Fifteen, quiet and inching her way through puberty. Meanwhile, her classmates shoot up like magic beanstalks, even the girls. Some don sparkling and definitely against-the-dress-code heels and jump a few inches in height: it seems to lend them a few hundred yards of confidence. Some girls can strut through the world. Ellie shoves her feet in her scuffed soft-toed sneakers and hides between bookshelves.
Fifteen and blank-faced and bespectacled: a freshman look. Ellie is shoved through high school’s corridors and keeps her books held tightly to her chest. She knows better than to think that she is invisible. There is a small and scared part of her that prays that the bigger school dilutes the knowledge of her father being the trainmaster. Most of her is disgusted at that part of her and glares it into silence. Ellie grins jauntily when her father presents her with the robust bike with peeling paint. The first, second, third time kids drive past her while yelling chugga-chugga! Chu-chu! she bites down on her lower lip and makes a promise to herself. She won’t waste her notoriety.
Fifteen and waking up wondering when the day comes when she’ll take her glasses off and be beauty instead of blurry. Fifteen and she sees a girl with a sweet, slow smile sit down across the table at the library and wink at the cover of her Ishiguro book. Ellie gets back to her reading; the girl with a smile taps the top of her book gently. She looks up with reluctance. The girl glances behind her at the librarian and tears a page, scraggly and imperfect, from her sketchbook and writes on it with a 2B pencil. The graphite smears.
I like Never Let Me Go too. jsyk Mrs. G is looking for you, she asked me to tell you.
The girl has left but Ellie knows her name, because everyone knows her name, and she notes that she likes Aster Flores’ handwriting. It looks like she practiced it.
Not a few months later, Ellie hears her sing and she notes that she likes Aster Flores’ singing voice. And her speaking voice. She talks like she cares about what she’s saying. Ellie doesn’t talk but she would want to sound like that.
To complete her role as the Asian stereotype of her white town, Ellie learns to play piano. Well, that’s a lie. She learns to play for her father.
Her father still sleeps until noon, often not changing out of his pajamas until dinner time, and that only to go out for a run along the tracks. The loneliness around him is a visible open wound and Ellie wants to blink it away. So she asks, in Mandarin, “Bà, can you teach me piano?” and he answers, in English, “We’ll learn the best parts.”
She gets very good very fast. Piano is easy and complicated and it ignites an interest in music; she wakes on her sixteenth birthday and kicks a guitar case off the foot of her bed. When she opens it, tucked into the velvet lining is a note in her father’s sloping handwriting: your mother loved music too. Ellie spends the morning brushing her teeth and crying, in turn, and Bàba says nothing when she comes downstairs for dinner. He strokes her head gently, once, while they clean their dishes. Ellie promises to herself that she will never leave him alone.
And she needs money
But they need money for the internet bill
She needs money, so she applies to be the accompanist at the Squahamish church. Father Flores stares at her sternly and Ellie forces herself not to fidget with the loose thread on her cuff. She thinks she kills her chances at getting hired when she tells him she’s an atheist and his eyebrows pinch forward into a dark centipede. But she plays for him, and he says, “Okay, but you need to learn our hymns by next Sunday.” And she has a paycheck suddenly.
And a few days later, Aster sits beside her on the piano bench and says, enviously, “You play so beautifully.”
They are in the church and it is bright and airy and it’s possible to see dust motes filter through the sunlight. Aster closes her eyes and hums while Ellie plays Greensleeves. Ellie can feel her cheeks grow warm and doesn’t know where to look. So she looks at the keys she is pressing, her fingers dancing assuredly over the black and white, and memorizes the sound of Aster giggling. Ellie sneaks a glance to her side: Aster is not looking at her, but her body is turned like they are speaking.
“Aster? Where are you?” Father Flores’ voice booms over to Ellie’s nook. The moment breaks, shimmering and fragile as a bubble. Aster gets up with a grimace and sends Ellie a wry smile.
“Keep practicing, heathen,” she says, and walks away.
“I’m Ellie Chu,” says Ellie.
Aster’s eyes crinkle. Her amusement is minute, polite. “Yes, I know.”
Another Ishiguro book lies between them. Aster hands it to her with a smile.
All that barely repressed longing.
Ellie knows her breath is caught in her chest. She can only stare as Aster walks away again, leaving her with a secret grin. She expels it with a slump of her shoulders, abruptly irritated.
She begins a habit of watching Aster Flores from the corner of her eyes. It is a tricky game, because Aster seems to do her best not to be seen: she tucks herself behind and between people, under Trig’s arm, in a book, her long wavy hair always waterfalling slightly in her face. She’s like a main character from a YA novel. Infinitely humble and attempting to be invisible, but somehow nonetheless being the brightest spot in a room. People gravitate towards her orbit. And despite Aster trying again and again to be a meteor hurtling past, every time she smiles, she becomes the sun.
Ellie is invisible. So, she watches, from her wallflower perch.
She notes that Aster only smiles when she makes eye contact. Even her fake-trying-to-be-polite smiles. And that Aster is a total noob at hiding her emotions, they bubble out of her warm brown eyes, and twitch in the corners of her mouth. She notes that the number of fake smiles increases exponentially when Aster is around her boyfriend. And that despite Ellie being invisible, the height of stealth, albeit not entirely willingly, Aster catches her staring more than three times.
It never fails to bring a thrill into her heart. Ellie wonders if she should draw a tracker into her bullet journal for the number of times their eyes meet… It’s a good idea, if she was a stalker. She isn’t; but Ellie feels recklessly close to it.
Somehow, there is a ‘worst part’ to watching from afar. Ellie has spent her whole life on the margins and in the shadows, but every time Aster catches her side glances and smiles like they’re sharing a secret, suddenly Ellie wants to stand out in the nameless crowd. And the worst part is that she knows how foolish it is to be entranced by a girl who wouldn’t look at her twice if she knew Ellie.
Because Aster is perfect, and Ellie doesn’t use that word lightly since she knows just how much practice goes into being perfect. But that is what Aster is. She has the perfect hair and the perfect manners and a family, a boyfriend, a spirit that breathes through her and warms everyone around her like firelight. And Ellie?
Ellie does not know what she has.
The Chinese girl has terrible nails and dainty fingers. Aster likes the incongruence. She studies her own beautifully filed and shaped nails as she listens to Ellie’s music in church. For a non-believer, it has a surprising amount of reverence and heart. She knows that’s why Papá hired her, him having said so at the dinner table, where Trig sat beside her looking comfortable and handsome. Papá had looked at them approvingly before saying, “I believe she’s in your class, Aster.”
“Who?” asked Trig. “The Chinese girl?”
The Chinese girl with dark nail beds, glossy hair, and glittering eyes. Aster shoved Trig’s hand off of her knee casually and said, “Her name is Ellie Chu.”
She who lurks in the corners of classrooms, head bent over her notebook. But Ellie Chu has never been able to hide her brilliance and her teachers—white, ignorant, and often prejudiced—has never been able to not give her what she deserved. Aster was once fifteen and asking Mrs. Geselschap if she could start a book club; high school was already boring her out of her mind. The sameness of her friends, few of them willing to delve into deeper conversation—or any conversation involving honest feelings—it rankled. The snarky English teacher had already endeared herself to Aster, who appreciated the straight=shooting.
“Oh honey, you won’t have any fun with that,” Mrs. Geselschap had said with a sympathetic grin. “I can’t get your classmates to read To Kill a Mockingbird for class, let alone do it for fun.”
Aster let her shoulders slump, ignoring her mami’s rebuke in her head. “Everyone can’t hate books,” she said desperately.
“Well, not everyone does,” agreed Mrs. Geselschap. “There’s Leah, she doesn’t have many original thoughts, but she likes her readings. And Ann, and Ellie. I’ve always liked Ellie’s essays.”
The bell had rung, signalling the end of lunch, and students filed into the room with noisy bustle. In the end, Aster took art as an elective. But her ears caught on Ellie Chu during attendance in their shared classes, and she wondered at how well the girl hid from her peers. When she finally meets her, standing in church beside her father, Ellie doesn’t make eye contact and heads to the piano.
Aster is not conceited, but she is delighted to find someone who won’t watch her every move and gossip about it. She thinks, I bet she keeps secrets well, and goes to sit beside her on the bench. Ellie’s Greensleeves sounds like a serenade.
“You’re so hot,” Trig whispers. “You should be my girlfriend.”
Aster is already tired of hearing shoulds. She doesn’t do much more than shrug and nod. By lunch tomorrow, Trig has announced on social media and in school that they are the new golden couple. She is approached by envious friends who smile their congratulations and tell her how lucky she is. She wears Trig’s jacket, and his sleeves cover her hands and keep her warm. There is not a single serious bone in Trig. But he makes her laugh and buys snicker bars, slipping them into the pocket of his jacket.
When he takes her hand into his, their palms don’t line up and Aster’s fingertips caress the calluses between his fingers. When he kisses her, she can tell he has never read a single book about kisses. But he moves confidently and the mishmash of their lips becomes less sloppy over time. She spends their makeouts making colour swatches in her head.
Aster knows it’s silly to wish her life was like a story book. She knows how childish a wish that is. But every day, Mami brushes her hair out and talks to her about when you get married you’ll know, when you’re older you’ll know, when you’re more mature you’ll know; and she bites her lip hard so that she doesn’t talk back to Papá when he forbids her to go out with her friends after 8pm; and at school, she feels like a statue in a museum. Aster wishes desperately that she knew now.
At least, in her books, everything makes sense by the end.
She folds paper frogs in English class when she is supposed to be reading a passage. When one hops off her desk and she goes to pick it up, her eyes meet Ellie Chu’s glittering ones staring straight at her.
She blinks and Ellie is now staring intensely at her notebook. Her pen is clutched in a fist and a red blush dusts her cheeks. Aster sits up and makes her frog hop again. Ellie Chu glances at her, and this time Aster smiles.
Aster feels a perverse impulse to spill all her secrets into Ellie’s shell-like ear.
It is by pure accident that Aster finds her hidey hole. She is driving around aimlessly on a weekend, her foot absently pressing on the accelerator the further she moves away from the buildings of the town. The freedom of having her own car has been an unexpected miracle for Aster; she would never have thought Papá would allow it, but he had been the one who’d placed the keys in her palm. It came with curfews, as always, but no earlier than the usual. Aster learns the secrets of her second-hand vehicle, its flaws and tricks, and tastes excitement for the first time since childhood.
But it takes time to build a relationship with a new car and as every relationship, it has its ups and downs. On this weekend, her car coughs suddenly and stutters to a stop, Aster leaning it slowly to the shoulder of the road. An hour later, she finds it: the bubbling pool, the mini waterfall, a clandestine glade hidden by trees crowding each other. There is no logic to its existence. For weeks afterwards, she hugs the knowledge of her discovery to her chest, and begins a habit of running away to it. She builds her stash of human things, tucked into a cubby among the moss: pencils, sketchpads, a radio, sunscreen et cetera. Some of it gets lost, of course, but Aster does not mind. Nature keeps to her own rules and ways.
A blasphemous thought flits through her mind when she is there. She thinks: this could be my church. There is relief in being surrounded by the not-perfect.
When Aster brings Ellie to her church the atmosphere of the glade shifts, inexplicably, uncertainly. Ellie brings her own confessions of loneliness and best parts into it. She laughs, suddenly light and friendly, as she tugs at Ellie’s hundred layers. The girl has a soft touch but a stubborn pull.
Aster sinks under the surface after the best part of the song winds to a close, and after a moment, her hand brushes against Ellie’s. They float underwater, Aster with her eyes open, Ellie with hers scrunched closed as if she didn’t know she could open them. Their fingers entwine. Aster thinks, for one second, to force a collision.
Ellie jerks them both up and out of the water, breaking into the air with a gasp and a laugh.
Is this the boldest stroke you can make?
Bold strokes, bold strokes, it stutters in Aster’s head. She is empty, she is pulled out of her skin. She can only stare at this girl, this quaint and quiet girl who knows all her secrets and she did not even tell her one. So Aster stares, breathing shallow in this church that was not hers, not theirs either.
“You.” It almost trails into a question but Aster has no more questions. Only for herself. She wants to climb into bed and contemplate the pinching pain in her chest. Because just three minutes ago, Aster Flores had her whole life mapped out, husband, baby, college, job, family, church, and praying without knowing what to pray for; and now, three minutes later, she is adrift in a sea of her own thoughts and emotions.
Confusion. And hurt. And more confusion.
And then Ellie Chu says, “Yeah,” quietly and assuredly, looking for all the world like she knew what Aster’s heart was feeling right that moment.
She walks through the door at a half-run, the volume of voices rising like a tsunami behind her, her father calling after her, the pieces of her porcelain perfectness in her wake. She no longer has the certainty of an ordained plan. And Aster does not know what she has.