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The Question

210

 

The Question

By Katie George

 

 

The Question

Katie George

Published by Katie George at Shakespir

Copyright 2017 Shakespir

 

 

 

Prologue

 

“MOM, HOW DID you meet Dad?”

It all started with a simple question, and I was not surprised my daughter asked it. Her entire life was composed of queries, some of which I could answer and others too complicated for Aristotle to explain. She was a Sagittarius, naturally curious; I, a mere Aries, was more of the accepting type. If someone asked me a question, I usually had to think long before answering.

This question was no exception.

Her eyes glinted in the falling light of the sun. “Mom, did you hear me? How’d you meet Dad?”

I suppose this question was bound to happen sometime. Most children know how their parents met, like the typical places such as college, or a sports bar in Midtown, or church. Yet how could I answer my little girl, someone who thought so highly of her father? How could I tell her the truth?

“Well, Evangeline, that is complicated.”

Evangeline frowned. When she frowns, it’s as if the sun is dropped in a bucket of gray paint. “You always say that.”

“Yes, I know, that is true. Then I uncomplicate things, don’t you think? Well, why do you want to know?” I could try to stall time, but there was no way around this. I would have to answer, and because of my personality, I would have to answer honestly. Sometimes I wish I could lie with impunity.

My daughter pulled out a notebook. I recognized it as her little journal, something she used for doodling and writing, and sometimes homework. I had bought it for her on her tenth birthday, wrapped it in silver paper, and placed a teal bow on top. She loved it so much she ran up and kissed me straight on the tip of my nose, something that was becoming increasingly less prevalent now that she was almost a teenager. Her father too had appreciated the gift, and all thoughts of his brand-new purple bicycle for her had gone out the window—at least for the moment.

I’d thought she would forget the notebook, but she never did. She took it with her to school, although I cautioned her against it, but she assured me she’d keep it safe, and she did. She wrote in it so much the entire thing was almost full, and unbeknownst to her, I had a new one stashed in the pantry, ready to gift to her at the appropriate time. In a world so full of technology and gadgets, Evangeline was an outsider.

I blew a piece of hair from my face. “Well, are you going to tell me why you want to know? Now, all of a sudden?”

“It’s for a class project.”

“Oh, really.” As I stuffed a piece of chocolate into my gullet, I considered this project. This might ruffle some feathers, including mine.

“Yes. We’re supposed to write a little article about it.”

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” I said, sitting on a stool across from her. She cocked her head at me, such innocence.

“Why?”

“Fine. I’ll tell you, but honey, some of what I say is only for you to know. Not everyone gets to know this. I may not even tell you the whole story.”

“But… Mom. I’m twelve now. I’m perfectly responsible.” In this moment, she looked somewhat adultish.

I shook my head. “Sweetie, this is going to hurt me to tell you, okay? Plus, we’ve never told you the story. You deserve to know.”

“Exactly. Why haven’t you told me?”

“Why didn’t you ask before?”

 

Chapter One

 

THERE WERE FEW things in the world that satisfied Christopher Rose II more than his best friend, Andrew Atwater, and a sangria underneath the summery sun. Turquoise water sheathed their skin, each drop a world of its own. The humidity was boiling, like some kind of witch doctor had sent it to Earth to harass the inhabitants of the Mid-South. The chirping cicadas were even more obnoxious, their sounds grating against his nerves. However, even though Chris hated humidity, the Mid-South, and cicadas, his life was going pretty well, and he was satisfied.

“Man, I’m so glad you scooped this place up. It was a nice choice.” Drew lazily floated against the water in a pink float. It had been the only one in stock at the store, especially since it was full-blown fall in all other parts of the country.

“I made the right decision, huh?”

“Absolutely.”

It had been nearly two weeks since Chris had moved into his ritzy grange in the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee, where the houses happened to be cheap and the taxes even cheaper. Its basis bore the similarity of a French chateau, with its sconces and magical architectural prowess, and it had all the upgrades and a lofty price tag near the million-dollar mark. Accompanied were a four-car garage, pool, pool house, and nearly five acres of greenery and bugs. Any twenty-eight-year-old would have appreciated the place, but Christopher Rose II was used to things like this. It had been his life since childhood.

Drew Atwater, on the other hand, was not born rich and lived in a townhouse in Midtown, where the traffic proved to be more annoying than a constant thumb prick. Chris had invited him to live in his new digs, but Drew was afraid of how that would look—two men living together, of course—and declined. Plus, country living wasn’t for everyone—even though Chris insisted he was far from “country living.”

Instead, Drew had accepted life for him would never equal Lambos and spring vacations to Ibiza. In fact, he didn’t even care if it did or not, because his dream was not the same as his buddy’s. Drew wanted to settle down, get married, have a few kids, and live the best life possible with what he had. Maybe someday he’d teach a Sunday school class. Maybe another day he’d go to the Super Bowl with his brother and future son or daughter.

“So, I’ve been thinking. What if I try to move to the suburbs, kinda like you did?” Drew looked up expectantly at his friend. Drew was always one for positivity and agreement.

“Your townhouse is as good as it gets. I think you should wait a little longer, wait till the market picks back up.”

“If you haven’t noticed, you just bought a house, and you didn’t wait till the market picked back up.”

“So?”

“So.”

“It’s a good time to buy, not to sell.” Chris swam under the water, taking a few laps in stride. He was on the other side of the pool by the time Drew was able to float again, and the two exchanged sideways glances as they spotted each other from a distance away.

“I can tell. You actually do want to move in with me.”

“Shut up, man. I do not. I will never be able to find a woman if that is the case.”

Chris smiled. He sure couldn’t understand how a guy like Drew—reasonably attractive, nice job, nice personality—didn’t find selecting women as fun as he did. “Somehow, I don’t think that’s a problem. Most women are scared of you anyway.”

“Nah, that’s you, if you’ve forgotten.” Drew curled his toes as he allowed the water to lap against his shoulders. It was relaxing, especially after a long week on the job in the midst of this spurt of summer in late September. Fall wouldn’t think to begin until mid-October at the earliest.

Chris rolled his eyes. He was about to say something cocky in response when his phone buzzed nearby, and settled for, “Imagine a fancy schmancy dinner here one night. With a few women, a few glasses of wine, a few moments of spellbound peace.” Then he jumped up, droplets falling to his feet, and jogged over to the little piece of cellular device. “Hello?” he barked. He didn’t notice Drew ponder this with a smug grin on his face.

“Christopher, hey. It’s your mother.”

“Oh, of course.” This caused Chris to really roll his eyes. He could only imagine his pristine mother sipping a cup of chamomile as she found his number on her long list of contacts, dialed the number, and prayed he’d answer the phone. To say the least, their relationship was superficial, but at least superficiality was better than… “What’s up?”

Drew raised an eyebrow.

“Well, I know this is somewhat short notice, but I’m leaving for St. Bart’s next week for a women’s retreat, and I need someone to pick up your brother from school. You know, he’s grounded for a while from his truck, and we were thinking it would be best if you take care of that anyway.”

Chris wanted to fall over at the request. First of all, his brother was eighteen—an age of capability where one can give up his life to serve the military. Second of all, his mother requesting anything from him was just a slap in the gut by principle. Third of all, Chris really didn’t like his brother anyway. He was baggage that Christopher didn’t want to be responsible for.

“Um. That is a little short notice, Mom.” He could practically inhale his mother’s rosy scent over cyberspace. Even when his mom turned ninety-nine, she would dress to impress, and that included spritzing everything with that perfume.

“I’m sorry, honey.”

“What about Dad? He’s the true father. You know, he donated the sperm, and you donated the egg.”

Drew pretended to ignore these comments, but he snickered nearby. Another day, another Rose family drama. Constantly, someone was bickering at another. It didn’t help that the five, well, four immediate family members of the family lived in three different houses: Christopher Rose I in the county next door; Lucy and Alexander Rose in Germantown; and then Chris in his new bachelor pad estate. It was the most unhomely family in a good twenty-mile radius. Drew always liked to think of the Roses as the perfect candidates for a reality show about Memphis’s elite.

Meanwhile, Drew’s family was like a bunch of bees around honey. No one could seem to get enough of each other. There was drama, obviously, especially being one of two guys (he and his brother) in a family of three girls (his two sisters and mother, of course), but he loved his life. His family lived nearby in the same house they’d had since he was born. He liked the stable nature of the Atwater surname, though his parents were never rich. He’d learned how to work hard and afford what he needed and wanted. Chris’s presence was just a bonus in his life.

Drew glanced at his water-proof watch, though he was pretty used to judging the actual time by the sun’s position in the sky. He hopped out of the water and waddled over to the nearby lounge chair, grabbing his shirt and a towel to dry off. Though his best friend’s place was definitely an American dream, it was in desperate need of a woman’s touch.

Chris was in the midst of a long spiel, and Drew could hear sweet Lucy’s voice all the way from across the pool. Chris looked up and waved good-bye to Drew, who anxiously threw his shirt over his tan skin and hurried across the green grass to the gate lining the fence. A bush of purple and blue hydrangeas startled him with its beauty.

“Of course I forgot to get her flowers,” he muttered, and looking over his shoulder, careful to check Chris was out of his periphery, he took a few and rushed to his truck out in the driveway.

If Chris knew a lick about this, he’d have eaten Drew alive about it all. He pushed all thoughts of his friend aside, because he had to hurry, or he’d be late for his blind date.

 

Chapter Two

 

DIANA SARAFIAN ANXIOUSLY chewed on a thumbnail as Adrian Atwater sidled up next to her. They’d just finished a round of major studying at the library, learning all about the pH of the liver and signs of psoriasis. She always loved studying; it had been an integral part of her entire personhood for as long as she could remember. However, now she was curiously nervous because Adrian had invited her over to dinner next Saturday at his family’s house. To her normally stable soul, this truly terrified her.

“You… You want me to meet your family?” She pulled on her long black ponytail, another anxious habit. Her mother always lectured her about how ridiculous she looked when she twisted her hair around her fingers. “Don’t you think we should wait a little before I meet them? We just started… Dating.” She could barely gather the gumption to even classify their little relationship.

The truth was, Adrian was a nice guy and all, but she wasn’t in the market for a man. She liked Adrian as a friend, and he was a nice study buddy. He’d asked to be more than friends, and she’d complied simply because he was good-looking and proved to be happier when they were “dating” rather than “just friends.”

This entire thought process left Diana, normally cocky and independent, in a kerfuffle. She wanted to break it off immediately with him, but she couldn’t do that now.

Adrian’s green eyes sparkled in the light. They stood outside the public library, the humidity tinging their skin and making Adrian a little more outlandish than normal. “Come on, Di. It’ll be fun. They all want to meet you.”

“Sure they do,” Diana said back. If they were all like Adrian, it would no doubt make the night unbearable. She could only take him in small doses when they didn’t happen to be studying the full innards of a person’s liver.

Adrian wrapped his arm around her shoulders. He didn’t notice her flinch. “I’m telling you, they’ll love you, and you’ll love them.”

The feeling would not be mutual at my parents’ house.

“Well…”

“Come on. Please? It’s going to be fun. Mom will make her famous pita pockets. She makes this special ranch dip with it, and they’re a killer. Or maybe she’ll prepare a warm, juicy steak. The possibilities are endless! Plus, it’ll get us away from Blitzer’s class for a little. For once, no studying between us. We can just… Well, be us.” Adrian looked lovingly in her direction. Diana tried her hardest not to cringe.

If she said no, Adrian would be crushed and would mope about, and the truth was, he was one of her only friends in Blitzer’s body function course. In her other classes, like epidemiology and intro to clinical, she was the popular student. Everyone loved to study with Ms. Sarafian, the world’s hottest nerd. She always laughed when her sister Mel called her that.

“Just because I don’t look like the other girls doesn’t mean guys like me,” Diana always said in their moments of deep conversation. Diana didn’t like to date as a result.

Mel always said something back like, “You’re just too standoffish. Most guys would love the opportunity to learn about the human body with you.”

A hint of a smile played on Diana’s lips as she thought of her sister. Mel was nothing like her. Mel was fearless and followed her own heart. (Plus, Diana had always been very tall, much taller than her own father. That was one advantage in her favor, she believed. Of course I have to disagree with this opinion). While her sister had chosen medical school to incite pride in their parents, Melisende had chosen to major in art history and sculpture. She’d brushed off her parents’ dreams of her becoming a lawyer. No, Mel’s attitude was, I’ll be a teacher if I have to. Ari and Anahit Sarafian believed in utter respect for all teachers, but their own aspirations suffered from Mel’s lack of focus. They hadn’t come to America to have their daughters not achieve the top of the monetary hierarchy, they always said. Of course, they’d been so pleased with Diana that Mel’s choice in life had been quietly forgotten. A disappointment, but not a big one.

“Di?”

“Oh, what?” she asked, totally distracted now. “Oh, okay. Sure. I’ll go with you.” She half-expected him to jump up in giddy glee. Instead, he leaned over and kissed the edge of her lips. She leaned into him.

They began walking to the cratered parking lot. Patches to crevices didn’t usually hold up very long under a humid, baking Southeast summer. Again Diana considered why her parents had chosen Memphis out of all the American cities when they’d first arrived back in the early 1990s.

“I’ll see you Monday, okay?” Adrian asked as he leaned against his car, an old junkmobile that would most definitely arrive at a junkyard in the next year.

Diana smiled as she hopped into her little hatchback. She scrolled through the messages on her phone, unwittingly thinking about how most of them were from her fellow med students who were asking her about the body rather than her personally. It was true, she thought sadly, that she didn’t have many friends. She never had friends, except Mel, who always seemed to get her when no one else did.

Diana waited for Adrian to back out of his spot before she drove home. She passed various little houses and people milling about. Even in the sunset and approaching night, the temperature would remain almost unbearable, and she couldn’t see why anyone would stay outside.

She made it to her parents’ 1950s house in East Memphis around seven o’clock. The house was in perfect condition, along with the grass and shrubs and garden. Her parents had made sure their house was pristine so to fit in with the other Americans. Diana smiled as she pulled into the driveway. Even after leaving for years to attend college at UC-Berkeley, she’d returned to attend medical school in Memphis. She’d done so to be nearer to her wacky parents, especially now that they were getting older and needed her and Mel more often.

She entered the spacious entryway, a few photos of her and Mel as youngsters displayed on the yellow walls. To anyone in the world, the house would appear completely American, with no ounce of Armenia nearby. However, its inhabitants were a different story altogether; they were proud of their heritage, as they should be.

The house was surprisingly quiet as she headed into the kitchen. Usually, around this time, a big smorgasbord of food gleamed on the dining room table. No matter how tired the family was, they liked to congregate for big meals there.

“Mom? Dad?” Diana peeked around the rooms, expecting them to jump out at her with some sort of cake from Kroger’s. They loved those cakes.

When she entered the living room, she found them huddled together on the sofa, Mel nearby in the love seat. She was staring at her chipped blue nail polish. Diana felt like she was walking in on a private conversation. “Um, hi?”

“Sit down, Diana,” whispered her father, whose voice was extremely hoarse. That was typical.

She did so.

“Mel has a bit of news for you,” croaked her mother, Anahit, a woman whose hair had turned steely gray after years of it as inky black as Diana’s was now. Her accent was thick, but she’d insisted on only speaking English in America as to fully learn her new culture. Now and then, she slipped back into Armenian, but her understanding of English was now at a supremely intelligent level, even better than a lot of English-speakers Diana heard around town.

Diana glanced over at her sister, who refused to look up at her. “Well, what? You know I hate suspense. Just say it.”

“Go ahead, Melisende,” said their father, who coughed into his elbow.

Mel’s brown eyes lit up as she looked up at Diana. “I flunked out.”

Diana cocked her head in confusion. She uttered, “What?” simply because she knew it was the appropriate thing to say. In reality, Diana hadn’t heard her sister fully.

“Your sister flunked out,” emphasized Anahit, who picked a piece of lint from her green dress. Her voice strained as she spoke. “Somehow she couldn’t handle art history.”

Mel glared at her mother. The fiery darts flying from her eyes burned her victim. Anahit seemed to cringe in response.

“Oh.” Diana avoided looking at anyone. This would unbearable. She would hear about this for the next twenty-five years or so. This would only add to the pressure of Diana’s needing to be the perfect little angel forevermore. Since Melisende couldn’t do this… You must do this… “Do you mind if I skip out on this conversation? I’m a bit tired.”

Before they could bind and gag her, she was out the door, into the September night. The neighbors peeking through the blinds could see her skinny form ambling down the road, and they cocked their heads. Since her head was always in a book, Diana never went outside.

 

Chapter Three

 

THE BARBECUE RESTAURANT was jiving like an Elvis song. The waiters and waitresses were swinging their hips as they busted tables, the cooks were throwing their spatulas in the air in giddiness, and the customers were aflutter with the spirit of a jazzy Saturday night near the Mississippi River. The conversation was rolling like the River itself, and the anticipation of a famous blues band ready to perform in a few moments made everyone boisterous.

For Raina Newton and her mother Kimberly, it was a night they could cross out on Kim’s bucket list.

“Mom, this place is really hopping,” Raina shouted as her mother observed the eccentric décor of the restaurant. Her support group had recommended the place as a go-to spot for locals and visitors alike.

“Thank you for taking me,” her mom responded for the fiftieth time.

Raina smiled as she took a sip of her sweet tea. Had she wanted to drive in the traffic to Beale Street? Of course not. Did she want to be around liquor that flowed through most of the customers’ veins like gold ichor? Not really. Yet Kim had written the restaurant down on her bucket list, and here they were, experiencing it together. They’d invited Raina’s dad but he had been tempted by Uncle Joe with a weekend of fishing.

The silence at their table was enlightening, because it opened them up to the others around them. It was here where racism ceased to exist, where the jumpy atmosphere of varying politics disappeared, and where mirth abounded like air particles. Raina had to admit, it was a catchy atmosphere.

“So, let’s play a little game.”

“I know where this is going,” said Raina as she took a quick glance at the menu. The only thing to pop the balloon of Ritalea’s Barbecue Blues Restaurant were the prices. Oh well, it didn’t really matter.

“Yup, yes you do. We are going to guess these people’s backgrounds. Their life stories.”

It was a game they’d played since Raina was a teenager.

“Okay, okay, well, first couple is over there. That woman and her son.”

“Are you sure that’s a woman and her son?” Kim asked as she observed the couple. Just as she said it, with a whip-like intuition, the old cougar placed a leathery hand on the young man’s arm.

Raina almost choked on her tea. “Well, we know the story there. Obviously.”

“She’s been married twice before, and even though she had a good life with her previous two moneymakers, she decided a kid your age would prove to be the most satisfying of them all. Even though he’s got no money to his name, he’s got energy and stamina she wishes she still had.” Kim smiled as she took a bite of bread. “I’m good, am I not? Over there, the group of people.”

“Pastor’s family,” they said at the same time with a laugh. Sure enough, the group prayed as soon as the waitress left their food before them.

“It’s good to see there are still pastors these days,” Kim said before their waiter appeared to take their order.

Raina frowned at the comment. Kim had avoided all church for the past two years, even though her daughter’s entire childhood, she’d been a religious attender. Now that Kim had stopped going, her husband had failed to go, too. Raina frowned even more, feeling a jutting line furrow itself across her forehead.

“Oh, look at your nine o’clock.”

Raina turned just a bit to see a good-looking enough guy lead a woman to a little table overlooking the thriving Beale Street. She turned just a little to see his cropped gold hair flicker against the fluorescents. He sat across from a pretty woman who wore a revealing dress.

“First date,” Kim breathed. She stirred some Truvias into her unsweet tea.

“Why do you say that?”

“The way he’s avoiding her boobs.”

“Nice to way to put it out there.”

“What? Every girl’s got them. Except me of course.” Kim paused, glancing down at her chest, before a grimace appeared on her pink lips.

Raina knew better than to say anything after that, and instead, she focused her gaze on the couple. The man had bright blue eyes and a clean-shaven face, which was almost a commodity these days. He had obviously dressed up for the event, and upon further examination, Raina realized that his personality was what made him attractive. He was incredibly bashful as he talked with his date. Kim had a better vantage point on the girl, though.

Kim seemed to read her daughter’s mind. “She’s only talking about herself, as of now. Her mouth has been open the entire time they’ve been here.”

“Think they’ll go on a second?”

“Absolutely not. I know men, and he’s not looking for a girl like her. He seems to be in it for the long term. That boy’s not a ladies’ man.”

Raina smirked. “I like how you can say that with such certainty.”

“I’ve been living on this planet a lot longer than you have, sweetie. Even though I may not look as strong as I used to be, my brain still works, and that man’s checking you out now.”

Raina blushed, hoping her skin didn’t turn too red. She had been blessed with her father’s skin coloring, as her mother was known to have an easily changeable pigment, almost like a mood ring. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Honey, it’s natural for him to look at you.”

“You’re just saying that because I happen to be your child.”

“Not true.”

“No, one hundred percent true. There’s no fabrication in this truth I’m telling you right now.”

Raina glanced over her shoulder at the man, and he happened to make eye contact with her. She felt herself blush again, and she forcedly gritted her teeth in hopes her mom wouldn’t catch her bluff. When she glanced back up a few moments later, the man caught her eyes again, and Raina pretended not to stare in return.

“It’s practically cheating,” she breathed. “To be on a date with one girl, and…”

Kim spun her straw in a little figure eight around the tea. Raina noted a little vortex in its depths. “No, honey, he’s not really on a date with that girl. They just both happen to be at a table together at the same time.”

“Sure, Mom. Sure.”

And if one thinks the young man suddenly jumped from his table and proposed to Raina, it was never in their deck of playing cards. Instead, Raina and her mother finished their food and left the restaurant in a hurry. Kimberly did not feel well after their meal, and Raina knew her caregiving skills would be required at a moment’s notice. All thoughts of the man and his date were fleeting when Raina remembered the truth about her mother’s mortality.

 

Chapter Four

 

HIS BROTHER WAS tall, muscular, and robust, like all men who carried the surname Rose, at least in their direct lineage. Alexander Rose was a senior in high school with hopes of attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Unlike his older brother, Alexander needed to escape the confines of his family’s history in Memphis, and what better way to leave than to give his next x amount of years to the United States government?

Chris, even at twenty-eight, knew Alexander would make a better man, someday.

Now, though, Alexander was on probation—at least with his mom—for allowing his girlfriend to sleep over for a weekend in which Lucy had been in Tupelo, Mississippi, for another women’s retreat. Lo and behold, upon her return, she discovered her teenage son and his girlfriend sleeping together (literally, not metaphorically) in his bed. Therefore, Alexander’s life turned into a sucking maelstrom. His truck became a distant memory, at least for a month, dictated by his mother. Of course Christopher Rose I had no leeway over anything his son did. Their relationship was nonexistent.

Chris Rose II sat in his convertible indigo Shelby Mustang in the school parking lot. The sun beat down on his skin, but he didn’t mind. A lot of soccer moms were checking him out, and he enjoyed the attention. He spent some time perusing some work-related emails before giving up and checking out the online web portals for collectible cars. Occasionally, he glanced up and scanned the other cars for women who seemed interested in him. Too many to count.

“Hey, what’s up?”

Chris looked up to see his behemoth of a brother. Alexander tossed his backpack on the floor as he jumped in. “Well, all I can say is wow. Life has really taken a change of pace for you. Hotshot realtor to hotshot bro in the carline. I think a lot of my friends’ moms are swooning right now.”

Chris grinned. “What can I say?” As a little showy gesture, he revved the engine and pulled out of the spot as fast as he could, the Mustang generating to life like some sort of machine god. He whipped out onto the main road a few moments later. A car full of teenage guys behind them watched with trepidation.

“You know, I thought it would be pretty awful being chaperoned by my brother. But hey, maybe my popularity will increase.” Alexander had to shout over the roar of the wind.

A few moments later, they sat at a stoplight, where Chris breathed, “I could find the keys for you.”

“Mom took the truck to one of her friends’ houses. She’s nuts, Chris.”

“Are you serious? She did that?” Chris asked with disbelief.

Alexander nodded, his brown hair shining in the light. “Not joking.”

“So is it true? You decided to…”

He frowned and rolled his eyes. “Mom wasn’t supposed to come home until that Monday. Yes, I invited Zoey over for the weekend. And yes, we got caught. End of story.”

Chris smiled. “Wow. You’re learning the ropes, aren’t you?”

“Not like you. Zoey and I have been together for seven months.”

“Why haven’t I heard her name before?”

“Have you forgotten we basically live in different stratospheres? This is the first time I’ve seen you in three months, Chris.”

Chris scratched an itch on the bridge of his nose. “It’s been that long?”

“Yes, it’s been that long. So, yeah, I have a girlfriend. Her name is Zoey. She’s even more busted up about this whole thing than I am.”

“You like her?”

“Of course. I love her.”

Chris shuddered on the inside; on the outside, he acted unaffected. “Don’t you think that’s a little fast to be professing love?”

Alexander shrugged. “I don’t really care, honestly. This is the longest light in the history of the world.”

The Mustang made a jagged left, the tires screeching against asphalt. Alexander dug his fingertips into the leather. “Where are we going? This isn’t the way home. Mom’s probably got cameras installed at her place now.”

“Relax.” Chris slammed on the brakes as an old grandma in a Prius whipped out in front of him. “Come on!” He gritted his teeth.

“Seriously? You tell me to relax. Typical.”

“You can crash at my place. I don’t mind.”

“Seriously?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I still need to go home to get a change of clothes and my toothbrush.”

“No problem.” Chris zigged the car across two lanes of traffic and made a perfect U-turn in response. He looked over at his brother and burst out laughing, to which Alexander stared at him like he was a psychopath. Chris thrust a hand into the air as a truck honked its horn at them.

He boosted the energy to a sprinting pace for a cheetah, and all Alexander could do was stare at his brother with a combination of amazement, wonder, and question.

 

THEY MADE IT to his mansion an hour later. After a picturesque drive through the country, a few rolling hills acclimated at the top of an oak-lined road called Somerset. Christopher whipped his sports car into his gated, private driveway and punched a few numbers into the keypad. His brother had been to the house a few times but never alone with Chris, and this gave him a morsel of pride at how his brother had spent the past six years post-college.

They crested a hill and arrived at a clearing, where a copse of trees surrounded emerald green grass and a stony Tudor-style mansion shining like a beacon. While the house in itself was grandiose, Alexander could not help but note the impeccable landscaping work circling the grandiose structure. The place was perfectly manicured, just like Alexander expected.

Chris parked the car in the massive garage, where his company car—a sleek, silver Lexus coupe—and an inconspicuous Ford Taurus idled. Chris’s phone buzzed and he took the call, giving Alex ample time to revel in his brother’s house without its cocky owner. He walked into the mud room and followed the Italian stone beneath to the wide kitchen space.

He heard a loud cackle of laughter from the garage and a few sweet nothings. For a man who never seemed to work, Chris had such a nice life.

Alexander found a bag of chips in the pantry, which was stocked to full capacity, probably the result of a hired hand or Aunt Ellie. As he munched on the potato chips, he found the remote to the TV and settled for a show on wildlife in central Bhutan.

A few moments later, a loud pop resounded, and Alexander jumped in fright. He turned around to see Chris appear, along with a beautiful woman who looked Pakistani. She latched onto his arm as he whisked her into the kitchen. Neither of them seemed to notice Alexander sitting at the counter, and they flitted away.

Then, an obvious afterthought, Chris called out from across the house, “Make yourself at home, Alex! Do whatever you want.”

Alex twisted his class ring around his finger. He hadn’t wanted to wear it, but with Zoey’s prodding, he did. It made a good object for his fixations. Part of him wanted to trail his brother and his exotic new pet, but part of him didn’t.

Suddenly, he remembered why he didn’t come over very much.

 

Chapter Five

 

THE SKY WAS a dull gray as Adrian and Diana pulled into the Atwater family’s subdivision. A week after their library study date, the weather had taken on a chillier vibe, though it was still not close to cold. Diana wore a casual dress she’d scoured from Mel’s closet and a cropped jean jacket. Mel had curled her long, straight black hair so it hung like a mysterious, black sky of curls, and she wore more makeup for this one night than what she’d wear the rest of the year combined. When Adrian had picked her up, she swore he’d smiled the biggest smile he’d ever given her, which caused her to smile in a happy response.

As Adrian pulled up to the little house, Diana was reminded of the terse family situation at home. Her parents had not spoken more than ten words to Mel over the past week, and it was an unspoken insinuation that their younger daughter would need to find other living arrangements—or at the very least, a well-paid job.

Privately, Mel revealed to Diana that she couldn’t stand college and she wished she’d gone to cosmetology school. However, there were no funds for her to start now, although Diana reminded her Mom and Dad might help as long as she proved to be a hard worker.

Diana pushed all thoughts of her family issues aside as Adrian parked the car. He looked over and with a sheepish grin kissed her cheek. “They’re going to love you.”

“I hope.”

“Hey, wait.” Adrian unbuckled his seatbelt and proceeded to jog around the car to open her car door. Diana winced at the sweet gesture, simply because she felt she was getting in too deep with him. He obviously had some intense feelings for her which were hard to reciprocate. And since she was a little girl, she had been the worst actress on the face of the earth.

They ambled up the little stone pathway to the house that was similar to her parents’. Adrian hesitated, like he thought about ringing the doorbell before opening. They walked into a small foyer where a teenage girl sat on the steps staring intently at her cell phone.

“Hey, Whitney. How’s it going?”

Whitney looked up and smiled. “Hey. Hi, you must be Diana.”

“Hi,” Diana said. She was more nervous than she should have been, she thought. There was no reason to be nervous in this situation, especially since she spent every living moment thinking about human bodies. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Is that Adrian I hear?” called out a loud, booming voice. A few moments later, a heavyset woman appeared and tossed her arm around her son and his girl, pulling them both into a buxom bosom. Suddenly Diana found herself smashed between a boy she wasn’t sure she even liked and his plump mother.

“Why, your dear friend is so beautiful. Hello, Diana,” said his mother as she pulled away. Her hair was in a complete disarray now that she had withdrawn from the awkward welcome hug, but her eyes were blue orbs of solicitousness. “Wow, Ade. Your friend is much more beautiful than you described.”

“Thank you,” Diana said, glad her skin concealed her blush. The truth was simply she’d never met a boyfriend’s parents in such a setting because she hadn’t had many boyfriends in her past. She gulped more air as Adrian reassuringly squeezed her hand. This had to be just as awkward for him as it was for her.

Whitney stood up, and Diana realized the girl’s hair was almost down to her butt. “Mom, when’s the food going to be ready?”

“Why don’t you make it yourself, and then you’d see?” The woman turned to her guest. “Hi, sweetie. Please call me Anna. I think that would be best.”

“Well, thank you for having me, Ms. Anna.”

The woman shook her head, feigning a frown. “Not going to fly. I am only Anna to you, dear. Now, come, my little flock of birdies, to dinner.”

As they followed the woman into her domain, Adrian shot Diana an apologetic glance. Diana shrugged it off, but the truth was, she was more concerned with his holding her hand for so long, cutting off the circulation of blood in her fingertips. However, thoughts of Adrian evaporated as Diana lifted her nostrils to the warmth of the aromatic kitchen. She wasn’t sure what she smelled, but it was like a feast for the gods, manna raining down from heaven’s touch.

“Evey, is the gravy almost done?”

A young woman, around twenty, jittered her head in little nods. “Yes, Momma. Hi, are you Diana?” The thick Southern drawl momentarily buzzed Diana, who had grown up around the familiar accent; however, sometimes it still shocked her with its distinct twang.

“Hi. It’s nice to meet you.”

Anna glanced over her shoulder at the couple. “Go ahead and sit down. There’s nothing for you two to do right now, anyhow. We’ll be over in a cotton-pickin’ moment.”

They ambled to the dining room table which overlooked the small, fenced backyard. Diana noted a collection of indigo and lavender Veronica flowers on the patio. Her mother had a knock for gardening, and Diana had been able to recognize a few of the genus names, as it helped her memory, grilling each and every plant Anahit brought home from Lowe’s.

“We’re so glad to have you here,” Anna called from the stove. In one deft move, she poured gravy in its hot pan into the little serving dish. Evey began doling out different foods onto china plates.

Evey smiled as she glanced in her brother’s direction, and Diana caught this clever gesture. She tried to imagine Melisende helping in any capacity in their mother’s kitchen (which would equal a total catastrophe) and how she’d react to her sister’s boyfriend.

“Well, with the promise of good food, I’d go anywhere. I’m sure you are an excellent cook, Anna. Are you sure you don’t need help?”

Her hands seemed to move all over the place, but Anna shook her head. “I’m sure, but thanks for offering your help. Someday, you’ll be in my shoes, feeding everyone from your son’s first real girlfriend to Jimbob the roofer, you know?”

“Oh, yes.” Diana considered the entire proposition of her becoming like Anna Atwater, and she tried not to openly cringe before her gracious host. Did she want children? Absolutely not. She wanted to become a doctor, save lives, and live her life without restrictions. That was the goal.

A few silent moments later, the family was seated at the table, although one seat was empty, though a full plate rested on the placemat. Anna glanced over at the steaming food and furrowed her eyebrows. “Where could your brother be?”

“Traffic,” Adrian offered with a gulp of water.

“He better not be with Christopher Rose right now. I swear, those two are like long lost sisters, always chittering like squirrels and running off together.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes.” Whitney glanced down at the tempting food. “They’ve been like that my entire life. Their relationship is so weird by principle.”

“Are they in a relationship?” Diana hesitated before asking the question. Adrian never mentioned his brother, but there never had been a reason to bring him into any of their conversation before.

The table burst out into mirthful laughter before Anna assuredly shook her head. “No. Christopher’s got a different girl every day, like how some girls have different shoes every day. He’s most definitely straighter than a sharp-edged sword. Drew’s more refined, but he’s always loved girls more than anything else.”

“He’s a romantic,” Evey said with a smile. “He likes romance movies more than us girls do. Adrian’s similar to that.”

Now Diana could not help but giggle a bit. Their brother like romance movies more than they did—as teenage girls? Maybe his family was in denial. Maybe he hadn’t come out of the closet yet. Maybe he didn’t even know it himself. Poor guy.

Adrian didn’t blush but remained quiet for a few seconds. “Well, I love action movies, too.”

“Yes, sure you do.” Whitney took a helping of mashed potatoes and stuffed it into her mouth.

A few moments later, the back door opened and a youthful man appeared, his sea-blue eyes startling against his tan skin. Diana’s quick glance at him proved to be an idiotic idea, as she felt something—maybe it was something—stir deep inside her body. She pretended to observe her medium well steak instead.

The man rushed over to the table. “I’m so, so sorry I’m late. Got caught up in the office, and then traffic was especially horrific tonight.”

“What matters is you’re here now. Go wash up.”

“Of course.” He hurried off again.

Anna glanced apologetically in Diana’s direction. “That is Andrew. He’s an accountant who works downtown.”

“Oh, that’s interesting,” Diana breathed as Evey cocked her head at her.

The man returned. He was not exceptionally handsome, nor was he as good-looking as his younger brother. In fact, it would probably be easy to overlook Drew, but to Diana, he seemed something out of a prophecy. His golden hair was cut short, although it sparkled in the dining room lights, and a hint of buttery stubble flickered against his skin. His lips might have been too big, but Diana was focused on the intense hue of his eyes.

“Hi, and you are my brother’s new lady.”

She found herself bum-rushed as he extended a hand to her, and she eventually smiled and shook back. “Hi.”

“Andrew, you know not to shake hands over the dining room table. Come on, now.”

“Sorry, Mom. This food smells mighty delicious.”

Did he even notice me? Out of the corner of her eye, she looked up to see Drew sharing a story about his work experience. How a client came in with a Golden Retriever and expected the firm to be okay with it. What is going on with me?

Then she felt her skin burn when Drew stared at her and said, “So, Diana, the family hasn’t terrified you yet.”

“No.”

“Surprising.” The way Drew said that word…

“What is that supposed to mean?” demanded Whitney. “You’re part of this family, buddy.”

“Yes. But a lot of people wouldn’t be able to handle us. We’re too cool, obviously.”

Whitney elbowed him in the side as Adrian cleared his throat. He had remained almost shyly introspective the entire meal. “Well, Drew, I think it’s a blessing to be an Atwater, and I’m glad all of you are being as kind to Diana as I’d hoped you be.”

It seemed as if Drew—for the first time—casually gazed at Diana, like his eyelids had opened a few centimeters. He smirked in her direction, and she looked up at him, trying her hardest not to seem too brash. “So, Diana, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

“Yes…?” Her voice trailed off at the end.

“Why pick my brother? Out of all the handsome med students in the world, why an Atwater?”

Anna scowled. Evey cackled. Whitney was flabbergasted at the question. Adrian’s shoulders seemed to droop. Drew’s eyes remained innocent enough.

It was like a giant spotlight illuminated over her head. She placed down her fork on the plate and said confidently, “Why pick anyone in this world? Adrian and I have a connection, don’t we?” She reached over—at the insistence of Drew’s beady eyes—and clasped Adrian’s hand with her own. He smiled in pride and respect at her answer.

“It’s more than you have,” Adrian said with a wink in his brother’s direction.

Drew was quiet for a beat after that comment, until he said, “True. But if someone like Diana can find a goofball like you, surely a classy woman can find me.”

“Here we go again with all the romance talk,” Whitney said, balking. “It’s so annoying.”

Anna re-entered the conversation. “Well, Whit, what do you want to talk about then?”

“Definitely not politics.”

Evey lifted a piece of steak to her lips. “That’s a good answer.”

They eventually cleared the table and headed outside to the patio for ice cream under a shimmery night sky. They took their positions all over the patio, Whitney on one edge, Diana on the other, and munched on Anna’s homemade vanilla recipe underneath a string of Christmas lights hanging from the veranda. The small backyard hummed with cicadas.

Diana and Adrian had one moment to themselves, which Diana would have rather spent with Anna or one of his sisters. Drew remained inside for some of their time outside, because he had to call someone.

“Is your brother always that… Saucy?”

“Did you just call him saucy?”

“Maybe.”

Adrian wrapped an arm around his lady’s waist, ignoring Diana’s involuntary flinch. “No, to answer your question, usually he’s as easygoing as can be. He must be stressed out about something. Drew’s definitely a perfectionist. Everything’s always gotta be spick-and-span, you know? It’s just his way of looking at things.”

“Got it.”

“So, how do you like my family?”

“They’re very different than mine, but I think one thing we share in common is our love for each other. Your family is very kind.”

“It can be a little hard sometimes having two sisters and a mom, but I promise, I’m not that into romantic movies.” Underneath the glow of the stringed lights, Adrian’s blue-green eyes sparkled like a jewel. However, Diana did not feel incredibly attracted to him, and this hurt her. How could she break up with him now she’d met his family—which was a step closer to his true nature? But how could she lie to him about how she felt?

As a firefly landed on the nearby rose trellis, Diana felt a presence behind her. Drew.

He glanced at his brother and her like they were foreigners from outer space. “I’m really happy for y’all.”

“Thanks,” Adrian said with a genuine grin. From what Diana had gleaned, the two shared a brotherly love. There didn’t seem to be much antagonistic behavior them, which was always a positive.

Diana was a little more confident from a secret sip of wine she’d had at her house while Melisende helped her dress. “So, Andrew, where’s your girl?”

He seemed to straighten tall. Waiting for a false concoction about the Ethiopian model he’d snogged last night, Diana bit her lip, waiting. “Well, there’s actually no one right now.”

“Which is okay, Drew,” Adrian said with a sure grin. Diana wanted to elbow him.

Drew grinned, though it didn’t meet those gorgeous sea eyes of his. It was like looking at a glass seashell made of turquoise and emerald. Or it could be a Mexican cenote in the midst of verdant rainforest. Diana stared at him until Adrian nudged her and she said, “You know what? It’s time I go home.”

“So soon?” Drew asked sympathetically, sticking his hands into his pockets.

She nodded her head. “Yes. I take care of my parents a lot, and they’ll be expecting me.”

“That’s cool.”

Of course she couldn’t tell him the real reason she needed to get home fast. So she wouldn’t flirt with her “boyfriend’s” brother the entire night or somehow slip-up on the fact that she wanted to end things completely with Adrian.

“It was nice meeting you,” Drew said, although his smile had vanished. It was like he knew something was happening, and the mien of puzzlement finally altered to a small hint of playfulness. “Hey, man, you should invite her to the mountains with us over Thanksgiving.”

“As in the Smoky Mountains? In November?”

He shrugged, standing on his tiptoes for a moment. “It’s a tradition we have. You should come.”

“Oh, are you sure?”

Adrian nodded wholeheartedly. “It would be a great time, Di.”

She glanced between the brothers, but the one she gave the answer to was not the one who held her waist.

“Of course.”

 

Chapter Six

 

DREW WAS BEATING Christopher by three goals in a game of epic foosball upstairs in his friend’s new digs. As Chris scored another point, Drew hurriedly replaced the little ball in its slot and slammed it in the direction of the goal. He yelped out in joy at winning, and Chris sighed in frustration.

“My luck has run out.” Chris angrily set his jaw.

“Why do I have a feeling you’re not just talking about your awful skills at foosball?”

“Shut up, man.”

“Was it Marlena?” Drew leaned against the little playing table.

Leave it up to Drew to be able to read minds, even if he were just an accountant. Maybe his wise advice when it came to women was from all those stupid romance movies he used to watch with his high school girlfriend, Lacey. They’d been together four years too long.

Chris blankly nodded. “She asked for the thing I don’t want.”

“Oh, come on, Christopher. You can’t date a girl for more than three months? It’s petty, man.”

“What? I’m sorry, but I like new things, okay?”

Drew furrowed his eyebrows. “Listen, Chris, I love you…”

“I know where this is headed.”

“Since I love you, I think I should tell you to…”

“Marlena and I are through. She was fun, but Crystal’s more fun.”

Drew scrunched up his nose. The hint of a dragon tattoo emerged from the bottom of his T-shirt sleeve. Chris fondly remembered the tattooist and her parlor back in Key West two summers ago. “Who’s Crystal?”

“Just a girl I met two weeks ago. She’s fun, and we really have a connection.”

“Well, are you going to commit to Crystal?”

Chris raised his eyebrows in consternation. “Drew, if you think I can…”

“You are the most annoying human being on the face of this Earth. Listen. For once in your life, can you tie yourself down? Maybe, I don’t know. Date someone for more than two days without severing the umbilical cord of sex?”

“You are the weirdest human on this planet.” Chris rolled his eyes before sitting down on one of the barstools at the wet bar. He solemnly took a sip of a Coke.

Drew stretched out against the carpet floors. He answered a call from a client as Chris considered Drew’s words of wisdom. Could he settle down? Why would he want to was the bigger question. If there were seven billion humans occupying the planet, that left around what, four billion women? He had watched programs on animals’ mating behaviors. If he wanted to share his genes with a conglomerate gene pool, why not at least have options? An endless sea of options?

Drew’s voice cut into Chris’s thoughts. “Okay, buh-bye.”

“You know what?”

“Yes?” Drew began rubbing the bridge of his nose. It was a Wednesday afternoon, in the afternoon glow of early October, and it seemed as if he never got a break with work. He missed the good old school days where students got off for fall break, Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, an entire two months for summer…

Chris’s eyes held a different fever to them than what was typical. Chris was very animalistic in many spheres of his life: Conquer, then abandon. As a realtor, he’d done okay, but it was more because his father owned the company. He had been an okay student, an okay athlete, and an okay friend. But now, it was like Drew had awakened something in him, just from simple, casual banter.

“Chris, what’s up? You look constipated.”

Chris ignored the barb. “Why don’t we have a little wager?”

“A wager?” Drew itched his ear in confusion. “Chris, you know how awful I am with bets.”

“A relationship wager.”

Drew rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. What?”

“You’re the one always talking about destiny and true love…”

“Not true. Okay, maybe a sliver bit of true.” He finally nodded in agreement. “So, anyway…?”

“Whoever courts a girl for three months gets…”

“Your Shelby.”

“My Shelby? Come on, that’s not fair.”

Drew crossed his arms. “I know you, Chris.”

For the first time in a while, Chris felt the little prick. “You don’t think I can do it?”

“No, I don’t. Not monogamously.”

Chris shook his head. “It can’t be that hard. People do it all the time.”

“Okay, say so yourself.” Drew still looked frustrated.

“If I win, I get your mother’s cooking for an entire month. If you win, you get my Shelby for a month.”

“Oh, don’t you dare bring my mother into this. She’s done nothing to elicit your crazy schemes!”

Chris jutted out his lower lip, a little thing he always did when he had the upper hand. Unlike his friend, he was good at betting. He bit his lip in pleasant expectation. It was always nice to broaden your horizons now and then, he thought, and what could hurt from a short relationship? Plus, Anna Atwater’s cooking was better than a thousand hired chefs, although the butter she placed into all her ingredients made Paula Deen look like a vegan.

“Come on, Drew.” Chris knew his best friend would do anything to see him “settle down.” It was something Drew aspired to always.

Drew was perplexed for a moment before finally nodding. “Fine. When does this little deal start, then? And how do I know I can trust you?”

“You’ll take my word for it.”

“I’m really placing faith in you, then…”

“Relax. It’s going to be fun. We’ll each have romantic relationships for Christmastime, right? No more week-long flings, no more trips to Cabo for Christmas Eve…”

“Chris, have you forgotten that is your life, not mine?”

He nodded. “Sorry. So, the goal of this is to find a girl soon. Whoever finds one first has the upper hand, but three months is quite a long time.”

“Not really.”

“Would you stop being such a sourpuss?”

“That’s something my mom would call me.”

“Exactly why I would benefit from your mother’s cooking.”

“Deal?” Drew offered his hand.

Chris took it as he gulped some Coke. “Deal.”

 

Chapter Seven

 

THE FOLIAGE WAS beginning to liven up into autumn glory, with yellow, orange, and ruby leaves suddenly appearing in bundles against brown bark. In the farm country, past the suburbs of the city, a truck barreled down a road in desperate need of both patch-up work and widening. At each curve, Raina dug her nails into the door handles because there was no way to see if another car was approaching. And each time, her father laughed at her reaction.

“Stop it,” she finally said, embarrassed. “You don’t understand how dangerous and idiotic you’re acting right now, Dad.”

He hooted out in laughter. Kimberly had been sick and therefore did not want to participate in the pumpkin picking festivities with her husband, his crazy brother Joe, and her daughter. Plus, Kim pointed out, it wasn’t the same without Raina’s brother, Nate, who lived in Alabama with his new wife. That had been the motto of her entire life: But it’s just not the same…

Uncle Joe grinned from the back seat, one of his front teeth missing. He’d lost it when he bit into an apple two weeks ago, and he was still waiting around to get to the good ole dentist. “How do you live, dear Rain?”

“I’m just cautious, okay?”

“Being cautious ain’t always fun, ain’t that right, Maxie?”

Max winked at his daughter. “Yes, that’s true.” As if to make a point, the truck ran over a gulley, sending Raina’s side of the truck off the road. She angrily gritted her teeth and refused to speak until they made it to Dick Loman’s Farm.

The moments passed in a spellbound appreciation for fall—only when Max Newton drove safely, though. Raina observed a few leaves fall to the ground, lightly, like little colored feathers floating as they obeyed Earth’s laws of gravity. She’d been around for twenty-six falls now, so many they should seem normal, but still—to her, at least—it was special.

Twenty-six years of her life had passed with normalcy, up until a year before. She’d made it her mission to always be the glue of her family. When Nate left for college in New York, Raina swore she would stay in Memphis. When Nate married a Southerner and returned to Memphis for a few years, she promised to stay single so she could be with her parents. (Kim balked at the idea, while Max was as proud as the CEO of a Fortune 100 company whose stock continues to rocket.) When Nate and his wife left for Alabama, again, Raina instructed her parents she wouldn’t leave, even when her ex-boyfriend left her because she wouldn’t move with him to San Antonio. When Nate refused to be with their mother in the worst year of her life, Raina went to every chemo appointment and was her mother’s best caregiver. That was when life began to dramatically change. It wasn’t so normal anymore.

She felt something begin to snivel inside her. The typical touches of anguish, disgust, not understanding the situation. In response her fingers tensed against the paneling of her seat. She could feel her nails straining under the pressure. As a little beacon of light, Loman’s Farm appeared and Raina relaxed her grip. The truck parked in an endless sea of spots, although most of them happened to be filled. On a crisp October day like this, many people would be visiting to go on a hayride to pick out their preferred pumpkins. Then there was the large corn maze in the shape of a giant armadillo and a large shooting gun that launched pumpkin guts.

Uncle Joe and Max giggled like little schoolchildren as their trio headed to the payment desk. They chose the hayride, which was set to depart in ten minutes. With the spare time, Raina watched a nice looking family hound their three children for running around the parking lot. A group of Indian-Americans spoke hurried Hindi to each other, and it looked like their matriarch—dressed in a gorgeous violet sari—was spooked about something. An African-American family paid for their tickets. A couple held hands, though a lot of people stared at them in confusion and apprehension. Raina, meanwhile, stood by herself.

“Ugh.” She glanced down at her phone. There were still five minutes until the hayride would be ready, and upon further examination, she heard the engine of the thing approach them from its last leg. Its driver, an elderly black man, waved at all his new congregants.

Out of the corner of her eye, Raina noted an indigo Mustang barrel into the parking lot and whip into a spot. Confused, she watched as two men appeared from its confines, one dressed impeccably in a nice shirt and slacks, and the other one in a college sweatshirt and jeans. As they approached closer, Raina saw that one was a man, and the other was just a teenager. They took off together to the payment counter. Just by their uppity behavior, Raina hoped they wouldn’t be joining her on her fall time joyride.

Of course the two wobbled back over to the little waiting area. The man whipped off his sunglasses as he whispered to the youth. Raina tried not to stare, but she had always been an introspective judge of character. She liked to ruminate on the little eccentricities of people who seemed unaware of her presence. It was something that made her a great teacher, even at a young age, as she could harness her people skills with her second graders to improve their instruction.

She almost jumped when the man said to her specifically, “Hey.”

The teenager beside him rolled his eyes.

“Hi?” she asked, though she looked around to make sure he wasn’t talking to a phantom behind her. “What’s up?”

“I was just wondering… Do you always paint your nails black?”

She glanced down at the fresh polish. She’d been in the mood last night, after a long week around pink and blue. Of course she would remove it on Sunday night, but the black was something she used to wear, back when her life was normal.

“No,” she said, glancing down. “Why?”

“It’s just interesting, that’s all.” He turned around, ceasing the conversation. It was like he was teaching his accomplice something.

Annoyed, Raina turned her back too. Of course her dad and uncle had been completely oblivious and hadn’t seen the little altercation. Eventually, a few minutes passed, and the hayride driver collected everyone’s tickets. Raina took his hand as she hoisted herself up the stairs. She took a seat in the middle of a hay bale beside Uncle Joe, who was debating her father on the proper way to prepare dear meet. It was her turn to roll her eyes.

The Indian family bustled up to her, but they streamed down the other side of the truck, and she placed her head in her hands when Mr. Cocky Slacks and his teenage friend sat right beside her. At the same moment, a family sat across from her. Why couldn’t they have sat by her? She loved kids. She didn’t get headaches from their incessant blabbering.

“Hi, again,” the man said.

“Hi?”

“This is our first time here. We’re new to this whole thing. What should we do after the hay ride?”

Do I look like an encyclopedia you can just swipe through until you’re done? “I’m not really sure,” she lied. Ambiguity was key. Hopefully he’d shut up in a few moments. She could only hope.

No, her wish was not granted. “I saw something about a maze. I wonder how that is.”

“Very mystical, I’d guess.”

He cocked an eyebrow. Then he turned to his acquaintance again, and Raina was left in momentary peace. The sky was an ugly, drab gray, and the hint of a drizzle appeared on the horizon. It was a chilly day, for once, but nothing a light jacket couldn’t cure. A woman to her right sat in a large jacket and scarf combination, and Raina didn’t understand it at all.

She glanced over at the man, who busily typed on his phone before lodging it into his pocket. Noticing Raina’s interest in this small gesture, he turned and began torturing her again. “So, are you from around here?”

“Yes. Are you?”

“Yes. Born and raised.” Just when she thought it would be impossible for him to come up with a topic of discussion out of thin air, he said, “There’s just something about this place. Maybe it’s the air. It sure isn’t perfect, but I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Raina stared at him, mouth agape. “Have you lived elsewhere?”

“Yes. I went to college in Nashville and spent a year abroad in Madrid. But all that time away pointed me straight back to here. What about you?”

She felt his gaze and wondered what he was up to. “Interesting life. No, I’ve never left, but I think about it all the time.”

Seemingly taken aback by this pointed answer, the man leaned back against the railing of the truck. “Why?”

“Why? You’d receive a terribly long, dull, and unnecessary answer.”

“What’s your name?” For the first time, Raina realized the man had pretty blue eyes. While he was indeed good-looking, she couldn’t help but be blinded by his conceited personality (of what she thought she knew). However, Raina was usually an easygoing, appeasable human being. She was humble, caring, and kind. Why was she acting so rude to this one particular individual? Her uncle and father continued to gossip beside her, unaware of her affiliations with this well-dressed guy. What did she have to lose by communicating with him?

“Raina Newton. And yours?”

“Hold on, your name is Raina? Like, you know, the rain?”

Raina stared at him. “Yes.”

“It’s a very interesting name.”

“I would agree. The whole thing came about when Mom was delivering me. It was a stormy, gray night—similar to this one—and the power went out at the hospital. Somehow, a hole in the ceiling allowed water to drip into our room, and Mom was so spellbound by the entire set of events that she named me Raina.”

He seemed genuinely interested in the story, but he could have been pretending. Oh, Raina didn’t care anymore. She was starting to break out of her case of the doldrums which had simply set in because of her mother’s morning behavior, her rickety relatives, and the grayness of the sky. Oh yeah, and the man beside her. “I wish I had an interesting story as to why I was named Christopher, but it’s not very interesting.”

“Are you going to talk to her all night?” called out a youngish voice nearby.

“I’m sorry about that,” Chris said without turning. “Alexander’s just a little moody today.”

“Christopher and Alexander, huh? Long, classic names.”

“Classic, but not very interesting.”

The tractor hit a little snag in the road. They were bounding down a little path that took them across various plants and large oak trees idling in the fields. The pumpkins were near, as Raina and her new friend could make them out a few moments later, like little orange orbs floating against the emerald grass.

“Well, I think Christopher is an interesting name,” Raina offered with a smile.

He glanced at her, surprised she had taken a 180-degree turn in her response toward him. At first, she was more abrupt and annoyed, whereas now, she was sweet and jovial. Something must have happened to her that morning. “Well, thanks, but I’m not sure if I can agree with you on that one.”

The tractor sputtered to a stop, and the black man returned to help everyone off the attached vessel. To her delighted surprise, Christopher waited at the base of the steps as Raina began to descend, and he offered his hand. The black man cocked an eyebrow before smiling wide. “Oh, I see, I see, Mister.”

Raina and Chris walked together to the patch of pumpkins, their feet digging into the dirt. As a necessary tidbit, Raina’s new friend said, “That’s my brother. He’s a bit moody today because our mom made him hang out with me.”

“Oh. Why?”

Alexander was ten feet ahead of them, one hand dug in his pocket, the other curled around his cell phone so he could talk to Zoey.

“Well, she thinks we need more bonding time.” At this, he bunny-eared his comment. He reached down to touch a plump pumpkin at his feet. Obviously dissatisfied, he continued to analyze the other specimens. “It’s a good-natured request. But she forgets I am employed, and Alexander’s a teenage boy. He doesn’t want to hang out, nor should he feel like he has to.”

Raina picked up a small, little pumpkin. It was perfectly round and babyishly adorable. When Chris noted the one she chose, he scowled. “Oh, come on, you cannot get that one.”

“And why not?”

“It’s too…”

She clutched it closer to her chest. “It’s perfect.”

He raised his eyebrows in skepticism. “You need a big one, like this large puppy over here.”

“That’s absurd. I don’t need that big of a pumpkin.”

“Why not? This is America. Go big or go home.”

“Yes, I would agree about this being America. However, I don’t need to go big. Someone else can have that pumpkin.”

Chris lightheartedly smiled. “Whatever you say, Cap.”

“Raina!”

She turned around to see Uncle Joe waving in the distance, motioning for her to venture to him. With an apologetic glance, she said, “See you back on the hayride?”

He nodded. “Sure.”

She turned around and stepped over various vines and unripe pumpkins as she weaved her way to find her Uncle Joe. He appeared with a big, honking orange giant and laughingly, he said, “So, I bring a mammoth, and you bring its fetus. Come on, Rain, why so small?”

“Because I don’t need that massive pumpkin. I’m content with this little one.”

Her father appeared moments later, after wrestling with a medium-sized one from its vine. He whistled between his teeth after the ordeal, his veins sticking up under the skin like underground rivers. “Wow! This one was a stickler.” Seemingly reading her mind, Max Newton said, “Don’t worry, honey, we’ll get your mother’s up at the check-out. We’re only permitted to one pumpkin as is. Oh, dear Joe! Where’d you find that one?”

“Out yonder,” he said, sarcastically pointing to where his feet remained. A wheezing laugh followed this revelation.

Raina turned just a bit to see Christopher and his brother heading back to the tractor. Chris even gave a little wave, to which Raina responded. She turned back to her family, only to discover they’d walked off without her in search of a bigger pumpkin for Max. She followed them discreetly, hoping her feet wouldn’t get sucked in by the vines, or somehow she’d become entangled within.

After her father finally found a large pumpkin, they began to hobble back to the hayride, only to see they were the last ones aboard. Raina took a seat at the very edge of the contraption by the elderly woman in the purple sari. She gave a friendly smile to Raina, who only had eyes for the man across the way. They continued to exchange casual glances as the tractor barreled down the old path. A drizzle began to sluice around them.

Raina found herself blushing quite a bit.

Eventually, they made it back to the pick-up location, and Raina popped out of the hayride. She followed her uncle and father into the little purchase-a-pumpkin section, her nice shoes beginning to sag in brown mud, when someone appeared behind her. She turned just the slightest.

The bottom of his trousers was slick with brown. He didn’t give it a thought, though. “Raina, I’m sorry if I came on too strong.” He glanced over his back at his brother, who stood rolling his eyes nearby. “You see, we’ve gotta go now…”

“Oh, yes. Yes.”

“I’ll see you later?”

“Chris, come on!” called out his younger brother. Christopher offered a compulsory wave and disappeared.

Why would she have thought a guy like him would ever ask for her number?

 

Chapter Eight

 

DREW WAS BUSY at work when a little blurb popped up on the screen of his phone. He glanced out the window of his office—a new upgrade, thanks to superior client feedback—and made sure no one was watching at the other cubicles. In their cutthroat service, people were known to infiltrate each other’s computers to set a snare. Drew, however, had learned that if—and rarely if—he needed to use his personal cell, he’d do it off wifi.

Erin Fleming has sent you a Zwink. Click now to respond.

He rubbed his forehead. It was almost five o’clock on October 14th, and he was dog tired. He’d almost forgotten about his stupid deal with Chris, the whole dating propaganda that would no doubt leave them both lonelier than ever. He tried to drink away his momentary pessimism with a sip of Mountain Dew before giving into his impulse.

Erin Fleming’s profile filled his phone screen. She was a pretty redhead, brown eyes, a splash of freckles on the bridge of her nose. She worked as a veterinarian, loved to backpack, and owned three dogs.

Too bad I hate pets.

Drew returned to his work screen, where it seemed like another splash of emails had waved over the monitor. He frowned. In the past week, he’d been slammed with clients, and his mother’s incessant wish for his being at dinner left him scrambled. Eventually, he gave up on dinners at home—he was nearly thirty, for crying out loud—and resulted to becoming as gloomy as the new sprout of gray clouds hanging over the 901 area code.

A moment later, his phone dinged again.

Theresa Hudspeth has sent you a Zwink. Click now to respond.

Theresa was a cougar, in her mid-fifties, though she could have passed for much younger. Drew gagged as he glanced at her age. He could never date someone near his mom’s age. He placed his phone on mute and stood up, packing his planner and portfolio into his Armani bag.

Drew locked his office and turned off the lights. A few of the new associates were still busy pounding on keys at the computer, but he saw one woman, Elizabeth Fremont, packing up from her station. She was a petite blonde with an eclectic fashion sense. She’d been scolded countless times for her bright choice in clothing, and while it was never inappropriate in revealing her body, it did have an effect on her clients and therefore ability to work at this particular organization.

“Hey, Drew! Just the person I wanted to see.” Elizabeth jumped up from her seat as a pile of papers fell from her arms. “Oh, come on!” Drew chuckled as he reached down to help her. Flustered, she repeatedly apologized. She took the collection of papers, and he noticed she wore three-inch violet high heels, along with a bright lime long skirt.

“What was your question, Liz?”

She pushed on her glasses. He’d never noticed her eyes had an amber speckle to them. “Well, you’ve been to Levitt Shell, right?”

“The concert place near Overton Park? Yes. What about it?”

“I’ve got a few tickets, and I’m not going to use them. Want them?”

“Why won’t you use them?”

She shrugged. “It’s not my type of place.”

“Liz, come on. You’ve got to go at least once in your life—especially if you’re in town to see it. Who’s playing?”

“Not even sure. Some indie alternative band from Ontario or something.”

“When is the date?”

“October 21st.”

“Easy. I’ll go with you.”

Elizabeth stood straight and cocked her head. Disbelief splattered her face. “What?”

Now it was Drew’s turn to shrug. “That’s a Friday night, right? Sure. I’ll be available. How many tickets you got? I could probably get my buddy Chris to go. I mean, please… I hope you don’t think I’m inviting myself.”

She smiled and reached out to touch his arm. He glanced down at the physical contact, not sure if this was the best plan. “I feel honored. Of course it’s okay. None of my friends are into the indie scene. Sure, Chris. Everyone loves him. We’ll have a good time.”

 

AS IT TURNED out, October 21st proved to be a weekend in which Christopher and his father traveled to Nashville for a realtor’s summit, and Drew resolved to invite his brother and his brash girlfriend. At first, Adrian had been hesitant about accepting the invitation, but after asking Diana, he confidently said yes.

When the day finally arrived, the foursome agreed to meet at Anna Atwater’s bustling house so they could take one car to the crowded concert area. Anna was super proud of her sons as they waited for their dates. Elizabeth arrived first, dressed in a surprisingly modern outfit, and she meshed in well with Anna. Adrian, however, could tell Drew was doing this out of the goodness of his own heart; this wasn’t a romantic endeavor like Anna hoped.

Diana arrived a few minutes late. She had been busy taking her sister to a job, she explained, a night shift at a local restaurant. Drew tried not to look at her as she greeted the family, because if he did, there was no doubt his eyes would linger too long. She was very beautiful, with tanned skin and long, black hair. She had a nice body, yes, and a rough personality, yes; but somehow, Drew was utterly attracted to her. He wasn’t sure if it was her way of doing things, or just how she looked. They didn’t know each other all too well yet, but they couldn’t get too close. Adrian.

“Are we ready to go?” Adrian shouted over everyone else.

“I think so,” Elizabeth offered, already loving the Atwater aura. She gave a warm smile to Drew, and he reciprocated the act. The foursome headed to his truck, Elizabeth sitting by him, Diana and Adrian sitting in the back. As he backed out of the driveway, Elizabeth said, “Thanks again for taking me.”

He glanced in her direction. “You’re surely welcome.”

“So, are you two dating?” Diana croaked from behind them.

Drew and Elizabeth both glanced over their shoulders and chirped, “No.”

Diana privately grinned. “Oh, okay.”

“We’re co-workers at the firm. I had extra tickets to this event, and I was going to give them away, but Drew insisted I tag along, too.” She gazed at him expectantly, like she was observing a waterfall in the middle of the desert. Drew Atwater was good-looking, in Elizabeth’s opinion, but not as much so as Adrian. However, Adrian was a pushover, and Drew was independent. She had no troubles weeding out men she wanted, and Drew was one of them. However, as a professional connoisseur when it came to men, Elizabeth Fremont knew what she wanted.

“Yup. Tell her how y’all met.”

Adrian launched into a rehearsed, dramatic explanation of his and Diana’s meeting in class, how they’d connected while outside of class, and etc. Elizabeth acted interested and laughed at all the regular intervals, but she was really paying attention out of the corner of her eye, where a hint of Drew’s five-o’clock shadow glowed from the setting sun streaking through the windows. He maneuvered easily across the lanes of traffic, a fact Elizabeth was quite pleased to see him do.

When Adrian finished the spiel, Diana nodded in agreement. “We’re very happy together, don’t you think?”

Drew couldn’t help himself. He glanced back in the rear-view mirror. While Adrian was cuddling up close to her, she was staring right at him. He almost rear-ended a poor grandma who’d pulled out in front of him in the crowded evening traffic. He had to focus—and the only possible way of doing that would be by ignoring Diana Sarafian altogether. She was like a radiant jewel sitting back there, one he couldn’t inspect.

When they finally made it to the little outdoor concert hall, parking was atrocious. Drew had to parallel-park his large SUV like it was a Smart Car. They had to walk nearly half a mile to get to the concert itself, and by that time, Drew had completely forgotten whatever band they happened to be seeing. After they showed their tickets and were escorted into the little shell-shaped arena, he was pleasantly surprised when Adrian and Elizabeth went to the restroom, leaving him and Diana to see each other privately. He tried to ignore a few pounding nerves inside his chest. This broke so many moral codes. How could he be attracted to his brother’s girlfriend?

A steady stream of individuals passed them by. So many people were so close to them—even in the open air amphitheater—that Drew smelled lots of sweat. However, he moved closer to Diana with the excuse that people needed more space… But her perfume smelled so lovely, like some kind of dream. She blinked up at him. How could she not realize how he made her feel now?

Diana glanced up at him underneath heavy, inky eyelashes. “So, Elizabeth, huh?”

“I’m doing this as a friend,” he said quickly.

She crossed her arms. “Sure, that’s what every guy says.”

“Not your guy.”

She frowned at the mention of Adrian. Had he offended her? He didn’t like the silence. He anxiously turned around until Diana said, “You know why I came here, right?”

He looked up at her, blinking. Where was she going with this? It seemed like a wildfire was burning in her eyes. “No. What do you mean?”

Diana seemed to shiver. As she opened her mouth, Elizabeth appeared, bouncing over to them. She started gabbing to Diana over something feminine, but Drew couldn’t help but wonder what Diana had started to say.

The group found their seats in the throng of mostly teenage girls. It was like some kind of alternate universe, as college girls rushed around with barely-there shirts and a few guys chased them with wide grins on their faces. Elizabeth weaved her hand into Drew’s, and he couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow in response. He didn’t let go either, knowing full well that Diana was staring at the gesture. Their seats happened to be off center, but just slightly, and as the band began to warm up, Diana reached over to Elizabeth to whisper something to her. A teenage girl sat by Drew and batted her eyelashes at him, to which he stared awkwardly at her. Adrian even seemed out of his element.

Should have checked this band out before I decided to play Nice Guy.

A few scantily clad women stood up nearby and started dancing, gyrating their hips in an off-kilter rhythm, and Drew tried to shield his eyes. Adrian was staring at them like a happy puppy, and then Drew caught Diana’s glance. She seemed to smile at him in the fading light, and then he realized she was snuggling into her boyfriend. Drew remembered that it was late October, and he was a little chilly as well. These unclothed women must be freezing, he thought, as Elizabeth rested her head on his shoulder. He glanced down at the woman in confusion as Diana giggled. Adrian remained completely oblivious.

The band, some random Spanish name Drew couldn’t see in his mind, started the set with a pop-rock ballad that made the herd of human cattle go wild. People were off their feet, jumping up and down like madmen. Elizabeth was one of them, pulling Drew up with her, though he took every available moment to glance at Diana, who was too busy snuggling up to Adrian to care.

The next hour passed with an ethereal sentiment. Some moments seemed to drag on for hours, and others like little bolts of lightning. However, one thing was for sure: He would sleep well tonight. He wasn’t a big fan of the band, and instead used some of the time—when the drums weren’t so out-there—to think about the bet he’d made with his best friend. So far—and he’d checked—Chris hadn’t found a girl to date for three months. Three months would be a piece of cake for Drew, but for his friend, not so easy. Plus, it was hard these days to find women who happened to be everything guys like them were looking for. Drew had higher standards when it came to women than Chris, so it would make it even harder for him. However, he knew he had to win. It was in his blood to win the game, and so be it—he would.

But something roared in him every time he made eye contact with Diana. It was like she was a deadly but elegant flower, ready to suck him deep inside her stem. He had to be careful, or he’d do something he’d regret.

 

Chapter Nine

 

THE EARLY NOVEMBER day glowed and remained brisk. Raina cursed herself for choosing to shop for her mother’s birthday at the open air mall that happened to be the nicest in the city. She walked into stores, found nothing in the warmth, and had to return to the chilliness of the late fall season. As a purebred Southerner, she was not accustomed to Northern temperatures, and this probably would have only elicited a t-shirt from a Mainer, rather than a full-fledged coat by a Tennessean.

She clutched a few shopping bags closer to her body as her teeth chattered. So far, she’d bought herself a few lotions and a new pair of jeans. For her mom, zilch. She still had most of the mall to cover, but she desperately wished she’d invited a friend to come with her on this impossible quest. Her mother was like Mrs. Scrooge, never buying anything for herself except what remained on her bucket list. Still, Raina had to be creative with her gift. Especially this year. This year had to encompass all the others.

Raina was debating whether to enter one store or not when she heard a familiar voice call out, “Raina?”

She pretended not hear the voice. She was deep in thought. What could she get her mother? At a loss, she finally turned around to see who had been calling out for her. When she did, she gritted her teeth. Luckily, the guy wouldn’t be able to tell, because gritting her teeth looked an awful lot like chattering teeth.

“Oh, hey. I remember you.” She feigned actually remembering most of the details he’d told her that day a few weeks ago.

Chris strolled over to her. “How are you doing? It’s Chris.” He offered a hand to her, hoping she’d shake. While she brushed it off a few slivers of a second, she finally took it in her hand, shaking. “It’s funny seeing you here.”

“Yes. I thought I’d never see you again.” Don’t iterate that fact. Rein it in.

He smiled. “Yup.” For a moment, Raina turned her head so she couldn’t see him, almost as if she didn’t want to see him. He frowned. “Hey, want to grab a cup of coffee? It’s so cold out…”

“I’m shopping for my mom.” Realizing her voice was too harsh, she offered a small smile. “And I don’t know what she wants. But…” Why do I always say yes to every single thing? “Maybe coffee would help my creativity.”

Chris flashed his pearly whites and the two set off in search of the local java shop. Naturally, the two moved nearer to each other in the cold. Chris was a summer lover as well; coldness was not his forte. They kept small talk to a minimum as they ambled down the path, and when they entered, Raina angrily bit her lip. “Oh, dear.”

Chris glanced over her head—as he was much taller than her—to see two young women sitting at a nearby table across from each other. One was very beautiful, by his estimations, and the other was decent looking. He turned around to see Raina shielding her face as she ordered an espresso. He followed her to the cash register and said, “Who are they?”

Raina wrapped her receipt into a sparkly purple wallet. Chris smiled at it, and she blushed again. “I went to high school with them. Let’s pretend they’re not here.”

“Where’s the Southern hospitality?” he asked with a wink before ordering.

Raina narrowed her eyes at him. Leave it to Chris to make this a big deal. She grabbed her espresso and took a big sip as Chris sidled up next to her. He leaned against a barstool and just as he opened his mouth, Raina said, “No.”

“How do you know what I’m going to say to you?”

Raina’s jaw tightened. “You’re going to tell me to be boisterous and loving, a good Christian Southern girl. I’m sure you have many tips and words of advice for me, too.”

He burst out laughing. “You’re funny when you get mad.”

“Am I not funny otherwise? Watch it, bud.”

“Raina Newton?” called out a high-pitched, California Valley girl voice. However, the voice belonged to a pure Southerner, Alexandria Moore. The girl’s face appeared moments later. She glanced at Raina before intently analyzing the man with her. “And who is this?”

Alexandria’s friend—the one Chris thought was pretty—came next to her, like a caracal stalking its prey. Jenna Norlan had always been like that. She stared up into Chris’s eyes, and Raina knew he was hooked. In response, Raina gingerly moved a few inches away from them to get a stirrer.

“It’s been so long, Raina.”

“Yes. Long time no see. Aren’t you going to introduce us?” purred Jenna. She flicked a piece of straight, shiny brown hair over her shoulder.

“This is Chris. Chris, these two people are Alexandria and Jenna. We went to high school together.” She knew she was being rude right now. She didn’t really care.

“And… Are you two a couple?” Alexandria asked this with a twisted grin on her lips as Jenna licked hers. Raina thought she was watching a nature program on Nat Geo Wild. Silently gagging to herself, Raina was about to answer honestly when Chris draped a strong arm across her shoulders and pulled her into him.

“Yes. We are.” He said it with passion, and Raina glanced up at him in a mixture of shock and adoration for taking a different approach to this entire situation than what she expected.

“For a while now, too,” Raina said quickly. “And what about you two?”

Alexandria gulped some air. Jenna was obviously taken aback. “We’re actually going on a double date tonight. Gotta go shop for the right dresses. Well, it was nice seeing you.” They left like vanishing lightning bugs.

Raina almost uttered, “Toodles,” but found herself instead in the midst of Chris’s foreboding arms until they left the store. Breathing hard, she fanned herself and said, “Thank you. Those girls were always so snarky. To put them in their place was awesome.” She lifted her hand in the air, before frowning again. “Although it wasn’t true.”

Chris took a sip of his coffee. “Sometimes, it’s fun to do things like that. Those girls aren’t used to surprises, I can tell.”

Unoffended by his comments, Raina headed out into the chilly air again, Chris following her heels. The two headed in the opposite direction Alexandria and Jenna had taken, and Chris asked, “So, shopping for your mom?”

She nodded. “It needs to be a great gift. Like, really great.”

“Well, with a little imagination, one can truly conquer obstacles.”

“Thank you, wise sensei. Why are you here?”

“Needed to get some new slacks. I don’t know if you noticed, but I ruined a pair at the pumpkin patch.”

She glanced up at him out of the corner of her eye. Why was he still walking around with her? He was kind, obviously, but something must be up here. She thought she was pretty enough, and he was definitely attractive, but their pairing up was just not practical. She doubted he found her interesting as a romantic interest, but what did she know? She felt humbled, but also a little confused.

“So, what? Department store, or do you have a typical preference? I really only pay attention to the women’s stores around here.”

“Department store’s fine. Can you find something for your mother there?”

She stared at him, pausing in her tracks. The gray sky seemed to illuminate the blue viscosity of his eyes. He cocked an eyebrow at her, like she was something he was not used to, and he paused with her. “You can’t be serious.”

“What do you mean?”

“You want to go shopping together? Come on, Chris.”

He shrugged. “If we’re heading to the same store, we might as well walk together.”

She wrapped her arms tightly around her chest. The cold temperatures were playing with her mind. “Okay.”

“Okay.”

They were quiet again for a moment, and if they weren’t so busy dissecting every little thing the other said, they would have realized they were causing quite a distraction for other passersby, from the grandfathers swirling around little children to the young teenage girl who held a book in her palms. A young woman holding a baby on a hip and another on a leash stared at them with envy. A middle-aged man sighed as he walked past, remembering the good old days.

For Raina, though, there was really only one thing on her brain. How could she use this to her advantage? If Chris obviously had an ulterior motive, so should she. She couldn’t be used high and dry; she’d been down that road before. Anxiously she peered over at him, only to see he’d dug his hands deep into his pockets. A little cloud of white appeared where he had just breathed.

She glanced ahead, seeing a man just as tall, but with salt-and-pepper hair and an obnoxiously tight coat. He sipped from a coffee cup, eerily portraying an older Chris. Raina knew immediately who the visitor happened to be. She ignored the little pitter-pat jumping on her heart muscle, because she knew where this was headed. The department store was in their vantage point now, but there would be no escaping Christopher Rose I.

“Is that my son?” called out the man. A svelte woman appeared beside him, her bright red hair a true contrast to his. He wrapped an arm around her, and Raina knew it innately. Chris seemed to tense beside her, and she couldn’t blame him for it. His father’s new woman was barely older than him. At the most, she looked to be in her mid-thirties.

“Dad,” said Chris, though his voice was void of any emotional attachment, except distrust. As they walked closer to them, Chris leaned over to Raina and whispered, “Need to act. Just for a sec, okay?” She shivered in response. As his hand draped over her waist, Raina tried to calm her eyes so they wouldn’t be so proverbially big when she met his dad.

“Who is this pretty woman?” asked the older man as they approached. He reached out to Raina, before taking her skinny hand to his lips. Chris definitely flinched in response.

“Dad, this is Raina. Raina, this is my father, and his fiancée, Piper.”

Raina waved to Piper before sticking her chilled hands back into her coat. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Piper said, “Likewise.”

“Well, what are you doing not telling me you’ve finally found someone?” Mr. Rose cackled, though his laughter seemed tinged with phlegm and a trace of cough.

Chris shrugged, his hand still firm against Raina’s hip. “We haven’t been together very long.”

“This isn’t one of those fleeting things, I hope?”

Chris paused. “No, Dad. Raina’s a very genuine, honest person.”

“That’s how they usually are,” Mr. Rose said, though he looked privately at Piper. “Wild and reckless in their youth, but by thirty, they see the best life partners are the women who run the world with their brains—not their bodies.” Piper smiled warmly in response.

Raina tried to ignore the obviously awkward sensation in the air. She felt her nose turn pink. “I think in this instance, Mr. Rose,” she said, “it is vice versa. Chris has, honestly, been very enlightening to me.”

Chris, Piper, and Mr. Rose all stared at her like she was an alien beamed straight from space. A hint of a smile poked on Chris’s rosy lips, while Piper and Mr. Rose just stared at her like she was lost. Finally, breaking the ice yet again, he croaked, “You must be a very clever jokester, my dear. Your name is very unique.”

“Thank you.”

“Well, we don’t want to keep you long,” Chris said quickly. “We’re just out enjoying the nice day.” Was he nervous?

When they finally managed to pass the duo by and cut quickly into the department store, Chris finally breathed and Raina asked, “What the heck was that? That was the most awkward thing ever.”

“We’re just living life right now, aren’t we?”

“I guess. I’m really sorry about your dad.”

Chris shrugged again like nothing was amiss. He glided over to a nearby counter. “It’s not your fault. I’m sorry I brought you into that.”

“No, don’t worry. It wasn’t a problem.”

“Why are you looking at me like that? Raina, just tell me.”

She pulled on a lock of gold hair. “I’m not sure if you’d agree to it.”

“Don’t be sheepish, and please don’t be impossible.” He observed a tray of perfumes nearby on a glass counter and sprayed Raina with the first one he picked up. “I’ll keep spraying you if you don’t tell me.”

She stepped away from him as a salesgirl rounded the corner. “You wouldn’t.”

“But I would. Now, please. Just tell me.”

She pursed her lips before nodding. “Okay. Well, obviously, you’re using me as a chess piece for your dad. Maybe it’s something else. That’s fine. But I need you to do something for me too.”

Now it was his turn to tilt his head. “What do you mean?”

She gulped and couldn’t believe she was about to ask this of him. “My mother desperately wishes something of me. Well, it’s been a dream of hers for eons. And if you agree to this, I think I’ll have found the perfect gift for her birthday.”

 

Chapter Ten

 

THE SUV BARRELED down the road like a bus on steroids for adults. Intermittent variations of pop and country music blared through the stereo like bubblegum and banjo. The car was filled to the brim with people and luggage, along with the smell of greasy take-out burgers and fries. It was definitely a party inside, from singing contests to Sudoku puzzles to boy drama to politics to reality TV to universal and metaphysical principles.

All together seven people sat in the SUV: Anna Atwater and her brood of children, including Drew, Adrian, Whitney, and Evey; basically adopted son, Chris Rose; and Adrian’s new girlfriend, Diana Sarafian. For the Thanksgiving holiday, the group had set their course directly for Gatlinburg, on the opposite side of the state, located in the heights of the Smoky Mountains, a dream for all who were unused to the higher elevations. For people from the Mississippi Delta, even a hill seemed like Mt. Everest.

The plan was to stay for three days, using one day to drive there and another to drive back. They left on the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, and planned to remain until Sunday morning. Chris, Anna, and Drew all had work obligations back on that Monday, along with the others having school then. It was a good kick-off to the holiday season, and the group was anxious to get out of town. Even Diana, usually too hard-headed of a student to leave in the midst of school obligations, was pleased to have a few days off to enjoy the sights. Her family, on the other hand, hadn’t been as joyous about her leaving them for such an American family day (especially poor Mel), but they’d been okay with it when Diana mentioned this was something she was doing with her boyfriend and his family. They couldn’t be angry about her finally finding a serious love interest, could they?

Chris, on the other hand, was the one person who had been a last minute addition. He usually went with them, but this year had been a little bit different, especially since he had just taken on more houses to sell and other clients to who needed the perfect purchase. His calendar had been booked solid for the past two weeks, which was more than he’d ever done in that span of time, but Mr. Rose was pleased with his work ethic and attributed it to the false girlfriend. Chris hadn’t communicated much with Raina since he’d seen her last, except to verify that he would help with her present on November 28th, a few days after his return from East Tennessee.

Over the past few weeks, he’d gone on a few secretive dates with a few women some of his friends had suggested. Every single date was awful, and he was deeply in the doldrums in that regard, despite having the most successful past few weeks of his career. Drew seemed to think the two realms of his life were connected, but Christopher couldn’t help but wonder if Drew were trying to sabotage his opportunity at the bet. In fact, Chris glanced over at his best friend, watching as he scrolled through that stupid cell phone. He was definitely on that ridiculous dating app.

It had been a blistering day last July when Chris had discovered his friend was doing the whole online dating shtick. Chris had thought it was a joke, but Drew seemed very into it, and it seemed like quite frequently, Drew seemed to be a bit jittery, as if he were mentally prepping for some sort of date.

So the question remained: Did he or did he not have a relationship yet? Obviously something was up.

Cautiously Chris moved a little forward in his seat. He’d been the fortunate soul stuck in the back row with the ridiculous Whitney, who had almost insisted on sitting by him. Chris had never seen a teenage girl with so much nerve, and Ms. Anna didn’t seem to mind that her teenage daughter was in close confines with an able-bodied man. Whitney had tried her hardest to talk to him about the stupidest of things—his job, his life, his political affiliation—but Chris didn’t take the bait. So as soon as Whitney finally took the message, he leaned over and spotted a pot of gold.

“Aha!” he whispered into his friend’s ear.

Drew looked up, startled. “What, man? Are you trying to scare me half to death?”

Chris assessed his surroundings. Adrian and his girlfriend, the beautiful woman who looked seductively Middle Eastern, were busy asleep, dreaming of each other, he assumed. Ms. Anna and Evey seemed to be in a heated discussion that Chris wanted no part of. Whitney too was asleep, thankfully. They’d just passed the small town of Cookeville, east of Nashville.

“You’re still using that stupid app?”

Drew frowned. For a moment, he looked like a kid again. “I’m sorry that I’m actively trying to find a girl I can date for three months, okay?”

“I’m really to enjoy your mother’s cooking,” hissed Chris.

“So, what’s your girl’s name then? Because I highly doubt you can stay with one person for an hour, let alone a day, let alone three months.”

“Ouch. Unfortunately,” Chris said, “that slot has been taken by you, if you have forgotten.”

They both sighed.

“So, did you find anyone?”

“Sometimes, you sound like another sister. No, Christina, I did not find another girl yet. All of these matches I’m being paired up with are absolutely horrible. Single moms left and right, old cougars, you name it. It’s like no one is actually on this website for honesty or anything.”

“What’s wrong with single moms? You’ve gotta let people have a chance.”

“You would say that. You gave the whole female population a chance.”

“I’m not that bad.”

Drew ignored him and shut off the device. He was having too hard a time by principle, and Chris stomping on his turf was not exactly helping. “So, what’s going on in your department?”

“Currently, nothing. You know I’ve been too swamped with females. Oh, wait. There is one.”

Drew rolled his eyes. “Who’s her father?”

Chris shook his head, his eyes glazing over with remembrance. “It’s kinda a long story, but we met at the pumpkin patch when my mom forced me to take Alex there. Then we reconnected at the mall, and now I’m going to dinner at her parents’.”

His buddy’s mouth slightly opened. “Excuse me?” he hissed so hard that Diana began to stir.

“It’s not like that, I promise. This girl is not exactly what I would call dateable.”

“What does that mean?”

“She’s not my type, okay? She’s more like your type.”

Drew furrowed his eyebrows. “Why am I taking that as more of a dig than a compliment?”

Chris rolled his eyes, shrugging it off. “She’s not exactly worldly, if you know what I mean. She’s got a temper, but she’s down-to-earth. Doesn’t strike me as very adventurous. A family girl, for sure.”

Drew glared at him like he was an alien. Of course Chris wouldn’t find a healthy American woman very attractive. “Well, what does she look like? Is she hideous?”

“Medium height, blonde hair, brown eyes. She looks somewhat German in descent. If I had to put a number on her, like out of ten or something, I would say she’s a solid seven or eight.”

Drew wanted to punch his best friend so hard. “You really are a…” Glancing around, he saw that Diana was staring at him, so he kept his cursing at bay. “You really are a jerk.” He tried to ignore Diana’s bright brown eyes.

“I could try to set you two up. It would be interesting, right?” Chris glanced mischievously at Diana, cocking his head up in her direction, as if she’d be on his side. Drew needed a woman, right? She seemed taken aback and closed her eyes again. “Her name’s Raina Newton. You should look her up.”

“Chris, you need a reality check, man.”

“What? I’m living in my reality, you’re living in yours.”

 

Chapter Eleven

 

SHE HEARD IT all, from Chris’ pecking on his friend’s shoulder to their discussion of a woman named Raina. She’d never had more respect for Drew Atwater. It was obvious he was disgusted and embarrassed by his best friend’s outburst, and she could see why. Chris Rose was handsome, of course, but with his good looks came a natural curse, and he seemed like the perfect candidate for the new Mr. Narcissist.

What really interested Diana, however, was this entire scheme Drew and Chris had planned. The first one to date a girl for three straight months? She chuckled as she listened. Then she wondered who Drew’s girl happened to be. Did he have one? It didn’t sound like he did. She jealously wondered what his type might be. Was he attracted to blondes, brunettes, or people like her?

She opened her eyes and saw Drew staring at a picture of a young woman on his phone. She had blonde hair and brown eyes, just like Chris had described. It must be that Raina girl. Who would name a child Raina? Diana rolled her eyes, but noticed that Drew had been looking at the picture for longer than normal. Chris peeked over his shoulder.

“There she is.”

“I doubt you have a brain. This woman’s very pretty. Gorgeous even.”

Diana scowled. She had her answer.

 

THE MOUNTAINS BROADENED before them a few hours later. The people of the flatlands stared in awe for a few moments as they took in the scenery before them, each peak and hill like Kilimanjaro and McKinley before them. Except Chris of course. He was used to even bigger mountains, but this was an okay view. Better than the typically green trees he passed every day, at every angle, of every position. The car became loud and boisterous again when everyone awakened to see the spectacle before them. In the warmth of the car heater, they all chillily stared at the coolness misting around. Drew, a phototropic human by principle, shuddered at the sight of the dark mountains.

Diana, meanwhile, stared at them in adoring awe. Even with Adrian’s annoying arm draped around her shoulder, she felt something had arisen deep inside her, propelling her to Earth’s natural elements. When it all came down to it, humans came from the elements of Earth’s dust, and here she was, out of all the people to be living on the planet, enjoying a holiday in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Her cousins in Armenia didn’t even know where Tennessee was—save that it was somewhere in the heart of the US—let alone these ancient mountaintops.

Then the traffic hit them.

“This is ridiculous,” Anna said from the driver’s seat. She had taken over from Nashville after Drew drove the first three hours. Chris and Adrian had also volunteered to drive, but Anna turned them down, saying instead that she was antsy to do something other than sit.

“You can say that again,” Adrian said.

Diana glanced at Drew. He looked at her and smiled a bit. She wondered if he were having thoughts of that girl still. She sat up and moved Adrian’s arm away from her so that she was free. Chris, in the back seat, watched it all with pleasant admiration. Maybe Diana Sarafian had the hots for someone else, he thought. Maybe, just maybe, she’d go after Andrew Atwater, choosing the other brother. That would definitely make this trip more interesting.

They sat in traffic a long, banal two hours, but of course, Drew and Chris began singing quite horribly for all to hear. Singing turned into trivia which turned into more singing, etc. Diana played a few games with the guys while Whitney complained she was suffering from utter, unquenchable boredom. Evey meanwhile continued to vent about her problems to her mother.

When they finally found their rustic resort for the weekend, they all gasped a sigh of relief. By Chris Rose standards, it was child’s play; by Atwater and Sarafian standards, it was a dream. They took their bags in and stared upward in the lobby, watching as an elevator soared heavenward at a quick speed. A beautiful atrium combined with a little waterfall added an inviting ambience to welcome the group. The Atwaters usually stayed in a little three room cabin up in the actual mountains, but this trip was different. They wanted to try something new—and at the time they booked the hotel, they had no clue their guest Diana would be joining as well.

As Drew and Anna checked in at the front desk, Chris grabbed a little mint and unwound it from the wrapping paper. Adrian was busy ogling the sights, and Chris decided to do some undercover snooping work. Drew could kill him later.

“So, Diana…”

Diana glanced up at him in a mixture of fright and disdain. “What?” she asked, her voice clipped.

Well, it might be a little hard getting to know her. He sucked on the mint, casually adding, “So. I have a question for you.”

Adrian moved a little farther away, just out of earshot. Whitney and Evey followed their brother. Bingo. Chris leaned in closer to her. “So, are you having an internal debate?”

Diana straightened. He could smell her hair, and whatever scent it was… “No, but thank you for assessing my life without even saying more than twenty words to me.”

“I know what I see,” Chris said, winking. “I know there’s something there, with you and Drew, I mean. Let’s cultivate that rather than stomp on it.”

Diana’s mouth fell open, and she shook her head. “Whatever you think you saw was obviously fallible. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Chris raised an eyebrow. Drew and Anna would return at any moment, so he had to make sure these words had the desired effect. Yet even Chris had moments of doubt, and eventually he settled on, “You sure about that?”

Adrian wrapped an arm around his girlfriend a second later, and Chris recognized the woman’s wincing at the gesture. Diana tried to ignore Chris, but understood where his smirk was coming from. He’d won her internal debate for her.

 

LATER THAT NIGHT, the group went out to the little city itself to do some shopping and dining. Diana bought a few collectibles for her parents, including a travel mug and a few t-shirts, along with a beautiful wind-blown butterfly for Mel. It was beautiful, the butterfly; with indigo wings, it seemed as if the thing could fly off into reality. After their little round of shopping—“there would be plenty time for more shopping later,” as Drew had complained—they took a leisurely stroll down the main road to a little seafood diner overlooking a babbling brook.

In the chilly weather, Adrian found himself leaning closer and closer to his girlfriend, and Diana found herself watching Drew more and more. He didn’t seem to be as bashful around her anymore, but he wasn’t open, either. Could they at least be friendly without her feeling this awkward?

The restaurant wasn’t too crowded, thankfully. They were able to order and eat within the hour, and then they went back into the cold mountain air, allowing it to soothe their lungs. Eventually they headed back for the hotel, and each group went to his or her respective rooms. Diana was to share a room with Whitney, which was okay. As long as she didn’t have to share a room with Adrian.

Whitney was dressed and ready for bed around ten o’clock, which was way too early in Diana’s book, so she wrapped her robe around her body, stuck on her favorite slippers, and padded down the hallway to the elevator. She watched as the little machine went down, passing various stragglers who couldn’t sleep until much later too.

If she were honest with herself, she knew she was homesick. Her family drove her nuts, but she couldn’t live without them. Since Mel had found a job, everyone had been more open, but it was like there were eggshells all over the floor. Diana wanted to go back to a time when everything was perfectly okay.

She found herself in office room, where four or five large Macs sat on a wood desk. She glided over to one of the computers and decided to research some news, see what was going on around the world. She prided herself in keeping up with whatever was happening—in her backyard and elsewhere.

After growing bored from that, she checked her Facebook—which she never did, as she thought it was outdated—and found herself watching viral videos for twenty minutes. It wasn’t until she heard his hearty chuckle that she understood she wasn’t alone. Diana turned around to see Drew smiling down at the computer.

“Hey, Diana,” he said, registering her shock. “That was a pretty funny fail right there. Who knew? You mind if I sit here? I have to answer some work emails, but I had to make sure pretty boy Chris and your boyfriend there were asleep. They’d skin me alive if they knew I was staying up until…” He glanced at his watch. “Until twelve at night to work on work.” A hint of a dimple played at his cheek.

“You like staying up late?”

“Absolutely. I’ve always been that way. I hate the morning.”

“Me too.” She bravely glanced at him. “Whitney was in bed by ten.”

“Oh that’s torturous. Going to bed that early? Forget about it. Whitney’s an early bird by principle. Always been that way.”

A lull in their conversation dawned as Drew poked at the keyboard. Diana turned back to him in her swivel chair and said, “What is your job?”

“I’m an accountant,” he answered, “but I sometimes I feel like I’m more of a therapist. I get emails from some of my clients who have a question about something relevant, but then a whole paragraph about their lives, so I feel honored to help out, although I’m not one to give advice, really.” Then, with a playful smile, he added, “I’m sure it’s nothing like med school.”

Diana shifted in her seat. “I didn’t always want to be a doctor, you know. Not like Adrian.”

“That’s okay, right?”

“It was freshman year of college when I decided to major in biology, take the MCATs, and go to med school. It was right after my sister had this horrible bout with viral meningitis.”

Drew was thoughtful for a moment. “Not the one that kills you, right? Within five days or whatever?”

“Mel’s still with us. But to see the doctors in action, all around her, like she was the queen of some beehive. It made me want to help too. To be a part of that community.”

Drew nodded. “Sounds like a good dream, and if you’re anything like I think you are, you’ll make that dream a reality.”

Diana carefully dissected this conversation. She knew her virus, but couldn’t identify a vaccine. Drew had latched onto her, and she was feeling the symptoms. Did he feel the same way? She doubted it. But how could she know otherwise?

“Drew…”

“What are you two doing up so late?”

Diana shot back from her precarious position near Drew. She hadn’t realized she’d been so close to him before, and now that Chris Rose had entered the room, she knew this would only cause more unwanted drama.

“You know I can’t go to bed early, Christopher. Why are you up?”

The other man languidly fell into a chair and spread out his legs, a typical manly position. Diana tried to look away amidst the discomfort. “Got a spam call, but it woke me up. So here I am. Waiting for you to get upstairs. Waiting for a lot of things actually.”

“Patience is key,” Diana said, annoyed. She didn’t try to mask it either.

Chris almost said something but kept his tongue shut. He started to hum some ridiculous pop song as the other two remained ominously quiet. Finally, Drew shut off his monitor completely and looked back. “Why don’t you go upstairs?”

“Because I’m waiting for you.”

“I’m not your mother. Get upstairs. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“People do really stupid things late at night.” Chris stood and exited.

Drew whipped a hand through his golden hair and finally glanced at Diana, who seemed besotted with a plethora of emotions. “Well, you just gotta get used to Chris ruining everything. It’s in his blood.”

“Hmm.”

Drew turned his chair to face her directly. “Can you do me a favor?”

“Yes?” she asked, her heart skipping a beat.

Then he frowned. “Can you take good care of Adrian for me? He needs someone who genuinely cares for him. He’s the best guy in the world.”

Diana swallowed her pride, and it tasted worse than bile. She closed the kiosk down and faced Drew. She’d never wanted to kiss a man so badly, but she refrained. Instead, she did what she was supposed to do and nodded. Drew smiled and said, “Thank you.”

They walked to the elevator in relative silence. Chris watched them from afar.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

THANKSGIVING WAS A miraculous affair. Their resort had three buffets for the three big meals of the day. Each meal cost a pretty penny, but proved to be very much worth it. At breakfast, Diana sat with Adrian and his sisters, and they had the best time discussing everything from Hillary Clinton to Ursa Minor. By lunch, Drew and Chris were a bit antsy and so they headed out into the chilly afternoon day to explore some more. The others decided to stay at the hotel and relax.

Chris hopped in the passenger’s seat of the family vehicle and said, “Okay. You gotta tell me. Are you out for Diana, or what?”

Drew pulled out of the parking spot with relative ease. Since he was used to the heavy feel of a truck, he could handle the SUV. As soon as he was on a clear road, he said, “Chris, I actually made Diana promise me last night she’d take care of Adrian. Also, for once can we not talk about girls? We’re out here to explore beautiful Eastern Tennessee.”

“In this gray, filmy mist smoke stuff? Then what are we supposed to do?”

“I don’t know, live a little? You know what, Brother Chris, I’ve got a plan.”

Chris stared at him like he’d lost his mind. They weaved through some windy roads as they headed wherever Drew had been inspired to lead them toward. It was Thanksgiving Day, and Chris doubted anything would be open, but he was shocked to see a lot of places actually were, and people trickled into shops and restaurants like it was any other day. Chris zipped his parka up even further to the base of his chin so he looked like some kind of human penguin. He’d never loved warmth so much in his life.

Drew finally pulled into a clean parking lot at the top of a large hill in Pigeon Forge. To Chris it seemed like a mountain. There was a little outcropping of a log cabin nearby, and Drew rushed over to check the hours. Eventually, he turned around and gave his friend a thumbs-up, and Chris blindly followed against his will. Honestly, he felt like driving home himself, hopping into a warm bath, and watching some sort of TV show about ancient Hohokam cultures. He’d been antsy a few minutes before, yes, but he was sort of gung-ho about being a hermit now. However, seeing Drew’s youthful, red face as he gave him that thumps-up, well… Chris had to oblige now.

He entered the warm cabin and saw a young man with floppy blonde surfer-boy hair selling something to Drew. Chris glanced around the room, noting a clothes shop and a little aisle for souvenirs. A concessions stand sat at the end of the cabin, and Chris was tempted to buy a hot chocolate; upon further inspection, he noted it was completely empty.

“Oh, Christopher!” called out Drew, his voice sing-songy. This couldn’t be good. He walked over, watching as Drew stuck his receipt into his wallet. “This here is Jason, and he’s going to be our guide for the next thirty minutes.”

“Hi, Jason. Chris.”

“Hiya. Okay, follow me!” Literally, Jason jumped over the countertops and pointed to a set of stairs nearby. Chris glanced up at the pricing information, and his heart sank. Now he knew what his buddy was up to. He followed with laden legs. It felt like he was going to have a terrible combination of agoraphobia and acrophobia, some sort of delightful potion belonging to an evil witch. Jason was busy spouting off instructions, but Chris wasn’t listening. Drew answered everything in a joking manner.

When they got to the top of the stairs, Jason pointed to the safety suits and metal hook-like devices. “Here, guys, is what you’ll wear as you do the perilous drop across Tennessee’s longest, most devilish ziplinin’ wave of fun!”

“This is going to be great,” Drew said, though Chris stared only at his friend like he was contemplating either murdering him via strangulation or throwing him off the mountain-like hill.

Jason pushed a mop of hair away from his eyes and stared at Chris. “Here man, let me help you. I would suggest this suit right here.”

“I think I’ll just sit this one out.”

On cue, Drew turned around and scowled. “If you think you’re getting out of this one, you’re sorely, sorely, sorely mistaken.”

Moments later—like a whir of blinding light—Chris found himself standing on a wooden platform made of acacia. Jason was busy complaining about Thanksgiving as he tightened straps and attached various hooks to various parts of Chris’s suit. The chilly air began to surround the trio, but Drew whooped out in excitement.

Below them was a journey unlike no other. A half-mile at the most, a strong wire ran parallel to the gray sky until it hit the bottom of the hill, over a ravine, and into a little shack. Chris thought he was going to pee himself.

“Now again, it’s imperative that you brake when you get close to the end, okay, buds? Also, I will be down there in a few minutes to pick you up in the company mobile. What can go wrong, right?”

“Everything,” Chris mumbled as Drew lifted his fist in the air.

“All right. Since we have two simultaneous ziplines, I’ll let you guys go at the same time. Do you need to hold hands?”

“Thank you, Jason.” Chris glared at the guide, who waved off his joke like it was no big deal. He closed his eyes, wanting to be anywhere else at this moment.

Drew shifted in his little makeshift chair. They both hung from their ropes, but Chris refused to sit like Drew did in thin air. Drew lifted his head upward, sticking out his tongue. A flake of snow fell to his lips. This was going to be amazing. He’d been shocked they were open on Thanksgiving, and now he was about to conquer Tennessee’s longest zipline, and Chris could wallow in his fear of heights. Drew would give him a speech about overcoming one’s obstacles later; right now was about his desire to have fun.

“Ready?” Jason called out.

“No,” shouted Chris, but he was dangling in thin air by this point.

The launch was anything but spectacular. They both had a slow start, and Chris was breathless from even glancing below where his feet dangled. He slammed his eyelids shut, refusing to blink, as Drew started hollering like a baby. Their speed slowly increased. Drew looked out to the nearby road, seeing some stray cars watching their descent. Drew started to wave. The only problem for him was the burning cold, if that was even possible. He felt like he was going to be frostbit, but he didn’t necessarily care.

Chris, on the other hand, finally managed to open his eyes—a sliver of a quarter of an inch—to see he was above the ravine. If the wire sliced in half now, there was no doubt he’d fall and break his neck from this height. Finally, he started to apply pressure to the brakes, as Drew was farther ahead but heading straight for the end of the line. Chris still felt dizzy all the way until his feet met ground. He tossed off his suit and glared at Drew, whose hair was in complete, whimsical disarray, and seethed.

“You did it, buddy!” Drew said, sticking up an arm for a high-five.

Woozily Chris high-fived his best friend, giving him a glare of admiration and anger. As soon as they unhitched themselves from the wire, Chris pounded him to the ground. “I will get you back! I swear!”

“And never will you get my mom’s delicious, Southern-fried goods!”

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

DIANA SARAFIAN WAS bored. Spending an entire day cooped up within the confines of the resort was not something that sounded very exciting to her. Adrian had made it clear it was a nice time for some relaxing and stupid TV programs on sharks and ultimate treehouses. After a hearty breakfast and lunch downstairs in the restaurant, she’d gone to Adrian’s room once Chris and Drew had left because they were so antsy. She desperately wanted to go with them, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate.

Adrian curled up beside her as she stretched out. Currently, they were on their fourth episode of Family Feud. Some of the answers were funny, but Diana was not known as the biggest laugher on the face of the earth. Eventually, she broke free from the sheets and checked her phone, finding a message from Mel. Her sister and their parents were enjoying a wonderful, Americanized Thanksgiving, except a few traditional Armenian foods such as lavash bread instead of buttery rolls and urfa kabobs. Typically, however, her parents enjoyed interspersing both cultures within the confines of meal planning. Diana’s mouth watered over the loss of Thanksgiving kadaif, a doughy sweet full with cream cheese and lavished in sugary syrup. The resort’s food was delicious, but not as good as Anahit’s culinary thumb.

“So, what are you thinking? Isn’t this the weirdest Thanksgiving tradition ever?”

Diana was thinking that very thing. “It’s not the weirdest ever.”

He gently leaned up so he could kiss the side of her mouth. She did not tense this time. “You sure?”

“Pretty weird,” she finally answered, her mind beginning to buzz. He was leaning in closer to her, and her body became a flame of guilt and confusion. The TV turned off as she continued, “Sometimes, my mom and dad make Mel and me celebrate Armenian holidays. Dad’ll play the kanun for us sometimes. It’s this harpish thing. I don’t know how to describe it.”

Adrian backed away just for a moment, noting Diana’s quivering eyelashes. “Really? When are you going to let me meet them? They sound like lovely people.”

Diana pushed a lock of inky hair behind an ear. She made the mistake of glancing at him, knowing full well where he wanted to take this conversation. “Someday. My parents are very busy people.” Definitely not true.

“They don’t like the idea of their daughter marrying a Caucasian?”

Diana flinched. “No… No, that’s not it at all. They would prefer a good Armenian man, of course, but how many of those are in Memphis, Tennessee? No, they love Americans, because when it comes down to it, they’re American now.” The real reason is I don’t want them to meet you.

He seemed to accept her answer. “Whatever you say.” He leaned in again, his lips pressing against hers. It was slobbery and unwelcome. They’d kissed many times before. It had never been this revolting. Diana felt disconnected to her body as Adrian deepened the kiss, his fingers landing against her t-shirt. She uncomfortably tried to wriggle free from his grasp, but found herself caught in a problematic limbo.

Finally, the door began to jiggle, and Adrian and Diana shot up, the first breathless, the second suffocated. They both tried to obtain positions of relative ease as Adrian fiddled with the remote, landing the channel on an episode of Botched just as a woman’s breasts filled the screen. Adrian turned deep red as the door opened and the sounds of ravenous mirth entered. Chris and Drew headed in, their cheeks pink and the hint of snowdrops on their caps. When they saw the TV show, Chris burst out into a laughing/crying state as Drew turned to him and punched him in the gut. Maybe it was an inside joke.

“Hey, Adrian, you watch boobs in your spare time?” called out Chris, until he noticed a beautiful woman on the bed with his best friend’s brother. “Oh, okay. I’m not going to judge this.”

Drew turned crimson, and Adrian did the same.

Diana weaseled the remote from Adrian’s hand and turned the channel to a dramatic television movie on Lifetime. She pretended like nothing was amiss. “The truth is, Adrian’s been bugging me for months about getting some plastic surgery. Unfortunately for him, I refuse to become a double Q.”

Chris and Drew began to laugh.

“Simply you came in at the wrong time,” coughed Adrian.

“Sure. Diana, are you taking over?” Chris asked as he unlaced his boots.

She shrugged as Drew sat beside her in a swivel chair. He began to turn around in a circle. “Maybe. So what did you guys do?”

Drew rested his legs against the TV cabinet. “We ziplined.”

Diana’s eyes widened. “You did?”

“Yes. It was horrible.”

“Chris, shut up. You loved it.”

Diana intermittently stared between them. “I want to go.”

Drew’s face lightened. “You do?” he asked, hopeful.

Chris knew where this was going. He glanced over at Adrian, who seemed to scoff at the mere mention of ziplining. Chris couldn’t blame him for that. “Oh, come on. There’s plenty of stuff we can do tomorrow.”

“That’s not fair. You two left without asking me,” Diana said again. For a sliver of a moment, she felt bad for this kind of talk in front of her boyfriend, but he was the one—who only moments ago—had pressured her into making out on his bed. Thinking about it now made her want to hurl. Plus, she desperately needed to escape this situation.

Now it was Drew’s turn to shrug. “Why not, Chris? Let’s take her over.”

“Didn’t Jason say they’d close up soon?”

“Don’t remember that.” Drew narrowed his eyes, knowing exactly where Chris was going with this. Typical Chris Rose.

Diana anxiously chewed on her pinkie nail. “Come on, Drew. Let’s go.”

“Yes, Drew. Let’s go.” Chris winked, having no intentions on going another round down that steep hill, which was exactly why Drew knew what his friend was up to.

For a moment Drew almost said no. He had a feeling Diana wasn’t being too shy with him anymore because she was interested in him and vice versa. He was an adult, and he could handle the truth that he was attracted to the beautiful woman sitting before him. In a perfect world, he would have already asked her out and as a result would win his bet with Chris. However, it wasn’t that easy. Adrian sat behind her, watching the spectacle with wide eyes. Drew couldn’t betray his only brother, his own blood. That would be like stealing one of Chris’s girls. Not impossible, but still unlikely. He did not believe any woman should split or separate the bond with his family.

But then the temptation roared to life, and it took over.

“Fine.”

“Oh, come on. You people can’t be serious,” Adrian said, looking quite comfortable as a splayed out human being on the bed. “Dinner’s only in an hour anyway. Mom’ll kill you if you’re late.”

The three shrugged in unison. Drew heard Chris ask, “So?” Diana jumped up and grabbed her key. She rushed off to get her parka and some socks while the other two headed back into the hallway. Just as the door was about to close, Drew called out, “Hey, Adrian, want to come?”

“No. You guys go have some fun.”

As soon as the door clicked shut behind them, Chris nudged Drew. “Aha. You get a little alone time with Miss Armenia now, right?”

“Shut up, man. Diana and I have zero connection, okay?”

“Why is you always deny my observations? Don’t you agree I am typically right in my assessments, and here you are—yet again—doubting my services to you.”

“He can hear you,” Drew protested, motioning to their room. He wanted nothing more than to slap Chris, but Diana reappeared in a baby blue puffer jacket with newly brushed hair that seemed even shinier than usual.

They all huddled together in the lobby, Chris tall like always, staring down at them like they were two meteors on the path to complete collision. He tried to keep his smirk to himself, but Drew could have felt it two miles away. Diana didn’t seem to mind, as she asked pleasant questions about nothing in particular, and Chris began chatting with her about Adrian, although cleverly inputting a few snide comments about Drew.

Eventually, they were into the bitter air. Daylight was still vibrant, but it would be fading soon enough. Drew drove like a madman to the ziplining place, weaving between various sedans like a purebred Memphian driver. A car honked at him as he deftly maneuvered around the slow lane.

Eventually, they made it to the zipline, though Diana’s eyes widened at the spectacle before her. She’d done this before, but never on this grand a scale. She and Mel used to spend summers in North Carolina with their aunt, and they’d zipline across—maybe—half a football field. This was like some sort of elongated appendage jutting out before her, taunting her to conquer it. She nearly jumped out of the car in exhilaration as Chris refused to look over to the wire.

“Why were you driving like you had a vendetta?” Chris mumbled as Diana took a few pictures of the countryside.

Drew shrugged. “Maybe because my Memphis roots sometimes take a hold of me. You’re doing this again, aren’t you?”

Chris smiled a broad smile, one of prowess and agility all at the same time. He glanced over his shoulder at Diana. “No. I think I’m going to sit this one out. But that doesn’t mean you are. You see, my back hurts. I’m getting older, and since I’m in pain, I’m just going to wait with our lovely friend Jason. Now you, you’re a young pup…”

“Who’s two months older than you.”

“Right, but you see, you don’t have vertebrae problems. You aren’t the one who needs a spinal tap. Now, go. I won’t tell Adrian it’s just you and Diana.”

Drew rolled his eyes at Chris’s antics and jogged off in Diana’s direction. She finished up with her phone and followed him into the warm cabin, where Chris fell over on a comfortable sofa with a cup of hot cocoa. Miraculously he’d found the prepared liquid ready now, and he’d leisurely poured himself a jarring cup. He casually sipped as he perused some messages on his phone. While Jason introduced himself to Diana, his expression heightened at how excited she acted. She was like a child at Christmas.

“I never get to do things like this anymore,” she told both men before her, “so this is a special treat.” Drew passed over his credit card again to pay for the excursion. “No, Drew. Let me buy, especially since I’m the one who made you drive back over.”

“Take the card, Jason.” Drew turned to her. “How about you can pay for something we do in Memphis, okay?”

Diana blushed. “Sure, sure.”

Jason flashed a toothy grin as he cheerily handed back the credit card. “Now, are you two a couple?”

They both straightened and moved an inch away from each other. Chris, although somewhat far away, wanted to scream, “Yes!” but Diana and Drew both croaked, “No.” For added effect, Diana explained, “I’m dating his brother.”

Jason seemed confused as he handed Drew a pen to sign the receipt. “Well, okay. I will pretend I didn’t just ask that question then. Now, miss, you been ziplinin’ before?”

“Yes, I have.” She shared a private glance with Drew, as if she were apologetic and embarrassed by this Jason fellow. He could relate.

As Jason launched into a spiel about safety, Drew worked on putting his suit back on. Diana allowed Jason to help her with that part, and like a cat, Chris appeared beside him, scaring Drew half-to-death. He sipped blithely from his mug. “Come on, Chris.”

The other man gazed out into the picturesque scenery. “Sorry I scared you. I just thought I would come offer a few words of support. You know, ‘I hope you get a fear of heights someday.’”

“You’re exhausting. Go back downstairs and enjoy the cabin. Goodbye.”

Diana, meanwhile, was still busy chatting with Jason about something or someone, Drew couldn’t quite tell. She was gesticulating like an octopus surrounding its prey, and Jason kept saying, “Mmhmm,” and all Drew could think was how he was really cold and wanted to hop into a hot shower. Eventually, Jason stepped back, and Diana called over to Drew. “Thanks again for…”

They were off, like little lightning bolts heading down a slope. Diana was hooting and raising her palms in the air. Unlike Chris’s silence, Diana’s loudness put a smile on Drew’s face. He was blinded by the chill of late fall slamming into his eyelids, but he couldn’t help but look at her, at how excited she was to do this. Did med students ever get out of the classroom? He assumed so. Then why was Diana always so cagey about everything? She wasn’t the friendliest person, that was for sure, unless she came ziplining.

As they braked, Diana shouted, “Yes! That was amazing.”

Drew hoisted himself out of the suit and aided Diana in escaping hers. Their close proximity still sent a chill deep into his spine, but he ignored the feelings as the woman unloaded on him, “Wow. I haven’t done that in ages, and nothing like this. What a joyride! It was like we were a descending plane. And did you see that little gulley? Can you imagine this place in late October, when the leaves are still crisp and red? I’m sure it would be gorgeous.”

“Your nose is as red as a stoplight.”

“Well, your ears are pink like pigs.”

They both smiled at each other until they went to the little sitting enclave to wait for Jason’s approach. From their vantage point, they saw the road was light with traffic, but Jason’s truck was still a good two or three minutes away from arrival.

“Seriously, thanks. I don’t get to do things like this anymore.”

“Why not?”

She shrugged. “I’m too busy studying, or working around the house, or whatever. Also, a part of me thinks that since I’m supposed to be an adult now, I don’t get to have fun.”

“That’s not true.”

“But it partially is. At least for me.”

“That’s why you need to do more things like this. It raises your blood pressure, but it’s alleviating for the soul. You forget a lot of things in the middle of doing it.”

She nodded in response. “You know, you’re right. But another aspect of it is who you’re with when you’re doing it.” A car horn bleated in the distance as she finished her aphorism. A blast of wind caused them to scoot even closer to each other. “Drew? Can I ask you a question?”

“Yes?”

“Why are you and Chris so close? Like a lot of best friends don’t go on Thanksgiving trips together every year.”

He was definitely not expecting that question. He pondered on it for a moment, not wanting to give anything deemed too personal away without asking his buddy first. Finally, he answered. “Chris and I come from very different backgrounds. He had the money, but not a very stable family; I was the opposite. In elementary school, we were more enemies than friends. If we were in the same class, all I can say is I pity our poor teacher. A lot of times it became a big competition between us, to see who could be the better team captain, or have the best scores.”

“Ah. Competition created true love, I see.” Diana winked at him, and he just nodded in return.

“Around eighth grade, my dad died. It was horrible watching how his death affected everything. Whitney was just a baby, which is the hardest part, because she doesn’t have any memories of Dad.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Well, it’s okay. I’ve come to grips with it by now.” He wiped a speck of white snow off his stubbly chin. “Eighth grade was a hard year. I was a late bloomer, and of course, Chris wasn’t. However, one day, he saw me get totally obliterated during a football practice by this guy named Big Elbows. I was bleeding pretty profusely, and Chris stood up for me.”

“After all that time?”

“I wasn’t sure why he was all the sudden being my friend, but then I realized we had really been friends all that time. We just showed it in a peculiar way.”

By that time, the van appeared, and Jason braked so hard that the whole thing lurched a few feet. He opened the door with a big grin and said, “Howdy! How’d you like it?”

Diana gave him a thumbs-up. She turned to Drew. “I can see why Chris liked you. And I can see why you like Chris.”

She didn’t know the half of it, Drew thought as he made conversation with his chauffeur and his brother’s girlfriend. She didn’t know that Chris’s own parents’ untimely split would happen because his father found some nineteen-year-old to sleep around with. She didn’t know that the cheating and the lying and the drinking resulted from something that was way beyond their control. She didn’t know that Drew was the only person who knew the real Chris, who saw how desperately flawed the world was, and instead of trying to fix it—he only added to the issues.

Drew loved his best friend like a brother, but just like he would do for Adrian, Drew was a tough critic. Chris needed to change.

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

ON THEIR LAST day of vacation, they finally went into the rugged, oldest mountains in the United States. A bitter gale of wind slammed into Diana as she crossed the cracked parking lot to the family car. She pulled the large alpaca fur scarf closer to her neck. It had been a gift from her sister last Christmas. That had been a nice Christmas. Mom and Dad had been happy, as their daughter—who was about to become a full-fledged UC-Berkeley grad—had decided to move back home for medical school with an early acceptance. Mel, meanwhile, a junior in college then was also considering a summer abroad in Yerevan.

Diana pushed the thoughtful memory aside. Was she disappointed in her sister for failing to complete college? Of course, but someday, Mel could go back. And even if all she did was become an art teacher, her happiness would double compared to something like medical school, per se. Diana had an urge to go home.

Diana shoved herself in the middle row, so she could be wedged between Drew and Adrian again. She found herself in the middle of a Sudoku puzzle, a purchase she’d bought at a convenience store along the way from Memphis to Knoxville, when Chris latched forward from the backseat and stuck a phone in front of her. A few pictures of her starting off on her way down the wire brightened her smile.

“What’s your number so I can send them to you and Drew?” He winked in response.

She knew exactly what he was up to with that clever trick. After she told him, Drew seemed to startle a bit from his nap. The car lurched forward until it shuddered to a stop. An imposing bear ran out in front of them, its brown fur a stark contrast to the grayness of the sky. The whole car went quiet for a moment until the bear was back safely in the woods.

Diana’s phone dinged with the pictures, and she felt Chris’s breath on her neck. “Now you have his number.”

She turned back to see he was still grinning. Whitney was staring at them both in annoyance.

 

THEY WENT ALL the way to North Carolina. They flip-flopped their seating arrangements a few times to allow Chris to drive for a while. Of course, Anna made a joke about entrusting him with her entire family’s lives, so he better not try anything funny. Their destination was Fontana Lake, which was more aptly defined as a reservoir, and there was no rhyme or reason as to why they were heading in that direction. It had simply appeared on the maps app on Evey’s phone as she scanned the area for places to go.

So they settled on the reservoir. They found a few picnic tables to camp out on as they overlooked the lake. It was somewhat boring, just staring out at the glassy water on such a cool day. Mist showered down on them a few times, before dissipating like some sort of celestial event.

Chris brought a football to pass with Drew and Adrian. Diana took the opportunity to chat with Anna while the other two girls were busy chattering their teeth under a heavy wool blanket.

“So, Diana,” Anna said with a cheery smile, “I hope you’ve enjoyed your time with us.”

“Thank you again for taking me. I’ve really enjoyed my time here.” Casually she glanced over her shoulder to where the guys threw the football back and forth like an invisible arc. Earnestly she thought how she’d forgotten all about random dysmorphias and medical conditions like cyclopia and anencephaly. Instead, it was like her brain capacity had been filled with thoughts of relaxation and shockingly, guys.

Her body chilled at the thought. She’d never been super into men. Everyone knew that about Diana Sarafian. As soon as she got back home, she would need to screw her head back on straight. No more passing fantasies, no more random thoughts of a blond man who just happened to be her boyfriend’s brother. Maybe she needed to end it with Adrian, but then Christmas would roll around the corner, sending everyone into a giant kerfuffle of emotions that spanned from suicidal thoughts to murdering Uncle Sam to making out with the boyfriend’s brother.

“You’ve definitely made a difference to Adrian, Diana. He’s very smitten by you.”

Diana smiled, but it felt like a gun spraying out bullets. When would the victim die of the gunshots? When would Diana finally tell the truth about her intentions?

Would it be better to sever the relationship as soon as they got back, or wait until the dramatic throes of Christmas?

“Hey, Di, come here!” Adrian called out over the hubbub of Chris and Drew rushing at each other like little kids. To think of a time where they were more enemies than long-lost best friends was nearly impossible. Diana wasn’t a big believer in true love, but it was like Chris and Drew demonstrated that concept perfectly.

Anna nodded appreciatively. “I’m just going to sit here and enjoy the view. At least it’s not freezing.”

Diana shrugged as she pulled her thick hair into a steady ponytail. “It kinda feels like it.”

“Just remember, it could always be worse.”

Diana rushed off to be with the guys. Adrian pulled her in for a wet kiss, and she acted into his advances. The other two guys started passing the football again, though this time Chris called out, “Ouch! Your aim was a little low, Atwater. Like, seriously. I want to be a father someday, okay?”

“Oh, yeah. You would be a great dad.” Drew lobbed another sarcastic lob at his friend.

Adrian tightened his hold on his girlfriend. “So, how are you liking this view?”

“Of the lake?” She turned to see the fogginess again. It was—by her honest estimation—a hideous view at this time of the year. “Oh, it’s interesting to the say the least. And you?”

“Well, I think I’ve seen better. Want to go for a walk?”

Chris bounced over with his hands deep within his jacket pockets. The tip of his nose was red. “So, Drew and I were thinking. How about we have a little game of tag?”

Drew finally found his way over, throwing the football up in the air repeatedly. His blue-green eyes seemed very rare, especially now, in the midst of all the gray. “No we weren’t—you were.”

Diana sent a devious grin in Chris’s direction. She was shocked he was so open about his methods to get Diana and Drew together. She liked him even more for it. “I’m up for it. It’ll give us some ample exercise.”

“Hey, Whitney, Evey, want to play a game of tag?” Chris hollered.

Adrian frowned, and Diana felt him tense against her. “It’s cold. You can’t be serious about running in this weather. It’s bad for…”

“Everyone knows it’s bad for your muscles,” Chris responded, roughly wrapping an arm around his neck so that the three of them were bound together like some sort of interesting human sandwich. Drew watched in consternation. “Come on, Adrian. You know you’re interested in playing a little game of tag with your lovely lady here.”

“Noes goes,” Whitney screamed, tapping her pink nose as she stuffed her phone in her puffer jacket pocket. Eery appeared beside her, doing the same.

Each person did so, including Anna, who walked up to her large brood, up until Adrian, who—with his arms firmly against Diana’s hips—was unable to tap his nose like a little second grader.

“Oh, poor Adriano.” Chris tapped his shoulder before rushing off as fast as he could in the direction of the nearby scraggly forest. Thin trees offered vague cover, but with so many people to be spotted, Chris had plenty of time to find the perfect hiding spot.

Diana took off like a bullet, following Drew as he chased Chris. Eventually, Drew cut to the right and called over his shoulder, “Why are you following me?”

“I get lost easily,” she said, breathless almost. She was a distance runner, so it didn’t explain the loss of oxygen. She gingerly jumped over a fallen log. She heard feminine laughter jingling like Christmas bells in the distance. This was perfect Sasquatch territory, Diana realized, but she was rushing furiously to keep up with Drew, who was like some sort of superhero dodging tree branches and the evils of the forest.

“Diana!” Drew finally said as he came to a stop behind a large oak. Fontana Lake was nowhere within sight now, and Diana realized they’d run at least half a mile away. It would be almost impossible to find them so far away, unless a group of hunters tracked them down. “Why are you still following me?”

“I told you. I have a problem with direction. If I go alone, I’ll get lost.”

“Why not follow Evey or Whitney?”

Diana cocked an eyebrow. “Do you really think that is the best option right now? You know me somewhat now. I have a competitive spirit. Your sisters will be the first ones discovered.”

“So you’re deciding to ally up with me, then, huh?”

She barely recognized herself as she felt a mischievous grin light up her smile. “Of course.”

“Well, where are you thinking we should hide? Do you have a plan?”

“Not exactly.”

“Well, this is ridiculously naïve of us then.”

The pair crouched behind a wide tree that would boast plenty of ticks in a Memphis summer. Diana’s teeth began to chatter as Drew looked at her with trepidation and wonder. The call of some sort of bird startled them for a moment. There was no sound to be heard, and Drew doubted there would be for some time.

They were completely quiet for a few moments so the only sound emanating from them was their labored breathing. Eventually, Drew said, “Maybe we should head back. They’ll never find us.”

Diana looked down at her fluffy mittens, thankful she’d had the wherewithal to bring them along this afternoon. “Oh, come on. Don’t give up already. We’ve only been sitting here a few minutes.”

“Aren’t you cold?”

“Of course. I’m frozen solid. That said, we’re not going to give up within two minutes of playing the game.”

A mouth that seemed to be Drew’s opened, but the words that spilled out didn’t seem to belong to him. “It seems an awful lot like you’re hiding out from Adrian.”

Her brown eyes glanced down at the irreparable earth floor. It was like watching a movie in which he happened to be at, but how could he be the star? What was worse was Diana’s response to his question, how she slowly lifted her lidded eyes to meet his, so that he knew everything he’d said was one hundred percent true. How all her cues over this past week had reiterated Chris’s theory. It was like a deer had been struck by a wry bullet, but Drew wasn’t sure if he were the deer, the bullet, or the shooter.

“Diana, please. This is ridiculous. If you’re not into him, just cut him loose.”

She repositioned herself so she could sit directly in front of him. Out of the corner of her eye, a pair of blue eyes appeared in a shroud of gray. It didn’t bother her. “Well, I can’t do that, Drew.”

“And why not?”

“He’s my study buddy, and I’m on vacation with his family, if you haven’t noticed. I think it would be a little awkward if I just up and severed the tie of anxious love.”

Drew smirked as he glanced behind her. He thought he saw a flash of human and brought a finger to his lips, though Adrian never appeared. It must have been a mirage, or a dream, or whatever, because this all teemed too unlikely to be possible. How could Diana admit to a batch of things Chris had just suggested like he was some sort of prophet?

“I don’t think this is a conversation you and I should be having, Diana.” Drew looked at his hands and flicked a few granules of dirt away, back to the earth where it belonged.

She didn’t seem to agree. “You know, Drew, I think it is a conversation you and I should have.”

“And why is that?”

She anxiously chewed on a thumbnail, a habit she saw as a weakness. Finally, her eyes opened and she said calmly, “Because, Drew, I’m pretty sure you know how I feel about this situation.”

“Which is?”

“Come on. Are you really this clueless?”

He shrugged, flashing a grin. “Maybe. I don’t think I am. I’m pretty sure I know what you are alluding to.”

“Well, then you know what I mean.”

“But I’m not exactly sure that I do.”

Diana rolled her warm eyes. Each orb was like a fire in the middle of this cold November afternoon. Soon enough, the November days would melt into December, and time would continue to roll on like some sort of infinite game of dominoes. One day down the line, Drew might look back at this particular afternoon and see something he’d never known he would see in a million years.

“Are you saying that… That you might feel something for me?” Drew couldn’t look at Diana as he uttered those words. It felt like some sort of major betrayal, and he knew it was what it was. You can call the kettle black, but in this instance, the kettle was just absolutely dead.

Diana glanced upward. In the thin canopy of cover, she was able to make out a lone white cloud in the midst of all the gray sky. “I don’t know what I want, Drew.”

“Me either. That’s for sure.”

Something shifted in the underbrush so that Drew almost toppled over onto the ground, but Diana grabbed him by the sleeves to keep him upright. She chuckled as he regained his composure.

“What were you saying?”

“I… I was saying something about, well, maybe we should try something.”

Drew’s skin flared to a boil. “What?”

She was like a magnet reeling him in. Her lips curved into the words she said. “You know, maybe we should just…” She moved so close to him that he couldn’t hear anything except the drum of his labored breathing. He tried his hardest not to hyperventilate, and then there was the whole, Resist your temptation. Resist, desist!

Then, he wasn’t sure how—if he or she initiated—but their lips were locked together in some sort of embrace, and then she was suddenly atop him, and there was definitely something like pleasure, and then Drew remembered furiously that his brother was dating this woman, and he struggled to force her off, but she wouldn’t budge, and his response was deepening into her.

Something, again, moved in the bushes, and Drew and Diana both scuttled to an upright position. Diana saw the pained rage in Drew’s eyes as he jumped up and hightailed away like an anxious bunny. She chased after him, but this time, she could not catch up.

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

THE HOUSE WAS bustling like a fallen beehive. Everywhere Raina turned, something was working, buzzing, and annoying her to death. “Remind me. Why did I do this again?” she asked herself as she finished the mashed potatoes. She anxiously twirled the gravy around, watching as it began to congeal. The dinger on the oven began to bleat: The ham was ready. Raina felt like a contortionist as she flitted around the kitchen, and her nerves were shot.

In ten minutes, both her parents and Chris Rose were supposed to magically show up at her little house in the suburb of Collierville for this surprise get-together. Her dad knew that Raina had invited a man over (“wow,” he’d said, shocked) but her mother knew nothing of the mysterious lad whose sleek sports car appeared in their daughter’s driveway. Upon seeing it, Kimberly’s mouth fell open and she said, “Not our girl, right?” Max just shrugged.

Then they tottered up together to the front door. While they had a key to enter, they both stared open-mouthed into the open window of the dining room. A smorgasbord of food steamed on the table like heaven-sent manna. A tall man appeared, leaning against the archway connecting the dining room to the kitchen.

“Oh my gosh. This cannot be happening,” Kim said, glancing up at her husband with wide eyes. He stared down at her, shocked too. While he had technically been in the same vicinity as their daughter’s guest, he had been too oblivious to pay any attention.

Raina appeared, wearing a tacky apron as she set down a plate of delicious something. She glanced up at the man and he smirked at her. She tossed her oven mitts at him and disappeared.

“Oh. Max, is this a joke?” Kim whispered.

The door opened at that moment, and Raina emerged. The apron was gone and instead stood a beautifully dressed young woman. Her blonde hair was piled up on top of her head, but she was wearing perfectly etched makeup and an in-season indigo dress. Behind her stood the man they’d seen earlier, but now they really stared with open mouths.

“Mom, Dad, meet Christopher Rose.” Raina shepherded them inside the little entryway where her parents awkwardly shook hands with Chris, who stood over them like a tower.

“It’s nice to meet you, son,” finally said Max, who stepped back and placed a protective arm around Kimberly’s waist. When she finally regained her composure, she smiled in delight.

Then she turned to her daughter and said, “You did not tell me about this, Raina. How could you not have told me about this handsome addition to my birthday dinner?”

Raina hugged her mother, enjoying the warmth and positive energy Kimberly oozed. “I wanted it to be a nice surprise.”

“It’s definitely a surprise all right.”

They headed inside where the heat radiated around the house. Raina disappeared to finish pouring drinks as Chris navigated the waters of meeting Raina’s parents—and really under false pretenses.

“I’m still so shocked,” breathed Kimberly.

“Why are you shocked, honey? Raina’s always been a late bloomer, but she knows what she wants.”

“Exactly why I thought she’d never even date until she was thirty…” Kimberly whispered in response, before remembering Chris was standing right in front of her. She smiled. “Well, Chris, you seem to be a charming guy.”

Max glumly said, “Yes, now I gotta worry about my daughter and wife running off with you into the sunset.”

Their guest chuckled in response. “No one’s planning on running off—yet, at least.”

“Now what do you do for a living?” Kimberly asked. What could ruin their perception of this well-to-do young man? He had a nice car, but he could have a yurt for a home. He had nice clothes, but he could live in a pigsty. She tried to remain optimistic.

Without a beat, he smiled and said, “I’m a realtor. I work for my dad’s realty company, actually. Rose and Sternway.”

“Oh, yes, we’ve heard of them!” Kimberly exclaimed, breathing a sigh of relief. So he was of reputable standing in the community as well, she guessed. And he wanted her daughter!

Raina called out, “Okay, everything’s ready!”

The trio headed into the kitchen, which smelled like a bundle of heavenly aromas sprinkled in with boon direct from paradise. Chris tried not to stare too much at all the food, or its cook, as she ambled to the dining room table like some sort of magic charm. She definitely cleaned up well.

They sat down to the inviting meal, and Max led prayer. When they finished, Chris blinked. A family praying before dinner? He’d only seen that on a movie mocking religious people. He stared at Raina, who seemed unaffected by this act. Did she buy into that stuff too? Well, if she did, she certainly wasn’t the most open or sharing person about her faith. Wasn’t that antithetical to her message? He watched as she stood and cut up slices of ham for each person’s plate. As he was at one head of the table, he tried not to stare at her too long for fear that like any good Southern father, Max might pull out a shotgun at any moment and cock the thing right in his direction. However, Raina was such a distraction. She was able to work her way through the ham before asking if anyone needed anything. When all said no, she sat back down and smiled. That smile was something he knew did not belong to everybody on the planet. It was uniquely Raina’s.

He knew her secret and why he needed to be at dinner. He knew she was technically being dishonest, but it was something that was very brave and from the heart. When he looked at Kimberly, he didn’t see death. The woman was plump and pretty, with a face full of makeup and bright, honest smiles. Yes, she wore an indigo scarf against her bald head, but it seemed to be a personal fashion choice rather than something that might signal danger and disease.

And with a quick glance in Max’s direction, Chris assumed he didn’t think it was possible his wife was dying either. If she sure didn’t look like she was, then how could she be? Of course, Raina tried to prep Chris before this cozy little dinner. She went to every test, to every doctor’s appointment, to the family preparedness meetings. She did her part, while her dad liked to pretend nothing was amiss. Raina knew time was slowing down for Kimberly, like a glass of upturned sand. Raina hadn’t cried as she told Chris this, but it was obvious she was in pain. Chris couldn’t imagine the dedication and time Raina had given to her mother’s cancer, but again, Raina wasn’t like most people.

He thought about his previous presuppositions of the woman. The whole reason he’d first talked to her at the pumpkin patch was because his brother Alexander was such a bore in the first place. He’d tried to connect with him, but to no avail, and in his boredom, he’d sought a conversation with a woman who seemed to be way out of his league. Technically, he’d first assumed he was out of her league, but now, he could see it was truly the opposite.

He stared wide-eyed at her until he realized Mrs. Newton—Kimberly, as she’d made it known—began to ask him questions. Typical mom questions. Typical get-to-know-you questions. Where did he work? I’m a closet serial killer with a killer 401k. Was he from Memphis? Born and raised. Oh, yeah, but I was conceived in Vegas. Fun fact, right? Where did he go to church? On random astrological events, such as Halley’s Comet, which isn’t due until I’m long dead, I will attend the big Baptist church with three crosses. What about you? Where did you go to college? Vanderbilt, only because I’m a legacy kid. No, I didn’t flunk out, but it was a small miracle I made it through. Siblings? Don’t get me started. Social Security number? Don’t even know it myself. I always forget.

Raina did not seem majorly embarrassed. He watched her occasionally out of the corner of his eye. For a few moments, he placed his big hand over her small one, feeling how smooth her skin happened to be. She tensed at the touch, but she knew he was a good actor. Then Chris prepared for the salvo of ammunition Max had to fire at him.

Was he a convicted felon? No, but I was arrested for something stupid I did in high school. Did he know how to shoot a weapon in order to protect his family? Well, since my best friend is a freak of nature when it comes to killing other freaks of nature (and I’m thinking of deer), yes. But I hate guns. Oh, wait. Can’t tell you that, or you’ll put a rifle to my forehead. You better be a Republican. At the very least, a Blue Dog Democrat. Well, that’s a whole topic I refuse to discuss with anybody except my brother’s pet snail. You know how to gut a deer? I know how to clean a gutter. You seem okay. Well, okay. Thanks. I feel very appreciated now.

“Okay,” said Raina finally, lifting a heap of mashed potatoes to her lips. “Mom, Dad. I think you’ve interrogated him enough, but now it’s his turn to interrogate you.”

What was this? Chris raised an eyebrow as she assuredly placed a hand on his again. He stared at her with confusion, and said, “Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary.”

“Why, sure. Raina’s got a point,” Kimberly said, lifting a napkin to her mouth. “It’s your turn to make sure we aren’t sleeper agents from the USSR. Wait, I mean Russia.”

Raina withdrew her feminine hand and smiled at him. He was locked between her crosshairs. He wanted to ask about the big elephant in the room, but he wasn’t sure if that would be ethically ideal. So he eyed Max, the easier target.

“So, what do you do, Max?” Chris took a gulp of water, feeling it course down his throat like clear ichor.

“Well, primarily, I work as an electrician for MLGW. But my real passion is my side business, a feed store.”

“A feed store?” Chris asked.

Max placed his napkin on his plate as Kimberly gave him a wry look. “Well, it’s a country store, I guess you could say. We sell hay and tractors, and all sorts of stuff amenable to a farm. I’m sure a guy like you isn’t used to one, which is why you need to go. Expand your horizons and all that philosophical mumbo-jumbo.”

Their guest genteelly laughed. “Well, I guess I’ll have to take you up on that offer. So you like to hunt and all?”

Max’s eyes lit up like fireworks. “I wouldn’t say I like to hunt. I love to hunt. But I’m not one of those who only does it for sport. What I kill is what’s gonna be for dinner that night. God put creatures on this planet so we could love them or use them as food, not as objects to randomly annihilate.”

“Well, I would have to agree.” Chris picked up another forkful of ham. “And you, Kimberly? Do you work?” He was trying to broach a comfortable topic with her without stating the obvious. Raina noted that he didn’t seem uncomfortable around her mother though, which surprised her.

Kimberly beamed as she spoke to her daughter’s love interest, which caused a scowl from Max, before being replaced by a wide grin. If his wife was attracted to another man, so be it. Kimberly needed all the happiness she could get. “I used to be a teacher, just like Raina is now. Instruction was my job, but I think it still is in many ways. My favorite career was always being Raina’s mom.”

Raina looked away.

“Now,” Kimberly stated plainly, trying to liven up the atmosphere, “you tell me how you two met. I can’t believe my daughter here didn’t tell me about you, Chris Rose.”

He didn’t need to act now. His gaze landed on Raina’s frame. “She wanted it to be a surprise for your birthday, Kimberly.”

“Let me get the cake, and then we’ll tell you.” Raina stood up, still unusually unhappy, and Chris stood with her. He hurried behind her into the kitchen, and with their few moments of privacy, she said, “I’m sorry. Is it obvious that upset me?”

“Raina. Please don’t be concerned over anything. I’m able to handle it, okay? And I mean that.”

She stared at him, unamused. “I don’t care what you think, Chris. Well, I mean I do, but… But my mom. I care what she thinks, and… Sometimes she acts like nothing’s wrong, and it drives me crazy. That’s all. Okay, let’s go eat.”

Chris lit the candles on the beautiful, handmade vanilla cake before Raina walked it into the dining room. Tears popped out onto Kimberly’s cheeks as the group began singing to her. “Make a wish!” drawled Max.

Kimberly opened her eyes. “I made it. Oh, honey. This is such a nice surprise.”

It was like a spotlight landed on Raina. She nodded. “Well, Mom, you deserve nice surprises. Now and then, of course.” She walked over and kissed her mother’s forehead, right at the line where hair should be rooted. Chris watched with silent admiration.

“We met at the pumpkin patch,” Raina finally said. “Dad was completely oblivious, and so was Uncle Joe. But we met there in late October. So this thing hasn’t been very long.”

“That’s okay,” Kimberly breathed. “It’s okay.”

 

HER PARENTS LEFT around ten o’clock, which was the same time she usually hit the sack. However, tonight most definitely was an exception, and as the dishwasher buzzed nearby, Chris sat himself on a barstool at the lip of the granite countertops. Raina fell in place beside him, now wearing her pajamas. Her hair was in a tight ponytail at the nape of her neck and her makeup was washed off, but she still seemed to glow.

“Thank you again, Chris,” she said. Honestly, she was surprised he was still around. He hadn’t made a move to leave, even though she was at the point of exhaustion. She was thinking about cutting church in the morning, but Aunt Velda would kill her if she didn’t show. Velda was already having massive heart attacks over her sister Kimberly’s not coming to church anymore.

He drummed his fingers against the counter before looking up at Raina again. “No, Raina, thank you. For inviting me to this. It’s not something most people have.”

She nodded, remembering meeting his father and his father’s girlfriend. The thought made her want to upchuck. “I’m very blessed to have what I have. But also, you handled my mom very well. She was quiet around you, which is hard to believe. She’s usually as loud as a tornado siren, but I think you charmed her. She may ask to run off with you into the sunset.”

“It would be very awful of me to decline that invitation.”

They both paused for a moment, staring at the grout of the tile floors before Raina slowly asked, “What’s your mom like?”

Chris looked up at her, surprised by how vulnerable she appeared at this very moment, like she was a child in desperate need of a friend. She was opening up with him. Could he do the same? He cleared his throat, a little apprehensive. How could he tell a naïve person like Raina the truth? “She’s just a mom. She likes to hang out with her friends and drink wine by the beach. She’s the only one in our family who’s undeniably herself.”

“When will I see you again, Chris?”

“Since we’re obviously using each other at our disposal now, how about we do something new.”

“New?”

“My friend and I made this bet.”

“Oh, did you now?”

“He’s as crazy as a flower that blooms in the desert. Horrible analogy, I know. Anyway… Why is this so hard?” He glanced at her hopeful hint of a smile, and he finally cleared his throat and said, “Why don’t we try this out for real?”

“What?” she said, her eyes big, like she hadn’t been expecting the question when he really thought she had. She seemed to tense like she was some sort of sculpture by Michelangelo. “What do you mean, ‘for real?’”

He sighed. “Like, you and I try this thing out. Test the waters of a relationship. But I have to give you the full enchilada.”

“The full enchilada? Christopher, you are confusing me. Are you trying to ask me out on a date? With no lies or whatever?” He silently stared at her until she said, “I’m so sorry. I’m exhausted, and apparently I can’t speak English. You’re asking me on a date. A real date?”

“Yes, Raina.”

“Oh, okay. What’s this part about a bet?”

“My friend Drew and I… Well, we’re having this bet. Who can monogamously date the same woman for three months straight.”

“So, there’s still a catch.”

“Yes.”

“And this means it’s not really dating?”

“No, Raina. I’m asking you to date me. For three months, just to see how it goes. But I know it’s a lot to ask you, but I like being around you, and…”

Surprisingly she winked in his direction. “And even though you don’t want to use me, you can. And I’ll use you. Just be blunt with me, Chris. For honesty’s sake, we’re going to date, at least for a little bit. I’ll go with you to whatever you need me to do, and you’ll be my bargaining chip against my mom. Simple.”

“Are you joking with me?”

“No.” She stood up, obviously beat, and motioned to the door. “And as your new girlfriend,” at this, she bunny-eared her fingertips, “I will walk you to your car.”

Chris followed her like a little lapdog all the way into the loud night. Rap music blossomed nearby as a car passed, but upon further inspection, Chris saw that it was a white teenager who was playing it. He rolled his eyes as Raina crossed her arms. Even in the cool winter night bugs swarmed around her porchlights. “Well, that conversation was one of the weirdest I’ve had.”

“Yes, but I think our entire relationship is based in weirdness. Go along now.” She was playing with him, and she knew it.

Chris reached out to her, not sure of what he was doing, until he realized he was making a move on her. Shocked at his own bravado, he found his lips mixing with hers, like a reunited Pangaea. Did I really just thinkt that? Suddenly his body was like an oven before Raina pulled away a few seconds later. Anticipating her anger at his impulsive act, he saw she was simply refraining with a devious grin. “You’re not even going to play the whole part? Come on.”

She shrugged. “What can I say? You’re not going to get the cookies out of the jar before I say so.”

“Are you quoting a Ciara song?”

“Of course. Good night, and thanks. Good bye.”

He stared at door she’d just slammed in his face and shook his head. He was afraid he was becoming smitten.

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

DREW STOOD ON the doorstep. It was close to seven o’clock in the morning, a Sunday. Drew held a Bible in one hand and a coffee in the other. The light streamed in through the opening where the door had been two seconds ago. At least the waking sun was pretty. Chris lazily asked, “Why are you here?”

Things began to come back to him. Last night at Raina’s, with her parents nonetheless. How he’d kissed her. How he’d convinced her to do this three-month bet with him. He grinned at the memories.

“Man, I’m dying here.” Drew flew into the house.

“What’s wrong?” Chris asked, shutting the door with a yawn. He glanced at his watch again. He had an open house to showcase in t-minus eight hours. Before that, he planned on a light jog, some showering, a trip to his sister’s, and then walla, he’d be the perfect, reputable sensei on square feet and crown molding and fake smiles.

Drew placed the Bible on the foyer table. Guiltily, Chris remembered his interior designer at the thought of that table. His friend flashed a hand through his cropped golden hair. “I messed up, Chris. Like big time.”

“What do you mean?” His stomach rumbled in response to his question. Why was that thing so much like a kid sometimes? You had to feed it or it would blow up.

Worry crossed Drew’s eyes. “When… When we were at that lake…”

“Yes?”

“And I disappeared for an hour?”

“Yes.” Chris looked a bit bored.

“I guess I should just put it out there.”

“I’m thinking you should, too.” A yawn appeared on Chris’s face. The glow of the mid-morning sun cast his brown hair a sort of honey hue.

“I kissed her, man. It was absolutely amazing, but it was so bad at the same time. I deserve capital punishment.”

“I think that’s a bit much. By the way, I already know all this.”

Drew’s jaw dropped. “You know? She told you? Why would she tell you? My life is so murky. I want to take a hammer to my brain.”

“Drew, listen to you. You’re losing it, and there’s no real reason to lose it. I was spying on you guys, and I saw the whole thing, okay? I didn’t get to hear y’all’s sweet nothings, and I didn’t exactly see you two make out, because I am not some creepy voyeur, but I was there. I was rooting for you, man, and you succeeded! You came out of the closet with your feelings.”

“That sounds so weird.”

“It’s the truth. You and Diana were going to hide out like lovesick fools. Well, actually, Diana wasn’t, but you were. You couldn’t even see how much she liked you. She never wanted Adrian.”

“Well, why’d she date him, then?” Drew’s face was so hot he thought he was in Hades a few years early.

“Because, sometimes women don’t know what they want.”

Drew shook his head and lowered his head to his hands. “And you would know, wouldn’t you?”

“Do I detect sarcasm? Well, I’m the truth-giver. I am the one person who isn’t afraid to tell you how it is, okay? Love me or hate me, I’m your guardian angel.”

“Okay, Gabriel, then why did I get so mad after she kissed me?”

Chris shrugged. “I didn’t see that part.”

Drew shook his head, remembering the intensity of that moment under a collection of itchy tree branches. “I can’t do that to Adrian. It’s against my moral code, my ethical code, all of it. If I want to fall in love, it can’t be like this.”

His friend just stared at him for a few seconds. “It’s going to be a rough Christmas, and it may look like I have the advantage in our bet.”

“Oh, sure. So you can date some random girl you picked off the street? That’s nice, Chris, very nice.”

“Well, I can smell your mom’s delicious, warm, savory cooking right now. The only thing you’re smelling is total defeat.”

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

KIMBERLY SAT ON the papered bed of a hospital room. Raina was busy texting on her phone, but the older woman couldn’t help but smile. Her daughter had never been one to champion her romantic endeavors to anyone, even her. After a failed college relationship, Raina’s attitude had soured toward men. She didn’t date often, and Kimberly was extremely afraid she’d end up alone. Raina had always been antisocial to a degree, preferring children to people her own age, but now with Mr. Chris Rose—whom she had made Max stalk with her for an hour on all social media platforms and the Internet—now, Kimberly could find peace.

Sort of.

Raina finally placed the phone on her lap and said, “What a nice day for a check-up, right?”

Kimberly smiled, glancing out at their view of the green skyline. She glanced at her daughter, finding more beauty there than outside. “So, who were you texting?”

Raina blushed. “Well, it was nothing important, Mom.”

“No, come on. You have to tell me now.”

Raina picked at a fingernail. “Well, if you thought it was Chris, it wasn’t. I was simply conversing with Peter Ledger, a guy who goes to my church.”

“A guy who goes to your church?” Kimberly didn’t scowl this time, which was a positive. Instead, she raised an eyebrow, expecting answers.

Raina sighed. “He’s trying to convince me to go to this new connect group, or a Sunday school class. Whatever it’s called. He says I would enjoy it. Peter and his wife are basically my guides, since I just joined that church two months ago.”

“Without going to a Sunday school class?”

“Oh, it’s no big deal. I knew it was the right fit for me.”

Thankfully the doctor entered, a Dr. Li, who completed Kimberly’s yearly check-up with relative ease and gentility, especially with Kimberly’s life prognosis diminishing by the day. Once they completed the check-up, they headed back into the lobby, but Kimberly was still dissecting Raina’s interest in church. She, of all people, knew church didn’t do anything for anyone.

Raina, on the other hand, knew it was quite the opposite.

They entered the lobby where a lemon-scented freshener filled the air. Out of the corner of her eye, Raina thought she saw Chris Rose sitting by a woman in a wheelchair. She glanced again at the man, recognizing his broad shoulders and dirty blond hair. When she moved forward, she looked back and saw that it was in fact him. He was staring at his phone, and before she knew it, she was out in the hallway.

Chris looked up and saw a flash of two women leaving the hospital. He glanced at his sister and offered her a smug smile. “I told you, isn’t she pretty?” He held up the same pixel photograph on his phone he’d showed Drew of a woman who was named after rain.

 

RAINA WAS A good teacher. Most students and their parents rooted for her when it came time to see who would be so-and-so’s latest teacher for the year, and if a person saw RAINA NEWTON in scripted font of the page, he or she generally would be happy. Raina was meticulous with her job, so much so that some of the older teachers asked for advice on lesson plans, even though it was Raina’s fourth year of teaching. A part of the meticulousness was that Raina did not let outside, interpersonal relationships affect her job.

Not until now, however.

It was an unseasonably warm night on December 6th, a few weeks before Christmas, when Chris had insisted they go to dinner—just the two of them, no fake anything involved. They’d chatted a few times since getting together at Raina’s house with her parents, but if she were honest with herself, she knew she was too busy to be pining after some guy, no matter how good-looking he was. So she agreed to the date, but only if Chris could pick her up at the school at five, so she could finish setting up her lesson plans for next week.

Raina didn’t need to change, as she’d dressed nicely today, and she found herself glancing at her watch throughout timed math practices and boring subject noun/verb pattern lessons. In the midst of a spiel on Harriet Tubman, Raina watched the hands on the class clock wind by like slow molasses.

She picked up her purse and coat as she looked out the window to see Chris’s car appear in the haze. A few moments later, she was in his car and he was complimenting how she looked, and if the Italian restaurant he’d made a reservation at would work.

Raina looked at him and said, “Of course, Chris.”

He smiled. “Sorry, I must sound like I’m spazzing. I showed three houses today, and it was almost unbearable.”

“Ah, that’s interesting. Why was it so bad?”

He shrugged. “One couple was particularly annoying. They insisted the specs I had were different from the ones they had, and when we compared them, they were—shockingly!—the same. The next couple didn’t like this other house because it didn’t have crown molding, and also because there was no at-home sound system. I about lost it. The third house was for an old woman in Bartlett, and she repeated the same questions to me, over and over again.”

“Need an aspirin?”

Chris smiled as he maneuvered onto a slab of the next road that was freshly repaved. What was the feeling about driving on new asphalt that was so rewarding? He glanced at Raina out of the corner of his eye. “So, how was your day?”

“Long but good.”

“Why did you choose teaching? Other than your mom being a teacher before you?” He asked the question with great care, as if it was somehow damaging to Raina. She didn’t mind when people asked her about her career, because she always knew the answer.

“It’s rewarding and it pays the bills. The biggest thing is that I love the children in my class, and I don’t like to look at them as different. They each have an equal chance to succeed, and if I can help them love education now, then they will have a different outlook for the rest of their lives.”

“Education, huh? I kinda wish you could have been my teacher back in the day, then.”

Raina lowered her skull against the headrest, imagining Chris as a little boy. “You know, that probably would have been interesting, but I was probably in diapers when you were in second grade.”

He shrugged. “We’re not that different in age.”

“We’re not? How old are you?”

“Twenty-eight.”

Her jaw dropped. “You’re only twenty-eight?”

“What, you took me for forty? Do I look old?” Playfully he glanced in the rear-view mirrors, as if magical wrinkles had sprouted across the bridge of his nose. He did notice a wrinkle in his forehead, but that was from spending his summers in the hot outdoors.

“No, nothing like that. It’s just, I’m only twenty-six. We’re only two years apart? Don’t take this wrong, but I look more like a teenager than an adult. You look more like an adult than a teenager.”

Chris tapped a long finger against the wheel. “Now that is a comparison, Miss Newton. And I’m pretty sure you don’t look like a teenager.”

“People offered me children’s menus at restaurants until I was twenty.”

“That’s just awful.”

Trees whooshed by outside, or more accurately, their car whooshed by the trees. The wintry night sky was approaching, and it was Raina’s favorite part of the season. She couldn’t stand cold temperatures. “I just can’t believe it. I thought you were in your early thirties. How are you so successful at such a young age?”

Chris didn’t mind the question. He raised an eyebrow, and then stroked his clean-shaven chin like he was truly debating something. “Hmm, maybe it’s the fact that my father owns the realty company I work at.”

Raina pushed her thumb against the leather seat where a beam of orange sunlight projected. If she left her finger there for a few seconds, it would become warm. She wondered if the same would apply if she left herself with Chris for long. She turned back to him. “Your father… As in Chris Rose I? Wait, I knew that. I guess I just forgot.”

“Well, I wish I could tell you I am rich, famous, and just so mesmerizing based on my own abilities, but unfortunately, that’s just not the case. I have my dad to thank for my life and my career, and sometimes, I just want to quit it all.”

Raina lifted her thumb against her arm. Now a little circle-sized area seemed to glow as she applied pressure. Her skin, while somewhat tan in the summer time, had reverted to its normal pale luminosity. Some people had made fun of her in school for how light her skin was, and it still bothered her today. What bothered her even more was the fact that she’d met countless individuals with cancer over the years—some of whom would have gone back any day to refute another chance at the tanning bed.

“I do, too.”

They were both quiet in thought for a few moments until Chris’s phone buzzed the theme from Star Trek. He shrugged, showing the lit-up screen to his date. It was a picture of his brother, Alexander, and he quickly said, “He reminds me of a Vulcan. Just kidding. He’s definitely Spock to my Kirk.”

“I would rather be Spock.”

“Well, I’ll be Spock if you’re Uhura.”

She glanced away in a mixture of embarrassment and happiness. She wasn’t a Star Trek fan; she only knew glimpses of facts from her brother’s love of the show. Thinking of him sent her mind to a place she didn’t want to go, and she tried her hardest to steer it right back on track.

“What, Alex? You need me to drive you someplace yet again? Come on, bro. You’re eighteen.” Chris fumbled with the phone for a moment before holding it again against his ear. “No, I can’t just whisk you up into thin air. What are you doing all the way at Mud Island? This question may shock you, but why can’t your little girlfriend pick you up? Oh, wow. Fine.”

“Let’s go get him.” Raina meekly pulled on her scarf. The car was warm and toasty like a roasted marshmallow.

Chris stared at her for a moment before glancing back at the road. He was a horrible multitasker by principle. “Raina, why?”

“Well, he’s your brother for starters. That’s reason enough.”

He paused before a low sigh emanated from his chest. “Okay. Fine. But one rule: If you ever do this to me again, I swear I’ll cut you to pieces with Dad’s rickety chainsaw. Got it? Bye. Yes, I have the directions. I know where that is. Have you forgotten that I’m a full decade older than you? Okay. Bye.” He slid the phone down into the cup holder before picking it up. “Okay, well, now I need to cancel our reservation. Oh, Raina, I’m so sorry. You thought you were going to get me completely this afternoon, and instead you get my raucous younger brother now. I promise, we’ll put him on a leash and wrap him up in tissue paper so he won’t be able to talk.”

“We will do no such thing.”

“Come on, have a little fun.”

“I would not call that fun. I would call that attempted murder in the first degree, and unlike you, I don’t work for my father. I work at a public school. I need my job.”

“Wow, Raina. It looks like you’ve got something deep inside you that’s awakening to my sarcasm. I like it.”

Forcefully, he whipped the car around at the next available U-turn. Raina clutched the holds on the door so hard that she felt one of her fingernails crack. “I’m not that dangerous. Please slow down.”

 

ALEXANDER STOOD AT the edge of a nice park with the typical set of swings, a slide, and some ugly, smelly mulch. A few kids and their parents ran around like birds set free. A purple crepe myrtle jutted upward into the setting sky.

Chris hopped out of the car to allow room for Alexander to squeeze his large frame into the backseat. While Raina had offered to fit herself in the back, Chris insisted she not even attempt, as Alex had already “ruined their date.” Raina had smiled and said nothing in return, but Chris took it as Raina’s due diligence to do good for the world. She was too sweet, he decided, which was a good thing in one aspect, but he didn’t want people to run over her like she was a rind of fruit in the middle of the road.

Raina turned in her seat and offered a hand to him. While he shook in response, he was too busy trying not to stare at her too long. She looked like a normal human being, so how was she hanging out with Chris? Alexander finally mumbled something about, “How nice to meet you.” However, as she began to nervously chitchat with Chris, who—like always—acted like Alexander was invisible, he felt like he’d been transported into another reality, another dimension, maybe another stratosphere?

“So, where’re we headed?” asked Raina.

Chris guided the car over the bridge that offered them a broad outlook into the muddy Mississippi. A barge drifted down the longest river in America, and far out a pink and white restaurant riverboat gently chugged. The sunset had almost completely evaporated into a thin line of white beneath a sky of black. Alexander thought it was an ugly setting, while the two adults in front of him seemed to stare at it with something like interest. That in itself was tremendously interesting.

Once they crossed the bridge, Chris turned his head to see Raina’s profile in the light of the approaching night. “You’ve gotta trust me on this one.”

“Are you taking me home?” asked a sullen Alexander.

Chris glared at him through the rear-view mirror. “I don’t know yet. You know, Mom’s always trying to teach you a lesson. Maybe you should come along to my new plan. I think it would be good for you.”

Alexander shifted in his seat. He had a killer headache and his brain was on fire. He’d made the mistake of hanging out with the wrong crowd, again, and when they’d had some class party down at a house on the Mississippi River, he’d been one of the first invited. He got there early, but from there, things only got worse. His girlfriend, Zoey, got too drunk and ran off with some junior, and he could have chased her, but he didn’t have the energy.

That’s what Alexander got for using her as his ride. He’d gotten his truck back, finally, but Zoey had been adamant about driving him tonight so she could show him her new Camaro.

After the whole Zoey incident, the party started in full swing, and it would only be a few minutes before the cops were called, so Alexander took for the streets. It was the only thing he’d wanted to do while he’d spent thirty minutes at the early rumblings of the fiesta.

If his mom found out he’d gone to a party, she’d skin him alive. Alexander shook his head at how stupid he was.

“Come on, tell me where we’re going,” Raina was saying as Alex woke up from his memory.

Chris shook his head. “It’s a surprise, Raina. If I told you, then it wouldn’t be a surprise, correct?”

“Well, you should know something about me then. I hate surprises with a burning passion.”

Ten minutes later, they pulled into the weathered parking lot of a hole-in-the-wall God knows where. It had definitely seen finer days, as Alexander wondered was holding the place together, but in faint red letters on the sign, he was able to make out: VIENTOS DE VERANOS. BAILANDO Y COMIENDO.

“Where the heck are we?” Alexander asked as he finally tumbled out of the car. When he stood up to his full height, Raina felt even smaller.

“See, brother, this is going to be your consummate relationship with this fine establishment.”

Raina clutched her purse closer to her body. She turned her head and saw a few men ambling down the streets wearing durags over their heads. She hated to be scared, but Memphis wasn’t exactly known for a low crime rate. She had no clue where Chris had taken her, and if she died, well…

“Come on. The fun’s inside,” Chris said, wrapping an arm around her neck, leading her. It seemed sort of ridiculous to have his nice car in an obviously lower socioeconomic part of town.

As soon as she entered, she noticed a little sprinkling of garlic above the doorposts. They pushed through the orange and blue beads streaming down from the ceiling, and then appeared a pretty Hispanic woman whose eyes widened at her recognition of Chris. She jumped into his arms as Raina glanced around at all the memorabilia, obviously pertaining to a culture she’d never seen much of except for Mexican restaurants.

“Who is this, your amor?” the woman asked.

Raina turned and said, “Hi.”

“I’m Jessy.” The lady had a friendly smile, and upon further inspection, Raina thought she was even more beautiful than her first glance. She had thick, black hair that glided down her back like something out of a TV show. “I’m just your atypical bouncer.”

“Raina.”

“Pretty name. And this strapping young man must be your brother, Christopher.” Everything she said had the particular lilt of a Spanish accent, but her English was still impeccable. Raina forgot that a lot of Hispanic people in her community and elsewhere had been born in America, too. Others immigrated, yes, but it was obvious Jessy was just as American as Raina.

“Hi, I’m Alexander,” the young man said, his blond hair illuminated by the lights. He and Raina exchanged a quick glance, both of them absolutely confused as to why Chris had selected this place for their latest rendezvous. Alexander was glad he looked older than he did. Who knew what lay behind the curtain separating the group from the rest of the room?

Raina realized loud music hummed from behind this whimsical curtain. The steady thrum of flamenco inspired her, sending her to a foreign land, with blue seas and tanned individuals underneath a shimmery gold sun.

Jessy parted the curtain, pointing to an old dancefloor where it seemed a good fifty people swam against each other in the throes of sultry Latin music. A Christmas tree glittered nearby, its lights flickering as a few men grouped together at the little bar, talking and chatting like nothing was amiss. Most of the visitors were distinctly Hispanic, but they did not seem to care about the three white people’s presence. “Bienvenido. Okay, see you later.” She disappeared back behind the curtain.

“What is this place?” Raina asked as she observed a woman twirl back to her man. Though the place smelled of sweat and cheap perfume, it was like some sort of riveting dream. Cheap thrills.

“It’s one of my favorite hangouts in the city. Alex, you can dance if you want.”

His brother stared around in amazement. This was like nowhere he’d been before. “How did you find this, Chris?”

“Simple. Back during summer breaks from college, a group of my friends and I used to come here 24/7 when we needed to let off steam and enjoy all life has to offer.”

“Well, it’s definitely like nowhere I’ve been before.” He smiled at Raina’s childlike fascination by the place. She seemed incredibly out of place, but she had a big smile plastered onto her red lips. “I’ll go find something to do. Enjoy y’all’s selves.” He disappeared into the throng of dancers.

Chris shrugged and appraised his date. “Are you okay with this?” Loud Spanish music thrummed above them.

“Am I ever. Come on.” She grabbed his hand and led him to the dance floor, where they matched rhythm and twirled around in circles. If the melody increased in tempo, they increased their responding movements to each other. When they bumped into other people, they giggled and whispered horrible attempts at Spanish to their comrades. People waved at them and smiled, knowing that anyone could have fun here. It was like some sort of enchanting spell created by a sitar and a mantra recited in thick Spanish.

Sweat pooled onto the floor as each person jigged about. Raina and Chris were only two bodies in this sea, and if they afforded a few moments to look elsewhere, they saw a hundred different stories in the crowd. Some of these individuals barely had any coins to rub together, and this would be their only source of entertainment for the week. Others were letting loose after a long week at work. Some teenagers drifted together, snickering and laughing at the whole gig. Jessy peeked around the curtain, watching the dancers with a giggle.

Back on the floor, Chris wrapped an arm around Raina’s waist as a slower song floated around them. They watched each other in the same spell of wonder as a foreign language proclaimed glittery fantasies beyond. Raina had never noticed the hint of brown in Chris’s blue eyes; he’d never noticed the hint of green in her brown eyes. They watched each other in a speculative solitude. For Chris, it was like a time bomb had gone off, electrifying his desires and pushing him to the edge of an abyss he was afraid to fall into. Yet he was there, and he was swiftly approaching the brink. For Raina, it was like staring up from the bottom of a large sinkhole, wondering if she’d ever have the courage to climb out.

“You know,” he finally said after they bumped into a heavyset man who tipped his hat at them, “this went better than any reservation at any restaurant could have gone.”

She nodded. “Dancing is pretty fun.”

“It is.”

“Where’s Alexander?”

“He can take care of himself.”

“Oh, come on.”

“You’re just trying to distract the obvious issue here.”

“Which is…?”

He leaned down and pressed his lips to hers. It was like something monumental for the both of them. It was deeper for Raina than any of other guy’s lips to hers; for Chris, it was sweet like saccharine coke. It was short, but long enough so that a brood of ladies gasped and said, “Aww.”

When they drew apart, both broke out into huge smiles. “Raina,” Chris said, “want to get out of here?”

A dollop of anxiety pressed against her ribs. “Yes.”

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

DIANA STOOD ON the cusp of her lawn, where the sidewalk abruptly hit grass. It was a chilly night, and she watched as the pulsating white lights on her neighbor’s large oak flashed every three seconds like a syncopating drum. Down the street, Mr. Elbert’s massive collection of flashing lights in every hue of color was as distracting as Goliath skating around a group of elves.

She held a cigarette in her finger and placed it in the trashcan. If her mother found it, she’d be in a torrent for weeks. Mel had been gone for nearly three days, deciding to stay at a friend’s house rather than endure a brash, torturous ordeal between their parents, who were fighting over political entanglements in Atlanta, which really had nothing to do with Memphis.

Diana wrapped her arms around her body. She tried to ignore the typical way her thoughts would chart course to Drew Atwater. She warmed at the memory of their kiss underneath that gray sky. Now, in front of the strobe light show, she wondered what it would be like to kiss him against the backdrop of an effective, virtual rainbow.

Her body tightened as she thought of the possibilities. Her relationship with Adrian was diminishing by the second. He had taken interest in another girl in their shared class, and though he was obviously embarrassed by this, Diana didn’t care at all. But without Adrian, she wasn’t sure how she would ever see Drew. The thing with him was he was so straight-laced, and though she felt guilty, Drew had refused to even look at her on the ride back to Memphis from the mountains. It had been dreadful.

Eventually, she breathed warm air into her hands and a beat-up car practically jumped down the street. The girl driving the car hurriedly motioned, and Diana hopped in, sneakily glancing over her shoulder to their quiet house. Their father had streaked a few Christmas lights over the rose bushes, but it looked awful.

“You know, I would appreciate if you came back, so I don’t have to hear about your wrongdoings for the next seventy years.”

“Move out.”

“Have you forgotten that I’m a jobless, poor student?”

“Pretty much my life, inverted. Minus the money.”

“Mel, come on. Come back.” The car guzzled as it hurried down the road, passing an inflatable snowman from at least the early 1990s. Diana anxiously glanced over at her sister. “Where are we even going?”

Mel shrugged. She’d cut her hair even more. It was chopped shorter in the back, while a bobbish look to her shoulders illuminated the front. A smattering of black eyeliner curved under her eyes, and she looked like some sort of sexed-up criminal. That was Mel’s entire life story, though. “Just missed you, so I thought I’d come pick you up like I’m your Prince Charming.”

“Mel, I love you, but just no. No thank you.”

“Oh, come on. You’re too stuck-up. We need to live a little, and if that means we’re going to a strip club… Ha, got you good. I was thinking, how about we go to the little bar in Cooper Young?”

“No. We are not getting drunk before my final tomorrow.”

“Good point. We could just have a few drinks.”

“Mel!”

She rolled her eyes. They looked so big and brown in the glow of the streetlamps. The Christmasy spirit annoyed them both, and they set their jaws in sisterly unison as they passed a fully-decorated house, lights and sound effects and all of it. “I don’t understand the point. You’d just have to take it down within a few weeks anyway.”

“I’ve got a plan. Head to the nearest store.”

“What?”

“Mel, are you going to trust me or not?”

Mel turned right at the next road. “You know, maybe this is good that you’ve got a plan. Most of the time, my plans don’t end up working out.”

“That’s not true.” Mel cocked an eyebrow, and her sister felt cornered. “Okay, maybe it’s partially true. But it doesn’t mean anything, except your love of spontaneity.”

They were both perplexed by the turn of the conversation until they pulled into the parking lot of the nearest store. At nearly ten o’clock, there were barely any cars, as most people had settled in wherever on the brisk, frigid December night. While this would be a spring day for Minnesotans, for Southerners, it was the night where the possibility of snow tickled everyone’s minds. Snow was a foreign concept to many people.

The sisters walked into the store, where a flashing light above them distracted Mel. Diana pulled her along into the cavity of the store, finding the clearance section of Christmas lights relatively quickly. Mel glanced at her like she’d grown horns, but Diana continued to ruffle through boxes before saying authoritatively, “Want to go get a cart?”

“Sure?” Mel asked. When she returned, Diana threw at least fifteen different packages into the cart. “Okay, whoa, what are we doing here?” She picked up a set of multi-colored lights.

“We’re going to stir up some Christmas spirit. You need to make up with Mom and Dad. If you fix their house up with all the lights, it will automatically qualify you to come back home permanently.”

Mel rolled her eyes as Diana noticed a hint of brown balayage at the tip of her hair heading upward. “Come on, Diana. This will not work.”

“Are you lazy or something? It will work. Our dear mother was going to put up Christmas lights all by herself, and you saw Dad’s awful attempt at lighting the bushes. That’s why we step in, do some good, and you get the credit.”

Mel narrowed her eyes so all Diana could see were black rims. “What guilt are you hiding?”

Diana shrugged, trying not to think too hard. She hoped Mel couldn’t see through her casual demeanor. “Guilt is for shmucks. I am here to help my sister out.”

“I don’t like Christmas lights.”

“Get over it. I don’t either, but we’re going to do something nice for our parents, because we love them, and we want you to come back home!”

Mel stared at her sister, who was obviously trying her hardest to make up for some sort of deficiency in another area of her life. She fiddled around with a box of pink lights before glancing back up, watching as Diana perused through the section like this was a life or death mission. Christmas music blared through the stereo—Frosty the Snowman—but Mel had never liked that song because there was never enough snow to actually build a good snowman. Once, when she and Diana were itty bitty, they’d built a snowman to the best of their abilities (with the incredulous Memphis snowfall) and watched as it toppled over when a neighborhood kid ran smack-dab into it.

As the memories roiled over her, Mel said gently, “What did you do, Diana?”

The other woman didn’t look up. She continued to riffle through, looking at various colors, luminosities, and types of light bulbs. Eventually, she settled on an icy blue pack and held it to her chest. Then she caught Mel’s puzzled gaze. “What did I do?”

“Yes.”

Diana bit her lip. “I… I studied too much?”

“No, Di. What did you do? How’d you sin this time?”

Diana frowned, befuddled with the question’s dramatic posit. “I don’t…”

Mel shook her head. In the glow of the fluorescents, she looked even more beautiful than normal, even with all the black under her eyes and on her fingernails, and the bright purple strip rushing through a strand of her hair. Sadness made her gorgeous. “Did you hurt someone?”

“No.”

“Did you sleep with someone?”

“Melisende. No.

“Then why are you acting like you have to compensate for something?”

Diana was quiet. Finally, she blurted out, “I like my boyfriend’s brother.”

Nothing surprised Mel. She picked up a purple strand of lights that mirrored her own hair, and she pointed the box at Diana’s heart. “And why are you letting it get you down?”

“Because it’s morally, ethically, all of it’s wrong. I don’t even know if Drew’s into me.”

They both stared at each other. An old woman hobbled past them. She was humming a little song. Mel cocked her head, and emphatically said, “There’s only one way to find out. Give me your phone.”

“What? No.”

Mel swirled around for a moment before jutting out a hand, grabbing the purse from Diana’s shoulder in a swift movement. Where had she learned that trick? As Diana hollered out after her, Mel quickly pushed her fingers into the lip of the bag, finding the phone easily. Pleased, she tossed the bag back to her sister and thumbed an access key. Diana had always been somewhat predictable. Finally, she scrolled down a list of names to ADRIAN.

“Mel, stop it!” Diana called out.

Mel ducked in the men’s clothing section as Diana chased after her. As the phone began to beep, over and over again, Mel said, “Come on, come on, pick up!” Diana rounded one corner, and Mel traipsed into the changing room, hurriedly locking the door to the little space behind her. It would only be a few minutes before Diana somehow straddled herself above the door and down into the space like an approaching boa constrictor.

“Hello? Oh my gosh, Adrian, pick up the phone.” Mel sat down on the little bench in the corner of the changing room so she had a glimpse of herself in the full-length vanity mirror. A strip of hair had fallen out of place, and a smudge of black dotted the skin near her left eyebrow. She smiled at her ability to do things for others.

“Hi, Di? Hey, sweetie, I’m kinda busy right now.” Aimless palaver sounded in the background, like a hive of bees.

“Adrian…” Mel raised her voice an octave, trying her hardest to sound like Diana. Though they were sisters, they didn’t necessarily sound like Siamese twins. Mel definitely had the deeper, brass voice.

“Melisende!” screamed Diana as she tossed her purse over the door so that all her belongings splayed out on the floor.

“This is why you don’t carry purses!” Mel hissed.

“Di, what’s up?”

“I think we need to reconsider some things.”

“Like what?”

“Are you drunk?”

“N… No. Why would you ask?”

Mel paused to recollect her thoughts. He did sound drunk, like he was at some party or whatever and needed a lift home. The way he stuttered over his words made her cringe. She never liked Adrian, especially the one time they’d met, and ever since, Mel had been rooting for her sister to take a step up the ladder of love. Of course, Mel was on the lowest rung. Dating wasn’t exactly her cup of tea, and she hated tea anyway.

“Look, Di, I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

“Bye,” Mel said wistfully, and then she lowered the phone to her lap. She tapped on the messages app and found Drew’s full name. Oh, naïve Diana. She hurriedly searched for his address on an online database. How many Drew Atwaters could possibly be in Memphis? After clearing out the search history, she winked at herself in the mirror. Within seconds, and with Diana’s continued rapping on the door, Mel had Drew Atwater’s address.

She opened the door and handed the phone to her sister, but quickly Diana tackled her to the floor. As the two grown women wrestled, they both spotted a massive cockroach barreling right for their heads, and they jumped up, clutched each other, and raced outside the changing room. A worker stared at them with troubled eyes as he swept up the floor near the little girls’ clothes section.

“Oh, dear Lord,” said Mel, bending over to collect her breath.

After Diana went back to collect her things, she slapped her sister in the back of the head with her purse. “I won’t say anything if you won’t say anything.” She upturned her nose a little as if she were a princess. Mel rolled her eyes as she blew a bubble with old gum.

“Deal.”

“Now let’s go get some lights for Mom and Dad.”

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

THE MANSION SIMPLY sparkled in the mesmerizing afterglow. The sun was long gone, but it was like they were both sizzling with energy that radiated like some sort of human oven. Alexander had been properly disposed of at his mother’s house with a grim look in his eye. He’d angrily gone back home, unloved like usual. Christopher, meanwhile, had been practically buzzing with words and fizzing liveliness. Raina had goofily laughed at most of what he’d said so that they barely noticed when Alex left, except when Raina had to jump out into the wintry evening to let him out.

Now that they pulled up into the long driveway, Raina’s heart was skittering around like a racecar around the track. She didn’t want to tell him that she was incredibly uncomfortable now that she had seen the grandeur of his house and the surrounding property. Anxiously she tapped her foot against the floor as the car was pulled safely into the garage.

“What an amazing piece of land,” she offered, her voice not sounding anything like hers.

Chris smiled as he took the key out of the ignition. “Yes. I think I love the land more than the house itself.” For a moment he just stared at her, and he had no clue she was as terrified as she was, sitting there like a nervous guinea pig squirming before it was lifted out of its cage. He swung the key around his finger, and Raina watched it. “Wanna come in?” he asked with a cocksure grin.

“Why else did I come here?”

He hopped out of the car, and she followed suit. Everything was in slow motion like a sensual dream. The warmth of the mud room greeted them, and then Chris led her deeper into the house. Her eyes expanded like lava etching out rock. How could a place be so large, so beautiful, yet so cold?

“Welcome. Want anything to drink?”

“I’m good, thank you.” She picked at a fluffy white pillow on his sofa. The large living room displayed picturesque views of the green background out back. She whistled between her teeth. Three or four of her houses could fit into this one, but she much preferred the coziness of her own place. Money had never attracted her like it did other people.

“Well, hold on. I’m gonna have some water.”

Raina twisted her fingers as she appraised the space. A hint of wind rustled against the patio. “Okay.”

Chris was humming to himself as he puttered around the kitchen. She heard the spigot rushing with water, but she only felt her eyes narrow as she yawned. It had been a long day at work, and coupled with this dating game, she felt exhausted. Nothing appealed more to her now than a warm bath and a summery book to read. She started to lower herself down onto the little love seat when Chris appeared, all aglow. “Raina, you look sleepy.”

“I’m so tired,” she admitted, not sure as to why she’d agreed to come here if she’d lost all desire for a physical catharsis, although she really knew it would only deepen their relationship, and she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. “I’m not usually this tired so early…”

He glanced down at his watch. “It’s nearly midnight. You have every right to be tired. I’m tired.”

She laid down on her back, letting her legs dangle from the chair. “I’m sorry if you thought I came for… For that.”

He shook his head. His blue eyes seemed to glisten more than normal, but Raina’s vision was dizzying as she succumbed to the tendrils of the sleep angel. “No, no, it’s okay. Trust me, I may be a little disappointed, but I’m not really. Why did you come?”

“I don’t know. I just wanted to be near you, I guess.”

This caused a big grin to break out onto his face. “Come on, you can sleep in the guest room.”

“Really?” she asked, forcing herself upward onto her feet.

“Yes. Come on.”

The two walked together down a nice hallway. Raina’s eyelids seemed glued shut, and she couldn’t remember a lick about anything anymore. She felt Chris’s hand on the small of her back as he pushed her into her room, asking, “Do you need anything?”

She shook her head. “Wait… Wait.” She stood on her tiptoes to meet his tall frame. While it wasn’t preferable, as her feet ached and her body seemed to be floating like a cloud, she felt something warm deep inside her as he kissed her back. It was nice, yes, and very deep, and then it was deepening.

Was this a dream? She felt him run his hands down her back, and he asked if she wanted him to keep going, and she said yes. But why? And suddenly her hair was down, and it was all over the place, but Chris didn’t seem to care. A vein was throbbing in his forehead, and Raina tried her hardest not to remember how exhausted she was, but her body was like a moth, and he was the flame.

Moments later, Raina knew where the train was headed. She fell onto a heap on the bed, and Chris fell with her. He kissed everywhere. She kissed him back. Eventually, she remembered Christopher’s past, and she sat up in a confused daze. How many other girls had he done this with? She blinked back stinging tears. Was this all he thought of her? Did he only want her for sex? She didn’t play that game. It wasn’t her style. He noticed her erect position and said, “What’s… What’s the matter?”

“I’m sorry. I… I’m just really tired.”

“Oh. I forgot.” He reached over and kissed her forehead, like nothing was wrong. “I’m sorry, Raina. I pushed too hard. Good night.” Was he disappointed? He disappeared, but the funny thing was Raina couldn’t sleep a whole lot after that experience.

 

IN THE MORNING, Raina awoke to the smell of eggs and pancakes. She realized she had no toothbrush, and her contacts had lodged in the back of her eyes, and she was wearing day-old clothes, and oh, yeah, you slept over at Chris Rose’s house. No big deal.

After fixing her contacts with some water, she walked into the kitchen, where she was shocked to see an elderly woman humming to herself as she swung her hips around, moving batter this way, and helpings of eggs this way. Raina hid behind a column. So, Chris had a housekeeper? Was he completely dependent on other people? This was going to be so incredibly odd.

Raina hurried back to her room, finding her phone. She had two messages from her mother about Max accidentally stapling his finger, and one from a friend about having lunch soon. Raina gritted her teeth and collected her things. As she walked back into the hallway, self-consciously trying not to smell herself, Chris appeared, looking prim-and-proper.

“Hey,” he said with a diligent smile.

“Hi. Uh, do you mind giving me a ride to the school? I’m sorry. Last night I should have asked you to drop me off so we wouldn’t…”

“Raina. You talk fast when you get nervous. Don’t be nervous.”

She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Who is the woman in the kitchen?”

He shrugged. “It’s my aunt. She comes over and cooks sometimes. Usually, at least once a week, she appears like a goddess to make me incredibly happy to have the Rose surname. Although her name last name’s Curtis. Oh, well. I tried to sound intelligent.”

Raina paused, finding herself in a precarious position. Why had she agreed to spend the night again? Everything from last night seemed like a blur, but she felt blessed to not have slept with Chris already. She wasn’t that type of girl. Anxiously she said, “Supposedly my dad stapled himself yesterday. Would you mind giving me a ride?”

“Sure, of course. Here, come meet my aunt, and then we can go.”

“Okay?” Raina followed him but felt like at any moment, she might tip over like a fallen top. Why had she agreed to spend the night? She cursed herself over and over again. Now she was meeting Chris’s grandmother? What would the poor old woman think? That she had obviously slept over? And done more than just sleeping over? Raina shuddered.

“Aunt Ellie, this is my friend, Raina Newton.”

The old woman was definitely not biologically Christopher’s aunt. She placed down the pancake batter in her hands and rushed over, kissing Raina’s cheeks. She smelled like yummy food. The woman was thick and foreign and beautiful and she didn’t seem to care if Raina were only Chris’s “friend” or not. “Can I please make you something to eat or drink?”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Raina said, though her voice was definitely deeper, as she’d been partially choked by this big woman.

“You must stay for breakfast, or I will be offended.”

“She needs to get home…”

“Well, a to-go meal then?”

“That would be lovely.”

“Okay. Well, that’s what we’ll do! Oh, Chris. I never see any women over, and the one I finally get to meet is so beautiful! Yes, darling, you are gorgeous. A true testament to God’s abundant creation!” If the woman didn’t have a hand around a whisk, she probably would have rushed over and scooped Raina into a nice-to-meet-you embrace.

Chris smiled as he took a seat at the bar. Raina took her seat beside him, watching as he cracked open a random fortune cookie on the gold granite countertops. He didn’t seem to mind that it was sitting on the counter like destiny’s beacon. As his Aunt Ellie orated, he slid a little slip of paper to Raina, who looked down in embarrassment at her chipped sangria-colored nails. She gulped and read: The path to success is happiness. Happiness is the ultimate zenith.

“How is this a fortune?” he whispered. Raina’s skin prickled at how he said it. Then his bright teeth flashed, and Raina wondered why she felt so guilty in this moment. Then it hit her, like a force field.

I saw you. With a girl in a wheelchair. Who is she? Who are you? Did I lose my mind? Was that even you?

“So, anyway, that’s how I met Elvis back in ’76. Hey, Raina, did Chris say you’re a Newton? As in, related to Alice Newton?”

“Yes. That’s my aunt. She’s married to my crazy uncle, Joe. That’s the guy who was with my dad at the pumpkin patch.”

“Well, what a whirl! I used to babysit Alice back in the day, when she was a little girl. She always told me about everything under the sun. It was so weird. ‘Miss Ellie,’ she’d say, ‘do you know this little tidbit?’ and I’d say, ‘Well…’”

Suddenly a behemoth of food appeared on a paper plate before her. Raina picked it up in wonder, at how delicious the eggs and pancakes looked. Chris’s grin widened in response. Raina couldn’t resist sneaking a bite of the cheesy eggs right then and there.

“Aunt El, we’ve gotta jet off.” He stood up and hurried over to her, wrapping her in a warm hug. Then, just as Aunt Ellie turned, he snuck his fingers into the small space of her side, and the old woman lit up in a jive.

“Christopher Rose!” she screamed above her giggles. It was eccentric to see a woman as old as Aunt Ellie flapping about.

Raina giggled. “Why are you so evil?”

Chris looked up and shot a sure grin.

After they said their goodbyes, Aunt Ellie walked the duo to his car, where Raina self-consciously picked at the leather on the car door. Chris maneuvered the vehicle around the path to the house, and a patch of deer rushed off into the copse behind them. Their brown fur reminded Raina of melted chocolate.

“Well, I’m sorry about last night,” Chris said, though no apologetic tone ensued.

“It’s okay. It was a nice night, and nothing happened that we would regret.”

“Yes,” he said. He stared out at the long stretch of tree-lined road before them, the greenery spellbinding in its own right. The early morning light cast a mirage of shadows over their car, and Raina reached a finger to the car door, where a little lighted dot caught her attention. He turned to face her and something caught in his chest. How could she like him out of all the people in the world?

“Thanks again for taking me,” Raina said in an attempt to make conversation.

They were mostly quiet on the drive back to her car. As she stood up to leave, Chris didn’t try to kiss her. He didn’t even want to kiss her. He imploringly glanced in her direction as she waved him good-bye. The flick of her wrist, the gentle sway of her hair in the wind…

Maybe Raina would be the one person in the world with whom he could share his true feelings.

 

Chapter Twenty

 

DIANA’S MIND WAS on autopilot as she gesticulated her thought processes. For whatever reason, if she talked to herself inwardly, but made the hand motions outwardly, it was like a switch went off and she remembered everything she’d ever been taught. It was what got her perfect test scores in high school and a scholarship to UC-Berkeley. It was what got her stellar MCAT scores that would have allowed her to attend any med school in the country. It was what made her a complete dork also.

Arcane embryology flashcards whirred past her mind. All the studying had been well worth it, but still, concentration became difficult as she thought how the morula looked a little bit like a bulb on the strand of Christmas lights she’d strung across the large oak tree last night.

When she and Mel got home, they went spastic on the yard, filling every conceivable space with some sort of light fixture. The bushes were multi-colored and looked like some sort of testament to gay rights. Mel had hoisted Diana on her shoulders in order to throw another string of lights around. They’d even put out a sparkly reindeer that flashed methodically on some sort of timing device. It was horrible compared to their neighbors, but it was more than the Sarafians had done in years.

What was even better was Mel’s big smile as they laughed about the stupidest things. She’d jetted off around eleven o’clock, and Diana stayed up another hour after that for some last minute studying. However, her thoughts drifted constantly to all the happenings around town.

She finished the examination before anyone else. When she glanced around the room, she saw Adrian hard at work, furiously scribbling something against the paper. Diana usually double-checked herself, but there was no way going back over anything would cure the delicate thoughts swirling around her mind. This class—embryology, the study of the embryo—made her have a glimpse of a future where she’d have an embryo herself, and one day, that embryo would grow into a fetus, and then the fetus would pop out of her, and she’d have a baby, who’d one day grow up to be just as dangerous as she.

When the test was over and she was into the fresh winter afternoon, Diana pulled out her phone and saw a few messages from Mel, who promised to visit home around seven or eight, and it would be a nice surprise for their parents, who probably hadn’t left the confines of the house today. They were known to be a bit nocturnal in the fact that the only time they’d ever leave was to walk around the subdivision around sunset, although this habit was slowly leaving them. The day was strictly devoted to talk shows, The Price is Right, Hallmark movies, the History Channel, and CNN.

Diana was tempted to call her sister, just to see what she was up to, but as she headed to her car, she felt a hand squeeze her arm. She tensed and prepared to pepper spray her assailant when she caught Adrian’s warm eyes. He was frowning and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking.”

“Yes?” she asked sharply. She tried to pose a small smile, but it probably came out like some sort of punitive frown. A lock of black hair swirled around her face, and for once, she didn’t try to push it back.

“Diana, I really like you and all, but…”

“But?” Something like a racecar began to speed across her mind. Could this be the thing she’d casually been hoping for… For ages, really?

Adrian’s eyes were brighter than she’d seen in a while. He still placed his hand on her forearm, but for once, it was like a vein of gold warmed her skin. “Maybe we should just be friends.”

“Oh,” she said, trying to feign some sort of skeptic disappointment, but she knew her voice was too pleased. “Oh, I see.”

“Please, don’t be mad.” He looked genuinely torn up. “I just think, you know, maybe we work together best as study pals.”

“You know, I agree. No hard feelings, Adrian.”

“You’re right. Hey, I gotta speed off, but maybe we’ll see each other over winter break?”

She finally pushed the hair behind her ear. A little seed of sadness planted in her chest. How would she ever see Drew again? “Absolutely. See you.”

She headed to her car. As she plopped into the seat, waiting for the warmth from the heater to sizzle her skin, she smiled. Relationships had never been her thing, and she was incredibly excited to be single once more. Quickly, she took off down the road, feeling younger than she’d felt in a while. Though it was cold outside, it felt like the blissful freedom of summer, where she spent hours studying the plants and flowers sprouting from the Earth like victorious seeds of life.

She made it back to her house in one piece, where Anahit and Ari sat on the chaise watching another episode of How It’s Made. As a conveyor belt appeared on the screen, Ari pointed to it and began rambling on with Anahit, who angrily glared at him. “Can we please turn it back to La rosa de Guadalupe? We’ve already watched this for an hour.”

Diana rolled her eyes as she placed her aqua coat on the counter, along with her butter-colored scarf. She hurriedly walked to the chaise, sitting between her parents, who smiled from ear-to-ear. “How was your examination, dear Diana? We know you passed it, but still, what were your toughest problems?” Ari asked, beaming.

“It was pretty easy. But I brought you guys a little surprise to celebrate.”

“We don’t need any celebrations. You need one, my dear,” Anahit said as she hugged her daughter. “And please answer this important question for us: How It’s Made or La rosa de Guadalupe?

“Of course the telenovela.”

“What did you bring us?” Ari asked with amusement.

She smiled. “Well, a cake from Kroger’s, vanilla just like you like it. It’s under my coat on the hall table.”

Ari jumped up and immediately squealed as something in his back popped. “Oh, that did not sound good. This is why you need you to become a good doctor, Diana. We can see a doctor for free!”

Anahit stood up to aid her husband in the direction of the cake. “Oh, shush, love. You just sit down, and I’ll bring you a plate of good cake. Diana, will you be a dear and carry the cake to the kitchen?”

“Have you guys been outside at all?” Diana asked as she collected her things, along with the mail she’d picked up for her parents. She already knew the answer.

“No, not at all. Been cooped up in here all day long. It’s much too cold to go outside.”

“I don’t understand how you two stand it.”

Ari appeared again, poking at the bones in his neck. “Well, we worked nearly forty years before retirement last year. I hate it. I want to go back to work, I really do.” He blushed at this comment. Anyone who knew Ari Sarafian understood that when he did work, he was a hard worker, but he had to be prodded to work. With a steady retirement, Ari preferred to spend his newfound free time with the love of his life, who also happened to be the biggest thorn in his side.

“Go sit down. You’re moving around too much.”

“Mom, he’s only sixty-six, not eighty-six.”

“Well, if we’re going to keep him around until then…”

“But then he’ll be as plump as a walrus. Let the man walk around.”

Anahit scowled. She didn’t like to lose verbal battles. “Well, sometimes I feel like my twenty-three-year-old daughter is twice her age. Ha!”

Diana laughed as she sliced a piece of cake and placed it on a lavender plate for her father. It had been hard moving back in with her parents after four years of solo living at Berkeley, but being back with them was both a blessing and a curse. For example, rent was free, and she was pretty much left to her own devices. However, her mother did come into her bedroom around six or seven in the morning to open the curtains to an orange-colored sun. “Wake up, sunshine!” she’d say. “If the sun’s out, so should you!”

Of course, if she wanted to invite someone over, it made it difficult, but who exactly would she invite? All her college buddies lived two thousand miles away. It was still a difficult adjustment, maybe even harder than her move to college, because her entire life for the past four years had to be erased so she could return to Memphis.

Diana poured herself a glass of milk as her parents chomped on the cake. A sigh of relief exited her chest. She had a few weeks off, weeks she planned to spend lounging about, watching trashy TV, maybe catching up with a few high school buddies. Who knew what the world held in store?

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

MEL STRUGGLED WITH the zipper on her vest as she approached the small, tidy property belonging to Andrew Atwater. She glanced down at her watch again. Well, time was going slower than ever, but she assumed he would be back home on a night this cold fairly early. To her, that meant eight o’clock. Mel had been a night owl since birth, going to bed around two o’clock every night while waking up around ten in the morning. It had contributed to her issues with making classes in the mornings.

Mel jumped to the door, knocking with precision and a rhythm that she immediately wanted to start rapping to. She waited a few seconds, casually breathing out into the chilly air to see the whiteness of her breath highlighted before her in the dim glow of the porch lights. “Come on,” she said to herself.

Finally, the door opened, and an average-looking, average-height, average-overall man appeared before her. Mel hated to rate people upon first meeting them, but this was also something in her blood. She noticed that his blue-green eyes were well above average, and she locked onto them. “Hi, Drew?”

“You must be Diana’s sister.” He stared at her with trepidation, and she smiled. He was like a little kid afraid of the big class bully. He kept the door partially before him, blocking her out if he needed to.

“Yes. My name is Mel Sarafian. Is now a good time?”

“Oh, you want to come in?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” he said, seeming to contemplate this, “why not? Come on in.”

The place smelled like an old woman. Ironically, it was in desperate need of a woman’s touch, but Drew definitely kept everything clean. While Mel had always lived at home or with a friend, her space was always in complete disarray, like a tornado had ravaged her world and she’d never tried to pick up the pieces. She liked it that way, though. It kept things quite interesting when she was in need of her crimson pullover, but she couldn’t find it anywhere except underneath the pillow she kept under her bed. She liked to see how far things actually traveled when tossed over one’s head.

She followed him into the old kitchen. It was in desperate need of revamping, at least according to House Hunters episodes she watched in secret. Mel had always loved houses, but of course she was doubtful she would ever have one of her own—at least until her parents died. She tried not to think too morbidly. That was a long way off. Plus, her parents’ house was awful. She always told them how they needed to move, but they only listened to Diana, who liked how the house was close to school, which always made Mel cringe. Diana, perfect Diana. California-educated Diana, Diana the doctor, Diana the favorite.

“Ay, ay, ay,” Mel said to herself as Drew turned to face her.

“Want anything to drink?”

“No, no. Just your time. At least, a little bit of your time. Not much.”

He cocked his head at her. “You’re very different from your sister.”

“Yes, we’ve been told that only every single day of our lives. She’s the reserved, bookish brain, and I’m the out-there, vibrant artist. It’s okay. Everybody’s allowed to have freedom of choice in this country. To an extent, I mean.”

Drew nodded as he took a gulp of cereal he’d left on the counter. “So, what’s up?”

Mel leaned against the countertop. “So, I have to do things for her on the sneak or she’ll never do anything for herself.”

“Oh. I can see that.”

“For example, she would absolutely murder me if I told her that I was inviting you to dinner.”

Drew’s jaw went slack. “What?”

“What do you think? I think it’s ingenious. Our parents haven’t seen a healthy, strapping young male specimen in years. They’re too busy being big agoraphobics. Meanwhile, Diana’s suffering through a relationship with your brother, but it’s pretty obvious they’re not compatible.”

Drew furrowed his eyebrows. “Excuse me, but are you sure you’re Diana’s sister?”

“I get it all the time. We’re not similar. However, I’m doing this for both you and her. Come over to dinner. Be my guest.”

“But why? Exactly, my brother’s your sister’s girlfriend.” Then his eyes widened. “Oh. She told you.”

“When she talks about Adrian, it’s like she’s describing a cold fish. Now, you, on the other hand, her eyes water like she sees big, juicy steak.”

Was this woman insane? She looked young, but she looked old. It was definitely weird. She was gorgeous like her sister, but she had deeper features. Her irises were orbs that seemed to suck their victims into her soul. Her lips were plumper, and her jaw sharper. It was like Diana was a delicate, pink peony, whereas Mel was a crimson, blood red rose. The way she spoke was more defined, too, like every word dripped with emotion. She would make a dramatic actress, but Drew speculated that some people would be frightened by Mel’s presence. The way she looked one in the eye, like she was a scary succubus, and the way she tapped her thumb against the desk as she spoke… “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, embarrassed. “I’m just still on the fact that you’ve invited me to dinner. Isn’t that a bit eccentric?”

“I don’t believe in that term faux-pas. I’d like to surprise Diana with this. It would also be a nice surprise for my parents. Won’t you say yes, Drew? Sometime next week. I’ll cook.” She cringed at the thought. She couldn’t make anything except macaroni and cheese laced with Velveeta. Did that even count?

He guffawed at the thought of Mel cooking anything. She probably laced her food with marijuana leaves. “But why? Why should I say yes?”

“Because you are a kind, obedient soul, and I can say it was for my blog.”

“You have a blog?”

“Who doesn’t?” She fanned her hands across the air, and her eyes got this far-away look. “I can see the headline now. ‘WOMAN INVITES SISTER’S BOYFRIEND’S BROTHER TO DINNER WITH HER ARMENIAN FAMILY.’ I think it would get me ample views. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Drew.”

“I can’t do this to Adrian.”

Mel cocked her head. “I probably should have said this earlier, but…” She handed him her iPhone. Her fingernails were painted deep merlot, a stark contrast from her normal black.

Drew squinted as he made out the words on the phone. On his own device, he’d had to amp up the font size so he could see it clearly. He didn’t like advertising the fact that at twenty-eight, he needed reading glasses. When his eyes finally adjusted, he tilted his head. “They broke up?”

“Yes. Just two hours ago, by account of this here text message. See, there’s no problem anymore.”

“It’s a barrier I don’t want to cross, Mel.”

“You like my sister, no?”

“Of course I like your sister.”

“What’s wrong with a little dinner? You won’t tell Adrian, and I sure won’t either. Diana doesn’t have to know.”

“You’re doing this for a blog?”

She winked at him. “Maybe I’m doing it for my sister, too.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

IT WAS MONDAY night a week and a half before Christmas. Since Mel and Diana’s intervention on the Sarafian yard, Anahit and Ari had been violently ill with a case of Christmas spirit. The entire house seemed to be decorated in vivid reds and greens while music steadily streamed from the radio. The TV constantly pulsated images of Christmas movies, or people giving tips on surviving the season. At night, the Sarafian property glowed.

“Melisende is coming over tonight,” announced Anahit as she lifted her feet on the coffee table that afternoon. “She said something about she’s bringing a boy too. I tried to interrogate her—is that what you call it?—but she wouldn’t budge. I’m just glad to see she’s coming back to the house.”

Diana rolled her eyes. Mel bringing over a guy? Mel was infamous for wanting to bring over her love interests, but it always fizzled out way before anything cemented. “Mel is bringing a boy? Is he a good Armenian?”

Anahit flashed a glare in her daughter’s direction. “You know that does not matter to me.”

“Mom, you know it does matter to you, and to Dad also.”

“I didn’t flip out when you said you were dating an American boy. Diana, I really don’t care what the boy looks like, just as long as he treats you with respect. A lot of those don’t exist anymore.”

Diana’s skin heated. She hadn’t treated Adrian with a lot of respect, since she’d kissed his brother on their trip. She did feel guilty about it, but it had been an impulsive thing to do, and she didn’t have many impulses. She needed to feel some sort of electric feel once in a while, just to stay sane.

Diana had aided her mother in the cooking for the night’s dinner. Her nostrils flared at the beautiful smell of all the spices like coriander and thyme and garlic while she prepared lavash, a traditional unleavened white bread she’d mastered around ten-years-old. Diana primarily thought of Mel’s new fling as Anahit whirled around the kitchen, singing as she prepared shashlick. The thick, pungent smell of meat hung in the air.

Mel was bringing over a boyfriend? Just weeks ago, she’d practically been kicked out. Now, though, she was returning. Something was definitely up, and it reeked more than Ari Sarafian’s dirty sock collection behind the sofa.

The truth was simple about the cooking responsibilities, Diana thought with a smiling sigh. Anahit usually did prepare the food, but it was Ari who had a true gift surrounding the entire cuisine culture. Her father had spent countless hours dissecting ditties on the Food Network while Anahit took in pop culture like it was crack. Tonight, Ari’s hip was bothering him, and he’d plopped down on the couch, promising to clean up, while everyone knew it would most definitely be Diana’s task.

Usually, the Sarafian family did not bother with Armenian food as much as they preferred the ease of American dinners. Anahit had taken a particular fondness to mac-and-cheese, while Ari liked the chopped steak Diana prepared on full moons. Tonight was something special though. Mel had never brought home a boy before, and in a desperate attempt to please all involved, Anahit insisted on Armenian. While it took longer to prepare, it was in fact more flagrant and interesting to the tongue. They had to impress the young man, of course.

Once Diana had finished her lavash, she walked into the living room where her father sat on the couch. He wrapped an arm around her, warming her to him. “I’m so proud of you, dear Diana.”

She nuzzled her head against his shoulder. “What time do they come over?”

“Six thirty.”

She glanced down at her watch. She had an episode of TV to watch before they arrived.

Eventually, Anahit was spinning around the house so quickly that Ari and Diana both got up groaningly to set the table. Ari of course began to recite a hundred stories of his youth in the foothills of the Javakheti Mountains, where wide green plains cemented his spirited countenance and pushed him to dream big. “It was there I learned to open my eyes and thank God!”

“You didn’t start thanking God until you met me, Ari. Have you forgotten that? Along with the fact of how to properly set a table?” Anahit’s voice was sharp like pointed glass.

Diana giggled as she fixed her father’s cutlery mistake. The warmth of the kitchen was enough to solidify her decision to move back to town to take care of her family. They were a little lone unit. Ari’s siblings were still in Armenia, while Anahit’s family had immigrated to Atlanta. They’d joined up with the Armenian community in Memphis, which was obviously as small as a snail. Diana knew how hard it had been for them to see her off to California, and their conservative streak would never allow them to give up their green life in Tennessee for the fortitude of California. Plus, Mel had been in high school then, back when she religiously cared about her grades. They could never uproot their studious (although somewhat rebellious) daughter.

Melisende had not always been as eccentric. One summer, Diana returned to find Mel in a black dress, with black nail polish, and a purple streak through her hair (the only color on her), instead of her regular blues and purples. She’d pierced her nose and added a little gem to the flap of skin, along with a tidy row of earrings down the length of an ear. Instead of speaking with shyness, she spoke with poise and confidence. Instead of meandering around the truth, she gave it like it was. Instead of being a wallflower, she’d turned into the centerpiece of the room. Mel wasn’t fearless, but she was feared by most people.

The doorbell rang. Anahit and Ari jumped, locking eyes. This would be a traumatic experience for them. Little Mel, their baby girl, who had turned into a bit of a rocker, was bringing home a boyfriend. Would he be white, black, Latino? A drug dealer or another flunker? A suave businessman, or a guy with those things called gauges, where the earring hole was basically a giant, gaping void? What if… By golly… This boyfriend was a preacher?

Anahit almost fell over on spot.

Diana was the one who went to the door. Her parents were too busy fanning themselves. She glanced down at her chipped nail polish and cringed.

A wave of chilly air blew into the house as Mel’s pretty face filled Diana’s field of vision. She wore a black pea coat and long, black boots. She reached in for a quick hug and kiss. “Well, where is he?”

Mel moved out of the way, a sinister grin on her lips.

Oh, snap.

“Mel?”

“Hi, Diana.” Drew Atwater leaned in for a hug, and Diana did nothing but stand there as his body touched hers. Was this one of those out of body experiences? Was she even really here right now? As she stood there, stock still, she felt a pulsing on an eyelid.

“Drew?” she asked, breathless.

“Hey. I know this is awkward, trust me.” He pulled away, but didn’t let go of his hold on her arms. Mel watched with that sinister smile. “Mel invited me over. She said it was something to do with her blog, that we see how relationships turn out, at least like ours, you know? How you dated my brother?”

“Yes, I know I dated your brother.”

“I told her it would be weird, and you may not even want to see me, and…”

“Why wouldn’t I want to see you?”

Drew’s eyes became azure spheroids. “Well, you know… Delicate topic?”

“Oh, sweetie! Is this your… Friend?” choked Ari, grabbing his heart. Diana turned to see her father wiping his glasses on his shirt. He was impossibly nervous for no reason. Diana moved out of the way a little so Ari and Anahit could have a proper introduction to Drew.

“Yes, this is my friend,” emphasized Mel, “Drew Atwater. He’s an accountant, born and raised here.”

Anahit hurried over and hugged him like he was a teddy bear. Drew, ever the romantic, smiled welcomingly at the woman’s embrace, before dealing with the bear hug of Ari, who was a smaller man, but using all his strength to intimidate the enemy.

“It’s kinda funny, but I invited Drew over as a friend, and didn’t really realize he’s friends with Di, too.” Mel leaned against the wall behind her. She winked at Diana, who blushed red. How she wanted to wring her sister’s neck. This was all for a blog? Her sister wrote a blog? Seriously, a blog?

“You know this young man?” asked Anahit, who was eyeing Drew with a mix of curiosity and bemusement. It was obvious Anahit was enamored. Maybe Drew would run off with Mrs. Sarafian rather than her two available daughters. Ari was too busy analyzing Drew to notice it was Anahit who was showing the most interest.

Diana cleared her throat. “Yes, yes, I do.”

Her words were railroaded by Anahit’s incessant questioning. “Where are you from? How did you meet Mel? What is your career? What is your career like? Are you religious? Oh, Christian—sweetie, what denomination? Yes, yes, so, are you a father? You’re not a father? You’ve never been married? Wow.” Based by Anahit’s facial reactions to Drew’s answers, her daughters thought she’d won the lottery of men. Anahit, probably right now, wished she could time travel to marry Andrew Atwater rather than good old Ari Sarafian, who was still gritting his teeth and wiping his sweaty brow. (The truth was, Ari Sarafian had been the most good-looking, well-known bachelor in his day, and Anahit had adoringly blossomed in his presence. No one told her he’d be a plump old man someday, while Anahit felt she still had forty years left on the planet. And she was still reasonably fit and attractive.)

Diana clasped onto her sister’s arm. Mel only smiled. “So, what do you think?”

“What are you trying to do? You have a blog now?”

Mel gently removed Diana’s wrist from her skin. Her eyes were like shooting stars, they were so happy. “Yes. Everything I do is for my blog.”

“Everything? What do you mean?”

“I make lots of cash because of my blog, Di. Almost everything I do goes on it, except my bathroom habits and sleeping… Well, actually, one time I streamed an entire night’s sleep. It was wicked.”

“Mel!”

She shrugged. “I just didn’t think you’d care. You’ve been super busy lately, with med school and love and taking care of everything. My blog is my new food baby.”

“What the heck? Mel!”

Mel placed two firm hands on her sister’s shoulders so they stood mere inches apart. She cocked her head and grinned. “Sweetie. Listen to me. I will admit every sin I’ve done at a later time, but this is for an epic piece I’ve titled ‘WOMAN INVITES SISTER’S BOYFRIEND’S BROTHER TO DINNER WITH HER ARMENIAN FAMILY.’ It’s quite a lovely story, I believe, but I need action. Go. Don’t be shy. Be excited. This is a win-win for the both of us.”

“I will skin you alive, and boil you.”

“Looking forward to it.” Mel walked after their family, where Drew was in the midst of an epic conversation about the delectability of lavash and Coke. It sounded thrilling.

“So, how did you know Di?” asked Anahit as she began to dish out plates on the table. Diana took her cue and hurriedly carried a few plates. She wanted to die.

“Well, it’s a tough story,” Drew said. He scratched the back of his blond head. Ari gritted his teeth at the movement. Did he really expect to scratch his head and not wash his hands?

Diana’s jaw tightened. “He’s Adrian’s brother. You know, my ex-boyfriend?”

Ari and Anahit shared a look. Finally, Anahit simply smiled and said, “Well, that will make for some interesting dinner conversation.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” Diana clenched her teeth. What was this? A beautiful set-up? And again, for a blog?

They all sat down. A violet-scented candle flickered on the table, its little flame a wispy trail. Ari was still deathly quiet, as if he were taking everything in and silently composing a litany of questions, while Anahit was nervously chattering back and forth between random people. She asked Mel the same query nearly six times about washing hands. Maybe it was Diana’s imagination, but it did seem like Drew had winked at her.

They prayed. Ari delivered the prayer, but Mel noticed it was shorter than usual. Definitely sharper too. When they all opened their eyes and dug into their food, she caught Drew’s casual glance over the table to where Diana sat, nervously drumming her glass of sparkling water.

“So, you’re Adrian Atwater’s brother? And how did you connect with our darling Melisende?” asked Anahit, who, for the first time in months, looked much younger than her sixtysomething years. It was like a light switch had been turned on.

“Well, funny you mention it,” Drew began, before Mel cut in.

“We ran into each other, I guess you could say. We connected, like good buddies do, and I told him point-blank, ‘You need to go after my sister. Come to dinner. She won’t kill you. Just because she dated your brother, who cares?’”

Everyone went quiet. If it was summertime, the chirp of cicadas would fill the room like dripping honey. Now, of course, there was only blistering wind outside. Tonight was even a full moon. Something was bound to happen. No one said anything for a moment until Ari cleared his throat. “You did what?”

Diana took a bite of food, savoring each bite of broiled meat. “She’s trying to play matchmaker, Dad.”

“Matchmaker? What is that? A person who sells matches? For fires?”

Anahit rolled her eyes. “No, honey. A matchmaker is someone who connects people romantically.”

“What?”

“I’m not going to explain it again.”

“Basically, ma’am,” Drew said, “this food is delicious by the way. Anyhow, Mel invited me over to see Diana. I naturally accepted. I’d love to see your daughter. Yet there seems to be some tension, obviously. Mel is setting this up for her blog.”

“What’s a blog?” barked Ari.

Diana ran a hand through her hair. This was going to be an awful night. If her Dad asked one more question about something random, she would probably lose it. “Dad, a blog is like an online diary.”

“You did not just call it a diary,” Mel said sharply. She slammed her wrist against the table, which made Anahit and Drew jump.

“Why would you diary online, dear?” Anahit asked quickly, like no one was around.

“Drew, would you like to go outside?” Diana asked.

Ari narrowed his eyes. “What is on this online diary?”

“It’s not a diary,” Mel said again. “I’m simply trying to do them a favor. These days people are too scared to go on romantic endeavors. I, yes I, am a mere vessel.”

“Melisende!” Anahit stabbed her shashlick. “What is this blog about?”

Diana’s embarrassment flowed like the Rio Grande overcome by a hurricane. “Drew, do you want to go outside?”

“Yes, yes. I think that would be appropriate.”

“Mom?” Diana squeaked.

Anahit’s eyes were big. “Yes, go. Go quickly.”

Drew and Diana collected their plates and hurried outside to his car. Even from outside, they could hear the shouts. Shadows appeared across the curtains. How had it escalated so quickly, and why was it always Mel’s fault?

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

THE BITTER WIND caught his breath. He gently swayed in the breeze. “Come on, Kels. This is awful. Let’s go back inside.” He glanced back at his little sister, junior to him by three years. Her long brown hair fanned her back like an expensive blanket. It was shiny and perfectly straight, a testament to Kelsey Rose’s caregiver. Her blue eyes were like electric ornaments that sparkled with ease.

Her unique voice filled the night air. “No. I don’t get to spend much time outdoors.”

“It’s nearly ten o’clock. You’ll catch an infection.”

“So?”

“Kelsey. So? It’s everything.”

She grinned a Kelsey Rose grin. It was hard to believe that Chris was the only family member who really spent any time with her at all. Ever since she’d taken a residence at her caregiver’s apartment in the suburbs, it fueled the fire of her non-existence to her parents. Chris blamed it on their busy, hectic schedules, but he knew it was more than that. Kelsey Rose was like her name: Beautiful, unique, alive. Yet a lot of people treated her just the opposite.

He grabbed her hand, feeling the warmth from this simple touch. He was her best friend, and really, she was his best friend. Yes, he had Drew, but there were certain boundaries with Drew nowadays. They didn’t spend nearly the same amount of time together, and that was fine. Drew didn’t exactly approve of Chris’s lifestyle, and Chris found Drew to be somewhat boring at times. They’d always be close, but it wasn’t like they were teenagers anymore.

Kelsey’s eyes drifted to the full moon above them. The sky was clear and sharp like a knife. It stabbed Chris in the heart, but it seemed to glide by Kelsey, stirring her hair. “I miss Mom.”

There was the throbbing, pulsating stab. “What?”

“I miss Mom,” she repeated, each syllable carefully enunciated. Years of speech therapy had helped her achieve her goal of speaking like so.

Chris turned. She couldn’t see his tears right now. He had news for her, and he wasn’t sure how to tell her just yet. He felt like an abysmally awful person. “I’ll bring her out tomorrow. I don’t understand her, Kels.”

Kelsey’s lip twitched. It was the sudden movements that Chris recognized with a cognizant pain to his brain. “She came by a few days ago. Said she’d see me soon enough.”

Chris glanced down at his feet. The brilliance above them hung like a shroud, lodging them deep against the Earth. If gravity didn’t exist, Kelsey would be like him: Free to float forever and ever. She’d be free from constraints. She’d be free. Maybe he’d be freer too.

“Kelsey,” Chris said, taking her hand in his. It was so cold. He would need to take her inside soon. “I’m going to Ohio for a week. Dad’s thinking about expanding the company up there.”

Kelsey’s eyes never held fear or doubt. They were always slick with pride for her family members, no matter how hard they ignored her or forgot her or whatever. Chris was just as guilty. For nearly twenty years of his life, he’d ignored her too. Then it all changed. Kelsey didn’t need Chris, really; rather, it was just the opposite. A sliver of a grin appeared on her lips. “Are you thinking you want to move up there?” It took a while for her to communicate, but Chris had time.

“I don’t know.”

Kelsey wobbled upward, her muscles hard at work. She only needed the wheelchair when times were especially bad. Today, she’d been fine in her walker. “Chris, talk to me.”

The twinkle of the sky was like a rivulet of diamonds, but nothing compared to Kelsey’s innate beauty. She really was a beautiful woman. She was a female version of her older brother, but Kelsey’s life was very different. She always made the best out of every situation. “If I can conquer athetoid cerebral palsy, I can conquer anything.”

“I… I’m at a crossroads, I guess. I just don’t feel like the same guy anymore. It’s like two different slivers of me aren’t connecting. It’s so weird.”

She reached out to place a hand on his arm. She was naturally tall. If she didn’t have this “defect,” there was no doubt she would have been a model. Maybe a Hollywood actress. Maybe anything involving the public eye. Yet people looked at her differently, and their parents had treated her like she was a dying flower her entire life. As soon as Kelsey decided to live with their Aunt Ellie, an elderly African-American woman whom they’d met at church eons ago, their own mother Lucy had been so accommodating, so blissful. The happiest day of her life was when she helped her daughter move in with another woman, who was nearly twenty years older and of no blood relation at all.

Chris smiled, remembering Raina’s awkward introduction to his Aunt Ellie, the woman who had made sure to cook his Saturday breakfasts since he’d been sixteen. Aunt Ellie had started out as a fellow church member at one of the big churches in town, but Lucy hired her to be a caregiver/nanny to Kelsey and Alexander. Over the years, Chris began to look up to Aunt Ellie as his mother rather than the one who actually delivered him. He loved his mother, but she preferred her church friends to her children. That much was totally obvious. Ever since she’d found her husband cheating on her with a plethora of young women, she’d lost it. Seeing a shaving of him in each of her children added to the fray.

“Well, that’s a problem.” Her eyes sparkled in the white moonlight. Her cheeks turned pink against the sharp violence of the wind. Even though Kelsey did not have perfect mobility, her spirit was close to perfect. Chris wished desperately to help her in any way he could, but his lifestyle was not compatible with Kelsey’s beliefs. He didn’t have the time to care for her, and Kelsey would never approve of his behavior with women, like how his father had treated their mother. It was better for Kelsey to stay under Aunt Ellie’s protective wings.

“I doubt I’ll go to Ohio. Too cold.”

“Well… When do I meet Raina?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve stopped talking about her. Why?”

He reached down to kiss her forehead. “She scares me a little. She’s very dangerous.”

Kelsey rolled her azure eyes. “Sure. Not as much as you.”

“Come on. Usually, I’d cut my heart open to you, but it’s just too cold. Besides, Raina’s incognito.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

THEY WALKED ALONG the slick road. While they’d been eating, a little sleety shower had passed through. In the glow of the Christmas lights, Drew’s hair flashed purple, while Diana’s hair seemed gold. It was a dramatic differentiation. They inched closer together the farther they walked.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. Or maybe I’m sorrier I accepted Mel’s proposal. The truth is, I just wanted to catch up with you. I wasn’t sure how.”

She sighed. “I’m sorry Mel placed you in this situation. She can be devious at times, but she means well.”

“Yes, I would agree.”

“I’m sorry. My parents don’t get out much anymore. They’re just on their toes around Mel. I don’t really understand it, but she is a bit different. She’s just Mel. They don’t like disrespect, which is understandable. But I think it’s very kind you came out.”

“Do you?”

“Yes.” A large oak tree rested before them, its massive trunk rooted nearly fifty feet above them. Around it like a snake was a long rope of stranded lights. Each bulb twinkled silver. It was magically romantic. Diana felt the electricity in the air. The full moon hung above them, but at their vantage point, already underneath what felt like silver stars, they did not care.

“Adrian told me you broke up. I think he knew, Diana.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I think we made it pretty obvious. Except to ourselves.”

Diana batted her eyelashes, pretending to be unaffected by the comment. “You know, when we get back, my parents will apologize profusely to you. They’ll treat you like you’re the president. Your praises will be sung for a solid month.”

“I don’t think that’s the case. I aided in this issue, right?”

“Well, I know my parents, and they love you already.”

“Even your father? He looked ready to attack.”

A swirl of wind slapped them gently. “Did you know Mel has a blog?”

“She briefly mentioned it when she was recruiting me to come over to this dinner thing.”

“Do you know what the IP address is? I want to see what all she’s been writing.”

“Not a clue. We could figure out though. Mel Sarafian is a unique name, if she used it properly. Also, remember, she gave us the title of the story she’s working on.” At this he pulled his jacket closer to him. His blue eyes seemed sharper than normal in the frigid temperature.

A sudden memory dawned on Diana. In high school she’d been mostly single, instead focusing herself completely on her studies. In one class, a group of students began talking about future spouses. One Peruvian girl, whose name Diana had since forgotten, had adamantly declared, “My husband has to have blue eyes. Nothing less.” Even now Diana cringed at the comment. No one got to just go out and choose the perfect combination of attraction. Instead, there was a smorgasbord of human beings out there, all assembled and packaged differently from their other counterparts. Right now, on the assembly line of life, Diana and Drew happened to be walking down a street together.

“What are you thinking?” he asked nervously. Was his question too direct? He wondered if Diana thought he was pathetic. He had showed up to this dinner like some sort of schoolboy, allowing the woman’s sister to be their mediator. How pitiful.

Her smile was big enough to light the Empire State building. “Nothing in particular.”

“Do you want to head back? We’ve made quite the walk.” But no, he thought miserably, I don’t want to go back, so why am I even acting like I do? He cursed himself for his inconsistency. Why did women scare him like this? He refused to take after Chris’s lead. In fact, the way Chris treated women was quite appalling, like they were disposal lipsticks. He’d had one in every color and every texture.

“Sure,” Diana said. “You know, Mel was right. I did want to see you again. I just wasn’t sure how. So I think it’s very admirable she’s doing this for us.”

A hint of the silver moon above them poked out. “Me too. I wish I could have been more open with you from the beginning. It was always so hard seeing you with Adrian, but I don’t want to go behind his back. I’ve never wanted to do that. It’s like… You know, if you did the same thing to Mel.”

“Mel has done it to me before.” Diana chuckled. “But I know. You and Adrian share a different relationship, one based in the utmost loyalty. When he finds out, he’s not going to be happy.”

“That’s for sure.”

“But I think you know, so I’ll tell you. The whole time I came over to your house wasn’t because I wanted to see Adrian.”

Drew’s eyes widened.

“I wanted to see you.”

Before he lost his gumption, he leaned in and lowered his lips to hers. His humanistic response to her was like a drug. Hormones were hurtling all throughout his bloodstream. Evilly, he thought Chris might enjoy this a bit more frequently than him, but not with this sort of intensity. That was reserved only for those people who were falling in love. Like him. Like Diana.

Her arms were around his neck, pulling him closer to her. He’d closed his eyes, so he couldn’t see the gleam of the Christmas lights against her hair, or how he’d just stepped on a poor, dead bug, or how the moon had flown above them like a blessing from heaven. He didn’t notice Diana’s eyelids shuttering open and closed. He didn’t notice the passing of a car, the old couple inside smiling and remembering their chance at that, a long time ago. He didn’t notice the little girl sticking her runny nose against the glass pane of her bedroom, staring down at them and dreamily wondering when she’d be the girl in this dynamic. No one noticed another woman, uncannily like the woman in the lover’s embrace, standing with a camera.

Mel had gotten her snapshot. She’d easily make a thousand bucks this month off the success of her blog. However, below the surface, something stirred inside her, like someone was collecting something from the well of her spirit. Her sister finally seemed happy.

She glanced down at her little camera, something she’d spent an unreasonably lode of cash on, and smiled. Maybe someday, if this did happen to be Diana’s one-and-only (although Mel didn’t believe those existed, just look at her crotchety parents), Mel would admit she’d been spying and taken a photo of them.

After Diana and Drew disappeared for their walk, Mel apologized and told her parents the truth. They’d been shocked, spellbound, and her father literally began to cry. “I did not flunk out of school,” she said quickly. “I just… Well, I said I did…”

“Not because of that stupid blog?” asked Anahit, her voice tight.

“Yes. For the stupid blog. But listen, it got me over four thousand views in one week. With that sort of traffic, a whopping few hundred bucks of revenue was generated for my work. Well, that was over the month, but still.”

“What about your work at the fast food restaurant?” Anahit was not smiling.

“Six thousand views that week. People like my wit and humor.”

Anahit’s brown eyes narrowed into dangerous slits. Mel gulped. “Well, I can tell you, I don’t. You will clean the dishes for two straight weeks, or I sweat to St. Peter, I will shut your blog down.”

After she’d finished the dishes, she snuck out into the cold air, waiting in the shadows for Diana and Drew to return. Anahit and Ari had anxiously watched TV, also awaiting Drew’s reappearance so they could apologize. Mel, meanwhile, had a mission.

And she’d reached bingo.

This would easily generate a few thousand views by tomorrow. Maybe she’d give a $10 reward to both her victims. Maybe not.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

RAINA NEVER THOUGHT Christmas break would come. For nearly two weeks, she had no work or anything on her schedule, except crossing things off her mother’s bucket list. They would go see the Christmas trees at the Pink Palace Museum, both of them observing with an acute eye the miniscule detail on each tree. One had little toy airplanes hanging from its branches, and another was magenta pink and bright like Barbie’s dream. Every year, Kimberly Newton’s favorite was a bright turquoise tree, the color of a wide, open Bahaman ocean, and she would stand and stare at it for two or three moments. It was a tradition for them: Kimberly enjoying it all, and Raina enjoying her mother’s company.

“I wish your father were with us,” Kimberly said on this particularly bright afternoon. She was bundled up like she was going for a picnic in the Arctic, but fortunately, this was one of her good days. She smiled a lot and would stop to congratulate young moms on beautiful babies.

Raina dug deeper into her own jacket. As a teenager passed by, she had a sudden recollection of her own young self, back when her intentions were simply to breathe life like it was endless. “But you and I get to hang out.”

“Also, I wish your brother were with us.”

Oh. This subject. Raina sighed. “He’s busy in Alabama.”

“At least he’s coming back for Christmas. It’s just not the same.”

Raina’s eyes glazed over. She tried not to let the web of emotions capture her thoughts. Each little strand was a different one: Fear, anger, antipathy, empathy, disbelief, joy, happiness, regret. Her throat caught in her chest. It always circled back to the choice she’d made at seventeen, when she decided to stay in Memphis rather than pursue college in Texas. Why hadn’t she left? Why hadn’t she taken a leap of faith, just for once in her life?

She tried to ignore the rumblings of the volcano in her spirit. She didn’t want to be tied down to anything. The only bright star in her day was her class at school and her mother’s smile, which was harder and harder to find. It was like the world was going by without her on board. She was the person rushing after the train that had already left the station. She bit her lip so hard a puddle of blood rushed into her mouth.

“Look at this one, Rain. Oh, you’re bleeding, sweetie!”

Raina hurried to the restroom, no doubt her mother trying her hardest to keep up, which wasn’t good for her health. Maybe she was a bit overbearing. Why did she have to accompany her mother everywhere? She slammed her fists against the counter in the restroom as a woman appeared from the stall. The poor woman raised an eyebrow, brought her purse closer to her chest, and disappeared.

Her hands began to ache. When she examined them, she saw they were bright pink. Her mom entered the room, and worry crossed her face. “Raina!”

Raina turned her back and looked into the mirror. She’d bit a chunk out of her lip. At this, she started crying. It was slow at first, just a little drop, but then the rain fell from her spirit, and she started crying hard. It was like the mighty Mississippi was overflowing onto Raina’s cheeks, as the young woman clutched her face, her busted lip, her streaked skin.

“Raina, honey?”

“I’m sorry, Mom. I’m just stressed. Please, go outside. You don’t need to see this.”

“Raina, stop it. No matter what shape I’m in, I’ll still be your mother, and this is unnecessary. Why are you crying?”

It got to the point where when one halts crying, his or her throat becomes an insufferable choking mechanism, and Raina could barely breathe. Finally, when her heart calmed down, and she looked like a bloated, pink fairy, she said, “You always say, ‘It’s just not the same.’ But Mom, I’m trying so hard to make it like it was.”

“Raina. Stop this. You’re a wretch when you cry. Look at me, honey, when I say that… I mean, things aren’t the same. It doesn’t mean it’s not God’s will. The truth is, out there, another woman’s getting a chance to be a mom. If I can give her one more day with her children, I’ll go tomorrow.”

“How could you say that? I’m the one who’s stuck here when you leave.”

Kimberly’s shoulders drooped. Her breathing became heavy. She tried to blink back the threat of tears. “Because, Raina, the world is a big, infinite circle. Something good happens to you, something good happens to me, and so on. Just because I won’t be here with you for the rest of your life doesn’t mean you won’t see me again.” She reached out and grabbed her daughter’s fingertips. “Sometimes I forget you deal with way too much than a twenty-six-year-old should deal with. Your father isn’t good with this stuff, so I rely on you. Please, Raina. Let’s pretend this didn’t happen. Let’s enjoy this afternoon.”

“Mom, but it did happen.”

Kimberly squeezed her daughter’s hand until she turned and exited the room, unable to say more. Raina turned back to the mirror and saw how piteous she looked with her red-rimmed eyes and messy hair. It would take an hour to look normal, but deep inside, it was like something darker had taken root. She pulled her hair to the skull and exited the room a few minutes later.

Kimberly locked arms with her as they continued to peruse the trees. While Kimberly began complimenting each tree, or offering advice against another, Raina remained completely silent.

“Raina?” called out a familiar voice.

She turned around so hard that her mother was pulled with her. “Yes?” Self-consciously she wiped a finger underneath her eyes.

It was Alexander, Chris’s younger brother. He stood by himself, in a college sweatshirt and jeans. He looked good, like some sort of high school heartbreaker, and in the bright light she could see he was the spitting image of his brother. Thinking of Chris at this moment made her nauseous.

“Hey, how are you?” Her voice sounded too peppy.

“I’m good. Hi, I’m Alexander,” he said quickly to Kimberly, who smiled.

“This is my mom, Kimberly. Mom, this is Alexander, Chris’s brother.”

They shook hands and exchanged the typical pleasantries. “Well, I just wanted to say hi. But hey, Raina, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.” Kimberly waved and took off down the way. She recognized someone from their old church. Raina turned back to Alex, who looked so young in this moment. The glow of a sparkling tree behind him startled her for a moment.

“Have you heard from Chris lately?”

“Well, not really. Why?”

“He’s been ignoring my messages altogether, which is normal, but even when Mom calls, he hasn’t been answering. I thought you may know why.”

“No… Not at all. I mean, I could drive over to his house and check up on him. The last time I saw him was last weekend.”

“No, don’t worry about anything. It’s okay. I’m just a little concerned. Oh, oh, gosh!”

“What?”

Alexander pulled her into a little corridor off the main part of the exhibit. “Oh, oh.”

She felt incredibly idiotic hiding with Alexander. They both crouched to get a better vantage point, with Alexander in front of her. At least he hadn’t noticed her makeup had disappeared after her burst of emotional instability. Also, he didn’t seem too taken aback by the fact that they were hiding together. “What do you see?”

Quickly he pointed to the spot where guests entered the tree exhibit space. Out of the corner of her eye, Raina spotted her mother speaking to the old friend. However, now, she saw a couple with locked arms strolling down the way, looking at all the Christmas spirit (or lack thereof). The woman was almost as tall as the man. She had long, curled black hair that fell down her back like a horse’s mane. She was strikingly beautiful, Raina thought jealously. The man, on the other hand, had broad shoulders and blond hair. Those were the first two attributes she could think of to describe him. He had a big smile on his face as the woman, who looked Middle Eastern, pointed at one display.

“Who are they?”

“It’s Drew Atwater, Chris’s best friend. But… But… The last time I checked, on social media and stuff, that woman was dating Drew’s brother.”

“Chris’s best friend? Wouldn’t he know where Chris is?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. But why is he hanging out with his brother’s girlfriend?”

“Maybe they just wanted to hang out…”

The woman nuzzled her head against the man’s neck. They were definitely not just hanging out. That was a couples move. Anxiously Alexander whipped out his phone and snapped a photo. “I’m sending this to Chris. Snap, my connection’s awful. Oh, snap! Missed my shot.”

Kimberly turned around in a circle, done with her friend. Raina ignored the lump in her throat. Why was she hiding like this? “Raina? Where are you? Raina!”

“Oh, snap.”

“Is that your mom?”

“She’s going to blow it.”

“Well, we’re hidden. Don’t answer her.”

“It’s wrong to disobey your parents. Don’t you know that?”

Alexander rolled his eyes. He quickly peeked across the room, looking for the couple, before jumping up, pulling Raina with him. “They’re coming.”

“Well, why don’t we act normal? Like… We’re just talking about normal stuff. So, Alexander, what party are you going to tonight?”

“I don’t party anymore. I’m on the outskirts of civil…”

“Is that my man, Alexander the Great?” called out a Southern voice.

Raina and Alexander turned to see the man Drew Atwater rush over and do some sort of chest bump with the kid. Raina stood awkwardly. A bubble of annoyance coated her as she took in the beautiful woman behind Drew, while she looked like a teary hooligan.

“Hey, how you doing?” Alexander called back. The two obviously knew each other well. “Hey, man, you met Raina Newton?”

Drew turned to see the woman, but it was like his eyes glanced at her but didn’t even truly look. “No. Hi, how are you? I’m Drew Atwater.”

“That’s Chris’s girl.”

Drew’s eyes widened, and he looked at Raina with skeptical interest. She looked much different in person compared to the photo Chris had showed him. “Whoa! As in, his new girlfriend?”

“Yes.” Raina’s voice was sharp.

“It’s nice to meet you. I’ve been wanting to meet you, but Chris won’t answer his phone, and I’m not exactly sure why. Have either of you heard from him?”

“I was asking Raina the same question.”

“Oh, Diana. Come meet Chris’s brother, Alex, and his girlfriend, Raina.”

The woman stared at her with bemusement, but Raina couldn’t tell if it was fake or true friendliness. “Hi. It’s nice to meet you.” Her English was perfect. Was she from Iran or something? Why wasn’t she in a burqa or a hijab? Raina chewed on her lip, before remembering it was still bloodied from earlier.

“What a small world,” said Alexander, taking on the role as host of the conversation. “Well, I hate to be rude, but I think we can all trust each other. Why are you with Adrian’s girl?”

Drew profusely blushed. It was like the white man had turned pink. The woman Diana hadn’t been expecting the comment either, and her perfect lips opened a few inches. Raina was surprised Alexander felt comfortable enough to ask the question in front of strangers like them. “Well…”

“Adrian and I broke up. It wasn’t working, to be honest. In fact, if you talk with your brother, he’ll tell you more. He was the catalyst in the break-up, I think,” said Diana.

“Wow, Chris? Really?” Raina asked with sarcasm. It didn’t even sound like her to say something like it. The new couple looked at her with confusion. She looked at her feet.

Alexander cocked an eyebrow. He wondered what had happened between them last weekend. He remembered leaving the Spanish bar, and how Raina had been so outgoing and appealing to every man around her. She’d been tipsy with spontaneity rather than alcohol. Alexander assumed she went home with his brother after they dropped him off. Now he wasn’t so sure. However, it wasn’t his place to ask Raina. Now, this whole thing with Drew was a different matter.

“Oh, I see,” Alexander said anxiously. “Well, it was nice to see you guys. If you happen to hear from Chris, can you let me know?”

Drew’s eyelids blinked a million miles per minute. He seemed genuinely confused by the turn of conversation, and how quickly Alex had dismissed him. “Yes, sure. Nice to meet you, Raina.” He didn’t even look up at her.

“Bye,” Diana said half-heartedly.

The two walked off together into the main exhibit while Alexander stood with Raina. He began tapping his stubbly chin, which Raina really wanted to shave off. It was like a prickly cactus. “Why was that so awkward?” she finally asked.

Alexander’s eyes glazed over. “Because… If I am correct in my thinking, Diana and Drew are together after she dumped his brother. That’s a little… Peculiar. You know, Drew Atwater’s changed a lot recently. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did the deed way back when Diana was still Adrian’s gal pal.”

Raina distanced herself. She’d never heard Alexander talk quite this way. “I hate to go, but…”

He nodded quickly, like he was dismissing her. Okay, something was definitely up. “Bye, Raina. Also, if you talk to my bro, can you tell him this is about Notre Dame? Thanks.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

COLUMBUS, OHIO, WAS just a tad bit colder than the Southern city of Memphis (definitely an understatement). Chris’s teeth chattered as the pretty woman Amanda led him around the office space, pointing out landmark skyscrapers in the distance, though Chris could really care less. This was a reconnaissance mission, not some sort of purchasing mission. That would be the direct push of the button from his father, who actually owned the company and could therefore make deals. Chris was a leisurely messenger.

“So, there you have it. Office space and all.”

“Well, this is awesome, but Dad’s usually in the habit of more… A more suburban feel.”

Amanda Richards grinned. She was an attractivewoman, mid-to-late-thirties. She had red hair the texture of silk and a body like a nymph. Chris was trying his hardest not to revel in her flirtatious mannerisms, because he remembered distinctly the innocence of his new girlfriend, whom he truly wanted to impress with his monogamous choice. Amanda was like a potion of temptation.

“Well, that’s why I prepared a list of properties for you, Mr. Rose.” She winked, pulling out a flyer from her briefcase. “This is a listing in a mostly residential part of town. The building’s old, but recently renovated. It’s a very earthy, homey feel, perfect for the expansion of a realty business. I’d scoop it up myself I weren’t under contract.” She flashed a white smile. Chris frowned.

“Well, let’s go see it, right?”

He walked with her, making the perfect small talk, the perfect smiles, the perfect gesticulations. It was like somebody else was in his body. He was a walking doll: Fragile, breakable. They hopped in her little two-seater, cruising down the interstate like a bullet. He remembered why he hated guns.

What was he even doing here? His father wanted to open a new portion of the business in Ohio? It just didn’t make sense. Unless he was trying to get Chris away from the realty showbiz for just a few days, for whatever reason and whatever purpose. It was like something big was right around the corner. Who knew what it was.

It was three days before Christmas, and it was his second day in Columbus. He’d made a good acquaintance with this lovely host, but she was grating on his nerves as she strained to keep him entertained. Wasn’t that the problem? Chris wasn’t good at his father’s business, but he wasn’t horrible either. He made average deals, but always got the best properties, which inflated his earnings quite a bit. How was that fair to the other realtors?

“So, this is it.” Eventually, Amanda parked the car like she was in an action movie, so quick that Chris’s head collided with the side window. She giggled. “Sorry about that. I get carried away sometimes.”

He nodded with silent reproach. For whatever reason, his mouth watered at the thought of his Aunt Ellie’s precious cooking, which inevitably drifted his thoughts to Kelsey, who, after he checked his watch, would probably be prepping for her YouTube video for the week. Chris was an avid follower of her channel and helped out when he could. Kelsey liked to do makeup videos and give words of encouragement. Aunt Ellie helped out with it a lot, along with Kelsey’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, Huston, who also dealt with CP. His was a very mild case.

He smiled at the thought of his little sister. Last week, when he’d been showing a five-bedroom chateau, he’d openly talked about Kelsey for the first time with clients. One of their daughters had been recently diagnosed with MS, and Chris had empathized. And to talk with these strangers about something so heavy… It was a conversation he had never even had with his own father. The same father who’d sent him on this ridiculous quest so he could hit his head with the red-headed realtor who’d been ravenously sending loaded messages to him all day.

They entered the building. It was rustic but updated. The location was good, the price a little hefty. Of course the little old warehouse needed some more updates to add to its modern appeal, but it smelled like good candles and future money. They walked around, Chris asking meaningless questions. If his father really were considering to transplant a Columbus business, then he’d come up and make the final preparations himself. This whole reconnaissance thing was purely ludicrous.

“So, what do you think?” Amanda asked as they finished their tour. She picked a mint from her purse. A little smudge of mascara under her left eye interested her client.

“Definitely an option. I’d still have to keep Dad in the loop.”

“Would you now?” she asked again. She was trying so hard, blinking those eyes so fast.

“Yes.”

“Well, I have two other properties you might be interested in.”

“I think we’re good here. If we were to choose one off the spot, this would be it.”

“Whatever you say, boss.”

He followed her to her car, really regretting not bringing his rental along for the ride. That was basic, wasn’t it? The truth was, the early stirrings of a headache began to tick against the clock of his brain. A little pulsating here and there was enough to curtail this little trip short anyway.

They made small talk until they arrived back at Amanda’s office, where he promised to keep in contact and thanked her for her time. She didn’t seem too disappointed he didn’t whisk her off on her feet, but it was probably because he’d talked up the property so much the only thing she saw in his eyes were big, green dollar bills.

He took off in his rental, hurrying along the interstate, feeling lonelier than normal. Usually, he’d pick up the phone and call up his buddy Drew, but something just kept him away from that subject. He thought of his mother and Alexander, but like divine intervention, his phone buzzed.

“Hey, where are you? Alexander says you haven’t answered in a while.”

“Rain? How are you?” He felt the glow of a smile spread on his lips like warm butter.

“Hi, Chris.”

“I’m in Ohio for the weekend. My dad sent me up here to check up some things for him. I’ve been busy, but I’ll call Alexander soon. He’s probably losing it about Mom.”

“He said something about his results on early admission to Notre Dame, and he wanted you to call.”

“Okay. Wow! I thought he was gung-ho about… Come on! Get off the road! Sorry, Raina, a car just whipped it out in front of me. Anyway, I’ll call him soon.”

She sighed. “I can call back later…”

“No. What’s up?”

“I met your friend today. At the Pink Palace, where I also saw Alexander. He was with this really pretty Armenian girl. Alexander said something about how he was surprised, because the girl used to date Drew’s brother. Weird, right? I don’t mean to stir the pot, but it was all-around weird.”

Chris pulled off the ramp, his hotel a beacon ahead of him. He would go use the gym, grab a Subway sandwich, and call it a night. Tomorrow he’d spend doing whatever he felt like. Those days alone always itched by though. “Diana?”

“Yes. Diana. Very beautiful, but a very awkward situation.”

“Drew hasn’t told me anything yet, but I’m sure he’ll tell me soon. He tells me everything. That boy’s been looking for a woman for a long time now. I’m happy for him. Did they seem happy?”

“Yes. But… I don’t know. It was just awkward. Anyway, you should call Alex. I’ll let you go. When do you come back?”

“Day after next. The day before Christmas. Obviously, it’s going to be a bit hectic at the airport, but I have an early flight. Want to go to dinner soon?”

“Sure. Just text me. Love you, bye.”

Chris stared at the phone and shrugged. Women had said weirder things to him over the years.

On the other end of the line, Raina stared down at her own device, mortified. She definitely did not love Chris Rose. Not yet, at least.

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

RAINA SAT ON her grandmother’s wicker chair in the living room at her parents’ house. It was Christmas evening, December 24th, and she’d never been so empty. The reality was simple: This would be her mother’s last Christmas. What was usually a time of cheer and thanksgiving had been replaced by the cool knowledge that this time next year, Kimberly Newton would be underneath a pile of dirt.

That didn’t mean Kimberly wasn’t avidly trying to stir up joy. She flitted around the room, her scarf glinting in the light, as she passed out brownies and cookies and milk. Raina would miss these cookies. Whenever she tried the recipe, it tasted like bat guano rather than milk chocolate delight. She fiddled with her chocolate chip cookie as Max barreled around the room like a gorilla, describing some ancient story for their guests.

Raina’s brother and his wife were home, and Raina was desperately trying not to fall asleep around them. They were the most boring individuals she’d ever met in her entire life, which said a lot. Her brother, Nate, was a Georgetown-educated lawyer who’d met his wife, the wonderful and charismatic Sara Brown, at a college thing. Now they lived together in Alabama, but the ritzy, liberal part of Alabama (if there were such a thing?). While Max Newton’s specialty revolved around the Second Amendment, his son refused to touch meat, as Sara was a vegan chef and animal lover (secretly, Raina was jealous).

Raina cringed. She didn’t like guns, but she wasn’t an animal activist, not at least when it came to food. Not when people were starving in other countries. Sara was trying her best to pretend she enjoyed Max’s spiel, but her little nose high in the air was enough to make Raina barf. Of course, Uncle Joe was over with Aunt Alice, who was trying so hard to interest Sara, who was obviously bored out of her mind and trying to tell her husband it was time to go to bed.

Raina eventually dialed Chris’s phone number. No one even cared she was there anyway. It was definitely the worst Christmas Eve ever.

He answered on the fourth ring. “Hello.”

“Are you back from Ohio yet?”

“This morning. How is my lady today?”

“Awful.”

“Oh, Rain.”

“Well, not awful. I’m just pretty close to it. Can you come rescue me?” She bit her lip. She wasn’t usually so forthcoming. Something about this horrible night was propelling her to seek refuge elsewhere. She didn’t want to bother her other friends who had perfect lives with perfect families and perfect Christmases. Raina glanced over her shoulder at her mother, who hadn’t said a word to her all evening. She’d been too busy guffawing over her perfect son and his perfect wife.

Chris breathed into the phone. He was obviously listening to someone else. “Hold on a min, Rain.” She heard him call out, “You think so? Really?” His voice came back on the phone. “Raina…”

“It’s okay. If you don’t want to, I understand. I’m just totally out of my element here.”

“It’s not that. It’s… I’m with my sister right now.”

“Sister?” She didn’t understand. Then suddenly, a small meteor lodged in her gut. The girl in the wheelchair. Chris’s sister. “Oh.”

“Yes. I haven’t exactly told you the full story, but… But I can come pick you up, if you want…”

Raina breathed hard. “Chris, I never really told you.”

“Told me what?”

“I… I know about your sister. I saw you two at the doctor’s office a while back. She’s in a wheelchair, right?”

Would he hate her forever now? For keeping this from him? She doubted he would. He seemed embarrassed, as if his sister’s immobility were a deal-breaker. Of all people, Raina understood what it was like being the relative of someone with a medical problem. She blew a wisp of blonde hair from her face. Why was this so impossible? Why couldn’t she be one of those girls who wore her heart on her sleeve? Why couldn’t she just accept the facts of the world and live without fear? Everything around her swirled in emotional color. Deep down, she knew she lived appointment to appointment. This was her reality.

She glanced up at her mother, who was anxiously sitting on her son’s lap. Max was laughing his head off while Sara analyzed her silver diamond ring, holding it to the lights. Aunt Alice too was mesmerized by the ring and the conversation.

And it left Raina, like usual, in the void outside.

“Chris,” she said, standing up. She caught her brother’s eye, but she ignored it. “Chris. Let me meet her. I want to meet her.”

“You do?”

“Of course. I’ve met your other sibling, so of course I should meet your sister. What’s her name?”

“Kelsey.”

“Let me meet Kelsey.”

“You know what? Why not? I’ll be over to pick you up in a few minutes.”

“Okay. I’m at my mom’s. Here’s her address.” She recited her childhood home’s address quickly.

Raina stood up and grabbed her coat. No one even noticed her disappear into thin air like a Christmas ghost. She took a seat on the steps leading to the front door. The air was warmer than normal, but she was cold-natured. She looked up into the radiant sky and wondered if God could hear her. She ignored the single tear that slipped from her eye like Cinderella’s lost slipper.

When Chris pulled up, she glided into the front seat. “That bad?”

“It’s a reunion. It should be fun, but you know how it goes.”

“That’s for sure.” He sped off into the approaching night. “What about it was bad?”

She sighed and was thankful that for once, her driver wasn’t jamming out to Christmas music like everyone else seemed to be doing. Her class had been miserable, right before the break, simply because second graders, on the cusp of true knowledge, couldn’t hide their elation. Duh. Raina had made it imperative in her campaign as best second grade teacher to fulfill a bunch of tiny Christmas wishes. Namely, she gave each child a little slip of paper to write down a tiny gift they wanted for Christmas, and two hundred dollars later, she’d done it. It took hours to wrap everything properly, but it kept her mind off other things. She’d allowed everyone to spend an afternoon away from their math practice and onto singing the season’s best tunes while playing a few Christmas games along with doling out her favorite dessert recipes.

But she always got tired of it eventually. So now, sitting in Chris’s car, it didn’t feel like Christmas—and she was thankful. It was just another day.

“My brother’s in town with his wife. So, as you could imagine, it’s a feeding frenzy. It’s okay. I just grew bored and irritable, but what else is new?”

He smiled. He felt the same way most of the time nowadays. Instead of spring fever, maybe it was simply winter fever. Maybe he’d fall over and propose to Raina for no apparent reason, like something people did in movies. What unifies people more than a wedding? It was probably at this moment that Chris knew he and Raina would never marry.

“Is your brother successful?”

“Funny you ask. Yes, he is. And so is Sara. I think honestly people just get bored of me. They see me all the time, they realize I’m not this being of adventure, but rather I prefer to stay put. I’m like a hand-me-down book.”

“Raina, stop. That isn’t true.” He didn’t want to sound demeaning, but it came out anyway. Was part of her confession true? Everyone had flaws, but it wasn’t a flaw to be grounded. It was just… Not everyone’s cup of tea.

The wayward smile was back, like a thin crackle of lit lightning. It was electric enough to roar something deep in Chris’s chest. “You lie as awfully as my second graders. Why did you never tell me about Kelsey?”

Well, that was a transition. He focused on the road. He’d heard a terrifying statistic, about how this night was the night when most suicides happened. Chris was on the lookout for drunk drivers, who could cut in at any corner and bring an end to everything. Only a few stragglers were out at this hour.

“Well, Kelsey is someone very special to me. If you unlock Kelsey, you unlock me. That sounded horrible, I know, and maybe even trite. Kelsey’s gone through a lot, and I feel like her gatekeeper. She’s seen some of my exes, and they treat her like she’s a child, like she isn’t the strong woman she is. It’s infuriating. So, Raina, I wanted to get to know you before I invited you to see my sister.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I saw you at the hospital.”

He shrugged. “It’s understandable. You had no clue who she was. But she knows who you are.”

Raina was quiet. “Hey, did Alexander ever tell you about his college news?”

“Yup. Got in early, my little brother. I’m so proud of him. I think he’s been thinking about the military his whole life, and Notre Dame’s this far-off dream, but we’ll see. Oh, here we are! And, oh.”

The apartment building etched out into the night sky. Red and green lights stranded the railings on most patios. However, Chris realized he’d parked by his father’s Mercedes, and he gritted his teeth. “Sis has a visitor.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s my dad’s car. Come on. You remember good old Mr. Christopher Rose, don’t you?”

“Oh. Oh.”

“Yes. Exactly.”

Raina mutely followed him to the apartment complex, where he quickly knocked at a door on the first floor. She felt a steely wall build up around him, and before she knew what she was doing, her hand slipped into his. Surprise filled his blue eyes as he glanced back down at her. He smiled.

The door opened, and Aunt Ellie appeared, wearing a muumuu with a black Santa on the front. Raina tilted her head a little, but then she just smiled. Santa Claus could be Mongolian for all she cared. Instead of hugging Chris, Aunt Ellie hurriedly embraced his lady. “So nice to see you, dear!”

“Hi.”

“This time, you’ll stay for my cooking, right? I’m baking brownies. I do it every year.”

“Of course.”

“Come on in.”

Chris followed them in. He watched the dynamics of the whole introduction. Raina glided in like a natural. Immediately, she flocked to Kelsey’s side, as his sister was under a blanket on the couch, looking so incredibly beautiful for Christmas Eve. Raina pulled a chair beside her and began to speak with her like they were long-lost siblings. Chris was so surprised he nearly jumped when his father pulled on his sleeve. “Son?”

“Hi. Oh, Dad. Um, I’m just not used to seeing you here.”

“I thought I would shake things up a bit. We spent Christmas last year in the Adirondacks with Piper’s family.”

“I remember.”

“Oh, yes. Well, your girlfriend has obviously made quite the impression on your sister.”

“Yup. Where’s Huston?”

“Her boyfriend? He just left. Something about he needed to leave to go get something done. I’m not sure.” Was Chris misinterpreting his Dad’s response? Was his father nervous?

“Okay.”

“Who wants cookies?” called out Aunt Ellie from the little kitchenette. The apartment was viable for two people but still felt a little cramped with both Chrises and Raina, who was incessantly chatting on and on with Kelsey, who had a bemused look of, Why didn’t Chris let me meet her before?

“Also, I’d like to share something with you privately.”

“What?” Chris hadn’t meant for the question to be so abrupt, but he couldn’t take it back.

His father stared up at the pockmarked, stuccoed ceiling. In this moment, he looked both ages younger and older than his real number of years. Finally, he stuck his hands into his pockets. “I am strongly considering Ohio.”

“Yes.”

“But I sent you there with something else in mind. In retrospect, it was highly stupid, but I was planning to kill two birds with one stone, and I knew if you were here… It wouldn’t be good.” His voice had lost its intensity, its realtor lilt. He sounded more like a teenage boy admitting something dangerous to his father.

Chris crossed his arms. Aunt Ellie watched from the kitchenette but remained quiet. “Dad, just tell me.”

“Well, I proposed to Piper.”

Chris felt a permanent frown etch out into his jaw. It hurt as his muscles angrily grinded together to accommodate his distaste. The joyous Christmas music thrumming from the TV sounded like nails on a chalkboard. Had he expected this? Of course. It didn’t mean he ever had to like it. “Did you, now? What took so long, Dad?”

“What do you mean? Relationships take time to solidify. You know that.”

Reel it in. Reel it in. Of course it came out of him like projectile vomit. “Oh, yeah, just like how things ended with Julia Norton, who happened to break up your marriage and our entire family. ‘Chris, you know, son, I’m sorry, but Julia is this important to me.’ Enough to ruin the family dynamic forever.”

“Chris…”

“No. I’m sorry. Outburst. You’re getting married to Piper. What a surprise? Do you want me to be best man or something?” I’d rather climb Mt. Everest ten times.

The older Chris frowned, deepening the wrinkles in his forehead. He was in his early fifties, but still, Chris knew the stresses of owning a company and having a thousand mistresses equaled an enormous payout, sometimes unable to be paid for. He rubbed the back of his head, where a splash of bald had been painted, and breathed, “Well, son. Piper’s having a baby.”

This time, everyone in the apartment was eerily silent. Raina and Kelsey glanced up, both of their faces highlighting mortifying spectatorship while Aunt Ellie almost scolded herself reaching for the cookies in the oven. It was silent, but in that silence were a thousand loaded little sharp words. Anyone would have been able to identify Chris’s betrayed emotions, or his father’s intense curiosity. It was like a game, and both players failed.

“She’s… Pregnant?” Chris said quietly.

“Yes. With our first child. A little girl.”

“You have to ruin everything that’s good, did you know that?”

“Hey! Watch the way you’re speaking to me. I’m still your father, whether you like it or not.”

Chris waved a hand, dismissing him. “I know I work for you. I know everything I have is owed to you. But you are the one person in this world who has disappointed me so much, I feel like I should punch you. Please leave. Maybe I should leave. I don’t know.”

“You were here first,” inserted Aunt Ellie to young Chris.

His father nodded grimly. “I’ll see you the day after Christmas, bright and early. Chris, let me add, I don’t tolerate disrespect well.” His father’s words were like jello against steel. Nothing he said made any difference.

Chris just shook his head.

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

DREW SAT IN a plush chair in the living room of his house in the city. The honking of horns buzzed around him. Rush hour. His neck was comfortably lodged between two fluffy pillows while the gentle hum of a television program on the insane migration of hummingbirds played nearby. He’d just finished reading a little article on the web by the one and only Mel Sarafian. He sighed.

So far, his family members knew nothing of his little tryst with Diana. She was forgotten about, mostly. At Christmas dinner, Anna Atwater had made a few snide comments about Adrian’s ex, and Drew had batted his eyelashes the whole time. Sometimes, it felt so good to be so bad.

Chris entered the room a few moments later, brushing off a few crystals from his jacket. It was early January, the saddest time of year in both their opinions. However, this year had come to a nice, flowing start. It was spring in full bloom. Drew had never been so smitten in his entire life. He was the young girl who picked each petal off the flowers. He was the individual rushing with arms wide open throughout a loving field of wheat.

Chris, meanwhile, looked like he was in a deep decline. “Hey, man. I brought takeout.”

“You look awful.”

“Thanks. It’s been one horrible week. Like the freakin’ Titanic grounded above my skull.”

“What’s wrong? Why aren’t you keeping me in the loop?” He bit his lip in guilt. The same could be said for him too. Chris had seemed a bit standoffish lately. Maybe he’d experienced something big with his agoraphobia recently.

Chris fell into a chair across from his buddy, right underneath the weird painting of a Mississippi Antebellum house his sister had given as a housewarming present. Drew, not one for decoration, barely gave it any thought, though he knew how much Chris hated it. “Well, want to know why Dad sent me off to Ohio?”

“Why?”

“He’s thinking about opening up shop there, yeah, but mostly… It was to keep me away from town while he proposed to Piper.”

“Oh.”

“Who happens to be three months pregnant, also. She’s two years older than me, and looks much younger. I’m at my wits’ end.”

“Oh, dear Lanta. Your family could seriously compete with the Kardashians for most screwed up. Don’t take offense to that.”

Chris cocked an eyebrow, but he was too upset at his dad to be upset with his best friend too. He felt the tension in the air anyway, like something volatilely charged hung between them. He wasn’t sure what it was, because they’d always been so incredibly close. “I know.” He started picking at a strip of cloth on the couch. “What’s your news?”

Drew licked his lips in excitement for his story. He was like a child on Christmas Eve. Instead of the normal emotionless expression painted on his face, he held a witty smile, like he knew the punchline to a joke no one else knew. Finally, he sat up and said, “I’ve been in a relationship for two weeks. Looks like you’re not the only one in this little bet.”

Chris sat up a little straighter. “Are you serious? That’s great! With whom? Let me guess, that annoying woman from your work!” He used his best acting chops. Of course he knew Drew ran off with his brother’s girlfriend. He just wanted Drew to tell him verbally, instead of finding out from an eighteen-year-old-brother. What was this rift in their relationship?

“No. So your brother didn’t tell you?”

“Diana?”

Drew nodded and began to whisper, “Yes, but we’re keeping it very secret right now. Very classified, if you get what I’m saying. Wait, why am I whispering?”

“Because it’s classified,” Chris answered with a wink. “Except when you walk around the public eye and see my ridiculous brother. I’m so happy for you, man. That’s great. How did it happen? Why? Give me all the details.”

“It was Diana’s sister, Melisende, who set us up.”

“Melisende? What kind of name is that?”

“Armenian.”

“Oh, that’s right. Forgot. Sorry, keep going.”

“Mel set us up for a story on her blog, and from there, our relationship just continued to grow. Oh, did I tell you, I saw your woman at the Pink Palace? You were in Ohio then. It looked like she was conspiring with your brother.”

“My brother?”

“Yes. Alexander was there. But I think they were just shocked to see me and Diana, ’cause obviously Alex knew Di was with Adrian. The price you have to pay for social media these days.”

Chris cocked his head like he was an alien animatedly observing the human species. Eventually, he settled on, “What’s going on, Drew?”

“What do you mean?”

“You just seem, I don’t know, a bit different. Ever since this bet started. Or maybe, more accurately, since this whole Diana thing started.”

Drew’s nose turned red like Rudolph. Chris knew he should have kept his mouth shut, but what was he supposed to say? Over and over, “I’m so proud of you! You’re finally becoming a grown-up!” Drew was different. It was too early to tell how different he was, but Chris wondered if it had something to do with Diana’s influence. Women could do that. Didn’t he have the expertise on that subject?

“What the hell is that supposed to mean, Chris?” Drew asked sharply.

“I’m just sayin’, you seem different. Don’t take offense to that.”

“So, you think since I finally just got a real girlfriend that I’m a bit on edge about everything? Chris, you don’t understand, because you’re not me. I don’t want to be the guy who strings girls along like their dolls you can get at the freakin’ store.”

“Drew, I’m not insinuating anything like that…”

“Yes, yes, you are. Maybe you’re afraid that I’m going to win this bet. Where even is Raina anymore? You never talk about her.”

“Because we—as in you and I—don’t talk that much anymore. Usually, you would have thought to tell me the day after hooking-up you’re sleeping around with your brother’s ex-girlfriend.”

Drew’s nostrils flared. It was like he turned into a large peal of thunderous lightning while Chris was his target tree. “Oh, yeah, like you’re the one to talk? Give me a break. It’s the preacher preaching to the pulpit—albeit horribly. Chris, why are you even here if you’re just going to throw flak like it’s candy?”

“What are you talking about? I simply mentioned you seem different, and you blew up like TNT. Look in the mirror, buddy. What’s going on?”

“Now you’re going to play the victim card. It’s not going to work.”

“Drew. Please! Listen to yourself. Why don’t we just call of this idiotic bet? It’s more harm than good. It’s ridiculous anyway. You can go be with Diana, and I’ll be with Raina. No issues, no problems, just good fun.” Chris’s voice was low again.

“Everything’s just good fun to you.”

“Okay. Obviously this isn’t working, and since we’ve never really been in a testy fight like this, I’m going to get up and leave.”

“I think that’s a good idea.”

After Chris left, Drew felt a viscous pressure in his chest, rising up and up. He did feel different. But like all things, he was simply evolving.

Already, the takeover food was growing cold on the coffee table.

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

DIANA AND MEL sat on a bench in the mall on a mid-January day. Mel wore a ridiculous beanie that covered most of her hair, but the ugly red flower on the cloth held a hidden camera. Diana shook her head as her sister adjusted the cap. “Remind me. Why are we doing this again?”

Mel rolled her eyes as she smoothed her skirt. “Because, I am making quite a bit of cash with my blog. Someday, I’ll be one of those millionaires, and all my children will laugh at me and say, ‘You got famous off a blog?’”

Diana stroked her forehead and gazed at her feet. The toenails were a shade of radiant red. It was a fresh coating, as she had a date with Drew tonight at a nice dinner place somewhere downtown. Since it was a Saturday, she wasn’t busy studying, as she could save that for tomorrow. Earlier in the day, she’d volunteered at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital, so this little escapade at the mall with Mel would make for a nice social disaster.

Diana wasn’t even sure what Mel’s whole gig was. All she’d said was, “If you want to come be part of the best thing ever, you can drive me to the mall.”

“Is it a flash mob?” Diana asked as a group of teenagers laughed, walking past their bench. A fountain spurted behind them.

“No. Shh…”

“What is going on then?”

“I’ve arranged something. That’s all you need to know. Now zip it.”

Suddenly Mel’s phone buzzed and she rolled her eyes. “Nothing ever goes according to plan. It’s so annoying. Okay. Di, I need you to hold this camera, which I’m lending from my friend at school, so please be careful with it.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll be right back. I promise.” She disappeared and Diana looked down at the little device in her hand. What in the world?

She was quiet for a few moments as she wondered what her sister was up to. Diana could only imagine how awful her blog would be if she had one. Mel, on the other hand, had finally showed it to her sister, and Diana was shocked at how naturally good she was with a camera and her heated ideas. She posted something every few days on her own website. Recently, she’d transitioned to also doing YouTube videos. When Mel showed her the cash flow she got from making a simple five-minute long video, it was tempting not to quit med school (where she was paying for her education, mind you) to host her own show straight to the entire world.

She quietly watched as a young woman appeared on the lower level of the mall, down near the blue-tiled fountain. Diana used to throw coins there with her mom, back when the agoraphobia wasn’t as strong. Mel always liked to jump in, which caused quite the stir. Typical Mel was always causing some sort of drama. By her teenage years, she’d simmered down. And then came her seventeenth birthday, when the real Melisende Sarafian was unlocked once again. Honestly, most people preferred the true-to-herself Mel.

What started as a simple glance turned into a full-on stare. Diana pushed a lock of black hair behind her ear as she analyzed the woman’s familiar frame and pin-straight blonde hair. She stood near a woman with a beautiful indigo silk scarf twisted around her bald head. Was that the woman she’d met at the Christmas tree exhibit a month ago? The woman had seemed so sad back then, back in person. To think, back on the trip to East Tennessee, she’d been jealous of that woman when Chris had showed her picture.

She took a gulp of air as she remembered how Drew had talked about her after they’d walked away. “I don’t think it’s that serious. Chris has never been serious about anything.”

“Except his fear of heights,” Diana laughingly said, and Drew’s eyes had sparkled at her joking manner.

Diana rubbed her eyes. She tried to squint to confirm her supposition, but eventually, she gave up, as the duo hurried into a lotion store. A few seconds later, her skin prickled as Mel said, “Ready?”

“Ready for what?” she breathed. Turning around, she noted a smiley guy with a cart filled-to-the-brim with flowers of all sorts: creamy white butterfly bush; sunset orange gaillardia; lollipop verbena; crimson hollyhock; bubblegum pink penta; all shades of tulips and roses. The cart was painted bright lavender, and the man holding the wagon handle waved like he was a windshield wiper.

Diana stood up and exclaimed, “What in the world?”

“Ta-da!” Mel pulled on her friend’s collar, making sure it was just as she wanted. “Meet Adam, my confidante and fellow acting nerd. He’s quite famous actually.”

“Oh, sure.”

“Don’t even pretend he’s not. He’s got an agent and all. Anyway, Adam, this is my twit of a sister, Diana. Hint: She gets crabby a lot. Also, she will be our little production assistant today. If you want, Diana, you can be credited in the making of this stupendous video.”

“What exactly is the plan?” Diana asked, flabbergasted, as Adam lifted a little sliver of butterfly bush to give to her. She took it and stared.

“We’re going to play a game called Random Bulb of Kindness. There’s too much hate in this world.”

“Amen, sista,” Adam said politely. He waved at a little child who walked by as the mother punched a pinkie against her cell phone. Adam quickly maneuvered around the Sarafian sisters and picked up a yellow tulip to give to the little girl, who took it with a smile, her mother still oblivious.

“Darn. Shoulda got that on camera,” Mel said anxiously.

“We’ll have plenty of opportunities, Melly.”

“Did he just call you…?”

Mel rolled her eyes. “Okay. Here’s the plan. Adam here is our host, our sensei, our star. He’s going to lead us to the perfect people. We’re essentially making a video on how handing out a simple flower can brighten anybody’s day. So, let’s start, without further ado. I’ve got my camera ready, and maybe Diana, you should be in charge of the whole, ‘Hey, random human, is it legally acceptable if we videotape you for this production?’”

“Sure? Why not?” Diana was still stuck on the fact that this Adam fellow had arrived at the mall with a large cart containing all sorts of colorful flowers. A rainbow of flowers. It was like happiness on wheels.

Mel tapped her fingers together like she was a villain plotting epic destruction. “Who should our first victim be?”

“That poor lady over there,” Adam said quickly. “The lady staring at us like we’re total weirdos.”

“Okay. Let’s try not to scare her half to death.” Diana pointed at the cart. This was incredibly strange.

They proceeded to wheel over to the lady, who looked shocked that they were coming near her. She clutched her purse closer to her chest. Mel lifted her camera as Adam said sweetly, “Hi, ma’am. Would you mind being on camera?”

“That’s Diana’s job!” hissed Mel.

“I really don’t mind,” said Diana.

The lady narrowed her eyes. “What for?”

“Today, we are producing a segment called ‘Random Bulb of Kindness.’ We’d like to sweeten your day by giving you a few flowers.”

The lady relaxed. “I don’t mind being on camera, as long as you don’t mug me.”

“Not part of the plan,” Diana said, but she knew her voice lacked assurance. She glanced over at Mel, knowing she’d been videoing the whole time. Wow. So much for obeying the rules.

Adam reached down and pointed to his vast array of petals and stems. “Which has your fancy, ma’am?”

The woman’s eyes widened as she took in the flowers. She pointed at a light pink rose and said, “Are you sure?”

“Of course.”

“But why?”

“Take as many as you need. There’s too much strife in the world not to share some goodness at times, right?”

“One flower at a time,” she responded, taking a stem of each color of rose. She looked back up and the wall built between them crumbled. “Can I hug you? Just for a moment?”

“Of course! I love hugs.”

“Don’t be a complete creep, Adam,” Mel said, though it was obvious her voice was more emotional than usual. The typical zap and zip to it had been slackened, at least by a little. Maybe this would be a humbling experience for her.

The lady and Adam hugged, and then they were off again. Adam searched high and low for his next victim before pointing at two big men holding snow cones. “Hello, sirs!”

“Hi?” asked one. He took a curious slurp of cherry ice.

“Hello.” Adam pointed to his carriage. “Would you mind being videotaped for our segment called ‘Random Bulb of Kindness?’”

“I’m gonna be famous? Percy, I told you, one day—maybe a thousand days from now—you’ll be seeing me on TV. But you, on the other hand, I doubted you would ever get the chance. Of course not, bud! What’s all these flowers here for?”

Mel said, “It’s not TV, but it is for an online blog. Pick any flower, or if you want more, take them. We’ve got plenty to give away.”

“What for?” asked the man named Percy, who looked like he’d never seen so many flowers in his entire life before. “They’re so very pretty.”

“Take any. Seriously. For you, a special loved one, whatever.”

“Well, this is the kindest thing someone’s ever said to me. ‘Come get a bunch of flowers!’ Now I can give them to my special girl. Come on, Percy. Don’t be shy!”

Diana tried to suppress the giggles rising in her throat as the entertaining men took a collection with them. Her heart palpitated as two women appeared, coming down the mall aisle in five-inch heels and their Sunday best. When they saw their boyfriends on camera, they immediately assumed they were getting arrested, and Percy shuddered as his girlfriend lifted her purse in the air to swat him.

“What have you done now, Percy! I swear, I’m gonna kill you one of these days.”

“Well, amor, I’m getting you a bouquet of flowers.”

Her eyes immediately widened as she realized it was not the police, but rather the Random Bulb of Kindness cart. She glanced up at the two sisters and weird Adam, and she said, “Wow. What is this?”

“If you would just hold on for a moment, Takia, we would explain it to you,” said Percy’s friend with a roll of the eye.

Percy hopped on one knee.

“What…” Diana said in utter confusion. Mel looked like she’d just been beamed into winning the lottery of entertainment material. Adam gushed.

“What you doing, fool?” cried Percy’s friend as his girlfriend sidled up next to him.

“Takia, you know, I wasn’t sure how to do this properly…” He looked up into Takia’s eyes with a smize, Tyra Banks-style. “I asked God, ‘How should I tell her I want her more than anything in this whole world?’ And then I got this cart of flowers. So, we’re on camera. We’re in the mall. It’ll be a story to tell our family for ages. Takia, I love you more than life itself.”

“Wow,” Diana whispered to her sister. This had taken it to the next level.

Takia anxiously looked between the camera and Percy’s adoring face, before her eyes flickered over to land on Percy’s friend. Then it was suddenly clear. “Percy…”

“Takia?”

“Oh, I can’t do it!” she cried out suddenly, and everyone around tensed. A crowd of passersby watched with wide eyes and mouths. What in the world was this? Some sort of Matchmaking in Memphis TV program or something?

“What?” Percy asked, heartbroken. His voice fell a few octaves.

“I… I gotta confess something.”

“No, Takia, you don’t.” The friend had a sheen of sweat on his brow.

Adam cringed. This was not what he had expected to happen in the slightest.

“Elliott and I have been seeing each other behind y’all’s backs.”

Percy shot up like a cannon, while the other woman immediately began to cry. Diana patted Mel’s wrist in a way of saying, Hey, shut that camera off! But instead, Mel simply zoomed in closer.

“What do you mean, you been seeing my best friend? As in, intimately?”

Takia shuddered.

“I swear, Elliott, I’m gonna kill you!” Percy took off like a rocket, running straight into the cherry snow cone, so it looked like blood rushing down the both of them. The crowd collectively gasped, and Adam quickly screamed, “Violence is not the answer!”

Adam quickly jumped on the edge of the wagon, and Diana prayed he wouldn’t fall off. Like a perfect politician, he cried out, “Ladies, gentlemen, children, and senior citizens. Violence is not the answer to our problems! We are here simply to hand out flowers as part of a segment on Random Bulbs of Kindness, so we can sweeten all our lives! Please, come get some free flowers!”

A woman cradled her child close to her side as Adam fell straight into the wagon of flowers. Percy and Elliott fell close in behind him, so that Adam was crushed against his dreams and human nature.

Mel threw her camera at Diana and immediately pulled Elliott up by his shirt, which was no easy task. He seemed frightened to see a girl of her stature so venomously angry. “Enough! Take your problems outside. You just destroyed a perfectly good friendship, my friend’s back, and our flowers! We came here, not to incite violence, but to argue against it! Leave now! You are not welcome here!”

Elliott stumbled off, Takia hurriedly following him. Percy stood up and said humbly, “I’m sorry, y’all. Did I just ruin… Oh, wow. I did just ruin your flowers. Please forgive me.”

“We forgive you,” said Adam between labored breaths. “Now, please. Help me up!”

Diana filmed the rest of the encounter. Eventually, Percy mutely hugged the remaining woman, who also seemed hurt. Then he rushed off with her and a bouquet of flowers he’d intended to give Takia. The crowd eventually thinned, until the stragglers rushed over to pick up some flowers.

Mel and Adam tried to fix each bulb, but as one woman said, “It’s the thought that counts.”

Once the word started to spread, over two hundred people came by their cart until it was completely swept clean.

 

Chapter Thirty

 

RAINA NEWTON FLUNG herself in the direction of her brother. “You need to shut up. Just shut up, Nate.”

He angrily gritted his teeth. “Yes, I should listen to you… Because why?”

“Would you two stop your bickering?” hissed Max. “We’re in the middle of a motion picture.”

“Dad, everyone calls them movies,” roared Nate. He stuck a piece of popcorn in his gullet before shooting a massive glare in his sister’s direction.

“You’re such an idiot. You know that, right?”

“I’m the idiot? You’re the one yelling at me. In my town. My turf. About my wife.”

“Get over it. Isn’t that always your motto? Somehow, I don’t think you say that when you’re doing your ambulance chasing.”

“Raina!” shouted Kimberly.

A few of the poor moviegoers behind them were watching with bemusement. This family drama was so much better than the awful movie they’d agreed to go see because they had free tickets. The dad almost shouted, “No, don’t keep quiet! We want to hear you. Louder, please!” His wife chugged down Whoppers in response.

“No. I’m not dealing with him. Perfect Nate Freaking Newton. Perfect Sara Freaking No-Meat-No-Fowl-No-Fish-No-Cheese. Maybe I want to be a vegan, but I’m not proclaiming it like I’m Mother Theresa!”

“Raina! What has gotten into you?” shouted Max while his wife turned red with embarrassment. Luckily, Sara was right beside her and not her daughter, who would likely pounce if they were right beside each other. Kimberly didn’t fully comprehend the animosity.

Raina stroked her cheek as sounds of pure lust and sexual movements filled the screen. Wasn’t this supposed to be a heroic action film, and now two scantily clad lovers were attacking each other with nothing less than perversion? If Raina weren’t making her emblazoned speech, she would be gagging. The poor family behind them anxiously covered Little Jack’s eyes. He peeked through their fingers.

“I don’t know! Hmm! What could have gotten into me? Maybe the fact that this entire trip has been nothing but a testament to perfection that doesn’t exist! I don’t like you, Nate, and I don’t like you either, Sara. Therefore, I am leaving. I am not dealing with this obnoxious family. You all are idiots, and I am leaving.” She stood up and barreled down the theater seat. She almost tripped in the dark but found her footing. Well, it actually kinda felt exhilarating to speak one’s mind. The woman sitting behind them actually clapped, and Raina felt justified.

Until she made it out into the light of the lobby of the theater. Where would she go now? She glanced over her shoulder. Hopefully no one followed her, so they couldn’t berate her with, “Raina, dear. Is it that time of the month?” No. It was that time of her life.

It wasn’t like she could call someone to come and rescue her. She was visiting her brother and his crazy wife in Alabama, and she was hours and hours away from home. No possible way she had the money to hire a cab. Eventually, she fell over on a chair and found herself asleep within a few minutes.

What seemed like seconds later, a handsome male face appeared above her and startled her awake. “Ma’am?”

Oh. He was not legal. At all. And she thought he was handsome? She quickly brushed her hair from her face and smoothed out her shirt. It must either be super late, or super early.

“It’s closing time. Are you okay? You’ve been sleeping here quite a while .”

“Closing time?” she choked.

“Yes. All the movies have ended. It’s nearly two o’clock in the morning.”

She jumped up and looked at her phone. The boy was right. She thanked him and hurried outside, noticing she had at least fifteen messages from her mom alone, demanding to know where she’d run off to. Raina ran out into the night air and found a few cars in the lot, but none belonged to her family.

Anxiously she dialed her mother’s number, like she had when she was fourteen needing a ride.

“Raina?” called out a relieved but snappy voice. “Raina, please tell me you’re okay.”

“Yes, I’m okay! You guys left me at the movie theater.”

“What do you mean, we left you at the movie theater?”

“You left me at the theater,” she hissed. “I fell asleep waiting for you, and now I’m still here.”

Kimberly must have tossed the phone to her husband, because Max’s tired voice said, “Raina? You’re at the theater? I’ll come pick you up.”

“I’ll be waiting,” she said angrily. She ended the call and hurried outside, where she looked like a complete loser as she sat on the curb, watching as the last of the moviegoers flocked to their cars. A lot of them were couples on little romantic dates. She blushed thinking of Chris, not because of jittery nerves or anything, but simply because she knew that Chris made a lot of people blush. If people saw her walking around town with Chris’s arm wrapped in hers, they would be so jealous of her.

She laid her head in her lap. This was unbearable. Really, she was tired of it all. The ridiculous relationship she shared with her family now, the job of babysitting twenty-five eight-year-olds all day long, the somewhat fake relationship she shared with Chris. It was all rubbing her the wrong way. She felt guilty for a moment. The real thing scratching her like claws was the fact that Kimberly was not doing better. She was doing worse. The truth was, she’d decided to stop all treatment. The bald head which had been the staple of her strength for so long was beginning to sprout little, tiny, brownish-gray hairs. The doctors gave her a few months. Raina didn’t expect it to be that long. Maybe her mother would enter hospice care around March.

Her thoughts drifted to their little bucket list, something Raina had wept on a gazillion times, back when the shock of it all was like a bullet to her mental health, over and over again, with each appointment and each conversation. There were two things remaining on the list now (now that Kimberly had scratched off “see Raina get married” because Raina had become involved with a man). One was to canoe the Wolf River, and the other was to hike the mountains surrounding Phoenix, Arizona. That one was not going to be possible. That was something Raina would have to do by herself.

She tried not to cry thinking about it, but the pressure behind her eyes began to mushroom, and she felt dangerously close to exploding.

Eventually, the loud, junky car her father refused to throw out, even though he made really good money nowadays, appeared before her. Max hopped out of the car and helped Raina enter, knowing his daughter was full-on crying. He didn’t say anything for a few minutes, until Raina realized they were in the drive-thru of an ice cream place.

“Can we just go home?” Raina said miserably.

Max smiled. “No. Home isn’t the best place to go all the time. So we’re not going there. I told your mom to expect us home in an hour or so, and I fully expect to follow my original plan.” After the attendant handed them two chocolate dipped cones, Raina bit into hers like she hadn’t had food in years. Max watched with amusement. “Why did you and your brother start fighting in the middle of that movie? I thought it was pretty good, up until you two started bickering like it was a debate between politicians these days.”

“You see,” she said quickly, the tears mingling with the tasty dessert, “he thinks Mom should move down here permanently. He thinks it would be good for her to die in the middle of the unknown, so she can know his perfect little wife a little bit better, so you and I, Dad, can lose her via a different approach.”

“Sweetie, your brother would never…”

“He did, Dad. He did. And I know it’s horrible of me to say, but I hate him for it. How could he say that? In the middle of the movie? He saw I was bored, and he started joking with me. Then it turned bad real fast.”

“Your mother’s not moving down here, okay? She will… Pass away… In the comfort of our home. Maybe even a hospice house. She still hasn’t decided on it. You’ve been so on edge lately, Raina, and I want to know what’s nagging at you. Besides the elephant in the room, of course.”

A chunk of the chocolate layer fell onto her skin. “My life has revolved around home, Dad. Around Mom, around you, around Memphis. Once, Dad, once upon a time, I wanted to leave so badly, I could feel it in my blood.”

“You wanted to leave?”

“Yes. I prepared this stupid little pamphlet for you guys, even. I didn’t tell you I applied to SMU. You always said, ‘Raina. You’ll stay around, won’t you, even when your brother’s rushing around the country?’ And I would always smile and say, ‘Sure.’

“But I prepared this pamphlet. It had all the tuition and scholarships and whatever combined. It would be a bit of an expense, but I thought, ‘This will make them proud. They’d let me go too, right?’ And of course, that day, of all the days, Mom walks in the room. She’s crying and she can’t stop. She starts screaming, and then I hug her and stick the pamphlet in my back pocket, as if she would notice it anyway. And she says, ‘Raina. Things are going to be a little different right now, but I’m so thankful I’ve got you to stick around.’

“How could I even consider leaving after that? So I stayed. When the cancer was gone, I stayed. When it came back, I stayed. I’ve stayed because of Mom. I’ve stayed because she needed me.”

Max was quiet. Raina did not notice when he pulled over on the side of the road. A few cars flashed their lights as they buzzed past. A cop must be lurking up ahead.

“I need Mom, but when she’s gone, I need to go.”

“Where do you need to go?”

“Arizona.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little hasty? A little idealistic?”

“Dad,” Raina said, her voice loud and confident. “Did you hear me? I need to go. I don’t know for how long. I don’t know the details. I know that I can’t keep living like the only thing that exists is Memphis, because it will suck me dry. I’ve been a doormat for so long.”

He blindly looked out into the darkness. His ice cream began to melt onto his pants. “You really feel this way?”

Raina nodded.

“You have taken the brunt of most of this. You’re the glue, Raina. But you’re right. Let’s make a deal. When your mother… When your mother is gone…” He looked down at the white spot on his jeans. The lights from the dashboard highlighted the stain. “When your mother is gone, you need to take some time for yourself. Elsewhere. I will pay for it, Rain.”

“No. No, that’s not what I’m trying to say at all…”

He sullenly took her hand. A melancholy grin deepened the wrinkles on his face. “I know you didn’t say it, or even think it, or whatever. But Raina, if you’re being called to go, you should go.”

 

Chapter Thirty-One

 

DIANA SAT ACROSS the table from her dashing date. He was nearly buzzed from the glass of wine they’d ordered along with mozzarella cheese sticks for appetizers. She was dressed comfortably in jeans, a dressy blouse, and a burgundy scarf, while he’d chosen nice slacks and a pullover. He looked adorably preppy, and she was enamored by almost everything he said.

“So, seriously, you’ve tried online dating for a year now? Come on, Drew. You didn’t need that at all. All you had to do was fly over to Berkeley to sweep me off my feet.”

“Yes, perfect idea. A twenty-two-year-old college student, whom I’d never heard of. I think fate worked perfectly in our case.” He took another gulp. The pizza joint was lively, but it wasn’t the typical mom-and-pop. Rather, most of the crowd was upper class, and a few other couples were on dates. Diana didn’t want to be with any of the other men though.

She carefully tossed her hair over her shoulder. “I would’ve run off with you instantly.”

“Sure. It would have taken a village. Or simply Mel.”

She laughed at the thought of her sister, who had dropped her off in order to hurriedly edit all her footage with Adam’s expertise. The cart was now in the driveway of their house, along with Adam’s hideous vehicle. No doubt Ari and Anahit were in a tilt-a-whirl with Adam’s presence, although he’d probably win over their father with his eclectic opinions on movies and musicals.

“Mel’s crazy, but she’s brilliant,” Drew added.

“Most definitely.” Diana felt his hot stare on her. She immediately repressed her thoughts, remembering that she would need to focus tomorrow. Her studies demanded it. Oh well, she thought another time, taking another sip of wine. Drew looked so gorgeous in the minimal lighting, and she wanted so badly to kiss him. She wanted to forget med school, just for a little, so she could explore another side of life with him.

Drew’s eyes went from enticing to cloudy in seconds. He rubbed his forehead in consternation, and Diana turned around to see the culprit. She smiled big. “Chris!”

“Hey,” he said, pulling her in for a quick hug. He wore business attire. Of course Diana thought he was ridiculously attractive, but tonight he seemed aloof. She tried to imagine that girl Raina with him at all, and she thought back to her mother in the silky scarf. Maybe it was a charity thing. She shrugged it off.

“Hi, Chris,” Drew said weakly.

“What’s up?” Diana asked for the both of them.

Chris took a chair from an empty table and placed it between them. He quickly said, “You guys need to watch out. Adrian’s here. With some bottle blonde.”

“What?” they both gasped in unison. So much for a quiet night at the pizza joint.

“I just walked in with my… My friend, and anyway, I… I bumped into Adrian and this girl. Her name’s Anastasia or something weird.”

“Stasia? Oh, wow. That’s just lovely.” Diana angrily threw her napkin on the table.

“What? You know her?” Chris said, his eyes flickering between the two. Drew looked green and sick, while Diana was obviously livid.

“She’s only my best female friend at med school. Which is not saying much.”

“You can’t exactly blame her, Di,” Drew mumbled. He rubbed the back of his neck. Was it too early to ask for the check?

Chris looked over his shoulder, over to where an elderly man sat observing the menu. Diana nearly broke out into full-blown laughter when she noticed the man had his phone flashlight on to assess the menu with clarity. “Look. I’ve gotta go. I just wanted to give you a heads up.”

“Where’s Raina?” asked Drew.

“She’s with her mom. Tonight isn’t exactly personal time for me. I’ll check in with you guys after dinner, okay?”

“Sure.” They watched in silence as Chris walked back over to his “friend.” Drew was too dizzy with guilt to care who Chris was hanging out with now. They hadn’t spoken since their fight at his house, which was brought on by Diana, of course.

Diana hissed over the table. “What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to act natural. We can’t leave now.”

Adrian and Stasia appeared, both with beaming smiles and youthful miens. They were led to a table far enough away that Drew and Diana could be conspicuous. Sure enough, Adrian had rebounded with Stasia, which was a whammy. A definite whammy.

“Is Stasia nice?” Drew asked.

Diana was fuming. “She’s swell. I can’t believe your volatile brother. What a freakin’ clown.”

The waiter brought out their traditional Chicago pizza and departed as if he knew he was approaching a sauna. What was hotter: The pizza’s burning pan or the two people hotly staring each other in the eye?

“I don’t even know what to say, except we can’t be too upset, can we?”

“You’re not the one who has Stasia as a friend! Can you imagine ever dating one of Chris’s women, okay? Wouldn’t that be a horrible betrayal? Or if Chris ended up with me?”

Drew’s eyes darted over to his friend, who was swirling a straw in his tea as the old man rambled on about some story. How would he feel if Chris ran off with Diana? Of course he’d be so angry he might try to beat him to a pulp. There were some lines that were not to be crossed, right? This made him feel even guiltier about Adrian. But Diana’s intense, honey eyes staring him down twisted his desires into a chaotic concoction. How could he leave her?

“I think I should go toss my glass at him.” Diana broke out into an adorable giggle. “Joking, of course. I have a class with them both, and they always seem to be completely disinterested in each other. But I’m one to take notes, not to observe the love affairs in a basic immunology course. Gotta stay fresh on chemokines.”

The storm had seemed to ebb for now. He reached across the table to drape a hand on hers. “Chemokines are what exactly?”

“Does it matter?” she asked, taking a slice of pizza from the pan, dishing it with surgeon-like precision into his plate. “So, anyway, let’s ignore them. Pretend they’re just no one in particular.”

“I’m up for it if you are.”

“So, seriously, what is a chemokine? I want to hear my hot girlfriend tell me exactly what that means.”

She dropped a big dollop of cheesy pepperoni into her mouth. “Little signal proteins secreted by cells.”

“Want to go back in time to be my biology teacher? I’m sure I’d ace your class.”

“Drew!”

“What? We’ve known each other for three months now, and I’ve never had a chance to say that until now.”

She shook her head. “You’re impossible.”

“You’re the one who’s a bit more direct than I am.”

“You’re direct when you want to be.”

He gobbled down a slice of pizza in seconds. “I really wonder who that guy is with Chris.”

“You two sounded a little bit miffed with each other. What happened?”

“He’s just crabby lately. Like a period or something.”

“Okay, I really don’t want to give you that lesson over saucy pizza.”

Drew wiped his mouth with a white cloth. A little piece of meat had wedged itself between his teeth. “You know, I’m not really sure what happened exactly. It’s like we’re both going through a time of change.”

“A time of change?” She took another sip. She tried to limit her drinking, but the waiter never reappeared so she could order a water or a Coke or anything to satiate her thirst.

“Yes. It’s weird. It’s like he’s been quiet with me for the first time in a long time. Like he’s going through a period when he needs me most, but… Oh, great. Now you’re going to take that the wrong way. I just meant… He’s going through a time when he needs me, but he’s afraid to talk to me. And I haven’t been the most supportive friend lately.”

“Been too busy chasing girls?” She winked.

“Something like that.”

A pixie-like blonde stalked by, heading to the bathroom. They were hidden as she walked away, but if she returned (and of course she would), they would be in the direct line of attack. Unfortunately, Diana and Drew were so focused on each other that they did not register the woman’s surprise at seeing them, and how she cried out, “Diana Sarafian!” and how Diana became to terrifyingly mortified, she nearly fainted, and how Drew’s eyes bulged out of his head, and even Chris turned at the right moment to see his best friend in a time of dire desperation. Chris tipped his glass of water back like it was a shot. This was about to get interesting, and here he was at an interview. Just typical.

“How are you, Di? Who is this handsome man? You just look so very familiar.”

“Stasia,” Diana said casually as the woman reached down to hug her. “What’s up with you?”

“I’m just on a date with Adrian. He’s such a sweet guy.” Her eyes widened. “Oh. I totally forgot.”

“Don’t worry. It’s not a big deal. You two would make a… A good couple.” Diana ignored Drew’s kicking her underneath the table. The candle on their table seemed to flicker even more now that the drama had intensified tenfold.

Stasia beamed at the compliment. “Thanks, Di. Hey, it looks like the waiter just stopped by the table to take the order. Chat later?”

“Sure.” As soon as she left, Diana looked helplessly at Drew. “Can we please get out of here?”

They both waited impatiently until the waiter reappeared, and Drew stuck out his card, wishing he could toss a fifty-dollar bill to the guy and disappear forever. Instead, they stared around the room until he returned with the receipt, and they took off holding hands like two connected, electric lightning bolts.

 

Chapter Thirty-Two

 

CHRIS KNOCKED ON Drew’s door the weekend after seeing him at the pizza restaurant. It was a late January afternoon, and he was due to take Raina out later, but he thought it would be nice to check in, maybe try to diffuse the situation. He became mildly interested in a flower in bloom in the middle of the green bushes. Weird.

The door burst open, and Diana, wearing only a blanket, appeared. She looked beautiful as always, but this was beyond awkward for Chris. “Hey, Di. Where’s your man?”

“He’s inside. What’s up with you?”

“I was just trying to talk to him, but I can see now’s obviously not a good time.” He kicked his toe against the WELCOME HOME rug and began to turn around, but Diana’s hand firmly rested on his bicep.

“I can ask him.”

Chris’s flesh felt sizzled, and not in a good, pleasing way. This was too eccentric for him. “No, it’s okay. See you later.”

Thirty minutes later, he found himself in front of Raina’s house. Like a shroud the clouds blocked the sun’s light. He sat there, just waiting for her, his mind hard at work, his heart completely melted away. She appeared a few minutes later. She was beautiful. She was kind. She even seemed different.

“Hi,” she breathed as she sat down, throwing her shoulder bag to the ground. “You won’t believe what happened. One of my students yesterday asked me the most insane question ever, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. Chris? Chris, what’s wrong?”

He gazed over to her, and before he knew it, his lips were against hers. She didn’t respond for a moment and just allowed him to do as he pleased. But then suddenly, like a bird set free, she leaned in and cradled his neck closer to her. He could smell her, and she could smell him. She could feel his diffidence a mile away, underneath this cloak of confidence. He was moving closer and closer, and she knew where this was headed. She relaxed for a moment, imagining what lurked just beyond the corner. He’d done this plenty of times, right? There was a want for release. There was a want to be with him. He was her boyfriend, for crying out loud. They’d been together for a few months, but nothing except that one night after dancing together had she wanted to dive deeper into that aspect of their relationship.

Suddenly he pulled away. “Raina,” he said, breathless, “I don’t want to use you.”

She sat up, smoothing out her shirt. “You’re not using me.”

“Yes, yes, I am.”

“Stop it, Chris. Stop it! Okay? Take me to your sister’s. We can talk later.”

The drive to Aunt Ellie’s apartment did not take very long. As soon as they got there, Raina raced to Kelsey, and the two began chatting like they’d known each other all their lives. Chris found his way to the older woman who was clipping coupons as she watched a soap opera on the TV.

“Oh, Chris!” Aunt Ellie called out, beaming. “And look at Raina and Kelsey. It’s just such a good thing for them both to spend time together.”

He glanced over with a perched eyebrow. Kelsey was animatedly watching Raina, so much so that Chris couldn’t help but feel a little bit jealous of their relationship. “Yup. Two peas in a pod.”

Aunt Ellie suddenly placed her spreadsheet of coupons on the coffee table. “What’s wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“You look upset. What happened?”

“Oh, nothing.”

She swatted him with the back of her hand. “Christopher, you’re going to tell me what happened.”

He smiled. “It’s nothing big. Drew and I are fighting, that’s all.”

“Over what?”

“Nothing specific, really. We’re just… I don’t know. It’s not the same as it used to be. I went over to his place this afternoon, and a half-naked girl opened the door, and it was so out of character for him.” Maybe not for me, back in the day, but definitely for Drew.

Aunt Ellie shuddered before her eyes hardened with resolve. “Let him live his life, Chris, but if you want to be part of it, you’ve just gotta suck it up, and go talk to him. I know that’s so easy of me to say, but you’re just going to have to take charge of yourself.”

He noticed a plate of warm brownies on the stove and hurried to get one, calling over his shoulder, “I know, I know. But it’s awful! Absolutely awful, especially when we’ve known each other for so long, and it’s like neither of us really cares anymore.”

“Oh, deep down, you know you care. It’s just up to one of you to get over your pride, and show that you care.”

 

A FEW HOURS later, after Raina had been safely transported home and apologized to, and given the full report on what was happening, Chris knocked again on Drew’s door. He stuffed his hands deep into his pockets as the door opened, and Drew appeared with a toothbrush lodged in his mouth. “Chris?” he asked groggily.

“Hey, man. Is now a good time?”

“Yes.” Chris followed him in as Drew hurried away to spit out the foam.

Chris took a seat on the couch nearest a flickering candle, a definite testament to Diana’s presence, as Drew was awful around any fire element. He couldn’t light a candle properly now, and never had been able to. It was horrible and funny, a lifelong curse.

Drew appeared a few moments later in his pajamas. “So, what’s up?”

“Just thought I’d come by and check up on you.”

Drew fell into his nearby chair, sticking his feet onto the coffee table separating them. Chris was floored not to do the same comfortable manner himself, but he thought it might be a little rude, especially since they weren’t on the best of terms.

“Well, I’m doing good. Diana said you stopped by earlier.”

“Yes, I did.”

“How’s Raina?”

“She’s good, I guess. Look, let’s just be honest. What’s up? Why are we in this little battle? It’s ridiculous, Drew, and I miss your friendship.”

“I miss it, too. It’s like something’s wedged between us.”

“It’s not the girls, right?” Chris asked skeptically, knowing if it was, it would really be Diana. Raina had nothing to do with anything.

“No.” Drew was resolute that Diana was not the catalyst. It had to be Raina.

“Then what is it? The stupid bet? That bet is worthless anyway.”

“Oh, you’re saying that because you know I’ve still got a shot to win.” Drew playfully tossed a Nerf football at Chris, and they continued to pass the little object for the duration of their conversation.

Chris threw it hard. “Not true.”

“Oh, really? I know Chris Rose, and he doesn’t like to lose.”

“Yes, well, Chris Rose is in a bit of an identity crisis.”

Drew sat up. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing big. Just… I don’t know who I am anymore, but it’s fine.”

“What do you mean? You’re Chris. You haven’t changed, you haven’t…”

“That man at the pizza place. He’s Erik Stratten, as in the owner of Stratten Realty.”

Drew’s jaw slackened. “You’re thinking about leaving your dad’s company?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, you definitely are having an identity crisis.”

“Yup.”

“Okay. Well, what can we do to fix this identity crisis?”

“I think I need my best bud to start hanging out with me again.”

“Oh, pitiful Chris Rose. I’ve got just the idea. Tell me when you’re free, and I’ve got a plan.”

“No women?”

“No women.”

“Deal.”

 

Chapter Thirty-Three

 

MEL GLANCED DOWN at the computer screen, and her eyes took on the appearance of massive boulders. It was like they took up half her face, and of course with her mouth all the way open, she was stunned nearly to insanity. “Di,” she croaked. “I haven’t looked at the views on this video since we uploaded it. Adam said I should take a break from worrying, and just let the people be the people.”

Diana rolled her eyes. Adam, oh Adam. Adam who was now a regular staple at their house, as he made quite the impression on their parents. Somehow, both Ari and Anahit loved him, and they insisted he come to dinner, and of course, he did often. “Just cut to the chase, Mel.”

Mel pushed the screen close to her sister. 875K VIEWS. Now it was Diana’s turn to be bum-rushed. What in the world was this? Mel had opened a YouTube channel in tandem with her blog, and now she was racking in people like they were endless stars? Mel began jumping up and down on her bed, the mattress on the verge of popping open. “Almost a million views! I’m going to be rich!”

“What is going on in here?” yelled Anahit as she carried a pile of laundry into Mel’s bedroom. Since she came back, it was like she’d never left at all. Anahit and Ari had been disappointed at first, but then it was replaced by relief. Mel hadn’t failed after all. Plus, their daughter was an internet celebrity—or so Mel talked up her status—and the truth was, her parents thought one day, Mel might invite them to live with her in a rustic, beachside villa. Maybe they’d cruise the Bay of Bengal in a yacht, or take a private jet to Bermuda for the weekend.

“Mama, come see this.” Mel pointed at the numbers on the computer screen as Anahit placed a hand on her hip.

“What does this mean? Bad, yes?”

“No, not bad. Very, very good.” Mel was almost to the point of crying. “It means my video went viral. The numbers will continue to grow. I need to call Adam. He’s part of this, and so are you, Di.”

“It should be a viral video,” Diana laughed, remembering the dramatics of the entire event with clarity. Oh, Percy, and Takia, and Elliott. Then the whole spectacle where everyone showed up in appreciation and took every single stem. It was like Mel had stumbled upon a mountain of online gold.

“Very, good, Melisende. Now what will be your next video?” Anahit asked, bemused. Clearly, she was enjoying this entire conversation. Diana was supposed to be the child of utter amazement, but lately, it had been Mel who’d become the apple of her parents’ eyes. Diana didn’t mind. She spent most of her time at Drew’s now anyway.

“What is all this chatter about?” called out Ari, who appeared with a piece of toilet paper stuck against his slipper.

Mel pointed it out and burst out into metaphorical tears of laughter. “That would’ve made the perfect video.” Ari blushed.

“Our daughter has incredible views, Ari,” stated Anahit, pointing at the screen. “875,000 to be exact, on this one video alone. How do we watch the video? We never saw the video.”

“How did you not see the video?” asked Mel bluntly.

Anahit fell to a sitting position on the bed. “Adam kept showing us videos on Serengeti animals instead. I don’t know. Show us the video.”

Mel pressed play and immediately, Anahit and Ari grabbed each other in parental pride. They watched as Adam found the first lady, and how sweet it was. By the point of Percy’s dramatic delivery, Ari started screaming in fluent Armenian, yelling at how stupid Takia was, and how Percy needed to find a good, working woman. Anahit shushed him to get a better scope of the video. Diana rolled her eyes. By the scene where everyone took the flowers, Ari and Anahit threw their hands in the air and wrapped their arms around their daughter, pulling Di in too.

“Wow! What did we do to get such genius daughters? Thank you, God!” Ari shouted.

Adam suddenly appeared at the doorway, and Anahit hurried over to pull him into the hug. He was shocked, but he hugged them in response. A good Sarafian hug. “I knocked on the door, but no one answered. I have news!”

“What?” they all asked.

Anahit called out, “Did you see the video?”

“Only a hundred times,” Adam said sweetly. “Isn’t it fabulous? Anyway, Mel. We’ve got a booth at the Memphis Arts Expo. We’re going to be a featured highlight! And they’re even considering letting us have a speaking position. Probably a long shot, but we have a booth!”

“What?” she shouted. “How? Why? When? Where?”

“I think you covered all the question words,” Diana said, wrapping an arm around her sister.

“Someone in charge heard about your channel and wants to highlight it at the Expo. Isn’t it amazing?”

“Oh my Lanta!” Mel screamed, and then she was crying. For the first time in her life, she cried. Tears flowed. Literal tears.

“What is the Memphis Arts Expo?” Diana asked, although Ari and Anahit were wondering the same thing.

Adam gasped as if they were lunatics. “You mean, you don’t know? Well, it’s just a little exposition during which all sorts of artists, writers, YouTubers, artists, filmmakers, blah, blah, blah… All those types of people get together to showcase art and stuff. And we got invited to host a booth! Which is much better than begging to get in, obviously.”

“Wow. My baby is famous,” said Ari, beaming like a proud papa.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Mel said humbly, before wrapping her arms around her family. “So, the question is. Can I drop out of school for real now?”

“No!”

 

Chapter Thirty-Four

 

THE MEMPHIS PYRAMID stretched out above them like a giant, 3-D silver triangle. Chris stared up at it with trepidation. He’d been here as a kid to watch some Grizzlies basketball games, but when you’re a kid, you don’t listen to adult fears. His fear of heights was taking this to a whole new level right now.

“We’re not going in there, are we?” Chris said weakly.

“Of course we are. And we’re going to go to the very tip top.”

“I’m going to throw you off if we do.”

Drew shook his head in admonishment. “Just shut up and come on. We’re going in there, whether you like it or not.”

“Of course we are.” Sarcasm slipped between his teeth like poison. Chris fumbled with the zipper on his jacket. Why had he decided to make up with Drew again? So his fears could be dissected like they were experiments? Plus, Chris thought that was animal cruelty anyway.

They entered the enormous lobby and new hotel belonging to a fishing store. Chris’s mouth fell open. “What in the world?”

“I know. It’s a hunter’s dream.”

He glanced over at Drew, who was obviously in love. Even though Chris was more of the liberal in their friendship, he couldn’t help but appreciate the architectural design of the place, especially as they moved into the core of the pyramid, where a manmade village greeted them with all sorts of shops, activities, and decorations. Two elevators passed each other in unison, one heading straight to the zenith of the pyramid, the other to the low nadir. Watching that was enough to make Chris antsy with anticipation.

“Oh, Drew. No way. I hate to pop your little idea with a knife, but there is absolutely no way. No way that I’m going up there…”

“Look at that three-year-old heading into the elevator.”

“So you’re trying to make me feel guilty?” Chris asked.

“And that ten-year-old girl. She’s practically skipping to get in that elevator.”

“She looks bored to death.”

“Just come on. We’re going to try it out. Someday, you’re going to let go of your ridiculous fears, and you’re just gonna float. But it takes practice.”

“Oh, yeah. When you get scared of something stupid, that’s definitely what I’m going to tell you. ‘You’ve just gotta float.’ I’ll be your free shrink…”

Drew hurried to the attendants, one who was chewing bubblegum, the other who oozed misery. “Two tickets please.” He whipped out his card and turned back to see Chris gritting his teeth. They had to go now.

They boarded the little elevator. Chris’s legs were like weights. An old grandma appeared and hopped right in with them. Of course, she was chatty and said, “My little three-year-old and his mom went up already! Gotta go catch up with them.”

Drew politely smiled and said, “What a nice family you have.”

Chris turned his back to the glass windows of the elevator and closed his eyes. An attendant hopped aboard and pressed the button. They headed upward.

It reminded Chris of that scene from the 1970s version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, how the elevator eventually went so fast it flew from the factory into the sky, allowing its victims to be catapulted into a place no elevator (or human) should ever go. As his ears popped, he imagined this elevator crashing out of the pyramid like in that movie.

“You’re doing great, bud.” Drew nudged him.

Eventually, after what seemed like an eon later, the elevator slowed and they were on top level of the pyramid, which had been converted into a restaurant. Chris did not look back as he exited the elevator.

“See, not so bad, right?”

Chris scowled and said, “Seriously? That’s what you have to say to me? This is definitely torture for me, okay?”

“Just wait for the view over the River,” whispered the old grandma.

They walked out into the restaurant, but Chris was way too woozy to think about eating or drinking anything for that matter. He followed his friend to the look-out, but seeing the intensity of the angle, he stayed put at the door.

“Come on. You cannot give up right now.”

“Yes, yes, I definitely can give up right now.”

“No.” Drew grabbed his jacket sleeve and pulled him out through the door. A gust of wind smacked them in the face. Of course Chris immediately darted to the window, refusing to step further. Drew shrugged and walked over to the railing, where he saw the slope of the side of the pyramid spiral down. The River was muddy like always, but the natural afternoon sky was dazzling against the manmade silver skyscrapers. He always got a lighthearted feeling when he was at high heights. This was amazing, though. Absolutely amazing. He turned around and saw Chris watching with fierce trepidation. “Come on. Take it one step at a time, and you’ll be fine.”

“Yes, I’ll be fine as I glide down this pyramid like it’s a toy. Sure!”

Drew walked back over and pushed his friend forward. “I’m right here. This is not going to conquer your fears, Chris, but it will help. I promise you. You’ll be terrified at first, but I’m right here. I’m not going to let you fall.”

“You are making too many cheesy pickup lines right now.”

“Good to know you still have your spunk! Okay, come on.”

Chris took it one foot by the next. Eventually, he was at the point where the glass bottom sent him into overdrive, but he was able to focus on the image. Pretend it’s not real. Pretend it’s just a picture. A very hideous picture.

“See the Mississippi? Isn’t it muddy?”

“Shut up.”

“Sorry. Just trying to help out, okay?”

Chris grabbed the railing and was breathless. He was staring at a remarkable mural of the surrounding area. Drew was right: The Mississippi was brown. Of course, as a Memphian, he was used to its brackish luster, but today, he was seeing it from a totally different angle. The beautiful, yellow-streaked sky was like a beacon. He looked over to the interstate, where a bunch of cars twisted around. Was this how God felt like? “Wow,” he said.

“Hey, I’ll be right back. I see someone I know.”

“Okay.”

Drew turned and hurried away, back into the restaurant. Chris normally would have grabbed at him, but he was too busy allowing the wind to swirl his hair around like he was in a haircare ad. This was incredible. Was he terrified? Absolutely. His fear was still underneath the surface, but right now, it had been somewhat eradicated by his wonderment.

Eventually, Chris turned back around. Drew was busy conversing with a girl and a guy, both of them in their early twenties. She had long, black hair, and looked eerily familiar to Diana. Just as he caught a glimpse of her, and her rambunctious buddy wearing a colorful suit, they waved and turned back around to take the elevator down to ground level.

Chris steadily walked back to the concrete floor, and Drew began clapping like he’d just conquered his first steps. “That was great.”

“Isn’t it? Amazing things happen when you just simply try.”

“Oh, philosopher. Who were those people you were talking to?”

“Diana’s sister, Mel, and Mel’s friend. They’re making a YouTube video or something. She tried to explain it, but in typical Mel fashion, I understood the bare essentials.”

“The bare essentials? You sound like a female. What has Diana done to you?”

Drew motioned to the panorama. “What has Raina done to you?”

 

Chapter Thirty-Five

 

AN AFTERNOON MEAL at Chris Rose’s place. Why not? Chris anxiously flitted around as he waited for Raina to show up. She would prepare the spaghetti and do everything else. Chris felt like such a chauvinist in this moment, because usually, he ate out or ate awfully. Some of his pals always liked to tease him for not knowing anything about a kitchen. Plus, this was pasta. This was the easiest thing to make, and he wasn’t really sure where to begin.

Raina eventually did arrive, with a beautiful bouquet of flowers to put on the dining room table. “Why are you jittery?” she asked as he kissed her. Amicably he took off her jacket. “I can sniff it on you a mile away.”

“I just… I don’t know. This is going to be awkward, don’t you think? A couples’ dinner? Leave it to Drew to have some ridiculous idea about getting us all together. If I had my way, we’d have a cookout on the patio in the muggy sun, and we’d…”

Raina glanced down at her watch, lifting it to his eyes. “I have to get working.”

“Okay.”

He followed her like a puppy to the kitchen, where she began sifting through pots and pans Aunt Ellie had brought as housewarming presents. Eventually, she chose the one of her liking and filled it with cold water. As she prepared it to a boil, she looked back over her shoulder. “Diana and Drew. Are they going to be nice to me?”

“Of course. Why would you ask that?”

“I don’t know. Back when I saw them the first time, they just seemed a bit standoffish. But they seemed very into each other. Maybe that’s why.”

“I haven’t really seen them together yet. Back when they still had feelings for each other while she was dating his brother, they were just all tempty and annoying and surreal.”

“Tempty? I don’t think that’s a word.”

“It’s not?”

“No.”

“Well, sorry. This was all Drew’s idea. He wanted to meet you again, and get us all together so maybe we can all be best friends and whatever. It’s so annoying sometimes.”

Raina turned for a moment. “You are so weird, you know that? You act all cocky and cool and confident, and then you become this big weirdo.” She smiled and laughed at her own joke.

“Oh, then that makes you the opposite.”

“Does not! I am not cocky like you are. And are you saying I’m a big weirdo when you first meet me?”

“Of course.”

“Come here and help.”

They began to work together to prepare the meal. By five-thirty, everything had been cooked, including the meatballs, green beans, and mashed potatoes. The spaghetti simmered in the pot, awaiting sauce, while Raina ordered Chris to butter the Italian bread and place it in the oven. Their laughter was so loud that their two visitors heard it all the way outside.

Diana nudged Drew. “You know, this may be a little awkward, but it also may be a little fun.”

“I hope you consider it fun. I think it’s nice that you agreed to come tonight.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” she asked, nuzzling into him. Her brown eyes were devious. She was at work with something, he thought, but he couldn’t be sure what it was.

He reached out to ding the doorbell. A few moments later, Chris appeared, a broad, honest grin on his lips, as a pretty blonde woman behind him appeared too. “Welcome! Hey, Di.”

They all greeted each other respectfully, although Diana seemed to glare at Raina a little. Maybe it was simply Raina’s imagination, but she thought that stare was something meant to be taken as intimidating. Oh well. Raina wasn’t here to make friends; rather, she was here to support Chris. They’d been dating for nearly four months now, and she knew he’d won the silly bet that had started their relationship in the first place. She knew there wasn’t much more time with him either. Sadly, she flicked a piece of hair from her face and watched as Drew observed her.

“You look different,” he said meekly as Chris and Diana hugged each other. “From last time. Sorry, please don’t take that the wrong way.”

She frowned for a moment before the rumble of a smile dawned on her. “In what way?”

“I don’t know. You seem happier. Sorry. I know that’s an awkward thing of me to say. Please…”

“Got your foot in your mouth again, Drew?” Chris waved them into the dining room, where the table was prepared with the utmost sincerity. Raina’s deft ability was on full display.

“Wow! I know you didn’t have anything to do with this,” Drew said, laughing. “It smells wonderful in here. Like a dream.”

Diana’s eyes traveled to Drew’s. She watched as he watched Raina. His blue eyes shined as they landed on the woman before her. Raina. The girl from the picture. The girl from the Pink Palace. The girl who had charmed Chris Rose, and maybe could charm Drew Atwater. Diana gulped. She looked down at her shoes before saying, “Wow. It does smell good. Would you mind sharing the recipe?”

Good-naturedly Raina nodded. “Of course. It’s actually my mom’s special way of making it. I can write it down for you guys before you leave.”

“Sure. That would be nice.”

They all sat down. For a second, everyone just stared at each other, equally perplexed and confused as to how the conversation would go.

“So.” Chris glanced over at Diana. She seemed out-of-place. Maybe even preoccupied. “How’s med school?”

“Typical. A mixture between a jolly old time and torture.”

“Med school. Very cool. I have much respect for you,” Raina said, trying her hardest at social politics. Even though she had a few years on Diana, the other woman was so hard to understand. There was a murky layer to her, like a dangerous shroud blocking her from the rest of the world. She wondered what was underneath, just because Raina didn’t like when people didn’t like her back.

Diana nodded. “It’ll be an interesting career, that’s for sure.”

“I wish I could be a doc. Not smart enough, though,” Chris said as he took a bite of the pasta. Raina really was a wizard with her culinary skills.

“Chris could have done anything he wanted,” said Drew with a grin.

“Don’t lie, pal.”

“So, Raina, what do you do for a living?” Diana asked in a snipped adult voice.

“I’m a schoolteacher,” she said.

“Ah, we always need great teachers,” Drew inserted. He took a bite of the tossed salad Chris had made with Raina’s guidance. They exchanged a quick smile about this. He’d sung like a buffoon while they made the food, but it was endearing.

“That’s for sure.” Chris glanced over at Diana. “So, is it getting harder?”

Drew lifted his goblet of wine to his lips. Just one wouldn’t do any harm. He noted that Raina wasn’t drinking, and surprisingly, Chris’s glass was filled with sweet tea instead of white wine. Strange. “Nothing’s too hard for Diana Sarafian.”

“It depends on the class,” she answered honestly. A stream of light landed on her dark hair, tinging it red. Raina wondered how it could be that she was so beautiful and said everything with such ease and abandonment to what others thought. Diana was a bit rude, but she looked alluring. Was she beautiful? Absolutely. Plus, she was exotic and foreign. She didn’t look like the normal girls parading around town. Raina wondered if Chris thought this way, but even if he did (and why would he not?), she wouldn’t be able to say, “Stop it!” It was impossible not to look at Diana with some sort of amazement. She would definitely have the power to heal certain ailments, just with one flash of her white smile.

“Embryology last semester was really fun, but this go around, I’ve been volunteering more, and with a relationship, studying has kinda hit the back burner. But I’m going to get back at it.” She glanced reassuringly at her boyfriend. There was that smile again.

“So, you have a sister?” Raina chirped in.

“Yes. One. She’s a handful.”

“She’s definitely a handful,” Drew reiterated.

“If you met her, you would wonder how we are related. She’s as out there as the cosmos. I’m just floating by on Earth.”

Raina coughed. Diana was definitely not just floating by.

Drew watched Raina as she patted her mouth with her napkin. “So, Raina, you have any siblings?”

“One. A brother. He lives in Alabama. You?”

“Too many to count.”

Of course. The whole she dated your brother thing. That is definitely not good.

“Two sisters and a brother. I’m the eldest, and sometimes I feel like the father.”

Chris rolled his eyes. “You as a father. Wow. That would be a tough sight to witness.” He said it with playfulness, and Drew laughed, but Chris noticed the way his tone inflected. Raina and Diana didn’t notice a thing.

Drew rubbed his thumb against the bottom of the glass chalice. As the chatter continued around him, he tried not to let Chris’s comment bother him too badly, because he knew it was sorta true. He’d always wanted a wife so badly that he never thought of children. He’d already done the fathering thing, especially after his dad died, and his mom needed the extra security he provided as the eldest kid. Of course Chris would be the perfect father, obviously, based on his own background.

He glanced up at Chris, watching his friend recall a story, the women laughing at every word. He saw how Diana gazed into his eyes, and how Raina seemed truly enamored. She, however, was standoffish in a way he’d never seen with any of Chris’s past girlfriends, like there was something separating them. His gaze fell on her. She was not beautiful. Maybe she was pretty. But what she had was something unique, something beyond the surface of her skin. Would she ever cheat with him on his brother? He didn’t think so. Her eyes locked with his, and her smile vanished like she’d seen a ghost. Now he felt guilty.

He couldn’t possibly be interested in his best friend’s girlfriend. And he felt a hot glare razor his skin. When he turned to Diana, he knew she’d witnessed the whole thing.

“So, yup. I’m on this cliff, overlooking the Grand Canyon, thinking, ‘How is it I’m not scared of this, when I can’t handle the ravine in my own backyard?’”

“Maybe it’s something to do with your perception,” Raina said for show. For once, no one was really paying attention to what Chris had to say. “Isn’t that a psychology thing? Maybe you would know, Diana.”

She shook her head. “Nope.” Her voice was sharp like a blade. Raina felt its stinging stab.

Raina’s eyes met Chris’s. He turned his head to see the frown on Diana’s face again, that half-moon that made her even more beautiful—in his opinion—than when she smiled. She looked angry. His eyes focused on Drew, who was anxiously shoveling pasta into his mouth, splashing some of the marinara onto his mouth.

“So, how did you two meet?” Diana’s entire demeanor had shifted into something acrid. She was barely touching the food, even though she had to admit—it was delicious.

“At a pumpkin patch. It’s something you oughta try,” Raina said, but Diana wasn’t looking at her. She was looking at Chris.

He nodded. “It was interesting to say the least. Alexander had to dare me to speak to her, and I was rambling the whole time. I probably seemed a bit stalkerish, didn’t I?”

“Not too bad. I knew your intentions were clean.”

Ouch. Diana dropped her fork on the plate, a loud scratching sound emitted. It pierced their ears. She picked it up quickly as she jutted out her head like a little turtle. She tried to play it off, but there was nothing but silence as everyone watched her.

Chris cleared his throat. “Well. It was an interesting situation, but definitely not as exhilarating as a bar or something. I think that’s the perfect place. It’s so typical it’s interesting.”

“A bar? Seriously?” Raina asked, though her voice was laced with a little ounce of irritation, as if she were walking on needles with slippers.

“You know, sometimes intentions don’t mean anything,” Drew said, to the surprise of everyone in the room. Chris felt his friend’s devious gawking.

“You know, I think it’s time for dessert. Right?” Raina suddenly stood up. “I’ll…”

“No, let me. My intentions are to make sure my guests understand I don’t expect them to do anything.” Chris jumped up. He disappeared from view a few minutes later.

Raina dangled her fork a few inches above her plate. “You know, I was just thinking, how cool is it that we’re all meeting each other? A few months ago, I never would have guessed I’d been sitting here. Definitely I didn’t even know this place existed.”

“It is nice,” Drew affirmed.

Diana just stared straight ahead, at a dainty piece of china in an expensive-looking cabinet. For a few seconds she thought about how well-off Chris was. Did he know how well he had it? He returned with a store-bought cake. It looked so cheap, but Diana smiled at how it reminded her of her parents, the people who bought those type of cakes whenever, wherever, with every excuse. He began doling out generous slices to everyone.

“So, sorry I didn’t bake this myself… But I’m sure it will be pretty good. Some things money can buy…”

Drew motioned to the mansion around him. “Like your bachelor pad.”

Chris straightened. He seemed genuinely taken aback by his friend’s comment. Raina fiddled with a necklace on her decollate. “Yeah, I guess you’re right about that.”

“This cake is good,” Diana said, taking a large bite. “Very, very good.”

The others looked at her with questioning eyes. This was beyond the tensest dinner they’d all attended, except with their other family members of course. They’d each had their share of awful meals, but not with practical strangers. Although Chris and Drew seemed torn up with something else. Was it a rivalry? They’d always shared a bit of a competitive relationship, but they did everything with kindness of heart—at least since they were teens.

“Yes, it is good,” Raina said. She once again smiled in Diana’s direction, but to no avail.

There was silence once again, but even silence is music.

Once they finished their desserts, they all stood to take their plates to the kitchen.

Diana found herself the last to exit, and she watched in disappointed expectance to see Drew’s eyes lighten as they landed on Raina’s petite frame.

Raina felt the words drop from her mouth like skyscrapers. Each one thudded against her heart. Why was she bringing this up now? Was she really that desperate for the silence to end? “You know, this bet sure has been interesting.”

Drew’s eyebrows furrowed. “The bet? How do you know about the bet?”

Raina was silent. She felt her skin bake under his gaze. “I… I…”

“What bet?” Diana asked sharply.

Chris turned just a sliver from his position in the kitchen. He applauded Raina’s wish to make things normal between the group again, but she’d inadvertently caused a beast to unleash itself. Drew was red, but it was Diana who looked murderous. “Ah, it’s nothing, really.”

“You all aren’t good actors. What is the bet?”

It was funny how no one moved. They all stared at each other with skepticism. Eventually, Drew said, “Chris and I had this stupid wager. Whoever dated a woman for three straight months won. Obviously, Diana, you are more than just a bet to me. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. Honestly, I just forgot about it.”

Diana inhaled and exhaled. She said nothing.

“Chris won, though. And the bet was incredibly pointless. It was a joke.”

“It was a very ill-planned joke.” Chris looked young, like the spitting image of his brother.

“And you knew?” Diana asked Raina.

Raina nodded. “But it didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to… Well, the reason doesn’t really matter.” She glanced at her feet.

Diana hated this feeling. It was gut-wrenching to be the last person in on a little dirty secret. Was she betrayed? It wasn’t that monumental. There was so much strife in the room as it was. So much tension. The others in the group started to move along again, like this bet was nothing. Was she just part of a little bet?

And as her feet slapped against the tiled kitchen floors, she felt something slip from her hand. She realized too late it was her wineglass. She was already feeling the buzz, but the buzz was squelched by a feeling she couldn’t even identify.

“No!” she screamed as it careened to the floor. It ruptured like a broken heart.

A heart that belonged to everyone in that room, whether they knew it or not.

 

Chapter Thirty-Six

 

DID ANYONE TRULY notice Diana fling the wineglass at Raina?

Raina sure did not. She was too busy watching Chris, her brain frazzled. He was having an identity crisis? She’d been there the whole time. She knew it, but it seemed weird to hear Drew so open about it, even joking about it, like it was just a big funny stab. Stabs to the heart were never funny. And of course, Chris’s little insults. Drew’s obvious offense and his returning javelin tosses. Diana’s cold manner. She was too busy thinking to notice.

Chris, meanwhile, was too busy taking the dirty plates into the kitchen. For once, he did have the intention to clean up, long after everyone left. Long after this bizarre meeting was over. How could Drew have been so caustic? How could his best friend have been so jealous, and yet so obviously different? Diana could not have been a good influence. But was it Diana, or was it Drew?

Drew was busy fuming as he cleared his plate. Chris had publicly shamed him in front of Diana. He’d made it clear that their friendship had still not mended. This bet was ridiculous. This bet was all a big joke. Drew knew it. He didn’t particularly care for Diana more than the fact that she acted interested in him. She was beautiful, of course, but Raina was the one who sparked his interest. At least he thought so, right?

Then, like a forgotten goddess, Diana’s wineglass slipped from her fingertips, painted red of course. Maybe slip was too easy of a word. She hadn’t meant to direct it at Raina’s legs. She hadn’t meant for the shards to pierce Raina. She hadn’t meant for anything to happen. She hadn’t meant for Raina to turn just at the right moment, so half the damage was completed rather than the full impact. She hadn’t meant to let this little angry spasm happen. She hadn’t meant for Mel to become the favorite child once again.

“Raina,” she squealed. “Oh, my gosh! Raina. I’m so sorry!”

Raina gasped in pain as the clear shrapnel punctured her leg. She glanced down and saw the fragmented pieces on the ground, a broken mess on the tile. She looked up at Diana, whose eyes were wide and slick with tears. “What the hell?” she screamed.

Diana lifted a manicured hand to her mouth. “I’m… I’m so sorry!”

An ocean of anger washed over Raina. It felt like a painter had just stroked a large bucket of red paint all over her demeanor. “Seriously? You’re halfway across the room, Diana. Did you just aim that at me?”

“No… I seriously didn’t. I tripped!” Diana, of course, looked innocent.

Drew and Chris glanced at Raina’s bloody leg and Diana’s choked expression. Then their eyes met each other. It was like two bulls ready to charge. Was there something in the air?

“You’ve hated me since that day at the tree exhibit! You made it so clear then,” Raina spat.

Diana gasped. “What are you talking about? I don’t hate anyone. I like you!”

Chris was red with fury. “It is a little peculiar that you’re standing a room away from here.”

“Why don’t we all just calm down?” Drew asked, though his voice was far from calm. He was beginning to clench his fists.

“Do you have disinfectant spray? It hurts so bad.”

“Drawer to your left. With the Sharpies.”

“Raina, I’m so sorry,” Diana said. “Chris, where is your broom? I’ll sweep this mess, I promise…” It was like her ruptured heart was broken into all those little tiny glass pieces. She quickly wondered: Did I mean to hit Raina? She honestly thought it had slipped through her fingers. She was mad at Raina. She did think Raina had it made out. She had the favor of both men.

“What did you say?” hissed Chris.

“Nothing. It’s not like you would care.”

Chris’s voice was baritone suddenly, and it almost cracked as he growled, “How could you say that, Drew?”

Raina found the disinfectant spray and hurriedly began to attend to her leg. Only a few shards had rooted in her skin, and she poked at them with her fingers. She knew this was not the best way to go about this problem, but she couldn’t admit to anyone that the pain felt someone good. For once, she felt it and embraced it and realized, My mom experiences way worse than this every second of her life.

She whirled around for just a second in time to see Chris ram straight into Drew. They fell against the oven at an awkward angle, their fists pounding into each other. Chris obviously had the physical advantage, but even his position looked terrible. If this were an action movie, they would both die within seconds.

Diana screamed, covering her mouth in utter fright. “Stop it!” she yelped. Who knew adults could act just like children?

“You freaking coward!” shouted Drew as his head crushed into the back of the oven. He waited as Chris’s fist dangled dangerously close to his temple. “You only think of yourself anymore, Chris! Everything’s always about you! Your women, your bet, your family, your job, your everything!” Spittle fell from his lips. “And this is not the way to solve our problem!”

Raina and Diana watched in desperation. It wasn’t like either of them could just jump in and save the day. Chris’s arm began to wobble, as if a ghost were holding him. He glanced back at the women, at their dazed expressions. He saw Raina’s fear, and Diana’s sorry eyes. He saw a thousand images in those eyes. He removed his hand from the situation and stepped away, darting back outside to the lawn. He disappeared.

“What the heck was that?” Diana shouted, rushing over to Drew, wrapping her arms protectively around him.

“Did you mean to hurt her?” he whispered hoarsely.

Raina shook her head and inserted, “She couldn’t have. I saw her trip. I just overreacted. I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry, Drew.”

“It’s been mounting for a while. I deserved to be punched to a bloody pulp, but he’s the bigger man.”

Diana was sobbing now. “I am sorry,” she croaked through each wail. “I’m so sorry. Where is he? Let me talk to him.”

“I’m not sure if that’s what we should be doing right now,” said Drew. “I should go talk to him.”

“Maybe I should be the one to chat,” said Raina quickly.

“This is so, so awkward,” a familiar voice called out from the doorway leading to the garage. Alexander’s face appeared. He held a cake in one hand, and in the other a balloon. In cheap, scripted font, the red balloon said, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! WISHES TO YOU!

“Is it Chris’s birthday?” Raina shouted.

“No. This is for our mom. Tomorrow. Chris doesn’t celebrate his birthday until August. Anyway, will someone please tell me what’s going on?”

“Everyone’s a bit on edge, if you can’t tell.”

“Raina! You’re bleeding.”

“Just a little accident.” She glanced over at Diana, who looked genuinely upset. Her mouth was like a little half-moon. “A glass fell. I’ll be okay.”

“What’s wrong with my brother?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure if anyone knows.”

“Well, maybe I should go talk to him…”

“No. Stay here.” Drew rushed out back, but a powerful gust of wind slammed into him as he hurried outside, almost toppling him over.

The green grass was returning in a hazy fervor. A few birds sang a melody nearby, electrifying the forest surrounding the little meadow of his backyard. A lake glistened a hundred yards away. He still wasn’t sure how Chris afforded this place, even with his ritzy job and ritzy life. The flowers were beginning to bloom, even through all the drama that had unfolded inside the house.

Drew stuffed his hands deep into his pockets as he located Chris lying on the ground in the middle of the green grass. He fell to his knees and watched as Chris’s eyes looked upward, where heaven awaited him. A black cloud approached in the distance, and the ruffling of the trees heightened his senses. But for once, he decided to act on emotion rather than practicality.

“I’m sorry, man.”

A solitary tear trickled down Chris’s cheek. “I’m sorry.”

Drew poked at a grass clipping. “What’s this crater between us? We keep trying to void the gap, but…”

“I’m not really sure. And maybe we can’t cross it, either.”

“Stop being a big pessimist. You’re not the guy with the glass half-empty, okay?” Drew’s voice was sarcastic, but it lacked a bit of the friendship edge that usually dominated their conversations.

Chris shook his head, his eyes bluer now than they’d ever been before. “I’m scared, Drew.”

“Of what?”

“Of everything.”

Drew fell to his back. “Me, too. Imagine how Raina feels.”

“And Diana, of course.”

“They’re going to think we’re crazy.”

“Let them.”

“Are you in love with her?”

“Maybe. But if I am, I’m still going to let her go. And you?”

“Maybe, but I know she’s going to let me go.”

“Shucks. We suck.”

“Wow.”

“I know.”

A thunderbolt cackled in the distance, like a scary witch’s timbre. Suddenly they were not alone.

“What are you idiots doing?” Diana screamed. The breeze tossed her hair around, into her face and into her mouth. “You’re going to get yourselves killed!”

“That’s true,” Raina said, sporting a large bandaid on her ankle. She and Diana exchanged a nervous glance.

“Come, lie down.” Drew reached out an open hand. “Di, come lie with me.”

“Although it sounds inviting, I have to say, we’re going to get electrocuted.”

“Come and live.”

Raina sat down, and though she was doubtful, Diana followed suit. Eventually, she laid down beside Drew, positioning herself so she could observe the thickening clouds. This was incredibly idiotic, childish, and ridiculous. Raina was a little more hesitant about lowering herself to the grassy earth. She wasn’t scared of the bugs, but rather, what would it feel like to be rained on?

Eventually, the four of them were all together, in an oddly shaped diamond. The wind blew, and the lightning offered a spectacular show. There was definitely something in the air. Maybe it was the act of saudade, the act of letting go. Maybe it was the fact that they all knew, whether they liked it or not, things were changing.

The approaching storm was enough to tell them that.

 

Chapter Thirty-Seven

 

ONE STUPID BET. It did not cause the problems within each soul on that green grass, but it did highlight something dangerous in each of them. It wasn’t the bet itself, but rather what it represented. To Chris and Drew, it was a game. To Raina, it was leverage. To Diana, it was self-doubt.

But just as quickly as rage perverted their hearts, it exited. Each of them knew the feeling. It was like when siblings taunt each other to the point of physical violence. If Adam had been around, he’d insist violence wasn’t the answer. And it wasn’t.

Yet for the four of them, the four little people destined to be at this particular mansion on this particular day, there was rage and solace. Like a storm, benevolence washed maleficence away.

And what no one ever tells you, Evangeline, is that sometimes, people don’t like each other. It’s the fault of being a human. A human heart is not always evil, but sometimes, even the best hearts are soured. Now, back to how I met your father.

They ignored the sharp scent of the fresh clippings, and the itchiness, and the cool air, and everything that had just transpired. In the reality of things, it was all so miniscule, all so ridiculous anyway, that anyone could forgive each other. They’d all snipped at each other. A lot of awful things had been said. Meanwhile, Alexander watched from the bay window, shaking his head the entire time. Weren’t old people supposed to understand how to handle themselves?

The rain shower that began above them was quick, but it was enough to feel so exhilarating, so desperately young, so monumentally epic. Each pelt slapped them with gentle fingers, reflecting their positions on the wet grass. No thunder, no lightning; just rain. The rain that washed them clean, a new slate with each other. The rain that promised forgiveness and equality and freedom.

Each drop soaked them. It did not discriminate. They all felt soiled with regret and the grim prospect of what they’d done, but the more it rained, the more it cleansed. The more it cleansed, the lighter they felt. The beautiful natural act was as open as an ocean falling from the sky.

Diana opened her lips, allowing a few droplets to drain down into her burning throat. She felt so guilty in this moment. She needed to be honest with Drew. She needed to come clean to him. She needed to change. She needed to understand that the world did not revolve around her, and that someday, somewhere, somehow, life would unravel itself fully.

The rain clung to Raina’s hair like she was a diamond in a room filled with women. She didn’t want anyone to see her tears mix in with each stroke of water. It was like God and all the angels were crying with her. She felt so raw right here with these people. Her blood dripped into the grass, right through the bandage, but it was washed away, just like her feelings.

Chris closed his eyes and allowed the rain to bounce off him. He imagined himself in a river, where he could drown out all thoughts and beliefs and everything he thought he knew. He just wanted to be himself in a world where he was anything but. He hadn’t told a soul, but he’d taken the job as a realtor with another company. He didn’t want to think of how this would damage his familial relationships. He knew that, in itself, was a story which could not be completed within six months. He knew that wound would heal in due time, but time was not on his side right now.

The rain soaked Drew’s head, removing his headache from being slammed into the oven door. Unlike his friends, his eyes were wide open, up into the sky. This was the most ethereal experience of his entire life. Here he was, a grown man lying here, his palms outstretched to a thundershower at the beginning of spring. The world was at his fingertips, and he had apologies to dole out like drops of blood.

Eventually, the downpour began to diminish, and drop after drop became a light drizzle, until it became nothing at all. Just like that.

They sat up together, chilled and wet. Drew and Diana glanced at each other and nodded.

“We should go,” he said emotionally. It was like he’d just exited the hospital, and his open heart was still adjusting to the strenuous dimension called life.

“Okay,” Chris said meekly. “I’m sorry again. However, I think this has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life.”

Diana reached out and wrapped her arms around him. “Chris Rose, I will miss you.”

“Why won’t I see you again?” he asked into her ear.

“I’m not sure,” she lied.

Drew reached out to touch his friend’s shoulder. “Chris, we’ve never been big on apologies. I know that. I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry I haven’t been here for you. What I said was in the heat of battle. I love you, man.”

Chris hugged his friend, but it was like a layer of skin had fallen off. He couldn’t tell if it was because of Drew or because of himself. There was definitely something completely different now. “I love you, too.” Was it good-bye?

He watched as Diana hugged Raina, and the two exchanged a genuine smile. Raina hugged Drew too, and then they were gone.

Raina turned to face Chris. “Tonight will make for a pretty sunset.”

“Come with me,” he said, wrapping an arm around her shoulder.

 

Chapter Thirty-Eight

 

WHILE THE SUN set, the glow of the sky like a perfect painting, Drew pulled in front of Diana’s parents’ home. A few leaves from the giant oak tree out front stirred in the afternoon breeze. Though they were both cold from the rain, they could smell the faint approach of summer around the corner.

“I’m sorry that was so horrendous,” Drew said, feeling the need to apologize.

“You do know I didn’t mean to hit her. It was a fluke.”

“I know.”

Diana glanced at the windows. She saw a hint of Ari behind a window, but the curtain quickly flashed, replacing his big eyes. She watched as Mel exited the house, jogged to her car, and waved at them in pleasant amusement. “She loves her life, doesn’t she?”

“Mel is definitely an eccentric person.”

Diana twisted around to face him. Music flowed from the speakers, and the fading spring light was quickly becoming dark. She wondered how long this would take. She wondered how long it would take the scab to replace the blood, the pain, the gentle roar. “Drew?”

“Yes,” he whispered. He stared straight ahead.

“Do you think this was a mistake?”

The muddy Mississippi greeted his thoughts. He imagined the waters, sucking him downward, propelling him deep into the depths. He couldn’t lie to her, not anymore. “Yes.”

“Why?” she asked, hurt but not surprised.

“I don’t know.”

She reached over and kissed his cheek. “I don’t know, either. Drew, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” He looked over at her. “Just because it didn’t work doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it.”

“I’m sorry about Adrian.”

“You shouldn’t apologize to me. We were tempted, and we can’t change it now.” He laid his head against the headrest. It was like they were whispering gentle odes to each other. He was waiting for the music to play. Why was she so beautiful?

Why was he so alluring? The green of his eyes was slick with emotionality. She’d never been more attracted to him than now, and it was because she knew he was lost. He was falling through her fingers. She was falling through his fingers.

She reached out to touch his stubbled jaw, still wet. His body was shivering from the cold. What she wanted more than anything was to be with him, but she knew she couldn’t.

“The truth is,” she said anxiously, “I get jealous easily. It’s my flaw. I don’t like it when I see other people who I think have a chance with the people I love most. And I hate this about myself.”

“Di…”

Her smile was infectious. “Stop. It’s a flaw, but it’s something I have to fix. The truth is, Drew, I think the reason I like you so much is because of the gritty, tempting aspect of our relationship.”

“You mean, the danger? The sneaking and hiding?”

She nodded. She had always been an awfu liar, but tonight her performance was pure gold. “Yes.”

The sky had turned peachy purple. Memphis skies were known to fully embrace dramatic art post-thunderstorm. Beauty from the ashes. “I think I understand where you’re coming from.”

“Drew,” she said simply, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” He shrugged it off, like this was no big deal at all. It wasn’t like he was in love with her, right? It wasn’t like this made any sort of sense? But the guilt had evaporated—at least a little—because with freedom comes the unshackling of some of its chains.

She waited for a moment before hopping out of the car. She leaned against the door for a moment. “You know, that was probably the weirdest, stupidest, lousiest dinner ever. We all lost it.”

“But the food was good, wasn’t it?”

“It sure was.” Diana turned, so a tendril of the sky highlighted her warm brown eyes. “You and Chris need to work things out, okay? You can’t let anything come before your friends.”

He humbly nodded. “Yeah.” He wasn’t sure he believed that, but he was too busy sorting through his tumbling feelings about the woman who was departing him at this very moment.

Diana waved at him as she opened the front door. As soon as she closed it behind her, she fell against it, and the tears that fell from her eyes were genuine. She had messed up so much, and she hated herself for lying to those around her. To Drew, she knew their relationship could not withstand anything major, and she was not about to try.

On the other side of the door, a haggard hand almost reached out to knock. The beautiful sunset had emboldened him to appear and fight for her. Yet the hand retreated back into a pocket, and Drew hurried back across the wet lawn to his truck, jumping in without another moment’s notice. She heard his steady voice, though, like it was a trumpet. “You were never part of that bet, Diana.”

Diana heard the roar of the engine, and she buried her head deeper into the space between her knees and her chest. She created a little haven for her emotions. She did not notice Mel appear with questioning eyes, mysteriously back. Instead of her normal interrogative manner, Mel sat down and wrapped an arm around her sister.

Anahit and Ari appeared a few minutes later, together like usual, and their pride at seeing their two daughters together was rampant. It hurt to see Diana weeping, but already, they saw a difference in her, like a little degree off her charted path.

“Diana?” Anahit asked quickly.

“I broke up with Drew,” she said amid the coughs. “I’m so stupid, but I did it because I had a little ounce of intelligence.”

Mel rocked her back and forth. “If you know in your heart it was the right thing to do, why regret it?”

“Do you want your space?” Ari asked. If he had been Diana, he would’ve slapped Mel for being all in his grille.

Diana shook her head. “No. That’s the last thing I want!”

Mel and her parents exchanged a glance. “This is why I don’t date,” Mel said quietly, through closed white teeth. Ari and Anahit rolled their eyes.

“Well, I know you just ate a big meal,” Anahit said sweetly, “but we have a big Kroger’s cake in the kitchen to celebrate the spring solstice.”

“How could I ever turn down cake?” Diana asked, her makeup rushing down her face like a black river.

Mel helped her stand. “Now we can search for men together. Appropriate, well-respected men. It’ll be fun.”

“No thanks.”

“Seriously? You cannot be deterred that easily.”

“Girls. Let’s get some cake.”

Neither of them refused.

 

Chapter Thirty-Nine

 

THE SUN GLOWED on the lake, its golden tendrils like buzzing strings on a violin. The violin filled the air with sadness, but a twinge of elegance remained behind. The chill of the mid-March afternoon was buzzing with the quick approach of spring, when the thaw would be replaced by a cascade of colors and greenery unlike anything in the rest of the country. For now, though, the cool snuck up Raina and Chris’s spines like little bugs.

They stood at the dock on the very edge of his latest property, which would sell in no time: His own home. A forgotten rowboat rotted nearby, where the lake waters met muddy Earth. Sunset approached.

“I think I always knew,” Chris said humbly, “that you, Raina, are too good for a guy like me.”

“Stop it,” she said, gritting her teeth. “That’s the furthest thing from true. We started out as a bet, remember? And I think we both found something more from that stupid bet.”

He smiled. He remembered back on that late October day, how the orange pumpkins were like orbs of hope between them. How he’d talked to her on a whim, how one fall afternoon could change the course of his way of thinking forever. His thoughts drifted to the November days of Raina, how he’d once told Drew he was only using her. What a whirl these past few months had been. She’d used him, maybe, but he knew that two souls lock for a time for a real purpose. He remembered dinner with her parents, how he’d finally kissed her and it felt so different, so authentic. Those days melted to December, where he’d seen the goodness of her heart, and the hint of her spontaneous spirit awaken. Then January had come, like a river of confusion. How he knew it was doomed, not because he wanted it to be, but because Raina was not the one for him. It was sad, but he’d always cherish her. And February, how he’d spent those days, and the days of March until this point, trying his hardest to change his mind.

“It looks like a thousand things just floated across your mind.” She leaned over the dock so she could see their reflection in the blue caps of lake waves. “Chris.” She looked up, water now threatening to loosen from the dams of her eyelids. “Chris, you don’t realize how much this has meant to my mother, and to me. What started out as a joke really became something special.”

He wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “Raina.”

She snuggled into his warmth. “I will never forget you, Chris. Not because we had something romantic, but because you have been an incredible friend. You’ve helped me a lot. When I first met you, I never thought I’d look back and say, ‘Wow, that guy is heaven-sent.’”

“Raina,” he said, a well breaking free in his soul. Raina appeared weak on the outside to many. He’d thought she was weak at first. But he knew she was strong, and she was strong because she’d dealt with adversity. She was going to lose her mother, and not voluntarily. In some ways, she would lose part of herself when Kimberly departed the world. To watch her hurt… To feel it so vividly…

She began to weep. A bird sang behind them, a reminder that somewhere out there, people were laughing. New people were being born. Life was blossoming elsewhere.

When her tears ran dry, she stood straight and said, “I won’t lie and say this isn’t hard, but I know we can’t keep doing this.”

He nodded mutely.

“For the both of us, I mean. You and I. There’s nothing there, Chris. Even though I want there to be, there’s just not. And I’d say we should still be friends…” She paused. “But that wouldn’t work.”

“It most definitely would not.”

She glanced up at him, before a steely stare dawned on her pupils. He noticed that speck of green in them. Her confidence astounded him. “You’re not the same person. You’re going to find her, and when you do, I’ll rejoice. I think, Chris, I’m going to leave for a little while.”

“Where are you going to go?”

She licked her lips. “The last thing on my mom’s bucket list. Phoenix, Arizona. As soon as school’s out, I’m going to go there. No reason why, other than the fact that I want to do this. By myself. I want to find myself.”

“You’re brilliant, you know that?”

“No. I’m most definitely not. But your sister is. Check out her video on self-dependence. You’ll understand what I mean.”

He smiled before leaning down to kiss her one last time. It was friendly. It was powerful. It was enough to know they’d made the right decision. When she drew away, she asked, “What are you going to do?”

“Quit my job. Take another job with another realty agency. Spend time with Aunt Ellie, Kelsey, my mom, my brother, maybe even my dad and Piper.”

“Your family,” she said with a wink. “They’re your family, okay?”

He rolled his eyes. “Okay, you’re right. They’re my family.”

A crack of thunder appeared out of nowhere, with no clouds in sight. Unpredictable Mid-South weather. Raina laughed as he jumped. “Time to go, don’t you think?”

“Unfortunately, I’m going to agree with you on that one.”

 

Chapter Forty

 

IT WAS THE first day of April. Raina anxiously pulled into an empty parking lot of some ugly little hole-in-the-wall on the edge of the road. After driving in circles for two hours, she’d finally found her place of chosen solace, and she clutched a can of pepper spray closer to her chest. She’d never been in a proper bar before. This was so idiotic.

She entered. It was much rattier on the outside than in, and she found herself under a flash of dim lights leading to a fancy bar top. She took a seat next to a man leaning over his drink like it was a life and death matter. She set the pepper spray on the table and took off her jacket. Even though it was the first day of April, but a cool spell had revealed itself and knocked her into a chilly feeding frenzy.

The bartender was a strong and good-looking guy, and he had a deep Southern drawl. “What can I get for you?”

“I know nothing about alcohol. Whatever helps you… I don’t know forget? And I’m a stickler. So nothing much. I’ve gotta drive home after this.”

The man beside her cocked an eyebrow.

“Here you go,” said the bartender, and Raina stuffed a handful of change his way. “Just keep it,” she said.

The man glanced over at her. “So, what’s your scarlet letter?”

“A lot of things,” Raina said, tossing the glass of amber liquid down her throat. It burned. “What the heck is this?”

“I don’t know. I don’t drink. At least, I try not to.”

“What are you drinking then?” she asked, shifting in her seat.

His eyes were coated with ravenous skepticism. “A Coke.”

“Gosh, I wish I were you. Alcohol’s awful. I don’t even know what this. That’s my scarlet letter. I’m not very spontaneous.”

He glanced down at his drink, swishing it around in his cup. “Well, I think that’s a saintly attribute.”

“So, what’d you do?”

He fiddled with the glass again. “I kinda screwed up with my brother’s ex-girlfriend, but we weren’t compatible. Now I’m sitting here, thinking about my beautiful, crazy life. I had this bet with my best friend, and of course I lost. Like usual. Sorry. Too much info.”

“That sucks. Wait, a bet?”

“Yes. Three months of monogamous dating. Whoever could do it first won. Chris started dating his girl a long time before I hooked up with my girlfriend in a guiltless setting. Wow, seriously, I’m so chatty tonight.”

Raina spun around in her chair so she could see him clearer. A tidal wave rushed over her. “Drew? I was hoping never to hear about that bet again. What a stupid idea. Was it yours or Chris’s?”

“Well, Raina, I honestly don’t remember. It was obviously ridiculous.” He leaned in closer. The lighting was so poor in here he felt like an old person in need of glasses. As his eyes adjusted, his jaw opened and he said squeamishly, “Raina?” This entire revelation gained him ten years to his looks. It wasn’t until he’d seen her in the light fully that he began to remember.

She cowered, taking another swish. “Hi, how are ya?”

“Oh.”

“Well, I guess he did technically win the bet, but we weren’t really dating. At least, we said we were. But I just knew we were better as friends.”

“What? I’d never have guessed. Well, Diana and I had a similar situation. Except it was more of a guilt issue.”

She nodded in understanding. “Yup. Nothing he did, nothing I did. Just wasn’t meant to be. But I guess you could blame it partially on that awful dinner. Now, was that your idea or his?”

He chuckled just a moment, afraid to answer truthfully. “Oh, Raina. I’m so sorry. If it helps, we aren’t exactly on a good page. I think I’m getting all the little sayings confused. We’re still kinda fighting right now.”

“What? He never mentioned anything about it. But I mean, we did break up right after that horrible dinner. Oh, dear Lanta. That was so bad.”

Drew leaned back. The bar was anything but crowded, and he wondered why out all the places in the world he would show up here for a Diet Coke. Then he remembered how he’d been driving through the streets, thinking of how he should go over to Diana’s and fight for her to the death. He didn’t love her, but maybe someday he would. Yet something kept him driving on that warm afternoon, propelling him forward like some sort of manifest destiny.

Then he remembered all that had happened.

Nervously, he laughed, heartily and monstrous. A couple sitting at one of the Formica tabletops turned to stare at him, and Raina raised an eyebrow. “You okay?”

He continued to laugh so hard that he could feel his insides chortling. Eventually, he stopped and had to cough. “Oh, Raina. I made this bet. With God.”

“Okay?” she asked, twirling around a ring on her pinkie finger.

“I told him, ‘I haven’t been very nice to you, but send me where I’m supposed to go.’ And here I am. At a freaking bar. And then walks in Raina Newton, my best friend’s girl…”

“Let me interrupt you there. I am not his girl.”

“You are his woman.”

“No, definitely not what I meant.”

“Well, what did you mean?”

She shrugged, twisting the chair just a little. “Want to know something horrible?”

“Sure.”

“I came to this bar, when I have been a teetotaler all my life, because my mom is getting hospice care tomorrow. Maybe I’m just being sentimental, but, Drew, you should stop beating yourself up.”

He almost said, “I’m sorry,” but then he remembered how much he’d hated all the “I’m sorry” chitchat back when his own father died. He paused long enough to clear his throat before catching just a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye. The broken light bulb pulsated like a vein above them, but in the glow, Raina looked very wise. “So, we’re in the same boat of misery.”

“I wouldn’t call it misery. A lot of people don’t get time with their parents at all. I love my mom. It’s more of the fact that she was really rooting for Chris and me, you know? But I always knew it would never work out.”

It was like she was his favorite type of music. The way she talked, the way she sighed almost constantly, like every statement was life-altering. He tried not to stare at her too much. He thought back to their first meeting, and how a wave of panic had crushed him in the undertow. But of course, here he was, in an illicit situation yet again. Did he only like women who had an intimate connection to his close friends and/or family members?

“I saw you once. I was with my mom. She told me you were staring at me.”

He almost choked again. “When?”

“You were on a date with this girl. I can’t even remember where. You and I caught a glimpse of each other, and my mom made some comment about you. I think she liked you, and she doesn’t like people much anymore.”

Every word she said was a melody, every breath a punctuated note. He realized grimly that even though he hadn’t had a sip of booze, his mind was befuddled with the dramatics of the past few months. He wanted clarity. “Raina?”

“Yes?”

“I remember.”

Something caught in her throat. The door behind them opened, a breeze following the guest. Raina was quiet as Drew stared at her, and she finally caught his gaze. “You remember?”

“Yes. I never told you, but yes, I remember.” The way he said it, the pain in each syllable.

“I… I should go.” She stood up, grabbing her rain jacket and purse.

“Raina?” he asked, not looking over his shoulder. He watched as the bubbles fizzled upward in his glass.

“Will you wait?” she asked quickly, still standing above him. “If this destiny stuff you’re talking about… If it’s real. Will you wait for me? If we can stand it without the pain, and the guilt, and all the stupid reality?”

“Yes, Raina. If it’s right, I will wait.”

She was gone, but a trace of her perfume remained beside him.

 

Chapter Forty-One

 

MID-APRIL, FOUR WEEKS post-breakup. She didn’t count the days. She only used them as a guide to see when the last time she’d showed up was.

Raina knocked on the door at Aunt Ellie’s apartment complex. The old woman appeared, her long gray dreadlocks always so mesmerizing. Raina tried not to stare.

“Rain! We’ve missed you so much. It’s been a few weeks.”

“Four,” Raina stated simply. “I’m sorry. I’ve been between a rock and a hard place, but I’m here.”

“Raina?” called out Kelsey from the couch. She sat by her computer, where she was talking into a little program that wrote for her on a Word document. “No. Erase. Erase Raina.” Kelsey turned in her swivel chair and smiled. “Where have you been?”

“Hey! You working on another speech?”

“She’s been busy on it for three weeks. It’s for a church thing in Dallas. We’re going to be leaving next weekend, flying out together for a little girls’ weekend away period.”

Kelsey’s blue eyes sparkled. “I’m so excited, Rain. I wish you could come.”

“Me too.”

Kelsey’s eyebrows furrowed. “Oh, Rain. I’m sorry.”

“No, no, don’t be. She’s still alive,” Raina said, her breathing now erratic. Aunt Ellie wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “She’s doing good, actually. That’s not it at all. I haven’t stopped by…”

“Chris,” Kelsey said with a melancholy wink.

“Yup. I didn’t want things between us to be awkward.”

“Hey, I never chose either of you. I want you both in my life.”

Raina and Aunt Ellie walked closer to Kelsey. Her long, brown hair was curled perfectly. She looked like a million bucks, and she was known countrywide as a public speaker. Chris had alluded to the fact that she didn’t have much of a life, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Kelsey made a hundred thousand a year on her public speaking arrangements, especially after she wrote a book during college. Of course, she also pursuing volunteering overseas for that summer, and continued to be a successful YouTuber in the meantime. Kelsey was definitely not into small things. And as Raina later learned, Kelsey didn’t move in with Aunt Ellie because she needed to be watched; Aunt Ellie needed to be watched.

“Stop it. Raina, you are one of my closest friends, and I’ve only known you for four months. Now, come here. What’s in your hand?”

Raina lifted three tickets into the air. “Free admission to the Memphis Arts Expo. I don’t want them. They’re in June, and I’ve already got plans.”

“Oh, do you now?”

“What you planning on doing, dear Raina?” Aunt Ellie asked with part nosiness and part amazement.

“Not really sure yet, but I’ve got plans. And this is a little gift. Since I can’t use them, maybe you can. I know you love social events.”

They both nodded. “Of course we do!”

 

A BEAUTIFUL BLANKET of mountains spread around her like a dream. A beautiful dream. She held up a picture of her mother to the golden sun, blocking the giant orb with a pleasant photograph of her mother, who was just as important as the star. She placed her lips against the face, and then she stuck it back into her pocket. She stood on the edge of a cliff, looking down at the exposed rocks and the city spread out like a desert oasis made of concrete and human ingenuity.

“Mom, I’m sure you’ve got better views up there.” She sat down cross-legged and pulled out a sandwich from her pack.

It had been nearly two months since her mother died. Kimberly had gone quietly, just like she’d always wanted, and everyone had been incredibly kind to Raina in the following months. As soon as school let out, Raina hopped in her car and drove straight to Phoenix, planning to spend an epic month there at least. She’d saved all her money religiously over the past few years, but she would receive some money from her mother’s life insurance policy and will, and therefore she wasn’t worried about cash flow on her journey.

So far, so good.

She hadn’t been robbed, or assaulted, or anything, really. Going alone was a little boring, and sometimes, she thought of her friends back home, and Chris, and Drew, and all of those people, but then she was reminded she was doing something for herself that was unthinkable only months ago.

She took a bite of her sandwich, tasting the mayonnaise, her mother’s favorite condiment. It was hard losing her, but it was even harder to stay behind in Memphis, where all the memories swirled around like vivid thunderstorms, awaiting to unleash lightning at every bend. Here, though, everything was new and fresh. Eventually, it would lose its luster, but for now it was calm and serene.

Her phone buzzed for a moment. She glanced down, smiling when she saw it was Kelsey. “Hey, Kels. What’s up?”

“Hi,” her friend said. “Guess what? The tickets you gave us are great. We’re here right now, but it’s a few moments before the next show starts. Where are you?”

“A mountaintop overlooking the city. I’ll shoot you some pictures.”

“Okay, I don’t want to keep you long, but I wanted to hear your pretty voice. When are you coming home?”

“Still not sure yet, Kels, but you’ll be the first person to know.”

After their phone call ended, Raina giggled. The bucket list was complete. Her mother’s, anyway. She pulled out a slip of paper and a pen. Now it was time to write her own.

 

Chapter Forty-Two

 

DREW WORKED HIS way to his mother’s house. It was mid-June, and the cicadas were annoyingly loud. The heat wave was obnoxious. He desperately wished Chris’s house was available today for a nice swim in those turquoise waters. However, there was a showing at six. He glanced at his watch. There was no conceivable way of being out of this party at a reasonable hour. He parked in front of the house, a nervous bubble surrounding him.

He reflected on the past few months. Since he’d broken it off with Diana, he’d found himself thinking of Raina, the woman he’d met in the bar, but he couldn’t go after Chris’s ex-girlfriend. That would send their relationship into another weird spiral. Plus, Raina was off in Arizona or something. Who knew if she would ever come back? So, again, he set up his stupid Internet dating profile. He’d gone on a few dates, and some were better than others. Some were just plain horrendous.

Oh, well. He didn’t really care about dating right now.

He jumped out of the car and found his way to the doorbell. He pressed once, and Anna’s sweet face appeared. She smiled at him, bring him closer to her so she could kiss his cheeks like he was a little child. “Are you going to stop avoiding this house at all costs now?”

“If Adrian doesn’t give me a black eye.”

“Drew’s home!” called out Whitney, who sat on the staircase, her phone not in her hands for once. She came at him and he thought she was going to kill him, but it was simply a generous hug.

Evey appeared from around a corner and rushed to him, almost toppling him over in the process. Of course Anna had to join in on the massive hug, before they all broke apart like pieces of shrapnel when Adrian entered. Drew was surprised to see that he did not look angry or disgusted. He just seemed disappointed, and that killed Drew even more.

“Oh, Adrian, come join us,” Anna insisted.

He obediently walked over and they all came together in a unified Atwater embrace. Eventually, Whitney, Evey, and Anna disappeared into the kitchen, leaving just Drew and Adrian in the foyer. Adrian looked up expectantly at his brother, awaiting something magnanimous to come from his lips.

Drew didn’t disappoint. “Listen, Adrian. I screwed up so badly the cosmos are reeling out of control because of me.”

“It’s not that bad.”

“But it feels like it. Listen, I thought Diana was the one for me. I thought we had something.”

“What happened?” Adrian asked carefully. He took a seat on the staircase, and his brother followed suit.

“Some things. Okay, honestly? We felt guilty. Of course we should have felt guilty! It was a horrible thing to do to you, Adrian. Also, what I’m trying to tell you is this: I am the biggest fool on the planet. I should have seen her actions coming from a mile away, but my stupidity interfered, and I’m so incredibly sorry, Adrian. I crossed a line that should never be crossed with you.”

He swallowed hard before wrapping an arm around Drew’s neck, acting like he was going to suffocate him before letting go. “I’ll love you no matter what you do. But please can you not cross that line again? Please? I love you, and I don’t want have to kill you.”

“That’s the spirit. So, Stasia, huh?”

“Yeah. I think we’re really compatible and stuff. I’m sure you’ll find someone. In fact, I think Mom invited someone over for tonight’s cookout.”

“Oh, no. Please don’t tell me it’s a woman. Tell me it’s some big Sasquatch who will go after Evey or Whitney.”

“Unfortunately, no. Something about Elizabeth Fremont, or somebody like that. I guess she wanted it to be a surprise.”

“Why would she invite Elizabeth over?” Drew asked, agape. What was this? Was his mom playing matchmaker now? With one of his co-workers? He stood up, arms tight at his sides. Anna would pay for this.

Divine intervention: The doorbell buzzed seconds later, and Adrian stuck an elbow to his brother’s waist. “Yup,” he said, smiling big. “This is payback enough.”

Elizabeth’s blue eyes appeared a second later. She held a housewarming gift in one hand and a baked pie in the other. She did look good, but Drew had been so preoccupied with his life that their encounter was a bit strange, as she smiled seductively at him, and he turned to glance at his brother. Of course, Adrian just shrugged.

“Hey, Drew! How is you? See what I did there?”

“Yes. I did. Here, let me help you.” He took the pie so that their fingers brushed, and he found himself staring at her a beat too long. She did look very beautiful tonight.

Elizabeth nervously said, “You may be wondering why I’m here. It’s all because your sweet mother invited me over, and as it turns out, my mom and your mom go a long way back. So, my darling mother will be skipping over here later. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Why would I mind?”

Elizabeth shrugged before grinning again. She pushed on her glasses for a second. Behind each lens was a beautiful blue eye. “Well, I’m not sure. You know, I never really thanked you enough for taking me to that concert a while back.”

“Oh, please. Don’t. You were the one who invited me and gave me a free ticket. Anyway, sorry. Come on in.”

She followed him through the loud household. Only a few visitors had showed up, but it sounded like a party. She placed the pie on the cooktop and followed him outside, to the backyard where stringed lights hung around in the bushes, and the smell of grilled meat wafted in the air. Drew knew Elizabeth was a vegan, so he prayed his mom had a back-up plan for her. The cicadas chirped their response to his thoughts.

Most of the attendees were women in middle age. Drew was wondering what to do about the lack of masculinity, but Adrian whistled nearby. He was passing a football with a neighborhood boy. Drew waved at him, glad the air was (somewhat) clear between them. “So, how have you been? We really haven’t talked a lot lately.”

That was pure truth. She stood on her tiptoes, a nervous habit. “Life’s been busy, I guess. Besides work, I’ve been busy helping my mom move into this subdivision. That’s why I’m here, by the way. I didn’t invite myself over.” She gave a little grin.

“Well, that would be fine by me anyway. This little party here would be torture if it were just me and all my mom’s friends.”

“You’d be the talk of the town, though. I’m sure they all love you.” Elizabeth circled around, noting the demographic makeup of the audience. Light music floated into the night air above them. There was something gently enticing about summer, especially in the midst of a humid, languid night. It was like a drug.

“Well, if that’s true, I don’t love them. Isn’t that awful of me to say?”

“No. I hate to interrupt, but do you have any drinks?”

“Of course. Follow me right this way.”

On the edge of the pool, Anna Atwater stood holding a glass of sparkling water. She was among a throng of some church friends and neighbors, all who took a sip at the same exact time. They observed Drew and Elizabeth together with wide eyes and slivers of grins. Who knew? Sometimes, it just paid off to go to a little summer get-together.

“Well,” Anna said, “you just never know, right?” Anna took a long glance as they began to pour some pink lemonade into recyclable cups. She wanted to tell the ladies what she’d done, but she didn’t want to jinx anything just yet. Poor Drew, always the boy who took everything so personally. Her little feeler. He would die if she called him that in this present age of time. She would probably be embarrassed to call him that herself.

He looked so old to her as he stood with Elizabeth. She’d known about his relationship with Diana and how it was hard for him to let her go, for Adrian’s sake and for his own peace of mind. So for her to see his interactions with a young woman as genuine as Elizabeth (however different her personality may be), she was one proud mother.

Anna was proud for a few more moments, until she realized staring at them would do no good. She turned back to her friends. “Well, we can hope!”

They all smiled and clunked their glasses together. “To Drew!”

Luckily, he never heard a single thing.

 

Chapter Forty-Three

 

DIANA STARED AT the lifeless body before her. She tried not to hyperventilate. She’d stumbled upon the individual a few minutes ago, on her walk across the pier at a small beach town in Florida. What the heck? It was summer break right before her second year of med school, and she wanted desperately to fix him, but she knew it would be impossible. She only knew the bare basics.

She dug her cell phone from her pocket and dialed 911 quickly. The phone almost slipped from her hands. This was different than anything they could have prepared her for in school. Her voice trembled as she shouted, “Yes! He’s not breathing, and… Okay, well, hurry!” She could feel the words course through her throat like poison.

She took the man’s hand in her own. What had happened to this poor individual? As she was about to check his body for any signs of severe trauma, suddenly his eyelids slunk back, revealing bright eyes. He sat up like he’d just been electrocuted. “Oh my gosh!”

“What happened to you?” she screamed, still holding his back. “I thought you were dead!”

Fear filled his eyes. “I must have hit my head. It hurts.” He dug his nails into his skull. “It really does hurt.”

“Okay. Okay. Don’t worry, I’ve called the paramedics, and they’re coming.”

“Diana?” called out a voice in the middle of the darkness.

Her irises dilated as a flashlight focused in on the two of them. “Who is it? Please, move the light away.”

“Di, what are you doing?”

“Oh. Mom, Dad. Come here. This poor guy hit his head, and I stumbled upon him. He was unconscious.”

“Unconscious!” cried out Anahit. She rushed over and fell on her knees. Her husband, on the other hand, had bad knees and empathized while standing up.

The man gritted his teeth. “Agh. I have a problem with my feet sometimes…”

“Do you need ibuprofen, young man?”

“No!” Diana hissed. “We must wait for the paramedics. They’ll take care of him…”

“Yes!” he shouted through white teeth. “My poor head.”

“How did you fall?” Ari asked. No one could have known—as he did wear a good poker face—that he had been a little bit of a klutz as a young man too. Heck, he was still a total klutz, just now with bad knees. He had to be extra careful, or he’d be that guy who died from a broken hip.

“Dad. Let him rest,” Diana insisted.

The crash of the ocean waves on the white sand a few feet away was like the sound of peace. Then Klutz Boy’s gnashing of teeth was the total opposite. “Well… I think I dropped my phone out in the water, and I was angry, and I was going to go get it, but then I tripped on a nail sticking up from the wood. This is what happens when you’re all alone in the dark!”

“Ari, shine the light over here,” said Anahit in her mothering mode. “I want to see his head.”

He did as told. In the faint glow of the light, they were able to see the man fully. Diana was taken aback by his attractiveness, but tried not to let that affect her response to his well-being. His tan skin was what caught Anahit’s surprise. “You are Middle Eastern?”

“Israeli. I was born there. Moved here for schooling.”

“Ah, really, are you? Your English is perfect.”

“Ah. That’s a little painful.”

“You’ve got a knot on the back of your head, like the size of the Ark of the Covenant.”

He opened an eye like a cartoon character. His amusement was clear. He still had not truly looked at Diana yet, or his pain might have been a bit subdued. Instead, he said, “You look Middle Eastern, ma’am.”

“I am Armenian. So is my husband, the big goof holding that flashlight, and my beautiful daughter here.”

Finally, his eyes focused on Diana. Even though the light was as faint as in a movie theater, he couldn’t suppress his immediate emotional response to her. He understood that dopamine was rushing to his organs, making this moment seem clearer than any other moment in his life. He also could sense everything sharpen, a witty mixture of adrenaline and norepinephrine combining to stimulate his euphoria. She was a goddess, mighty Aphrodite sent from the cosmos. He was a mere utensil of klutzy, gutsy testosterone.

“Hi,” he gasped.

“Oh, Mom. I think you did something to him,” Diana said awkwardly.

Ari began jumping up and down as the flash of red and blue lights neared the pier. He forgot about his bad knees for a moment, but it actually felt good to use them in a way that would definitely hurt later. Anahit would be the one to hear about it for the rest of the trip. “Over here! Hey, dum-dums, over here!”

“What is your name, sweetie?” asked Anahit, whose eyes were big with reckless abandon. She focused in on Diana, who was still holding his back. This would make for an interesting story to tell at dinners for the grandchildren.

“Abisha Mencher. My brother’s phone number is…”

“Don’t fall asleep!”

“Trust me. I’m not about to fall asleep.”

“Why are you closing your eyes then? You trying to give us traumatic fright?”

He shook his head, intently staring into Anahit’s eyes. “I’m trying to think. I just lost my phone, which has basically my entire life on it. Oh, what a shame. Oh.”

“It’ll be okay,” Diana said.

He looked up at her. “I think you might be right.”

Anahit, sensing something beyond her control, stood up and hurried over to her husband. “I think we may have just come into contact with God’s plan.”

“Did you not hear the kid? He’s a Jew!”

“And what is the problem with that? Jews are great. Did you forget? They are God’s chosen people.”

“You gave her a hard time over Drew’s being a Southern Baptist!”

Anahit shook her head. “I always knew that Drew wasn’t the one!”

“And you know this because?”

“Because I am a woman, and you should respect my instincts. My instincts are telling me you’re going to be a wimp over the next week, complaining about your fragile knees. You know what, Ari! I think you and I should liven up a little. We should go skydiving!”

“What?”

“Everything’s going to be A-OK!” She reached up and kissed his lips hard. What did it hurt to live a little once in a while?

 

Chapter Forty-Four

 

THE MEMPHIS ARTS Exposition was in full swing when Kelsey, Aunt Ellie, Chris, and Alexander entered the large convention hall. Various people walked around, their chatty voices comingling into one unified human shout. Kelsey’s grin was wider than the English Channel, while Chris and Alexander were gritting their teeth. This was not their definition of a fun-filled day, but Kelsey had tickets and wanted to go.

They bustled past security guards, glad they’d brought Kelsey’s wheelchair for the event. It was larger than they expected. As soon as they entered the actual Expo, they all stared open-mouthed at the exhibits, displaying various paintings and films and random crafts. It was like a big creative fair, and Alexander shook his head in delight. “Wow!”

“Told ya!” cried out Kelsey. “And you guys didn’t want to go.”

Aunt Ellie pointed at one little booth, where a woman was painting caricatures of a little boy. On the canvas, his ears were bigger than Texas. In real life, Chris did not think the kid had big ears at all. Oh, well. He wasn’t big into art, although some people considered his profession dealing with the art of architecture. He was well-versed in the language of escrow and crown molding, but was it art? He wasn’t sure.

“Want a caricature, Alexander? They’d give you a big nose.” Chris nudged his brother, who was still eyeing the area like it was Christmas.

“Yes, do it, Alex!” said Kelsey happily. Aunt Ellie had curled her bronde hair for the event, and she sported a brand-new solitaire gem on her ring finger. Aunt Ellie had dutifully agreed to come in lieu of their mother, who was currently backpacking with her friends in Switzerland as some sort of Christian missionary thing. Of course, everyone truly knew what she planned to do while with the Swiss.

“Fine,” Alexander mumbled, although his grin betrayed his true emotions.

“Can you believe our little brother is going to be hitting the road for Indiana? Who knew, right?”

Chris moved out of the way to allow a family to pass by. He turned back to his sister, who was lovingly watching Alexander sit down to face the young caricaturist. “Who knew? That’s a very good conclusion. He acts one way: ‘I want to go to the Academy!’ Then he’s like, ‘Okay, maybe I want to go to Notre Dame because I want to marry a Catholic girl!’”

“I can hear everything you’re saying,” Alexander firmly stated a few feet away from them. He turned his head slightly.

“Well, are we speaking the truth?”

“You forget I’m not you, Chris Rose.”

“Oh, that was a good one!” Aunt Ellie said, clapping her hands together in delight.

Chris rolled his eyes. “I have improved my dating life, I can tell you that.” His three amigos all turned their heads to look at him at the same time. He jumped in fright at their mannerisms. “What? I have!”

“Letting Raina Newton go was not one of your strongest moments,” Kelsey said, shaking her head.

He crossed his arms. The truth was, he hadn’t really thought about her that much since they’d called it quits. He knew if he thought about her too long, he’d have serious regrets and whisk her back home from Arizona. He couldn’t do that to her. He imagined her finally discovering herself for once, and that was an important memento for the both of them.

“That’s looking super accurate, Alex!” Kelsey called out. She wheeled herself to Alex’s seat. “What a lovely job you’re doing.”

The artist smiled and nodded her thanks.

“Aunt Ellie, do you think little Alex can handle himself out there in the North? I mean, that’s a scary place.”

She rolled her eyes. “You are the weirdest man I’ve ever met, Christopher Rose. Your little brother is going to be just fine. You know that.”

“You know what? I do.”

They waited until the portrait was finished, and they all observed it with a careful eye. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it did look like Alexander, and he nearly tumbled off his chair when he saw it. After paying the girl, they began to walk again, though they were all giggly.

“So, where to next?” Kelsey asked after their jaws were tightened from laughing.

“Look. It’s acupuncture.”

“Go ahead, volunteer for that, Aunt Ellie. Public acupuncture? I definitely can see you doing some of that.”

Aunt Ellie looked mortified when she realized it really was public. A woman stripped down to nothing but a sheet was lying on a little table as an acupuncturist began to soothe her back. Anxiously she took her purse and covered Alexander’s eyes (although obviously this was PG-rated, really), and Chris broke down into hysterical laughter. “I won’t be responsible for anything! Your mother would kill me!”

“Our mother is in Switzerland,” reminded Alexander, who rolled his eyes before smiling.

Aunt Ellie then proceeded to whip the back of his head with her purse. “And you look like a total fool!”

Chris was laughing so hard he could feel his abs begin to tighten. He glanced up between each chuckle to see a long, cascading wave of black hair. “Hey, is that Diana?”

Alexander glanced up. “Diana? As in, Drew’s Diana?”

“Yes. Doesn’t it look like it from the back?”

“A little.”

“Who’s Diana?” Aunt Ellie asked.

Alexander proceeded to explain. Chris was tempted to run up to the woman, but she was already briskly weaving through the crowd. She was like a flickering candle, gone with one blow. “Oh, well. Let’s keep on moving on.”

They walked through the aisles, enjoying each other’s company. Aunt Ellie saw some folks from church operating a booth advertising a local gospel radio station, while Kelsey found one of her high school friends working at a windblown glass section. Kelsey spent twenty minutes talking with the girl, and another ten minutes after that selecting which piece she wanted to take home with her. An hour later, it was like they’d sailed the open seas. They’d shopped, they’d seen a promo video for a pop-up entertainment studio, and ate a few Greek dishes. The Arts Expo was like a Memphian bazaar, where all the people congregated together regardless of monetary status or race or any other prohibiting factor.

Up ahead, a cubicle was set apart from all the others. Large purple drapes covered up the makeshift space, and loud, pulsating music escaped from within. A group of people were busy waiting outside, and Chris sidled up to them. “What is this?”

A friendly man in a t-shirt proclaiming I WENT TO EXTRATERRESTRIAL CON 2016 said, “Supposedly, it’s this woman who’s incredible with a camera and people. She’s a YouTuber, amassed millions of views in recent months, and everyone’s eating up her program in there.”

“What’s it about? Is it worth waiting for?”

At that very moment, a cacophony of gasps electrified the air, followed by mirthful laughter. “Okay, that answers my question. Thanks.”

“No prob, bud.”

Chris turned back around and stalked to his group. He explained the situation to them, and they agreed they should at least try it. A few moments later, there was whooping and clapping, and the previous attendees trickled out of the makeshift tent with big smiles on their faces. Just from their physical reactions alone, Chris knew it would be well worth it.

A few moments later, a white guy dressed in a bright crimson dhoti appeared. He cupped his hands against his lips and shouted, “Hear ye! Hear ye! All who wish to see the lovely Lady Melisende, please form an orderly line. Our show will commence in ten minutes.”

“What are we about to do?” Alexander asked, cringing.

They formed a line, and the man in royal garb appraised his flock. He was a jokester, or at least tried to be one, and when he saw the Rose family, he smiled in appreciation. “Hello, and how are you?”

“Good,” Kelsey answered. “And you?”

“You know what? Special accommodation for you, ma’am. Front row seating. This is why Lady Melisende hired me for this.”

He led them into the tent, which was lit with lanterns around the poles leading upward. It was like the game Chris played as a child, where everyone rushed underneath a large rainbow parachute. The flickering lanterns cast an eldritch glow as Kelsey was wheeled front and center to a little makeshift platform. The others took their seats, Chris next to his sister of course.

As everyone filed in, he leaned over and said, “Best seats in the house, right?”

“Isn’t it great?”

As soon as everyone was seated (and the tent really was filled), the lanterns flickered off, and the sound of Indian-inspired drums was like the intensity of elephants’ stomping. A second later, a flashing light appeared on the stage, highlighting a woman in a lavender sari that shimmered as she moved. Instantly, she lifted her long silky arm and she called out, “And where is my lovely assistant?”

Another flash of gold light landed on the stage, and the goofy guy appeared, looking totally out of place.

“Ah, hello, Lady Mel!”

“And hello, Adam. Thanks for joining me. Who are these people?”

“Your eighth batch of inquisitive, curious YouTube conspiracy theorists. They’re wondering why an Armenian-American girl like you is in a sari from India.”

She rubbed one long finger across her jawline. “Well, simply, I have no traditional clothes, and saris are easier to come by. And why are you in that Indian dhoti when you’re whiter than cotton?”

“Of course. Here we go. She doesn’t like to make racial jokes unless they’re about me.” The audience giggled, but it was still apparent most of the people were still spellbound by Lady Melisende, who looked like a Middle Eastern goddess up on that stage.

For Chris, it was like a heaven-sent gift for his eyes. Alexander couldn’t help but blink too. Kelsey smiled with awe. Aunt Ellie was secretly taking pictures for her nephew.

“Why don’t you tell them what we’re here for, hmm?” Lady Melisende asked, whipping out a chocolate bar from an unseen table. She bit off a piece like her life depended on it.

“Well, they’re here to see us in our natural habitat, obviously. Which is…” He pressed a button on something, and the lights went out completely, their stars vanishing.

Out of nowhere, the faint glow from an overhead projector caused a montage of images to appear on a screen before them, where the two hosts had stood moments prior. The footage from the viral flower cart video at the mall appeared. The audience broke out into shocked gasps as Takia’s utter betrayal filled their hearts. “Oh, wow. That’s bad,” whispered Aunt Ellie to Kelsey. “That’s really bad.”

As soon as the unity was displayed when everyone took the flowers from the cart, the audience broke into claps and hoots. “Yeah, humans!” screamed a teenager in the back. Not only had the strangers collected flowers, but they’d passed them out as they left, triggering a chain reaction of passing out flowers as a Random Bulb of Kindness. A united front is better than one divided.

Then a few introductory videos appeared on screen. The woman named Melisende appeared on screen, wearing a t-shirt. She looked utterly familiar. “Hi, guys. It’s Mel. I just wanted to give you a little video on who I am and why I do what I do. So, I’m an American-born daughter of two loving Armenian parents. I have one sister.” Somebody shouted in the midst of the video, and then a truly familiar face filled the screen.

“The best sister in the world, which she is failing to mention,” the virtual Diana said something Chris hadn’t seen on her around Drew. She looked truly radiant with confidence.

“Yes, that was my sister. Anyway, she’s in some of the videos. So back to who I am. I go to the University of Memphis in Tennessee, where I’m an art major. My parents literally died when they found out my major, but that’s for another video. I talk more about that in my ‘College Flunk-Out’ video. I have a link below. So, my parents and sister are the best people in the world, but my rock is this little punk over here.”

The white boy appeared, holding a brown guinea pig in his arms. “Hi, y’all. I’m Adam!”

“Adam’s my best friend and partner-in-crime. Usually he’s the star of my videos, but sometimes he’s content enough to be behind the camera.”

“Hi, everyone. I go to the University of Memphis as well, and I’m a film major. I love to act.”

“Everyone knows that already.” Mel’s voice was laced with sarcasm. “Anyway, so that’s the who. Why we do what we do. Well, that’s a loaded question. We make videos that some might think are intrusive or are a little tricky. Truthfully, Adam and I have no clue what we’re going to do once we’re out of college. That’s why we started this, and it was really a dare. I was a blogger for four years before expanding to YouTube, but we like to make videos that highlight the human existence. We like unity.”

“That we do.”

Seconds later, a clip began to roll. Chris felt his heart beat fast. It was a clip of Drew overlooking the Memphis bridge at the top of the pyramid. The peach clouds were thinning out as the sun streamed atop them. Chris blinked back his disbelief. Had he not noticed their interviewing his best friend?

“Why do you love Memphis?” Mel asked, placing a microphone underneath his stubble.

Kelsey nudged him in the side. Chris watched in terror. “I love Memphis because the people I love are here.”

“Nice response,” she replied. “And do you see yourself ever leaving?”

“Honestly, no. Where my family goes, I’ll also be.”

Justin Timberlake music began to play as a reel on the city fluttered. Everyone in the room seemed to jive about as Elvis appeared. Mel and Adam were relentless interviewers, pursuing people of all sorts of backgrounds to ask them why they loved Memphis. It was a bit hokey, but it was hilarious and poignant at parts. It was unifying.

As the credits began to roll, thanking various people, Mel and Adam appeared onstage, where the audience began to cheer for them. “Thanks guys! Anyway, I really have to give it to you. Some of you still have no clue who I am, and that’s okay. I just want to help spread happiness, and I think you guys are obviously capable of the same thing.”

“Check out Mel’s channel! And her blog!” All of the sudden, Adam began tossing pieces of candy at the crowd. “All right, thanks, guys!”

As the crowd began to thin out, Chris and his entourage stared at each other. “Did you have any clue?” they asked him.

“Weird as it sounds, I was there that night, but I was too busy trying not to fall off the pyramid, or have a heart attack looking at the River. No, I’ve gotta talk to Mel.”

“Okay. Well, we’ll go ahead and head out,” Aunt Ellie said with authority, although Chris’s siblings looked like they wanted to be part of this drama.

A few moments later, Adam was busy hustling the crowd outside, giving them a speech about a few minutes’ break he and Lady Melisende were due. Meanwhile, Chris looked into the back part of the tent, finding Mel on a little chair with her phone in her lap. Headphones were in her ears as she stared up into the rafters of the convention hall. For Chris, it was like all time stood still. Her long black hair was revealed to be a wig. Her real locks draped to her shoulders. One lone purple streak charmed Chris instantly. He didn’t realize how alluring hair could be.

“Hey?” he asked, embarrassed.

Mel shot up. “Hi?” she asked. “Man, you scared me. What’s up?”

“Sorry,” he said with a grin. She was way too young for him. If she were in college, was she even allowed to drink alcohol? He remembered his college days and scowled. Mel was a different person, though. He could tell. “Are you Diana Sarafian’s sister?”

“Yes.” She blinked hard. She was gorgeous, just like her sister, but in a different way. Neither of them believed in love at first sight, but if Drew had been here, he’d have laughed and said, That’s when we all knew! Evangeline, that’s when you were all the sudden charted to be born into existence. “How do you know Di?”

“She dated my best friend. Drew, actually.”

“Oh. Oh, that’s a story altogether. I rooted for them, I really did.” Mel frowned. Her charcoal-rimmed brown eyes were so warm he wanted to dive into them. He tried to shake off these thoughts. Again, she was way too young for him. Maybe he was too old? Great. Now he felt old too.

“Me, too. Anyway, funny story, but I was actually up with him during that video.”

“Seriously?” she asked. “Were you that guy who had a problem with heights?”

“That’s me. Guilty.”

She licked her lips. “I have a major fear, too. I’m terrified of birds.”

“Seriously?”

“Yup. Guilty.” She winked.

He glanced at her. “You know, you’re really running an operation here.”

“I hope. My parents are still weary, but someday, I think they’ll be proud. Anyway, did you give me your name?”

“Chris.”

Mel’s blinking was encapsulating. Was she even real? “Well, Chris. Do you mind if I have your number, in case I need to interview you or Drew for a video?”

Chris stared at her with wide eyes. She was direct, for sure. “Yeah, yeah. Let me give you my business card.”

“Fancy, huh?”

“Yeah, I’m surprised they’re still around. You know, there’s a big difference between twenty-eight and…?”

“I’m twenty-one.”

“Yes.”

“I do agree with you on that. But it’s not like we’re arranging a marriage here.” At this, she winked yet again, and Chris felt something stir in him he’d never felt before. This Mel girl, who was she? She hadn’t really answered the question in her introductory video.

“Well, I don’t want to take up more of your time. It was nice to meet you, Mel.”

“Likewise, Chris. See you.”

And the rest, they say, was history. And that’s how I met your father, Evangeline.

 

Chapter Forty-Five

 

SWEAT TRICKLED DOWN their skin in rivulets. They lay on white floaties in the turquoise gleam of the pool in Drew’s new backyard. He’d moved to the suburbs with a new wife in tow, and since Chris had sold his mansion a few months back, this was their new go-to swim spot. Elizabeth sometimes swam with them, but today she was in Atlanta with some friends. It was the perfect just-us-guys afternoon, and they were happy to be alone together.

“I still can’t get over how you said you’d never leave Memphis,” Chris said as he blinked back the death rays from the orange ball above them. He licked the sweat from his lips in consternation, although he was perfectly relaxed.

“Oh, yeah. Because I said I would never leave my family.”

“I love you, bro, but this weather is unbearable. I think I should move to Iceland.”

“Yes, definitely. I’m sure Mel would like that.” As he said Mel’s name, he winced for a second. Drew had never seen that relationship coming, and every time he thought of Mel, he thought of Diana, who was off interning at a hospital in Nashville with her Israeli hotshot boyfriend. Drew did not have feelings for Diana anymore, though, he swore. He loved Elizabeth with his whole heart. He swore that too.

Chris lapped some of the water onto his cracked lips. He had a showing in a few hours downtown. Plus, tonight was when Alexander was driving home from his freshman year at Notre Dame to celebrate the summer with an interning position at a legal firm and a paid job at Aunt Ellie’s church to mow the yard. He was floored by his summer of passion (but actually, he kind of was).

“Mel would love it there, man. She’s a fanatic with that camera. Duh.”

“You two need to move to Hollywood.”

“No. It’s hot there, too. That doesn’t solve the problem. Plus, she’s just now graduating from college. We’re still taking things slow. We’re not moving anywhere together.”

Drew cocked an eyebrow.

“Okay, we’re not moving in together yet. We’re considering it after the wedding. Literally, I think her father would skin me alive. I think he hates all males under the age of thirty.” Except Adam, of course.

“Amen.”

They were quiet for a moment, thinking to themselves. The summer air was burning into them, but it was relaxing to flop about in the pool. Eventually, they both stood up and allowed the rays to bake them. Drew had to visit Whitney’s new apartment to fix a clogged shower drain or something, and Chris needed to freshen up for his showing.

As they toweled off, Drew said, “You know, I see good things in our future. More days in the pool.”

Chris sneezed. “If we don’t die first.”

“Mr. Positivity.”

“Yes, that is who I am these days. Especially after that stupid bet.”

They both were quiet for a moment.

“And to that, we must thank the infamous, world-traveling Raina Newton.”

“And Diana Sarafian, soon to be some other name! Maybe. I mean, I don’t know if she’s the marrying type…”

“And our families.”

“And our parents.”

“You just said that.”

“Did I? Okay, and to your lovely wife, and my girl, and our siblings…”

“And our friends…”

“And our best friends!”

“And our God!”

“And our pets…”

“And our president!”

They smiled at each other. “And to that stupid rainy afternoon where we did almost kill each other.”

“And to many more!”

 

Epilogue

 

“SO, THAT’S HOW you met Dad?” Evangeline’s big brown eyes blinked up at me with skepticism and disappointment. “Mom, that is so boring.” I stuck a plate of Velveeta mac-and-cheese before her. She took a helping and blinked up at me with a cocked eyebrow, a mannerism perfected by her Uncle Drew.

I nodded humbly. “Isn’t it weird?”

“Mom. Come on. Some of the other kids are going to have way better stories than that.”

“And do they have mothers who cook them delicious food, food that your Nana Anahit would consider the stupidest thing ever?” I rolled my eyes. “Plus, I think the way I met your father would make a good book, perhaps. It took a lot so we could fall in love and eventually have you.”

Evangeline didn’t look convinced. She blinked a few times. “You’re telling me you met him at an Arts Expo, the thing you now direct every year?”

“Of course.”

“And Dad dated some girl named Raina before you? But why?”

“It took a while for your father to settle down.”

“What does that mean?” called out a male voice from the mud room. A few moments later, an older duplicate of the Chris I’d described for the past while appeared, his blue eyes even bluer now, heightened by his graying hair. Evangeline ran to him, and he pulled her to him, kissing her on both cheeks. “My dear little Lina. What propaganda is your mother feeding you today, sweetie?”

“Mac-and-cheese. Duh. Put me down! I want you to see my journal.”

I shot him a dirty glance as he took a gulp from our daughter’s plate. “She asked me how we met.”

Chris cocked an eyebrow. “Oh, that should have been an interesting topic. Isn’t it rather boring, Lina?”

“Hey!”

“Mom talked about you like you were a celebrity in a Hollywood movie. Like you were one of those famous actors who star in the action films.”

He smiled, pushing on his collar. “I lead a double life. Why don’t you just tell your classmates I met your beautiful mother on a mission to Armenia?”

“But Papa Ari and Grandma always tell me not to lie,” she said with another spoonful of pasta in her mouth. “I didn’t say I thought you were a Hollywood actor. Just kidding. I love you, Dad.”

He rolled his eyes playfully, before hurrying to me, placing an arm around my waist. “Everything worked out how it was supposed to. I’ve got my beautiful wife and my beautiful baby.”

“So, whatever happened to Raina?”

Chris and I exchanged a glance, as if he were a little bemused that I’d mentioned her in my story after all. I leaned in closer to him. Our relationship had its rough patches, like anyone’s really, but for now, I didn’t hate his guts. “Raina’s been a free bird. I heard, she was living in Denmark or some European country. Or was that a few years ago? I honestly can’t remember.”

“And Uncle Drew? And Raina never married Uncle Drew? Why not?” Evangeline’s jaw dropped open. She never knew Uncle Drew loved this woman. He was with Aunt Kristen now.

“Some things just aren’t meant to work out, Lina,” clarified Chris. “The whole situation’s a bit awkward,” Chris said, trying not to offend me. I smiled at the attempt, but I really didn’t care. Raina had been the one to give him the free tickets so I could meet him in the first place. She’d come to our wedding, and that was that.

Raina Newton was an illusion. A yogi and wanderlust traveler, she was never in one place long. She took a job teaching ESL in various South American countries for a while, before returning stateside for a few years back. (I knew this for a fact, unlike my know-it-all husband).

Drew, or affectionately known as Uncle Drew to Evangeline, opened his own tax accountant firm. He married at twenty-nine to a woman from his office, but the marriage was short-lived. Her name was something like Erica, or Emma, or Elizabeth, or something typically white-girl American, but I couldn’t remember, and adjusted her name for the story I told my own daughter. He’d recently married one of Aunt Ellie’s thousands of nieces.

Meanwhile, it was true that Drew and Chris’s relationship was not as tight as it had been. Obviously. Even though it was a long time ago, they still had their issues to sort out, and truth was, they grew apart. It was just human to do so. They still hung out occasionally, and I did like to see Drew smile and laugh. Sometimes, he’d pull me aside and say, “Do you remember when you tried to set me up with your sister?” Then we both just guffaw.

Diana, my beautiful sister. My intelligent, one-of-a-kind sister, a person devoted to safety and precaution. Diana’s relationships, ah, how I could write a book. After Drew, she flip-flopped between a few other suitors, until she ran into a poor klutz at a strip of Florida beach. The rest, they say, is history (except for the fact that he is Jewish, which makes everything even more complicated, especially when my mother is a die hard member of the Apolistic Church in Armenia and a non-denominational church in Memphis. Sorry, long explanation). By thirty, when she had already established herself as one of the most pragmatic and esteemed doctors along the Mississippi, she adopted a child from New York. It was a strange process, but the child, my beautiful nephew, was the bright star in her life. Some people are not meant to marry off, but I don’t think that logic applies to Diana. She always ran into fate like it was the finish line.

As for my husband, he earned a reputation as an upstanding, honest realtor. He didn’t make as much money as he used to, simply because he preferred to stay home with Evangeline and me more often. He wanted to give me an opportunity to focus on my art, and with Evangeline as an almost-teen, I’d returned to short film projects and painting. My best friend in the entire world, Adam, worked in New York as a director, but when he did return to Memphis in the off-season, we made movies like some people make children.

Evangeline stared at me, and I realized I’d completely spaced-out as she asked me a question. “So, you met Dad because of some free tickets, but you decided to give me some rambling story instead? The part where you met Dad literally took five minutes.”

I tossed a dishrag in her face. “You don’t understand, do you? There’s way more to a story than just the ending. It took a lot of little events to chart the course where I met your father. Trust me, if I could have chosen, I’d have said, ‘Anything but a stupid Memphis Arts Expo, where I literally died and went to heaven.’”

My daughter rolled her eyes and rested her head on the countertop. “I guess it doesn’t have to make sense. What am I going to do when everybody else has great stories?”

Chris and I made eye contact. A billion memories blinded me then. Our tumultuous relationship, a completely different revelation altogether, and when he proposed to me underneath a hazy summer sky in late July. How young I felt, and how he told me, “With you, I don’t feel so old.” Then I’d look at him and say, “Well, we are seven years apart. That’s enough time for a lot of people to die.” And then he’d kissed me, and I’d felt like perfection.

Our beautiful wedding day, how blue his eyes were, how my father and mother bawled their eyes out the entire ceremony, where Adam videoed everything with some outdated camera. How he almost tripped the poor pastor into a lake. Of course, there was Drew standing right at Chris’s side, and I did watch as his eyes landed on Diana’s olive skin as she stood beside me. If you asked me, I could have told you: No matter what, they still had some feelings for each other.

“Anyway, Evan, just going to tell you, it’s not exactly about the story, it’s about the person.”

“The person? Gag. I’m never getting married. I’m going to be like Aunt Di. A boyfriend’s enough trouble.”

Chris walked over and wrapped his arms around his daughter. “And then I’ll be like Papa Ari, and I’m not sure if you’d like that.”

“Chris, you cannot possibly say she has to get married.”

“Yeah, Dad! Feminism!”

Chris cocked an eyebrow. “And who are you, your mother? Who was literally the one pressuring me to marry you?”

“Oh, so you’re saying you didn’t even want to get married!”

“My question was simply how did you meet?” Evangeline said sweetly.

We both nuzzled her, and of course she gagged for a few moments. She was getting too old too fast. No doubt she had some of the young Mel in her. The old Mel (and yes, I feel old nowadays) still had some spunk, but not as much. I’d become too cultured. Memphis does that to you, even when Hollywood asks for your latest film.

Eventually, Chris and I said in unison, “We could tell you the story all over again!”

Evangeline shook her head. “I think I have enough material.”

Then we all fell into a hug, a good Rose family hug. I wouldn’t trade this for the world, and when it happens to you, because I hope and pray it will—don’t let it slip through your fingers.

 

 

About the Author

 

KATIE GEORGE IS the author of three novels (The Question, Six, Maybe Seven, and Letting Go). She splits her time between the Southern lifestyle of Memphis, Tennessee, and the giant metropolis of Los Angeles, California. Thank you for reading this book. ;)

 

 

 

 

 


The Question

"Mom, how did you meet Dad?" This simple little question brings about a dramatic retelling of how one young woman and man met in the throes of the Memphis, Tennessee, Southern sprawl. Along the way, a group of young adults just trying to find themselves becomes entangled in a strange yet necessary friendship that complicates things even further. Raina Newton, a fresh-faced elementary teacher, is living for the blessed weekends when she stumbles upon the womanizing Christopher Rose, a self-conscious real estate agent. His best friend, Drew Atwater, is a good, moral, and upright man who falls in love with a young med student, Diana Sarafian, a confident young woman with strong affections for her Armenian-American heritage. These four unlikely people strike up a friendship (is it even safe to call it that?) that brings four journeys into a shared path together. And... Somewhere along the road, two people are destined to meet...

  • ISBN: 9781370858378
  • Author: Katie George
  • Published: 2017-07-29 04:50:20
  • Words: 81658
The Question The Question