Flower Three: Ice Plant–Your Looks Freeze Me

ice plant

Marcus 

“That woman sure is one tough old dragon,” Tony commented, as we rode the bus to the Lockhart Mansion the next morning.  We’d been instructed by Mrs. Lockhart that our first duty of the day would be to take Emma to school.  No limo rides for her or us.  She was to learn how to ride the bus like a normal student.

“I think we already established that fact yesterday,” I said, stifling a yawn.  In order to pick Emma up and get to school on time, we’d had to start off half an hour earlier.  At six in the morning, it wasn’t even light outside yet.

“No, we established she was a tough lady yesterday,” said Stan.  “But when we got home last night, she proved to be a tough dragon lady, powerful enough to breathe fire on everyone who comes close.  No one can stop her from doing what she wants.”

“Just tell him what the social worker told us last night,” Heath said.  “Or I’ll tell him.”  His blue-gray eyes sparkled with uncontained excitement, which was quite rare considering Heath’s very mellow personality.  “Mrs. Lockhart is now our legal guardian until the day each of us turns eighteen.”

I bolted up, now wide awake.  “Doesn’t the whole adoption process have a lot of red tape?  She couldn’t possibly accomplish it in one night.”

“That’s why I said she’s one tough old dragon,” Tony said.  “Starting from today, we’re to live at the mansion.  Lockhart’s sending people to pack our stuff and move it into her house while we’re at school.”

That information left me speechless.  Money really could buy anything.  The thought of money made me think of our goal of gaining that much needed college tuition, and that thought led to Emma.  My heart instantly fell.  She was a piece of work.  Worse than I’d thought after observing her during dinner.

Tony let out a sudden laugh, making all of us look at him.  “Sorry, I was just thinking about how Emma flashed us at the dinner table with her grandmother just a few feet away.  And she didn’t think twice about it.  That’s not something I’d expect from a rich girl.  Aren’t they supposed to be trained in manners and stuff ever since they’re young?”

“That’s why her grandma needs us,” I reminded him.

“I don’t know if we can teach her anything,” said Stan with a slight grimace.  “It’s not as though we’re experts in the social arena either.  I can’t believe she actually hired us to do this.  Didn’t she see my tattoo?  She’s not like most rich old ladies, that’s for sure.  They would take one look at us and try hitting us with their purses.”

What Stan said was true.  We were far from the popular crowd at school.  More like the misfits.  But nobody picked on us except The Bulk because they were afraid of us.  They’d feared my kung fu skills ever since I’d beaten up The Bulk, and they stereotyped kids from the foster home as being prone to committing crimes left and right.  Apparently, they thought we were some sort of gang that potentially had an association with organized crime leaders, so it was better to keep away.  Stan and Tony liked to mess with people, and so they purposely dressed the part.  Stan had a tattoo on his arm and piercings on his ear, while Tony wore a chain around his neck.  Stan’s tattoo wasn’t even real.  The foster home would never allow it.  It was just something Heath had painted on.  Stan had Heath redo it every week, and no one was any the wiser.

They figured if people already stereotyped us, they might as well have some fun with it.  So in the end, the only people with the nerve to talk to us at all were all the girls who were in love with Heath.

But I thought we at least qualified to teach a thing or two to Emma.  At least we knew enough not to flash people at the dinner table, although I couldn’t be sure with Tony.  “We have to try anyway,” I said, trying to sound hopeful.  “College tuition is a huge deal.  Especially for Heath.”

“I don’t mind not going to college,” Stan said.  “Working at Green-Mart isn’t bad.  But you’re right.  We have to do this for Heath.”

Heath smiled.  “I’m grateful and all, but don’t get too upset if we don’t end up pulling this off.  I’m sure I’ll find a way to get into art school one day.”

“Either way,” Tony added, “This sure makes life a lot more exciting.”

I hardly heard anything they said.  My mind was already focused on how to change Emma from a strange wild thing to a refined young lady.  Although, I had to admit, I’d noticed at dinner that once she’d changed into a clean dress and done up her hair, she was actually quite pretty.  She just needed a change of behavior to match that beauty.  We could do all those things they did in the movies—make Emma walk with books on her head, stuff her mouth full of marbles.  Although that exercise was to improve one’s pronunciation, and Emma didn’t seem to have a problem with that.

“Did you hear me, Marcus?”  I jerked out of my daze at the sound of Heath’s voice.

“Sorry, what’d you say?”

“I said Emma looked pretty upset last night.  Seemed like her grandma didn’t give her any warning about us.  I hope she’s not mad at us.”  He looked genuinely worried.

“I don’t care if she is,” I stated simply.  “Our job is to educate her, not make her happy.”

“But think about it Marcus,” Heath persisted.  “How would you like it if your grandma hired people to be your friends and help you conform to the social norms?  To me, it would feel like a huge slap in the face.  It would mean she was giving up on my own ability to make my own friends, and she wanted me to change because she didn’t like me for being me.”

Leave it to Heath to talk about people’s feelings.  He’d always been the sensitive one.  That was an artist for you, I supposed.

“I guess you have a point,” I conceded, and Tony and Stan nodded.  “We’ll try to be a little more sensitive, since she is a girl and all.  Right guys?”

Tony had to think about this.  “I’m not sure I know how to be sensitive, especially to girls,” he said sheepishly.  “That’s kind of why I still don’t have a girlfriend.”  He slapped Heath on the back.  “We’ll just follow this guy’s cues.  After all, he’s the one with all the lady followers.”

“Not true,” Heath muttered.  “They just treat me like a pity project because of my deformity.”  He didn’t say this bitterly.  Heath treated his limp as a fact of life.  But he hated it when people treated him differently, which was what most girls did.  They treated him as though he were a special project—a tortured artist hero of some sort.  Like Beauty and the Beast.  Girls wanted tortured beasts, so they could heal them.  It also helped that Heath looked more like a golden Prince Charming than a wild beast.  Girls were fascinated by the fact that Heath’s irises were different colors—one eye was almost lavender, and the other was green.

He’d had a girlfriend before, but he’d broken it off because we’d caught her making out with some jock in the locker room and overheard her telling him she needed a real man who could actually sweep her off her feet literally.  Lindsey had broken Heath’s heart.  She’d only gone out with him because all the other girls wanted him.  She was one of those girls who tried to steal other girls’ boyfriends just for the hell of it.

“Speaking of my deformity…” Heath looked to me.  “Did you bring the fake roses to give The Bulk?”

“Of course,” I said.  “In my backpack.  You didn’t think I’d forget after everything we’ve been through.”

“Do you think The Bulk really won’t notice they aren’t Lockhart Winters?” Stan asked.

“Mrs. Lockhart is the expert,” I said.  “If she says it will work, then we should probably trust her.  And she’s right about The Bulk and his father not being the brightest stars in the sky.”

By now we’d reached Poppy Ranch.  It took us a few minutes to walk to the mansion, but at least we didn’t have to sneak past the security guard this time.  He was expecting us.  Without a word, he let us through the gate.

The butler—Merlin or Milton, I didn’t remember his name—was standing at the gate of the mansion, waiting for us.  He held a backpack in his hands that I assumed belonged to Emma.

“Miss Emma should be along any second now,” he told us.  “She said she wanted to say goodbye to her flowers.”

Goodbye to her flowers?  She was only going to be gone for part of the day.  That girl really was a nut case.

“Here she comes,” the butler said.  In the distance, I could see a small figure walking across the lawn.  As she came closer, she waved to her butler but ignored us completely.

“Sorry Marlin,” she said, taking her backpack.  Her voice was so soft, almost like the hum of a bumblebee.  “I wanted to pick some Carpobrotus edulis for my hair.”  She pointed atop her head to a garland of flowers, arranged in alternating yellow and pink.  They looked like ice plants.

“You’re just in time, Miss Emma,” he said.  “The gentlemen have just arrived.  Go on to school now, and good luck on your first day.”

He waved goodbye as we started down the lane to the bus stop.  Emma strode in front of us, avoiding eye contact.  But as we passed out of view of her house, she suddenly turned around.  “I almost forgot.  I have something for you.”  She walked back towards us, coming directly to me.  Motioning for me to open my hand, she dropped something in it.  Then she strode away, whistling, almost happily.

I stared at what she’d just given me.  Two types of flowers.  One was white and bell-shaped, and the other was a cluster of yellow flowers that looked a little like buttons.

“I take it this means she’s not mad at us?” Stan suggested, but his tone was unsure, mirroring the same feeling as the rest of us.

“Not quite,” Heath said.  “This white flower is an iris, and the yellow one is called a tansy.”

“How do you know this?” I inquired.

“I used to practice drawing flowers all the time,” he said.  “Anyway, there used to be a secret flower language developed back in the 1800s.  The iris is supposed to mean I have a message for you, and the tansy means I declare against you.  Plus, those ice plants in her hair.  They mean your looks freeze me.  But the fact that she’s wearing them instead of giving them to us means her cold looks are supposed to freeze us.”

“Again, how do you know this?”

“The book I used to study flower pictures was all about this secret language,” he said.  “I thought it was interesting, so I ended up learning it.  Anyway, Emma’s message is clear.  She’s not about to make our job easy.”

“The Queen of Ice,” I sighed.  “Well, if she thinks we’ll give up, she’s wrong.  Now I’m even more determined to break her.  This is war.”

Emma didn’t turn around once.  On the bus ride to school, we’d been forced to stand, since it was the beginning of the rush hour to work and school.  While we’d been pushed to the back, Emma had purposely remained in the front, far away from us.  It had been a trial to make sure she didn’t disappear in the crowd and try to run away.

When we finally dropped her off at the counselor’s office so she could get her class schedule, I breathed a sigh of relief.  It was a good thing she was a junior, and we were seniors.  It meant we wouldn’t share any of her classes.  That gave us a break for a few hours until we had to walk her home.

I looked at my watch and saw that it was almost 7:30, the time of our designated meeting with The Bulk.  We made our way to the music building to wait for him.  As we sat on the stone bench outside, two girls walked past us, and I happened to catch part of their conversation.

“I heard there’s a new girl,” said one of them.  “Emma Hartley.”

“I saw her walk out of the counselor’s office,” the other said.  “She was mumbling to herself, and there were flowers in her hair.  I can already tell she’s a freak.”

They walked away, giggling to themselves.

“Emma Hartley?” Stan frowned.  “How could they get the name wrong?  The Lockharts are famous around here.”

I groaned, realizing what Emma’s grandmother had done.  “Not if her grandmother enrolled her as Emma Hartley.”

Heath nodded, looking just as grim as me.  “Remember Mrs. Lockhart said she wanted Emma to learn how to be a normal teenager.”

Tony caught on.  “You mean her grandma made sure nobody at this school knows Emma’s real identity as the richest girl in the city.  Just to make sure she’s treated like everyone else.”

“That must be why she wanted Emma to take the bus instead of a limo,” I said.  “Nobody except us knows Emma is a Lockhart.”

“Well that’s gonna make her life horrible,” Stan groaned.  “As a Lockhart, nobody would have the guts to pick on her.  But as just a regular awkward girl, she’ll get hammered.”

We didn’t have time to discuss the issue further because at that moment, The Bulk showed.  Surprisingly, his two followers weren’t by his side.  “So didya get ‘em?”  He spoke in a hoarse whisper and looked over both his shoulders, as though afraid someone was spying.

“Yes,” I said, pulling the roses from my backpack.

“And you’re sure no one saw?  No one followed ya here?”

I remembered what Mrs. Lockhart had said about The Bulk’s father trying to be a spy for Fragrance Stop, and from his questions, now I knew it was true.  He wasn’t going to give the roses to Miss Cora at all.  His father had probably asked him to steal the roses, and he’d passed the burden to us.

“If someone caught us, we’d be in jail, not standing here talking to you,” I replied, purposely avoiding the truth.

“Guess that’s true,” he said, then sneered.  “S’pose ya wimps got more balls than I thought.”

“We got your roses, so you have to stick to your end of the deal before we give them to you,” Tony told him.

“Don’t get all antsy.  I never said I wouldn’t stick to my end.”  He turned to Heath.  “I take back what I said.  Sorry for calling you a crip and yada, yada.  Good enough?”

“And you have to promise not to call him that word or anything like that again,” I said.

He lifted his right hand and placed it over his heart.  “Solemnly swear.  Now hand them over.”

I extended the flowers to him, and he snatched them out of my hands.  He smelled them and smiled.  “That’s genuine Lockhart Winter, right there.”

Good, the idiot bought it.

“Are you really giving those to Miss Cora?” I asked, just to see if he would reveal anything.

“Why does it matter?  Don’t tell me you have the hots for my girl.”

“No, I’m just wondering,” I said.  “Rumor has it your dad works for Lockhart’s rival company.  Would be a pity if Lockhart found out some of her roses are missing.”

Heath elbowed me in the side, telling me not to test the waters.  But I wasn’t known for playing it safe.  I took great pleasure in seeing my enemies sweat a bit.

“Not that it’s any of your business,” The Bulk said, “But I am giving these to Miss Cora.  Most of ‘em anyway.  Dad only needs two to run some tests.  Besides,” he added, “You stole these, not me.  So if Old Lockhart found out, would be your asses she’d kick, not mine.”

Then with another revolting laugh, he walked away.  I allowed myself to crack a smug smile.  Too bad for him that we got the last laugh.

I turned around, ready to walk to class, when I heard a groan come from Tony’s direction.  “Oh no, looks like we’re in trouble.”

Shifting my gaze to where he pointed, I saw a tiny, lone figure sitting in the shadows of the music room door.  It was Emma, and she didn’t look happy.  I guessed her grandmother hadn’t told her that the roses we’d just handed to The Bulk were phonies.

Emma

I stood from my little corner, completely astonished to have witnessed what I’d just seen.  I wasn’t even sure it was real.  Surely, it had to be a dream.  Grandmother would never have been so careless to trust just anyone, but the evidence was there.  These four really were thieves.

“H-hi Emma,” Marcus said, looking a little nervous.  “How long have you been there?”

Since my first class was music theory, I’d been waiting in front of the music building ever since I’d come out of the counselor’s office.  So I’d been there long enough to have heard every word they’d exchanged with that horrid, mean-looking buffoon.  I couldn’t believe Grandmother trusted these idiots.  Here, she thought I was naïve, and she’d just allowed these idiots to give our rival the Lockhart Winter.

I had to get my roses back.

Without saying a word, I charged in the direction where the bloated buffoon had gone.  I heard Marcus call after me, and I ran faster.  But a few seconds later, he tackled me to the ground.  We went rolling on the field, and I struggled to get him off, flailing out my arms.  I managed to land a slap on his face, and he made a grunt of pain.

“Stop that,” he shouted, and his arms finally managed to pin mine to the grass.  “Listen to me.”

My foot shot out, and I was able to knee him in the thigh.  He let go instantly, and I was able to free myself.  But only for a few seconds, as by now his friends had arrived to help.  They managed to pin my arms to my side.  I thought about resorting to biting, but Marcus growled, “Don’t even think about it.”

“Man, for a little thing like you, you’re fast and strong,” Tony commented.

I wanted to scream at them, but my voice wouldn’t work.  To my despair, tears began creeping out of my eyes.  How dare they deceive Grandmother.  How dare they steal my rose and give it to the enemy.  I jerked free of their hold and cradled my head in my hands, slowly rocking my body back and forth.  It was a position I used whenever I felt helpless.  Usually it helped me calm down.

“You don’t understand, Emma,” Heath said gently.  “Please let us explain.”

I hardly heard him.  That rose was my daddy’s flower.  It had taken him years of hard work to produce that special variety of rose.  He’d named it after me.  Rosa emmaline.  It was the only thing I had left of him other than pictures.  And these idiots had given it away.

“Emma, you need to calm down.  People are starting to stare.”  I heard Marcus’s voice from far away and realized I was sobbing very loudly.  “Listen to me.  Those roses weren’t the Lockhart Winter.  They were the Lockhart Mimic, and your grandma gave them to me.”

It took awhile for those words to process, and even then, I wasn’t sure I could believe him.  It was hard to control my crying—it always had been.  Once something set me off, I couldn’t help but throw a tantrum, as hard as I tried to control myself.  Something in my brain just went off, and I didn’t even know I was screaming and crying until I was doing it.

After a few long minutes, I finally was able to choke back the remaining sobs, with only an occasional hiccup straying from my lips.  I looked up to see that now, not only were my four “friends” staring at me in horror, but a whole crowd had gathered around, all of them with mirrored expressions of shock.

This was not how I’d wanted to start the first day of school.  Especially as Emma Hartley.  As Emmaline Lockhart, I knew nobody would have the guts to say anything mean to my face, but as Emma Hartley, I was ruined.  The only benefit about it was at least they wouldn’t know the heiress to Splash and Spray was really a graceless loser.

This was not a good start to trying to prove I could become socially acceptable on my own.  I hoped the four thieves wouldn’t blab about this to Grandmother.

I stood up, knowing there was nothing I could do about it now.  I’d just go to class and endure the rest of the day.  But one thing was for sure.  The four thieves weren’t getting away with this so easily.  Until I could confirm with Grandmother, I wasn’t buying into their story about how the roses they’d given away were fake.

Without another word to them, I walked to class, bracing myself for the ridicule to come.

The teasing began during second period history.  I heard the whispers everywhere.  She’s the new girl.  She was rolling on the grass with Marcus Lew.  The new girl had a tantrum in front of the music room.

At first, they didn’t say it to my face, and I only caught their mocking smiles and pointed eyes directed towards me as they murmured softly amongst themselves.  But by fourth period English, they didn’t bother to hide it anymore, and I was getting little notes with the words freak and weirdo and slut.  They nudged me hard as they walked past, laughing with their friends, and imitated the way I’d rocked myself as I cried on the field this morning.

So by lunch, I was ready to die.  It was bad enough to be called a crybaby, but I’d never been called a slut.  It was all because Marcus had tackled and rolled on top of me on the grass this morning.

This was all his fault.

I bought my lunch and walked to the tables, cleverly staring at the floor to make sure nobody tripped me.  I’d read too many storylines in manga about bullies tripping the protagonist, causing her to spill food all over herself.

Luckily, I spotted an empty table.  I just wanted to eat alone, and I didn’t think anyone wanted me sitting with them anyway.  As I began to eat, I heard a perky male voice announce a hello and knew it was one of the four thieves.  The voice belonged to Tony.  I gave him an icy stare, and gave the other three death glares.  At the sight of Marcus, I knew at that moment, the thing I wanted most in life was to kill him for turning me into a slut.

“Whoa,” said Tony, taking a seat, despite my deathly warnings.  “She’s definitely not happy with you, Marcus.”

“Don’t tell me you’re still mad,” Marcus said.  “I already told you we didn’t give away the real Lockhart Winter.”

I’ll be the judge of that, I thought to myself.  As soon as I talked to Grandmother after school.  But I didn’t say this out loud.  Instead, I threw him another icy glower.

“Stop doing that or your face will freeze that way,” he told me.

Nice try, but Grandmother used that one when I was little, and I had nightmares about it until Marlin secretly told me it wasn’t true.  I continued the silent treatment.

“I wish you’d just believe me,” Marcus sighed.  “Those roses weren’t the real ones.”

This isn’t just about the roses.  This was about my becoming the school’s freak and slut on the first day because of what happened this morning.  And I was angry and frustrated and I wished I had my flowers.  Then I’d be able to vent.

Although I could vent my heart out and yell at Marcus and the other three, I kept my mouth shut.  Because I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t talk to them at all, and I’d prove that I didn’t need them to be my “friends.”  I patted the garland of ice plants that was still on my head for reassurance.  I was the Ice Queen, freezing anyone who tried to get close.  People only became my friend if they were paid, so in the end, I still had to get used to being alone.

Heath regarded me closely.  “Emma, are you all right?”

Marcus snorted.  “Didn’t you see her freezing looks, Heath?  Of course she’s not all right.  She’s still mad at all of us.”

Heath ignored him and continued to watch me.  “If something’s bothering you, don’t be afraid to tell us.  That’s what we’re here for.”

That’s what you’re paid for.

I stabbed at my food—a chunk of some dry, loaf-shaped meat with ketchup on it and a side of potatoes that were far too grainy.  Grandmother might have been right in calling me a spoiled brat, at least when it came to food.  If this was what average people ate, I wondered what they fed their dogs.  It didn’t matter anyway.  I didn’t have an appetite at all, even though I’d skipped breakfast too.  Ever since Grandmother’s announcement last night, I’d just felt like throwing up.

Footsteps approached our table, and I looked up to see a gorgeous blonde girl in a cheerleading outfit and her friend, an equally gorgeous brunette in similar attire.

The blonde sidled towards Marcus, and the brunette gravitated to Heath.

“Hello Marcus,” she greeted, planting a hand on his shoulder.  She nodded to Heath.  “Heath.”  She didn’t bother acknowledging Tony or Stan.  Even though I didn’t like them either, I found it rude.  I also noticed that Heath had averted his eyes and was looking a little uncomfortable.  He tried to subtly inch himself from the brunette.

“Hey Lindsey.  Darlene,” Marcus said politely, but it sounded like he wasn’t too happy to see them either.

“How was your summer?”  Lindsey twirled her hair and batted her eyelashes at him.

“Great.”  Marcus’s one word response was meant to discourage further conversation.  But Lindsey didn’t take the hint.

“So it can’t be true can it?  There’s a rumor circulating that you were fooling around with the new girl this morning.”  Now she acknowledged me.  “Is that her?  Emma Hartley?”  She said the name with such disgust that I was a little glad it wasn’t my real name.  Well, the Hartley part, that was.

Marcus was silent for a moment, and he looked at me.  Something flashed in his eyes, but I couldn’t tell what it meant.

“You shouldn’t be starting rumors you have no business telling,” Marcus told her in a tone that was meant as a warning.  “It’s none of your business what my relationship is to this girl.  And since you’re so obviously hanging all over me, I’d like to make it very clear that you disgust me.  I’d rather make out with a poisonous snake.  There will never be anything between us.  Not after what you did to Heath.  Not now, not ever.”

Lindsey’s face scrunched up like a real spoiled brat.  Take that, Grandmother.  I’d never positioned my face to look that evil.

“I didn’t break up with him.  He broke up with me.”

But Marcus wasn’t done yet.  “Don’t give me that lame ass excuse.  We all know you were sleeping around.  And just before you go around and make Emma’s life miserable because I rejected you, let me make another thing clear.  There’s nothing between her and me.  Nothing.  And I’ll squash anyone who says otherwise.  You go spread that around the school with those gigantic, over-glossed lips of yours.”

Now it was my turn to feel my heart plummet.  He’d just confirmed that all this really was just a business transaction to him.  He’d just made it clear that he didn’t want to be my friend, and he’d beat up anyone who thought we were friends.

Not that I wanted to be friends with him either.  It was just that he wasn’t living up to his end of the bargain he’d made with Grandmother.  That deceiver.  All the more reason why I didn’t trust the whole lot of them one bit.

As Lindsey and Darlene stalk off, their expressions a mixture of pure rage and outright terror, I noticed that the whole cafeteria had gone completely silent.  They were all staring at our table, and I felt humiliated.  Marcus had created a scene, and I was now in the spotlight.  I had to get out of here.  Frantically, I stood from my seat, eager to run as far away from these four monsters as possible.

“Done with lunch already?” Marcus called after me, but when I didn’t reply, he said, “See you after school then.  Meet us in front of the library, remember.”

Marcus

 

I watched Emma leave our table and frowned.  Was it just me, or did she still seem peeved?  I had no idea what I’d done to continually deserve her icy stares.  In fact, I’d just told the biggest school gossip to tell everyone I’d beat up anyone who spread the rumor that Emma and I had a relationship going on.

I’d suspected they’d been calling her names all morning but I just hadn’t been sure since nobody dared say anything in front of me.  But Lindsey had confirmed my suspicions when she’d mentioned the rumors.  I knew she’d been the one to spread them.  She’d probably seen me on the grass with Emma this morning, assumed we had a thing, and thought it would be fun to steal me away from the new girl.  Overconfident bitch.

I smirked, thinking of how I’d thoroughly humiliated Lindsey.  Now nobody would dare mention that rumor again or call Emma a slut.  Emma should be thanking me for that, not staring at me like I was some monster she’d like to behead.

As the cafeteria began resuming their conversation and eating, Tony clapped his hands and started laughing hysterically.  “That was great, Marcus.”

“Had a lot of fun with that, didn’t you?” Stan slapped me on the back.

I waited for Heath to say something, but he didn’t.  He just continued to stare in the direction where Emma had taken off.  “Should we go after her?” he asked.  “Something doesn’t seem right.”

“I just told everyone to stop picking on her,” I said.  “If there’s still something she’s mad about, then that’s her problem, not ours.”

Heath said nothing, only sighed and after a while, he reluctantly turned his head away from where Emma had run.

When we got back to the mansion after school, a line of servants awaited us.  At the head of the line was the butler, Marlin.  He instructed the servants to take our backpacks from us.

“Miss Emma, you may go do your homework,” he said.  “The rest of you, follow me.  I’ve been instructed to show you to your new rooms.  The four of you will be staying in the west wing.”

“The four of us?” I questioned, surprised.  “Don’t you mean the three of them?”

“No, Mr. Lew.  You’re staying here too.  Mrs. Lockhart says it will be more convenient.”

“But I can’t stay here,” I protested.  “My grandparents—”

“Are staying in the east wing,” Marlin said.  “They’ve agreed to live here for the year.  As we speak, they’re enjoying a massage in the spa.”

As though on cue, I saw an elderly couple that looked an awful lot like my grandparents, walking down the stairs to the foyer, approaching us.  They were dressed in nothing but soft, luxurious velvet red robes.

Nai-nai?”  I rubbed my eyes and addressed my grandma.  “Ye-ye?”  Surely that couldn’t be my grandpa.  “Is that you?”

“Hello Bao-bao,” my grandma said, using her pet name for me.  “Welcome home from school.”

“Sorry Mr. Marlin, we got lost.”  Ye-ye glanced sheepishly at the butler.

“Please Mr. Lew, I’ve told you to drop the Mister,” Marlin said with a polite smile.  “And your rooms are just that way.  I’ll get a servant to guide you.”  As Marlin called for the nearest maid, I stared at my grandparents in disbelief.

“Are you really staying here?”

“Of course, Marcus,” said Ye-ye.  “As much as I disagreed at first, Penny wouldn’t let us refuse.”

“And Penny moved our things before we could say no,” Nai-nai added.

They didn’t look too unhappy about that.

“But what about Dad?”

“We already told him,” Nai-nai said.  “He told us to do whatever we thought was best.  And since you promised Penny you would help her granddaughter, we agreed with her that it would be more convenient if you stayed here.  But Penny also insisted we come.  She didn’t want us to get lonely.”

Marlin came back, towing a maid behind him.  “Mr. and Mrs. Lew, Annie will take you back to your chambers.”

Nai-nai and Ye-ye followed Annie and waved goodbye to us.  “Do a good job at work, Bao-bao.” Nai-nai’s happy voice echoed in the corridor.

I watched them leave, eyes bulging in bewilderment.  Stan slapped me on the back.  “Don’t question the luck, man.  Just live.”

He was right, of course.  I wasn’t going to complain about being forced to live in a mansion with all the luxuries of a king.  Although I had to admit Emma was really making us work for it.  She sort of was like the negative that cancelled out the positive.  But maybe she’d be a little better after she talked to Mrs. Lockhart and found out we weren’t lying about those roses.

Our rooms were right next to each other.  We all had separate rooms, and we toured all of them together.  Each room was equipped with a television, computer, and individual bathrooms, spa included.  The dressing room and closet were huge—at least twice as spacious as my room at home.  My T-shirts and pants took up just one sad little corner in the closet.  All of us even had our own sitting rooms, although I couldn’t imagine what we’d used them for.

After we’d finished oohing and ahhing, Marlin took us across the corridor to another room, this one with sparkling tiled floors—literally, there must have been jewels encrusted into the marble to make it glitter that blindingly—and wide bay windows that showed a view of the garden.  Next to the window was a pearly-white grand piano.

“Oh, awesome,” Stan exclaimed, practically running to the piano.  He ran his fingers over the keys, his eyes wide with fascination.  Stan loved music and had always wanted to learn how to play an instrument, but he’d never had the chance.

“Hands off,” Marlin commanded sharply.

Stan immediately came to attention.  “Sorry sir.”

Marlin made sure we were all focused on him before continuing.  Then he withdrew a pair of owlish spectacles from his front pocket and a piece of paper from his pants pocket.  “Mrs. Lockhart has instructed me to give you your assignments as Miss Emma’s teachers.”  He unfolded the paper and cleared his throat.  “Most of your lessons will take place in this very room, the Cornflower Ballroom.”

Oh, so this was a ballroom.  I’d thought they’d only existed back a hundred years ago.  Who knew people were still using them?

“Mr. Mercer.”  Marlin spoke like a no-nonsense teacher calling roll.

“Here,” Tony barked out like a soldier.  He even did a salute.

Marlin’s eyes peeked above the rim of his glasses.  He didn’t comment on the salute, although his face was full of expression, basically telling us to cut the crap.  Here I’d thought butlers were supposed to show no emotion, but Marlin seemed more opinionated than the stereotypical butler.  “We investigated your strengths and weaknesses.  From what others have told us, you like to joke around and play pranks.  Is this correct?”

“Err..uhmm…”  Tony seemed at a loss for a reply, and looked to us for an answer.  But we were just as lost, wondering if his love for stupidity and practical jokes was going to get him, or all of us, into trouble.

“Is this correct?” Marlin asked, this time putting an edge to his tone.

“Yes, sir,” Tony replied weakly, “But—”

“Very good then.  You will be in charge of Miss Emma’s lessons in humor.”

“What?”  The four of us stared at the butler, completely baffled.

But he continued, acting as though he hadn’t heard our confusion.  “These lessons will entail a number of things.  You must have observed already that Emma is far too serious.  Your job will be to lighten her up, teach her to have more fun.”

Marlin could use some tips on how to lighten up too, I thought dryly.

“Also, she often doesn’t understand when someone is joking.  Part of this is her inability to distinguish literal meanings from figurative ones.”

I thought back to last night’s dinner, when Tony had joked about being in love with Emma, and she’d believed him.  Definitely, she had a problem with figurative language, and Tony wasn’t going to have an easy time with teaching her.

“Mr. Ryder, now for your assignment.”

Stan looked nervous, and I didn’t blame him.  I was getting a little fidgety too, wondering what my assignment was.

“We’ve learned you have a talent for talking your way out of almost anything,” Marlin said.  “All the people at the foster home and Green Mart seem to like you.  Natural-born charisma isn’t something Miss Emma was born with, but she can learn how to be more likeable.  So your job is to make her more charming.  This involves teaching her how to talk, whether one to one or in a public setting, such as a public speech.  Also, she tends to say things at rather inopportune moments, so you are to teach her what is appropriate to say at the appropriate occasion.”

Now it was Heath’s turn.  But as always, Heath looked calm and collected.  “Mr. Renway, you are an artist, and from what we’ve gathered, you tend to be more sensitive to emotions.  Miss Emma has never been able to read people and tends to be insensitive to how others may feel.  Your assignment is to help her study people—their facial emotions, subtle gestures, et cetera.”  The butler eyes quickly scanned Heath from head to toe.  “Also, you seem to have more of a sense of style than your friends.”  He glanced at the rest of us, eyeing our shabby clothes distastefully.  Marlin spoke the truth.  Heath was more color-coordinated than the rest of us and wasn’t one to just put any old shirt on in the morning.  “You will see to it that Miss Emma doesn’t go out in public looking like a wild garden gnome.”

The way she usually is.  He didn’t say it, but I could hear him thinking it.

And now Marlin directed his attention to me.  I wondered how strengths would determine what job they assigned me.

“Mr. Lew, your job may very well be, in my humble opinion, the most important.  You are a confident, fearless young man, the polar opposite of Miss Emma.  Your assignment is to make her try new activities that do not involve gardening or reading manga.  You’ll also teach her martial arts.  Hopefully through martial arts, she will be able to acquire the self-confidence she severely lacks.  The gym will be at your disposal twenty-four-seven.”

As Marlin finished speaking, I felt a little relief.  My task wasn’t as bad as I’d expected.  I knew martial arts, so I could definitely teach it.  And I liked trying new things, exploring new activities.  It couldn’t be that hard to make Emma do try them too.

“Now for your schedules.”  Marlin clapped his hands, and immediately, two maids strode to his side, handing him some slips of paper.  He gave one to each of us.  It was a computer print-out of this week’s schedule.

“You all have part-time jobs.”

“The three of us work Tuesdays through Thursdays after school and on weekends at Green-Mart,” Heath said.  “And Marcus teaches tai-chi at the senior center Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings.”

“Yes,” Marlin replied, indicating he’d already known this.  “Mrs. Lockhart has come to an agreement with your manager at Green-Mart.  You are to work only on weekends from now on.  She will compensate for any monetary losses you suffer by not working on weekdays.”  He turned to me.  “You are to continue with your schedule at the senior center.  Also, I understand you have club meetings and school activities.  We’ll work around all of this.

“The general schedule now is this: you’ll have time to do homework until dinner and a little more time after dinner.  At precisely eight o’clock, you’ll start your lessons with Miss Emma.  It’s up to you if you want to combine your lessons or do them separately, but you’ll work with her from eight to ten o’clock on Mondays through Thursdays.  On some weekends, the four of you will need to take Miss Emma to public outings or social gatherings to test her on what she learned.  Any questions?”

“By social gathering, do you mean party?”  Tony’s eyes lit up as though it were Christmas morning.

“That is one type of social gathering, yes,” replied Marlin.  “But you’ll be required to attend other outings as well.  Such as visits to the grocery store and the local mall or attending fundraisers at school.  It will depend on what is going on that particular month.”

“Sweet,” Tony exclaimed, exchanging fist pumps with Stan.  Apparently, they only listened to the first part of Marlin’s response—the part about how we’d get to attend parties.

“If there are no more questions, I’ll go on to the next topic.”  Marlin waited a few seconds, looking at each of us to make sure we understood our assignments.  When we all nodded our understanding, he said, “The four of you can no longer go out looking like…like hoodlums.”  Again, he ogled our state of dress as though we smelled of skunk and rotten eggs.  “Even you, Mr. Renway,” he addressed Heath.  “You may not dress as slovenly as your friends, but you do need new clothes.”

“Sorry,” Heath said, but I didn’t know why he felt the need to apologize.  We’d all grown up with charity donations and clothes from Goodwill.  Maybe Tony, Stan, and I could tone down the hoodlum persona a bit, but none of us could afford to buy whatever rich people wore.

Marlin’s face softened a little.  “There’s no need to apologize for that, Mr. Renway.  You’ve all had to make do with donated items, and I understand those can be quite limited at times.  But while you were at school, Mrs. Lockhart instructed some of the servants to buy new clothes.  During your time here, she will not permit that…” he gestured to Stan, Tony, and me, trying to search for the right words, “whatever that look is.”  He gazed at Stan and Tony knowingly.  “The piercings and the chains have to go.”

Stan and Tony looked bummed.

“Mrs. Lockhart would rather not have to see that tattoo either,” Marlin persisted, giving them shrewd stares.  “So I’ve been instructed to take you to get them removed.  Extremely painful process, I’m told.  But tough guys like you can handle a little pain.”

“They’re not real,” Stan and Tony immediately confessed together, mutual looks of panic rising in their faces.  I wanted to laugh.

“Good to hear,” answered Marlin.  “I expect you two to wash those off by dinner.”  He was barely able to suppress a grin.  The devious man had known the tattoos were fakes all along.  “The servants are waiting in your rooms with your new clothes.  I expect you changed and ready for dinner at 6:30 sharp.  Your lessons with Miss Emma will begin next Monday, but you’ll be expected to use this week to prepare those lessons.  Oh,” he added, “I almost forgot.  The servants will also give you your new cell phones.”

The four of us gaped, and I poked at my ears, wondering if I’d heard correctly.

“Mrs. Lockhart wants to make sure she can contact you wherever you may be,” he said.  “That’s all.”

And with that, he bowed politely and made his exit, leaving us drooling at the thought of all the presents we were about to receive.

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