Toph was in danger of getting a locked jaw. He was gawking at me as though the ugliest, fattest zit the size of Texas was growing on my nose. Well, if he wasn’t going to say anything, I might as well eat. Calmly, I picked up my six inch prime rib sandwich and sunk my teeth into it.
“Put that down.” My cousin finally unfroze. “How can you eat when you’ve just told me Adam Gables, heir to Gables Park and a gigantic fortune, is masquerading as a hobo?”
“Because it’s dinner time, and I’m hungry.” I took another bite and chewed slowly just to annoy him.
“How can you live with yourself, man? Do you have no pride?” His voice was rising one decibel with every word he spoke. “Living as an average Joe was bad enough, but now you’re pretending to be an uncouth, aimless bum?”
I swallowed and scowled at him. “Not all hobos are uncouth, aimless bums. Stop being a stereotypical snob. Some of them have just fallen on hard times and don’t have the means to help themselves. That’s why the Carwarners do what they do.”
“Wow.” Toph breathed in disbelief. “These Carwarners must really be something to tempt someone a hundred times richer into playing the part of a hobo. What is it—do they have a hot daughter?”
I refused to answer that. Jasmine might be the main reason I wanted to stay with them, but there were other reasons too. But my cousin saw right through me. We had, after all, known each other all our lives.
Now Toph’s expression of disbelief had melted away into one of delight. “She must be really hot to attract your attention. You haven’t been interested in any girl for two years. What’s her name?” Finally, he took up his sandwich and took a bite, wearing a big old, floppy grin.
“Jasmine,” I finally said reluctantly. “She’s a junior at Orchid High, star of the girls’ swim team, speaks about eight languages, and she gets straight A’s.”
“I knew it,” Toph exclaimed, dropping his sandwich and pointing at me in his excitement. “She has to be hot. All girls in swimsuits are hot. I’ll bet this is the first time you got rejected.”
“What makes you think I got rejected?”
“Because no girl of that caliber would date a hobo.”
“Actually, she knows I’m not a hobo,” I said. “I didn’t tell her I’m a Gables or that I’m rich, but she knows that the real reason I’m there is to do a photography project.” I emphasized that last part for Toph’s sake, not that he’d believe me. Not that I quite believed myself either. I was supposed to be working on my project, but ever since I’d laid eyes on Jasmine, I hadn’t even touched my camera.
Toph let out a hoot and clapped his hands. “And she still rejected you? No wonder you won’t leave. Adam Gables can’t accept rejection, so he’s decided not to budge until he wins the girl over. So what’s the strategy? You have competition?”
I didn’t even know why I bothered answering, but with Toph, it was best to just be forthright, or he’d never leave it alone. “She’s had an eight year crush on a guy who never made a move, and yesterday, he and one of her best friends got together out of nowhere.” My fists clenched at the thought of Jasmine crying last night. After that horrible asthma attack, Jasmine had confessed that Ange was supposedly one of her closest friends who knew she’d liked Bryan. It was the ultimate sign of betrayal. It was too bad I couldn’t beat up girls, or I’d definitely make that phony sorry she hurt Jasmine.
“At least the competition’s out of the picture,” Toph said.
I shook my head regretfully. “Not quite. She still likes him. It was an eight year crush, after all.” And it wasn’t like Bryan betrayed her, since he’d never made a move in the first place. He probably didn’t even know Jasmine liked him. I didn’t understand how Jasmine could like someone so stupid, but she did. Even after knowing he was with Ange, I’d caught her sighing and tearing up last night as we cooked dinner.
“So what are you gonna do?” Toph inquired, looking full of advice. “I think you should make a move. In her darkest hour, she’ll turn to you.”
Since when had this conversation gone so off topic? Toph had gone from chewing me out for masquerading as a hobo to acting as a love guru. “I’ve already made it clear I’m interested in her,” I said. “But I don’t want to be one of those annoying guys who won’t give the girl any space, even knowing she doesn’t like him back. Besides, she just stopped hating me. At least that’s progress.”
“But coz, with her still being in high school, there’ll be plenty of other competition,” Toph protested. He smacked on his sandwich, forgetting all the table manners drilled into us since infancy. Scrunching up his brow, he looked quite the thinker. “From the sound of it, she’s probably one of the hottest chicks at school, and plenty of guys will be there to snatch her up. You only see her after school. You need a better plan, or you won’t stand a chance against them.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “Since when have you been worried about my dating life? You should be more worried about yours.”
“Nah, I’m content with drooling over Hot Haley.” He grinned sheepishly. “Besides, it’s so much more interesting to meddle with your love life. You’ve got to have a plan. Make her see you more, take bolder moves, or you’ll never get past the friend stage.”
“All in due time,” I said with a slight shrug. “Besides, she’ll be seeing quite a lot of me every day, especially since I’ve enrolled as a senior at her school.”
Toph dropped his sandwich back onto his plate, dislodging bits of lettuce and tomato wedges. “Y-you what?” He wobbled his head back and forth, as though trying to clear his eardrums. “Okay, now I’ve gotta see what this chick looks like. If she’s gotten you to suffer through another year of calculus tests and English term papers, she’s gotta be the hottest girl on the planet.” Then he gave me a wry look. “Then again, you’ve always been a closet nerd.” He gave another shake of his head. “No, no, even the nerdiest nerd would never voluntarily wake up at six thirty in the morning five times a week. Has to be the girl. Show me a picture.”
“No way,” I said. “You’ll just drool all over. Besides, I don’t have a picture. Haven’t picked up a camera since I went to stay at the Carwarners.” I hung my head guiltily.
“It’s the girl,” Toph confirmed with an exasperated sigh. “You have it bad, coz, if you haven’t touched your camera. What you need is accountability.” He leaned back into his seat, fishing something out of his pocket. Then he placed a black, rectangular object and some cable between us. It was a cell phone and its charger.
“It’s my old phone from last year, since you didn’t want me buying you a new one.” He glared at me accusatorily. “I’ve already had it programmed to your number.”
“I already told you—“
“Yeah, yeah, you want to buy one with your own money.” He rolled his eyes. “Consider this one on loan until you can afford one because God knows how long that’ll take. I need some way of contacting you for my peace of mind. And this way, I can bug you every day to make sure you’re working on that project of yours instead of ogling the girl all the time.” He stood up, took out his wallet, and placed several hundred dollar bills down. I opened my mouth to protest, but he cut me off. “Also a loan. With interest, if you please. Now shut the hell up and take it.” Then with a final sip of his Coke, he tossed me a wave goodbye. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” And he was out the door before I could say anything.
I watched him leave, smiling slightly. For all his frivolity, Toph still had a good heart. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed my cousin until now. Although he’d objected when I’d started this project, he still cared that I hadn’t done anything yet. He was the only one in this world who would even care to make sure I was alive. Old Gramps and Aunt Marisa never called us unless they heard we’d gotten into some sort of trouble. The only reason they cared about my OCD was because they were afraid my condition would be leaked to their friends and shame them. Toph was the only one who was concerned that my OCD actually harmed me.
As it did now. Without even realizing it, I’d organized my French fries into groups of three and was eating them in threes. Was it just me, or was I getting worse? Tomorrow, the Carwarners would be introducing me to my new job at their friend Dean’s restaurant. What if my OCD acted up again? If I got fired from a job the Carwarners had specially introduced me to, I’d never be able to face them again. I was just as ashamed of my OCD as Gramps and Aunt Marisa were. Maybe even more ashamed.
My appetite instantly disappeared, as I thought about all the horrible things that could go wrong at this new job. At least I’d finished my sandwich already.
I tried not to think about it too much. I paid the bill with one of the hundreds Toph had left, and after getting change, left to walk back to the Carwarners. It was just a five minute walk. I decided that as soon as I got back I’d start on my project. Hopefully that would take my mind off of my OCD.
As I walked along, I thought about how I would start this project. I already knew I wanted to take some digital shots first as a practice run, and when I knew what I wanted to focus on, I’d start taking film shots. My subject matter was ordinary people, so my best bet was probably to walk through town and capture images of normal people doing their everyday activities. Since I would be at school for most of the week, I could probably start with high school students. Maybe I’d even join yearbook to have an excuse.
By now, I’d reached the Carwarners’ front yard. Toph and I had ended our dinner a little earlier than I’d thought, and it was barely seven o’clock. No one was home yet, but they’d probably get back within the hour. Jasmine had another swimming training session, and after that, she’d gone to Julie’s house. Meiyu was at her godparents’ place, and today, Lewis and Annabelle weren’t working overtime, so they should be home soon.
No one was in the guest house either. Pete was probably still working at his new job as a waiter at Dean’s restaurant, and nobody ever knew when Hal would pop in or out.
I lay my suitcase on the bed, unzipped it, and frowned. My clothes were no longer folded nicely, something I would never let happen. It looked like someone had been searching through my things. Frantically, I tossed the clothes away. I was such a fool for leaving an expensive camera unguarded in front of two homeless guys. If they’d stolen my camera, I’d die of a massive stroke. My hand hit something metal, and I breathed in relief. It was still there. I inspected it for damage, but there was none, except a slight smudge on the lens. After cleaning it, I turned on the power to check the battery level. A message popped up on the screen.
No memory card.
How was that possible? But sure enough, the slot where the memory card was supposed to be inserted was empty. I checked all the little pockets in the camera case, thinking maybe I’d just misplaced it, but it wasn’t there. How strange.
Fortunately, I had another one hidden in the front pocket of my suitcase. I found it and loaded it into the camera, and it was finally ready to go.
I stared at my suitcase again. Someone had been going through it, I was sure of it. How else would it have gotten so messy? Maybe that person had stolen my memory card too.
A rap on the door sounded, and I looked up to see Lewis standing in the doorway. “Hello Adam, just wanted to let you know we’re back. Did you eat dinner yet?”
“Yes I did,” I said.
“Come over anyway.” He beamed. “Jas told us you helped her and Meiyu last night, and we’d all like to thank you.”
“It was nothing,” I told him humbly.
“Nothing? Meiyu told me she threw up all over you, and you didn’t complain at all. If you hadn’t been there, Jas would have been in huge trouble.” He shook his head regretfully. “I always tell her to keep that inhaler right next to her, but she thinks the counter’s close enough. Anyway,” his broad smile returned, “we bought a big chocolate cake to thank you.”
I couldn’t pass cake or the chance to see Jasmine again. Besides, it was getting too dark to photograph much of anything anyway. I’d just start tomorrow.
Following Lewis across the lawn, he patted my back in appreciation. “Just wanted to let you know the family’s decided to bend the rules for you. Jasmine’s always been afraid of staying home alone, and she said it was nice to have you there last night. So if my wife and I have to work late, you’re welcome to visit the main house for food or whatever you need. We trust you.”
That was certainly nice. I was about to thank him, when a hooded figure came out of nowhere, meeting us halfway across the grass. I almost grabbed the doctor in my fright until I realized it was only Hal, wearing a sweatshirt with the hood on in the middle of August.
Lewis greeted him pleasantly. “We’re just about to have dinner. Would you like to join us?”
“N-no thank you, sir.” It might have been my imagination, but he seemed a little nervous talking to the doctor. His eyes were a little off, and he held his arms across his chest, as though hiding something in that sweatshirt of his. “I’ve gots somethin’ to do.” Then his nervousness dissolved as he turned his attention to me. Now I swore he gnashed his teeth, and I almost took two steps back. “Is it true? You gonna let him in the house when the girls is by themselves? Ain’t fair.” It took me a second to realize although he was glaring at me, he was addressing Lewis, who looked a little embarrassed to have been caught playing favorites.
“Hal, it’s not that we don’t like you,” he started to explain. “It’s just that Adam’s going to attend the same school as Jasmine, and they’re closer in age, so they’ve become friends.”
“You don’t gotta explain.” With that last remark, he took off in a slight jog back towards the guest house.
“I swear I don’t understand him,” Lewis sighed. He looked at me seriously. “This is for your ears only, Adam. I’m not usually prejudiced, but that Hal worries me. I can’t kick him out since he didn’t break the rules yet, but please help me keep an extra pair of eyes on him, will you? I can’t help but think he’s not quite right in the head.”
My sentiments exactly. I promised Lewis that I would, and made a mental note to make sure I locked my door at night.