Yumi stood in the presence of the Goddess, but she didn’t dare lift her face to hers.
“Oh my God.” Lisette stepped back and stared at her, as did Fran and the other members of the Costume Committee. “Yumi, you have to look.”
“I don’t think I want to, from the way you guys are acting,” Yumi grumbled, tugging at the black top of a two-piece swimsuit that she was wearing. Lisette had gotten permission to use the Home Economics sewing/dressmaking room, the only room in the school other than the washrooms with a full-length mirror, and the bunch of them were now helping Yumi put on the red Goddess costume. It had seemed innocent enough when it was hanging on the clothes hanger—at least the top half of it consisted of more than just a strip of cloth—but now that she was actually wearing it…
She tugged at the swimsuit top again. “I think this is a bit too small for me.”
“You know, she does kind of, um, fill it up,” Fran agreed.
Lisette frowned. “That’s strange. I borrowed this from my aunt because I thought the two of you were the same size, but somehow, it looks much more, er, conservative on her than it does on you.”
“Meaning what, exactly?” Yumi asked suspiciously.
One of the girls giggled. “Meaning you look like a Victoria’s Secret model in it.”
As Yumi’s eyes bulged in horror, another girl quickly snatched the red top from the hanger and handed it to Fran, who swept it over Yumi’s head, smothering her protests. “There, see? This will cover you up nicely,” she soothed, arranging the drapes and folds of the cloth. Then she bit her lip. “Um, I think we’re going to need that double-sided tape after all,” she said to the others.
“Excuse me. Can we come in?”
There was a knock on the door, and one of the girls opened the door to reveal Audrey, Tala and, since she was currently cosplaying as Juno, Tala’s striped, bulging tummy, which preceded her by a good six inches. The two newcomers walked or waddled in, with the star-struck sophomores making way for them, but when Tala laid eyes on her sister, she stopped and stared. “Yumi, oh my God.”
Yumi, the only one who didn’t look surprised at the sudden appearance of the queen of South Crescent High, smiled weakly at her sister. “Hi, Ate. Thanks for coming.”
“Of course, little sister. We brought some things that might help. I hope that’s okay,” Tala said to the others, raising her pink makeup kit, while Audrey smiled and put down her Katniss-inspired weaponry to reveal the tote bag full of hair-styling paraphernalia.
Yumi glanced sheepishly at the others, belatedly realizing that her friends might be offended at her need to call in reinforcements. But before she could apologize, the girls squealed in excitement at the prospect of a real-live makeover, while Lisette and Fran exchanged grins.
“Oh my, my, my,” Tala said as she waddled around Yumi. “Maybe we shouldn’t let Dad see you like this. He might end up crying in a corner or something.”
“Your parents are coming?” Audrey asked.
“Yes, they said they’d drop by to check out the fair this afternoon.”
“Is it really bad?” Fran wrung her hands worriedly. “We based the costume on some artwork we saw of the Aztec goddess of beauty and fertility, but maybe it’s a little too much?”
“For our Yumi—and definitely for our dad—it might be a little too much.” The younger girls’ faces fell until Tala smiled like a cat. “But for a Goddess of Love on the warpath,” she continued, shooting Yumi a conspiratorial glance, “this is just perfect.”
As they proceeded to transform her into her alter-ego one last time, Yumi marveled at how just a week ago, Tala would have been the last person she’d have turned to for any kind of help in winning Ren’s heart. Funny how things could change so fast. Last night, when she’d come home and found that dinner consisted of nothing but leftover rice and a can of tuna, Tala had gone up to find Yumi, intending to reproach her for her laziness. She found her locked up in her room sobbing instead. After some prodding, she’d managed to get Yumi to open the door and pour out the whole story of her failed confession to Ren.
“Ugh, that boy,” she groaned as they sat side by side on the floor beside Yumi’s bed. “Still being dumb as a tree stump where you’re concerned.”
“Is it him who’s dumb, Ate? Or is it me?” Yumi wondered despondently. “After all, even though I knew I couldn’t be sure about his feelings for me, I still went ahead and confessed to him anyway.”
Tala looked perturbed. “You’re not still thinking that he likes me, are you? I know about the rumors about us hugging in the garden. Yes, we did hug, but it was a hug between friends. At the time, I was telling him to take good care of my little sister. I didn’t tell you about that because I didn’t think it was important, but the next thing I knew, everybody was talking about us and misunderstanding everything. I spent all day explaining to people over and over again that there is nothing going on between Ren and me. It’s so—so frustrating!” she exclaimed, grimacing.
“I believe you. You didn’t even have to explain,” Yumi said quietly. “It’s just that hearing the way people talk about you two and—and seeing you together being so friendly…well, it gets to me after a while. I know, I know. I’m slow, especially about stuff like this,” she said with a bitter laugh.
A silence fell between them, each one absorbed in her own thoughts. Then Yumi got a shock when her sister straightened, turned to her, and held out her hand. “Read my threads,” she ordered.
Yumi’s jaw scraped the floor. “What?”
“Read my threads,” Tala repeated, her face set and determined. “I want to show you once and for all that there is and can never be anything between Ren and me, no matter what people say.”
“It’s okay, Ate. I already know from his threads—”
“But much more than that,” Tala continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “I want to be able to stop pretending and making excuses for all these misunderstandings. For once, I want somebody I love to know the truth. Maybe it will make things worse, but maybe it won’t. Either way, I’m so tired of lying about myself and seeing people get hurt because of my lies.” When Yumi goggled at her, she gave her a sad smile. “Come on, little sis. Do it for me.”
After several moments’ hesitation, Yumi slid her hand into her sister’s and dropped her shield, losing herself in Tala’s emotional energy for the first time ever. After a while, she cut their connection and slipped back into her body. Tala folded her arms protectively around herself, looking pale and tense. “So…what do you think?” she asked apprehensively.
In reply, Yumi smiled and threw her arms around her sister. “What do I think? I think it’s fantastic!”
This time, it was Tala who lost jaw-muscle control. “You—you do?”
“Yes!” She hugged her sister again then sat back. “Would you like me to tell you your love-fortune? You are absolutely right: someone else is being hurt by all these rumors about you and Ren. But your love is stronger than all the hurt and misunderstandings, and it’ll get you through. And yes, there’s definitely nothing going on between you and Ren,” she added with a giggle.
A wide smile threatened to break across Tala’s face, although she still seemed uncertain. “You’re not…shocked or disgusted or disappointed? You’re okay with me being…the way I am?”
“Of course, I’m okay with it! But I know why you’re afraid. It’s been hard for you hiding the truth all these years, and you’re afraid it’s going to be even harder if you tell the truth. But the way I see it, you’ll have a hard time either way, so you might as well tell your truth, right?”
Her sister stared, apparently having lost the ability to speak. Sighing, she leaned her head back against the bed, wondering what she could say to ease Tala’s mind. “Look, about being shocked, disgusted or disappointed—I know what it’s like, remember?” she pointed out gently. “Because of my ability, people have avoided me or called me names or worse. I didn’t want to hide what I was, but I could also see that being what I was…was no good at all. And until Ren, I couldn’t even remember what it felt like to just touch someone. The truth is, he changed everything for me.” Her lips quirked up as tears began to sting her eyes. “And it’s not just because he trained me. It’s because he’s not afraid to let me be who I am around him. It’s the same for you.”
Tala turned away, deep in thought. “We are the same, aren’t we?” she mused. “And Yumi, I was never afraid of you either. I was just afraid of how you’d react if you learned the truth about me. But now…” She laughed softly and sent her sister a warm look. “You’re not slow at all. Well, you can stand to study more.” She laughed again when Yumi stuck her tongue out at her. “But you’re smart in other ways, and you’ve grown up a lot these past few weeks.”
One moment, they were smiling at each other. The next moment, Tala’s eyes filled with tears, then they were both crying, their arms wrapped awkwardly around each other. In the midst of Yumi’s all-night-long crying jag brought on by rejection and heartache, somehow this one felt like a good cry. A healing cry.
“He loves you,” Tala said after a while, her voice scratchy from weeping. “You didn’t make a mistake about that. So don’t do anything silly like try to stop loving him, okay?”
Yumi snorted. “I tried that for three years, and it didn’t work. It’s just—what do I do now, Ate? ”
Her sister gave it some thought then shrugged. “Honestly? I don’t think there’s anything you can do, except maybe give him time and space to recover from his shock.” When Yumi wrinkled her nose at the prospect of waiting for who knew how long for Ren to get his act together, Tala’s face brightened. “You can always pray to the Goddess of Love.”
“What Goddess?” she scoffed. “That’s just me in a belly-dancer’s costume.”
“Hmm.” Tala sniffed as she got to her feet, just before she said with an enigmatic smile: “From what I’ve seen these past few days, she seems real enough to me.”
That morning, after arriving at school even before Tala had even gotten out of the shower, Yumi had texted her sister asking her for help. She’d also told her best friends about her second big confession to Ren and his second awful rejection of her. They’d responded with perplexed disbelief, followed by gleeful support of her idea to use this last school-fair day show Ren exactly what he was missing out on. Eyes gleaming militantly behind her glasses, Fran had summoned her fellow Costume Committee members to help transform Yumi into a Goddess of Love who would set the entire school—and one Ren Navarro—on fire.
As she watched Fran order her minions about, Yumi felt Lisette nudge her in the side. “So, Goddess, will you bring this idiot to heel in time for Valentine’s Day tomorrow?”
Yumi made a face. “Valentine’s Day? I’ll be lucky if he comes around by Christmas. But as a brave warrior of love told me recently,” she added with a smile, “I can’t just give up without trying.”
Thanks, Natalie, she thought. Then added: You, too, Laurence.
“Done,” Tala announced, bringing Yumi back to the present. “Behold your Goddess, little sister.”
Yumi stood up from the chair they’d sat her in, wiping her damp hands on her skirt until Tala swatted at her arm to make her stop. She didn’t know what to expect, and it was filling her with trepidation. Realizing that the others were waiting for her reaction, she screwed up her courage and looked into the mirror.
Her eyes popped out. “Oh my God,” she whispered.
The Goddess of Love gazed back at her, clothed in fire. Her red satin skirt molded against her legs and flared out around her calves. It was belted at her waist with a wide, gold sash pinned in the front with a gold brooch that must have belonged to somebody’s grandmother. The skirt drew the eye for another reason: every time she moved, her right leg peeked out of the thigh-high slit. Over the black swimsuit top, she wore a semi-transparent scarlet poncho draped in a way that bared one shoulder, her midriff and back. Faux-gold bands gleamed around her throat, upper arms and ankles, while her wrists jingled with an assortment of metallic bangles; oversized gold hoops swung from her ears. Her curls were held back by a gold filigree headband, then left to bounce around her in riotous abandon. In fact, Yumi thought she looked half-wild, powerful, and willing to dare anything. It gave her the disorienting feeling that she was looking at a different person altogether. There was just no way that that stunning, fearless creature with the smoky, sphinxlike eyes could be her.
The Goddess smiled at the thought. Goddess Rule Number Six, girl, she seemed to say. Trust in your Goddess. She rewards faith with faith.
Meanwhile, the girls were grinning and congratulating one another, with one or two busily taking pictures of her with their cellphones. Tala and Audrey beamed at each other as they began packing away their makeup and styling equipment and, in Tala’s case, re-stuffing the pillow underneath her striped shirt, which she’d taken off earlier to give herself greater mobility.
Overcome with emotion, Yumi spun around and hugged her sister. “Thanks for everything, Ate.”
“Ooof, I can’t breathe. You’re smothering my poor, unborn baby,” Tala laughingly protested as she hugged her back. “When you find him, make sure he understands just whom exactly he belongs to, you got that?” she added mock-sternly.
“I will.” Yumi pulled back, then wrapped her arms around the startled Audrey. “Thanks, too, Ate Audrey,” she whispered. “Take good care of my ate, okay? She’s a pain, but I love her.”
Audrey stiffened, and Yumi felt her swivel her head toward her sister in alarm. From the corner of her eye, Yumi saw Tala smile tremulously and nod once, letting her know that all was well. Finally, Audrey lifted her arms tentatively and returned her hug. “I—I will,” she croaked.
Tala folded her arms across her chest and gave the pair of them an arched look. “That’s enough of that,” she said, then added in a saccharine tone: “We have to go, Audrey. We still have to prepare the score sheets the judges will use for the booth competitions, remember?”
Audrey and Yumi both blinked at Tala, then exchanged identical toothy grins. It’s payback time! The two older girls departed, with Audrey’s hand resting casually on the small of Tala’s back. The sophomores remained silent for a moment, then glanced at one another.
“Are they—?” began one girl.
“Do you think—?” wondered another.
“Yumi?” Lisette said bewilderedly. Yumi just shrugged, wondering what their reception would be.
Another beat of silence, then Fran gave a little squeal. “They’re so cute together, aren’t they?”
At that, the other girls relaxed, smiling and giggling as they agreed with Fran’s opinion. “So all this time, half the entire male population of South Crescent High has been in love with Tala Muñoz, not knowing that she actually wouldn’t—” Lisette paused, then sent the other girls a decidedly evil grin. The other girls grinned back just as wickedly, obviously having considered the implications themselves. Then Lisette cleared her throat. “Let’s just keep this among ourselves, shall we?”
“So when we see all those guys sniveling like babies on Tala’s graduation day, we can laugh at them behind their backs?” said one of the girls.
Lisette grinned again. “Exactly.”
Smiling, Yumi turned aside and began to collect her things. The Goddess rewards faith with faith. She understood a little of what that meant now. And, she dared to believe, so did her sister.
“Are you ready? It’s almost opening time,” Lisette said, coming to her side.
Fran appeared at her other side. “Your last day as the Goddess of Love. Oh, I’m so proud of you,” she exclaimed, dabbing at the corners of her eyes underneath her glasses like a doting stage-mother.
“Yeah, you’ve been awesome, Yumi. We’ve got a great chance of winning the competition this year all because of you,” put in another girl, while the others nodded in agreement.
Yumi shook her head. “It’s not just me. It’s all of us. It’s our fruit-shakes, our costumes, our props—all our hard work. But it’s not over yet. The judges will still have to visit our booth. And it’s our last chance to top our sales, too.”
“Oh, that’ll be easy. Since it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow, there’s going to be a mad scramble for dates for Students’ Night. I bet lots of people are going to want to know their love fortunes, just to hedge their bets.”
“Hey, I know! How about we negotiate a partnership with the juniors’ Love Confessions booth?”
“Oh my gosh, that’s a great idea! Why didn’t we think of that sooner?”
As the girls exited the Home Economics room, talking excitedly about last-minute schemes to win the competition, Yumi considered the prospect of spending another Students’ Night dateless, and going through yet another Valentine’s Day without anyone giving her so much as a second look. Well, she was kind of used to being ignored or passed over anyway, but for the last few days, she’d actually allowed herself to dream of something different. She’d let herself fantasize about going to Students’ Night with Ren at her side, of maybe getting a card or a small token from him, of maybe even slow-dancing with him underneath the golden stars and twinkling lights.
She’d wanted to be the one to make his wish come true.
I want you to help me get closer to the girl I like. I want her to be my date for Students’ Night.
But he didn’t want her. And for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out who that mythical girl was that he wanted as his date, let alone how to get them together. How on earth did he expect her to fulfill her end of their bargain? She couldn’t do it; it was impossible.
“Yumi? Are you okay?” Fran asked.
No, it’s not impossible, she told herself. But it’ll take a miracle worthy of a Goddess.
Now even Lisette was looking worried. Drawing in a deep breath, Yumi straightened up and squared her shoulders, blinking to get rid of the moisture in her eyes. “I’m okay. I’ve just got to keep Goddess Rule Number Four in mind.”
Fran and Lisette blinked. “What’s Goddess Rule Number Four?”
Don’t hold back, especially when giving your Goddess her due, whether in your offerings, your praise, or your heart, the Goddess whispered.
Yumi smiled at her friends. “Don’t hold back for anything.”