“Give me that!”
I lunged at him, arm outstretched to snatch the sheet of paper out of his hand. Markus’ eyes widened with surprise, but he still managed to sidestep me, raising the sheet of paper out of my reach. Throwing him a glare made extra venomous by the sense of impending doom, I made another grab for the list, only to have him evade me again, chuckling a little.
That laugh was a mistake. I hooked my leg behind his, grabbed his shirt front and shoved him backward, and when he yelped and flailed about to keep from falling over, I grasped his arm, twisted it to loosen his hold, and pried the incriminating list out of his hand.
“Ow,” he groaned, massaging his arm. “I should’ve remembered that move of yours. Dante’s right, it does hurt like a mother.”
“Totally your fault,” I snapped, stepping away from him with my list clutched to my side. “Honestly, you should know better than to mess around with somebody else’s private property.”
Straightening, he ran his fingers through his black hair—cut to look stylishly windswept and dyed with golden blonde streaks—and gave me that engaging, slightly crooked grin that had all the girls in our school swooning at his feet—not just the freshmen and sophomores, but the juniors and seniors, too. All the girls, that is, except me. When he realized that his grin had no effect whatsoever on my death-glower, he turned it into a smirk instead. “If that list is so private, what was it doing just lying around where anyone can see it?” he countered. “If it’s on the dining table, it’s fair game. That’s the rule, isn’t it?”
My heart plummeted to my slippers. I couldn’t very tell him: It’s your cat’s fault. I know she’s dead and all, but she was here a minute ago, leading me on a wild goose chase. He’d think I was as crazy as I was pathetic. “My things aren’t food,” I said weakly instead, turning aside and stuffing my school things back into my bag while I collected my scattered wits.
He leaned back against the table and crossed his ankles. “Sooo, ‘Things To Do Before I Graduate,’ huh?” he said with studied casualness.
I slammed my hands down on the table and turned to face him. “Okay, what do you want? Money? A week of all your favorite dishes? Tutoring sessions in Math? Come on, what is it?”
“Whoa, whoa!” Laughing, he raised his hands in front of him. “Aren’t you being suspiciously generous? Wonder why, since Christmas is long over. Plus your face looks more like Halloween than Christmas. Scary,” he added, poking my cheek with a finger.
I knocked his hand away. “Cut the crap. I want to know what you want in exchange for you pretending you never laid eyes on this list, ever.” I crumpled up the list in question and thrust it into the pocket of my shorts, all while skewering him with my stare.
He blinked innocently. “You’re asking me to lie, Ate Sienna? After all the times you told us not to?”
That was another thing, although to be fair, it has nothing at all to do with the list. The way Markus said my name. Everyone else called me “Shenna”, mashing the first two syllables of my name together. But Markus pronounced it the proper way—“See-Ann-na”—as if he was enjoying the sound of my name too much to rush through it. Hearing it always gave me a funny feeling, and I was often tempted to look around in case he was referring to some other Sienna altogether. A Sienna who had smooth, shiny hair instead of dull, stringy locks like mine, who had an oval-shaped face, creamy skin, large doe eyes and Cupid’s bow lips—who wasn’t bony, gawky and plain, but shapely, graceful and pretty instead…
A Sienna who wouldn’t need to make a list like the one I’d written.
My expression must have revealed some of my thoughts, because Markus’ smile faded until he almost looked serious. He straightened and faced me, and for the first time I noticed how much he’d grown. I remembered him as a short, stick-thin scarecrow of a kid, with a shock of black hair, a wide smile with a missing front tooth, and a carefree air about him. And weird eyes the color of gunmetal. But now, I found myself having to tilt my face up a bit to look him in the eye, which meant he’d even passed my height already. His body was starting to fill out, too, as it well should, given the amount of food he consumed. He still wasn’t as big as the twins—who took after Dad and tended toward huskiness while Ziggy and I were more like Mama—but he was definitely not a short, stick-thin scarecrow anymore.
Shaking off the unnecessary thoughts, I drew in a breath and prepared to negotiate like I’d never negotiated before. But he spoke before I could get my opening argument out.
“I won’t tell anyone.”
Hope rose within me.
He smiled evilly. “Maybe.”
What color was left in my face quickly drained away. “You can’t tell anyone. I bet you don’t even remember what I wrote in that list.”
His smile grew wider. “Things to do before I graduate,” he intoned in a singsong manner, then to my horror proceeded to recite my list with near-perfect accuracy: “‘Number 1: Go ghost-hunting in the auditorium and basement. Number 2: Write graffiti on the back of the main building. Number 3: Play hooky—‘”
Squealing, I plastered my hand over his mouth, but he peeled my hand off and continued to talk as he moved backward. “‘Number 4: Eat an entire cheese cake by myself. Number 5: Get my ears pierced.’ Really, Ate Sienna? You haven’t even gotten your ears pierced? How can you even call yourself a girl?” he added teasingly.
“Stop! Shut up already!” I cried as shame scorched my gut.
He danced away from me, the two of us circling the table while he cackled like some classic villain in an oldies film. “No way. I’m just getting to the good part.”
“Don’t say any more!”
“Number 6: Go on a date and take a selfie as proof.’”
“Markus, shut up!”
“Why? I happen to think Number 7 is the best,” he informed me from the opposite side of the table. “‘Number 7: Get a boy to kiss me five different ways.’”
I gave up pursuing him and covered my face with my hands instead, moaning in despair.
“‘A kiss on the hand. A kiss on any part of the face. A kiss on the mouth. A kiss on the neck.’ And last but most definitely not the least—”
“Markus, enough already,” I begged behind my hands, writhing in mortification.
“‘—a French kiss. With as much hot tongue action as possible,’” he finished, his voice sounding so close that I looked up in surprise. He was standing right in front of me, watching me with an expression I’d never seen before, the corners of his mouth lifting in what could have been incredulity, mockery or pity. Most likely all three.
I looked into his odd, gray eyes, and prayed for death. Writing that part had been humiliating enough, but hearing it spoken out loud… “H-how can you remember all that anyway, when you can’t even remember the difference between real and imaginary numbers?” I croaked.
“Real and imaginary numbers aren’t half as interesting as your list,” he replied with a shrug.
“Ugh, you. Fine, you may have remembered what I wrote there, but you don’t have any proof that I wrote it. I got the list back,” I pointed out, patting the crumpled wad in my pocket just to be sure.
“You think so?” Grinning, he fished his phone from his pocket and brandished it. “I had just enough time to take a photo of your list, you know. I think I even emailed it to myself, but I can’t be sure. Or I might just upload it somewhere so I can always look at it when I want to. I mean, who knows what I’ll do next?”
“Markus, you little jerk,” I seethed, then closed my eyes and took a deep breath as a kind of fatalistic calm settled over me. “Fine, let’s get this over with. What do I have to do for you to solemnly swear never to tell anyone about that stupid list?”
He shook his head. “I already told you. I won’t tell anyone.”
“Uhuh, sure. You honestly expect me to believe that?” I snorted.
“I promise you, I won’t. As long as…”
Ugh, I knew it. “As long as?”
He licked his lips, suddenly looking nervous himself. But before he could say another word, the gate clanged and Ziggy came running in, dropping his backpack on the floor between the living room and the dining room. Spinning around, I planted my hands on my waist and lifted my eyebrow at him until he backtracked, picked his bag off the floor, and put it into the oversized plastic bin beside the stairway where the boys could temporarily dump their stuff whenever they came home but decided to raid the fridge first before going up to their rooms.
“Hey, Kuya Markus. Ate, look! Look what Tita Gina gave us.” Oblivious to the undercurrents between us, my eleven-year-old brother set a narrow Tupperware box on the table and opened it with a flourish, revealing a rosy, glistening meatloaf. “Oh good, you’re just starting dinner. We’re having meatloaf tonight.”
He beamed approvingly at the sight of the kitchen, with the dinner ingredients still waiting at the kitchen counter and a distinct lack of pots or pans bubbling over the stove. With a jolt, I realized I still hadn’t gotten around to the task I would’ve been doing already if Markus and his ghost cat hadn’t distracted me. Without looking at Markus, I moved back behind the kitchen counter, deciding to forego the tilapia with sweet-and-sour sauce and just focus on cooking the rice and steamed veggies.
The twins came home some minutes later, and the air inside the house, which had become muggy from the garlic fried rice, turned pungent with the addition of two teenage boys still steaming and sweaty from martial arts practice. Ignoring the face I made, they dumped their bags in the bin and headed straight for the refrigerator, emerging from the depths with a carton of milk, a box of chocolate cookies, and all five caramel pudding cups I’d bought the other day, which they proceeded to feast on at the other end of the kitchen counter, with Ziggy joining them with a spoon of his own. I eyed the pudding cups with a sinking heart. So much for my hope that I could get to eat some pudding anytime this week.
Dante, Daniel and Markus began chatting, with the twins urging Markus yet again to come back to the dojo, and Markus shrugging off their words with a few noncommittal jokes. Privately, I agreed with the twins. It had been a complete waste when Markus decided to quit his own martial arts training for no apparent reason. Now, all he seemed to occupy himself with was devising new ways to wriggle out of doing schoolwork and—
“By the way, what’s this about you and Jenalyn being seen together at Mary Moo yesterday? The last you told us, it was Kaye you were thinking of going after,” Dante said to Markus.
Daniel grinned and shook his head. “You know, you’re not going to get far if you keep switching targets like that.”
“It’s not about switching targets, mes amis. It’s about spreading the good,” Markus declared, raking his hair back with his fingers while my brothers choked on their pudding. “It’s pretty simple, you know,” he went on with an irritating matter-of-factness. “The girls like being around me, and I just don’t see why any of them should go without my company.”
—and “spreading the good” of his company with as many girls as possible. I rolled my eyes in disgust, but when Markus glanced at me sidelong, I flinched and turned hastily toward the stove, afraid he’d spill the beans about my stupid list and thus destroy any respect my brothers had for me. The boys continued to munch and chatter though, until I put my foot down and sent the twins up to go shower and get the stink of sweat off them, then come back down immediately for dinner.
The girls arrived just as we were finishing dinner, bearing a tray of brownies that Arianne had baked earlier as well as a large bottle of soda, courtesy of Shelly. Before I let the boys escape to their rooms, though, I made sure they did their chores first—with Markus and Daniel clearing the table and doing the dishes, Dante bringing in the clean laundry from the clotheslines outside, and Ziggy collecting the dirty clothes from upstairs. Delegation was key to keeping a household running while staying sane, after all.
Later, I sat alone at the dining table folding the laundry and stacking them in the basket beside me, listening to the sound of laughter and cheerful voices drifting downstairs from the twins’ room, fully conscious of the crumpled lump still in my pocket. Any time now, Markus’ family driver would arrive to pick him and the girls up and bring them home. There was no chance for me to ask him what the conditions were for his silence.
He said he wouldn’t tell anyone, an inner voice whispered. He’s a total flake, but he’s always serious about paying back a debt. Or keeping a promise.
I scoffed inwardly. Like I could trust him with this. I’ve just got to make sure he doesn’t talk.
The sound of footsteps coming down the stairs made me look up, and as if my thoughts had summoned him, Markus appeared, his expression unreadable as he came over to me. I lowered my eyes to the shirt I was folding, hoping my shaking hands wouldn’t reveal my trepidation.
When he didn’t speak, I cleared my throat. “Listen, Markus, can’t we forget this whole thing ever happened?” I implored. “Can’t you just leave this alone? Please?”
Without a word, he sat down at the table and began folding clothes himself. We worked in silence for a while, and just when I’d begun to suspect he had no plan at all to resume our conversation, he suddenly announced: “No, I don’t think I will leave this alone.”
I let my head drop onto the shirt I was folding and moaned. “Why?” I whimpered, turning my head toward him. “So you saw something of mine that’s really personal and really private, but honestly now, it’s got nothing to do with you. Besides, I’ll be graduating soon. This is my last chance to make some great high school memories. You’ve got two more years to look forward to, but I’ve only got a month left. So why take this away from me?”
To my dismay, tears prickled behind my eyelids, and I quickly sat up and leaned my head back against the chair, blinking the moisture away. Then a warm hand covered mine, and my head snapped toward him in shock.
He drew his hand back, but kept his gaze on me. He looked absolutely serious, and for some reason, another memory of that strange day four years ago tickled my mind—Markus walking beside me in the park, his black hair glistening with mist, his face pale and grim as he informed me, without once looking at me, that he was going to find a way to repay me someday…
Funny, I haven’t thought of that day in years, I mused. Why am I remembering it now?
“I won’t tell anyone,” he repeated, with none of his usual playful, carefree humor. “I won’t take this away from you, Sienna. Ate Sienna,” he corrected himself, and to my surprise, he blushed.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Oh yeah? You were about to state your conditions when Ziggy came in.”
A strange look flitted over his features. “Conditions? I only have one.” He rose and planted a hand on the table so he could loom over me. His head blocked out the dining-room light, but unfortunately this did nothing to hide his cunning smile. “My condition is: you let me help you make your high school wishes come true. And, Ate Sienna, I mean all your wishes.”