MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
It starts with a bet.
“Abby, I’m one hundred percent more Irish than you are,” begins said bet, when Connie—who, admittedly, is about as ginger as they come—challenges me at the lunch table.
“Having red hair is not the be-all end-all of Irish-ness,” I point out through a mouthful of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. “And my grandparents on my dad’s side were like, so Irish they bled potatoes.”
“Yet between you and all three of the gremlins you call little brothers, not one ginger,” Connie points out, narrowly avoiding slopping her chili on the mountain of study guides she has propped on the lunch table.
“Dodged a bullet there, huh?” I tease her.
Connie lightly kicks my foot. I’d feel worse about it if she weren’t so staggeringly beautiful that she has been mistaken for the actress who plays Sansa Stark more times than I can count on one hand, an especially impressive feat considering we live in a suburb of Seattle some bajillion miles away from any famous person who isn’t Bill Gates.
“Not that I support this Anglo-Saxon nonsense—”
I flinch, and then Connie’s chili is on Connie’s pile of study guides. It is a testament to how committed she is to pretending things aren’t awkward between me and Leo that she wipes the beans off the one loudly titled “AP FUCKING GOV! IS! YOUR! BITCH!!” without one threat to murder me.
“—but I’m doing one of those send-away DNA test things,” Leo finishes in a mumble, planting himself and his lunchbox down next to Connie.
“Oh yeah?” I ask, leaning across the table and making deliberate eye contact with him.
Leo, the anchor of our trio, has known us both since we were little—me because we live in the same neighborhood, Connie through youth soccer. So we’ve both known him long enough to understand that this is kind of a big deal. Leo and his sister were both adopted from the Philippines and know next to nothing about their birth parents or their backgrounds, and up until now, he didn’t seem to have any interest in looking into it.
But we’re all taking Honors Anthropology and are right in the thick of a project where we’re learning the proper way to track and denote lineage in our family trees. Hence, the Irish-off that Connie and I are currently engaged in, and probably Leo’s new curiosity about tracing his roots.
Leo shrugs. “Yeah. I mean, I guess I’m more curious about the health stuff it’ll tell you than anything else.”
We both know that’s only a half truth, but Connie pokes at it so I don’t have to. “Health stuff?”
“It can also connect you to other biological family members if they’ve taken the test,” Leo says quickly, more to his massive Tupperware of jambalaya than to us. Before we can ask any follow-up questions, he adds quickly, “Anyway, there’s a discount if you buy more than one. If you’re in, I can buy yours with mine and you guys can pay me back.”
Connie moves Mount Study Guides off the table to make room for the rest of Leo’s lunch, a bunch of delicious mismatched leftovers from his weekend culinary adventures. “You know what, I’ve got some money saved up from the ice-cream shop.”
I wrinkle my nose. We all know I have money saved from babysitting aforementioned “gremlin” brothers during my parents’ Friday date nights, but I also have my eye on a new lens for Kitty, my camera, that I’m obsessively tracking the price of online.
Except Leo’s eyes find mine and linger in this way they haven’t really in the last few months. At least, not since the Big Embarrassing Incident—more colloquially known as the BEI—I am still actively trying to scrub from my brain. Whatever it is in his gaze cuts right past it, and I understand at once that it isn’t about the discount.
“Yeah. Yeah, let’s do it.”
Connie grins. “Loser has to make the other one soda bread.”
Leo, the only one of us who can actually cook, perks up at this. “I’ll help the loser.”
Connie and I shake on it, and Leo starts talking about some soda bread fusion with cherries and chocolate and cinnamon, and the bet is finalized by the time the bell rings to end lunch.
To be honest, hours after we all spit into tubes and send off our kits, I forget about the whole thing. There are perilously low grades to juggle, endless tutoring sessions to endure, and worried but well-meaning parents to dodge. Plus with Leo focused on graduation and Connie focused on more extracurriculars than I have fingers and toes to count on, all three of us are basically spun out onto different planets.
But there it is, a month later: an email in my inbox, directing me to a website that apparently knows more about me than my sixteen years of knowing myself.
I scroll down, morbidly fascinated by the details. It tells me I’m most likely brunette (check), have curly hair (aggressive check), and am prone to getting a unibrow (rude, but also check). It tells me I’m probably not lactose intolerant and probably don’t have issues with sleep, and that I am more likely than others to flush when drinking alcohol (noted, for future college endeavors). It also tells me I’m 35.6 percent Irish, a fact I immediately tuck away to rub in Connie’s face when the time comes.
But whatever else it knows about me is abruptly cut off by the hum of my phone. It’s from Leo, texting the group chat: DNA results came in. Big fat nothing.
It’s the kind of text that I don’t even have to wait for anyone to respond to in order to know we’re all going to head over to Leo’s. Still, I wait a few minutes, putting Kitty in her case and popping some gum in my mouth, giving Connie a chance to catch up to me so we’ll get there at the same time.
“Where are you headed, kiddo?”
Allow me to clarify, because in the last few months of him shifting into working from home more often, I’ve become semifluent in Dad. In this case, Where are you headed, kiddo? loosely translates to I’m pretty sure you haven’t finished rewriting that English essay you tanked, and I’m 100 percent using this as a loving, yet still deeply passive-aggressive way to bring it up.
I tighten my grip on my helmet, keeping my eyeballs as still as I possibly can even though resisting an eye roll right now might actually be pressurizing something in my brain.
My dad pulls one of those affable, apologetic smiles of his, and I brace for the usual segue into the routine he and my mom have been perfecting since the start of junior year, when my GPA first took a swan dive.
“How’s the old Abby Agenda?”
Ah, yes. The infamous “Abby Agenda.” This chipper turn of phrase includes, and is not limited to, all the exhaustive tutoring sessions my parents signed me up for, the student-run test prep meetup for the SATs they keep making me attend, and a giant running list of all my homework assignments put on a whiteboard in the kitchen (or as I like to call it, the Board of Shame). I will give them points for creativity, if not subtlety.
“Dad. There are like, five days before summer vacation. I’m good to go.”
He raises his eyebrows, and just as he intended, there’s a fresh wave of guilt—not because I care all that much about anything on Abby’s Annoyingly Alliterative Agenda, but because he looks straight-up exhausted.
“I’ll be good to go,” I correct myself. “But it’s Saturday. And it’s illegal to talk about homework on Saturdays.”
“Says the kid with two lawyer parents.” His smile is wry, but not enough to let me know I’m off the hook.
I blow a stray strand of hair out of my face. “I’ve got another draft ready, okay? I spent half the day on it. Now can I please go look at the sun before it swallows up the earth?”
He nods appreciatively. “We’ll take a look at it when you get home.”
I’m so relieved by my successful jailbreak that I basically tear holes into the street with my skateboard on my way to Leo’s. It’s only after I roll to a stop and shake the helmet head out of my mass of curls that I see the text from Connie, who is yet again held up at a Student Government Association meetup, and has essentially left me for dead.
If this were a few months ago, hanging out with Leo one-on-one would have been just another Saturday afternoon. But this isn’t a few months ago. This is right the heck now, and I am standing like an idiot in his driveway, the shadow of the BEI creeping over me like an extremely humiliating, pheromone-ridden ghost.
Before I can decide what to do, Leo spots me and opens the front door.
“That’ll be the Day,” he says.
In lieu of nicknames, Leo’s greetings of choice include any and all idioms about the word Day, which happens to be my last name. I start to roll my eyes like I usually do but pause at the sight of him in the doorway—the sun is starting to set, casting warm colors on his face, honeying the brown in his eyes and gleaming in his dark hair. I’m itching to know what it might look like through my camera lens, an itch I’m not so familiar with. I almost never photograph people.
Actually, these days my parents keep me so busy I barely photograph anything at all.
Leo’s expression starts to shift, probably because I’ve been staring too long. I look away sharply and pop a wheelie on the way up to his front porch.
“Show-off,” he says.
I prop my skateboard by the door and stick my tongue out at him. It’s a relief to be on teasing terms again, but it’s immediately punctured by what he says next.
He winces as soon as he asks, but I do what I do best and walk it off.
“Busy with last-minute details for tomorrow’s Keyboard Wash for the junior class fundraiser.”
“Keyboard Wash?” Leo’s a senior, along with his non-Connie-and-Abby friends, so he’s out of the loop on half of our goings-on. “Like a car wash for keyboards?”
“I’ve watched you use yours as a dinner plate, so I’ll pencil you in.”
I follow him into his house, inhaling warm butter and burnt cheese and, as always, the faint waft of cinnamon. Leo flicks on the front hall light, which exposes the precarious tower of pans, pots, and miscellaneous ingredients crammed into the small bit of counter real estate he has in his kitchen. His laptop is propped up on the table, open and exposed enough that I figure his parents and his sister, Carla, must be out.
I’m about to ask about the DNA test results displayed, but he puts a plate in front of my face first.
I pull a wrapper out of my pocket and spit my gum in it. “Hell yeah.”
“Careful, they’re—hot,” Leo says with a sigh, seeing I’ve already blatantly ignored his warning by popping it into my mouth.
The roof of my mouth instantly burns, but not enough that I don’t appreciate how absurdly delicious it is—the legendary lasagna balls, one of Leo’s many workarounds to actually cook in his house. He’s become something of an oven snob and doesn’t trust his to stay at a steady temperature, so he got himself a high-end toaster oven—hence, a lot of bite-size, dollhouse recipes, so I always feel like I’m in some fancy culinary pop-up when I’m just as stuck as I always am in the depths of Seattle suburbia.
“Are you okay?” he asks, with his usual mingling of exasperation and concern.
“You could’ve come over,” I say, the ricotta legitimately steaming out of my mouth.
This is part of the reason Leo has been essentially absorbed by the Day family—our kitchen is humungous. And while we appreciate all that extra counter space for laying out several boxes of Domino’s pizza during a feeding frenzy, nobody in our family actually cooks. Leo, on the other hand, is basically the Ina Garten of our high school and needs the space to fully manifest his Food Network dreams (plus, if we’re being real, the ego boost of the Day brothers hollering about his six-cheese pizza at the top of their tiny lungs).
Not that Leo comes over much these days. We’re not so great at being alone like this anymore. And as supportive as I want to be, I can’t help the way my eyes keep skirting to the door, the way I keep waiting in the beat of silence that Connie usually fills.
“Is that Kitty?” Leo asks, looking at my camera case.
There it is again—that squeezing cycle of panic and relief. The teetering line between are we okay? and we’re okay enough.
“And all nine of her lives.”
“She’s probably down to about six by now,” says Leo. He would know—he’s the one who gave the camera her name, after she survived more than a few harrowing drops, near plunges into bodies of water, and that time I thought it’d be cool to hang upside down from a jungle gym to get the sunset through the metal bars and ended up with a mouthful of playground rubber.
“You mind?” he asks.
I tuck my chin to my chest, hiding my smile as I pull Kitty out of her carrier. Leo reaches over my head into the cabinet to grab his mom’s nice white plates, and I start arranging the lasagna balls on them. For a bit we’re so locked into the easy quiet of this old pattern that I almost forget to wish Connie were here: I take a few shots of Leo’s creations with Kitty, he uploads and posts them on his Instagram, and I promptly eat all the spoils.
He has a habit of uploading all my other photos, too. I’m not expecting him to today, though, until he surprises me by holding a hand out for Kitty. I try not to watch him as he clicks through views from the top of my mom’s office building in Seattle, a sweeping, pre-dusk skyline punctured by the Space Needle, the clouds stark and heavy in the air.
I stand on my tiptoes, peering at the screen. My head barely clears his shoulder, forcing me close enough to him that the heady smell of cinnamon is thick in the air, warm in my lungs. That’s Leo’s calling card—sneaking cinnamon into everything. Muffins, burritos, pudding, grilled cheese. Even when it’s not supposed to work, he’ll find a way to do it. Ever since we were kids he’s always smelled like he was rolling around in the display case of a Cinnabon.
He stops on an image, tilting the camera so I get a better view. Leo claims not to know jack about photography, but of the dozen or so pictures I took, he still chose my favorite—the one where the shadows are a little harsher, right as the sun was gearing up to poke out from behind a cloud.
I glance up to nod my approval, but he’s already watching me. Our eyes meet and there’s something soft in his that holds me there—and without warning, the warmth of his knuckles skims under my jaw. My breath hovers somewhere unhelpfully in my chest, suspending me in the moment, into something brewing in Leo’s eyes.
“You, uh—there was some cheese,” he says. “On your…”
I touch the spot where his hand met my face. It feels like it has its own pulse.
“So, um, post it?”
I try to meet his eyes again, and when I do all I see is that familiar honey brown. You’d think I would have enough experience with my camera to know when something is only a trick of the light, but I can’t ignore the tug of disappointment I know better than to feel.
“Yeah, if you wanna,” I say, shrugging myself away from him and his autumnal smell and over to the table.
Leo clears his throat. “Sweet.”
For a while he’s been uploading these photos on a separate Instagram he made for me, even though the idea makes me feel a little topsy-turvy. He keeps saying it will be good to get a following, to have some kind of portfolio and a way to connect with other photographers, like he and some friend of his from summer camp have been doing with their own Instagram accounts. But the truth is, I viscerally dread the idea of sharing my photos with anyone. The thought of people out there seeing my work makes me feel so weirdly naked that I don’t even look at the account.
Plus, if anyone’s actually following it, I’m sure they’re bored out of their skull—most of my pictures from the last year are the same places over and over, since the academic leash I’m kept on gets tighter by the day. And even if it weren’t, I haven’t been out as much lately. Photography was my thing with Poppy. It’s been harder to go anywhere outside my element without my partner in crime.
A zillion hashtags and one masterfully shot blob of cheese and noodle later, Leo’s lasagna ball Instagram is posted, and a large percentage of them are in my stomach. Leo sits on the couch, watching the likes trickle in, and I sit on the arm, hesitating before letting myself slide down with a plunk into the worn cushions beside him.
“So are we going to keep putting cheese in our faces, or talk about this DNA test thing?”
I’m not so good with the whole art of segueing. None of us are, really. I’m too blunt, Leo’s too honest, and Connie—well, Connie just plain doesn’t have the time. So Leo’s fully expecting the question, the anticipation easing out of him with a sigh.
There’s a silence, and this wobbly, uncertain moment when I think he might try to blow the whole thing off, and I won’t know how to not take it personally. But then he turns to me with more frankness than he has in months.
“It’s— I don’t know. Like, how you know that statistically speaking, the odds that there isn’t some other form of life in the universe are like, zilch.” He picks at a seam in his jeans that hasn’t quite come loose yet but is on its way. “But why the quiet? Do they not want to know us? Or can they just not reach us yet?”
I nudge Leo’s shoulder with mine, tentative at first, but then he sags some of his weight into me. The relief is almost embarrassing. I hate that it takes one of us being upset for things to feel okay between us.
“My family tree is the Fermi paradox.”
I wait in case he wants to elaborate. That’s the thing with Leo, though. I always understand more about him in the beats after he says something than when he says it.
“Well, whatever that means—I’m sure it’s that they can’t reach you,” I tell him. “I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to know you.”
Leo bristles. I take some of the edge off, because we both need it: “Even if you are kind of a dork.”
This earns me a sharp laugh. “Hey.”
“Facts are facts.”
He bops me on the knee with the palm of his hand, his skin touching mine where my jeans are ripped. His eyes linger on an old scar, just above my kneecap. I have no memory of what it’s from, but Leo does. He always keeps score of that kind of thing, like it’s some personal failing of his—ever since we were little, I’ve been the daredevil, and he’s been the safety net. Me climbing and jumping and shimmying into places I shouldn’t, and Leo a few feet behind, warning and worrying and probably developing Abby-shaped ulcers in every one of his organs along the way.
Before he can comment on it I rest my head on his shoulder, like when we were kids and napped on each other on the bus—one of the few times I was ever still for more than a few moments. Only it doesn’t feel quite like it did. There’s a new firmness to him, and he’s so tall now that my head doesn’t fall in the same place. It presses us closer, me trying to find some purchase on him, him scooting to let me fit.
I really shouldn’t do this. I know better. But it feels like I am playing a game of chicken with the universe—like I can make this whole thing feel normal, even when it actively is not.
Because normal isn’t my heart beating in my fingertips and in the skin of my cheek on his T-shirt sleeve. Normal isn’t noticing the way that cinnamon smell of his has gone from grounding to dizzying, taking on something sweeter and too innate in me to name. Normal isn’t having a big, stupid, ridiculous crush on one of my best friends, especially when he most certainly doesn’t have one on me.
And there it is: the BEI bubbling its way back to the surface and popping all over again. My brain is so into reliving it that sometimes I’m almost glad my parents keep me busy—the more time I sink into trying to keep up at school, the less time I have to think about how I colossally messed things up with Leo and almost took down our whole little trio with it.
I take my head off his shoulder, turning to face him. “And you know, the database on this thing updates all the time,” I press on. “You could check in a few months and maybe someone related to you will have taken the test. This isn’t game over.”
Leo lets this sink in. “I don’t know if I want to be like, waiting on that, you know?”
“So give me your password and I’ll check on it for you.”
He huffs out a laugh that’s equal parts appreciative and dismissive. “I’d still be waiting on it.”
I hop off his couch, reaching for his laptop. “Then I’ll change your password. Write it down on a teensy piece of paper and eat it.”
“You’re ridiculous,” he says.
“I’m serious,” I tell him, poised to type. “Minus the eating part.”
“What would the eating part even have accomplished?”
We’re veering off course, but I can tell he hasn’t fully gotten this off his chest yet. And even though he’s not going to tonight, and it will likely manifest into another one of his cooking and/or baking frenzies that will keep me and Connie fed at lunch for the next week, we can at least try.
I glance back at him, waiting.
“I don’t even really think about it that much. I mean, I didn’t, until recently. But I always kind of figured if I wanted to know, I could.”
“You can’t ask your parents?”
Leo glances at the driveway, as if one of them is going to jump out from under the porch window. “Well—the adoption was closed, so…”
“You don’t think they’d be chill with you looking?”
“No, no, they—of course they would,” he says, his eyes lingering on the front of the house.
The most Leo thing about Leo is this: he’s always putting other people’s feelings before his, always trying to keep the peace. Someone nearly ran him over in Pike Place Market running a red, and when the driver immediately burst into hysterics, Leo apologized to her. It’s like he’s a barometer for human emotion, and anytime someone is out of whack he feels obligated to tip the scale back in their favor.
This is somewhat mitigated, at least, by the fact that Leo’s parents are both psychology-majors-turned-teachers and knew this about him before he even started forming full sentences. They’re both pretty busy with work, but they make up for it with enough family game nights, weekend outings, and infinite parental empathy to make the parents from The Brady Bunch look like chumps. If anyone is prepared to handle their kid asking questions like the ones Leo has, it’s them.
But that doesn’t mean Leo won’t talk himself out of it anyway, for everyone’s sake but his own.
“It’s just, there’s really no wikiHow page on how to tell your white parents you’re looking for the family that actually, y’know, looks like you.” He pauses before adding, “That, and Carla doesn’t want to know.”
Ah. Carla and Leo were adopted together and are full-blooded siblings so close in age they’re mistaken for twins more often than not. But that’s all either of them has ever known about the adoption—that they came as a pair, when Leo was a year old and Carla was brand-spanking new.
“I guess that’s fair,” I say cautiously.
“Yeah. But it’s—I don’t know. I’ve never been good at … not knowing things.”
Leo and I may be different in a lot of ways, but here we are too alike: the “latch” factor.
Leo’s knowing thing goes as far back as I remember him. He’s always trying to understand how stuff works, whether it’s whatever paradox Fermi’s dealing with or the precise amount of time it takes to use a mixer on egg whites for the perfect cloud eggs. As early as preschool he was driving every teacher he had up the wall, ending every explanation anyone gave him for anything with “But why?” To this day, his mom still mimics his piping little voice—“But why? But why? But why?”—a teasing glint in her eye.
For me, though, it’s a doing thing. While Leo’s been busy asking questions, I’ve been busy not asking enough of them. An idea pops into my brain and I can’t talk myself out of it: Cut my hair to see if it would grow back overnight. Hop past the NO TRESPASSING sign on a trail to get a better view. Commit to whatever the hell was going through my head during the infamous BEI.
Maybe it’s why we’ve always kind of gravitated to each other. I pull Leo off the ledges of his thought spirals. He pulls me off literal ledges. We’ve got each other’s backs.
“Here,” I say, pulling up my results. “Show me how to get to the ancestry part so I can hack into your account later.”
Leo goes rigid. A van decked out with soaped-up words in our school colors loudly idles in front of Leo’s place and comes to a stop, and Carla hops out and waves to the other cheerleaders in her carpool. Leo stands up from the couch so fast someone might have electrocuted him.
Then his shoulders slump, like something he’s held together too long is starting to fold up inside him.
“It’s, uh—it’s pretty straightforward,” he mumbles. “Just tap the ‘Relations’ thing under ‘Ancestry.’”
Carla spots me through the window and picks up the pace, her backpack bouncing on her shoulders and her ponytail bobbing. I wave at her, waiting for the page to load, and Leo lets out a sigh.
“It’s probably better to drop the whole thing,” says Leo. “It might just be a waste of time, and I should be focusing on my future, you know?”
He says something else that gets drowned out by the words on my phone screen, which are somehow impossibly loud.
I’m on my feet so fast that I trip on the carpet. Leo grabs me before I pitch forward, and there’s this momentary shock of his warm hands on my skin. Before I’m totally paralyzed by it, we’re interrupted by the clatter of my phone bouncing off the carpet and onto the faded hardwood.
“Uh—am I interrupting something?” asks Carla, looking between me and Leo with a faint smirk.
Leo releases me so abruptly that I feel like a balloon someone accidentally lost hold of—I’m untethered. Aimless. Unsure of where to go, except that I need to get out of here fast, away from walls and words on a screen and the way Leo is looking at me, like he’s already ten minutes ahead anticipating whatever stupid thing I’m about to do next.
“I have to—I just realized—I have tutoring,” I blurt.
Leo reaches down to pick up my phone, but I dive for it, grabbing it before he can. He tries to make eye contact with me, but I can’t, or it’s all going to spill out of me before I even know what it means.
“On a Saturday?” Carla asks, scowling.
“For, uh—” They’re both staring at me. I try to think of a single school subject I’m taking or even one passable word in the English language I can use to excuse myself, but there’s only room for one thought in my brain right now, and it’s swelling like a balloon. “I just have to—I gotta—I’ll text you later.”
Leo follows me to the door, but I’m too fast for him. Within seconds I’ve yanked my helmet onto my head, grabbed Kitty, shoved my phone into my back pocket, and torn onto the sidewalk faster than my rickety old skateboard has ever gone. Halfway home, the stupid thing Leo no doubt predicted happens: I roll right into a crack in the pavement, end up flying like a crash test dummy, and find myself a few mortifying seconds later on my very bruised butt with my skateboard lying in the grass of someone’s front yard.
I sit there, my heart beating in my ears, my mouth tasting like pennies from biting down on my tongue. I do a quick body-check and discover that, while the embarrassment may be lethal, the rest of me remains relatively unscathed.
Only after I pull myself up does my phone slip out of my back pocket, revealing one majorly cracked screen. I cringe, but that doesn’t stop the phone from unlocking, or opening to the page that’s been burned into my eyes ever since I saw it—a message request from a girl named Savannah Tully that reads, Hey. I know this is super weird. But do you want to meet up?
A message request from a girl named Savannah Tully, who the DNA site identifies as my full-blooded sister.
Copyright © 2020 by Emma Lord.