|Publisher:||Elephant Rock Productions, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 18 Years|
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"Go on," I say, nudging the plated cupcake toward Alma. "Take a bite."
Alma pulls a suspicious face. "Why do you sound all wicked stepmother pushy?"
"Since when do I have to convince you to eat something I baked?"
"Since bikini season started. This year I'm turning that lifeguard's head at Barton Springs if it kills me."
"And him," Julie says from the family room sofa, where she's lost in a novel. Not so lost that she can't eavesdrop, apparently.
"Nobody asked you," Alma says.
Because she's lying flat on the couch, we can't see Julie from the kitchen, but her snort travels over loud and clear.
"Okay, fine," Alma says, peeling off the cupcake's paper wrapper. "What're friends for?" She takes a big bite. Instead of the involuntary moan I usually hear when she first tastes something I made, she chews, knits her brow, and sets the remainder atop its crumby liner. She knuckles frosting off the tip of her nose and reaches for her Keep Austin Weird mug.
"What's wrong?" I ask.
"Wrong? Nothing's wrong." Her statement is awash in a mouthful of peppermint tea.
"Alma, it's obvious you hate it."
"I didn't say anything."
"Your face said it all."
She assesses the cupcake. Even spins the plate around. We're sitting at the breakfast bar, the pendant lights painting our shoulders a buttery yellow. As if to mirror the plate spin, Alma swivels the stool one complete revolution.
You'd think I'd try my own cupcake, but this morning I woke up in no mood for sweets. I craved bacon. And I'm not the kind of vegetarian who craves bacon. Maybe I have a cold coming on or something.
"Linn," she says, "it looks beautiful as ever ..."
"But ..." I prompt.
"It tastes ... um ... off." She squinches her face. "Sorry."
"Opinions don't require an apology." But my voice feels stitched too tight.
"The frosting's great. Maybe you forgot to put something in the batter?"
I laugh curtly. "Not a chance. I've made this recipe a thousand times." A Texas bourbon cake with praline buttercream frosting.
I drag the plate to me. It looks like it always does: the cake golden brown and poofy, the frosting a swirled crown of shimmer. Smells like it always does: nutty and sweet with a darker undertone (courtesy of the booze). And even though I've been known to make fun of people who eat cupcakes with a fork (just as, I imagine, a New Yorker would mock people who morsel out pizza like steak), that's how I take my bite. As if I don't want to touch it.
Although I wouldn't call myself a person bursting with confidence (missing more than half your school career due to illness and being assigned a tutor who oozes pity will trample on anyone's self-esteem), I do claim to know my stuff when it comes to dessert. I'm the pastry chef at Basement Tapes in Austin, which may not be L.A., but which does have a buzzing food scene. And my boss, Nicola, is infamously picky. She went through six pastry chefs in as many months before she hired me four months ago. She doesn't miss a chance to remind me that I'm only seventeen and if I don't get waylaid by "drugs and dudes," I just might have a sweet career ahead of me. (Pun intended.)
I'm just glad to have an "ahead of me" ahead of me. A year ago I didn't think I did.
So I take that bite and expect to prove Alma wrong. Or at least be able to ask her if she snuck one of her "occasional" cigarettes before she tasted. Nicotine and tar can scramble any palate.
Instead I have to lean across the counter and spit the gummy mess into the bowl that's holding eggshells and butter wrappers. "Ugh, that's awful."
"You said it, girl, not me."
"This isn't good at all," I mumble. I'm talking about more than the cupcake. My audition for the Illinois Institute of Art's Baking and Pastry School is just a month away. I can't blow this. Nicola is sponsoring my interview, even though she says if she were smarter she'd keep me all to herself.
But even more urgently, I woke up determined to bake and get the dream residue off me, to reassure myself that what you slide into the oven is what you slide out.
"Jules," Alma calls.
"Yeah?" Julie keeps reading. She never goes anywhere without a book. It used to insult me, but I've figured out that a book to her is like an inhaler to an asthmatic.
"Give your eyes a break," Alma says. "We need your taste buds."
"No thanks," she says as she turns a page. "Y'all don't sound like you're having fun."
"These are my baseline cupcakes," I mutter. "If I can't do this —"
Alma touches my shoulder gently. "It's kind of comforting to know that you can fuck up like the rest of us."
I retrace my steps. Sifted flour with baking powder and salt. Folded sugar into butter. Beat three eggs into butter mixture, one at a time. Stirred in vanilla.
Or did I?
"Maybe I missed the powder. Or the salt. I couldn't have missed the sugar. Could I?" The sugar canister is on the counter, its lid beside it, the scoop inside. Otherwise mute.
"You've got a lot on your mind," Alma says. "My abuelo says too much on the mind means a muddled dish."
"Kind of a life metaphor," Julie says. So she was listening.
Alma's at the sink, rinsing out her mug. "He also says the dish will tell you what it needs, but you have to be humble enough to listen."
"Thanks, Al, but your grandfather's a savory cook. You can revise right up to the end with savory."
"Savory, sweet, it all gets shoveled into your face hole anyway."
"Gross," says Jules. She rests her book on her lap, facedown, and cracks her knuckles. "So make 'em over, Linn."
"I plan to." I'm scraping the sad remains of this batch into the trash.
Alma groans. "You two know it's spring break, right?" "Duh." That's Julie behind the book.
"Weather's gorgeous. Let's not be cooped up baking and reading."
"Linnea has to practice," Julie says, stealing the words from my mouth.
Mom bustles into the kitchen, carry-on bag over her shoulder, suitcase wheels clacking against the tiles. I wish I could present her with a fresh cupcake. An edible truce.
We had a big fight this morning, about the usual. She claims I'm pushing too hard, trying to prove I'm healthy, trying to make up for the lost years when I was in bed and Alma and Julie were at Six Flags or Schlitterbahn.
"White-water rafting?" she had sputtered when she found out about the latest (only because she talked to Alma's mom). I had lied and told her that Alma and I were in San Marcos so Alma could check out Texas State.
"Yeah, so?" I had said.
"But Linnea, you can't swim."
"That's what life jackets are for."
She threw up her hands. "I don't know which I'm more upset about, the fact that you lied or that you risked your life."
While I was slamming down the rapids in this little raft, Alma's hair whipping behind her and into my face, I had the weirdest feeling that I did know how to swim. I mean, I knew I'd never swum before. Not ever. (One of the side effects of being a sick kid.) But in those moments I'd felt like
I'd swum hundreds of times, could even feel my body slicing the water, as if my muscles and bones and skin held a memory my mind had forgotten.
"If you'd rather me not go," Mom says now, for the fiftieth time this week, "I'll cancel the whole thing."
"You don't have a choice, right?" I won't embarrass her with a discussion of our finances in front of the girls, even though they know it all. How the money from Pop-Pop's estate has dwindled after all the time Mom's had to take off. How we need a new roof, and soon the water heater will go, and we have an outstanding balance on our property taxes.
Mom squeezes my forearm, peers into my face in that way that makes me feel like she's trying to capture a piece of me. "Does that mean you'd rather I stay?"
"No, it doesn't. I'm fine. I'm almost eighteen."
"Eighteen in three months is not 'almost.'" She glances at my Basement Tapes T-shirt, but I know she's seeing beneath it to the scar that bisects me.
"Two and a half months. And I'm feeling good. Great, actually." In my socked feet, I ballerina-twirl on the tile floor. "Besides, what kind of college recruiter doesn't leave the state?"
Her boss finally gave her an ultimatum: get back on the road or find a new job. He'd been accommodating for so long. Through the desperate waiting for a donor match. The surgery. A happy day for us, but a funeral for someone else. And then through the dicey recovery, loads of anti-rejection meds and the slow march of time when I could only hope my body got the accept or time's up memo.
"I'm fine," I repeat. I don't mention I might be getting a cold. Colds for transplant patients can be lethal, though I'm less worried about that one year out. "I'm perfect. It's only a week."
Please go. Please let me breathe on my own.
"Okay," she finally says, the word dragging its shoelaces. "But we'll talk every day, right?"
"Uh ... I thought we agreed to talk sometimes but text every day."
She tilts her head as if she's weighing something. "And by the time I get back you'll be finished with all the practice tests. Right?" She taps a newly manicured fingernail on my GED study manual where it sits on the counter, regrettably flour-dusted and batter-spattered. Alma and Jules have another year of school once the current one ends in June, but it was pointless to keep trying to do school the traditional way with as much as I missed.
"Yes, Mom," Alma and I say in unison. Alma giggles.
"Mrs. S.," Alma says, stepping up and linking her arm in mine. "I promise we'll take good care of Linnea. You know how levelheaded we are."
"Levelheaded," Julie repeats from behind the pages of Catch-22. "Ha."
Later, the three of us are in my room. I'm folding laundry. Julie is on the bed — reading, naturally — and Alma is at my desktop, opening a hundred windows and bouncing between them. And that's Alma without caffeine.
There's a giant Austin City Limits Fest poster on the wall above my desk, a bird's-eye view of the festival with its throngs of people, jumbotron-flanked music stages, food vendors, litter, porta potties, life. Julie and Alma have gone the last two years and wanted me to go so badly to the last one, but I was only six months post-op, and the thought of walking around Zilker Park in the heat, in the middle of thousands of people who might jostle the new heart inside my chest, sent me into a spiral of panic. I was relieved when Mom said absolutely not.
"Would it be tacky to ask you to bake for your own party?" Alma asks.
"What party?" I drag my eyes away from the poster and back to my task. I cuff a pair of paisley socks together.
Alma twirls the desk chair around to face me. "You know, the one-year thing."
"That's sweet 'n' all, but remember? I said I didn't want a party."
"You don't think that's selfish?" she says.
"How's that?" I peel a dryer sheet away from a neonpink tank top; the crackle of static zips up my fingers and settles in my palms.
"Me and Jules were out of our minds with worry." During the surgery, she means. Or maybe she means before too. "Weren't we, Jules?" She bounces onto the bed.
"I knew she'd be fine," Julie says, closing the book on her finger.
"Admit it, you were worried," Alma says.
"Maybe I was." Julie sits up, using a finger to trace one of the armadillos stitched onto my duvet. And then another. "A little."
"See?" Alma says. "We need a party for us, Linn, even if you don't. Don't they say getting to the one-year mark is key?"
"If by 'they,' you mean doctors, then yes, that's what they say." I don't need the calendar to tell me this heart is mine, though. I can feel it.
It's not my body that worries me ... it's my mind. Last night's dream wasn't an anomaly. For the last month, my dreams have been starting ordinary and ending with a heart where it doesn't belong (in a bucket of sand at the beach, behind bars at a zoo, in a display case at a jeweler's). And my real heart, the one that's safely tucked into my chest, is always pinballing wildly when I wake, as if it's looking for an exit chute.
So maybe I'm kidding myself about feeling that ownership.
"I guess we could order the dessert," Alma says, "even though it wouldn't be half as good as yours. But if you're sick of baking —"
"Ahem," I interrupt. "Transplantee here. Saying she doesn't want a party." Getting through the first year without my body realizing the heart is an aftermarket part is a measure of tricking the universe as it is. I don't need to stick out my tongue at fate via party hats and streamers, too.
"Yeah, okay, the transplantee has spoken," Jules says, rolling over onto her stomach and flipping through the unread pages of her book to peek at the end.
Alma huffs. "What a blast you two are." She goes over to the window, pops out the screen, and leans it up against the wall. She's been crawling out onto the roof for years, at first just because she couldn't at home in her single-story house, and then later, to smoke. I can't even stick my whole head out of my unscreened window without feeling vertigo and imagining myself splattered on the sidewalk below.
Alma settles herself on the roof, her knees pulled to her chest. A bee jitters through the open window and into my room. I try to shoo it back out, but that only seems to agitate it.
"Some help, Jules?"
She swats at it with her book. "Looks like a wasp."
"They're all bees to me," I say.
"Good one." She's already reading again. Julie is a great friend to have if you're worried about your social skills. You can't help but look good in comparison.
I go over to the window to put the screen back in. I brace myself for the quick grip of panic at being near a large hole to the outside two stories up. No panic. Instead, a tug. A pull. Outward. Toward the roof. I toss the screen aside. I stick my head out and lean. No terror. Just excitement. I breathe in, deeply. I climb out. All the way out.
"¡Qué tienes!" Alma slides a few inches down the roof's gentle pitch and steadies herself by gripping the window frame. A cigarette hangs off her lip as she gapes at me. "What are you doing?"
"Living a little." I sit and press my palms against the roof, liking the pebbly warmth against my skin.
"¡Tan loca!" she says, more to herself. She holds her hands out like she's ready to catch me. "You okay?"
"Yeah. I am." There's no frantic clutching in my belly. No biscuitsized lump in my throat. I can't explain it, but there it is. I love seeing the neighborhood from this perspective, the leafy crowns of the cedars, the bricks in the chimneys stacked like layer cake, the distant field thick with bluebonnets that looks like a body of water from this height.
Alma whoops with delight. "Way to trounce your fear, girl!"
An easy smile lifts the corners of my lips. "That's a good way to put it."
"Hey," she says, pointing into the distance toward a guy walking a bunch of dogs. "Isn't that Dave or Demeter or Dexter? The neighborhood new guy?"
I block the sun with my hand. Daniel's right on time. Inwardly, I smile.
"Spill," Alma says. "You've talked to him, haven't you?"
"Maybe." I have, just once — not that he remembers. Daniel's from Michigan. He's not in high school either. Graduated. And more than cute, if you like the hopelessly disheveled look, which I guess I do. I'm disappointed that he takes a left instead of a right and moves away from the house. I want him to see me up here and think I'm kind of badass.
Alma squints. "He's easy on the eyes."
"You must have Supergirl vision."
"I do when I want to." She pats my hand. "Just looking, by the way. I would never try to steal a guy you're sniffing around."
"Sniffing? I don't sniff."
"Yet," she says. "Where there's a yet, there's hope."
Daniel snaps the tangle of leashes as the dogs weave in four different directions. The fact that he can't control his charges makes him that much more interesting.
Julie's at the window now. "Holy shit, Linnea. WTF?" I laugh. "The only way past a fear is through it, right?" A bee zips over, zags around my face. I backhand it away.
With a twisty wrist, Alma snuffs her cigarette out on a roof shingle. She turns away from me and exhales one last mouthful of smoke.
"Bum a smoke?" I ask.
"What?" The breeze plays her hair across her face, and she looks at me through it.
"A cigarette. For me."
"I thought my mom already left. And yet, here you are."
Julie sticks her head farther out the window. "But isn't smoking like the worst thing ... you know ... for your ..."
I lean over, surprised that the shift in weight doesn't trigger an internal alarm. The cigarettes are under Alma's knee. I grab a corner of the crinkly pack and slide it toward me. Alma is too stunned to do anything. I tap one out and bring it to my lips.
"A light?" I ask.
She sets her jaw and shakes her head.
"C'mon," I say. "Don't make me go back inside just for matches."
"That's fucked up," Julie says.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Borrowed"
Copyright © 2018 Lucia DiStefano.
Excerpted by permission of Elephant Rock Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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