We decided to help Ms. Daphne and her crew plant trees early the next morning. I loved the work. There was something about the smell of soil and the sight of green that cleared my head and left me refreshed. I even started to hum a little tune. After patting down the soil where I’d planted the latest tree, I fondly brushed my knuckles across the leaves of the sapling, and stood. My gaze instantly collided with Marcus’s. He quickly turned his head, unwilling to admit he’d been staring, but I’d caught him nonetheless.
The humming instantly died from my lips. Every time I thought about Marcus lately, I felt gloomy. After our fight that night, when he’d accused me of only pretending to like Heath because I’d been caught sneaking around in his room, I hadn’t talked to Marcus again in a private setting. Our relationship had gone from one of easy friendship to something far too awkward to explain. We were still polite, but we hardly ever spoke on a deeper level. I missed that the most. How we used to be able to talk so easily about anything and argue knowing we didn’t really mean it.
But now all I felt was guilt if I tried to talk to him. Guilt for lying to both Heath and Marcus. Although Heath now knew he was Cantin’s grandson, I still hadn’t told him that the real reason I’d snuck into his room was to collect his DNA, not to secretly kiss him. But I didn’t have the guts to tell him. He’d only think I’d made up the fact that I liked him, and that wasn’t true. I’d had a crush on him before then. Still did. At least I thought I did. It didn’t matter anyway. Now that I was in a relationship with Heath, I couldn’t back down. Heath was too good, and I couldn’t hurt him.
And I couldn’t even begin to describe the guilt I felt whenever I looked at Marcus. He’d called me out for not liking Heath as much as I pretended and told me he would never forgive me if I broke Heath’s heart. Not only that, but I held the secret of his mother’s identity. If the truth came out for either, it might be the end of any friendship we had left. That scared me more than anything.
The thought of Marcus spurning me forever was unbearable. I averted my gaze from Marcus and focused my attention on a new potted plant. But the joy I usually felt during gardening was gone. My hands trembled as I dug a spade into the soil, and my eyes began to water.
“Emma, are you all right?”
At the sound of Heath’s concerned voice, I blinked rapidly before the tears could fall, and then pasted on a fake smile before turning to him. “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be? Planting always makes me happy.”
“Your hands are shaking,” he pointed out.
I forged an excuse. “I’m just tired.”
He watched me closely, and I wondered what he saw in my face and hoped it wasn’t guilt. Whatever it was, he kept his own expression unreadable. But he grabbed my hand and helped me up. “You need a break. Let’s go take a walk.”
We followed the trail that led to Rainbow Falls. The waterfall was one of the landmarks of this mountain. As the water fell, it acted as a prism for the sunlight, releasing beams of heavenly rainbows, hence the name Rainbow Falls. We walked towards the stream, and I shielded my eyes from the brightly glistening water. Kneeling down, Heath collected a few pebbles and began skipping them across the water. Then he looked up at me. “Emma, can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” I said, surprised he would ask that instead of the question itself. Why did people do that anyway? Ask if they could ask a question. It wasn’t like the other person would say no.
“Why haven’t you broken up with me yet?”
The question came as such a shock that I would have fallen into the river had Heath not grabbed my arm just in time. As I couldn’t think of a single word in answer, all I could do was stare blankly at him. He sighed and crouched down, taking a seat on the edge of the river, and he gestured for me to do the same.
“I know you were in my room that day searching for my DNA sample and not for a secret kiss,” he said.
He gave me a look that said I’m not an idiot. “I’ve been expecting you to come clean since the day my grandfather announced that I was his grandson.” Then he quickly shook his head. “No, that’s not quite right either,” he amended. “I’ve always known you didn’t like me the way I like you. That day you snuck into my room, I may not have known why you did it, but I made up the excuse about the secret kiss hoping to trap you into becoming my girlfriend. It made me happy that you went along with it. At first.”
I was about to finally make a protest, but he raised a finger, stopping me. “I don’t feel happy anymore, Emma. I feel angry and selfish, and I think we should break up.”
“Why?” I asked in alarm. “I thought our relationship was going well. You like me, and I like you, so what’s the problem?”
“That’s the problem,” he replied. “I’m angry at you because you’re not being honest with yourself. You don’t really like me, at least not beyond a friend.” His voice was rising slowly, although he was too caught up in his words to notice. “You only think you like me because I feel safe to you. You don’t feel challenged to step out of your comfort zone when I’m around. But I also don’t make your heart race. I know this because every time I move in for our first kiss, you move away.”
I averted my gaze, suddenly ashamed. It was true. I hadn’t let him kiss me. He’d tried a few times, but I’d always turned away. “It wasn’t the right moment,” I said, giving him the same excuse I’d given myself.
“There you go lying to yourself again.” His tone reflected pure anger now, and he wasn’t trying to hide it. “You moved away because you didn’t want to kiss me. Because I’m not Marcus.”
My eyes shot up to his face again in shock. “W-what does Marcus have to do with this?”
“Tell yourself the truth, Emma.” Heath’s voice had gentled somewhat, although I could still hear a trace of frustration. “You like Marcus.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “I don’t—” An image of Marcus saving me from The Bulk that Halloween night popped into my head, abruptly cutting off the words. I couldn’t finish that sentence, couldn’t say that I didn’t like Marcus. Because Heath wanted me to be truthful, and it was just hitting me for the first time. I did like Marcus.
I had no idea when I’d even started to like him. All I knew was Heath was right. With Heath, I felt safe, like I could retreat into the secluded world I was used to, and he wouldn’t make me come out of it because he was content in that world too. We were too similar in that way, rather burying our heads in the sand than facing the world head on.
But Marcus forced me to come into the light, drew me into the spotlight. He challenged me to do things I never would have done before I’d met him. When he was around, I had more confidence because I wanted to prove myself to him. And I liked him.
Which meant I’d been lying to Heath. I’d hurt him. My cheeks were already wet with tears. Without realizing it, I’d started crying.
“You don’t have to cry, Emma,” Heath said, handing me a tissue. “If there’s one guy I’m willing to lose you to, it’s Marcus.”
“I’m sorry, Heath,” I sobbed.
“No need to be sorry either,” he replied. “You can’t help who you like.”
We sat for awhile, trying to sort through our individual thoughts. But now there was a sort of contentment in the silence. I sensed that there was no more awkwardness between the two of us the way there had been during out dating period. In fact, I believed we were both feeling relieved. Which only proved that our romantic relationship had been a farce all along.
I wondered where Heath and Emma had run off. Not that it was any of my business. I focused my attention on the potted saplings in front of me and transferred my frustrated energy into planting trees. The work succeeded in taking my mind off any unwanted thoughts until I looked up and saw Heath and Emma emerging from the trees.
I noticed neither of them was smiling. But they weren’t frowning either. They just both looked distant, as though they were each off in their own worlds. Something seemed to be up. Had they gotten into their first fight? My first emotion was to feel smug, but I tamped it down, cursing myself for being such a jerk. I wondered what they were fighting about.
This wasn’t my business. I knew I should ignore it and let them solve their own problems, but part of me felt responsible. I kept wondering if I was the cause of their fight. Then again, I was being vain for even thinking I was at the center of their argument.
Curiosity won out in the end, and I seized the first opportunity to talk in private with Heath. He was sticking a plant into the ground and cramming dirt with the back of a spade as though he had a grudge against the earth itself.
I sauntered over to him. “What did the poor soil ever do to you except grow your food?”
He didn’t miss a beat. “If you’re gonna bull shit around, I suggest you leave. I’m not in the mood.”
Instead of leaving, I knelt beside him to help tamp down the earth around the new sapling. “What’s wrong? Did you and Emma get into a fight? You can talk to me.”
He was silent. I sighed. “Or not.”
We continued to work for a full two minutes before he finally spoke again. “We broke up.”
My head jerked up to look at his face. “W-what? Why? Did she break up with you?” If she’d broken his heart, I swore my friendship with Emma was over.
“No, I did.”
Shock raced through my brain. “But why? You like her.”
“Sometimes people are better off just being friends,” Heath said, pasting on a wistful half-smile. He went back to work, digging a new hole in the ground. “I prefer being Emma’s friend. We’re far more comfortable with each other now. So don’t worry about me, Marcus.”
I couldn’t believe it. Two emotions were warring within—the overjoyed part that said now I had a shot at Emma, and the guilty part that said what kind of friend was I to rejoice in my best friend’s break-up and even consider dating his ex. Eventually both emotions were replaced by a third. Worry. If Heath had broken up with Emma, then she must be devastated. I’d been cynical of her feelings for him when they’d first gotten together, but as the weeks passed, I’d witnessed how happy she’d been with him, and I’d started to really believe that she liked him. Which was the reason I’d been such a jealous maniac.
Poor Emma. How was she taking it, I wondered. Quickly scanning the area, I couldn’t see Emma among the rest of the volunteers. Had she gone off somewhere alone to cry?
“She went off to the river,” Heath said.
“How did you—”
“Oh please,” Heath snorted. “You’re always trying to pick her out in a crowd. I’m your best friend, so of course I noticed.”
I felt so ashamed. He knew. If he’d broken up with Emma on purpose, for my sake, I could never forgive myself. “Heath, I—”
“Stop right there, Marcus,” he demanded. “I know what you’re about to say, and I don’t want an apology. I didn’t break up with her for you.”
I blinked, startled that he’d read my mind.
“We’ve been friends for half our lives,” he said dryly. “I know how you think. You never told me you liked Emma because you knew I liked her. You let me have her because you have this weird way of thinking that I’ve been less blessed than you, therefore, you should give me whatever I want.” He shook his head wildly. “I don’t want your hand-me-downs or leftovers, Marcus.”
“That’s not what I—”
“I know it’s not, but that’s what it feels like.” He let out a humorless chuckle. “I’m not angry with you though. Because I knew what you were thinking, and I let you have that guilt trip so you’d let me have Emma. So in a way, I stole her from you. She was always yours.”
“What exactly are you saying?”
“Two things. One, you don’t need to feel guilty or think you’re stealing her from me. Because two, Emma has always liked you. Not me. In fact, I think she’s the one who’s been sneaking flowers in your locker. I almost caught her picking into your locker on Valentine’s Day, but she pretended that she’d mistaken it for mine.”
My heart pounded wildly. “She likes me? But she snuck into your room to kiss you.”
Heath shook his head. “That was the excuse I made up. Truthfully, she snuck into my room to get my DNA for my grandfather. She didn’t want to hurt my feelings, so she never said anything. I knew for awhile now, but I let her think otherwise. But I realized I was being selfish. That’s why I had to break up with her.” Now he gave a little grin, for my sake. “I don’t want a girl who isn’t into me. I have my pride too.”
I stared at my best friend, unable to say a word. My mind was in a jumble of thoughts, a clutter of mixed emotions. Where did we go from here?
“Where do we go?” Heath echoed my thoughts, and I realized I’d spoken out loud. “Where you go is straight to Emma to clarify your feelings.” He spun me in the direction of the river, and I burst into a sprint, unable to contain my excitement.
I spotted Emma immediately, sitting on the banks, staring into the rushing waters, as she looked deep in thought. I was about to call to her, when someone beat me to it.
To my surprise, my dad walked out of the brush, and he wasn’t alone. Marigold was right beside him. Emma stood and greeted them, as though they’d been planning to meet here. Something about the way Dad walked, crept really, made this scene look a bit suspicious. The fact that he kept pinching his nose was another sign. He only did that when he was nervous or trying to hide something.
The three of them still hadn’t seen me, so I inched closer, using the brush as camouflage until I was within hearing range.
“…big decision, but it’s time,” Dad was saying. “And you were right, Emma. Marcus does have the right to know.”
Know what? I’d already told Marigold it was fine for her to date Dad. Was there something else they were keeping from me? Maybe they’d already decided to get married. That would be a big decision, as Dad had said. I didn’t know how I felt if that were true.
“I’m glad you’ve finally gathered courage,” Emma told Marigold. “What changed your mind, Maggie?”
I had to suppress a huge outburst of surprise at the name Emma had just addressed Marigold. Maggie was my mother’s name. Why would she have called Marigold by my mother’s name?
“I had a nice conversation with Marcus last night,” whoever this woman was said. “And I felt like a real mother again. I realized I’ve missed fifteen years of watching my son grow up, and I can’t afford to miss anymore by being a coward.”
Son? Fifteen years? My gaze honed in on the woman’s face, and then I saw it. How could I not have noticed before? That face was in the photo album Nai-nai kept of my baby years. Just a decade older. Not only that, her nose, her mouth, her chin…I saw them every day when I looked into the mirror at my own reflection. Marigold Banks was Maggie Lew. My mother.
My hands shook, but I did nothing to alert them that I was there. I wanted to listen to the rest of this. To find out Emma’s involvement in this. How could she have known and not told me?
“What do you want me to do to help you?” the girl of my shattered dreams asked.
My mother handed Emma a pink flower.
“A pink carnation,” Emma said. “Symbolizes motherhood.”
“I want you to sneak this into his locker for me one last time,” my mother said, sending me another jolt. So those flowers in my locker hadn’t been from a secret admirer. All along, Emma had been helping my mother deliver them to me. This had to be some sort of sick joke.
“We’ll attach a note.” This came from Dad. “Marcus thinks these flowers came from a secret admirer, so we’ll tell him to meet her at Ms. Daphne’s nursery. But instead of any potential love interest, I’ll be there with Maggie to tell him the truth.”
I couldn’t stand to hear anymore. Here they were, plotting this deception behind my back, as they apparently had been for God knew how long, without any thought to how I might feel being manipulated like this.
“There’s no need for that crap.” I finally revealed myself from the brush, angrily striding towards them. They could sense my fury because they all took a few steps backwards. I was glad to witness that reaction.
“How long were you standing there, son?” Dad asked.
“Oh, so you still remember I’m your son,” I shouted. “Because a moment ago, you were conspiring against me.”
“Don’t take that tone with me,” he snapped right back. “And we were not conspiring against you.”
“Not conspiring?” I yelled, not caring if the entire forest could hear me. “Then what do you call keeping secrets from me, messing with my feelings, and tricking me into seeing some woman who claims to be my mother?”
I could see my mom visibly quake as I said that, but I felt no remorse.
“Have some respect,” Dad shouted. “She is your mother, as you know, since you’ve eavesdropped on our entire conversation.”
“She’s the woman who gave me half of my chromosomes, yes, but she’s not my
mother.” I knew I was being ruthless, but I couldn’t stop. “No real mother would abandon her family for fifteen years and leave them half a million bucks in debt.”
“Marcus, you’re going overboard.” Emma stood in front of my mom like a bodyguard, gazing at me furiously. “Maggie’s sorry, and if you’d just hear her out—”
“And you,” I wagged my finger in her face. “Since when have you been on a first-name basis with my so-called mother? I thought we were friends. How could you have kept this from me?”
To my satisfaction, her mouth snapped shut. I thought out of the three, Emma had hurt me the most by her silence. Not only that, she’d snuck those flowers in my locker, knowing I’d believed them to be from a secret admirer. How I’d hoped they’d been from her.
The truth of it sunk in deep at that instant. Until now, I hadn’t realized it, but I’d secretly wished she’d been the one sending me flowers. And I hadn’t wanted to discover the real identity of that person was because I’d wanted to continue believing it was Emma.
And now that I knew it was her, only she’d been doing it for my mom’s sake, was the worst sort of truth. Even worse than finding out Marigold Banks was my mom. If Emma hadn’t known about my mom all this time, I might have even been able to talk to my parents like a civilized person.
But knowing she didn’t really like me, as Heath had said, made me feel like the biggest idiot ever. Not to mention, my entire body was in pain, as though I’d been beaten with a bludgeon over and over.
I had to get out of here. I couldn’t see any of their faces for one more second. So I turned around and ran, without one backwards glance.
My heart broke for Marcus, but I couldn’t follow him. He was angry with me, and I sensed he was even more disappointed at me than his parents.
“Marcus,” Maggie cried after him.
“Let him go,” his dad sighed. “He needs some time.”
The volunteers were just about done with planting for the day. I scanned the area for any sign of Marcus, but he was nowhere to be seen. But Heath was there, looking at me curiously.
“So what happened?” he asked, coming up to me. “Did you talk to Marcus?”
“He ran away somewhere.” I gazed at Heath sadly. Bit by bit, I told Heath all about how I’d been the one to stumble into Maggie Lew, how she’d begged me not to tell her family where she was hiding, and finally how her husband and Marcus had just discovered the truth.
“Great timing,” Heath groaned. “He was finally about to confess too.”
“Confess what?” I asked, but didn’t really care to know the answer. All I could think of was the way Marcus had looked at me when he’d found out I’d hidden his mom’s secret from him—disappointed, betrayed. “He hates me.”
“No, he doesn’t.” Heath patted my shoulder comfortingly.
“D-did you hate me? When you found out I’d been talking to your grandfather behind your back?”
“I’m talking to you now, aren’t I?” Heath’s lips tilted in a tiny smile. “I’ll admit I was upset you kept it from me, but I understood why you did. It wasn’t your secret to tell. Just like you were obligated to keep Mrs. Lew’s secret because she asked it of you.”
“Why can’t Marcus see that then?” A betraying tear leaked from my eye, and I wiped it hastily.
“He will,” Heath said. “But I know how Marcus works. He likes having the upper hand and hates losing that control. When he doesn’t know what to do, like now, he goes a little crazy. Once he figures it out, he’ll be back.”
“What do I do?” I gazed at Heath with watery eyes, begging him to tell me.
“Just be Emma.”