Authors: Sherri L. Smith
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Family, #Multigenerational, #Social Issues, #Prejudice & Racism, #School & Education
For my family—past, present and future
Special thanks to J.H. for trying to fix my Mandarin, and to K.M. for his childhood memories and cultural insights. Any errors that slipped by them are 100% mine!
ere's how she wants it to go: After the graduation ceremony, when all the speeches are done, Jamie Tabata will walk off the stage with her, take her by the hand and say, “Ana Shen, would you please go to the dance with me tonight?”
Ana, of course, will say yes. She might even blush and squeeze his hand a little. And then she will go home, ignore her family for the next four hours and spend the fifth hour getting dressed (maybe the blue skirt and the pale blue tank top with the ruffles) and taming her hair. When Jamie shows up, they'll walk to the school together, even though it's a long walk. The gym will be lit up like the Fourth of July, with a mirror ball casting starlight and shadows so that even the bleachers look otherworldly. And their first dance will be a slow dance (but not too slow) and he will pull her close and say, “I've liked you since the first day I saw you.”
Ana will say, “Me too.” And the dance will end, but they will still both be standing there, his arms around her, and he will lean in and give her the most perfect—
“Now, our salutatorian, Ana Shen!” Principal Rubens bellows into the microphone. The mike squeals and Ana jumps out of her reverie.
Great, Ana. Daydreaming right in the middle of your own graduation.
She's on her feet before she knows it. Jamie Tabata is making his way back to his seat. Valedictorian, first in their class. He smiles shyly at Ana. She's too embarrassed to smile back. She blushes. Ana's had a big old crush on Jamie since the second grade, and today is the last day of junior high school. She may never see him again after this. And “this” is a perfect chance to make a fool out of herself by flubbing her graduation speech.
She grins a bit too widely at Principal Rubens, an avocado-shaped man in a brown suit with a fringe of hair and beard to match. He holds his hand out to offer her the podium. Ana takes a deep breath and tries to focus.
The sun is out. It is a beautiful June day in Los Angeles. The soft whir of the freeway sounds like the earth breathing, like bees humming in a meadow. The sky is blue, sprinkled with airplanes like distant birds. The stage is set up at one end of the school's sports field, row upon row of plastic folding chairs before her, filled with purple graduation gowns and parents in business suits and Sunday dresses. Her family is somewhere in the crowd— parents, little brother, both sets of grandparents.
Come on, Ana,
she tells herself.
Don't barf. Just do your speech.
She steps up to the mike and clears her throat.
“Good afternoon, soon-to-be graduates of Edison Junior High. My name is Ana Shen.”
The crowd rumbles. Ana hesitates, to let the applause die down. It does, but the rumbling does not.
She begins again. “When we first started at Edison . . .” The rumbling is louder, louder than the freeway behind them. Louder than the crowd. She looks uncertainly at Principal Rubens.
“Is that an earthquake?” someone asks.
There is a sudden hush. And then, behind her, the roof of the gymnasium explodes. Or, rather, a geyser of water blows through the roof, shooting into the air like Old Faithful, three stories high. It arcs over the stage with a rainbow dazzle of water and sprays the back half of the sports field like a giant sprinkler. Ana ducks behind the podium as the water shoots overhead. People sitting in the back rows scream. The stream of water loses pressure and falls, like heavy rain, onto the graduates and their families. The purple dye in the gowns starts to run, and the graduates caught in the deluge do a little dance, yanking off their gowns and running past the edge of the falling water.
It's not the kind of hair that stands up well to water. Ana clutches her graduation cap to her head. Principal Rubens jumps to his feet, pushing Ana to the side.
“Remain calm, everyone! Remain calm! We appear to have broken a pipe somewhere! Remain calm!”
No one remains calm, however. Teachers go scampering off the stage, and a few chairs are overturned as families plunge through the forming mud, looking for shelter and drier ground. “Head for the far end of the field!” Principal Rubens shouts into the microphone. It squeals again, and the sound works as an alarm. The teachers suddenly remember themselves and organize Ana's classmates into groups that can actually follow orders.
So much for how she wanted it to go. Ana climbs off the wet stage alone, her mortarboard dripping with purple water. Oddly, the rest of her is relatively dry. She doesn't even want to think about what her hair looks like. In the chaos, she spots Chelsea. They grab hands, find a relatively dry spot beneath a jacaranda tree and wait for an official announcement.
“Here.” Chelsea offers Ana a dry graduation program.
“Thanks.” Ana takes off her cap and shakes her hair out. She dries her face with the program, dissolving the proud letters declaring
EDISON JUNIOR HIGH COMMENCEMENT CEREMONIES.
Not the way Ana planned it at all.
“We should find our families,” she says at last.
“Ah, they'll be fine,” Chelsea replies. “Besides, look at this mess. They could be anywhere.”
It's true. Ana surveys the devastation. It looks like Noah's flood has hit the sports field. Water is running toward the softball diamond, pooling at home plate and third. More of the students are pulling off their gowns. A few of them are laughing. Mostly the boys. The girls look mortified.
“Geez,” Ana says. “These gowns stain. I can't believe they made us buy them.” She looks down. Hers is dry. Everything but her head and shoes.
“What?” Chelsea shimmies out of her gown, smoothing out her sky blue sundress as she goes. “Told you they were too cheap to be good. This stuff'll never wash out.”
“You're not even wet,” Ana says.
Chelsea shrugs. “I'm lucky. I can dodge raindrops.”
Ana grins. “Right. And I can block them with my head.”
“So . . . any sign of Jamie?”
Ana looks around and sighs. “Nope. And it's probably for the best. I don't exactly look fetching right now, do I?”
She squeezes her hair and a stream of water runs out. She sighs again. At least she can give herself a makeover before tonight. Being asked
dance is almost as good as being asked to
the dance. “Help me braid it back?”
Chelsea smoothes her own straight sandy-brown hair. “What are friends for?”
Ana braids one side, Chelsea the other, while they wait for the principal to return. Ten minutes later, Ana looks less of a wreck, and Principal Rubens has taken the stage again.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize. We've been experiencing plumbing difficulties over the last week,” the principal announces over the squawking microphone.
Chelsea whispers to Ana, “Yeah, I heard the sixth graders flushed bananas down all the toilets on the second floor.”
Principal Rubens pauses and rubs a handkerchief over his bald spot. He wipes his eyes and stuffs it back into his jacket.
“It appears that the water main has in fact burst—” Someone squeals. “
the sewer main, as some of the young men here have suggested.” He gives a stern look at the group the squeal came from. “But, in fact, the water main has broken and flooded”—he actually sobs here and catches himself—“flooded the gymnasium. The beautiful wood floors are ruined. The expense. I—” He stops again and pulls out the handkerchief to mop his face. “I'm sorry to say, the graduation dance will have to be canceled. I repeat, there will be no dance tonight. Sorry, boys and girls. I truly am.”
“Oh, Ana,” Chelsea says, and puts a hand on her arm.
Ana's jaw drops. A split second later, one of her braids sproings apart and unworks itself into a frizzy bush. Principal Rubens goes on about how the ceremony will continue at the far end of the field—no more speeches, just handing out the diplomas so everyone can go home and get dry. Some of her classmates are even passing out almost-dry towels from the locker room.
Ana hangs her head, the rest of the world forgotten.
This was definitely not the way she wanted it to go today. Nope. Not. At. All.
fter the last diploma is handed out, the field looks like a giant green sink with grape soda swirling down its drain. The muddy grass only adds to the mess. Everyone's milling around in their graduation gowns, trying to find friends and family before the end of Life As They Know It. Ana doesn't need to mill. She knows where she's going. Straight toward Jamie Tabata. The way she sees it, she's got less than five minutes to get there before her family catches up to her and drags her home for Quality Time and a Family Feast. Time that will seem like a life sentence, and food that will taste like ash if she can't get rid of this one question, the one she's been choking on since the beginning of the school year. Less than five minutes to find out if she'll ever have any chance with Jamie Tabata.
“Ana! Ana!” The shout sounds like the crowd at a ticker tape parade. Ana ducks down. That would be her mom's mom, Grandma White, whose voice carries through a crowd after all those years as a schoolteacher. In a half crouch, holding the hem of her graduation gown so it doesn't get muddy, Ana scurries toward her destiny.
Jamie's standing at the side of the stage with his parents and Principal Rubens, who is nodding like a bird looking at its own reflection. Ana can imagine the conversation, all about Jamie's sparkling future and how he'll do so well in his new special private high school. Ana's step gets a little bouncier. Anyone would love to escape that chat. He'll be glad to see her.
She resumes a normal walk a few feet from her goal.
“Hey, Tabata,” she says far more casually than she thought she could.
“Shen,” he practically shouts, and grabs her elbow, stepping away from his folks. Mr. Tabata is a tall, handsome Japanese man in a gray suit, with a black tie. He gives Ana a sidelong glance but doesn't say anything. Principal Rubens is pumping his hand in farewell. Ana can't help noticing how much Jamie looks like his dad. Not bad, even when he's old, not bad at all.
“Sign my yearbook?” Ana asks, and hands the purple-bound album to Jamie.
“Sure. I'll trade you.” He hands her his own year-book. “Great speech, by the way.”
Ana smirks. “Yeah, thanks. There were supposed to be fireworks, too, but I guess the timing was off.”
Jamie laughs. “That was crazy.”
“No kidding. I thought we were having an earth-quake.”
“Everyone did. Did you see the piece of roof that landed in the parking lot?”
They stand there for moment, staring at the ruined roof of the gym.
“Sucks about the dance, though,” Jamie says. He's looking at her when he says it. Ana blushes and looks at her feet.
“Yeah. So, um, I was wondering . . . is it true you're going to Crossroads next year?”
“Yeah.” Jamie doesn't look too happy about it. “My dad says private's the way to go to get ready for college.”
“That's too bad,” Ana says. “I mean . . . since so many of us are going to University High instead.”
Jamie's face falls. “I know. It's kind of crummy.”
Ana takes a deep breath.
Say something now or regret it for the rest of your life.
“Well, um . . . Are you around this summer?”
Jamie's eyes widen in surprise. “Uh . . .” He stammers. Ana's stomach wobbles. Then she sees them. Her family, like the seven horsemen of the apocalypse, inexorably pushing their way toward her through the crowd. She panics and her mouth goes into overdrive.
be here for this.
“Well, I just thought maybe sometime you'd like to, I dunno, maybe catch a mo—”
“Ah, James, there you are. Very rude to disappear like that.” Ana sees Jamie flinch. His parents have found them before Ana can even finish her sentence. Mr. Tabata frowns at Jamie. It's clear Jamie gets his height from his mom, who comes up to Mr. Tabata's pinstriped elbow. Mrs. Tabata says nothing, just nods slightly in greeting. Ana's heart feels a little squeeze of empathy, like she suddenly has X-ray vision into the Tabata family, and now she likes Jamie even more.
“Sorry, Dad. I was just—” Jamie begins, when something tan and leggy bursts onto the scene.
“Jamie, there you are,” says Amanda Conrad, the tallest, blondest girl in class.
He only ever uses Ana's last name, but he's got a pet name for Amanda Conrad? Ana wants to gag. Worse, Mr. Tabata, who hasn't even batted an eye in Ana's direction, suddenly smiles.
“Miss Conrad, you were right, he was hiding over here.”
Hiding? Ana feels like she's hiding too, right in plain sight. “Actually, he was talking to me,” she says. “Ana Shen. Salutatorian.”
She can't believe she said it, like it's a real title. Like Special Agent Shen, FBI. She puts her hand out anyway, and Mr. Tabata shakes it like it's a gag toy that might fall off in his hand any second.
“Ah yes, the girl on the stage when the water main blew. Pleasure, Miss Shen. Congratulations.” Somehow he makes it sound like it was her fault.
“Thanks.” She puts on her biggest smile.
Jamie smiles at Ana. She grins back at everyone. But “Mandy” will not be denied. She tosses her hair, eclipsing Ana's brown moon-face, like some sort of Greek goddess in her miraculously dry purple robe. The same robe that makes Ana look like the jelly half of a PB&J sandwich.
“Oh, hi, Ana. Nice hair.”
Ana's grin loses some wattage. “Yeah, you should really try it yourself sometime.
“Mandy” ignores her.
“Jamie,” Amanda says in a suddenly girly and high-pitched voice. “You
coming to Abby's for pizza tonight, right? Everyone will be there.” She grabs Jamie's arm and not too subtly squeezes his bicep. She's so tall she blocks out the sun. Behind Jamie, Mr. Tabata smiles again. Clearly, “Mandy” wins the parents' choice award.
Ana wishes she had a slingshot and an army of Philistines to witness her awesome accuracy as she beans Amanda right between her flashing Greek goddess eyes.
Jamie staggers under the weight of All That Is Amanda. “Um . . . I dunno. My folks are taking me out.”
Ana involuntarily folds her arms. “Mandy” Conrad is a total sea cow.
“Well, Jamie,” Mr. Tabata practically purrs, “we might be persuaded to join your friends, if they're all as charming as Miss Conrad.”
Jamie's eyes dart to Ana. Those eyes might be asking for help. Or they might be saying,
Hit the bricks, dork, I've got a real woman knocking at my door.
Ana frowns. Girl Scouts never offered a badge in how to read boys.
Suddenly, Chelsea appears at Ana's elbow.
“Ana, your family's here. What's up, Jamie?”
“Ana Mei Shen, you stay right there!” Ana flinches. Jamie glances toward the sound. One of the grandmothers has spotted her in the crowd. The horsemen ride toward her with purpose. As if Operation Failed Crush could get any more embarrassing.
“We're going to Abby's for pizza,” Amanda Conrad announces in a singsong voice.
Chelsea raises an eyebrow. “Really? I heard they got shut down. Rats or something, right, Ana?”
Ana hesitates. She grits her teeth and gives Chelsea a “cut it out” look. It doesn't work.
“Abby's. Got shut down, you told me yesterday. Yeah, that's why we're going to Ana's house for dinner. Big party planned. Tons of food. Ana makes these awesome dumpling things, right, Ana?”
“Pot stickers,” Ana says automatically.
“Right. It's her specialty.” Chelsea winks at Ana and tucks an arm through hers. “Jamie, you should totally come.”
Oh dear God,
What is Chelsea doing?
“Sounds fun,” Jamie says. “Dad? Can I?”
Mr. Tabata doesn't look as convinced as Jamie. In fact, he's not even looking at them, but at something coming their way. Ana glances around. Her family will be here any second. This was a mistake.
“I thought we'd spend time together . . . ,” Mr. Tabata says slowly.
“Oh, it's totally a family thing,” Chelsea says quickly. “Yeah, even
dad will be there. It's totally cool.”
Ana barely hears her over the pounding in her own head. “Look, my fam . . . well, I should go.” She looks down at the yearbook she's holding. Her hands are shaking. “Oh . . . um. Hey, let me sign this later.”
She shoves it back at Jamie. And then she sees the look on Amanda Conrad's face.
“Actually . . .” Ana takes back the yearbook and scribbles her address inside it. “Dinner's at . . . six-thirty. See you there?”
Jamie grins. “Yeah. Great. I love pot stickers.”
Ana returns the grin. “Great.”
“Well, see you later!” Chelsea chirps, and squeezes Ana's arm. Ana glances back toward her family. The Shens are getting closer. Nai Nai, her father's mother, is in the lead, an imperious Chinese woman in an impeccable suit. Ana's mom, slim, brown, and decked out in a pantsuit she hand-painted, comes flowing after her. Mr. Tabata frowns and places a protective hand on Jamie's shoulder.
“See you later,” Ana says.
Jamie reaches out and takes her hand. It's a second before she realizes he's shaking it good-bye. What a second. A full second of thinking he's just holding her hand. It feels warm. She hopes he can't tell she's blushing.
“Bye.” Chelsea is tugging at her. They walk back into the crowd and—
Ana's tackled full-force by her five-year-old brother. They hit the ground in a heap. “Sammy! God! Get off me!”
“Wheeee!” Sammy says with a giggle as Ana's dad drags him away. Somebody helps her to her feet. She hopes it's Jamie, but he's gone, blocked out by the forest of relatives.