I was ten years old when I first learned how to ride a bike. I remember that because the bike was a present for my tenth birthday. The bike was black and white and I fell in love with it immediately. I couldn’t wait to jump on it and start riding around the neighborhood with my cousin Jake, who always came around for my birthday parties. My father decided to start me off slow, so he had me start at one end of the sidewalk and held me as I rode to the other end. Jake was grinning the whole time, lime-green helmet in his hands, because he’d learned how to ride a whole year before me even though we were almost the same age. Aunt Lauren wasn’t as strict as my dad. But none of that mattered to me when my dad stood at one end of the sidewalk and motioned for me to ride by myself.
“All right, Lilly. Come to me!”
That’s what he said. So I started to ride towards him. I was doing okay until I felt myself start to wobble. Then I panicked and slipped. I landed on my side, and I wasn’t really hurt, but I scuffed my knee and elbow up pretty bad, and worse, I scraped one of the shiny chrome handlebars. That just about broke my heart into tiny little pieces.
But my dad was right there in a second and he put his arms around me and I will never, ever forget what he said.
“It’s okay, Lilly. As long as you’re not hurt, it’s fine. The most important thing right now is that you pick yourself up and keep going. Try it again. Do you hear me? That’s what Lassiters do, Lilly. We get back up and we keep on going.”
And he just sat there and he held me until I stopped crying, and then he helped me get back up on the black and white bike, and then he stood at the end of the sidewalk again and said, “Okay, Lilly. Try it again. Come to me!”
And I did. I ran to my father and rode that bicycle all by myself. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but I could see in his face that he was so, so proud of me for such a simple little thing.
I wish I could see that look on his face right now. I wish I could run to him all over again and have him hold me and tell me that everything’s okay. Because I screwed things up this time and I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to get back up and keep on going. I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m so, so sorry.
Eight Hours Earlier
Lilly Nora Lassiter smacked her hand down on the alarm clock. Hard. Not hard enough. “Ugh! Shut up!” She smacked it harder and turned on the light, glancing around blearily. Like a bear waking from hibernation, she dragged herself through the house, grabbing her fluffy pink bathrobe from its hook on her way downstairs for coffee. Unfortunately, she hadn’t inherited her father’s proclivity for mornings. She’d inherited lots of other things from him, though, like icy blue eyes (currently red-rimmed), an intensely rational mind (currently not functioning), and a sweet tooth that placed unreasonable demands on her naturally lanky body (currently slumped over a half-eaten piece of cold toast in a daze). At twenty-four years of age, she’d grown out of her youthful baby fat and Viccellio looks. Now, it seemed like the only part of her mother that showed through in the mirror was her long, curly blonde hair. She was, beyond any shadow of a doubt, daddy’s little girl.
Which was part of the reason that she had to be up so horrendously early: she had decided to become a cop.
She threw her work clothes on, snagged her keys from the dish on the kitchen counter, and wrapped her untamed tresses in a ponytail as she walked out the door. There was no way that she’d be able to beat her father’s record for the youngest detective on the force, but she’d be darned if she was going to be late for her detective’s exam and her 245th day of work. (And yes, she was counting.)
The Santa Barbara police station was already bustling by the time she got there, and she’d just shoved a wad of bubblegum into her mouth when her partner found her.
“It’s about time you showed up,” said Wén Xīfèng. “The Chief is just fit to be tied this morning. More so than usual, I mean.”
Lily arched an eyebrow. “Really? What’s the big problem this time? Somebody screw up his coffee again?”
With a roll of her exquisite hazel eyes, Xīfèng directed her colleague’s gaze towards the Chief’s office. “Apparently, we have visitors.”
Lily snorted, shoving her hands into her back pockets and leaning back. “Oh, really? I bet he’s loving that. Well, I don’t care if the President himself is visiting, I---”
She cut herself off when Chief Lassiter emerged from his office door with three twenty-something men. Men that she knew. It was a quirk of Lilly’s that the eyes were the first trait she noticed about a person, and she would recognize those three pairs of eyes anywhere. Light hazel flecked with gold, bluer than a Miami ocean, and rich coppery brown.
Immediately, she ducked behind one of the SBPD’s trademark pillars, now painted a warm beige instead of that awful duck-yellow color the walls had been when she was a kid. “Oh, no, Wén, you’ve gotta hide me!”
Xīfèng arched a well-groomed eyebrow, red-painted lips smirking at her partner’s discomfort. “Someone you know? Did you sleep with one of them? Did you sleep with all three of them? It has to be something crazy or you wouldn’t be acting like this. I want details, sister!”
“Later, I promise, but for now, hide me!” Lilly hissed.
Her friend lowered her voice. “I’ll run interference, and you run down to the file room and lock yourself in.”
Lilly nodded. “Okay.”
As soon as Xīfèng strolled across the room, short bootheels clacking against the tiled floors, Lilly emerged from behind the pillar and beelined for the file room, making quick and purposeful strides. Don’tactlikeyou’rerunning Don’tactlikeyou’rerunning Just gogogogo…
As she locked the file room door behind her with a bit too much force, pressing her back against the sturdy oak wood, she struggled to avoid thinking about all the memories those colorful eyes brought back to her. Those faces, almost ten years older than they were the last time she saw them… She couldn’t bear thinking of them. Well… One of them, anyway. She chomped down on her bubblegum, popping the little pink boulder between her teeth.
Inwardly, she groaned. God, why did I have to get Mama’s flight response? Couldn’t I have learned just a little bit of that Lassiter fighting spirit?
She could hear her father’s voice in her mind now: Lassiters never run or back down from their problems. But sometimes it seemed like that was all she ever did.
“Consider it a tactical retreat,” she scoffed under her breath.
Then she heard a click from behind her. Coming from the door, from the lock. She whirled around, blinking.
It was being picked. The lock. Someone was picking the lock.
The heels of her hands kneaded her eyes. She knew who would be on the other side when the door opened. The one person that Xīfèng needed to distract, and the one person that, naturally, she couldn’t.
The battered door swung open. A pair of eyes bluer than the sea under a cloudless sky. A winning and overconfident smirk beneath a thatch of dirty-blond hair. She almost heaved a sigh of relief. This was bad, but at least it wasn’t the worst-case scenario.
“Eddie,” she said stiffly.
The smirk grew into a smile. “You used to be a lot nicer to me. Whatever happened to that?”
“We were twelve. That was then, this is now.”
He quirked an eyebrow, smile never faltering. “No, we were thirteen and you were sixteen, and we have unfinished business.”
“Police work is my business.”
“What a coincidence! So is mine.”
“Go away.” She wished that her breathing wasn’t so shaky.
“Why?” He sounded genuinely puzzled. Did he not know?
“Because I’m asking you to.”
He stared at her for a long moment. “Okay,” he said finally. “Okay. I’ll--- I guess I’ll just leave you in here with the files and stuff. But, y’know, if you change your mind…”
She nodded curtly and he walked out. How could he act so normal? Did he really not know?
Of course Eddie didn’t know. He wasn’t like his brother. He couldn’t see things, couldn’t put together the pieces the way Starfish could.
Oh, no, Starfish. She always knew that she’d end up seeing him again someday, but---here? Now? Why now? Why not ten years from now, or twenty, when both of them had six kids and successful careers and too many commitments to dwell on the past?
No, no; Lilly had to pull herself together. She couldn’t just hide in the file room forever. Sooner or later, she was going to have to face the both of them, and BJ, too. She’d have to face both Eddie and Starfish head-on, just rip it off like a Band-Aid, because it’s impossible to hide forever. No, she couldn’t hide, not the way she’d hidden herself those eight long years ago, back during that one long summer…
It was the summer I turned sixteen. Every day, I would run all over the neighborhood, practicing for cross-country tryouts in the fall. I was determined to make the varsity team that year, and nothing was going to stop me. I must have worried my dad half to death with all the places I went, even though it was evident that my years of tae-kwon-do classes were paying off. I was the tallest, lankiest, most muscular, and most fearsome girl in the entire tenth grade, and I liked it that way. After all, I had that big Lassiter name to live up to.
I was out for a run sometime in mid-June when I came home and saw an unfamiliar car in the drive. That wasn’t overly concerning to me; different officers on the force came in and out of our house all the time to visit my dad, and ever since Jake had gotten his learner’s permit, it seemed like Aunt Lauren was going through cars like a fish goes through water. But when my mom came out to meet me in the yard, I knew that something was up. Something important.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I asked, holding a hand by my face to block out the sun. It was around noon, and the light was as blinding as the heat was scorching.
Mama put her hands on my shoulders. “Lilly, do you remember our friends Shawn and Juliet Spencer? They always visit us at Christmas?”
“Yeah, I remember them,” I said after I looked back on it for a second. I mostly remembered them from my younger years, because contrary to what my mom said, they did not always visit at Christmas. In fact, they hadn’t stopped by in a few years, which wasn’t honestly surprising since they lived five hours away in San Francisco. Still, I knew enough to remember that they were kinda like the kooky aunt and uncle that I never had, because they were great even though they weren’t related to me. Distantly, I recalled that they had two kids a few years younger than me. Twins. But I couldn’t remember their names or anything about them at all.
Mama blew a puff of air slowly out through her mouth before saying, “Well, their two boys are going to be staying with us in Santa Barbara for the summer. They’ll be staying in the guest room. Jake won’t need it since he’s going to Boy Scout camp this summer, so now you’ll have someone to play with. You know, keep you company. It’ll be fun. I’m sure you’ll all get along great.”
First of all, I didn’t need or want anyone to play with. And second of all, that’s the thing about Viccellios: we wear our hearts on our sleeves. So I knew right then and there that Mama knew more about that story than she was telling me, but I wasn’t gonna ask… Not at that point, anyway.
“‘Kay,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “I’m just gonna get changed.” Then I slipped past her into the house. My father and Shawn Spencer were sitting on opposite sides of the coffee table, trying not to look like awkward dads, I guess. Before I could get upstairs, they spotted me.
“Lilly! Is that really you? Man, you’ve gotten huge since I last saw you! You sure you’re not part giraffe?”
Slapping a smile on my face, I turned around. “Hey, Uncle Shawn.”
“He’s not your uncle,” Dad growled. “And thank the good Lord for that, because I don’t want any of that Spencer insanity to pollute my good Lassiter genes.”
“Don’t forget the Viccellio genes, baby,” Mama said while she was closing the front door.
“I’m just gonna get changed now,” I repeated, and I headed upstairs before that conversation could get any more awkward.
But before I could get to my room, the guest room door opened up. I saw two different pairs of eyes in exactly the same face.
“Whoa,” said Ocean-blue. “You’re Lilly?”
Red-faced and puffy from running and sweating? Yep, that’s me. I nodded.
Ocean-blue stuck his hand out. “I’m Eddie.”
“Hi,” I said without moving an inch.
Eddie dropped his hand. “Handshakes not your thing, huh?”
He raised an eyebrow. “And neither is talking?”
“I’m just gonna get changed now,” I echoed for the third time in five minutes, and brushed past them to get to my room.
“Cut through the service trails next time,” one of them said behind me.
I stopped and glanced over my shoulder. “What?”
Hazel-gold was staring at me, speaking at last. “Next time you’re running home, when you go through the park, use the staff service roads as shortcuts instead of sticking to the visitor trails. It’ll be easier and you’ll get home quicker.”
“How’d you know that I came through the park?”
He shrugged and smirked in a way that made me want to hit him. “I’m a detective, just like my mom and dad.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, I’m gonna be a cop, just like my dad.” I slammed the door behind me and didn’t come out until Mama yelled to me that supper was ready.
Uncle Shawn stayed to eat with us; ever the Italian cook, Mama wouldn’t let him take no for an answer. But he seemed...off. Fidgety, somehow, and quieter than usual. He kept looking at my dad a lot. And Dad hardly said a word. He seemed worried about something.
When Shawn left, he had big hugs for his boys, and a hug for me, too---along with a reminder to “keep enjoying my old room!”
But things were still awkward and my dad still seemed worried.
When Mama offered to put on a movie for us, Ocean-blue Eddie beamed. “Sure, Mama L! What are we watching? Can I make popcorn? I won’t burn it, I promise.”
But Detective Hazel-gold just excused himself and shuffled upstairs.
I sat there on the couch for a little while. The room was dark except for the glow of the television screen. The giant bowl of popcorn made the entire house smell like salted butter. After a while, though, my dad left the room. With my tired mom half-asleep and Eddie’s eyes glued to the sci-fi flick, I snuck out after him.
Dad’s always been a creature of habit, so all of his phone calls, whether video or audio, were always answered in the same spot: by the wall just inside the master bedroom’s doorway, beside his dresser. Which meant that the best place to eavesdrop on him was the other side of that thin, thin wall---right inside my room. I stepped through my door and was surprised to see Hazel-gold already there. He motioned for me to come closer to the wall.
“What are you doing in my room?” I hissed.
“Same thing you are, probably,” he whispered back. “Now, shhh. I’m trying to hear.”
We shut up just in time to hear a weak female voice saying, “Hey, Carlton.”
“My mom,” Hazel-gold breathed.
“Are you all right, O’Hara?” Dad asked.
“No.” She sounded on the verge of tears.
“Juliet.” Dad’s voice was so gentle. I was taken completely by surprise. He sounded just like he did that time when I fell off my bike---a tone very rarely used, and only for the severest hurts. “Juliet, tell me what’s wrong.”
“I lost my baby.” Now the voice was a strangled, horrified whisper. “She was our baby girl, and I lost her, Carlton.”
“Juliet, I--- I’m so sorry.”
“It’s my fault.”
“No. No, it isn’t.”
“It is. It is my fault, Carlton, I--- My body isn’t able to handle this. That’s what they told me. Aren’t women’s bodies supposed to be able to handle childbirth? But---but mine isn’t. It was a miracle the boys were born as healthy as they are, and it’s not Shawn. It’s me. It’s my fault that we couldn’t have any more, and it's my fault that we lost our little girl, and now---now they’re saying that I need a hysterectomy. And I can’t---I can’t do this, Carlton, I just can’t!”
“O’Hara---Juliet, you listen to me. You’re my partner. You’re the strongest woman I’ve ever known. You can do this. You’ll make it through.”
For several minutes, all we heard was sobbing. Then she spoke again: “I don’t want the boys to see me this way. I don’t even know if I can get up in the morning. And I know that none of it is fair, but I just…”
“I’ll take care of them, O’Hara. I give you my word.”
“I know you will,” she whispered, the sound harsh and pained. Another long silence, and then: “I should go.”
“You are strong enough. Remember that.”
“I’ll try. Goodbye, Carlton. And---thank you.”
Hazel-gold sighed like a hissing tire. “I was afraid that that’s what was going on.”
“Of course. The signs were all there.”
I blinked. “Does your brother know?”
“No. And he doesn’t need to. Obviously Mom and Dad want to keep it a secret. I’m not that stupid, but Eddie---as far as he’s concerned, this is just a summer camp, and that’s all he needs to know right now.”
“Doesn’t he deserve to know?”
Hazel-gold just snorted. “You don’t know Eddie.” Then he was quiet for a second. Then he added, “They’re probably going to get a divorce.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Most parents who lose a child do.”
“About your sister.”
“Oh.” He got quiet again, very serious. “Yeah. Me, too.”
“What's, um… What’s your name?”
Hazel-gold straightened up and answered, “Henry Angus O’Hara-Spencer. But you can call me Starfish. Almost everyone does. Starfish Spencer.”
“That’s a silly name.”
He just looked at me and smiled.
Clothes straightened, back rigid, and nerves still tense as a tightrope walker’s cable, Lilly strolled out of the file room and down the hall. That summer didn’t matter now. None of the past mattered. What mattered was today and now and her detective’s exam. They were adults. She was an adult. She was---
Xīfèng caught her eye and beckoned her over with a surreptitious head-tilt. At the moment, the petite officer was twirling a strand of silky black hair around one finger, locked into some kind of flirtation with BJ, biting her lip and staring into his coppery eyes. Lilly overheard bits of their conversation:
“So, are you a semi-psychic detective, too? Or do they just keep you around as the muscle man?”
“Oh, no,” BJ chuckled. “The muscle man job belongs to Eddie, and the only psychics we have are Starfish and his old man. I’m actually the brains of the operation, but I only work with the agency part-time. I’m a marine biologist by day, if you can believe that.”
“Oh, really? That’s a heck of a day job.”
“It is! I work at the Cetacean Institute in Sausalito. You should look me up sometime, if you’re ever in town.”
“Oh, I will, Mr. Guster. Believe me, I will.”
Lilly kept putting one foot in front of the other until she reached the awkwardly-flirting pair, noting that the Spencer twins---and her father---were nowhere in sight.“Hey, Beej.”
BJ grinned. “Hey, Lilly. Long time, no see.”
“Yeah, but I bet I could still kick your butt at running.”
“Not in a sprint! I’m way faster than you.”
“Yeah, but you can’t hack it for the long haul. Endurance, that’s what counts.”
“Oh, so you two know each other?” Xīfèng asked with a sly look at Lilly, fishing for more information.
“Yeah, for years now,” BJ said, blundering right into the trap. “We’ve seen each other on and off for years at track and cross-country meets, but I guess we first met because we’re both friends with Starfish and Eddie.”
“Santa Barbara will always be better than San Fran,” Lilly said.
BJ rolled his eyes. “You must be outta your mind. San Francisco always comes out on top.”
Lilly smiled. “How’re your folks?”
“How’re his folks? What is this, an old episode of The Waltons? You gonna go live on a mountain with John-Boy or something?” interrupted the one person who made Lilly want to run and stay frozen at the same time.
She blinked, staring at Starfish blankly and wondering where he came from to pop up so suddenly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. None whatsoever.” He was older now, more handsome, more angular. The differences in the fraternal twins were now more obvious than ever, with Eddie’s blond and powerfully-built O’Hara looks a stark contrast to his brother’s average frame and scrutinizing hazel eyes. ...She needed to change the subject before anyone caught her staring. “Anyway, where did Eddie and the Chief run off to?”
The young Spencer shrugged. “Just catching up, I guess.” He fidgeted slightly, looked up and to the right.
He’s hiding something, Lilly thought. Aloud, she said, “So, why are you back in town? I thought you hated Santa Barbara.”
He shrugged again. “I do, but Mom and Dad have a pretty good handle on all our cases at the moment, and Beej wanted to see LA on his vacation, so we decided to all come together and just, y’know, stop in to visit on the way.”
Lilly shook her head. “You’re a pathetic liar, Starfish. You’re working a case. Don’t bother to deny it.”
BJ shifted uncomfortably. “Why don’t we discuss this somewhere else?”
Xīfèng signalled discreetly to her partner, tilting her head at the clock.
Lilly grimaced. “I have to go take my detective’s exam. Will you still be in town this afternoon?”
Starfish opened his mouth to blurt something, but BJ elbowed him and said, “Yes, we will. We’ll be here all week,” flicking his nose with his thumb as he made eyes at Xīfèng.
“Good. My dad’s house, five o’clock. We’ll have tea.” Then Lilly spun on her heels and walked away, taking Xīfèng with her.
Behind her, she caught the last remnants of a conversation:
“We’re having tea? Really? What is this, an old episode of---”
“Stop it, Starfish! You’re being rude.”
“You just used your dad’s nostril flick on a cop!”
Lilly shook her head, glancing at her partner and tugging at her blue uniform. “Are you ready, Wén?”
“You know it, Lassiter. May the best woman win.”
When I was nine, my mom taught me the secret to taking a test. I always had the toughest time taking spelling tests in school. I got so nervous that my hands would shake and I couldn’t hold the pencil, and I could hardly eat a thing at lunch. My teacher even started grading my papers first because I couldn’t sleep at night without knowing how I did.
But then Mama taught me how to face tests without getting scared. After school one day, she put her hands on my shoulders like she always does when she’s saying something important, and she asked me why I was so worried about the test on Friday.
“It’s only ten words, Lilly. And you’ve studied all week. You can do it.”
“But what if I can’t?” I started to cry. For some reason, I remember vividly that she was wearing her favorite red sweater and my tears just soaked into the thick fabric.
“Well, you can’t if you get scared. But if you’re strong and you’re a brave little girl, then you can do anything.”
“Shh, baby, it’s okay. Take a deep breath, that’s the first step. Good. Good, Lilly, now another one. Good, and another… Good girl. Now that you’ve calmed down a little, I want you to think. Is there anything in that classroom that makes you really happy?”
“Um… Miss McCallum’s ugly sweaters?”
“Okay. So the next time you’re taking a test and you feel nervous or scared, I want you to stop, take a deep breath, and think of something that makes you happy until you feel better. Just think about those ugly sweaters until you’re not scared and you can do your best. Okay?”
I nodded. “Okay, Mommy, I’ll try.”
When I was taking my detective’s exam, I thought of the way Eddie and BJ and Starfish smiled at me over the top of my sixteenth birthday cake as I blew out the candle.
After that day, they all went home and I didn’t see the Spencer twins again for eight whole years.
Xīfèng and Lilly stared down at the envelopes that the test proctor had given them. They’d hung around the station for an hour or three after the test was over, trying to occupy themselves with coffee and police reports while they tried to push the impending results out of their minds. But now the results were in their hands, just waiting to be opened.
“Are we going to open them together?” Xīfèng asked quietly.
Wordlessly, Lilly spun and ran towards the Chief’s office.
Xīfèng said nothing; she understood, and she opened her envelope alone.
Lilly rapped quietly but urgently on the police chief’s office door. She could hear his chair shifting and scraping the floor as he stood. “Chief?” she called tentatively. “You got a minute?”
Chief Lassiter opened the door without hesitation. “Of course. Come on in.”
As soon as the door was closed, she couldn’t keep up her pretense of professionalism anymore. He was no longer the chief of police and she was no longer a cop; now they were only a father and his desperate daughter. She shoved the envelope into his hands. “Open this for me?”
Looking at his eldest daughter, Carlton Lassiter nodded and reached for the letter opener on his desk. “Lilly. No matter what happens and no matter what’s in this envelope, I’m very proud of you.”
She nodded mutely, taking a deep breath, eyes fixed on his desk and the old-fashioned framed photograph of her family at her graduation.
Chief Lassiter ripped open the envelope and heaved a sigh.
Lilly’s chin jutted out. “So how’d I do?”
Her father smiled. “98. You passed, Lilly. You passed!”
“I passed? I passed!” With a squeal, she threw her arms around him. “Thank you, Daddy!”
Chief Lassiter smiled at his little girl and thought of her first visit to the station, as a pink and perfect little baby nestled in his arms. Now she was back, and all grown up… All things coming full circle. “I love you, Lilly.”
“Love you, too, Dad. ...and...and also, I invited the Spencer kids and BJ to your house for tea with me at five.”
When the Spencer twins came to live with us, I was hopelessly annoyed with both of them at first. They watched different movies than I did, hogged my favorite video games, and constantly complained that I turned my music up too loud. (Although Mama and Dad agreed with that last one.)
They also insisted on following me when I went out to run. Well, Eddie did, anyway. We usually left Starfish behind on a park bench somewhere and came back to get him later.
Well, once, about two weeks into their stay at Casa de Lassiter, Eddie and I left Starfish waiting on a bench across the street from this old café. Eddie and I were running back to get him, and I was complaining about what twelve-year-old dweebs they were (because naturally, I, at fifteen, was so much better). Eddie was right in the middle of retorting that he was almost thirteen when we realized that Starfish was gone. Vanished.
Reflexively, I grabbed Eddie’s arm. “Oh, my gosh. If he’s lost, we’re gonna be so dead. And what if he gets hurt?”
“Then we’re gonna be double-dead!” Eddie said with horror.
“All right, look around. Maybe he’s still nearby or around here somewhere.”
“Lilly, I don’t see him!” He sounded really scared.
“Well---use your twin telepathy! That’s a thing, right?”
“Not for us it isn’t!”
“It’s okay, Eddie, don’t panic. I see him. See, there he is! He’s waving to us from the café over there.”
We lingered at the intersection, waiting for the light to change, but Starfish somehow got to us first. He had a white box in his arms and a stupid grin on his face.
I lifted an eyebrow. “What’s that?”
“I noticed that the café was about to ditch their old pastries, so I talked to the manager guy and they gave all the stuff to me instead of throwing it away. Some of them look a little stale, but most of them are still good.”
Eddie whooped and did some kind of dorky dance in the middle of the sidewalk. I was about to say something snarky when Starfish opened up the box and offered me a doughnut. “French crullers are your favorites, right?”
My jaw dropped. “Yeah, but---but how did you know?”
Starfish just shrugged and put a hand up next to his head.
After that, I didn’t go running as much, and when I did, I let Starfish keep up.
Lilly paced across the living room and checked the clock one more time. 4:59.
“Lilly, sweetie, stop that. You’re wearing a hole in the carpet and in my nerves,” Marlowe said. “Don’t worry. They’ll be here. They’re just like Shawn and Gus: always late.”
“Well, I wish they wouldn’t be.”
“That’s like wishing for your father to vote Democrat. It’s never going to happen, and if it does, you might as well get ready for the Apocalypse.”
At five after five, someone knocked on the front door, and Lilly flung it open. “Hey, Beej! Eddie… Starfish. Um… C’mon in.”
Marlowe grinned. “Burton Jr.! Oh, wow. I haven’t seen you since you graduated college. You’re still such a handsome young man! Gus and Selene must be so proud of you.”
BJ smiled. “Thanks, Mrs. Lassiter. It’s nice to see you, too.”
“Hey, Mama L!” Eddie blurted.
“Oh, the twins! Gosh, boys, you’ve both gotten so big! You’re all grown up. Especially you, Eddie, what’s Juliet been feeding you up there? Wow, I just can’t believe it’s really been eight years!”
“Neither can we!” Eddie said with a grin.
“So, Lilly…” Starfish said as his brother and his best friend launched into telling Lilly’s mother about a wild adventure in San Francisco. “I seem to remember you promising me tea.”
“And I seem to remember you ridiculing the entire idea,” she replied as she crossed into the kitchen.
Starfish winced as he followed her to the other room. “You heard that, huh? Look, Lilly, I’m---I’m sorry. I guess that after all this time, I’m just as nervous as you are. But… I was really hoping I’d get a chance to see you again. I mean, maybe it’s silly, because it’s been forever ago and you’re probably seeing someone now and you're probably---”
Starfish cut himself off. “Huh?”
“I’m not. Um, seeing anyone, I mean.”
His eyes widened and he looked away. “I, um… I’m not either. I guess I just---I never---well, Eddie’s the one who's---um---”
“I know what you mean,” Lilly interrupted.
Starfish sighed with a loud whoosh. “Oh, thank God.”
“So, this case you’re working on…”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I mean, I’m really not supposed to talk about the family business with anyone apart from Eddie and Beej and Uncle Gus and my dad.”
“Well, who am I going to tell? I’m not from San Francisco. I’m not a PI. I’m not your competition. Maybe I can even help you. I’m not actually a detective yet, but I did pass that exam today, so…”
“You did? Congratulations! We should celebrate!”
“Well, thanks, but---”
“French crullers still your favorites?”
Lilly sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, they are.”
“Did I say something wrong?”
“No, you didn’t. I just…”
“Can I tell you something?” When she nodded, Starfish took a breath and continued, “My dad told me this story once. He told me and Eddie that when he was a kid, he fell in love with the most beautiful girl in their whole entire school.”
“No, he didn’t know her then. Her name was Abigail. He asked this girl out and she said yes, but then when he went to meet her for their date---he was too scared of messing it up. So he watched her from far away and let her think that he’d stood her up.”
“Well, that’s dumb. He messed it up before they even got started.”
“Exactly. And I’m---I’m just so tired of kicking myself for not doing all the things that I didn’t do when I was thirteen and you were sixteen.”
Lilly bit her bottom lip. “I was fifteen and you were twelve.”
“Not when you kissed me, we weren’t.”
“We---we can’t just pick up right where we left off. I mean, we were kids. What if---what if there’s no spark there anymore?”
Starfish shrugged. “There’s only one way to find out. No regrets, Lilly. That’s my motto these days. No more. Besides, if you really believed that the spark was gone and there’s nothing there between us anymore, you wouldn’t have invited me over for tea tonight.”
“I’m pretty sure I also invited Eddie and BJ.”
“I’ve heard it both ways.”
“What does that even mean?”
“I dunno. It’s something my dad says.”
Marlowe poked her graying blonde head into the room, startling them both. “Taking an awfully long time with that tea, aren’t you?” She leaned against the doorframe with a wink.
Lilly blushed; she hadn’t even gotten out any cups or anything.
Marlowe smiled. “Don’t worry, girlie. I’ll cover for you.” Then she slipped out of the room, and her daughter sighed in relief.
“That offer for crullers still stands,” Starfish pointed out.
Lilly rolled her ice-blue eyes. “Didn’t you hear my mom? They’re waiting for us. We can’t leave Eddie and BJ hanging.”
“Do you have any idea how often Eddie leaves everyone else hanging to go on some wild goose chase? I think it’s my turn to be selfish for once. Besides, you only have one life to live, Lilly.”
“One life to live,” she murmured. “No regrets, right?”
“Okay, then. Let’s go.”
“Sweet! Your car, or the Raspberry?”
“Mine! I’m not letting you drive!”
I was so excited for my Sweet Sixteen that I couldn’t stand it. The party was going to be track-themed, of course. Eddie had helped me make a big poster of running shoes as a decoration while Daddy and Starfish baked a cake---mint chocolate, my favorite. Mama hung lots of gold streamers everywhere, since that’s my favorite color. I had invited Jake and Aunt Lauren, of course, along with a select few of my most loyal friends from school. BJ was coming, too---more so to see his best friends than to see me, the girl from the rival cross-country team, but I didn’t mind. It was shaping up to be a perfect day… Except for one thing.
“So, are you two dweebs really gonna take off and leave me by myself right after I’ve gotten used to you?”
“Pretty much,” Eddie answered with a shrug. “I’m kinda sad to go back to San Francisco now, though. You’re kinda like the pushy, bossy older sis that I never had.”
I didn’t know how I felt about Eddie---still don’t---but I definitely never saw Starfish as a brother. Not even close.
Just then, we heard my mama screaming at the top of her lungs: “Edward Ewan O’Hara-Spencer! What have you done to Carlton’s office?!”
Now, Eddie and I just looked at each other with instant understanding. I think it’s universally accepted that, when a mom uses your full name, even if it’s not specifically your mom, you must be in some kind of big trouble.
“What did you do?” I mouthed.
“I decorated it,” he whispered back, sea-blue eyes glinting.
I knew better than to ask anything else.
Other than that little speed bump, the rest of the night was great…
Until after all the presents had been opened and all my guests were hanging out and eating melty mint chocolate ice cream. Starfish caught my eye from across the room and motioned for me to follow him. We slipped out onto the back porch.
“Happy Birthday,” he said, shoving a homemade card into my hands.
“Thanks.” I flipped it open. In the messiest handwriting I’ve ever seen, he’d written Happy Sweet 1-6, Lilly! and he’d signed it with a star plus a fish. “Cute! I love it.”
“Here’s your present.” This time, he pushed a brown paper bag at me. “It’s not much.”
I unrolled the top of the sack and peeked inside. “Gummy bears! And you even picked out all the flavors that I don’t like.”
“Yup,” Starfish said with the kind of childish pride that only a thirteen-year-old boy can muster. “Only the pineapple ones and the orange ones for you.”
“Thanks!” I grabbed out a big handful and popped a few bears into my mouth. “Here, you eat some too.”
He shrugged and ate a couple of the pineapple ones.
“I’m gonna miss you when you go home,” I said.
“I’ll miss you, too. But, y’know, we can still videochat and stuff, right?”
“Yeah… Hey, Starfish?”
And then… I don’t know what came over me. I really don’t. But I pressed my lips against his. We tasted like pineapple gummy bears. His lips were soft. Mine were chapped.
And then it was over. And he looked at me, serious hazel eyes flecked with gold.
And the Viccellio flight instinct kicked in. And I ran to my room and shut myself up in my closet. And I didn’t come back down to say goodbye.
And I have regretted it every day ever since.
“So, tell me about the case,” Lilly said as she drove to her favorite after-work coffee hunting ground. “I seriously want in.”
“Well, there’s not much to tell, Lills,” Starfish sighed, running one hand through spiky light brown hair.
“What did you just call me?”
“Lills.” Starfish hesitated. “Is that okay?”
“Yeah, actually. I really like it. Kinda surprised by that, honestly. Um… Anyway, gimme the deets.”
“Basically, this rich guy hired us to spy on his wife. He thinks she’s hired someone to kill him.”
“M’kay. Well, has she?”
“Yeah. We just have to find proof.”
Lilly responded with a sympathetic Lassiter grunt as she pulled her hand-me-down Ford Fusion into a parking space. “Always hard.”
“Yeah. Not as hard as finding good parking, though.”
Lilly laughed. “C’mon, let’s go in before all the good tables are taken.”
Three lattes and seven-and-a-half pastries later, Lilly was snuggled deep into young Spencer’s side in a corner booth, warm and eyes half-lidded. They didn’t know how long they’d been there; they only knew that it wasn’t yet closing time and that there were only three or four other people left inside the cozy, dimly-lit dining room.
“This is nice,” Starfish murmured.
“Yeah, it is,” she replied, tilting her head upward slightly. “And I owe you an apology. We should’ve done this years ago.”
“No, it’s my fault, too. Not just yours. Besides, everything worked out the way it was supposed to, don’t you think? I mean, maybe neither of us would have been ready for this if it had happened sooner. Maybe---maybe this is fate, y’know? Everything has its time.”
“And now it’s your time to die, cop,” came a gravelly voice from the table beside them, along with a click that made Lilly’s blood chill.
Oh no. He’s got a gun.
The barrel of the pistol stuck inside the gravel-voiced man’s coat was aimed directly at Starfish. The young private detective swallowed hard. “So, you must be Mr. Jones. That’s---that’s not really a great name for a hitman, is it? But---but I guess you must be pretty smart, otherwise you wouldn’t have tracked us here to Santa Barbara.”
“Like it was even a challenge!” the man hissed. “The real question is how you all managed to find me. You’re all a bunch of idiots!”
Her heart was racing. Pounding. Her blood was screaming. Every instinct crying out for her to run. But there was nowhere to go. Nothing she could do. Helpless. Trapped. Her instincts and training kicked in; what should she do?
Lilly slowly inched her arm towards her leg, holding her breath, praying she could reach her ankle holster.
The assassin detected her movements. “Don’t move, pretty girl. I’d hate to see your brains splatter in this café here tonight.”
The glass café door opened. Carlton Lassiter, Chief of Police, stepped through the door.
“Oh, no,” Lilly whispered with horror.
Naturally, the head of the SBPD knew immediately that something was off. He reached for his weapon. The hitman fired a shot. Lilly was fast; a heartbeat later, the assassin was on the floor, clutching his wounded arm.
Everything else was a blur of blood and flashing lights until she found herself huddled in a cold hospital waiting room, on a gray plastic chair sandwiched between her mother and her new lover, clutching a styrofoam cup of lukewarm coffee beneath fluorescent lights. Praying that she would never have to feel this cold ever again.
Her worst fear since she was three had been realized at last: tonight, Daddy would not be making it safely home.
Oh, God, please… Please, I’m so so sorry…
“He’ll be okay, Lilly,” Starfish said at last, voice hoarse and barely audible. She leaned against his side. Her mother said nothing; she was mouthing one last prayer.
I was twenty-four when my father was shot for the last time. I blamed myself for it, of course. I thought the whole thing was my fault. My screw-up. But my father has always been strong. He didn’t die.
Yeah, that’s right. Those proud Lassiter genes carried him through. I guess they carried me through, too.
The happiest day of my life was when the doctors told us that he was waking up, that he would live. My mom and I cried. A lot. Then BJ started to cry, too, and things got weird. We all ran to his hospital room to see him, and Mama and I got to go in first.
You should’ve seen the look on his face when the Spencer boys walked into the room.
“I always knew that Shawn Spencer would be the death of me,” he said dryly. “I just didn’t realize that it would be his demon seed instead of the man himself.”
Starfish blushed redder than the Raspberry’s paint job. “In my defense, I think Mom contributed to that a little bit, too.”
“That’s the only reason that I’ll allow you to court my daughter, and don’t you forget it, Spencer,” Daddy growled.
Starfish visibly bit his tongue for a second (holding back a snide comeback, no doubt) before he swallowed hard and said, “So… So you don’t mind if we…? Really?”
Dad grunted. “Yeah, I guess it’s fine. I owe O’Hara a favor. Besides… I know my Lilly Nora can take care of herself.” A hint of a fiendish Lassiter grin showed up as he added, “You should’ve seen her aim, kittenhead. Our little girl made me so proud.”
Mama just laughed and shook her head. “Oh, Carlton. I’m just so happy that you’re okay.”
“I just have one question, Daddy,” I said. “How did you know we were at the café?”
“I didn’t. Your mother told me that you’d snuck off with Spencer’s evil offspring, so I started checking all your usual haunts. Finding you at the right time was just the luck of the draw.”
“I don’t know if I’d call getting shot a lucky thing,” Eddie remarked. “Beej, are you eating the man’s Jell-O?”
“It’s lemon, and he gave me permission!”
Daddy rolled his eyes. “All right, that’s enough. Everyone out! …Not you, sweetikins. Oh, and Spencer?”
“Yes?” Starfish and Eddie chorused.
Unnerved, my dad took a second to regroup before fixing Starfish with his dreaded Cop Dad Stare. “You be good to my daughter, understood? Or I will shoot you in the face.”
Starfish just looked at me and smiled. “No problem. No problem at all.”
And now? Now, I’ve finally gotten that wish that I made at the beginning. My dad is alive, Starfish has given me some closure, and I have no regrets anymore. Not one.
Oh, and that Viccellio flight instinct?
It’s still inside me, balanced right up next to that Lassiter fighting spirit.
Right where they both belong.
The story is set circa 2038, when Lassiter's daughter is about 24. This was started shortly before the movie came out and finished a couple weeks after, so apologies for any continuity errors. Dedicated to my giftee and good friend, Koohii Kappu. This was all your idea and all your fault! Thanks a million for it, too. ;-) Gonna try to avoid my usual novel-length author's note spiel... Just let me know if you catch any of the Easter eggs, especially the one from Star Trek. ;-)
Author's Chapter Notes:
One last note: the given name "Xīfèng" means something like "Glorious Phoenix" in Chinese.