"Don't you think you're a little too old now for sleepovers at Charlie's house? You're not little kids anymore, Mel. Soon, people will start talking."
I stop shoving my stuff into my overnight bag and stare at my stepmother, who is folding my freshly laundered clothes at the foot of the bed. I resist the urge to roll my eyes. She can be so neurotic. "Nancy, why do you care so much about what people think?"
She lets out a long-suffering sigh. "Because I promised your father I will raise you right and take care of you till my dying day, Melody. I only want what's best for you."
I know she hates it when I call her by her first name because she wants me to call her Mom, but I've never been able to do it. Even though she is the one who has been raising me since I was nine, she's only thirteen years older than me and used to be my babysitter. "It's so stupid, Nance. Charlie and I have been best friends since kindergarten. His twin sister is also a good friend of mine. I'm practically a family member. There is nothing salacious going on."
"Mel, it's just unseemly for a girl your age to be sleeping over at a young man's house." She hands me two pairs of neatly folded underwear. "People will think there is something going on between the two of you."
This time, I do roll my eyes. "Nance, that's gross. Charlie is practically my brother. We used to take baths together as kids, for Pete's sake."
"And when was the last time you took a bath together, hmm?" She arches her blond eyebrows and crosses her arms over her ample chest. "I'm guessing that was several years ago, Mel. You've both grown body parts since then that I bet you wouldn't be too eager to show each other if what you're feeling for him is sisterly."
At twenty-nine, she should be more like a sibling than a mother. Not that anyone would mistake us for sisters or anything. I'm half-Chinese, so I have black hair and brown eyes. I'm also on the petite side, whereas she comes from solid, Midwestern farm-girl stock. She's tall, sturdy, and hale. She looks nothing like my mother, my father's first wife, whom I take after. She was a small, porcelain-doll type of a woman who looked too delicate to be real. I guess that was why my father was overly protective of her when they were together and both alive.
I walk up to my stepmother and hug her from behind, wrapping my arms around her neck. I kiss the side of her head. "You worry too much about silly things. You'll be old before your time, if you don't watch yourself."
She pats my arm. "I'm responsible for a precocious seventeen-year-old girl and I'm not even thirty yet. What do you expect?"
I release her and sit down next to her on my bed, so that we're facing each other. "Exactly! And yet you act like this cranky, old widow who has given up on finding love ever again. You're too young to be pickling like this!"
She reaches over to sweep my hair out of my face and tuck it behind my ear. "Before your father died, I promised to him that you will always be my first priority. You are all the family I have, Melody. I have my hands full with you as it is."
Though she is smiling when she says this, I can't help but feel bad. Nancy wanted to be a teacher. She married my father when she was only twenty-one years old and though he paid for her college education and she graduated with a degree in English, she was too busy taking care of the two of us to pursue her dream. Since I'll be heading off to college next year, maybe she'll finally go out there and make a life for herself.
"I just want what's best for you, Mel," she says, squeezing my hand. "That's all I've ever wanted for you."
My throat burns with unshed tears. She has sacrificed so much for me, putting aside her own needs and concern in order to provide me with a safe, normal childhood. I put my arms around her and give her a tight hug. "Hey, Nance, I know. But you have to let go a little now, okay? I'm not your baby girl anymore. You've taught me so much over the years. You can trust me to take care of myself, okay?"
She cups my face between her hands and gives me a kiss on the forehead. "You're a good girl, Melody. I don't know why I worry so much about you when you've never given me cause to."
I pull away from her, so I could get back to packing. "You know what you should do after I leave? Draw yourself a nice bath, open up a bottle of red wine, and have a nice, long soak. Just don't fall asleep and drown, okay? I'd have trouble selling the house if you die in it."
She laughs and throws Mr. Binks, a plush lion I've had since I was a baby, at my head. "You are terrible."
She says she's going to go to the grocery store and asks if there's anything she can get for me. I tell her the Davenports are going out to dinner tonight and they're taking me along with them. She gives me forty dollars in cash to cover my food, even though Mr. Davenport always pays for everything.
"It's always good to have your own money, baby bird," she says, standing in the doorway of my bedroom. "Don't ever count on a man to pay all the time." She taps the wall twice to underscore her words, then winks and leaves.
It's pretty funny for her to say that because my father left us both enough money to live on for the rest of our lives so we wouldn't have to work, provided that we budgeted semi-wisely. Dad came from old East Coast money, which was originally old English tea plantation money, but we've always lived modestly. When he was thirty years old, he received control of an eighty-five-million-dollar trust fund that his maternal grandmother, who was the daughter of an oil and shipping magnate, left for him. But you wouldn't know that from the way I was raised.
We don't have a gigantic house and Dad never had a fleet of ridiculously expensive cars when he was alive. In fact, the only evidence that Nancy and I have money is that I attend Sacred Heart, which charges sixteen thousand dollars per term in tuition fees, and that there's a building on campus named after my mother, the Meredith Z. Plum Library and Media Center. We do have a half Olympic-sized pool in our backyard, where Nancy swims a hundred laps a day to keep herself trim and fit.
Nancy is in charge of my trust fund till I'm twenty-five and she's as frugal as Dad was. She's been driving the same Toyota Prius for five years. I've asked her repeatedly what good was having all of this money when we don't actually spend it. She always says there are more important things in life than acquisition and materialism. I often wonder if she's doing all of this in order to prove that she didn't marry my dad for his money, since the two of them were twenty-two years apart in age. I know that people used to blatantly gossip about her and dad and they probably still do, except not as loudly anymore. Nancy contributes a lot to the community and everyone wants a piece of that sweet, sweet Plum pie.
I found out just a few months ago that she has been donating a bulk of her share of the inheritance to various charities every year ever since Dad died. She has a little foundation that she runs with a couple of friends from college that gives out scholarships in my father's name to kids from low-income families who live in inner cities all over the United States. I jokingly tell her that she can give away all of her money if she wants to, as long as she doesn't touch mine. I don't think she likes that joke very much.
I text Charlie to let him know I'm ready and he messages back that he'll be over in ten minutes. He's just finishing a chore that his mom assigned him. The Davenports live just a few blocks from our house and I could actually walk there if I choose to, but I never choose to. I think I was a sloth in my previous life. I don't like to move unless I absolutely have to. Charlie says it's a miracle of modern science that I am not three hundred pounds since I have the appetite of a lumberjack, but hate to exercise. My mother was a small-framed woman, so I think I'll be all right. Nancy and Mrs. Davenport make fun of me when I say this. They both say I'm lucky that I can eat however much I want and not gain an ounce for now, but old age is a bitch and soon enough, my metabolism will slow down and I'll be the one who's sorry that I never developed a rigorous exercise routine when I was younger.
Charlie's sister Charlotte, who is ten minutes younger than him, has always had body issues. She is maybe ten to fifteen pounds over her perceived "ideal" weight and very insecure about it, especially because Charlie and her parents are super-fit. Mrs. Davenport is forty-five years old and still has the body of a high school cheerleader, while Mr. Davenport has... ahem.
Charlie's dad almost became a tennis pro. When he was in university, he was actually so good that he was invited to join the U.K. Olympic tennis team. A shoulder injury from a bad ATV accident ended his career, but he keeps fit by swimming laps in the school pool after hours and running five miles before going to work every morning. He's a year younger than Mrs. Davenport (she was his T.A. in college) and eight years younger than my dad would have been if he were still alive, but for a middle-aged guy, he is a very fine-looking man.
Very fine. I've always had a bit of a hero worship for Mr. Davenport, but sometime in the beginning of this school year, I realized that I have actual feelings for him. It's been super awkward for me to be around him ever since my big epiphany, but for him, it's just business as usual. After all, he doesn't even see me as a woman. Since I grew up with his kids, he'll probably never see past the snot-nosed orphan who practically lived in his house after my dad died. He and my dad had been the best of friends. As if that wasn't enough, I was a total klutz as a kid, so he was forever patching me up because I always had a skinned knee or elbow. My clumsiness is one of the reasons I am not a very active person.
My mobile phone beeps and I see a message that says, "I'm out here." I stuff my toiletries kit and Mr. Binks in my overnight bag and hurry out of my house. It isn't until I'm walking up to the curb that I realized it wasn't Charlie who texted me, but his dad. I screech to a halt. Mr. Davenport is sitting in the driver's seat of his black Escalade and parked in front of my house. He is wearing sunglasses and drumming on the steering wheel of his car, while listening to Herbie Hancock, which I could hear through the lowered window of the passenger side.
I want to die. I'm still wearing the clothes I changed into after school, which means yoga pants, a sports bra, and a loose t-shirt. Charlotte asked if we could get ready at her house together, so I didn't bother changing out of my ratty house duds. Arrgh. Maybe he hasn't seen me yet and I can sneak into the house real quick for an outfit switch.
That plan is immediately dashed when he spots me and honks. While praying for the ground to open up and swallow me whole, I furtively sniff under my arms as I slowly walk up to the car. I haven't reapplied deodorant, since I was planning on taking a quick shower once I got to their house. Oh my God, why do these things happen to me? I think of all the times when Charlotte and I just got into his car after our numerous dance classes in our pre-teens and die little by little as I imagine how much we must have stunk. This was before I discovered the flowery-freshness a girl could get from powerful deodorants. I know for a fact I must have had B.O. because of my prepubescent hormones. Whyyyyy am I just realizing this now?
Telling myself that it was highly unlikely he would notice or care that I smell like an old gym sock, I get into the car. He's probably used to stinky kids. He's a high school teacher, after all. My first sight of Mr. Davenport after not seeing him for more than two hours always takes my breath away. He is just so good-looking. He has thick, longish dark auburn hair which is a little curly and the most vivid pair of blue eyes I've ever seen on a person, framed by long, thick eyelashes. He has a squarish jawline, high cheekbones, and one of those long, straight noses you see on the profiles of people on old Roman coins. He has dimples that bracket his full, but firm-looking lips, that only become more prominent when he smiles.
Even when I order myself not to gawk at him like an idiot, I always end up doing it anyway because he is so beautiful. How could one human being look this good? It doesn't seem fair to the rest of the uggos walking around on this planet.
"Have I got dirt on my face or something?" he asks with a killer smile that makes my knees weak. "Seatbelt, please, Melody."
And then there's his voice. Maybe he just sounds extra smart and authoritative because of the British accent and that deep, sonorous, dark-chocolate voice that brings to mind cultured, sophisticated James Bond villains. I once heard one of the English teachers describe it to her friend as a "jaguar trapped inside a cello" and how hearing it made everything inside of her curl like her toes.
Gross, but apt. He was my teacher for eleventh grade British literature and one day, he read "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats out loud to the class. Everyone in the room, even the boys, were enraptured. Some girls actually sighed dreamily after the recitation--I may have been one of them-- and talked about him like he was Jungkook from BTS. In my opinion, he could read the entire Oxford English Dictionary, and I would listen to every word. Sister Mary Clarence, my guidance counselor, says he has the voice of an angel, and if anyone would know for sure, she would, because she has been a nun for a hundred years.
I got so wrapped up in my fantasies that I don't realize at first that he is talking to me. My face reddens like a sunripe tomato. "I'm sorry, sir, what did you say?"
"I was asking how you are, Ms. Plum," he says, sounding amused. "I also inquired after your step-mother."
"Oh, she's great," I answer in a perky voice, to make up for my initial dopiness. "She just started taking watercolor painting classes at the college two weeks ago."
"That's wonderful to hear! I'm glad Nancy is starting to do things for herself. I know things have been very difficult for the two of you since your dad died."
Though he keeps his eyes on the road, he reaches over to pat my leg. I know he probably meant it in fatherly comfort, but my heart stops altogether and for a brief moment, I struggle to get air out of my mouth. "Yeah," I wheeze. "It's been a challenge for the two of us."
He gives me a sidelong glance. "Are you alright? I hope you haven't caught the cold the twins have had for a week. I told Charlie it isn't a good idea for you to sleep over this weekend because I don't want you getting sick, too, but he said you're helping him catch up with the two chemistry chapters he missed last week."
Good ol' Charlie. While he did miss a couple of school days last week because of his cold, he doesn't need my help to catch up, least of all in science. The reason he wants me to sleep over is we are both horror film buffs and he finally got a hold of the Blu-ray of this previously unavailable trilogy of Korean slasher films from the nineties. He is a major geek and I love him.
There is a huge horror movie convention in San Francisco next month and we are both desperate to go. He hasn't told his parents and I haven't asked Nancy if I can go. Her answer will probably be no, especially if Charlie and I are planning on going by ourselves. She'd probably be okay with it if Charlotte were going, but she hates horror movies and traveling. Charlie and I have gone out of town together to attend conventions before, but his dad has always come along with us. This time, Charlie is hoping he and I will be allowed to go by ourselves.
Last year we went to the Comic Con in San Diego and I got to stay in the same hotel room with Charlie and his dad for five days and... well, I'm kind of hoping Mr. Davenport will also insist this time on coming along with us to San Francisco.
"The Homecoming dance is coming up in a few weeks," he says as he makes a turn into the street where their house is. "I've been roped into organizing it this year. Are you kids planning on going?"
"Uh..." I don't really like school-related social activities because I think most of the people are lame, but Charlie has talked about this one a few times. It's kind of weird because he's not usually into this kind of stuff, either. Now he says we have to experience these things because it's our senior year and we can't miss out. "I haven't really thought about it, sir."
He turns into the driveway of a three-story Spanish-style house and presses a button on the remote control clipped to the sunshade to open the garage. "I know Charlotte is really excited. She's going on and on about this crazy diet she wants to try because she's convinced Steve Mason may ask her to go with him this year."
My face burns in embarrassment for my friend. She has been crushing on Steve Mason since the ninth grade with no response on his end, but this year, they've become study buddies because they have a few classes together, and she thinks Steve will finally notice her. I'm just mortified that her dad knows all about it and is totally cool about discussing it with me. I would die if my dad were still alive and chose to talk to one of my best friends about my love life without my knowledge.
"I know Charlotte would love it if you also attend the dance," Mr. Davenport says, looking intently at me. "She cares about your opinion very much. I'd appreciate it if you could support her in this and maybe watch over her. She's really excited about it."
I am trapped in the deep pools of blue that are Mr. Davenport's eyes. I want to look away, but I can't. His body is turned toward me and I can smell the minty-freshness of his breath. "Don't worry, sir. I've got her back."
He smiles briefly at me and ruffles my hair. "Good girl," he says.
I melt in my seat.