I woke up bright and early Saturday morning, just as I had for the past two and a half years that I’d been teaching martial arts at the senior center. The class started at seven o’clock sharp. Seniors liked to do their exercise early in the morning.
As I brushed my teeth, I wondered what I should do when I saw Emma. Now that I’d had time to cool off and was no longer in an angry rage, I was feeling pretty awkward. Although everything I’d told her was true, I knew I’d probably gone a little overboard. Especially with that kiss.
After we’d come home, Emma hadn’t said a word all night, and she hadn’t even come down for dinner either. I knew it was because she didn’t want to see me. I hadn’t told anyone what had happened, and I knew she hadn’t either.
I wondered if I should apologize. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be better to ignore it. After all, I’d just proved once and for all that she couldn’t beat me up if I didn’t let her first. If I apologized, she’d just go back to disrespecting me during our lessons. But if she continued to fear me, then she’d do what I told her to do. It was the same strategy I used at school. I kept up the intimidating façade to scare everyone, so they wouldn’t bother me or my friends.
In the end, I decided to pretend nothing happened.
My grandparents were already at the breakfast table, eating omelets and toast. They usually came with me to the senior center. But I was a bit surprised to see Mrs. Lockhart sitting next to them. I wouldn’t have thought she would be up so early on a Saturday. Then again, old people had odd sleeping schedules.
“Good morning, Bao-bao,” Nai-nai greeted.
I said my good mornings to all three of them.
“Tell Katie what you’d like to eat,” said Mrs. Lockhart. “She’ll have Chef fix it up in five minutes.”
Once I’d ordered a sausage and cheese omelet with hash browns on the side, I took a seat across from my grandparents and next to Mrs. Lockhart.
“Where’s Emma?” I asked, striving for a casual tone. “She should probably get up soon, or we’ll be late.”
“She’s not going with you,” Mrs. Lockhart replied. “She’s sick.” She regarded my expression closely as she said this, as though she suspected me of getting her precious granddaughter sick.
Damn. Why did I feel like she was right to suspect me?
Pouring some orange juice for myself, I was careful to avoid her gaze, knowing I probably looked a little guilty. I had no reason to feel guilty though. True, I’d kissed the girl, but I hadn’t been sick. It wasn’t my fault.
It occurred to me that maybe Emma was faking it again, just so she could get out of playing piano for the seniors.
“Is she showing any symptoms?” I tried not to sound accusatory and casually took a sip of OJ.
“She’s coughing and breaking into cold sweat. And she has a fever. She’s been dreaming a lot and talking in her sleep. Something about being punished with a kiss.”
I choked, sputtering out OJ onto the table. Some of the juice had already been halfway down my throat, and now it burned, coming up my nostrils too.
Some servant came to pound my back until the coughing had subsided. Then he silently mopped the mess I’d made.
“Don’t drink so fast, Marcus,” Mrs. Lockhart admonished. Was it just me, or was that suspicion in her gaze? I didn’t blame her. That coughing spurt must have done it.
I wasn’t taking any more chances or asking any more questions. “I’m actually not hungry after all. Give my food to Tony. He loves sausage and hash browns.” Quickly standing from the table, I made a hasty exit.
My lesson with the seniors flew by quickly, and before I knew it, it was time for lunch. My grandparents and I stayed to eat with the seniors. I was eager for food of any sort since I hadn’t eaten anything for breakfast and had burned off a few hundred calories exercising.
Lunch consisted of pulled pork sandwiches and potato salad, and I consumed double portions greedily. After lunch, we returned to the mansion, and I spent the afternoon in my room, doing some homework and then relaxing on my bed. I read up for government, did some chemistry practice problems, and then just for fun, read a book I’d picked up from the library, called History of Human Diseases. Call me a nerd, but I found it fascinating, especially the chapter on the Black Plague. And when I read that not getting enough sleep might be a risk for cancer, I vowed that I’d get myself in bed at an earlier time, instead of staying up until two in the morning most days.
Reading about the bubonic plague was certainly better than getting stuck with another kind of plague called Emma. Of course, it sucked for her that she was sick, but surely nobody expected me to cry for her.
Sometime during the late afternoon, I heard the sound of footsteps echoing outside in the hall and knew the guys were back from work.
I popped my head into the hallway.
“Hey,” Heath said. “We heard Emma’s sick. Is she doing any better?”
I shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“You mean you haven’t asked about her?” Tony gawked. “And I thought I was the insensitive one.”
“Even I would have gone to check up on her,” Stan agreed. “It’s not like she lives across the country.”
The thought of visiting her hadn’t even occurred to me once. I stared at them, annoyed they were guilt tripping me. “We can all go now, okay? Geesh.”
I stomped after them, my mood becoming extremely foul. Just an hour ago, I’d been having such a pleasant afternoon, thinking how wonderful it was not to have to put up with Emma for one day. And now the guys had put a cloud of guilt over my head.
“Is it just me, or do I sense a huge amount of negative energy radiating from you?” Heath commented, and I threw him a dark glance.
“It’s not just you,” Stan said. “Why are you so grouchy, Marcus?”
“I think he just feels guilty for not visiting Emma, and he’s mad at us for calling him out on it,” Tony said.
“I have nothing to feel guilty about,” I denied, although Tony was right. I felt guilty about what I’d said to Emma yesterday and how I’d forced a kiss on her. And today, I’d been happy to hear that she was sick because it gave me a reason not to have to face her any time soon. What kind of guy was I? I’d turned into some heartless asshole. A bully worse than The Bulk.
Emma’s door was closed but we could hear voices from within. Mrs. Lockhart and some maid were discussing something about taking away the flowers before Emma woke up again.
And then I heard Emma scream. “Don’t touch them!”
She was soon calmed by Mrs. Lockhart’s reassuring voice that the flowers would remain where they were.
Then Emma cried out again. “I’m not a leech. I’m not a leech.” She repeated this over and over.
The words made my heart tumble. That was the word I’d called her yesterday. I remembered how she’d looked after I’d said it. Now I was feeling more ashamed than ever.
Again, I heard Mrs. Lockhart’s voice, reassuring Emma that she wasn’t a leech. And then the door opened. Betsy came bustling out with a tray of half eaten food.
“Oh, hello gentlemen,” she said. “Are you here to visit Miss Emma?”
Betsy had opened the door wide enough for us to see part of the room. Some sort of pink flower covered the room—from dresser to window curtain.
“Maybe we’ve come at a bad time,” Heath said.
“I’m afraid so,” Betsy sighed. “Miss Emma’s having one of her tantrums, and this time it’s worse than usual. Her temperature’s almost 102, which could be why.”
My jaw dropped. 102? But she’d been fine yesterday. What if I really had gotten her sick? I’d read somewhere that stress produced hormones that could weaken the immune system. “You should try some Tylenol,” I said, finally finding my voice. “Should bring the fever down. If not, call the doctor.”
“I was just about to do that,” Betsy said. “And thanks for the Tylenol suggestion.”
“We’ll come again later then,” Stan said. “But just tell her we came by and to get well soon.”
“I’ll certainly do that, Mr. Ryder.”
We decided to hit the gym before dinner, but I couldn’t concentrate on my workout. Every piece of equipment in the gym reminded me of Emma—the treadmill made me think of how she refused to walk faster than four miles per hour, the jump rope reminded me of how she tried getting away with twenty jumps after I’d told her to do fifty, and the leg press reminded me of how she readjusted the weights to twenty-five pounds every time I tried to make her press forty. Only now I wasn’t mad. I just kept thinking about what I’d said to her yesterday.
The word leech kept popping up. Her deflated expression after I’d called her that replayed over and over in my head. It was as though she’d been recalling some sort of horrible nightmare that I’d helped to trigger. I wondered if maybe she’d gotten a fever because of that specific word. It was a strange thought that didn’t seem at all possible—the two events had nothing to do with each other. But it was a thought that wouldn’t go away.
The dining room was quiet as we sat down to dinner. Mrs. Lockhart was already seated at the table. She was so lost in her own thoughts that she neither looked at us nor said one word.
Nai-nai came out of the kitchen with a steaming plate of dumplings in her hands. She was wearing an apron and was covered in flour.
Mrs. Lockhart looked up to her in surprise. “Alison, did you—”
“You can’t keep me out of the kitchen forever, Penny,” said Nai-nai. “It’s my second house. Besides, you’ve been so hospitable to our family. We can’t just keep leeching off of you without giving something back.”
I winced. There was that word again. Leech.
“Please don’t feel that way,” Mrs. Lockhart said. “It’s been nice having you for company. Without you, I’d be so lonely.”
“Even so,” Nai-nai said firmly. “I want my time in the kitchen at least twice a week. Chef Gillies can take those days off.”
“And I’ll help her,” Ye-ye added.
“If you want us to continue staying here, you’ll let us do this,” said Nai-nai.
Mrs. Lockhart hesitated a moment, then gave a resigned sigh. “Oh, all right. But only twice a week.”
“Good.” Nai-nai beamed. “Let me go fetch the other dishes. And I made some chicken noodle soup for Miss Emma.” She gestured to a maid. “Will you help me bring a bowl up to her?”
Nai-nai had cooked a feast. We had braised beef, curry chicken, and shrimp with celery stir-fry besides the dumplings. And for dessert, we had sweet almond pudding.
I enjoyed Nai-nai’s cooking, but I probably would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t noticed Mrs. Lockhart sneaking what she believed to be covert glances in my direction. It made me wonder if Emma had revealed what happened between the two of us in her dream talking.
As the servants began clearing the dishes, she leaned in my direction and whispered, “Marcus, I’d like a private word with you in my study.” Then she silently dismissed herself.
Heath overheard the exchange and lifted a questioning eyebrow. I pretended to be just as puzzled, but deep down, I knew now that she had to know. She was going to make me pay for what I’d done to Emma. I didn’t know how, since she and my grandparents were like best buddies now, but I was sure she’d make me regret my actions. I was already regretting them, in fact.
With trembling hands, I walked to her study. Mrs. Lockhart could do anything with her power and money. She could ruin my future and my friends’ futures forever. She could destroy our lives. She probably could even get away with murder.
I took a big gulp of air before knocking.
“Enter,” came the reply.
Mrs. Lockhart sat at her desk, hands folded in a praying position. Her lips were locked in one grim line, and she was frowning something fierce. I could tell she was deep in thought.
“Sit down, Marcus.”
I obeyed without hesitation, bracing myself for what was to come.
She regarded me for a long moment before saying, “I’d like to discuss Emma.”
It was over, but I wasn’t about to go down without telling my side of the story. “Mrs. Lockhart, I’m sorry about what happened yesterday, but—”
“I don’t want to know what happened yesterday or why you did whatever you did,” she cut me off.
“I’m not senile yet,” she snapped. “I know something happened, obviously. The school called informing me that all five of you were absent for your last two classes. Since none of you boys showed a record of ditching, I reasoned it was related to Emma. Whatever happened between the two of you must have happened because she provoked you to it. I don’t want to have to decide who was right and who was wrong, so I’m better off not knowing more.”
“Oh.” My heart steadied as relief poured into my veins. If she didn’t want to talk about yesterday, then what did she want to talk about?
“I want to talk about Emma’s childhood,” she said.
Childhood? I frowned. What did Emma’s childhood have to do with me?
“I know she can be a bit…of a handful, but she’s a good girl.” Mrs. Lockhart looked at her hands, folded them, unfolded them, and stood up to walk to the window. I knew she was trying to decide how to proceed with whatever she wanted to tell me.
“I want you to understand her a little better and why she acts the way she does. Tell me, did Emma ever mention her parents to you?”
“Not really,” I replied. “Did they pass away when she was very little?” I knew Emma’s father had been in a car accident, but I didn’t recall any information about her mother.
“My son was killed in an accident when Emma was just eight,” she said, hastily wiping a tear from her eye. “But Emma’s mother is still alive somewhere, probably partying the night away.”
She turned away from the window to face me. “Emma didn’t always live here. She lived with her mother until she was six.”
“I think she mentioned that briefly,” I said. “Not about living with her mother but that she came here when she was six.”
“Did she?” Mrs. Lockhart looked genuinely surprised. “She never says one word about life before she came here.”
“Were Emma’s parents divorced then?” I asked. If that was true, Emma and I had something in common. My parents hadn’t exactly gone through a divorce, but my mom had abandoned us. I knew how much it hurt.
“Not exactly,” she said. “At least not until Emma was four. You see, my son was a foolish boy. Walter met Lydia at a party and married her that same weekend.”
As the story of Emma’s parents unraveled, it was clear that their marriage had not been a happy one.
Walter Lockhart was twenty years older than Lydia Sands, but he claimed they were in love. However, after a year of marriage, Lydia’s true colors showed. She was a frivolous creature obsessed with parties and spending Walter’s money.
When she found herself pregnant with Emma, she wanted an abortion, claiming pregnancy would ruin her figure. She grew tired of Walter and wanted to leave him. He begged her to stay and to keep the baby. After buying a house for her, a house for her parents, and giving her tons of money, she agreed.
After Emma was born, Lydia stayed with Walter for four years, until she grew restless again. She and Walter often got into fights—violent fights. During one fight in particular, she hit Walter with a pan, and when he tried to defend himself, she accidently fell and bruised her eye. She ran crying to a neighbor that Walter hit her, and the neighbor took her side without getting all the information. The neighbor helped Lydia hire a lawyer, and they sued the life out of Walter.
“But she hit him,” I interrupted in outrage. “Didn’t that show on the records?”
“No, because Walter never reported it,” Mrs. Lockhart said. “He didn’t want to cause any trouble for her. Idiotic boy. And still after that incident, he wanted to stay with her, be a family.”
Walter planned to continue giving her money so she would stay. It got so bad that Mrs. Lockhart had no choice but to cut him off, or risk the whole company. Walter was forced to file for bankruptcy, and to make ends meet, he had to work as a car salesman.
“It broke my heart,” Mrs. Lockhart said sadly. “But I knew he had to go through it to finally realize what a horrible woman he’d married.”
Finally, Lydia filed for a divorce. She won custody of Emma and full child support, even though she had all of Walter’s money already, and then she moved to Europe with Emma.
“That’s horrible,” I said. “So how did you manage to get Emma back?”
“I told Walter he would lose Emma forever if he didn’t stand up to that woman. All this time, he’d been hoping Lydia would come back, and that’s why he never did anything against her. But he finally woke up and realized Lydia wasn’t coming back. We both knew Lydia cared more for herself than for Emma. She loved the party life and even when she’d been married to Walter, she’d slept around. Walter had pretended not to see back then, but he didn’t want Lydia exposing Emma to that kind of life.”
Mrs. Lockhart and Walter hired a private investigator to find Lydia. It didn’t take long for him to find her and get enough evidence to prove that Lydia was an incompetent parent. She left Emma alone in hotels, without food or water, for hours while she partied the night away. She brought men back with her and stuffed Emma in the closet while she “entertained.”
“We took the case to court and won,” said Mrs. Lockhart. “But the damage was done. Emma had closed into her own little world. Lydia said some awful things to the poor girl and traumatized her so badly that Emma wouldn’t talk to a single human for a whole year. It took a lot of work on Walter’s and my part before she even began talking to us.
“There’s one word in particular that I know Lydia called Emma.”
I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I knew what word it was.
“Leech.” Mrs. Lockhart said it with such forceful disgust that I almost drew my chair back. “I heard enough bits and pieces from Emma to know that Lydia accused her daughter of sucking all the nutrients from her body during the pregnancy and for giving her stretch marks. She told Emma that she was useless, couldn’t do anything except sit there spewing boring facts nobody wanted to hear.”
I winced. “She must hate that word. I heard her earlier, repeating to herself that she wasn’t a leech.”
“Yes.” Mrs. Lockhart nodded. “Sometimes Emma throws a tantrum. She can’t help it. If she’s stressed, scared, or angry, a tantrum results. Certain words also trigger it. One of those words is leech, most likely because it’s what Lydia called her.”
It was official. I was a completely insensitive jerk. But to my credit, I hadn’t known that Emma’s mother was such a bitch.
“You may be wondering why I’m telling you all of this,” Mrs. Lockhart said.
“A little bit, yes.”
“What happened between Walter and Lydia isn’t a secret. The whole debacle stirred up a scandal ten years ago, so you can tell your friends the whole story. I wanted to tell you specifically, so you would understand why Emma closes herself to the world. She’s scared of people, but for some reason, she’s not scared of you. Maybe because you let her knock you out twice and didn’t try to retaliate. I think it gave her some confidence, and through what I’ve seen so far, I believe I made the right decision in asking you to be her confidence coach.”
And instead of building up that confidence, I’d destroyed it by calling her a leech, among other awful things.
“How’s Emma doing now?” I swallowed a gulp of air, a little frightened to even ask the question.
“A little better now since the fever’s gone,” she replied. “At least she’s no longer having that tantrum.”
“What were those pink flowers I saw in her room?” I’d been curious about that ever since I saw her room filled with them. I knew it couldn’t just be flowers sent by well-wishers but was probably the result of one of Emma’s many strange behaviors. “Did she put them there herself?”
Before I’d found out about Emma’s horrible mother, I’d thought Emma’s behavior was mostly an act to get attention just because she was some rich, spoiled princess. But now I was beginning to realize that many of her oddities couldn’t be helped on her part, just like her tantrums.
“Yes, she picked them from the garden yesterday evening, just before the onset of the tantrum. Something or someone—” she looked at me knowingly, making me flinch just a bit, “must have triggered memories of her mother. Emma uses flowers to communicate her true feelings, if you haven’t noticed already. Those flowers you saw are pink larkspur, which represent fickleness, and fickle is exactly what Lydia is. Emma’s been screaming at the larkspur, pretending it’s her mother.” Mrs. Lockhart massaged her temples wearily and stared out the window again.
I had a feeling she wished the window were some sort of time portal, so she could go back and save that little girl from her terrible mother. I was beginning to wish the same. Emma wasn’t the spoiled girl I thought she was, and I was ridden with guilt for assuming so. I had to find a way to make things right.