Dr. Chandelier is always telling me that one of the keys to effective cognitive behavioral therapy is converting worries from possibilities to choices. You deciding if and when you want to worry, you deciding what’s worry-worthy and what’s not. That’s all good and fine for people with super-mega brain control, but for the rest of us getting CBT right is just one more thing to worry about. My mind has a mind of its own, and right now it’s playing out a worst-case scenario. Oh, I’m standing here in the kitchen and cutting carrots with Dad, I’m functioning, physically, but the rest of me is upstairs trying to dismantle Beta’s server setup. It’s too late, though: a dozen government bad-asses have just come crashing through the window, one after the other in rapid succession. They surround me; half of them have guns aimed at my head.
“Theodore Smole?” one of them barks.
“Present,” I reply, shaking, raising my hand as if in class.
The government bad-ass nods to one of his associates, who steps over me, raises my other hand so that both my arms are extended above my head. A third government bad-ass pats me down; when he’s finished, he lowers my arms behind my back and handcuffs me. In the background, the others are shoving Beta’s equipment into a giant black garbage bag.
“Hey, guys, check this out,” calls a fourth government bad-ass, this one sitting at my computer and browsing my files. “The kid’s got gigabytes of illegally-downloaded MP3s on his hard drive. Asia, Arena, Spock’s Beard, Dream Theater, Ezra, Yes, Blue Oyster Cult, Electric Light Orchestra, Glass Hammer, Marillion, Mike Oldfield, Porcupine Tree, Rush, Saga…”
The first government bad-ass scowls at me, shakes his head. “You’re going away for a long time, Teddy—”
Dad clears his throat.
The government bad-asses yip and jump out the window. I blink and find myself in the kitchen once again.
That’s right. Dinner.
“How was school today?” Dad asks.
“Okay,” I say, shrugging, handing him spices as he calls for them.
“Your mom tells me you’re working on a new server project?”
“Oh…yeah. It’s a little something I’m doing for a friend. It’s turning out real well.”
“Aw, Dad…” It’s sad hearing him talk like this. He belittles himself in a joking kind of way, but I think deep down inside he’s a little threatened by my abilities. He was never advanced a grade in school; he sucks at math; his first job paid him ten bucks an hour, and that was at the age of seventeen. This year I’ve made five figures doing Web sites and Photoshop work. My mom handles all the banking and financial stuff—in addition to maintaining her own successful home business—and my dad just putters and feels less and less useful. But there are things he can do that Mom and I can’t. Cooking, for example. He’s really good in the kitchen.
I smile at him from across the counter, noting that in addition to the rice, veggies, and tofu for us he’s also got beef kabobs going. That can only mean one thing. “Mr. Nakayoshi’s having dinner with us tonight?”
“Yes,” my dad replies. “Again.”
There’s a hint of bitterness in his voice.
I change the subject back to something he can control. “Did you use turmeric in the rice this time?”
Dad brightens. “Good nose. Most people think it’s marjoram.”
“Turmeric is tricky. You want sweet-and-sour and not musty, especially when it comes to the rice…”
He starts talking spices, and I relax for a while, forgetting the whole reason I came downstairs in the first place. We set the table; Mom and Mr. Nakayoshi join us.
Mr. Nakayoshi is my dad’s boss. Dad, well, he’s Mr. Nakayoshi’s personal assistant, as well as Employee of the Year. We all know the plaque hanging in my dad’s office has nothing to do with office skills, though. Mom is really good with acupuncture and aromatherapy, and she’s really young-looking, takes real good care of her figure. It’s long been known that Mr. Nakayoshi—a married man, mind you—has had a crush on her since the very first company picnic. Mom handles this with carefully-choreographed nonchalance. Or possible naivety, I don’t know which. But it’s because of Mr. Nakayoshi’s sessions with Mom that Dad keeps a job. It’s because of Mr. Nakayoshi that my parents decided to do the whole shoin-zukuri, traditional-style Japanese thing with our house. Not because my dad’s Asian, but because he’s sucking up to his boss. Who tips well. Really well.
I sit at the table with the others. We pray while Mr. Nakayoshi digs in. Eventually Dad serves the rice.
“So, how was school today?” Mr. Nakayoshi asks me, separating a piece of meat from his skewer.
“Okay,” I reply.
“Your mother tells me you run a Web design company?”
“Yeah. Sort of.”
“Good, good.” Chomp-chomp, lick-lick. “What sort of clients are you getting?”
“A few local businesses, some musicians.”
“That’s good. More American boys need to pursue computer sciences.”
My mom smiles proudly. “Oh, Theo’s being modest. Over the summer Asia Afrodesia’s management asked him to re-do her Web site. Asia Afrodesia.”
Mr. Nakayoshi’s eyes widen. “Really? That pop singer darling who was caught in the middle of that indecent exposure mess?”
Mom’s smile falters. “Well, yes—but this was before that happened.”
“I hear,” Dad says, “she’s entered rehab. Looking to make a comeback next year.”
Mr. Nakayoshi nods at me. “And you, young Master Smole, you get to rake in the money keeping her Web site updated throughout the whole ordeal. I salute you. I salute you all.” He raises his skewer into the air. “In this unpredictable economy of ours, it’s the strong, cooperative family that will prevail over yesterday’s head-of-household model. Each family member productive in his or her capacity. That’s the way to do it…”
He goes on talking, but suddenly I’m not listening, because behind him, standing there in the hallway, is Beta.
I start in my seat, my knee hitting the table.
Beta peers into the dining room, mouths something at me—I think he wants food.
Mom, Dad, and Mr. Nakayoshi have stopped eating and are now staring at me.
“Are you okay, dear?” asks my mom.
“Yeah,” I reply. “I, uh, just need some water.”
I rise from my cushion, pretending to stretch when really I’m motioning for Beta to get the heck out of the hall and into the kitchen.
My parents eye me curiously for a moment, but luckily Mr. Nakayoshi has taken another bite of his food and is dying to know where we bought the kabobs (eve though time and time again we tell him my dad cooks everything from scratch).
I enter the kitchen (there are two ways in: through the dining room or from the front hallway). Beta is standing over the cooking range and sampling this and that. He’s traded in his camouflage skinsuit for shorts and a T-shirt.
I walk quickly over to him and whisper, “I thought you were virtual, not actual!”
“Yeah, but I still enjoy a bite to eat when I get the chance.” He nudges me. “Get it? A byte to eat? Get it?”
I get it, but don’t want to. “You can’t be here! If my parents catch you, it’s all over!”
“Relax. If they see me, we just tell them I’m your friend from school.”
“You’re a little too grown up for that.”
“Okay, so I was held back my senior year. Big deal.”
I grind my teeth. “Even if you were a friend from school, I didn’t ask my parents permission.”
“What, you have to clear each and every person you have over?”
“Duh! I’m twelve!”
Beta narrows his eyes. “You’re acting twelve.” He takes an extra skewer, starts back towards the hallway. “I’ll be upstairs. When you’re ready to be more mature about this whole thing, hit me up for some Super Smash Bros.”
He leaves the kitchen.
I swallow several times, trying to get rid of the impression that my heart is still stuck in my throat.