“I don’t think I know him anymore.” Burner complains as we watch Dad walking to the vending machine from afar. We went shopping after we left the coffee shop. Since we didn’t have much time, we split up. Burner, claiming to have a better taste of teenage fashion, tagged along with me while Dad went alone to find me some proper attire for special occasions (God knows what that was supposed to mean). We dropped by Dad’s place to unload some of my stuff.
And, the second time in less than three hours, I am back in JFK again.
“What?” I ask absentmindedly, checking hundred of unread messages on my phone. Half of the texts are from my very pissed-off friends who I have ghosted since my mom passed away. It is a shitty thing to do but I am not ready to deal with another wave of condolences and pep talks.
“Has Xavier said no to you ever since you got here?” Burner’s rising voice brings my attention back to him. “You told him to get a chocolate bar and boom, there he went. He is acting like a dog.”
“Your point?” I give him a challenging look. It isn’t my fault Dad doting on me like a halfwit.
“You are totally spoiled.”
“Oh yeah? Consider me schooled.”
Burner rakes his finger through his buzz-cut hair in frustration. Usually, I am attracted to men with longer hair. But I find myself keep checking him up. He really rocks the whole military vibe, and those hazel eyes only add up his beauty.
He finds me scrutinizing him and gives me a weird look. “What’s that look for?”
“How old are you?”
“What?” He blurts out and answers with an expression full of suspicions. “35.”
Damn, too old for me. “Never mind.” I give him a half-smile, brushing off his confused look.
“Wait.” He insists. ”What’s all that about?”
You wouldn’t want to know. “Quit it. For your own sanity.”
He furrows his eyebrows so deeply that I bet it’s going to leave wrinkles. “Alston?”
“Chen.” I correct him since I took Mom’s last name instead of Dad’s. “I was thinking about asking you out on a date.”
His expression is purely comical when he stares at me with sheer shock. ”What?"
“Come on, Burner. You are a good-looking man. There must be a ton of women hitting on you.” I say, inspecting my nails. “But don’t worry. I just deem you are too old for me.”
He recovers quickly but still stares at me like I was going to attack him at any second. “You are very straightforward.” He says after clearing his throat three times.
“Got that from Mom,” I say. When the air between us turns more and more awkward, I figure I should probably say something else to distract my father’s spooked friend. Plus, there is something on my mind I really need an answer for. “Dad changed.”
His face changes instantly. He looks more guarded than confused even though he asks: “What?”
“You knew Dad was a mess after Olivia,” I say, glancing at Dad’s way. He is still waiting at the vending machine, looking relaxed. “But I didn’t see him popping pills in the past few hours. His fingers aren’t shaking like when he is going through a withdraw.” I turn my eyes back to the man beside me. He looks thoughtful. “When I hugged him in the coffee shop, I didn’t feel the pack of cigarettes he usually kept in the breast pocket. And, the weirdest of all, I didn’t find a single bottle of alcohol in his kitchen when we dropped by earlier.” Besides that, Dad looks a lot better than the last time I saw him. He talks more often, jokes more often. And every time he smiles, there are sparkles in his eyes.
“He does look better now.” Burner agrees softly
“Last January, just before my winter break started, he called me and said he was going to disappear for a while. Then he went completely radio silence on me. Something happened to him during the past year. Do you know anything about it? Did he go to rehab?”
Burner bites his lower lip, which I come to realize as a nervous habit. “Well, I guess you can say someone happened to him.”
My eyes widen in astonishment. “Dad met someone?” Relief washes through me. I can’t help but grin like an idiot. I always hoped he could have someone to look after him when I was not around. “Who is she?”
“Who is she?” Dad echoes, returning from his snack hunt. Like Burner, Dad’s presence draws attention from people. While Burner enthralls people with his easy smile and good look, Dad's kind of attention is more like wariness or respect. Like they know he is not someone to mess with.
“Burner said you met someone,” I say gleefully, jarring a finger in his chest. “When do you plan to tell me?”
Dad glances at Burner, looking momentarily lost. But he composes himself quickly and gives me a riled smile. “Well, now you know.”
It’s hard not to act like a teenager over a scandal like this, but in my defense, I am a teenager. “Come on, give me more deets. How does she look like? When do I get to meet her?”
Dad looks troubled, having difficulty finding words. Then it strikes me. “You haven’t told her that you have a daughter.” I don’t mean to sound wounded, but it comes out exactly like that.
Pain flashes through his eyes. “Precious, you are my daughter and I will never try to hide that.” He tucks my hand in his elbow and starts leading us toward the departure gate. His tone turns dark when he whispers at my ears. “We need to talk.”
“So we are talking like the people in A Quiet Place now?" I whisper back. "Are you trying to distract me so I can shut up about your love interest?”
Burner actually has the nerves to laugh.
Dad glares at him. “It’s about our trip.”
“Okay,” I say. We all come to a halt a few steps away from the gate. Far enough so the airline staff and other passengers can’t hear us. “Listening.”
“We aren’t going to chill on the beaches in LA. I need to attend some delicate business which might involve certain danger and violence.”
I can't help but flinch. I always kinda know Dad’s work is borderline dangerous. He wears firearms like accessories, carrying knives like me carrying lipsticks. As a child, I thought he was a cop. Now with far less innocence and a brain corrupted by the real world, I know better. But hearing Dad state the fact outright still feels like a punch in the gut.
“I would have told you not to come, but I didn’t want you all alone in Taiwan. And because I was selfish. I hadn’t seen you for a year. I wanted you close to me.” He lowers himself so he can stare directly into my eyes. “Forgive me to put you on unsteady ground, but both Burner and I will keep you safe.”
My chest aches at the ambivalent look on Dad’s face. I touch my fingers on his stubbled cheek, assuring him that I am not upset about the decision he made. Quite the opposite, I am glad he missed me. “There’s nothing to be forgiven. And I am not scared. I trust you to protect me.”
Dad gives me a sentimental smile and pulls me into his arms. “Thank you, Precious.” I close my eyes and hug him back. After Mom passed, I keep reminding myself that the unexpected happens all the time. I might one day wake up losing anyone I care for without telling them how grateful I am to have them in my life. I lost this chance when Mom died. I might as well as spending all the time I have to tell my dad I love him.
“I love you, Dad.”
“And I you, Sweetheart.”
I look over Dad’s shoulder to see Burner staring at us with a faint smile. He has a melancholy look on his face. I reach out to him. “Come on. Someone feels left out.”
He is surprised when I address him. All kinds of emotions flash through his eyes when he gradually makes his way to us. I pull him in without a second thought.
“Group hug at the departing gate. This is not at all awkward.” I inform both of them. Dad chuckles softly, but I am dimly aware he tightens his hold just a bit.
Six hours later, we touched down at LAX. I was sleepwalking the entire way to the hotel. We have a suite with one bedroom, one bathroom, a small sitting area, and a kitchen bar. The suite is spacious and the decoration is tasteful. Way too glam for my stander. I would have questioned their decision to stay here if I were not so out of it.
I walk straight to the bedroom, stare at the two queen size beds, and plop face-down on the one closer to the window.
“She’s asleep?” Burner whispers somewhere in the room.
The side of my bed sinks deeper and the blanket is pulled to my shoulders. "I guess so. She’s like you. Sleeping like a corpse.” Dad says, pressing a kiss to my temple. I am too worn out to be offended.
A moment of silence. Just when I am about to blackout, Burner’s voice brings my consciousness back to the surface.
“What do you think she thinks of me?” Burner asks anxiously. “Do I behave well enough?”
Dad laughs softly. “She can’t hate you. Precious doesn’t dislike people unless you give her a good reason to.”
I hear an ominous clink of metal from the bedside table. It can only be one of the guns in Dad’s possession. Another mirrored clink is from somewhere further, promising more weapons. I consider open my eyes but think better of it. Seeing them deploying lethal weapons won’t make me feel any easier.
“She will have one, soon.” Burner mutters.
“You don’t know that.” Dad counters.
“I guess I’ll just keep working my way into her good graces.” Burner says. “If she has any. She is as hard to please as you are.”
Another soft chuckle from Dad. “Go to bed, Burner. We have an early morning tomorrow. I’ll take the first watch.”
Voice fades away as sleep takes over. And maybe I am already dreaming because I hear Dad says: