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Authors: David Yoon

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“It really is mean,” I say, vowing to be better from now on. There’s a glass clock on the wall filled with bubbling amber liquid and shaped like a beer mug. It must be fifty years old. “See, that’s not kitsch right there. That’s beautiful.”

“Are you okay for time, by the way?” says Brit.

“I’m good,” I say. “We have tons of time.”

“Yesss,” says Brit like a kid.

We have tons of time because I now have a special arrangement with Joy,
I think. But Brit turns to face me and her hair dips into her cocoa, banishing the thought from my mind as I rush to push her mug aside.

“Your hair got in your drink,” I say.

She sticks the wet lock in my face. “Taste it,” she says.

“Gah,” I say. But I do.

“You’re crazy, Frank Li,” says Brit.

We both get serious for a moment. In this particular moment, right here. Sucking cocoa from a girl’s hair is weird. Who does this sort of thing? And who lets them? But Brit is letting me. She
wants
me to.

I am extremely proud to be the only person who has ever sucked Brit Means’s hair.

We order more cocoa, and then a plate of fries. We don’t look at our phones once. I know there’s at least an hour before Return to Base, which is the time Joy and I have agreed to each return home just in case we need to keep our timelines straight. Eventually the waitstaff begin upending chairs. On the drive home we both scoop the air with our hands sticking out either side of the car like wings.

“Angle your hands just right for liftoff,” I say.

“I’m trying,” says Brit, laughing this far-off laugh that sounds a little like crying.

“Liftoff, liftoff,” I shout.

At the red door, which I now clearly see as red and not brown, we kiss one last time before the silver dog butt. I dance down her steps and do not fall or falter once.

I drive home and park outside to keep the garage door rattle from waking everyone. I slip off my shoes and align them perfectly with Mom-n-Dad’s in the glossy brown tiled entranceway.

When I get to my bedroom, someone has left my desk lamp on to help me see in the dark, and my bed is perfectly made.
I flop onto it and begin slipping into sleep when I remember to send one quick message.

Confirming, back at base now.

Me too, back at base and in bed,
says Joy.

How did it go?

Really great,
says Joy.
I felt like Cinderella liberated past curfew.

And you didn’t turn into a pumpkin.

Ha! How was B?

Gangbusters,
I say.
A perfect night.

Well highfive then

Highfive indeed.

And Joy sends me an animated picture of two soccer players attempting a high five, failing, and smacking each other in the face simultaneously.

“Good night, Joy,” I say, before falling into a clear, deep sleep.

chapter 11
gem swapping

At The Store the next day I am useless. I forget to bag things, I give out the wrong change, I stare right past customers’ eyes.

“You terrible,” says Dad, laughing with glee. “Right now you in so-called state of perpetual distraction.”

But he’s not mad or anything. He just laughs and laughs, because he thinks I’m dating Joy Song.

Brit and I text for a bit later that night, but not as much as you’d think. It’s like we both want to save it up for Monday when we see each other again at school. So I bid her good night, retrieve Brit’s dad’s gift—the small round tin—and open it to reveal a small spool of old audiotape. I carefully mount it onto an old portable Sony reel-to-reel from my collection of audio equipment. I begin digitizing my favorite clips. At one point, I hear Brit’s mom’s voice amid the screeching din of the subway car.

Look at those two,
she says.

Get yourselves a room,
says another male voice. Brit’s dad.

Are we like that?
she says.

Well, I sure as hell hope so,
he says.

They sound a little like me and Brit. I wonder: what did Mom-n-Dad sound like when they were
courting
, as Brit’s dad put it? There’s no recording; even if there were, it’d all be in Korean. Which I guess could get translated. But would it still feel the same?

Monday rolls around. In Calculus, Brit drops her eraser and I pick it up for her.

“Thank you,” she says, eyes ablaze.

“You’re welcome,” I say.

“Well, you two are cordial,” says Mr. Soft, with a perplexed look like someone may have just farted roses. “Okay, turkeys, brief history of the farce that is the modern SAT.”

Class ends. I give Brit a long parting look, and she holds it until she vanishes around a corner.

“Amore,” says Q. He claps his hands. “So. Blood Keep ended badly. Paul Olmo’s mage is dead.”

I shoot Q a look. A character dying is a big deal, and unlike in video games it’s permanent. “No shit. What happened?”

Q shrugs. “Got greedy. He’s been running this scam where he ripped off our party’s gems and swapped in fake ones so no one noticed. But oh, they did.”

“Paul did this?” Paul turned in loose wallets to the lost and found. Paul didn’t steal.

“The party offered him an ultimatum: battle them or preserve some of his dignity through suicide.”

“Jesus.”

“You think you know people,” says Q, breathing mist onto his glasses.

I can see two dozen gem-shaped metaphors incoming, and I just have to laugh.

Just then Joy Song emerges from the crowd, eating from a bag of gigantic grapes. I know these grapes. They’re called wang-podo.
Wang
is Korean for
king size
, and
podo
just means
grapes
. Anyway, I think Koreans have a thing for really super-big grapes.

Joy sticks her tongue out and sidearms a wang grape—
thwack
—onto my neck.

“Fuck,” I say, laughing.

“Hahahahaahehehehahahaha,” says Joy.

I pick up the grape and fling it at her.

“Aaaaaaa,” says Joy, and runs away. But she looks back to share a grin with me.

Q just gives me a sober look. “Oooookay?”

“Well,” I say, struggling for words. “We’re family friends, right? But we got to talk with each other at a Gathering, like really talk, and it turns out she’s super cool.”

“Uh-huh,” says Q, still with that look.

“Don’t think with your mouth open,” I say.

Later, I’m driving us to Q’s house. Tonight is chicken tetrazzini, but with Louisiana hot sauce because only someone with the taste buds of a baby would eat that shit plain.

“So, you like Brit,” says Q slowly.

I swim the car side to side. “I like Brit, yes.”

“Then what was that whole Joy thing?”

“Joy and I are good friends,” I say. “Just up until now I didn’t know how good of friends we could be.”

“So you’re just really good, really brand-new friends.”

“Basically.”

Q’s phone buzzes, but he ignores it. “Why didn’t you just say that, then?”

I feel Q’s words pinging around in my brain.

Why didn’t you just say that?

Why didn’t you just say?

Why didn’t you?

Why?

I should tell Q everything. I don’t want to deceive him about my . . . deception.

That sounds weird.

“So listen,” I say. “There’s something you should know about me and Joy. Let’s just say we have a special relationship. With special benefits.”

Q’s eyes widen.

I put up jazz hands. “Whoa whoa whoa. Not
special benefits
special benefits.”

Q’s fartphone buzzes again. It’s his mom, who Q puts on speaker.

“Will?” says Q’s mom. She still calls him that. “Please do not put me on speaker.”

“Too late, Mom.”

“Can you pick up your sister from the dojo on the way home, please?”

“I’m in the middle of a very important conversation, Mom.”

“We’re happy to do it, Mrs. Lee,” I say. Q punches me and I barely feel it.

“Thank you, Frankie.”

Q hangs up and aims a finger at my eye. “Continue.”

“More like to be continued,” I say back. “Let’s get your sister first.”

•   •   •

We shovel our way through dinner, sweating heroically from the spice. Evon is apparently too smoking hot to perspire the slightest bit, even after seconds.

She offers me a napkin. “So. Brit.”

I look at her, but her beauty is too painful and I must avert my eyes.

“I think that’s sweet,” says Evon. “Although isn’t she a little young?”

“She’s literally three months younger than me.”

“Anyway, it’s cute.”

“Wait,” I say. “You know I’m like a month older than you, right?”

“And I’m three seconds older, because—” says Q.

“Stop,” says Q’s mom.

We forget to clear our dishes, are reminded to, go back to clear our dishes, and run upstairs to Q’s room to start cramming for the SAT. I can tell Q is dying to ask me questions about Joy, and I too am dying to tell Q everything, but we get the work out of the way first because we are those kids and the test is only a couple days away.

The SAT is a ridiculous exam, written as if it were geared toward aliens visiting Earth for the first time.

Valentine’s Day is an important celebration of love and deep friendship where people send each other traditional “valentines.” If there are 110 valentines to be sent within a group, and each member of that group must send one valentine to everyone else in that group, how many people are in the group?

“It’s eleven,” I say. “Each person sends ten valentines, because you don’t send a valentine to yourself, and eleven times ten is 110.”

“Yay, your logic is mind-altering,” says Q. We close our books. “Now: about your special relationship with Joy. Are you or are you not playing two girls at once?”

“That’s awful, no!”

“Are you one of these so-called players, plotting to use Brit to make Joy jealous enough to leave Wu and get together with you?”

“No, but that is impressively complicated.”

“Give me the straight dope. Don’t make me wrassle you.”

“Listen.”

“I’ll take you down.”

“We’re dating, but it’s all fake.”

Q stops. He makes a stank-face. “Hah?”

I take a breath and continue. “We made our parents think we’re dating, so that way I can go out as much as I want with Brit, and Joy with Wu.”

“Because Brit is—”

“Mmm.”

“And Wu is—”

“Right.”

“And your parents don’t—”

“Exactly.”

“Ahhhh.” Q nods and nods, appreciating the cleverness of the setup. But his face contracts. “You’re swapping gems.”

I think about Paul Olmo, waiting to unload his sachet of glass baubles while the rest of the party was asleep.

“I am not swapping gems.”

“A gem swap this is.”

“Did you steal my charger?” says a voice. It’s Evon, dressed in a shiny outfit that could be meant for either sleep, exercise, or a night out.

“You’re rudely interrupting a prolonged dialogue of great intensity,” shouts Q.

I toss her a Loco-Lime™ green charger from my bag. “Use mine.”

Evon snatches the charger out of the air without looking—impressive—and points it at me. “At least some boys are gentlemen.” She shuts the door behind her.

“Shut the door,” says Q, too late.

“Anyway,” I say, returning to Q. “It’s a win-win setup.”

I can see Q consider me and Joy’s scheme as if considering the integrity of an algorithm, and his eyes dart brightly back and forth until he hits a snag.

“But for how long?” he says finally.

“As long as we can,” I say with a shrug. “Summer? Graduation?”

“And then what?” says Q.

“Then we’re in college, and we can
really
do what we want.”

Q levels his brow at me. “And then?”

“No
and then
,” I say, quoting a favorite movie of ours.

“I just think you’d be better off coming clean to your parents, even if you take months to do it.”

“I’m not pulling a Hanna.”

“Hanna did it too abrupt and without warning,” says Q. “You should ease them into it. Ease.” He carves a gentle path with both hands.

I don’t want to go down this path of his. “Do I seriously have to formulate a long-term parental diplomatic strategy just to date a girl? I mean, you wouldn’t have to.”

Q concedes this point. “In theory. In reality the whole thing is moot, unless—”

Q cuts himself off. Is he thinking of someone?

I pounce. “Unless what? Unless
who
?”

I study Q’s face. It’s fascinating: Q is suddenly
shy
.

“Come on,” I say. “Who is it you like?”

Like I mentioned, Q and I normally never talk about romantic interests. But he must have them. Sure, he’s a huge socially awkward nerd—but he’s a boy just like any other boy. It just feels weird to talk about romance with a friend you’ve had forever. He liked a girl one time in middle school—Kara Tram—and we barely talked about it. She moved away, and that was that.

Q thinks with his mouth open for a long moment before speaking. “That bit of information is only for the queen herself, old chap.”

“Amelie Shim.”

Q’s lips go tight. He shakes his head. “Mmm.”

“Naima Gupta.”

Q sighs. “No, and it doesn’t matter anyway. The
objet
of my affection is already going out with someone else.”

“That sucks.”

“It positively fellates.”

“What can you even do?”

“Just pine away,” says Q. “I can pine like a tree.”

I lean in and whisper. “Who is it?”

“So we get to college, and then what?” says Q, ignoring me. “Your parents will still call and visit. And what about after college? Are you still swapping gems? One day, college ends. And then?”

This is exactly what I didn’t want to talk about. I just wanted to talk about how sweet me and Joy’s setup is, and how freaking magical my night with Brit was. Not this future crap.

“Hanna is
and then
,” I blurt. “You know how she married Miles at city hall? Because she knew Mom-n-Dad would never show up to a real wedding? That’s
and then
. She and Miles’ll have kids, and they’ll grow up, and Mom-n-Dad will get super old, and that’s
and
fucking
then
.”

“Hey, hey,” says Q.

“She married a black dude. You of all people know how basic this bullshit gets. Come on, man.”

Q puts an arm around me and squeezes my shoulder. “I feel you. I really do.”

“I don’t know
and then
. No one does. I just—I had a really great night with Brit. One of the best ever. That’s all I really want to talk about right at this moment. This moment in time is about all my brain can handle.”

“Okay, okay, okay,” says Q, calming me. “I feel you.”

“Sorry.”

“You’re good,” says Q.

“Got a little worked up.”

“It’d be weird if you didn’t, old boy.”

I smile at him. “You’re so great, you make that wall in China feel like a chain-link fence.”

Q smiles back. “You’re so cool, global warming’s scared of you.”

“You’re so bomb, they had to evacuate the building.”

And so on. This is our version of the Dozens, except instead of insulting each other’s moms, we hurl compliments back and forth. We call it the Baker’s Dozens. In a round of the Baker’s Dozens, no one ever loses and everyone wins.

“I’m happy you’re happy, and to hell with everything and everyone,” says Q, squinting at me through his invisible monocle and raising an invisible gimlet. “To this moment in time.”

“To this moment.”

We invisible-toast.

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