I’d had to struggle not to laugh when Jasmine discovered I understood more than she thought. Although I definitely wasn’t as much of a linguist as her, English wasn’t my only language. Thanks to the family business expanding overseas to Asia, Gramps had forced me to learn conversational Japanese, Mandarin, and Korean. Not to mention, I was fluent in French and Spanish as well.
Jasmine didn’t make the mistake of cussing me out in foreign languages again.
The story I’d told the Carwarners was that my parents had passed away last year, and I’d been forced to drop out of a prestigious high school for art students after finding out they’d acquired a lot of debt. I hadn’t been forced to pay back their debts, but already being eighteen years old, I had needed to support myself, as I had no other living relatives. I’d been living with a friend until the day the Carwarners found me. That day, my friend had kicked me out because his girlfriend decided to move in, and I’d also been fired from my job, so I’d been wandering around looking for a part-time job as well as a place to live.
The story was filled with half-truths, which could explain why I owned items that the homeless didn’t usually have. For one, I had an expensive camera—a professional digital single-lens reflex camera, or DSLR for short. Having specialized in photography at my high school explained why I would have it in my possession. And two, I’d said my parents would do anything to appear rich to their friends, even dress their only son in expensive clothes, which was why all my clothes were brand names. I hadn’t had the heart to sell them, since my parents had bought them for me.
Both doctors Carwarner had accepted my story without question, promising to help me find a job. Meanwhile, I could stay with them for as long as I wanted. They even encouraged me to finish high school this coming fall, saying even if it wasn’t from a prestigious art school, a high school diploma would help me a lot.
Their eldest daughter, on the other hand, still wasn’t completely buying it. Served me right for all but confessing that I was hiding a big secret.
I had no idea why I’d challenged her to find out my secret. It was just that I hadn’t wanted her to think I really was a bum.
But now we had a game between us. When her parents weren’t within hearing distance, she’d ask me all sorts of questions. She had spun a whole lot of stories about me. One was that I was involved in white collar crime and was now a fugitive from the law.
At least she no longer completely hated me. She hadn’t exactly said we could be friends, and she still insulted me at every turn, but at least she was talking to me.
My fascination with Jasmine hadn’t faded a bit. In fact, it only grew every time I saw her. I wasn’t sure what it was about her—she constantly attacked my dignity, and she wasn’t the prettiest girl of my acquaintance—but something about her just lit up the room. She was strong and bold and highly intelligent, and she challenged me every time we talked. She wasn’t whiny or shallow like Toph. I could talk to her about anything—books, social issues, sports—and she wouldn’t just yawn and respond with a wake me up when the game’s on.
Speaking of Toph, I knew I had to call him before he started wondering why I wasn’t picking up my phone, and worse, called out a search team. It had been three days already, and I probably should have called him earlier but I’d felt so at ease with the Carwarners that I’d almost forgotten about my real family.
After dinner, I asked if I could use the phone. With the Carwarners’ permission, I took the phone and quietly stepped into the kitchen. Everyone else was in the dining room, eating and laughing over dessert, so I knew I’d have some time to myself.
Toph answered at the first ring. “What the hell is going on, Adam?”
I winced, knowing he’d probably been trying to get a hold of me the entire day. “I’m sorry. My phone got smashed.”
“Three days, Adam,” he roared. “I thought you were just ignoring me at first. So I finally went over to your place yesterday, only to find out from the landlady that she kicked you out because you didn’t pay rent.” He showed no sign of lowering the volume, and I had to distance the phone from my ear. “I wasn’t sure whether to call the cops or Gramps, knowing that you’d kill me if you were okay. But if I didn’t, you might be somewhere, dead or beaten up by gangsters, and then I would never have been able to live with myself. Do you know I sprouted three zits overnight from the stress you put me in?”
“I’m sorry, Toph, really,” I said again. “I just ran into some trouble and didn’t have time to call.”
“Didn’t have time to call,” he spat. “Not even five seconds to say, ‘Hey cousin, I’m still alive.’”
“Again, I’m really sorry. I promise I’ll never do that to you again. To make up for it, you can have my original Shadow Warrior collection.” That was another one of Simon Gables’s famous comics, in its first published form, arguably even more popular than Dark Horse.
He paused at that, and I could actually hear him thinking. “Can you throw in the Christmas special edition from 1962?”
“Like I said, you can have all of it.”
“Then you’re forgiven. Barely.” He sniffed, indicating he was still wounded, but I could hear the excitement in his voice. “So what happened? If you can’t pay rent, then where did you go?”
“I found a place that I can afford,” I said. “And starting tomorrow, I’m hoping to get a job that lasts.” The Carwarners told me their friend Dean could use another server or busboy at his restaurant. I just hoped my OCD wouldn’t find a way to affect my work this time.
“So tell me your new address,” Toph urged. “I’ll come by tonight.”
“No,” I replied hurriedly. I couldn’t have him come over to the Carwarners, or my cover would be blown. If the Carwarners found out who I really was, they wouldn’t let me live here anymore, and I really liked it here. “You can’t come over,” I repeated. “My new landlord doesn’t want me having visitors over.”
“Then what’s the point of having a bachelor pad?” he grumbled. “Fine, let’s meet somewhere tomorrow. And you said your old phone broke, right? I’ll buy you a new one.”
“No thanks,” I said. “I’ll buy a new phone when I can afford it.”
“I promise I won’t even count it as cheating on our bet,” he argued.
“It would be Gramps’ money, not yours,” I replied, remaining firm. “I told you I would survive an entire year on my own with my own money, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“Adam Milton Gregory Gables,” Toph snapped. “Just how am I s’posed to contact you when you don’t have a phone?”
He really sounded like his mom right then. I hated when people used my full name, especially the Milton. “And you don’t have to bother calling me, Christopher Frederick Warren Wagner, because I’ll call you.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
He was starting to sound whiny again, which never failed to amuse me. “I can’t meet until later tomorrow.” It was the Wednesday before school started, and the Carwarners were taking half the day off to help me get registered for school as well as introduce me to my new job. “I’ll meet you at the Sandwich Express on the corner of Bellflower at six for dinner.”
“Sandwiches?” he belted out in disbelief. “Fast food? Why?”
“Because I can’t afford to go anywhere else.”
“Afford? Afford?” He really sounded like he was about to go in epileptic shock. I’d better hang up soon.
“Bye Toph. I actually have a lot more to tell you, but I really can’t talk about it until we’re in private.” Especially since the conversation had died down in the other room, signaling that dessert was over.
“Wait, I’m not finished—”
I hung up, turned around, and jumped about two feet back as my gaze collided with Jasmine’s very suspicious one. “H-hi.” My heart pounded like a woodpecker on steroids. “What are you doing here?”
She held up a pile of dirty dishes and gave me an expression that said, duh. Then she walked over to the sink as though nothing had happened. I tried to remember if I’d said anything to Toph that might have revealed who I was. I didn’t think anything was too bad, unless she’d caught my cousin’s name. Although I’d told the Carwarners my name was Adam Garvey, if she looked up Toph on the Internet, she’d connect him to me. There was most certainly a picture of our whole family somewhere in the recesses of the cyber universe.
“Who were you talking to, and what couldn’t you say to him over the phone because you didn’t want us to overhear?”
Ohhhh crap. She’d caught the last part.
“A friend,” I replied, trying to sound cool. “The one who I used to live with. I just wanted to tell him I’m all right.”
“The one who kicked you out because his girlfriend decided to move in?” She lifted an eyebrow. “Doesn’t sound like a very nice friend to me, so why would he care if you’re dead or alive?” She turned on the water and soaped a sponge to wash the dishes.
“Because he felt bad about kicking me out.” I felt the need to defend my phony friend. “His girlfriend’s sort of a bi—witch.” I said lamely, remembering at the last minute that the Carwarners were against bad language of any kind.
Jasmine caught my slip and had to bite back a smile, but by no means did she look offended. I wondered if there was a bit of a rebel inside of her who did some wild things when her parents weren’t looking. That thought only intrigued me more. “So what do you have to discuss in private? Are you two undercover agents, trying to track down some dangerous criminals who stole a priceless painting from a museum?”
She frowned again as she saw me grin at this. “What?”
“That theory’s several levels up from the one about me being a con man selling fake art.” If she was now making me out to be the good guy instead of the bad guy, I would take it as a sign that I was finally beginning to win her over.
“Yeah well, I figured if you haven’t killed us yet, you can’t be all that bad,” she said. Then she gave me another glower. “But I still don’t trust you, and I’m still going to find out your secret no matter what it takes. Too bad I didn’t hear more of your conversation.”
I stopped smiling, wondering if she was lying or telling the truth. But she looked too innocent to trick me, so I took a breath of relief. It really seemed that I was safe from being discovered for now.
I was one step closer to finding out Adam’s big secret. I’d lied about only catching the last sentence of his conversation. I’d actually wandered in a lot earlier, but he had been too absorbed in his conversation to notice. He was meeting the guy on the phone at the Sandwich Express on Bellflower at six tomorrow, and I intended to follow him. I’d also caught part of the guy’s name—Christopher something, maybe Warner—I couldn’t quite remember. It had been such a long name, and Adam had said it too quickly.
I’d already done a Google search on Adam Garvey, but none of the search results had turned out anything. Either he’d given us a fake name, or he really was as insignificant as the average person. I just wished I remembered what that Christopher’s full name was, so I could look him up. But at least I knew when and where Adam was meeting him.
I woke up early the next morning, thinking about Adam. I’d dreamed that he was telling the truth about being forced out of a prestigious art school because his parents had passed away, and the guy on the phone really was just his friend. Maybe he was telling the truth.
I ruffled my hair in frustration. Julie was right. I did trust people too easily.
No, Jasmine, no, I told myself. Remember, he even said himself that he’s hiding his real reason for being here.
“Jasmine.” My mother’s voice carried through the hall just before she knocked. “You up yet? Time to go to school.”
“I’m up,” I called back. Today was registration day, mine as well as Adam’s. It also meant yearbook picture day. I sure hoped I didn’t mess it up like last year, when a zit the size of a mole hole had sprouted on my nose. I quickly got up to inspect my nose in the mirror. Whew. No zits today.
Today was going to be busy. After registration, I had to run to the locker room to change. Although the swimming season didn’t officially start until March, we still had daily drills to stay in shape, and I had to help out with training some of the new freshmen who had made it on the swim team, as I was the team captain. Right after that, I was hanging out with Julie, just the two of us for once. And then I had to follow Adam to where he was meeting his “friend.” I was just grateful I didn’t have to babysit Meiyu on top of it all, since my parents were only taking off half a day. My little sister would be at our godparents’ house all day. Coach had to work, but her husband was currently out of work, so he usually babysat my sister and his daughter, Evie, who was three years younger than Meiyu. My sister loved being the boss for once.
My parents dropped me off at the library, where registration was taking place, and then they took Adam to the main office to deal with his paperwork. I waved at Julie, who was manning one of the tables. She waved back, but she was too busy to come over and talk. I was supposed to be helping out with registration day, being junior class vice president, but Julie had taken my place, knowing how much I had on my plate today.
“Hey there.” I turned, heart speeding at the familiar voice. Bryan stood in line behind me, as we both waited to hand in our registration papers. “Pretty dress.”
He was making an attempt to talk to me, and it was a compliment at that. My heart raced, thinking maybe, just maybe, we could fix things between us.
I was wearing a white sundress with little white daisies imprinted all over. I figured since our picture would be black and white anyway, I might as well wear something white. “Thanks. You’re not so bad yourself.” He had on black slacks and a dress shirt with a blue striped tie. Dress code for guys on picture day.
“I hope I don’t turn out looking like an ex-convict like last year,” he said.
“Better than a Pinocchio and Rudolph mash-up,” I told him.
He grinned at that but didn’t try and contradict. It was the truth, after all.
“Hi Jas, hi Bryan.” Ange frolicked up to the end of the line to join us, a cup of coffee in one hand, and her papers in the other. She yawned sleepily. “I have to get used to getting up this early before Monday comes around. I still need to fill my papers out.” She smiled at me. “Nice dress.”
I eyed her in disbelief. “You haven’t filled your papers out? You’d better hurry, the line’s getting closer to our end.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” she let out a carefree giggle. “You know I’m a procrastinator.”
The lady who was behind the desk, checking to make sure everyone’s registration papers were complete, turned to me. “Next,” she said, and I handed her my stack.
At the same time, Ange slid past Bryan, putting herself between me and the desk. “Hope you don’t mind if I grab some desk space to fill this out.” She placed her coffee on the table beside her and glanced apologetically to the woman reading through my papers. “’S’cuse me, but would you mind if I borrowed a pen?”
The woman gave her a dirty look. “You’re supposed to have this all done by now.” But she still gave Ange the pen. Then she smiled broadly at me, as though she knew me. “You’re all set, Jasmine.”
I was a little surprised, since I’d never seen her in my life, but then again, she had seen my name on my papers, and being involved in so many school activities, it was inevitable for parents who I didn’t know to know of me. “Wait, Jasmine,” she said, before I could leave. “My daughter, Cecily, just made it to the swim team. Please take good care of her. She’s a little nervous in your presence.”
Oh, this was Cecily Dearny’s mom. “Of course, Mrs. Dearny. Cecily will be fine, don’t worry.” I returned the smile and was about to proceed to the next station, when hot liquid suddenly splashed on my legs and toes. I let out a loud yelp and jumped back. At the same time, Ange also made a sound of frustration.
“My papers!” she exclaimed.
The corner of Ange’s papers had fallen victim to coffee stains, while amazingly, Ange didn’t have a single spot of coffee on her. Apparently all that coffee had decided to attack me.
“I’m so sorry,” Bryan said, his face red with mortification. “I don’t know how it happened, but I must have knocked over Ange’s coffee.” I looked at the ground where Bryan was staring, and Ange’s now empty cup of coffee was standing at his feet.
I looked at my dress in horror. If just the bottom half had been ruined, I might have been able to take a decent picture, since that wouldn’t appear in the photo anyway. But there was one spot in the mid-region of my chest that stood out.
“Oh no,” Ange exclaimed, staring at my dress. “Your dress!”
“I’m going to the restroom,” I said. Maybe if I worked fast, I could at least wash out the majority of that one spot.
“I’ll go with you,” Ange said.
“No you aren’t,” Mrs. Dearny scowled. “You’re staying here to mop up the mess your coffee made.” She handed a box of tissue to Ange. “Someone else go help Jasmine.”
“I’ll go,” Bryan volunteered. He looked terribly sorry, and I smiled at him.
“Don’t feel so bad,” I said. “I don’t think I got burned at least.” I was lying. My legs still felt like they were on fire, but I didn’t want to make Bryan feel worse.
“I’ll pay for your dry cleaning.”
“Not necessary. I’m sure it’ll come out.”
In the restroom, I cleaned my legs with cold water. They were red, but not as bad as I’d thought. Then I soaked the coffee stain with water and scrubbed it with hand soap. After several scrubbings, it only faded a bit. It was the best I could do.
“Are you all right?” Bryan called, hesitating at the door. With a sigh, I emerged, and he winced at the sorry sight of my still-stained dress.
Seemed I was fated to have another sorry-looking yearbook photo.
“I’m so sorry,” Bryan said again. He wrinkled his brow in confusion. “But I really can’t remember touching her coffee cup at all. It was just there one minute, and gone the next.”
“Maybe that’s because you didn’t spill it.” This other voice spoke from behind me, and I whirled around. Adam flipped something that looked like a pen in his hand and offered it to me. “Try this, Jasmine.”
I took it, realizing it was an instant stain removal pen. What was he doing with a to-go stain remover of all things? Not that I was ungrateful. “How’d you know I was here?” Removing the cap, I applied the tip to the stain. Nothing came out.
“Someone in the library told me.”
Bryan eyed Adam curiously. “I haven’t seen you around. Are you new?”
Adam rudely ignored him, grabbing the pen from my hand. “Not like that, like this.” He rubbed the tip of the pen on the stain, and within a few scrubs, it miraculously faded.
He was about to move on to the splotches on the bottom half of my dress, but I grabbed the pen away. “Bryan asked you a question.”
“Oh he did?” He gazed at Bryan, raising a supercilious eyebrow.
I smacked his shoulder, knowing perfectly well he’d heard Bryan the first time. “This is Adam Garvey,” I told Bryan. “And yes he’s a new student here. Adam, this is Bryan Daly.”
“So how do you two know each other?” Bryan glanced between the two of us curiously.
“I live in her—”
“He lives in my neighborhood,” I cut Adam off, laughing nervously. I couldn’t talk to Bryan about hobos again. Not when we were on the verge of making up. “Moved in right across the street.”
I saw Adam smirk knowingly. How dare he find my stress amusing.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you,” Bryan said, sticking his hand out for a hand shake, which Adam did not reciprocate. Bryan awkwardly withdrew, pretending to fix some nonexistent crease in his shirt. “Hey, what did you mean before? When you said I didn’t spill the coffee?”
“Exactly that.” Adam shrugged. “When I got to the library, these four mean looking gangster wannabes were accusing some girl of spilling coffee on Jasmine. Claimed she blamed it on a guy named Bryan, who seems to be you, but they said they saw her tip it over. Then the girl started crying and admitted it was her fault, but it was an accident. But the four gangster guys said she did it on purpose, and everyone seems to be too scared of them to do anything. The whole library’s in an uproar.”
Bryan and I exchanged glances and groaned. “The Vicious Vagrants,” Bryan said.
Adam gave me a look. “They actually have a name?”
“Because everyone’s scared to death of them,” I explained. “Their leader, Marcus Lew, knows hardcore martial arts and beat up the school bully once. He never smiles, and it’s rumored they’re all linked to the Mafia.” Personally, I thought it was ridiculous the way everyone was so scared of them. Nobody even dared call them The Vicious Vagrants to their faces.
Personally, I was pretty sure they only pretended to be scary and mean but were really big softies at heart. When Lindsey Wade had tripped me in the cafeteria back in fifth grade, Marcus had come along, helped me clean off, and told Lindsey if she ever did that again, he’d cut off her pretty pigtails when she least suspected it. She’d never picked on me again. In fact, no one had.
Marcus and his friends meant well, but sometimes they came off a little too rough. Especially this time if they’d made Ange cry. I knew I’d promised Julie I wouldn’t be so trusting of Ange, but certainly she wouldn’t have done something so low as to purposely spill coffee on me. Would she?
No, I decided. She’d been focused on filling out her papers, and I doubted she would have purposely spilled coffee on them just to get my dress dirty.
Bryan said something to me just then, jerking me out of my daze. I asked him to repeat himself. “I said I’d better go see if Ange is all right. You’re okay here, right?”
He looked so concerned about Ange that my heart flickered with jealousy before I quelled it. I was being so selfish. Of course he should see if Ange was all right. In fact, I should see if she was all right. “I’ll go with you.”
“No you won’t,” Adam said, grabbing my arm and snatching the stain remover from me yet again. “You’re staying here. You’ve been so worried about your stupid dress that you haven’t even cleaned your legs.” True enough, my legs and feet were sticky and gross. Just how much sugar had been in Ange’s coffee?
“He’s right,” Bryan said. “You take care of yourself first. I’ll see how Ange is doing. Don’t worry, I’ll defend her from The Vicious Vagrants.”
I watched him leave, wishing I could tell him not to go.
“Stop looking like a sad puppy being abandoned by its master,” Adam said, sounding a little snappish. He had successfully managed to clear up one more patch of coffee on the edge of my waistline and was moving onto the next spot. He grabbed the cloth of my dress as though it were his enemy. “It’s not like he’s your boyfriend.”
I flashed an angry glance in his direction. “And how would you know that?”
“Because if he were, he wouldn’t be leaving you to go to some other girl,” he said. “And you wouldn’t be sighing the way you are.” Adam made a disgusted snort. “What an idiot.”
“Not you, him.”
I wrenched my dress free before he could cause serious damage. “He is not, and my relationship with him is none of your business. Now excuse me while I wipe off the rest of this mess.” I flounced into the restroom before he could say anything else.
Quickly, I wiped my legs as clean as I could get them. As for my dress, at least the top part of it looked decent enough for a picture. I’d just take it to the dry cleaners tomorrow and hope they could save the rest of it.
I stepped out the restroom only to discover Adam still waiting for me. “Why are you still here?”
“Don’t know my way back.”
I highly doubted that. I stormed in front of him, taking the lead but not sparing him a backwards glance. I peeped inside the library. All was quiet, with registration running smoothly. But Adam pointed to one of the benches outside. “They’re over there.”
Ange was sitting there, weeping her heart out, while Bryan patted her back muttering soothing words but looking just a little afraid as The Vicious Vagrants surrounded them. Marcus Lew and Stan Ryder paced the ground, looking less than pleased, while their other two friends, Heath Renway and Tony Mercer, stood quietly in the background.
At the sight of me, Marcus strode forth. Adam made a movement, as though he were about to put himself in front of me, but I stopped him. Call me crazy, but I was probably the only person at school who wasn’t afraid of the guy. Even fearless Julie refused to look him in the eye.
“She did it, Jasmine,” Marcus said. “I saw her tip the coffee on purpose and then toss the cup near Daly’s feet to make it look like he did it.” He stomped back to Ange like a cop in an interrogation room. “So tell us why you did it.”
Ange broke into sobs again. “I told you, it was an accident. And I was so scared you’d be mad at me that when Bryan took the blame, I didn’t speak up. I’m so sorry to both of you.”
I wasn’t sure I really believed her, since Marcus wouldn’t get involved unless he really had seen something, but regardless, I didn’t want to turn this into a huge deal.
“Don’t cry anymore, Ange,” I said. “It’s all right.”
Marcus stared at me incredulously. “You can’t be serious, Jasmine.”
“Marcus, could I talk to you privately?” He sulked, coming up to stand next to me. “Adam, go stand over there.”
“No way, I want to hear what he says. If that girl really did it on purpose, there’s no way I’m letting her off the hook.”
“Thank you,” Marcus said. “Finally one person who isn’t deceived by that phony nice act.” He looked at me. “I’m telling the truth you know. She did it on purpose. And she isn’t as sweet as you think. I’ve seen her hanging around Lindsey and Darlene.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you Marcus,” I said, and I did believe him. To my disappointment, I was starting to realize he and Julie were right that Ange was only acting nice. When I thought about it now, there was no way Bryan could have spilled the coffee only on me. Not with Ange between us. If he’d done it, the coffee would have spilled all over Ange and thoroughly soaked her papers. But the coffee had only caught the papers on the edge, and the rest of it had landed on me.
Besides, Bryan looked like he really believed Ange, and I didn’t want him to think I was being a drama queen, blaming a girl like Ange, who seemed so innocent and sweet.
“Let’s just let it go.”
“Jasmine,” Marcus snapped. “There’s a time to let things go, and this is not one of those times.”
“I agree,” Adam said. “If you let her off the hook, she’ll think you’re a pushover and continue doing things like this.”
I hardly heard them. My mind was too focused on how Bryan was so tenderly holding Ange. How could that girl cry so prettily?
“Jasmine,” Marcus said again. I snapped out of my daze and looked at him.
Pasting on a smile, I said, “Thanks for standing up for me. I’m sorry you’ve wasted so much time when you could be done with registration already. Let’s all get back in line.”
I walked forward, hearing Marcus mutter, “I swear I’d rather suffer the humiliation of getting beaten up by a girl than have a girlfriend as stubborn as Jasmine Carwarner.”