I could spend hours in the water. Wrinkly skin didn’t matter to me. I swam freestyle, feeling the silkiness of the water give way, as I cut it away with my cupped palms.
In the water, I could escape from my ghosts. I had power over them, power to escape. One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe. With a final kick, I touched the side of the pool and raised my head for air.
“Good work, girl.” Coach Abernathy beamed down at me. “4:38.”
I took deep breaths, trying to steady my breathing, and climbed out of the pool. Five hundred yards in 4:38 was good, but I’d done better.
“Don’t look so disappointed,” Coach said. “It’s only two seconds behind your personal best.”
“It’s not my best though,” I sighed.
“Oh, stop being a perfectionist, young lady,” Coach told me. “Remember why you started swimming all those years ago? It was to improve your lung function. So don’t stress yourself out too much or you might have an attack in the pool, and that would be a disaster.” Coach visibly shuddered at the thought. “Your mother would strip my title away as your godmother.”
Not many people could say their coach was also their godmother, but that was the case with us.
Although a decade younger, Holly Abernathy-Tang was my mom’s best friend. They’d met eight years ago, when my parents enrolled me in swimming lessons, hoping it would help me with my asthma. Holly had been my instructor.
What had been surprising was that I’d been a natural talent. Now I was captain of the girls’ swimming team, even though I was only going into my junior year.
“What do you say we call it a day?” Coach said.
I pulled myself out of the pool and dried off. “What are you doing for the rest of the day?” Coach asked. “Please don’t tell me you’re going home to study. School hasn’t even started yet.”
I shrugged. “It’s nice to get a head start. But don’t worry, I’m not that much of a nerd.” Plus, I didn’t want to go home to an empty house. My family had gone to the beach for a picnic. “I’ll probably watch Korean dramas at the library.”
Coach laughed. “You and those dramas.”
Watching dramas was one of my favorite things to do. It was a lot better than hanging out with friends who expected me to be happy all the time just because I was stereotyped as being perfect. Perfect life, perfect grades, the girl in school all girls envied and all boys wished to date, except for Bryan, of course. They didn’t know my life was far from perfect.
I showered quickly and then checked my phone for messages, which showed three missed calls from my best friend, Julie. I called her back, and her perky voice greeted me. “I’m in front of the school. Come over when you’re done.”
“But Jules,” I protested, “I told you I didn’t want to go.”
Maybe if they were watching a movie or going having a party, I wouldn’t protest as much, but they were going to Gables Park. While for them, Gables Park might be the greatest amusement park on Earth, for me, it was the one place I wasn’t allowed to have fun.
“You’re going,” she said in a no-nonsense tone. “It’s time for you to stop moping and start living again. Besides, Bryan’s coming. So get your butt over here now.” She hung up before I could protest more.
I sighed, wishing my best friend wasn’t so pushy. I loved her and all, but she honestly had no business pushing me to do something I wasn’t ready to do. And the last person I wanted to see right now was Bryan. Although I’d had a crush on him since the third grade, and we’d been friends for most of that time, things had been awkward between us recently .
I got into Julie’s car, feeling sick, as I remembered how Bryan had recoiled from me when I’d revealed my darkest, deepest secret to him just three months ago. Julie knew my secret too, but I’d never told her how Bryan had reacted.
I couldn’t bring myself to tell her now either. She was extremely happy, chatting about her amazing date with her boyfriend last night. I couldn’t be a killjoy and spoil the mood. So like always, I pasted on a smile and pretended to be interested.
We parked in the lot, rode the tram to the admissions line, and met with the rest of the group, who was already there. Besides Bryan and Carter, Julie’s boyfriend, Ange was there, along with Eddie Bates and Mindy Chen.
“What’s she doing here?” Julie glared at Ange, disgusted. I nudged her in the rib.
Julie had always harbored an intense hatred for poor Ange, although I had no idea why. Last year, Angelica Wilkes, the new girl, had been partnered up with me in biology. I’d invited her to eat lunch with Julie and me. At first, Julie and Ange had gotten along well together, but after a few weeks, Julie had gotten a little paranoid that Ange wasn’t as sweet as she seemed. She’d even claimed that she’d caught Ange making fun of me to another girl.
But Ange was so nice, I couldn’t quite believe it of her. I’d been left to conclude that Julie was just jealous that Ange might take me away from her. We’d gotten into a huge fight about it, but eventually made up, and Julie put up with Ange for my sake, although she’d never gotten over her dislike of the girl.
With one last look of spite, Julie went to join her boyfriend, leaving Ange to cling onto my arm. “I thought you said you weren’t coming,” she said. “But I’m soooo happy you did.”
Bryan walked alongside Eddie and Mindy, but I sensed him giving me a side look. We were still not on speaking terms.
The park was crowded and hot, and as we waited in line to ride the Errant Knight’s Wild Ride, the smell of body odor made me want to puke. The sound of people screaming on the ride and having the time of their lives made it worse.
“Hold my purse for a sec,” I told Ange. “I’ve gotta use the restroom.”
She gave me a concerned look. “You okay?”
“Yes, everything’s just fine.” I grinned, hoping she wouldn’t know it was fake.
Once in the restroom, I splashed water on my face. The coolness helped, but my head was aching. What was I doing here? People had died because of me. I wasn’t allowed to have fun. I should have told Julie I was sick and refused to come.
I spent awhile in the restroom, knowing it was still an hour before we got to the front of the line anyway. When I returned, the line had only moved an inch. Julie and Carter didn’t seem to mind though. They were too busy making out.
Bryan looked like he wanted to puke. “Watching them is worse than being trampled by a rhino. Someone make them stop.”
“I concur,” Eddie said. “Break it up you two.”
I had to smile at Bryan’s analogy. Back before I told him my secret, when I still believed he might like me, he’d done anything to make me laugh.
“How do you know what it’s like to be trampled on by a rhino?” Ange inquired of Bryan.
“I don’t, but at least the rhino would notice me before attacking. We’re all completely invisible to these two.”
Ange laughed, hitting him on the shoulder, a little flirtatiously, in my opinion. Why did she always do that? I frowned, shaking my head to dislodge that thought. Ange knew I liked Bryan, and I had to give her the benefit of the doubt. Even if I no longer had a shot with Bryan, Ange wouldn’t do that to me. I was just being paranoid.
“Oh, shut up,” Julie scowled at Bryan.
“Oh Jas,” Ange said, “Your mom just called.”
“What?” I dug through my purse for my phone. “Did you answer my phone? I’ve told you before not to.”
My voice must have sounded harsh because Ange’s bottom lip began to quiver. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to be helpful.”
I stopped and sighed, feeling bad that I’d made her cry. “Ange, it’s all right. There’s no harm done,” I lied. If she’d answered my phone, it meant my mom knew I wasn’t at swimming practice any longer, even though that had been my excuse for not going on a family picnic that was scheduled for today.
Mom answered the phone on the second ring. “Hi sweetie, we’re on our way home. We heard practice ended early, and we know you hate being home alone.”
Ended early? When did they hear that? “It’s all right, you really don’t need to ruin your day to come get me,” I said weakly.
“It’s not just for your sake,” Mom said. “On our way home, Meiyu wanted to stop for ice cream. So we were sitting in the ice cream parlor, and right outside the window, a guy covered in rags and dirt fainted across the street, probably from heat stroke.”
Oh no. Don’t tell me…they picked up another stray.
Gou pi! Kuso! Sheeba! A string of curse words in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean ran through my head, but I dared not say them out loud. Foreign or not, my parents’ policy was being grounded one day for every cuss word. “Why do you always have to pick up strays?” I couldn’t quite restrain my temper and forgot to whisper. Taking deep, controlled breaths, I tried to calm down. The last thing I needed was to embarrass myself in front of Bryan again.
“We couldn’t just leave him there,” Mom was saying. “And it’s not like we need to take him to the hospital when we could take care of him for free. You know these people don’t have health insurance.”
ARGHHHH! I wanted to scream in frustration. Why didn’t my parents ever learn? Hobos were not to be trusted.
“Just come home,” Mom said. “If you watch your sister without complaining, I won’t ground you for lying about the timing of your swim practice.” She hung up.
I stared at the phone, wishing I could toss it in the trash, or trample on it until it was as flat as a tortilla.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,” Ange burst out. “It must have been me. I didn’t mean to let your mom know, but I didn’t know what to say.”
“Don’t cry, Ange,” Bryan said, handing her a tissue. “I’m sure Jas isn’t mad at you. Right?”
“Of course I’m not mad at you,” I soothed. I could never be mad at Ange. She’d only been trying to help after all. “I’m mad at my parents.”
“Because they picked up a stray cat?” Bryan looked confused. “Or was it a dog?” His eyes widened, finally understanding. “Oh…” Instantly, he tensed, looking uncomfortable. Inwardly, I sighed. The awkwardness was back.
If only my parents did take in stray animals.
“That’s really nice of your parents,” Ange commented. “They must be animal lovers.”
“Sure, they’re animal lovers all right,” I muttered under my breath. I faked a smile. “Sorry guys, I have to get going.”
My only comfort was now I had an excuse to leave Gables Park. “You don’t have to give me a ride Julie. I’ll take the bus.”
“No you aren’t,” Julie said. “I’m driving you, no buts about it. There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
And in total Julie fashion, she walked off ahead, without waiting for me to object or give my consent.
Once we got in her car, she took one look at my face and said, “Oh, get over it. This isn’t the first time your parents have taken in a stray. One more year, and you won’t have to live with them anymore. Besides, that’s not the important issue right now.”
She glared at me as though I were the most oblivious person on the planet. “You think your parents are easy to take advantage of? Well girl, you inherited that from them. The problem with the Carwarners is you’re all too nice.”
I snorted. “You should see us on game night. We’re far from courteous then.”
Julie started the car and drove out of the lot before continuing. “You’re too nice to realize when you’re being manipulated. Ange flirts with Bryan whenever she can, even though she knows you like him, and you don’t call her out on it.”
“She’s just being nice,” I said. “And it’s not like I have a chance with him anyway.” I murmured this under my breath. Thoughts of that dreadful night flashed into my head. The night I’d made the big mistake of revealing my secret to him.
It had been a warm spring day, and I was at Bryan’s house, tutoring him in math, his weakest subject. He leaned over to pick up an eraser, and our hands brushed. Our eyes met, and I thought it was finally the moment. The moment I finally got my first kiss.
He’d leaned in, and just before our lips met, he’d whispered, “You’re too perfect to be real.”
The words broke the spell I was in, and I leaned back, feeling the same guilt that had burdened me for the past two years. “What’s wrong?”
My eyes fell to the ground. “I’m not perfect.”
“Of course you are,” he’d flashed me a smile that said he wasn’t buying into my false modesty. “Smart, pretty, arguably the best on the girls’ swim team. And you’re involved in every club imaginable, not to mention you’re going to be next year’s junior class vice president.” Then he frowned. “But there is one thing. I’ve noticed that you’ve been acting strange ever since we started high school two years ago. It’s like your smile doesn’t reach your eyes. If you’re too stressed out, you should just drop some of those activities.”
I’d looked at him then, fully trusting that I could tell him my secret. Because if I didn’t, he’d continue believing I was a flawless sort of angel, and that was a lie I couldn’t let him believe. And then the words came out before I could help it. “My parents let hobos live in our backyard.”
He looked surprised at the suddenness of the subject. “Um…okay. That’s great for them. Very hospitable and all. What’s it got to do with you?”
And then I’d spilled out the rest. How two years ago, one of the homeless men almost abducted me, but his attempt had been foiled because of two courageous passers-by. I told him the whole story, believing he would tell me it wasn’t my fault. Only he hadn’t.
He’d jumped up from the couch, recoiling from me, and his eyes were condemning. He hadn’t told anyone my secret, but he’d done enough, with just one condemning look. Needless to say, he hadn’t tried to kiss me again.
Julie screamed my name, making me jump back to reality. “Did you hear me?”
What had she been saying? I was certain she’d been talking about Ange, probably being paranoid that the girl was out to get us again. “Ange is nice,” I said. “Stop accusing her of things.”
Julie’s nostrils flared in exasperation. “Ange is not nice. She’s manipulative. I’ll bet she answered that phone call from your mom on purpose, and told her your practice ended early just so you’d have to go home. Then she’d have Bryan to herself. Good thing Carter’s there to keep that from happening.”
“Paranoia again, Jules,” I said, but this time I was less certain. Because I briefly recalled telling Ange that although I didn’t want to go to Gables Park, I also didn’t want to spend the day on the beach with my family, and I might just tell my mom that swimming practice ended later than it did. Then again, maybe it had been Julie I’d told.
Well, either way, one thing did leave me a little irritated. I’d told Ange plenty times before not to answer my phone when I wasn’t there, and she still did it. Even if she was trying to help, it was annoying.
“You can call it what you want, but I’m telling you the truth.” Julie’s voice was rising a bit from frustration. “Don’t get sucked up in her nice act. You always complain about those homeless guys taking advantage of your parents, but you’re the same way when it comes to Ange.”
“Ange isn’t a hobo,” I said. “She’s my friend.”
“The only difference between her and the homeless is that she dresses better,” Julie stated furiously. “Just because she acts nice and looks innocent doesn’t mean she is, just as some homeless people are truly nice despite how they might look on the outside.”
I agreed with that last part. In the past, not all the strays had turned out to be bad. Some of them had turned out to be the best people I ever knew. Like Uncle Dean. We still kept in touch to this day.
As for Ange, even though I didn’t want to suspect her, I couldn’t help but take Julie’s warning to heart. There had been instances in the past that had made me doubt Ange’s sincerity, but I’d glossed over them, wanting to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Still, I remembered all the times in the past when Ange had been the perfect friend. She’d brought over chicken soup and brownies when I was sick, and when I needed someone to help time me in the pool, she was always there with no complaint.
“Well, nobody’s perfect,” I told Julie.
Julie rolled her eyes. “I’m just warning you to be careful. Whether you take that warning to heart is your choice.”
I gave her a little side hug, knowing she had me in her best interest. “Don’t worry about me. I can fight my own battles.”
Although I had a feeling I was fighting a losing battle with my parents over the newest addition to our backyard. I shuddered, suddenly feeling cold.
I just hoped this one wouldn’t try and abduct me.