“Tell me something, Penny . . .”
Penny knew that whatever Madison Chandler was going to say, she wasn’t going to enjoy it. Madison Chandler leaned in close, mouth smiling, beady eyes narrowed. Penny held her breath.
“Why is your mom such a slut?”
The taller of the two girls glared pointedly at Penny’s mom, who was chatting with Madison’s father a few feet away.
Blood pounded in Penny’s ears.
Possible reactions to Madison Chandler calling your mom a slut:
1. Punch her in the face.
2. Punch her disgusto, knuckle-dragging, pervert father in the face.
3. Do nothing. Rage-cry later in the privacy of your bedroom while listening to The Smiths. You are a dignified pacifist. Namaste.
4. Unleash the pyrokinetic abilities bequeathed to you upon birth, scorching the shopping mall with the fire of a trillion suns.
Penny scanned her opponent’s green-flecked blue eyes. Why was this happening? And at the Apple Store no less? This was a safe space. A haven. Penny was almost out of this stifling town for good. She was so close.
“I asked you a question.” Madison sucked her teeth. She had those clear braces that fooled no one.
Punching her would be therapeutic.
“Hello? Is anyone in there?”
Christ, who was Penny kidding? It was option three. It was always option three. At this stage of the game there was no need to be a hero. Especially at 5'1", with a “cute” right hook and reaction times that were sluggish at best.
Whatever. In four days Penny would be off to college and the opinions of these micro-regionally famous people would no longer matter.
Just as Madison drew back, to glare at her from a different, arguably more menacing angle, Penny’s assigned Apple Genius materialized with her brand-new phone.
Deus ex-MacStore dude.
Penny clutched the smooth box. It gleamed with promise and felt expensively heavy in her hands. She glanced over by the laptops where “Maddy’s Daddy,” as he’d introduced himself (barf), was doing a looming-leering thing at her mom, Celeste. Penny sighed. She’d been campaigning for a new phone since Christmas, and this was not at all going down how she’d planned. Penny had envisioned more fanfare. At least some help picking out a case.
“Seriously, what’s with your mom’s geisha whore outfit?”
Okay, Madison Chandler may have gotten a Chanel caviar purse at fourteen (it was a hand-me-down) and a Jeep Wrangler at sixteen, but wow, there were sandwiches smarter than this girl.
First off, geishas weren’t prostitutes. Common mistake. Typically made by the willfully ignorant and intellectually incurious. Some geishas beguiled their clients with dance and artful conversation like in Memoirs of a Geisha, a novel Penny adored until she discovered some rando white guy had written it. Second, as anyone with even the most cursory observational skills can tell you, the kimono offers exemplary coverage. It was burka-adjacent or perhaps chador-ish, since kimonos didn’t have the hair and face covering bit.
Still, Penny wished, not for the first time, that her mom would stop wearing crop tops. Especially with leggings. It was positively gynecological. Penny, of course, was dressed in her customary shapeless black garb that was appropriate both day and night for being ignored by everyone.
“We’re Korean,” whispered Penny. Madison’s lip twitched in confusion, as if she’d been informed that Africa wasn’t a country. “Geishas are Japanese,” she finished. If you’re going to be racist you should try to be less ignorant, although maybe that was a contradiction. . . .
Mr. Chandler roared with laughter at something Celeste said, who, for the record, was hot but not that funny.
“Daddy,” whined Madison, making her way toward him.
Penny bet they were the type of family that mouth kissed. Penny walked over too.
“If you want, you can come by my office and I can take a look at your portfolio,” continued Mr. Chandler. He was at least six foot five and Penny could see straight up to his nose hair.
“As I tell all my clients, it’s the early bird who gets the retirement worm. Especially with an empty nest.” He nodded at Penny.
“Dang it,” he said, patting his pockets with a practiced air. “I don’t have a card, but if you want to . . .” Mr. Chandler held his phone out and mimed typing into it with a toothy grin.
Penny shut it down.
“Mom.” Penny grabbed her by the wrist. “We have to go.”
• • •
Everything about the way Penny’s mom interacted with Mr. Chandler with his gleaming wedding ring and his hot-pink polo shirt infuriated her. It was the same old tale with Celeste and guys. You’d think she’d give it a rest and pay some attention to her only daughter the week before she left for college, but no, she was too busy flapping her lash extensions to some fake-tanned creep.
In the car, Celeste rearranged her boobs in her gray striped top and latched her seat belt. Having a MILF for a mom was garbage.
Celeste pulled out of the parking lot as the uneasy silence thickened.
On the highway, the Japanese cat mounted on her mother’s dashboard rattled. Penny stared at it. It was the size of a dinner roll, with a detached, spring-loaded head and blank cartoon eyes. This one, a recent addition, had usurped plastic Hello Kitty when Kitty’s features got bleached off by the sun. Celeste insisted on accessorizing everything. It was pathological. It reminded Penny of the rich bitches in the “Super Six,” Maddy and Rachel Dumas and Allie Reed and the three other glossy-haired sadists who wore a ton of rings and bracelets and had a new, sparkly phone case every week. You could hear them walking down the hall since the jangling crap attached to their book bags made such a racket. Thing is, if Celeste had gone to Ranier High, she probably would have been friends with them.
Penny longed for a crew. She was on “Oh, hey” status with a bunch of kids, but her closest school friend, Angie Salazar, transferred to Sojourner Truth High the summer before junior year, leaving Penny socially unmoored. If there were a subbasement level with a trapdoor below utter invisibility, Penny would have found a way to fall to it. Her social standing was nonexistent.
The cat continued to rattle. If it carried on in this way, it would be toast before they hit the freeway. It was trinket Darwinism. A fragile animal had no business being mounted in a fast-moving vehicle. Certainly not a fast-moving vehicle commandeered by her mother, who had no right to commandeer anything in the whole wide . . .
“Why do you do that?” Penny exploded. She wanted to punch a hole in the window and fling the cat out. Possibly hurl herself after it. Today was meant to be different. Penny’d let herself get excited about it for weeks. Her mom had taken the afternoon off, and it hurt Penny’s feelings that Celeste would ditch her as soon as she saw the Chandlers. Not that Penny would admit what was really bothering her. Pathetic outcasts had standards too.
“What?” Celeste rolled her eyes. The teen-like gesture coming from her mom set her off even more. Penny wanted to shake Celeste until her fillings came loose.
“Why do you flirt with everyone all the time?” Celeste was the mom equivalent of a feather boa. Or human glitter. “It’s getting old, you know.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“Oh, you know exactly who . . .”
“Yeah, gross, nasty ‘Maddy’s Daddy,’ who, incidentally, is married!”
“I know he’s married.” Celeste huffed. “Who was flirting? I was being polite, which, by the way, wouldn’t kill you. With your eye-rolling and scowls. Do you know how embarrassing . . . ?”
“Embarrassing? Me? Embarrassing you?” Penny balked. “That’s rich.” Penny crossed her arms prissily. “Mom, he was a creep and you’re there oozing your smiley, ridiculous . . .”
The car cat clattered as if nodding.
“How is he a creep? Because he wanted to give me investment advice?”
Penny couldn’t believe how dense her mother could be. It was clear to everyone that “Matt” wanted to give her a lot more than investment advice. Christ, even Madison knew what was up.
“How is it possible that you’re this stupid?”
Celeste’s mouth opened then shut. A pained expression flashed across her face. Even the curls on her head appeared to deflate.
Penny had never said anything as explicitly, deliberately mean to her mom before. She felt bad about it as soon as it flew out of her mouth, and while her mother wasn’t dumb, she was frequently mistaken for being, well, a little airheaded. Celeste ran regional operations for a multinational events-planning agency, spoke in hashtags, and was frequently dressed as if attending a boy-band concert. That was her way.
Penny was constantly running defense for her. The neighborhood men circled Celeste like sharks, conveniently underfoot to help with high supermarket shelves or offer unsolicited mansplainage on any number of topics. The way they lingered by Celeste’s car, eyes glittering like seeds, as if waiting for something, sketched Penny out. It didn’t help that Celeste was invariably welcoming.
Just one example: Last Valentine’s Day, Mr. Hemphill, their ancient mailman, presented Celeste with a tiny box of drugstore chocolates. It was the size of a mouse coffin, with four oxidized bonbons inside, and he kept mentioning the Vietnam War as though they had something in common. It was clear that he wanted to wear their skin and as far as Penny was concerned, this was the last guy you wanted knowing where you lived. Celeste wouldn’t hear of it.
Penny gazed out the window. Fighting with her mother had become routine. But now that Penny was leaving, Celeste had to get better at navigating the world. Steering clear of unrepentant scumbags was a start. Penny was exhausted. Of worrying about Celeste. Of resenting her. The flitting fast-food restaurants and gas stations blurred in her vision. She blotted the hot stray tears with a sleeve so her mom wouldn’t see.
• • •
Later that day Penny’s boyfriend came by. Not that Penny ever publicly referred to Mark as her “boyfriend.” He functioned more as a stopgap for complete isolation when Angie moved away, which was a totally awful way to think about it. Especially since empirically Mark was out of her league. At least physically. Which wasn’t everything, except in high school maybe it was. Most of the time Penny couldn’t believe they were dating. When Mark first showed interest, Penny thought he was defective or else messing with her, and when he didn’t seem to be doing that, her suspicion only grew. Penny was nothing if not aware of what she looked like and what she looked like was exactly the same as she did when she was in first grade. Smallish eyes with a snub nose and humongous lips that her mother promised she’d grow into but she never did. She and Mark looked confusing together. It didn’t help that Penny had learned that relationships often seemed to mean the opposite of what you called them. You could have over a hundred “friends” on social media and still have nobody to talk to. Just as Angie (that Brutus) had dubbed Penny her best friend until she ghosted completely. And while Mark referred to Penny as “bae,” which just made her deeply uncomfortable because: gross, he also described pizza as not only “bae” but “bae AF.” Which, yeah, obviously, but that was the problem. They both liked pizza way more than their person.
“So, did you get it?”
Penny desperately wished she hadn’t.
Penny knew part of her lukewarm disposition toward Mark was that he was the type of guy Celeste would’ve picked out for her. He had dirty-blond hair and the preppy good looks of a Hollister model. Not on the billboard but easily in a catalog group shot. Toward the front since he was short.
Mark was also younger by a year, which was clutch when you were sorta-kinda-not-really-but-maybe dating since that meant he had a different lunch period. His crew qualified as popular since it included moderately popular soccer kids despite the rest of the squad being burnouts. Mark smoked a lot of weed and had a brain like a sieve. Which was unfortunate. Even the cute things that would have made good inside jokes were forgotten, like how autocorrect on his phone kept changing “goddammit” to “god donut,” so when Penny sent the donut emoji as an expletive he only ever thought she was hungry.
Mark was unwavering.
Penny blinked first.
“Do you want a snack or something?” She opened the fridge, grabbed a pitcher of sweet tea, and poured them both glasses. It was the only thing Celeste knew how to “cook.”
Penny thought back to the first day Mark talked to her after fifth period. Thing was, he was defective in a sense. Everybody knew he had “yellow fever.” His ex was this smoking-hot Vietnamese girl Audrey, whose dad was transferred to Germany with the air force, and in middle school he’d briefly dated Emily, who was half Thai.
“Well?” Mark wouldn’t be deterred. “Did you get it?” He grinned winsomely.
Penny drew her tea to her mouth with such force that she hit the glass with her teeth.
“Baby,” he said. Behind “bae,” Penny despised “baby” as a thing for a grown adult woman to be called. It was so prescriptive. Like dressing sexy for Halloween.
Mark sat on a stool on the other side of the kitchen island and gestured alluringly for her to come over. His hair fell over his right eye.
God, he was handsome.
Mark opened his arms and she walked into them.
“We may as well get used to communicating like this,” Mark whispered, breath tickling her ear. “We both hate talking on the phone, and you know what they say about pictures, Penny.” He paused for effect, Penny couldn’t believe he was going to continue. “They’re worth a thousand words.”
Penny hitched her chin onto his shoulders. Mark smelled mildewy. It was comforting in a sense. Mark often smelled as if he hadn’t done laundry in a while. She weighed her options.
Possible gambits to mount a distraction for a boyfriend who’s prone to distraction:
1. Break up with him. A long-distance relationship based on cataclysmic levels of meh was soul-eating.
2. Have sex with him to change the subject.
3. Burst into tears and explain nothing.
“Yes.” Penny sighed. “I did get it.” Then she added, “Thank you.” She tried to sound sincere.
Technically “it” was a “they” and “they” were nudes. Penny recalled the twin pepperoni constituting her boyfriend’s nipples and inwardly shuddered. Mark thought sexts were an appropriate and fun way to christen a new phone. Penny thought vehemently otherwise.
Okay, so they weren’t full-on frontal—bless. Mark was still sixteen, and Penny didn’t need the FBI landing at her college dorm for kiddie porn. They were risqué, though. Each went slightly beyond the treasure trail. With a few different filters. Penny was even sure he’d Facetuned at least one, which was a quality she simply could not respect in a man. She knew that the proper, more sporting response was to reciprocate. A boob (hint of nip tops) would suffice. But she didn’t want to. At all. All she wanted to do was delete them, pretend none of this ever happened, and leave.
She’d be off the hook then. At least technically. The statute for follow-up nudes couldn’t extend beyond the city limits surely. Even so, Penny should have considered going out of state.
Sam enjoyed an odd commute. A single staircase and about nine yards of hallway. On one hand, he could rely on experiencing zero traffic. On the other, he felt like he was always at work. House Coffee, where Sam was manager, was an Austin institution. It was a small, gray Craftsman with a gabled roof and a wraparound porch with a big white swing out front. It was, for lack of a better word, homey, and the first-floor café boasted creaky wood floors, large windows, built-in bookcases, and ratty sofas with mismatched chairs.
The upstairs contained four rooms, two baths, and resembled the domicile of some wackadoo hoarder. When Sam first moved in he’d snooped for hidden treasures that might fetch a fortune at auction. The actual findings were less Antiques Roadshow and more those TV specials where once the twin brothers die—both crushed under an avalanche of VHS tapes—they find forty-six dollars’ worth of stamps and thousands of empty Chef Boyardee cans where the changing labels denote the passage of time. Every room but one was overrun with boxes of files, books, clothes, and whatever else Al Petridis, the proprietor of House, couldn’t fit in his own house. In the smallest room, farthest from the stairs, there was a mattress on the floor.
That’s where Sam slept.
Like some orphan. Which he technically wasn’t, though he may as well have been.
Sam lay in bed and collected his thoughts. It was dark out. Still. Another restless night meant another grim day of functioning as if underwater.
He glanced at his jail-broken iPhone. Four forty-three a.m. He’d gone to sleep sometime before two. He remembered a time when you couldn’t kick him out of bed before noon. Salad days.
At least there was coffee. Reliable, delicious, life-giving coffee. He padded downstairs.
An hour later, the aroma of freshly ground beans commingled with the smell of carbs frying in grease.
“Christ, Sammy. Donuts?” Al Petridis, Sam’s boss and landlord, loomed over him. At a head taller than Sam and a hundred and fifty pounds heavier, Al was an enormous Greek with forearms the size of barrels. He reminded Sam a little of Donkey Kong, but Sam didn’t think it was the sort of thing you told another man. Al was first to sample any of Sam’s baked creations. And the burly benefactor unfailingly called it “trying.” Even if he’d had a muffin a thousand times, he’d say, “Sammy, can I try a muffin?” As if he didn’t know exactly what the experience would be. As if there was any doubt that he would want the whole thing.
Spoiler: Al always wanted the muffin.
That was fine by Sam. Al didn’t charge Sam rent. Not a red cent. Ever. His boss went so far as to pay Sam a few dollars over minimum wage, and for that Sam would bake, cook, clean, and shave crop circles in the man’s back if he’d ask.
“What is that, nuts?” Al poked a freshly glazed pastry with a meaty forefinger.
Ever since he was a kid, Sam loved to cook and bake, whipping up increasingly complicated dishes, making substitutions wherever necessary, which was often, since his mom rarely bought groceries and he was alone a lot. At twelve he discovered you could make a somewhat convincing facsimile of Thai food with peanut butter and jarred salsa. At least according to the palette of a preteen Texan of German descent who at the time hadn’t tasted real Thai food.
Al had given Sam free rein of the kitchen more than a year ago, ever since Sam had silently handed his boss a lemon chiffon cake for his wife’s birthday (her favorite) with a Post-it note on the top: “For Mrs. Petridis.” She’d declared it the best she’d ever tasted, and although Al knew better than to make a big deal of it, his better half insisted on passing Sam pamphlets for culinary school. For Sam’s birthday they bought him a small stack of hardcover cookbooks and the gesture moved Sam so profoundly that he couldn’t make eye contact with Al for a week. At the Petridises’ urging, Sam secured his food handler’s permit and now created the weekly menu of sandwiches, soups, and salads, as well as the pastries. He got up at five a.m. to prep, while Finley, his ace, his number two at House, a dark-skinned, lanky Mexican kid with a big hipster beard and a Scottish name, came in at eight to man the register and bus tables.
“That one’s pistachio,” Sam told Al. “And vanilla-hibiscus, espresso, and salted dark chocolate.” Sam had gotten the recipe from a food blogger, who said they were irresistible to women and wrote candidly about her exploits that testified to it.
“Want?” Sam handed over the tray as a matter of course.
“Yeah, I’ll try a donut.” Al’s round face halved the smaller circle with a single bite. “Namazinnn, Sammy!” he said with his mouth full. Al’s shadow hovered ever closer to sample the other flavors. Other than his mom, Al was the only person allowed to call him Sammy.
Al cocked his head. “Say, Sammy, you all right?” Al was also the only one to regularly inquire about his mood.
The thing about Sam was that he had a tell. Well, two. They weren’t an exact science, but they gave you a sense. One was his hair. He had a great head of hair. Dark and longer on top, his ex-girlfriend—who came up as “Liar” on his phone now—had referred to it as irresponsible hair.
If it was relaxed and tucked behind his ears, Sam was chill. If it was slicked back, he was spoiling for a fight. If it was fluffy—a very rare treat—it meant he completely trusted whoever was around at the time. Sam’s hair hadn’t been fluffy in a while.
Today it was tucked back yet also, kinda, done. With the telltale sheen of product. It was inscrutable.
Avid Sam observers, especially if they were monitoring him in his own habitat, could check for his next tell. Sam’s happiness was somehow tied to his desire to bake. When you walked into House and there in the display case was a cold lone scone and an anemic trio of store-bought Danish, you were better to keep a wide berth. You should treat him as you would a man with a scab where his eye had been and the words “NOT TODAY, SATAN” branded in giant letters across his forehead—with caution.
While House bought their bread from Easy Tiger, pastries typically were Sam’s domain. If the case and cake stands were resplendent with crunchy fresh-baked coffee cake, whoopie pies, or caramelized banana bread pudding pots with cream cheese frosting, it meant that Sam was liable to make out with you if you walked in. Plus, you’d enjoy it. Sam was a dynamite maker-outer. Today he’d whipped together a dozen hand pies and the donuts and nothing else—and that could mean anything.
“Yeah, Al. Doing great.” Sam carefully face-planted the largest O into a shallow dish of vanilla-hibiscus glaze and set it carefully on a wire rack. The smile may have been the most unnerving part. Sometimes Sam appeared a touch unhinged on the rare occasions he did it. As if his face were out of practice. Not that he frowned either—that betrayed too much information. Mostly he stared straight through you.
“Okay, then,” said Al, glancing over at Sam as he left. Just to make sure.
Sam dipped another donut in glaze. His hands were bony and veiny and moved quickly. His arms, lean, tanned, and blanketed in tattoos, would have looked at home on a Russian convict. Sam had a lot of tattoos. All over his chest, back, and calves.
He wiped up a bright fuchsia dribble of icing with his left hand and continued dipping the remaining three donuts with his right. He was pleased with the results.
Some guys wouldn’t call baking or the ability to make a Pikachu foam cappuccino topper particularly manly pursuits, but Sam wasn’t just any guy. He didn’t concern himself with how fist-pumping frat dudes with crippling masculinity issues and no necks spent their time.
Fin came in and immediately eyed the racks. There were six trays with four immaculate donuts cooling on each.
“What are these, limited-edition?” he asked. “We’ll sell out these shits in an hour.”
“Nah, they’re off-menu. I’m making these for someone,” Sam said. Fin huffed the sweet donut steam.
“You can’t bake for these girls out the gate, Sam. You’ve got to manage expectations.”
Sam smiled his wonky smile.
Fin studied him warily.
“Dude. Please.” Fin’s shoulders slumped. “Come on, tell me these aren’t . . . Please tell me you’re not dating lyin’-ass Liar again,” said Fin, hands up in a defense pose. “Yo, I get it. She’s hot—no disrespect—but the last time y’all broke up, I didn’t know if I was going to make it.”
Sam ignored any mention of the Great Love of His Life.
“Seriously, Sam, you were in a bad place for so long,” said Fin. “Monster-ass chem trails coming out of your ears, man.”
“They’re not for her,” Sam said.
Fin hung up his backpack, threw on an apron, and glanced at the rack that held bloopers. “Can I kill these?” Sam nodded, and Fin took down a misshapen glazed in a single bite. “Mmmm,” he said, cramming another half into his mouth. “These are way too good for her anyway.”