I tap my pencil against my desk and push my glasses up the bridge of my nose, as I watch the clock hands ticking away, counting down the final seconds to the final bell of the day. Miss Caldwell, my homeroom and English teacher, is lecturing us on Shakespeare’s brilliance when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. Don’t get me wrong. I am closet Shakespearean. I just don’t want a certain cousin to catch wind of it and shout it to the school. The girls I go to school with all believe that if a guy is well learned in literature, they have the chance of staking a claim and being the only girl he dates. Not so.
The last time someone heard I enjoyed reading old classic plays, the girl somehow managed to spread the rumor that we were together, when I had never even spoken to her. She moved away before the start of junior year. Thank the Heavens, because she ended up being a skivvy kind of girl. Last thing I heard about her was that her mother moved them to Vegas and had her dancing in one of the hotels. It is sad, very sad.
My parents always tell me that if a girl does not respect herself it can be hard for anyone around her to respect her. I do not have that problem. Probably because I watch how my father treats my mother. Respectfully. Lovingly. Tenderly. That is how I wish to treat my girl, if Fate ever decides to let her show up in my life.
“Ren,” Miss Caldwell, snapping her fingers near my face. “Are you with us today, Mr. Michaels?”
“Yes,” I reply, sitting up straighter in my desk as the rest of the class laughs, including my two cousins.
I glance over my shoulder to glare at Mitch and Ben. They snigger, but put on a straight face after the teacher calls attention. I look back at the white board, trying to concentrate on what she says. I have been growing up with Mitch and Ben since before we could talk. Mitch is my cousin by blood, on my mother’s side. Ben is only a year younger than we are, but is wicked smart and is a grade ahead of most kids his age. Mitch’s parents adopted Ben after they learned they would not be able to have more children. They are much older than my parents are, and they had their first son at a very young age. I believe he is nearing thirty years old. He is married and has two kids. I have met them a couple times and I know he loves them with everything he has.
The bell rings and I fly out of my seat towards the door. I nearly knock a girl to the floor, immediately catching her before she loses balance.
“Sorry,” I say with an apologetic smile.
“It is okay, Ren,” she says, smiling back. “Have a nice Thanksgiving.”
I nod and start to head down the hallway to my locker. I feel bad that I did not know that girl’s name. I could have struck up a conversation. Perhaps I could get Mitch off my back about me not talking to girls. I talk to girls, I just do not want them to think I am into them and then end up having to break the news to them and lose a friendship. Guys and girls can be friends, and not feel things for each other. I have seen such a friendship and I admire it. I do not envy it. I am not one to envy.
One might consider my family royalty. No, not literal royalty. My dad runs one of the top banks in New York. However, we are not like most banking families. My dad runs honest business and he cares about his clients. Even when they are unable to meet payments, dad will pay out of his own pocket. My father does not wish for me to join the business and I am grateful for it. I think I might prefer to be on the reporting side.
I groan as I plaster a smile on my face and turn to my cousins. Mitch has Ben in a headlock, as usual, as they traipse towards me. I notice Ben’s face slowly losing color and smack Mitch upside the head.
“Let him go!” I scold, pulling Ben from his grip. “I thought Aunt Berta told you to stop doing that. Ben passed out last time.”
“He needs to build backbone,” Mitch smirks, shoving Ben’s shoulder. “He’s a bit of a . . . how do you say this?”
“He can build a backbone without your help,” I glare at my cousin and turn to my locker.
Ben goes to his own locker, which is right next to mine. Mitch sniggers and goes to his across the hall.
“You alright man?” I ask, glancing at him as I stuff my books into my backpack. “You don’t have to let him torture you, you know.”
“We both know why he does it,” he replies, shaking his head as he does his locker combination. “The older one has every right to tease the younger.”
I shake my head and slam my locker shut. I glance towards a cluster of girls, who are giggling as they talk to Mitch. He flashes his signature smile as he lets the girls stuff scraps of paper into his pockets. Possibly phone numbers and emails. As if, he does not already have the number and email of every girl in school, which I believe he does.
“Let’s get out of here,” I say, patting Ben’s shoulder as we head towards the exit. “Let’s catch the bus.”
“Mom will kill me if I don’t come home with Mitch,” Ben groans, shaking his head.
“It’s not like Mitch will be heading home anyway. You know that he always heads to the Metro after school.”
“You know he plans to try and get into the Calders’ Thanksgiving gala tonight, right?”
I arch an eyebrow as we head to the bus stop. Reginald Calder is the owner of Calder and Co., my father’s competitor in the banking business. Unlike my dad, Mr. Calder is a hard, cold man. If a client cannot make a payment, he closes their account. Which sends them over to my dad and he helps them out. Every year, Mr. Calder hosts a Thanksgiving gala at his bank. There is always a thick layer of security, and anyone uninvited gets the boot. This is an invitation only, black-tie, event that everyone wishes to attend. Well, everyone except me. Ever since Mitch got his license, all he has ever done is cause trouble. Getting into the gala, uninvited, is at the top of his trouble list.
“You’re going with him?” I ask as the bus pulls up in front of us.
“Of course I am!” Ben grins, “Sheila Rolland is friends with Jade Calder. That means she is going to be there, and I plan to romance her.”
“You talk to girls even less than I do,” I chuckle, shoving him as we board the bus. “How in the world do you plan to romance this girl while trying to avoid getting the boot from security?”
“I can romance any girl I wish. I just need to use the Michaels’ name and I’m in like Flynn.”
I roll my eyes and glance over my shoulder at Karina Matthews, the captain of the girls’ volleyball team, as she boards the bus with her friends.
“If what you say is true,” I say, turning back to Ben as we grab an empty seat at the back of the bus. “Why don’t you practice your techniques on Karina?”
Ben’s face turns pale and I bark with laughter. I ruffle his thick brown locks and pull out my tablet. Smart people do smart things. I read and forget about the rest of the world. I lift my foot onto the bench, resting my elbow on my knee as I flip through to my favorite Sherlock books.
“Dude,” Ben says, glancing at my shoes. “Aren’t those the same shoes you got for Christmas, two Christmases ago?”
I look down at my dirty, worn out, Converse and shrug.
“They still fit,” I explain, patting them proudly. “And they still have a few miles left in them. If the soles fall off, then I will get a new pair.”
“Ren,” Ben sighs, shaking his head in disbelief. “You have more than enough money to buy a new pair of shoes every month, if you wished. It goes for your clothing, too. Why do you insist on dressing like you can’t afford a toothbrush?”
“I have told you a thousand times, but I will gladly explain it again.” I click off my tablet and turn to look at him. “I wish to live a humble life and not have people fawning over me because I’ve got money. I have managed to avoid conflict of interest thus far and I like being frugal with my allowance. I probably have enough saved up to buy two new cars, if I were to think about it. When people see you walking down the halls, wearing the latest style, they automatically think you have money and only want to be your friend because of that detail. I wear my better get-up when I am visiting family or joining Dad at work.”
Satisfied with my speech, I turn my tablet back on and follow Dr. Watson’s description of a Sherlock case.
Jade Calder tries her best to hold back the tears. Every year it is the same. Her father has his assistant plan the Thanksgiving gala at his bank. He invites all of his peers and their families, with the occasion opponent in the banking business just so he can embarrass them to prove he is better at what he does. However, this is not why Jade is near tears. Her mother died in a car accident on this very evening. Her father did not seem to care, nor did he grieve long enough to prove he loved his wife at all. In fact, he remarried three months after the accident.
Jade was close to her mother. She had been in the car the night of the accident. They were on their way to the gala when the car hit a sheet of ice on the road. Jade has survived, coming out with scrapes and bruises, but her mother had gotten the worse of the hit. She had been in a coma for a few days, but she never woke up. It was hard on Jade, but she was lucky her older brother, Tyler, was always ready to drop what he was doing to be near her when she needed him.
Jade sits in her room, still wearing her school uniform, curled up on her side with her pillow clutched to her stomach. Her door is open, but it does not matter because she does not have a lock for privacy anyway. Tyler, her older brother, appears in the doorway and knocks, though he is already walking in.
“Hey sis,” he says softly, sitting on the edge of the bed. “How are you holding up?”
“He doesn’t even care,” Jade whispers, not trusting her voice. “I came home a few moments ago and all he said to me was to make sure I remember to be polite tomorrow night. I asked if I could stay; he knows that I don’t like going because it is the night Mom died.”
“Come here,” her brother pulls her up to his chest and holds her close. “Jade, I know it’s hard, but I don’t Mom would want you to grieve her for so long. It has been two years. I think you should put it behind you and move forward.”
“I can’t,” she cries, squeezing her eyes shut. “The only reason I still grieve is because Dad doesn’t seem to care at all. It is almost as if he never loved Mom in the first place. Sometimes I wish it had been me who didn’t make it.”
“He did love Mom. They were already thinking about getting a divorce before the accident happened. And don’t you ever think that way. If it had been you who didn’t make it, I would have lost my sister. Yes, I lost a mother, but there is a reason you survived and I am grateful that you did.”
Jade nods, sobbing into Tyler’s shirt while he rubs her back. Tyler kisses her hair before pulling back to see her face.
“I believe Sheila Rolland will be there tomorrow,” he says with a sad smile.
“You and I both know she’s a fake,” Jade says, shaking her head as she wipes her eyes with the palms of her hands. “I don’t even see her at school anymore. Last week, we went to the mall to look around and she liked this dress. It was a nice one and I thought it would look nice, but she had to go and say ‘You should buy this for me.’ When I asked why, she responded, ‘Because you’re the one with the extra cash.’ She is so . . . I cannot stand people like that. I want real friends, not fake people who are around because my father is loaded.”
“Friends like that are rare,” Tyler nods, patting her hand softly. “I was thinking of heading out to eat . . . nothing ritzy. Just plain old Chinese. You want to come with?”
Jade slowly smiles, nodding.
“Good,” he goes on, touching his sister’s nose. “Because I am not in the mood for another family dinner.”
“Last week was a disaster, Tyler,” she says, sighing. “I know Collette is just trying to keep things from falling apart, but Dad is no help.”
“One of these days, it is all going to come back in his face. When you go off to college, I will be right behind you and he will have to deal with it. I can tell that once we are out of this house, we will not think twice about never turning back. Now, get changed so we can scoot out of here.”
Jade smiles and nods as Tyler stands. He smiles at her before leaving.
“Ma!” I shout as I walk through the front door. “Are you here?”
I drop my backpack, minus my tablet, and head to the kitchen. I grin when I see that my mother is here, but she is dancing to whatever is in her ears. I sneak up behind her place my arms around her shoulders, pecking her cheek. She squeaks and yanks out her ear buds.
“Ren Jonathan Michaels!” she scolds slapping my arms away. “You are just like your father, always sneaking up on me like that! My older brother did that to me all the time and I still get freaked out!”
I chuckle, “Sorry Ma,” I say, holding out my hand. “Truce?”
“No!” she says, shaking her head, but now she is smiling. “We both know that you will end up doing it again anyways . . . How was your day?”
“It was good,” I reply, nodding, setting my tablet on the counter. “I passed a pop-quiz and got an A on my Spanish test. Mi maestra piensa que yo voy a ser un muchacho brillante, si algun dia visito a España. What did I say?”
“Your teacher thinks you will be a brilliantly young man, if you visit Spain one day. Ren, you’re practically fluent!”
I smile and lean my palms against the counter. I chose to take the Spanish AP because I want to go to Spain and teach English. Of course, that is after I go to college to become a reporter and then I will write my own paper on my experience in Spain. My mother’s family is Spanish, but they live in Puerto Rico. I do not know the full story how my mom met my dad, or how they ended up living in New York, but all I know is that Spanish is in my blood.
“I zoned out in my last class,” I admit, shrugging. “My stupid cousins were laughing at me.”
“Mitch was leading the party?” Mom asks, turning to the pot on the stove. “Ren, they are your family. You just have to pull up your button shield and not let anyone push your buttons.”
“I know,” I reply with a sigh, nodding. “What’s for dinner?”
“Well . . . to be honest, I do not feel like cooking. I was making some cherry Jell-O for tomorrow. How about we go out and see if your dad wants to see a movie?”
“That sounds like an awesome idea! I’ll be upstairs reading for a while.”
Mom nods and tends to the Jell-O mix. I grab my tablet and go to retrieve my backpack from the front room. My room is upstairs. I have the entire floor to myself. Originally, my parents lived up here, but by the time I came along, my grandmother was living with us. Gran told my parents that she would bunk with me. I shared a room with her until I was ten, when she passed away in her sleep. I was at camp at the time, so I was not the one to find her. I was close to my grandmother, and I miss her often. One of the things I will always remember about my grandmother is that she was the one who taught me the love for reading.
I sprint up the staircase and drop my backpack just within the doorway. I glance around my room, satisfied with how clean and organized I keep it. Call me OCD, high maintenance, or whatever, but I prefer to live army-ready. I do not allow my cousins up here for nothing. If they want to hang out, we head to the basement. Mitch is a friggin’ pig. I have been in his room only twice and both times, I tried to clean it up because I could not stand how filthy it was. Ben is not as bad, but he is not a neat freak either.
I go to my bed and lie down, opening my tablet and flipping through my library. I don’t care if I read too much. My vocabulary is immaculate and I don’t just read classic fiction. I enjoy books with meaningful purpose. Not memoirs, but books that inspire. I settle on Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The book used to freak me out when I was younger, but now I enjoy it. I end up reading it nearly halfway when I glance at the clock and see that it is 5:30pm.
I step over to my desk and put my tablet to charge. I then turn to my chest of drawers and look for a different shirt. My black jeans will go with anything; it’s my shoes I have to worry about. My dad does not care if I wear worn out shoes to school, but he does care if we go on family outings. I sigh and head into my closet and reach for the shoebox on the top shelf. I open the lid, remove the tissue paper and pull out one of the solid red Converse. I turn the shoe over in my hand, contemplating whether I want to wear them or not.
I turn and see my mother standing in my room with a gentle smile.
“You know how I am,” I say, shaking my head as I exit the closet with the shoes. “My old ones are still good.”
“They look like you traveled the world on foot in them,” Mom says, laughing softly. “Honey, I am glad that you find a way to keep from buying shoes when you already have a good pair. But your father tries to be successful so that you can have the things you need and possibly the things that you want. There is nothing wrong with that.”
“I know . . . I just like people seeing that I am just like them, that I’m not spoiled.”
“Your grandmother would be proud of the young man you are becoming.”
I smile, nodding as I sit on the bed and kick off my old shoes. Red Converse, black jeans, and a white shirt under a black jacket. I will look like drug dealer, but I certainly will not act like one. Maybe I will throw on my Vans cap, just to add to the look. The only problem is my glasses.
“I’m home!” Dad calls from downstairs.
I start to grin as I pull on my shoes and tie the laces. Mom smiles and heads downstairs to greet my father. I hear laughter as my father pretends to be my mother’s lover.
“My son will surely tell his father,” Mom says in a loud, fake whisper. “If he were to catch us.”
My parents like to keep things interesting. Dad takes Mom out to dinner every weekend. He leaves for the entire day, texts her when he is on his way back and pretends to be picking her up for their first date. I find it amusing that they pretend like this.
I wait a few minutes, giving my parents time to let the charade go a little further before sprinting down the stairs and putting on a fake scowl.
“Who is this man?” I ask my mother, feigning annoyance. “Does Dad know you allow strangers to enter and caress you in such manners?”
“Sweetheart,” Mom says with a fake gasp. “I am so sorry . . . you were not supposed to find out this way . . . the man you know as your father . . . he is not your father. This man . . . this man is your father.”
I glance at my father, sputtering into laughter because this game never gets old. Dad chuckles and places his arm around both my mother’s waist and my shoulders, pulling us both into a hug.
“Family outing?” Dad asks as he lets us go. “Dinner and then a movie, or reverse?”
“Mom doesn’t feel like cooking,” I reply, nodding with a grin.
“It is a good thing I came home now then. Let me get out of this suit and then we will leave.”
Mom nods and follows him down the hall to their room. I head into the living room and sit on the couch with my phone. I turn on the ringer and notice that I have several missed calls and new messages. Most of them are from Mitch, probably asking if I am up for a party. Mitch is the kind of guy who is at all the parties. He also drinks, which I think is pathetic. Somehow, he always gets Ben to go with him, but I end up being the one to pick them up because Ben does not have a license yet.
I open my messages and check Ben’s first.
Ben: Karina is throwing an early Thanksgiving party . . . Mitch wants us to meet him there, since he went over there right after school.
Ben: Dude, it’s not even six o’clock and Mitch is . . . he’s had five too many beers man.
I grunt in disgust. Same old Mitch. I look up at my mom as she enters with a look of puzzlement across her face.
“Ma?” I say, putting my phone aside as I rise to my feet. “Is everything okay?”
“Your father just got a call from his assistant,” she replies, sighing. “Something about Calder and Co., I don’t know . . . Your father seems conflicted. I hope it is not one of those invitations to the Thanksgiving gala. Your father endured it the first four times, but I do not want to have to do that again.”
I nod and place my hand on her shoulder. My parents are extreme peacemakers, which is probably where I get it. Mom touches my hand and slides into the armchair next to the doorway. I kiss Mom’s cheek before heading into the kitchen.
Tyler and Jade wait for their orders to arrive, acknowledging the traditional paintings. The bell on the front door rings, making many customers look up from their food. Jade sighs when she notices a family of three enter, all sharply dressed. The son, a young man who must be around Jade’s age, is dressed in black, with the exception of a white T-shirt and his solid red Converse. His black glasses slide down his nose, but he pushes them up with his index finger and adjusts his Vans cap.
“Why do they look familiar?” Jade asks, nudging Tyler’s arm.
“That is Dad’s top competitor,” he replies after glancing over his shoulder. “I am sure you remember Ren Michaels; he was at the gala the year before Mom died.”
Jade sucks in a breath at the mention of her mother. She glances at Ren, making sure he does not see her looking his way. He follows the woman, possibly his mother, to an empty table while his father stands on line to order. Jade cannot help noticing how alert Ren is, and how attentive he is to what his mother is saying. He keeps pushing his glasses up his nose and setting his cap on the table in front of him. He smiles, nodding at something his mother says.
“I remember Ren,” Tyler says, clearing his throat. “He’s not like most people. Granted, Dad didn’t want us talking to each other.”
“Did Dad humiliate his father too?” Jade asks, reaching for the foam container with her name on it.
“Many times,” her brother nods, reaching for the container with his name. “Yet . . . the Michaels’ never want to cause trouble. The times they attended the gala, the moment Dad tried to make them look like fools, Mr. Michaels stepped up and tried to make peace. When that didn’t work, he apologized to everyone present and excused his family. He didn’t like that his wife and son were subject to humiliation.”
Jade glances at Ren once more, only to find that he is glancing at her as well. He smiles at her, nodding his head in greeting before turning back to his mother. Jade’s breath catches in her throat as she suppresses a soft gasp. He has an amazing smile. She quickly follows her brother out of the restaurant. Her head fills with thoughts of Ren, but she pushes them away quickly. He is probably like all the rest of the rich folk. Only making friends with people because they have money.
When the girl turns around and tries to catch up with the guy, I look back. I’ve seen her before, I know it. I just can’t seem to place a name with her face. There is something else about her. Something I noticed in her eyes when I offered her a smile. Pain and sadness. If it were not for my parents, and the guy she was with, I would have gone after her to see if she is all right.
“That girl was cute,” Mom whispers, leaning towards me across the table. “You should have talked to her.”
“Ma!” I say, snapping my head back to her. “She was with another guy. Do you really want your son to get beat up for talking to a guy’s girlfriend?”
“Sweetheart,” Mom pulls back and laughs. “I can promise you they are not together like that. I actually recognized them both. They are brother and sister, children of Reginald Calder.”
“Oh . . .” That must be why the girl looked so sad and in pain. “Their mom died in an accident, right? Driving to one of the galas?”
Mom nods, “Yeah . . . the girl, I don’t remember her name. Jane or Jade . . . I am not sure. She was in the car with her mother. She took it the hardest, and then her father remarried shortly afterwards. Though they were already in the process of divorce.”
“That’s terrible,” I sigh, shaking my head. “It’s too bad we don’t go to the same school. She looks like she could use some real friends.”
Mom smiles softly and turns as my dad arrives with the food. He sits and we take hands to say a prayer of thanks. An important habit that I am not ashamed to do in public.
“You’re sure he didn’t leave?” I ask as Ben and I walk through the crowded apartment house.
I had my parents drop me off at Karina’s place, after Ben sent me a 9-1-1 message, saying he couldn’t get Mitch to lay off the drinking. Of course, I did not need to explain that to my parents because they know I am always trying to keep Mitch and Ben out of trouble. They are always on call, if I should ever need backup.
“I’m positive,” he replies, searching the faces of the partiers. “He was hanging around with Karina and her friends.”
“That leaves only one place to look . . . Let’s check the rooms.”
“Dude, I am not searching the rooms. We walked in on him with that girl last time.”
I grimace, “Yeah . . . But we still have to get your dumbass brother.”
I grab the collar Ben’s shirt before he has time to bolt, dragging him towards the hallway. I knock on the first door, which is most likely to be a bathroom.
“Occupied!” a voice replies, making me nod.
“Found him,” I tell Ben, trying the doorknob.
The knob turns, giving me access. I swing the door open and find Mitch leaning against the sink with a glass of light brown liquid in his hand. He turns towards us; his eyes are bloodshot red. He’s definitely had too much to drink.
“Your mother is going to assassinate you in your sleep,” I say, taking the glass away, but not before, he downs the rest of the drink.
“Like ssshhh-she c-could get ah-way with it,” Mitch slurs as Ben and I sling his arms over our shoulders.
“Ugh!” Ben says when Mitch burps right in his face. “What the hell, Mitch!”
Mitch cackles as we bring him towards the door. He exchanges a few slurred words with many guests, mainly the girls, as we pass. They giggle and remind him to call them. I roll my eyes and adjust my glasses on my nose before they slide off. I have contemplated the concept of contacts, but my eyes are sensitive and I hate irritation.
“You’re such a dumbass,” I grunt as Ben and I drag Mitch into the elevator. “How many times in a month do I have to save your ass?”
Mitch releases a drunken chuckle before toppling to the ground. I manage to remain on my feet, but Ben falls to the floor from the weight on his shoulders. He half groans, half grunts, as he throws his brother’s arm off and quickly pushes to his feet.
“That never happened,” he warns, brushing off his sleeves as if dust covers them.
“Right,” I say, nodding. “You fell to the ground under the weight of your drunk brother and the girls will never know or laugh at you.”
“Ben, you’re not even sixteen yet. You don’t need to worry about such embarrassments yet.”
“You forget that I am in your grade and I am much smarter than most guys my age. There is a reason for that.”
I grin, “Did you forget who you are talking to?” I ask, pressing the button to send the elevator to the ground floor.
Ben rolls his eyes and starts scrolling on his phone. I sigh, shaking my head. I may be just as guilty as everyone else who owns a cell phone, but I feel like technology puts a damper in proper exchange of conversation. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the way my parents and I actually talk to each other. We turn off our phones when we have dinner. Dad makes it a point to avoid all business calls when he is at home. Unless it is important, he will not take any calls. Mom is at home most of the time, but she volunteers for charities and other such things.
The elevator doors open. Ben helps me pull Mitch to his feet and we both drag him out. Ben holds up a set of keys. I take them; leave it to Ben to have swiped Mitch’s keys when the alcohol dulled his senses. We cross the orange-lit street to where Mitch’s Mustang convertible is parked. I unlock the doors; Ben and I do our best not to jostle Mitch as we sit him in the backseat. Ben goes around to the other side of the car as I sit in the drivers’ seat. Mitch drives manual, but I am lucky my dad taught me. I put in the key and turn on the engine.
“I’m sick of saving his ass,” I say, seething in frustration as I turn the car out on the street. “We’re too young to worry about stuff like this . . . Aunt Berta is probably sick of this too. Ben, take this as a lesson to be learned and don’t follow Mitch over the cliff.”
“Wouldn’t think of it,” Ben says softly, shaking his head.
“Good . . . Because I am not bailing your ass out of jail if you call me.”
“Yes you would. You’re our cousin Ren, the reliable and responsible one.”
“My main flaws.”