I STRETCHED as soon as the train pulled into the station. It’d been a long ride from New York City, because for no apparent reason, Amtrak decided to stop for an hour just past the station in Danbury, just one of a long line of delays in my trip. Luckily I wasn’t too much behind schedule, or Uncle Yushua would be worried. I’d wanted to call him, but Mother hadn’t given me his number, and neither parent was answering their phone, so I couldn’t ask them. I’d have been worried that they were in some sort of trouble, but I had the impression they were just avoiding talking to me.
I worked the kinks out of my body, waiting for the rest of the passengers to clear out. This was the last stop for the train, so people were taking their time getting off. I gathered up my things, placing them in my purse, and tidied the area I had been camping out in for the last several hours. Once I finished flexing, I also took the time to look up Uncle Yushua’s address and see how far he was away from South Station. Thankfully he wasn’t far, only a couple of minutes’ walk at a brisk pace.
I grabbed my backpack from the overhead bin and settled it on my back before getting my purse. I had knitted it over the winter break, and it looked like an undersized carpetbag. But the important thing was that I could fit a whole lot of stuff in it. I put on my hat and was ready to go when one of the porters stopped to check on me.
“Are you going to be all right, miss?” he asked me, looking worried. “It’s late.”
He was in his fifties, maybe. I never could figure these things out. He’d been keeping an eye on me since we left Penn Station in New York. Not in a creepy way, but more like to make sure no one acted weird with me.
“It’s barely ten at night,” I protested, even though I felt like I’d been awake for days. “I’m a New York City girl. The night’s just starting then. I’m going to be fine.”
“Girl is the right word,” he scolded.
“I’m old enough to travel alone.” That was a lie, since I wouldn’t be sixteen until the end of the summer. I needed to have someone meet me, as an unaccompanied minor. “And it’s not like my parents don’t know where I am.”
My voice trembled a little at the word parents, but that issue was one I was going to shove into the back of my mind until I had time and privacy to deal with it.
I smiled at my protector, who thankfully ignored the quiver in my voice earlier. “Where I’m going is, like, five minutes away. I promise I’ll stick to well-lit streets and be very aware of my surroundings.”
I wasn’t going to tell him as soon as I hit thirteen my parents had decided I could go a lot of places by myself on the train, no matter what time of night it was. I’d take a taxi once in a while, but those guys made me more nervous than traveling in a crowded train car did. The back of a taxi felt like a very vulnerable place to me, because the driver was in control and the plastic screen between the two of you could trap you as well as protect you.
“Are you sure you don’t need a taxi?” he asked. “If it’s a matter of money….”
I shook my head. Money was never an issue with my parents, and I don’t think they ever checked what I was using my credit card for. Well, maybe my yarn shopping, because… well because. Knitting took time away from studying or something like that. I was very careful to keep my hoard limited to a small plastic storage container in the back of my closet, and that kept the peace.
“I’m going to the Leather District,” I said. “According to the directions on my phone, it’s not more than a half mile away. I’ve been cooped up on this train for hours, so I want to walk around for a bit.”
He frowned, so I lifted my foot a little. “See, sensible shoes for running.”
The flat ballet-slipper–style shoes had been hidden by my long skirt. I wasn’t going for style points here, and I didn’t need heels because I was tall. My long-sleeve, red tunic was comfortable and loose and fell to midthigh. I thought I looked all right. But my best friend, Xiu, always told me I was never going to be a fashion plate. It might have been the hat that was causing him trouble. It had a wide brim to protect me from the sun and was one of my earliest knitting projects. Knit roses, most in colors not found in nature, were scattered around the crown and brim. It was a sight and I loved it.
“Are you going to be all right?” he asked. “You look tired.”
“Tired” was being nice. I looked like a wreck, but it had been a long day for me. A long, horrible day, but I wasn’t going to unload my trouble on a stranger. It seemed too much like therapy.
A couple other people were going through the train to clean it and looked upset we were in the way.
“Thanks for worrying,” I said. “It means a lot more than you think.”
With that I slipped around him, wanting to get to my uncle’s place and just stop moving. Maybe even fall apart a little. I swear I’d been trapped in this train since the beginning of time.
I strode through South Station, heading toward the exit for the post office, the one closest to the Leather District. I walked fast and looked like I knew where I was going. It worked because people just got out of my way. Before I left the building, I checked my phone’s map, and now I concentrated on keeping an eye out for traffic. I’d heard how crazy Boston drivers were and didn’t want to become a smear on someone’s bumper.
There were some people walking around but not a lot. For a Monday night, it was really quiet. There was the smell of the ocean, and a stiff breeze to threaten my hat, but the thing was firmly on my head and heavy enough to disregard it. There was the faint scent of Italian cooking too, and my stomach grumbled at the thought of food. I hadn’t eaten a lot the last couple of days, and it was catching up with me. I ignored it, keeping an eye out for weirdoes.
I walked fast, and in about five minutes I got to Uncle Yushua’s. His home was a converted old factory and didn’t look friendly. I checked the address twice before I looked for his name on the doorplate and rang the bell next to it.
“Can I help you?”
The voice over the intercom was male, but it didn’t sound like Uncle Yushua. Did I have the right place?
“Is there anyone there?”
“Um… Uncle Yushua?” I sounded tired and frightened and I hated it. I took a deep breath and continued, strengthening my voice. “Is this Yushua Rostami’s residence?”
There was silence, the intercom clicking off. I practiced deep breathing and resisted the urge to start searching on the internet for hotels, while also watching the street for strangers. Not that I was actually old enough to rent a room, but I wasn’t sleeping on the streets either. Calling my parents had been a waste of time for me today, so I knew I wasn’t going to get much help from them. That thought made my stomach hurt. Or the hurt might have been because I really hadn’t eaten enough for a couple of days. The wait seemed endless, but it was probably less than a minute before the intercom crackled to life.
“Uncle Yushua? You sound different than when you’re on the phone,” I said. “I thought you’d sound the same since it’s almost the same tech.”
The door buzzed, and I pushed it open fast, before he changed his mind. Uncle Yushua’s two-story loft entrance was on the third floor, from what I was told. I’d never been here before, since he came down to us when he visited for holidays. My parents always claimed they were “too busy” to travel up to Boston and visit him.
I knocked on the door and was surprised when a strange man opened it.
The man was a little taller than I was, but built, looking like he could haul a tank or something. His dark hair was buzzed short on the sides but gelled and long on the top. He was tanned the color of amber, which made his pale gray eyes stand out. He wore dorm pants and a T-shirt with a faded picture of an old band on it.
“I don’t think I have the right place,” I said, stepping back out of grabbing range.
“Your uncle’s inside.” His accent sounded Midwestern.
“I’m not walking in there until I see him,” I said. “How dumb do you think I am?”
“You are wearing that hat,” he drawled.
“And that comment is making me feel so much better,” I said, moving toward the stairs. I’d find someplace else to stay, even if I had to camp out in the nearest hotel’s lobby.
“Stop being such a worrywart,” Uncle Yushua said, peering around him. “That’s my niece. Let her in, Rat.”
Rat half turned, keeping an eye on me while talking to him. “You sure? You didn’t mention she was coming.”
“I didn’t know,” Uncle Yushua said. “Mykayla, is there anything wrong?”
“Didn’t Mother call you?” I quivered. “She said….”
I hated myself, but I started crying then. I’d spent the last couple of days feeling like if I said or did the wrong thing, my world was going to shatter more than it already had. I spent most of it in my room, splitting the time between packing and talking to Xiu about what was happening. Her parents had invited me over for the summer, but Mother insisted I needed to go up to Uncle Yushua’s.
Rat looked at me and then stepped aside, letting me into the condo. I dropped my bag inside the door, trying to control my tears. My parents had always told me tears weren’t attractive, so crying in public was an embarrassment. And one should never be embarrassing in public.
“Didn’t tell me what?” Uncle Yushua asked kindly.
“I’m supposed to spend a couple of days with you, while my parents reevaluate the state of their marriage.” I sniffed. Maybe more than a couple of days, but I wanted to ease into that conversation if he didn’t know I was supposed to be here in the first place. “Um…. Could I…. Where’s the bathroom?”
I needed to go, because the ones on the train usually were disgusting, and I hadn’t wanted to drag all my stuff in one to use it. Also I wanted a couple of minutes to get my head together in privacy. A weeping niece wasn’t the best thing to get this late at night.
“There’s one next to the kitchen,” Uncle Yushua said. “Just go left and you’ll find it.”
He didn’t look happy. Actually he looked exhausted. Rat seemed annoyed, and I wondered if I’d interrupted a date or something, since Uncle Yushua was in a caftan and Rat was wearing what he was. They both looked like they were ready for bed.
I slipped off my backpack and my hat before walking down the hallway to find the bathroom. I shut the door firmly, taking deep breaths until I got my tears under control. I could cry later. I did my thing and washed my hands and face. I fished my phone out of my skirt pocket and called Xiu.
“I got here,” I said softly when she answered the phone.
“Good. I was getting worried, though you texted me about the delay,” she said. “How are you doing?”
She’d been asking me that most of the weekend, and I gave her the same answer I’d told her a dozen times before. “Numb. When I start processing it, you’ll be the first to know.”
She was always the first to know about any sort of crisis in my life, because she’d been my best friend since grade school.
Xiu talked like that, using the words process and experiencing and other adult, formal words in conversation. Stuff like that coming from a six-year-old had been impressive and frightening at the same time. She was finally growing into her vocabulary.
Xiu was brilliant, excelling in all her classes, and always working on a dozen things at once, because she was also a little scattered, wanting never to be bored.
“You’re going to need to talk to someone, because bottling it up inside of you isn’t healthy.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” I promised.
“Repeat that in Mandarin,” she instructed. “We need to keep using the language, or we’re going to forget it.”
“You can talk to your grandmother,” I said.
“But you can’t, so please repeat that.”
I did so and then hung up. Xiu could be a bit bossy, even if she was right. I straightened up, walked out of the bathroom, and discovered there was another man in the house with Uncle Yushua and Rat. So it hadn’t been a date? Or were they all dating each other?
This man was washed-out. That was the only thing I could think of. He was tall and pale blond, with pale blue eyes. He looked so white, he should have sparkled or glowed or something. The only thing that stood out as a color on him were the dark circles under his eyes. He was also in dorm pants and a ratty T-shirt. His seemed to be for a tourist spot in Maine.
“My name’s Harper,” he said. His voice was low and a little raspy, like he smoked too much.
Rat popped up out of nowhere and demanded, “You haven’t eaten, have you?”
“I had a couple granola bars on the train,” I said in a tiny voice, like I should be ashamed of eating them and not a home-cooked meal.
Off in the distance I heard Uncle Yushua talking. He didn’t sound happy, so I bet he was talking to Mother. I caught him saying sharply, “No, you didn’t….”
“Let him feed you or Rat will be fretting all night,” Harper said.
“Rat?” I asked. What kind of nickname was that? “Were you born in the year of the Rat? My friend Xiu’s really into that stuff. She finds Western and Eastern astrology fascinating.”
I was babbling now, nervous and trying not to feel like I was a burden.
“That’s who you were talking to in the bathroom?” Harper asked.
“She wanted to know when I got here, since she was worried, so I called,” I explained.
“Your parents don’t sound too worried,” Harper said dryly.
“You don’t need to call them now,” Rat frowned, listening to my uncle’s side of the conversation. “Josh’s doing it for you.”
I wondered who Josh was for a second and then realized it was my uncle. Josh was the short version of his name in English.
“I was going to call them next,” I explained. I’d called Xiu first because I knew she’d answer the phone and I needed to hear a friendly voice. I’d been leaving messages with my parents since I’d left the house this morning. Surprise, surprise, Uncle Yushua managed to get hold of them just fine. I wanted to scream out my frustration that they were willing to talk to him and not me.
“So you don’t have to hear him yelling, let me make you an omelet,” Rat said, looking me up and down, not like he was checking me out or anything weird like that, because he was at least twice my age, from the lines around his eyes. He just seemed to do it automatically, like evaluating someone was second nature to him. “You’re not on a diet or anything like that?”
I hated that because I was skinny, people thought I was on some sort of weird starvation diet, obsessed with my weight. I was an active teenager, one who didn’t eat a lot of sweets or junk food. My parents didn’t believe in it.
“I don’t diet and I don’t have any food allergies,” I said. “I’ll eat almost anything you put in front of me.”
Picky eating wasn’t something my parents encouraged in either my two older brothers or me. They were a lot older then I was. The twins, Ezra and Hoshea, had graduated from college last year and were in grad school. I don’t know if our parents had talked to them about their “reevaluation” plans or not.
“You a runner?” he asked as he headed into the kitchen. “You got the look.”
The kitchen was big, with an island separating the cooking and eating areas. The counters were dark granite, cabinets were light wood, and the floor a dark wood. The fridge and stove were black. The dining room table was covered with papers, and I wondered where I was supposed to sit. I walked around the island and discovered a couple of stools. I sat on one of them, tired and worn out.
“I run,” I said. “I don’t want to deal with the pool and my hair.”
I had long, curly hair and I kept it in a braid or a ponytail most of the time, just to give me the illusion of control over it. I wasn’t adding chlorine bleaching to the mix of dealing with hair like mine. Cutting it short just made it poof up like an angry dandelion.
“I don’t like contact sports. My high school wants everyone in a sport, besides taking gym. So it was running, after I nearly stabbed Mina with a fencing foil in sixth grade. But I’m thinking of seeing if I can try out for the fencing team again next year.”
And I was babbling again. I needed to sleep and just be alone, but I didn’t know when that was going to happen.
“Sit and relax.” Rat smiled reassuringly. “It’s late, so I’ll just make a cheese omelet. Cheddar okay?”
“I like cheddar,” I said.
I heard Uncle Yushua off in the distance. “I don’t have any voicemails. I checked before I called. I don’t care what else is going on in your life, you don’t send a fifteen-year-old….”
He faded away, so I didn’t get to hear the rest of it. Rat busied himself with getting eggs and cheese out of the fridge and putting them on the island before getting a bowl and a plate and utensils and anything else he needed to cook with. He deliberately made enough noise so that it drowned out Uncle Yushua talking with Mother.
“I’ll go and make up the bed in the study,” Harper announced. He looked over at me. “It doesn’t seem like it, but we are glad to see you. Josh talks about you a lot.”
“Uh… thanks?” I said. “I thought everything was okay, or I would have insisted on getting Uncle Yushua’s number so I could call ahead. I know I seem to be interrupting something.”
Rat snorted. “Not what you think.”
“I wasn’t thinking anything,” I protested, blushing a little.
What was I supposed to think with three guys looking like they were ready for bed and two of them didn’t live here? Or maybe they did? Uncle Yushua hadn’t mentioned he had roommates, but I didn’t know a lot about his personal life.
I’d halfheartedly planned on dropping a bombshell on my parents about my sexuality or lack of it Saturday night, when they’d beaten me to it with their announcement. That had stopped me wanting to tell them anything, because I didn’t want them to accuse me of being attention-seeking or something like that.
“Stop teasing her,” Harper ordered before wandering off farther into the condo.
“Because it’s normal for grown men to have a sleepover,” Rat muttered as he cracked and then beat the eggs.
“I always thought that was more of a weekend thing,” I ventured cautiously, trying to make some sort of conversation. “You know, like with dating and stuff.”
Rat snorted. “I am not dating your uncle, so get your mind out of the gutter.”
That didn’t explain why they were here, but Uncle Yushua and Harper looked tired. Harper and Rat were really familiar with this condo, so maybe they’d just been friends for a long time? But…. My mind wasn’t in the gutter, thank you very much!
“I expected you to be the grown-up…,” Uncle Yushua said.
“The acoustics here are weird,” Rat explained. “So you’re going to hear the argument, whether you should or not.”
“It’s all right,” I assured him. “Do you live here too?”
It felt weird, though. Mainly because my parents didn’t argue, that I knew of. If anyone had asked me, I would’ve told him or her that my parents’ marriage was rock-solid. It seemed cold and frighteningly polite at times, but unbreakable. This announcement of “reevaluation” had shocked me. I wondered if Mother was doing her frighteningly polite and frigid voice with Uncle Yushua, like she did with me as soon as I disagreed with her plans.
I jumped a little when a cat suddenly appeared at the end of the island. It was little, not more than a couple of pounds, but it let out a loud meow before stalking over to me. The cat was some kind of tabby cat, with deep blue eyes and the most beautiful eye markings. They looked like a really elaborate eyeliner pattern.
“This is Kay,” Rat told the cat. “Be nice, she’s staying here for a while.”
The cat studied me and I wanted to squirm. I wasn’t used to pets. My parents thought they were too messy, even fish. Having one on the counter would have driven my mother insane. Everything in her world had to be in perfect order at all times. And I noticed Rat dodged my question neatly.
“Kay, this is Mafdet,” he continued.
Kay was going to be something I was going to have to get used to, but I wasn’t going to be rude and insist on my full name. But the man had a nickname of Rat, so what was weirder?
“It’s nice to meet you,” I told Mafdet formally. I looked up at Rat. “You and Harper too.”
“So where are you going to school?” Rat asked. “Harper and I just crash here once in a while. Usually it’s one or the other of us, but this seemed…. We just decided it was better if we both stayed for once.”
I think he was trying to cover the sound of Uncle Yushua with my mother. It was sweet of him. Did they have a friends-with-benefits relationship with my uncle? Had I stumbled into the aftermath of an orgy? And I’d lied, my mind was in the gutter, but I liked knowing how things stood.
“I go to Nightingale Academy,” I said, watching him chop the cheese for my omelet. I wasn’t surprised when Mafdet got a couple of slivers when he was done. “It’s a girl’s school on the Upper East Side.”
“What’s your favorite class?”
“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “My parents want me to do really well in the sciences and math, so they don’t seem to be a lot of fun, because if I don’t get an A….” I let that hang out there for a second before adding, “I enjoy languages and history. European history for the most part. There isn’t a lot of attention paid to anything outside that and American history in high school.”
I wasn’t going to add that most of the history taught to me was still all dead white guys, even at a girls’ school. Xiu had had a fit over that when we were in middle school.
“But you don’t dare tell them that, because it’s all about STEM and girl power now, according to the news,” Rat said. “So what languages are you studying now?”
“I’m on my fourth year of Latin and third one of Greek, and this last semester I started Mandarin, mostly because of my friend Xiu. She wasn’t going to take the class on her own and I had a free space then, so I took it. I took a couple of years of Spanish, mostly in self-defense, because everyone I bumped into in the city expected me to speak it.”
Since I was about eight, I’ve had total strangers come up to me and speak to me in Spanish. Those people had been annoyed I didn’t. I guess I look Hispanic to a lot of people, since I’m biracial. Now I could give those people directions and stuff like that, like it was my first language.
“How do you like Mandarin?” Rat asked carefully in Mandarin.
“It’s uneasy… no, difficult,” I said in the same language.
Harper laughing behind me caused me to jump. “So you get to order for us when we do dim sum. I don’t trust him not to get us something disgusting and say it was an accident.”
“What’s wrong with phoenix claws?” Rat demanded, looking woebegone. It wasn’t a good look for him. He didn’t keep it up for too long, thankfully.
“I left the South because I wasn’t eating pig’s feet, so I’m not eating chicken feet either,” Harper retorted as he petted Mafdet.
“Your bed’s all set up in the study,” Harper continued. “Rat and I are in the other bedroom.”
I rolled my eyes. “You didn’t know I was coming. I’d be glad to get the sofa.”
“It’s a daybed, the sofa might be more comfortable,” Rat said before he turned to the stove and started cooking.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
“It’s not the best time,” Harper said, sitting beside me, continuing to pet Mafdet. “And none of this is your fault.”
What did that have to do with anything?
“I swear, Fereshteh….” Uncle Yushua strode into the kitchen, looking straight at me, letting me dodge Harper’s odd comment. “You know what? Do what you want. I’m just your idiotic younger brother. But while you and Justin are ‘reevaluating’ your marriage, please also evaluate the position of your head, since it seems to be firmly up your ass right now.”
With that, Uncle Yushua almost slammed his cell phone down. He caught himself in time and just set it down gently on the counter. He waited a little while before he spoke again, clearly struggling not to say something truly scathing about my mother just then.
“I’m sorry, Mykayla,” Uncle Yushua said softly. “You caught us… me… at a bad time.”
“Not a sleepover time,” Rat said, plating my omelet and placing it in front of me. Harper dug out some silverware from a drawer and handed me a knife and fork. “Even if we’re staying the night.”
“What?” Uncle Yushua asked, before shaking his head. “It’s just things have been a little hectic at work, and I’m not going to have any time to spend with you for a couple of days.”
“I’m pretty self-sufficient, Uncle Yushua,” I promised. “I have my reading list for the summer, and it’s not like Mother and Father hover over me. They’ve been pretty involved in their research and stuff like that lately. Anna’s kept an eye on me since Mother went back to work.”
Anna had the summer off now, since the apartment was closed down. She just needed to check on it once or twice a week and be ready to reopen it at a moment’s notice.
Uncle Yushua pinched his nose, like he had a headache. “If I recall, she barely took her maternity leave…. Well, that doesn’t matter now.”
I nodded and ate my omelet, because it would be rude not to, and I was hungry. Mother had only missed the first week of classes that semester, though I’d been an August baby. That was before she moved into pure research like Father.
“I…. We have to go into work tomorrow, but I might be able to spend the afternoon with you,” Uncle Yushua said.
“You don’t have to rearrange your schedule for me,” I protested.
“Don’t go running on your own,” Rat said.
“I enjoy it, but I’m not fanatical,” I assured him. “I want to find someplace safe before I do.”
Safe as in no killer drivers, so a high school track I could use or a park someplace would be nice. Having a running partner would be smart too, in case I injured myself or something.
“Running is a good thing,” Harper said. “But I’m not a nut like Rat. Please don’t tell me you’re a marathoner?”
I swallowed what I was eating before I replied. “Mid-distance. I’m not good at it. There’s just a zenness to running I like. I’m usually the back of the pack, but I’m a warm body, so coach is happy to have me.”
I turned my attention to my uncle. “I’m sorry, Uncle Yushua. I thought Mother would have called you before she sent me up here. But the twins both have roommates, not like they would want me staying with them. You know Father’s family really doesn’t talk to us.”
Father’s family didn’t like that he’d married a white girl. Not that my mother was “white,” since her family had fled Iran to the Philippines before the Shah of Iran was overthrown. Mother had gone to college in America and never went back to either place, except for Grandmother’s funeral in the Philippines.
“Prejudice does work both ways,” Uncle Yushua said, sounding sad, then pursed his lips. “I’m sorry, I need to get some sleep. If you could clean things up, Rat, I’d appreciate it.”
I guessed Rat and Harper stayed here a lot if Uncle Yushua was treating them like family and expecting them to clean up after themselves and stuff like that. Xiu’s grandmother treated me the same way. I liked it.
“It’s not what you think,” Harper told me, as if he could read my mind.
“I’m not thinking right now,” I assured him. “And it’s no business of mine either.”