Read an Excerpt
Heroes: Saving CharlieA Novel
By Aury Wallington
Del ReyCopyright © 2007 Aury Wallington
All right reserved.
Hiro Nakamura was in love.
Full-on, balls-out, head-over-heels in love.
Charlie was perfect. Smart, funny, gorgeous—God, was she gorgeous, with that red hair and those small soft hands and that smile . . .
He had waited his entire life to have a girl smile at him like that. And it had finally happened, lightning had finally struck. Six thousand miles from home, at a tiny greasy spoon smack in the middle of Texas, he’d finally met the girl of his dreams.
Hiro peacocked in front of the men’s room mirror, bringing sexy back. He felt like slaying a dragon or saving a village or pounding his chest with mighty fists—something masculine and rugged and virile, to announce to the world that Hiro Nakamura was in love with Charlie . . . um . . .
Huh. He didn’t know her last name.
Hiro’s shoulders slumped for a second, then he shook it off.
Well, so what? Who cared what her last name was? If he played his cards right, she might just end up as Charlie Nakamura!
He gave his reflection a goofy smile.
Okay, maybe he was going overboard. Maybe love was too strong a word for what he felt, given that he’dknown her for less than an hour, and they spoke different languages, and she was probably only talking to him at all because he’d happened to sit down in her section in the diner.
All right, then, he’d admit it: maybe he wasn’t actually in love with Charlie.
But he was definitely smitten. No one could argue with that.
No wonder everyone in America is so fat!”
Hiro surreptitiously glanced around the diner, checking out the other customers to see if Ando was talking about anyone in particular.
A group of chattering women in tennis whites took up three tables in the back; a sketchy-looking trucker with a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, shielding his face, nursed a solitary cup of coffee at a table by the door; a pair of businessmen were anchored down the counter; and two men in police department uniforms lingered over the newspaper a couple of tables away.
The younger of the two, whose bushy sideburns threatened to take over his face, scowled down at the crossword puzzle, erasing an answer so vigorously that he tore a hole in the paper. But the older—and fatter— cop looked up, meeting Hiro’s gaze with a friendly nod.
Hiro smiled back, trying not to look alarmed at the way the sheriff’s chair creaked ominously anytime he shifted his considerable bulk. Then he returned his attention to Ando, who was scowling down at the laminated menu in consternation.
“All there is to eat is waffles and french fries,” Ando complained.
Hiro leaned back in the comfortable padded booth and grinned. “You like french fries.”
“I’ve gained four kilos from french fries!”
Hiro opened his mouth to respond, then thought better of it. Half a dozen replies sprang to mind, each one more hilarious than the last, but he knew that his friend wouldn’t find any of them funny, at least not until he’d had some coffee.
So Hiro simply shrugged and picked up his own menu, happy just to be out of the car.
Hiro and Ando had been on the road since dawn, steadily ticking off the miles on the endless monotonous ribbon of I-20 East from El Paso. Ando was lucky enough to be doing the driving, but for Hiro, it was the most boring morning of his life.
There had been nothing interesting to look at, scenery-wise—just scrubby brown earth, divided by barbed-wire fences that seemed utterly pointless to him—what were they trying to fence in? There was nothing there!
At one point they’d passed a squashed armadillo by the side of the road, and after that Hiro hadn’t been able to look out the window at all. Yet there was nothing else to do—he’d read all the manga he’d brought along a million times already. His 9th Wonders! was in tatters, he’d memorized every word of Tengu Ninfuuden Shinobu, and he’d flipped through Robogirl so often that the pages were all coming loose.
He’d tried to buy the latest issues when they’d stopped for gas the day before in Las Cruces, but the woman running the little newsstand had no idea what he was talking about, even with Ando translating for him. She kept trying to press a copy of something called Fish & Stream on him, which as far as Hiro was concerned was worse than having no reading material at all. She was so insistent that he’d finally shelled out the $3.95 and taken it, just to get her off his back, but the second he was out of her eyesight he tossed it into a trash bin.
And even though Ando had turned out to be a far better traveling companion than Hiro had expected—really, a better friend than he ever would have dreamed—he was grouchy in the mornings and never wanted to talk until the caffeine from his coffee had fully kicked in.
He didn’t want to listen to Hiro talk, either, and had even snapped at him to stop humming, “because it’s interfering with my driving.”
Hiro wasn’t sure how his practically inaudible humming could affect Ando’s ability to steer the car—in a perfectly straight line, no less— but whatever. He wasn’t going to fight about it. So he agreeably folded his lips inside, then stared silently up at the cloudless, unremittingly blue sky. It had been that way for hours and hours, until finally, on the outskirts of a small town, they’d spotted the faded red sign of the Burnt Toast Diner.
Ando flicked on the turn signal and pulled into the parking lot.
Hiro bolted out of the car before it had even come to a full stop.
“Breakfast!” he crowed, and hurried to the diner’s front door, stopping to hold it open for Ando.
Hiro loved diners. He loved the food, loved the retro chrome-and- vinyl décor, loved the little individual jukeboxes sitting on each table. He always flipped through the playlist, even though he had yet to recognize a single song. What he loved best, though, were the menus, which frequently had pictures of the food printed next to their descriptions, so you knew exactly what you were going to get.
It was just like Tokyo, where every noodle joint in Shinjuku had plastic models of each dish displayed in the window. It made ordering a lot easier, and it was one of the few things he’d encountered so far on this trip that made Hiro feel at home.
It was especially helpful in a place like this, where the dishes were given colorful, incomprehensible names and descriptions. Hiro wavered back and forth between the Oil Rigger breakfast sandwich—scrambled eggs, cheese, and Canadian bacon, pressed between two waffles, dipped in batter, and deep-fried to golden gooey perfection—and the Strike It Rich special, with pork-and-apple sausage patties piled on a fresh homemade biscuit and smothered in country gravy.
He was so absorbed in the menu—did he feel more like the fried square thing or the white creamy thing?—that he didn’t even notice the waitress bustling up to their table until she spoke.
“Anything looking good, guys?”
Hiro glanced up and froze, thunderstruck.
Standing in front of him was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
Eyes like a baby koala’s, strawberry-blond hair that swooped fetchingly down her shoulders, a body you could toast marshmallows over. She looked—holy moly, she looked just like Robogirl, the main character in Hiro’s all-time number one favorite manga, brought to life.
And Hiro worshipped Robogirl. Since he was twelve years old he’d devoured every issue about the sexy female robot with weapons for hands and sadness in her heart. And now here she was, standing right in front of him.
But instead of having lethally sharp stilettos or spiked clubs at the end of her arms, this girl had two coffeepots clutched in her hands, one of which had an orange spout. She held them up invitingly.
“Yes, please!” Ando begged, righting the upside-down cups that were preset on saucers on the table, and quickly pushing his in her direction.
The waitress poured, then turned her smile onto Hiro. “Would you like some coffee?”
Hiro just stared at her, a foolish grin planted on his face. Even if he knew the English words he needed to answer her, he didn’t think he could speak.
She lifted a shoulder in a little half shrug and reached across the table to pour him a cup anyway. As she bent toward him, Hiro saw that she had a name tag pinned to the left pocket of her pink blouse.
He studied the name, deciphering the unfamiliar combination of letters, attempting—why didn’t I pay more attention in English class— to sound it out, when—ouch!—Ando kicked him under the table.
Hiro scowled at him, indignant. “What did you do that for?”
Ando answered in a low voice, in Japanese. “Stop leering at her!”
What? “I wasn’t,” Hiro protested, but then a second glance at Charlie made him realize that, yeah, he kinda had been.
Oops. But he stole another glance anyway, noticing the necklace Charlie was wearing, a filigreed heart-shaped silver locket nestled in the hollow of her pale, slender throat.
“Tell her I like her necklace.”
“I will not.”
“Because it’s a completely transparent excuse for having been ogling her.”
“Hey, I don’t blame you. But I’m not going to help you hit on some poor defenseless girl—”
Charlie, who was looking back and forth between them as they argued in Japanese, raised an eyebrow.
“Wow, you two are a long way from home,” she said, interrupting their discussion. “We don’t get a lot of tourists out here.”
“How you know we tourist?” Hiro garbled, then kicked himself. Duh.
“Just a guess,” she answered, managing not to sound too sarcastic. “What’s that on your shirt?”
Her eyes moved to the white kanji lettering on the pocket of Hiro’s dark blue jacket.
“Bachigai,” she read, carefully sounding out the unfamiliar symbols. “That means ‘I don’t belong here,’ right?”
Hiro’s jaw dropped, and he straightened up in his seat, delighted.
“You know Japanese!” he exclaimed—then stopped dead and spent an excruciating moment wondering if that meant she had understood them talking about her.
But no, she was smiling, so it was probably okay.
“I got a Japanese phrase book for my birthday six months ago,” Charlie explained. “I started poking through it last week.” She cleared her throat, then carefully recited in Japanese, “One bento box with shrimp, please.”
Hiro clapped. “Very good! High grades.”
She smiled and lifted one shoulder in a modest little shrug. “I’m still learning.”
“You learned that from a book in just one week?” Ando asked, looking amazed.
“I remember lots and lots. Just something my brain started doing lately.” She paused, then added, almost to herself, “Whether I want it to or not.”
Her smile faltered, just for an instant, but then she gave her head a little shake and the cheerful look returned.“So, what’ll it be?”
“You pick,” Hiro told her in English. “Something delicious for me.” He glanced at Ando out of the corner of his eye, adding, “And for my friend, he need food for fato fato.”
Ando’s mouth dropped open in protest.
But Charlie piped up before he could say anything. “Got just the thing,” she said. “One chilaquiles . . . and one cottage cheese plate coming up.”
She gave Hiro a flirtatious little wink and twirled away. He watched her go, a dreamy smile appearing on his face.
“Who says no one in America is nice?”
“Oh, quit staring at her,” Ando snapped, then he buried his face in his coffee cup.
“The dance floor lights are cool,” Charlie said, covering the phrase book with her hand and reciting the sentence from memory.
“Perfect! You ready for disco!” Hiro cheered. He threw one arm into the air in a haphazard John Travolta move.
“I got it right?”
After twenty minutes of picking dispiritedly at his cottage cheese platter, Ando had demanded a waffle after all. Hiro happily took advantage of the delay by joining Charlie at the counter, quizzing her on her Japanese.
“Don’t let me off easy now,” she said, so Hiro repeated it slowly, correcting her pronunciation.
She tried again, and nailed it. Then the next one.
“I don’t like this song. Let’s get a drink.”
Hiro’s eyes widened. “You learn very fast.”
“I sort of remember everything I read. At least lately I do.” She self-consciously dropped her eyes, flipping to the next page in the phrase book with studied casualness. “It’s kind of a skill, I guess.”
Hiro knew exactly how she was feeling, better than she ever could have imagined, he thought. But a crowded diner in the middle of the breakfast rush wasn’t the right time or place to go into it. So—
“My own skill much more complicated,” he said lightly.
“Oh yeah? What can you do?”
“I can teach Japanese to anyone.”
Charlie laughed. “You’re sweet,” she said, her Japanese flawless.
Hiro ducked his head shyly, looking for the phrase on the new page in the book. But it wasn’t there.
“Sweet,” she repeated, this time in English. “It means nice. Cute.”
Hiro looked confused. “That not in book.”
“No,” she said, turning a light shade of purple as she met his eyes. “It’s just true.”
They grinned at each other, looking like two little kids sharing a secret, he guessed. Hiro’s heart gave such a loud ker-thunk, he was surprised everyone in the diner didn’t look over to see what had made such a ruckus.
The order bell dinged, interrupting the moment.
“Sorry, someone’s Denver omelet’s up.” She slid off her stool and touched his shoulder with her hand, gesturing for him to stay put.
Ker-thunk! Ker-thunk! Ker-thunk!
“Be right back.”
Charlie disappeared into the kitchen, and Hiro swiveled around on his stool to face Ando, who was sprawled in their booth, reading a newspaper.
“I’m sweet!” he shouted in Japanese, and threw his arms joyfully up in the air.
Ando rolled his eyes and went back to his paper. But Hiro spun his stool around in a circle, beaming.
Sweet. How awesome was that?
Hiro had never been lucky—not in games, not in timing, and especially not in love.
His attempts to flirt with girls were generally met with some combination of laughter, pity, and blank stares. And on the few occasions when he did manage to ask a girl for her phone number, by the time he’d summoned up the courage to call her she’d either forgotten who he was, disconnected her phone, or just met her future husband.
Excerpted from Heroes: Saving Charlie by Aury Wallington Copyright © 2007 by Aury Wallington. Excerpted by permission.
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