I barely slept that night, and was out of sorts throughout the weekend. By the time the weekday rolled around, I was half-convinced that he’d spent the weekend gabbing about my list to anyone who’d listen, unable to keep something so hilarious to himself. Or worse, posting my list on Facebook or Twitter. I monitored his social media accounts with the diligence of a CIA agent spying on an enemy government’s network, but wasn’t comforted in the least to find that the only activity I’d seen on his timeline was him getting tagged in a selfie of Jenalyn pouting cutely into the camera. Then again, so what if he hadn’t posted the list yet? He could just be waiting for me to drop my guard, only to strike when I was at my vulnerable moment…
“Are you okay?” Abby whispered as we stood in rows for flag ceremony and morning assembly on Monday morning. The principal was in the middle of his customary speech, as usual revolving around some virtue he wanted us, as students of this eminent institution, to personify. Also as usual, we tuned him out.
“Huh?” I spared her a glance. “Of course, I am. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you’ve been fidgeting all morning. And you keep looking over at the sophomores. Are your brothers in some kind of trouble?”
I started to face forward, forcing myself to calm down. “No, no, I’m just—”
My heart jumped into my throat, cutting off speech. At the edge of the quadrangle where flag ceremony was usually held, a familiar head of black hair with golden blond streaks bobbed above the rows of people. The crowd shifted a bit as people looked behind them, and the rest of Markus appeared, his backpack slung on his shoulder and his finger pressed to his twitching mouth in a shushing gesture in an attempt to keep his arrival from being too noticeable. I inched backward until I was concealed from his line of sight by the person in the next row, then surreptitiously craned my neck and continued observing him from my hiding spot.
“Late again, as usual,” I muttered.
“He’s lucky he’s the principal’s nephew and the Board Chairman’s son. Otherwise, he’d never get away with the things he does,” Abby commented, following the direction of my gaze.
I thought about Markus’ rather bleak home and family life. “I wouldn’t call it lucky. He’s—”
Markus turned and looked straight at me, and once again, I lost my ability to speak. How he managed to find me unerringly despite my strategic positioning, I didn’t know. Even with a distance of several feet between us, I could see his gray eyes darken with a kind of knowing awareness, and to my horror, my face grew warm in response.
Then he smiled at me—that same cheery, boyish smile he gave me whenever we saw each other in school, before setting off into the crowd, wending through the rows of students with all the subtlety of a bread knife sawing through a week-old baguette, heading toward his class where the twins were snorting with barely restrained laughter. As he moved, girls cooed at him and touched his shoulders, his arms and his back while he bestowed smiles upon them, thereby rendering all his attempts to be inconspicuous useless. Thankfully, the principal didn’t seem to notice the minor commotion his own nephew had caused, or if he had, gave no sign of it. The poor man was probably used to Markus’ antics by now, anyway.
I sighed with relief. It seemed as if the secret of my list was still safe. For now, at least. Mentally shaking off the odd effect his gaze had on me, I faced forward and found Abby staring at me. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Oh, nothing,” she murmured, then added almost inaudibly, “I think.”
The rest of the day continued normally, which somehow made things worse. I kept an eye out for Markus, peeking out of windows and doorways and scanning the hallways in between classes for any sign of him. I caught glimpses of him from time to time, and he was often surrounded by the Demolition Crew or his classmates, his attention fully focused upon them. This was, of course, nothing out of the ordinary, and at a certain point, I began to wonder with rising irritation if making me abnormally aware of him was part of his scheme after all.
Nevertheless, I found myself dreading the end of classes and having to deal with him later at our place. I wasn’t sure how to act around him—a thoroughly unfamiliar situation—and I prayed he’d come home with the twins and so spare me the ordeal of spending time alone with him and his evil smiles and pointed looks. When the doorbell rang just scant minutes after I finished my homework, I actually jumped. Wiping my damp hands on my shorts, I went out and unlatched the gate, revealing Arianne and Shelly standing there dressed in casual clothing and carrying a bag full of art materials for their project.
“Hi, Ate Sienna,” they chimed as they walked in past me.
“Hi,” I replied somewhat lamely. I was relieved, of course, but also a little bit disappointed, which annoyed me further. Honestly, was this part of his plan, too?
“Sorry for coming here early,” Arianne was saying as we came into the kitchen. “We know you’re about to make dinner, and we…we want to help out a bit.”
“Come on, Arianne.” Shelly nudged her best friend, who blushed and glanced down at her feet. “Actually, what she wants to say is, can you teach her—”
“Us,” Arianne hissed.
“—us how to make beefsteak?” Shelly amended, rolling her eyes.
I blinked as I pulled my hair up into a bun. “How’d you know I was making beefsteak tonight?”
“You said so the last time we came over.”
“Oh. Right.” I recalled the last night the Demolition Crew spent here—the night Markus discovered my list. I had announced it over dinner, even though a large part of me questioned my sanity at the time. “Sure. I’m just starting. We’ll go through it step by step.”
“This is Markus’ favorite,” Arianne murmured. “He looked so happy when you said you were making this tonight.”
“Dante and Daniel, too. Then again, anything vaguely food-like would get them excited, especially Dante,” Shelly mused.
I cast a speculative look at Arianne, noting the slight pink tinge in her cheeks. Oh, so that’s how it is. How long has this been going on, I wonder? “This isn’t just Markus’ favorite dish,” I said out loud. “I can show you how to make the others he likes, if you want.” Arianne colored even more as she sent me a grateful smile. “But you’re right about the twins, Shelly,” I added wryly. “Even old leather shoes soaked in soy sauce will do for them. Sure, they’ll bitch and moan about it, but they’ll eat it eventually.”
My brothers came in some time later. As we settled down to dinner, I couldn’t help notice how Arianne kept glancing anxiously at the door. I was a little worried myself—wait, no. No, I wasn’t. But honestly, after we’d gone through the trouble of making him one of his favorite dishes, couldn’t he at least show up to appreciate it?
Markus arrived just as I was rising to put my dirty dishes in the sink. “Wow, that must’ve been a really fun date to make you lose all track of time,” I heard myself say, then winced at how sharp I’d sounded, not to mention out of line. Who was I, his mother?
“Sorry I’m late, Ate Sienna. It wasn’t a date, and it definitely wasn’t fun.” Markus slumped into his seat, his face brightening considerably at the sight of the beefsteak. I noticed belatedly that he looked rather worse for wear, with his gold-streaked hair looking less “stylishly windswept” and more “static electricity-treated”.
Dante and Daniel exchanged looks. “Whoa, you did it? You actually broke things off with her?” Daniel goggled as Markus shoveled another spoonful into his mouth and nodded.
Dante grunted approvingly. “You finally got smart, bud. Good for you.”
“I still can’t believe you had it in you,” Daniel said, shaking his head. “The others, too?”
“Do what? What’re you talking about?” Ziggy crossed his arms, glowering at the boys. “You guys never tell me anything.” As a self-declared auxiliary member of the Demolition Crew, my baby brother tended to react unhappily whenever he felt that the main members were withholding information from him, never mind that he didn’t even go to the same school yet.
Markus made a face. “Can’t a guy eat in peace? We’ll talk about this later, okay?”
While Ziggy grumbled, I busied myself with scraping the food remains in my plate into the biodegradable waste bin to keep anyone from noticing the look on my face. An altogether unfamiliar feeling was spreading through me. Nobody else seemed to have noticed how Markus’ eyes darted briefly toward me before he focused on his food, and that was just as well. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I had a fairly good idea. And again, I had no idea how I was supposed to feel about that.
Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything. Could this be what he meant?
No, wait, hold on. Cool your heels a bit, I scolded myself. You don’t know what exactly he meant, and even if it is what you’re thinking, there’s no proof that he did it for you. Markus does what Markus does, end of story. I shot him another covert look just as he looked up so that our eyes met, and I quickly turned away again for fear someone would notice the color rising in my face. Honestly, what is he trying to do? I thought, exasperated.
Nothing else unusual happened that evening, if you didn’t count Arianne spending the rest of the time in a hopeful, happy daze. After dinner and clean-up, the Demolition Crew went upstairs to work on their project, while I watched TV in the living room, waiting for Dad. Thankfully, by the time he came home around an hour before midnight smelling like alcohol, the Demolition Crew had already dispersed.
The next several days followed the same pattern, which is to say each day was completely normal, except that my eyes strayed toward Markus more and more often. And just as often, I’d catch him watching me, too. We didn’t go near each other or do anything out of the ordinary—he’d be with his friends and I’d be with mine, and whenever we crossed paths or saw each other at a distance, he’d still grin happily, as always. But I found myself looking for him everywhere, my ears sifting through the noises for the sound of his voice. And sometimes after we pass each other in the hallways, I’d glance back and find his gaze on me.
After school, it was the same thing—seemingly complete normalcy. He’d drop in at our place, help out with the chores, get harangued by me into doing homework with the twins and the girls if they came over, too, and get picked up by his family’s driver later on. The problem was, without the distraction of my own friends and the goings-on in school, it became painfully clear how my senses, memories and even my imagination had turned on me. Suddenly, I was noticing how the light played on the glossy black and gold strands of his hair, which I knew from the countless times I’d ruffled them in the past was soft instead of wiry. I’d catch myself staring at him at odd moments, taking note of details I’d overlooked before—his slightly crooked front tooth, the tiny silver spike in his left earlobe, the way he gestured with his hands when he spoke, his belly laugh whenever somebody said or did something particularly funny. Once I caught a whiff of his scent as he moved past me, and I found myself surreptitiously breathing it in. His cologne hadn’t changed since he was twelve. I knew because I was with him when he chose it, after he’d begged for my help while swearing me to secrecy. We’d had to come up with some excuse to my brothers who were roving the arcade before sneaking off to the department store, and Markus had looked anxious, embarrassed and determined all at once as he pressed me about which cologne I thought smelled best on him. I hadn’t realized until that moment that he’d stayed faithful to the cologne I picked, long after he lost interest in the girl he’d been trying to impress back then. The idea made me feel warm inside, but it was a different kind of warmth now.
Just as my awareness of him was a different kind of awareness now.
Honestly, it completely pissed me off. The way my heart started pounding at the mere sound of his voice, even before I’d laid eyes on him. The way I grew flustered whenever he was near, which I swear had never, ever happened before. The way my stupid face wouldn’t quit blushing around him—Abby was already starting to give me strange looks as it was. It wouldn’t be long now before my friends started asking uncomfortable questions, and then I’d be in trouble for sure. Over the years, I’d seen my friends act the way I was acting now, and even though I’d mostly dismissed it as the silliness teenagers got up to when they didn’t have to juggle schoolwork, household chores, grocery-shopping, home funds-balancing and sibling management, I had to admit I sometimes wondered what it would feel like to fall in love, to feel all those feelings and to experience romance for myself, without having to rely on my friends’ testimonies and my own cautious fantasies.
But come on, Markus? Really? Of all the boys in town that I could turn silly for, did it have to be this cheeky kid two years younger than me, who was practically my fourth little brother?
And yet, even though I wanted to strangle the little jerk for messing with my mind, I couldn’t because he hadn’t actually done anything yet. We hadn’t even talked about my list since that night, and as far as I could tell, neither had he told anyone. I could’ve easily convinced myself that he’d decided to have mercy on me after all, but the knowing light in his eyes and the crafty smile he sometimes sent my way disabused me of that notion. He was biding his time, I just knew it, waiting to make his move—but waiting for what exactly? For me to run around the halls tearing my hair out and screaming for him to get it over with already? Because that moment wasn’t so farfetched at this point.
So in the meantime, to mentally prepare me for the inevitable, I came up with a bunch of potential situations and solutions instead. Markus dragging me off to some empty classroom to have his dastardly way with me? All I had to do was to steer clear of him and stick to my friends as much as possible. Markus jumping me while I was alone at home? Fine, I would just try not to get caught alone, and if he did, I still had a few disabling moves under my sleeve. So what if he was bigger now and had had years of martial arts training before he quit? I’d kicked his and my brothers’ butts often enough in the past, and I could sure as hell do it again.
Markus suddenly announcing me as the latest addition to his list of conquests? The idea sent chills up and down my spine, but I also knew how unlikely it was. He simply wouldn’t dare, or else he’d have the whole school recoiling from him in confusion and disgust. Everybody knew me as the Demolition Crew’s big sister. The squick level was just too high.
Besides, Markus was a player, but not even he would consider plain, boring, stone-faced Sienna date-worthy, let alone girlfriend material. Nobody would believe he was actually attracted to me for even a second.
Honestly, I couldn’t believe it, so why would anyone else?