And the next moment, she was asleep.
I stayed that way for some time, not moving, content to simply let her sleep. It was the first time I’d ever seen her so still. Her quiet breathing, the way she felt against me—it was yet another side to her I’d never seen before. Her hand soon grew slack in mine as she slumped down, inadvertently cuddling closer to me with her legs propped against my thigh. I shifted to keep her head from dropping forward on my chest, then brushed aside a lock of her hair that had fallen across her face. Her skin felt cool and incredibly soft, and unable to resist, I slowly traced a line along her cheek with my fingertip. She stirred then, causing me to pull away for fear of waking her, but she only sighed, buried her face against my shoulder, and sank even deeper into slumber.
I love you.
The words welled up from somewhere inside me, so clear that for a moment I thought I’d spoken them out loud. With a sigh, I leaned my head back against the washing machine and contemplated the slice of sky visible beyond the edge of the roof. Well, here I was. Practically back where I started. Again. As if all the doubt and confusion of the past two days never happened. This crazy emotional cyclone—it was getting so I hardly recognized myself anymore. But right then and there on that balcony where Ivy slept beside me, I found I couldn’t bring myself to care.
I’m losing my mind, I thought dispassionately. Pretty soon, I’ll be sitting in trash cans and picking fights with traffic signs while wearing a bed sheet for a cape.
Then I glanced down at Ivy and smiled. What the hell. Maybe losing my mind wasn’t so bad after all.
Her hair had drifted across her face again. I reached over to tuck the strands behind her ear, noting how deeply she was sleeping with equal measures of concern and perplexity. As if her body was making up for more than just a few hours of restlessness. When I’d found her earlier, I was a little disturbed at how exhausted she looked. Sitting on the floor with her legs drawn up in front of her, wearing an over-sized T-shirt that seemed to swallow her up, she seemed about as substantial as the smoke wafting up from her cigarette. It wasn’t until I touched her that a part of me was convinced she wasn’t about to vanish into thin air with a spectral moan. What’s going on with you? I wondered for about the twentieth time since she woke me up. Why can’t you tell me what’s wrong?
And stubborn little idiot that she was, she was still keeping up the pretense. That was what had struck me the most, how fiercely she seemed to cling to her cheerful act. Even when she was too scared and miserable to sleep, even when she’d obviously been crying, she still kept on smiling and laughing and making dumb wisecracks. I knew she wasn’t telling me everything. I even suspected that the little she told me had already been sanitized for my sake. It hurt to think that she regarded me as someone she felt she had to put on an act for, which was pretty much what Sharm had revealed in her warning, and for a moment the urge to call Ivy out on her bullshit and cut straight to the heart of the problem was nearly overwhelming.
But for some reason, I couldn’t do it. I just…couldn’t hurt her that way. All I wanted was for her to know that she could trust me. I didn’t know how—I mean, a few months ago, I couldn’t have cared less whether or not people trusted me. Nobody had mattered enough to me for the issue to come up. But then this crazy, beautiful girl comes along, and suddenly everything I knew about myself gets turned upside-down. Like I said, totally nutters. I didn’t know where to begin to tell her. I couldn’t even explain it to myself in a way that sounded marginally rational. So I just did the only other thing I could think of.
To be honest, when she put her hand in mine and later fell asleep on me, it was all I could do not to grin like a fool. She just didn’t know…she had no idea at all how much her acceptance meant to me.
Guess I’m not just a member of your audience after all.
Awash in a sense of relief, elation and a tenderness that was nearly embarrassing, I lowered my head until it rested on hers. Her hair smelled faintly of strawberries and mostly of cigarette smoke. I pressed a kiss on the top of her head, then closed my eyes, still smiling to myself.
I must have drifted off, because when I opened my eyes again, the slice of sky appeared lighter than before. I rubbed my eyes and straightened my glasses. Yup, definitely lighter. I tried to reach into my pocket for my phone to check the time, only to discover that my entire left side had gone numb. Judging from the look of the sky, I had less than an hour to put Ivy to bed and creep back home before anyone else woke up. If my mom found out I’d snuck out in the middle of the night, she’d have me strung up by my thumbs. Not to mention what Ivy’s grandparents would do if they caught me out here with their unconscious granddaughter. I had to get out of there quick.
“Ivy?” I whispered. No response from the boneless heap beside me. “Ivy?” I said a bit more loudly. “Hey, wake up. Time to go back inside.”
Nothing. I shook her a little, then shook her some more. All I managed to do was dislodge her head from my shoulder so that she slid down my front until she was lying half curled up in my lap. Blushing and trying not to think about the awkward position we were in, I pulled my left arm free and winced as I massaged it back to life. When further attempts to wake her failed, I resigned myself to having to carry her back to Erwin’s room, although I did briefly entertain the idea of dragging her there by her heels. It probably wouldn’t have woken her either.
Anyway, how hard could it be? I’d carried Reese before, and Ivy wasn’t any bigger than my sister. Shifting her into position, I slid my arms underneath her, picked her up and…
Okay, let me put it this way. You know those scenes in the movies where the hero sweeps the girl up then goes striding off as if he wasn’t carrying anything heavier than a sack of cotton? I wish I could say it was like that. What it was like was a lot of screaming muscles, unsteady legs and silent cursing. Too late I remembered that the last time I’d carried Reese was years ago, and that Ivy was bigger than my sister had been then. Moreover, while Ivy looks as if she’s dancing in mid-air every time she moves, as dead weight she’s less like a butterfly and more like a load of cinder blocks. I’m still not sure how I did it, but I somehow managed to make it to Erwin’s room and lower her onto the mattress without toppling over. Mental note: Acquire a set of weights and start working out, I thought as I knelt on the floor dripping sweat onto the mattress while I waited for the muscles in my arms and back to stop convulsing.
“Migs,” Ivy sighed, then rolled over on her side to face me. Yup, still asleep. An indescribable feeling gripped me, and it wasn’t just muscle strain that made my hand shake when I tucked the blanket around her and brushed her hair off her face.
I love you, Ivy.
I sucked in a breath before the words had a chance to escape. “Sleep well,” I murmured instead before I got up and quietly shut the door behind me.
A figure sat in the dining area, dark and shapeless in the murky light, its eyes glowing a demonic shade of red—as red as the fiery tip of the cigarette it was holding. The figure pointed with the cigarette toward the room behind me. “She finally asleep?”
“Yes,” I replied when the impulse to do something that would have caused me to lose all self-respect had safely passed.
Ivy’s grandfather nodded. “She hasn’t been sleeping well since we arrived. Been flying about doing this and that… She must be all tuckered out by now.”
“She’s stressed out about the treatment.”
Now that the shock of adrenaline was subsiding, my brain sheepishly resumed control. The cigarette was less than quarter burned; approximately a minute had passed since Lolo Simon had lit it. Unfortunately, there was no way to know for sure how long he’d been awake, short of actually asking him. Also, the man had the stealth abilities of a frigging ninja. I kept my expression neutral, unsure about his reaction to having caught me slinking out of his granddaughter’s bedroom in the wee hours of the morning. Then again, I supposed I owed him an explanation for my presence here.
“I didn’t do anything,” I began, then winced inwardly at how defensive I sounded. “We fell asleep—”
“She talked to you about her treatment?” he asked as if I hadn’t spoken, then grunted when I nodded. “She’s gonna fight it, you know,” he went on pensively. “Every step of the way, with everything she’s got. Change terrifies her, ever since her parents—”
He stopped and took a pull from his cigarette. When it didn’t appear as if he was going to continue, I drew in a breath. “She’s not going to fight it.”
His bushy eyebrows twitched upward.
“She’s going to run from it.”
He fixed me a sharp look. “How’d you reckon that, boy?”
“Because she can’t fight you.”
In the silence that followed, I had time to reflect on whether blurting out something like that to a man who could look eagle-eyed at 5 a.m. was a health-prolonging move on my part. On the other hand, I had a feeling my answer had not come as a surprise, and I was in no mood to be baited. The effects of my recent emotional joyride, not to mention lack of sleep, were creeping up on me, and it was getting harder to think straight.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” I muttered, looking away and raking a hand through my hair. “She’s not acting reasonably about this. Why won’t she tell me anything?”
Lolo Simon gave me another measuring stare. “You’re dead on your feet, son,” he said at last in a kindly tone. “Go home and get some sleep.Then come by later this afternoon. There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”
I nodded and left to do as he suggested, barely managing to duck upstairs before Nay Loring came into start breakfast. I leaned against my bedroom door recovering from the close call, then after a jaw-cracking yawn, flopped backward onto my bed and lay there staring at the ceiling, thinking about Ivy.
I love her.
Knowing I stood a better chance of holding my breath indefinitely than suppressing that thought, I simply let myself savor the words and the amazing feeling they gave me, exploring the way they resonated with something so deep inside me I didn’t even have a name for it. I’m in love with her, I thought, lightheaded from a mixture of euphoria and drowsiness. Head over heels. Completely goners. I’m absolutely crazy about Ivy.
Oh, Miguel, really. You’ve only known this girl for, what, a few months? You don’t know what she’s really like, or where she comes from, or what kind of people her family are. And you think you’re already—ugh, really, this isn’t like you at all.
Like an annoying viral software, a different set of features replaced the image of Ivy’s beautiful, sleeping face. I frowned. Even as a vaguely unpleasant memory, Ate Queenie was a gigantic proboscis snuffling around in business she had no rightful claim to.
This is just a phase you’re going through. You know that, don’t you? All boys go a little frothy in the brain at your age. Hello, just look at my brothers. And you of all people should know about hormones, so stop taking yourself so seriously, cuz. You’re not in the big leagues yet.
Shut up, I grumbled, trying to ignore the gray blob of doubt squatting in a corner of my mind. With a sigh, I took my glasses off and put them on my bedside table, then after a minute reached over to turn off my alarm clock when it began to ring, before finally giving myself over to sleep.
It felt as if I hadn’t been asleep five minutes before the insistent beeping of my phone woke me up. Fumbling for both my phone and my glasses, I sat up and scrolled through a message from my mom, reminding me to deliver the financial report of our neighborhood’s Homeowners Association to the Riveros’ house as soon as I was done with my studying, and to pick Reese up from her track practice at school this afternoon. Some glitch in the signal had caused my mom’s message to repeat itself over and over, nearly half a dozen times. That figures, I thought with sour humor. A glance at my clock told me it was nearly noon. Might as well get on with the day’s itinerary.
Which my mother had already laid out for me. Without bothering to ask me first. Typical.
I turned my computer on, and while I waited for it to boot up I picked up the stuff I’d knocked over last night in my rush to get to Ivy. Drawing up my planner, I set out my study materials for the day then, feeling the need to silence my growling stomach and maybe get a bit of a boost with a cup of cocoa laced with instant coffee, decided to head downstairs for breakfast. Or lunch, in this case. Yawning and scratching my stomach, I opened my door and nearly got clocked in the face by a descending set of knuckles.
“Oops, sorry—gosh, Miguel, you look positively scary. What’s wrong with your hair? You look like you just got out of bed or something. You didn’t, did you? Oh, I can’t believe it. I thought you got up at the crack of dawn or something. What have you been doing all night and who with and does Auntie Amelia know?”
It says a lot about how accustomed I was to having relatives pop in at our house at random moments that finding my nosy older cousin Queenie lurking outside my bedroom door gave me only a minimal pause. Resisting the urge to flatten my hair against my head, I gave her a withering look before pushing past her, absently scratching Trinity behind the ears when she crowded happily against my legs.
I found Auntie Laura sitting at the dining table, daintily sipping a cup of tea. My aunt’s eyebrow lifted when I came over and lifted her hand to my forehead in a perfunctory mano. “Goodness, you look so unkempt. Did Queenie wake you up?”
“No, I was already awake,” I replied, wishing I’d stopped by the bathroom first. “Can I help you, Auntie? Ma won’t be back until this evening.”
“Oh we know,” my aunt said airily. “Amelia’s always busy, busy, busy. Always at a meeting or working on this or that paper. Or was it a conference this time? I forget. But we aren’t staying long. In fact, my driver’s waiting outside by the car. I just thought we’d drop by so I could give you these.” She nudged the yellow paper bag on the table toward me. “It’s the SweetMelts ensaymada from Bulacan that Amelia asked me to buy for her. You can have it for breakfast tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” I said as Trinity sniffed at the bag and the muffin-sized, plastic-wrapped pastries it contained with interest.
At this, Ate Queenie, who’d followed me downstairs, rolled her eyes. “Down, you dumb dog. Forget the ensaymada, cuz. What we really came here for was to give you this.”
She spun me around so that the next moment I found myself staring at a pair of large, flowery, pink and blue envelopes. “Two invitations to my debut party, just like I promised last Sunday. One for Auntie Amelia, Reese and you, and one for your date for the evening.” She leaned over to whisper conspiratorially in my ear: “The two of you can ditch your mom and sis, and go sit near the terrace. It’s got a great view of both the gardens and the ballroom. I’ve seen it. It’s really pretty.”
Reluctantly, I took the envelopes, which reeked of artificial floral scent. “If you make me dance with you in front of everyone, Ate Queenie, I’ll make sure you regret it.”
Both she and Auntie Laura laughed as though I’d just said something particularly cute. “You’re not one of my Eighteen Roses, so you’re off the hook. But I am going to make you dance with your date,” Ate Queenie added with a sly grin. “Remember what I told you, okay? This other invitation is for Lala. Now I want you to go over to her place and ask her out. I’m serious, Miguel. You’re coming to my party with Lala, or else.”
“Or else what?”
“Or else I’ll sic the boys on you,” she said lightly, but her eyes had turned implacable. I repressed a shudder. My cousin obviously meant business.
“Oh, the debut party’s going to be so wonderful,” Auntie Laura gushed, clapping her hands together. “A masquerade ball at the Peninsula Hotel, with dancing and a live DJ or whatever it is you kids enjoy. I’m sure you and your special friend will have so much fun. Amelia said that you—oh!”
She fell silent when Ate Queenie shot her a look. “Not to sound totally uncouth or anything, but aren’t I allowed to bring my own date?” I said dryly.
A disapproving frown flitted over my cousin’s face before transforming into a pout. “Oh, Miguel, really. Can’t you humor me on this? I haven’t seen Lala since we were kids, and it’s my birthday anyway. I can invite anyone I want. Besides, don’t you want to be with someone you’ve been friends with for years, someone the family already knows and who’s the same age as you—”
I tensed. Don’t say it.
“—rather than someone you barely know and who’s got a—”
Don’t say it.
“—ah, a lot more years on you?” Queenie had evidently noticed the look of warning in my face, and to her credit, she barely faltered as she switched gears in mid-speech.
“Let’s be clear on this,” I said sharply. “I’ll ask Lala to be my date for your party, and you’ll leave me alone after this. Deal?”
“Oh, Miguel, don’t be like that to your Ate Queenie,” Auntie Laura chided, dabbing at her mouth with a lace hanky. “We’re only looking out for you, dear. Oh my, it’s getting late, Queenie. We still have to go to Rustan’s. Hopefully we can find a dress to go with my new Pashmina shawl. Goodbye, Miguel, and tell Amelia and Reese we dropped by. And I expect to see you at the party with your friend, all right?”
She pecked me on the cheek and headed toward the door in a cloud of expensive perfume. Ate Queenie reached out to squeeze my shoulders. “Come on, cuz. Give Lala a chance, okay? Who knows? You two might even realize you’re perfect for each other, and then you’ll be thanking me later.”
“Yeah, right,” I scoffed. “One question though.”
“What’s stopping me from throwing one of these invites into the trash and skipping out altogether?” I said casually, waving the envelopes in the air.
My cousin smiled again but the steel was back in her eyes—the Santillan will at full force. “What’s stopping you? Well, how about your mom, for one? She’s the one who suggested I invite Lala in the first place.”
Then she left, following her mother to the waiting car. Sometimes, I thought as I worked to rein in my temper, having relatives really sucks.
“Susmariosep, the face you’re making.” Nay Loring chuckled from her stool in the kitchen where she’d observed the entire exchange in unobtrusive silence. “Let them be, Miguel. They’re only doing this because they care about you. Especially your Mama.”
I recalled the last family gathering, a lavish celebration at a Spanish restaurant in honor of my grandmother’s 90th birthday, which was when I’d discovered that my name had been making the rounds in the Santillan grapevine. I knew, of course, that there was no secret my family wouldn’t be able to ferret out eventually…and it wasn’t as if I was actively trying to keep my feelings for Ivy a secret. But it was still an unpleasant surprise to walk into that restaurant and almost literally trip over a bunch of my cousins who were all wearing stupid grins and who promptly started calling out equally stupid remarks.
“Hey, look, Romeo’s here!”
“Congratulations, lover boy! So you finally discovered the opposite sex, huh?”
“Yeah, we were getting kinda worried about you, you know.”
“What, you thought he was gay?”
“Nah, it would’ve been a relief if he were gay. But at least now we know he’s actually human and not some over-developed amoeba. Or maybe some sort of android.”
“It might be too soon to rule out that possibility. Honestly, you gotta wonder about his taste in women, y’know?”
I regarded the gibbering idiots with faint disgust: Ate Queenie’s brothers Gianni, Bryan and Toby, the twins Ren and Martin, and the youngest Oliver—collectively known as “the boys,” with chronological ages ranging from thirteen to seventeen and the average mental age of about five. They were certainly in fine form that night. Unfortunately for the rest of us. Concealing a twinge of foreboding, I sighed and said with considerable patience, “All right. What the heck are you morons yammering about?”
Gianni shrugged, still grinning. “Eh, nothing much. Just that we heard you’ve been hanging around this older chick who lives in one of your apartments.”
“Yeah. Our sis overheard Auntie Amelia talking about it with our moms,” Ren—I checked, yup, it was Ren—put in.
“She didn’t look too happy about it,” Martin said.
“Auntie Amelia, that is,” Ren again.
“Not our sis.” Martin again.
“Is that right?” I said, bringing the twins’ tennis-match dialogue to an end.
“Hey, props to you, cuz. You look like the type who’d go for an older woman, anyway. Wise in the ways of the world and all that,” Gianni said, raising his hands. “But it’s just as well you didn’t bring her with you tonight. It would’ve been, y’know, really awkward if you’d just sprung her on the elders without prepping them first.”
They glanced at one another, unease seeping through the cracks in their amusement. Finally, Oliver cleared his throat. “We-eell, we heard she’s physically deformed or something. Er, that’s what we heard.” His voice rose to a squeak when I glared at him.
“That’s what our mom said Auntie Amelia said to her, too. That this girl’s got some kind of medical condition that affects her physical appearance.” Bryan shook his head in sympathy. “It must be tough on her, huh?”
“Er, she’s not a complete dog, is she, Miguel?” Toby asked cautiously. “Or maybe she’s got a great personality.”
I stared blankly at them as my mind panned across a slew of ads Ivy had appeared in, then moved on to a memory of Toby bragging a month ago that his new girlfriend was pretty enough to be mistaken for the Shoujo Shine Girl, and finally zoomed in on an image of Ivy sitting on the grass beside me, the sunset reflected in her eyes, strands of her hair brushing teasingly against my arm as she turned and smiled at me…
I stepped back, with my head lowered to conceal my expression, then turned and fled to the restaurant’s patio before the howl of incredulous laughter tore free. That was where Ate Queenie cornered me and attempted to play psychotherapist, further confirming that my relatives believed I was being strung along by a conniving, genetically defective floozy who was taking advantage of my youthful ignorance and lack of common sense.
And that my mother was somehow behind it all.
With a growl, I stalked to the kitchen and shoved the bag of ensaymada into the refrigerator with more force than necessary, much to Trinity’s disappointment. “Unbelievable,” I muttered darkly. “Does she actually think I won’t figure out what she’s doing?”
I turned to get my mug from the shelf, feverishly trying to work out how to acquire the now vitally essential coffee-laced cocoa without getting caught, and immediately found myself trapped in a gaze like a tractor beam. “Hay naku, you’re growing up fast, no?” Nay Loring exclaimed with a gusty sigh. “Look at you. No longer the sweet infant whose bottom I powdered, but a handsome young man, ready to step out into the world. Ay, wasn’t it just yesterday when you were a quiet little boy with your nose buried in a book? Now here you are, courting girls and learning about love.”
“It seems every time I turn around, I see less and less of that little boy in you. Ay sus, it makes me feel sad sometimes.” She sighed again, oblivious to my increasing discomfort. Then her nostalgic haze abruptly evaporated, and her gaze clanged against mine. “Now, just imagine how your Mama feels.”
Ouch, I thought, looking away.
She nodded sagely. “You’re a good boy, Miguel. A good son. Your Mama is so proud of you. Oh, I know. She talks about you all the time, to everyone, and even when she’s not, you can see in her face how she’s thinking, ‘Ay, my son is such a responsible boy, so capable and brilliant. Just like his Papa.’”
My heart lurched at that. Just like his Papa.
“So be patient with her, and do as she says,” she continued gently. “She’s missed out on a part of your childhood, and this she knows. She’s doing her best to make up for it and take care of you. You understand?”
I did. I knew what my old nanny meant—those years when there had been nothing between my parents but a chilly distance and jagged silences that seemed to envelop the entire house. And when Papa died, Mama had been here physically, but it was as if the most important part of her had gone far, far away. In a way, she had left Reese and me behind.
Abandonment. This awful despair—is this how Ivy felt when her own parents left her? In that case, I think I can understand why she hates them so much.
Something inside me instantly recoiled. Children didn’t hate their parents. They could get on each other’s nerves—my mom was definitely succeeding at the moment—but the bitter contempt I saw on Ivy’s face? No. That wasn’t right. It went against everything I was taught as a child. Respect thy elders, honor thy father and mother, and all that.
That meant Ivy was wrong. Which begs the question: How could I be in love with someone who could be so wrong about such a fundamental thing?
Score another point for the doubt. I raked a hand through my hair as if I could physically yank those thoughts out, then decided to just deal with the issue at hand. “Fine. I’ll go ask Lala to the party. With any luck, she’ll see how asinine this whole thing is and turn me down.”
Nay Loring chuckled again. “It’s a good thing you’re going to the Riveros anyway, no? The financial report is on the shelf. And don’t you be sprinkling Nescafe into your Milo again, Miguel. You’re too young to be drinking coffee.”
I was in better spirits by the time I biked over to the Riveros’ house shortly thereafter. Truth to tell, I was secretly glad to have an excuse to hang out at Lala’s place again, especially after she’d issued that open invitation to Alvin, Leo and me to come over and play with her new PS2 anytime. Ever since Alvin kicked my ass into the dirt at Grand Theft Auto yesterday, I’d been dying for a chance to practice before our next match, this time without Leo’s “helpful” commentary and Alvin’s infantile gloating.
I was just about to ring the doorbell when Lala opened the gate, smiling widely. “Hi, Miguel! I’ve been waiting for you. Come in! Have you had lunch yet?”
“Uh, yeah, I just ate, thanks.” I propped my bike up against a wall and followed her into the house. “I’m supposed to give this report to your mom.” I fished the papers out of my backpack. “It’s for the Homeowners’ Association.”
“Oh, Mom’s not home yet, but I can leave this in her room. Thanks for bringing it over.”
She took the report from me, then just stood there, still smiling. I pushed my glasses up and cleared my throat. “Um, listen, I was wondering if…”
“If what?” she said expectantly.
As I thought about how to frame my request, I struggled not to glance longingly toward the den where the big-screen TV and the PS2 were. I failed.
She turned slightly pink. “Oh! Grand Theft Auto, right?” she said, wrinkling her nose. “All right, come on. You set it up while I go get some drinks. Sheesh, and that’s it, huh?” she muttered underneath her breath.
About an hour later, I tossed the controller down and crossed my arms in disgust while Lala put her controller down with far more grace. “You know, I can’t figure it out,” she commented thoughtfully.
“Figure what out?” I snapped, knowing full well what she was talking about.
“How it is that you can have a genius-level IQ and still suck eggs at video games.”
“I’m kinetically challenged. So sue me.”
She giggled. Shooting her a glare, I gulped down the orange juice she’d set on a nearby table, slamming the glass back down on the tray as hard as I dared. “Quit it. It’s not my fault I don’t get as much practice as Alvin does,” I grumped when she wouldn’t stop laughing. “If that lazy bum spent half as much time studying as he did playing video games, he wouldn’t be crawling over to my house every time a major test cropped up, begging me to tutor him.”
This only made her laugh harder. Disgruntled, I dropped back into the couch and scowled at nothing in particular. “You still haven’t changed,” she finally said, shaking her head. “You’re still a sore loser, Miguel. You’ve always been a sore loser. Remember how much you hated playing tag during PE when we were kids? It was because you kept getting tagged. By everyone. It was like, when you were It, you stayed It, and everyone else could pretty much relax until the end of the game.”
My face burned with remembered humiliation. “I dealt with that, didn’t I?”
“Oh, you dealt with it? Is that what you call it?” she retorted. “Let’s see if I remember it right: Out of all our classmates, you chose Francis, Tess and Anita as the slowest runners. Then you spent weeks analyzing their personalities, flight patterns and study behaviors. And then—and I still don’t understand how you did it—you goaded the teachers into loading the entire class with tons of homework and projects just so you could tag those three at their weakest. So not only did you cheat, you managed to make cheating a whole lot more work than if you’d just tried to run faster.”
“It wasn’t cheating. I was merely leveraging my existing positional advantages to ensure an optimum solution. Plus, it worked,” I added smugly.
“Hello? Of course it worked! By the time you were done, those three were practically crying from exhaustion. We all were. You were the only one who came out looking as if nothing happened. You wouldn’t believe the talking I did just to keep the boys from ganging up on you after school.” She glared at me for a minute, then slumped back against the couch beside me. “You know, our classmates still haven’t forgiven you for that,” she said softly.
I recalled the nasty looks, the threats, the beatings after class—and shrugged. “Not my problem.”
She sighed. “Yeah, you said that, too.”
We fell silent for a while, and during the lull, my mind wandered back to Ivy’s distress call. Are there any positional advantages I could leverage in this situation? I pondered. Step one: Identify the problem. The problem is…the problem is she won’t tell me what the problem is. Also, I am not a hundred percent sure she’s someone I’m supposed to be with. If she doesn’t value the same things I do, then according to all my research, this presents a serious flaw in our relationship.
Not that we have a relationship, I amended, scrunching my eyes shut. And therein lies the biggest problem. So, any advantages I could leverage in any of these cases? As of the present time: zero.
I opened my eyes to find Lala bending over me. “You want to play again?” she asked, gesturing at the PS2.
“No, I have to go.” I rose to my feet. “Thanks for having me over.”
Her face fell. “Oh. So soon? I thought…”
“I have to go pick my sister up at her school,” I explained, wondering why she looked so crestfallen. Man, she must be so bored cooped up here at home. “Why don’t you go to the mall, watch a movie or something?” I suggested. “Your break’s almost over, right? You should have fun while you can.”
Her eyes went wide. “Are you asking me out on a date?”
I winced inwardly, reminded of the other errand I came here to do. Feeling embarrassed and dully resentful at my cousin, I pulled the pink and blue envelope out of my backpack, immediately filling the air with a burst of flowery perfume. “Actually, I am,” I said resignedly. “You remember my cousin Ate Queenie?”
“Duh, of course I do. I used to go over to your place when your cousins were visiting and play with you guys. Ate Queenie was like, everyone’s favorite big sister.”
“Yeah, well, you’re officially invited to her debut party. Here.” I glumly handed her the envelope. “It’s a fancy masquerade ball at a hotel and—listen, if you don’t want to go, it’s okay,” I urged, making her glance up from the invitation she’d been scanning. “The whole thing is tedious and pointless, and you’d have to get all dressed up and stuff… You don’t have to waste your time over this.”
She shook her head. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint Ate Queenie.”
“She’ll recover,” I muttered, only too willing to disappoint Ate Queenie. “I’m just saying you’re not obligated to—”
With a sinking feeling, I watched as the dazed look in her face was replaced by the determined set of her jaw that always signaled impending aggravation for me. “Your parents might not let you go,” I tried again, more hopelessly now.
She giggled again. “Don’t be silly. You know my parents are perfectly okay with me spending time with you and your family.”
“Yeah.” I sighed, defeated. “So, uh, we’ll come to pick you up then, okay?”
“Okay. Thanks, Miguel. You know, this’ll be a perfect chance for us to brush up on our social skills in time for the Christmas Ball,” she said brightly. “It’s a definite go, did I tell you that? So keep the 15th of December open, because I’m getting you a ticket to the ball whether you like it or not so you can keep your whiny complaints to yourself.”
As glad as I was to visit Lala’s house, I was just as relieved to leave it, if only to escape her raving about the Christmas Ball. Lala’s query about that date thing got me thinking, though. A date…what was a date? A social activity two people undertake in order to assess each other’s suitability as a life-partner. I frowned. That sounded only slightly less fun than getting your foot run over by a car. What did people do on a date, anyway?
According to my research, customary dating activities were as follows: Eat out. Go to a mall or a park. Watch a movie. Talk about the relationship. I shook my head. It still sounded stupendously boring. Besides, how was a couple supposed to assess each other’s suitability as a life-partner with any degree of reliability when they were either constantly distracting themselves or rehashing previous discussions? It seemed so inefficient.
Then it struck me: Maybe it had something to do with the person you were dating. Instantly, I went into fantasy mode, imagining myself strolling down a mall with Ivy, holding her hand and laughing as she told me another funny story from her modeling gigs…sitting beside her in a darkened theater, her hand clasped in mine and her head leaning against my shoulder…sitting across her in a restaurant, watching her megawatt smile light up the room while her fingers moved across the table to mesh with mine…
“Kuya Miguel! Hey! I’m over here!”
I halted and glanced around, bemused to find that I’d walked right past the track field and was halfway through the main entrance of Reese’s school. My sister’s frown was clearly visible from where she stood at the edge of the field. I turned a sharp 90 degrees in her direction, and only then noticed the three other girls with her. The way they were staring at me, nudging one another and giggling behind their hands was rather unnerving.
“What’s up with you? Didn’t you hear me calling?” Reese demanded as soon as I got within scolding distance.
“Sorry. I was just thinking. Let’s go.” Without waiting for her reply, I hoisted her gym bag over my shoulder and strode off, then stopped when I realized she hadn’t budged an inch.
Except for her face, which had shifted into a smirk. “Ooooh, thinking. And I bet I know who you’re thinking of.”
“Hurray for you.”
She flashed me a grin just as one of her twittering friends stepped forward. “Excuse me, you’re Reese’s brother Miguel, aren’t you? The genius from St. Helene Academy who skipped high school and went straight to college?”
I nodded, wondering where this was headed.
The girl glanced back at her companions, which set off another round of tittering. Finally, the self-appointed spokesperson took another step forward. “Would you do us a favor?”
“Would you smile for us? Please?”
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Hey, what’re you guys up to?” Reese asked suspiciously.
The trio share a look before dissolving into more giggling. “Sorry,” said another girl. “It’s just that when you walked past us a while ago, you were smiling a little, and it made you look, well, really cute.”
“So please? Just one smile? Pretty please?” the first girl begged.
I stared, completely taken aback. Girls finding me in any way appealing was a fairly new experience for me. Luckily, I was spared from having to respond by Reese, who bent over, stuck a finger down her throat and made retching noises. “Yuck! You guys, that’s my brother you’re talking about!” she exclaimed. “Could you please keep your boy-crazy hormones under control? Brrrr!” She shuddered dramatically, which I thought was pushing it. She’d obviously been hanging around Ivy too much.
In the end, we managed to get away without me having to smile for Reese’s pals like some pet chimp. We walked to the end of the block and stopped at a 7-11 for a snack, parking at a table beside the window. Taking a swig of my Coke, I glanced sidelong at my sister, who was picking at her steamed bun with an uncharacteristic lack of interest.
“So, where’s Mama? Why are you picking me up?” she asked without looking up.
“She had a meeting she couldn’t cancel, so she told me to do it.”
“Oh.” After a minute of silence, she spoke again. “I never asked you what you think of my school.”
I gave it some thought. “It’s a good school. A few of my classmates from my GE subjects graduated from there. Your science and math curricula rate only about average, but your sports program is excellent.”
“Yeah? Sports, huh?” She grinned a little, then resumed poking her bun to death. “It’s nothing like St. Helene, though. Or UP,” she added with false nonchalance.
“No,” I conceded, then looked at her curiously. “Why? I thought you hated St. Helene. And you’ve got some ways to go before you can rule out UP in your future.”
She made a face and pushed her bun away. “I do hate St. Helene. I saw what it did to you. Everybody there’s so into grades and meeting standards and—and looking down on people who can’t measure up. But when someone like you comes along, someone who’s really better than everyone else and not just pretending, all they do is bully you. I may have promised not to tell Mama about those times you came home with a busted face and blood on your shirt, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten.”
I stayed silent, remembering Lala’s comment about how my old classmates hadn’t forgiven me for getting them into trouble. I knew exactly what the students of St. Helene were capable of. And I hadn’t forgiven them for what they’d done to me either. But it occurred to me now that I might have been at least partially responsible for their dislike of me. Maybe I should have tried harder to get along or something.
“I’m glad you got out of there, Kuya,” my sister was saying. “I still think you’re missing out by skipping high school, but you’re much better off in UP.”
I gave her a measuring look. “This isn’t about St. Helene, is it?”
For a moment, Reese looked a little like the baby she’d been when she was trying not to cry. “Not really,” she mumbled. “I—I’m just glad I flunked the entrance exam there, or else Mama would have forced me to go to St. Helene, too. Who needs that, right?” She gave another forced laugh. “We all know I’m not like you. I couldn’t measure up to those standards even if I tried.”
She stopped and quickly reached for her bottle of Gatorade. I turned and stared out the window, noting the dark clouds gathering at the edge of the horizon. “Did something happen, Reese?” I asked quietly, still gazing up at the sky.
She shook her head. “Nothing happened…except…well, you know Lola’s birthday party last Sunday? At the restaurant, the aunts were talking about their kids as usual, and Auntie Cristy was saying that Liza’s been given a ribbon for best essay in English. Then Auntie Mari talked about how the twins were competing in some science quiz. And then Mama told them you’ve kept your university scholar standing for the fourth semester straight. And…and I waited but then they started talking about something else…”
Her words petered off again, and she looked more miserable than ever. For some reason, I found myself glancing down at her gym bag. Around two weeks ago, my sister had bounded into my room without knocking and told me her coach had just informed her that, despite the fact that she was still a trainee, she’d been picked for the team her school was fielding in the Intramurals. She’d announced it during dinner, too, and to anyone who cared to listen. I even heard her telling her cat Charlie about it in the backyard.
It could have slipped Mama’s mind. Yeah, right. Forget about that, Santillan. Right now, you’ve got to deal with this problem before it gets serious.
“So you’re giving up on running?” I said, keeping my voice impassive.
“Huh?” Her head snapped toward me, her expression bewildered. “I didn’t say that.”
“No,” she answered, getting a little angry now. “No. Why should I?”
“Well, it seems to me you’re about to forget why you’re in the track team in the first place.” I downed the rest of my Coke, then got up to throw the empty can in the trash. My sister was still gaping when I returned and picked up her bag. “You’ve got what it takes to be the fastest sprinter in your school, Reese,” I told her. “You, not Liza or the twins or anyone. If you really love to run, and you know you’re good at it, you’ll do it even if you don’t get any recognition. From anyone.” I took in her astonished expression, and decided she’d had enough. “I think pom-poms would make it easier for you to spot us on the bleachers,” I considered. “What color do you want?”
Reese closed her mouth, then opened it again. “Our school colors are red and white.”
“Candy-cane pom-poms it is,” I declared solemnly.
She burst out laughing. “I’m glad you’re the one who came to pick me up, Kuya,” she admitted as we exited the store and headed toward the jeepney stop. Suddenly, she perked up. “Hey, that reminds me. Liza did say something weird last Sunday. She said your girlfriend’s got this birth defect that makes her look horribly disfigured. I nearly snorted my iced tea right out of my nose when she told me that.”
I sighed. “They’ve got it all wrong.”
“Have they ever! I’m just dying to see the looks on their faces when they meet Ate Ivy. She’ll knock ‘em all flat! Who’s disfigured now, huh? Who?”
“I don’t mean that. I mean about Ivy being my—my girlfriend. She’s not, you know.”
My sister looked over at me as though I’d started babbling in another language. “Kuya, I think you need to get your eyes checked again.” She rolled her eyes at my skeptical frown. “Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the way she looks at you. It’s like, when she goes into a room, the first person she looks for is you. And the moment she sees you, her face goes all soft and pink and glowy, especially when you’re near. And she’s always talking about you. I mean, everyone’s noticed it. Her friends, Ate Jenny—even Marietta thought you guys were boyfriend-girlfriend already, and she’s only been here a week. In fact, the only people who haven’t noticed it are Ate Ivy and you.”
It was like being hit with the softest, fluffiest pillow. That was traveling at 300 km/hour. “I—I didn’t—she hasn’t noticed…anything?” I said weakly.
She huffed as she flagged down a jeepney. “Honestly, Kuya? I don’t think she has the slightest clue.”
The rains were coming down hard by the time we got home. I sat in front of my computer, glancing every now and then at the gray world outside my window. Ivy wasn’t home yet. She’d been out all day dealing with work stuff. I kept picturing her hanging out with her model-friends, which inevitably included that guy Von. The mental images were getting progressively worse: Von kidding around with Ivy, leaning closer to listen to her, making her laugh, taking her by the elbow to guide her into his car and driving off with her to some romantic place.
“Shit,” I cursed when an error message popped up, informing me that I’d messed up the code yet again. Rubbing my eyes beneath my glasses, I ordered my imagination to quit it before I drove myself crazy. I needed to be sane, because in a few minutes I was going to undergo what could be one of the most critical interviews of my life.
Finally, I exhaled, stood up, changed my shirt, combed my hair or at least tried to, then marched stiffly out of my room. Nay Loring’s only response to my announcement that I was heading over to the apartments was to cluck her tongue and say: “Take the black umbrella with you. You might catch cold.”
I only had a hazy idea what to expect. A couple of chairs, stark lighting, some instruments of torture—could be anything. This was Ivy’s grandfather after all. True enough, as I closed the gate I became aware of the racket coming from the upstairs apartment. Someone possessed of a croaky voice loud enough to carry over the rain was singing soulfully yet badly, taking a ballistic approach to tonal accuracy. I paused, appalled at this cavalier massacre of—what was it, some oldies tune or something?
There was movement in one of the windows of the downstairs apartment. Marietta, Ate Jenny’s new housemaid, pointed toward the balcony then clapped both hands to her ears, looking as if she was trying not to laugh. I shrugged and headed toward the stairs.
“For what is a man? What has he got? If not himself, then he has nau—what are you lurking in the doorway for, boy? Come over here and join me.”
Like a king holding court in a throne room, Lolo Simon raised a hand and beckoned me onto the balcony. I took the chair opposite his, noting the items on the table: a half-dozen bottles of gin, a pitcher of pink liquid, an ice bucket, a bowl of fish crackers, a heap of pork barbecue kebabs on a platter, an overflowing ashtray, and two glasses.
Noticing the direction of my gaze, Lolo Simon chuckled and banged his hand on the table, making the bottles rattle. “Hah! Don’t you look flattered, son? What a feast, eh? I walked all the way to Nanette’s store after I asked Ivy which place sold the best barbecue. Good thing I got back before the rain started. Didn’t notice the juice was so sissy-looking, though. Well? Don’t just sit there gawping, boy. Dig in!”
Well, he doesn’t seem to be brimming with righteous wrath. This is…promising, I thought, warily reaching for a stick of barbecue and murmuring my thanks.
“Pour yourself a drink while you’re at it. Rainy nights like this, you gotta stay warm, eh.” Lolo Simon grabbed a gin bottle and promptly took his own advice. With a philosophical shrug, I poured myself some of the pink liquid, which turned out to be pomelo juice. When he pushed the bowl of fish crackers toward me and practically tossed me another stick of barbecue, I began to feel sorry I’d had that snack at 7-11.
“Um, where are Lola Rosa and Ivy?” I asked, glancing around the apartment.
Lolo Simon grunted. “Ivy took her lola to a beauty salon or some such so she could have her hair done. Said they’d be back in a few hours. Never could understand why women take so long to get their hair done. I think they just use it as an excuse to gabble away with one another. Like hens in a chicken coop.”
Ivy’s with her grandmother, not with Von. The relief tasted sweeter than the juice, and I started to dig into the food with more enthusiasm. For several minutes, we ate and drank while Lolo Simon regaled me with tales about life in their provincial town, then moved on to a discussion on the courtship techniques of his generation as compared to the shenanigans young people got up to nowadays. When he started telling me about how he and an old flame once got caught fooling around in some bushes by the girl’s father, I knew it was time to get the conversation back on track.
“Sir, you said you wanted to discuss something with me?” I reminded him, cutting him off in mid-sentence.
His eyebrows twitched, but he looked more amused than annoyed. “Well, son, I’m waiting for you to ask your questions. Seemed to me you had a lot of questions this morning,” he replied, settling back in his chair.
The man’s related to Ivy, all right, I sighed inwardly as my brain did a skidding U-turn. How much did he know, anyway? Lolo Simon lit a cigarette and blew out a smoke ring as he watched me watching him, his eyebrows like a finger tapping patiently on the table. I thought back quickly. He’d seen me tuck her into bed and brush her hair back, heard me whisper “sleep well.” Crap. Maybe the question was: How much didn’t he know?
I thought of all the times she’d come so close—close enough for me to touch her—and then dance away as if she hadn’t even noticed me reaching out to her. I thought of my near-confession, the dismay and frantic denial I saw in her eyes, the pain at the knowledge that she didn’t want to hear it. Then I thought of her voice sounding thin and shaky over the phone, of her huddled in the dark, crying and pretending like crazy that she was okay. I looked away, filled with the unsettling sensation that I’d revealed too much. When it comes to stare-downs, Ivy’s grandfather is a true master.
Questions, questions. Where did I even start? Realizing that there was only one choice available to me, I pushed my glasses up and met Lolo Simon’s obsidian gaze with bare honesty. “What is she really like? And what will it take to make her—” fall in love with me, too? I choked on the words, but once again, I had the feeling he already knew.
“Humph. Thought you might ask that.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and looking off into the distance. “Ivy’s someone who’s easy to fall in love with, as I’m sure you already know. Hah! My little firefly’s had boys falling at her feet all her life,” he began, then proceeded to tell me about the marriage proposals she’d received when she was only three, the boys who scaled the fence to watch her play in the backyard, the people who stopped and stared and told her she looked like an angel or a fairy or whatever.
“She’s used to it; there ain’t nothing she ain’t heard before. And I’m not ashamed to tell you I’ve gotten down on my knees a few times to thank the Lord she’s not like her mother, who lost all lick of sense whenever a man flapped a gilded tongue at her. No, my firefly knows that falling in love is easy. Loving someone though—that’s the tricky part, sure enough.” He took another drag from his cigarette and fixed a beady eye upon me. “Have some more fish crackers, son. I ain’t finishing all this food by myself.”
“Falling in love with someone, loving someone—what is this? A lesson in semantics?” I grumbled with more than a touch of bad temper. I hadn’t appreciated having my feelings lumped together with all those other guys’ and casually dismissed, even by implication.
He cocked an eyebrow at me. “If you don’t know the difference between those two yet, then being with my granddaughter just might be the best thing for you after all.”
I could feel myself blushing even as my heart rate speeded up. Whoa, wait a minute, did that mean he approved? He was okay with me courting Ivy? Hold it, hold it, I hadn’t explicitly stated my intentions yet, or even revealed how I felt about her. Just what the hell was he up to? “Uh, listen, sir, about this morning, I—”
“Yep, she’s a smart girl, my firefly,” he interrupted as though I hadn’t spoken. “Maybe a little too smart. I used to wonder—before she went off to college, that is—why she never had a boyfriend. I know you kids nowadays, you’re always getting together then breaking up, and Ivy—well, she never ran out of suitors. But there ain’t been a single one who stuck around long enough to become serious. She had admirers, but after a while I’d see them squiring some other girl around town. I used to think it was because those boys were too dumb for Ivy, but I realized it was because Ivy’s too smart for them. She understood how they felt better than they had.”
His eyes gleamed weirdly as he took one last pull from his cigarette before crushing it in the ashtray. “See, the thing about Ivy is, she’s just an ordinary young woman. And like any young woman, she wants to be seen and appreciated for who she is. Problem is, her face keeps getting in the way. People look at her and see what they want to see: a child, a fairy creature, the girl of their dreams… Sometimes what they see ain’t nice. It’s a rare person who looks past all that and sees her. Most people don’t really want to see. And—” he suddenly leaned forward, gazing at me intently “—she knows this. She knows how it works. You keep that in mind, Miguel: she’ll understand. So think carefully about what you’re doing, because she probably already knows what’s going on, anyway.”
The hope I’d been secretly nursing shriveled up and died. In its place crept the doubt that had been haunting me for the past three days. Not just doubt; there was also confusion, wounded dismay, and the smoldering beginnings of anger. Not encouragement or approval. He’s trying to warn me off. I should’ve known.
“She knows what exactly, sir?” I said evenly. “That she’s my friend? I know she knows; it’s no big deal. And with all due respect, I don’t see how this has anything to do with—with any of the stuff you said.”
Lolo Simon snorted. “You gotta learn to lie better, boy. Your face keeps giving you away. Besides, I was young once. I remember the crazy passions I got up to at your age. You’re a normal, growing lad. Ain’t no shame in being taken with a pretty face, and my granddaughter’s is the prettiest there is.”
If there was one thing I detested, it was being patronized. All doubt and confusion were shoved aside as I planted my hands on the table and leaned forward, my gaze boring into his. “She’s not just a pretty face. Not to me,” I told him, my voice coming out cold and hard. “You want the truth? Fine. I care about Ivy. More than anything or anyone. And I came here to ask your permission to court her, to do it properly and all, but you and I both know I didn’t have to. It’s none of your business whether or not I act on my feelings for her, or if she returns them. It’ll be up to her, and if she’s anything like the way you’ve described her, you’ve got no choice but to trust her judgment.”
The rain had subsided into a gentle drizzle, a fact neither of us paid any heed to. Tension rippled as Lolo Simon’s eyes narrowed, a vein throbbing in his cheek. I held my ground even as a voice inside my head coolly observed: You’re antagonizing Ivy’s grandfather. Her grandfather. A man five times your age. What the hell happened to “respecting your elders,” Santillan? Gone the way of your self-preservation instinct?
But other memories had been lurking in the corners of my skull—Ivy crying alone in the dark, Ate Queenie forcing invitations on me, Lala telling me I hadn’t been forgiven yet, Reese looking dull and dejected, Nay Loring, Mama, and strangely enough, Papa as well. They’d seen their chance and pounced, adding their strength behind my fury. It had been building up all day—no, for the past three days. There was no way I could stop it now.
Lolo Simon sneered. “You talk big for a boy barely in his teens, but you ain’t giving me any proof I can take your offer seriously.”
“I’m not out to prove anything to you.”
“You listen to me and heed my advice: Get your ten-ton head screwed on straight and back off from my granddaughter before you find yourselves in a world of hurt.”
Anger scorched its way up my gut until it felt as if even my eyeballs were glowing. “I would never hurt her. I would never let anything or anyone hurt her, ever.” I said in a growl I hadn’t known my throat could produce.
“I’m not talking about Ivy, you idiot. I’m talking about you,” he snapped. “I don’t want her to get hurt, but the fact remains, she’s a young woman now. She’s seen more of the world than you have, and I at least have some measure of her strength. But you—” his contemptuous glare raked me up and down “—you look me in the eye and tell me that with all your smarts, you can’t see the stark differences between you two.”
“So you’re saying that maturity and inner strength come from a person’s chronological age?” I snorted derisively. “In that case, pardon me while I point to the shitty state of the world as material evidence to the contrary. It doesn’t take a lot of personal experience to know that people who claim that age automatically equals wisdom tend to be egotistical, cowardly and dangerous in their foolishness. Sir,” I added as an afterthought.
To my surprise, Lolo Simon was quiet for a while, but just as I’d begun to wonder if I’d actually won this round, he threw back his head and laughed uproariously. He laughed and laughed until it was all I could do not to call for the men in white coats and take off in case whatever he had was catching.
“Damn, you got me there, boy,” he crowed, cracking the table with the flat of his hand. “All right, all right. No need for us to start breaking bottles over this. You’ve got a mouth on you, anyone tell you that?” he went on in a tone that was half-rueful and half-admiring. “You know, I like you, Miguel. You strike me as a decent, honorable boy. Blunt to a fault, and with an attitude that could earn you a thrashing someday, but I don’t mind telling you I look forward to seeing the man you’ll grow up to be. And it’s as plain as day that you and Ivy are—humph. It’s as they say: the first always hits the hardest, eh?”
He lit a cigarette and blew out a series of self-satisfied smoke rings, all traces of hostility vanishing so quickly it had to have been an act. It was a struggle not to slap a hand on my forehead and groan. Or hit him over the head with a bottle. Or dare to hope… Jeez. The man was definitely Ivy’s ancestor. The entire family was insane.
I looked away, and my gaze lit upon the gin bottle in front of me. I knew…I’d expected opposition from this quarter, for precisely this reason, but I hadn’t been prepared for how much it would leave me shaken. I wished to God there was a way for me to grow up in a day. I was sick of being seen as nothing more than a child.
My hand reached for the bottle, hesitated when I realized what I was doing, then closed firmly around the cool glass. “May I?” I asked, daring him to refuse.
He merely grinned. “Use the sissy-looking juice as a chaser. Not too much, son, you don’t want to be crawling home on all fours, do you?”
The first swallow tasted like a chemical explosion, with fumes exiting via my mouth, nose and ears, and I scrabbled desperately for the juice to wash away the flavor. The second went down a little easier. “I’m not giving up on her,” I stated hoarsely, my grip tight around the glass. “I’m going to ask her out on a date,” I added later, then wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.
“Humph. You’re one stubborn kid, you know that?” He took a gulp of his own gin—just ice, no sissy juice for a chaser, gotta try that—and nodded. “Well, son, looks like you’re in need of advice on how to court a woman. Especially a woman like my granddaughter. It’s lucky for you I’m around, eh?”
I’m gonna ask her out on a date, I resolved. She could say yes, she could say no. Either way I’ll find out once and for all what she really thinks of me. “I’m not giving up on her,” I muttered again and again, using the words as a shield against the doubt and uncertainty coming at me from both inside and out. And for the first time I found myself wanting to believe in mantras and magic words—exactly the way a child would.