She asked me to dinner. With her family. She actually wanted me to meet her grandparents. I was just…whoa.
Okay, so she invited Reese too, but that didn’t stop me from indulging in an overheated daydream about winning her grandparents’ instant approval, which would make things easier when the time came for me to ask her grandparents for her hand in marriage.
Yup, I was that pathetic. Still, that florid fantasy was better than the thoughts I’d been previously entertaining. In my panic over her leaving, I almost ended up confessing to her, and I owed my mom big-time for averting a disaster. Ivy wasn’t ready to hear it, if the consternation in her eyes was anything to go by. I came this close to making a complete fool of myself. Just thinking about it made me want to dig a hole and bury myself in it.
Then with a single invitation, she had me riding over the crest again. My head was way up in the clouds, posing a hazard to various artificial satellites. She hadn’t left after all. I wouldn’t have to spend the school break slowly going crazy with missing her. More than that, she wanted me to meet her family. Well, okay, me and my sister, but hey, things were definitely looking up for me.
Sure, there was always a chance that her grandparents wouldn’t like me, but I dismissed that thought easily. Parents and authority figures liked me well enough. Or more accurately, they liked what I represented, which was staid, responsible, educated nerdhood, with definite prospects of being a gainfully employed and productive member of society in the future. I was far more comfortable dealing with adults, anyway. It was kids my age I had trouble with, and since the only person at that dinner closest to my age would be my sister, I considered myself in the clear.
No, I wasn’t worried about her grandparents not liking me. What I was worried about was her grandparents not taking me seriously. In their eyes, I’d just be another kid. Just another teenaged fan-boy chasing after their gorgeous granddaughter. They’d take one look at me and dismiss me. Worse, they’d be condescending and pitying. In fact, for all I knew their granddaughter shared the sentiment, and I’d be the butt of a family joke for years to come: the nerdy kid who actually thought he had a chance with Ivy.
All that mental garbage in the space of a few hours. By the time I got home from Alvin’s, I’d worked myself into a nervous sweat. The car wasn’t in the garage when I brought my bike in; Ma wasn’t home yet, which was good news. I glanced at the wall clock as I bounded up the stairs, Trinity clattering ahead of me. Okay, I had time for a quick shower and—crap. What was I going to wear?
Some minutes later, I emerged from my room and nearly walked into Reese, who took one look at me and snickered. “Going to a party, Kuya?”
I glared at her and stalked back into my room. When I came out again, her laughter had subsided and she gave me an approving thumbs-up, which I ignored. Nay Loring was sitting on a stool in front of the small TV in the kitchen. When we told her we’d be having dinner over at the apartment out back, she waved us away, all her attention trained on one of her beloved teledramas.
“Kuya, there’s something I think you should know,” Reese said in a low tone as I worked on the latch on the fence-gate.
“What is it?” I winced at the creak the gate made as it swung open, and made a mental note to oil the hinges soon.
“Ate Ivy came home with this guy after you left. I could see them from my window, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. He was holding her by the arms, and she didn’t look as if she liked it. In fact, she looked kinda mad and, well, a little scared.”
I went still as something cold trickled down my spine. I recalled the way Ivy’s voice had changed when she’d spoken to that guy, becoming harder, harsher and oddly flat. Her movements too had been jerky and stiff, a far cry from her usual airy gracefulness. All because of that guy. I’d hung back as they traded insults, wondering if I was imagining the strange undercurrents running beneath their banter. Something about the guy just rubbed me the wrong way, and this was even before he’d started spouting what sounded like a veiled threat to me. I couldn’t figure it out. As far as I was concerned, the guy was a total stranger. I didn’t know anything about him, except that he wasn’t someone I wanted to hang out with.
Then she went and introduced him as her uncle. What the hell? No way. I couldn’t believe it. Ivy was everything wonderful to me, while that guy was a grade-A scumsucker. The idea that they could be in any way related was nauseating. Then I remembered slowing my bike down as I turned the corner and looking back, and seeing him stand close to her and run his fingers through her hair. The sight made my blood pound so hard I wondered if I wasn’t coming down with something. Uncle or not, just the thought of that sleazebag being anywhere near her, let alone touching her…
“I’ve met him,” I told my sister. “The guy’s actually her tito.” I frowned. Just saying it out loud left a foul taste in my mouth.
“Is she okay?” Reese asked. “‘Cause this afternoon—”
“Of course, she’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, okay, it’s just that I got this text from—”
“Hey, you two! I hope you’re not thinking of going back for the antacid or anything.”
We looked up. Ivy was grinning at us from the front door, one hand on her hip, the other holding a ladle. The conversation with my sister forgotten, I smiled and practically ran up the stairs, only to grind to a halt when I drew near. Ivy looked fresh and relaxed in her T-shirt and shorts, her hair up in its usual chopstick twist. Enticing smells were billowing out the door behind her, making my mouth water, but I couldn’t stop staring at her. She was beautiful, breathtaking, and completely detrimental to my capacity for intelligent speech. I swallowed as the seconds ticked by.
“Wow, it sure smells great in here!” Reese pushed past me, taking in deep gulps of air. “What are you cooking, Ate Ivy? Can I help?”
Nobody had ever appreciated having a sister more than I did at that moment. Chuckling, Ivy stood aside and let Reese bound in before giving me an arch look. “You see that? Reese thinks my cooking’s perfectly safe, so you can quit looking so terrified.”
Her humor disarmed me, and I finally managed to get my tongue unstuck from the roof of my mouth. “Who’s terrified?” I retorted. “I’m just trying to remember whether or not our family’s health insurance covers food poisoning. Ow!”
I rubbed the spot on my shoulder that had come under fire from her ladle. Laughing, she looped her arm around mine. “Enough stalling. I won’t let you weasel out on me now, so you might as well come in and meet my grandparents.”
I glanced down at her in confusion. Something was wrong. Ivy was smiling and teasing and otherwise acting normal, but her fingers when they’d brushed my skin were ice-cold and I could feel the faint tremors in her arm. I had no time to wonder about it though, because the next moment I was being pulled forward to be presented to her grandmother.
Well, now I knew where Ivy got her towering height. Her lola was standing at the stove occasionally stirring a pot, the contents of which smelled like gastronomical paradise. Hovering beside her was Reese, who was only an inch or two shorter than Ivy’s lola, and that’s including the lady’s fluffy halo of gray curls in the equation. Her face was pink-cheeked and friendly, and she was wearing brown all over—brown pants, brown blouse, brown shoes. Even the rosary around her neck was strung with brown wooden beads. In fact, Ivy’s Lola looked a bit like a drab, brown sparrow, but as I soon discovered, her personality was anything but drab or brown.
She turned as we approached, but before Ivy could launch into her introductions, she thrust the wooden spoon she’d been stirring the pot with at my face. “Try this, iho, and tell me what you think,” she instructed.
I glanced at the utensil dripping with brown sauce, then at Ivy’s lola. “Excuse me?”
“Lola, what are you doing?” Ivy wanted to know.
“Hush, dear, and be patient,” she admonished her granddaughter, keeping her sharp-eyed gaze upon me. “Try it and see if you like it,” she said with a secretive smile.
“Go on, Kuya,” Reese urged while Ivy groaned.
Obligingly, I took the spoon and tasted it, conscious of the three females watching me closely, then shrugged. “Pork adobo. It’s good.”
At that, Ivy’s face broke into a brilliant smile, but her Lola only shook her head. “No, dear. Try again.”
Befuddled, I brought the spoon back to my mouth. “It’s, uh, definitely pork adobo,” I said, now officially adrift. “It tastes the way pork adobo should taste.”
Lola asked me to try again. Reese rolled her eyes skyward. Even Ivy’s smile was starting to wilt. Resisting the urge to swipe at the sweat beading on my forehead, I lifted the spoon a third time and cleaned off the last of the sauce. This time, I didn’t answer at once, but instead took the time to savor the flavor, rolling it around on my tongue. Licking my lips, I glanced unconsciously at Ivy, and was caught off guard by the dazed look on her face, her gaze riveted on my mouth. My pulse jumped, all the saliva that had flooded my mouth in response to the sauce vanishing without a trace, and I wished heartily that we weren’t standing in plain view of her lola and my sister.
“Well, iho?” Lola spoke up.
Tearing my gaze away from Ivy, I forced myself to focus on the question. “All right. It’s a nice blend of salty and sour, which means she put in just the right ratio of soy sauce to vinegar. Spicy, too. It kind of lingers around the mouth. In fact, it’s, um, it’s exactly the way I like it.” I blushed, but seeing Ivy start to smile again made my embarrassment worth it. “I tasted bits of potato in it. They’re soft, tender and as tasty as the sauce, not like some of the bland lumps I’ve eaten before. In short, ma’am, her adobo is perfect.” I pushed my glasses up and gave Ivy’s lola a smug look, daring her to find fault with my assessment.
Lola beamed. “Well done, iho. Very nicely said.” She turned to give my giggling sister a conspiratorial look. “You see, dear? This is why a girl should know how to cook at least one dish very well. It’s quite a useful skill. And when you’ve accomplished your objective, you can even eat it.”
“Oh no,” Ivy moaned. “Lola, you’ve known Reese for a grand total of five minutes. What on earth have you been telling her?”
“Why, I just gave her the same cooking advice I’ve given you and Sharmaine.”
To my fascination, the tinge of pink on Ivy’s cheeks deepened to scarlet as horror flitted over her features. “She’s eleven years old!”
“I may be eleven, Ate Ivy, but I can cook,” Reese protested in a wounded tone. “I can make boiled rice, for starters. And boiled eggs and boiled bananas and boiled corn and—er, does sticking leftovers in the microwave count as cooking?”
“I didn’t mean—that is, you can’t—aaargh! Not again!” she bawled, then turned and gave me a scorching glare. “You shut up. Stop laughing.”
I blinked innocently, biting the insides of my cheeks. Who’s laughing? I thought.
“You’re thinking it,” she accused, then she shut her eyes shut and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Okay, okay. Let’s do this again. Lola, I’d like you to meet Miguel and his sister Reese, whom you’ve obviously already met. Guys, this is my Lola Rosa,” she finished in a rush, as if trying to get all the words out before anything else happened.
Eager to strike out toward normality, I took Lola Rosa’s hand in a polite mano, murmuring my greetings and effectively obliging Reese to follow suit. “My, what well-mannered children you are,” Lola Rosa said warmly. “It’s lovely to finally meet you two. Now I know Reese is eleven, but how old are you exactly, Miguel?”
Shit. And here I’d hoped they wouldn’t make an issue of my age. “Thirteen, ma’am,” I replied reluctantly, then added, “I’m turning fourteen in December.” Right. As if that helped.
Lola Rosa smiled, the sparkle in her eye reminding me of the way Ivy looked sometimes. “Ah, is that so? We shall see, we shall see. But just to be sure, would you like to taste the pancit my granddaughter made and tell us what you think?”
“Oh holy shit, no,” I heard Ivy mutter underneath her breath before she grabbed my arm and pulled me away. “He’ll taste it later, Lola. I’ll just, ah, introduce him to Lolo.”
Her skin is freezing, I thought. Something’s definitely wrong.
And speaking of something wrong…
“What’s this, Angel? You’re bringing an outsider to our family reunion?” her uncle drawled as soon as we stepped out into the balcony. He was slouched in a chair nursing a glass of gin, evidently not his first judging from bottles cluttering the table. The air around the lounge area rippled with the smell of alcohol and cigarette smoke.
Ivy’s grip around my arm tightened, but other than that she gave no sign that she heard her uncle’s comment. “Lolo, I’d like you to meet my friend Miguel,” she addressed the other man sitting at the table. “Migs, this is my Lolo Simon.”
The other man turned, and I found myself subjected to the most piercing stare I’d ever encountered. Black eyes glinted underneath a pair of eyebrows that looked as if they were about to crawl off his face and spin a chrysalis. Lolo Simon was thin but built as if he had steel cables underneath his leathery skin instead of flesh and bone. His long, equally wiry salt-and-pepper hair was tied back in a queue. I willed myself to keep from squirming, obeying some instinct that warned me not to reveal any weaknesses to this man. He looked as if he was just waiting for an excuse to chew me up and spit me out.
God, I sincerely hoped this man and my mom would never cross paths. The explosion would probably level half of Metro Manila.
Lolo Simon snorted like a bull and slapped his hand against the table. “This him, then? This is the Miguel you’ve been telling us about?” I tried not to wince. The man had a voice to match his stare.
“Yes, Lolo.” Ivy gave me a small, encouraging smile.
I held out my hand to his then pressed the back of it to my forehead, although Lolo Simon didn’t look all that impressed with my show of respect. “Humph. You look mighty young for a carpenter, boy,” he announced.
For the second time that evening, I found myself knocked completely off-balance. “Excuse me?”
“What?” Ivy exclaimed at the same time. “I never said he was a carpenter!”
“That so, firefly?” He raised an eyebrow at his fuming granddaughter, his fierceness turning into sly humor. Then he turned back to me, his grin a slash of white against his face. “The way she talked about you, one’d think you’d built this apartment with your bare hands. She just went on and on about you. Couldn’t get her to shut up.”
My jaw dropped. I honestly had no idea what to say to that. She talked about me? I slid her a speculative glance as she blushed and spluttered and called down rains of fire upon her grandfather. A heady feeling swept over me. She talked about me. Whoa. And it sounded as if, well, as if she liked talking about me.
The hairs on the back of my neck prickled, and I turned and met her uncle’s mocking eyes. “You ain’t a carpenter, Four-Eyes. What I’ve been hearing is you’re a college student,” he said, somehow making the words “college student” sound like something you find in a gutter at 3 a.m.
“He is,” Ivy chimed in. “Migs got into the UP College of Engineering when he was only twelve. He’s actually the most intelligent person I know.”
Lolo Simon snorted again. “Sunmabitch, you hear that?” he said to me with mock exasperation. “That’s exactly what I was talking about. Now how about you speak up for yourself, boy, instead of letting my granddaughter do the talking for you?”
I grinned. “Why should I, sir, when she’s doing such a great job of making me sound good?”
“Hey!” Ivy yelled, outraged, while her grandfather bellowed with laughter. “So you’re a smart-ass, huh?” he crowed, banging on the table again. “And you’re how old?”
I hated that question. “Thirteen, sir. Turning fourteen in December.”
“And my firefly says you’re a genius. Humph. Let’s see how smart you are. What’s 548,327 divided by, uh, by 489?”
“Oh, God.” Ivy buried her face in her hands.
“What? I just want to know how—”
“It’s 1,121.32 followed by a lot of other numbers,” I answered casually.
Lolo Simon’s eyebrows twitched. “Damn, that was quick. But how do we know it’s correct, eh? Hmm. Er. Somebody get me a calculator. What were those numbers again?”
I repeated the numbers, then waited while Ivy fiddled with her phone’s calculator and showed it to her Lolo. I tried not to look too smug when they straightened, with Ivy wearing an admiring expression and her grandfather one of grudging respect.
“Fucking impressive,” Julio drawled, raising his glass to me. “Just the kind of thing I wish I could do, only I’ve got a life, you know?”
And while I was at it, I hated her uncle, too. I pushed my glasses up and regarded him indifferently. “Great life. So what’s it like, not being able to spell your own name?”
Julio’s smile crusted over, but Lolo Simon emitted a braying laugh. “Hah! A smart-ass, all right! Damn, he’s got you pegged, Julio. My firefly knows how to pick her friends.”
Julio shot the older man a hostile look from underneath his greasy bangs. Interesting, I thought. Looks like Lolo Simon and I have at least one thing in common.
Ivy heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Come on, you guys, dinner’s ready. I hope all that manly head-butting has given you an appetite.”
Her uncle rose in a cloud of fumes, a smile once again appearing on his face. “Hey, I know what. Why don’t you join me for drinks later, Miguel? Let’s let ‘Tay get his beauty sleep. It’ll be you and me, getting to know each other over a bottle of stainless.”
“Are you insane?” Ivy cut in swiftly. “He’s underage.”
“Then how about you join me instead, Angel?” Julio purred, trailing his hand along the juncture of her neck and shoulder where it was exposed by the collar of her shirt. “For old times’ sake, you know?”
Something hot and tight seemed to squeeze my torso. A single thought, barely coherent, thundered through my skull: Get your hands off her. Get your hands off her right now.
Then another thought, overriding the first: He’s her uncle. You’re a paranoid idiot. Get a grip already.
Then Ivy smiled brightly and bent to pick up the gin glasses, dislodging her uncle’s hand. “I’d rather jump off the roof, Tito, if it’s all the same to you.”
Dinner was rather disorganized, but not in a bad way. The table creaked from the weight of all the food—pancit, green mango salad, spring rolls, steamed rice and the controversial pork adobo. Since there was no room at the table for all six of us and the food, Julio and I had to drag some chairs in from the balcony and eat at the kitchen counter. We kept things civil mainly by ignoring each other. Besides, I had my hands full dealing with Ivy’s apologetic looks. Conversation consisted mostly of her grandparents asking us questions and commenting on our answers, and if I’m making it sound like a normal, straightforward exchange, it’s because I don’t have the words to describe the convoluted mess it actually was.
Later, when Ivy got up to fetch the ice cream from the freezer, her grandparents decided to answer a few questions themselves. “I suppose you’re wondering what we’re doing here,” Lola Rosa began.
“I’ve been asking you that since the moment you arrived,” Ivy grumbled, looking both aggrieved and amused.
“I know, ineng. You needn’t be so huffy,” Lola Rosa replied primly. “Your Lolo’s social security papers need to be straightened out before he can claim his retirement package, and we were told we need to visit the Social Security Service main office to do so.”
Ivy blinked. “Oh. Okay. I can bring you to the SSS building. It’s not far from here.”
“When I called them up, they said it wouldn’t take long. Just a few days at most.”
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”
“Thank you, dear. And another thing. We’ve been referred to a doctor here at St. Luke’s Medical Center. An endocrinologist, a Dr. Luis Peña. Your Tita Mila says he’s the best there is. She called him up and described your case to him, and he says he needs to examine you before he could make a diagnosis. There are several tests…”
In all the months since I’d met her, I’d never once seen Ivy’s face completely wiped clean of emotion. Until that moment, that is. She was as empty and immobile as a concrete wall; she was barely even breathing. I inched closer to her, thinking to catch her in case she fainted, but I should have known Ivy was tougher than that. As her Lola continued to relay the rest of Mila’s message, she slowly put down the spoon she’d been scooping ice cream with and turned around.
“You’re taking me to a doctor?” she asked, her voice as impassive as the rest of her.
Lola Rosa clasped her hands together as if in entreaty. Even Lolo Simon looked uncomfortable. “Ivy, you need to,” she said gently. “Please, ineng. You’re not—it’s not normal, at your age. You haven’t even once…” She frowned and sketched a hand vaguely through the air, indicating Ivy’s body. “Dr. Peña says your condition can be remedied. There’s this hormone treatment he mentioned.”
“I can be cured?”
“Yes!” Lola Rosa sighed, grateful for the tiny opening her question had offered. “You can be normal, dear. Your body can have a chance to develop the way it’s meant to. You can ask him about it yourself, ineng. Mila made an appointment for you. You’re to see him the day after tomorrow.”
Ivy lowered her head, her bangs falling in front of her face, hiding her eyes. Taut silence descended upon the room, then the corners of her mouth twisted upward in what looked more like a cynical smirk than a pleased smile. “Wow. Cool. After all this time, I have a chance to be normal. That’s…great.” When her grandmother opened her mouth to speak, Ivy shook her head and raised a hand like a traffic cop. “No, no, I’m excited about it. Thrilled, really,” she said offhandedly. “So, St. Luke’s, is it? That’s a pretty expensive hospital. Where will we get the money to pay for all those medical tests, never mind the hormone treatments? Or…is this the real reason Lolo needs to fix his papers at the SSS?”
“No one touches my retirement package but me,” Lolo Simon muttered, although without much conviction.
Ivy smirked again. “That’s good. So who’s going to pay for all this? Because, frankly, I can’t afford it.”
Lolo Rosa cleared her throat. “I was considering calling your mother in LA.”
Hatred flashed in Ivy’s eyes. “Of course. I should have thought of that. What else is Nanay there for? Hey, I know. Let’s call up Tatay too. After all, since they’ve so generously thought to provide me with a place to live—” she flung out a hand to indicate the apartment— “we just might be able to persuade them to pay my medical bills as well.”
I stared at her, taken aback by the hard, scornful mask her face had become. Her reaction to the possibility of a treatment for her condition confused me. She should have been happy, jubilant even. Certainly, she should have been more appreciative toward her grandmother, who’d only acted out of concern for her.
Then I remembered some of the stuff I’d read about treatments for hypopituitarism, growth hormone deficiency and other similar conditions. The treatments ranged from regular hormone injections to radiation therapy to surgery—and she’d be stuck with it for the rest of her life. Okay, so there might some basis for her less-than-enthusiastic response to the prospect of treatment. It wasn’t exactly an easy decision to make.
But it was her loathing and utter contempt for her parents that shocked me the most. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about her background. Abandoned by both parents. I couldn’t imagine it. For all her flaws, my mom’s always been there for us, and when he’d been alive my dad was—well, he wasn’t a paragon, but he didn’t run away from his duty either. I couldn’t comprehend what Ivy had gone through. During those rare times when she spoke about her parents, she’d sounded relatively calm, so I just assumed she simply got over her parents’ desertion the way you get over a physical wound or a fracture. You get better, and then you move on.
But that evening, I saw a side of Ivy I’d never even considered might exist. This wasn’t the lively, playful, caring girl I’d fallen for. This Ivy was a stranger to me. Worse, she was a stranger whose every word and action went against everything I believed in. I felt disoriented, standing there in that familiar kitchen, with my sister sitting wide-eyed and unusually solemn, surrounded by people I knew nothing about—and this included the girl standing beside me. Suddenly, it seemed as if I was no closer to her than to some random girl I’d met on the street. The thought filled me with doubt.
I hated that feeling most of all.
In a surprising twist, it was my sister who indirectly came to my rescue. “Ate Ivy?” she said timidly when the strained silence once again threatened to overrun the apartment. “Do you need help with the ice cream?”
Ivy glanced at her, then closed her eyes and sucked in a breath. By the time she opened them again, she’d managed to school her features into something resembling her usual expression. I was indescribably relieved to see it; it never occurred to me to be ashamed of my reaction.
“Yeah, sure,” she said, picking up the dripping spoon. “I’m sorry, I forgot all about it. Pfft, can you believe all this heavy stuff after dinner? Well, here’s a better-tasting dessert to make up for it.”
I stepped back as Reese passed around bowls of ice cream, while everyone else breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone, that is, except her uncle, who slunk over to Ivy’s side and yanked the chopstick out of her hair, catching the shining mass in his hand as it tumbled down her back.
“Whaddya know, Angel? Looks like you’ll finally be a woman soon,” Julio said laughingly. “I wonder how your kiddie company will take it when their star model suddenly starts swelling up and breaking out in zits?”
Moving with surprising speed, her hand shot up and snatched her hair out of her uncle’s grasp. “Fuck off, Tito,” she sang out.
“Julio, stop teasing Ivy. Give her some room to breathe. She’s just received some surprising news,” Lola Rosa chided her son, at which Julio smiled mockingly and raised his hands.
“Ate Ivy, come on and have dessert.”
Ivy joined them at the table, leaving me and Julio at the kitchen counter. He eyed me with dislike over his bowl of ice cream. I decided to follow Ivy’s example and ignore him. And with Ivy once again acting like her usual cheery self, the lighthearted, almost festive mood returned to the room.
The honking of Mama’s car horn from outside served as our signal to depart. Without having to exchange a word, Reese and I stood up and bid goodbye to Ivy’s family.
“Oh wait, iho.” Lola Rosa beckoned me over. “My granddaughter tells me you’re an engineer. Is that true?”
“Uh, no, I’m just an Engineering student. I’m not an engineer yet.”
Lola clapped her hands. “My, an Engineering student at your age? How very impressive. Well, I was wondering if you could help me with something. You see, my cellphone is broken, and Ivy doesn’t know how to fix it. Perhaps you could check it for me?”
“Um, sure, no problem.” I stared bemusedly down at the phone she pressed into my hand.
Ivy dropped her head into her arms and groaned. “Lola, when I said we’d have your phone repaired, I meant we’d take it to the mall and have it fixed. You can’t turn Migs into your own personal tech support.”
I was more than willing to be Ivy’s personal tech support, but something told me she wouldn’t welcome the idea. Not yet, at least. “It’s okay. I’ll see what I can do,” I said, pocketing the phone and giving her grandparents a polite nod goodbye.
Ivy walked us to the gate, where she leaned against the fence and dug around in her pocket for her cigarette case and lighter. “God, I needed this,” she gasped, taking a deep drag of her cigarette and closing her eyes.
Reese gave me a sly smile and darted on ahead. I barely registered it; all my attention was focused on Ivy. Her hair flowed over her shoulders like a silky veil, and I closed my hand into a fist to keep from reaching out to touch it. Even in the semi-darkness, I could see how tired she looked. This dinner had really taken its toll on her. I glanced down at her other hand, wondering if I had the guts to take it. Just to see if she still felt cold to the touch, if she was still trembling. And, well, maybe to comfort her a bit.
I kid myself sometimes.
“Listen, thanks for coming,” she spoke up, her eyes still closed, her voice barely above a sigh. “And tell Reese thank you, too. I think—I think I owe her one.”
Now what the hell did that mean?
“So what do you think of my grandparents?” she asked around a stream of cigarette smoke.
Ever so casually, I raised my hand and hooked my fingers on one of the links right beside her head. “They were…interesting.”
Her eyes opened and stared into mine. “Interesting?” she said, her dimples flickering. “And you are…diplomatic.”
“Yup. I guess I…am,” I deadpanned, imitating her imitation of me.
She laughed and took another drag on her cigarette. Then, to my absolute delight, she closed her eyes again and leaned her head against my hand. Her hair felt even softer than it looked. “I’m sorry about my uncle. I know he’s an ass, but you won’t have to deal with him much after this. Just avoid him if you can and ignore him if you can’t.”
“Is he staying at your place tonight?” For some reason, the thought bothered me a lot.
“Yeah. He’s sleeping on the rug in what we laughingly call the living room.”
“What about you?”
She opened her eyes again and smirked, reminding me of the stranger I’d seen earlier. “Why, Papa dear? Are you worried about my virtue?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that, so I just shrugged.
Sighing, she straightened and crushed her cigarette against the lid of her case. “I’m just kidding, Migs. I’m tired, that’s all. If you really want to know, I’m sleeping in Erwin’s room while my grandparents are here.”
“Ivy, what about that doctor’s consultation?”
Mentioning it was a mistake. The look she gave me was cool and distant, and I could sense her withdrawing from me as if someone was pulling the breath out of my lungs. “What about it?” she asked.
I dropped my hand, feeling bereft and uncertain, but I had no choice but to forge ahead. “You’re going through with it, aren’t you?”
“You think I have a choice?”
We gazed at each other, two strangers sizing each other up. Then she shook her head. “I have to go back. I’ll see you later.”
And then she was gone.
When I returned to my room, I found Reese standing by my bookshelf, leafing through the pages of Applied Fluid Mechanics with an expression of disgust. “Put that back where you got it,” I told her as I stripped off my shirt, folded it and put in the hamper.
“Okay, okay. Yeesh. You actually read this stuff?” she grumbled as she shoved the book back on the shelf.
“No, I use it to impress people with. The other way around, Reese.” She rolled her eyes and put the book back the right way around. “Good. Now what are you doing here?”
“What’s gotten you in such a snit? I thought you’d be floating on ceiling by now.”
I glowered at her.
Reese made a face, then perched on my bed, looking sober. “I’m worried about Ate Ivy.”
“Why? She seems fine to me.” But she isn’t, I thought. Not by a long shot. “You mentioned this before. What in particular are you worried about?”
“That guy, Tito Julio.” I looked at my sister, who shrugged. “I didn’t like him much. He seemed, I don’t know, kinda gross. Like a muddy shoe or something.”
I sat down beside her, rubbing my eyes underneath my glasses. “I didn’t like him either. Just stay away him, okay?” I said, giving her the same advice Ivy had given me. “Ivy says thank you, by the way. And that she owes you one.”
Reese brightened. “Oh, then Ate Sharm must have sent her a text too, to warn her that her Tito Julio might be coming.”
I stared at her, narrow-eyed. “What are you talking about?”
“I tried to tell you earlier. Ate Sharm sent me a text this afternoon. She told me to tell you never to leave Ate Ivy alone with that Julio guy. When I asked her why not, she said it’s because Ate Ivy finds it easier to play a role when there’s an audience around. Hmm. What do you suppose she meant by that?”
All my life, I’d grown up knowing, trusting, that I could answer any question anyone could throw at me. Now I was being forced to admit that I didn’t know the answers to some questions. I didn’t even know how to begin to understand where the questions were coming from.
“I don’t know,” I said to my sister. It actually hurt.
“I was wondering, too,” she added just before she left, “how different would Ate Ivy be if she became normal? It wouldn’t be so bad, would it? I mean, she’s already so pretty now. I wonder, would she still be Ate Ivy even when she stops looking like Ate Ivy?”
“I don’t know,” I said again, as I closed my eyes. A part of me reflected that maybe it would have been better if Ivy had left with Sharm and Erwin. Because right that moment, the distance between us had never seemed greater.