For her first try in an unfamiliar kitchen, she went with ground beef and baked potatoes. Plating her dish beautifully prompted the diners to ravage the deliciousness. Yums and nasal sounds of satisfaction delighted the chef, who dreamed of carrying that title professionally.
The flavor lasted until they were done, and Pudica's pride continued long after she wiped the crumbs off the dinner table. That left her wondering what foods Oliver liked, and if he would like her cooking at all. Positively, she persuaded her aunt to let her use the stove more often, so he had to try it at some point.
By the time she headed to her bedroom, he wasn't home yet.
More important things needed her attention, such as applying to a reputable school. She excelled in most subjects and had a resume to show for it, so getting accepted wasn't a worry. What perturbed her was her fossilized laptop, which lost connection to the internet. Two good thumps to the screen usually did the trick, but this time, it flickered until it died.
"No!" Pudica carried it out of her bedroom, ambulating through the house as if physics worked differently outside.
"Work." She shook the laptop and slammed it against furniture.
"Do you have a thing for smashing electronics?" She turned to an alarmed Oliver. He wasn't wearing his work uniform anymore. He had a plain red shirt with rolled up sleeves and khaki jeans.
"I'm tryn'a get it to turn on." Pudica aimed the laptop at him.
"Is that what turns you on? Violence?" he leaned on the wall.
"Huh? Turns me—" It took her long enough to recognize his bad attempt at a sex joke. She barely knew him and he dared to quip without boundaries. He didn't respect her.
Her brows imploded at his smirk. "This is no laughing matter. I was doing something of utmost importance."
"Your highness can't take a joke." He fluttered his fingers. "I thought we were cool after I helped you."
"We're not friends, Sir." She hugged herself.
The man threw his head back and slapped his thigh. "Ah, that means I won't let you borrow the Mac on my bed, so that you can do whatever it is you're doing."
"If 'Mac on your bed' is." She curled her fingers by her shoulders. "A sexual innuendo, then I don't need any favors, thanks."
Oliver raised an eyebrow and spoke slowly. "No. It's a Mac." He got no other reaction from her. "A computer."
"K, if you wan'a help, bring it here." She pointed at the gray tiles underneath her.
"I'll do it because I'd like to help," he turned one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, but stood still. Before she voiced her concern for his state, he faced her again. "Here's the thing. You can borrow my laptop if you give me your number."
Note to brain: buy a phone.
He stomped on the ground like a little kid. "I won't harass you. I promise."
"I can't because I don't have a phone. And why do you want my number? We live in the same house."
Usually, people asked why she didn't have a phone, so she expected the same reaction from him. Not this time. Instead, he answered her question.
"Because we live together." He made a long pause. "What if the place is on fire? You need a phone so that I can warn you to leave the house."
What an idiot.
"If I'm inside the house, wouldn't I know if there's a fire? And if I'm still inside, it means I'm trapped."
"One more reason to have your number. If you're trapped, how would I know where to rescue you?"
"You'd rescue me," Pudica said that as a statement.
"I would?" Oliver seemed surprised at his own words.
"You've just said—"
"I would," he reiterated.
While Oliver grabbed his laptop, Pudica sat in awe at his words. It might have been roommate etiquette to help, but she'd never gotten that kind of attention from a man. More precisely, vulgar males had proposed sexual relationships before, but never had a man proffered to rescue her.
When Saturday came around, Betsy and Pudica gave no importance to Robert's warnings. Even Dr. Robert Hendricks himself found taking part in the neighborhood party wasn’t so dangerous. Yes, germs spread fast, but the sick had been quarantined since they arrived in the Americas, and the government had placed a temporary ban on travel from China, where the illness began. The data showed they could contain the disease.
Plus, Pudica was too happy to mind a virus. Sometimes she felt that she shouldn't smile too much around the Hendricks or they would ask why she wasn't lamenting the death of her mom. She had no communication with her father, but her mother raised her, which had to be worth crying. Normal humans had grieving periods, but not a tear did she shed after the funeral. She was merely shocked from the rapid changes in her life. One day she would crumble, no doubt about that.
To speed up the process, she stood in front of the bathroom mirror, looking into her hazel spheres, waiting for tears to appear. She curved her lips down and sniffled. Nothing.
Her brain blinked for attention at inopportune times. An image of Oliver's fingers tapping on his laptop keyboard came to mind. Her wrist was so close to his. So silly to reflect upon a man in which she bore no interest.
His messy hair gave her an urge to brush it; his nose looked bigger than his face; his lips didn't have color; definitely not her type.
The girl dried her hands on a towel and entered the kitchen where the puddings she baked for the neighborhood party awaited last decorating details. Hopefully, by sharing them, the treats helped her make friends.
As she neared the counter, she found Oliver goggling at the dessert with caramel on his fingertips.
Pudica held her hips and fanned her head. "Did you eat a flan?"
He heaved. "I feel sick."
"My sweet pudding made you sick?" She almost shouted. Pressure increased, mentally reviewing the recipe. "Is the custard under-baked?"
"No," he blurted. "They are fine. They're good. Too perfect, actually. See you in the boat."
The clueless girl watched him hurry through the sliding doors to the backyard. As he reached the lake, he jumped on a cuddy boat, where Betsy and Robert waited for them.
It was a slow ride to the public park where the community held the gathering. Many of the party-goers knew Oliver and the Hendricks well and wasted no time to introduce themselves to Pudica. It was strenuous to start conversations with strangers, but these were welcoming.
Clarisse, Jerome, Olga—it was hard matching every name to each face.
Oliver quickly greeted two men about his same age. She thought nothing of it until they started eyeing her. At some point they laughed, causing her discomfort.
"They better not be laughing at me," she mumbled.
Another neighbor shook her hand, making friendly remarks. The old man gave her thumbs-up as he chewed on one cupcake. And as he walked away, Oliver and his friends stood in front of her.
"Um, ah, uh, hi." She frowned.
"I'm sorry, I don't wan'a mispronounce your beautiful name," said a boy with brown skin, a buzz cut and glasses.
"Pudica," she replied shyly.
"Pew-dee-kuh. Nice," he said. "I'm Sutton, and this is Quentin. Forgive him. He's nervous around pretty girls." He pointed at a tall man with curly hair beside him.
Quentin looked stupefied. He waved his arm once. Being the shortest of the three, his movements appeared miniscule.
“Are you single?" Sutton asked bluntly.
Oliver coughed forward, bumping shoulders with him.
"Huh?" Pudica was unsure of her own hearing.
"I ask because if you had a boyfriend, it would help him relax a little," the man with glasses clarified.
The girl didn't wish to cause anyone anxiety, so she smiled. "I do."
"Must be a long-distance relationship," said Oliver. "We've been living in the same house for more than a week, and I've never seen him."
“He hasn't had time to visit." Pudica glared at him, then popped her head toward the lake.
“I see him." She aimed her finger randomly at incoming boats and scurried into the crowd.
"Later, pudding," said Oliver.
The word 'pudding' wasn't that offensive, honestly. Pudica forgot why it drove her angry and embarrassed. She escaped to the secluded woods from where the party was visible, but guests could not see her.
What else could she reply? It made his friend nervous to know she was single. Worse, it let them think she was available. Oliver ruined her day, and on top of that, he called her 'pudding.'
She grunted at him from afar, and before she mocked him more, a hand spun her around.
Ninel muffled her attempts at screaming, then brought her finger to her lips.
"What are you doing in at this party?" the half-sister whispered, putting her hands down. Her nails were so long, they were curving.
“Same to you," said the astonished girl. "And why so hushy-hushy?"
"Baja la voz," Ninel shushed her, pulled her extra large shades over her head, and dragged Pudica's arm behind a tree. "Did you meet any strangers?"
"Yeah." Pudica raised an eyebrow.
"Ay Dios! What did they say? What did they look like?" Ninel shook her sister by the shoulders.
Pudica shuddered away. "They're all strangers. And what is wrong with you?"
"I told you I needed to talk to you." Ninel shoved her bony fingers into her designer bag, finding a rectangular device. She yanked her sister's hand and placed it on her palm.
"A phone?" Pudica touched the wide screen and gasped at the sparkling multicolored unicorn cover.
"I paid for the first month. Now, listen carefully." Witch-Nails snapped her fingers by her forehead. "You are in danger. If you meet a guy with a Caribbean accent, you run, you hear me?"
Pudica's organs stopped working for a minute. "Wait, what? How am I in danger?"
"The Cuban-American mafia is coming for you. They want Papi's money."
The trees were far, but large. Pudica almost heard her eyelashes blink. Aware of her raising hairs, she took a deep breath. The mafia was another Cuban expression that meant something different—Ninel's way of wishing her terrible luck.
The girl laughed softly.
"It's not a joke, pea-brain." Ninel coughed, then cleared her throat.
"Why?" She switched to a disturbed state.
"I've just told you, they demand your inheritance, and they'll kill you for it."
Her instincts told her to say she didn't want any money and to give it back, but she had been so poor in the past, that her mouth kept quiet. She had to involve the police.
"Agh, these allergies." Ninel rasped her throat with a fist on her chest. The sound of a breaking twig startled her, so she glanced behind Pudica and flashed into the forest. "I'll call you. I'll call you."
Pudica nodded although she wanted to go after her. Her life was in danger and she was alone in the woods. If the Cuban mafia was after her, were they after Ninel, too?
"So you do have a phone," Oliver grunted.
Pudica frowned, then looked at the unicorn case in her hand.
"Were you following me?" she asked in suspicion despite Oliver not having a Cuban accent.
"Whatever." He turned to the party.
When she realized her irrational conjecture, she bustled after him. "I got it this morning."
He continued walking.
“I don't know how to use it." She finally caught his attention. Then she waved the device at him. "I don't even know my number."
"It should be in your contacts. Let me see." He wiggled his fingers at the phone, and she gave it to her.
When he turned on the screen, there was a welcome board with configuration instructions. Pudica smiled at this, since it was proof that she had been truthful.
He lowered the phone by her chest and showed her some features.
"What's that?" she asked.
"That's my number, pudding." He smirked. "I want you to keep it in your contacts."
His words sent goosebumps down her arms and into the ends of her breasts. She bit her lower lip unconsciously. The action prompted her legs shut, disallowing a devious liquid to go farther than her groin.