Yumi dreamed of a Goddess. She moved gracefully through shafts of light, her form dissolving into rippling shadows then back again into a shining figure of indescribable beauty. She raised her hand—and slipped on a pair of glasses studded with rhinestones.
The ground jolted underneath Yumi. Then the Goddess spoke: “Uhurrm.”
Yumi jerked awake, and the textbook she’d propped up in front of her fell to the floor. As the rest of the class laughed, she looked up to find Ms. Ponce frowning down at her. “I’m glad you’re finding our lesson on the triangle sum theorem as riveting as ever, Miss Muñoz.”
Her face flamed as she bent to retrieve her book. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”
“I’m sure you didn’t,” Ms. Ponce said with a sigh. “Fine. This being school-fair week, I’ll let this slide, but I expect you to do better on the next quiz than you did in the last one.”
As the teacher moved away, Yumi felt something thump against the back of her chair again. She glanced over her shoulder at Ren, who was holding out a pen she’d dropped. “Thanks,” she mumbled, her gaze sliding away from his as she took the pen.
“Yumi, are you okay?” Fran asked worriedly later as they were changing into their café uniforms in the washroom.
“Yeah,” she replied, wrestling her curls into a ponytail. “I just didn’t get much sleep last night, that’s all. Besides, geometry, you know.”
Leaning against the sink, Lisette crossed her arms and arched an eyebrow at Yumi. “Okay, that might explain you, but that doesn’t explain why Ren’s looking even worse than you. And don’t think we haven’t noticed that you’re avoiding him again.”
“I’m not avoiding him,” she said as she gathered her stuff. “I talk to him just fine.”
But she was avoiding him. She’d woken up much earlier than usual so she could hitch a ride to school with her dad again, just to avoid running into him. When he came into the classroom, she’d immediately looked away and mumbled about going to the washroom, and as a result was three minutes late for their class despite being one of the first to arrive. He’d tried to catch her eye, but she kept her gaze glued to her books, with the notable exception of geometry. After their morning classes, he tried again to talk to her, but she’d spouted some excuse and fled with Lisette and Fran in tow, while Angelo appeared a little while later, looking slightly bewildered at having to pick his girlfriend up for lunch at the girls’ washroom.
Yumi spent most of lunch period in hiding. When their café opened, she avoided talking to or even looking at him as much as she could, busying herself with her clients instead. The problem was, she still needed him to channel energy into her every now and then, and it was almost unbearable to see how her actions were affecting him. His threads bit into her skin and dragged her down like chains—burning blues, chilly grayish violets, and a sticky-slimy mix of brownish-yellowish-green, with only a few streaks of brilliant rainbow hues left. She sent wave after of wave of warm, loving gold into him but effect didn’t last long, and the last time she found herself coming back to her senses with her face wet with tears and her other fist clutching the front of his shirt, clinging to him as tightly as his threads clung to her.
“Yumi, talk to me,” he pleaded in a low voice as she pulled away and wiped her face, once again avoiding his gaze. “What’s wrong? If this is about this afternoon, then I won’t go—”
“No!” she said sharply. “No, you have to go. You have to talk to her, and you have to confess your feelings for her once and for all.” She sat back on her platform and hugged the pillow to herself. “This is the moment you’ve been waiting for your whole life. You’ve got a chance to make her yours, just like you’ve always dreamed.” She looked him straight in the eye, her gaze steady and intent. “This is what you wanted, am I right?”
She waited, hardly even breathing. His face had gone pale, then red, then pale again as she spoke, and now he was just stared at her with his lips parted slightly and his Adam’s apple bobbing erratically. Then his gaze flicked to the side. “Yeah,” he choked out. “You’re right.”
Disappointment squeezed her heart, and she closed her eyes. From the doorway, she heard his teammates calling for him so they could go practice for the exhibition game the next day. She opened her eyes and was almost amused to find that this time, he was the one avoiding her gaze.
“Hey, Ren.” When he glanced back at her, she took an orange from the dish, pressed a kiss upon it then tossed it to him. “There. You’ve got the blessing of the Goddess. Do your best, okay?”
She kept a smile on her face until he left, then she buried her face in the pillow. Somebody cleared her throat, and she looked up at Fran’s severe face, while their classmates and customers peered at her with round, avid eyes. “‘You have to talk to her?’ ‘You have to confess your feelings for her once and for all?’” Fran demanded. Then she reached down and grabbed Yumi’s arm. “Permission to take a break,” she called out, then proceeded to drag Yumi away without waiting for a response.
“Wait!” Yumi dug in her heels, forcing Fran to a halt. “I’ll explain everything, but we have to go get Lisette. I need to talk to you guys.”
They dropped by the Homemakers’ Club booth where Lisette was doing double-duty, with her new business partner and loving boyfriend Erik at her side. After having been missing for almost three days, Erik finally returned yesterday, braving the snide whispers and hostile looks thrown his way to confront the boys who’d been giving him and Lisette a hard time. Then he went to Lisette and practically swept her off her feet and carried her off, and when they came back, it was as if they’d gone from being two separate people to two parts of the same whole.
With a confused look and a questioning glance at Erik, who smiled and waved her off, Lisette went with Fran and Yumi—not to the garden, after Yumi insisted they avoid the place for a while, but to a shady bench nestled among the trees beside the school’s front courtyard. There, Yumi told them about her conversation with Laurence, then about Ren’s reminder about her fulfilling her end of their deal. Then she told them about her conversation with her sister last night, which, as far as Yumi was concerned, classified as a miracle worthy of a Goddess of Love.
Beginning with her mustering the courage to knock at her sister’s door. “Ate? Ate, can I talk to you?”
“Go away. I’m busy,” came the muffled reply.
She knocked again. “Ate, I need to talk to you. Please. It’s really important.”
“I said go away, Yumi. Come back later if you have to.”
“No, I need to talk to you now. Come on, please? Open up already.”
She knocked again, rapping variations of shave-and-a-haircut on Tala’s door, followed by the bass line of an annoying pop-dance song while she sang a garbled version of its lyrics, until finally Tala uttered a curse and cracked the door open. “Would you stop that already?”
A fruity scent wafted toward Yumi as she gaped at yellowish paste smeared all over her sister’s face. “Bananas? That’s what you do with them when you bring them up? You don’t eat them at all?” Tala gave her a narrow-eyed look then slammed the door shut. Yumi spent several more minutes sitting in front of her door, tapping out “Gangnam Style” until their mom came upstairs and told her to cease and desist. She continued to wait outside Tala’s door though, figuring she’d have to come out if she planned to sleep without coating her pillow in banana pulp.
Her patience paid off, and she was eventually allowed admittance into her sister’s room. Tala’s room looked exactly like the kind of teenaged girl’s room that got featured in interior design magazines. Still, she’d placed a stack of books and clothes on her desk chair, and arranged her stuffed animals all over the bed, leaving only enough space for Tala herself to sit on. It was a clear signal of how unwanted Yumi’s company was, but Yumi overcame that through the simple expedient of plopping herself down on the floor, wrinkling up Tala’s rose-patterned throw-rug in the process.
“What do you want?” Tala said grumpily as she brushed out her mermaid tresses.
Yumi decided to go for the direct approach. “Ren likes you, and he wants you to be his date for Students’ Night. Or so he says.”
Tala went still, her eyes going to Yumi’s face. “I beg your pardon?”
Yumi explained about their deal—that she’d help him ask Tala out in exchange for his help training her to control her power. “And there it is. So I’m asking you to consider talking to him and giving him a chance to ask you out himself. Please, Ate. At least think about it?”
Tala fixed Yumi an uneasy look. “Why are you even asking me this? You held my hand. Don’t you already know what my answer will be?”
Yumi noted her sister’s wariness, and her spirits sank even lower. “No, I don’t,” she said tiredly. “I didn’t read your threads. And I’m sorry I scared you back then. I was just so angry.” Tala continued to look doubtful, which made her sigh. “Look, I just want to know how you feel about Ren—I mean, in the normal way. I know you’ve known him since he was shorter than both of us, but you have to admit he’s grown up a lot.”
Tala set her hairbrush down. “This really isn’t—”
“He’s also smart—well, he’s always been smart. He’s like you in that sense. He’s funny and cool, too. Sure, he’s bossy, and he occasionally gets these weird, overprotective fits, but that’s because he’s the old-fashioned type who tries his best to take care of you and to make you happy.”
“And he’s loyal, too. He’s the kind who’ll stay faithful to his girlfriend. I should know; I’ve read his threads often enough.” Her lips curved in a wistful smile. “Did you know he had this awful crush on you when we were kids? A lot of girls like him, but as far as I can tell, you’re the only girl he’s ever said he liked. And he’s tall and strong, and he looks really hot, especially with his hair up. So it doesn’t matter that he’s two years younger than you, right? He’s wonderful just the way he is.”
A stuffed bunny bounced off her head. “I’m sorry, but you were getting a bit too caught up in your dreamy monologue about Ren,” Tala said, snorting with laughter.
“Dreamy monologue?” Yumi echoed indignantly. “More like a sales pitch, I’d think.”
“Oh, are you selling him? I thought you were giving him to me.”
No, I’m not giving him to you, or to anyone. Ren’s mine. Her teeth ached from the effort of biting back the words. “Please, Ate, will you just talk with him?” she managed stiffly. “Give him a chance to say his piece. Wait, you don’t already have a date for Students’ Night, do you?”
“No. Not officially, at least.”
Yumi wondered at her odd choice of words, then brushed it aside. “So will you do it?”
“What happens if I do? You love him, don’t you?”
Her sister’s question sent a jolt through her, and it took her a few moments to find her voice again. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
“And if I make him my boyfriend, you’ll be okay with that? The two of us will go out on dates, and we’ll kiss and hug and do stuff together—and you’ll be fine with all that?”
Yumi dug her fingers into her knees. “No. Yes. No. I—I’ll work it out somehow.”
“And you’re so sure about his feelings for me that you’ll fight even yourself to bring us together?”
“I—I—oh, good grief, I don’t know anymore,” she moaned, covering her face with her hands as tears welled up in her eyes. “It’s all so confusing, Ate. He said he likes you, or at least he made me believe that he does, but when I read his threads a while ago…I just don’t know what to think anymore. Why would he lie to me about this?”
The next thing she knew, she was enveloped in a warm hug. Her sister was kneeling in front of her, her arms wrapped around her. Yumi’s eyes bugged out, and she forgot all about crying. After a moment, she tentatively lifted her own arms and hugged her sister back. “W-wait, Ate, why are you hugging me?” she asked, then added hastily: “Not that I don’t like it, but aren’t you afraid of me?”
“No, I’m not afraid of you. And I’m sorry, too. I should have believed in you more,” Tala murmured. She gave her one last squeeze, then released her and sat on the floor, laughing again. “And I hugged you, little sister, because you can be so adorably stupid. You and Ren both.”
Yumi stared at her sister, marveling at the change in her. As if something that had been stretched to near breaking point had suddenly relaxed. She had no clue how or why that happened, but she was unbelievably glad to see her sister acting so unguardedly around her again.
Then Tala’s words registered, and she made a face. “Gee, thanks for that flattering opinion.”
“There’s one more thing I have to apologize to you for,” her sister continued, ignoring her sarcasm. “Remember last Christmas when you got sick in the middle of Midnight Mass?”
Yumi blinked at the sudden shift. “Yeah. I was out of it for two days, but I remember some parts. Like how sometimes I’d open my eyes, and Ren would be sitting beside me,” she said, smiling fondly at the memory.
“Yes, well, he asked for my help then. He wanted to be friends with you again, and he said it would make you feel safer to be around him if you knew he liked some other girl. Me, to be exact,” Tala added with a grimace.
“He said what?!”
Tala winced again, this time in reaction to Yumi’s shrill screech. “He asked if I could support him in his pretense of liking me. He asked me again before you two started Goddess-training. And again when the school fair started. He didn’t just ask; he practically begged me. He was desperate to stay close to you, Yumi. So against my better judgment, I agreed,” she admitted. “I’m so, so sorry for hurting you, little sister. You deserve to know the truth, no matter what he says.”
Frowning, Yumi waved away her sister’s apology. Tala was an accomplice, true, but she wasn’t the one who’d masterminded this outrageous deception. “So all those cutesy moments and flirty conversations between you?”
“All an act.”
“And your hair-accessories that he keeps using?”
Tala sighed again. “All part of the act.”
Yumi screeched again. “I can’t believe it! That stinking, crawling, scum-licking, lying idiot!” She jumped to her feet and stomped around Tala’s room, growling dark imprecations and kicking the throw-rug under the bed. Only when their mother came to the door again and ordered her to stop trying to get the neighbors to summon the police did Yumi finally quiet down, sinking back onto the floor and crawling underneath Tala’s bed to retrieve the throw-rug.
“Why did he do it?” she croaked after her fury had been spent.
“Honestly? I think it’s because he’s afraid, and it made him a little dumb. It happens to all of us, you know.” Tala coughed delicately.
Yumi shook her head in frustration. “But why? What on earth could he be afraid of? I would never have—” She stopped as realization dawned, and turned a wide-eyed gaze toward her sister. “It’s me, isn’t it? That’s why he’s afraid. The one he likes isn’t you. It’s me.”
Tala giggled again. “Congratulations, Yumi. We’ll make a genius out of you yet.”
Yumi stuck her tongue out at her, but she was too filled with bright, sparkling bubbles of pure joy to take offense. She recalled the things he’d said to her, the ones that had left her feeling hurt and dejected because she thought he was talking about her sister, and understood them now in a whole different light.
Seeing as she’s the only reason I’m going back to your place to have dinner with you and your family, I can definitely say that I like her.
I want you to help me get closer to the girl I like. I want her to be my date for Students’ Night.
I need you for this. I can’t do it without you, Yumi.
“Yumi, are you even listening?”
Becoming aware that Tala was still speaking, she looked up and blushed. “Sorry. What was that?”
Her sister rolled her eyes. “I said I’ll talk to Ren tomorrow. I don’t think I want to be the one in between the two of you anymore. Besides, I can’t keep up this pretense any longer. It’s hurting too many people already,” she said softly.
The sisters continued to talk well into the night, although Yumi had stayed awake long after, thinking about things. When she finished relating the conversation to Fran and Lisette, she was somewhat miffed to find that while they were both utterly relieved and happy for her, neither of them looked particularly surprised. What they did look was guilty.
“We, ah, kind of sort of always knew how he felt about you,” Fran admitted sheepishly. “He never breathed a word of it to us, of course, but I’d always catch him staring at you whenever you weren’t looking. His eyes follow you everywhere, Yumi. You just never noticed it.”
“And there were a few times back in seventh grade when you’d forget to bring your lunch box, and Ren would sneak into our classroom and put a sandwich on your desk.”
Yumi turned to Lisette. “Those sandwiches were from him? You told me they were from you!”
Lisette winced. “I caught him sneaking the sandwich in the first time, and he made me swear to tell you it came from me.”
But we were enemies at the time. I thought he hated me then. She pinned her two friends with a look. “Tell me about last year, when those rumors about me being a witch came up. What exactly did he do?”
Fran and Lisette exchanged apprehensive looks. “Where did you hear about that?” Lisette asked.
“Laurence clued me in. He said he’d overheard you and Ren talk about some kind of plan. And I asked Ate about it last night, too.” It had been one of the things she and Tala had talked about. I really didn’t do much, little sis. I snooped around to find out where those rumors had come from, but by then there wasn’t much for me to do. Ren said he’d already taken care of it.
Lisette slapped a palm against her forehead. “Laurence. Ugh, that sneaky little squealer.”
“When we started hearing the rumors about you being a witch, Ren came to me and Lisette, and told us to start spreading rumors ourselves. Not about you being a witch or anything,” Fran said hastily, waving her hands in front of her. “He told us to tell people the truth about you.”
As Yumi listened incredulously, Fran and Lisette revealed the secret behind the “miracle” that had put an end to her isolation. As Ren had analyzed it, the problem was that, aside from about two dozen of them who’d come from the same elementary school, not a lot of people in their freshmen class knew who Yumi was, which made it easy for the rumors to take hold. So he’d ordered Fran and Lisette to talk about her every chance they got, sharing the truth of what they knew about Yumi—the good parts, the funny parts, the ordinary-human parts of her. As for the claim that she could steal secrets, he told them to dismiss this as simply the amazing luck of an amateur palm-reader.
He’d also gotten a few others from their old school to defend one of theirs by sharing their own knowledge about Yumi. As a result, they managed to stop the rumors from spreading beyond Yumi’s section. When Ren had managed to trace the source of the rumors, he got one of his friends who was in Yumi’s class to take pictures of the bullying—the salt in her bag, the voodoo dolls, her notebooks being defaced and everything. Then he sent the pictures to Pauline’s cousin, Gilly’s older brother who’d been a senior at the time, along with an anonymous letter detailing what Pauline had done. And when Tala, the queen of South Crescent High, made it known that Yumi was her little sister—again upon Ren’s instructions—the rumors ended up dying a mysterious death.
“We’re so sorry we kept this from you, Yumi. He made us swear never to tell you,” Fran explained, anxiously wringing her hands. “Besides, we knew you were mad at him, so we weren’t all that sure how you’d react if you found out what he did.”
“We didn’t trust him all that much in the beginning either, not after what you told us about him rejecting you,” Lisette added. “But when we saw how hard he worked to keep you from being bullied, well…let’s just say it changed our opinion of him.” She peered nervously at Yumi, who hadn’t spoken a word throughout their recounting of a part of her own past that she didn’t know about. “H-hey, are you seriously mad at us?”
Yumi shook her head and smiled to reassure her friends. “I just have one question.”
“When he was giving you all those instructions, did he carry around a clipboard?” she wondered out loud.
Lisette scrunched her face up, remembering. “He did, come to think of it. How did you know?”
Yumi burst out laughing. She wrapped an arm around her middle and doubled over on the bench, laughing hard enough to squeeze tears out of her eyes. “Oh good grief, that idiot,” she finally said, pushing herself off the bench and striking a dramatic pose. “Ren Navarro: My knight with shining clipboard,” she announced to no one in particular, before breaking into a spate of giggles again.
“Yumi, can I ask you something?” Fran asked meekly. “Why did it take you so long to figure out how he feels about you? Didn’t you read it in his threads when he held your hand?”
Yumi turned and gave her friends a rueful grin. “I can’t read my own threads. I just can’t feel a single thread of emotional energy that has anything to do with me at all. I tried it out, but no matter how hard I focus, all I get is a complete blank,” she explained, adding with a sigh: “And to think, I wouldn’t even have noticed it if Laurence hadn’t pointed it out to me.”
She’d pondered that mystery last night—how odd it was that of all the threads she could sense, her own emotions remained completely inaccessible to her. She remembered sensing her own threads, though. The day she’d discovered her bizarre, new ability, she’d woken up to find herself transported from her bedroom to a gray, soundless world illuminated by a breathtaking lacework of shimmering light and colors. Some of the lines of light radiated from her, streaming from her heart and solar plexus, while others materialized from out of nowhere and clung to her skin, weaving a stunning tapestry of energy with her as its core.
For an endless moment, she’d felt them all—the love of her family, her bonds of friendship and affection, the myriad emotions of all the people around her, familiar and strange, ranging from pure love to petty annoyance, from gratitude to shame, from passion to fear. For an endless moment, she had reveled in her connections with every person on the planet, until she realized what exactly she was feeling and why she wasn’t supposed to be feeling any of it, and sheer panic took over, cutting off her own link with herself.
That was the first and last time she felt anything even remotely connected with herself. She didn’t understand why that was so. Maybe the initial terror had numbed her to her own heart. Maybe she just took it for granted that people loved her back—or at least felt something for her—and so didn’t bother to search for her own threads when she was reading someone else. But now that she was aware of it, the absence of her own personal energy seemed like a gaping hole in her perception, but how she was going to work her way back to feeling her own threads, she didn’t know.
That didn’t mean she wasn’t going learn how to do it eventually. The important thing was, she wasn’t afraid to explore her own power anymore. As her Goddess-trainer once said, some things she would have to figure out for herself.
As the three girls made their way back to their booths—after Natalie had rung Lisette’s phone demanding that the Goddess return to her post to attend to her clients—Fran asked Yumi what she planned to do about Ren, now that she knew the truth about him.
“I haven’t figured out the specifics yet, but I’ve already got a plan,” she informed them. When Lisette and Fran exchanged glances, Yumi threw them a brilliant smile. “Ren taught me how to control my power, but he didn’t teach me how to be a Goddess. I think it’s way past time he met the Goddess of Love, don’t you agree?”