My luggage, all packed and ready to go, lay at the landlady’s feet. Her eyes pierced like two angry knives, and her mouth was one thin, displeased line.
“What’s all this?” I asked.
“Mr. Garvey,” she stated my pseudonym with barely contained civility. “You haven’t been able to pay your rent for the two months since you’ve moved in. I warned you last week that if you didn’t pay up, you’d have to leave. Since you haven’t paid yet, I saved us both time by packing your things for you. The sooner you leave, the sooner I can find a tenant who actually honors his responsibility.”
I stared at her in disbelief. Nobody except maybe Gramps had talked to me with such hostility in my life. “I told you I’d have the money by the end of the month. According to my calendar, it’s only the middle of August.”
Even in two weeks though, I knew I wouldn’t have enough to pay rent. I hadn’t known it would be so hard to pay all the bills with just minimum wage to go on. I was behind on everything—cable, Internet, rent, water, and electricity. The only thing I was up to date on was my cell phone bill, and that was only because I was still on the family plan, which Gramps had prepaid.
“I know you work at a lousy, minimum-pay fast food joint,” she sneered. “I don’t believe you can come up with the money for the last two months’ rent plus August, especially at a place of this caliber.” She made this apartment complex sound like a castle in France, for crying out loud.
She had two things wrong there. One, I just got fired from Sandwich Express today. And two, the apartments at Fountains were far from picturesque.
“Do you know who I am?” The words were out of my mouth before I could think. I
usually hated playing the rich kid card, but desperation made me do stupid things.
“And who are you?” she mocked. “If you can’t afford to pay rent, you can’t be anyone but a poor, lazy bum.”
I bit back my pride. If I told her I was really Adam Gables, the descendant of Simon Gables, I would be compromising the integrity of my project. “Listen Ms. Nolan,” I summoned the most cordial tone I could manage, despite the desire to tell the woman off. “I will get you the money by the end of the day tomorrow. Please trust me.”
“I’d be an idiot to trust you,” she spat. “You’re out for the night. If you really bring me the money tomorrow, then I’ll reconsider. Now hand me the key before I call the cops.”
Grudgingly, I turned in my key, and without a backwards glance at her, I grabbed my two suitcases and left. Damn her, I hadn’t even been able to check if she’d packed all my things. I hadn’t had much, and the apartment’s furniture was all hers, but still, it would have been nice to double check that I hadn’t left anything behind.
I couldn’t worry about it now though. If I found another job now, maybe I’d actually have enough money to get a hotel tonight. I’d have to convince my boss to pay me for the day, but it was nothing a little charm couldn’t pull off. Or I could get a job that gave tips.
A restaurant or food joint again. I sighed, thinking about how many times I’d already been fired from food places. In the past two months, I’d gone through six jobs already. Four at some food place, one at a department store, and one at Sports Depot. I’d been fired from all of them because I couldn’t kick my damned OCD habits. At Tapioca Tea Time, I’d taken too long preparing drinks because I counted to make sure the number of tapioca balls in the drink was a multiple of three. The department store had been worse. I had to refold each shirt three times before placing it on the shelf for display.
Then today, I’d been caught counting vegetables on every sandwich I made. The lettuce had been horrifying to count because it had been shredded into tiny pieces. Needless to say, I’d held up the line, and the customers weren’t happy.
By now, I’d come quite a distance from the apartments and was wandering the streets, looking for job postings in the shop windows. I looked through a window of Sprinkles and More. There was a help wanted sign, but I shuddered to think what damage I’d do here.
I’d probably give three scoops of ice cream each even though they only paid for a single scoop. The manager would be really pleased about that.
A cute little Asian girl with pigtails waved at me through the window. She was eating a mound of chocolate ice cream with a Caucasian couple. Either they were her godparents, or she was adopted. I waved back just because she was adorable. Then I sighed and continued walking to the bus stop across the street. My plan was to take a trip to the mall. Maybe I’d find something there.
I waited on the curb, fanning my hands near my face to cool off. These past two months had been the hottest in my life. I’d never had to live anywhere without air conditioning before. My ringtone went off, and I reached into my pocket, already knowing it was probably Toph checking up on me. He called three times a day, at every meal, just to see if I’d given up yet. Secretly, I thought he might miss me too, since he complained of boredom every time I talked to him.
On cue, he greeted me with a loud, whiny, “I’m bored.”
“No hello for your cousin?”
“I’m bored,” he moaned again. “How can a summer be so boring?”
“Don’t you have any friends besides me? Tom or Jake, for example?”
“Both out of the country.”
“Phil, Ryan, Mike?” I listed all the guys who ran in our circle of friends.
“Also on vacation with their families.”
“Didn’t Ryan invite us to his family’s summer house on the East Coast?” I knew I’d been invited, so Toph must have been too.
“Declined it when you did,” Toph sighed.
“Well, that was dumb,” I told him. “Just because I’m staying here doesn’t mean you have to. Why don’t you go on a trip somewhere?”
“Because I need to keep an eye on you,” he said. “Make sure you don’t cheat.”
We’d made another bet that if I survived the year, I’d give up my entire minted collection of Lord Domino. “Me, cheat? Never.” Although if I wasn’t so determined to prove I could live without Gramps’s money, I’d probably go home and take a shower. The amount of sweat I was producing couldn’t be healthy.
“Yeah, so I’m bored. I’m going over to your place.”
Panic rose to my throat. “No,” I burst out. I couldn’t have Toph know that I’d been kicked out.
“Why not?” Great, he sounded suspicious.
“Because I’m working. Not everyone can afford doing nothing the whole day, like you rich, spoiled brats.”
Beside me, a spoiled brat stomped his feet, complaining that he didn’t have the right toppings on his ice cream. When he started crying, I moved a few steps away and plugged my other ear, straining to hear what Toph was saying.
“Says the rich, spoiled brat,” he retorted. “You’re only pretending to be one of them you know. The average Joe.” He mimicked my tone, and I could picture him roll his eyes. “Just take the day off and spend it with me. I’ll give you double the amount of money you’re supposed to earn today, and it won’t factor into our bet.”
“No,” I said firmly. “I decided from day one that I’m doing this properly. A year is a year—all money I use is money I’ve earned. You’ll just have to entertain yourself.”
“You suck, and I hate you,” he bit out, sounding on the verge of a tantrum.
“All words I’ve heard before,” I said.
“Hmph.” He hung up.
He’d probably call me again later tonight to bug me some more. That was Toph, always being theatrical. I might be spoiled, but Toph was worse. He’d been one of those kids who threw tantrums in the grocery aisle when he didn’t get what he wanted. I was only eight months older, but it might as well have been eight years. But for all his immaturity, he was still a good kid at heart. Loyal and kind, and he admitted fault when he was wrong. I just hoped in a few years, he wouldn’t still be having the tantrums of an eight year-old.
Speaking of tantrums though, the kid standing next to me was throwing one. I’d begun to notice the boy’s cries when I was talking on the phone, but now, his decibel level had gone straight through the roof. His mom stood helplessly beside him, trying to appease his cries.
“You said you wanted strawberry syrup earlier,” she said desperately.
“But I changed my mind. I want chocolate now,” he screamed. “Get me chocolate.”
“It’s too late,” the mom said, looking like she wanted to cry herself. “You’ve already eaten half your ice cream.”
The kid screamed again and stomped his feet. His mother grabbed his hand, but he resisted just a little bit too strongly. As a result, he crashed into me, and knocked my cell phone out of my hand. To my utmost horror, the phone flew into the air and landed into oncoming traffic, instantly crushed by thousands of speeding wheels.
And that wasn’t even the worst of it. Before I could even feel sorry for the murdered phone, something cold and mushy struck the middle of my chest. I looked down at my shirt and discovered that the kid’s ice cream cone had slipped out of his hands and fallen on my shirt before sliding all the way down my pants and finally settling on my suede leather shoes.
In horror, I noted that the strawberry syrup was trailing down my body like blood. Blood. Trickling down my clothes and my shoes, and I couldn’t wash it off.
The mother was apologizing profusely to me, but I could hardly hear her above the roar in my own head, screaming that I needed to get cleaned up now.
“Apologize to the man, Nelson,” the mom told her kid. She tried to clean me up with some napkins, and knelt down to get the ice cream off my shoes. The brat did nothing to help as he was screaming too loud. Meanwhile, I stood frozen with my arms poised to the side, too afraid to bring them back down, for fear that they would become stained red too.
“I’m so sorry,” the mom said again. “I don’t even have the money to offer dry cleaning—“ She was interrupted when her kid let out another wail, and then she had no choice but to herd him away, especially since I still wasn’t responding.
I stared at the spots on my clothes, my breathing beginning to become erratic. The ice cream was already drying from the summer heat. Soon, the stains would be permanent. I wished I had thought to buy one of those to-go instant stain remover pens. If I ever got out of this situation, I was running to the store. Sweat poured down my face and neck. Soap, water, shower, my brain chanted. Soap, water, shower.
I stumbled onto the street, heard someone honk, and a splash of gutter water covered my front, sealing the deal. Now I smelled like street filth. Black dots formed in front of my eyes, blocking out the stains, and then I no longer saw anything.
There was an edge of mystery to his perfectly proportioned features. A finely chiseled nose that looked almost arrogant even when he was sleeping, lips that were strong and bold, silky strands of hair that were barely a tint lighter than Meiyu’s hair, and although I couldn’t see his eyes, I was envious that his eyelashes were longer than mine. He was young too, maybe a year or two older than me at most. He was quite tall—his feet dangled from the arm rest of the couch where he lay—and he had an athletic build, which I couldn’t help but notice when I’d helped change him out of that filthy shirt. For sure, he hadn’t been a pretty boy artist before becoming homeless.
If indeed, he was homeless. I still had doubts about that. He didn’t look poor or needy to me. In fact, he was wearing shoes made of suede. I was no fashion queen, but it looked to be good-quality suede, and wasn’t that expensive?
For some reason, this guy looked like he belonged on a horse in a polo match. Or in some fancy suit at a dinner party for high society snobs.
“How long’s he gonna sleep?” my six year-old sister asked. Meiyu had climbed on the back of the couch and dangled over the top to stare curiously at our guest. Her pigtails were in danger of tickling the guy’s nose. Maybe then he’d wake up from sneezing.
“I don’t know,” I answered. My parents had already examined him and said the only thing wrong with him was probably a bit of dehydration and lack of food. “Should be soon. Don’t get too close to him, Meiyu. He’s probably all covered in germs from who knows where.”
“He looks clean to me.” She leaned closer still.
My mom walked from the kitchen into the living room. “Meiyu, don’t disturb our guest please. Go get washed up for dinner.”
My sister clambered down from the sofa in obedience and scampered off to the restroom. I scowled at my mother.
“Really Jasmine, how long are you going to keep that attitude?” Mom placed her hands on her hips. “You know your father and I can’t just do nothing when we see someone in need.”
“Did you see his shoes?” I asked. “Suede. And his shirt was designer. Everything he was wearing is hen gui.” I spoke the Chinese words for super expensive for emphasis. Mom knew I meant business when I switched to foreign languages. “Or maybe he didn’t buy them after all because he stole them.”
“Or maybe some kind, rich man donated them to charity after soiling them with food,” Mom said. “You did notice the big stains on the clothes, right? Honestly Jasmine, you need to learn to give people the benefit of the doubt.”
“And you need to stop being so trusting,” I shot back. “Remember what happened not once, not twice, but three times when you gave someone the benefit of the doubt in the past? We came home to an empty house. You’ll never see your engagement ring again, and I’ll never get back that diamond necklace Grandma gave me when I was five.” The last gift she gave me before she passed away. “And last time, I got—I got—” My breaths came out in wheezes, as I felt the onset of an attack.
“Calm,” Mom said, her voice softening. She rubbed my back, and grabbed the inhaler just in case. I didn’t need it this time though. My breathing eased.
“We’ll talk about this later.”
“I want to talk about it now.” I knew I was being a brat, but I didn’t care. “They probably pawned our jewelry off to buy drugs and get high.”
“Maybe,” Mom admitted. “We’ll never know. But just because some people can’t be trusted doesn’t mean others can’t. Look at Dean.”
“One case in a million,” I muttered.
“Even so, if there’s just one person we can help save, then this is all worth it. That is one of the reasons why we decided to settle down here, you know.” She looked back at the guy on our sofa. “I wonder what his story is. He’s so young.” Her face turned to mush, and a stray tear rolled down her cheek.
It just made me angrier. My parents cared more about the homeless than about the safety of their children.
Quickly, I stood and walked towards the dining room before I exploded.
Something was tickling my nose. I rubbed at it and opened my eyes just a sliver.
A little girl staring at me. Her wide eyes were about two inches from my face. I opened my eyes fully in alarm and began to sit up. The girl finally stepped away. Her two pigtails bounced like rubber balls as she jumped in excitement. “He’s awake, he’s awake!”
Although I was incredibly confused, I also felt so refreshed, as though I’d had the best sleep in my life, something that hadn’t happened in two years. But where the hell was I? The last thing I remembered was getting soaked in ice cream and…passing out on the street.
So how’d I get from the street to this place? I looked around. It seemed like a decent home—smaller than mine, of course, but probably more spacious than average homes.
The little girl was still calling out that I was awake. She looked vaguely familiar. Oh yeah—I’d waved to her through the window of the ice cream shop.
“Mommy, Daddy, come quick.” She’d gone to the foot of the stairs now and was calling up towards the top landing. “The man woke up.” With that last call, she came running towards me again. “Hello, my name is Meiyu Carwarner. This is my house. What’s your name?”
“Oh,” she jumped up in delight. “Like the guy God told to take care of all the animals.”
It took me a second to make the connection. “Yeah, that guy.” My parents hadn’t named me after the Biblical Adam though. They’d just liked the name.
“We saw you fall down on the street,” Meiyu said. “Mommy and Daddy are doctors, so they took you to our house to make sure you’re okay.”
Oh, so that explained what I was doing here. I heard footsteps sound on the stairs and turned to see a tall woman with straight, dark hair, and her even taller husband, with hair a lighter sandy shade, coming towards me. They definitely looked like doctors in just the way they walked, straight and confident. The husband wore glasses, which glinted in the light. He smiled, and suddenly he turned into the kindest, gentlest man I’d ever seen.
“Welcome to our home,” he said. “I’m Lewis Carwarner, and this is my wife, Annabelle. And I believe you’ve met our youngest daughter, Meiyu.”
“His name’s Adam, Daddy,” Meiyu perked up.
I finally found my voice. “Meiyu told me you saw me fall on the street. Thank you for helping me. I’m sorry to have caused any inconvenience.”
“Nonsense.” The wife waved a hand through the air. “No inconvenience at all. It’s our job as doctors to help the ill. But you seem perfectly healthy. Just a little dehydrated and hungry if anything.”
On cue, my stomach grumbled a loud complaint. I hadn’t eaten anything the whole day.
“Make yourself at home,” the husband said. “We’ll warm up some dinner for you.”
Although it sounded tempting, manners told me I’d already bothered this family too much. “Oh no, that’s all right. I should be going.”
“Really, it’s no trouble, Adam,” said the lady. “At least stay the night. We’ve already brought your bags to the guest house. Whatever your story is, we’re here to help.”
“We won’t pry into your private life,” she said. “But please think of our house as a safe haven. You can stay here as long as you need to get back on your feet.”
I looked between the two of them, completely lost, until someone opened the sliding door in the back and came in. I jumped at the sight of him, wondering if the Carwarners were being burglarized.
Although dressed in clean jeans and a shirt, the man’s greasy hair came down in dreadlocks down his back, and his unshaven beard was knotted and incredibly unkempt. But the Carwarners didn’t look as alarmed at all. In fact, they seemed to know this man, since they returned his greeting.
It took my best effort not to crinkle my nose. He really looked like…like…like someone who lived on the streets. “Just wanted some water, sorry to intrude.”
He saw me and paused. “Is that the guy you’re putting in the room next to me and Hal?”
“His name’s Adam.” Meiyu ran up to Pete, unafraid. I couldn’t suppress a cringe as he took her up in his arms. She, on the other hand, let out a happy shriek, as he tossed her in the air.
“Well Adam,” Pete said, when he placed Meiyu safely on the ground again. “You’re lucky the Carwarners found you. They’ve been putting up with me for about three months now. Helped me get over one of the darkest periods of my life.”
Oh, so Pete had been homeless. I wondered how often they took in people from the street. Judging by Meiyu’s fearlessness of Pete, I’d say they’d been doing it for years. I had no idea some people could actually be that trusting of such questionable characters.
And then I repeated what Pete had said in my head. You’re lucky the Carwarners found you. As in, I was lucky. Why would he have said that? I stared hard at Pete’s beard, and smelled a horrible odor. It wasn’t coming from him though. It was radiating off me. And then a shocking revelation occurred, making my jaw drop.
The Carwarners thought I was homeless. Which I was, since I didn’t have my apartment anymore, but not really, since I was from one of the wealthiest families in the country.
I had to correct the mistake now.
“How was the job search today?” Annabelle Carwarner asked Pete.
“Not so good,” he replied with a grimace. “I think you’re right. The scruffy beard and dreadlocks gotta go.”
“I’ll give you a haircut tomorrow morning,” she said in a motherly tone. “As for jobs, I think our friend, Dean, might need some help at his restaurant. I’ll talk to him about it.”
“Excuse me, Dr. Carwarner,” I said, feeling terrible for interrupting, but I really had to correct the mistake.
“Which one?” Lewis Carwarner laughed. “We’re both doctors, you know. Just call us by our first names, and it will be less confusing.”
“Okay, well I have something to tell you.” But before I could continue, my stomach made another loud moan.
“Oh dear, how insensitive of me,” Annabelle said. “I was supposed to warm up some dinner for you. So sorry, Adam.”
“But—” I started, but she’d already rushed into the kitchen.
“Well, I’ll go get that water and let you get the boy settled in,” Pete told Lewis.
As he left for the kitchen, Lewis opened the back door and gestured for me to follow. What else could I do but obey?
Under the last of the fading sunlight, I was able to catch a glimpse of the outside of the house and was amazed to discover that the Carwarners’ backyard was fairly large for the average household owner. They had a full-sized pool and Jacuzzi, a garden filled with various flowers and cooking herbs, all neatly labeled, and behind it all, was a guest house in the style of the main house.
Like the main house, the guest house was painted all white, with windows outlined in a pastel spring green. The front porch was half hidden by some shrubs of flowering heather, giving it a sort of quaint cottage feel.
Although the Carwarners’ property was only a quarter of my grandfather’s house, it was obvious that they were pretty well off. Of course, considering both wife and husband were doctors.
The inside space was well-lit with soft lights, casting a calming effect as Lewis gave me a tour. There were two bedrooms separated by a bathroom, a small kitchen, and a living area.
The living area was nice and homey. Nowhere near as large as what I was used to, but it was comforting. On top of the chimney was a framed portrait of the family, surrounded by other pictures of whom I guessed to be other ‘visitors’ they’d had in the past. Some guy was staring, no, more like gawking, at the family portrait. He was clean-shaven, but his eyes were a little bit scary. They sort of bulged out in their sockets, and if he didn’t start blinking and stop ogling that portrait, they were in danger of falling out of his head.
“Hal,” Lewis waved a hand to get the man’s attention. “This is Adam.”
The man whirled around, saw me, and when I said hi, he bristled as though I’d just
cussed him out. “So yours the one that stole my room.” Then he stomped away to the hall, and a second later, I heard the door slam.
“Sorry about that,” Lewis apologized quickly. “Hal’s a bit upset that you’re taking over his room, and he’s being forced into Pete’s.”
Really? The guy sounded like an ungrateful bastard to me, demanding his own room when he was already being offered a place to live. If I were Lewis, I would just kick the guy out. But the nice man just kept smiling, not offended at all. He showed me to my room, which was a little roomier than the one I’d had at the apartment. It smelled like apple-scented candles, and the bed sheets looked crisp and white. My suitcase lay in a corner, propped neatly against the wall. The Carwarners were the most hospitable people I’d ever met.
And I was starting to feel horrible about misleading them. “Lewis,” I started again, “I—”
My traitorous stomach began gurgling again. “Oh, let’s go see if my wife has that spaghetti heated up, shall we?”
Miserable and guilty, I followed him back to the house. After I ate, I promised I’d speak up.
“Here you are,” Annabelle said, placing a hot plate of pasta on the coffee table. She handed me a fork. “Dig in.”
Eagerly, I dived into the plate of food. Spaghetti had never tasted so delicious. Meiyu watched me eat, her eyes wide with amazement. “You eat fast,” she commented.
I stopped, feeling a little embarrassed at having a little girl stare at me so closely as I ate. Lewis must have noticed my discomfort because he urged Meiyu upstairs. “Time for your bath.”
The little girl gave a reluctant sigh but nodded obediently. “Good night Adam.” She waved her hand in farewell. I waved back before continuing to stuff the spaghetti down my throat.
“You poor thing,” Annabelle said. “Probably haven’t had a decent meal in forever.”
Now I really felt the guilt piling on. It was time to end this charade.
“I have to tell you something,” I began again, but I was interrupted yet once more by another voice. This one was smooth and melodic, making me catch my breath. I looked up to see to whom this amazing voice belonged.
My first thought: a mermaid had just risen from the ocean, gotten her land legs, and was now standing in front of me like a goddess of the sea. The girl’s honey-tinted hair fell to about the middle of her back. It was slightly damp, adding to the just emerged from the ocean effect. Her wide eyes were the color of the silvery mercury, like the sea on a gray, rainy day. And she had the perfect body, like a model on the front cover of Sports Illustrated, swimsuit edition.
Honestly speaking, she wasn’t perfect—her nose was a little too long, and her eyes, a little too far apart. I’d dated hotter girls before. But that didn’t stop this one from looking like a fantasy character come to life.
My interest was automatically piqued. Maybe I’d stay here for awhile after all. It wouldn’t be lying to say I was homeless, since I’d been kicked out from my apartment. Besides, I didn’t want to admit defeat to Toph after just two months. Now that I thought about it, staying with the Carwarners was the perfect solution. I could try to find a job and pay them rent.
Oh, who was I kidding? My decision to stay here had nothing to do with my current situation and everything to do with the beautiful piece of eye candy standing in front of me. I stared at her, hoping I wasn’t drooling. But dear God, she was hot.
The eye candy didn’t bat an eye in my direction. “Dad, we’re almost out of soap.”
Dad? So this girl must be the eldest Carwarner daughter. And seeing as she looked like the perfect combination of her parents, I’d say she wasn’t adopted.
Lewis looked at his daughter in surprise. “Really? I thought I just bought some. Did you check the hallway closet?”
“Guess I’ll have to make a trip to the store.”
“No need,” Annabelle said. “There’s soap in the cabinet in my bathroom.”
“Thanks Mom,” she said, turning to go.
No, don’t go. I resisted the urge to grab her hand.
“Wait a moment,” Lewis held up a hand. “Stay and introduce yourself to our new guest.”
Yes, please do.
“Adam, this is Jasmine, my eldest daughter.”
Jasmine. It fit.
“So nice to meet you,” she said, making me blink. Was it just me, or had that sounded more than a little sarcastic?
“Jasmine, be nice,” her mother warned.
“I am being nice,” she said. “If I wasn’t nice, I’d have kicked him out of the house by now. And all the others too.”
Ah, I understood now. She didn’t like having strangers at her house, especially strangers who were probably usually shady. I couldn’t say I blamed her.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bed.” Without another word, she stomped upstairs, muttering something that sounded foreign.
“Jasmine Carwarner, watch your language!” Annabelle exclaimed.
“It’s not like he understands Thai anyway,” she called back.
“We apologize in advance for her behavior.” Lewis shook his head shamefully. “We’ve been robbed several times in the past, and Jasmine hasn’t gotten over it yet.”
“I understand,” I told him. As long as that girl spoke to me, I didn’t care if she cussed me out in a thousand different languages.
“Now you had something to tell us?” He and his wife glanced inquiringly in my direction.
All I could think about was their amazing daughter. And so I said, “I just wanted to thank you again for letting me stay here.”