I hear the sound of cartoons playing on the TV before even reaching the second floor of Julia’s house. Sitting on the couch is a blonde woman who must be in her thirties with a child sleeping beside her. When she sees us approaching, she gives me a gentle smile.
Julia peeks at the child who seems to be asleep. “Oh, he’s sleeping,” she says in a low voice. “Al, this is my brother Jace’s wife, Laura. Laura, Alex.”
I smile at her, but before I can get a word out, another voice bellows from behind me. “You’re here!”
I tilt my head to see Jimmy peeking from behind the doorway of the pool room. From the side of my view, I see the child stir to the sound of Jimmy’s voice. “Shh.” Laura stands up and scoops the child in her arms. “I’ll leave you guys to it. Careful with the boys.” She winks at me before disappearing with her son in the hallway that leads to the rooms.
“Hold on, let me get my mat.” Jimmy bolts in the same direction where Laura went.
“Who’s here?” Another figure emerges from the doorway and my breath hitches. He’s tall—almost a foot taller than Julia. Broad shoulders topped his exposed torso as refined muscles flexed against his tanned skin. His dark, tousled hair is brushed back, highlighting his perfectly chiseled face and revealing gray eyes that held the same hint of steel as Julia’s eyes. Simply calling him handsome would be an insult to his beauty.
Contrary to popular belief, lesbians can indeed tell whether a guy is cute or not. We’re attracted to girls, not blind. If anything, I think we have a better taste than straight girls. Or higher standards.
Julia’s warm hand curls over my arm. “This is my friend, Alex. That’s Jimmy’s twin, Josh.”
A slight upward jerk of his chin is the only acknowledgment he gives me.
Jimmy returns with the same mat we used the first time and lays it on the coffee table in front of the sofa. His long hair is tied up in a man bun that adds to his appeal.
“What, you’re playing? Right now?” There was a hint of annoyance in Josh’s voice. I notice he’s holding a cue stick on one hand. “Who am I supposed to play with?”
“I’ll play with you,” Julia says, to which he raises an eyebrow, but goes back inside the room, seemingly satisfied. If Julia picked up her iciness from someone, her brother would make a good reference. She turns to me. “Don’t lose.”
I turn my attention to Jimmy, who has assembled the board and already waiting for me. I sit on the carpet, deeming it more comfortable than the sofa where I have to slouch and lean down on the low coffee table. Jimmy follows suit in front of me.
The reason I’m in the Grays’ residence on the long weekend of Thanksgiving is because Julia had sent me a distress call over an hour ago saying Jimmy won’t stop pestering her about asking me to come over.
Just as a precaution, I asked her who’s home and she informed me her whole family is staying until tomorrow. I was bound to meet them anyway, so I saw no harm in showing up. I threw on a pair of black jeans, a plain white shirt, and a denim jacket to show her father I can dress decently.
Three hours, a couple of dozen wins, and three glasses of water later and Julia materializes at my side. “Any closer to winning?” She asks her brother as she perches on the sofa I’m leaning on. She casually drapes an arm over my shoulders.
If Jimmy noticed how clingy his sister is, he doesn’t show any indication. “If I were half as good as her, I might as well make chess a career. Hell, she can beat me in her sleep.” He stands up from across me and stretches. “Gimme ten minutes to replenish. My brain’s fried.” And he leaves us to go downstairs.
“You done playing?” I ask Julia, who is now laying flat on her stomach, a hand under her chin. Her hair is up in a bun, exposing her neck. I lick my lips.
Julia sees me looking and chuckles. “Wanna spend your break inside my room?”
“If we go there now, we won’t be getting back out anytime soon.” I do a quick glance around the floor to make sure we’re alone and peck her on the lips.
She laughs. “Aye aye, captain.”
Jimmy comes back too soon with another glass of water for me and we continue playing. Behind me, Julia was doing her best to keep herself occupied by scrolling through her phone. She kept switching positions until she settled on lying on her back, her hand occasionally playing with my hair.
At some point, Julia stood up and left without saying a word, only to come back and snap a photo with her polaroid that took me by surprise. She didn’t bother showing me the picture. She just went back to her room and returned empty-handed with a big smile on her face, saying she’s gonna go down to help Laura in making dinner.
Time flew by without me noticing and the next time I looked outside, it was already dark. Jimmy was sprawled on the carpet, his hands rubbing his temple. “I’m so done.”
A slight throbbing in my head and between my eyes has started to build. It’s to be expected. I haven’t played like this in so long and my body’s not used to it. “I should get going.”
Jimmy sits up. “You should stay for dinner.”
The arrival of Julia’s father was alerted by the howling and crying of her dogs. “Just in time,” Jimmy says. As I was helping him clear away the pieces, he asks, “Are you ever going to go back?”
I stare at the pawn clutched in my hand. Am I? It’s the question I’ve been asking myself since the day I went out with Julia and until now, I still don’t have my answer. “I’m still thinking about it.”
Jimmy smiles at me. “I’m glad.”
“Dinner’s ready.” Julia prompts as Jimmy and I was about to head down. I flick the lint off my jeans before following downstairs.
I didn’t get a good look at her dad the first time because it was dark and I was too busy trying not to laugh, but now with the proper lighting and a closer look, I can see the resemblance—or lack thereof. Where Julia’s hair was black, her dad has a dirty blond with the roots turning gray. His eyes are a dark shade of brown. This family is definitely blessed by good looks.
“I wasn’t aware we have a guest,” is Christian Gray’s way of greeting me. Although unlike the last time, his words didn’t hold any contempt. He was just genuinely surprised to see me.
“Jimmy asked her to come.”
Another man appears coming from the living room. If Julia is a carbon copy of her mom, this man is definitely the carbon copy of her dad, minus the graying hair and plus the eyeglasses. He’s holding his son in his arms, the kid giggling with joy in seeing his daddy.
“Been a long time since Julia brought home a friend.” He says.
“Al, this is my eldest brother Jace. Jace, Alex.”
“Nice to meet you.” I give him a pleasant smile which he returns with ease.
Just before we head to the dining room, I feel a prickling feeling on the back of my neck. I’m so used to her popping up all the time that I’m not even surprised when Janelle shows up on the front door. That, and she’s living across the street. She doesn’t seem surprised to see me when she enters and greets everyone with the familiarity I envy. Of course, they’re close; they all grew up together. Julia also told me she spent Thanksgiving with them. She’s basically part of the family.
We all head to the dining room and settle on the 10-seater table. Christian sits at the head, to his right is Jace, between him and Laura, is their two-year-old son Benjamin, and Jimmy. To his left are Josh, Janelle, Julia, and me.
Throughout dinner, Julia’s family tried their best not to make me feel like an outsider despite Janelle’s efforts to always change the topic back to their childhood memories. Janelle may be a bitch to me but she seems like a different person in front of these people. She was almost pleasant towards me.
What I’ve gathered so far is that Jace is running his own business, Jimmy’s studying to become a doctor, thus abandoning his would-be career in chess, and Josh, who couldn’t be more perfect, is a swimmer. And Laura—Laura is a saint. She’s the most welcoming of them all, and I found out that she and Jace are high school sweethearts. Imagine that?
“So, Alex.” Julia’s father’s voice makes me look at him. “Were you doing schoolwork with Julia?”
“No, sir. I played chess with Jimmy.”
“Oh?” Christian raises an eyebrow. “You came all this way to play chess?”
I nod. “Yes.” And to see your daughter.
“They’ve been at it since noon,” Laura says. “Alex must be good. I’ve never seen Jimmy so focused.”
“Good?” Jimmy snorts. “You guys have no idea.”
Janelle speaks. “Alex must like losing if she kept playing with you for that long.”
“Actually,” Jimmy wipes his mouth with a table napkin. “She mopped the floor with my ass.” He was smiling despite his statement as if he enjoyed every second of it.
Janelle laughs. “You throwing a game doesn’t count, Jim.”
Jimmy raises his hands and lets them drop in exasperation. “Since you’re so oblivious, why don’t you Google her.” When Janelle doesn’t make a move, he adds, “I’m serious.”
Next to me, Julia also brings out her phone, and mutters, “I never tried searching you. This should be good.” She grins at me with a conspiratorial smile.
“I’ve never tried searching my name either,” I admit, though I have a vague idea of what results might come up—most of them involving the word youngest.
“Oh, and enter Isabelle Alvarrez instead of Alex,” Jimmy says.
I also see Josh bringing out his phone and tapping for a second.
“So?” I ask Julia, who suddenly became silent.
“Bloody hell.” Josh bursts out, and everyone’s eyes turn to him except for Janelle, who’s still busy scrolling and Julia, whose eyes are now locked in mine.
Julia grabs my hand under the table and squeezes it gently, her eyes sparkling with pride and unshed tears. I wanted to kiss her right there.
“What? Who is she?” Jace reaches across the table to snatch Josh’s phone.
“Youngest world champion. Youngest chess grandmaster. The highest-ranked and only female player in the world who achieved a 2800 Elo rating.” Jimmy says. “Those are the things at the top of my head, but I reckon you’ll see much more as you scroll.”
Hearing the words brings a feeling of nostalgia. If they only knew the names I’d been called underneath those titles.
Everyone in the table was looking at me with newfound interest. Even Julia’s dad looked impressed. Janelle finally looks up from her phone and turns to face me, her face holding a hint of grudging respect. “It says here you stopped playing and just disappeared. Why?”
“That’s really none of your business,” Julia says with a smile that does nothing to take out the sting in her words.
Janelle shrugs. “Just curious.”
The rest of dinner consisted of them asking me questions about my career and Janelle making offhand comments. I did notice however that her tone lacked its usual bite.
When it was getting late and I had to leave, Julia excused us and offered to walk me out, but not before Jimmy made me promise to play with him again on Christmas break while he’s here.
“Jimmy’s totally fangirling over you.” Julia chuckles as we walk to their front gate.
“Well, that’s one less family member for me to worry about.”
She closes the gate behind her when we get outside. “You have nothing to worry about. They all like you. Dad’s still testing the waters, but I think you’re good.”
I lean on the side of my car. “You know, I think we get more private time out here than inside your house.” I make a move to hug her but was stopped by the sound of footsteps. Thanks to the horizontal gaps, I know who it is before the gate swung open. “Actually, scratch that.”
“Grandmaster, really? Could you get any more bizarre?” Jan joins us.
“Did you need anything?” I ask, ignoring her jibe.
“You dropped this.” She throws something to me and I catch it with one hand—my wallet.
I feel around my back pocket to confirm that it was indeed missing. “Thanks.”
I expected another snide comment or an insult, but none came. Janelle went back inside Julia’s house without so much as a backward glance.