There were plenty of other things we needed to do now that we had the location of the prison island. Most importantly, we needed to get pictures of a broken boat on water that we could pretend was the ocean. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to help with much of that before I had to go to dinner. Which, of course, gave me yet another reason to curse the fact that I couldn’t find a way out of that. Famous skater who had been a personal hero of mine since I could barely walk or not, I really wanted to help with this. And, of course, I really didn’t want to go over to Arleigh’s house. Which, to be fair, I couldn’t honestly say which of those made me want to do this less.
Either way, while I was busy with my dinner thing, the others would be going with Paige over to check out her boat and try to find a spot where they could safely wreck it and take pictures. I felt bad about not being involved in that part, because it also sounded fun. But then again, considering the fact that the situation was literally life or death, I wasn’t going to ask them to wait for me. The sort of person who would have been selfish enough for that was… well, to be honest, I was pretty sure I was going to the house of a girl exactly that selfish.
Was there really no way I could grab Ryder and Inessa and run away with them somewhere better?
I was honestly still considering that pipe-dream solution when Jefferson dropped me off in front of the house. I would’ve taken an Uber, but most of them refused to come in this housing development thanks to the whole Sherwood thing. Which I obviously couldn’t blame them for. Sherwood was, of course, another reason I really didn’t want to come here tonight. Even if they apparently had strict orders to stay away from me, I wanted to avoid as much gang attention as I could. I really, super-duper did not want to let people who were adept at spying get too much practice watching how I moved, stood, talked, anything that could make them connect me to Paintball.
Then again, if my own parents hadn’t figured it out yet, I must’ve been doing something right.
Thanking Jefferson for the ride and promising that I would be waiting for him to pick me up in a few hours, I turned and looked at the house. I supposed it was pretty large for what it was. Four stories tall, it was definitely the biggest house in the whole neighborhood. There was a large tree taking up a decent portion of one side of the front lawn, and I had to force myself not to stare at it. Something told me that if the Sherwood people really did spy through plants, that tree would be the one they would be using right now to keep an eye on the intruder. Did whoever was looking at me through it know who I was already? Surely they did. I had no doubt that my parents had let Sequoia and Hemlock, the leaders of the gang, know I was coming tonight so they could tell their people to leave me alone.
Actually, the Sequoia leader thing was weird. As far as I knew, almost no one had ever actually seen him. He made his presence known by infusing various plants with effects that gave people powers, or caused explosions, or poisoned them, or whatever. But for everyone aside from the top leadership of the gang, he was a total mystery. The rank and file members never saw him, not even in a costume. The day-to-day leadership was accomplished by Hemlock, a hydrokinetic who, while not as strong as Izzy, could transform water into poisons and venoms and such. Some people thought Hemlock was the leader and had just made up Sequoia, but that didn’t explain the power-imbued plants. Or why he would do that rather than accept the credit himself.
Whatever, the main point was, I just had to go inside and get through this dinner. Shoving all other thoughts out of my head, I took a breath before starting to walk up the front path toward the entrance.
Before I could get even halfway there, The door flew open and Arleigh came charging out with her arms raised. “Cassidy! There you are!” I barely had time to look up before she was suddenly embracing me. Yeah, without so much as another word, she was grabbing onto me and holding me tightly, like we were best friends. It took me completely by surprise, so I couldn’t even muster a protest or any comment at all before it was over. She stepped back, beaming that entirely insincere, yet somehow practically blinding, smile. “Dad is gonna be so happy when he finds out you came.”
Weirdly, in that moment, I thought of something. She said her dad was going to be happy about me coming, but nothing about her mother. Which made sense, because Arleigh’s mother had died like… thirteen or something years ago. It was a long time. So of course she wouldn’t have mentioned her mother. And yet, when she first invited me over here for this whole thing, she had said that her parents, plural, would love to have me.
Arleigh was only a year or two older than me. She was still seventeen, I was pretty sure. She had to have been a toddler at best when her mother died. So why would she have made a mistake like that? Why would she have said parents? I knew her dad had never remarried or anything. He’d adopted Errol, her younger brother, but as far as I knew, Arleigh had grown up in the house with only one parent.
So why had she used the plural? Was it just a slip of the tongue? Was this whole double-life making me paranoid? Well, yes to that last one, but did me being paranoid mean I was wrong to zero in on that detail in particular?
Honestly, I had no idea. But I didn’t have time to think about it any longer. Arleigh was standing there watching me expectantly, and I couldn’t exactly just flat-out ask her what she’d meant. Well, I could, but the Sherwood people were probably still watching, and I didn’t want to look like someone who paid more attention than I should to minor details. I didn’t want them to have any reason to think there was more to me than what appeared on the surface. And I definitely didn’t want them to tell my parents that I seemed to be a little snoopy. No, for the rest of this whole dinner thing, I really had to project myself as clueless, innocent Cassidy.
So, I offered a faint smile, as sincere of one as I could manage. “Hey, Arleigh. I’m not late, am I?” Of course I wasn’t. Jefferson had dropped me off exactly on time, like he always did.
“Oh, no, no, course not.” Arleigh rolled her eyes at the very idea, gesturing for me to accompany her as she turned back to head up the steps. “You are absolutely right on time, Cass. It’s my dad who’s late. But we’ll just have to entertain ourselves with our other guests until he shows up.”
It was those other guests I was thinking about as I followed the other girl through the door. And I didn’t have to look far for them. Ryder was standing right there in the front hall, facing a girl who was only a couple inches taller than me, with short electric blue hair, artfully-torn jeans, and a yellow tee over a gray, very light long-sleeved shirt. The girl had her back to me, but that didn’t matter. I knew who she was immediately, and stopped short to gasp.
Sure enough, she turned to face me, and I found myself looking at Inessa Sidorov. Twenty-five years old now, she had been a teenager when she first got involved with the international skating scene. Originally from Ukraine, she made a bunch of Youtube videos where she did tricks and stunts throughout the city and surrounding smaller villages. She was completely fearless and did a lot of crazy things anyone else would’ve said was too dangerous. And she did it all while laughing gleefully. That was one of the things her videos were known for, her cackling while doing something ridiculously cool and stupid.
Really, was it any wonder she was my idol?
All of that flashed through my mind, along with a reminder that lunging to hug her would’ve been just as rude and terrible as when Arleigh had done that to me. So, I forced myself to stop short and simply managed, “Y-you’re Inessa Sidorov.” I’d thought I was ready to meet her, but there was a difference between planning for something and the reality of being there. I felt a little giddy. Was it weird that I felt giddy? I definitely no longer cared about what house I was at.
Flashing a quick grin that was instantly more believable than any I’d ever seen from Arleigh, Inessa replied, with a clear Eastern European accent, “And you are the other guest tonight. I have been looking forward to meeting you, Cassidy Evans.”
Oh God, she knew my name. She knew my name! Resisting the urge to bounce up and down as my inner fangirl desperately tried to club my common sense over the head and take over, I forced myself to respond as casually as possible. “Oh yeah, you probably know my parents, huh? I heard they’ve been helping with some sponsorship stuff.” Largely because of my practically screaming her name into my dad’s ear for years, but still.
“What?” Her face was blank, before she shook that off. “No. I mean perhaps. I don’t really know who the sponsors are. Lavra takes care of that. What I mean is this.” She dug into the pocket of those jeans before coming out with a piece of lined paper that had been folded over several times. Still smiling, she offered it to me.
Confused, I took the paper and unfolded it, only to find that it was actually several pages. Once I got them all sorted, I took a look. And then I nearly died on the spot. Staring me right in the face, written in blue magic marker, were the scribblings of a probably seven-year-old Cassidy going on and on about how cool I thought Inessa was, how much I liked watching her Youtube videos, that I’d convinced my dad to get me my own skateboard, and so on. I talked about specific tricks she did in her videos, rambled a bit (or a lot) about how much I liked seeing the old yellow cat who sometimes appeared in the background, or how pretty her city was. And because I was, again, about seven at the time, all these thoughts came out jumbled amongst themselves and others. It was a mess. An enthusiastic mess, sure, but a mess. “Y-you… I–um.” What was I supposed to say? “You still have this?”
With a laugh, the woman replied, “Are you kidding? It was the first piece of physical fanmail I ever got from the States. I have it framed in my trailer most of the time, but when I found out I was coming to the same Detroit that the letter came from, I had to bring it with me. I was hoping we’d get a chance to meet. Having dinner, that is just a bonus.”
Arleigh, who had been standing behind me, leaned over to see part of the letter. “Wow, you wrote to her when you were a kid? That’s awesome. I probably would’ve just sent an email or something. Or got my father to find her cell number.” She paused then before looking at me. “Err, couldn’t you have just done that?”
Before I could respond to her, Ryder stepped in from where he had been hanging back. “Eh, you know what they say, sometimes a physical message means more than tapping a few keys. I mean, she could’ve sent a text too, and just said ‘I Heart U,’ then been done with it in four taps. Five counting sending it. But that? That’s a physical letter. She took the time to write all that. It just–you know, it means something.”
Inessa grinned and flashed a thumbs up that way. “Yes, exactly. I got emails and comments on my videos, but this was a letter all the way from the United States. And it wasn’t just any letter. It was from a little girl. It meant a lot to me.” Her gaze found mine and I felt my face turn pink. “It was very encouraging, Cassidy Evans. In times when I thought this was too hard and I should stop, I looked to many influences to assure myself that I belong in this life. Your letter was one of them. It helped get me to where I am today, in many ways. So, thank you.”
“Duuude, I did not expect that,” Arleigh announced with a low whistle. “I just thought you’d get, like, an autograph or something.”
She might have said something else after that, I definitely wasn’t listening. I was too busy staring at the woman who had been my skating hero for so long. It was all I could do not to show a lot more emotion than I already was. “P-please, it’s Cassidy,” I managed. “Just Cassidy. And whatever made you stay in skating, I’m really glad you did.” She was staring at me, so I had to look down as my blush deepened. My gaze found the letter in my hand as I murmured, “You’re the best skater I’ve ever… uh…” I trailed off as my eyes spotted something in particular in the letter. It was just a single sentence, and very little made it stand out from the rest. Except for one thing. The sentence read, ‘Anthony (my bff) said you couldn’t make that roof jump with the ramp but I said you could and you did so he had to let me pick the movie for our sleepover and I picked Cool Runnings cuz I heard it was your favorite movie if it isn’t please let me know so I can make him watch a different one and have you ever tried bobsledding oh did you try speed skating they go really fast but I mean the one on ice do you think they have a regular wheelie speed skate and my dad says I can’t try the roof jump but I think I can make it did you ever go sledding?’
Yeah, okay, I said it was a single sentence. I didn’t say it should have been a single sentence. I was seven, give me a break.
But obviously, that wasn’t the actual point. The point was the mention of Anthony. This was real, tangible evidence of Anthony’s existence and my knowledge of him. It had escaped my parents’ attempts to rewrite history. If I hadn’t already known about him, this obviously would’ve hit me really hard. Or maybe it would’ve just confused me. I wasn’t sure. As it was, I found myself staring at that name.
Apparently there was something in my expression, because Ryder spoke up. “You okay?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, sorry. It’s just… crazy, seeing something you wrote when you were a little kid.” Waving the letter, I looked toward Inessa and asked, “Do you mind if I take pictures of this so I have them? I’d sorta like to show my friends.”
She considered that for a moment before gesturing. “You know what? You keep it. I have had it for these years and it brought me luck. But perhaps it is time it brings you luck instead. There is no one I would rather give the letter to than the girl who sent it to me.” After a brief pause, she added, “And for the record, you were right. My favorite movie is Cool Runnings. ‘Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s bobsled time!’” By the time she was halfway through it, I was saying the quote with her, and when it was done, we both laughed and high-fived.
Oh God, I high-fived Inessa Sidorov. Would I ever wash my hand again? Wait, could I get some sort of special skintight clear glove so I wouldn’t have to? Could my parents–
Forcing that thought out of my mind, I swallowed hard, still blushing. “Thanks. It’s really cool that you kept this letter for so long. I–I can barely remember sending it, but you’re still my favorite skater in the whole world. You’re like… the best.” I was grinning goofily by that point, but I didn’t care.
“Damn straight I am,” Inessa replied with clear confidence. “And do you know what else I am? Her eyes moved to Arleigh while she added, “Extremely hungry. Do we know when your father will be arriving yet? I do not wish to be rude, of course. But it was a very long plane ride, and they had no meals because of some malfunction in the cooler.”
At that moment, Arleigh looked up from her phone with a curse. “Fuck. Okay so Dad’s running late. He said there’s some frozen pizzas in the freezer that we can just heat up. But uhh, the cook already went home, so do any of you guys know how to work the oven?”
The three of us around her exchanged glances, before Ryder gestured. “I think we can work it out. But what about your brothers?”
“Who cares where Micah is?” Arleigh retorted. “And I think Errol’s up in his room. I guess he can eat something once it’s ready.”
“Well then,” Inessa freaking Sidorov announced, “Let us see how complicated this oven is, hmm? And hope that we can figure out how to turn it on before I’m forced to simply eat the whole frozen thing as it is.
“I fear that even my number one fan could not see me the same after that.”