After 15 hours and two planes, I finally step into the arrival hall of JFK. Just when I think the jet lag and the long exposure in the dry air are going to make the rest of my day miserable, here comes the cake topping.
“Are you kidding me!” I growl in frustration as I look out to the snow-covered landscape outside Terminal 4. I am wearing a cropped t-shirt, a flimsy denim jacket, and black jeans full of holes. In the other words, my outfit is completely defenseless against the weather. When I was packing and dressing for the trip, I was in a Taiwanese mindset. Taiwan is basically a tropical island located in East Asia. Even though the north part of the land (which is where I live) gets chill sometimes, we never have to deal with harsh wintery weather. But still...
“What kind of the city fucking snows in mid-March...”
“You just happen to arrive on a bad day.”
I swirl around at the foreign voice and the next moment my pepper spray is out. The nuzzle aimed at a pair of rounded hazel eyes.
The man ducks away, throwing his hands out. “Hey, hold your horse!”
It takes me a moment, but I recognize the voice. “Mr. Burner,” I say incredulously, lowering my weapon.
Taylor Burner looks a few years younger than Dad with a well-built body and a military aura around him. His weird color eyes light up when they land on me. “Jesus, you do look like Xavier.”
I arch one eyebrow, taking my sweet time to observe the man. His skin is baked into a beautiful golden tone. With the snowflakes in his chestnut color hair, he creates a rather contradictory image. A thin white scar runs from the corner of his right eye to the jawline, giving him a savage touch. And those eyes, round and clad with long dark lashes, can capture your full attention without him trying.
This man is a real piece of work.
“You have gone to somewhere else, haven’t you.” I continue to assess him.
He is surprised by my deduction. ”You are not wrong." He dismisses the topic and he points a finger in my general direction. “That’s all you are wearing. Do you realize it’s like 30 degrees outside?”
Fahrenheit scale, great. “Use Celsius.” I bark at the man. He doesn’t try to convert the figures for me. Instead, he shrugs off his heavy wool coat and hands it over. I muffle my surprise with a quick thank and pull the coat on.
“What about you?” I hug the oversize coat around me, feeling contented when the warmth slowly chases away the chill. He is wearing a sweater, but I doubt it’s enough to ward off the freezing air outside.
“What about me?” He answers me with a rhetorical question and reaches to take my luggage. I swat his hand away.
“Ouch. What’s that for?” He grumbles, rubbing the back of his hand ( it’s not like I can do him any harm).
“Where’s my dad?” I ask, glancing around the crowd. But the arrival hall is filled with unfamiliar faces and Dad is impossible to miss with his 6 foot 5 stature and permanently scowling face. I return my attention to the man and squint at him suspiciously. “It’s uncharacteristic of him to send somebody to pick me up without informing me in advance.”
“And it’s not like him to pull out his devious plan with a head-up.” He gives me a lopsided smile. I hesitate and look at him, really look at him. He seems to know Dad well. Xavier Alston doesn’t have many close friends but I know each of them by heart. Taylor Burner is never on the list, which can only mean...
“Friend from work or family member?”
He looks at me with an are-you-losing-your-mind face. “Excuse me?”
“Are you a colleague or a cousin of my dad?” I pause, considering his face thoroughly. “Brother?”
He lets out a disgusted huff at the word brother.
“Do you honestly believe I’m related to Xavier?” He points at his face. They look nothing alike. To be precise, he is literally the polar opposite of Dad. Warm colors and soft eyes. He is a beam of sunshine compares to Dad’s looming clouds of depression. “And hell, how can you possibly not recognize your own uncle?”
I shrug. I never make an effort to make acquaintance with the rest of Dad’s family, just like he doesn’t care about the other half of mine. “So you are a friend from work,” I conclude.
“Yes, a friend from work... ” He trails off and I can almost hear his unspoken words lingering in the space between us.
There’s more but I can’t tell.
Dad seldom talks about his work. If he does, he blurs everything with his classic half-smile and levitating eye contact. Taylor Burner is so far the only concrete evidence that proves Dad's job is not just a figment of my imagination. But it seems to me that this man is, too, heavily laced with secrets.
I have been in this country for less than an hour and a ton of question marks are already piled high at my feet. This is not my idea of fun on my first day in NYC.
“Can we go now or do you want to keep staring at me like I am the reason why Steve Trevor died in Wonder Woman?” Burner says impatiently, reaching out for my luggage again.
I don’t have the brainpower now to figure out where the hell this man came from and why Dad broke the norms. What I need now is the elixir of life aka coffee. “I wanna grab a Starbucks,” I inform him and yawn.
“I am not helping the chain stores bullying the local coffee industry.” He says, reaching for my luggage again.
“Screw you and your moral high ground.” I extricate my suitcase out of his reach. “It’s my way or the highway. I want Starbucks and you are buying it.”
He lets out another frustrated grunt. “Cranky.”
“I am high on lethargy.”
When he finally gets hold of my luggage, a corner of the hardshell case jams into his calf. He curses in some nondescript words and turns to see me smiling triumphantly.
“Stop the smile.” He grumbles, herding me out of the airport into the parking lot. “You are basically Xavier with a wig. You act exactly like him.”
“Hey,” I complain, feeling offended. Because let’s be frank, my dad is not the type of paragon girls would look up to. “That’s an insult.”
“Immediate act of violence for starters,” He scrunched his nose in distaste. I don’t think using pepper spray on unexpected friends is an act of violence, but I let the man continue.“Think worst of people at first sight and get all defensive without reasons.” He rambles on as we walk past the parked cars. “And at last, you entertain yourselves with other’s misery.” When he finishes, a wind catches up. Burner, without his coat, starts shaking uncontrollably. He looks miserable. I bite down my lip to suppress a laugh.
“See!” He glares at me accusingly. “Gloating.”
We stop at Dad’s pickup truck, which I can’t help but gape at. Dad doesn’t let anyone drive his baby. I never understand his weird possessiveness over that beat-up piece of metal crap and seeing it without Dad is a picture of total absurdity. Burner gives me a smug look, probing his hand on the hood.
“What do you have against him?” I muse.
“Nothing.” He throws my stuff onto the cargo bed, pulls a canvas over the suitcase, and secures everything in place.
“Liar.” I accuse, watching him move around the vehicle. His every movement is fluid and elegant, reminding me of a mountain cat.
“Should we go back to the think worst of people part again?”
“I still have my pepper spray.”
“You need medication.” He stops beside me, opening the car door. “Get in before you freeze your ass off.”
I climb into the truck obediently. I watch him jog around in the cold to the other side of the car. His nimble fingers turn a silver band on his pinky over and over as if the very existence of the accessory agitated him. When he settles himself behind the wheel, I lean in to scrutinize him. Sensing the weight of my stare, he turns his hazel eyes on me. I always think hazel is the most mysterious eyeshade. Green with a tint of brown, like two emerald globes with golden flecks in them. The shifting color creates complexity, hence the person who carries the eye color always appears to be harder to read. Burner is no exception.
“You are staring very hard,” Burner says.
“My father has never, ever, introduced me to his coworker...” I say, giving in to my curiosity. In my peripheral view, I can see the waist holster peeking out from his Kashmir sweater. The same one Dad owns. Burner is the only thread that can lead me closer to the truth of Dad’s work life. “Any chance you can tell me about...”
“I am sorry,” He cuts me off, looking away solemnly. “I can’t tell you what you want to know.”
I deflate immediately. Here I thought the aberration means a change in my circumstances. Of course, Dad imposed a gag order on Burner. All these years being buried in the dark should teach me something. It is stupid of me to think Burner might give me some answer. “That’s what I thought.”
I look up. He studies my expression closely, a faint smile on his scarred face. “Your dad has his reasons to keep particular information from you. I have no place to judge him. And I find his reasons understandable.”
I nod, waiting for him to make his point.
“But I have to confess, I don’t approve his conduct.”
My eyes widen a fraction. “You don’t?”
“I don’t. But...” He quickly adds before I can attack him with more questions. “I promised him to keep my mouth shut and I will honor my words until he says otherwise.”
I groan, slouching in the seat. “You sound like a soldier. Are you in the military before?”
“Nope.” He turns the engine on. For a brief moment, there’s only the rumbling noise of the truck between us. “Let’s go get your chain-store coffee, Princess.”