When the waffle maker fries out, the landlord reschedules the maintenance on our hot water, and my sister develops an allergic reaction to her new rose gold earrings all within two days to the start of college, I grudgingly take it as an ill omen of the school year to come. It seems the universe plods after both of us summer after summer, listening in on our fantastical dreams that this year will for sure be our year, and takes great pains to punish us for our presumptuousness. Last year, just a week before starting her new post at Mercy Hospital, my sister Tía came down with the most vengeful case of pink eye that even I, saintly as our mother always thought I was, could not resist the call of the Rasputin jokes while making her her fix of chamomile tea.
One would think the universe could afford us a small mercy or two considering our roots. But apparently she isn't in the business of listening to two orphans who think they know better than her. Or to her Maker, for that matter.
"It's a good thing we don't have a car, or that would've just been free ammunition for our back-to-school curse," Tía says around the strawberry-and-everything bagel monstrosity in her mouth as she straps on her Skechers.
I say, "It's a good thing you can't drive at all, because your urge to see what it's like if you push the off button on the engine in the middle of the highway is stronger than your sense of self-preservation." In our little game, it's more tactful to joke about our love affairs with death than the fact that we couldn't scrape together enough for a twelve-year-old Subaru even if we tried.
Tía crunches down on the last bite of her bagel. "Look at that, you're starting to talk in half-compound sentences. College is a good look on you."
"So's that ear infection on you," I say.
She tells me with a grin to fuck off. She shakes out the pendant on her necklace so the clasp slides back to her nape, readjusts her jaw clip, and swipes her name tag off the counter. It's a mouthful—María Celeste Mellado, next to her eternally unimpressed mugshot defaced by the tracks where she swipes the ID card for her meals—so it's a good thing her coworkers just accept that she prefers Tía without asking about the dreadfully gay story of how that nickname started.
"You heading to Luke's tonight?" I ask. Cautious.
"Probably not," she replies, just as careful. "I've got Missy's shift too, today. Unless...you wanna come over and we can all take a break from our pizza to have a taste of Luke's pizza."
"It's okay," I say generously. I wiggle the torn copy of Guillén poetry in my hand. "I have a lot of reading to catch up on, anyway."
Tía gives me a look. We both know I don't have anything to catch up on. She opens her mouth, and I almost think she's about to break her silence on my summer-long quiet. I daren't think she's missed the way I lie on my stomach on the scratchy carpet for hours on end watching the head of the electric fan go this way and that, or how I turn off all my read receipts when my groupmates from high school English invite me to their block party. Or how I slept curled up inside a closet once, back braced against the corner and cheek smooshed against her olive polyester-blend coat that I hate so much but we haven't the heart to throw out.
But she doesn't.
"You can just bring that with you, if you want," she offers instead. "Or head on over to him while you wait up for me. You know I'll be out late."
"Sure. I'll just...bore your boyfriend to death with my riveting declamations of negrista poetry."
"You declaim poetry just fine."
"I stutter," I say drly, and toss her cardigan to her from the chair.
"I'll text him," she says. "Tell him to let you in. You don't bite." She smirks. "Unless there's mochi involved."
I roll my eyes. "Go terrorize your munchkins."
"Just—go pop in and say hi. For me, okay?"
I consider it for a moment. Truth be told, I haven't properly met Luke, not outside that one time Tía dragged me to some interns' party and her boyfriend came over to say hello just as I was hunched over on the couch in the middle of a panic attack. Needless to say, I don't remember much. But he seems chill about most things and fills the silences around him with ease. If things get too awkward, I could always ask him questions about his cool prosthetic leg. From what Tía has told me, he never seems to mind at all talking about how he got it.
"I never do anything for you. You know this," I say, and push my sister out the door while she barks out a startled laugh.
And yet three hours later, I find myself fidgeting in front of Luke's apartment, poking at the doorbell as if I might trigger a hornet's nest behind it any second and wondering how fast I can leg it around the corner if I lose my nerve.
I've wasted precious time debating the pros and cons of testing my asthma with a sprint today, and before I know it the door swings open.
"You're—you're not Luke," I say.
The Asian guy in front of me gives me a squint. Even now he seems overtly conscious of the single nipple showing through his impressively shredded band shirt. "And you're not my pad thai," he says.
I gulp. He seems the type of guy to bench press you off a fire escape or make you taste test twenty-seven batches of burnt peanut butter cookies with him, and I haven't decided which.
"I'm, uh, I'm here for Luke."
"He got evicted," the guy deadpans.
"He did not," another voice protests from down the hall. I allow myself to relax marginally. I would recognize Luke's gravelly tone almost anywhere after hours of listening in on him when Tía puts him on speakerphone to help her fall asleep.
Door Guy heaves the most long-suffering of sighs. "I have your stray here," he calls over his shoulder. "I told you only I'm allowed to have strays."
"Technically, no one allowed you." Some shuffling and a sizzle from what is presumably the kitchen.
"Well? Come in, young padawan," says Door Guy. He claps his hand on my shoulder and all but hauls me inside with his palm on the scruff of my neck.
Luke pops out of the kitchen to greet us with a skilletful of omelette in hand. He has his blond hair in a ponytail today. "It's you!" he says, with that particular smile of his that makes you feel like his favorite teddy that he's unearthed from the junk drawer in the basement.
"You're cooking," I say intelligently, and mentally congratulate myself on the first coherent words I've spoken to my potential brother-in-law-to-be that I actually remember.
Another head peers around the doorway of the kitchen—a mop of black curls in an elastic tie, really. "Actually, I'm cooking and Luke is bodybuilding with the frying pans," says the new guy.
I stare at him. His face feels distinctly like one of those books with too much information on the first page that I skip all over him and fixate on his chipped black nail polish and the insane curve of his Cupid's bow. I immediately decide he is too pretty to be human and I must have passed out from an asthma attack on Luke's doorstep and hallucinated this guy's entire character.
"I need to pee. Don't let the butter burn," says Pretty Boy. He steps primly between me and Luke and heads to the bathroom.
Luke gestures at me to sit down at the dinette. "Don't mind Vinny. He thinks he's hilarious."
"I didn't—particularly find him funny," I lie, craning my neck backward in the direction Pretty Boy disappeared.
"Oh, that was Fink, the one who just left. I was referring to the dude who opened the door."
"Right," I say. "I was...starting to worry I was gonna have to call him Nipple Guy."
Luke stops, raises a single brow at me over his skillet, and lets out an inelegant snort. "I like you. You should come over more. Y'know, even if Tía isn't around."
Feeling particularly brave, even as I chew on my thumbnail, I say, "Don't like me just yet. I have a productivity rate of about one joke per week. Hardly enough to feed you."
"Trust me. One joke of yours should be enough to even out a whole set of Vinny's." Luke plates up the omelette in wedges and slides one across the table to me. "Oh, sorry. Are you vegan? I totally didn't check. I'm only pescatarian—eggs are still on my list—"
I immediately assure him, in an unnecessary stammer, that I eat just about anything.
Luke leans in a bit close, fork poised by his mouth. "Listen, I know the hair can make me seem intimidating, but I promise, you don't have to be scared of me."
The truth is that the hair makes him look like a golden retriever and the muscles feel more like a Thor cosplay, but I don't have the heart to tell him that. I also don't have it in me to let him know that I was not mentally prepared to encounter so many people in one day. Instead, what comes out of my mouth is, "I'm not scared. It's just you're all so extroverted that it—gives me anxiety."
He bellows with another laugh.
Fink stomps back into the kitchen in the middle of Luke choking on his omelette. Fink has the decency to look mildly concerned, but in the end he goes back to tending his pan.
"Thanks for the food, by the way." I raise my voice to let them both know I'm thanking whoever is responsible for the eggs, since it's still unclear to me at this point when Luke and his friends are joking and when they're not. "I didn't really plan on eating your gourmet stuff. Tía just...wanted me to say hi."
"Hi," says Fink.
"Not you," says Luke. "Yeah, I've been waiting to meet you. I mean, we did meet before, but—"
"Nope. That doesn't count," I say.
"It does, but we don't have to talk about it," says Luke. "You're cool."
I generously tell him he's allowed to think that. "So you don't have a shift today?"
He shakes his head and says it's his one day off from the hospital for the week. That floods me with guilt as I remember how Tía tried to shrug off my offer earlier for her to come over to Luke's. She worries far too much about me to ever care for herself. Sometimes I sit in the shower and think about how I've never caught her lying on the carpet or crying at the dinner table at 1AM like she's caught me, and it unnerves me how I've never seen her that way. Because I know a creature of her steel is bound to break someday.
My father always said I speak slowly. Growing up speaking Spanish, one's perspective on what is slow speaking is rather relative, but it's undeniable that I'm the only one in the family who halts and stammers and doesn't know what to say. The truth is I do. But there seems to be a lock between my brain, racing to and fro with ideas and feelings, and my mouth that doesn't know how to move. It's like now, when everything travels like a bullet train through my head as Luke is speaking, but all I can think of to say with my wooden tongue is, "That's nice." So I change the subject and ask, "What does Vinny do? I. I've never heard of Tía talk about him."
"That's because there's not much to tell," Luke says with a roguish grin and a raised voice to clearly let Vinny eavesdrop from wherever he is in the apartment. Luke drops his voice again. "Believe it or not, he's an insurance agent. He runs his daily scams out of a home office in his bedroom."
My raised brows are enough to let Luke know that that answer was a serious letdown from Vinny's slashed t-shirts and faux leather pants. Fink snickers over his french toast. The sound draws my gaze up to him, and Luke follows my line of vision.
"Fink is Vinny's stray," Luke supplies with a thumb over his shoulder.
Fink nods sagely back. "I was a stripper at a gay club and I confided in him my hopes and dreams of going to college, so he took me home and the rest is history."
"Not really. He works at Target," Luke says.
"Still gay, though," Fink clarifies helpfully.
I stare at them and they stare back at me. I decide it's not worth asking again just how Vinny and Fink met.
"So what do you do?" Luke asks, like Tía doesn't tell him all the time.
"I." I clear my throat. "I'm a student. Uh. That's all."
"It's summer," says Fink. "What do you do when you're not a student?"
"I write poetry?" I say. "I walk dogs. And I—draw comics. Sometimes. Not all the time. They're almost all unfinished," I tack on at the end, because the mere notion of either of them asking to see a sample is making me break out in hives.
"That's a shame," says Fink as he dumps his french toast into a cereal bowl. The way the veins jump in his skinny wrist as he turns the pan over makes me think of Pride and Prejudice, somehow. And washboards and frog legs. I can freestyle a decent sonnet in class about the universe to be found in a girl's eyes, but plonk a pretty boy down in front of me and I forget how to construct a metaphor.
"What's a shame?" I ask.
Fink turns around with his bowl in one hand and the toast halfway to his mouth, with that specific look of someone who knows I haven't been listening.
"The dogs," he says, presumably for the second time. "I had a cocker spaniel at home. If I'd known you back then, I would've had you walk her all the time so I got to see you."
I really don't know what to say to that. I shovel some more egg in my mouth. When I've calmed down, I ask, "What happened to your cocker spaniel?"
Fink licks some syrup off his fingers. The pause is long enough to let me wonder if the gesture is deliberate. "She died," he says, which sends Luke into another round of laughter so intense it turns into a coughing fit.
I decide to myself it's not worth being annoyed at the preponderance of inside jokes in this place. I decide, instead, to be annoyed at the fact that Fink is wearing about a dozen rings on his hands and still thinks it's intelligence or good manners to swipe the syrup from the side of his bowl with his finger. I also decide that the way he dresses with his thrifted slacks hiked up over his waist and his blouse knotted with ribbons at the elbows is supremely irritating.
Somehow I end up accompanying Fink to the bathroom that evening when he cuts his finger wrestling with the leaky valves under the kitchen sink. I want to be snide and say it's all the metal he wears on his hands, but I don't.
I also don't particularly know how I managed to pass several hours with these guys without once picking up my book or my phone. I'm beginning to understand a little bit of Luke's appeal to Tía. He's everything that I am not: a dependable joker, a good cook, a six-foot-something slab of muscle to get her anything down from a shelf, and a ray of sunshine who routinely makes a show of taking off his leg to whack Vinny in the head when they're gaming. I remember last year, when I was angsty and jealous and all the bile from the box I labeled Childhood and shoved to the back of my mind was bubbling up again, I sat up in bed with my arms crossed and wondered if Tía got together with Luke just because he was the only boyfriend of hers who said the birthmark on her face was beautiful. It was a cruel thought, and I never had it again, because I never even think of my sister's face that way normally. Neither does she. But it must be a relief to date someone who makes the whole world feel manageable with a single smile. I bet Luke's hands never shake and his mind never fogs for months on end like mine do.
Fink taps me on the wrist and presses the off-brand band-aid into my hand, cutting into my spiral of thoughts. I rip open the waxed paper mechanically.
"Do you do that with everyone? Look at them and observe everything about them to write about them later?" he asks.
I'm not doing that, at least not right this moment. I lick my lips. Telling him the truth—that I got lost in the dead garden of memories of all the reasons that I wake up with nightmares pressing on my chest—isn't bound to make a good impression on him.
"Only the ones worth writing about," I say, and I'm pleased when he looks up at me and tucks a stray curl from his bun behind his ear and his eyes crinkle in a smile.
"I bet you write paragraphs," he says.
"I write poetry," I remind him.
"I think you write a lot more than you let on."
"Maybe," I say.
"So what do you see?"
"When you're observing me. What do you see?" He hops onto the edge of the bathroom sink and swings one foot back and forth as I grapple with his finger.
"I'm not sure yet. Maybe that one annoying employee at the Target photo center who thinks he looks goth but he actually dresses like Oscar Wilde's lovechild in his free time?"
"Excuse me," says Fink. "I was—force-orphaned at a critical time when my sense of gender and fashion were just beginning to develop."
I don't know what to say to that. No, that's a lie: I have a million things to say to that. I pick the most socially acceptable one. "Your gender isn't half bad."
That's really not what I intended to come out of my mouth.
Fink doubles over with a silent wheeze. His shoulders shake, and I almost want to slap him on the arm for jerking his hand around so much when I'm trying to Florence Nightingale him, but I don't because the way he looks like he's close to honking is actually adorable.
"Sorry," he gasps. "Sorry. That's—that's the funniest fucking thing I have heard all month."
"You're allowed to ask for my backstory, you know," says Fink. He seems a second away from winking at me.
"Oh. I don't know. I thought I had to be at...level fifty-nine before I could unlock that."
"My parents aren't actually dead," Fink goes on cheerfully. "They kicked me out two years ago when I came out as trans."
My heart skips a beat. I end up winding the second half of the band-aid around his finger too tightly. "I see. My parents are—well, dead dead."
Fink grimaces. "Both?"
That drives a huff from my chest. The first laugh I've had in weeks, almost.
"So is that why Luke laughed when you said your dog was dead?"
"Yeah. She's actually alive. Mom's holding her hostage, I think. She won't let me see my girl again until I turn back into her little girl, too."
I lace my fingers together in front of me and swivel on my heel to lean back against the sink beside him. I take this opportunity to study his profile. I've only known him for less than a day, and yet it's near impossible to imagine him as any other way than how he presents now.
"I'm sorry I said you dress like Oscar Wilde's lovechild," I say.
Fink serves me a look. "The one thing that makes me laugh and you're apologizing for it?"
I roll my eyes at him.
"So what about you?" he says. "Who's your dressing inspiration, Oliver?"
I give a start. "I never told you my name."
"Yeah, kinda rude of you, actually," Fink says without missing a beat. "Tía talks about you all the time. When she told us about the day you killed a fly with a phone charger, I knew I had to meet this guy in person."
I don't even remember the day I killed a fly with a phone charger. It suddenly occurs to me that either the depression has killed off a considerably larger number of my gray cells than previously estimated, or Fink is the kind of guy who could spin any story and make you fall for it. Considering that I actually believed he and Vinny met at a strip club, I'd probably eat napkins if Fink told me they had enough vitamin B12 in them to last me a lifetime.
"Oli," I say. "I go by Oli."
Fink tastes it on his tongue. "Oli. Hm. I like that. I feel privileged. In that case, my name's Adam."
"I thought it was Fink," I say, only barely refraining from adding that I also thought it was the most hideous name in the world for somebody who had a chance to name himself.
"Finkel," he clarifies. "That's my last name. I picked Adam. Begins with the same letter as my deadname."
Hearing the two names together suddenly makes sense when he subconsciously tugs at the leather necklace from under his shirt and rubs at the silver star of David pendant. "Adam," I say. "The first man created."
"Narcissistic of me, huh?" Fink clucks his tongue. "Actually, it was a whole thing about me smashing one of my ribs so hard from this bike accident that I thought I'd lose it. Then when I was picking a name, I kept thinking of Adam and his missing rib and just—couldn't fucking resist."
I kind of prefer the notion that he chose his name because Adam was the first specimen of human perfection crafted by God, but now that damn missing rib is implanted in my mind and I'll never hear another Creation sermon with a straight face again.
There's a rap on the door. I wasn't aware that either of us had closed it, but I wouldn't put it past Fink to have kicked the door closed during our talk.
"You two done doing heart surgery in there?"
I yank the door open. It's Vinny.
"I need to piss," he says without further preamble. "You guys can make out on the couch."
"I can't believe he gets any clients," I tell Fink over my shoulder, as he clears the first aid kit off the counter and trails after me.
Tía is shrugging out of her lavender cardigan when we return to the living area. I cross the carpet to hug her without hesitation. Talking to Fink about his hostage dog and questionable fashion choices has been less than unpleasant, but there's nothing like my sister's scent to remind me that wherever she is, I'm home.
"Hey, Stinky," she says.
"Hey, Bartok," I say back.
She shudders in my arms. I pull back and find her eyes swerving from mine. "Everything okay?"
"Double shifts suck," she says. Which doesn't answer anything at all, because I know her.
"I wish you didn't have to take them," I say.
Her normal response to this refrain of mine is a joke about the cost of pepperoni or my gargantuan bottle of hairspray. This time she doesn't even take a pass at my college textbooks, confirming my suspicions that something else is off behind her closed lips. I glance around the room, despite already knowing there are three other souls around and I daren't press her in front of anybody.
"So you met Vinny, huh?" is what she decides to say instead.
Halfway through what is dinner for Tía and a midnight snack for the rest of us, my phone vibrates. A glance at the screen tells me it's a text from Shay. I set my book down. Across the room, from the corner of my eye, I catch the movement of Fink casting me a hooded look from his armchair.
Heard you're taking Dad's class. Way to let me know, Shay says.
Shay is my on-again, off-again best friend of sorts. Most of my memories of her are filled with that disastrous trip her family and mine took to the water park where some kid dumped in the main attraction and we all fried up in the sun eating Neapolitan because not a single one of us remembered to bring sunscreen and we had to wait for the staff to clean everything out. That was before—everything. Before Shay's parents divorced and she went goth, and her dad Tom spent a year nursing a flask in his office until one day he woke up and took a leave from his teaching post to get all straightened out for Shay. And it was before Mom and Dad crashed on I-81 and Tía came home white-lipped and hard like iron, a bit fuzzy on the details but dead sure that it would be me and her against the world.
We didn't talk much in those years, Shay and I. Surprisingly, her dad reached out and I got to emailing him back and forth a few times while he was getting sober. To this day I wonder if Shay knew and that's what kept her from coming back to me. If I'd committed a crime by taking the hand that reached out to me first instead of poking the nest of the girl I pitied and feared the most. Or I could be completely wrong, and Shay was secretly glad to have this proxy connection to me through her father, and all she needed was time before showing up at the apartment with ugly brownies and arms I could fall into.
Then Shay disappeared again a year ago—ghosted my texts and stopped coming over—and the last I saw her on social media, she was wearing five-inch platform boots and electric blue box braids and posing somewhere in Turkey over the summer.
I tap out a quick response to her now before I can overthink it. Sorry for wanting to keep your lives separate. The guilt of the emotional cheating is killing me.
I don't even know why I talk to you, says Shay, followed by an assortment of eye-rolling emojis.
An actual torrent of emotions must flit over my face, because even Tía glances up from her plate to give me a questioning look. My stomach knots. I've never been good with subtext or conflict.
In the end I'm always a coward, so I opt for a joking reminder: I am the single person on this planet who saw you in acid green hair and never laughed.
Yeah, that's because I scare you shitless.
The minutes stretch out in tortuous silence as I type and backspace. I don't want to apologize. But I cave after five minutes and write: I was meaning to tell you but I wasn't sure if you were ok with me messaging you so I ended up putting it off. Idk. It was weird. Maybe it wasn't weird and I just made it weird. Sorry.
I regret it the instant I send the message, but there's nothing to be done. I shove the phone under my thigh and pick up my book again, intent on going back to something less emotionally taxing. But my brain cannot unstick itself from the way my phone stays silent for two minutes, and then ten minutes, and then twenty, and my eyes are still glued to the same three consecutive pages.
Fink coughs into his fist. Suddenly, heatedly, I resent him for being able to read me on the first day we've met. Perhaps it's more fair for me to say I resent myself for being so readable when all my life my one talent and security has been my power to be invisible.
"Ugh, the news is depressing as shit," Vinny says in the background. He switches the channel and white noise blares through the apartment for a moment before he settles on another news feed.
Tía's eyes are trained on the screen over the edge of her bowl. It's some footage of a body bag being wheeled away by sheriff's men or emergency services or other. A photo of some tween is overlaid while the reporter drones on about the two-day search party the parents slapped together for her.
"Even more depressing," says Vinny, just before there's a pop and a spark and the power goes out around us. I don't even make a sound as we plunge into darkness.
A/N: This has been a work in the making since high school (almost nine years ago) and has gone through so many iterations of the characters and plot, but now I feel genuinely ready to share it with the world. Unlike the very first version, here you can expect lgbtq+, found family and mental health themes in the coming chapters running beneath the surface of the supernatural mystery element.
I'm extremely eager to hear feedback (constructive criticism or keyboard smashing, I'm a flexible dude), so if you care to share your thoughts in a review I would be delighted out of my mind! Hopefully I can stick to a weekly or biweekly schedule of uploading this (so far planned out to be) 10-chapter project. Thank you for reading and I love you! -kaleb