Please note: This chapter contains brief nudity and sexual content.
As much as she possibly could, Xiu avoided the new house and clung to the old trailer. But the time soon came when she had to give it up for loss. Specifically, she woke up in the family bedroom (it was the family bedroom because all six of them slept there) smelling smoke. And not cooking smoke, but the acrid smell of scorched wood and melting plastic. She darted outside as quickly as she could and ran around the house, just in time to see the trailer being consumed by flames.
The firefighter who showed up didn't bother to even combat the blaze. It was too late, he said. The fire was started by a combination of the leaves covering the roof, and the pine needles littered under the crawl space. Besides, it was just an old trailer, it wasn't worth anything. Completely exasperated, filthy, and still very tired, Xiu could do little but go back to bed.
She was still moody at breakfast, when Gaston began to talk about "a trip" and something that he had found on the internet. She stared into her cup and only half-listened until Rémy turned to her and said, "Darling, Étienne is asking you a question."
"Hmm? What is it, sweetie?"
"Mom, didn't you hear Granddad?"
"Not really. I'm a little distracted."
"Oh, geez," Étienne grumbled. "He's only asking you if I can go to France with him in a month and be out of school for two weeks. Guess that's not important enough to listen to."
"So you're just going to get to go to France? Just because? Geez, Étienne, are you like the luckiest guy in our class or what?"
"Well, it's kind of business …"
"Business?" Now Coretta looked even more envious. "What kind of business could you possibly have in France?"
"It's my grandfather, he's going to collect grape vines, and he wants me to come with him."
"Geez," Coretta snorted. "All my grandfather does is fart during the best parts of a movie. So when are you gonna go?"
"In a few weeks."
"Aww, so soon?" she cooed. "I'll miss you."
And she came just a little closer to him, but just then there was a knock at the door, and the classmates had to end their conversation there. Rémy Dutiel was outside, waiting to pick up his son and take him back home.
And Étienne knew what he'd be doing at home. Right after his homework was done, he was expected to help his grandfather make wine.
Gaston had seen something in his grandson that he liked very much indeed. Even though Rémy had initially become an environmental graduate student to help his father with the family vineyards back in France, almost all of his learning was useless in the United States. The soil was different, the standards were different, the techniques were different. Besides, as Rémy pointed out, he hadn't even finished his master's program, and no one was going to put much confidence in a guy with only half a degree. And in any case, he was doing well enough at the hospital that he didn't want to leave his job. So now Gaston was pouring his hopes and dreams for his new vineyard into his grandson. And Étienne had proved a most willing listener and an excellent pupil.
They had spent many a night in the garden, looking over the fruit trees that Kim Chong Shin Yi had planted so long ago. Gaston knew the varieties, could easily tell the difference between the six apple trees by a mere glance at their papery leaves. They were good plants, he said. They had strength and vitality. But as far as wine-making went, they lacked depth and soul. Good wine required grapes. The best grapes in the world came from Champs Les Sims. He said so, and it was so. He fully intended to go back there … and he wanted his grandson with him.
Xiu, predictably enough, was not sold on the idea. But Gaston persisted. There was no real excuse for Étienne not to go—he was a straight A student and he had no other responsibilities. Besides, France was his heritage, and he should see his homeland.
Eventually, Xiu ran out of excuses, and Gaston won. Étienne would get to go. When Gaston mentioned off-handedly that Layla was coming too, Xiu could do little besides sigh.
"Calme-toi, ma cheré," Rémy chuckled when she told him. "It will be fine. My father will keep him out of any trouble. Étienne should get to see more of the world while he is young. It may be more difficult for him when he becomes older and has responsibilities."
"And remember, we all sleep in the same room. If three people leave, it is more time for us to spend together alone."
… well, she couldn't deny that, could she.
For some time now, Mei had been rushing home right after work and spending an unusual amount of time prettying up before running off to the stadium. She'd even cut her spiral curls down to a shaggy bob, a drastic move that left her sister speechless.
At first Xiu suspected that it had something to do with her latest undercover assignment—Mei was working at the stadium, trying to catch a steroid smuggler—but she soon found out that she was quite wrong. No, the real issue was that there was a hotshot rookie on the team whom Mei suspected of being on the take, and in her efforts to stay close to him, she was falling hard, like a stone in a pond.
Mei Shin Yi was a good cop and no one's fool, but she was still human, and Luther Ybarra was seriously attractive, at least Xiu thought so. She'd seen pictures of him, in the paper, on the news, all around town on the local billboards, in candid shots on Mei's phone. At first she thought that it was a silly puppy love situation; after all, Mei couldn't stop grinning when she talked about him. But then the investigation deepened, and Mei began to keep her peculiar hours again, vanishing for twelve hours at a time, showing up at 5 a.m. reeking of cologne. It didn't take a genius to put the pieces together and see what was going on.
"Am I lonely?" Mei wondered aloud. "Or just stupid? C'mon, sis, tell me I'm stupid."
"Yeah, right. I'm not stupid. I'm freakin' brilliant. Damn it … why the hell can't he just be a dumb jock? I could ignore him if he was just another meathead. But nooooo … he's gotta be smart. And hot. Why the hell is he so hot?"
"You really want love advice from me?"
"No, I do not. I want Luther Ybarra to transfer to another city. Or get injured so he can't play. Or to just … get a girlfriend so I can stop staring at him!"
But Luther wasn't getting any girlfriends. If anything, the attraction between him and Mei was completely mutual, and he certainly encouraged her attention, something Mei gave to him readily, among other things. Xiu thought that they were rushing things, and wondered if her sister might be nursing a broken heart again once the investigation concluded. Mei told her sister to keep her opinion to herself. She was a big girl, she knew that sex and love weren't necessarily mutual. "And besides, it's my ass on the line if he screws me over, not yours. I can take care of myself."
Mei's work hours during a police sting could be described as "erratic at best." Now that the mission was drawing to its inevitable end, one never knew when she might come home. She frequently fell asleep on the dining room table, jumping awake at the vibration of her beeper.
One night she left the house abruptly at 10 p.m. and didn't call or check in with Xiu or Rémy for the rest of the night. She wasn't there when Xiu woke up at 6 a.m., she didn't call all day, and she didn't actually reappear until 9:30 p.m. Xiu yelled at her for making them worry, but nothing could wipe the huge grin off her face. Exasperated, Xiu could do little but make cocoa for them both. "I hope you at least caught your suspect?"
"Huh? … oh yeah, we caught that dumb bitch yesterday. She kicked the window outta my squad car, I could've fuckin' choked her coke-head self. But who cares about her. Check this out!" And she proudly showed off her left hand. Xiu stared.
"Sis! … really?"
"But … you didn't tell anyone …"
"No, why should I? He wanted to get married and so did I, and neither one of us wanted a big ceremony, so we just got our rings and did it as soon as City Hall opened!"
Xiu scrutinized her younger sister's face and saw little but honest joy. It was probably no coincidence that Mei had gotten married while their very particular mother was overseas. Xiu could easily imagine that as wholesome as Luther seemed to be, Layla would have found something to dislike about him. Still, there was nothing to complain about, she supposed. Mei was grown—"damn grown," as she liked to put it during arguments—and she was an intelligent woman, not to mention entirely unsentimental. If she wanted to get married to a guy whom she had only met four months ago, that was her call.
"You're damn right it's my call. And just so you know, I'm movin' in with him as soon as I get my next paycheck. So when Mom comes back and asks where I am, you can tell her I'm over at the Parkwest Arms with Luther. And if she doesn't like it, she needs to stay the hell away."
"I'll … make sure to tell her so."
Étienne pulled into the tiny parking lot at school in his equally tiny car. He had never entirely understood how his family could afford to travel to France when they had to drive rustbucket vehicles. But broaching that topic was sure to lead to a fight on someone's behalf. Besides, he had bigger things to worry about. What if someone else had already asked Coretta to the prom?
And speaking of Coretta, she was leaning idly on the bike racks, staring down at her cute little feet. She looked up as soon as he shut the driver's side door. "You're back!" she shouted. "Tell me about France! How was it?"
"Eh …" Étienne shrugged. He began to ask about the upcoming dance, but she was too quick, and too determined to talk about France. "I wish I could go overseas! But I can't go anywhere, my god, not even to the movies. Mom says we're too broke. There's no way I'm gonna make prom, we can't afford it."
"Oh," Étienne murmured, disappointed. But Coretta was already smacking his shoulders eagerly. "But don't worry about that! Tell me about all the cool stuff you did in France!"
"I didn't really do anything super cool," he protested. "My dad's dad took my mom's mom to a winery, and she hated it and complained the whole time, he says. So after that, we left her at the hotel when we went out and got samples of grapevines. That was pretty much it for ten days."
"That's it?" Coretta wailed.
"I told you, we didn't do anything super-fun! It was business!"
"But it's France! It's romantic!"
"No It wasn't. It was dirty and the food tasted weird and everyone wore way too much perfume." The first bell rang, warning him that his opportunity was rapidly slipping away. "Hey, listen. It wasn't a fun trip and I don't really wanna keep going on about it. Are you definitely not going to prom?"
"I told you, I can't afford—"
"Okay, so you can't afford prom. What about a date on prom night, then? Just you and me and a walk in the park."
"But we'd need to go dutch, and I can't even afford—"
"No dutch. My treat. Totally my treat."
She sighed, but she was blushing. The second bell rang. They were late. They were both probably going to get detention. But he wasn't going anywhere until she answered him. And she just stood there, scarlet, twisting her toes into the sand.
Finally she mumbled, "Sure," and ran away, her blond ponytails flying wildly behind her.
Layla did have something to say about her younger daughter's lightning courtship, and she was absolutely unrestrained in her rudeness. Mei listened to it as long as she could stand before hanging up and tossing her phone into the spare bedroom.
"Who was that, babe?" Luther called from the living room.
Mei got two beers, one for each of them, and joined him on the couch. He watched television while she stared off at nothing.
"Nobody," she muttered. "Just a telemarketer."