The November air was bitingly chilly, but the water was warm. I submerged myself once more, charging towards the other side of the pool, then swimming back to the start, only to repeat the cycle several more times. When I finally lifted my head from the water, Coach applauded. “4: 36. Good job.”
Still hadn’t beaten the school record. My disappointment must have shown because Coach sighed, kneeling by the side of the pool. “Even I’m not that hard on you.”
I smiled, lifting the goggles off my eyes and fitting them on top of my head. “I know, it’s just that it would be so nice to beat that record.”
“You will,” she said. “I have full confidence in you. Now hit the showers and get warm. Long exposure to cold air isn’t good for your asthma, you know.”
It was the most dreadful thing to get out of the warm water and into the mid-November cold. The freezing winds quickly turned the once warm water on my skin icy cold as I hurried to the locker room. But within seconds, the hot water from the shower once again brought my frozen toes back to life.
I didn’t expect anyone to still be at school this late, so I was surprised to see Bryan standing outside the locker room. I looked over both shoulders, but no one else was there, so I had to assume Bryan was waiting for me.
“Jas, you’re finally out.” He seemed relieved, as though he’d been waiting for me for hours. It was likely, considering he had no after school activities and left right after the last bell rang. “You think we can talk?”
“We’ll have to walk at the same time,” I said. “And only to the parking lot. I’m late picking up my sister.”
“That’s fine,” he said absentmindedly. I could tell something bothersome was on his mind and cast an inward sigh, knowing he was going to use me as a free therapist. He’d always come to me with his problems in the past, only back then, I’d been thrilled to help him if it meant spending time with him. Now it just hurt to know that he only saw me as a way to vent out his frustration.
“What’s wrong? Getting a C in math again? Parents getting on your back?”
“No, they’ve accepted that a C is my best work,” he said. “It’s got nothing to do with them. It’s Ange. I don’t think she likes me as much as I like her.”
No, I wanted to scream. Advising him about his love life with Ange would be the equivalent to being pressed down on a bed of nails. But I masked my emotions and managed to bite out, “What makes you think that?”
He started to rant. “Well, at first we were great, and she was all over me. And then she started distancing herself, as though she lost interest. Now she always talks about your friend, Adam.” He glared at me, as though it were my fault. “She was flirting with him at the Halloween party too, but when I confronted her about it, she just got mad. What does he have that I don’t have?”
I’d noticed her flirting with Adam that day too. But how could I tell Bryan it had nothing to do with him? Adam had been right. Ange just wanted whatever I had. Once she’d stolen Bryan from me, she’d lost interest in him. And now, because Adam was relentless in his pursuit of me, Ange wanted him too. She wanted to prove she was better than me by snatching Adam to her side.
“What do I do, Jas?” Bryan sounded panicked. “I don’t want to lose her.”
I stopped walking and turned to look him in the eye. “Look, this might be hard to hear, but I’m saying it anyway. Sometimes, the relationship just isn’t worth saving.”
He gaped at me, unable to comprehend what I’d just said. “How can you say that? Ange is…Ange. I can’t break up with her, I just can’t.”
“Listen Bryan,” I let out an exasperated sigh. “She’s not the right girl for you.”
“Oh, I get it,” he said, barking out a laugh of disbelief. “You must still have feelings for me. Look Jas, I told you, you’ll always be my friend, but I don’t like you that way.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “This has nothing to do with me,” I exclaimed.
He gave me a perplexed look. “So you don’t still have feelings for me?”
I took a deep breath, and let him have it. The level of my patience had dwindled to nil. “Yes, I admit, I still like you. But I accept that you only want to be friends, and I’m trying very hard to be your friend, which is why I’m telling you that you should let Ange go. She’s manipulative and selfish and pretends to be nice while she stabs you in the back.” My breath rushed out in one huge whoosh. Bryan stared at me in shock, and I had to admit I was shocked too. Everything I’d been trying to hold back since the end of summer had just spewed out my mouth.
It was time to leave before Bryan actually summoned the capacity to talk back. I definitely didn’t want to hear his response right now—my emotions were already too fired up. “That’s all I have to say. Whether you take my advice or not is up to you.” I sped up, running the rest of the way to the parking lot. Once I was safely in my car, I bent my head over the steering wheel and started to cry.
I didn’t even know why I was crying. It wasn’t like I didn’t already know how Bryan felt about me. And I thought I’d been doing so well, forgetting about him these past few months. Why did he have to come looking for advice from me, of all people? Why couldn’t he understand how much it hurt to hear him ask me for advice about another girl—furthermore, a girl who I’d once considered a friend?
I spent another two minutes crying before forcing myself to put my act together. Meiyu was still waiting for me to pick her up, and I still had plenty of homework when I got home.
When I got home, I threw my backpack on my bed and plopped myself down next to it. Homework was the last thing I wanted to do right now. It only reminded me of how I’d tutored Bryan in math and science two years ago. And how he’d tried to cheer me up when “the incident” occurred. That had been a bleak, depressing period of my life, and I’d started watching dramas to take my mind off it.
Which wasn’t a bad idea at this current moment. There was nothing a healthy dose of watching dramas couldn’t fix. I got up to turn my computer on and watched a full episode of Lover’s Beach. The episode ended breathlessly as the main characters, who were mortal enemies, had to hide in a closet, and were a hair’s breadth away from having their lips accidently meet.
I was more than eager to dive into the next episode, only my mother’s voice called through the door. “Jazzy, dinner’s ready.”
“Coming,” I said, but Mom had already come into my room to check on me.
“I heard music. Were you watching dramas?”
I hung my head guiltily. “Yes, but I’ll do homework after dinner, I promise.”
“I wasn’t scolding you,” Mom said, sitting on the side of the bed facing me. “So tell me, what’s wrong.”
“What’s wrong?” How could Mom tell something was wrong just with one glance?
“Because I’m your mother,” she replied with a knowing glance my direction. “I know my own daughter. No matter how much you love to watch dramas, you’re also a perfectionist who loves getting straight A’s. You would never choose to relax when there’s work to be done.” She lifted her eyebrows until they formed perfect arched question marks. “Unless, of course, you want to take your mind off something.”
I debated whether to tell her about Bryan. It was kind of private.
Still, Mom was sitting there, looking at me with such sympathetic eyes, and she was my mommy. I just wanted to curl up into her warm arms and cry. And then I found myself doing just that, unable to stop myself.
Mom knew I liked Bryan, but I’d never told her about Ange’s betrayal. I’d been ashamed of how stupid I’d been not to realize Ange’s true character earlier.
Through sobs and incoherent words, I told Mom how Ange had stolen Bryan away, and how he continued to be infatuated with her despite how mean she could be. Somehow, she managed to understand what I was saying.
“Oh darling,” she sighed, patting my head when I was through. “I wondered why you had stopped hanging out with Bryan and Ange so suddenly. I’m sorry you had to experience this.”
“Why doesn’t he like me, Mom?” I sniffed. “Is it because I have asthma? Or maybe it’s because of…’the incident.’ He thinks I’m unclean because of it.” I shivered as I always did when “the incident” was brought to mind, but it had to be the reason Bryan would choose Ange over me.
“Don’t ever think that,” Mom commanded sharply. “You are not unclean. And if Bryan thinks that way, then he’s an ass.”
I gasped slightly, amazed that my mom had actually semi-swore. She and Dad had mouths as pure as true love itself. “Listen to me Jazzy,” she said. “I’m going to repeat the advice you gave Bryan today. He’s not the right boy for you. I know it’ll be hard, but you need to get over him.”
And as she said that, a sort of relief suddenly descended. It was like I’d really needed to hear it. All this time, I’d been half hoping that Bryan would regret his decision to be with Ange and come crawling back to me. But now, I knew my mom was right. I couldn’t continue wishing Bryan would change his mind because right now, he was too infatuated with Ange. Maybe that would change in the future, but I couldn’t continue waiting for that moment to happen.
“Thanks Mom,” I said. “You always know exactly what to tell me.”
“Of course,” she smiled back. “I know my daughter well. Now let’s go down for dinner.”
“I still can’t get my mom to budge,” Julie said, plunking down on the couch next to me. It was early Saturday morning, and we were in her mom’s office waiting area, having just seen Adam go in for a session.
If I hadn’t known Julie since the third grade, I would never have known what she was talking about. “Well, it is patient confidentiality,” I told her. “If she told us Adam’s private information, she could get into big, legal trouble.”
“But I want to know who he really is,” Julie whined.
“What if he’s just some ordinary guy, just like he says he is?”
“I told you that’s not possible.” Julie stood suddenly to pace the room. “He’s keeping his real last name a secret.”
“That’s a very flimsy reason to think he’s someone extraordinary,” I said.
“It’s not just that.” Her eyes flashed to mine, looking slightly crazed. “Remember how I said I think I saw his picture in the paper before? Well, I asked my mom if I was right about that.”
“And were you?”
“She didn’t say,” Julie shrugged. “But you know the box of important old articles I keep under my bed? After I asked her if I’d seen Adam in the paper, I found my mom searching through the box.”
“That doesn’t mean she was searching for something Adam-related,” I said.
“But she was,” Julie exclaimed, forgetting we weren’t exactly alone. The receptionist jumped a bit at the sudden lurch in Julie’s voice, but then smiled at us, knowing Julie’s personality. “I couldn’t read the title in time, and Mom refused to let me see it, but I caught a glimpse of the photo in the article before Mom hid it, and it was definitely Adam. Plus, Mom claimed it had something to do with a patient’s case.”
Now that sparked my interest. “Maybe it had to do with his parents’ murder,” I said.
“They were murdered?” A mixture of horror and pity crossed my best friend’s face.
“Two years ago.” My comment caused Julie to look at me strangely, and I knew what was on her mind. “No, it doesn’t have to do with ‘the incident.’” Although, I couldn’t say it with certainty. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to ask Adam, but if it had something to do with ‘the incident,’ he would have said something by now.
Julie only nodded, knowing how much I hated to talk about “the incident.” “Well there’s no use in guessing. I’ll find where my mom hid that article if it’s the last thing I do.”
I didn’t get the chance to reply to that as Dr. Poray came into the waiting room, towing Adam behind her. “All done for today,” she said, and then looked at me. “Jasmine, I want to ask you a favor. You know some relaxing water exercises, so I’d like you to teach them to Adam.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, immediately drawing to mind a few great exercises.
“Please make sure he does them.” Dr. Poray looked upon Adam sternly, making him shift uncomfortably. “And start ASAP. Tonight, if you can.”
“But I have to work,” Adam began to protest.
“Oh, I’m sure Dean can let you go an hour or so earlier,” I told him.
And so, we agreed to meet at nine, when Adam’s shift was over. We were both wearing full-body wetsuits; November nights were not the time to wear skimpy bathing suits outside.
Our swimming pool wasn’t as big as the school’s, but it served its purpose. Plus, it had heating, to which I was entirely grateful.
“Is it necessary to have all these toys?” Adam grumbled. “And I don’t need a flotation belt. I’m not a kid learning to swim for the first time. I went through lifeguard training.”
“They’re not toys,” I explained. “The water noodles go between your legs or behind your back to create resistance while we exercise, and the flotation belt is to provide buoyancy because we’re exercising with our heads above the water.”
“Why can’t we just swim laps?”
“Because water aerobics also helps relax you,” I said. “And that’s the purpose of this whole thing. To make you relax.” I moved to help him fasten aqua weights to his wrists. “Trust me. Water aerobics has helped me a lot in the past.”
“With your asthma?”
Among other things. “Relaxation and exercise are the keys to treating anxiety,” I said. “If you keep it up, I’m sure your OCD symptoms will ease up little by little.”
“Fine,” he sighed. “I’ll trust you. And at least there’s one instant perk to this.”
His smirk caused me to eye him warily. “What?”
“Seeing you in a wetsuit. Might not be a bikini, but at least it shows off your figure nicely.”
I slapped his shoulder hard, and he laughed. “Get in the pool,” I said, trying to sound peeved, but I was actually blushing. The water was heated, making my flushed skin worse, even if it was November. I hoped he didn’t notice.
I tried to cover it up, throwing myself into the exercises. Adam caught on quickly, simply by copying my movements. We started with jumping jacks and underwater punches and kicks before moving onto exercises using the water noodles. “Put the noodle between your legs like this,” I instructed, showing him as I talked. Then we jogged for a few minutes before changing the exercise to scissor kicks. After ten minutes of that, we changed the position of the noodles, placing them behind our backs to do some floating kicks.
By the time we were finished with those, I was satisfied to hear Adam breathing a little harder than normal. “Let’s finish up with some water yoga,” I said. After showing him a few positions, he shook his head, laughing.
“I thought this was supposed to be relaxing,” he said. “But I’m breathing as though I’ve just run three miles.”
“But you’re not as tired,” I said, and he was forced to admit it.
“Okay, you were right,” he said with a sigh, and flipped himself on his back, arms straight out to float on the water. “So I guess we’ll be doing this regularly.”
“Saturday nights,” I agreed. I flipped myself on my back, looking at the stars. There were millions of them.
“It’s a mermaid constellation,” Adam said, pointing upwards.
I laughed. “You just made that up.”
“Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. See those three stars that look like a triangle? That’s the tail.”
I looked for the trio of stars and found what he was talking about.
“Go up from there,” he instructed, “And it connects to two more stars that sort of curve upwards.”
“Hey, I see it.” He was right. It did look kind of like a mermaid. I could imagine her gliding through the dark waters.
“Reminds me of you,” Adam said, and I might have blushed again if I didn’t sneeze first.
“We’d better go inside before we both catch colds,” Adam said.
I didn’t want to go yet. I loved basking under the starlight. “Just a second,” I said, still admiring the blinking stars. I always thought the Mandarin word for stars, xing xing, captured the feeling best. The same word repeated twice, like two happy eyes, winking down at the world. “It’s been awhile since I’ve stared at the stars. When my grandmother passed away, we were in Dongxiang, China, one of the poorest areas in the country. We didn’t find out she’d died until a month later.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That had to be hard.”
“It was,” I sighed. “She was the sweetest lady, never blamed my parents for leaving her to live by herself. She left us this house when she died. Anyway, I cried for two weeks straight.” I hadn’t even turned eight years old yet, but I was old enough to feel horrible that I hadn’t been able to say goodbye and to feel guilty that she’d died alone, without her family around her.
“Then one night, I looked up at the stars, and they were winking at me, and I just remember staring at them, thinking of how much they reminded me of how Gran used to wink at me with those smiling eyes. And then I knew she didn’t want me to feel sad or guilty. She wanted me to be happy.”
“I’m sure she did,” Adam agreed. We stayed a little longer, admiring the glittering lights. Then I ruined the effect by sneezing again. “All right.” Adam stood in the pool and began dragging me up. “We need to get you inside before—” His eyes slid away from me, widening, causing me to look behind my shoulder to see what had caught his attention.
A tall man was standing at the edge of the pool, just two inches separating his legs from my head. I almost shrieked, taking two steps back. Then my eyes went up to the man’s face, and I saw that it was Hal. Not that recognizing the man gave me any relief. Hal was one of those strays that gave me the creeps. Just like Crazy Jack. I shuddered at the thought of him.
Adam’s hand came to rest on my arm, and he tugged me back, putting himself in front of me in a protective gesture. It was nice of him; he’d probably sensed my fear.
“Were you spying on us, Hal?” Adam asked, glaring at the man suspiciously.
“Now ya’s swimmin’ with the lady,” Hal said angrily, not really replying to the question. “What’s so special ‘bout you?” He clutched his side as though he’d been wounded, and glared accusatorily like it was our faults. Then he stalked off to the guest house in a rage, and I wondered why he was acting in such a manner. It wasn’t like our swimming was bothering him.
“That guy seriously creeps me out,” Adam commented.
“You too?” I exclaimed. “He’s freaked me out since the first time he came.”
“How long has he been staying here?”
I thought about it, counting the months on my hands. “After Pete came but before Kathy left.” Kathy had been a victim of domestic abuse, kicked out onto the street by her husband. But she’d left before Adam arrived. “Kathy got a divorce and moved back to her parents’ place about a month before you came, so I’d say Hal’s been here for a little over half a year.”
“And he still hasn’t gotten his act together?” Adam shook his head in disbelief. “What does he do all day?”
“We’re not sure,” I said. “Pete said sometimes Hal takes off in the middle of the night too. But my parents say different people have different recovery times, and we just have to be patient.”
“Did you tell them he scares you?” Adam looked concerned for me, even though he shared the same roof with the man.
“Yes, of course. They just told me to lock the door and turn on the alarm if I’m home by myself.” I shrugged helplessly. “Those are my parents for you. They’ll never kick out someone in need, no
matter how creepy the person seems.” Until it’s too late, and Crazy Jack Prengle tries to abduct their daughter.
“Too late?” Adam frowned. “Who’s Crazy Jack?”
Oh shoot, had I spoken out loud? Horrified, I quickly got out of the pool.
“Jasmine?” he questioned.
“It’s getting really chilly,” I said. “I’m going inside.” And I ran to the house.