Oddly enough, it was Tala who gave Yumi the chance to finally give her ever-vigilant Goddess-trainer/attendant the slip.
It was their second day of business, and already word was spreading that two strong contenders for the position of best sophomore class booth were emerging—their booth and the “Fair Games” booth. The news must have reached even the senior student council, who’d decided that a closer inspection was warranted. That, at first, was the reason Yumi’s classmates came up with for the unexpected appearance of no less than the senior student council president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer at their fruit-shake café.
At least until Yumi emerged from the “shrine” and stopped at the sight of the visitors, her grip tightening around the orange. “Hi, Ate.”
“Hi, Yumi,” her sister responded with equal enthusiasm. The expressions on the faces around them suddenly cleared, and Yumi could imagine what her classmates were thinking. Oh jeez, I forgot. The gorgeous Tala Muñoz is Yumi’s older sister. I still can’t believe they’re related.
As the student council president and secretary lined up to place their orders at the bar, Tala approached the shrine the way a rookie zookeeper would approach the tiger’s cage. Audrey, the senior student council treasurer, followed close behind her.
“This is pretty.” Tala gestured at the shrine, sparing a pointed glance at the familiar-looking throw-pillows. “How has business been going?”
“It’s been okay, thanks for asking,” Yumi replied, just as politely.
Just then, Ren came out from the curtained-off “kitchen” area dragging a cooler full of ice. Straightening, he spotted Tala, and a smile lit up his face. “Hey, Tala. It’s about time you dropped by to visit,” he said, wiping his hands on his apron and walking toward her.
Tala smiled back at him with genuine warmth. “I know, I’m sorry. Audrey and I would have come sooner, but we’ve been so busy. You know how it is. But we’ve been hearing a lot of good things about your café. Keep it up until Friday and Saturday, everyone. You’ll be getting a lot more customers during the school’s open-house.” This, she said to the rest of the class, and Yumi rolled her eyes at the way the boys’ heads all bobbed in sync.
Just then, the senior student council secretary called out: “Tala, Audrey, come over here. We’re trying to decide what shakes to get so we can get our love fortunes read. Prez says we don’t have time right now, but I’m sure the three of us can convince him. I’m getting a large strawberry-mango-kiwi shake. What about you?”
“Just a small papaya shake for me please,” Audrey said quickly.
“The same goes for me,” Tala put in.
“Small? But that’s not enough to get you a love-fortune reading. It’s got to be a large.”
Tala shook her head. “No, it’s all right. I’m not really into that sort of thing, anyway.”
Yumi stared down at her feet while the student council secretary pouted. “Fine. I’ll just ditch you guys later and get my love-fortune read. One small strawberry-mango-kiwi shake for me, please.”
“Here you go, ladies. At least rest your feet for a while.” Ren pulled out chairs for both Audrey and Tala then swept into a gallant bow before her sister, oozing so much charm that Yumi felt like tossing a mop at his head and telling him to clean up the floor.
“Why, thank you, sir,” Tala said with an answering laugh. “And look. How fair is it that my own hair accessories look better on a guy than on me?” She reached up to playfully tug at the rhinestone-star hair-tie holding Ren’s bangs back.
Lifting her head, Yumi sent a pleading look to her friends, who were standing nearby watching Ren and Tala with something like horrified fascination. When Fran nodded and Lisette gave a surreptitious thumbs-up, Yumi edged toward the door, muttering, “I have to go to the washroom.”
Neither Ren nor Tala noticed her leave. Yumi fled down the corridor, at first too intent on getting away from the romantic scene being enacted in their classroom to bother about her destination. She did eventually end up in the girls’ washroom, locking herself inside one of the cubicles and pressing her hand over her eyes as the tears overflowed. She wondered bitterly if Ren had enjoyed flaunting his relationship with the reigning queen of the senior class in front of their classmates and customers like that, then chided herself for the petty-minded thought. What he did with Tala wasn’t anyone’s business, least of all hers. Besides, he had a right to feel happy and proud that a girl like her sister had chosen him. All the other guys in the room were probably wishing they were him right now.
And the gigantic sky-eraser that had once again obliterated her existence? Totally Yumi’s problem.
Finally, she washed her face, took a deep breath, and stepped out of the washroom. Instead of going back to their booth, though, she decided to make the most of this dismal turn of events, and headed down a different corridor altogether.
There was a good-sized crowd at the “Fair Games” booth, and arch-rival or not, Yumi had to admit II-Diamond’s booth looked like a lot of fun. In keeping with their carnival motif, the walls of their classroom were papered with colorful stripes and banners reminiscent of a circus tent. Buntings crisscrossed the ceiling, and balloons and streamers were taped to virtually every vertical surface. The overall impression was that of having stumbled into a crayon factory after a bomb had gone off inside it. Yumi couldn’t imagine how much more riotous II-Diamond’s carnival would be when its denizens actually wore the costumes they used for the parade—as they probably would on Friday and Saturday when the school opened its doors to the public.
There were enough people inside the classroom to allow Yumi to wander around unnoticed for a while. The booth featured the kind of games one would see at a typical fair. There was a balloon-darts game, a Ping-Pong-ball-tossing game, a game of dice using oversized Styrofoam dice, a water-pistol shooting gallery, a knock-down-a-stack-of-bottles game. The prizes were proudly displayed on one end of the room: trinkets, cute plush toys, joke prizes like used toothbrushes and toilet paper, and the grand prizes—your choice of any member of II-Diamond as your slave for a week.
Yumi had paused to watch a customer throw a beanbag at the stack of bottles when a cry nearly made her jump right out of her skin. “What’re you doing here?! Are you spying on us?! ”
A couple of II-Diamond guys stepped in front of her, scowling suspiciously. “I’m not here to spy on you,” Yumi protested.
“Yeah? So tell us what business brings II-Ruby’s Goddess of Love to our side of the school,” one of the guys interrupted. “If you wanna play, you gotta buy tokens at the door.”
“I’m not here to play either. I’m looking for—”
“Hah!” He jabbed a finger at her face. “I knew it! You’re spying on us! Look at this, everyone, we’ve got a spy in our midst!”
Yumi tried not to groan as people turned to stare at her. “You guys are taking this booth competition way too seriously, you know that?” she muttered.
“If you’re not here to spy on us, then you’ve got to prove it,” the other boy said as though he hadn’t heard her. “That means you’ve got to answer two questions.”
“Fine,” she said with a sigh. “What are they?”
The two boys straightened, their suspicious glares smoothening into wide, eager grins. “Are you gonna wear your hot, belly-dancer’s costume again on Friday?” asked one.
“And can we have a photo of you in it?” his buddy added. “There’s this booth being run by one of the junior sections where—”
“Don’t you two slackers have balloons to blow up or something?” Pauline appeared, shoving the two boys in the direction of the balloon-darts game. Then she turned to face Yumi, eyebrow arched, arms folded over her chest “So what’re you doing here, witch?”
“I, um—” Yumi gulped, aware that almost everyone in the room had stopped to watch the unfolding scene, their expressions ranging from mild curiosity to mistrust. She clutched her orange to her chest as if trying to squeeze some courage out of it, then squared her shoulders. “I want to apologize to you,” she said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear.
Yumi nodded. “I’m sorry for saying that—um, for saying all those things about you. I was mad at you, so I lied. Just as I lied to you guys last year, too. I wanted you to think I was special, and it turned out I was just being completely self-centered. I didn’t even consider your feelings at all. So even though it’s kind of late, I’m sorry.”
Pauline stared blankly at her, as though waiting for someone to translate Yumi’s gibberish into words that actually made sense. From the corner of her eye, though, Yumi saw the other members of II-Diamond glance at one another in understanding. Whether Pauline accepted her apology or not wasn’t important, as long as everyone understood that they couldn’t make fun of her for loving her younger cousin, as Yumi had spitefully revealed.
At the gentle tap on her shoulder, Yumi turned and found Pauline’s cousin smiling at her. “Hi. My name’s Gilly. We’ve never been classmates so you probably don’t know my name.” Gilly stuck her hand out for Yumi to shake.
Yumi blinked down at the proffered hand, then looked uncertainly up at Gilly, whose smile deepened before she nodded almost imperceptibly. Her wordless declaration of trust warmed Yumi, and she reached out to accept Gilly’s peace offering, marveling at the fact that, just a few short weeks ago, a gesture as innocent as a friendly handshake would have been impossible for her.
“We’re sorry, too,” Gilly said, pitching her voice audibly as Yumi had to make sure everyone heard her. “We’re the ones who tried to trap you into admitting you were either a fraud or a witch so we could ruin your booth’s chances of winning. I still can’t believe I was dumb enough to go along with such a stupid plan.”
She sent a narrow-eyed look at her cousin, who had yet to make a sound or even move. Then Gilly grinned and took Yumi by the arm to tug her over to the token booth. “Come on, you wanna play? Your first ten tokens are on me. Just try not to win the used pair of socks. I don’t even know where they got those,” she added, wrinkling her nose.
“Thanks, but I can’t play right now. I’m supposed to be on duty at the café, except I kind of took a little detour. But can I bring my friends from II-Ruby here later to play?”
“Sure! And we’ll drop by your booth for fruit shakes later, too. To tell you the truth, I was a little scared about you reading my love-fortune at first. I didn’t like the idea of some stranger knowing all those personal things about me,” Gilly admitted ruefully. “But now that I’ve officially met you, I think I will let you read my love-fortune after all. I get the feeling you’re someone I can trust.”
Smiling, Yumi drew a cross over her heart with her orange. “All my clients are guaranteed complete confidentiality. But, um, I actually have to ask you a favor.”
A short while later, she waved goodbye to Gilly and began to walk back to her classroom, looking down at the phone number Gilly had scribbled on the inside of her left arm with permanent marker. One task done, one more to go, she thought, smiling to herself.
She promptly smacked into something hard. That something reached out and grabbed her wrists, both to keep her from toppling backward and from possibly attempting to escape again. “Where the hell have you been?” Ren all but snarled. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve been looking for you? We’ve got at least ten people waiting for you back at the café and—”
“Well, congratulations, you found me.” Yumi tried to rub the spot on her forehead that had hit his chest, but found she couldn’t loosen his grip at all. “Look, you made me drop my orange,” she complained.
She expected him to release her to go chase after the fruit, all the while scolding her about wasting oranges. Instead, he was staring down at the phone number written on her arm, his face looking weirdly ashen and set, as if he’d been dipped in cement. He looked over her shoulder at the corridor where she’d come from, then fixed her a dark stare. “Where did you go?” he asked in a low voice.
“None of your business,” she snapped, clinging to her indignation to beat back the cold waves of guilt. Guilt? What on earth did she have to feel guilty about? He was the one who was flirting shamelessly with their customers just a while ago. “Can we go now? You were the one who said we had a lot of customers waiting,” she said, trying to tug her wrists free again. This time, he let go of her easily. Then he turned and walked off without another word.
When he channeled energy into her again, she found that his threads had grown even dimmer, the bright, vivid colors fading into melancholy blues and indigos, mixed with the icy-electric browns of fear. It was as if some light inside him was slowly dying out, and worry for him began to grow inside her, mixing with the strange, confusing guilt.
She didn’t know what to do. For the first time in her life, she read someone’s threads but didn’t know how to unravel the pain she was feeling inside him. Her intuitive insight, which went hand-in-hand with her ability to feel emotional threads and could be relied upon to simply come pouring out of her mouth, remained disturbingly silent. She couldn’t even feel his love-threads between her fingers—she literally couldn’t grasp what was causing his unhappiness.
Did something happen between him and Tala? Did they have a fight? That sounded highly unlikely. The two of them had seemed pretty chummy when she’d left them earlier, and neither Fran nor Lisette reported observing any sign of tension between them. Then again, the shadows in his threads had been building up in the past few days, so whatever was getting him down couldn’t have happened in just one day. Could it be he was feeling insecure about Tala’s affections for him? Did he discover the presence of some rival—another senior, maybe, some classmate of Tala’s who was getting too close for comfort? Ysumi wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. Her sister had always been popular, and maybe to the rest of South Crescent High’s male population, Ren was just this sophomore upstart who was unworthy of the queen’s attentions.
Yumi scoffed at the sheer ludicrousness of that. Ren was smart, cool, funny, amazing at basketball, and one of the school’s hottest and most popular guys himself. So what if he was younger than Tala? He was worth any ten seniors Yumi could name. He was worth the entire senior class put together.
Pressing a fresh orange to her lips, she peeked at him sideways from her shrine, watching him laugh and chat with a group of girls whose fruit shakes he was serving. Of course he’s the best guy ever, she thought wistfully. He’s my best, closest and most precious friend, the one I can trust to always have my back.
Or at least…he used to be.