Crossfire

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Chapter 3

The only place I know my way around in this country is Queens. Dad owns a townhouse there and that’s where I stayed every time I visited. There’s a public school a few blocks down the street and a very nice bakery called the Brown’s (they sell the best cinnamon rolls in the entire world). The neighborhood is serene and simple, a quiet corner tucked inside the hustling and busting of the city. But when Burner eased the truck onto Grand Central Pkwy instead of continuing on I-678 N, I know the townhouse is not our destination.

“Am I going to see Dad at all?” I ask, watching the scenery flying by outside the window.

Burner smirks. His eyes fix on the road ahead. “One question. How can you two be close without knowing a thing about each other? Your dad doesn’t even know which city of Taiwan you live in.” He says instead of answering my question.

“Fair enough.” I shrug. “He has never been there.”

His chin drops. “Like never never.”

When I nod, he glances at me as if I were the mystery of life. “Then how did he meet your mom?”

“Here in New York. She was on a business trip and ran into him in a bar in SoHo.”

“That’s romantic.” Burner mutters. I bark out a hysterical laugh. His fingers tighten on the steering wheel before his hazel eyes cut to my way again. “What?”

“Wait till the story is finished,” I say snidely. “My mom was a wasted 35-year-old woman who was dumped by her ex over the phone the night she was in that bar. She jumped the first man she saw, had self-destructive sex with him and flew back to Taiwan the next morning.”

Burner’s eyes go wide when he puts the story together. “That man was Xavier.”

“Correct. After Mom realized she got knocked up three months after, she flew all the way back here and lurked in the same bar until one night he showed up again.”

“That’s fucked up.” He exclaims, dragging a palm down his face. I yell at him when I see his hands are no longer on the wheel. “Sorry,” He apologizes sheepishly.

“Mom told me she was horrified after knowing that Dad was only 25. She had these rules of only doing men older than her and never having children. Guess who got her to break all the rules?”

“And you are fine with that?” He asks, fumbling with words. “You know... you being a...”

“A drunken mistake? A real-life lesson of never having a one-night stand without condoms?” I offer without a blink of an eye. He looks distraught by my choice of words, but he doesn’t deny them. He is confused, shocked, and probably a little repulsed. Behind that is a hint of pity that irritates me the most. People are flummoxed by my parents' hideous encounter and jump to the conclusion that I am to be a charity case. I might not grow up in a normal family, but that doesn’t mean I need their pity.

“They both love me,” I say, turning to stare out the window again. Dad and mom might not love each other, but they made sure I received all their adoration. I am precious to them. At least that’s what I believe in. “I can’t ask for more.”

“True.” He says. A moment of silence passed before he speaks again. “I am sorry about your mom.”

I am caught off guard, not expecting to hear these words from him. Dad avoids the topic of Mom like what people do to a plague. I was so sure he wouldn't utter a word about her death to anyone but me. But Burner was there when I called from the funeral. He might have overheard something. “Hum...Thanks.”

“You look surprised.” He says, frowning.

“I... didn’t know you knew about my mom.” I admit, reaching for the empty cup rested in the cupholder. Like he promised, we stopped by Starbucks to grab a drink. I consumed it in a heartbeat but it did nothing to wear off my bone-deep weary.

“How much coffee have you had already?” He gives me a distaste look.

“Not enough, apparently,” I tell him, yawning. “Caffeine is overrated.”

“You are immune to it, like your father.” He mutters matter of factly.

“Stop comparing me to my dad.”

“What did you mean you didn’t know I knew about your mom?” He guides the topic back on track wisely.

“Well, Dad just... didn’t talk about her that’s all.” I say on an exhale.

The look he gives me is complete bewilderment. “That’s not true. He whined...” He stops himself, looking at me remorsefully. “I mean he mentioned her a lot, especially when he was drunk. I knew she meant a lot to him.”

I blink at the absurdity of his statement. “What?”

“You can’t tell me you didn’t know about it. He was addicted to substances for years after her death. He was like a piece of shit when I first met him.”

Oh, that. “You mean his wife, Olivia.”

His expression transforms from bewilderment to shell shock. “She is not your mom.” He says eventually. His voice is oddly strained.

“Olivia was a good woman,” I say. Dad met Olivia ten years ago and married her three months after that. Olivia Alston embraced me as if I were her blood daughter and I adored her equally. She was an abstract art artist and owned a gallery in Brooklyn. When Dad was at work, she took me with her to her studio and I would watch her paint all day. She had the kindest blue eyes and an angelic voice. And her homemade lasagne was a legend. Dad was a better man because of her. During those years with Olivia, I had a glimpse of what a well-function family looks like. But beautiful things tend to fade quickly. She died saving her gallery in a fire the year I turned ten. Ever since then, Dad had been the wreckage of his sorrow. He closed himself off and retreated into a dark place inside his mind. All I could do was watch him wasting away.

“I thought...” He pauses, shaking his head. “He told me he had a wife and has a daughter, I just put you two together without a second thought.”

I give him a sympathetic smile. “It’s fine. Actually, Dad hated Mom’s gut.” Some parents are meant to be together. Mine were meant to be separated. Mom wasn’t big on dating a foreign man who was ten years junior to her. Dad was young and full of ambition. Building a family with a woman he slept for only one night wasn’t on the top of his list. They did try, but they simply weren’t made for each other. Mom’s anti-foreign family was the last straw. When Grandma refused to have Dad’s name registered on my birth certificate, the two sides eventually fell apart.

“Really?” Burner is curious.

“You don’t want to know,” I assure him. But there would be no hatred between them anymore. I don’t suppose my dad would hold grudges against a dead woman.

“Then how’s your mom?”

I grimace. Talking about Mom still hurts like a mother fucker but there’s no point avoiding the topic. “She died two weeks ago.” My voice sounds strangely calm. “A car accident. I applied for a wellness leave from school so that I can be here.”

His face crumpled. “Shit,” he mutters, shifting his hazel eyes to meet mine woefully. “I am so sorry. I ask a stupid question.” He lets out a breath. “I can’t believe Xavier didn’t think to tell me.”

“Told you so. He didn’t talk about her.”

The rest of the ride is silent. When the car finally pulls to a stop at a roadside parking spot, I finally glance around to see where we are. I was so invested in my own thoughts that I didn’t even look up to see the street signs when we were on the road.

“Where are we?” I ask, rolling down the window. A cold blast of wind rolls into the vehicle, instantly quelling my urge to get off the car.

Burner rolls up t]my window and kills the engine. “Welcome to Manhattan, Princess.” He exclaims with too much enthusiasm.

“Ugh...” I would rather crawl into my bed and be dead for the next twenty hours. “Why are we here?”

We both climb off the truck. He turns me around and urges me forward to a coffee shop across the street. The small shop is crowded with people catching a break on a Tuesday afternoon. The aroma of roasted coffee beans fills the air. I inhale deeply, welcoming the soothing scent. “Is this your attempt to compensate the local coffee business after buying me a Starbucks?”

Burner snorts and points behind me. Craning my neck, I spot a man sits lonely at the alcove. Wearing his impeccable three-piece suit and the artfully tousled dark brown curls, Xavier Alston stands out from the crowd effortlessly. His long legs push out from the table, crossed at the ankles. He scowls at his phone like something really bad happens. But we all know he is probably just looking at a baby’s photo. I smile wide when those whisky color eyes leave the screen and land on me. I dash forward and throw myself into his open arms.

“Dad!” I squeal, scaring the people around us. He squeezes me tightly against his very hard shoulders. Dad is more on the lean side, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have muscles.

“Sweetheart.” He pulls away so he can kiss my forehead. “My Precious.”

I didn’t realize I’m crying until I feel his thumbs brushing away the tears on my cheeks. He soothes me and sends seething glares at whoever is staring. God, I miss the man.

Burner makes himself comfortable in the seat across from Dad, watching us with a grim smile. After the moment of vulnerability, I pull myself straight and nod.

“Better?” Dad says, smoothing my hair back gently. I nod again and slip off his lap. With a heavy sigh, I plop down to the only empty seat left at the table.

“You send an errand boy to pick me up so you can sit here and drink coffee?” I point an accusative finger at Dad. “That’s kind of a jerk move.”

Dad’s reply is a one-shoulder shrug. Burner looks insulted.

“Hey, I am not some errand boy. And wow, that’s it? Your emotional reunion just lasted for...” He looks down at his watch. “Two minutes. And now you go straight on bitching each other?”

“You do realize she is the only one doing the bitching,” Dad says and gives me a knowing smile. "She's going to do that a lot. You had better getting used to it." Burner starts muttering something beneath his breath and leaves to order himself a drink. He doesn’t bother to ask me if I need anything.

“How’s your flight?” Dad asks. His eyes follow Burner to the cashier counter before coming back to me. “Jet lag?”

“Hell yes.” I say, slouching further into the chair.

He plucks at my sleeve and scowls. “Do I want to know why you are wearing Taylor’s coat?” I tell him my clothing situation and let him lecture me for ten solid minutes. Burner is back when Dad’s still in the middle of his babbling. The younger man rolls his eyes and gives me a why-am-I-back-so-early look.

“So what are we doing in Manhattan?” I ask with forced energy when Dad finishes his tirade. It’s such a waste that he isn’t a politician. “Hanging out? Sight-seeing? Shopping?”

Burner snorts. “I wish.”

“I have something to tell you.” Dad draws a long breath, leaning to the table, and sets both of the elbows on it. I know the posture. The I-can’t-quite-explain-but-it-is-serious posture. I arch one eyebrow at both of the men.

“Well?”

“We need to be in Los Angeles, discreetly,” Dad explains. When I realize he is not going to elaborate on that, I turn to look at Burner.

“With your colleague?” I ask skeptically.

Dad glances at his friend. His expression bemused. “Yes.”

Burner glares back at him. They seem to be communicating with each other without words.

“So it’s a business trip,” I conclude, squinting at them.

Burner huffs out a laugh. “You can put it that way.” He turns to Dad. “A business trip. Why didn’t we ever think of it like that?”

I’m so desperately want to know what the it means. I almost open my mouth to ask. There was a time I wasn’t afraid of being curious. It feels so long ago, before Olivia’s death, before Dad picked up the bottles.

You demanded too much of me.

I flinch. The phantom of memory so many years ago replays itself in my head like a waking nightmare. The shattered wine bottle. Claret dripping down the wall behind me like spluttered blood.

I shouldn’t have built a family.

“Precious?”

Dad’s voice pulls me back to reality. My eyes refocus on the table before me. The buzzing sound in my ears is replaced by the chatter from the adjacent tables and the low humming of coffee machines.

That was the past. I blink when the remainder of the flashback dissipates. And it'll never happen again.

"Precious!"

I jump in my seat. "Sorry, I zone out a bit. Tell me again why are we here helping the local coffee industry instead of meeting up in LAX?"

Dad gives Burner an expectant look. Burner doesn’t look up from the mug, stirring his coffee distractedly.

Dad sighs and lies through his teeth. “Because I like the coffee here.”

Something is seriously wrong between the two men. My gut feeling tells me this side trip isn't Dad's doing after all but Burner's. Though the reason why is still beyond my comprehension. Yet another mystery. “Okay, let’s go then.”

“Let’s go to refurnish your wardrobe first.” Dad clips.

“I don’t need wintery clothing in LA,” I complain. “Let’s go home and drop off some of my stuff.”

“Am I going to be bossed around by you two?”

Dad grins wickedly at his friend, who winces inwardly at the silent confirmation. But I think I see something in Dad’s gaze when he looks at Burner. If I didn’t know better I would say it’s almost an indulgent look.

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