Read Story: SEASON 1 EPISODE 1
Five Oaks is only a mile from the sandy shore of Lake Erie. On a clear day, I can see Canada from the secret beach Graham showed me, land visible across the water even without his binoculars, so I wasn’t expecting the crazy heat we’ve had for two full weeks now. It’s been ninety every day, hardly ever dropping below seventy even in the middle of the night, and I think I’ve sweated more in the past few days than the rest of the year combined.
I wasn’t prepared for this. It’s a different kind of heat to the scorching city summers I’m used to and my body can’t handle it. I don’t know if it’s the proximity of the water but even when it’s tipping ninety, the air feels thick and stifling.
My thighs are rubbed raw – it’s been too hot even for shorts recently, so now my skin is red and sore – and the lake is the only respite from the constant chafing, but it’s busy on a day like this. A Sunday at the end of August, almost three months after Mom and I moved in. 96
I wanted to relax today before class starts up again tomorrow but the sand is scalding even with a towel between the beach and my body so instead I’m lying in the shade of the back garden with my feet in a kiddie pool that Graham dug out of his garage. Tad’s in Columbus for the weekend so Gray’s been hanging out with Mom and me, slotting into our life like he belongs there.
He didn’t waste much time doing that. Somehow persistent without getting on my nerves, I don’t even mind carpooling with him to college each day. Granted we’ve only had two weeks of class so far, but he doesn’t mind slipping into silence on the long drive, more than an hour each way, and there’s something comforting about his consistency. 10
When I hear the newly familiar sound of bare feet on grass, one of a million noises of my new life, I shade my eyes with my book to see him coming out of my house with two glasses of sweet iced tea, Mom’s new specialty. She always used to experiment in the kitchen, but not so much the past couple of years.
Gray passes me a glass and tightens the drawstring of his trunks before he drops into the shallow pool and lets out a happy sigh. Ice clinks in the glass and above us, a couple of birds are singing to each other. Somewhere further away, a seagull caws. I’m still getting used to the stillness of the air, which is almost too quiet at night: I got too used to drifting off to the sound of jet engines. 21
Gray smacks his lips when he takes a sip of the tea and grins at me. “Your mom told me to tell you someone’s coming over,” he says, tipping his head back to sun his freckled cheeks. I’d kill for his complexion. My skin’s been breaking out since we got there, as though my body’s trying to rid itself of New York. 18
“Someone?” I ask, shifting to make sure my coverup hasn’t ridden up my thighs. The thin material has a mind of its own and although I’m wearing a swimsuit underneath, I feel too exposed.
“I didn’t understand what she said and I didn’t want to ask her to repeat herself again.” His cheeks are slightly pink. “Noy something?” 9
I sit up to talk to him to save myself from the unsightly double chin if I lift up my head when I’m lying down. I know Gray doesn’t care – he’s seen me looking far worse, as much as I try to avoid it – but it’s hard to shake the mindset that I’ve lived my whole life with. 59
“Nagybácsi,” I say when I realize what he means. “My uncle.” 12
“Ah.” He taps his forehead. “I’ll remember that one. I don’t have any uncles but I do have three obas.”
He gives me a thumbs up. “I’ve got a haha somewhere too,” he says with a laugh, “but she used to get so mad when I called her that.” 14
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I know that means mom. He’s told me that before. He’s told me a lot: he’s an open book, one that I don’t have to make much effort to read. He’s more like a novel left out in a breeze, the wind turning the pages to share the words. He’s a gentle stream of background narration, and I’m comforted by the fact that after nearly eleven weeks, I don’t find it annoying.
I hope it stays like that. I like having a friend. There’s a strange comfort in the fact that Gray’s Japanese is as good as my Hungarian, that he knows what it’s like to lose a parent, even if only because his parents split up when he was ten and his mom moved away. It’s close enough for me. He gets it. 9
“Nagybácsi,” he repeats, trying out the word. He can’t quite get the accent right. “The one from Cleveland?”
“The one and only.” I almost spill my drink when the straw jumps away from me. “He said he meant to come over before I went off to college but he gets crazy busy, and I reminded him that the whole concept of commuting from home means I’m always here.”
Gray laughs. He has a really infectious laugh that always ends with a snort. “Can’t believe we’re freshman already.” He puffs out his cheeks and expels the air in short burst. “On a scale of one to twelve, how ready are you for week three?”
He has a thing for scales. When Mom and I were moving in a couple of days after we arrived, he and his dad were giving us a hand and out of nowhere, Gray asked me how likely it was that we’d be friends, on a scale of one to seven. He caught me off guard: I kind of awkwardly laughed and stumbled and said seven. 44
Anything else would have been rude, and he seemed nice enough from the one sleep-deprived dinner I’d spent with him by that point. The next day, he brought over cupcakes and his schedule. It was identical to mine. It takes the pressure off, to some degree, always having someone to sit next to in every class. 14
I take a deep breath and heave a sigh, resting my book on my knee to save my page. The water looks so inviting so I scoot closer and dip my feet in. “I reckon a solid … six. Out of twelve?”
“Six,” I say again, with a more confident nod. I kind of like his scales. I know where I stand with him.
“Can I borrow one? I’m at a solid four right now. Might as well balance it out; we can rock up tomorrow as a pair of fives.” He plucks a leaf out of the water and flicks it away, drying his fingers on his chest. 27
“No can do. I need every point I can get,” I say. I know the routine, but I’m still not ready for tomorrow. I managed to get a job at the campus bookstore – they must have been desperate, because I definitely didn’t make the best impression, a sweaty mess who turned up ten minutes late after getting lost – and after last week’s orientation sessions, I start properly after class tomorrow. 2
I’ve never had a job before. Sure, I worked in Mom and Dad’s bookstore when I was younger, but that counts for nothing but experience. My bosses were my parents and I started as soon as I was old enough to understand the alphabet. When I was eight, I used to help Mom arrange the feature table – sometimes by colour; sometimes by theme; never randomly – and on my eleventh birthday, I woke up to a letter from Hogwarts and a promotion. 83
I never got my hands on a wand or a broom but I did get a crisp dollar bill with dinner each day that I helped out, and once a month Mom and I would take the bus to the city. Every single time, I took my hard-earned cash and every single time, Mom found an excuse for me to keep the money. 15
Whatever store we ended up at, she would find something she needed and she’d tell me that it was easier if she just paid on her card and I could always pay her later. Every single time, when we inevitably ended up at our favourite café down in Sunnyside, I would count out my dollar bills and push them across the table and she would just wave her hand and tell me to save it. 24
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It was our routine, and I danced that same dance every month as though the steps would change, but they never did. The month after Dad disappeared, our world still lying in senseless shatters at our feet, Mom woke me from a restless nap and we took the bus to the big bookstore that carried all the titles we couldn’t fit in our narrow haven. 3
While I was trying to decide between two books, she bought them both and I cried in the middle of the store. When we made it to the café, I tried to pay her back but I didn’t have my purse. It was the first time I’d missed a step in the routine we’d kept up for more than a decade. I cried in the café too. 9
Gray snaps me out of my thought spiral when he drops an ice cube down his front and gasps, splashing to catch it. It’s only after I’ve been staring at him for a full five seconds that he looks up and realization dawns on his face, and he lets out a solemn sigh.
“It’s in a better place now.” He swirls his hand in the water. “Go, be free.” 60
A grin cracks my lips. I’ve never met anyone like Gray, at least no-one our age. He’s only a few months younger than me but sometimes it seems like a lot more: all the guys from my high school were ruled by their egos; they’d never do anything to lose face and I always wondered if it was painful, wearing a mask. I’ve never been able to. It’s exhausting enough being me, let alone someone else. 41
Gray doesn’t care. I learned that early on. 2
We’d been here less than a week when he witnessed a full-blown Astoria-style breakdown, after we got back from him showing me round town and found Mom face-down in the garden. As used to that as I am, no matter how many times I’ve dealt with it before, it was like a jammed faucet suddenly burst and a whole bunch of crap came out. 10
Gray freaked out and called 911 before I could calm down enough to explain, and he stayed with me long after Mom came to. Later that night, he held a piece of paper up to his bedroom window, across from mine, with a hashtag and a question mark. 26
After I showed him my number, he immediately sent me a text. All it said was I think we’re best friends now. 157
• • •
We’re both lying out by the pool when a car comes to a stop on the other side of the house and a few minutes later, a pair of excitable voices grow louder as they come out of the kitchen to the garden, and I stand up just in time to hug my uncle, Krisztián. 4
“Storie!” He pulls me into an enthusiastic hug and although he looks like an overgrown teenager, all long and skinny-limbed, his grip is strong. I hug him back as hard as I can. Aside from Mom, he’s the only family I have left now.
“God, I can’t believe you’re in college already. I feel so old.” He brushes his hand through short, sun-kissed hair and props his sunglasses on top of his head. He looks and sounds like he belongs on a surfboard on the west coast. No-one ever believes him when he tells them he was born in Hungary and raised in New York. 4
“You are old,” I tell him. “You must be, what thirty?” I pretend to be disgusted and he laughs. I know he’s thirty: I was born on the day he turned eleven, back when he still lived with us, and I was at least five before I realised he was my uncle rather than my brother. 75
“And you’re practically a foetus,” he says. “Just a short story.” 24
Or maybe he says Storie. I’m not sure. That’s probably what he was going for. 2
I like all the puns that come with my name, as cheesy as they can be, and it makes life in a bookstore kind of tricky. Dad always used joke about it. Whenever I came in to help after school, he’d pretend he hadn’t seen me and he’d sort through books, muttering about not being able to find his favourite story. Then he’d look up and his face would light up, and he’d say, “There you are.”
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No matter how many times I heard that, it never got old. 5
Kris greets Gray like they’re old friends, even though they’ve only met once before, way back when we first moved in. He’s good like that, never forgets a face, though Gray isn’t that forgettable. This town is pretty pale and though his mom’s white, Gray takes after his dad. I’m the same, I guess. Mom can pass, no question, but I look like my dad. 4
Last week, a girl in my lit class looked at me when we were discussing a short story about a Mexican immigrant, and she asked where I was from and what it was like when I came to America. I told her I was from New York, and I could have mouthed along when she asked, “But where are you from?” 93
She didn’t even have the decency to be embarrassed. When I eventually caved and told her that I’m Hungarian, she took it like a victory, as though she needed some kind of explanation for the colour of my skin. I didn’t bother telling her that most Hungarians are white. 61
After class, Gray called her a manuke and bought me a donut. 78
• • •
When the heat is fading at last, the afternoon sinking into a much more welcoming evening, Mom brings out a pitcher of iced tea on a tray with a bowl of chips and dip and the three of us crowd round the kiddie pool with our feet in the water. Gray headed home when his dad got back, leaving Mom and me to catch up with Kris.
He leans forward, elbows on his knees and his hands clasped together. “So, a little birdie tells me you’ve got a new job, huh?” He leans over to bump against me and links his thumbs together, flapping his hands like wings. Kris was my original best friend, until I was eleven and he was twenty-two and he left home. 12
“Yup. I start properly tomorrow, so if you’ve got any tips, hit me with them.”
Mom laughs. “You’ve worked in a bookstore all your life, honey. You’ll be just fine.” 7
I wish it was that simple. “It’s not the same,” I say, picking the grass, and she doesn’t try to convince me that it is. She knows it isn’t.
“But you said there are some nice girls there, right?”
“Yeah.” I give her a smile. During my training week, I shadowed a couple of upperclassmen and it’s too soon to be certain, but I got a good vibe from them. Navya’s a junior and Georgie’s about to graduate though she seems a few years older. 13
“It’ll be really good for you, I just know it.” There’s no patronization in Mom’s voice. “These are supposed to be the best years of your life – college is all about figuring out who you are and meeting people. Right, Kris?” 11
“Oh, yeah, totally,” he says. “I loved college. Best four years of my life. I definitely learnt a lot.” 22
Judging by his laugh, I doubt much was academic. I was only seven when he started college so even though he was commuting from our tiny flat, a lot of it went over my head. As I eye him, he laughs again and I feel like I’ve got my brother back. 7
“Like what?” I ask. 4
He ignores Mom when she shoots him a warning look. Although she’s technically his sister, she’s always been more like Kris’s mom. She’s fifteen years older and when she moved to America with him, he was only three and she pretended he was her son. God knows how she did it, but it wasn’t long before she met Dad and I guess the rest is history. 3
He lies back on the warm grass, hands clasped over his stomach. “I learnt that I can handle beer but I really can’t handle wine. And I learnt that pot isn’t fun for everyone.” 20
Mom swats his knee but she doesn’t tell him to shut up and I don’t want him to. Mom never went to college so no matter what she says or does, she doesn’t know what it’s like. 1
“It’s when I learned how to fail,” Kris says, “and that it’s ok to fail sometimes. And I had the most amazing professor in my junior year who I’m pretty sure never knew my name, but he was the first out guy I’d ever met and he gave me the courage to come out.” 82
Mom gives him a soft smile. I had no idea at the time – I was only eight, after all – but Kris has told me more recently how much he tortured himself for being gay, right up until he was twenty. As far as my memory serves me, he’s been out, so it’s hard to imagine. It hurts to think about.
“The academia is a total scam,” he says. “Trust me, Stor – it’s way more about the experiences. I bet you could probably ace all your papers without going to a single class. It’s less about your degree and more about what you do. And who you do.” 49
“Kris!” Mom swats him again. I splutter a laugh, my cheeks heating up, and she shoots me a look. “Don’t listen to him, Storie. He’s a terrible influence.”
“Hey!” he cries. “I’m a great influence, thank you very much. I have a job I love and I own my own apartment – I’m living the millennial dream. I even had avocado toast for breakfast.” 83
“The mark of a true role model.” I sigh and lie next to Kris and my hair gets trapped under my back, my scalp screaming when I try to turn my head. Sometimes I want to just chop it all off but it almost reaches my waist now. I can’t quite convince myself to get rid of it.
Curling it at the nape of my neck like a pillow, I turn to face Kris and when he smiles, it’s even brighter than the grin that used to pick me up from elementary school each day. I had no clue he wasn’t happy back then but with a little hindsight, I can see it. Now his grins reach his eyes. Before, they hardly budged his cheeks.
“I miss you,” I say. The words are hard when they’ve taken on such a different meaning the past couple years, but I’ve learnt there’s more than one way to miss someone.
“I miss you too, húg.” 3
Another word in my paltry vocabulary. I love that Kris calls me that: it means little sister. He may be my uncle and I may have at least a hundred pounds on him, but he’ll always be a big brother to me. 30
“There’s always space for you in Cleveland,” he says. “You too, nővér.” 3
Big sister. He calls Mom that more than he calls her by her name.
“Any time you guys wanna come by, just let me know.” He sits up and grabs a handful of chips, laying them out down his thigh as though they’re lining up to be eaten. One by one, he loads them up with dip and chows them down. I do the same. 1
Mom made the dip herself and it’s way better than anything from the store. Körözött – a recipe her mom taught her back in Hungary, a spicy cheese dip that she serves in a bell pepper. Even better with a bit of guac. 12
“I still can’t believe you’re in college,” Kris says when he’s finished his binge.
“Me neither,” Mom says. “Feels like just yesterday that I was crying about sending you to kindergarten and look at you now.” 9
“All grown up,” I say. I’m with them: I can’t believe it either. After Dad disappeared, there were times I thought I’d never get here but now it’s real. This is my life now, and it already feels a far cry from where I was a few months ago.
This time last year, I was a city girl on an unplanned gap year. It really felt like that: a gap in my life. This huge, gaping hole I couldn’t fill. It felt even bigger when we first got here, the divide stretching even wider with every mile, but it’s starting to shrink now, closing itself around Kris and college and Gray, and me.
• • •