The Misfit Pioneers

This piece first appeared in 1:1000, an online literary journal. Check out their excellent stories! 

Ming hauled the door open, her lips pressed together against the chill. Rubbing her hands, she dusted the white flakes off her coat and hurried inside.

She rarely came to this side of campus. Though it was a small university, the engineering students kept to their quarters and the art students to theirs. A quiet thrill shot through her at this minor act of defiance.

The art studio exhibited a curious architecture. Filmy drapes hung on black bars, almost like shower curtains. Bulging pipes peered from the ceiling. A string of lights crisscrossed overhead with no real symmetry. Concrete walls splattered with ash and paint. At least the low-rise tables and chairs appeared orderly and clean, gathered in blocks across the tiled, gray hardwood.

It was a very American studio, at least in Ming’s mind. Back home they would not tolerate such a design, even for a creative workshop. Ventilation pipes belonged behind walls and makeshift lights would be tossed in favor of unobtrusive ceiling fixtures.

Naked. That is how she would describe the room.

“Escaping the cold?”

She jumped at the voice. Turning, she found a lanky, raven-haired boy watching her with an amused expression. His hands were dark with charcoal dust.

“I wanted to wait for the snow to stop. I parked in the main lot.”

“You’ll be waiting awhile, then.”

Ming shrugged. She did not want to dwell on what prevented her from going home earlier, much less explain it to a stranger.

“Are you a student?” she asked instead.

He nodded. “Just transferred from art history to art. Drop a word from my major’s name and gain another year’s worth of work.” He grinned. “I’m Jonah.”

“I’m Ming, electrical engineering,” she said, knowing that was sufficient explanation for why they were not acquainted.

“Ming,” he repeated. “Cool name.” Jonah glanced at the dirty window, the edges frosted over with snow and ice. “It doesn’t look like the storm is letting up. I make a mean hot chocolate, if you want me to fix some up.”

She hesitated for a moment but agreed. The roads were dangerous, and the hot and humid weather of her hometown had not prepared her for the bitter winters here. Besides, Jesse would not call anymore and Ming did not want to be home alone with her thoughts.

Jonah had an easy, unaffected manner. He filled the silence with small talk about his life as he bustled around the kitchen area. Ming sat at a table nearby and listened. She learned that he switched majors late, so he spent frequent nights in the studio playing catch-up. Unlike most college students, he disliked coffee, but had an unhealthy addiction to hot chocolate.

“It’s my grandma’s recipe. No sugar,” he boasted, as he set two steaming mugs before her.

The warm, rich scent filled her nostrils. “Thank you,” she said.

He pulled out the chair opposite to her. “So, Ming. Does your name mean anything?”

“It’s the same word for ‘bright’ in Chinese. It’s quite common.” She paused. “What about Jonah?”

“The prophet, in the Bible.” He grinned at Ming’s blank look. “God sent him to preach to a wicked city, he disobeyed, and was swallowed by a fish for three days.”

She considered it for a moment. “It seems like bad luck,” she said finally.

Jonah laughed. “He made it out alive. It’s a great story, actually.”

Ming flushed and fell silent. Her family burned incense, prayed for health and prosperity, and tried to live good lives for karma’s sake. In her last two years in America, her circle of engineering friends rarely discussed religion, philosophy or literature. If Jesse worshiped anything, it was Bruce Willis movies, which he insisted were a sufficient lens into western culture and ideals.

“Do you plan to go back to China after school?”

“I wasn’t, but—” Ming stopped abruptly, a painful twinge in her chest. She met Jonah’s eyes, steady and kind. “My boyfriend is from here. He broke up with me today.” The words fell out in a rush.

Jonah’s eyes crinkled. “I’m sorry.” Then he added, “He’s a jerk.”

Surprised, Ming glanced at him. “You don’t know him.”

“Of course not. But he probably is.” He held up a hand to stop her interruption. “Here’s a rule for breakups. Get rid of that urge to defend him.” A crooked smile slid up his face. “I don’t know him. I know you. I’m on your side, alright?”

Ming suppressed the urge to tell him that his logic was convoluted and nonsensical. She had to admit it felt good to have someone on her side.

She and Jesse shared the same circle of friends. Or, more accurately, Jesse formed their circle of friends and drew her in when they began dating. Ming knew this was nonsensical too, that the loss of one relationship could make her feel so unanchored and lonely on a campus teeming with students.

“Thanks,” she said. “My friends were all Jesse’s friends, so…” she trailed off.

Jonah nodded in understanding. “Jesse is from the Bible too. Father of a king,” he murmured. “I’m guessing your ex isn’t that great.”

Ming couldn’t help but laugh. “I don’t think so. And how are you living up to your name?”

“I’m all for seeing the inside of a fish.” Jonah grinned. “I like a good adventure. I’m forming a campus club for explorers, actually. The Misfit Pioneers. Have you heard the rumors about this place?”

She had. The administration tried to check wild gossip, but students still whispered about secret passageways and treasure troves buried beneath the grounds. Ming could never decide if it was the typical American obsession with conspiracy, or if there was some truth wrapped in the stories.

Jonah was on the ground, wrestling with something in the tiles. “This is what happens when you spend too much time here,” he called up to her. She heard a crack and an entire tile came loose. A plume of dust rose as he heaved it aside.

Ming yelped and joined him, peering into the darkness.

“What’s—in there?” she asked.

“Not sure. I was going to check it out sometime, hopefully with a buddy.” He met her gaze. “So, interested in joining my club?”

“How many people are in it?” she asked, still distracted by the gaping hole in the floor.

“Well, now there are two of us.”

 

Photography by Anthony Delanoix. Story by me. Original publication here.

The Zephyr Christmas Files, Part VII

Read [Part I], [Part II], [Part III], [Part IV], [Part V], and [Part VI].

Part VII. A Farewell to Fear (Finale)

MESSAGE SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 12:09:23 AM
From Jansen to Darby 

How did it go?!

MESSAGE SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 12:12:10 AM
From Darby to Jansen 

[LOREN-MAGS.JPG]

MESSAGE SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 12:13:40 AM
From Jansen to Darby

My life is complete.

E-MAIL SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 3:25:12 AM
From Avery Chan to Darby Chan 

Oh Darby.

I would too. To answer your last question. I would be home in a heartbeat too if things were different.

For some reason our Internet is being rationed to the extreme, so I have only minutes to write, and no way to do justice to this topic.

You are brave, my sister. You are brave to look at these hard things in the face and ask hard questions that I don’t have good answers to. Let’s agree now that we will talk about all of this in person when I come home, even if it’s awkward and difficult. (Pinky promise?)

Would you consider going home for New Years? There’s still a bit of break left if you change your mind. No pressure, but maybe that would help—you, mom and dad. And me, to know you’re there.

Regardless, I love you. And my Internet might cut out any moment but can I just say WHAT ADRIAN HAS A GF? Okay not funny but I can’t wait to hear how Jansen and Mags react to

LETTER FROM THE COURT

Re: Speeding Ticket #F9474

Dear Mr. Suzuki,

Thank you for your letter. We have read and considered your petition, but unfortunately, your request has been denied. The $300 fine will stand, and you must complete the required hours of driving school or receive a mark on your record.

We wish you a restful holiday and a happy new year.

MARGARET’S JOURNAL

Major update 1: I went to dinner with Loren. He was quite the gentleman and it was actually enjoyable and not too awkward until Adrian and Darby scared the lights out of us. We were indignant, but secretly, they made the evening more memorable. Loren looked like a total deer in the headlights.

 Major update 2: Darby is going home for New Years. She’s hitching a ride with Adrian, who incidentally, was already planning to go home for New Years.

 Major update 3: Apparently, Adrian has a girlfriend. Way to keep us in the dark, Darby. Though Jansen’s reaction was pretty great. 

Major update 4: Loren asked me to be his girlfriend.

I said yes.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 9:28:02 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags

Guys. I can’t believe I’m leaving in an hour.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 9:30:21 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

We’ll miss you. But we are proud of you, Darby.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 9:35:29 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags

JUKI. ACK.
I love you guys.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 9:37:10 AM
From Mags to D-Chan, Juki

We love you!

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 9:40:05 AM
From Juki to Mags, D-Chan

Kids, please don’t get too emotional on me. It makes me uncomfortable.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 9:42:12 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags

Making you uncomfortable is one of life’s great pleasures. Keep me posted on EVERYTHING at Zephyr for the rest of break!

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 9:45:49 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

Yes ma’am. I’ll just be third-wheeling a lot.

E-MAIL SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 10:13:30 AM
From Darby Chan to Avery Chan 

Thanks sister.

Just writing to say: I’m going home.

Here’s to being brave and loving fiercely in 2016.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 10:03:09 AM
From Adrian to Darby

Ready to go?

MESSAGE SENT ON December 30, 2015 AT 10:05:18 AM
From Darby to Adrian

Let’s hit the road.

Fin.

Thanks for reading, and a wonderful 2016 to you!

The Zephyr Christmas Files, Part VI

(Note: Happy New Year! I meant to finish this earlier, but playing catch up here. Likely 1 more installment after this one. Thanks for reading, and hope you enjoy!)

Read [Part I], [Part II], [Part III], [Part IV], and [Part V].

Part VI. Home Is Where the Heart Is

JANSEN’S RECIPE FOR A LOVE STORY, V2.0

  1. Boy
  2. Girl
  3. A crooning, soulful voice *

* Why didn’t I major in music? Bad call, Jansen.

MARGARET’S JOURNAL

Well, I did it. I talked to Darby. I think it went well, minus the part where she broke down in tears. 

I’m not very good with people crying, especially someone who isn’t ordinarily emotional or weepy. Then you know they feel awkward and horrible to be seen by you, which only compounds your own discomfort. I admit I breathed a sigh of relief when we finished talking, but in retrospect, I’m glad I said something. And since I already put it out there, I just told her what I really thought. I told her she should go home.

I can’t imagine being in my 40s or 50s and spending Christmas and New Years alone, thinking this is what all my years so far have amounted to. I’m sure her parents know Darby and Avery don’t want to face their pending divorce, but for them to avoid home entirely over the break really pours salt onto the wound. 

Darby took it quite graciously. I don’t know if I would have in her place, which makes me feel like a hypocrite, but a very grateful one that I’m not facing the same situation. I just can’t imagine.

On a lighter note, Loren’s performance was fun. He’s actually very good, though he won’t hear me say that aloud. We’ve been messaging back and forth in haikus, and he left me this note afterwards. 

Dearest Margaret,
I hope you enjoyed the show.
Dinner tomorrow?

…I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. Is this a date? I’m not good at dates. To dine or not to dine? Why I am so scared of stupid little things like this? 

Courage, Mags.

Okay. I guess I’ll go to dinner.  

E-MAIL SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 10:52:02 AM
From Darby Chan to Avery Chan

Dear Avery,

Loren’s show was great! Have I mentioned yet that he totally has a thing for Margaret?

Speaking of her, we talked yesterday about mom and dad. It seemed like she’s wanted to bring it up for awhile but kept it bottled in because, I don’t know, she was afraid of my reaction. Can’t say I blame her.

I know this is the unspoken Taboo Subject We Glaringly Haven’t Discussed. Well, Mags made me sit through it, so I’ve got to dump some of the burden on you too. Sorry. I have to admit though, as I’m writing this, I’m almost glad you’re in Africa right now. It’s easier to communicate this through text than face to face—I think I’ll be more real and open (not my strong suits in real life).

I’m angry, Avery. I’m angry that after so many years and our entire lives together, they would want to break the family apart. I know it’s selfish of me to avoid home (and you? No accusations, I’ll let you speak for yourself) but aren’t they selfish to just give up? There’s so much jaded cynicism already in the world about relationships and marriages, but I just can’t bear that reality actually invading our family. It was always something Out There.

It makes me think, even someone as kind and good as Adrian (who, again, I don’t like; just an example) might become who-knows-what in twenty years. Maybe someone who ups and leaves his family? How can we trust any guy?

How can we trust ourselves?

Now I’m extra glad you’re in Africa. Believe me (I know you do), I would never have said all that to your face. Because I’m not brave. Because Mags was right when she confronted me. I am running away.

Skiing, winter trip, getaway with friends, last school break ever, etc. All of it is an excuse. Because if mom and dad were staying together, I swear I would be home in a heartbeat.

What about you?

Darby

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 11:45:12 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

Are you guys writing New Year Resolutions?

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 11:48:29 AM
From Mags to Juki, D-Chan 

YOU write New Year Resolutions?

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 11:53:39 AM
From Juki to Mags, D-Chan

Last year of college. I’m going to be a new man. Don’t hate.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 11:55:08 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags 

My prediction – Resolution 1: Find a girlfriend.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 11:59:19 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

Well, not all of us have a Dr. Stark magically drop into our winter breaks.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 12:23:55 PM
From Adrian to Darby 

I heard Loren and Margaret are having dinner…

MESSAGE SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 12:29:20 PM
From Darby to Adrian

Yes…

MESSAGE SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 12:32:25 PM
From Adrian to Darby

I owe Loren an epic prank. Looking for a partner in crime.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 12:33:10 PM
From Darby to Adrian

That’s really Jansen’s area.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 12:33:55 PM
From Darby to Adrian

Buuut this is hard to turn down.
Okay count me in.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 12:40:19 PM
From Adrian to Darby

Excellent. I owe you one.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 29, 2015 AT 12:43:21 PM
From Darby to Adrian

So mercenary of you. I can only hear that in Han Solo’s voice.

JANSEN’S NEW YEAR RESOLUTIONS

  1. Graduate
  2. Find a job that’s not in fast food industry
  3. Find a girlfriend

The Zephyr Christmas Files, Part V

Read [Part I], [Part II], [Part III], and [Part IV].

Part V. Like Pixar and Sara Bareilles

MARGARET’S JOURNAL

How to be brave. It sounds like a self-help book, but it’s help that I need. How do you be brave with other people?

This life is so, so fragile. It’s almost ridiculous that most of us live our lives in a false bubble of security, thinking we have however many years ahead of us. “You’re young, and your whole future is ahead!” But who knows. Who knows if, at the next doctor’s appointment, they’ll say cancer, or the next car will plummet off a cliff, or the Earth will spin off its axis into frozen oblivion and no one will even know what happened.

I sound so morbid. It’s not death that frightens me, though. It’s never mustering up the courage to say what I ought to and seize the moments I do have that terrifies me. We spend most of our words on the mundane: weather, food, news, gossip.

Who cares? In ten years, who will remember or bother with that information? Heck, in ten minutes, even. I know a lot of people realize that and think that—so why can’t we break the barrier?

I guess, all that to say, we don’t have many more days left at Zephyr. And there are so many words left unsaid, and I don’t know where to find the courage to say them.

I think that’s why I write. Stories and fiction and everything. Aren’t these made up fairytales and re-imaginings of reality simply ways for us to say all the things we’re afraid to say aloud, bald-faced and bluntly?

I am afraid fiction is simply my cowardice masquerading as courage. 

Well, that will change. Stories may be for the cowards, but they are for the purpose of making us brave.

Before we leave, I will say the words that need to be said.

NOTICE: ZEPHYR MOUNTAIN CABIN RESIDENTS

We have a special treat to close out 2015! Our resident musician, sing-songwriter Loren Eastwood will be performing in the main lobby tonight. Loren has served us well this holiday season with delicious hot drinks at the cabin, and we are thrilled to have him share his musical talents with us too.

Loren will be performing some of his original pieces, and everyone is invited. We hope to see you there.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 11:30:29 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags

 Discharged!!

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 11:32:15 AM
From Mags to D-Chan, Juki

YES! Celebration tonight?

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 11:33:48 AM
From D-Chan to Mags, Juki

Sure thing. I’m supposed to take it easy though.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 11:35:12 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

Is that what Dr. Stark said?

MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 11:39:43 AM
From Loren to Margaret

Hello Margaret,
Join me at my show tonight?
Your friends can come too.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 11:42:19 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags

Adrian knows I got injured because I took your stupid dare. He’s rethinking his opinion of you.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 11:43:28 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

Oh I quake in my boots.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 11:45:38 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags

He mentioned Loren’s performance tonight. Let’s go to that?

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 11:48:30 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

You two better not ditch me for your dates.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 11:49:13 AM
From Mags to Juki, D-Chan

Let’s do it. (And commence Operation: Ditch Jansen).

MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 11:52:19 AM
From Margaret to Loren

Thanks for the invite.
I hope your musical skills
beat your haiku ones.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 2:14:29 PM
From Margaret to Darby 

Let’s grab some coffee in half an hour?

MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 2:17:32 PM
From Darby to Margaret

 Sure. Everything ok?

MESSAGE SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 2:18:12 PM
From Margaret to Darby

Yeah, don’t worry!

E-MAIL SENT ON December 28, 2015 AT 5:39:23 PM
From Darby Chan to Avery Chan 

Dear Avery,

AH you’re alive!

I don’t have a ton of time to write so longer update to follow (we’re going to Loren’s musical performance tonight), but a quick recap:

I sprained my ankle skiing two days ago. We tried the black diamond slope and I was actually getting the hang of it until Jansen dared me to do this ridiculous jump. You know me. I did it. Or tried to – hence the ankle sprain.

Adrian was on shift at the medical center when we came in. Long story short, they did a quick check up, found it was just a sprain, and I’ve been discharged today. It’s a little sore, but nothing I can’t bear. Adrian reprimanded me for taking up a stupid dare. It was kind of condescending, but kind of sweet? I’m not sure.

To answer your challenge: I do have evidence there’s nothing between us.

Adrian has a girlfriend.

Surprise. I know, I haven’t told Jansen or Margaret, so neither of them know, and I think they’re convinced we’re getting married or something. He told me (not in a weird way, just mentioned offhand when we were catching up) the day after we ran into each other here. So trust me when I say that I’ve entertained no notions about us. It really, really is a thing of the past. As for the way he’s treated me—well, you know how he was in high school. Just genuinely kind. Is it sad that genuinely kind is so easily interpreted as something more these days?

I need to go… but I have more to say. Margaret and I had a talk this afternoon that I need to tell you about.

Oh, the suspense. I’ll write again late tonight or early tomorrow. Enjoy your bottled waters.

Darby

P.S. I was able to confirm for real that Adrian does not have terrible doctor handwriting.

The Zephyr Christmas Files, Part IV

Read [Part I], [Part II], and [Part III].

Part IV. Letters to the Court 

MARGARET’S DRAFT

December 26, 2015
Re: Speeding Ticket #F9474

To Whom It May Concern:

I received a speeding ticket on the Zephyr Mountain 85 passage. The officer cited that I was going at a speed of either 50 or 55 miles per hour on a 35 speed limit road. However, I respectfully question the validity of the ticket, given both his uncertainty about my actual speed and the overall caution I take in abiding by the speed limit.

While we were entering a slower zone due to the mountain pass and snowy roads, the speed limit on the typical 85 highway is 55 to 65 miles per hour. I received the ticket almost immediately after entering the 35 speed limit zone, and I was in the process of slowing my vehicle down, with the occasional bump in speed that occurs in driving. Furthermore, the officer could not provide me a definite speed he saw me going at, so I do not agree with his statement that I was driving recklessly above the limit. 

I have never received a speeding ticket before as I regard the traffic laws highly and value the lives of my passengers and others on the road. I respectfully request that you consider my story, rescind the fine, and keep my driving record clear.

 Thank you for your consideration. Please contact me if you have any questions.

Sincerely,
Jansen Suzuki

JANSEN’S REVISED DRAFT

December 26, 2015
Re: Speeding Ticket #F9474

To Whom It May Concern:

I received a speeding ticket on the Zephyr Mountain 85 passage. The officer cited that I was going at a speed of either 50 or 60 miles per hour on a 35 speed limit road. However, I respectfully question the validity of the ticket, given both his uncertainty about my actual speed and the overall caution I take in abiding by the speed limit my patriotic love for country, displayed in strict adherence to perfectly sensible traffic laws.

While we were entering a slower zone due to the mountain pass and snowy roads, the speed limit on the typical 85 highway is 55 to 65 miles per hour. I received the ticket almost immediately after entering the 35 speed limit zone, and I was in the process of slowing my vehicle down, with the occasional bump in speed that occurs in driving couldn’t help but wonder why, in the turbulent time of 2015, our policemen are stationed on off-road mountain passes instead of in rioting streets. Furthermore, the officer could not provide me a definite speed he saw me going at, so I do not agree with his statement that I was driving recklessly above the limit. I also wonder why, in the year 2015, these instruments are not more precise. Where is our taxpayer money going?

I have never received a speeding ticket before as I regard the traffic laws highly and value the lives of my passengers and others on the road. I respectfully request that you consider my story, rescind the fine, and keep my driving record clear.

Thank you for your consideration. Please contact me if you have any questions.

Sincerely,
Jansen Suzuki

P.S. If this ticket is the result of the government being broke, I assure you, they are still richer than I am.

P.P.S. Merry Christmas and happy New Year. It is the season for joy, forgiveness and new beginnings. 

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 AT 10:24:12 AM
From Jansen to Margaret

Thanks, I owe you. Just made some minor revisions.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 AT 10:27:32 AM
From Margaret to Jansen

Uh oh.

E-MAIL SENT ON December 26, 2015 AT 12:39:43 PM
From Avery Chan to Darby Chan 

Darby!

It’s so, so good to open my inbox to all these messages from you. Sorry my access to Internet is limited, and there’s even a countdown now on my connection as I write. (I blitzed through your emails with lightning speed and now I’m thanking God they forced us to practice typing fast in elementary school).

MERRY CHRISTMAS. I don’t think I have enough connection time to tell you my stories, but I have some good ones. It’s been fantastic here. You’re right – I can’t beat your gift list this year. Perhaps I can only say it’s better to give than to receive, because it’s been pretty eye-opening to work with some of the kids here. The relentless humor in your emails was a pretty great gift too. And this truckload delivery of bottled spring water. It was so beautiful. Like, up there on the scale with that night sky you saw.

5 minutes on my countdown. Please keep writing me updates. Since I don’t have much time to comment, I’ll just say about Adrian: “There’s nothing between us,” you said.

GIRL I KNOW WHEN YOU’RE IN DENIAL. Give me better evidence or fess up.

Avery

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 1:43:29 PM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags 

Just ran into Loren. He asked if we wanted to try black diamond.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 1:45:32 PM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags 

Breakfast is over…

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 1:46:49 PM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

The slopes, not the breakfast, smart one.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 1:46:49 PM
From Mags to Juki, D-Chan 

Sure.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 1:49:30 PM
From D-Chan to Mags, Juki 

Whoa. When did Mags become so fearless? …Oh yeah, wait I know.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 1:51:12 PM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

Sorry Adrian won’t be there. He’s working.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 1:52:23 PM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags 

WHY am I always your target?

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 1:53:02 PM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags 

Mags wrote a letter for my speeding ticket.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 4:19:09 PM
From Loren to Margaret

How is Darby?

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 4:25:32 PM
From Margaret to Loren

I think it’s just a sprain. Thanks for helping.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 26, 2015 4:28:18 PM
From Loren to Margaret

Good. Coffee on me. I’ll bring some over to you guys later.

ZEPHYR MEDICAL LOG

Patient: Darby Chan
Injury: Sprained ankle
Cause: Slip on snow (A.S. attendee note: and inability to turn down a dare)

The Zephyr Christmas Files, Part III

Read [Part I] and [Part II].

Part III. White Christmas

E-MAIL SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 6:49:23 AM
From Ling Chan to Darby Chan, Avery Chan 

Merry Christmas, Darby and Avery!

I hope you are having fun and learning a lot this winter break. I miss my grown-up girls. Please email me back soon and tell me how you are doing and if everything is fine. I saw cheap tickets for flights over Spring Break – if you want, let me know and I can book them for you.

Love, Mom

MARGARET’S JOURNAL

The Five Things I Learned This Christmas Eve

  1. Darby’s high school crush was Adrian Stark. I can make fun of her for wanting the same last name as Iron Man.
  2. Adrian’s best friend is Loren Eastwood. He writes music.
  3. Loren is “coffee guy.” I guess his hit album is yet to come.
  4. I am a bumbling fool when it comes to talking to men.
  5. Cream puffs are vicious when they come at you at 5 (10?)+ MPH.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 7:21:09 AM
From Darby to Adrian 

I hope the chocolate came out your hair. So sorry (kind of).

MESSAGE SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 7:21:43 AM
From Darby to Adrian 

Oh, and merry Christmas!

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 7:25:41 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags

Merry Christmas crazy kids! Do you think we’ll get expelled?

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 7:27:25 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

 I think… you’ve got a cruuuuush.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 7:28:30 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags

Grow up Jansen. Back me up here, M.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 7:30:12 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

She’s probably busy chatting with Loren.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 7:30:52 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags

Mags + COFFEE GUY?!

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 7:32:32 AM
From Mags to D-Chan, Juki

Jansen lives vicariously through the (perceived) romance of others because he can’t ever find a date.
(Merry Christmas guys)

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 7:33:12 AM
From D-Chan to Mags, Juki 

I hope that’s the opening line of your autobiography about us.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 7:33:49 AM
From Adrian to Darby 

Merry Christmas Darby! If I’d known you would be at Zephyr this year, I would’ve gotten you a gift. I have something cool to show you though. Are you free after dinner? (Don’t worry, the chocolate came out. Took three shampoos.)

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 7:35:35 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags 

I don’t have time for dates. I’m busy saving the world.

E-MAIL SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 8:28:23 AM
From Yi Chan to Darby Chan 

Merry Christmas Darby! I hope you still remember how to ski. Remember when we went six years ago? Enjoy the time with your friends.

See you soon!

ADRIAN STARK SHARED CONTACT [DARBY CHAN] WITH LOREN EASTWOOD.

DARBY CHAN SHARED CONTACT [MARGARET LEWIS] WITH LOREN EASTWOOD.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 8:43:23 AM
From Darby to Adrian 

I’m in!

E-MAIL SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 10:24:12 PM
From Darby Chan to Avery Chan 

Dear Avery,

Merry Christmas! Please respond soon or I really will stop writing. (Who am I kidding? You’re my outlet for everything).

I spent the whole day out tramping in the snow with J and M. I was afraid I’d get frostbite but we never have white Christmases at home so it was worth it. We came back to the lodge to complimentary hot chocolate and s’mores. I have to say, I’m grudgingly impressed with this place now. I thought we depleted their dessert supplies at the Christmas Eve dinner (a story for another time).

So, in keeping with our tradition of comparing gifts, I’ll bet I beat you this year. Here’s my countdown:

A free vanilla latte from the coffee counter (his name is Loren! He’s Adrian’s BFF)
A fancy moleskin journal from Margaret
Photo book of our college years from Jansen
This wasn’t really a gift but…

Adrian asked me to meet him after dinner (I know, this is what you’ve been waiting to hear about). We hiked up to this grove of trees on a small hill. It wasn’t far from the cabin, but something about that place felt really high up, almost like we were in the stars.

The stars—Avery, I haven’t seen stars like these in years. I’ve been in the city too long. There were so many, it was like sand on a beach turned upside down, poured across the sky in bright lights. And there was this colorful glow: green and blue and even some orange.

I know what you’re thinking, but there’s nothing happening between us. He just wanted to show me, and said it’s a good place to get away from people and think if you need to. (Does he think I need to? Does he think my friends are crazy? Probably.) It’s funny, he treats me almost the same way he did in high school. Like a little sister. It was awful then, but it’s nice now. “Boyfriends are easy to lose, but brothers stick closer than glue.” Remember that? It’s weird that as I get older, I realize things that I once laughed at are actually pretty true.

Darby

E-MAIL SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 10:40:15 PM
From Darby Chan to Ling Chan

Merry Christmas, Mom. I’m fine and having a good time at Zephyr. Don’t worry about Spring Break tickets. I’ll look at them later.

Love,
Darby

E-MAIL SENT ON December 25, 2015 AT 10:45:15 PM
From Darby Chan to Yi Chan 

Merry Christmas, Dad. I don’t really remember how to ski, but I’m doing it anyway. Hope it’s not too cold at home.

Love,
Darby

The Zephyr Christmas Files, Part II

Read [Part I].

Part II. How to “Throw” a Love Story

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 11:41:50 AM
From Jansen to Margaret

Okay, forget coffee guy. You MISSED OUT on the slopes this morning.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 11:45:31 AM
From Margaret to Jansen

?!?!????

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 11:48:30 AM
From Margaret to Jansen

JANSEN SUZUKI DON’T LEAVE ME IN SUSPENSE.

E-MAIL SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 2:14:02 PM
From Darby Chan to Avery Chan 

Dear Avery,

I know it hasn’t even been 24 hours since my last email. How convenient that I’m suddenly a needy person when you’re in AFRICA, of all places.

Remember Adrian?

If not, quick recap: The guy from communications class in high school that turned me into a blundering fool and earned me a B when I was actually quite excellent at public speaking.

Okay, I wasn’t.

But anyways, the point is, he was at the ski slopes today. The Zephyr Mountain ski slopes, where I am. (Do you think we’re on the same mailing list somehow, and he got that 50% deal too?) I haven’t seen him in over five years. He’s in medical school now, and volunteering with a physicians’ team here this break.

I’m not sure what the point of this email is. Except to say, what a blast from the past. We just chatted, and Jansen (that good-for-nothing) invited him to dinner with us. It was all extremely, astonishingly normal. I was normal. He was normal. He hasn’t become weird or unattractive or developed terrible doctor handwriting (I made that up, of course I haven’t seen his handwriting).

Don’t read into things, okay. I don’t like him. I’m all Jane Austen. Spinsterhood is the dream.

Darby

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 2:32:05 PM
From Adrian to Jansen 

Good to meet you today. Could you pass along Darby’s #? I don’t have it anymore.

JANSEN SUZUKI SHARED CONTACT [DARBY CHAN] WITH ADRIAN STARK.

MARGARET’S JOURNAL

I remember when I met Darby in the freshman dorms, all bright-eyed and—unbelievably—a bit shy. Three years later, I’m in the middle of the mountains with her and the notorious prankster from our drama class. Darby took drama precisely because she found it uncomfortable, and she likes to push herself. Jansen took it because it’s completely in his element. And I took it because it was the best place to people-watch and get inspired. You find out what people are really made of when they’re eighteen, awkward, and vulnerable on stage.

We became the Harry Potter Trio, or the Three Musketeers, or something. None of the classics have the right gender ratio for us.

I’m not sure what to do with Darby. I don’t expect Jansen to have a heart-to-heart with her, and it’s not because he doesn’t care or isn’t sensitive, but there’s something to be said for sisterhood. (His idea is to “throw” her a love story this Christmas, the way you’d throw someone a birthday party. Say what?) I know she’s not fine, and I wish I had the courage to confront her pain. I wish I could fight to peel away all the protective barriers she has up. I know Darby has Avery, but she’s in Africa, and I can’t help but think that’s her way of escaping too. 

Five months to graduation. Darby is really the most “together” one out of us, since she already has a job locked in as a mechanical engineer. She can build robots and machines, but doesn’t know how to fix a broken heart.

JANSEN’S RECIPE FOR A LOVE STORY, V1.0

  1. Boy
  2. Girl
  3. Christmas and mistletoe?

NOTICE: ZEPHYR MOUNTAIN CABIN RESIDENTS

The annual Christmas Eve dinner and dance will begin at 6:00 PM tonight. Dress is semi-formal. We have a delightful evening planned, so come hungry!

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 4:10:07 PM
From Margaret to Darby

Did you bring a dress?

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 4:12:15 PM
From Darby to Margaret

The prettiest thing I brought was my pink umbrella.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 4:13:27 PM
From Margaret to Darby 

At least I know I won’t be the only one sticking out like a sore thumb.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 4:15:12 PM
From Darby to Margaret 

Let’s go all out and wear trash bags.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 4:16:37 PM
From Margaret to Darby

Hey so did you meet anyone cute on the slopes today?

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 4:17:50 PM
From Darby to Margaret

…I’m going to put Jansen in a trash bag.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 4:45:30 PM
From Adrian to Darby 

See you tonight! This is Adrian. Excited to meet your college crew. My buddy Loren is joining us too.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 4:58:53 PM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags

JANSEN you better watch your back tonight.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 11:34:39 PM
From Adrian to Darby 

Girl you’ve got a mean aim.

NOTICE: ZEPHYR MOUNTAIN CABIN RESIDENTS

All parties participating in the so-called “dessert war” assume full responsibility for the cleanup and damage costs. Further failure to comply with appropriate cabin behavior will result in expulsion from the lodge.

(As a small addendum, some participants should also enlighten themselves in regards to the definition of “semi-formal dress.”)

The Zephyr Christmas Files

Dear faithful readers, occasional stalkers, and you with the wrong link to another site:

I’ve posted very sporadically in recent months due to grad school consuming most my time and energy. Since I have a brief break, I’ve been inspired by various sources (the holidays, the weather, real life + fiction, etc.) to write a wintry tale in epistolary form for fun. I’ll post installments here on a hopefully-close-to-daily basis through the New Year. I’m really just flying by the seat of my pants (no plot outline, no particular ending in mind, no profound Point), but I hope it’ll bring you some laughter and cheer if you choose to follow along. If not, I’ll simply amuse myself.

Zephyr1

Part I. Driving Tickets and Baristas

E-MAIL SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 12:03:44 AM
From Darby Chan to Avery Chan

Dear Avery,

It’s midnight, and I’m writing this beside some half-waxed, dying candlelight. I think I’ve found the eighteenth century. Curse your magnanimous spirit for spending winter break in a third world country with no wireless or data plan. I’m warning you, if I send more than three of these with no response, I’ll stop writing and start planning your funeral. Curse Jansen’s driving too. We were supposed to arrive hours ago if we weren’t pulled over on the way. $300 for going 15 mph over the limit. Margaret feels bad, so she promised to write a letter for him to contest it.

I told him he could work the resort coffee counter to scrape the cash together.

In other news—there is none. It’s freezing. If the heater ever goes out in this place, you’ll need to come haul my frozen carcass away. I wish we had picked Jamaica or somewhere tropical. It’s these unwavering, immigrant genetics we have that simply won’t allow me to pass up a good deal. I’m beginning to understand why this place offered us half price.

But I can’t complain (aloud, at least, so expect to get the brunt of it). I dragged M and J into this. I guess I can try skiing again?

I miss you. Sorry about this poor excuse for a first email. It’s late and this keyboard is starting to feel like a giant ice cube. I want to say something worthwhile, knowing you’ll only get to check in once in awhile. I’ll try to improve.

Please don’t die.

Darby

P.S. It’s not really terrible here. The current guy at the coffee counter isn’t bad looking. I’ll send you a picture sometime if I get a chance.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 7:13:22 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

Christmas Eve, kids!!! Hope you have your presents for me ready.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 7:20:45 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags 

Coughed up your $300 yet?

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 7:21:13 AM
From Juki to D-Chan, Mags

 Remind me why I’m on vacation with you.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 7:21:57 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags 

No one else wants you.
I’m going to breakfast. Meet you guys there.

ZEPHYR MOUNTAIN CABIN BREAKFAST MENU

Zephyr’s Black Diamond Breakfast
Two sausages, three eggs, and stack of buttermilk pancakes

Zephyr’s Blue Square Breakfast
Two eggs, chocolate chip or strawberry jam waffles

 Zephyr’s Bunny Slope Breakfast
Fruit and granola 

EMAIL SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 7:43:52 AM
From Darby Chan to Avery Chan 

[COFFEE_GUY.JPEG]

Sent from iPhone

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:05:12 AM
From Jansen to Margaret 

Overslept? Darby’s got a crush. Commence: Operation Love Story?

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:20:19 AM
From Mags to D-Chan, Juki

 Guys. This is an inhuman hour to be up during break.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:20:40 AM
From Margaret to Jansen 

Let me guess, the coffee guy. And no. Darby + men = Bad Things Happen.

E-MAIL SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:25:31 AM
From Margaret Lewis to Jen Lewis 

Hey Mom – Texts and calls can’t seem to get past the mountain range. But we’ve made it. We’ll probably go skiing, I’ll try to fit some writing in, and Darby and Jansen will probably want to pull a few crazy stunts (read: fun, adventurous, but decidedly not life-threatening).

It’s a nice, cozy cabin for a sweet deal Darby found. Sorry again to miss Christmas this year. But she adamantly refused to go home, and we couldn’t let her head into the mountains alone. Darby hasn’t said much about it still, and I’m not sure how to bring it up. Should I wait for her to say something?

People confuse the heck out of me.

Love to Dad, Laurie, and Grinchkins.

Margaret

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:29:21 AM
From Juki to Mags, D-Chan 

…I’m a man.

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:29:53 AM
From D-Chan to Juki, Mags 

???
What else have you been keeping from us?

GROUP MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:30:19 AM
From Juki to Mags, D-Chan

Wrong thread.

MESSAGE SENT ON December 24, 2015 AT 8:31:20 AM
From Margaret to Jansen

 Typical.

Something From Home

I wrote this for Rachel‘s September Chatterbox challenge. On the topic of pears. I might have cheated a teensy whip, but I worked it in. With summer drawing to a close, this came about from a bucketful of themes swirling in my mind – autumn, nostalgia, the idea of home, standing on the brink of something…

 

Something From Home

The skies deepened into a marble maroon shade as dying specks of sunlight glinted off the fences. Summer was fast vanishing, swallowed up in the reddish-brown haze of autumn. Annie skated lightly along the damp grass, pulling her light windbreaker tight around her petite frame. The mild but sweet smell of peaches rode the tailwinds of the evening breeze and she sucked in a lungful of cool air.

A quiet shriek reached her ears as a small boy scampered by, almost bowling her over. Half a dozen children followed on his heels, yelling, as they made a beeline for the ice cream stand.

Stony Grounds Park recently became a hub of activity in the quiet suburb. Annie remembered when the wide stretch of grassy fields was only used for soccer and flag football, the park grounds becoming deserted after dusk set in. But the advent of the summer night markets swelled to success a year ago, boasting everything from fresh farmer’s produce to children-run lemonade stands. Local bands used it as a platform to play their hits and the music would run into the wee hours of the morning if people camped out at the park.

An elderly woman accosted Annie as she slipped past the woven baskets of fruit. “Freshly picked pears. Best of the Northwest, sweetheart.” She beamed, giving her a long, earnest look.

Red and green Anjou pears, golden Bosc, Bartletts—Annie skimmed the collection.

“Thank you, but I’m leaving town tomorrow.” She offered the woman an apologetic tilt of her head.

“And where are you rushing off to?” The dimly familiar male voice came from behind her.

Annie turned, pausing for a quick second as she placed him from her recollections. “Liam!” Surprise colored her hazel eyes.

A half-smile crept up the side of his face, blasting her with a sudden array of well-worn memories. Speech class, long talks in the library, the faint sparks of—something.

“Hi, Annie.” It felt strange to hear her name roll off his tongue so comfortably. But he had always exuded confidence.

She took in the sight of him fully. He wore a checkered flannel top and beige khakis with converse shoes. His raven hair was cropped short now, revealing a high forehead and sharp cheekbones. Not much had changed in his appearance. Liam had always been lean and bony, and his sharp angles coupled with his outfits and glasses lent him a bookish aura. He was no jock in high school, but he knew his way around jokes and roguish smirks well enough to be a heartbreaker.

“It’s been so long,” she exclaimed, feeling a trace of self-consciousness. “I heard you went off to med school.”

Liam nodded, but he didn’t seem interested in catching up on their lives. His gaze wandered past her, settling on the band. They were playing an old Backstreet Boys song. “Are you here with anyone?”

Annie shook her head. She used to take walks around Stony Ground after dinner with her father, just around the time of day when the last sparks of sunlight pressed against the horizon. But business called him away that night, and Annie appreciated the anonymity of meandering around the night market.

“Neither am I. Let’s go check out the band. One of my old buddies is playing bass.”

“Okay,” she acquiesced.

That was how Liam was. He could go with years of little to no contact, and then pick up old threads of friendship effortlessly. Annie always felt some obligation to rehash major milestones in life when she encountered an old friend, but not Liam. He was more than content to leave the gap years of their friendship unknown.

As they reached the band’s makeshift stage, the sun dipped out of sight, slowly plunging them into darkness. The wind grew brisker and Annie shivered, rubbing her arms vigorously.

Liam glanced at her. “I know what’ll warm you up.” He gestured at the small group, mostly teenagers, in front of the stage.

“I don’t dance,” Annie laughed.

“Everyone dances,” he said simply, and without waiting for a response, slipped his hand into hers and pulled her into the mix.

A protest died on Annie’s lips as Liam spun her abruptly. His face became a blur, blending in and out with the other bodies nearby. Adrenaline welled up deep within her and pumped through her blood. She threw her head back and the yawning, black scroll of the night sky met her unsteady gaze. Annie felt her feet slip a little as she lost her balance, but strong hands caught her arms and stabilized her.

Loosened up, she grinned at Liam. The band blasted the beginning notes of another Kelly Clarkson song, and without missing a beat, they stepped into a quick, swinging rhythm. He was a decent dancer, and Annie was able to follow his lead without much struggle. As they settled into a slower routine, they began humming along with the familiar lyrics. The words and the tune thrust Annie back into her high school days, with glitzy locker decorations and rowdy bus rides. Nostalgia struck her hard in the gut.

Her cheeks were ruddy from the workout as they stepped out of the dance by silent consent. Liam looked flushed as well, some of his dark hair spiking up straighter. Annie thought it made him look more boyish again.

“I’m suddenly glad I never went to a school dance with you,” she commented wryly, as they retraced their steps through the market.

“Smart of you. You would’ve been the envy of the town.” A crooked smile lit his silhouetted features.

“Right,” she said, dragging out the syllable half-mockingly. Once, that smile would have thrown Annie into a happy daze for hours, but now it was simply a sweet but distant reminder of years past. “And you know how I hated attention.”

He shook his head. “As if. I know it’s because you had too many offers to choose from.”

“I’m not sure you remember me correctly,” Annie snorted.

Liam paused in his step and turned to face her. “Oh, I remember you very well, Annie.” His dark brown eyes held her hazel ones unwaveringly, and she felt a slight tremor in her chest. “You know how they say some people always stay with you? I think that’s you, for me.”

That was Liam too. He could swing from flippant to sincere in a matter of moments. Annie had always preferred his jesting side, because she could come up with a sound retort most the time. And if he flirted, she knew a line a two herself. But his sincerity made her feel awkward and inadequate—he could be so unaffected and genuine she felt pressured to respond in kind. But deep down, she doubted her capacity for such naked authenticity, and that had always been the imperceptible wall between them.

“Well, don’t tell your girlfriend that,” she teased, trying to lift the mood again.

He never pressed when she sidestepped. “No girlfriend right now. Much to mom’s chagrin.” He cocked his head and stared at her. “But I heard through the grapevine you found someone. I thought you were getting married.”

Annie blew out her breath. “I thought so too,” she murmured, and left it at that.

“Well, he dodged one.”

He grinned, but she read the sympathy in his eyes. She laughed softly, appreciative. Liam would not offer her pity or meaningless, cheerful babble, and that was perfectly fine by her.

“Remember we nearly went to the same university?” he mused, out of the blue.

“Yeah. I wonder how that would have played out.”

“I’m thinking a nice colonial style house in Stony Grounds. I wouldn’t have gone to med school, and we could settle here and relive the glory days all over. Oh, and I’d like to have twins.”

What?” Annie gaped at him, incredulous.

His gaze strayed across the grassy field before it landed on her. “You mean I’m the only one of us that’s ever fantasized about our being married? What a shame.”

“I—well—“ she sputtered. His tone was light and half-joking, but their conversation began bringing back the hours they spent in the school library in full and vivid color—the lingering but frivolous talks, the silences they shared. And though years stood between that time and now, along with the experience of profound highs and bitter lows in relationships that overshadowed a girlhood crush, Annie felt a quiet, tremulous thrill spiral through her veins.

“You don’t have to admit it.”

“Always a gentleman,” she shot back, somewhat recovering.

He mock bowed. “At your service.” After a pause, he changed the subject. “You never answered my question. Where are you leaving town for tomorrow?”

“Oh! London, actually. I put in a transfer request at work.”

His dark eyes clouded slightly. “London. That’s an entire ocean away.”

A touch of melancholy undergirded his words, and Annie started a little. Surely, he could not have thought—after all this time, and a mere accidental run-in—

“Well, aren’t you in Maryland for med school?”

“Yeah. I’m flying back soon. Just came home for the end of summer.”

They were back along the fresh fruit row of the market, and some of the stands were closing for the night. The woman who tried to sell Annie pears was still there, though she was packing the unsold fruit into large, cardboard boxes. Liam tarried near her, eyeing the produce.

“Wait,” he called out. “I’d like to purchase one.”

The woman looked at him merrily. “Yes, sir. What can I get you?”

Liam chose a well-shaped, dark red Anjou pear. He turned it absently in the palm of his hand before holding it out to Annie.

“Something from home, since you’ll be in a foreign place.”

She took the pear, her fingers brushing against his. Since her approval officially came through, Annie had looked forward to London for months—the rich history, the culture, the sights. So it was only for a fleeting, ridiculous fraction of a second that she wanted to stay. Or at least, spend one more day at home—and who knew what could happen in a day. But the moment, and the feeling, passed by like a brief but piercing gust of wind.

“Thanks, Liam.” She smiled, but then rolled her eyes upward. “But you know I can’t take this through customs.”

“Damn.” He chuckled. “I was hoping you’d stuff it in your suitcase, forget, and they’d ship you home for endangering the continent.”

“Of course they would. Because five foot two American girl is the very profile of a terrorist.”

“You think they’d be able to put a Maryland return address on you?”

They both laughed, and then fell into a quiet camaraderie. The number of people in the park had dwindled, but the band was still playing. Overhead, the stars sprawled across the heavens, bright and clear, and the occasional bird joined its voice to the music.

The trail through the grass ended, and they were at the parking lot. Annie recognized Liam’s old Honda Civic in the corner spot.

“You’ll be okay walking home?” He glanced at her.

Annie nodded. “I’m just around the corner.”

There was a silence before Liam took her hand and squeezed it lightly. The streetlight brought his face into sharp focus for a moment, but he shifted his weight, and his features fell into the shadows again. “Send me a postcard from London.”

She squeezed his hand back before dropping it. “Sure.”

But her voice sounded a little hollow in her ears as she watched the back of his car recede into the darkness. What would she write to him about? Liam, who’s last few years of life remained a mystery to her still. Liam, who she talked to about everything and nothing—poor subject matters for a five by six postcard framed with Buckingham Palace.

She ran her thumb over the thick, smooth skin of the red Anjou pear and felt unexpected tears sting the back of her eyes.