We’d taken so long at registration that Lewis and Annabelle had needed to get to work before they could take me to their friend’s restaurant to introduce me to Dean and my new job. That would have to wait until tomorrow. They’d offered to take me back to their house, but I’d declined. I told them I’d just wait for Jasmine to finish up with her swimming training, and then we could take the bus together.
Jasmine didn’t even complain or try to convince me to go home first. She was completely quiet, in a worrisome way. I figured I was right in thinking she had a crush on that Byron fellow, or whatever his name was. I’d seen the way she’d stared at him, crushed, as he comforted that girl. The guy was an idiot for not being able to recognize fake tears.
Of course, I’d had a lot of practice distinguishing fake tears from real, since Aunt Marisa was the queen of fake crying, and there had been plenty of phony girls at my school who lived to make people feel sorry for them. But even The Vicious Vagrants could tell the girl was faking it, and judging by the way people had cringed at the sight of them, I could tell Marcus and his friends didn’t have much experience with girls. So if that Byron guy couldn’t tell that Ange girl was a phony and Jasmine was genuine, he didn’t deserve her. Although I was sorry that Jasmine’s feelings were hurt, I was happy that guy didn’t realize the treasure that lay right under his nose.
It amused me how fascinating I found her. Not just because she was pleasing to the eye but because of her obvious passion for whatever she did.
I watched Jasmine from the stands overlooking the outdoor pool. At least she seemed to be feeling better now that she was in the water. She looked so happy and at home there, gliding through the water. She was only training the freshmen, but she still put her whole heart into it. Her butterfly strokes were fluid and strong, showcasing perfect form. I considered myself a proficient swimmer, having received lifeguard training, but I knew racing against Jasmine would be a close finish.
My eyes remained riveted on Jasmine until she finally emerged from the pool. “Good job girls,” the coach said, and Jasmine echoed the sentiments.
I waited outside the locker room for Jasmine to change, hoping she’d hurry. It was so hot outside, and I’d been sitting there waiting for her for two hours. It hadn’t seemed so long while I’d watched her swim, but now I was feeling it. A vending machine lay just a few feet away, so I decided some cold water would be a good idea.
I inserted the change, fished out a bottle of water and opened it. I’d just about chugged down half of it when I heard voices from right behind the machine. I peeped around to see who was there. It was that girl from earlier, Ange, and that idiot Jasmine had a crush on. They seemed to be talking about something serious. Judging by the way Ange was clasping onto the idiot’s hands, it seemed she was making a love confession.
“All right,” Jasmine said, coming behind me. “I’m ready.”
Oh shit. I turned around quickly, intending to guide Jasmine away before she could see. I didn’t know why I cared, considering it would be in my best interest if that Byron guy returned Ange’s feelings, but I also didn’t want Jasmine to be completely crushed.
“What are you doing?” She looked at our hands. In my hurry, I’d clasped her hands.
“Oh, sorry.” I let go. “Come on.”
“Hey listen,” she said. “I’ll walk with you to the bus stop, but I can’t go with you. My friend’s picking me up to watch a mov—”
The couple emerged from behind the machine. They were holding hands and didn’t seem to see us. Ange turned first, and I swore she saw us then, only she pretended not to. Instead, she tugged on Bryan so that he faced her again and planted a kiss square on the mouth.
I wished I could shield Jasmine’s eyes, but it was too late for that. She let out a gasp as though all the air had been sucked out of her.
When the two of them finally came up for air, Ange at last acknowledged that she’d seen us. I would wager my grandfather’s mansion that she’d kissed Bryan in front of Jasmine on purpose. “Oh hi Jas.” She waggled her fingers as though nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. Her other hand remained firmly clasped in Bryan’s.
Jasmine could do nothing but stare.
“I guess you’ll be the first to hear,” the oblivious Bryan beamed. “Ange and I are officially dating.”
I didn’t know how she did it, but Jasmine managed to actually smile. She had to clear her throat before speaking though, the only tell-tale sign that she wasn’t okay. “C-congratulations. Hope you’ll be happy. Sorry, I’m late for…for something.” Then she turned and fled.
Without a second glance at the new happy couple, I ran after her. She was sobbing uncontrollably at the bus stop. As I sat down next to her, some passers-by whispered and stared, giving me the evil eye, as though I was the villain for making a poor girl cry.
“I d-don’t want to talk,” she managed to say in breaking pauses. “I just want to go h-home. So either you follow me quietly, or you g-go away.”
So I didn’t say a word on our way home. As soon as she walked through the door, she tossed her backpack with all her newly checked-out textbooks onto the floor with a loud bang and ran upstairs. I knew it went against the rules to go into the house after her, but something compelled me forward anyway. Besides, it wasn’t like I was following the rules by disguising myself as a hobo in the first place.
I lay my backpack on the couch and followed the girl upstairs. Then I just stood quietly outside, hand poised to knock on the door. I knew she probably just wanted to be alone, and I didn’t want to be annoying, but I couldn’t just leave her. So I tried to think of an excuse for knocking on her door and then remembered her saying that her friend was supposed to pick her up from school before we were rudely interrupted by her crush and his new girlfriend. “Jasmine,” I finally rapped on the door. “Shouldn’t you call your friend and say you’re not hanging out?”
“Mind your own business,” she shouted.
“But your friend’s probably waiting for you.”
“You’re not supposed to be in here. Go away!”
I remained riveted to the same spot. Jasmine’s phone started ringing in the background, but she let it drift to voice mail. Probably her friend, wondering where Jasmine was. Her phone rang again.
She cussed like a sailor, in English this time. Good thing her parents weren’t around, or she’d have been grounded for at least two years.
Then to my surprise, the door flew open. Jasmine looked a mess, her eyes and nose completely red and swollen. “Take it,” she said, handing me her phone. “It’s my best friend Julie. Tell her I can’t hang out today. I can’t—” another bout of tears interrupted her, “talk to her now,” she managed to finish, before completely bawling. Then she turned around, flung herself on the bed, and wailed.
I fidgeted with the phone before answering with an unsure, “Hello?” What in the world was I supposed to tell Jasmine’s best friend? Jasmine was crying so hard, I was sure this Julie would be able to hear.
There was a pause from the other end. “Isn’t this Jasmine’s phone?”
“She’s um…unavailable at the moment,” I said. “She told me to answer.”
“And who in the world are you?” She sounded completely befuddled. “Where is she?”
“There was an incident at school,” I said. “And I happened to be there to witness it. But I wasn’t the cause of the incident,” I added very quickly. “To make it simple, we saw her crush kiss another girl.”
Silence from the other end. “And did this girl’s name happen to be Ange?”
“How did you—”
“Never mind that. Where’s Jasmine?”
“In her room crying.”
“In her—just who are you anyway, and what are you doing in her house? You can’t be one of the strays if you were at school too.”
“Oh never mind.”
She sounded frustrated that she didn’t already know all these answers, but also too impatient to wait for an explanation. “I’ll satisfy my curiosity later. Stay where you are, and I’ll be over in fifteen.”
“All right, I—“
“Oh, and one more thing.” Wow, this girl could really talk. “Tell Jas her sister’s with me. She’s feeling sick, but Jas wasn’t picking up her phone, so Annabelle called me. We were supposed to hang out, but she was really late so I thought swimming practice was going overtime and went to get Meiyu first.”
I promised to convey the message, but Julie had already hung up. Knocking lightly on the door, I walked into the room, hoping I wouldn’t get struck dead since I was breaking all kinds of house rules here. Jasmine sat up in her bed. She was a disheveled mess. “What did she say?” she croaked.
“She’s coming over, and Meiyu’s with her.”
“Julie picked her up because she’s sick, and you weren’t answering your phone.” I lifted her hand and placed the phone in it.
Jasmine groaned. “This is the worst day ever.” She collapsed back on her pillows.
“I guess I’ll go downstairs and wait for Julie,” I said. Jasmine made no reply.
Julie was a girl who knew what she wanted and did it without hesitation. She walked through the front door with such an assertive stride that at first I thought she was a thirty year-old business woman. She gripped my hand hard and gave it a confident shake. “You must be the guy on the phone.” She scrunched her brow, staring at me hard. “Have we met somewhere before?”
Oh no, I hoped she hadn’t seen my picture in the newspaper before.
“Never mind, we couldn’t have.” She shook her head, and I felt a wave of relief. “Meiyu told me your name’s Adam.”
“That’s right.” I looked around her, where Meiyu trailed behind. The poor child looked worse than her sister.
“Adam,” she groaned. “My stomach hurts.” She gagged once and ran to the downstairs bathroom.
“Does she have food poisoning?” I asked in alarm.
“She just ate too many cookies,” Julie said. “It’ll pass. How’s Jas doing?”
“Not good. All I can say is that guy’s an idiot for falling for a girl who can fake tears at the drop of a hat. Won’t feel a bit sorry for him when he finally regrets it.”
She looked at me shrewdly, and the corners of her mouth bent upwards in a tiny smile. “I still don’t know what your relationship is to Jasmine, but I do think I’m going to like you.” Then she started for the stairs. “Take care of Meiyu, will you? I’ll deal with Jasmine.”
And before I could protest, she’d already bounded up the stairs.
I looked to the bathroom, listening to the sound of Meiyu barfing. This was not good.
Julie came in without a knock, took one look at me, and sighed. “Oh honey.”
“Is Meiyu all right?”
“She’s fine,” Julie said. “She threw up at your godparents’, but she managed to hold it in my car, thank goodness. She just snuck one too many cookies during lunchtime.”
“Meiyu never has self-control when it comes to sweets,” I moaned, getting out of bed. “I’ll go check on her.”
“There’s no need,” Julie told me, pushing me back down. “That guy, Adam, said he’ll take care of her. Besides, she just needs some sleep. But you, my dear, need to tell me what happened.”
She sat on the side of my bed and swept me up in a giant hug, which only made me break into fresh tears.
“I should have listened to you a long time ago about Ange,” I said.
“Yes, you should have,” she scolded. “It’s too late now. Ange has finally revealed her true colors, and until Bryan realizes she’s not sweet and innocent like he thinks, there’s nothing you can do.”
“Hey,” I said, frowning at her. “I thought you’re supposed to be comforting me.”
“I am, but there’s no use sugar-coating the truth.” She sighed, gentling her tone. “Look Jas, I know you’ve liked Bryan Daly since the third grade, and this is tough. But if he really liked you back, he would have said so by now instead of hooking up with Ange. So maybe it’s time to let him go.”
I nodded, knowing what she said was true. It was really hard to admit I’d had nothing but an unrequited love, but that was the fact. I could see it now. “You’ll help me, right? I mean, you won’t get mad if I don’t want to hang out with you and Carter because Ange and Bryan are there.”
“Of course I won’t get mad, silly,” she said. “This is just as hard on me as it is on you. I wish I could avoid double dates with them, but with Bryan being Carter’s best friend, it’ll be tough to get out of. And as for helping you get over Bryan, there’s only one cure.”
“Fall in love with someone else.” She looked at me as though it were obvious. “Honestly girl, you’re the one who introduced me to Korean dramas.”
But Julie was the one who believed dramas were the same as real life. I narrowed my eyes, knowing she was already making me out to be a heroine in her head.
“So,” she whispered, eyes bright with excitement. “Who is this mysterious Adam? I tried to ask Meiyu in the car, but she was too sick to say much except that he’s living in your house.”
Oh, so that’s what was clicking in that devious mind of hers. “Yes, it is what you think. He’s a hobo. And I refuse to date a hobo. As my best friend, I wouldn’t expect you to be encouraging me to either.” I purposely left out that Adam confessed to having a reason for being here that had nothing to do with not having the money to support himself. It would only encourage Julie more, and she’d probably try to guess his secret the way I’d been.
“Nonsense,” she waved a hand. “There is no way that piece of hotness is a hobo.”
“Trust me, he is. He’s the stray my parents picked up the day we went to Gables Park.”
“Well maybe he has a reason for pretending to be a hobo.” Great, she was about to theorize anyway. She ticked off various theories on her hand. “He has amnesia and can’t remember he’s rich.”
“Since he remembers his name and his friend’s phone number, I’d rule that possibility out.”
“He’s hiding from bad people who want to kill him because he inherited a lot of money.”
Given that I’d come up with that theory once, I said nothing.
“Or maybe he ran away from his rich family because they’re forcing him to take over their company, and he doesn’t want to.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “You really do watch too many dramas. Why is he rich in all of your theories?”
“Oh come on Jas, you have to admit he has that prep school glow about him. He looks like he’s descended from a king, or at least a former president. Plus, it’s weird, but I keep thinking I’ve seen him somewhere before.” She scrunched her brow, seriously thinking. “It’s not coming to me now, but anyway, I’m sure there has to be a secret about him.”
Again, I said nothing, but I’d never been very good at hiding anything from Julie.
She gasped. “He does, doesn’t he? And he admitted it but won’t tell you what it is.”
How did she always do that? “I thought you were supposed to be helping me get over Bryan.”
“I am.” She grinned. “See, you stopped crying as soon as we started talking about Adam.”
“Stop right there. I’m telling you right now, there is no way I’ll ever fall for him.”
“We’ll just have to see, won’t we?” Julie’s cunning smile was just downright scary.
“I’m sorry Adam,” Meiyu whispered from under the covers. “You’re not mad, are you?”
“N-no, not at all.” Although I was feeling a little pukish myself. I’d carried Meiyu to the bathroom the second time she’d thrown up, but we hadn’t quite made it to the toilet. As a result, my shirt was ruined.
Somehow I’d managed to put Meiyu to bed after that, even as my head screamed for me to change out of my puke-infested clothes. But seeing the poor girl suffering so much, I forced away the black dots in front of my eyes and put up a brave front. “Just get some sleep,” I said. “If you need to throw up again, there’s a bag next to your bed.” I highly doubted she had anything left in her to puke out though, since all of it was now on me.
I slipped out of her room and glanced at the clock in the hall. It was about five thirty, which meant I still had some time to get cleaned up before I went to meet Toph.
Everything was quiet in Jasmine’s room. I knew Julie hadn’t left yet though. Her car was still parked in the driveway. I was about to knock on the door when it opened. Julie stepped out, wrinkling her nose at the sight of me. “Poor Meiyu.”
Poor Meiyu? She wasn’t the one with barf all over her. But I clenched my teeth and didn’t comment on it. After all, the girl was only six. “How’s Jasmine?”
“She fell asleep while we were watching a drama. Listen, Annabelle called Jas awhile ago, and seems they both have to work overtime and won’t make it home for dinner.”
And why was she telling me this? She looked at me apologetically. “I was going to stay, since Jas is scared of being home alone with the strays, but my parents are expecting me home at six. Would it be too much to ask if you stay and take care of these two?”
“I’m not supposed to be in the house,” I protested. “It’s against the rules. I’m a stray.”
“Oh yes, of course you are,” she said, with a little roll of her eyes. Was it my imagination, or did she not believe me? “If you’re worried about that, just watch them from the guest house. Anyway, I’d feel more at ease if you were here to protect them. Plus, I think Jas might be coming down with something. She was coughing.” Julie quieted a moment and peeped back into Jasmine’s room. Sure enough, I could hear her coughing in her sleep. “Maybe you can make some dinner too. Thanks Adam.”
“But I don’t know how to cook,” I said. She was already bounding down the stairs. I peered over the staircase. “And I’m supposed to meet…”
She had already gone out the front door. “…my cousin for dinner,” I finished weakly.
“Lock the door behind me,” she called back.
Sighing, I went downstairs to lock up before going into the kitchen to call Toph. As expected, he was livid, but I promised to meet him tomorrow and hung up before he could say anything else.
Then I decided to go back to the guest house for a quick shower. As I went out the backdoor, I paused. I would have to leave it unlocked in order to get back in, but was that wise since Jasmine was so paranoid of the strays? Well, what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, and besides, it would only take about ten minutes.
I walked across the lawn and saw Hal staring out through the window. I waved, and he ducked, clearly pretending not to see me. I was surprised to see him, since he was rarely ever there. Hal liked to keep to himself, and he never appeared for dinner with the Carwarners, preferring to scavenge his own food. He said he only needed a place to sleep and nothing else.
As I was about to open the front door, it swung open before me, with Hal standing in the doorway. “I thought we wasn’t s’posed to go there when the family’s not in, so what was ya doin’ there?” He glared at me like he wanted to kill me for breaking the rules.
“I was asked to be there,” I said. Although it was a half lie, I didn’t want my life to end right then and there. “The girls are sick and needed some help.”
“Hmph. Ya smells like a dead man in the desert getting pecked by greedy buzzards. Go hit the showers.” He walked back in, going into the room he and Pete shared, and slammed the door shut.
I shrugged, hoping that meant he believed me and didn’t think the Carwarners were giving me special treatment.
Showering quickly, I felt the tension leave my body along with the stench and breathed in relief. Within ten minutes, I dressed and was ready to head back to the main house. As I crossed the back garden, I wondered what I could possibly make for dinner. It was either sandwiches, canned soup, or cereal.
And then this weird feeling just appeared out of nowhere, and I shivered. It felt like someone was staring at me. I turned around, feeling more than a little creeped out. There was Hal again, watching me with angry eyes. Was he angry because the Carwarners wouldn’t have dinner ready for him tonight? But that didn’t make sense, since he never joined us. Whatever it was, I didn’t wait for him to tell me.
I raced across the lawn to get away from those scary eyes, and as soon as I was safely back in the main house, I bolted the door behind me.
“You’re breaking rule one, you know.” I yelped and whirled around, clutching my chest. Jasmine stood there looking at me, frowning in disapproval. “If I’m that scary to look at, you can go back out the way you came.”
“It’s not that, it’s…” I trailed off, looking back at the guest house, only to see that Hal was no longer in sight.
“Wait a minute, did you leave the back door open?” Her eyes grew wide, and she gasped, rushing over to the door to check the lock. “How could you have just left it open when anyone could have just walked in with my sister and me upstairs, unaware? You never—” She broke out in a fit of coughs that at first I thought would subside, but when they didn’t and she started clasping her throat, clearly struggling to get air in her lungs, I grew alarmed.
“Inhaler,” she wheezed. “Kitchen…counter.”
I rushed to the kitchen, looking for an inhaler, and saw something tiny and orange right by the phone. Grabbing it, I almost tripped as I made a mad dash back to Jasmine. Her hands were shaking as she took it from me and brought it to her mouth. In seconds, her breathing steadied, but my heart was still racing. I’d never seen anyone suffer from an asthma attack before, which I assumed this was. She let me guide her to the couch, where she weakly sat, hands still trembling from the close call.
Finally, she looked at me and said, “I’m all right now. You can unclench your fists before you draw blood.”
I looked at my hands, and sure enough, the knuckles were turning white. I relaxed my hands, feeling the effects of having my nails bite into my palms for so long. “Are you sure you don’t need to go to the hospital? Should I at least call your parents?”
“No, it’s not a big deal.”
“Not a big deal?” I was practically yelling. “You were turning blue.”
“Yeah, well it’s happened before.” She shrugged. “As long as my inhaler’s on hand, everything’s fine.”
“How often do you have attacks? Are you sure you should be swimming?” What if she had an attack when she was in the water?
“Stop sounding like a crazy overprotective mother,” she told me. “I took up swimming because it helped me control my breathing. And I don’t have attacks often. More often when I’m really stressed out. It was probably triggered by everything that happened today.”
By everything, she meant seeing her crush of eight years go off with another girl and something else, which I just remembered and was troubled by because it had been my fault. “I’m sorry I left the door unlocked. It’s just that I wanted to take a shower and be able to come back in to make you dinner. I had no idea it would bother you that much.” It was worrisome the way she had reacted…almost as though something had happened in the past to make her want the door locked at all cost.
She was completely silent for awhile, avoiding my eyes. So I thought maybe she didn’t want to see me right now. I stood up, feeling a little defeated. “I guess I’ll go now.”
I’d already stood up and was about to walk to the door when she said, “You don’t have to. I’d like you to stay. It’s…” She paused, forcing me to look at her. She looked a little afraid. “I’m scared of the strays,” she admitted in a small voice. “A couple of years ago, one of them tried to kidnap me.”
I sat back down. “I don’t like to talk about it.” She shuddered violently. “But that’s why I always lock the doors, and my parents no longer let the strays in the house if my sister and I are home by ourselves.”
All at once I felt a wave of anger directed at whoever had taken advantage of the Carwarners’ hospitality and scared an innocent young girl out of her wits. “I’m sorry Jasmine, I had no idea. I would never have left the door unlocked if I knew.”
“I know.” For the first time since I’d come to her house, she smiled at me. I mean, a genuine smile. Not one of the snarky ones she usually reserved just for me. “It’s weird. You’re a stray too, but I’m not afraid of you. In fact, I feel less scared with you around.” Her smile fell as she narrowed her eyes in that oh-so-familiar way. “But this doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop trying to uncover your secrets.”
A grin spread on my face. “I know you won’t.”