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       Fairest, p.12

           Chanda Hahn
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  Reluctantly, she dropped her chin to her chest and sighed out loud. He was still patiently waiting for an answer. When one didn’t immediately come forth, his posture stiffened again.

  “I see,” he said.

  No other words were spoken by either one of them because Brody left the room.

  Chapter 14

  Having to stay off of her sprained ankle made it impossible for Mina to make it up the fire escape to her garden refuge on top of her apartment building. She waited on her window bench, staring dolefully out into the night. There wasn’t much to look at since her room faced the adjoining building and the window of Mrs. Orn, the neighborhood cat lady. Her visitors included, Mr. and Mrs. Wong, from the restaurant downstairs, who brought her dumplings, Nan, and the errant news reporter.

  After the fourth knock on their door by reporters wanting to do interviews, Sara Grime was at her wits end. Mina’s mom didn’t know how she was supposed to protect her daughter from the curse when everyone in the world was somehow able to find them, despite being unlisted. The very observant Mrs. Wong, dragged out large bamboo mats and tall plants out of her restaurant to the curb. She covered the entrance to the stairwell with the tall mat and placed various plants and vases in front, making it look like a beautiful display.

  She then sat outside with a tray of free samples of orange chicken and in broken English distracted the rest of the reporters by purposely giving them wrong directions to her house. Her behavior was a complete one-eighty compared to a few months ago when she had made a collage of newspaper articles about Mina and plastered them to her storefront window, bragging how a famous celebrity lived above her. Maybe because this wasn’t exciting news but more of a tragedy that brought out the protective instincts of the small Chinese woman, but whatever reasons the Grime family were grateful for their paparazzi protector.

  But it wasn’t long before the news reporters forgot about the girl lost in the woods, to report on bigger stories. A local DMV worker had disappeared during the night. At first, a few people wrote it off as an unfortunate government employee being unhappy with their benefits. The next day a young female coffee barista from the local Starbucks disappeared as well.

  Three people, in as many days, disappeared without a trace. People began to talk, spread gossip, rumors arose of possible kidnappings, but since no ransom notes were found, and no bodies were discovered, the media and police downplayed it, as individual runaway cases.

  Mina barely kept up with the news because she still hadn’t found the Grimoire and was at her wits ends. If it wasn’t for her mother, who made sure Mina left her house to go to the doctors and school, Mina would have become a hermit, too scared to go anywhere.

  Dr. Martin, gave Mina explicit instructions and she had to wear a brace and use the crutches as much as possible for a week. Much to her dismay, her school was almost impossible to navigate. Her crutches kept getting knocked accidentally by stray bags and shoes and Mina would find herself on her back looking at the putrid yellow paint of the hall ceilings.

  Thankfully, Nan was there to yell insults at the boys who obliviously knocked into her. She also turned every embarrassing tumble into a comical adventure, by creating a photo tally. Mina’s fall count had risen to four and it wasn’t even lunch.

  “Ooh, that fall was the best; I think you got air on that one.” Nan pulled Mina up and dusted off her bottom and back. “You ready?” she asked. Nan carefully pulled the phone in front of her, and Mina made a face and held up five fingers symbolizing the fifth fall. “Cheese!”

  Mina tried to smile, but all she was able to bear was a painful grin. Nan grabbed up Mina’s books, put them in her locker, and helped her get in line for lunch.

  The lunchroom was crowded, and the roar of people eating and talking mellowed to a quiet din as she entered. People stared, pointed, and whispered in their direction. When Mina pretended ignorance and didn’t do anything interesting or spectacular, they returned to eating their mediocre lunches. She was used to this pattern of silence then ignorance; it had already happened in each of her earlier classes.

  Some meaningful students who wanted fame tried to offer help to Mina, but Nan scared them all away. After all, she didn’t want fair-weather friends or, as Nan called them, storm-chaser friends-people who only wanted to be her friend because of the publicity they would get by being associated with her.

  Mina tried to point out her own food, but Nan was too busy talking about the finale of her favorite show to pay attention. Nan selected two deli sandwiches, cookies, milk, an apple, and bags of chips. Mina sighed when Nan switched topics to rave about Valdemar. After making their way through the hectic maze of chairs and tables, she was able to seek shelter at her favorite lunch table.

  Even knowing that Brody was in the same room as her, didn’t make her feel any better. He came in, filled his tray with food, passed all of his friends, and sat at a table by himself facing Mina. His posture and furrowed brows betrayed that he was in no mood to be friendly.

  Nan noticed his brooding and made a comment on it to Mina. “What is wrong with Captain Popular today?”

  Brody picked up his fork and stared at Mina, ignoring all conversation directed his way from his friends. T.J. tried to talk to him, but Brody brushed him off. Savannah even tried to catch his eye, but nothing she did could hold a flame to the angry glare he kept directing toward Nan and Mina.

  Mina more than anyone understood what Brody was probably thinking. But she never expected to be the recipient of his indifference, and it totally discomforted her. She squirmed, fidgeted, and found it impossible to even open up her milk carton, while he looked at her. Her nerves made it impossible for her to eat, and if he didn’t stop it she was going to go hungry.

  Nan noticed. “Brody Carmichael!” she hissed out loud. “Where are your manners? You should know better than to upset someone who is in a very delicate state right now.” Nan had taken on a thick southern accent while she reprimanded Brody.

  Brody was completely taken aback by Nan’s abruptness.

  Mina grabbed the edge of Nan’s striped shirt and pulled hard, trying to get her attention.

  Nan picked up Mina’s food and put it on her own lunch tray and headed out the lunchroom doors. Mina followed behind slowly, being careful to not look around or behind her at the open mouthed Brody.

  “Nan, wait up,” Mina hissed, when she entered the hallway and couldn’t find her friend.

  “Over here!” Nan called out, as she poked her head out of the unlocked biology classroom.

  Mina entered the class and sat on the stool at one of the lab stations while Nan redistributed their lunch. She was angry, and kept squishing and damaging their food as she tried to separate their lunches. Mina ended up with two broken cookies, a crushed bag of chips, and a very shaken up carton of two percent milk.

  “The nerve of him!” Nan fumed. “Doesn’t he realize how lucky we are to have you here? There was no reason whatsoever for him to glare at us like that.” She tried to pull the wrapper off of her straw and stab it into her own carton of milk before she realized she had Mina’s chocolate milk.

  Deftly Mina switched their milk cartons back as Nan continued her rant. “I mean, for goodness sake, Mina! Your face could have ended up on a milk carton if you weren’t found!” Nan held up the carton an inch from her face.

  “Nan,” Mina soothed. “It’s fine. Brody’s only angry because we had an argument. I think he is just confused. He actually came to the hospital and visited me.”

  When Nan’s eyes went wide in disbelief and her mouth dropped open to comment on Brody personally coming to see her, Mina quickly changed the subject. “And besides, they don’t put kids’ faces on milk cartons anymore.”

  Nan’s blonde eyebrows furrowed in speculation, and she began to scrutinize her own milk carton. “Are you sure, I thought I saw it in a movie somewhere.”

  Mina laughed out loud, “I’m sure, if anything, it would have been an amber alert.”

Oh,” she said somewhat dejectedly. “I would have liked to see your face on a milk carton.”

  “Nan Taylor!” Mina guffawed and shook her head. “What is wrong with you?”

  Nan’s face lit up with a mischievous grin. “That’s what you get for not telling me about Brody! You don’t think you can avoid the question that easily. How come you didn’t tell me that the prince of hotness visited you in the hospital? Where was I, by the way?”

  Mina fumbled a bit. “I think you were out looking for a magazine.”

  “But I’m your best friend. Don’t you think you should have told me? It’s not like I would have teased you about it--much.” She did a beautiful pout, and Mina couldn’t help but apologize to Nan.

  “I’m sorry; I was surprised and caught off guard.”

  “It’s because you like him, I know.” Nan sighed and leaned her head on her hand. “He has almost as many hot points as Valdemar. Well, I think they are tied, for hot points. On a one to ten, they are a definite twelve.”

  Mina took a bite of her cookie. “But the scale only goes to ten?” she mumbled through the crumbs.

  “Not with hot points,” Nan explained. “You get an extra bonus point for being rich, and one for being a celebrity. And since that covers both of them that would make them a twelve.”

  “Well, that doesn’t do us much good, since we are not a twelve.”

  Nan began to pick all of the M&M’s off of her cookie and popped them into her mouth one by one. “Nonsense. We rank high in cute points.”

  Mina raised her eyebrow in disbelief. “Cute points?”

  “Duh, the cute points are better than hot points. We rate high in cute points. We are funny, quirky, have great personalities and are extremely charming.” She batted her eyelashes comically. “These are way more important than hot points.”

  “How so?”Mina asked dumbfounded.

  “Well, girls that rank high in hot points will eventually get old and will no longer be hot, so their hot points lower. If you have cute points, they last forever, even when you are old. So they are definitely way more important.”

  Mina almost choked on her cookie, she was laughing so hard. Nan always had a different way of looking at the world. They finished their lunch discussing the hot versus cute point ratings for all of the kids in their class.

  It wasn’t until Mina caught movement over her best friend’s shoulder that her smile died on her lips. Every muscle in her body tensed as a familiar tingling raced up her spine, her only warning that something magical was at work.

  The movement came again, and she tried to pretend indifference to the fluttering movements coming from the locked Biology cabinet. She knew what was stored in that particular glass cabinet. She had seen the preserved bodies of the chickens, frogs, and even a two-headed pig. Year after year, they had been floating lifeless in their jars of formaldehyde.

  The Kennedy students had even nicknamed the two-headed pig Twinky. Mina never gave credit to the names and preferred to ignore the creatures suspended in the liquid glass coffins. But she could no longer ignore them because the dead specimens were moving. Twinky himself, with both heads, started to struggle in the jar. His mouth opened wide, and she could almost hear the silent squeals echoing in the classroom.

  She faltered mid-sentence with Nan, and quickly began to gather up her uneaten lunch. Mina glanced out of the corner of her eye to see one of the frogs swimming happily back in forth in his jar.

  Nan complained, “Hey, I’m not done with that.” She tried to snatch another chip from Mina’s tray.

  “No, we are definitely done,” Mina shot out hurriedly. She tried to pick up the tray and turn Nan toward the door and away from lab cabinet that was now slightly shaking from the frenzied movement coming from within.

  But Mina wasn’t able to carry the trays and both crutches and she began to lose the tray and all of the food on it. Nan caught the trays and dumped them into the nearest trash can. “If you really wanted to get out of here, you could have just told me,” she answered somewhat annoyed.

  Mina was proud of her recovery. “I just remembered. I overheard a senior saying that they were dissecting various brains on these tables today.” It was an obvious lie, but one that seemed to get Nan moving in the direction of the door.

  “Oh, that is disgusting! I should have never even brought our lunch in here. I’m surprised we could eat with all of those Frankenstein animals in the cabinet anyway.” Nan began to turn her head and point to the aforementioned cabinet, when Mina heard a distinct clicking sound. Without looking, she knew it was the chicken tapping his beak on the jar, desperately trying to break free.

  She pushed Nan bodily through the door as the clicking sound grew louder.

  “Did you hear something?” Nan turned and tried to crane her neck back into the classroom.

  “Nope,” Mina answered quickly, too quickly.

  “I thought I heard tapping?” Nan looked at Mina.

  “Uh, you did.” Mina began to tap her fingers impatiently against the metal support of her crutch.

  Nan’s head tilted to the side. “No, I could have sworn it sounded like glass.” Nan couldn’t press the argument further because the first warning bell rang.

  Mina closed the lab door firmly behind her and started a frenzied hopping toward her next class, hoping Nan would follow her lead. She didn’t. Mina stopped when she realized Nan wasn’t behind her. She turned and looked over her shoulder at her blonde best friend who hadn’t moved from her spot outside the Biology lab door.

  Nan’s face was furrowed in confusion as if she was listening intently for something, but it was obvious she couldn’t hear anything over the sound of rushing feet and slamming lockers. She made a move toward the door as if to open it.

  Mina was helpless and stared at her friend in horror. What could she do? Thinking fast, she pretended to fall again, but this time with fanfare. She was so desperate to gain attention she even threw her crutch into the path of an oncoming student and screamed loudly as she flopped hard on her butt on the cold hard floor, right in the middle of the hallway.

  Her cheeks burned with embarrassment as Frank, the unlucky student tripped by her wayward crutch, fell on top of her.

  “Ouch!” Mina cried out.

  “Sorry! Oof, sorry again,” Frank mumbled as he tried to extract himself from the mess of his tangled backpack, Mina’s crutch, and the hands that came out of nowhere to help them up. But the spectacle did its job as Nan released the biology door handle and raced to rescue her.

  After the incident and the gawkers cleared the hallway, Nan smiled brightly and pulled out her camera phone.

  “Six!” she laughed while pointing it at both of them and clicked the phone.

  Chapter 15

  A knock sounded at the door. Mina and Charlie were spread out on the floor playing a card game and both looked at each other expectantly.

  “You get it,” Mina stated.

  Charlie smirked at his sister, crossed his arms, and shook his head no.

  “Charlie, I’m on crutches. It’s not like I’m going cheat and look at your cards when you turn your back,” Mina lied.

  His hands flew in the air so fast Mina had problems understanding him. “Yeah, but that was only the one time.” He continued signing. “Okay, and I cheated at Uno.” When he didn’t stop, Mina had to interrupt. “All right, I cheat at all card games. But if you don’t catch me, is it really cheating?” She laughed.

  The knocking at the door continued; Charlie glared at Mina, picked up every single one of his cards, and carried them with him to the door. He made a wide berth around Mina, keeping the cards to his chest as he passed by. Mina swung playfully at his cards trying to knock them out of his hands.

  Whoever was at the door was becoming impatient, and Mina heard a key being inserted into the lock. Mina’s hand clutched the crutch on the floor next to her to use as a weapon. The door swung open and a very small Chinese woman entered with her hands full. It was Mrs. Wong, t
heir landlord.

  “Meehna, you keep me waiting. You won’t get your get betteh dumplins if you don’t geht over here.” Mrs. Wong shuffled into their small kitchen carrying a large pot and a small cloth grocery bag. Charlie forgot about the card game and jumped into the kitchen chair waiting with anticipation of the food Mrs. Wong began to pull out and place on the table.

  Mrs. Wong and her husband owned the entire building and the Chinese restaurant underneath the Grimes’ home. At first Mina hated it, because if someone forgot to close their windows at night their clothes would usually smell like Chinese food. But now Mina couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, for the Wong’s were almost like surrogate grandparents for Mina and her brother and spoiled them with presents come every holiday and all-they-can-eat dumplings the rest of the year, which for a cash strapped family was a very welcome blessing.

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