Settings
Gasp

Gasp

Gasp 3

• • •

  When it’s finally clear to my dad that the firefighters aren’t going to let him poke around in the still-burning embers, we pack up the meatball truck and the delivery car and drive away with everything we own. We park in the elementary school parking lot across the street from Aunt Mary’s house. We drag our bags of random donations inside and crash in Aunt Mary’s living room while her kids are in school.

  • • •

  When I wake up, it’s two in the afternoon. I have a crick in my neck and for a minute I can’t figure out where I am. But then I hear my mom and dad talking about insurance and it all comes back to me.

  Five things that rush through your brain when you wake up midday in a strange place after your house burns down:

  1. It feels like somebody died.

  2. I wonder what the losers at school are saying about this.

  3. I guess that’s one way to get rid of all Dad’s shit.

  4. My hair absolutely reeks.

  5. Oh yeah, it’s my birthday.

  Wait. One more thought:

  6. Um, why didn’t anyone have a vision to help prevent this?

  From the reclining chair I’ve been sleeping in, I watch my parents talking at the kitchen table. My dad looks like he got hit by a truck. His hair is all messed up and his face is gray leather. I don’t think he slept much. Mom looks tired, but not as bad as my dad. She’s always been stronger than him. I get up and venture over to them.

  Mom looks up and sees me. She smiles and points to a chair. “Did you sleep okay, birthday girl?”

  My lips try to smile, but for some stupid reason I’m overcome by the fact that in the midst of this mess, my mother remembers it’s my birthday, so I do this weird screwed-up face instead. “Not bad, considering it’s a lumpy chair. I just want a shower.”

  “You’ve got about an hour before your cousins get home,” she says. “Aunt Mary has everything you’ll need in the bathroom.”

  I get up, and she grabs my hand. I stop.

  “We had gifts for you,” she says through pinched lips.

  I swallow hard and feel dumb that I’m so emotional about this. The whole house and restaurant is gone, and I feel sorry for myself because my birthday presents burned up. “I don’t need anything,” I say. “I wasn’t even going to mention it.”

  “I know.” She squeezes my hand. “We’ll all go out for dinner—the five of us, I mean. For your birthday.”

  I glance at my dad, and he nods. He pats his shirt pocket. “I have my delivery tips to pay for it.”

  It’s a joke.

  My dad made a joke.

  And I remember when I used to love him.

  Nine

  Sawyer calls when I’m putting on some stranger’s donated clothes.

  “Happy birthday,” he says. “I love you. What do you need most for your birthday?”

  “Besides you?”

  “Besides me.”

  “A phone charger.”

  “That can be arranged. What else?”

  I think about this stranger’s bra I’m wearing that doesn’t quite fit, and cringe. “Some . . . you know. Embarrassing schtuff.”

  “Ahhm . . . ,” he says, and I can tell he has no idea where to begin. He guesses. “Like panty liner shit? And whatever else? ’Cause Kate’s got like a whole drawer full of that stuff and she said I could bring you whatever.” Kate is Sawyer’s college-aged cousin who he moved in with after his dad gave him a black eye.

  “Thankfully, no.” I think about how much it would suck to have your house burn down on the night before your birthday and also get your period, and I realize things could actually be worse. “Like underwear.” I blush. Apparently we haven’t gotten to the underwear-discussion stage in our relationship.

  “Hey, that’s perfect—according to my sources, underwear is the five-week-dating anniversary gift,” he says. “Can we go shopping today? Or are you too busy with . . . uh . . .”

  “With wearing a stranger’s underwear?”

  “Yeah.” He laughs.

  “I can probably sneak out of here for a couple hours. I’ll need to be home in time to do my birthday dinner, which should be a wild party.” I search through Aunt Mary’s bathroom cupboards for a hair dryer. “Can you pick me up in thirty minutes?”

  “Aren’t your parents around?”

  “I don’t care. I’m getting out of here for a while, and I’m leaving with you, and it’s too bad if they see me. They have enough other stuff to get ridiculous about.”

  He hesitates. “I don’t want to cause them any more stress.”

  I pause. “No, it’s cool. I’ll talk to my mom. She’s starting to dig you a little.”

  “She is?”

  “Don’t tell her I told you.”

  I can hear the smile in his voice. “Okay, well, if Trey and Rowan need to get out, they can come along. If you want.”

  I think about it for a moment. I want to be alone with Sawyer, but the bratty cousins will be home soon, and Rowan and Trey need underwear as much as I do. “Yeah,” I say reluctantly. “I’ll ask them. Even though I just want to be alone with you.”

  “Me too, baby,” he says, and I can hear the longing in his voice. It makes my chest hurt. “But they could probably use a break too.”

  “Yeah. Make it forty-five minutes.” We hang up.

  • • •

  Forty-five minutes later, Mom and Dad are sitting at the table with a woman from the insurance company. Trey and Rowan are ready to go, and my mother seems distractedly relieved to hear we’re going shopping for underwear. Sawyer comes to the door with two paper sacks full of stuff from him and Kate, like fingernail clippers and tampons and hairbrushes and razors and crazy hair product and a huge bag of makeup samples from Sephora, which is a store I’d totally shop at if I gave a shit about makeup and had a million dollars. Rowan squeals when she sees it.

  My father looks up from the kitchen table, pulled from his thoughts, and his eyes travel from Sawyer’s shifting stance to Rowan’s delighted expression. Mom watches Dad, but Dad doesn’t say anything. He turns his attention back to the insurance woman, and we’re home free. “Be back by six,” my mom calls after us. “Don’t eat any junk.”

  I almost cry at that. I don’t know why, other than it sounds so normal.

  • • •

  We stop at the ATM to get money, thankful all three of us deposited our latest stash of tip money on Saturday, so we didn’t lose much. We head to the underwear section of the local everything store. Over the course of thirty minutes, Sawyer transforms from suspicious-looking ladies’ department fringe creeper to active participant in camisole and bra fetching. I think it helps that as soon as Trey grabs his boxer briefs and a few other necessities from the men’s department, he begins roaming our section, letting everyone know how he feels about the various “design collections.” We get some clothes, too, but not very many, because, as Trey points out, we’re not really sure if we’re going to need our savings for other things . . . like a place to live. Because we definitely don’t want to live in Aunt Mary’s living room forever.

  In electronics we pick up phone chargers for the whole family, which Sawyer insists on paying for. We buy a few snacks to replenish Aunt Mary’s cupboards, and then we go. When Sawyer drops us off at five forty-five, Trey and Rowan take the bags inside. And Sawyer and I finally get a few moments of privacy in the car.

  Sawyer reaches for my hand. He kisses each knuckle and looks at me with his sweet, sweet eyes, and then he slides his free hand through my hair and leans in, kissing me, our entwined fingers trapped between his chest and mine, our hearts beating through them, and I feel like the fire is inside me now.

  After a moment we break apart and I glance nervously at the house windows, but nobody’s spying. Sawyer traces my wet lips with his thumb.

  “Let me know if you need anything,” he says.

  “I will.”

  “You going to school tomorrow?”

  “Yeah.”

>  “Good. I felt weird being there without you today.”

  I nod and look down. “Does everybody know?”

  “Yes. It was pretty much the topic of the morning. People are sorry. Mr. Polselli wanted me to tell you he’s glad your family is okay.”

  “That was nice of him.” Suddenly I don’t want to go to school. It’s going to be awkward, not for the first time this year. I glance at the dashboard clock. “I should get inside before my dad starts in with the pregnant bit,” I say.

  Sawyer smiles. He releases my hand, reaches behind my seat, and pulls out a package with a bow. “Here,” he says, handing it to me.

  I look at him. “But you paid for the phone chargers and a bunch of other stuff.”

  He shrugs. “So? You think I want to be known as the guy who got his girlfriend a phone charger and underwear for her birthday? You think I want that hanging over my head the rest of my life?”

  The rest of his life.

  He catches himself and adds, “I mean, when you’re famous and you’re out there telling your first-boyfriend stories . . . well, I don’t want to be remembered for that.”

  I laugh, but it sounds hollow in my ears. “I guess I don’t want you to be that guy either, since it would only make me look bad when it comes to my choice in boyfriends.” I shift my eyes to the package and start opening it, letting the distraction of working the taped corners ease the awkwardness of the moment.

  Under the paper is a plain brown rectangular box. “Perfume?” I guess.

  “No guessing.”

  I shake it.

  “You might not want to do that.”

  “A can of soda?”

  “Which is somehow better than a phone charger? Open it.”

  I can’t imagine what it is. It’s too heavy and big for jewelry, and it’s clearly not a book. What else do boys get girls for their birthday?

  I open the box and pull out something in bubble wrap. I ease the tape off and unwind it to find: a superhero bobblehead. In my own likeness. And on my cape is a giant letter I. I crack up and tap my bobblehead. “Best present ever! How did you do it?”

  He looks relieved. “Through a website. I sent them a photo of you.”

  I examine it. Dark hair, brown eyes, skeptically arched eyebrow. “Yep, that’s me.” I point to the letter I on the cape. “Is that for ‘interesting’? ‘Intelligent’?”

  “No,” he says quietly.

  “ ‘Important’?” I guess, batting my lashes.

  He shakes his head.

  “No, wait, I know. ‘Insane.’ ”

  “No,” he says. “It’s for ‘invincible.’ ”

  “Invincible,” I repeat.

  He nods and looks away. “Because I need you to be.”

  For the first time since the fire, I think long and hard about the vision curse.

  Ten

  Mom, Dad, Trey, Rowan, and I pile into the delivery car, which no longer has anything to deliver, so I guess it’s just a car. We go to one of those Japanese teppanyaki places where the chef does all those spatula and knife tricks and makes an onion volcano and tosses food into his hat and at your face, and we all try really hard to have a good time for the sake of everybody else. It’s weird, actually, the five of us all eating dinner together like today is Christmas Day or something. And when I think about how life could be like this for who knows how long, it makes me feel like I’m suffocating.

  During a lull in the chef action, Rowan makes a paper airplane with her used napkin and gives it to me for my birthday. Trey presents me with his soup spoon and three mints that he swiped from the register area while we were waiting to be seated. And Mom and Dad slip me twenty bucks, no card or anything—they haven’t had time to do more. The chef finds out it’s my birthday and does the fake ketchup squirt trick on me—where a red string comes out of the bottle when he squeezes it—and tosses me an extra shrimp, and then after we’re done eating, the server brings me a free dessert with a candle in it, which is pretty cool.

  When we get back to Aunt Mary’s, she and the younger two cousins are frosting a birthday cake for me, so of course I’m forced to eat a piece of that—what a shame. But for once I can’t even finish it. My stomach feels like lead. Being here at Aunt Mary’s is like a glaring reminder that our home has been destroyed. And finally, as eleven Italians sit around in rare quiet eating cake, Trey asks the question we’ve all wanted to ask but didn’t quite know how.

  “So, Pops, what are we going to do now?”

  It’s startling. My dad looks at him, and at first his face goes to that normal sternness that we’ve gotten so used to recently, as if Trey was acting up. But then it softens. “We have insurance,” Dad says. “We’re going to be okay.”

  “Well, are you going rebuild the restaurant or what?” Rowan asks.

  Dad looks at Mom.

  “We don’t know yet,” Mom says. “We’re trying to figure that out.”

  I sit up. “What would you do if you don’t rebuild? Do you know how to do anything else?”

  Mom laughs and looks offended.

  “I didn’t mean it like that,” I say, even though I think I did. I can’t imagine my parents doing anything else. Especially my dad. I’d like to see him get his butt out of bed for a regular job day in and day out.

  “And what about our house?” Rowan asks. She glances at Aunt Mary. “I mean, we love you and all, but we can’t live here forever.”

  “We’re working on it,” my father says. “We’ll know more soon. We’re trying to figure everything out.”

  The room erupts into loud conversation about our options, with the cousins giving animated ideas of what my parents could do for a living instead of running a restaurant, such as joining the circus or being professional birthday party clowns. Trey and Rowan get into it, and the house turns back into a typical boisterous family gathering once more. When the doorbell rings, I get up to answer it like I live here.

  And it’s Ben.

  I stare at him, at first confused by how he knew where to find us, but then I gather my senses. “Come in,” I say, and a delighted grin spreads across my face. “It’s really great to see you.”

  “Hey,” he says. “I’m so sorry. Sawyer called me. I’m—I can’t believe it.”

  “I know.” I usher him in. He looks a little frightened by the noise coming from the dining room. “Don’t be scared. This is our typical decibel level whenever the family gets together.”

  “I don’t want to intrude.”

  “You’re not. In fact, I think you will lift the spirits of more than just me by your presence.” I grin, and he blushes.

  I drag him through the breezeway and into the kitchen, which is connected to the dining room, and when Trey notices us, he stops talking midsentence. He shoves his chair back and stands up. His face betrays just how much it means to him to see Ben. Everybody stops talking and turns to look at what Trey is looking at. Ben waves nervously.

  “Hi, um,” he says, not sure which of the adults to address.

  “This is our friend Ben,” I say. At the name, Rowan perks up, and I remember she’s never met him. I introduce everybody.

  “I’m sorry about the fire,” Ben says. “You must be, uh, really shocked and sad . . .”

  Trey springs to life and comes to Ben’s rescue. He rushes over and turns Ben around and guides him back to the breezeway so they can talk, and Rowan whispers, “He’s so cute!”

  “I know,” I say.

  “Why can’t you go out with him instead of that other one?” my father booms too loudly, but for once there’s no anger in his tired voice.

  I stare at him. “Seriously? There are so many things wrong with that question that I don’t know where to start,” I say.

  “What is that supposed to mean? It’s just a question.”

  “He’s gay, Dad,” Rowan says, licking the frosting off her fork.

  “Oh. Well, why didn’t you just say that?”

  “He’s not Italian,” Uncle Vito re
marks.

  “So?” Mom’s eyes flash. She turns to me. “Is he—are he and Trey—?”

  I shrug. It’s not for me to say.

  However, there’s Rowan. “They made out.”

  “God, Ro,” I say, and I start laughing. “They didn’t, actually. Poor Ben.”

  “Why poor Ben?” Mom says, bristling. “We’re good people. What’s wrong with us? Is he too good for us?”

  “No, he’s just scared to death.”

  “He’s not Italian,” Uncle Vito says again.

  “Exactly, that’s why he’s scared.”

  “That’s what I’m saying,” Uncle Vito says. He picks his teeth. “So what is he, Mexican?”

  “Vito!” Aunt Mary and Mom say together.

  “What? It’s just a question!”

  “It’s racist,” Aunt Mary says.

  “Oh, for crying out loud. It is not. People ask me that all the time.”

  “They do not,” Aunt Mary says. “It’s too obvious with you.”

  “Either way, it’s rude,” Mom says. “He’s American like everybody here.”

  “How do you know?” Uncle Vito asks. Aunt Mary slaps him.

  “He’s Filipino-American,” Trey calls out from the breezeway in an annoyed voice. “So knock it off already. Hey, kids, have another piece of cake, why don’t you?”

  I grin at Rowan as our younger cousins start shrieking and grabbing more cake and Aunt Mary shoots a look of mock disgust in the direction of the breezeway. It’s good to be laughing.

  I hear the screen door slam shut and hope it’s not Ben running for his life.

  And if it is, I hope Trey is running with him.

  Eleven

  School is weird but we get through the first day, and the second, and the third. People are being nice—for now. But I know how this goes. In a few more days, when their pinprick-size moments of sympathy run out, they’ll be talking behind my back again.

  After school on Thursday I find Sawyer and we linger outside the meatball truck for a minute while Rowan and Trey climb inside.

  “Anything you guys need?” he asks me, like he’s asked every day this week.

  “Nah. We’re good.” He’s already done enough. “Do you have plans tonight?”