“Zoey, let’s go. Class is over. Zoey? Hello?”
A hand appeared right in front of my eyes. Reflexively slamming my sketchbook shut, I looked up to see Marni fighting off a grin. “Oh. Sorry. I guess I didn’t notice,” I said lamely, glancing around at the rapidly emptying classroom.
“What’re you up to, anyway? You’ve been out of it for the past two days,” she asked as we walked through the crowded hallways. “I’m not complaining or anything, mind,” she added. “I like you much better the way you are now than your sad, gloomy self last week.”
“Thanks. Me, too. I like me better the way I am now,” I said with a cheeky grin.
Marni rolled her eyes. “Okay, I’m glad we agree on that. But what changed? What’s going on?”
I bit my lips, trying to decide how much to tell her. “I’m doing studies,” I finally confessed.
“Studies? Of what?”
I looked around to check if anybody was listening, then grabbed Marni by the hand, pulled her over to a bench somewhere to the side of the school’s entrance, and showed her the sketches I’d been working on, rocking nervously on my feet while she studied each page of my sketchbook.
“These are so adorable,” she exclaimed. “Is this a parol? And what a cute angel! What are these for, anyway?”
“Um, let’s just say I’m working on a project. My own little contribution to the Christmas concert. That’s all I can say for now, but I promise, you’ll find out what it is soon, because I’m going to need your help. But for now, sorry, that’s classified information.” My ponytail swished back and forth as I shook my head, laughing at my best friend’s miffed expression.
Marni pretended to pout. “Fine, be all mysterious, but when I find out what you’ve been—oh. Oh. Zoey, check out that guy. A perfect mix of cute and hot, with a touch of rakish on the side. I wonder who he is.”
I followed the direction of her gaze, intrigued and amused at this deviation from her usual jaded reaction to members of the opposite sex. At the gate, a group of giggling girls had swarmed around a tall, ponytailed guy in jeans and a T-shirt, and was propelling him further and further inside. Then I snapped up straight when I realized that one of those girls was Camille, and that the guy she was showing off to her friends was none other than her cousin, John.
“…best cousin ever,” she was gushing when the group came within hearing range. “Isn’t it sweet of him to bring us snacks for choir practice later?”
“Uh oh, she’s got him feeding her already? It’s too late to save him now,” Marni murmured, and I uttered a squeak of panicked laughter. My heart was beating as fast as it usually did after biking uphill, and I hadn’t even budged an inch from my spot.
As the group drew closer, Camille waved the box of pastries from the café and bakeshop her family owned for her friends to ooh and aah over. John, for his part, was looking uncomfortable as he tried to keep from being carried off by the female horde. “You’re welcome, but I actually didn’t come here just for that. I’m looking for some—Zoey!”
His eyes found mine, a warm smile spreading across his face, and I felt as though I’d stuck a finger into an electric socket.
“’Zoey?’” said Marni.
“’Zoey?!’” said Camille.
Feeling all eyes on me, I lifted a hand and gave a feeble wave. “Hi, John.”
“‘John?’” Marni’s eyebrows inched higher.
He headed toward us, with Camille and her friends trailing reluctantly behind him. My face heated up, and I couldn’t seem to tear my gaze away from him. Oh, what is wrong with me? I thought. Why am I getting so rattled around this guy?
“Hi.” He thrust his hands into his pockets, his smile turning shy. “I was hoping we’d run into each other again.”
“‘Run into each other again?’” Marni muttered.
“Haven’t you had enough of me running into you yet?” I quipped.
His smile widened into a grin. “Well, I would like to try running into you for a change.”
“What? What do you mean she ran into you? And how come you didn’t tell me you know her?” Camille demanded, her face looking as though she’d bitten into an overripe fruit.
He explained to his cousin how the two of us met, and I introduced him to Marni, who had recovered from her shock and was now watching John and me like a cat watching a pair of goldfish in a bowl. “So, John, you said you wanted to talk to Zoey again?” she prompted.
He nodded, looking embarrassed. “Yeah. I, uh, wanted to apologize to you,” he said to me. “I seem to be hitting all the wrong notes with you ever since we met.”
“With Zoey, every note is the wrong note,” Camille whispered loudly to one of her friends.
I went stiff, and Marni glared at her. But before either of us could speak, John turned to her and said coolly: “You’d better hurry off to your choir practice or you’ll be late, cousin.”
Camille tried to protest, but the dismissal in his tone was unmistakable, and the female horde left a minute later. From the look on my best friend’s face, John had scored a whole bunch of points in her books with that move alone. She excused herself shortly thereafter by announcing that the Science Club, of which she was secretary, was meeting in a few minutes, but not before giving me a look that said I’d better be prepared for an interrogation via phone tonight.
Then we were alone. I fiddled with my ponytail self-consciously, while he cleared his throat and touched the back of his hand to his chin. “You don’t have anything to apologize for,” I told him. “I was just going through some—something. You had nothing to do with it, and anyway, things are better now.”
“That’s good to hear,” he replied seriously. “But be that as it may…” He trailed off, then seemed to give himself a mental shake. “So, uh, are you waiting for someone?” he asked, adding in a low voice, “Someone I may have to apologize to again later?”
I gave him a strange look. “No. What a weird question to ask.”
“You think so, huh?” he murmured, the corners of his mouth curving upward.
“Yeah. Like I said, you don’t have anything to apologize for, to anyone. But I have something I need to do this afternoon so…”
“I see.” He glanced away, nodded. “Well, take care then. I’ll be seeing you.”
I chewed my lip as I considered the wisdom of spending time with this guy. I didn’t sense anything dangerous about him, and besides, he couldn’t take me anywhere in town where my family’s influence couldn’t reach. But John seemed to be having a rather deleterious effect on my thinking processes, and around him I kept finding myself behaving in ways I barely recognized. It was disconcerting, to say the least.
On the other hand, I was glad—thrilled, even—to see him again, and I wanted a chance to get to know him better. Also, I was embarking on something completely new, something outside the familiar world of music and family, and I was beginning to discover that having someone beside me, if only for a day, made the prospect of going off on my own and starting my own thing less frightening. And right now, I couldn’t think of anyone I wanted to be with more than John. After all, he was one of the very few people I could be Just Zoey with.
He was still waiting politely, so I offered a quick smile as an apology. “Are you doing anything this afternoon? Would you like to go sightseeing with me or something?”
I wondered if I’d imagined the way his eyes lit up. “No, I’m totally a free agent right now. Anywhere you want to go, I’m game,” he replied, spreading his arms out at his sides.
I made a face as I collected my things. “I’ve got to warn you, though, I’m not going to any of the tourist spots or points of interest,” I cautioned. “Actually, where I’m going is pretty dull and boring and—well, you can back out any time, is what I’m saying.”
John slanted a smile at me. “Anywhere, Zoey. I’m with you all the way.”
And he was, to my secret astonishment. That afternoon, I took him to my old preschool—to Gabe’s old school. One of the teachers was my cousin’s girlfriend, and I wheedled our way into the premises, then explored the classrooms with the colorful walls, tiny chairs and tables, books, toys, and rows of watercolor paintings. We walked around the garden and the playground while the kids who were still waiting to be picked up ran around screaming, and we played with the school’s resident cats—distant descendants of the cats I’d played with as a child. It was like stepping back into a time when I drew and told stories all I wanted, uncaring of things like family legacies. I spoke with one of the older teachers who remembered Gabe, images of a shy little boy who liked to read, draw and give his teacher flowers dancing in my head.
John was quiet for much of our time there, but he listened with interest I chattered on about my childhood memories, and even laughed at my funny stories. Still, I worried about the preoccupied look I sometimes noticed on his face, and when we left the preschool, I half-expected him to cough up some excuse and depart immediately. Instead, he treated me to ice cream, and while we were enjoying the snack, told me about himself.
His name is John Sakai. He’s a full-blooded Filipino, but he and his family used to live in Sacramento, California, until his parents divorced. Then he and his mom moved to Saitama, Japan, where she married a Japanese national and he took on his step-dad’s name. The story of his varied life and all the places he’d been sounded fascinating to me. Up until then, I’d only been vaguely aware that a world outside our family’s domain even existed. We talked for hours, and would have talked for longer than that if Ray hadn’t texted to remind me to pick up the music scores he’d had ring-bound. John accompanied me to the book-binders too, and since it was already dark, walked with me all the way to the street corner leading to our cul-de-sac, where we said our goodbyes.
The next afternoon, he appeared again at our school gates, although Camille didn’t seem quite so appreciative of the box of pastries he’d brought her. This time, he brought two more boxes, one each for me and Marni, who was smiling so slyly at me that she’d practically sprouted whiskers. Again, Camille flounced off after John made it clear that he wasn’t there for her and her friends. Again, Marni excused herself, this time claiming a meeting with the Math Circle.
Again, I found myself asking John if he wanted to accompany me on a little “sightseeing” trip. Again, he said yes.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the look on his face when he realized I was bringing him back to our village. Confusion turned to curiosity though, when we stopped at a brown, two-story house a block away from the church. A young nun in a light brown habit opened the gate for us and led us into a beautiful garden in an inner courtyard, where Sister Beth joined us a few minutes later.
I introduced John to Sister Beth, then we exchanged some small talk, during which Sister Beth called for coffee, we split the two ensaymada John had given me among the three of us, and I learned that he’d been spending his days helping out at Camille’s family café as waiter and cook.
“You cook? Really? Are you any good?” I asked skeptically around a mouthful of ensaymada.
Grinning, John pointed at the fluffy, cheesy pastry in my hand. “You be the judge. What do you think? Does my humble creation pass your stringent standards, Ma’am?”
I stared down at the ensaymada in frank amazement, while Sister Beth laughed and declared: “Passed with flying colors, John. This ensaymada is one of the best I’ve tasted.”
An entire ensaymada later, I got down to business, informing them both that I was planning to write and illustrate the story of Gabe’s little parol and turn it into a picture book that I’d give out during the Christmas concert. For John’s sake, I retold the story that Sister Beth shared with me, then asked her if I could get some personal details about her to help flesh out the story.
Silence followed my announcement. I waited anxiously for Sister Beth’s reaction, wondering what I would do if she refused. She looked stunned for a moment, then for some reason, her gaze shifted toward John. I glanced at him, too, and found him staring vacantly down at his hands.
His response puzzled me, but before I could ask him about it, Sister Beth reached out and clasped my hands in hers. “Zoey, telling that little one’s story is a wonderful idea. I can’t think of a better gift to give for Christmas, and I will be more than glad to help you.”
I beamed. “Really? Thank you, Sister Beth. Thank you so much.”
“Go ahead and take a look around my room if you need to get a sense of setting for your story. I usually keep the little one inside my drawer beside my bed, and just take him out during Christmas. Go look for Sister Laura, child, and ask her to show you around. I’ll follow as soon as I finish cleaning up here. John, dear, will you help me, please?”
I did as Sister Beth told me to, and by the time John and I left the sisters’ house, he was back to his normal, easygoing self. He even laughed as we were walking down the darkened street, and when I asked him what was so funny, he said it was because I was wearing this big, goofy grin and I wasn’t even aware of it. “I guess this sightseeing trip helped a lot, huh?” he remarked.
“Definitely,” I replied brightly. “I’ve got so many ideas now, and I can’t wait to get home and set all these down to paper.”
He smiled again before facing forward and sticking his hands in his jeans pockets. “By the way, Sister Beth mentioned something to me while I was helping her clean up. She said she remembered Gabe’s sister’s name. It’s Bea.”
“Bea,” I repeated, savoring the word. “I got it. Bea. I can definitely use that.” I tilted my head back to look at him. “Hey, are you okay? You looked a bit, I don’t know, sad back there. Did I say something that bothered you?”
He shook his head. “Nah. It’s just that the parol’s story was making me remember a few things from my childhood. And you have to admit, it’s a pretty sad story on its own.”
“Oh. Do you have any siblings?”
“Yeah, a half-brother, Rui. He’s two years old, and a regular little monster.”
I smiled at his obvious fondness for his baby brother. Then when we reached a street corner, I stopped walking, forcing him to stop, too. “You know, for the past couple of days you’ve been letting me drag you to these weird places that couldn’t have been any fun for you. But what about you, John? Is there some place you’d like to go or a tourist spot you haven’t been to? Or maybe there’s something you’d like to do. You pick the destination next time we—um, if ever there’s a next time, that is…” My voice stuttered into silence and I blushed, suddenly realizing how presumptuous I was being.
“Will there be a next time?” he said softly.
“Well, that’s up to you, isn’t it? I’m not going anywhere,” I replied matter-of-factly.
Chuckling, he reached up and brushed the backs of his fingers against my cheek. “Has anyone ever told you what a charming mix of shy innocence and straightforwardness you are?” My blush deepened, and I couldn’t move or speak, as if his touch was a drug that had rendered me paralyzed. “And in answer to your question, yes, there is something I’d like to do,” he continued. “If you’d let me, Zoey, I’d like to do everything I can to help you write the story of the little parol. Let’s get this story out any way we can.”
I’m not alone, I thought as my heart began to sing. Even without my family behind me, I won’t be alone in this. But I still had to ask. “Why?”
He exhaled and glanced up at the starry sky. “Because I get the feeling that Gabe is out there somewhere, and this is one story he needs to hear.”