“Who did you pick?” my mom calls from the kitchen where she is chopping, knife against wood. Something sizzles and smells meaty—spam and rice. I wiggle my backpack off and it lands with a thud. I try to sneak off to my room but Mom asks, “Who did you pick for Secret Santa?” Her voice has an edge, as if she’s prying away an opening.
My bad for ever mentioning Secret Santa, a stupid tradition at my school, Longman Preparatory Academy in Los Altos. Mom keeps every one of their pamphlets with the photos of white buildings reminiscent of Southern mansions, redwoods with branches stretching towards the sky like arms in homage. She doesn’t believe me when I complain about the smell—a humid odor of life growing on top of old life, on top of dead things.
Before my time, exchanging presents was this huge ordeal. The super-rich kids swapped concert tickets and video games, while scholarship students like me spent way more than they should have. Ms. Voclain, the principal, put a stop to it. No more exchanging gifts on school grounds. Instead, everyone had to participate in a Secret Santa. A ten-dollar cap. Feel free to make something, bake cookies or wash a car. Parents ate it up.
I enter the kitchen and watch my mom dry her hands on a transparent towel, which she refuses to throw out. She is at ease when she cooks, her face soft and prettyish with a coffee-and-milk complexion. She has a squashy nose, a mat of black hair, and is a bit on the heavy side. Everyone says I look just like her.
“Laila Thorinsen,” I say.
“Not one of your friends, huh? It will be a chance to get to know someone new. See what she’s like.”
“She’s a rich snob, Mom. Her money is what she’s like. Besides, you just hand the present over. It’s not like you talk to the person.” It’s a fact, but a part of me wishes otherwise.
Laila is legendary, and not just for her huge blue eyes, pouty mouth, and edgy clothes, but because she says cool stuff like, “Being girly isn’t a crime” and “Fashion doesn’t have rules.” And she’s known outside of Longman. She was named one of twenty-under-twenty to watch in the Bay Area, basically for being the kid of Silicon Valley gazillionaires. The California Weekender website displayed a big photo of her in a thousand-dollar blouse, her blonde hair swept back and a bored look on her face. Passing Laila in the hallway is like living next to a famous actor. You want to appear natural and cool with it, but you end up acting like a dork.
My mom eyes me. “I wonder if I should pull you out and put you back into public school.” I half-listen because she never means it. “Jacie, I did want to discuss something.” She directs me to the kitchen table and puts her hands over mine. I feel sandwiched and pull myself free.
“We’re not visiting Grandma Keahi this year,” she says.
“What?” I yell. I’m overreacting and I know it. “I thought you bought the plane tickets in August.”
“We thought the prices would drop but they never did, sweetheart.”
“Can’t Grandma help out?”
“You know she can’t. Things are getting so expensive on the Big Island. She’s barely managing.”
I fling myself out the front door and trip over the faded Aloha mat.
She yells, “Jacinta, come back here!”
I see Jacob waving at me from down the block, where he must have been at a friend’s house, but I ignore him too.
I’m bummed. It’s a social boost, bragging about Christmas in Hawaii like every other Longman kid. But it is more than that. I am sick of being embarrassed. There is a reason why my school friends have never stepped foot in our apartment.
I get that we’re not rich; I consider us brown and we have to take favors as they come. But no one has offered my mom a job for a few years, even though she works harder than anyone I know. Then there’s my dad, who comes home worn out and smelling like the oily, black grease smeared on his crew shirt. And me. I’ve been handed a huge promise in the form of Longman Prep. All I have to do is act the part and keep my thoughts to myself. Faking it is a slow leak, though. It’s hard not to feel like I’m losing little bits of myself.
A stream of traffic whooshes by like a swift conveyor belt that would slow down only if I were to trip and fall in, messing up the forward movement. The thought of someone in a car recognizing me makes me pull down my hood. Street lamps buzz on and wet, frail leaves slime my heels. My hoodie is warm, but the cold penetrates my uniform khakis and locks around my ankles like cuffs.
I walk past the Shop & Go. Jacob and I used to hang out there on dull summer afternoons. In the toy section, we combed through the cheap plastic cars and dolls. We occasionally found a loose rubber ball or a lone die, and would pocket it.
Another trick was at the library with the old vending machine. We would spot a candy bar ever so slightly askew in the machine coil and pretend to insert change. Then we would find that kindly adult and ask politely for help, saying that the bar didn’t come out. Most times we received coins and candy. We said thank you, tiptoed out until we were a block away and ran, hooting.
I head into Dollar Mart with its rows of canned vegetables, Christmas wrapping, and bottles of bleach. I bet Laila has never stepped into a store like this. I choose the spice aisle and examine a vial of vanilla extract, remembering we ran out about a year ago. I clench the bottle in my hand and saunter away. As I pore over toothbrushes, I slip the bottle into my hoodie pocket and then leisurely walk toward the exit. I feel a tight nervousness in my middle and my right knee buckles a little when I pass through the sliding doors. I make it to the parking lot and clutch my loot in my left fist. When I’m a block away, a surge of relief spreads over me. It’s like a liftoff from everything heavy, everything that weighs me down. I inhale the cold night air until my lungs feel like they could burst.
I head into Dollar Mart with its rows of canned vegetables, Christmas wrapping, and bottles of bleach. I bet Laila has never stepped into a store like this.I don’t want to go home, and so I watch bus 22 rumble toward me—destination: Palo Alto Paradise Mall. It rattles to a stop and swings open its door. The driver seems annoyed when I pause so I jump aboard. I’m not surprised to find a half-empty bus with drooping passengers. People who ride buses don’t shop at Paradise. They work there.
I’ve never been to Saks Fifth Avenue, but Longman girls talk about the prom dresses, little backless outfits, exposing blocks of perfect skin. The department store smells bright and teasing from the perfume and new clothes. A Laila Thorinson kind of smell. I finger a cashmere turtleneck that seems to melt at my touch. The clerk with sleek hair glances at me for a millisecond and returns to her folding. She makes me want to buy something, just to show her.
Suddenly, I think I hear Laila and my stomach drops. She has a low voice and pauses on I as if she expects everyone to give her a moment to unwrap her thoughts. I follow the voice and it turns out to be a plain college student with her Stanford friends.
Back on the bus. It is 7:39 p.m., no gift, a voicemail rant from my mom, and a text from Jacob saying Mom is taking it out on him and would I just come home. I’m in for it, grounded, no doubt. Two lost hours meant for homework. I want a break from caring. I’m supposed to have a bigger life than this. If only I had been born beautiful, or with an exceptional talent, or the adopted daughter of a US president, I would have fresh dewy skin, cashmere sweaters, and bras that fit. I close my eyes and dream of a thinner version of me in a snappy Longman jacket and people calling my name, Jacie! The automated announcer enunciates my street and I wrench myself awake.
* * *
Laila! Greg Myers calls out and sidles up to her in the hallway. He has a hawk-like nose, slightly off-kilter eyes, and stiff, brown, gelled hair. He smells peppery like pot, which could either be neutral or gross. With Greg, it’s gross.
Laila leans into her locker right next to mine. With an aggressive jerk on the handle, she pulls open the door and a pink giftbag spills out. Earrings, bottles of lotion, and lip gloss scatter, and people stop to help her. I grab a package of foil-wrapped bonbons and a pink watch still in its box.
“What is all this crap, Laila?” someone asks.
“Teen Choice Awards sent it. You want that stuff? Keep it. Except for that.” She plucks the watch from my hand and I clutch the chocolate to my chest.
“Thanks,” I say.
“No prob,” she answers. She glances at me and her expression isn’t condescending. It’s like she’s seeing me, not in a good light, necessarily, but not in a dim one either.
“How generous of you, Mrs. Claus,” Greg says and scans me quickly. You’re not one of us, his face seems to say.
He reaches for Laila, but she dodges him and says, “Bite me.” She locks her teeth on a sleek pen, one of those calligraphy ones from Japan. Even with all the high-tech gadgets designed right down the road, Los Altos girls still love pretty pens. I watch Laila and Greg walk away.
* * *
I’m not the only person fascinated by her. On the library computer, I find she has a huge Twitter audience and her blog is full of comments. Who are all these people? Probably other high school girls, pimpled and quiet, who study her string of selfies taken in San Francisco, Maui, Los Angeles. I decide to follow her.
“Hey,” says a voice behind me, which makes me jump.
I swivel and find Greg standing there. I edge over in my chair and try to block his view of my computer monitor, but he catches sight of it and exhales a small snort.
“So, I heard you’re Laila’s Secret Santa. Would you be willing to trade?” he asks.
“Who did you get?” I ask.
“I don’t want Roger, I’m friends with him.” I surprise myself by saying, “Besides I got Laila a gift already. It’s kinda hard for me to return it.”
“Like what, a kit for her period?”
“Um, no,” I say carefully.
“C’mon, I don’t know what to buy another guy.”
“Laila will have great ideas. Ask her.”
“She’s not exactly talking to me. Will you just let me have her?”
“No.” My answer suspends in the air.
“You stalking her or something? Are you obsessed?” he asks.
I scowl my best East San Jose don’t-mess-with-me glare.
“Jesus,” he says and steps back.
I wonder who will leave first; he finally does.
When I push through the heavy library doors and head to Biology, I think I see Principal Voclain watching me from down the hall.
* * *
My foot keeps jiggling the next day as I eye the clock. By lunch, I’m in no mood to respond to Roger and Anahita’s chitchat. I tell them I’m kind of out of it and will be skipping Newspaper Club. In my head, I calculate if I have enough bus change to get to Artastic in Palo Alto.
Artastic is a shop that has been around for as long as I can remember. When I arrive, I find it exactly the same—racks of paint tubes, brushes, charcoals, mat boards against the walls. It’s dusty and I sneeze. I wander through the aisles until I reach the specialty pens. The ones I want sit elegantly with the Japanese stroke-lettering on their silver tubes. No sensor tags.
I backtrack, walk from aisle to aisle, and probe for hidden cameras. Nothing. The collar of my old wool coat feels unbearably itchy around my neck. My palms sweat. I’m in a state of alertness, and I can see and hear everything around me. I return to the pens and touch the silkiness of the polished aluminum. I want them and there is no turning back. I won’t leave without them.
I make sure no one is around before selecting the red one. I ease my hand into my pocket and finger the pen until it drops through a hole that feeds into the lining of my coat. Green, blue, gold, and purple follow. I consider taking the orange but I can’t decide. I stop. I walk calmly to the sketchbook section and pretend to browse.
I return to the pens and touch the silkiness of the polished aluminum. I want them and there is no turning back. I won’t leave without them.“Can I help you?” A clerk startles me. My face is hot and I turn casually. The pens feel bulky as they hang against my thigh. I wonder if they make noise. Is he trying to catch me? I whirl up explanations—a friend gave the pens to me. I bought them in LA. I borrowed this coat.
The clerk’s large brown eyes are friendly and his dreads poke up like fingers. He wears a slim black T-shirt and a badge that says, Hi I’m MITCHELL. His eyes and brows have the same happy arch.
“I was just looking for a sketchbook,” I say, and hold up a small spiral-bound one. My hand trembles. I stammer an explanation about Secret Santa and the ten dollars.
“Secret Santa—nice. You came to the right place. We have a lot of things for under ten bucks.” He shows me the glitter pens, the cute wooden stamp-blocks, the paintbrushes.
“Wow,” I coo, and pick up one item after another. He makes little jokes and when he smiles, his dimples look like quotes. My stomach, which felt like a rock, starts to soften. How can I possibly be admiring him at a time like this? And yet I can’t help it. I know I’ve got to get out of here so I say, “I think just the sketchbook.”
“Cool,” he says, as if not minding the time he spent with me. “You go to Longman, don’t you?” My coat is half-zipped and he must see my vest with the Longman crest over my heart. “I used to know some kids who went there. Sure you’re ready? Need anything else?”
“Um, I’m okay,” I mumble.
At the counter, he scans the notebook. The register bleeps at him. He scans it again and it does the same thing. “Hmm,” he says and frowns. “I think I have to get my manager. Hold on.”
“Oh, that’s okay. I’m kinda in a rush. I can come back.”
“It’ll take a sec.”
He steps through an Employees Only door and I take a deep breath. My head is fuzzy. Why did I throw out that other half of my sandwich at lunch? I rub my forehead. I imagine Mitchell’s shock after he discovers what I did. I should dump the pens in one of the aisles. Hide them in an endcap. Throw them in the bathroom trash.
A balding older man and Mitchell emerge from the office. The man chews on his pen and taps a few keys, before swiping the notebook again. It rings up and I give him cash. The man hands me change and the receipt. Is he studying my face? Will he report me to the police?
I thank them and Mitchell says, “Happy Holidays!”
I wave goodbye and walk toward the exit. I imagine him calling out, “Wait!” It is too late. I can’t turn around.
I’m almost at the security pillars. I can’t see outside; the shop interior is reflected in the dark windows. My heart whomps faster. Another step. A car alarm peals behind the glass. Two more steps. One. And I’m through. The chill air hits my heated face. I stride rapidly for a couple of blocks, and then I jog to the bus stop but the bus rolling by isn’t mine. I turn to see if anyone is following me. The sidewalks are empty. Through my coat, I grasp my prize.
* * *
A week later, Voclain announces an all-school assembly. “It’s got to be about Secret Santa,” Roger says. “People are ignoring the ten-dollar limit again.”
Anahita is sure it’s about guidelines, because people are swapping whom they picked. “Kids barter to get the person they want.” She rolls her eyes. The piece of paper with Laila’s name is taped on the inside cover of my English journal. No one has bought me out yet.
Voclain steps onto the stage and begins. “Our administration has recently been informed by Palo Alto Police that one of our students might be involved in a shoplifting incident. The security camera at the store caught a student in a Longman uniform. As we hope you know, we take pride in the ethics of our students and were shocked by this allegation. Rather than keeping this a secret from you all, we thought it would be best to have it out in the open. We are hoping that the student will either come forward or someone will supply us with information. There will be consequences but far lighter if we figure this out among ourselves.”
This cannot be happening. My body grows cold and I shrink in my seat. People gape, open-mouthed, and turn to each other in shock. I can’t absorb what Voclain has to say about honesty and conscience. Afterwards, speculation echoes throughout the auditorium. I head straight for the restroom. Whatever is in my stomach inches its way up and out.
* * *
It’s 1:45 p.m., two days later. Voclain’s office smells like leftover lunch and dry-eraser pens. I see the shadow of Voclain’s grey head through the frosted glass of the door. I’m cold and dampness settles under my arms. I think of my mom, her cheek against the phone as she starts to cry. And Jacob’s silent look waiting for me at home. My face lands in my hands and it is hard to breathe.
“Are you friends with Greg Ahern or Laila Thorinson?” Voclain solemnly asks. “Have you ever seen them do anything that doesn’t seem right?”
I’m so taken aback I can’t think of what to say. “No, never,” I stammer.
Voclain puts her hand on my arm and says, “Have you ever seen any expensive items in Laila’s locker? Any drugs?” Voclain shakes her head. “Of course not, dear.”
I’m ushered out and I slowly walk to class. My disappointment surprises me. The drama isn’t even about me, but about Greg, Laila, and whatever it is they do that draws them more attention. I’m a bystander again. A bystander who doesn’t need counselors or anyone asking me if everything is all right.
* * *
I wait for her. Laila’s note, wrinkled in my hand, reads: Meet me on the soccer field by the bleachers—12:15. It’s sprinkling, which makes the ground smell earthy, heavy. She is small in her glossy down-coat and black boots that pad on the grass like the feet of a lost animal. Her makeup can’t cover her bewilderment.
“Greg told me it was you. These are… nice,” she says, gingerly pulling the pens from her purse. They line up like five missiles in the palm of her hand. “Where did you get them?” I shrug and say nothing. “Did you order them online?”
“No, I… I got them from this store,” I say.
“Where?” she asks.
“I can’t remember. It’s been a while. I never used them.”
“You didn’t steal them, did you?”
Shock runs through me and I blink. “What makes you think that?” I watch her carefully. She tries to read my face, which I don’t expect.
“Why are you giving these to me?” she presses.
“I thought you’d like them.”
“So, you can’t return them?”
“I can’t take these.”
“Why?” My face is flushed.
“I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s not what people are supposed to give each other for Secret Santa. These are too expensive.”
“It’s what I’m giving you.” I can’t meet her eyes. Why was this blowing up in my face? First Voclain follows me around like the manager at Shop & Go, and now Laila refuses my present.
She takes a breath and says, “I’ll get in trouble. Voclain is monitoring my every move. She asked me to show her exactly what I give and get for Secret Santa. I can’t plop down two hundred dollars’ worth of pens. It’s just another reason for her to try and kick me out.”
“You’re right.” I glance around the field, grab the pens, and shove them deep inside my backpack. “I’ll bring something else tomorrow.”
“Jesus, just forget it. It’ll be too late. I’ll tell her you’re washing my car.”
I feel a small shape in my hoodie pocket. “Here, take this.”
She studies the label. “Vanilla extract?”
“Yeah, it’s less than ten dollars,” I try to joke. She cocks her head. “That and cleaning out your locker at the end of the year. I’ll make a gift certificate.”
“Okay, that’ll work,” she nods. “Can you slip it into my locker by three o’clock?”
I promise I will.
“Did they ever find the shoplifters?” I hear myself ask.
Laila is quiet and I’m sure I’ve given myself away. She says, “They are questioning a couple of freshman guys who were at Saks Fifth that night. Why do you ask?” Her eyes look guarded.
My head bursts with confusion then clarity. Saks Fifth? Not Artastic? “Which guys?” I wonder out loud.
“Look, I don’t know,” she says flatly. She stares at me, probing, waiting. It’s like we both hold a question that can’t be asked. What’s weird, too: close up, Laila smells like anyone else.
“Good luck,” I manage to say.
“Thanks,” she whispers.
* * *
That night Jacob walks into my room and holds up the pens. “What are these?”
What’s weird, too: close up, Laila smells like anyone else.“Why the hell are you digging through my backpack?” I whisper harshly, and he’s taken aback. I never swear at him.
“Mom said to check it for any leftover lunch. You’re lucky it was me and not her.” He knows how to make me feel guilty. “Are these expensive? Are they from China?”
“Japan.” I handle them like they are breakable. I stare at Jacob’s face. It is losing its babyish roundness and he is starting to smell musty, mushroomy. His solid jaw and intense eyes resemble my dad more every day. My parents have been scheming for Jacob to attend Longman in a few years.
“We’re going to Palo Alto tomorrow,” I announce. “I’ll tell Mom we’re Christmas shopping.”
* * *
The next day we take the bus north and Jacob keeps asking, Where are you taking me? When we walk into Artastic, the balding owner is alone behind the register. He nods and chews his pen.
“I was here a few weeks ago,” I say.
He removes the Bic from his mouth. “Glad to have you back.”
I take a deep breath and pull out the pens. “I stole these. I’m returning them.”
He freezes in shock. He blinks and glances at Jacob, whose eyes are popping out of his head.
“How old are you?” he asks.
“Fourteen,” I say and my voice cracks.
The man examines Jacob again. “This your little brother?”
I nod. “Yes, but he wasn’t with me. He has nothing to do with this.”
Jacob’s mouth hangs open and he stares at me.
“You’ve committed a felony, you know that, don’t you?” the man says. “I could call the police right now and you could have a record.” There is no humor in the set of his mouth, but the corner of his eyes dance. “What the hell am I going to do with you kids? You don’t get it, do you? You just waltz in here and think if you take something, it’s all a game, a bunch of free stuff.” He glares at Jacob. “I have rent and overhead and decent employees to pay. I’m just trying to make a living here. It is people like you who steal that’ll put me out of business.”
He pauses and I look down at the counter; my face burns. He isn’t done. “What’s your home number? Where I can reach your parents? And I want your name and your school.”
My stomach plunges. I had hoped he would stop at a lecture. I slowly take his gnawed Bic and write down my name.
We exit the store and Jacob does something he hasn’t done for a long time—he holds my hand. His hand is slimmer than mine and the warm curl of his fingers makes me want to cry.
He takes a deep breath. “God, that was dumb, Jacie. You better never ever steal again.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I tell him and sniff.
At home, we are quiet and wait for the phone call from the owner. We both pick at our dinners. “What’s the matter with you two?” my mom asks while scraping our plates over the trash. “You getting sick?”
Jacob and I hang out in my room until my dad yells at us to go to bed. Before he leaves, Jacob asks softly, “So why’d you do it?”
“I guess I was trying to impress someone.”
“Was it a guy? Was he worth it?”
“It wasn’t for a guy,” I say. “And she didn’t think she was worth it.”
The phone call never comes.
* * *
The New Year arrives and the old year is dismissed, as is Laila. Whispers about the Saks Fifth incident swirl in the hallways. Honesty and conscience, Voclain reminds us.
No one witnesses it, but Laila’s locker is searched, and my present splatters and drips on the tile floor. The first day back, I notice the brown sticky stain. For a while, it smells like a bakery but that gives way to the odor of Pine-Sol and sour sneakers. As I spin my combination, I still tuck in my elbows to make room. And for a long time after, the scent of vanilla, its syrupy sweetness no longer homey but strong and sharp, reminds me of her.