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Honey Girl

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A refreshingly timely and relatable debut novel about a young woman whose life plans fall apart when she meets her wife.

With her newly completed PhD in astronomy in hand, twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes on a girls’ trip to Vegas to celebrate. She’s a straight A, work-through-the-summer certified high achiever. She is not the kind of person who goes to Vegas and gets drunkenly married to a woman whose name she doesn’t know…until she does exactly that.

This one moment of departure from her stern ex-military father’s plans for her life has Grace wondering why she doesn’t feel more fulfilled from completing her degree. Staggering under the weight of her father’s expectations, a struggling job market and feelings of burnout, Grace flees her home in Portland for a summer in New York with the wife she barely knows.

In New York, she’s able to ignore all the annoying questions about her future plans and falls hard for her creative and beautiful wife, Yuki Yamamoto. But when reality comes crashing in, Grace must face what she’s been running from all along—the fears that make us human, the family scars that need to heal and the longing for connection, especially when navigating the messiness of adulthood.
 
년:
2021
출판사:
Park Row Books
언어:
english
페이지:
241
ISBN 10:
0778311023
ISBN 13:
9780778311027
ISBN:
B089WGLDQX
파일:
EPUB, 735 KB
다운로드 (epub, 735 KB)

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책에 대한 리뷰를 작성하거나 귀하의 독서 경험을 공유할 수 있습니다. 다른 독자들이 귀하가 읽은 책에 대한 의견에 귀를 기울일 것입니다. 개인적으로 책이 마음에 들었거나 그렇지 않았거나 정직하고 상세한 호평은 다른 독자들이 자신에게 적합한 책을 찾는데 도움이 됩니다.
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2020
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Datei:
EPUB, 2,16 MB
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Bloody Mine: Holiday RBMC Tonopah, NV

Jahr:
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EPUB, 333 KB
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		 			Honey Girl

			Morgan Rogers





		 			Dedicated to the girls with claws. Let them fear you.





		 			Contents

			Prologue

			Chapter One

			Chapter Two

			Chapter Three

			Chapter Four

			Chapter Five

			Chapter Six

			Chapter Seven

			Chapter Eight

			Chapter Nine

			Chapter Ten

			Chapter Eleven

			Chapter Twelve

			Chapter Thirteen

			Chapter Fourteen

			Chapter Fifteen

			Chapter Sixteen

			Chapter Seventeen

			Chapter Eighteen

			Chapter Nineteen

			Chapter Twenty

			Acknowledgments





Prologue


			In Las Vegas, they sell cheap replicas of the love locks from the Parisian bridge for twenty-five dollars. You can buy them on your way out of a chapel, drunk and giggly and filled with champagne bubbles. There is someone on your arm, a girl whose name you cannot remember, or perhaps never knew.

			She says, “Let’s get one of these,” and points to the locks. Their shiny surfaces barely echo the originals, but a pretty girl asks, and you say yes.

			It’s the second time you’ve said yes, but you don’t remember that yet. So, you say yes to this, to this replica lock in a replica city.

			In your hazy, champagne-pink reality, you find somewhere for these locks. You won’t remember where later, but now—

			But now.

			This place is sacred. This place has two people, bound together by ceremony and glittering bands around their left ring fingers. This place has roses that bloom purple and pink and red that can be seen even at night. This place has links in a fence, and the lock clicks into place with finality.

			“Where should we put the keys?”

			In your dream or your champagne-pink reality, you decide to make a swap. The girl’s key hangs warm around your neck, and yours around hers.

			In Paris, the love locks made the bridge bend and buckle.

			In Las Vegas, they are light. Was it your whole heart that has been locked away, or just a piece?

			It’s a ceremony. Two locks hang from a fence neither of you will remember in the morning or the months that follow. All you hav; e are keys, warm metal from where you gripped them in the meat of your palms.

			There, a ceremony finished.

			It’s a good dream. Or, it’s a hazy, champagne reality. Perhaps, it is a memory, made up of the two.

			As an alarm buzzes, loud and bright, it is hard to tell the difference. Maybe there is none. Maybe there is no difference between the weighted, heavy locks in Paris and the knockoffs in Las Vegas tourist shops. Maybe there is no difference between dreams and the things you barely remember. They say the things that happen here, stay here, and perhaps that is the same for your midnight dreams and fizzy memories.

			An alarm buzzes. You wake up. Or maybe you just remember.





One


			Grace wakes up slow like molasses. The only difference is molasses is sweet, and this—the dry mouth and the pounding headache—is sour. She wakes up to the blinding desert sun, to heat that infiltrates the windows and warms her brown skin, even in late March.

			Her alarm buzzes as the champagne-bubble dream pops.

			Grace wakes in Las Vegas instead of her apartment in Portland, and she groans.

			She’s still in last night’s clothes, ripped high-waisted jeans and a cropped, white BRIDE T-shirt she didn’t pack. The bed is warm, which isn’t surprising. But as Grace moves, shifts and tries to remember how to work her limbs, she notices it’s a different kind of warm. The bed, the covers, the smooth cotton pillowcase beside her, is body-warm. Sleep-warm.

			The hotel bed smells like sea salt and spell herbs. The kind people cut up and put in tea, in bottles, soaking into oil and sealed with a little chant. It smells like kitchen magic.

			She finds the will to roll over into the warm patch. Her memories begin to trickle in from the night before like a movie in rewind. There were bright lights and too-sweet drinks and one club after another. There was a girl with rose pink cheeks and pitch-black hair and, yes, sea salt and sage behind her ears and over the soft, veiny parts of her wrists. Her name clings to the tip of Grace’s tongue but does not pull free.

			The movie in Grace’s head fast-forwards. The girl’s hand stayed clutched in hers for the rest of the night. Her mouth was pretty pink. She clung to Grace’s elbow and whispered, Stay with me, when Agnes and Ximena decided to go back to the hotel.

			Stay with me, she said, and Grace did. Follow me, she said, like Grace was used to doing. Follow your alarm. Follow your schedule. Follow your rubric. Follow your graduation plan. Follow a salt-and-sage girl through a city of lights and find yourself at the steps of a church.

			Maybe it wasn’t a church. It didn’t seem like one. A place with fake flowers and red carpet and a man in a white suit. A dressed-up priest. Two girls giggled through champagne bubbles and said yes. Grace covers her eyes and sees it play out.

			“Jesus,” she mutters, sitting up suddenly and clutching the sheets to keep herself steady.

			She gets up, knees wobbling. “Get it together, Grace Porter.” Her throat is dry and her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth. “You are hungover. Whatever you think happened, didn’t happen.” She looks down at her T-shirt and lets out a shaky screech into her palms. “It couldn’t have happened, because you are smart and organized and careful. None of those things would lead to a wedding. A wedding!

			“Didn’t happen,” she murmurs, trying to make up the bed. It’s a fruitless task, but making up the bed makes sense, and everything else doesn’t. She pulls at the sheets, and three things float to the floor like feathers.

			A piece of hotel-branded memo paper. A business card. A photograph.

			Grace picks up the glossy photograph first. It is perfectly rectangular, like someone took the time to cut it carefully with scissors.

			In it, the plastic church from her blurry memories. The church with its wine-colored carpet and fake flowers. There is no Elvis at this wedding, but there is a priest with slicked back hair and rhinestones around his eyes.

			In it, Grace is tall and brown and narrow, and her gold, spiraling curls hang past her shoulders. She is smiling brightly. It makes her face hurt now, to know she can smile like that, can be that happy surrounded by things she cannot remember.

			Across from her, their hands intertwined, is the girl. In the picture, her cheeks are just as rose pink. Her hair is just as pitch-black as an empty night sky. She is smiling, much like Grace is smiling. On her left hand, a black ring encircles her finger, the one meant for ceremonies like this.

			Grace, hungover and wary of this new reality, lifts her own left hand. There, on the same finger, a gold ring. This part evaded her memories, forever lost in sticky-sweet alcohol. But there is it, a ring. A permanent and binding and claiming ring.

			“What the hell did you do, Porter?” she says, tracing it around her finger.

			She picks up the business card, smaller and somehow more intimate, next. It smells like the right side of the bed. Sea salt. Sage. Crushed herbs. Star anise. It is a good smell.

			On the front, there is plain text.

			ARE YOU THERE?

			brooklyn’s late-night show for lonely creatures

			& the supernatural. sometimes both.

			99.7 FM

			She picks up the hotel stationery. The cramped writing is barely legible, like it was written in a hurry.

			I know who I am, but who are you? I woke up during the sunrise, and your hair and your skin and the freckles on your nose glowed like gold. Honey gold. I think you are my wife, and I will call you Honey Girl. Consider this a calling card, if you ever need a—I don’t know how these things work. A friend? A—

			Wife, it says, but crossed out.

			A partner. Or. I don’t know. I have to go. But I think I had fun, and I think I was happy. I don’t think I would get married if I wasn’t. I hope you were, too.

			What is it they say? What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? Well, I can’t stay.

			Maybe one day you’ll come find me, Honey Girl. Until then, you can follow the sound of my voice. Are you listening?

			It all barely fits, the stops and starts, but Grace finds herself holding the paper close and tight. A calling card with no number, a note with no clarity.

			Someone knocks on the door, and all of Grace’s adrenaline snaps like a stretched rubber band. She shrieks, heart thumping as she swings the door open.

			“Stop screaming,” Ximena says. She’s already dressed, burgundy-red hair slicked into a bun and outfitted in what she calls her airport clothes. Grace wonders how Ximena can make edge control work in this heat. “If anybody should be screaming, I should be screaming. You know why I should be screaming?”

			I got married last night, Grace thinks. To a girl with rosebuds on her cheeks. To a girl whose name I don’t even know. I should be screaming.

			“Why should you be screaming?” Grace asks instead. “Why are you already dressed?”

			“I should be asking the questions,” Ximena says, eyebrows raised.

			“Oh my God.” Agnes peeks her head from behind Ximena’s shoulder. “We have to be at the airport in an hour. The fact that you’re not dressed and ready means you’re actually an evil doppelgänger. So that means I, in fact, should be screaming. Are you going to let us in? Rude.”

			She shoves past, and Grace sets the photograph and the business card and note on the little nightstand by the window and covers them up with a stray Bible.

			Ximena follows more primly, perched carefully on the edge of the bed where Agnes has already sprawled on her back. They stare at her, and Grace stares back.

			“Well?” Ximena asks. “Aren’t you going to tell us where you were last night?”

			Grace frowns. “I was here.”

			Ximena stares in disappointment at the blatant lie.

			Agnes props herself up on an elbow. “Nice shirt,” she drawls. “Now, what did you really get up to when we left?”

			Grace plucks at the shirt. The gold ring on her finger feels heavy and damning. Someone has laid claim here, it says. This person is not yours now, but mine. She hopes they don’t notice. “Not much after you guys left,” she says. “Hung out.”

			Ximena blinks. “Hung out,” she repeats.

			Grace blinks back. “Yes.” She tries to remember when exactly Ximena and Agnes left. Was it before or after the girl smiled at her over shot glasses? The girl that tangled their fingers together as they walked through crowded streets, past theater lights and clubs with rhythmic music. Grace danced, she remembers now, right there in the street. She clung to the girl and laughed, like it was uncontrollable. “We just walked around, I guess.”

			Agnes sits up abruptly. Her mouth curls, a glinting, knife-sharp thing. “You’re lying,” she says. Agnes’s hangover is apparent in her messy, bleached hair and the shadowed crescent moons under her eyes, but excitement brightens her up like a dog after a bone. “Grace Porter, you are lying. Oh my God, I’m putting this in my calendar.” Her black, pointed nails click frantically against her phone screen.

			“Dr. Porter,” Grace says weakly, trying to run fingers through her own tangled hair. She should have tied it up last night. “If you’re going to slander my good name, at least address me correctly.”

			“Sue me,” Agnes says distractedly, still looking down at her phone. “Sue me in court, you liar.”

			Ximena narrows her eyes and examines Grace like she is one of the patients she must keep careful watch over. “You have flowers in your hair,” she says. She watches as Grace reaches up and feels dried petals in her honey-dipped strands.

			“We were outside,” Grace says. We were outside an illuminated, plastic church. We were behind roses and weeds and long lilac stems with just the smell of blooming desert flowers and sage and cheap metal. She remembers the keys suddenly; it burns like a brand against her skin, hidden under her shirt. “I think I was so drunk I fell over.”

			“You fell over.” Ximena looks unimpressed. “You came back with that girl? The one you met?”

			“Yeah?”

			“Was she here, too?” Agnes asks, looking around like someone will jump out of the closet. “It was loud when you came in for the night.”

			“After ignoring our texts,” Ximena adds. She gears herself up for a rant. “What the hell would I look like on Dateline talking about how you disappeared in Las Vegas? Colonel would kill me for losing his kid. And when would I have time to film my segment? I work soul-crushing hours, Porter. No time to get my hair and nails done before I make my television debut as the distraught best friend.”

			“Why am I not the distraught best friend?” Agnes asks. “I can cry on command. What can you do?”

			“You need help,” Ximena says seriously, but doesn’t move when Agnes smiles and leans on her shoulder.

			“My therapist would be thrilled to hear you say so,” Agnes says. She looks at Grace, who straightens up under sharp eyes. She keeps her face blank. You have a secret, Agnes mouths, and Grace looks away.

			“As you can see, I made it back just fine,” Grace says dryly, “and alone. So, now that nobody will have to mourn me, tell me again when we have to be at the airport?”

			“Again?” Ximena ask incredulously at the same time Agnes yells, “Doppelgänger!”

			“An hour,” Ximena repeats. She stands up, hand coming up over Grace’s forehead. “Did that girl give you something? You made us memorize the travel schedules, Porter.”

			“We had to recite them before we could leave the apartment,” Agnes adds. “What was her name anyway? You’re fucking lovestruck.”

			Grace jerks back, away from Ximena’s probing fingers and Agnes’s eyes. “I don’t have time to be lovestruck. It was only one night.”

			“One hell of a night,” Agnes murmurs, hidden from view as Ximena plucks petals from Grace’s hair and inspects her pupils. “Let it be known to the court that my question was not answered.”

			“They’d never let you be a lawyer,” Ximena mutters, a smile just for Grace hidden between them. “You didn’t answer, though,” she says, face softening once she confirms Grace is Grace and is not drugged or cloned. “And you did look a little smitten. Mostly drunk, but kind of smitten.”

			Grace sighs. She hears the echoes of laughter from dancing in the middle of a sidewalk. Giggling like—like newlyweds, pressed close together as they left the church. “I was not smitten,” she says, suddenly desperate to keep it—this—to herself. “And I don’t think I even found out her name.”

			“Ugh,” Ximena says. “For all you know she could have been The One, and you don’t even know her name. How can I live vicariously through your relationship without a name?”

			Grace rolls her eyes. “You don’t,” she says simply. “You can live vicariously in the lobby while I get dressed.”

			Everything rushes back to her, all the things that make up Grace Porter. Diligence. Efficiency. Details. “God, we have to be at the airport in an hour. Have you guys packed? Agnes, check under the bed, I don’t feel like calling back here to have them ship one of your shoes or something. And, if you took anything from the minibar, you are paying for it. Ximena—”

			“There you are, conejito,” Ximena cuts in, patting her cheek and smiling. “I’ll get our brat together. You get dressed. I’ll call for a cab in—”

			“Fifteen minutes,” Grace says. “That’s all I need, swear.”

			“Fifteen minutes,” Ximena repeats, back in their natural rhythm. Grace feels her chest loosen and her breath return, slow and steady, as Ximena kisses her nose quick and disappears out the door. “C’mon, little demon.”

			Agnes crosses her arms, reminding Grace of the three years between them. “Why do you get a cute nickname, and I get ‘little demon’?”

			Grace laughs. “The better question would be why are you a little demon?”

			Agnes humphs. She takes her time as she leaves the room. Grace turns her back, trying to get everything in her bag, folded and tidy. “Hey, Porter,” she says.

			“Hmm?”

			“You might wanna hide this from Ximena.” She pauses. “Unless you’re ready to explain why you have a ring on your finger.”

			Grace whirls around. Agnes is holding the photograph, one eyebrow raised.

			“Don’t—” Grace starts, her mind moving faster than her tongue. Don’t what? Don’t tell anybody about the accidental marriage? The nameless girl that carries a matching black ring on her left hand? Don’t, she says, but there is no finish.

			“Hey,” Agnes says. She comes close, and she’s trembling and—no, that’s you trembling—goes eye level with Grace. “The good thing about putting up with me for so long,” she says carefully, “is that now you have my morally gray and questionable loyalty. You get me?”

			“Please don’t,” Grace says again, and she trusts that Agnes hears all the things within it.

			“I won’t,” Agnes promises. “But for Christ’s sake, get a little better at lying. I know I’ve taught you better than that.”

			She leaves, and Grace buries the photograph and the business card and the note under her silk hair scarf for safekeeping. She buries her rosebud girl and her calling card.

			She closes her suitcase.

			Agnes sticks close in the cab. On the plane, she whines until Ximena agrees to switch seats, and she gives Grace the window seat. She pulls Grace’s nails out of the tender skin on her palms. In the air, the clouds mold themselves into different shapes. A dog. A bunny. A human heart.

			Grace thinks, Can you see these, too? Wherever you are, can you look up and think of me, hidden behind a heart made out of clouds?

			Agnes grabs her hand. It pulls Grace from her daydreaming, the grounding squeeze of Agnes’s fingers. She grabs back.

			What happened in Vegas is tucked away in her suitcase. It is under her shirt in the shape of a key. It is hidden in her hair with the last little bits of dried petals. It hides in the gold ring wrapped around her finger like a brand.

			It travels back home with Grace. It does not stay.





Two


			How is the job search coming along? The text from Colonel burns hot in Grace’s hand. She puts her phone away in her apron pocket.

			After eleven years of chasing the brightest stars and relentlessly working toward her PhD, she was done.

			She’d stood in front of her panel of professors. They did not know her as Grace Porter, tall and freckled and raised by a soldier to be the best. They knew her as Grace Porter, Doctor of Astronomy. Hardworking, detailed, Black.

			Her deep brown skin dotted with sweat while Professor MacMillan and her peers, all white, studied her as she hid her trembling hands after defending her dissertation. With Colonel’s voice in her ears, urging her forward, she’d grappled to the top of this mountain. Mom urged her to follow her dreams, so she chased the stars. She poured blood and sweat and tears into her work and here was the proof. Here was her vow of success to Colonel completed.

			Professor MacMillan had asked her a final question with a wide, completely unprofessional smile, and Grace had answered, holding her bound defense against her chest. She waited with choked breath as they validated what she already concluded. There was more to be seen in the sky; there was more to be seen in her.

			Congratulations, Dr. Porter, they’d said, and there she stood, feeling as expansive and terrifying as the universe itself.

			And now she stood in this tea room, wiping sweaty palms on her stained apron and not responding to her father’s messages.

			“Are you okay?” Meera asks, and Grace blinks back to the White Pearl Tea Room. “Are you daydreaming about the end of your shift, too? If I make another masala chai for a white guy I’ll scream.”

			“I’m fine,” Grace says. “Daydreaming, like you said.” She blows her curls out of her face, and Meera squints. “I’m going to do an inventory check. Be right back.”

			She escapes to the back room and stares at her metal reflection in the large fridge. “Get it together,” she mutters, palms pressed to her eyes. “Stop thinking. Do your job. A Porter always does their job. A Porter does every task with precision.”

			“Grace!” Meera hisses from the door. “I have a code red customer. He might get his tea dumped on his head.”

			“That bad?” Grace asks, carefully pulling herself back together. She folds it all up into something small, something she can tuck between her ribs and feel its sharp edges poking her, but no one else will be the wiser. “Taking down the patriarchy one third-degree burn at a time.”

			“Baba would love that,” Meera says. She moves closer. “You sure you’re okay, Space Girl?”

			“Hmm?” Grace asks, not looking up. “Yes. What makes you ask?”

			Meera scoffs. She opened this morning, and Grace can see exhaustion around her eyes. The bitter smell of loose tea leaves clings to her dark umber skin and hair. Up close, you can see she is young and tired and hardworking, and Grace sighs. She doesn’t want to burden Meera with more worries.

			“It’s nothing,” she tries. “Nothing I can’t handle, at least.”

			“You’ve been so quiet,” Meera points out. “You didn’t gossip about customers at all today. Not even that woman that tried to smuggle her dog in with her coat.”

			“Really, that spoke for itself—”

			“A goddamn bichon frise! Under her coat!”

			“Emotional-support bichon frise?”

			Meera groans, grabbing two of the tea containers. “You’ve been like this since you got back. Not even talking my ear off about your space stuff.”

			Grace raises an eyebrow. “I just got a PhD in my space stuff, you know.”

			“I know,” Meera says meaningfully. “And then you left me here all alone while you celebrated in Las Vegas. You haven’t even mentioned it! You haven’t given me any details! Did you get super wasted? Gamble away all your savings?” She moves even closer, voice low and eyes big. “Did you score?”

			“Absolutely not, Meera.”

			“Meera!” Baba Vihaan calls from the front. “We have customers.”

			“God,” Meera says. “Pray I make it through the day. Baba would hate it if I threw a fit.”

			“Which god am I praying to?”

			“Pick one,” Meera tells her, straightening her kurti as she steps out of the kitchen. “Choose wisely.”

			Grace stays in the back most days. She lets Meera be the face of the tea room. The white liberals of Portland flock to the White Pearl to aggressively compliment Meera on the tea selection and the jeweled bangles that wrap around her wrists like planetary rings. They love her thick, arched brows and her intricately decorated kurtis and the way she smiles as they leave.

			They do not care about Grace in the back: not Indian, not draped in beautiful fabric. A Black father and a white mom. Old news for the diversity quota in Portland.

			Today, it’s good. It’s quiet. No one is going to ask why Grace presses the key and gold ring at the end of her necklace tight in her palm. Can you feel this? Did you keep yours, too? She sends her thoughts into the universe, and she hopes someone, her someone, is listening.

			It remains calm and quiet until closing. Meera lets out mournful little sighs between the MONSTA X playlist she blasts out of the speakers.

			“You sound like a broken record,” Grace teases while they tag-team the last of the dirty dishes.

			“I’ve given you, like, ten chances to open up to me today! I’m being emotionally available.”

			Grace snorts. “I don’t think that’s how it works, but thank you.”

			Meera crosses her arms in a childish pose. “Whatever it is, did you at least tell Ximena?”

			Grace puts down the dishrag. “I’m not confirming there’s anything wrong, but why would Ximena have to be involved?”

			Meera gives another frustrated huff. “Because,” she says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, “Ximena is beautiful and smart and can fix anything.”

			“All true,” Grace concedes, “but why do you think I need fixing?” Meera lifts herself up onto the counter and shrugs. It’s another surface they’ll have to wipe down, but for once, Grace doesn’t complain. “I’m good,” she says.

			“If you say so.” Meera frowns. “But something is going on. People are supposed to be relaxed after vacations, but you came back so on edge. I’ve known you too long. I can always tell.”

			Grace grits her teeth, then forces her jaw to relax. “I just have—things on my mind, okay?” Things like rose pink girls and blooming flowers and a man that held their hands together while Grace said yes and I do. Things like pieces of paper with Dr. Grace Porter on them with no directions on where to go next. She wonders how those things intersect, and if she can find herself in the point between. “I’m fine,” she says, and the folded-up edges of her feelings poke at her ribs.

			“Okay,” Meera says quietly. She opens her arms. She smells like bitter tea and steam water and soap. Grace rests her head against Meera’s chest and for a moment, the world stops spinning. She lets herself breathe as Meera starts to lament about yet another customer and “Did you see the shoes she was wearing? Suede pumps in the rain. Is this her first time in Portland?”

			Eventually, Raj emerges from the back office where he and Baba Vihaan have been reconciling the till.

			“Ready, Gracie?” he asks. He grins when Meera makes a face at him. She’s always hated that nickname for Grace.

			Grace extracts herself. Meera gently shoves her toward the door, even though the dishes aren’t done, and they haven’t swept the floors yet. “You can owe me one,” she says. “Go tell Ximena I said hi.”

			Grace flicks the end of Meera’s braid and kisses the side of her cheek as a goodbye. She follows Raj outside. “You know you don’t have to walk me home. I’m a big girl.”

			It’s raining, and he pulls an umbrella out of his front hoodie pocket. His wavy, black hair hangs in his eyes, and his nose ring shines in the dark. “Now that you’re a doctor, you don’t need any company walking home?” he asks.

			Grace rolls her eyes and pushes closer so the two of them can fit underneath the umbrella. She’s tall, but Raj is taller. “I don’t need you to walk me home, because I learned self-defense when I was eight.”

			“Okay, Danger,” he says, linking their arms together. “If someone runs up on us, I’m fully expecting you to protect me. I’ll be your damsel in distress.”

			“That’s not a new thing.”

			“Ouch.” He clutches his chest. “Will you tell me what’s up, or are you just going to roast me?”

			The two of them have come a long way. He didn’t always like Grace, but once he did, once he started calling her “little sister,” they could talk about anything on their walks home. Even still, she hesitates.

			Raj and Meera are so alike as brother and sister, and they both know her too well.

			“I’ve been thinking too much,” she says eventually. “It’s just—” Have you ever gone to bed thinking of someone you only knew for a night? Have you ever stared up at the sky and wondered where it was you saw yourself, all those years ago? Which star it was you followed here? She doesn’t say any of that.

			She tries to find the words to encompass her tangled thoughts. The words for missing sheets that smell like sea salt and wondering if the girl that left it behind misses her, too. If she regrets leaving or is glad to have escaped when the sunrise and sobriety revealed what they’d done. The words for not wanting to talk to Colonel about jobs and the future when her pride is still stinging from the interview she has not gathered the nerve to tell anyone about yet. The words for wanting things to be as simple as they were on a desert night with just two girls and a locked promise.

			“Sometimes I wish,” she starts, staring blankly out at the road in front of them, “I didn’t have to have everything figured out. I wish I could turn off the part of my brain that needs perfectly executed plans, you know?”

			Raj laughs lightly, his mouth curling in his beard. “I thought the great Grace Porter loved her plans.” He bumps her shoulder. “Colonel had one set out for you, and you were determined to follow it.”

			“It wasn’t just that,” Grace says, looking at him.

			“You were gonna make sure your dad was proud of you,” he says. “A Porter always does their best.” His voice goes wry with Colonel’s echoed words.

			“Yes. A Porter always does their best,” she repeats, staring down at her hands. “Maybe I don’t know what my best is anymore. Maybe my best is doing something completely reckless Colonel wouldn’t approve of.” Her fingers tighten around the umbrella. “Something absurd and ridiculous and all mine. What if that’s my best?”

			They stop in front of her building, and Raj searches her face. “If it’s your best, then it’s the best,” he says, voice sincere. “You need to talk more?”

			“No.” She shakes her head. “I can handle it. I always do, don’t I?”

			She looks up at the apartment. The lights are on. Everyone is home but her.

			“Thank you,” she says, getting her keys out. “For listening or whatever.”

			“Or whatever,” he teases. “If you change your mind and do wanna talk, call Meera instead. I need my beauty rest.”

			“Will do.” She salutes from the door. “Night, big brother.”

			“Night, little sister,” he says, and he disappears into the night, as Grace heads into her apartment.

			The stars glimmer above her. They gleam under the gaze of people like Grace, searching for meaning in their formations. They are doing their best for all the people that stare up at the dark and do not know that they, too, shine brilliantly.

			The door shuts behind her. The universe says, Places, everyone, and its inhabitants gather. They are doing their best.





Three


			Grace didn’t grow up in Portland.

			She grew up in Southbury, Florida, on family land turned into orange groves. There were always people out in the early morning with sticky citrus fingers, dropping fruits into basket after basket until the picked oranges were trucked away.

			Grace remembers playing hide-and-seek in the groves. Giggling behind big, wide trees as Mom called her name. She remembers the smell, oh, the smell of oranges in the evening. When the sky turned pink, then purple, then midnight blue.

			Mom called out for her, and Grace hid for hours in those grove trees.

			She was thirteen when she and Colonel jumped in the rumbling pickup truck and left. Mom stood on the veranda with a trembling smile on her face.

			“You be good for your father,” she said, as Grace held back angry tears. “Listen to what he says.” She pulled lightly on one of Grace’s curls, and it sprang back into place. “Call me as soon as you land.”

			Grace remembers worrying about the trees. Would they still grow big and strong without her there to watch them? Would they still grow plump fruit? Would it still taste as sweet?

			She asked Colonel about that once, about the trees.

			“Your mother will watch over the trees,” he said carefully, as gentle as he knew how to be. “They’ll be fine.” He said, “They’ll still grow as long as she’s there.”

			Grace looked at him. “And who will watch over her?” she asked, and Colonel went silent.

			Eventually, she stopped asking Colonel about the trees. She listened when Mom talked about the grove on the phone. She waited at the mailbox for letters with pictures of the harvest. Those didn’t come as often. Mom was busy, after all, taking care of all the oranges and trees and the earth beneath her feet. Then, she was busy during the off-season, traveling around the world in search of meaning and spirituality and holistic retreats that made Colonel scoff when the postcards came.

			Soon enough Grace was busy, too.

			So, she didn’t grow up in Portland. But Colonel’s house, with its winding driveway and pebbled walk and Victorian porch, eventually made itself home.

			Sharone answers the door with fresh box braids, her dark brown skin gleaming in the setting sun. She smells like shea butter and vanilla when she leans in for a hug.

			“Porter,” she says, smile in her voice, and Grace relaxes into her embrace. From her mouth, her name has a different harmony. Porter doesn’t sound like a rebuke, a resignation, a demand, like it does from Colonel. From her stepmom, it just sounds like a name of a person you love. “We miss you. I wish you’d spend some time here now. You graduated in January, and we still barely see you. I know Colonel would enjoy it.”

			Grace rolls her eyes, following Sharone into the house. “Right,” she says. “He enjoyed my graduation, too. Must have been ecstatic when they called me Dr. Porter, and he stormed out.”

			Sharone sighs. There’s a process to dealing with Colonel: excuses, rationalization, defeat, attempting to change the behavior, sighing and finally acceptance. Grace is still trying to reach acceptance. She thinks she might always be trying to reach acceptance when it comes to her father.

			“Is he home yet?” she asks. He was the one who invited her for dinner. A formal email, signed off with all his military honors and titles, as if Grace needed reminding.

			In the kitchen, Sharone has her famous butter rum corn bread laid out on the counter. A pan of mac and cheese sits heavy on the stovetop.

			“You know damn well he gets home at five thirty on the dot,” Sharone says, pouring an oversize glass of sangria. “He’s in his study, but he can wait. I need wine first.”

			“Cheers,” Grace says, cutting into the corn bread. “You know, you could always come live with me. I am Dr. Porter now. I’m a catch.” Sharone rolls her eyes. “Is that a no?”

			“It’s also a hell no,” she says, humor twisting her lips, “unless you start making the same money he makes.”

			Grace shrieks, the laugh carrying through the echoes of the big home. She and Sharone fall into each other, laughs eking out into little cackles. “After almost ten years,” Grace says, “you’ve finally outed yourself as a gold digger.”

			“Oh, honey.” She lifts her glass. “That was never a secret.”

			A cleared throat announces the arrival of another person, and instinctively Grace straightens up, brushes the crumbs from her mouth and her lap. Colonel stands tall in the doorway, leaning against the frame as he rubs at the titanium that makes up most of his right leg.

			“I heard laughter,” he says. It still takes Grace aback after all these years, the deep bass of his voice. He can still command her attention. “Thought we agreed that wasn’t allowed in this house.”

			“That’s just you,” Sharone says, but she moves gracefully toward him, reaching up on her toes to give him a quick, chaste kiss. She offers her arm, but Colonel brushes it off, limping stiffly inside. “Porter and I know it’s laughter keeping us young.”

			“Is that right?” he asks. “What do you think? Is it laughter keeping you young, Dr. Porter?”

			“Don’t start,” Sharone says, hovering as Colonel lugs himself onto a stool at the kitchen island. “Ain’t nobody tell you to come out of your study to nag.”

			Grace picks at the remains of her corn bread.

			“All right, sweetheart,” he says. He’s like a pod person sometimes, with how normal he is with Sharone. “No nagging. We’ll have a nice dinner.” He winks at Grace, and she squints back. “What are we talking about, then?” he asks while Sharone starts bringing over pans of food.

			She’s been gearing up to tell Colonel about her big interview. Professor MacMillan set it up with a private company in Seattle. They’d discussed for weeks ahead of time. Grace wore her best suit. She slicked her hair back and practiced answering questions in the mirror. She showed up twenty minutes early.

			She doesn’t quite know the Porter way to say, I put on my best voice. I sat up with my back straight. I made eye contact, but not enough to seem threatening. I said ‘yes, sir,’ and ‘yes, ma’am,’ and I hated every second of it. She doesn’t know the Porter way to say, They picked me apart, questioned me until my eyes stung and I stormed out. I saw one person of color on the way to the door.

			Maybe instead she could say she got drunk-married in Vegas. How she drank away the memory of her interview. And at the bottom of a cocktail she discovered the world did not end, it just felt like it did. There was so much more work, more climbing to be done. And then the rose-petal girl took her alcohol away, and they danced, and they got married.

			Colonel breaks the silence. “Okay,” he says, looking at her over the rim of his glass. “I’ve been wanting to talk about what’s next for you.”

			“Well, we’re watching Waiting to Exhale when I get home,” she says. “It’s movie night.”

			Sharone lays a hand over Colonel’s, straightening out his clenched fingers. “What he means, baby, is what’s next for Dr. Porter? You worked so many summers doing research for Dr. MacMillan’s lab. Are you going to stay with her for a while? What were you working on last year?”

			Colonel would have her head if she slumped at the table, but she wants to. “Using Gaia’s data for high-speed observation of white dwarf binaries,” she mumbles.

			Sharone squints. “Will you keep doing—that?”

			Grace exhales deeply. In her head, she thinks of the most efficient way to get through this. Colonel taught her how to turn a stressful situation to her advantage. Sometimes you do that with deflection, with questions, with subtle manipulation. Sometimes you just lie.

			“I had an interview before I left for Vegas,” she admits. “With a company in Washington. Kunakin.”

			Colonel narrows his eyes. “How did it go?”

			Grace almost shrugs before she catches herself. “They said I wasn’t the right fit for the company culture.” She looks down at her plate. They didn’t say that, but they thought it. They probably said it aloud when they checked back in with Professor MacMillan. “But, it’s fine,” she says quickly. “They were good, but not the best. A Porter always goes for the best.”

			“We do,” Colonel agrees. “Perhaps you and I should sit down with your mentor. She advised me—”

			“You talked to Professor MacMillan? Why would you do that?”

			Colonel blinks. “Admittedly, I know less about the trajectory of employment in—” he pauses here, mouth twisting “—astronomy than in medicine. I wanted to know your degree isn’t being wasted. It’s not as stable a field as medicine would have been.”

			“No,” Grace says, voice rising, “but it’s mine.” She hides her clenched fists. The way she pinches the thin skin on her wrists. Sharone watches the two of them carefully. “It’s mine, Dad.” Dad, not Colonel. Not some distant military figure that sends her a formal email for dinner at the house she grew up in. No, it’s Dad, who taught her how to ride a bike, who dropped her off on her first day of high school. Dad, who let Grace cry into his uniform when no one else looked like her, sunshine hair and brown freckles on brown skin. “Dad,” she says, and he jerks back, surprised.

			“Porter, I just want to know—”

			“It’s mine,” she says. “All of it. My degree and whatever fucking—”

			“Your language—”

			“—mistakes I make, they’re all mine. Whatever I decide to do, it’s mine.”

			“Okay,” Sharone cuts in. “Colonel, don’t you remember being young? You didn’t have everything figured out all at once, did you?”

			“I did,” he says firmly. “The army recruited me out of high school. It’s not like I could afford college. I had no choice but to figure out what success looked like with the hand I was dealt, so I did the work to get it. Then I had a family to take care of, and I did that, too. I just want to know Porter is doing the work to get what she wants.”

			“I don’t know what I want,” Grace says, and she watches his face with a repressed sort of satisfaction. “I worked for eleven years to become a doctor because I wanted you to be proud of me.”

			“We agreed you would do medicine—”

			“You agreed I would do medicine,” she corrects, voice trembling. “And I didn’t. I did something that disappointed you. I didn’t get the job Professor MacMillan set up for me, and I know that disappoints you, too. But my career is mine to figure out.”

			Colonel sits stone-faced and unmoving. Finally, he pushes back from the table and refuses help getting up. “Then that’s what you need to do,” he says. “Next time, you will figure out what the best is, and you will get it. That is what Porters do.”

			The kitchen is quiet when he leaves. Perhaps this is where Grace figures it out. In the silent gravity of her father’s home.

			“That went well,” she says, finally slumping down and sipping her wine. “He didn’t disown me, at least.”

			“He would never,” Sharone says. “Your father has his own shit to deal with, but never doubt he wants the best for you.”

			Grace nods. “I know,” she says quietly. “But I don’t even know what’s best for me, so how the hell does he?”

			“You know how he is,” Sharone chides. “He thinks he knows everything.”

			Grace sighs and checks her phone, filled up with messages from Agnes and Ximena in their group chat. “I should go. Want me to help with the dishes?”

			“Girl, this is not my mama’s house. You know I use the dishwasher.” She shoos Grace away. “Want me to drive you home?”

			Grace shakes her head. She feels hollowed out, her insecurities laid bare for Colonel to poke and prod. But they are hers to examine, hers to shove back into the pit of her stomach, hers to hide. “No,” she decides. “I’ll take a Lyft. It’s fine.”

			“Be careful,” Sharone tells her, kissing the top of Grace’s head. She’s tall in her heels. Grace doesn’t know how she wears them all day. “Call when you get home.”

			“I will,” Grace promises. “Love you. Thanks for not letting Colonel eat me alive.”

			Sharone laughs. “I love you, too,” she says. “You’re a good kid, Porter.”

			The words feel like a balm, a cold compress to the raw feeling of exposure.

			Spring nights in Portland are breezy, and as Grace sits on the porch swing and waits for her car, she lets her mind wander. She is not here in a home she needs an invitation to visit. She is in the stars, bold and bright and beautiful. She is strong and unwavering, and not filled with the sour taste of failure and the weight of unknowns.

			She thinks, I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay, like a mantra. She has to be okay, because there is no other option. She is okay because she must be, to muster the strength to set up more job interviews. She must be as formidable as the black, swirling universe. It keeps going, and so shall she. She has to.

			The door swings open, and Sharone steps out holding a bulky envelope.

			“From your mom. I didn’t tell Colonel,” she says. “Looks like it’s been to hell and back, but it got here.”

			Grace opens it with careful fingers. She and Mom spoke on FaceTime two weeks ago, and she hadn’t mentioned she was putting anything in the mail. She’d been in Thailand this time, and the connection was spotty.

			The paper is wrinkled, the ink smeared in places like it got caught in the rain. Mom is always traveling on some spiritual retreat or holistic voyage, and Grace has become used to receiving letters and packages from all over the world.

			“She’ll be home soon to start doing prep for harvest season,” Grace reads. “Should be ready to start up in a few months. She expects it to be a big one.”

			“Oh wow,” Sharone says. “Running those groves sounds like so much work.”

			In the envelope, tucked in the bottom, are a few crumpled bills.

			“For my Porter,” is scrawled at the bottom. “For my wandering star girl. Hopefully this helps you find your footing on this green earth, too. Don’t get too lost in the big, vast universe.”

			Mom sends a little money along every few months. Grace never touches it, so the amount grows in her savings, and so does the pit in her stomach. She doesn’t make a lot at the tea room. She already feels enough guilt that Colonel helps her out so much. It doesn’t help that Mom does, too, from running the orange grove Grace barely finds the time to visit.

			Her failed job interview leaves a sour taste on her tongue. People would kill to have the cushion of their parents’ money, but it makes her anxious. They won’t support her forever. They definitely won’t if they find out she’s been storming out of sterile, white interview rooms and leaving sterile, white interviewers gaping behind. When they find out she got drunk and happy and hitched to a girl whose name she does not know.

			Sharone rubs her back. “Car’s here,” she says. “Go home, Porter. Everything else can wait.”

			Grace says, “You don’t have to worry about me. Promise.” Her stepmom becomes a distant shadow as the car pulls off. Grace texts the license plate and picture of the driver to her group chat and stares out the backseat window.

			She picks a star and wonders if her rosebud girl can see it from her radio station in Brooklyn. Are you listening? There are so many things I don’t know how to say. Can you hear them? Is it just me out here, sending messages into the void?

			The drive is silent, but Grace listens the whole way home.





Four


			This is the thing: for as lonely and solitary as Grace feels, she is not alone. She has Raj and Meera. She has Agnes. To the very marrow of her, down to the studs, she has Ximena. Raj and Meera are her family, not blood, but flesh and spirit and heart. Agnes is her best friend. Ximena is who she will grab on to when the world ends, and they will watch it burn to ash before they follow. They are two girls with their backs against the wall, and on the very good days, Grace likes their odds.

			She meets Ximena for the very first time at the hospital where Colonel is recovering. Ximena wears lavender scrubs and a Dominican Republic flag pin on her name badge. They’d told Colonel just a few days before they would need to amputate above the knee. It’s been years of braces and canes and gritting his teeth against the pain, being a Porter, and suddenly being a Porter means losing another piece of himself.

			Grace knew his leg wasn’t right when he came home from his last service tour overseas. He’d been gone eighteen months that time, and he came home like the shadows were waiting to engulf him. His leg buckled underneath him when he walked, and it kept him bedridden for weeks at a time. So, he sat, and he waited for the shadows to come, and eventually they did.

			The doctors take his leg. They slice through it like meat for a butcher. The hospital assigns him a companion to help with his recovery. A companion is not a nurse, they say, but someone who keeps you company in the aseptic, miserable rooms. Grace visits, but she is not a companion to Colonel. She is an unwanted witness to his weakened state.

			The companion’s name is Ximena Martínez.

			She stays with Colonel while Grace juggles working at the tea room and graduate classes. When she makes her daily appearance at the hospital, Ximena is always there, sitting at Colonel’s side reading a book or texting on her phone or engrossed in a telenovela on the hospital’s mounted TV. She gives Grace a smile when she comes in. Sharone is usually there, too, and they leave to let Grace and Colonel have their fifteen minutes of stunted conversation alone.

			“I’ll call your Mom back,” Sharone murmurs quietly on her way out, squeezing Grace’s shoulder. “She’s been worried about you, too.”

			“Porter,” Colonel says once they are alone. He looks more like himself each day. Grace hadn’t recognized the drugged up, pain-ridden man that inhabited this hospital bed before. He says, “You know you don’t have to come visit every day. I’m sure your studies keep you decently engaged.”

			Decently engaged, he says, like Grace doesn’t spend every stolen minute at work shoving printed words into her eyeballs. Math and science and numbers and the minutiae of the universe in perfect size-twelve font for her consumption.

			“It’s nothing,” Grace says. Sharone comes every day, and he never tests her resolve to visit. “Porters have a responsibility to family,” she says, like a recitation.

			Colonel lies back in the hospital bed and makes a satisfied noise. He glances toward the TV, still in Spanish. “That girl,” he says. “I don’t understand her.”

			“Ximena?” she asks. “She’s supposed to keep you company.”

			“Unnecessary,” Colonel says, voice bland. His hair and beard have grown out. He looks unkempt and human. “She keeps turning on these soap operas. I can’t understand them, but she seems to find them riveting.”

			Grace had a roommate in undergrad who watched telenovelas religiously. She came back to the dorm between classes and found herself immersed in story lines that were universal in content, if not language.

			“They’re not bad,” she says. He watches the drama unfold with poorly disguised interest. “Do you want me to turn it up?” She is careful to keep her amusement to herself.

			Colonel looks at her. His face has never given much away, but she sees his eye twitch. “Give me the remote, Porter,” he says, “and then get out.”

			Grace smiles and slides the remote over. She pauses for a moment, as she does every time she leaves. Should she hug him? Should she rest her hand on the thin gown that covers him up and reassure him she’ll be back tomorrow?

			I love you, Dad, she pictures herself saying. Get some rest, Dad. It’ll be okay, Dad.

			She sighs and lugs her backpack over her shoulder. If she hurries, she can eat in the hospital cafeteria before class. Maybe she has time to look over her research notes. She hovers in the doorway. She will leave, and Colonel will still fight his shadows. There are no words of reassurance for that.

			“Good night, Porter,” he says finally, and she ducks her head and hurries out. She hears him huff and shift in the bed. “Turn this TV up, my ass,” he mutters, but as Grace leaves, the volume goes up. Slowly, but it does.

			She looks for a table in the cafeteria. She has work to review for class, and research for Professor MacMillan’s lab, and an opening shift at the tea room tomorrow. There will likely be no sleep, so she takes solace in the quiet now. Not a substitute, but all she has come to expect.

			Ximena is sitting at a corner table. She has a book on her knees, something small and worn, and she smiles at Grace when she walks over.

			“Hello, army brat,” she says. “You can sit down if you want. You’re better company than the tech that keeps trying to touch my hair. It’s like she wants to die or something.”

			Grace sits. Ximena is in those lavender scrubs, and she smells like sharp, chemical soap and something soft and calming, like jasmine. She wears her hair in two haphazard buns, some of the textured curls framing her face. She looks warm and kind under the constellation of freckles. Grace can see why Colonel likes her.

			“Reading anything good?” Grace asks. She holds her bag across her chest like a shield.

			Ximena sets the book down. “Trying to read more Afro-Dominican women authors. Gotta support my culture, you know,” she says. “You speak Spanish?”

			“Sorry, no,” Grace says, and then, to fill the silence that makes her skin prickle, “I’m Grace, by the way. Or Porter. Whichever.”

			Ximena nods, but she takes her book and sits back. “I know,” she says. “Colonel talks about you all the time.”

			Grace blinks. “He talks to you?”

			Ximena shrugs, playing with her food. “Not much,” she says. “But he says you’re busy with school. Says you’re gonna be a big-time doctor soon. I figured maybe I should shoot my shot and see if you’re single and rich.”

			Grace huffs. “Not quite.” She turns her textbook around. “I’m getting my master’s in astronomy. Then starting my doctorate in the fall.” In a fit of courage, she plucks a fry from Ximena’s plate. “I think he’s still in the denial phase.”

			“That’s too bad,” Ximena says. “He talked you up real good. Are you at least single? I can work with a doctorate.”

			Grace feels her face heat up. Ximena watches her, openly teasing. “I don’t have time for—girls.” She gestures at Ximena’s plate. “I barely have time to eat.”

			Ximena pushes her food over. “Eat, then,” she says. “And maybe you can tell me about—” she tilts her head to look at Grace’s notes “—vector light fields. Talk dirty to me, baby.”

			She lets Grace eat her cold fries and the other half of her sandwich. Grace talks astronomy to her, and Ximena listens. This is how it begins.

			Ximena waits for her when she leaves Colonel’s hospital room. They eat lunch or dinner at their table in the cafeteria. She sits on the same side as Grace and asks, “What, do you work at Starbucks or something? Why do you always smell like Canelita tea?”

			They get comfortable with the weight of each other. Ximena invites Grace to her apartment after she gets out of class, and they stay up late watching straight people on Hallmark.

			Ximena practices her tarot readings on Grace, her face lit up by the blue light of the TV.

			“My tia taught me this,” she says, carefully setting up the deck. “She’s a real badass witch, like does hexes and shit.” Grace watches, fascinated. “Okay, what I think it’s saying is you’re going to meet important people.” She stares at the cards. “They’re going to change you.”

			Grace, who is going over her notes after class as usual, fights back a smile, huddled on Ximena’s ratty couch.

			“Important people, huh,” she says, and Ximena looks up and meets her eyes. “I could see that, yeah.”

			Meanwhile, Colonel’s leg starts to heal. He gets fitted for a titanium contraption that he hates. He grips her hand as it sets into place, showing pain that Grace wonders if she will ever see from him again. There is sweat on his forehead, dripping down his temples, when he attempts to stand on it for the first time. Afterward, Ximena sits next to Grace until she stops shaking, and Raj comes to pick her up.

			Ximena and Grace move in together, pooling their meager funds to rent a two bedroom with a shitty balcony and an ugly cactus. Grace comes home to face masks in the kitchen over cheap wine. She comes home to review her notes cross-legged on the toilet seat while Ximena soaks her aching feet in the tub and makes Grace read the passages out loud. Grace builds her own contented universe away from Colonel and Sharone and that big, quiet house.

			And then, they meet Agnes.

			Ximena comes home late. Her eyes are swollen and red and her arms have red scratches on them. She collapses on their ratty, terrible couch, and Grace presses close.

			She says, “They put me with a new patient today. I was in the psychiatric ward.” She grabs Grace’s hand and one of them, maybe both of them, are shaking. “Her name is Agnes. Agnes Ivanova.” She breathes out the name like it’s important, like Agnes is important.

			“Hey,” Grace says softly, pushing into the little V-crook of Ximena’s legs. “Hey, I’m here. I’m here, okay?”

			“I know,” Ximena says, like it’s something that will always be true. Planets will form, and life will bloom and die, and stars will fold in on themselves, and Grace will be right here. “I knew it that first day we talked, you remember? You were so stressed and scared, and I just wanted to make you feel better. Like, some part of my brain said mine. And that was it.”

			Grace presses her face into Ximena’s stomach. Soft and warm and trembling with each breath. “I know,” she says quietly. “You’re mine, too. I know. I love you so much it hurts.” That’s what they said to each other, because that’s how it felt, the connection that blossomed.

			“Love you so much it hurts,” Ximena says, like the words were waiting. She takes a breath. “She tried to—I mean she has these—” She holds out her wrists, and Grace can imagine all the life that pulses blue underneath them. How easily it bleeds out. “I mean they’re bandaged, but that doesn’t mean they just go away, you know? And she has the same look on her face. The same—you know, Porter.”

			They don’t talk about it. It is buried in the hollow of Grace’s ribs, in the back corners of her mind, the dark, anxious pit of her stomach. Ximena doesn’t ask why Grace claws at her skin, scratching until she is settled by the sting. Grace wonders, during school and work and the future-in-flux looming ahead, how long she can withstand the sting before it just—stops. How long she can burn before there’s nothing left. How long a thing can be buried before it combusts.

			Sometimes she hears sickly sweet voices that tell her she will never make her family proud, that she’s wasted years chasing something she will never get to reach. The ones that curl and sour in her stomach when she stares at the ceiling in the middle of the night.

			They ask, Why are you here? Why do you deserve good?

			“Yeah,” Grace says, finally answering Ximena. “I know.”

			“None of the other companions will stay with her,” Ximena says. “She’s mean, and she’s sharp, and she knows how to make you hurt, just like she does.” She looks at Grace. “She’s mine, Porter. Just like you. I just know.”

			The thing is, it is Grace and Ximena against the world. Things may get very big and very dark, and they are very small in front of them. But even on the worst days, Grace likes their odds together. The way she sees it, another person, a girl with teeth and claws and hurt, can only make them stronger.

			“Okay,” Grace says. “Tell me about her.”

			Ximena does. Three is a good number against the world, it turns out.





Five


			Grace can’t sleep.

			It’s four in the morning, and she stares at the glow-in-the-dark stars on her ceiling. She wonders if somewhere else, a girl with rosebud cheeks and a trail of spell herbs clinging to her, is staring at a ceiling, too. Unsure of her place in the world but reassured, somehow, by the weight of a warm key against her chest.

			There is someone, Ximena or Agnes or both, on the balcony. Grace thinks about telling them about the secret she holds. I did more than just hang out, she could say. I danced under lights and swore solemn vows to a rosebud girl I don’t know, but I think I want to.

			Her career and the gatekeepers she has to face fill her with dread, but these, a gold ring and a calling card she keeps under pillow, do not.

			The balcony creaks, and she makes a decision. There is only so much you can hold until you are holding too much. Grace can let this go. This one thing.

			She gets up.

			The apartment is dark. Grace navigates it with no lights, not wanting to disturb the fragile peace. If she turns on the lights, it will all be real, and she will have to say it and not just whisper it under the quiet beam of streetlights.

			She climbs out the small door. The balcony isn’t really a balcony. It’s a black steel contraption, just sturdy enough to hold all three of them snugly.

			“Hi,” she says, climbing out and seeing Agnes. “I didn’t know who I was going to find out here.”

			“Couldn’t sleep,” Agnes says. She’s at the edge, legs swinging against the creaky metal. “Still want some company?”

			“I guess you’ll do.” Grace sits down. Agnes smells like smoke and chamomile, and the shadowed half-moons under her eyes speak of nightmares. “Want to talk about it?”

			Agnes shrugs. “Not really? My therapist would say that’s not productive, but I did actually think about sharing for a moment, so I’m counting it as a goddamn success.”

			Grace laughs and moves closer. “If you count it as a success, then it’s a goddamn success.”

			They bump fists, and Agnes’s face peeks out from under the comforter around her shoulders. “What about you?” she asks. “Anything you want to share with the class?”

			The universe says, This is it, places, everyone. The universe says, This is your time. Grace says, “I got married in Vegas,” and the world doesn’t end.

			Agnes blinks. “Whoa,” she says. “Are we really doing this now? Shit, I thought we were going to actually have to stage an intervention to get you to talk.”

			“Agnes,” Grace says, staring down at the empty streets.

			Agnes leans in. She is small, too-skinny. Her bleach-blond hair in its sharp, blunt cut doesn’t make her look soft or approachable. She is neither, but she moves closer, and Grace takes it. She takes her edges and her sharpness and turns them into things that feel safe.

			“You’re being serious?”

			“Do I look serious?”

			“I can’t tell if you’re being serious,” Agnes shoots back. “I saw the picture in your hotel room, okay? You know that. But, like, you didn’t, right? You didn’t.”

			Grace pulls out her necklace. The gold ring glints under the moonlight. “I got married,” she says. She lets out a disbelieving, hysterical laugh. “I spent eleven years proving that I was the perfect daughter. I worked day and night to prove myself to everyone. Because that was my perfect, clear-cut plan. And then one night I got drunk-married in Las Vegas to a total stranger, and here I am.”

			Agnes stares like she is looking at an impostor. “Ximena!” she yells suddenly, and the alley cats start to scatter. The distant sound of dogs barking echoes up to them. Lights flicker on, and someone from the complex across from them raps on their window.

			“You cannot scream,” Grace says. “Jesus Christ.”

			“Had to,” Agnes says. “This requires backup.”

			Ximena sticks her head out the sliding door. Half her face is wrinkled with sleep. “What the hell are you doing?” she asks. “You need tea?”

			Agnes holds up her mug.

			“Alcohol?”

			Agnes pulls a flask from underneath her covers, and Ximena laughs. “Okay,” she says, “so we’re covered on both fronts. Why are you screaming?”

			She shoves between the two of them, their solid and steady person. They lean on her, and she lets them.

			“Hey,” she says quietly. “Who’s having the crisis?”

			“For once,” Agnes says, “it’s not me.” She sticks her tongue out at Grace. “Go ahead, Porter. Tell Mom what you did.”

			Grace blinks. “You know,” she starts, “for someone who follows Ximena around like a lovesick, useless bisexual, you sure do have the weirdest pet names for her.”

			Ximena moves as if she expected Agnes to lash out, claws formed. Agnes squirms in her grip, and Ximena giggles as Grace leans away. “Calm down, Aggie,” she says, voice gentle and soft and open, like it was the first few months Agnes started living with them, eyes haunted and wary. “God, I think you scratched me.”

			Agnes huffs. She makes a show of covering herself back up until only her ice-blue eyes are showing. She glares at Grace. “Fine,” she says. “I was trying to be a supportive friend, but that’s canceled now. Grace got drunk-married in Vegas.”

			“Asshole,” Grace hisses, and Agnes grins with all her teeth.

			Grace looks at Ximena. She is Grace’s steady thing, her roots digging into the earth like an orange grove tree. Grace waits and Ximena’s fingers tangle in her own. I’m here, they say. Give me a minute, I’m here.

			Grace folds up and digs nails into her palm. “Please don’t be mad. I know it was stupid.”

			Ximena pulls Grace in. Tucked into her tight, unrelenting grip, Grace tries to calm herself, desperate and trembling. “Hey, you’re fine.”

			“I can’t believe this,” Grace gasps out. The words tumble into Ximena’s pajamas. All their fear and fright embedded into cotton fabric. “I fucked up so bad. Colonel’s gonna kill me. I’m supposed to—I’m supposed to—”

			“Shut up for a second,” Ximena says. She hums, this hushed, calming sound. Grace has heard it before. She hears it when she catches Ximena at work humming a tune to her last, sleeping patient. She hears it in the mornings, while Ximena peters around the kitchen, and they both pretend to ignore Agnes staring angrily at her meds before she takes them in a fit of spite.

			Grace trembles and Grace shakes and Ximena hums, sings this lullaby that they have come to recognize as safe. Agnes reaches out, gently scratches at Grace’s back. The sensation makes her shiver.

			“You good?” Ximena asks, and Grace nods. “Positive? You don’t have to be good yet.” She taps a finger four times against Grace’s pulse. Love. You. So. Much. Love you so much it hurts.

			“I’m good,” she croaks out, but she doesn’t move from her spot. Ximena is warm; her steadiness comes with roots that are old and ancient and long. “Sorry.”

			“Don’t apologize,” Ximena says. “Just tell us how you went from drunk to married and didn’t say anything.”

			It’s been weeks of staring at the ceiling, counting the stars instead of sleeping. In between searching open job positions and fruitlessly closing the tabs, she memorizes the words that were written on the hotel’s stationery. She memorizes them with her fingers until their ink starts to stain her own hands.

			She says, “It was the girl from the bar. The girl that bought me a drink. Nobody’s ever—” Been so into me. Leaned in close, but not too close. Asked if it was okay, like Grace could decide and not have to follow a plan for the night. “She was pretty. She was funny. We danced, and I was so fucking drunk, but it wasn’t bad, you know?”

			“She was nice,” Ximena says absently, like she has the night playing out in her head, too. “She seemed nice. We tried to make sure.”

			“We did,” Agnes murmurs. “Ximena even let me put my knife in my pocket and not my boot.”

			“Absolutely not the point,” Ximena says. “We’re listening right now.”

			“What about me?” Agnes whines. “What about my problems? I don’t get married in Vegas, and suddenly I don’t matter?”

			“Are you done?”

			“Yeah.” Agnes sighs. “We’re listening, Porter,” she says, nails returning to gently scratch down Grace’s spine.

			Grace shrugs. “We danced. We talked. She was a little mean, but like, in a good way.”

			She gets lost in the memory. “There were people everywhere. Street performers and food vendors and tourists. We bought some flowers and tucked them behind our ears. We were so drunk.”

			Ximena and Agnes are quiet, and Grace tries to paint it, the hazy dream of it all.

			“She kissed me, or maybe I kissed her. We didn’t want it to end, so—we made it forever, I guess. I woke up, and it felt like I had dreamed her up.”

			“I believe you,” Ximena says, hushed, as if she can see Grace’s memories. They are fragile. Grace worries they might fade if she looks at them too long.

			“Me, too,” Agnes says, voice rough and low.

			Grace traces the gold wedding band.

			She puts her knees up and curls up small. “I’ve had my whole life planned out for so long. What school I was going to, what I was going to study, what job I was going to get. I feel like I don’t know how to make my own choices anymore,” she confesses. “But I met a girl, and I had fun, and I felt good. I chose that. And she chose me.”

			It was easy to miss someone you don’t really remember. Maybe not the filled-in parts of them: their name, if they kicked in their sleep, if they really kissed you before they disappeared out of the hotel room. But, it was easy to miss the outline of them: their laughter and their sea-salt skin and the traces of magic they left.

			“Fuck,” Agnes says eventually. They laugh, the three of them, in disbelief and awe of the tale that has been spun. It feels like a fairy tale, a Cinderella story, but instead of a shoe, Grace has been left with a note and a radio frequency she has been too afraid to tune into. “You really don’t do things by halves.”

			“I know,” Grace says. “I’m terrible. I’m the worst. Who just gets married? Who does that?”

			Ximena waves her hands. “Okay,” she says. “Okay, existential crisis later. You’re married,” she stresses, “and you have no idea who this girl is or how to get in touch with her?”

			Grace moves out of their embrace. The note and business card are plucked out of her hoodie, and Agnes snatches them away and holds them between her and Ximena like a treasure map. Her mouth moves along to the words that Grace knows by heart.

			“Holy shit,” Agnes breathes out. “It’s so romantic. I feel sick.”

			Ximena rereads it. “Do you have your phone, Porter?” she asks slowly.

			“Yeah? Here.”

			Ximena’s fingers tap rapidly as she reads off the front of the card.

			“Wait,” Grace says. “You’re not really—you’re not looking up her radio show?”

			“Yes, I am,” is the answer that comes. “I want to know everything about this girl.” She puts the phone down. “How the hell haven’t you looked her up yet?”

			“I don’t know,” Grace says. “What if—” What if reality is not like the champagne-pink dream? What if this, too, does not turn out how I planned? What if I am once again too brown and too gold and not the right fit? “What if she regrets it?”

			Ximena moves closer, close enough that their knees touch. “Baby,” she says, playing with the coils of Grace’s Bantu knots. “What if she doesn’t?”

			“Found her,” Agnes cuts in, still curled up under her blanket. “She wasn’t lying. The radio show has a dot net domain. That’s downright spooky.”

			“Fine.” Grace leans over. “Fine, let me see.”

			ARE YOU THERE?

			brooklyn’s late-night show for lonely creatures

			& the supernatural. sometimes both.

			99.7 FM

			There’s a picture of the host. Yuki Yamamoto, it says. The sea-salt girl. The girl that left traces of bitter herbs in the hotel bed before she sneaked out. She has weird circular glasses and short black hair and a jeweled septum piercing. Your conduit to community, her caption reads.

			“Question,” Agnes says, scrolling up and down the page. “Did you marry a fucking ghost hunter? Does she, like, perform exorcisms when normal people in Brooklyn would do hip-hop yoga?”

			Grace laughs. There she is: the rosebud girl.

			“Slow down,” Ximena complains. “How can we read if you’re flying through the pages like that?”

			“There’s not much to look at,” Agnes says. “Bio page, an About Us, ooh, look, past episodes.”

			“We can’t,” Grace says.

			“Oh, babe,” Ximena says, linking their fingers. “We totally can.”

			“Yes,” Agnes hisses. “Can we listen to one now?”

			Ximena looks at Grace. “I think we should,” she says carefully. “I think you should. But it’s your wife, your life, your decision.”

			Agnes huffs. “Why would you read Porter her rights like that?”

			Grace gives in. “Oh my God, just do it.”

			“Doing it.” Agnes presses Play on the most recent episode.

			“Are you there?”

			It’s Yuki’s voice, as clear as Grace remembers. Not sweetened by alcohol or swallowed in a laugh. It’s just her, Yuki, coming through the tinny speaker of Grace’s phone.

			“Are you there?” she asks. “It’s me, Yuki, and for the next hour, you are not alone.”

			It’s intimate and quiet and if Grace closes her eyes, Yuki could be right beside her.

			“Tonight, I want to talk about the sea,” she says. “Is that okay?” She pauses, as if waiting for someone, anyone, maybe even Grace, to answer. “Good. I want to talk about the sea and its dark depths and foaming, white tides and its swelling, hungry waves. The sea isn’t inherently supernatural, or even scary. But it holds many unknowns.” Her voice quiets. “Sometimes unknowns are the scariest things of all, aren’t they?”

			Yes, Grace thinks. They are.

			“Tonight,” Yuki continues, “I had a listener write in about sirens. So that’s what I’m going to talk about. Sirens.”

			Somewhere in the distance, a truck rumbles by. It nears dawn, and things begin to creak awake.

			“Sirens started as a Greek myth,” Yuki says. “It’s a woman, well, half woman, half bird. It’s a creature who rested and waited and preyed upon the deep sea, whose great big lungs created sounds that lured in those who dared breach the blue. These creatures lured people under the water so sweetly they didn’t even feel the burn of salt water in their chests, filling them up from the inside out.

			“But this is not,” she says, “just about the origins of sirens. It is about the evolution of sirens, the modern-day existence of sirens and the things used to lure us in.”

			She pauses, and her captive audience waits.

			“I think they must be lonely,” Yuki says. “I think anything that waits and sings from the very bottom, the very pit of their stomach, is a very lonely creature indeed.” The dead air wouldn’t work on any other radio show, but for Yuki, it becomes space to absorb her words.

			“And I think,” she continues, “that those who venture, traveling through the water toward their song, must be very lonely, too. I think lonely creatures ache for each other because who else can understand but someone who feels the same dark, black abyss?”

			Who else, Grace wonders, can understand loneliness if not someone who sits in solitude all their own?

			“I think there must be a different song for each person. I think a siren must peer into the very soul of a lonely creature to understand what brings them closer. What song makes lonely creatures step further, toes then ankles then knees and deeper, until they are nothing but a sinking thing that a song can no longer reach?

			“I have a question for all the lonely creatures out there,” Yuki says near the end of her show. Grace doesn’t know where the time has gone. Yuki’s tale of sirens is like its own song that Grace is unable to pull away from. With her two best friends, she feels like their grip on her hands is the only thing keeping her steady.

			“My question to all the lonely creatures out there is, who is your siren? Who is your fellow lonely creature who sees into the very core of you and knows which song to sing? What song do they sing for you, and do you follow? What would happen if you did?

			“We are all lonely creatures in our own way,” Yuki admits. “That’s where I’ll end tonight. I have one last thing. If you’ve been following along, you guys will know I’m hoping there is someone out there that’s listening. Someone who glows like bee honey and has golden hair that spreads out when she’s sleeping, like a halo. Someone who shares a key with me, perhaps a key to the messy, ridiculous core of me, but me, nonetheless.”

			Grace’s breath hitches. Yuki is talking to her. She is the bee honey. She reaches a hand to the key under her shirt. Yuki is talking about Grace, to Grace, lonely creature to lonely creature.

			“If you’re out there, Honey Girl, I am singing you a song. It’s a good song. It won’t lure you to the depths of the ocean. It’s a song that leads you just to me, I think, if you’re listening. This has been Are You There?, and I am Yuki. Sleep tight, everyone.”





Six


			Before, Grace had been afraid to hope for the best about her champagne-fizz wedding. The girl who clung to her hand and kissed her gently and climbed through flower bushes to click a lock into place may not have matched her memory. But hearing Yuki’s voice, hearing her call for a girl that glows like bee honey and talk so intimately about loneliness, sparks something brave and warm in Grace.

			She finds herself hoping, desperately and passionately, for this to be good. For Yuki to be good.

			She has a phone number Agnes found somehow and tries to find the courage to press Dial.

			“What are you doing?” Meera asks, and Grace jolts from her thoughts.

			“I’m still on break,” she says. She holds her phone up to her chest, suddenly possessive. “I have, like, fifteen more minutes.”

			Meera blinks. “Relax,” she says. “Not even Baba cares if you go over your break. You’re his favorite.” She squeezes into the space where Grace is hiding. “Whatcha doing?” she asks again.

			Grace exhales. She still has to tell Meera and Raj. Soon. But she wants to call Yuki first.

			“I have to make a phone call,” she says. “It’s mildly terrifying, and not for the normal ‘I have to talk on the phone’ reasons.”

			Meera frowns. “Is it for a job?”

			Grace sighs. “Don’t tell anyone this,” she says. “But I got an email from a recruiter. He said my research seemed impressive.” Grace’s initial joy at the interest had quickly turned sour as she kept reading. She deleted the email as soon as she was done, but it still leaves her bitter and angry. “He also had some questions about my listed membership with the Black STEM Group and the queer group I started in the astronomy doctorate program.” She shakes her head. “I’m trying not to think about jobs right now.”

			“You know they’re full of shit, right?” Meera asks. She wraps an arm around Grace. “You deserve better than some place that doesn’t want you in all your glory.”

			Grace turns her head so she can fully wrap herself in Meera’s hug. “Thank you,” she mutters into her kurti. Today the fabric is sun yellow and orange with stripes of green. It makes her look like summer. “Same goes for you. You’re going to be a dope-ass psychologist one day.”

			“I know,” Meera says, smiling. “Okay, so it’s not a job that has you anxious right now.” She traces the inflamed nail imprints in Grace’s palms. “What is it?”

			Sirens, Grace thinks. Girls who stand below the surface to sing you a song. They have flowers behind their ears. Their eyes are dark. They know you, the deepest part of you.

			She doesn’t get to answer before her phone buzzes with a text.

			Agnes

			12:47 p.m.

			did you do it

			Agnes

			12:47 p.m.

			who am i kidding

			of course you didn’t

			Agnes

			12:48 p.m.

			DO IT

			“Supportive as ever,” Meera says, reading the texts. She untangles herself, tidying up the errant strands loose from her braid. “I’ll cover for you, okay? Do the scary phone thing.”

			“You don’t even know what it is,” Grace says. She frowns as Meera moves to leave. Maybe it would be easier with someone here, someone to hold her hand and coax the words up from the pit of her stomach.

			“I have tact sometimes.” Meera shrugs. “Besides, the Grace Porter I know isn’t afraid of anything. I’m giving you some time to get your shit together before I bombard you with more questions. See how nice I am?”

			“A saint,” Grace tells her, only kidding a little. “Thanks, M.”

			Meera sticks her tongue out, and the kitchen door swings shut behind her.

			The Grace Porter I know isn’t afraid of anything.

			The Grace Porter Grace knows is afraid of many things. She is afraid of disappointing people. She is afraid of straying from her carefully curated life plan. She is afraid of being a brown, gold, bee-honey lesbian in an academic industry all too willing to overlook the parts of her that don’t make sense to them. She is afraid of hearing her rosebud girl on the other end of her phone.

			But she is a Porter, and Porters do what needs to be done. She dials.

			Someone answers, first with an unsure breath and then with a hesitant, “Hello?” and Grace is tongue-tied.

			“Hello?” Yuki’s voice turns wary and impatient and she says, “Anybody there?”

			Grace takes a deep breath, like one does before jumping into the water. “Hello,” she says. “This is Grace Porter.”

			A silence. “Hi, Grace Porter. Do I know you?”

			“You do,” Grace says. Her fingers clench around her phone. “We, um. We got married in Las Vegas?”

			“Fuck,” Yuki says under her breath. “Hold on, okay? Jesus, just hold on. I thought you were a fucking bill collector, and I was ready to scam my way into debt forgiveness. I’m at work. Hold on.”

			Grace holds on and hears the background noise of what sounds like a restaurant. There’s the faint buzz of a crowd, the clink of dishes and kitchen timers that remind Grace of the ones at the tea room.

			“Can you cover for me?” Yuki says to someone. “For like fifteen minutes. Yeah, I need that long, Christ.” A door creaks, and there’s the noise from outside. Wind and car horns and foot traffic. “New Yorkers,” Yuki mutters. “You don’t live here, right?”

			Grace blinks. “No,” she says, settling into the crook of her little corner. “I live in Portland. I don’t really think it’s the same.”

			“It sounds like a dream,” Yuki says, a little laugh catching over the line. “So, Grace Porter. I’m guessing you know my name?”

			Grace nods and remembers Yuki can’t actually see her. “Yeah. Yes. I, um, I looked up your show. Your radio show.”

			Yuki whines. “That’s humiliating,” she says. “I left you that note and my business card like a total asshole. I don’t even know why I have business cards. I think there might have been a discount.”

			Out front, Meera and Baba Vihaan laugh. There’s the faint clank of teacups against saucers, and for a moment it’s like Grace and Yuki are in the same space. They are in the same kitchen with the same plates clinking against each other.

			“It was cute,” she says quietly. “It was. No one’s ever done that for me.”

			“What?” Yuki asks. “Nobody’s ever made a total ass of themselves the morning after they got married to you in Vegas?”

			“Nope,” she says. “You’re the first.”

			Yuki makes a satisfied little noise. “Congratulations,” she says. “You married an innovator.”

			It’s quiet. Maybe it’s that word. Married, said aloud in an alleyway, in a deserted kitchen, between two coasts. Married. It makes her laugh. She laughs like she has buzzing fireflies tickling her ribs.

			“What?” Yuki demands. She sounds so petulant. “What’s so funny?”

			Grace smiles. “Married,” she says lightly. “I mean. That happened. What the fuck?”

			“What the fuck?” Yuki agrees. “I came home, and it felt like—” She pauses here, and in the stillness, Grace catches dozens of words unsaid.

			“What?” Grace asks, suddenly desperate to be let into Yuki’s thoughts.

			“It felt like a dream,” Yuki confesses quietly. “It felt like one of the stories I talk about on my show, you know? Like, there’s no way I married this beautiful girl and was so fantastically happy, and it was real.”

			“It felt like that for me, too,” Grace tells her, like a secret. “In my head you—”

			“Tell me,” Yuki presses.

			“You bloomed,” Grace says. “In my head you bloomed like the flowers that were stuck in my hair. You had—you had rosebuds, growing on your cheeks, you know? That’s all I could think about. The girl who bloomed roses. The girl who held my hand and danced with me and—”

			“Got married to you,” Yuki finishes. “That was mad beautiful, Grace Porter. I almost hate to tell you the roses you’re imagining were probably just the Asian flush. Not half as romantic.”

			Grace laughs. “That makes you more real and less like the champagne-bubble girl in my head.”

			“Champagne-bubble girl,” Yuki says softly. “Cute. You were Honey Girl in mine. When I pictured you, it was just honey, everywhere. I woke up next to you, and I swear it was like buzzing bees. That sounds ridiculous.”

			“A little,” Grace admits, and Yuki lets out an indignant “Hey.” “It was just my hair,” she says, separating her curls with careful fingers. “It’s not blonde, not brown. It’s gold,” she says. “My mom used to say the sun took a liking to me.”

			Yuki hums, and Grace relaxes. “Sounds like something moms say,” she answers. “Do you think she was right?”

			“About what?”

			“The sun,” Yuki says impatiently. “Do you think it took a liking to you?”

			“No more than anyone else,” Grace says.

			There’s shuffling and noise again, like Yuki’s opened the door back to the real world. “I don’t know, Grace Porter. It would be nice to be married to someone like that.” Her voice goes muffled. “Yeah, yeah, I know it was longer than I said. Hold on a goddamn minute.”

			“Someone like what?” Grace asks, terrified suddenly that if they hang up, it will be for good.

			“Chosen by the sun,” Yuki says, like it’s the simplest thing in the world. “Honey gold, melted sweet under the summer sun. Real poetic, you know? Oh my God, I said I’m coming.”

			“Yes,” Grace says, listening to Yuki move farther and farther away. “That does sound nice.”

			“You’ll do for now,” Yuki tells her. “Listen, I have to get back to work. Can I—can I call you? Next time?”

			Grace lets out a breath, and in it, the fear begins to dissolve.

			“You can call me,” she says. “We can take turns.”

			“Marriage is all about compromise. I gotta go.”

			“Okay.” Grace closes her eyes. “I’ll talk to you soon?”

			“Isn’t that what I said?” Yuki teases. “I’m hanging up now. We can’t be one of those couples that banter instead of hanging up.”

			“We’re a couple?”

			“We’re married,” Yuki says, and the word starts to sound familiar. “And I’m hanging up, Grace Porter.”

			“I’m hanging up, too, Yuki Yamamoto.”

			“That’s cute,” Yuki says. “Is that going to be our thing?”

			“This is starting to sound like banter,” Grace points out.

			Yuki hangs up.

			Grace saves the number in her phone.



* * *



			“Come home with me,” Grace says to Raj and Meera after their shift.

			Ximena and Agnes are out on one of their totally not-a-date dates, so Grace has the apartment to herself. Baba Vihaan lets them go early. Raj piggybacks Meera on the walk home, and they all tumble into Grace’s bed and put on the comfy clothes they keep in a drawer for nights like this.

			“What’s up, Gracie?” Raj asks. His hair has been put into a neat bun on top of his head, and the face mask they concocted in the kitchen cracks when he speaks. “Not that I don’t love sleepovers with you two.”

			Meera curls up on Grace’s lap, buried under the covers. “I’m sensing some sarcasm there, Rajesh,” she murmurs. “Some big brother you are.”

			Grace reaches out for both of them. They are her family, the ones she found and made and kept. “I want you to listen to something with me,” she says, heart pounding too fast in her chest. “And you have to—you have to promise you won’t be mad.”

			“I promise,” Meera says immediately.

			Raj squints. “Why would we be mad?”

			“Raj.”

			He shuts his eyes and leans back against the pillows. “I’m not promising,” he says. “But I will try to keep an open mind. I am filled with empathy and compassion and have never judged another person in my life. Let’s hear it.”

			Meera pinches him, but he stays stubbornly still.

			Grace sighs and glances at the time on her laptop. She felt brave when she asked them over. She felt in control. Now she feels pink-raw and vulnerable.

			She exhales and watches the little audio player load on her computer. “Okay,” she says. “Okay.”

			A pause, and then, there it is: Yuki’s voice, quiet and spooky and a lonely, lost creature.

			“Hello, my fellow late-nighters,” she says. “I want to say hello to a special late-nighter in particular, one that I hope is listening. In fact, she is the one that inspired me for tonight’s show. Are you there?”

			Grace grabs Meera’s hand. Raj leans closer, intrigued. Above them, Grace’s glow-in-the-dark stars shine neon green and alien. Grace has counted them hundreds of times, trying to follow them to sleep, but tonight she follows them to a voice of a girl who transports her somewhere new and terrifying.

			“If you’re listening, Honey Girl, this is for you, okay? You said something to me. Or, actually, your mother said something to you. She said the sunlight was drawn to you. She said the sunlight loved you so much it had to infuse some of itself in you where everyone could see, and that’s why your hair burns gold and melts into the bedsheets like bee honey.”

			Grace holds her breath. One, two, three, four. Exhale.

			“I asked you,” Yuki says quietly to her audience, to Grace, “I asked you if you thought it was true, and you said you didn’t think the sun favored you more than anybody else. Well, I think that’s bullshit. I think that maybe your mother knew the sun was watching when you were born. I think the sun saw something in you, something bright all its own, and it picked you. It dripped sunrays from the top of your scalp to the very ends of your hair, and it made you fucking glow. I saw it. I saw you glow, and I—”

			Yuki pauses, her frantic, almost angry tone tumbling to a stop.

			It is so quiet. Grace does not breathe. Raj and Meera do not breathe.

			“I was scared,” Yuki says finally. “And I’m scared now, saying this to you over a local Brooklyn airwave. But you glowed, and I was drawn to it. You were warm, like a sunrise, and it killed me to leave the bed with you in it. You are orange and pink and brown-gold, and your mother was right, and you don’t even know.

			“I wonder,” Yuki asks quietly, “do you ever get scared like I do? Do you ever wonder how things will come together, and how things will fall apart? It seems bizarre to wonder so deeply about a stranger, but I have half of you in the ring on my finger, so I don’t think you are a stranger at all. I think you are a favored child of the sun, like your mother said. I think maybe she watched as the sun sent its blessing down to you. I think maybe she saw, over the years, as the rays grew and multiplied, until you were Medusa in your own right. There were not snakes that sprouted from your head, but sunlight like fire. But gold.

			“It makes me think of all the stories our parents have told us. Little magic things that we dismiss as their attempts to make us feel special. Lately, I’ve been thinking. What if we are special, and we just don’t know? What if the stories of things bigger and bolder reaching out to claim us are true? If you are favored, touched by the sun, what does that make me? Am I a creature, or favored by something big and magnificent, too?”

			Yuki laughs, and the sound echoes in Grace’s ears. Her heart pounds, and her fingers tremble, and her skin pimples with gooseflesh. Meera squeezes her hand hard.

			“God, I sound lovesick tonight, listeners. I met a girl, and when you meet a girl, you think too much, you know? But I hope she is listening. And I hope she knows next time is soon, and I have not forgotten that it is my turn.”

			The show goes on, but Grace cuts it off. The room is dark and silent. Meera does not let go, but if she did, Grace thinks she might just float up to the ceiling. Raj sits up, and Grace feels his eyes on her: inquisitive and sharp.

			“Don’t be mad,” she says. “It’s okay, it’s just—you can’t be mad.”

			“It’s okay,” he repeats. “Who was that girl? She was talking about you. She was talking about you like she knew you, like she, I don’t fucking know, fell in love with you, Gracie.”

			“Okay,” she cuts in, while Meera looks back and forth between them. “Stop. I—I met a girl in Vegas. We were drunk and silly and—” She taps her fingers against her arms. “She’s really nice, actually. And we got married.”

			“Wow.” Raj rubs his face, and flecks of his mask fall on the bed. “What is okay about getting drunk-married in Las Vegas? This is like that movie. That American one. What’s the movie?”

			“The Hangover,” Meera says.

			“The Hangover,” Raj repeats. “This is like that. Only it’s you and not a white guy I’ve never heard of. What did Colonel say?”

			“Didn’t tell him.”

			“Wow,” he says again, falling back on the bed. He stares at the ceiling like it will provide him with answers. “Ximena and Agnes?”

			“Surprisingly okay. Agnes asked me about tax benefits.”

			Raj turns to look at her, and she fights hard to keep her face blank. “And you?” he asks. “How are you?”

			“I’m fine,” she says evenly. She looks at both of them, both of their concerned faces. “I don’t know what you want me to say. I’ve never even thought of marriage, much less to someone I don’t know. But, here I am. It’s—” Nice, is what she wants to say. I don’t want to worry about this like I have to worry about everything else. “Okay,” she says again.

			“Divorce?”

			“No,” Grace says. “So Colonel can find out? He’d probably have to pay for it. Absolutely not, no. I haven’t even told my mom.”

			“Then, what? What’s next?”

			It’s the question that’s been circling Grace’s head. It keeps her up. What’s next? She knows, but taking that first step is terrifying. Taking your millionth step is scary. She feels like she has been taking steps for a long time.

			“I can handle it,” she says. She tries to smile, and Meera raises her eyebrows. “I’m a Porter. I’ll figure it out. Haven’t I always figured it out?”

			Raj opens his mouth, but Meera cuts him off. “If you think you can handle it, then you can. We just don’t want you to get hurt.”

			“I won’t,” she says. “She’s still a complete stranger. Maybe I just needed to realize things don’t have to be as planned out and rigid as I thought. Isn’t that a good thing?”

			“Okay,” Meera says. “We support you.”

			“She supports you,” Raj corrects. “Come help me wash this stuff off my face. I can’t judge you properly while I’m peeling.”

			It doesn’t have to be a big deal. It can just be a good thing for right now, the connection between two girls on opposite coasts. A siren and the one who stands ankle-deep at the shore.

			It can just be a good thing, while it lasts, and then Grace will fold it up like the hotel stationery that still smells like sea-salt magic. She will gather it up and hide it in the deep cavity of her chest, camouflaged under her heartbeat. It will be a good thing, a good memory.

			She has other things to worry about. Her future. Her job search. Her place in the vast, blue-black sky.

			“Coming?” Meera calls from the door. “You know he only lets you touch his face.”

			“Right behind you,” Grace says, and the echoes of Yuki’s words come with her. I think the sun saw something in you, something bright all on its own, and it picked you. She lets out a trembling breath and shuts the door firmly behind her.

			Late at night, when everyone is asleep, Grace crouches on the metal balcony under the moonlight.

			Yuki

			11:58 p.m.

			Goodnight grace porter, who i rmr

			shines like the sun is reaching out from

			the very core of her

			Grace

			12:00 a.m.

			goodnight yuki yamamoto, who tells

			stories like they were crafted within her,

			spun with magic

			and sea salt





Seven


			The hallways that lead to the labs and Professor MacMillan’s office echo under Grace’s feet. There is history in these halls. There is a younger Grace Porter, wide-eyed and determined and desperate to find a place that she carved out for herself.

			It is all in us, Professor MacMillan said of the bits and pieces collected in her office. These things, essentially small rocks and stones now, were once a part of the universe. I know many astronomers think I take a romantic approach to the science, but how can we not when presented with such grand facts? That something so small was once a part of something bigger than what our human brains can grasp?

			The younger Grace Porter tilted her head up. Up there, you see, where the stars drew a path and the comet fire lit the way? That was where she found her purpose. She fell in love with the stars, and she was going to follow where they led.

			Now, she’s twenty-eight years old and she’s reached the comet’s end. There is just Grace with a piece of paper to prove her academic merit and uncertainty eating at her insides like a black hole.

			No one told her astronomers, the ones that publish research every few months and get tenured at universities and navigate programs at NASA, that those astronomers don’t have sun-gold hair. They don’t have sun-browned skin. Those astronomers don’t have ancestors that looked at the stars as a means of escape and not in awe.

			“The prodigal student returns,” she hears, and the office door opens. “Grace Porter, in the flesh. It’s been months. Come in.”

			Professor MacMillan’s office is still the same. Same posters on the wall. Same plaques. Same bookshelves and encased pieces of the universe she’s used in her research. She is still the same: dark blue cat-eye glasses, the way she stares at Grace as if she can see through her.

			Grace is the one who has changed in the time since she’s been away. She felt victorious and proud standing in front of a panel of her professors after defending her thesis. She’d worked and climbed and fought, and she made it. There was nothing, no one, that could hold her back. Not her fear, not her uncertainty and especially not thin-lipped smiles that questioned her worth.

			Do you ever wonder how things fall apart? Perhaps it is here, like this, unsure of how to climb over barriers and walls and wondering, suddenly, if you should even try.

			“To be honest,” Professor MacMillan says, “I was wondering when I’d hear from you. I heard the interview in Seattle with Kunakin, Incorporated didn’t—” her lips twist “—go well.”

			Grace shrugs. She spent so many hours in this room, in this chair, going over the intricacies of the observable and unobservable world. Being here shouldn’t make her heart pound, her hands tremble, but it does.

			“That’s one way to put it,” Grace says. “What did they tell you?”

			Professor MacMillan tilts her head in thought. “You weren’t the right fit,” she says, and Grace feels a brief flare of spiteful satisfaction. “They also informed me this was in part because you walked out of the interview.” She crosses her arms and stares across her desk. “I told them that didn’t sound like you. What happened?”

			Grace has always admired Professor MacMillan. She is one of the few women that make up this department and the astronomers that constitute the Northwest Coast. She showed Grace the stars as if she could pluck them from the sky and hold them in her hand and said, See? You could do this, too. It was never said that Grace would have to climb farther, higher, but Grace knew. Grace knows. Still, it hurts.

			It hurts that Professor MacMillan thought she could get that job. It hurts that despite the anger that pushed her to leave the interview, she still wanted to get it, just to prove she could.

			“I wasn’t the right fit,” Grace says. “They made that clear, so I left. I don’t—” She stops herself because despite her frustrations, this is her mentor, her advisor. This is a person who opened her professional network to Grace, even if some of them are rotten. “I don’t want to work with anyone that makes me feel small. I’m a good astronomer with good qualifications.”

			Professor MacMillan frowns. “You are,” she agrees. “I know that. And you already know you have a place here in my lab.”

			“I know,” Grace says, cutting her off. She slumps in the chair. “I appreciate that, really. I just need to take a step back and figure out where I want to go. Where I want to be. I need to be the best and doing the best.”

			“Then take a step back,” her professor says. “When you knew you wanted to be an astronomer, what did you see that made you think this was the right choice for you?” Behind her are all the plaques she’s received for her work. Prestige hangs in each frame. This could be you one day, she told Grace once. You could do this, too.

			“It’s hard to remember,” Grace says. She was young and rebelling against someone else’s dream for her. Medicine was for someone else. “I saw me here,” she says. “I saw me becoming you one day. My own version.”

			“And what do you see now?” her professor asks.

			Closed doors, Grace thinks. Another mountain, another fence, another endless staircase to climb. The desire to be the best and prove it to herself and Colonel and anyone who thinks she should be hindered by things she cannot and will not let them control.

			“My first astronomy class,” she says instead, “do you remember what you told us?”

			“No,” Professor MacMillan says immediately. “But I’m assuming it’s the same spiel I give every year I teach that intro class. Remind me.”

			“You said you had romantic notions about this field,” Grace says abruptly, sitting up. “You said that the universe was old, and made up of many things. You said we were old, and that the universe made us up, too.” To her horror she feels her throat start to get tight. “If it is made up of me, and I am made up of it, I want my fair shot to see myself in it.” To stand beside its chaotic, hungry voids and fill them with her rage and her joy. Her fear and her hard-won courage. “I want the chance to be Dr. Porter, the right fit. The best fit.”

			Grace takes a trembling breath and presses her lips together. She will not let her discouragement break her spirit in this office. She will keep her dignity and save that for home. Her fingers clench in her lap, and she struggles to look at Professor MacMillan with an even gaze. It’s not fair, she wants to say. I worked my ass off to be the best. I am the best you have.

			“Okay,” Professor MacMillan says, like she is talking to something scared and rabid. “Okay. You’re frustrated, and I get that.” She leans in, voice gentling. “It can be a hard field to thrive in. More often than not I am the only woman working on a project. I am questioned and undermined despite my fair number of achievements. It can be hard, but it’s rewarding work. I wouldn’t put my weight behind you if I didn’t think you could do it.”

			Grace feels her eyes sting, and she blinks furiously. She wants the validation of her mentor, someone who has passed down her knowledge and expertise and contacts. She also wants to scream because the struggles Professor MacMillan faces in this field decades into her career are compounded threefold for Grace before she even begins. She grits her teeth until they hurt.

			She waits until she can say, “I know,” and the words came out as words should, and not as if they had to fight a battle to get there. “I know I can do it. I just need time to figure out how. Where exactly it is I want to be.”

			“It can be difficult,” Professor MacMillan says, “getting that first foot in the door. You’re not the first graduate to feel a little lost once they’re out in the real world. But—” She shrugs, leaning back in her chair. “If anyone was going to be the next me, I would be honored to share this mantle with you, Dr. Porter.”

			“Thank you,” Grace says quietly. She forces herself to meet Professor’s MacMillan’s eyes, as a peer and not a student. “Do you have any advice?”

			Professor MacMillan grimaces. Her gray hair and crow’s feet make her look tired. “Listen,” she says. “I’m a researcher first, and a professor and advisor second. I don’t have all the answers you might think I do.”

			“But you said I’m not the first.”

			“Of course, you’re not the first. You won’t be the last. I try to tell my students the same thing—be persistent, be dependable and don’t back down when you know you’re right. I know there are things that might make that harder for you. I wish I knew how to combat that.”

			“Me, too.”

			Professor MacMillan nods. “Listen, I’m not telling you anything groundbreaking, okay? You spent your undergrad, including your summers, knee-deep in astronomy. We saw kids come and go, but not you. You went straight into the master’s program and finished the PhD program faster than some people finish lunch. You’ve spent the past elev