Chapter 7

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The hours turned into days, and before I knew it, it was the moment of truth. The calling of destiny. The day of doom.

In other words, the Junior Mathematics Tournament was upon me.

I woke up on Saturday morning to the welcoming sight of pouring rain, not to mention the cheerful sounds of Mom and Dad arguing in raised voices downstairs. A perfectly terrible start to what I was sure would be a perfectly terrible tournament.

Neither of my parents stopped to greet me as I shoved a piece of toast in my mouth and tried frantically to cram a few last-minute equations into my brain. Unfortunately, last-minute memorization was made slightly difficult by the fact that my parents were playing their new favorite game (Who Can Scream The Loudest In Mandarin?) only a few feet away from me.

“This is your fault as much as it is mine—” Mom accused.

“Oh, please. Who was the one who decided to let our son pursue a degree in advertising of all things, Mei?”

“We both did, not just me.”

“I don’t remember agreeing to anything!”

“Of course you did. You signed the papers! How could you even say—?”

I banged my math binder on the table until my parents stopped their shouting match to stare at me. “Good morning,” I said abruptly. “If either of you will be so kind as to notice the world, I have an important math competition to get to in half an hour.”

My mom and dad just stared at me for a moment, realization dawning on their faces. Then they glared at each other so simultaneously that it was a little creepy.

“Don’t tell me you forgot about our daughter’s math competition?” they both shouted at once.

I spent the entire half-hour ride in the car listening to Mom mutter to herself about how she wish she’d married the rich fellow who had courted her years ago rather than my idiot father. My strategy the whole time was to stay as quiet as possible and give the occasional obligatory nod. Mom didn’t get angry often, but when she got angry, she got angry.

By the time we arrived at the doors of Jefferson High School, the tournament’s host for this year, I was looking forward to losing to Alexander compared to spending just one more minute with my mom.

“Good luck,” she practically snapped at me as I exited the car. “Make sure you win this time.”

It was never ‘try your best’ with my family—just ‘make sure you win’. And ‘don’t shame the family’. And ‘don’t make me beat you with the bamboo stick’. At least nobody couldn’t complain about the lack of variety.

Just as I figured this day couldn’t get much worse, I joined the check-in line and found Alexander Lin standing on my left.

The first thing I noticed (and had to grudgingly admit) was that he didn’t look half bad today. He wore a light blue dress shirt and his slacks were formal enough for the competition, but not so formal that they made him look about fifty.

Alexander smiled at me when he saw I was staring at him. Before I could run in the opposite direction, he tapped me on the shoulder.

“Hey,” he said after swallowing something he’d been chewing on. He held out a pouch of cashews to me. “Want one?”

“No, thanks,” I said a little frostily. “I don’t like nuts,” I amended.

“You know, taken out of context, that statement could have been a lot more scandalous.”

If Alexander hadn’t stepped forward to register at that time, I might have punched him somewhere nutty. Let’s just put it that way.

Anyway, Alexander got off lucky this time, because our paths only crossed as far as the registration table. After the tired-looking lady behind the table checked my ID and handed me a nametag, I followed the small procession of competitors into the cafeteria. There was a brief welcoming speech. The principal of Jefferson High explained all the rules. The participants pretended to be listening, when they were really learning how to sleep with their eyes open.

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