shrinks into Dad’s robe, looking sad. “I don’t know either. He just left. No note. No calls. Jenny and Stan and Greg keep asking where he is, and I don’t know what to say. Business trips don’t last forever, you know?”
“Whatever.” I have no idea if what she’s saying is real or not. Dad doesn’t talk about his family. As far as I know, his life began in college. That’s as early as he’ll go.
“Everyone leaves me.” Her voice is soft. “You will, too, Micah.”
She cringes. “Does your name have to sound so foreign? Couldn’t they have at least given you an American name?”
“I’ve always liked my name just fine.”
Long pause. “I think I’m hungry.”
Rolling my eyes, I stay put. “Can’t you get your own food?”
“Your refrigerator smells weird.”
What the hell is that supposed to mean? I decide it’s better to feed her than listen to her talk. “I’ll make you a sandwich or something.”
As I rummage through our meager food stock, I wonder if I should call my parents again. But then I hear their car drive up and the garage door rumble open. Maybe Mr. Choi left them messages as well. I run out the back door, into the garage, and spot my parents out front surveying the damage, but I stop short of them.
Mom’s face slacks in shock at the sight of our ruined front yard, and then she turns on Dad, livid. “Look at this!”
“I’m not blind, Yumi.” Dad heads for the piles of gravel. “You’re the one who said she’d be fine on her own.”
“Don’t you dare put this on me. She’s your mother, and she hates me. Of course I didn’t want to stay home with her!”
Then my dad explodes, and they’re arguing in front of our house where everyone can see. Taking a few steps back, I decide to go back inside. I stand in the kitchen, reeling. I’ve never seen them fight before.
I don’t like it.
What do you mean you don’t know?” Dad’s on the phone with his sister, Jenny. “She didn’t show up with anything but the clothes on her back. How could you put her on a plane without…that is no excuse…ugh, you’re just like her, you know that? I can’t believe you’ve been living off her, using her trailer, and you can’t even tell me who her doctor was or if she has any insurance. What about Medicaid?”
Mom and I eat breakfast in silence. Betty hasn’t gotten up yet. From what I’ve gathered so far, Jenny is not the beacon of responsibility my dad is. It sounds like instead of physically escaping, like Dad and Greg did, she chose a more…chemical route.
“You know what? Forget it. I’ll deal with it, like always.” Dad sets his phone on the counter, looking like he’s about to burst. “Jenny said there was a carry-on bag—Mom probably didn’t take it off the plane, so I get to call the San Jose airport next. There’s no telling where her purse ended up.”
Mom frowns. “What are we going to do? Two days, and she’s already ripped a hole in our lives. How much does Alzheimer’s care even cost?”
“Probably more than we can afford, but what choice do we have?” Dad sits at the table, seeming exhausted, though the day has only just begun. “Greg will chip in, but forest rangers don’t make much. Jenny has nothing—she’ll probably use Mom’s social security money if we don’t hurry and transfer it here.”
I sip my tea, trying not to look freaked out. Jenny sounds messed up if she’d actually do that. “But Betty needs to get out of here. Like now.”
My dad’s eyes soften when he looks at me. I told them about the naked situation yesterday, and they both felt bad for putting me through that. “I know, sweetie, but I can’t do that until I find out what it’ll cost or who diagnosed her.” He leans back in his seat, resigned. “I’ll have to take time off work. She obviously can’t be left alone.”
Mom sighs. “I’ll find a way to tell the director. I can handle finalizing the grant preparations on my own. Your mother? Not so much.”
Dad doesn’t seem happy about what Mom said, but he doesn’t reply. It feels like there’s residual anger left from their fight yesterday, and I won’t be the one to bring that up again. I grab my messenger bag. “I gotta get to work. Good luck, Dad.”
He nods. “Thanks.”
The morning is warmer than usual as I pedal my way to AnimalZone. It is technically summer, so I hope it’s a sign of some sunnier days to come. If my life is so complicated, at least the weather should be agreeable. It makes me wish it were Saturday, then I could hang out with Shreya at the beach instead of facing Dylan again.
By a stroke of luck, he’s nowhere to be seen when I get there. I don’t dare ask Clark where he is, favoring to do my job instead. The fish make me happy. As I feed them and clean their tanks, I feel like everything is normal for a second. There’s one goldfish in particular—one with giant telescope eyes—that I keep going back to. The moment I bring one home, I always find another at work to get attached to.
When I take my morning break, I discover Dylan has been shoved into the inventory room, where he’s stacking a new shipment of dog food. It makes me happy to see him doing grunt work. Clark must be punishing him for something.
“Excuse me,” an older man says. It’s about noon, and he’s the first customer all day to make eye contact with me. I don’t bother asking the browsers if they need help—they usually get tense and uncomfortable, like I’m hoping to sell them something.
“How can I help you?” I ask.
“I’m having problems with my goldfish. I thought he was dead this morning because he was upside down, but when I went to scoop him out he flicked back around and scared the living daylights out of me.” He puts his hand over his heart. “Does that mean he’ll die soon?”
I shake my head, smiling. “He probably has swim bladder. Feed him a couple shelled peas every week, and he’ll be fine.”
He looks surprised. “It’s okay to feed them people food?”
“Notallfood, but goldfish are omnivores. They like a variety of things—peas, carrots, oats, worms, shrimp, even raspberries. It’s good to give them treats, helps them digest better.”
“I didn’t know that. Thank you, you’ve been very helpful.”
“You’re welcome. Do you need anything else?” This customer is just what I needed. He asks me to point him to a better food for his fish and even buys a bigger tank at my recommendation. His fish is a lucky one. Most people hardly care or notice when theirs start acting out of character.
I wonder if anyone noticed when Betty first started acting strange. Jenny doesn’t sound like the kind of person who would worry about her mom’s health. Something drastic, like yesterday, must have happened before Betty even went to the doctor.
After I help the man to the register, I turn to find Dylan back at my Aquatics island. Urgh.
“Sure had that guy eating out of your hands,” he says.
I roll my eyes. “It’s called being polite. Maybe you should try it sometime.”
He smirks. “Maybe. But seriously, what’s with you and fish? I’ve never heard someone go on about them like that, let alone a person my age.”
His voice is the least venomous I’ve heard it, and it takes me off guard. For a second I consider not answering, but if this means he’s trying to be nice I’ll encourage it. My life would be much easier if he wasn’t such a jerk. “My parents are marine biologists—I’ve been around fish my whole life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like fish.”
“So…you like them because your parents like them? I don’t buy that.”
“It’s not just that,” I say, sounding way more defensive than I like. “Have you ever heard the legend of koi?”
He shakes his head.
“It was my favorite story growing up. My mom would tell it to me before bed, how the koi would swim up the Yellow River but were met with a great waterfall at its source. Most of the koi would give up at that point, but some kept on trying to scale the waterfall. They tried and tried for one hundred years, and finally one koi reached the top of the falls—when it did, the gods turned it into a dragon.”
I smile at the wall of goldfish beside me. “I still picture all these little fish as potential dragons, I guess. And it’s a good reminder not to give up, even when things get hard. Maybe someday I’ll reach the top of the falls, too, you know?”
Dylan is quiet for a moment, his brow knit tightly over his eyes. “Question.”
“If a koi was born at the top of the waterfall, in whatever spring was up there, would it turn into a dragon?”
I tilt my head. “Huh?”
“I’m just wondering—is it the trying to get to the top that makes a koi a dragon? Or is it being at the top?”
I’m not sure why he wants to know, but it is an interesting question. Who knew he had it in him to get all deep and ponderous? “I think it’s the journey and effort the gods found favorable enough to merit dragonhood.”
“But if that were so, what about all the others still banging their heads against the rocks? Don’t they deserve it, too?”
“I…” I search for something, but can’t put my thoughts into words.
“Ahem.” I whirl around, finding Clark watching us. “How do you feel about me treating you guys to lunch? Mika deserves it, and I am currently obligated to feed Dylan.”
“As long as it’s not cheap food, fine,” Dylan says, looking at the floor.
“Fair enough.” Clark turns to me. “How ’bout it, Mika?”
There’s something weird about the way he looks at us. “You’ve never treated any of us to lunch before. Why now?” I ask.
Clark clears his throat. “Well, I just thought maybe you two would get along better if you learned more about each other. It’s to improve our work environment. Employee bonding and junk.”
He’s totally lying.I get this sinking feeling in my stomach. Is he seriously trying to set us up? Oh, hell no. “Uhh, I actually need to run home and check on…stuff. Sorry, maybe next time.”
Clark raises an eyebrow. “You can just say you don’t wanna go.”
“No! Really.” I search for something to tell him, and then the image of my dad alone with Betty hits. “It’s family stuff. My dad’s home for the day, and I wanted to bring him lunch.”
“Does it have to do with the cop thing?” Dylan asks.
My eyes go wide. “No. There were no cops. Shut up.”
Clark gives me a skeptical look. “Well, have a nice time with your dad. Hope everything is okay.”
Though I didn’t originally plan this, I go to my dad’s favorite Mexican place, Su Casa, and order enough enchiladas for the two of us. I’m not sure what to get Betty and end up picking a cheese quesadilla. As I park in front of our house, I’m afraid of what I’ll walk into. I just hope it’s not more yelling.
When I open the door, I’m not on edge because of any fighting, but because it’s soquiet.The only sound is the TV, and when I round the corner there’s Betty watching as if she’s completely normal and nothing at all strange happened yesterday. Dad sits at the kitchen table, poring over his laptop. He looks up first. “Mi-chan, I didn’t know you were coming home for lunch. Didn’t you say you were covering for Tanya?”
I hold up the bags. “Yeah, but I thought you might want to share?”
He smiles—truly smiles, for the first time since his mom showed up—and that makes the trip worth it. “Did you really bring me enchiladas?”
“C’mere.” He hugs me, and we pull open the boxes. The enchiladas kind of look like someone threw up in a tin platter, but they taste amazing—the sweet pork, the hot sauce and cilantro. I’m drooling already.
There’s no reaction from Betty, and I can’t help but glance over at her. “Has she been like that all morning?”
“It was a fight to feed her breakfast, but yeah, pretty much. I think she’s tired from all that digging she did yesterday, which she doesn’t remember, by the way.” He takes a huge bite of the cheesy mess, then shoves a spoonful of beans in along with it. “Mm, so good. I needed this.”
“Thought you might.” I dig into my own, taking only slightly smaller bites. Mom hates how we eat, says we act like the food will vaporize if we don’t shovel it in. I lean in to whisper. “She makes me cravesaaglike nothing ever has.”
He laughs. “I know the feeling all too well.”
“I bought her a cheese quesadilla, just in case. The first day she said she didn’t like anything spicy or ‘ethnic,’ though.”
He rolls his eyes. “Whatever that means.”
“I know, right?” I love my dad. He’s not the stereotypical strict kind. Of course he expects me to do my best, but he also seems to encourage me to question things and follow my own path to the answers. Maybe he does it because he didn’t get that, growing up.
“I’ll give it to her after you leave,” he says through his food. “You’ve already had your share of her for the week.”
“Okay.” I look at her, a strange pity-anger mix hitting. I can’t help but wish we didn’t have to deal with this, especially since my mom and I hardly know her. “Dad, can I ask you something?”
“Did you have an aunt named Grace?”
He pauses mid-bite, staring at me. “How…?”
“She asked me my middle name, and when I told her it was Grace she said you must have named me after her sister. I wasn’t sure if it was true or not.”
He lets out a long sigh. “It’s true. Aunt Grace was…amazing. I don’t know much about my mom’s childhood, but they were very poor, as poor or poorer than I was growing up. Aunt Grace didn’t want to be that way forever, and she fought, Mika, just like me and your mom fought. She was a lawyer in Boston, and she encouraged me to do well in school and go to college. I owe everything to her.”
I nod. “And she died?”
“Right after I got into college. She was only forty-five.” He stares at his food, I think maybe to hide his expression. “Cancer. She left what she had to me, Greg, and Jenny for school, but it wasn’t much after all those medical bills and the funeral.”
I know I’m already pushing it, but these stories from my dad’s past fascinate me. He seems like an entirely different person, and yet the same. “Did your father really just up and leave you guys?”
“S-she told you that?”
“She said it yesterday. She was telling me she didn’t know what to say to you guys.”
“He did, but I don’t want to talk about it.” Dad won’t look at me after that, and it feels like he’s put up ten-foot walls. “I better get back to researching care facilities.”
The idea makes me excited. “So she’s not staying here?”
He shakes his head. “Not if I can help it. Thanks for lunch.”
“No problem.” I get up, needing to get back to work anyway, and head for the door. But I take one glance at Betty and stop. She’s still staring at the TV, and I swear there are tears running down her face. Weird. It can’t be from the show—they are doing some cooking segment—and then I realize she heard everything my dad said.
Did it hurt her?
Everyone leaves me, she said.
I look at my dad. I’ve always been proud of him, how hard he’s worked to get where he is. But I never really thought about who or what he left behind. Though if Betty felt so bad about it, why didn’t she ever try to fix it?
“Mi-chan?” he says.
I whirl around. “Hmm?”
I shake my head. “See you in a few hours.”
I always show up to the beach early, though I know Shreya is always late. But Lovers Point isn’t a very big place, and I have to stake out a good spot where the sand is perfect and close to the tide line. I roll out a few towels I brought to claim our place and sit to watch the sunrise. Yes, rise. Lovers Point curves into the bay, making it one of the few places on the West Coast where you can watch the sun come up over the ocean.
This, of course, makes it a busy tourist spot, but that’s pretty much why Shreya and I pick this beach so often. We’re show-offs. When your art is as fleeting as sand sculpture, the goal is to have as many people as possible see it before it crumbles.
The beach is still cold this early in the morning, so I pull my hoodie up and nestle deep into my favorite fleece blanket. Opening my current sketchbook, I draw out ideas for today’s piece in the slowly increasing sunlight. An opulent castle. An old man making sand angels. A dragon crawling up from a spring.
Shreya will probably hate them all—she’s a much better artist, honestly—but I always sketch anyway. It’s nice to let my mind wander, to draw whatever shows up there.
When I’m not sketching, I shamelessly people-watch. As the sun rises, they make their way down the cliff to the beach, walk along the park paths with their dogs, take pictures of the Victorian-style bed and breakfast places lined up across the street. I check my phone, wondering just how late Shreya will be. It tends to vary based on how busy the restaurant was Friday night.
Finally, I see her on the cliff stairs. She has her usual equipment strapped to her back, and she waves when she spots me. I wave back, ready to do something normal after this crazy week.
“Good spot,” she says when she gets close enough. “I have all day, so let’s try going bigger, okay?”
“Hell yeah,” I say. “I brought lunch, no reason to leave.”
“What did you draw this morning?” She snatches my book from me, looking at the latest stuff. “I like the dragon. I’m so in the mood for a dragon, but—”
“You have a better idea?” I ask.
She laughs. “Just some modifications! We’ll totally keep it an Asian dragon. Way cooler.”
We get to work planning the dragon. Of course her ideas take my sketch to the next level. She wants to make it look like it’s just about to take flight, its front feet pushing up from the ground, its head lifted to the sky. “It’ll look awesome from the cliff, like it’s about to shoot up and take someone out.”
We get to work mapping out the size and proportions in the sand—its giant head, the arch of its back in the center, the tail resting on the other side of the pond. I even run up to the cliff top to make sure it looks like a good size. Then it’s time for sand packing, which is the least fun part. But firmly packed sand is key to a sturdy sculpture, so we take our jackets off and begin.
“This part never stops sucking,” Shreya says, huffing as we shovel sand into our five-gallon buckets. “Can’t sand weigh less? Stupid sand.”
I laugh. “But hey, our arms are ripped.”
She flexes her triceps, which are seriously cut, then her biceps. “I do look hot, don’t I?”
“Totally hot.” I move on to my next bucket. “What we need is Olivia.”
“Psh, she always whines.”
“She has good stories, though, and it feels weird without her to entertain us.” When Olivia is not in Tahiti, she works at the Pebble Beach Spa with her mom, who’s a masseuse. Olivia’s basically a gofer for the rich ladies who hang out while their husbands play golf, and she constantly has some dramatic tale to tell us about them.
“True. Olivia is our creamy Oreo center.”
“I miss her.” Olivia’s the one who doesn’t take life too seriously—Shreya and I have a tendency to be too “goal oriented,” as Olivia says.
“Me too, but I will channel her. I want to hear more about Dylan,” Shreya says.
I roll my eyes, though Oliviawouldask me about him. “There’s nothing to tell. Still doesn’t do anything I tell him to do. Still acts like he’d rather have his nails ripped out than work there. You really need to get out if you’re desperate enough to talk about him.”
She snorts. “I know I do! But that’s what my parents are worried about, even when I’ve told them I don’t want to date until college. Seems like the older I get the more they want to keep me at the restaurant. They have another thing coming if they think I’ll let them pick my husband, though.”
Her face goes dark, and I frown. Shreya’s parents had an arranged marriage, but I didn’t think they’d do that to her. “Shrey, is that really what they’re planning?”
She shrugs. “Not completely. Yet. I don’t know. My dad doesn’t want me to marry a non-Indian, though. We kinda had a huge fight about it last night. Not that Idon’twant to marry an Indian guy—I’d just like to have a choice, you know?”
I’m not sure what to say, because it seems weird that this still happens. I can’t help thinking about my parents, how being in love made so many problems with my dad’s family. I sigh. “We’re only seventeen. You have time to win them over.”
She smiles, but it’s sad. “I’m not sure it works that way, Mika.”
“I don’t know. It should be that simple, shouldn’t it?” She grabs a smaller bucket to fetch water.
“Yes, it should be.”
“But it isn’t.” She walks toward the waves, tugging at her ponytail. That means she’s upset. It makes my heart ache. Shreya is my best friend. She shouldn’t have to choose between love and her family. They should go hand in hand.
Within a few hours, we’ve packed all the sand into giant mounds that will form the foundation of our dragon. It’s a simple enough design, though bigger than we usually go, so I figure it’ll take us well into the afternoon to finish. We stand next to each other, surveying our work.
“I’ll do the head,” Shreya says.
“I was just gonna say you should. I’ll do the rest—it’s mostly scales.” I grab the sketchbook, and we spend a few minutes collaborating on the look of it to make sure our pieces will match. Then it’s time for the fun to begin.
I start from the top. We learned pretty quickly that starting anywhere else was bad. I begin by smoothing out the upper arch, so that the shape is just right, and then I hand pack ridges for the spine scales. Now that morning is in full swing, the beach is bustling with people. Many of them watch us work, which made me nervous when we first started getting serious about sand sculpture. But now I’m used to the camera clicks and the kids who stare on as if we’re the goddesses of sand. I’m also used to the annoying people who ask if it’s really sand.
“Yes, it’s definitely sand,” I say to a man watching on. He doesn’t look convinced.
“You can pack it all next time, sir, if you’d like proof,” Shreya says. “Just show up before dawn with a shovel. We’d be happy for the extra manual labor.”
He snorts and walks off.
Once I have the large spinal scales as crisp as possible, I start on the tedious process of adding small ones to the whole body. I’m just starting to remember why it’s been a while since we did a dragon when I hear, “Mika?”
I look up, blinking a few times because the scale pattern is burned into my retinas. Creepy mustache and running shorts just a touchtooshort. His sulky companion glares at me.
“Supervisor Clark?” I choke out.
“Hey! What a coincidence!” He pats his nephew on the back. “Dylan, look, it’s Mika.”
“I have eyes.” Dylan wears running gear, too, except his fits much better than his uncle’s. The red shirt clings to his form, revealing way more muscle than I expected. His black shorts hit at the knee. His shoes look flashy and expensive. I hate to think it, but he looks like he stepped out of an ad for running wear.
“That’sDylan?” Shreya says, clearly taken in by this version of him.
I want to say he looks a lot worse in the AnimalZone uniform, but I have a feeling I’d insult my boss. “Yeah. This is my best friend, Shreya.”
Clark holds out his hand, and they shake. “Nice to meet you.”
Dylan turns to the ocean, clearly trying to pretend he’s not here. I give Shreya an I-told-you-so look.
She smiles. “Looks like you guys went running.”
“Yup.” Clark nods in Dylan’s direction. “It might not look like it, but he does like to run. And I’ve always liked Lovers Point, touristy or not.”
“Us too,” I say.
“I had no idea you made sand sculptures.” Clark looks over our work, which is maybe one third done. Something in me starts to squirm. I’m positive I mentioned it to him before, because I told him I had to have Saturdays off. “How long have you been doing this?”
“Pretty much every good-weathered Saturday since we were ten,” I reply. That’s when Shreya started at my elementary school. We became instant friends, and we’d go to the beach and build sandcastles. “The sculptures just got bigger.”
“Right.” He glances at Dylan like he wants to kick him for being a jerk. “So, let me guess…a dragon?”
I nod. “Maybe you’ll have to come back in a few hours when it’s done. It doesn’t look like much right now.”
“Or we could stay! I didn’t get to treat you to lunch the other day like I wanted—you deserve it for putting up with Dylan. I could run and get something, be back in like thirty minutes.”
Dylan looks over his shoulder, glaring at his uncle. “I’d rather shower.”
“Being dirty builds character,” Clark says to him, and it feels like I’m missing something. “Hang out with the girls. Maybe you could even help.”
His jaw slacks. “But Unc—”
“No buts! I won’t feed you if you leave.” Clark sprints off. “I’ll be right back with sandwiches!”
I watch in shock as he gets farther and farther away. “Did he seriously plan this?”
“Yup.” Dylan sits in the sand. “And I fell for it.”
“Youcanjust leave,” I say to Dylan as I work. “Clearly you don’t want to be here, and I don’t want you here, either.”
“Mika!” Shreya says, seeming surprised. “When did you get so mean?”
“I’ve been trying to be nice all week. I’m tired.”
Dylan sighs. “I can’t leave. He really won’t feed me if I do. All the food at the house is locked up.”
Shreya and I exchange a puzzled glance. Clark has always seemed like a nice guy to me, but that sounds a little weird. “Can’t you go buy something?” I ask.
“I don’t have any money. Not even my wallet.”
I stick my carver in the sand and tromp over to the cooler I brought. Setting a sandwich down in front of him, I say, “Eat this and leave, then.”
“So I’m supposed to tell him I stole your lunch and left? Do you know how much trouble I’d get in? He’d probably starve me all day, and I’m already dying from running.” He lays back, looking pretty tired. “Jerk didn’t even leave water.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Why is he doing that?”
“Not your business.” He covers his eyes with one arm. “Can you leave me alone? I really am exhausted.”
“She’s only asking because it sounds batshit crazy,” Shreya points out. “Like you’re a prisoner. And I thought my parents were strict.”
“Seriously, shut up, your voice hurts my head,” he says.
That does it. Nobody talks to my friend that way. Grabbing my cooler, I pluck out the first cold water bottle I see, unscrew the top, and pour it right on his crotch. He flies up, and I fling the rest of the water in his face. He gasps for breath, his eyes full of fire. “What the hell?!”
“Either apologize to Shreya or leave. Because I’m so done with your crap.”
“You can’t make me leave.”
I fold my arms. “But I can scream about the weird guy who peed himself and is bothering us. Or maybe…is that…You were doingwhatin public?”
His face goes slack with shock. “You wouldn’t.”
“You wanna bet?”
I take in a deep breath, but only get out a partial scream before he lunges at me and covers my mouth. His weight takes me off guard, and I hit the sand. I stare at him, his face just inches from my own, his wet hair dripping onto my forehead. He glares at me, seething. “Are you crazy?”
He doesn’t move his hand, so I don’t know how he expects me to answer. He just stares and stares, and I don’t know why but I keep looking at him, too. There are gold and green flecks in his brown eyes that you’d never see from a distance. And his lips glisten from the water. Maybe ithasbeen too long since I had a boyfriend, because his weight on me…
“Get off her!” Shreya yells.
That snaps him out of it, and he springs back. People gawk at us. One woman even has her phone out, as if she’s just about to call 911. I pull myself up, brushing off the sand and whatever it was I felt. When she sees I’m okay, she lowers her phone, but I can feel her eyes on me.
“Well,” I say. “You did a good job humiliating yourself all on your own, didn’t you?”
Dylan sits in the sand, his head to his knees. His ears are vibrant red, and I’m pretty sure it’s not a sunburn. I purse my lips in an attempt not to laugh. Grabbing another water bottle, I hold it out in front of him. He doesn’t take it.
“C’mon, I know you’re thirsty. And it’s not like you can stand up to get your own drink.”
He looks up at me. I expect something mean to come out of his mouth, but he takes the water and cracks the top. In about five seconds, the bottle is empty. He doesn’t say thank you.
“Don’t think I’ve let you off on the apology. But you can save it for later if you need to rehearse.” I go back to sculpting. I have to go slow because my hands are shaking. I’m not sure why, since I’m not mad anymore. Better just focus on the scales.
“Sorry, Shreya,” Dylan says after about five minutes.
She gives him a puzzled look. “Thanks, I guess.”
“Here’s the deal,” he continues. “When my uncle gets back, I’m betting he’ll have some excuse to leave again. If we don’t play nice, he’ll probably keep trying to orchestrate these run-ins. So can you pretend we get along while we eat, and then I’ll leave you alone?”
“Why is he doing this, anyway?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Thinks I need new friends. You’re the only person my age he knows.”
“Yeah…” Dylan stares out at the waves, where a few people are surfing. He does seem genuinely exhausted. I almost feel bad for him, and a small part of me wishes he wouldn’t be so determined in his rudeness. He might not be so bad if he’d talk nicely like he did about the koi legend.
“So why are you here if Clark is so harsh on you?” I ask, going back to my endless scales.
“It was the lesser of two evils.”
“What happened to your parents?”
“They got sick of me.”
I pause. What his uncle said comes back, how this summer isn’t turning out how Dylan wanted. “So…they threw you out?”
“Yup.” He slouches more, and I feel like I’ve been kicking a puppy that lost its two front legs.
“I’m back!” Clark calls. He holds a few Subway bags, and Dylan runs to him like he can’t stand another second of not eating. His uncle holds the bags back. “Let me check something first. Mika, how was he?”
My eyebrows raise. “What?”
“Was he nice?”
Dylan gives me the saddest look in the world, and somehow I know his eating relies completely on what I say next. I don’t like this pressure. He might be mean, but he doesn’t deserve this weird punishment. And I shouldn’t be the one to decide. “He was fine,” I say. “Quiet, mostly.”
“Good. We’re making progress.” Clark hands Dylan his sandwich. He grabs it and steps back like his uncle still might take it away. “If you keep being civil, maybe I’ll give you food privileges soon.”
Shreya and I look at each other, and I wonder if her “What the hell is going on?” expression matches my own.
Clark hands us sandwiches, too, and then sighs. “Well, I got a call from Miriam at the store. Sounds like Tanya didn’t show, so I need to go in. Dylan, would you prefer to haul more pet food or enjoy the beach with Mika?”
Dylan looks at me, feigning surprise. How did he call that? “You mean you’d give me a day off?”
“I told you that’s how it works. If you make good choices, you get good things. Plain and simple.”
Dylan nods. “I guess I’ll stay here then.”
“Great! I’ll come back for you at six.” Clark turns to me. “Don’t let him leave, Mika.”
I nod, feeling like a traitor.
When Clark goes, Shreya and I head to our towels to eat. Dylan doesn’t join us. He’s maybe twenty feet away, devouring his lunch like he hasn’t had food in weeks. Shreya watches him, and I flick her leg. “Ow! Can’t I enjoy the view?”
She glares at me. “C’mon, Mika. You can’t tell me he’s not gorgeous. How did you not notice? Even I can see that and I’m not boy crazy like you and Olivia.”
“Uh, hello? Did you hear anything that came out of his mouth?”
She shakes her head, still staring at him. “I’m starting to forget.”
I roll my eyes, even though I might agree with her more than I want to admit. With the afternoon heat upon us, the sand will start drying faster. We need to get the dragon finished before then. When we get back to work, I’m keenly aware of the fact that Dylan hasn’t left the beach yet. He occasionally looks at me, but mostly stares at the ocean. I can’t imagine what’s going through his head.
Hours pass. Our dragon looks awesome. Shreya did an amazing job with his facial expression, and as we put on the finishing touches the crowd around us becomes a solid ring of people and camera phones.
I spot Dylan on the cliff, looking down at our work from the same place I surveyed it this morning. I can’t quite tell, but I think he’s smiling.
The koi gather at the edge of my pond in the backyard, right near my feet. They swim over each other, excited, and I smile. Who says fish are dumb? They know just as well as any pet that it’s feeding time, and they have an incredible sense of smell. They don’t react this way to anyone but me.
My parents’ voices float out the kitchen window. I can’t quite make out what they’re saying, but the tones are not nice. Again. This has been the case for over a week now. My dad doesn’t want to stay home anymore. We all want Betty in a care facility, but it would cost like a third of their income even with Uncle Greg’s help. I don’t know what they’ll do with her if we don’t have the money. Hopefully not anything crazy. Like keep her around.
I sprinkle the food over my koi, and they gobble it up like the endlessly hungry fish they are. At least it’s mostly peaceful out here. Our backyard is one of my favorite places. Though it’s small, there’s a giant tree that takes up most of the space. The limbs are so thick even an adult can sit on them. My koi pond is right under that, surrounded by bushes, with a small waterfall at the far end. The rest of the space is devoted to a deck with lounge chairs.
Stooping down, I reach out to pet my fish. Shreya once told me that was creepy, but I don’t care. They aren’t slimy like people usually assume. It’s more like silky.
“They sure like you,” Betty says, and I jump up in surprise. What is she, a ninja? She stands right next to me, her eyebrows raised high. “Sorry, I scared you.”
“No, it’s fine. Just didn’t hear you.” I eye her warily, never sure of what I’ll get when she opens her mouth. The doctor my parents took her to said she was likely in the beginning of moderate Alzheimer’s, which I guess means she’ll need more and more help.
She points her thumb back at the house. “Do they always fight like that?”
I look away. “Actually, no.”
“Ah, so it’s my fault.”
“Yup.” I figure she should know how much she’s invaded our lives, even if she might not remember tomorrow.
She stoops down by the pond, puts her fingers in the water. My fish scatter. “At least you have parents who care.”
Though I don’t really want to talk to her, my curiosity betrays me because maybe I’ll get more stories about my dad. If he won’t tell me what happened, Betty is all I have. “You didn’t?”
“I used to, until the war.” Her hand stops, one finger still in the water. “Gracie, why’d you have to go first? Everything would have been better if it was me.”
“What are you talking about?”
She shoots up, her face way too close to mine. In her eyes, I’m sure I see fear. “Do you know what happens in those homes? That’s where they send you when you’re too far gone. That’s where I’m going todie.Alone. I bet Martin won’t even visit me!”
Whoa, talk about swift topic change.“You mean my dad, Stan?”
“See? It won’t be long until I can’t say anything.” She bursts into tears, and I don’t know what to do. It seems cold just to stand there and watch her, but last time I tried to touch her she said she didn’t want my “dirty hands” on her. “I don’t want to die, but there’s nothing else left to do.”
“Those care centers aren’tthatbad. Have you talked to my parents about it?” Because this is way too heavy for me. Why does she always pick me when she wants to say crazy stuff?
She wipes at her tears like an angry child. “They don’t like me. Honestly, I don’t like them very much either.”
I don’t like you, either.“But you’d still rather stay here?”
My stomach turns with guilt, thinking about how she’d rather be with people trying to get rid of her. Her life must suck if she thinks that’s a good option. “Why?”
Her face goes blank again, and I have a feeling she can’t remember. But then she sighs. “I miss my Stan, even if he never missed me, just like I miss my sister and my Greg and my Martin and my dad. Why do I still miss my dad? Why can’t I forget that instead?”
“What happened to your dad?” I ask.
That gets me one of the worst glares yet. “Go to hell, dirty Jap.”
My eyes widen as I watch her storm back to the house. I stand there, stunned. No one has ever called me that to my face. It hurts. Even knowing she’s losing her mind, it doesn’t stop it from repeating over and over in my head. I’ve been as patient as I can with my grandmother, with this person who deserves no kindness from me, and this is what I get. I blink back tears as her screaming comes from the house.
“You’re all going to hell! I hate you! You ruined my life! You ruined the world!”
My parents better put her in a facility tomorrow. I’ll even pack her stuff and drive her there as long as I never have to deal with this crap again. Instead of going inside, I head around the house to the front. Mom’s zen garden is finally back in place, and I hop along the stepping stones until I reach the porch.
My bag is still inside. I haven’t eaten breakfast. I don’t even have my uniform on yet, just yoga pants and a t-shirt. But I unlock my bike and go.
I have to get away from here, because if I tell my parents they’ll just freak out more and I’m so sick of drama. Give me my old life back, please.
It would be nice if I could ride to a beach or the Aquarium to watch the fish all day. Better yet, I wish I had a boat so I could go out on the bay and be surrounded by the ocean. But I have work. Stupid work. I take the long way, trying to calm myself down so I won’t risk bursting into tears.
Dylan would revel in that.
We may have reached a silent truce in the last week, but the image of him sneering at me steels my face. I won’t be weak in front of him. Not ever.
“I think you forgot something,” Dylan says when I get to work.
I grab the blue apron from one of the shelves in the Aquatics island. It’ll have to do for today. I just hope Clark doesn’t ask any questions. “I forgot a lot of things, actually. Did you clean the tanks yet?”
“Of course not.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose. We’ve gotten to the point that he’ll do stuff when I ask him to, but if I don’t mention it he pretends it magically doesn’t need to be done. “Good. I need to scrub.”
His eyebrows go up. “Did something happen to you?”
“Why would you care?” I grab the cleaning supplies. “Go check the shelves to see if there’s anything we need to restock.”
His expression might be concern, but I’m already too upset to be impressed by his small show of compassion. I grab the big magnetic scrubber, attach it to the glass, and get to work. Try to forget the words she said. Think of anything else. Everything else. She’s just a crazy old lady who doesn’t know what she’s saying.
Which is actuallymorefrustrating, because I can’t cuss her out for being such an awful person. She probably wouldn’t even remember if I did.
“Ugh!” I struggle to get the magnetic scrubber off the glass. They are super strong and get slippery in the water. “Stupid thing!”
I look up to see Clark staring at me like I’ve sprouted horns. I stand straight and wipe the water off my hands. “Yes?”
He looks over my outfit disapprovingly. “Did that tank do something to hurt your feelings?”
“Sorry.” I stare at my feet, realizing how crazy I must look.
“Dylan said there was something wrong with you, but I didn’t expect him to be right.”
I snap my head up, eyes wide. He tattled on me? After all the times these last two weeks I restrained myself? I’ll kill him for this, freaking hypocrite. “I just…it’s…family stuff.”
“What happened?” His voice is so kind when he says it, but I can’t bring myself to explain.
“It’s personal,” I choke out. He would never understand, and I can’t bring myself to say the insult.
He nods. “Well, I’m sorry for whatever it is, but I hope this doesn’t happen again. You have to wear the uniform, Mika. It’s not like you to ignore rules, so I’ll assume this is a one-time thing.”
“I need to feed the kittens, but if you feel like talking at some point feel free to holler at me. I know family stuff can be hard—we’ve had our fair share lately, with you know who.”
“Like what?” I ask before I can stop myself. Despite my best efforts, I’m still curious as to how Dylan ended up here. He is kind of ruining my life, so I feel like I deserve to know.
He purses his lips. “My brother and I don’t exactly get along—very different world views, you could say. He’s always been overly ambitious, nearly cutthroat in how he approaches life—he thinks I’m a lazy slob.”
Clark is a bit odd, but “lazy slob” is definitely the wrong descriptor. “But you own a business, and you work really hard to keep it running.”
“Why thank you, Mika.” He smiles wide, like he’s relieved to have validation. “I feel the same way, but my brother doesn’t think much of one pet store when he owns…well, it’s a lot more than one store. He’s never even come to visit this ‘dirty flea hole’, so.”
I raise an eyebrow, curious. If Dylan grew up with such a stuck-up sounding father, no wonder he’s so condescending. “What does he do?”
Clark waves it off. “It doesn’t matter, but suffice it to say I never liked how much they neglected Dylan, and yet also expected him to do everything they told him to. They sent him off to boarding school so they didn’t have to deal with him. Now they’re not happy with how he turned out, and I find it rather…frustrating.”
“Is that why you took him in?”
“Partly,” he says, looking at the school of fish nearest him. “Also because I believe family is family, even when they’re not behaving how you’d like. Of course you can’t be an enabler, but you don’t just throw people away. Especially in their darkest hours, when they need you the most.”
His words hit me right in the gut. Scary how much they apply to me. “You really think that?”
He nods. “Now get back to scrubbing, and I expect you to change at lunch.”
As I continue cleaning the tanks, Clark’s words repeat in my head. Mom has always told me that taking the high road is better, even though it’s harder, and I agree with Clark that you shouldn’t throw people out. But I’m not sure that applies when said “family member” has never been part of your life because your parents knew they’d only hurt you. Besides, wasn’t Betty the one who threw my parents out?
I don’t know what happened with Dylan, but he’s not Betty. She’s already had enough second chances. She needs to leave, and I’ll do what I have to in order to make that happen.
Dylan manages to avoid me until after lunch, but now he approaches the Aquatics island slowly, as if he’s trying not to anger a tiger. He better be careful, because I’m still pissed about him ratting me out. “You better scrub these tanks all week, otherwise I’ll tell Clark you’re still a jerk to me, and he’ll make you clean up all the poop in the store.”
“Probably. You are teacher’s pet,” he says.
My eyes narrow. “I’m not the tattler. And after I covered for you at the beach and everything!”
He holds up his hands. “Fine, maybe I shouldn’t have, but you looked really messed up, okay?”
He leans on the island, seeming to have decided that I will not, in fact, decapitate him. “C’mon, that’s not what I meant. I figured you wouldn’t want to talk to me, and my uncle has this annoying habit of being ridiculously level-headed when other people are freaking out.”
I purse my lips, appraising him. If I’m not mistaken, I think he might have been worried about me. Weird. I thought he hated me, but maybe I’m wrong. “That is an annoying habit, but you still get tank duty. My standards.”
Instead of the glare I expect, he smiles. “Fine.”
I look away, surprised at my blushing.
Customers come in and out for the next couple hours. Tanya the Gumsmacker is actually here today, but now Old Lady Miriam has a doctor’s appointment. Between those two missing work I’ll be here full time all summer. But I actually wish the time would go slower, dreading what might happen at home tonight. The afternoon is always slow, so when the door dings I automatically look up.
“Shit!” Dylan says before I can process who’s there, and then he drags me around the corner. “You can’t tell them I’m here.”
“Who?” I ask, pulling my arm away from him.
“That girl and guy who just walked in.” He clasps his hands together. “Please. I’m actually begging you.”
He clenches his teeth. “Just because, okay? The guy’s not so bad, but meet that girl once, and I’m sure you won’t want her hanging around. I’m gonna hide in the back.”
He dashes off before I can argue, and I go to my island plotting all the ways I’ll make him pay for this. The two people talk with Tanya, who smacks her gum and takes them in with her classic “I don’t give a crap” expression. She points over to me, and I straighten my shoulders in preparation.
As they walk down the aisle, I can’t help but notice how expensive they look. The girl is over-tanned, manicured, glossy haired, and wearing preppy clothes. The guy is clean cut and attractive, with dark skin and a swagger only the financially secure possess. They look like the kind of people who vacation in Carmel, the kind of people Olivia and her mom take care of at Pebble Beach Spa.
And that’s when it hits. Dylan is not just rich, he’s loaded. Or was? Clark’s words suddenly make a lot more sense.
“The lady up front told us Dylan Wainwright works over here,” says the girl, who has warm brown hair and bright blue eyes. “Do you know where he is?”
“He went home already,” I blurt out. “Sorry.”
The guy frowns. “Damn.”
“Well, do you know where he lives?” the girl asks.
“Nope. I don’t know much about him.” Except that he’s the laziest person I’ve ever met.
“Clearly.” The girl looks me up and down. It feels like she deems me lacking in every possible way. I hate admitting Dylan was right—I don’t want her around at all. “Can you at least tell him that London and Brock stopped by?”
The guy, who must be Brock, leans on the island and smiles at me. “Maybe we’ll see you again…” Nametag glance, and also a boob glance. Lovely. “Mika. What a pretty name.”
London rolls her eyes. “You really will hit on anything with boobs, won’t you?”
Brock doesn’t look at her. “Ignore her. She gets jealous of girls who are prettier than her.”
“Oh please.” London shoves him, then gives me a glare that seems to prove Brock right. “If Dylan wants to see us, we’re staying at the usual place. He’ll know what that means.”
“Okay.” I try not to glare at them as they leave the store. My time is up for the day, so I head to the back to get my stuff and clock out. Dylan is there, lounging in the break room with his feet on the table.
“Are they gone?” he asks.
“They said you can meet them at ‘the usual place’ if you want. Oh, and the guy tried to hit on me.” I grab my bag, punch my card. “He seems like a keeper.”
He frowns. “You’re joking, right?”
“Nope, not at all,” I say in my best sarcastic voice. “You owe me.”
“I do.” He puts his hands behind his head, smiling like he just got away with murder. It makes me wish I’d turned him in to those people. “Thanks, Mika.”
I leave, refusing to react to his first real show of gratitude and decency. He won’t win me over that easily. He obviously has plenty of other girls hunting him down. I refuse to add myself to that list.
A few days pass, and Mom and Dad still haven’t gotten rid of Betty. Every time I come home and see her still there, anger flares inside me over our last conversation. I’ve refused to talk to her since then. If my parents don’t decide where to put her soon, I might losemymind, too.
“I don’twantto go to bed!” Betty’s voice is so loud I can hear it through my bedroom door. “I’m not a child!”
“I didn’t say you were…” Dad’s tone has grown increasingly aggravated over the last few weeks. This “family crisis” has put back their grant work, since they can’t start without Dad. It’s made us all even crankier, knowing we’re missing out on valuable research time. Their bedroom door shuts next, so I figure that’s Mom signing out.
I turn up my music.
As I look over Olivia’s newest string of beautiful pictures on Facebook, I can’t help being distracted by the search bar at the top of the page. All I’d have to do is type in Dylan’s whole name and…
I close the tab before I go there. I won’t be a Facebook stalker, because that would mean I actually care and I don’t.
Sighing, I watch my fish and try not to feel like I’m trapped in my own aquarium. Ever since Betty got here, I’ve been hiding out in my room more and more, like avoiding the problem will make it go away. Truth is, so much about her scares me. Not just her disease, but who she was before and what she can do to us now.
My computer starts ringing, and I check to see who it is. I smile at the icon and click “accept.” Olivia’s very tan face and bright white smile appear on the screen, and she laughs when she sees me. “Hey, Mika, you’re up! You miss me?”
“Yes! Stupid time difference—you’re never on when I am.” I’m so happy to see her I barely restrain a squeal. “Shreya and I are lost without you.”
“Of course you are.” Her smile gets bigger. “But you’ll have to endure it, because Tahiti is freaking amazing. The guys, Mika, you have no idea.”
I laugh. Olivia has always been boy crazy and proud of it. I guess that’s what happens when your mother is a professed “old bachelorette” who will never settle down. Olivia was the first in our group to kiss, to have a boyfriend, to go all the way. I’ve gone to her for advice on guys since I started liking them. “How many have you kissed?”
“Four,” she says like it’s no big deal. “But we just got to our hotel on the other side of the island, and I have my sights set on averyattractive bus boy at the restaurant across the street. I’m thinking he’ll be my vacation fling.”
“Good luck with that.”
“Thanks! What’s up with you?”
I cringe when I think about the past few weeks, but as I tell her everything that’s happened I feel better. Olivia gasps and swears and frowns in all the right places, and it reassures me that I’m not blowing these events out of proportion. My summer really has sucked.
“You know what you need to do, right?” Olivia says when I finish my tale. “You need to kiss Dylan.”
“What? No!” I put my hand on my cheek, the idea making my face burn. “Why is that your answer for everything?”
She laughs. “C’mon! You’re all tense anyway, and you clearly have chemistry whether you admit it or not. Making out with him will make him very nice at work, and it’ll chill you out so you can deal with Betty.”
I roll my eyes, though her logic is disturbingly sound. “You know I don’t do the casual thing. I have to at least like the guy, and there are few people I despise more than Dylan.”
“Psh, you and your fake relationships.” She puts her face right in the camera. “You never date anyone seriously anyway! You like to stay emotionally detached while they fall madly in love with you.”
“That’s not true!” Okay, it’s kind of true. All three of the guys I’ve dated were leaving in one way or another—moving, going to college, only in town for the summer. It made it easy not to get too attached, to practice liking someone without falling in love. But I don’t see what’s wrong with that. When I do fall in love, I want it to be permanent like my parents. May as well try a few guys before that, figure out what I really want.
Olivia leans back into her pillows, her expression skeptical. “Whatever. I still say you should make out with him.”
I sigh, not wanting to talk about this anymore. Yet all I can think of is Dylan tackling me in the sand last week. And he was worried about me the day I went to work in pajamas, so maybe he’s not all bad…I shake my head. “Enough about me—I want to hear more about your exploits.”
She gets this big grin on her face. “You’re so avoiding, but the bus boy’s name is Waka. While my mom was out with some businessman, I went…”
There’s a knock at my door, and then my parents pop their heads in. “You have a second, Mika?” Dad asks.
My heart skips. This must be it—they’ve found a place for Betty and they’ve come to tell me. We can finally get back to our lives and the grant and this nightmare is over. “Yeah. Olivia, I gotta run. My parents need me.”
She frowns. “Fine. See you in two weeks!”
“Bye!” I close the video chat as they settle on the edge of my double bed. They look hesitant, and this washes away all my excited feelings. “What’s wrong?”
My dad purses his lips as he looks at Mom, but finally says, “I know you won’t be happy about this, but Betty needs to stay with us.”
There’s a long moment of silence as I stare at my parents. I couldn’t have heard them right. The only option they ever entertained was a care facility—they never mentionedoncethat they were considering keeping her here. They look at each other when I don’t reply, and Dad soldiers on. “I know you don’t like her. Believe me, I’m well aware she’s not a pleasant person. Not by a long run. But looking at all the options, this one makes the most sense.”
“Have you two gone nuts?” I say before I can think better of it. “We can’t take care of her! We know nothing about Alzheimer’s, and besides, we all work.”
My parents aren’t looking at me, and I get the sinking feeling I’m involved in this plan much more than I want to be. Dad gulps. “The truth is, Mika, we don’t have the money to put her in a home. We’ll all have to help out. Even you. If you stayed here in the afternoon with her while we—”
“What?!” I cut in. “Are you saying I’d have to give up working with you this summer?”
They look at each other, wincing.
“No, you can’t do that. You promised me!” This can’t be happening. All I’ve wanted for years was to help them with their research, to be part of their marine biologist world. Now they’re going to rip it away because of Betty? It’s hard enough having her around—I can’t believe they’re asking me not only to give up the internship, but to take care of her on top of it. This can’t be the only choice. “What about Uncle Greg? I thought you said he’d help.”
My dad deflates. “He said he could maybe give us five thousand, but Marietta is finally expecting and their funds are limited as it is. Forest rangers aren’t exactly rolling in cash.”
“Not every facility takes it, and it won’t cover it all anyway.” He puts his hand over Mom’s. “We just can’t afford it, even with the help we’ll get.”
“No, you have to find a way!” My voice is desperate, but I don’t care. “She’s awful, Dad. She’s already called me horrible names, and she doesn’t treat you guys any better.”
Mom’s brow pinches, and I hope this is a good sign. “What did she call you?”
I tell them what happened in the backyard though I hadn’t planned to. These are dire times, and I need to play every card I have. “I was so mad I couldn’t even be here, and I went to work in my pajamas and got in trouble. How could you keep her around when she does that to me?”
This story has a big effect on my parents. I can see them wavering in their conviction. Dad sighs. “This is exactly why we’ve kept you away from her all these years. My worst nightmare is coming true.”
“There has to be a way to pay for it,” I say. “What if you use the money I make at AnimalZone? Would that help at all?”
“It would have to be a lot more than what you make, sweetheart,” Mom says in a cloying tone. It makes me feel like a kid. I already know I make pennies in comparison to them—way to rub it in.
Dad chews on his lip. “There’s only one other option we’ve thought of. But I don’t think—”
“What is it?” I lean forward, excited by another possibility. Maybe they don’t want to do it, but I could talk them into it.
“We’ve been talking about taking from your college fund…”
My eyes go wide. “Excuse me?”
“We were only discussing it,” Mom says. “It was a last resort. And you’ll probably get scholarships—we’d know that early next year. It would be the only way to pay for it, but even that would only last a few years.”
It feels like someone knocked the wind out of me. They’ve been hard on me all these years, but I take it because I believe it’s made me a better person. I’m responsible, hard-working, well-rounded, and everything they wanted me to be. They never let me walk the easy route, but they were at least planning to help me with college. Now Betty has even put that in jeopardy?
“So let me get this straight…” I put my hand over my mouth, trying not to scream. “Either I agree to pitching in with my racist, crazy grandmother I don’t even know, willingly walk away from the summer of interning you promised me, or I give up my college fund and screw over my future?”
Both of them cringe.
“That’s bullshit!” I shoot up from my bed, unable to contain my anger while sitting. I want to scream and punch things. I want to tell them to go to hell because how could they do this to me? It’s so beyond unfair that there’s only one choice to make—I’m not giving up my future. Leaving in a year, after I graduate, is all I have to cling to right now. “So what? Do I have to quit my job and stay at home with her all day while you have all the fun at work?”
“No!” Mom comes over and puts her hands on my shoulders. I’m so mad I push them off. She doesn’t even tell me I’m being disrespectful. That’s how I know they’re aware of what jerks they’re being. “We’ve looked into respite care. It’s much more affordable and would give us all a break from her when we need it.”
“Respite care?” I repeat. “What’s that?”
Dad stands now, too. “There are caretakers who specialize in Alzheimer’s, and they come to your home part time to help with the hardest parts. If we paid for someone to handle the mornings, you could do the afternoons, and Mom and I would take the evenings.”
“So it would be just me and her all afternoon?” I ask.
This summer keeps getting worse and worse. I wish I could swear to move out. But I can’t.College is right around the corner. Just tough it out.“This sucks.”
Dad raises an eyebrow. “Does that mean you’ll help?”
“What else can I do when all you’ve given me are shitty options?”
Even though I’m clearly pissed off, Mom still gives me her proudest smile. “We’ll make it work, okay? I’m not happy about it, either, but maybe it won’t be as bad as we think.”
Try as I might, I can’t restrain the eye roll.
She hugs me in return. “I’ll ignore the attitude, because I know you probably want to do a lot more than that.”
“You think?” I mumble into her shoulder.
“Goodnight, Mika.” They head for my door, victorious in ruining my life completely.
“Night,” I grumble as I flop onto my bed. My head spins when I think about what I begrudgingly agreed to do. It’s one thing to tolerate Betty’s presence, but to have tointeractwith her every day? Take care of her? That takes compassion, and she dried up mine weeks ago. I don’t know how I’ll do this.
Just as I’m about to turn out my light, my phone chirps. Grabbing it, I find a text from Shreya.Are u available for a sleepover?
I purse my lips, confused. Shreya and I have never had a sleepover—her parents don’t want her at other people’s houses overnight.Did something happen?
Her reply is immediate.Oh, u know, stormed out of house w/o thinking it thru.
I have a feeling this has something to do with what she mentioned about her parents and marriage.
I fought with my parents tonight, too. It’s like we’re soul mates.
Seriously? You guys never fight.
Come over. I’ll prep movie and popcorn.
Ur the best :)
Don’t forget it ;PI squeeze my eyes shut, a sudden wave of tears threatening to break through. If it wasn’t for Shreya, I might have spent the whole night letting them fall to my pillow, but at least now I have something else to focus on.
Shreya has nothing but her bike with her when she arrives. Her eyes are swollen from what I assume was a lot of crying. She bends down to lock the frame to my porch. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
“Shrey, of course.” I put my arm around her as we go inside. “Even if you’d shown up out of nowhere, I would have let you in.”
“Do your parents…?” She looks down, embarrassed.
“They’re fine with it.” Not that I actually told them, but they better be fine with it after the bomb they just dropped on me.
She gives me a hug. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
“C’mon.” I lead her to the living room, and we get comfortable in front of the TV. I hand her a bowl of popcorn and a soda. “Do you want to talk about it?”
She curls in on herself and clicks her nail on the can. “I probably made too big a deal out of it. It wasn’t even about me, but it felt like it could be next time.”
“Pavan brought a girl home…a blond girl who can’t look any more white.” She shakes her head, now glaring at the soda. “He is such an idiot. He could have at least mentioned he was dating her—well, now they’re engaged. My parents blew up and threw them out.”
I can hardly believe it. I don’t know Pavan well, only that he’s the middle brother and somewhere around twenty-nine years old. “Then what happened?”
“They started screaming at us.” Shreya’s tears come anew. “They told us they’d throw us all out if we ever did the same thing, that they are ashamed to have raised Pavan. I never thought…they told us we can’t evenspeakto Pavan.”
Rubbing her shoulder, I try to imagine such chaos. “It came as such a surprise, maybe they’ll calm down after awhile.”
She snorts. “Ever the optimist. Even when your own parents went through pretty much the same thing.”
“It’s not the same. Your parents don’t hate people—they had to know coming to America meant this could happen, right?”
“You’d think. Maybe I’ll just never get married, and then I’ll never have to hurt anyone.” She pulls her knees in, cradling the popcorn like it’s the only good thing in the world. “If Pavan’s feelings don’t matter to them, mine won’t.”
Refusing to admit she might be right, I decide to change the subject. “Let’s watch a movie. And eat stuff we shouldn’t.”
She smiles the tiniest bit. “Themovie?”
“As you wish.” I waggle an eyebrow, and that gets a laugh out of her.The Princess Brideis kind of ancient, but when we first watched it at Olivia’s house we were hooked. From eleven years old and on, it’s been our go-to movie whenever one of us is down. It’s impossible to feel bad while watching it, with all the ridiculous lines and Westley being so hot.
My phone rings just as they reach the Cliffs of Insanity. I cringe when I see the number. “Shrey, it’s your mom. What should I do?”
She looks terrified. “I don’t know…”
Neither of us are the rebelling type. I’m still reeling over the fact that Shreya left her house in the first place. Olivia’s the wild one who pushes us out of our comfort zones. She’d know what to do. Too bad her phone doesn’t work overseas.
The call is about to go to voicemail when I hit “accept.” “Hello?”
“Mika!” Shreya’s mom sounds like she’s sobbing. “Is Shreya there?”
I look at my best friend, hoping she’ll tell me what to do. Shreya hangs her head, and I sigh. “Yeah, she’s here.”
Her mom says something in Hindi. It sounds relieved. “I’m so sorry to impose. I will come and get her.”
“She can stay,” I say quickly. “You guys have had a rough night, and I’ll take care of her. She just got scared is all—she’s not mad. We’re in the middle of a movie.”
There’s a pause, which I use to say a little prayer.Please, please let her have this one thing.
“Her father won’t be happy,” her mom says. “But it would be good for her to be somewhere else while he calms down.”
“Thank you! I promise I’ll have her to work on time.”
When I hang up, Shreya looks like she could squeal in excitement, but since there are sleeping people she flails around and giggles. I try not to laugh, because I’m just as happy that we finally get to do this.
“I can’t believe you convinced her!” Shreya says. “Let’s take a picture and post it so Olivia can be jealous she’s missing our first sleepover.”
“Yes! We have to!” I run and get my laptop, and we spend the next few minutes trying to get a decent picture on my webcam. When I do, I post it to Instagram and tag Olivia just because it’ll bug her. Then Shreya logs me out and gets on her profile to comment and be even dorkier. Soon it’s like nothing bad ever happened.
Westley and Princess Buttercup escape the Fire Swamp as Shreya says, “Do you know Dylan’s last name? Is it the same as Clark’s?”
My stomach flips. “No, Shrey, don’t.”
She starts typing.
“Shrey!” I lunge for the computer, but she hops up and over to the kitchen table. She’s pulled up Facebook just like I guessed, and she’s already done the search I promised I’d never do.
“Inconceivable!” she says. “You gotta see this, Mika.”
“I don’t want to.” I stare at the TV, determined to stay in place and watch the movie like I should.
“His wall is a running spam of scantily clad girls asking why he’s not around and when he’s coming back. I guess he’s cut off from technology along with food and who knows what else.” A few clicks. “His profile info is a bunch of crap.Location: In Your Pants.”
“And yet kind of funny. Dang, his photos are private.”
I whimper, my conversation with Olivia still too fresh. “Can we not talk about Dylan? I have enough of him in my life.”
“You’re no fun. I’m trying to distract myself here.” She shuts the laptop. “Is he really that bad?”
“Pretty much.” Except then I picture him smiling at me, saying thanks. Why, out of all the stupid things he’s done, does that stick out? I prefer him being a jerk.
There is a decidedly nervous energy as we wait for the person my dad hired to care for Betty. It took him another week to decide on the right service—which was nothing short of torture—but he finally went through a place called Monterey Meadows Home Care, which sounds non-threatening enough.
“I don’t like this,” Betty says to her oatmeal as she lets a clump plop back into the bowl.
Dad sighs. “But you asked for oatmeal.”
“I did?” She frowns. “Why would I ask for this crap?”
I swallow my last bite of toast, beyond exhausted over her food complaints. Every morning she insists on oatmeal, and she always hates it. She doesn’t seem to like much of anything. I just want her to be quiet, so I say, “We told you it wouldn’t taste good plain. Do you want some brown sugar in it now?”
“I can’t wait to go back to work,” Dad grumbles under his breath.
Yeah, go have all the fun while I’m stuck with Dylan and Betty, thanks.I still have a hard time talking to my parents after they betrayed me. Mostly I curse them in my head and glare. I grab the brown sugar from the counter where I left it because I was sure Betty would want it. As I sprinkle it over her oatmeal, there’s a loud knock at the door.
Mom and Dad jump up, and even I can’t help but follow behind them. Maybe I hate the plan my parents came up with, but after another week of dealing with her on our own I’m ready to have expert help. Monterey Meadows said they would send a caregiver that fit Betty’s needs, based on a questionnaire my dad filled out. But it seems impossible that they would know the right kind of person from that, and now that person will probably be a big part of our lives for who knows how long.
Mom opens the door, and there stands a perfectly manicured man in scrubs. Rhinestone-studded scrubs. He’s not very tall, but he’s fit and looks like he’s never been happier in his life. He gives us a big wave, and says, “Hello, Arlingtons! I’m Joel, and your life is about to getsomuch easier because of me.”
I wish I could scowl to show my displeasure with the plan, but I can’t help smiling. He could not be more perfect. At least for my entertainment; maybe not for Betty. Oh well.
Dad grins like a fool. “Nice to meet you. Come right in.”
“Thank you.” Joel steps inside and points to my mom. “Now, let me guess—Yumi.” Then to me. “Mika.” And to my dad. “Stanley. So that leaves my lovely new best friend, Betty. Where is the lucky lady?”
“This way.” Mom leads Joel to the kitchen, where Betty is still scowling at her oatmeal like it gravely offended her.
Joel smiles wide. “Betty! How are you today?”
She looks up from her bowl, surprised at the sight of this new person in her life. “You have rhinestones on your shirt.”
He laughs. “If you had to wear ugly scrubs all day, wouldn’t you want to pretty them up?”
She thinks about this for a moment. “I suppose so.”
“Right?” Joel sits next to her, his hands placed under his chin. “I think we’ll get along perfectly. I’m Joel, by the way.”
He turns to us. “Now, can I give you the run-down? How much time before you need to go?”
“Oh, sure. We have a minute,” my dad says.
Joel claps his hands together. “Perfect! First and foremost, I believe in positivity. Patients tend to become negative, so we all need to laugh and have fun as much as possible, all right? All right.”
Okay, maybe Iwon’tlike him, because I won’t be chipper about this.
He goes into the kitchen and starts looking through drawers like he owns the place. I guess this will be his home five mornings a week. “I’m happy to help Betty with all the basics—dressing, washing, eating—so you won’t need to worry about her hygiene. I also like to help keep the house clean if I can.” He gives us a stern look. “But I amnota maid. I’m Betty’s best friend, and we’ll all get along if you don’t forget that.”
“Of course,” my mom says. “We’re so grateful for you already and happy to take any advice.”
Joel smiles. “Now that’s what I like to hear. Can you show me her room and the bathroom?”
I grab my work things while my parents acquaint Joel with the rest of the house. Betty stares at the hallway, a quizzical look on her face. “Is that man really my best friend?”
“Yes?” I say.
“He does seem very nice, though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a man wear rhinestones…”
I gulp, realizing Joel could easily end up on her hate list if she realizes he’s gay. Time to break out a lie. “Really? Guys wear rhinestones all the time—it’s totally in fashion. He’s really cute.”
She laughs. “I always was a sucker for the blond ones.”
Joel and my parents emerge just as she says this, and he narrows his eyes. “Were you two gossiping about me?”
“Only good things,” I say, shouldering my bag. “I should probably get going. It was nice to meet you, Joel.”
“I’ll walk you out!” He hooks arms with me when I’m in range. “Your parents told me I’ll be handing Betty over to you in the afternoons. Is that right?”
“Yup.” My voice is cold, and I can tell he picked up on it.
He looks me over. “I get the sense you’re not happy about this.”
“Why would I be?” I look at the ground, the anger as fresh as it was the day they told me I was stuck doing this.
He nods, and I hate to admit it seems like he understands. “Alzheimer’s isn’t easy to deal with, no matter the circumstances. I can’t promise it’ll get better, but if you choose to really take care of her, Mika, you will come to love her. That will make it easier in some ways, but harder in others.”
This advice makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to take care of Betty, let alone love her. But saying this out loud will only make me sound like a jerk, especially when Joel does this for a living. “Well, I guess I’ll see you this afternoon.”
He squeezes my shoulder. “Yup. And you’ll do great. Just remember that transitioning to a different caretaker can be hard for her; any change will be. It’s not your fault if she has a hard time adjusting when you get home. So many family members feel guilty for things they shouldn’t.”
Whatever.I nod. “See you later.”
“We’ll be great friends, Mika. I just know it!”
Can he be more over-the-top happy? It makes me want to punch something. I’m glad Joel’s here to help, but he can’t wash away the negative aura that has permeated our house since Betty showed up almost four weeks ago. As I ride to work, I keep thinking about how nice it would be if I didn’t have to go back home in four hours.
When I get to Aquatics, Dylan is lounging at the island doing nothing, like usual. I grit my teeth. The one week he promised to clean tanks without a fight is over, so of course he doesn’t bother. I’m about to run over there and cuss him out when a high-pitched squeal hits the air.
“Dylan!” says a vaguely familiar voice. If I’m not mistaken, it’s that London girl who was looking for him before. I duck down the nearest aisle—he’s totally on his own this time—but I linger to listen.
“I can’t believe you’re actually here, man!” a guy’s voice says. Brock.
“London…Brock…” Dylan doesn’t sound particularly excited to see them. “What’s up?”
“Just hanging out in Carmel, playing some golf, you know,” says Brock. “Are you seriously working at this place? Rumor has it your parents cut you off from everything.”
“It’s not as bad as I thought it’d be,” Dylan says.
“You poor thing.” London sounds like she’s talking to a little kid, and it makes me want to gag. “Let me take you to lunch. You need expensive sushi. I can tell.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea…” Dylan’s voice sounds nervous, and I wonder if he’s worried his uncle will overhear. I doubt expensive sushi would fly with Clark’s weird training program.
“Why not?” London whines.
“Because…I’m kind of seeing someone, and I don’t think she’d like me having lunch with you.”
I’m pretty sure that’s a lie, even though it doesn’t sound like it.
“For reals, dude?” Brock laughs. “You’re dating a local, huh? Is she hot? Of course she’s hot.”
“Well, who is she?” London has dropped the baby talk and now sounds pissed. “I seriously doubt anyone around here is good enough for you.”
“That’s pretty shallow,” he says.
“You’re avoiding the question! Which means you’re full of it, so there’s no reason I can’t take you out to—”
“Her name’s Mika, okay?” Dylan says.
My stomach drops to the ground. Part of me wants to run out there and beat him senseless for using my name, but then my cheeks are on fire and I’d rather not have those rich people see me in my ugly AnimalZone uniform again.
“Wait…” London says. “The girl who works here?”
“Got a problem with that?”
“Duuuude. Beat me to it.” Brock laughs. “Work hook up!”
“I still don’t believe you,” she says. “That girl is so not your type.”
“You have no clue what my type is, London.” Dylan’s voice has lost all warmth. “If you did, you wouldn’t be hunting me down just to take me to lunch.”
“Fine then. Prove it. If she’s really your girlfriend, then she’ll come with you to Cypress Point for a round of eighteen. Otherwise, I’ll assume you’re still fair game.”
“We’d be happy to come,” he says.
“Saturday. Nine o’clock tee time.” London’s heels clack down the aisle.
I lean on the nearest shelf, trying to get enough air. Who the hell makes up crazy lies like that? AndCypress Point? That place makes Pebble Beach look like the ghetto. It’s one of the most elite private golf courses in the world, and the fact that these kids can get in means they must cry diamonds.
“Mika, there you are,” Dylan says. I look up, and he’s smiling at me like I didn’t just hear what he said. “I have a favor to ask you.”
“No.” I head down the aisle in search of Clark and safety.
Dylan’s hand comes around my wrist, and he pulls me back. “I haven’t even told you what the favor is yet!”
I wrench my arm from his. “I can already guess, and the answer is hell-freaking-no. You can go out with London and eat sushi and leave me out of this.”
He curses. “You heard us.”
He runs his hands through his hair, leaving them at the back of his neck. This seems to be his post-London stress pose. “Please. I know I shouldn’t have done that, but your name was the first one that popped into my head. Just this one time, and she’ll be appeased and leave me alone. I swear.”
“Why do youwanther to leave you alone? You seem perfect together! I can’t think of two people who deserve each other more.”
His eyes narrow, and his arms come down. “That’s cold.”
“Whatever.” I stand strong. “I won’t even begin to consider this without knowing why you’d rather pretend we’re in a relationship than go out with her.”
“Fine,” he says through his teeth. “London doesn’t like people—she likes money and prestige. She doesn’t likeme, she likes my family name and status and thinks she can fix the rest. I’m sick of people thinking they can make me into whatever they want me to be, so I’d rather not be her trophy.”
I raise an eyebrow, the answer deeper than I expected. Almost commendable, even. “And why is she so persistent when you shut her down so hard?”
He cringes. “We…may have hooked up a couple times. She got the wrong idea.”
“Ugh, I’m out.” There’s no way I’m getting involved with him and his obsessive stalker hookup. I turn back around, head for the kitten aisle where Clark probably is. “You can sleep in that bed for all I—”
His hands come down on my shoulders. “C’mon. I was smashed. That’s all.”
“So not helping your case.” I shrug him off.
“It’s not a big deal! You’re acting like such a prude.”
I glare back at him. “I am not. Stop assuming I’m some innocent, straight-laced girl.”
His eyes light up, and it makes me want to kick him. “You’re not?”
“I’m just a girl who thinks hookups are stupid. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I prefer being intimate with someone I care about and enjoy being with. You’re neither, so you can wipe that pervy grin off your face.” I start walking. Fast.
“So that’s a no?” he calls.
I force myself not to smile. That wasnotfunny. This time I’m the one flipping the bird.
Clark is in the kitten room cleaning out litter when I find him. The kittens jump all over him, and he laughs. The guy might be weird, but he loves his job and I respect that. I tap on the glass, and he gives me a nod that means, “I’ll be right out.”
I force myself not to pace, to calm down, to think of something happy. It’s sad that nothing comes to mind except bedazzled Joel trying to tame Betty. That has to be sitcom material. Horrible situations are always funnier on screen than in real life.
“What’s up?” Clark asks when he comes out. There’s a fresh scratch on his arm, which he dabs with a paper towel.
“Oh, I just wanted to let you know that our aide came today.” I didn’t want to tell him about Betty’s arrival and all that’s happened since, but I had to so he’d know I couldn’t keep taking on extra hours.
He nods. “And how’s the aide?”
Sparkly. Annoyingly happy. Painfully thoughtful. “I think he’ll be a huge help.”
“That’s good to hear.” His smile is so genuine. I don’t know how he can be related to his liar of a nephew. “Do you need anything else?”
I’m tempted to tell him about Dylan’s friends showing up, but I can’t get myself to do it. Maybe because I don’t know which would be worse for Dylan—dealing with London or facing his uncle’s punishment. For now, my bet is on London. “Nope. I’ll go check on the fish now.”
When I get back to my station, Dylan has this smirk on his face that makes me uneasy. He usually scowls all day. As I inspect the tanks, he even starts laughing to himself. I glare at him. “What?”
“Nothing,” he says, but I can’t shake the feeling that I have something on my face. Or my fly is down. Or my hair is messed up.
I take a deep breath and force myself to ignore it. He won’t get to me. About an hour later, one of my favorite customers shows up—Mr. Castillo. He’s a goldfish enthusiast like me, and I wave as he approaches.
“Mika! How are you?” he says with his smooth accent.
“Good. It’s been awhile since you’ve been in. What can I help you with?”
“I’m looking for a new fancy.” He eyes the tanks. “I recently bought a bigger tank for my full grown oranda and blackmoor, and I’m thinking they need a more…colorful companion.”
I smile. “Definitely. How big are they now?”
“About this big.” He holds out his palm. “So I need one that’s pretty large.”
“Yeah, you do.” Goldfish are known for eating just about anything, and sometimes that means smaller goldfish. I look over the tanks, but even the two biggest might not be large enough. “You know, I have one at home named Simba that’s bigger than these. He’s a pretty orange one with white fins.”
Mr. Castillo lights up. “Really? You’d give me one of yours?”
I nod. “I buy my fish here—I’ve sold them on occasion when I know they’ll go to a good home. He’s about two years old. Should I take a picture of him for you so you can see if he fits the bill?”
“That would be wonderful. I’ll stop by tomorrow.”
“Great!” I wave to him as he goes. That’s when I realize Dylan is staring at me like I’m a difficult math problem. “Seriously, what?”
“You have a two-year-old goldfish?” he asks.
I brace for the impending criticism. “I have a ten-year-old goldfish and pretty much every age under that.”
His eyebrow raises. “Just how many do you have?”
“Including the koi? Thirty-seven.”
I sigh, not particularly interested in whatever insult will come out of his mouth next. “You already know I’m the crazy fish girl. No need to act so surprised.”
“Do they all have names?”
“Of course they do.”
He snorts. “Sand sculpture. Goldfish. You are so weird.”
“At least I’m interesting.” I tip my chin up. “You’re boring. You just sulk all day, and when you do talk it’s rude or critical or a lie. Maybe you should get a weird hobby so you actually have something valuable to say.”
“Maybe.” To my surprise, he looks away. “Except I’m never allowed todothe things I want. You have no idea how lucky you are.”
His face is so sad that I feel bad for what I said. “Why don’t you get to?”
“Because it’s not who I’m ‘supposed’ to be.”
“What does that mean?”
His chest heaves up and down, and it feels like he has words building up inside him. “Never mind.”
He walks away, and I’m left to work alone. Though this time I almost wish Dylan had stayed and told me what was on his mind.
Noon comes quickly. I have an hour before I need to be home. As I head for the back, I run through places I might go for lunch, but the closer I get the more I catch the distinct scent of curry. I take in a big whiff to make sure I’m not hallucinating. No, I’d know that smell anywhere.
I run for the break room, and when I catch sight of Shreya my jaw drops. Dylan smiles wide at my reaction, and I get the feeling this is why he was smirking all morning.
“Surprise!” Shreya holds out her hands to the curry, which is set up and ready to eat.
“How…?” I manage to get out.
“Dylan called me to ask what your favorite food was—he wanted to buy you lunch! Isn’t that sweet?” Shreya looks over at him like he’s a shining example of romance.
“Where did he get your number?” I glare at him, knowing very well that this is a bribe to get me to come to Cypress Point. He hasn’t given up on the fake date yet, and I’m starting to worry his insistence will only get worse.
She looks sheepish. “He called me on your phone.”
I grit my teeth. “So he went through my purse and stalked you down? That’s not sweet—that’s creepy.”
Dylan frowns.“I just wanted to surprise you.”
“The answer is still no.” I sit down, because good curry should not be wasted. And Shreya brought all my favorites—saag paneer,shrimpkorma,butter chicken. I will eat it all and refuse his pleas. Win-win.
“We’ll see.” Dylan tries to grab thekorma,but I move it away from him. “So that’s how you’re gonna be?”
“Yup.” I take a big bite. “You bought it for me, right? Who says I have to share?”
Shreya laughs. “You guys are so cute together!”
I give her my worst glare, but Dylan laughs. “See? Shreya’s on my team.”
“Traitor,” I grumble between bites.
“Tell her she has to go to Cypress Point with me on Saturday.” He tries to get thesaagbut I snap that up too. “She totally turned me down. It hurt.”
Shreya gives me a disapproving look, but I smack her. “Don’t feel sorry for him! He’s trying to make me go on a fake date so his hookup stalker will think he’s taken!” I point at him. “Don’t lie to my friend.”
“Do you always have to be so tech—?” Dylan’s eyes go wide, and I spin around to see Clark emerging from his office. He folds his arms over his chest, and it’s obvious he heard what we were talking about. “Uncle Clark, look, it’s not…”
He stops when Clark holds up a hand.
A huge smile breaks out on my face. Dylan is so dead.
Finally. There is justice in this world.
His uncle stares at him, seeming to contemplate which punishment would be best. “I think you should go, Mika. Dylan needs help getting away from that girl. I’ll let him borrow my car.”
Dylan bursts into laughter, and I hang my head in defeat.
After the great AnimalZone betrayal, I’m actually excited to go home to Betty and Joel. Surely even they wouldn’t agree with this mock date ridiculousness. And I’m still not going. I don’t care what anyone says. I can’t think of a worse way to spend my Saturday.
When I get there Joel and Betty are sitting on the porch sipping tea. Joel gives me a big smile. “Welcome home! Would you like some?”
“Please.” I pull my bike up the step and lock it in place. “How did things go?”
Betty glares at her tea. “He tried toundressme. It was very rude.”
Joel laughs as he hands me a cup. “I wanted to help with her buttons. It might be good if you invested in some clothing that’s easier for her to take on and off unassisted.”
I take a sip, and it calms me. “I’ll let my parents know.”
“Excellent.” He hops up. “You stay here while I grab my things, and then I’ll get you up to speed.”
He dashes into the house, and I take his seat next to Betty though I’d rather take a nap after all that curry. She looks out to the street, and I study her face. It’s so different from mine, and yet the more I see her the more Dad appears in her features, and therefore mine as well. I’m not sure I like that.
I make no effort to start up a conversation, but as usual, when she’s in the right mood, Betty talks to me like I’m an old friend. “We had a porch like this when I was a little girl, and we’d sit and drink iced tea in the hot summer evenings. Grace and I would play in the front yard, while Mom and Dad looked on with big smiles on their faces. Those were the good times. I wish I could live in those moments forever.”
I want to ask her why, but last time we got on the topic of her father she got hardcore racist and crazy. There’s no way I’m going there again, even if I am curious.
“Didyouhave a good childhood?” she asks.
“I think so.” I take another sip of my tea, unsure of what else to say. My parents have been amazing as far as parents go…at least until recently, but the circumstances have messed us all up. Still, I know more than anything they want me to be happy.
She sighs. “I think what hurts most is that I can’t blame Stan for leaving. He turned out a lot better because he did…you have everything I wished for growing up.”
I hate it when she says stuff like this, because in these moments my heart traitorously warms. If she were always this way, I think I could like her. Then she starts crying. I try not to panic, but it seems like I have a way of doing this to her.
“Why did he have to leave?” she sobs.
“I don’t know…” I’m not sure who she’s talking about, my dad or her father or her husband. All the options make me feel bad for her, and I squirm at the thought that I could pity her when she’s been so rude to me. I should straight up hate her, but…I don’t know what to feel.
“Mom said he died, but I knew—knew—she was lying.” Must be her father then. “The men in uniform came to your house when soldiers died. That’s what happened to my friend Mabel. They never came.”
“Betty!” Joel says when he comes out. “Why all the tears, sweetie?”
I wince. “Sorry. She started talking about her childhood. I didn’t know what to do, so I just listened.”
He gives a sad smile. “She’s been nostalgic today. Sometimes that happens. You may want to write it down because she’ll lose those things eventually.”
“Okay.” I never thought about writing anything down, but since Dad won’t talk about it the stories might be lost forever otherwise.
“Let me give you the run-down,” Joel says. “She had her lunch, but she gets distracted while eating. We need to keep her on task there. Despite her protests, we got her cleaned up and she had a blast while I did her hair. As for your part, try to get her moving. Maybe a walk around the backyard or down the street. She needs a snack around two or three—your parents should take care of dinner and bedtime.”
“Okay. Thanks,” I say.
“You are very welcome. We’ll have a lot of fun, Mika.” He waves as he gets in his little blue car.
I manage to convince Betty to take a stroll around the block. There’s no more talk about her childhood, but she has plenty to say about all the rock yards. She hates rock yards. She finds them unfriendly and ugly and pretty much the worst idea ever. I try to distract her with the beautiful trees or flowersalsoin these yards, which works for about a minute before she tells me no one in their right mind would put rocks in their yard. By the time we get home, I am on the verge of screaming at her for being ridiculous.
She stops when we get back to the house. “Is this the right place?”
“Yup. I know it has rocks, but can you look past that and come inside?”
She scrunches her face. “I guess.”
I get her settled in front of the TV. She picks a talk show while I grab my laptop. We still have three hours until my parents get home, and that feels like an eternity. She makes comments on the show, and I do what Joel suggests—I type down what I’ve learned about her so far.
Hardly any of it is pleasant, but as I read over what I’ve written something overcomes me. I’m not quite sure what it is, except that reading what I wrote makes me smile more than it should. I think about how Joel said taking care of someone leads to love. Could this be the beginning of affection? I shut the laptop, refusing to think about it more.
After a couple hours, I get a call on my cell. I don’t know thenumber, so I don’t pick up. It rings again. After the sixth consecutive attempt I pick up. “Hello?”
“So youdoknow how to answer your phone. I was starting to wonder.”
My eyes go wide at the voice. “Dylan?”
“Yup. I haven’t been allowed to use a phone for a month and Clark only allowed it so I could call you. Don’t you feel special?”
“Well, you should. We need to shop for the clothes you’re wearing on Saturday. When’s a good time?” he says matter-of-factly. “Are you still there? Hello?”
“How’d you get my number?” AnimalZone only has our landline number, not my cell, so I know he didn’t get it from Clark.
“I’m gonna kill her.” I pinch the bridge of my nose, trying not to explode. “I don’t care if Shrey and your uncle think I should go with you. I’m not.”
“I guess I could pick out your clothes myself, but don’t complain if you don’t like them. What size? I’m guessing two.”
“No!” I yell, and Betty glares like I’m interrupting her at a movie. I head to the kitchen. “I’m not going to Cypress Point. I’m not shopping with you. This fake relationship is not happening. Tell London to leave you alone, like a normal person!”
“I have. Several times. It doesn’t work.” He lets out a long sigh. “Fine, I get that this isn’t fair to you at all—I’m not stupid—but do you really want her showing up every week at the store?”
I cringe, but hold firm. “That’s not enough incentive. What if she comes after me for this? What if your stupid plan doesn’t even work?”
There’s a pause. “You need to be less smart.”
“I’m choosing to take that as a compliment.” I lean on the counter. “You already owe me. I want some kind of payment before I agree to any more of your crap.”
“Since I’ve only been paid once, I don’t have much money…” There’s a feeling of panic in his voice, as if the idea is the scariest thing in the world. “Between the Indian food and your outfit, I won’t have anything until my uncle pays me again.”
My heart traitorously skips. “You don’t have to buy me clothes.”
“No offense, but you don’t want to go to Cypress Point wearing the wrong thing. It’ll be hard enough as it is, and it’s not fair to make you pay for them.”
“I still haven’t said I’m going…” I hate to admit how close I am to being convinced. Cypress Point is legendary—it would be incredible to see in person, a once in a lifetime chance. I just wish the company was more agreeable.
“Please, Mika. I’m actually begging you. I’ll do anything.”
“Anything?” If I’m going to say yes anyway, I may as well get something out of it. “Even if it’s cleaning every fish tank in my house for the rest of the summer?”
“You don’t even know how many there are.”
“Don’t care. If that’s what it takes, I’ll do it.”
I purse my lips. This is an incredibly bad idea, I can feel it. But at the same time it’ll tell me everything I need to know about Dylan. And I’m curious. It’s stupid, but I have to know what he’s really like. Because as annoying as he can be, there have been hints of something underneath that I might actually like. Time to roll the dice. “Fine.”
Betty is actually eating nicely at dinner, and my parents seem happy. I want to be more bitter about everything, but they’ve been awesome about taking over the second they get home. They even encourage me to go out and have fun so I don’t have to be around Betty all the time. It’s starting to make me feel guilty for the silent treatment I’ve been trying to employ. I swallow my bite of pizza, deciding that this might be the time to tell them about Cypress Point.
“So, um…” I start, but then the words get caught in my mouth.
“What is it, sweetie?” Mom looks tired, her long hair pulled back into a messy bun. They must have worked extra hard in the bay today.
“I just thought I should warn you that I’m going to Cypress Point on Saturday.”
My dad’s jaw drops. “What?! With who?”
“A guy?” Dad says with too much interest. “How did you meet a guy who has access to Cypress Point? Are you dating him? Can I get in on this?”
“Dad!” I knew he’d be more excited than concerned, since Dad loves golf but rarely gets the chance to play. I don’t need any more Dylan fans. “No, you can’t. And his name is Dylan. He’s my boss’s nephew. His friends invited us, so it’s not really a date. I just couldn’t say no…”
Dad snorts. “You think? You better take pictures.”
I put my hand to my face. “I’m not acting like a tourist in front of them.”
“You can’t ask her to do that,” Mom says.
“I can’t believe you get to go to Cypress Point and you don’t even know how to play golf.” Dad takes a huge bite of his pizza.
“I can’t believe you’re jealous of your teenage daughter,” Betty says out of nowhere. I’d almost forgotten she was listening. “Shouldn’t you be more worried about the fact that she’s going with a boy?” She’s says “boy” as if being male is a criminal offense.
Dad slouches in his seat. “I try not to think about it.”
Mom tips her chin up. “We trust her.”
“I trusted Jenny, too, and she still got knocked up at sixteen.” Betty glares at me like I could be pregnant this very second.
I look to Dad instead. “I have cousins?”
“Three good-for-nothings,” Betty answers.
Dad straightens his glasses. “I wish I could refute that, but last I heard Slade was in jail. So.”
Slade? I have a cousin named Slade. Who has been in jail for who-knows-what. Shaking that information off, I say, “I swear it’s not like that with Dylan. He’s barely a friend. I just have to find time to buy clothes is the problem. Should I tell him I have to do it at night?”
Mom and Dad look at each other. Then Mom says, “We’re finally getting started on the grant work now that Betty is taken care of. We won’t be able to get home any earlier.”
I nod. “I just needed to know what time to give him.”
There’s a long silence before Dad clears his throat. “So tell me about Dylan. Mainly, how he’d know people with Cypress Point memberships when his uncle runs AnimalZone.”
“Daaaaad.” I give up on my pizza and get up from the table. “I actually don’t know. It’s not really something you ask a person.”
“Sure it is! You say, ‘Hey, so how did your parents get filthy rich and important?’”
Throwing my plate in the sink, I glare at him. “He doesn’t like to talk about his parents. I’m going to my room now.”
“You’re no fun!” he calls, and I hear Mom swat his arm.
I try not to slam my door, but I still shut it loudly. Pacing my room, I can’t quite figure out why I’m so angry. But there’s something I don’t like about my parents’ reaction. My dad usually goes pale the second I mention a guy, but he didn’t even bat an eye this time. Have I just had too many boyfriends? Are they immune now?
Or is it the money?
It feels like the money. Dylan is more of an ass than my three exes combined, and yet he gets a pass because his name is tied with Cypress Point. That is supremely unfair.
Though their reaction makes me want to back out, I call Dylan.
“Hello?” he says.
“I can only go after six. For the shopping thing.”
There’s a pause. “But you get off at noon.”
I sigh. “I have something else after that, and I can’t get out of it.”
“Not your business. It’s six or nothing.”
“Hmm…” I can picture his smug face, and it makes me even angrier that I gave in like everyone seems to. “I guess that should be enough time, if we’re efficient. Are you a slow shopper?”
I raise an eyebrow. “No. Why do I get the feeling youlikeshopping?”
“Because I do. Tomorrow okay?”
Maybe shopping is fun when you can buy whatever you want. “Yeah, bye.”
I flop onto my bed, mad at everything. Myself included. How did this happen? Why did Dylan have to say my name to London? He could have made up anyone, but no. A wave of nerves crashes over me—I’ve never felt insecure about my family’s social or economic standing, but these people…
I’m so out of my element.
My phone chirps. I glare at Shreya’s name.Did Dylan call u yet?
I’m so sick of his name I could scream. And I can’t stand how everyone in my life seems happy to shove me right into his arms.
When I don’t reply, Shreya sends another message.Are u mad @ me?
Pressing the power button, I turn off my phone.
The next day, Betty sits on my bed while I rifle through my closet. I don’t know why I feel the need to dress up, but I do. Maybe I want to prove that the AnimalZone uniform is not my best look. I swear it adds ten pounds.
“You have a lot of fish,” Betty says. For the third time.
“Yup.” I pull out a blue top and some black skinny jeans. Normally I’d be running my outfit by Shreya and Olivia, but I’m still mad at Shrey and Olivia needs to stop being in Tahiti. At least I can count on Betty for brutal honesty. “What do you think of this?”
She scrunches her face. “What are you trying to say? Because that says, ‘I want to impress you.’”
“Ugh.” I throw the clothes on the floor. “Not that then. I want to look…pretty, but not in a seductive way. This isn’t a date.”
She nods thoughtfully. “You look pretty in everything, though.”
I raise an eyebrow, surprised she’d say something like that. “You really think so?”
“Yeah. Thin, nice legs, exotic.”
I hold in my laugh. Yes, I’m so exotic. Next I grab a black tank and red jeans. “What about this?”
She frowns. “You’d look tough in that.”
“Tough. I’ll take it.” I shoo her out for a moment while I dress, hoping she doesn’t do anything while alone. We had a scare earlier today when I took a bathroom break—came out to find her hand in one of our aquariums. She had a fit when I told her she couldn’t pet the fish.
Luckily, she’s standing right in the hall where I left her. She comes back in, appraising my look. “What shoes?”
I smirk. Maybe she’s more useful than I thought she’d be. “How did you know I was about to ask that?”
“It’s not the first time I’ve gotten ready for a date, Mia.”
“It’s Mika, and this isn’t a date.” It’s preparation for a fake relationship. “Sneakers or flats?”
She points to the flats. “In case you have to buy shoes, too.”
“You have done this before.” I slip them on, spin around once. “So I look okay?”
For a second I think I’m seeing things, but Betty is tearing up. I get the sense that she’s…proud of me. Weird. “You are beautiful, and a very good person. Even if you are Oriental.”
I deflate. She has a gift for balancing out those nice words with horrible ones. I hear a door slam and then footsteps. “Sounds like Mom and Dad are home. How about you go see them while I finish my makeup?”
I stand at my closet mirror, applying blush and eye shadow and wondering if I’m overdoing it. Part of me wants to rebel and wear grungy clothes, but my bet is we’ll be going to a nice store and I don’t want to stand out. Why is my insecurity suddenly winning?
The doorbell rings, and my heart doubles speed as I run to get there before my parents. I pull it open, and there, standing next to Dylan, is Shreya.
Shreya shrinks under my glare, looking genuinely remorseful, though I’d rather not admit it. “I’m sorry, okay? I was just excited to surprise you with food and thought it would be fun. I didn’t think you’d freak out—I had no idea what it was for.”
“It’s true,” Dylan says. “I totally lied to her.”
I’m not sure how to react, because I’m fairly certain he brought her to help make up for having to do this. Which is really considerate of him. I’d much rather have her help with clothes than his. “Why am I not surprised?”
He shrugs. “Old habits die hard.”
“Is this Dylan?” my dad says. I spin around, finding my parents looking on curiously.
“Yup. I’ll be back in a few hours.” I grab my bag and hurry out before my dad can ask any embarrassing questions about Cypress Point.
“Are you ashamed of me?” Dylan says as we head toward Clark’s non-descript silver car, which I usually see parked behind AnimalZone.
“Yes, that, plus my dad fantasizes about Cypress Point. I’d rather not have him latching on to you.”
“I see.” He opens the door for me, and I stare at him as the reality of this arrangement sinks in. He really is trying to make it look like we’re together…and it doesn’t seem like he minds as much as I do. Why are his eyes so soft as they take me in? Cue freak out.
“What?” he asks when I don’t get in.
“Nothing.” I move to the backseat door and open it myself, determined to make this look nothing like a date. “Shrey, go ahead and take shotgun.”
“Can you be more stubborn?” She rolls her eyes but gets in.
Dylan looks like he wants to say something to me, but he shuts Shreya’s door and heads for the driver’s side. I get in back, happy to have space. He starts the car, and we’re off. No one talks as he heads for whatever shopping place he’s decided to go to, but from his direction I’m guessing we’re headed to Carmel. Of course we are. Carmel is where rich tourists like to hang out and take themselves too seriously.
My phone chirps, and I grab it, relieved that I have something to busy myself with. I try not to laugh when I read Shreya’s name.Please don’t be mad anymore.
I’m fine. This is just weird, I type back.
It is. I’ll give u that. He really asked u to be his pretend gf?
More like told a lie and now has to cover his tracks.
I need details.
Later. It’s involved.
“Are you guys seriously texting each other so I can’t hear what you’re talking about?” Dylan asks.
“Maybe.” I look up. He’s eyeing me in the rearview mirror.
“You’re talking about me, aren’t you?”
Shreya laughs, and I can’t restrain my smile. I expect Dylan to glare at me, but when his eyes meet mine again they look sad. For some reason this makes it impossible for me to send another text, but I’m not planning on starting a conversation, either. Was he expecting me to give in and embrace this? He has another thing coming if he did. I plan on dragging my feet every step of the way.
In complete predictability, Dylan parks at the Carmel Plaza, a ritzy shopping center full of designer stores. I’m glad I at least tried to look nice. He takes in a deep breath, looking practically giddy. “I’ve missed this. Even if I’m not shopping for myself, this’ll be fun.”
I stare at him. “You’re weird.”
“You’re one to talk, Fish Girl.” He grabs my hand, and I reflexively pull back. He doesn’t let me go. “Just in case. London or other people who know her could be here.”
“You seriously expect me to buy that?” I growl, trying to get free of his grip. “What, does she live at the mall or something?”
“No.” He points past me. “But her parents’ second home is about five minutes that way. And they stay in Carmel every summer and hold all sorts of parties. London’s favorite place to eat is the Patisserie Boissere, which is here. So chances are good.”
I cringe because he has a point, but I’m not ready for this. The way his hand feels in mine…no, I can’t go there. “The deal was one day.”
“Which is twenty-four hours—Saturday will only be seven, tops.” He gives me a wicked grin. “That, plus three tonight, means I’ll still have fourteen hours left to use.”
Shreya puts her hand over her mouth, probably knowing I’ll kill her if she laughs. I relax my arm, but I refuse to hold his hand back. “Exploiting me, huh? You can’t make up extra loopholes.”
He pulls me along, seeming to have no problem with my resistance. “You should have specified terms if you didn’t want loopholes.”
“What are you? Some kind of lawyer?”
“My father hoped I’d get a law degree. After business school, of course.” His voice is colder than usual, but then he stops and clears his throat. “Never mind that. I’m guessing you can’t play golf, right?”
“She’s even bad at the miniature variety,” Shreya says.
“Thanks for pointing that out.” I put my free hand on my hip. She gives me a mock innocent look. “No, I am not interested in golf and thus I suck. My dad took me to Poppy Hills once and refused to let me try after the tenth dent.”
“Divot. Not dent,” he says with a surprising lack of condescension. He purses his lips, thinking. “Then the goal should be to avoid playing—I can’t have you ruining the green. London is really good, and she’ll tear your form to pieces.”
“I would prefer to avoid tearing.”
“So that means not golf attire?” Shreya asks.
“Precisely, but it still has to have the right look.” He starts walking again, and, kill me now, we end up at J. Crew. I was secretly hoping for Anthropologie.
Dylan and Shreya practically skip through the racks, picking out clothing that gags me with its stuffiness. Then I get thrown in a dressing room and am ordered to come out and show them every single outfit whether or not I think it’s ugly.
“Can you at least not frown?” Dylan asks. “It’s distracting me from the clothes.”
I glare at him as he analyzes the sweater and pants like this decision is life and death.
“Angry is better than pouting,” he says.
“I like the sweater. The teal looks nice on her.” Shreya touches my arm. “Ooo, soft.”
“It’s cashmere. Better be soft.” He puts his finger to his mouth. “I like the sweater, too, but not with those pants. Maybe with—”
“Dylan Wainwright, is that really you?” a woman says. She’s older, but the kind of older that also looks like she’s had a lot of work done. Her face lights up as she comes closer, while Dylan’s fills with dread. “It is!”
“Hi, Mrs. St. James,” he says as she does that European kiss greeting. “How are you?”
“Just wonderful. Carmel is always a nice break from the hectic school year. You know how the boys keep me busy.” She eyes me and Shreya suspiciously, but tries to concentrate on Dylan. “And how are you dealing with everything? Your parents have been very worried about you.”
His smile is tight. “Sure they have. You can tell them I’m fine if you want.”
She puts her hand on his arm, and now I’m really curious. She has to know him super well if he’d let her do that. “They’ll be happy to hear that. Truly.”
Finally, she turns her attention to us. “And who are your…friends?”
“This is Mika Arlington, my girlfriend, and her friend Shreya.” Hearing “girlfriend” out loud makes my stomach twist. He shouldn’t be telling this woman such a lie—she doesn’t seem like the kind of person who refrains from gossip.
“Oh? Well, isn’t she darling?” Mrs. St. James pastes on a huge smile as she comes to do the kiss thing to me, too. “Nice to meet you, Mika.”
“You too,” I say.
“I hate to cut this short, but I really have to get going. Need to pick out wine and cheese for our next soiree before the shops close.” She looks back at Dylan, and I can’t make out her expression. “Can I tell London you said hi?”
I force myself not to react, but I’m pretty sure I just met London’s mom.
“Sure,” Dylan says.
We all hold our breath until she leaves the store. Dylan plops down in a chair, practically hyperventilating.
“Was that as close as I think it was?” I ask.
“Yes. Told you we could see them.” He rubs his temples, and for some reason it makes me want to comfort him. “I hate that woman almost as much as her daughter.”
“I’m lost,” Shreya says. “Who was that?”
“Later.” I can’t seem to take my eyes off Dylan. He doesn’t look like the arrogant guy I first met, but instead like a guy who’s been through a lot. For some reason, I don’t like seeing him like this. “So if you like the sweater, Dylan, what pants should I try with it?”
He looks up at me, and in his eyes I think I see gratitude for the distraction. “The brown plaid, I think. Your butt looked amazing in those.”
I narrow my eyes. “Don’t look at my butt.”
“What should I look at then?” He leans back in the chair, his eyes locked on mine like he’s daring me to flirt with him. I rush back into the dressing room, and I don’t come out until my face stops burning.
With the sweater, pants, and a pair of admittedly beautiful red snakeskin flats, the total comes to almost nine hundred dollars. Which has to be Dylan’s entire paycheck from AnimalZone. I gulp as he hands over the cash like it’s nothing. He grabs the bag and my hand, and we head back outside. It’s dark now—I didn’t realize we were in there so long.
“I feel like I need to take out an insurance policy for these clothes,” I say.
Shreya snorts. “No kidding.”
He sighs. “Just take care of them, okay? I did work a whole month for them. First money I ever earned on my own, too.”
Now I feel like a jerk for giving him a hard time when today was all about me. He didn’t have to do this. He could have let me look stupid and poor on Saturday. I squeeze his hand, and he looks at me curiously but says nothing. He opens the car door for me again, and this time I comply. He takes Shreya home first and then heads for my place.
“What was with you back there?” he asks.
I know he’s talking about the hand squeeze. “Nothing.”
“You really suck at lying.”
I sigh. “Fine, I wanted to say thank you, okay? Even if I feel like a huge fake in these clothes, it’s better than London having another chance to laugh at me.”
There’s a long pause, and it feels like he’s looking at me though I don’t dare check. “Are you okay?”
“I’m scared.” My fingers run back and forth over the bag’s handle, as if I have to make sure the clothes don’t disappear. “This isn’t me. And you’re right, I’m a horrible liar.”
“Just follow my lead, and it’ll be fine.” He turns onto my road. “And really, there won’t be much lying involved anyway. It’s not like we have to spend the day making out to prove we’re in a relationship—unless you want to.”
I smack his arm. “You wish.”
“What if I do?” He stops in front of my house, stares at me in a way that makes me want to run and stay all at once.
“Doesn’t mean much, seeing as you’ll hook up with girls you apparently hate.”
He smiles. “Touché. But I’m not drunk right now.”
I unbuckle my seatbelt and get out, determined not to look back at him. Because if I do and he’s still giving me that disgustingly cute grin, then I’m in big trouble.
I lay out the fancy clothes on my bed, staring at them in the faint morning light. There’s no denying they’re pretty, but they still feel like someone else’s. Taking a deep breath, I push down the nerves. It’ll be over soon enough, and then I’ll have someone to clean tanks for the rest of the summer. And goldfish tanks are nasty.
I smile, picturing Dylan grumbling about how many he has to clean. He’ll regret giving London my name if it’s the last thing I do.
Heading for the bathroom, I decide getting ready for today should count toward my twenty-four hours as fake girlfriend. Usually my Saturdays are spent in grungy beach clothes, but today I have to do the full run-down.
I scrub my hair, shave, moisturize, pluck, and blow dry like I’m going to Prom. Not that I’ve ever been, but I imagine it’s at least this involved. As I stare at my reflection, trying to decide what to do with my hair, my phone rings. The name in the window is not what I expected, but I’m happy to see it.
“I’m baaaaaack!” Olivia says when I pick up. “And you should see my tan. You’ll be jealous.”
I smile, her voice putting me at ease. “I already saw enough pictures to make me green with envy.”
“I noticed—flaunting your slumber party, jerk.”
“It was impromptu. But you still missed out.” I pull out my makeup to put on while we talk. “So what’s with the early call?”
Olivia laughs. “I miss you! I wanted to know what beach you were sculpting at so I could see you and Shrey.”
“Actually…” My stomach drops. How do I begin to explain I’m about to go out with Dylan when last time we talked I was so against it? “I’m going to Cypress Point today, so no sculpting.”
There’s a pause. “Like, the golf course?”
“Uhhh, did you win the lottery since we last spoke?”
“The lottery from hell.” I apply mascara liberally, dang short lashes. “I’m sure you remember Dylan.”
“It’s not what you think—he lied and told some people I was his girlfriend. I got roped into pretending it’s true for a day.” I pull open the bathroom door and head to my room to dress.
She laughs hysterically.
I’d strangle her if she were here. “It’s not funny!”
“Oh, it is. You don’t have to be so stubborn. It’s okay to change your mind about a guy. He obviously likes you, and if you actually agreed to this I bet you like him, too. Whether you admit it or not.”
“No. I don’t. Trust…” I stop, staring at my bed in shock. My clothes are gone—just the shoes remain at the foot of the bed. “Olivia, I gotta go. Call Shrey. She’ll fill you in on the rest.”
I hang up before she replies, my heart pounding as I spin around my room. They can’t be gone. No one is even awake yet. I hold my breath, trying not to panic, and that’s when I hear it:
The washer is running.
Sprinting down the hall in my towel, I make it to the laundry room just in time to see Betty put my cashmere sweater in the water. The pants are about to go in, but I dive for them. “No!”
She gives me a look that implies I’m the crazy one. “I was just washing your outfit—you have to wash clothes once before you wear them.”
“How could you?” I scream, pushing past her to the washer. I pull out the sweater, but it’s already soaked through and ruined. There’s no way I can fix this before Dylan comes. He’ll kill me for this.
“You hadn’t even taken the tags off.” She glares at me. “Do you know how many people try that stuff on? It’s like wearing other people’s sweat.”
“This is dry clean only! Not crappy used clothes from Goodwill!” I try to gently wring out the sweater, but it looks like a hideous dead rat already. “Were you going to put it in the dryer and shrink it, too?”
She looks down. “I was just trying to help. For your big date.”
“By ruining my clothes?”
Finally, my parents appear in the doorway, probably startled awake by my yelling. “What’s going on?” Mom asks.
“This!” I hold up the sweater. “You guys are supposed to get up when she does—you have towatchher like she’s a little kid, remember? You didn’t and now I can’t wear the sweater Dylan paid three hundred dollars for.”
Mom comes forward, looking guilty. But it’s not enough. “Maybe we can fix it. I can get the blow dry—”
“It’s too late. He’ll be here in like ten minutes.” I squeeze my eyes shut, so angry I can’t see straight. “Why did you have to be stupid today?”
“Mika…” Betty looks like she’s about to cry. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry isn’t enough!” I grab the sweater from Mom and shove it in Betty’s face. My whole life has been ruined by her—having to watch her, losing my chance to intern with my parents, and now this. “You messed everything up. I’m lucky I saved the pants before they got soaked, too. No one asked you to wash my stuff! And what were you doing in my room anyway?”
She starts crying, but I don’t care. She should cry.
“Sweetie.” Mom gives me a stern look. “It’s just a sweater. You’re acting way out of line for—”
“It’s not just a sweater! It was a gift. He bought it for me to wear today. Now I can’t.”
“That’s no reason to call her stupid,” Dad says. “She meant well, and—”
“You’re takingherside?” I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. Just last week my dad wanted to get as far away from his mother as possible, and now I’m in trouble for yelling at her? “Just because she’s crazy doesn’t mean she can get a free pass for everything she screws up! If you’d put her in a home this would have never happened. None of this.”
Dad glares at me. “Mika, you’re this close to getting grounded.”
“You need to apologize,” Mom adds.
I shove past them. “Forget it. You don’t understand.”
This time I do slam my door, and it takes everything in me not to scream. Betty picks the worst moments to be nuts. I have just enough time to get dressed before Dylan gets here, and half my outfit is ruined. He’ll take one look at whatever shirt I wear and get mad.
I lay the sweater out flat on my desk, hoping that I can salvage it so I can wear it later. Maybe if we need to go out on another fake date. But the ribbing is stretched weird, and I can’t get it to go back. Putting my head in my hands, I force myself to move on. There’s nothing I can do but find something to go with the pants. I pick out underwear and get dressed save my shirt. Then I proceed to go through everything I own, hoping something will work.
Problem is, nothing is better than that sweater. Even if it wasn’t me, it was beautiful and perfect and all my clothes look like they come from a completely different world than these pants and shoes.
Because they do.
I end up settling on a lacy purple tank with a cream cardigan that I wore to a benefit for the Aquarium last year. It’s the nicest combo I have, though nothing near three hundred dollars. There’s no time to do my hair, so I put it in a ponytail. An ocean-side golf course will probably be windy anyway.
Unable to look at my family, I grab my bag and head outside to wait for Dylan. At least this way my parents won’t see his reaction. Too bad that won’t spare me.
The silver car appears at the end of my street, and I feel like I’m about to throw up. Dylan parks right in front of me, gets out. One of his eyebrows is cocked as he takes in my outfit, and not in a good way. “Where’s the sweater?”
That’s when I burst into tears.
I cover my face, beyond embarrassed for breaking down. The summer’s stress must have finally gotten to me, because I struggle to pull myself together. “My stupid grandmother put it in the washer and it’s ruined. I’m so sorry. I put it out and then showered and when I came back she’d taken my clothes and—”
His hands come down on my shoulders. “Whoa there. Calm down, you’re rambling.”
I risk a peek at his face. To my surprise, it’s more worried-looking than angry. “You’re not mad at me?”
“It’s not your fault.” He runs his hands down my arms, but then pulls away like he didn’t realize what he was doing. “Did you seriously think I’d get mad at you over a sweater?”
“Uh, yeah.” I wipe under my eyes. So much for looking nice today. “I thought you’d rip me to shreds.”
He winces. “I guess I can see how you’d think that, but you still look nice. It’s just a sweater.”
“It was a gift, though. You worked for it, and…I liked it.” I look at my feet, the snakeskin flats gleaming back up at me. “I didn’t even get to wear it once.”
“I had no idea you were so sentimental.”
I give him my best pout.
His smile stretches wide, and even though we’ve been talking for a few minutes it’s the first time I really take him in. Nice-fitting black polo, slender white slacks, leather golf shoes—he totally makes this sport look cool. “Better be careful with that pout, Mika. It makes me want to do real boyfriend things.”
My eyes narrow into a glare. “You suck at flirting.”
He laughs as he opens the passenger side door. “That’s better. C’mon.”
Dylan makes a U-turn, and then we’re off toward the 17-Mile Drive, which I haven’t been to in forever. Cypress Point is right near the beginning of it on the Monterey/Pacific Grove side. The Drive is yet another one of the touristy things around here, a beautiful road through forest and golf courses and coastline that lands you right near Pebble Beach and Carmel on the other side.
As I watch the houses pass by, my mind wanders to Betty crying and me yelling at her like a lunatic. This pit forms in my stomach—Dylan didn’t even get mad, making my reaction completely unwarranted. Maybe my parents were right about how I was acting…
“Are you okay?” Dylan says.
I jump. “Oh, um, yeah.”
I sigh, not really wanting to bring up all the stuff I’m dealing with at home. “I just…I guess I still can’t believe you didn’t get mad at me.”
“Maybe you haven’t noticed, but you’re the one who’s constantly picking fights with me.” He pulls onto the main road that turns into The 17-Mile Drive. “It’s not my fault I have to defend myself.”
I open my mouth to argue, but then realize I can’t because he’s right. The last time he started it was…I can’t remember. New approach. “It’s not my fault you’re always doing things wrong. Someone has to point it out.”
Dylan’s knuckles go white from gripping the steering wheel, but he says nothing. As the city gives way to cypress trees and the rocky coast, I buzz on a heavy helping of nerves. He turns at the Cypress Point sign, and as he slows down by the gate I feel like I’m trying to sneak into a palace.
The guard sneers at the car, but when Dylan rolls the window down the man’s eyes go wide. “Mr. Wainwright! Sorry, I didn’t recognize the car. Go right ahead.”
“Thanks.” When the gate goes up, he drives through like he’s done this a million times.
I stare at him, unsure of what to think. This version of Dylan is so different. “Mr. Wainwright?”
He rolls his eyes. “They like propriety. Just you wait.”
“Great.” As the road opens up into a parking lot, my breaths come short and fast. There’s an expansive clubhouse adorned with trees and flowers and big windows. A few people stand outside, all wearing clothes like Dylan’s and sporting golf bags. Even dressed nice, it doesn’t feel like enough. “Can I change my mind now? I don’t want to do this.”
“Too late.” He parks fairly far from the clubhouse. Putting his hand on my knee, he smiles at me. “It’ll be fine, okay?”
“How do you know?”
“Because the only pretend thing about this is our relationship. You don’t have to lie about your life—you don’t have anything to be ashamed of. Besides…” He moves his hand to my cheek, and I freeze. “Maybe it would be easier to see this as our first date.”
I pull back, my face on fire. “Don’t mess with me like that.”
“Do I look like I’m messing with you?” His face is completely serious, and I keep waiting for him to give away the joke. He doesn’t. Olivia can’t be right. He can’t actually like me. With a frustrated sigh, he finally looks away. “Don’t bring your bag or phone. I wish I could’ve bought you something nice, because London really will tear that sack to pieces.”
“Oh, okay.” I look at my striped messenger bag. It’s been my favorite for years, but suddenly it seems beaten down. I try to stuff it under the seat.
He shakes his head. “Mika,no onewill steal that. Promise.”
“So either you’re hitting on me or being mean?”
“I find it very hard to be just your friend.” He opens the door and gets out, leaving me in a confused daze. I signed up for fake girlfriend duty—now it seems like he did this in hopes that Iwouldbecome his girlfriend. Maybe we don’t fight as much as we did at first, but I never would have seen this coming.
I force myself out of the car. Dylan has the trunk open, and when he shuts it I see the bag of golf clubs at his side. He throws them on his shoulder and motions for me to follow.
“Those look a lot nicer than my dad’s,” I say, deciding I should at least be nice to him today. I’ll have to figure everything else out later.
Dylan slows his pace so I can keep up. “My dad only let me take two bags when he kicked me out. This was the second one. Funny how fast you figure out your priorities when your whole life gets reduced to so little.”
“I didn’t know you liked golf that much.”
“You never asked.” He grabs my hand then, and I don’t fight it. I might even enjoy it a little. “Once dreamed of going pro, but I never got to practice like I wanted.”
“Okay, you’re never allowed to mock my fish again—your interests are lamer.”
“Golf is not lame.” He pulls the clubhouse door open, waits for me to go in first. “You’ll see after today.”
The lobby alone is pristine. Everything looks like it’s made from the best possible material. People mill about in groups, mostly old guys, a few women, and even fewer teens. Pretty much just London and Brock, who are already heading for us.
When London sees us holding hands, her face turns sour. Dylan leans in, his breath tickling my ear. “I’m whispering to you because it’ll piss her off. It’d be even better if you laughed.”
I do, surprising myself as much as Dylan. But it’s funny, and I can’t help it.
London can’t muster a smile as she stands in front of us. “So you guys are actually together.”
“I already told you that.” Dylan smiles at me, and all my nerves are gone. This won’t be so bad—messing with her is shockingly entertaining. “I’m sure your mom mentioned it, too. We ran into her the other night.”
She clenches her jaw. “I’ll check in. Should I get a caddie, or will Mika do it for us?”
Dylan tips his chin up. “Get a caddie. He can help you with your swing.”
London whips around so fast her long brown hair almost hits us.
“Burn!” Brock’s laugh is loud enough to make everyone look at us. He pats Dylan on the back, having no problem checking me out in front of him. “She’s even hotter in normal clothes. Feel free to come to me when you get tired of this loser. I’ll be your sugar daddy.”
Dylan shoves him. “Back off.”
“No thanks,” I say. “I prefer guys who at least have the decency to check me out when I’m not looking.”
Brock lets out another deep laugh. “Now you two make a lot more sense.”
“Yeah, we do, don’t we?” Dylan squeezes my hand, and it feels like he’s not saying that to Brock but to me. I have no idea what I should do with that, so I study the floor. It’s a really nice floor.
London returns with keys and an older man wearing a visor. I assume he’s the caddie. “We’re ready to go.”
“Great.” Dylan snatches one of the keys. “Mika and I will ride together. You guys can take the other cart.”
Cypress Point lives up to every rumor I’ve heard. The early morning fog still lingers on the grass, making the place look like it’s filled with magic. Cypress trees dot the landscape, and I can hear the ocean beat against the rocky cliffs. The sun will soon burn off the mist, but I suspect that will only improve the view.
Dylan and I drive behind London’s cart, so she can’t watch our every move. It’s odd, seeing him so at ease. He totally belongs on a golf course, and it’s nice to know something makes him happy. I’m used to him being miserable.
“So what do you think?” he asks.
“It’s gorgeous. My dad wanted me to take pictures, but I told him no. I didn’t want to look lame.”
He smiles. “Just wait ’til the sixteenth. It’s legendary for a reason.”
“You really like this, don’t you?”
He glances at me. “Why do you ask?”
I shrug. “You seem like a different person out here—not a complete and total jerk.”
“I’m not a jerk. But maybe I have been acting like one lately.” He reaches to put his arm around me, and I notice London has turned around to observe us. “So sue me if I haven’t handled this recent string of life changes perfectly. I’m not you.”
I gulp, thinking about Betty and my own graceless moments. “If you’re implying I’m perfect, you’re wrong.”
“We can debate that later.” He pulls me closer, and I catch the clean scent of his soap. There’s no denying the physical chemistry—his proximity definitely gets my heart racing. The other stuff is still way up in the air. “Right now we have to talk strategy. London is gonna pull out the dirt fast. You can’t be fazed by it.”
I raise an eyebrow. “What kind of dirt?”
“Her first tactic will probably be the ‘Dylan is a player’ route, but you already know my history there. I’m not about to apologize for it; we all go through phases. I got it out of my system.”
“You’re seriously chalking that up to a phase?”
“Moving on—she’ll hit the money sector next, imply that you aren’t good enough for me. But that’s crap because my father really did disown me, though everyone thinks he’s bluffing. I might still have his last name, but I’m poorer than you.”
“Really?” I didn’t know it was that serious, and it sends up a warning flag. “What did you do to make him so mad?”
He cringes. “Let’s not go there just yet.”
I don’t have time to push the topic because we’re at the first tee. Dylan goes for his clubs, and Brock comes up to me with a too-wide smile. “You’re not playing, right?”
I nod. “I’m pretty horrible at golf.”
“Maybe I can teach you.” He puts his arm on my shoulder, and I look back to Dylan, who seems to have overlooked Brock’s role. “I’ll take you to the driving range to practice.”
And there it is. London hasn’t given up on Dylan at all. She fully intends to use this day to her advantage. Brock will distract me—she’ll have Dylan to herself.
“Dylan!” London calls from where she stands with the caddie. “Come over here for a second.”
He pulls me away from Brock, leaning in to whisper. “I’ll be right back. Do not go anywhere with him. You think I’m a player? Brock is worse.”
I nod. “I can handle him.”
He smiles. “And you were afraid you couldn’t do this.”
I roll my eyes and head back to Brock, who does seem genuinely interested in me. Either he’s a good actor or that’s why he agreed to London’s plan in the first place. “Actually, I’d rather watch Dylan than learn. I haven’t seen him play golf yet. Is he good?”
“Oh, he’s amaz…” He stops. “Not very good. Barely better than London.”
I look over to them chatting with the caddie. “Did London want to be a pro, too, then?”
Brock nods. “Dylan and London have always golfed with each other—they’ve known each other since they were kids. Way before we all went to school together.”
“You went to school with Dylan?” If he has more information on Dylan, maybe I won’t mind making friends with Brock after all. “Where?”
“Stevenson. They came for the golf. Their parents both live in Silicon Valley.”
“I see.” Stevenson is a boarding school in Pebble Beach, way up there when it comes to California private schools.
Dylan jogs back to us, clearly nervous about our conversation. He takes my hand. “London’s going first. Come watch.”
“Your parents live in Silicon Valley, huh?” I say as he drags me closer to the tee.
He leans in. “You arenotleaving my side. Got it?”
“If you insist.”
“I do.” He looks at London, who’s trying to focus on her shot but keeps glancing at us. She swings her club over her head, and at that exact moment Dylan grabs me by the waist and pulls me close.
“You missed!” Brock says. “I can’t believe you missed!”
London fumes at the sight of Dylan and me. He gives her his most crooked grin, and that’s when I realize he did that on purpose. She smooths her hair and takes a deep breath. “I didn’t miss. That was a warm up.”
“You were at the tee.” Brock folds his arms. “Are we playing for real or not?”
“Fine, whatever.” She puts her head down, and this time she hits the ball. It soars into the air—I have to admit I’m impressed by how far it flies. Thanks to my dad watching every major golf tournament, I know at least that she hit the fairway, the clean-cut grass not the rough outer bounds of the hole, right in the middle.
Brock hangs his head. “Damn.”
London looks right at Dylan, cocky as ever. “Your turn.”
He lets go of me, pulls out his driver, and places a golf ball on his tee. Then he stands there, waiting. “Feel free to say your snarky comment now, London, before I swing.”
She glares at him. “Just so you know, Mika, Dylan doesn’t have girlfriends. He gets what he wants and moves on.”
“Maybe he’d stick around if you weren’t so eager to give him what he wanted,” I blurt out before I can think.
She gives me a look that could melt my face off, but says nothing.
“See, London?” Dylan approaches the tee, looks out at the fairway, and barely takes another moment to prepare. His swing is full of power, and the golf ball flies way past London’s, landing dead center of the fairway. He smiles at me. “Mika is in a whole different league.”
At his words, everythingsnicksinto place. I can barely stand I’m so shocked. I fought it so hard, but Dylan was right. There’s no way we can be just friends—and I don’t think I want him to be my enemy.
London groans. “Whatever. I still don’t buy this.”
She can’t have him. It makes me sick just thinking about it. Not because he doesn’t like her, but because he’smine.
“You know what, London? I don’t think it’s up to you.” I walk past her, heading right for Dylan. I put one hand on his neck and push up to my tiptoes, kissing him on the cheek. “That was an amazing shot.”
His whole face lights up, and his arm slides around my waist. “Thanks, babe.”
So does that mean we really get to make out all day?” Dylan says as we get in the golf cart to head for the fairway.
“No.” I shove him. But when he puts his arm around me, I let myself settle into his side, try to feel what it could be like if we got together for real. “You said this could be our first date instead. I don’t make out on first dates.”
“I can live with that.” He seems to be driving slower than necessary. “Do you mind telling me what changed?”
“I’m not sure. There are still things I don’t like about you…” I bite my lip, trying to find the right words. “But at the same time, I think I could like the person you’re becoming. We’ll see.”
“Your honesty is painfully endearing.”
“Thanks?” I lean my head on his shoulder, liking the feel of it way too much.
We stop near Brock’s ball, which is way behind London’s. But Dylan doesn’t get out. In the silence I can feel his nerves. “Is it weird that I like how you see all my faults?”
“A little.” The words come out flirtier than planned.
“I’m gonna play horribly today—you’re too distracting.” When Brock’s done with his shot, Dylan puts the cart back in drive, and we follow the group to the next golf ball.
My affectionate display seems to have staved off London’s barrage for now. They play in relative silence, save the caddie giving several tips to Brock about the course. I keep waiting to get bored, but the view is too stunning to allow it. The sun glistens on the water, waves crash onto the rocks, and the breeze is just enough to keep me cool.
And then there’s Dylan. I would never tell him, but he makes golf sexy. Every time it’s his turn, I wait for the way he flexes his forearms just before he swings. He watches the ball fly, his eyes narrowed and breath held. When it lands where he wants, he flashes me this hopeful smile. When it goes slightly off course, he purses his lips and shoves his club in the bag.
I’ve never seen him so passionate, and I find it ridiculously attractive.
After nine holes, or what they call “the turn,” there’s a pavilion with refreshments and bathrooms. I’m happy for the break, and it seems like we’ll have to wait anyway because the group in front of us is also resting.
“What do you want?” Dylan asks as we follow London to a table. “We still have maybe a couple hours, so you should eat something. Don’t you dare look at the prices.”
I sigh. “What do they have then?”
He puts his arm around my waist—he’s had no problem taking advantage of that. “Sandwiches, fruit, chips, yogurt, cheese platters…”
“Ridiculously expensive French wine?”
That gets me a chuckle. “Of course. But they won’t let you have it.”
“I guess water will have to do, and I need to see this cheese platter.”
“I’ll be right back.” He heads for the vendor, leaving me with Brock. London has gone to the bathroom, and I’m happy I don’t have to face her on my own.
Brock smiles as I sit next to him, but it’s not that skeevy look he first gave me. He doesn’t seem so bad, really. I think I’d like him if I knew him better. “You know, London told me to try and woo you.”
“I figured as much.” I try to look serious. “Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think she likes me.”
He lets out a big laugh. “She doesn’t like any chick Dylan looks at, so him having a girlfriend for the first time must piss her off like nothing else. But I’ve decided you’re good for him.”
I raise an eyebrow. “He’s never had a girlfriend?”
“Nope. Total player, but no one cared cuz he’s freaking loaded. Or was.” I glare at Dylan, and Brock laughs again. “You got him whipped—I can tell.”
“I don’t know about that. So are you his best friend?” I ask.
Brock shrugs. “I guess you could say that, though he’s always kept to himself. We were roommates for four years, though, so I’ve learned how to put up with him.”
“You poor thing.”
He gives me an approving smile. “Right?”
Dylan shows up with a huge platter of cheese, crackers, and fruit. “Don’t eat it all, Brock.”
“You know I freeload with discretion.” He grabs a handful of grapes.
“Wow.” I look over the various cheeses. “I don’t recognize half of these.”
“Here, this is my favorite.” Dylan grabs a slice of a white, flaky-looking cheese and puts it on a cracker for me. “It’s a sharp Cheddar made in Sonoma.”
I take it and pop the whole thing in my mouth. It’sreallysharp, but in a good way. I grab a strawberry to balance it out with sweetness. “Mmm. What next?”
Dylan stares at me. Or rather my lips. “Yeah, no more strawberries for you. I’m already three strokes off my game.”
“Here, Mika.” Brock slides all the strawberries over to me with a wide smile. “I need to win for once.”
We’re about half way through the cheese platter when London finally shows. She glares at me the entire time she’s in line for food, and I have a feeling most of her bathroom break was devoted to her next plot. I wish she wouldn’t bother, because I’m having fun otherwise.
“So, Mika…” London sits next to Dylan with her yogurt. “We don’t know very much about you. What do your parents do?”
I almost choke on the cracker in my mouth, and Dylan hands me my water bottle, whispering, “Told you.”
When I can breathe again, I say, “They’re marine biologists—they’re the head researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I hope to follow in their footsteps one day.”
“Dude, cool,” Brock says.
London doesn’t seem as impressed, but it’s her smug smile that scares me more. “Interesting. So they deal with slimy creatures all day? Do they smell when they get home?”
My stomach twists, and I can’t help thinking of Clark saying his own brother won’t visit his “flea hole.” Try as I might, I feel as small and insignificant as she wants me to.
Dylan’s hand finds my knee, and I know he’s saying not to let it get to me. “My uncle said Mika’s parents got a big grant from Stanford they’re working on. They must have a lot of respect for her parents’ research.” He looks at me, and I can feel his respect down to my bones. “Your parents make an impact on the world. I think they’re awesome. Ours just hoard money.”
“Thanks.” I put my hand over his, in awe that he could make me forget all of London’s insults. “Seriously.”
London looks like a little girl about to have a tantrum. “Are you ready to go yet?”
“Ready when you are.” Dylan pulls me toward our cart. “She’s really starting to piss me off.”
“Why is she like that?” I ask as we head for the tenth hole.
“I told you I was her trophy.” He sighs, and I think I see regret in his expression. “It wasn’t always like this. We used to be friends—we grew up together. Like, next-door neighbors and everything. I was never good at making friends, but I liked playing with her because she wasn’t my friend for the money.
“Our fathers went into business before we were even born, made a bunch on their first venture, and I guess I always saw her as the same as me. She was rich, too. She didn’t treat me like royalty for it.”
It’s hard for me to picture this version of London. He makes her sound like a sweet kid. “How did it change so much, then?”
He shrugs. “We got older. She didn’t want to be friends anymore, and then our parents started talking about how we should get married. I was twelve. I just wanted a friend, but it became a power play to keep all our families’ money together. London thinks that’s a great idea, but there’s no way in hell I’d date her or marry her.”
“You’ll just hook up with her,” I blurt out. He gives me a death glare, and I kind of feel bad for laughing. “Sorry! You left yourself wide open. I do feel a little bad—that kind of pressure sucks. I had no idea people still thought marriages like that were a good idea.”
He shakes his head as he parks by the tee. The guys in front of us are just about done. “Don’t worry about it. Now you know just how drunk I’d have to be for that to even sound like a good idea.”
He has a point. “When did it happen?”
“Two years ago. She got me slammed, and when I woke up the next morning she was there. I was pissed. She tried to use it as leverage—said we had to date now. I told her I would've had a lot of girlfriends if it worked that way.”
That makes me feel a tiny bit better. “I’m sorry. That’s not cool.”
He kisses my cheek, and I back up. His smile is full of mischief. “Sorry, when you listen to me like that I can’t help myself.”
My face must be bright red. “You’re only getting away with it because of the deal, you know.”
“Oh, I know.” He gets out and grabs his clubs while I try to steady myself. Today has been pretty incredible, but I can’t let myself fall completely under his spell. At this rate I really will be making out with him by the end of the day.
I didn’t think Cypress Point could get more beautiful, but it’s hard to believe the back nine holes are real. It feels like we’re floating on the ocean, the water is so close. Seals sunbathe on the rocks and bark at each other. The cypress trees reach out in their jagged angles, almost like they were created to block the golfers’ best shots. When we finally reach the sixteenth hole, I stare in awe at what I see.
There’s no fairway, just water and rocks and a distant green on the other side. I look at Dylan, who seems pleased with my reaction. “Pretty cool, right?”
“Yes.” I point to the ocean. “And you can actually hit the ball over that?”
He laughs. “Most of the time.”
“This hole is my nemesis,” Brock says, which is when I realize they’ve pulled up beside us.
“You have to get past the fear,” London says. The caddie carries her bag for her, sets it up, and suggests a club. She takes her swing, and the ball goes invisible as it blends with the sky, but soon enough it hits the green, rolling to a stop very close to the hole. “See?”
“Wow,” I can’t help but say. “You’re really good.”
She sneers at me. “Don’t try.”
“She’s beingnice, London.” Dylan goes to the tee. “At least have the decency to fake it back.”
She scowls. “You know what I’m gonna miss, Dylan? Your parties. Has he told you about the last one he threw, Mika?”
His eyes go wide. “London…”
She smiles at this. “Ahh, he hasn’t. Are you afraid of what poor little Mika will think of you when she finds out?”
His chest moves up and down, and he practically growls, “You have no right to tell her. That’s my place.”
“So I shouldn’t tell her you stole your dad’s company credit card and threw a massive party at the Iron Man house?” She looks right at me, savoring this. “I heard it cost over five million dollars—I bet that’s probably more than your family has made in their whole lives.”
Five million. The number doesn’t sound real. How can you even spend that much in a month let alone one day?
“Stop!” Dylan yells.
London puts her hands on her hips. “Why? If she’s really your girlfriend, she should know how you flew our entire school to San Diego, paid off a bunch of celebrities to entertain us, hired a top Parisian chef. Alcohol, drugs, sex. It was pretty awesome…at least until your dad found out.”
Five million keeps repeating in my head. He only mentioned her other tactics to distract me from this one. He knew it would bother me that he threw away so much money.
Everyone waits for me to say something. I don’t have any words as I stare at Dylan. He seems defeated, and I feel the same. I’m sure he had reasons—I hope he had reasons—but right now it doesn’t feel like there’s anything he could say to make me understand.
“What’s with all the staring?” I finally say. “Golf.”
Dylan takes his place, but he doesn’t have the same energy as before. He hits the ball, and it soars right into the water.
When we get in the golf cart, there is no handholding, no arm around me, nothing. I hate it, and yet I need it. Everything feels so messed up. That kind of money could have sent me to any college in the world. It could have paid for Betty’s medical care. It could have been used for my parents’ research. Actually, probably all three.
“Can I at least explain?” Dylan asks.
“What’s there to explain? What London said was true, wasn’t it?”
His jaw tightens. “Yes. But I—”
“Don’t.” I say it quickly, having already decided how I need to handle this for my own sanity. “The more I think about it, the more upset I’ll get. I’ve already thought of a million ways I could have used that money, and if you start explaining right now it won’t be enough. It might never be enough.”
“It’s not like I’m proud of it.” His voice is pained. “You said you’d give current-me a chance.”
“I did.” I rub my eyes, a headache coming on. “But I’ve been slammed with information. This party…I didn’t realize you werethatrich or messed up. I need to think, okay? Can you let me do that?”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know,” I snap.
We don’t talk after that, and there’s this weird pain in my chest I can’t quite identify. London flits around triumphantly—I can’t take her comments right now, so I stay in the cart. Dylan doesn’t play well on the last holes, but what makes me sadder is that he doesn’t seem to care anymore. He’s not mad; he’s resigned.
By the time we get back to the clubhouse, the silence feels like a wall. I can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t lead to me yelling at him, and I don’t want to fight now that I know how good it could be if we didn’t.
Five million dollars.
Now that I’ve exhausted the “What could I do with that kind of money?” route, I’m left wondering what kind of person has a credit card with a five million dollar allowance. Just how much money do his parents have? His world is so different from mine I can’t picture it.
What does he see in me? Am I some novelty? I don’t like that idea one bit, but it feels plausible.
When we get back to the car, I grab my phone. There are twenty-three texts waiting for me, and I’m grateful for the distraction. At least until I start reading some of them.
Olivia:OMG, Shrey told me everything. U better make out w/him.
Shreya:We are dying to hear what happens.
Olivia:Call us! Where r u?
I give up after that. I can’t deal with having to recount today. I hate today. It made me want someone I shouldn’t want—it made me both like and hate him more. Which doesn’t even make sense.
Dylan pulls up in front of my house, letting out a long sigh. “I only did it because my dad—”
I plug my ears. “Stop it!”
He pulls my hands away from my face. “Let me explain!”
“No! I already know what I’ll hear: excuse, excuse, excuse. It’s not like you spent five million on saving babies from cancer—youthrew a party.You wasted it.” I try to get free of his grip. “See? I’m ready to rip you to pieces.”
“Go ahead. I never said I didn’t deserve it.” He squeezes my hands, puts my fingers to his lips briefly. “I know I messed up, but I lied about you being my girlfriend because I wanted it to be true. After today, how it felt to be with you…don’t cut me off. Please, Mika.”
I pull away, even though my body screams not to. “That’s my decision to make.”
He glares at me. “There’s really nothing I can say to change your mind, is there?”
He leans back in his seat, looking like he wants to punch something. “I hate myself so much right now.”
“Don’t say that.” Sighing, I shoulder my bag. “I’m sorry, but I have to be okay with this on my own before I can think about more. Don’t ask. I’ll let you know.”
I get out before he answers, rushing into my house in hopes that he doesn’t follow. The second I shut the door, my dad is right there ready to pummel me with questions. “How was it? Is the view as incredible as they say? What was sixteen like?”
I roll my eyes. “Epic, yes, and stunning.”
“Honey.” Mom’s tone isn’t nearly as sweet as the term. “Isn’t there something else we need to discuss first?”
Dad’s shoulders slump. “Oh yeah.”
This morning comes rushing back, and I groan. “I’m really tired. Can we do the lecture later? I totally overreacted and I’m sorry; please let me go to bed.”
By the way she looks at me, I think Mom knows my day didn’t go well. “I guess we can discuss it later if you apologize to Betty now. This has been hard on all of us, but that kind of behavior isn’t acceptable. I didn’t raise you to treat your elders like that.”
I want to snap back at her, tell her that I shouldn’t have to treat Betty like I treat myObaachanorOjiichan, who are real grandparents. But instead I head to where Betty sits in front of the TV, engrossed in an infomercial for acne medication. She smiles at me when I sit down. “Look at those before-and-afters! Isn’t that amazing?”
Her innocent expression knocks the anger out of me.
She forgot I yelled at her.
To her, I’m just a nice girl sitting next to her on the couch. Not the mean one who called her stupid because of her disease. As I look into her hazel eyes, I think I finally get it. This isn’t some act she puts on to annoy us—Betty has Alzheimer’s.
Shewilldie from it.
Why does that suddenly sound horrible to me? I may not like everything about her, but I don’t want her to die. There are good things in her, too, like how she helped me pick my outfit when I went shopping. She has a heart, though she hides it fiercely. Or maybe she’s forgotten how to show it.
“We should order that stuff,” she exclaims, and my heart warms with more affection than I ever thought I could feel for her.
That conversation I had with Dylan comes flooding back—about being kind to a goldfish even if they could only remember three seconds of time. This morning I treated Betty like she didn’t matter as much as my sweater, like her feelings weren’t real because they’d be gone in a few hours. That makes me a pretty cruddy human being.
“I’m sorry for being mean to you this morning,” I say. “I shouldn’t have gotten mad at you for trying to wash my things. I know you were trying to help.”
She nods slowly, like she’s trying to remember what I said. “It’s okay. I should have asked.”
“I promise I’ll be nicer to you from now on.” And I mean it.
“Me too, nowshh.”
I don’t feel like I deserve kindness from her, but I can’t protest because she’s already back to her infomercial. It doesn’t seem like enough, for her to forgive me so quickly. I turn to my parents. “Can I rest now? It was a long course.”
Dad frowns. “You should have taken pictures.”
Mom looks like she’s trying to maintain her patience. “Yes, sweetie. We’ll call you for dinner.”
I head to my room, change into comfy yoga pants and a tank top. It feels good to be in clothes I belong in, clothes I don’t have to worry about ruining. Lying on my bed, I watch my fish swim. My eyes keep coming back to Dill, the one I bought the day I met Dylan. He’s already gotten bigger, and he’s always happy to see me when I come home.
Now I understand why Dylan asked me what happened to a goldfish that was born at the top of the waterfall, if they were turned to dragons, too. That’s how he sees himself—a goldfish who’s never had to fight the current and had the world given to him. I still don’t know the answer to his question, though. Does he get dragonhood just because he was born up there?
He sure doesn’t deserve to be one.
But if your family has five million to drop, how can you not be a dragon?
I’m missing something. But I’m too tired to find the answer, so I let myself doze off. I don’t wake up until I hear my phone ringing. Olivia. I hit “accept.” “Don’t even say his name or I’ll hang up.”
“You’re no fun. Shreya and I are dying over here.”
I rub my eyes, still trying to wake up. “The fact that I don’t want to talk about it doesn’t tip you off in any way?”
“Fine, fine. Subject change—we’ve decided to meet up with Shreya’s brother tomorrow. You in?”
That piques my interest. “Pavan? Won’t she get disowned for talking to him?”
I swear I can hear Olivia smile, and I get the sense that she’s set one of her devious, Shrey-and-Mika-would-never-do-this-on-their-own plans in motion. “Not if her parents don’t find out.”
Olivia’s apartment smells weird, and I figure it’s travel funk because all their suitcases are still in the living room. She plops down on the sofa, looking exhausted but tanner than ever. Even her warm brown hair looks a few shades lighter from all the sun. Stretching out her annoyingly long legs, she says, “Sorry it’s so messy, Mom’s still sleeping. Jet lag sucks, but Tahiti was worth it.”
Shreya takes the recliner. “Haven’t you rubbed it in enough?The beaches are incredible! The food! The dancing!”
“And the guys, oh, the guys!” I add in my best Olivia impression.
She smiles. “I haven’t even told you what Waka and I…”
“No boys. I’m sick to death of boys.” I push her legs off the couch to make room for myself. Despite my rampant jealously over her trip, I am happy to have her back. She makes life a little more normal.
She frowns. “No offense, but you really need to make out with Dylan. Work out all that tension.”
Shreya cringes. “Jeez, Olivia.”
“Yeah, Olivia,” I say. “Keep your dirty mind to yourself.”
“Whatever. You can’t tell me you haven’t thought about it.” Her eyes glint with mischief, which is a rather common occurrence. “Shreya showed me his picture online—he’s totally up my alley. Maybe I’ll go after him if you—”
“No!” I say, and when they laugh I realize that was the exact reaction she was looking for. “That’s not funny.”
She glares, and I get the sense she’s actually mad at me. “At least tell us what happened yesterday, so we know why we have to deal with cranky Mika on a day that’s supposed to be happy.”
Her words cut. She’s telling me I need to think about Shreya today, not my own problems. “Maybe later, when I’ve wrapped my head around it. When are we meeting Pavan? And how did you orchestrate this without Shrey’s parents finding out?”
Olivia sighs, seeming appeased by my change in subject. “We called him on my cell, so Shrey’s phone is clear. Then we worked it out that he’d call her through his fiancée’s number so her parents don’t recognize it.”
“I feel like they know.” Shreya pulls her knees up. “I told them I was going to lunch with you guys to celebrate Olivia coming back, but I swear my mom can read my mind.”
I frown. “It’ll be okay. He’s your brother—you shouldn’t get in trouble for wanting to see him.”
“That doesn’t mean I won’t.” Shreya bites her lip, and it makes me feel bad for not being there like I should. Between Betty and Dylan…I’ve been a sucky friend. “We’re meeting him and Rachelle, his fiancée, at Bubba Gump’s.”
“Good choice. Your parents would never go there. Or anyone else we know.” Bubba Gump’s is a seafood place on Cannery Row, just about as touristy as you can get. “Should we get going?”
Shreya nods. “I know it’s just Pavan, but I’m still nervous to meet Rachelle. I hope she doesn’t think I hate her. After that night, I wouldn’t blame her for thinking my whole family is crazy. I wish that wasn’t her first impression. Thanks for coming with me. I need the moral support.”
“Of course,” Olivia says at the same time I do. She flashes me a grin, punching my shoulder. “Jinx!”
We take Olivia’s beat-up Volkswagen bug. I’m still not sure how she keeps it running, but she’s determined to drive it until the mechanics say it’s impossible to revive. It takes some time to find a parking spot along the crowded Cannery Row, which is a narrow street on its own, but add in a crap load of tourists and you’re asking for an accident.
Pavan and a blond woman I assume is Rachelle stand right outside Bubba Gump’s, along with a bunch of other people waiting to get in. He smiles wide, and to my surprise Shreya bursts into tears. They hug, and it both breaks my heart and makes it soar.
“I missed you, kiddo!” Pavan says.
Shreya shoots him an embarrassed look. “Don’t call me that.”
He laughs and introduces us to Rachelle. She seems like a lovely person, her smile genuine as she says, “Thanks for helping Shreya come today. We never meant to cause so much…”
Rachelle looks to Pavan, and her face cracks a little. He puts his arm around her. “Let’s not dwell on that. We’re having fun today with my sister.”
Shreya seems a little shy, but also happy Rachelle seems to not have hard feelings about what happened. “I know my parents reacted…well, I’m sorry, and I want to get to know you.”
“Please, don’t apologize. Pavan warned me it might not go well.” Rachelle looks like she’s about to break down at the words, and I wonder if she blames herself for everything that happened. She recovers with a beaming grin. “I can’t wait to get to know you, too. I’m an only child—I always wanted a sister.”
It takes about thirty minutes to get into Bubba Gump’s, but the time flies as we chat with Rachelle and Pavan. Shreya seems more comfortable by the time we’re led to a table. But for some reason I’m the opposite, like my skin is covered in ants. It’s not until I sit down that I realize someone is staring at me from a nearby booth. My eyes go wide as their faces register.
London and her mom. Plus two little boys jumping around like wild animals. They remind me of the kids who come into AnimalZone and bang on my fish tanks, which almost makes me feel bad for her.
“Crap, crap, crap,” I mutter as a wide smile breaks out on Mrs. St. James’ face. She waves me over, and I wish I could pretend I didn’t see her.
Olivia raises an eyebrow. “What?”
“London is here with her family,” is all I can get out before Mrs. St. James goes as far as to call my name. I hoped I’d never see her or her daughter again, but it seems the universe has other ideas. Stupid universe. “I’ll be right back.”
“Mika! I was sure that was you,” she says as I come to their table. “What a coincidence! What’re you doing here?”
“Just having lunch with friends,” I say. “And you?”
“Oh, the boys love the Aquarium.” She smiles at them as they tear the kids’ menus to bits. London is on her phone, trying her best to not look bothered. “We go every Sunday in the summer.”
“I see.” Dylan did say they stayed in Carmel all season, but I didn’t think that would mean I’d have to be on guard at every tourist attraction in the area. Of course I do, the Monterey peninsula isn’t that big. There are only so many places to go while on vacation.
“Where’s Dylan?” She looks past me to where my friends sit.
“They had a big fight yesterday at the course,” London says matter-of-factly. “They probably broke up. You know Dylan.”
Her mom nods like she’s not surprised. “I’m sorry, Mika. This must be uncomfortable. I didn’t know.”
That thing inside me flares again. I’m not sure if it’s jealousy or protectiveness, maybe both. “We didn’t fight or break up. I’m just out with my friends. Dylan and I still do our own stuff. My boyfriend isn’t my whole life.”
“I’d watch him closer if I were you,” London says.
“I trust him.” The words feel funny on my lips because they’re truer than I thought they’d be. I’m sure he meant every word he said yesterday. It’s just the relationship part that’s still a lie…a lie I’m maintaining without Dylan asking. I kind of want to punch myself.
She lets out a short, sad laugh. “Good luck.”
“I don’t think I’ll need it, but thanks anyway,” I snap back.
London purses her lips, seeming to crumble right in front of me. I was not expecting that reaction. Her mom places a hand over her daughter’s, frowning, and I get the sense that London’s been through a lot more than I’ll ever know. “You can go now, Mika. You might not care or understand, but this issue is difficult for my daughter.”
I can only muster a nod, because I do feel bad, but then she also called me an “issue.” Like my presence in Dylan’s life is a problem. That hurts. I sit down at the table with my friends, dazed.
“What was that about?” Shreya asks.
I shake my head. “Let’s focus on—”
“No,” Olivia says, seeming angry that I interrupted her carefully-planned lunch with my drama. Because I can control where London shows up. “Tell us what your boyfriend’s ex had to say.”
“He’s not my—”
“You have another boyfriend?” Pavan asks out of nowhere. “I swear Shreya mentioned you just broke up with one.”
“A few months ago, yeah.” I gulp, knowing Shrey and Olivia will tear me to pieces later. There’s officially no getting around telling them what happened. “Dylan is…I don’t know. It’s complicated.”
Pavan smiles at Rachelle. “Complicated I can understand.”
She blushes, and I can tell they’re crazy in love. “Sometimes complicated is worth it, though.”
“And sometimes it isn’t,” I say, still completely unsure which category Dylan fits into.
Hello, Arlingtons!” Joel struts into our house like he owns the place, and we smile. After the weekend by ourselves with Betty, he is a more than welcome sight. Excessive happiness included. “Did you miss me?”
“Yes,” we say in unison.
“It’s so good to be appreciated.” He comes to Betty, who’s currently scowling at her oatmeal. “Hi, Betty! Do you remember me?”
She appraises him, and then recognition hits. “You’re the one who took my clothes off!”
Joel looks at us, the smallest hint of wariness under the smile. “So it’s gonna be that kind of day, huh?”
“Good luck,” Dad says as we head out for work.
My parents wave to me as I unlock my bike from the porch, and then they are off to their research in the bay while I get to go to work and see Dylan for the first time since Cypress Point. Lucky me.
No matter how hard I try to stay calm, my stomach knots the moment AnimalZone is in sight. This is why dating co-workers is a horrible idea. I want to call in sick, but going home would only make me feel bad for wasting Joel’s time. And it’s not like I can avoid this forever, so I take a deep breath and open the back door. It’s quiet as I clock in. My eyes run over the break room, looking for signs of Dylan. There’s a black hoodie draped over one chair, and I gulp.
Heading for Aquatics, I tell myself this isn’t a big deal. We weren’t dating to begin with, and I still don’t know if I like him enough to be serious. When I round the corner, there he is scrubbing one of the tanks. Without my asking.
He doesn’t notice me, his entire focus on the glass. His brow pinches, and he bites his lip as he tries to get rid of the scummy water line at the top of the tank. It’s adorable, and it reminds me how easy it was to be with him at the golf course, how much I liked him. The thought makes me feel like I’m giving in, so I force it down. He won’t get off easy just because he’s doing what he’s supposed to do.
“Make sure the corners are spotless,” I say.
He looks up, surprised. Then the smallest smile flits across his face. “Yes, ma’am.”
I want to say I’mnota “ma’am,” but that would mean starting a conversation. I head for the island to check the supplies we keep there. Clean nets, food, bags for purchased fish, live crickets for the reptiles in the next section over. Everything seems to be in perfect order, which means I have nothing to do but wait for customers.
Easy enough, except the silence is weird. It used to be normal, but a month of bickering with Dylan and now the quiet feels heavy. I’m keenly aware of him nearby, though I try my best not to look at him.
“Dylan,” Clark calls as he rounds the corner. “Order of food just came in. Help me unload.”
“Yes, sir.” He walks off without so much as a glance my way, and I’m surprised by how much I don’t like it.
I locate items for people, clean up gravel a kid spilled, and help Old Lady Miriam with a price check—except the whole time I keep waiting for Dylan to reappear. Then I hate myself for being so stupid. I asked for space, so it shouldn’t bother me that he isn’t around.
There’s a lull in customers, so I fill my time by scribbling goldfish drawings on a notepad. Fish are fun to draw, so flowy and open to interpretation. Too bad Shreya would never approve of a goldfish sand sculpture. She thinks I already do enough fish-related stuff.
“That doesn’t look like work,” Dylan says.
I jump and spin around, not having heard him coming. “Don’t do that!”
He smiles. “But you’re so cute when you’re surprised.”
Turning back around, I hope to hide the blushing. “You still have two tanks left to do. Don’t think I forgot.”
“I know.” He leans next to me, and I can’t decide if it’s too close or not close enough. “Speaking of tanks, when should I come clean yours?”
I pause mid-drawing, the thought of Dylan in my house too much. “You don’t have to do that.”
“That was the deal. And you made good on your end, so it’s the least I can do for putting you through that.” He sighs, and with it I can feel the words he bites back. “I promise I won’t bother you, so when?”
I retrace the outline of one goldfish over and over, unable to figure out what I want. But a deal is a deal. “Thursday. After my shift.”
“Works for me. Uncle Clark should be fine with it, since I’ll still be working.” He grabs the notepad and stuffs it in his pocket. “You’re setting a horrible example wasting time like this. I’ll have to keep it.”
I glare at him as he goes back to cleaning tanks, but force myself to say nothing. He’s trying to get a reaction, like he’ll take fighting with me if he can’t get affection. It’ll annoy him more if I remain silent. I should still be mad at him, though it doesn’t feel like I am.