THE KEY TO EVERYTHING
To rescue Oakland from a pathetic Christmas break of sitting in front of the computer, her best friend Morgan books the two of them on a guided excursion of Thailand. When the girls meet a pair of American soldiers in Bangkok, Oakland takes Morgan’s advice and engages in a little harmless holiday hooking up. Sergeant Tyson Banks is the perfect mix of sexy and fun. Two weeks with him might just turn out to be the best relationship Oakland has ever had.
Until the day she spots someone familiar across a crowded temple complex—it’s Seth! Somehow the boy she’s been trying to reconnect with is in Bangkok too. If that’s not a sign, then what is?
Filled with friendship, romance, bromance, and gorgeous faraway settings, The Key to Everything is a story for anyone who’s ever dreamed of finding love when (or where) they least expected it.
Read the first four chapters of the pre copy-edited manuscript below:
“Destiny is a total crock.”
My roommate and best friend, Morgan Fujiwara, is prone to these larger than life statements. Strange, perhaps, considering how tiny she is. But Morgan has never let being slightly less than five feet tall and a hundred pounds stop her from getting her point across. Even now, she bangs her dainty fist on the wooden railing with enough force to make the ice cubes rattle around in my paper cup.
“How did I know you would say that?” I grab my drink and swill down the last bits of soda as we enter the line for the giant metal rollercoaster that loops around the entire amusement park. A guy in blue and white-striped coveralls takes our ticket and ushers us into a wooden chute that makes me think of cattle on their way to being slaughtered. I don’t even like rollercoasters, but Morgan does, and freshman year we made a vow that we’d stick together. And so here I am about fifty people away from risking my life on a ride someone actually thought it was a good idea to name the Killer Coaster.
“Because you know I’m smart?” Morgan tosses her shiny black hair back from her face.
She is smart, but so am I. We’re both getting ready to graduate With Distinction from Stanford. That’s tough to pull off at any school, but it’s extra-tough in the Bay Area where there’s always a ton of better things to be doing and usually nice enough weather to do them.
“I know.” I pitch my empty cup into an overflowing trash can. “But ever since I was little, I always felt like there was one perfect person out there waiting for me. A soulmate.” I’m trying to explain to her why I want to contact Seth King, my old boyfriend from high school. I’ve been trying for the better part of an hour—all the way from the parking lot to the Scrambler to the Ferris wheel and now the Killer Coaster--but she has an answer for everything.
“I can’t believe you’d want to limit your odds like that.” She nudges me forward in line. Around us, the sights and sounds of the park blur into a haze of cotton-candy happiness. Everyone seems full of life, full of joy.
Everyone except me.
“I don’t think believing in soulmates is a choice,” I say. “You either do or you don’t.”
“Do you know that people who think there is only one person out there for them are three times as unlikely to be unhappy as people who believe multiple compatible partners exist?” Morgan holds up three fingers for emphasis. “Not to mention how much more likely they are to end up alone.”
In addition to making sweeping proclamations about what is or isn’t a crock, Morgan is specializing in social psychology and often spouts statistics such as these off the top of her head. I suspect they’re mostly made up, but she manages to make them sound just plausible enough to be real.
“Show me the data.” I scoff. “Just because you don’t believe in The One, doesn’t mean I can’t.”
She inhales sharply. “I believe in The One. The one from last night. The one from last week. The one who satisfies me sexually. The one who satisfies me intellectually.” She plasters an insane grin across her face. “And look at me. I look happy, don’t I?”
“You look certifiable,” I say. “And that’s my professional opinion.” I’m specializing in clinical psychology and am prone to randomly diagnosing people. We’re quite a pair, Morgan and me.
“Seriously, Oakland. If you message him, all you’ll do is hurt both of you, or maybe just you because who knows where he is right now? He could be married with six kids.”
Yes, my name is Oakland and no, I’m not even from California. My dad is just a really big fan of the Oakland Raiders and my mom is a really big fan of my dad. Could be worse, I guess. I could’ve ended up being called Green Bay or something.
The rollercoaster car screeches into the station and jolts to a stop, hard enough that several people snap forward in their seats. I tug on the end of my messy brown ponytail, something I do a lot when I’m nervous. “I doubt he has six kids since we only broke up three and a half years ago.”
“Fine, Three and a half kids.” Morgan reaches out for my arm as we move forward again. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”
Hurt again—that’s what she means. I’ve racked up an impressive six failed relationships in the last three years. And I’m not one of those clingy, delusional girls who starts assuming someone is my boyfriend because we grab a coffee together after class. These were actual monogamous (well, as far as I know), together for a span of several weeks to months, real-deal relationships.
And somehow they all fell apart.
Our conversation is interrupted as we reach the front of the rollercoaster line and are ushered into a metal car with cracking vinyl seats. The safety bar groans cantankerously as Morgan pulls it down over our laps.
“Well, that sounds reassuring,” I mutter.
Morgan cackles. “What are you worried about Little Miss Destiny? If it’s your time to go it’s your time to go, right? Or does fate only apply in matters of the heart?”
“Touché.” I glare at her.
She winks at me in response. “See you on the other side.”
The ride operator presses a switch and the rollercoaster blasts out of the covered area with a hiss. For the next minute and a half, I don’t think about Seth or failed relationships. I don’t even think about Morgan or the fact we should probably be studying for finals instead of screwing around at an amusement park. I just let the sensations of flying, twisting, falling, and hitting bottom wrap around me. My eyes water from the air rushing into my face, melding the night sky and carnival lights into a blurry starscape.
The coaster slows as we approach the final hill and I catch my breath. Next to me, Morgan squeals with joy, one of her small hands gripping onto my wrist with surprising force. She pries my hand free from the bar. “Hands up,” she orders.
“No,” I say. The clickety-clack of the rollercoaster climbing the track is making my teeth rattle.
“Fine. One hand up.” She lifts my arm into the air with hers.
I grip the lap bar with my other hand as we plunge downward, out of the sky and straight through a completely dark tunnel. The wind stretches Morgan’s laughter into something bright and warm that wraps around us. My lips curl into a smile and I lift my fingers from the lap bar for the last few seconds of the ride. When the rollercoaster screeches to a stop, I pitch forward in my seat, my hair pulled loose from my ponytail on both sides. I slide out of the car with Morgan right behind me. We follow everyone else down a set of wooden stairs back to the main pathway of the park.
“Well?” Morgan asks.
“I survived,” I say.
She pouts. “Come on, O. You know you had fun.”
“Maybe a little.”
“That’s my girl. You have mad sex hair by the way.” She reaches up to stroke one of the rogue shocks of hair.
I tug my ponytail holder out of my hair, do a quick finger-comb, and wrap the whole mess into a bun on the top of my head. “Too bad I’m not having mad sex.”
“When’s the last time you actually had mad sex?”
I sidestep a gooey puddle that I’m hoping is ice cream. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I just never got the feeling you were all that into Isaac.” She shrugs. “I didn’t feel the passion.”
Isaac Lawless is my latest failure. He graduated last year and had been working on a startup with some of his friends, but then without warning decided to take a job in Minneapolis. Which is basically the same thing I did to Seth, so I really can’t complain, but Isaac didn’t even talk to me before accepting the position. “It just never felt like we were that serious, you know?” he told me two weeks before he moved. “It’s not like you would’ve relocated to Minnesota for me.”
Okay, so that’s probably true, but shouldn’t he have at least asked me? It was like our four months together didn’t mean anything to him.
“Just because Isaac and I never got caught with our underwear around our ankles on the fifty yard line like you and Chase Blake doesn’t mean we didn’t have passion.”
“You mean Blake Chase.” Morgan smiles to herself. “Ah, Halloween. Man that was a fun night. I should call him sometime.”
I snort. “Morgan Fujiwara going back for seconds? I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“I go back for seconds and thirds and fourths and fifths, when it’s good. Just not if it means some guy gets to put a leash on me.” Morgan points at a red and white booth that’s selling giant pretzels with cheese dipping sauce. “Hungry?”
“Always,” I say.
We dodge between a pair of preppy guys holding hands and a family with a stroller and head for the stand. A lanky boy dressed in black and brown cuts in front of us on a skateboard, his long bangs obscuring his face.
Morgan turns around to give him a long look after he passes.
I snort. “That kid looked sixteen.”
“Some people say I look sixteen.” She blinks innocently. “Besides, I was just checking out his skinnies. I need new clothes.”
“You need new clothes like you need a frontal lobotomy.” It’s a shame Morgan is six inches shorter and about forty pounds lighter than I am. Otherwise, I would be swimming in designer hand-me-downs. “So what if I’m right?” I dig in my purse for a few singles, flopping back to our conversation about Seth as if we’d never changed the subject. This is a thing I’ve found only best friends can do—press pause on a conversation and then press play again at any moment. “The girl I talked to practically said I was right.”
“I still can’t believe you went to Student Services for therapy.” Morgan says the words “student services” like I just informed her I bought my dinner off the back of a garbage truck. She hands a shiny gold credit card to the cashier, a middle-aged man with face tattoos who smiles at her for much too long. “What, exactly, did this quack grad student say again?” She scribbles her signature on a receipt and slips her credit card back into her purse.
“She’s post-doc,” I say. “She’s joining a practice after next semester. And she asked me to tell her the last time I had been seriously happy.”
“And you had to go further back than all the time you’ve known me?” Morgan’s tiny mouth opens into a heart-shape, her fake-outrage probably only partially fake.
I add a large soda to my order and pay the cashier in exact change. “Of course I’ve been happy with you, but different happy, you know? Friend-happy.”
“Friend-happy kicks the shit out of relationship-happy most of the time,” she says pointedly.
“I know you’re probably night, but what can I say? I’m a product of all those Disney movies I watched as a kid. Ariel didn’t leave the ocean to go be besties with a human girl.”
“You know how that story actually ends, right? The real one, by Hans Christian Andersen?”
“No, but I suspect you’re going to tell me.”
“The prince marries some other girl and she dies.” Morgan coughs. “Alone.”
“Well, thank God for creative editing, huh? I don’t think that ending would’ve gone over too well at my sleepover party.” I turn to Morgan. “All I know is that so many of her questions came back around to Seth. She thinks I have unresolved feelings that I need to address because of the way we ended things.”
Seth was my first boyfriend, my first kiss, the first guy I gave myself to completely. And before that he was the kid who traded lunches with me just because he knew I got tired eating PB&J every day, the kid who sat next to me on his swing set when I sneaked out of the house so I didn’t have to hear my parents arguing...or making up. If I have a prince out there waiting for me, a soulmate, it makes sense that it would be him.
Morgan and I move to the other side of the red and white striped booth where a girl wearing gloves hands us each a pretzel wrapped in wax paper and a little plastic ramekin of liquid cheese. I carefully balance the cheese on top of the pretzel and take the large cup of soda she gives me in my other hand.
“You know all that soda is going to kill you, right?” Morgan says.
“Only if it’s my destiny,” I say with a grin.
“Ha.” Morgan points at an open table to the side of the pretzel stand and we grab it. “So Seth…The One.” She punctuates this sentence with air quotes. “Tell me again how you two broke up.”
Morgan knows this story. She’s just trying to prove a point. “So I dumped him on prom night after we had sex for the first time. I realize that was a bitch move. But we were going to break up in the summer anyway. I was just scared if I got any closer to him that I’d wuss out on coming here.”
“You used him for sex and then bailed. So what makes you think he’d even want to hear from you?”
“We were really close before then. I’ve known him since fourth grade. I can’t believe one stupid hurtful thing would cancel out years of being friends.” Then again, it hadn’t been just one stupid, hurtful thing. After I broke up with him, I refused to take his calls. I deleted his texts and emails without even reading them. I froze him out for almost three months until I was safely on a plane to California. Classic avoidant behavior. I sigh. “Maybe he won’t want to hear from me, but I feel like I have to try. Otherwise I’m going to spend the rest of my life saying ‘What if?’”
I hate saying “What if?” There’s nothing worse than second-guessing yourself.
Morgan breaks off a piece of her pretzel, dips it in the cheese, and chews thoughtfully.
“But he’s in Chicago, right? Professor Green guaranteed you a spot at Penn next year. Why start something you can’t finish?”
Lawrence Green is one of the top psychology professors at the University of Pennsylvania. I spent last summer working as his research assistant while he was running an experiment on equine therapy for PTSD. “Nothing is guaranteed,” I say. “Just because Green is putting in a good word for me doesn’t mean I’m going to get a spot. They only take five people and hundreds apply.”
“Oakland, he’s the chair of the department. Of course, they’ll take you if he vouches for you. Didn’t he basically offer you a research assistant spot?”
“Well yeah, but, there’s nothing in writing yet. I don’t want to jinx it,” I say, even though I’m pretty sure she’s right. “But Seth is graduating too. Maybe he’ll be ready for a change.” I don’t tell Morgan that I was surfing around on the Northwestern and University of Chicago psychology department webpages before we left for the amusement park. Those schools also provide stipends for their graduate students. I could go back home if I had a good reason. Sure, I spent the first eighteen years of my life dying to get out of the Midwest, but with the right guy, maybe it wouldn’t seem so bad. After all, love is about compromises, right? What matters is that I get a psych PhD and can start my own practice someday. The school I go to isn’t as important to me, although Penn has a killer program.
Morgan shakes her head in dismay. “I bet a real therapist would have told you to try being single for a while. It has its pluses, you know?”
Before I can respond, a girl rushes up to us, young, maybe ten or eleven, with two dark pigtails sweeping across her shoulders. “Ladies,” she says breathlessly.
“You okay?” I ask. I wonder if she’s lost or on the run from some grizzled carnie intent on making her his child bride.
“Yes, I am doing quite well. But you, ladies, are you okay?”
“We’re good thanks.” Morgan rolls her eyes at me. She’s not exactly patient when it comes to kids.
The girl thrusts a lavender flyer into my hands. “Find out for certain!” She points at a tent covered with stars and moons located behind the merry-go-round. Then she scampers off, her black braids flapping behind her like the reins of a runaway horse.
The flyer reads: Madame Orlova Sees the Future.
That’s as far as I get before Morgan snatches it out of my hands. “Half-off fortunetelling. Divine guidance from the stars. Perfect,” she crows. “Let’s go get a second opinion on The One.”
“You can’t be serious.” My parents spend their weekends as paranormal investigators for hire, so I’ve heard enough crazy stories to be open-minded when it comes to supernatural things, but Morgan thinks everything can be explained via science or human nature.
“Dead serious. Come on, it’ll be fun. And who knows, maybe she’ll tell you that your fairytale prince awaits you at Penn.” She smiles wickedly. “East Coast boys. My favorite.”
“All boys are your favorite,” I mutter. But I let her drag me over to the fortuneteller’s tent, because she’s Morgan and like I said, we’d follow each other anywhere.
Besides, maybe Madame Orlova does have things to tell me.
Madame Orlova might be some charlatan bilking lovelorn girls out of their hard-earned money, but she definitely looks the part of a gypsy fortuneteller: dark piercing eyes, long, wavy hair streaked with gray, a flowing black robe with red stars on it, and a matching red and black scarf around her head.
The young girl who gave us the flyer stands in the corner of the tent, as still as a statue, her hands folded in front of her waist.
“You sit,” Madame Orlova says to Morgan and me. She points at a group of couch pillows arranged in a circle on the ground.
“Sort of cold for sitting on the ground, but okay.” Morgan gathers the fabric of her skirt in one hand and arranges herself on the pillow directly across from the fortuneteller. I take a seat next to her.
Madame Orlova looks back and forth from Morgan to me. “The spirits have much to talk about with you,” she murmurs. “But first you must cross my palm with silver.”
We look at her blankly.
“She wants five dollars from each of you,” the girl in the corner says helpfully.
“Oh, right.” I fumble in my purse for the cash.
Madame Orlova takes our money and tucks it into a wooden box with a trinity symbol carved on the outside. Then she lights a pair of red candles. She closes her eyes and inhales deeply.
Morgan nudges me with her elbow. “See? Who needs therapy sessions at Student Services when you can get your questions answered for five bucks?”
“Student Services is free.”
Morgan rolls her eyes. “And probably slightly less helpful than this.”
“You know I’m going to be one of those people one day, right?” I remind her.
She puckers her lips and blows me an air kiss. “Yeah, but you’ll actually be good.”
Madame Orlova’s eyes snap open. “Best friends,” she blurts out.
Morgan and I stop talking and turn back to her.
“You are best friends,” she says proudly. “For several years.”
“That’s right,” I say.
“Not exactly mind-reading,” Morgan scoffs. “Any trained observer would be able to tell from our casual conversations and the way we interact physically that we’re extremely comfortable, which means—”
“She knew we weren’t lesbians,” I point out.
“Not lesbians,” Madame Orlova says. “You both like men. Maaaaaaany men.”
“All right, you have my attention,” Morgan says grudgingly. “Though I’m thinking that’s not exactly hard to tell by looking at us either—at least not me.”
I snicker. Despite the cool December weather, Morgan is wearing a pleated miniskirt with knee socks and a white button-down top with no jacket. She’s one-quarter Japanese and works the anime schoolgirl angle to death. I’m more of a no-frills dresser—usually opting for jeans and a T-shirt, or a sweater when it’s cold.
“Who is first?” the fortuneteller asks.
Morgan nudges me. “She’ll go first.”
Madame Orlova nods. She reaches out and grips my hand in her talon-like fingers. “I sense that you are troubled.”
“Again, something any idiot could tell.” Morgan snorts.
I shush her. “I am,” I say. “Can you help me?”
The fortuneteller’s mouth twists in a strange manner. She mutters something under her breath that sounds like a foreign language. Then she bends low and gazes into her crystal ball. “It is a love from the past,” she says finally. She glances up, stares at me for a few long moments. “A love you gave away.”
“Yes!” I practically shriek. “Can I get it back?”
Madame Orlova inhales deeply. Then she expels the breath in small bursts. Her eyes return to the crystal ball. “The vision is unclear, but let us see what the cards say.”
The young girl brings her a pack of tarot cards. Madame Orlova shuffles, shuffles again, and then has me cut the deck. She deals the cards in the shape of a cross.
She clears her throat. “The love in your past was very strong. But you have struggled to find that love again.”
I glance over at Morgan and mouth “See?”
Morgan rolls her eyes. She adjusts her legs on the cushion.
Madame Orlova strokes the edge of the second card. “You felt you had no choice but to walk away from this boy.” She pauses, looks at me. “Your family moved, perhaps? Or your parents forbade you from being with him?”
“We broke up when I went away to college.”
“Ah.” She touches the next card. “This love, it’s not gone completely. But you must act soon or you will lose it forever.”
“What if he won’t talk to me?” I ask. “Should I go find him in person?”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Morgan cuts in. “What do those cards say exactly? So what if she loses this one love? I bet you see a lot of guys in Oakland’s future, right?”
Madame Orlova shakes her head sadly. “These cards speak of wealth and respect, but not of love. Not unless something drastically changes. This boy from the past. This…” She reaches out and clutches my hand, her beady eyes staring deep into mine and she leans forward. “Steve, no Sam, no…” She pauses, takes a deep breath. “Seth. He is the key to everything.”
“Holy shit,” Morgan says.
“Oh my god. Thank you.” I resist the urge to hug Madame Orlova right then and there. “Do you think I should message him online? Or hunt him down in person?”
“Hunt him down?” Morgan gives me that garbage truck dinner look again. “I don’t think you—”
“Shh.” Madame Orlova puts a finger to her lips. She glances down at the cards again. “There is no harm in reaching out to him, but before you take drastic action you must wait for a sign.”
“See, she’s telling you not to be a stalker,” Morgan says.
“No stalk.” Madame Orlova nods her head. “If you make yourself available, the love will come to you.”
I bite back a slew of giddy giggles. I know she’s just a fortuneteller, but still. She’s mirroring what the grad student told me which is also mirroring what I feel in my gut.
“Do mine!” Morgan says. She thrusts her hand toward Madame Orlova.
Madame Orlova grips Morgan’s fingers and gazes into her crystal ball again. “You are…seeking something,” she says.
“Everyone is seeking something.” Morgan scoffs. “Try a little harder.”
Madam Orlova deals her a set of tarot cards. “You are passionate and love life, but you feel like something is missing.”
Morgan makes a sharp buzzing sound. “Wrongo. I’m not Miss Searching for True Love like my friend over here.
The fortuneteller shakes her head. “Not love. You aren’t ready for that yet. You need meaning…a sense of purpose.”
“Don’t we all want that?” Morgan asks.
“Yes, but you are focusing deeply on it. The good news is that a journey is in your future. It will take you exotic places and help you find what it is you seek.”
“Exotic trip, huh? I like the sound of that.” Morgan attempts to give Madame Orlova a high-five but gets only a look of disdain in return. “Fortunetellers,” she scoffs. “So not hip.”
After the reading, Madame Orlova retires to the back room of her tent and the girl in the corner offers to accept tips on her behalf. Morgan gives the girl a glare but coughs up a dollar. I go all out and hand over a second five-dollar bill.
Then we head back to Palo Alto in Morgan’s BMW. For a few minutes we’re both silent. The gentle humming of the heater starts to lull me to sleep. I reach over and turn it off. I can’t be getting all drowsy. I need to study once we get home.
“So is it just me, or was that completely cray?” Morgan asks.
“Not just you.” I want to talk about it, but I’m still kind of processing everything in my head. “It has to be real, right?” I say finally as she slows to a stop at a red light. “There’s no way she could’ve known Seth’s name.”
“That kind of blew my mind,” Morgan says. “Are you sure you weren’t whispering it to yourself or something?”
“I don’t go around randomly mouthing boys’ names.”
She glances over at me. “You don’t have it doodled on your hand with some hearts around it?”
“Funny,” I say. “The key to everything, Morgan. That’s almost exactly what the therapist said.” I twist a lock of hair around my finger. “I’m going to send him a message. Just something really neutral.”
Morgan drums her fingertips on the steering wheel as she pulls her car over in front of our apartment building. “I guess it couldn’t hurt.”
It takes me until the next day to work up the nerve. After class, I plunk down on my bed, determined to make contact. I can’t text Seth because I deleted his number from my phone the day after we broke up, so that way I couldn’t call him. I start to send him an email, but what do you say to the boy whose heart you broke on senior prom night?
Hey. Thinking about you. Would love to catch up someday soon. Hope all is well. O.
Short but sweet. I stare at the screen for a few seconds and then press send, my heart pounding hard against my ribs when I think about what I’ve set into motion. And then two seconds later the email bounces “no such user” and my heart sinks. Seth must have quit using that account. I’m going to have to find him somewhere else on the internet.
Folding open my laptop, I take a deep breath and do a search for Seth King. Unfortunately, there are lots of people with that name, and the one I want seems to be seriously lacking in the social media department these days. I don’t remember him unfriending me on anything after we broke up, but at some point he must have ditched most of his pages. I have to scroll through about fifty listings for Seth King before I locate what I think is his twitter account, but the profile picture is of some kind of scenic vista and he’s only got eleven tweets total—nothing from the past year. I copy my email message and paste it into the box.
I press tweet and wait. And wait some more. Reminding myself that Seth isn’t Morgan and therefore isn’t going to respond to me in five seconds, I click over to my email and scroll through my new messages. There’s a lot of spam and a couple of emails from my mom, one that includes an attached image of what she says is ectoplasmic mist. I enlarge the photo and squint at it, but it just looks like a dirty window to me.
The door to the apartment opens and then closes with a bang. “Honey, I’m home,” Morgan yells.
I slip my phone into my pocket and head into the living room. “Guess what I just did.”
She grabs a jar of peanut butter from a kitchen cupboard and a spoon from the top drawer. “Got an A on a final?” She unscrews the lid.
I watch her with an amused look. When we first moved in together, I was all about having separate food and separate shampoo and everything. Now we share it all. “No. Well, yes, hopefully. But besides that.”
“Took someone else’s final for them and got an A?” Morgan dips into the jar and eats a big spoonful of peanut butter.
“No, but that actually sounds like a good way to make some cash.” I check my phone while I wait for her to swallow. Still no message.
She sighs happily as she licks her lips. “I don’t know then.”
I pull my feet up onto our futon sofa and sit cross-legged. “Jeez, am I really that boring?”
“Only the past few weeks.” She grins as she holds the peanut butter and spoon out to me.
She means since Isaac and I broke up. I have been doing a lot of moping. Not because I miss Isaac, really. Just because I feel like I wasted four months on him.
”Bitch,” I say, taking the jar and swirling the spoon through it
She winks. “Don’t ask if you don’t want to know.”
I roll my eyes at her. “So anyway.” I nibble at the tip of my spoonful of peanut butter. “I sent Seth a message.”
Morgan smiles knowingly. “Did you tell him a wannabe shrink and a fortuneteller both insist he’s your destiny? Because I’m sure that went over well.”
“No, brat. I just told him I was thinking of him and I hoped everything was going well and that it’d be nice to catch up sometime.”
“And what did he have to say in return?” She flops down in the chair across from me and holds out her hands.
I toss her the jar. “He hasn’t responded yet.”
“What if he’s dead or something?”
“Morgan!” My voice gets shrill. “He’s not dead.”
“How do you know?”
“Because an obituary would’ve shown up in a Google search and I had to go four pages deep just to find what I hope is his twitter account.”
She snorts. “So then he’s ignoring you?”
“It’s only been twenty minutes and he hasn’t updated his account in a year,” I say. “I’m not even sure if he’ll see the message. I should probably put a Google alert on for him, huh?”
“Sure.” She digs into the peanut butter and licks at the spoon. “Maybe run a background check and hire private eye while you’re at it. Guys dig it when you show a lot of initiative.”
“Very funny. It’s not stalking to want to send a message to a guy I dated for years.” I huff. “There’s nothing wrong with a Google alert.”
“Okay then. It all sounds very promising.” Morgan sets the jar of peanut butter down on the end table. “Lucky for you, I have just the thing to distract you while you wait for him to reply.”
“You’re not going home for Christmas, right?”
“No. Believe it or not, my parents are going on a haunted cruise.”
My mom and dad had me really young, when they were both still in high school, and I think they’re trying to recapture their lost youth now that I’m out of the house. I’m pretty sure this cruise is just an excuse to party for a week and write it off as a business expense. Mom did invite me to come along with them, but sharing a tiny crackerbox room and watching my parents alternate between getting drunk and skulking around with their ghost hunter paraphernalia isn’t my idea of fun. Also, I don’t know how to swim, so seven days surrounded by water? No thanks.
“Perfect. How do you feel about a little vacation?”
“What? Like drive down to Mexico or something?”
“Well, Madame Orlova said exotic, so I was thinking of something a bit farther away. How do you feel about Bangkok?”
“No, Bangkok Kansas.” Morgan scoffs. “I hear they’ve got the world’s largest butter churn.”
“You know I can’t afford something like that.”
“Yes I do, my little scholarship bunny. Just like you know I can afford something like that, and if I went alone I’d have to pay a single’s’ surplus fee, so bringing you with me is only a couple hundred bucks more for all twelve days.
“A couple hundred bucks for twelve days?” I say skeptically. “What’s the catch?”
“I’ve been scrolling through the reviews for some of the discount tours and they sound completely fine. It’s not like we’ll be in five-star hotels but we won’t have to share a room with six other people either. It’s pretty cheap over there.”
“What about airfare?”
“I’ve got frequent flyer miles to cover you.”
I should say no. Morgan’s dad works for Google and her mom is a professor at the med school. She can basically charge anything she wants on her credit cards and never even see the bill. Because of this, she pays all the time when we go out. She also pays all of our monthly bills and would probably pay the rent if I didn’t insist on paying my half every month. She swears she doesn’t care, but I hate taking advantage of her. Still, a vacation would be a great way to keep my mind occupied while I wait for Seth to reply. I let out a big breath of air. “I’d love to go somewhere. But why Thailand?”
Morgan gasps. “Seriously? Thailand has everything we need for a perfect Christmas Break.”
“Monks? Monsoons? Malaria?”
She sighs deeply. “Temples, beaches, and boys.” She pauses. “Mostly those last two.”
“Thai boys?” I ask dubiously.
“Well sure,” she says. “Or other tourists! I went there once in high school with my parents and the place was crawling with Australians and Europeans. Seth can be The One when we get home, but maybe what you really need to put Isaac behind you and crawl out of your funk is a reboot boy. There is nothing like a hot meaningless fling with a guy you’ll never see again to cleanse your palate.”
I start to tell her how casual sex isn’t my style, but that’s not entirely true. It was my style for most of freshman year, and Morgan knows it. We lived on campus back then, and we used to throw these hook-up parties with our suitemates, where we’d each invite over a guy to hang out and watch movies or whatever, and then try to hook up with him by the end of the night. That didn’t always go according to plan, but when it did it was kind of fun, even if the actual sex was generally subpar. And it’s not like Seth will have to know or care. Maybe it would be good for me to hook up without the pressure of a relationship.
“Let’s do it,” I say. “Even if the boy thing doesn’t pan out, two weeks of beaches and sightseeing sounds pretty good.”
“I was hoping you’d say that. Tiger Tours has some great last minute sales. I can book us a guided excursion—airfare, hotels, transfers, all-inclusive. That way we won’t have to worry about anything. Including malaria, which isn’t found in any of the major tourist areas.”
“Aren’t those all-inclusive deals just for old people?”
“No way,” she says. “They’re for people who are lazy and do things last-minute. I bet there’ll be scads of delicious man candy to binge on.”
Two days after finals end, Morgan and I are on a plane heading halfway around the world. Seth still hasn’t responded to my tweet or used his twitter account. I debated sending him a Christmas card with a handwritten note, but I don’t know his on-campus address and I was too afraid if I sent it to his parents’ house that his mom might open it. And then burn it. I’m probably not one of her favorite people after what I did to her only child.
I did another Internet search for him and clicked through all fifteen pages of results, but came up empty. It’s like Seth’s gone off the grid or something. Even the Google alerts aren’t panning out. So far I’ve gotten emails about a Seth King who writes romance novels and a Seth King who works as a physician assistant. Operation Reboot Boy is sounding better and better.
Provided there are some single guys on our tour.
“If the people on this flight are representative of who’s going to be in our tour group, we’re basically screwed as far as man candy is concerned,” I say. Glancing around I see mostly families, gay couples, and senior citizens.
Morgan parts her stick-straight hair into two bundles and arranges it over her shoulders like curtains. “Trust me,” she says. “The back of the plane is full of crunchy granola hippies and military guys. I started checking them out when I got up to pee earlier.” She stretches her arms up above her head. “God, how do full-sized people survive in these little seats? There’s barely enough room for my munchkin ass.”
“The struggle is real,” I tell her. I lean forward and attempt to stretch my back without accidentally head-butting the guy in front of me.
When our plane finally begins to descend into Bangkok airspace, a perky flight attendant wearing a little cap pinned to her head with bobby pins drops off customs forms and tells us that the local time is 5:01.
“Sweet baby Jesus in a birdbath,” Morgan says. “How am I supposed to fill out official paperwork this early? Do you think if I ask nicely that she’d bring us an emergency cup of coffee?”
“Probably not, since we’re already descending.” I run a hand through my wavy brown hair, wincing at the knots I encounter. I find an elastic hairband in the smallest pocket of my backpack and pull the whole mess back into a low ponytail. Flipping open my passport, I scribble my number on the Thai form and then sign my name.
“Check it out.” Morgan points at the little window next to my seat.
We both lean toward the glass, watching Bangkok grow closer in the waning darkness. Swatches of clouds flit past, gray ghosts against a blue-purple sky.
“I thought there’d be more lights.”
“The airport is a ways outside the city,” Morgan says.
As we drop lower, the airport lights illuminate fields of green ringed by irrigation canals. Long cargo hangers stand in a line next to piles of rusted red shipping containers. The clouds are completely gone now. We pass over a series of sinuous highway loops before the runway appears, long and straight and heading into forever.
The landing is soft, a single bounce. People around us startle awake, their low voices conversing in a barrage of staccato vowel sounds.
Morgan links her arm through mine . “I can’t believe we’re actually here.”
“Me neither,” I say. “Thank you for taking me along.”
She blows me a kiss. “It wouldn’t be a vacation without you.”
When we slow to a stop at the gate, I grab both of our bags down from the overhead compartment. Morgan and I exit the plane and get pushed along in an endless stream of people, around several blind corners, and finally into an open area with about twenty lines for passport control.
But only three people working.
Morgan blinks sleepily and glances at her phone, which is still on Pacific time. “And it’s two p.m. back home.” She starts tapping out a text with her thumbs.
I send my mom a quick email that I arrived okay. I’m not sure if she’ll be checking it on the cruise or not, but I think their boat stops in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and there’s probably Wi-Fi in at least one of those places.
“ Are you sure the tour director is going to have people here to meet us this early?” I ask.
“Quit worrying.”She yawns. “Apparently almost all the farang come in from Narita either really early or really late. They’ll be here.”
“It’s what they call foreigners.”
I shift my backpack from my left shoulder to my right, rubbing the sore spot on my neck from where the strap has been digging in. “And you know this how?”
“When I came with my parents, my mom made me learn a few phrases.” Morgan produces a Distant Lands travel guide for Thailand from her pink and black Victoria’s Secret carry-on bag. “And I refreshed my memory on the first plane, while you were watching the entire Fast and Furious series.”
Since we got our tickets at the last minute, Morgan and I were separated for the first flight. I’ve never flown internationally before and to say I was unprepared for the trauma of ten hours of being squished between an obese man in a 49ers sweatshirt and an old lady with three bags of duty free stuff would be an understatement. I didn’t even get up to pee because I didn’t want to have to crawl over anyone. Instead, I plugged in my headphones, fired up the small video screen on the seatback in front of me, and did my best to zone out between the strangely frequent airline meals the flight attendants kept offering due to the rapidly changing time zones.
“Anything else I should know?” I ask. “Thank you? Excuse me? I don’t know where those drugs came from—they’re not mine?”
Morgan smirks. “Don’t be giving away my drugs, woman.” She runs me through a few useful phrases, explaining to me how the wording is slightly different depending on the gender of the speaker. It all sounds complicated to me, but that might be because I haven’t slept in I have no idea how many hours.
We make it up to the immigration clerk faster than I expect, and it’s only about 5:45 when we shuffle down a small flight of stairs to a wide open baggage claim area. The support pillars are wrapped in green garland and a string of Christmas lights is stretched across the entire baggage area.
“I didn’t think they celebrated Christmas here,” I say. “Aren’t they Buddhist?”
“Yeah, for the most part,” Morgan says. “That is odd.”
We follow everyone else from our Tokyo flight over to the third carousel. Back against a wall of glass windows are several men holding signs, one of which says Tiger Tours.
“There’s our guy,” Morgan says. “Told you.”
Behind him stand three men and two women, all of whom look slightly older than my grandparents. “There’s our sexy prospects,” I say. “Dibs on the guy with the liver spots and the comb-over.”
Morgan elbows me in the ribs. “Oh, you,” she says affectionately. “Don’t lose hope so quickly.”
I open my mouth to respond, but then I see Morgan’s hot pink snakeskin luggage heading toward us. “There’s your bag.”
Her eyes glint with mischief. “Think we should ask our guide to help?”
Our guide looks to be about five foot three and a hundred pounds, or, you know, whatever that would be in metric because I think that’s how they roll over here. “Not unless you want to kill him before we even get started. I bet your bag weighs more than he does.”
“It’s not that heavy,” she says, bending into a crouch to gain leverage to heave it from the carousel.
I grin when I see that someone from the airline has affixed a big yellow sticker to the side of it that reads “Heavy.”
“Shut up,” she says, before I can even comment.
A few minutes later, my black cloth suitcase with the purple tie around the handle comes into view. I lift it smoothly from the carousel and we head toward the Customs line. A smiling Thai official dressed in navy blue takes our forms and ushers us forward once we tell him we have nothing to declare.
As we draw close to the Tiger Tours guide, I realize he’s younger than I thought, maybe even younger than Morgan and me. He’s cute, though, in a boy band kind of way. I could see Morgan digging him. I do a quick check of his hands. Wedding ring—too bad.
His dark eyes widen slightly when we introduce ourselves. He glances down at Morgan’s bare legs—I don’t know how she didn’t freeze to death on the plane in her jean shorts—but recovers quickly, reaching out to give each of us a firm handshake. “My name is Pracha,” he says.
We hand him our paperwork. He skims our printed documents and then tucks them into a leather satchel slung across his body. “The bus is over there.” He points through the glass windows at a long silver coach parked halfway across the parking lot. “You can wait here for everyone else or go ahead and get onboard.” His English is near-perfect, colored by only a hint of accent.
“I’m kind of anxious to get outside,” Morgan says. She looks up at the semi-circle of people behind Pracha, people my brain has already started referring to as “the oldsters.” “You guys coming?”
“Erm. I need to stay near a water fountain so I can take my heart medicine in a few minutes,” the guy with the comb-over says.
“Too bloody hot out there for me,” a woman with pointy glasses adds in what I think is a British accent.
“Suit yourself.” Morgan smiles brightly.
“Leave your luggage by side of bus. I’ll put it away,” Pracha says.
“Works for me.” Morgan drags her suitcase behind her and heads for the exit.
I roll my suitcase behind her. We step into an atrium between the baggage area and the parking lot and the temperature increases twenty degrees. We are immediately accosted by several guys in vaguely official looking uniforms. They surround us, jabbering in a mix of English and Thai, their voices blending together to a point where I almost can’t make out what they’re saying.
“We’re on a tour,” Morgan tells the men closest to us firmly. “We don’t need a cab.”
“You need hotel?” a boy who looks about twelve asks hopefully. “I know good place. Clean room. Western toilets.”
“We don’t need a hotel either,” Morgan says.
The boy turns away dejectedly and another boy muscles forward to take his place. “You need breakfast today, ladies? I take you to good shop. Right next door to silk market.”
“No thanks,” Morgan says. I grab onto her arm as she cuts a path through the sea of people, shaking her head at a variety of laminated sheets and brochures people are trying to give her.
“Holy crap,” I say. “Is this normal?”
“It is when the tourist planes arrive,” she murmurs. “This is how the touts make a living.”
“Vendors, hawkers, etc.”
Someone thrusts a piece of folded paper into my hand. I take it but don’t look at it.
“Just keep moving,” Morgan says.
We decline some pineapple spears on sticks, bottles of water, and a few more offers for accommodations before we make it to the exit. The men give up, turning back toward the baggage area in a wave to prepare for their next victims.
A set of sliding glass doors hisses open and a blast of humidity assaults us. Outside, the sun is just starting to rise, painting all of the dingy, gray airport buildings with a silver brush. A steady stream of cars and hotel shuttles roll past. Apparently people drive on the left side of the road here.
A pickup truck full of school kids and a dog pulls over in front of the terminal, belching out a cloud of exhaust. A lady with a battered red suitcase strides toward them with a smile. I notice several of the Thai people scurrying past us are wearing surgical masks or respirators.
“Are we going to die from the pollution?”
Morgan furrows her brow. “I don’t think so. There was something we need to watch out for with the ice, but I’m only halfway through the guidebook.”
“Morgan, oh my God. Could you have planned any less?”
“You know how I feel about planning. That’s why I booked us on an all-inclusive tour.” She scoffs. “Besides, you didn’t plan at all.”
“Good point,” I admit grudgingly. “But I was busy.” Morgan doesn’t know that even though I still haven’t heard from Seth, I spent all my free time between finals completing applications to the clinical psychology grad school programs at Northwestern and University of Chicago. I know it’s completely crazy to start planning for a relationship that’s all in my head, but it’s not like I’m committing to anything, and it never hurts to have extra options in case Penn falls through.
“I was busy too.” Morgan holds out one of her slender arms. “Getting a base tan.”
I don’t bother to tell her she looks exactly the same color that she did last week. Morgan is one of those people who just doesn’t seem to tan. I stop halfway across the parking lot to adjust my backpack again. “At least the bus looks nice.”
Morgan leaves her pink suitcase near the side of it where an open luggage compartment is currently empty. “Looks like we’re the first people here.”
“Well except for the ones inside the airport.”
“Ah, yes,” Morgan says. “Heart Medicine Man and the crabby British lady.”
“Maybe some people flew in last night and they’re at the hotel already.”
“Maybe. Or maybe they were all just behind us on the plane.” Morgan bounds up the stairs and onto the bus, smiling at the middle-aged bus driver who is asleep in his seat, a mix of garbled static and chatter emanating from the radio.
A bobblehead of a Buddhist monk dressed in traditional saffron robes is mounted on the dash, a circle of silk flowers wrapped around it. There’s an open bottle of something called Est in the cup-holder—it looks like cola but it’s in an old-school glass bottle.
“Holy crap,” I say. “The eighties called and they want their beverages back.”
“They’re really big into refillable glass bottles here, because plastic refuse gets burned and destroys the environment,” Morgan says. She clucks her tongue. “You and your soda.”
We each collapse into a row halfway to the back, taking seats one in front of the other so we’re close enough to talk but can both sit by the window. I plop my backpack on the seat next to me and press my face close to the glass, marveling at the complicated swirly letters on the nearby billboards.
“Are all of their words like twenty letters long?” I ask.
I think those are sentences,” Morgan says. “The guidebook says they don’t put a space between words.”
“Can you imagine?” I think about the last few texts I received, mentally running all the sentences together.
“I would have an aneurysm trying to read anything,” Morgan agrees.
A taxi line forms between where we’re parked and the airport exit, mostly foreigners with bandanas tied around their heads and big framepacks slung across their shoulders The taxis come in all colors—green and yellow, dark blue, bright pink. They all have the same white sign that says “Taxi Meter” on the top.
A tall guy with bright blond hair joins the end of the line. It makes me think of Seth—he always hated his hair. Barbie-colored, he called it. He asked me to help him dye it brown in middle school, but we used too much dye and it came out Goth-black. His mom grounded him for a month.
“What are you staring at?” Morgan asks.
“There’s a guy over there that looks like Seth,” I admit.
She snorts. “Like the guy at the fish taco place did? And the guy at the tennis courts?”
“Pretty much.” Morgan’s right. I’ve got Seth on the brain. I’ve been seeing him everywhere.
“My official mission for this trip is to make you forget Seth,” Morgan says. “At least for a couple weeks.”
I smile at her. “Sounds like a plan.”
Pracha vaults up the bus steps in two quick hops and leans down to say something to our driver.
“What’s the deal?” Morgan asks. “Where’s everyone else?”
“More people are coming,” he says, loping down the aisle. “Some arrived last night, but most are stuck in the immigration line. Ten minutes, maybe.” He gives us a dazzling smile. “First time in Thailand?”
“For me,” I say.
“Second time,” Morgan says. “But first time was with my parents.”
“Ah.” Pracha arches his eyebrows. “Well then this time is going to be better, yes?”
Morgan stretches her arms over her head, arching her back and pushing out her chest a little. “I hope so.”
Pracha’s cheeks color slightly. “I’ll return shortly with the others,” he says.
He slips out through the crack in the partially opened bus door and a few minutes later the group of people from the baggage area make their way up the stairs. Crabby British Lady and Heart Medicine Man take the seats right in front of me and start arguing about what they’re going to do later today. He wants to shop. She wants to sleep. Normally I’d feel uncomfortable eavesdropping on someone’s argument, but I’m a sucker for a British accent and even though these people are almost yelling, I still find their voices soothing.
Soon, more people start arriving, mostly in pairs. Morgan and I fidget in our bus seats as our group slowly trickles in. It’s like some cosmic joke, where each person who enters the bus is older than the person before them. So much for Operation Reboot Boy. None of these guys look like they’d even survive sex. Morgan lets out a deep, dramatic sigh from behind me. I can tell she’s thinking the same thing.
“Maybe we’ll have some sexy tour guides,” I say, turning around.
She brightens. “Pracha is pretty cute.”
“Wedding ring,” I say.
She cackles. “Look at you. A professional at this hook-up thing, huh? Maybe he’ll have some assistants or friends or something.”
“If not, we can have an awesome time without guys,” I remind her. “I was looking at the itinerary and we’re going to some really cool places.”
“Yeah, I guess, but—hey, what about them?” Her voice brightens as a pair of blond guys in ripped jeans and black rock band T-shirts head down the aisle. The one in front has a sleeve tattoo and a ring through the middle part of his nose, like a bull.
“They’re holding hands,” I point out helpfully as they pass us.
“What a waste.” She slouches down in her seat, her pointy chin coming to rest on her neck. “A girl from New Zealand said this tour was jam packed with hot prospects. This is the last time I listen to Trip Advisor.”
“That guy looks hot.” I point across the aisle and two rows back at an elderly Chinese man with a walker who’s blotting the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief. He’s wearing a nametag that reads: Hello. My name is Mr. Chu.
Morgan grabs my ponytail and pulls back on it. “Don’t make me hurt you, O.”
Pracha pokes his head back into the bus and tells us we’re just waiting for two more people who got flagged for extra screening at Customs. If they follow the same “slightly older than the previous tourist” pattern they’ll be about a hundred and a hundred five. I hope someone is certified in CPR.
But the guys who appear in the aisle of the bus a few minutes later are young and muscular, with short hair and camouflage clothing. They both have olive green duffel bags with faded printing slung over their shoulders.
Army guys, I think, as one of them makes eye contact with me but doesn’t quite manage a smile. American soldiers.
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