“Aww, c’mon! I wanted to be Peach!”
Uncle Zhao nonchalantly pressed A. Nick and Ian had already chosen Mario and Luigi respectively, leaving Stacy with only one other option for this level of Super Mario 3D World.
“Looks like you’re stuck with Toad!” Nick said.
Stacy frowned. Of all characters, she thought. Well, she’ll just have to make do.
“Nice of you to finally join us, Dad!” Ian said as they began the game.
“This is his first time playing?” Stacy asked.
“Yeah,” Nick said. “He hasn’t touched a single Mario game since Super Mario 64.”
Stacy was shocked. “Wait, really? But why?”
“Oh, don’t get him started,” Nick warned.
“Oh, kay then,” Stacy said.
She saw him running for the Star Coin, so she knocked Peach out of the way to claim the prize for herself.
“Hey, watch where you’re going!” Uncle snapped.
The other three giggled. “Good one!” Ian remarked.
Uncle Zhao frowned. “How are we supposed to beat this game playing like this?” he asked, which only made them laugh even more.
Aunt Zhao was in the kitchen, watching the four of them having fun. Stacy shot a side glance at her. “Say, how come you aren’t playing?” she asked.
Aunt Zhao smiled. “I just enjoying watching you kids mess with Min.”
Ian started jumping off towards the flagpole when Stacy outpaced him, grabbing the top while he fumbled towards the middle.
“You threw off my groove!” he yelled as Stacy smirked.
As Uncle and Nick caught up, the latter high-fived his brother and cousin while Uncle just stared, frowning as usual. After the game tallied the end-of-level scores, Stacy came out on top.
“Hey, I won!” she cried.
During the intermission, Aunt Zhao walked over to them. “Say, Anastasia, I have something for you.”
“Mom!” Nick interjected. “Stacy doesn’t like being called that.”
“I know,” she said sternly. “But she should be proud of it. Julie said she searched day and night for that perfect name.”
Julie. Ugh, Stacy thought. She really didn’t want to be reminded of her mother right now. She looked at her uncle, and noticed he too turned away to hide his face in response to his sister being mentioned.
“What you got, auntie?” she asked.
Aunt Zhao handed her a card. Stacy glanced, and beamed at what she saw.
“We’re having a family get-together this Sunday at the Happy Valley,” Aunt explained. “Can you come?”
“Of course, Auntie!” Stacy exclaimed. “I haven’t had Chinese food in ages!”
“It’ll be the real deal,” Uncle added. “Not that greasy crap white people eat.”
Stacy smiled uncomfortably. “Yeah, it’ll be quite an experience.”
Nick hung his arm around Stacy’s shoulders. “So, how does it feel to be one of us?”
“One of…us?” Stacy replied.
“Yeah. Starting Sunday, you’re going to dine with us as an honourary Zhao!”
Stacy Zhao, she thought. She liked the sound of that.
That evening, Stacy was at home cooking chicken stir-fry. She would rather have stayed with her relatives for dinner, but she knew her dad would be furious if he had nothing to eat. She hated cooking for that picky eater, but she did get some pointers from her aunt this time. As she was grilling the chicken, Mr. Nazarenko walked into the door, grumpy and tired as usual.
“Hey, Stacy,” he demanded. “You’re late.”
“It’ll be just a few minutes!” she replied cheerfully.
Her dad was taken aback. What is she so happy about?
As promised, Stacy arrived in the dining room with two dishes and a huge grin on her face. Her dad noticed a bright red card sticking out of her pocket and pointed at it.
“What you got there?” he asked.
Stacy put down the food and pulled out the card. “Oh this?” she replied. “It’s none of your business.”
“As your father,” he said sternly, “It is my business. Now give it to me.”
Stacy sighed and dropped the card. Her dad promptly picked it up.
“Happy Valley Restaurant?” he read. “Who invited you to Chinese food?”
“Oh, just some relatives.”
Mr. Nazarenko was annoyed. “Why were you trying to hide this from me?”
“Um, because they never mentioned you?” Stacy retorted. “Besides, you never invited me to any of your mountain hikes.”
“How was I supposed to know you were interested? Most girls don’t care for such things!”
Yeah, thanks for reminding me, she thought. “Because I asked? Like, a hundred times?”
“I didn’t think you were serious!”
Stacy shook her head. She wasn’t surprised. “Anyway, since you seem so interested, why don’t you just ask Uncle for an invitation?”
“Bah. You think I care about some lame party Chow Main is throwing?”
Stacy was stunned. “Wow…no wonder they never wanted to invite you. By the way, his name is Minchao.”
“Whatever!” her dad snapped. “And fix that attitude of yours, little miss. You have no right to be talking back to your father like that.”
Stacy stopped. She knew continuing on would be pointless, so she simply walked away to her room.
“You’re not from these parts, are you? What brought you all the way here?”
Stacy was playing through Memories of the Sleeping Village to distract herself from that unpleasant conversation. She had finally raised Mona’s relationship values high enough to start a conversation with her. In response to her question, she answered, “I don’t know.”
“That’s odd. Well, where did you come from?”
Stacy answered “City.”
“Oh wow, a large city? Full of vast and tall buildings? That sounds so much more exciting than the village. I’d love to escape to a place like that someday. How is life there?”
Stacy was then presented with two options: “Wonderful” and “Horrible.” She paused nervously, knowing that whichever option she chose, she would not be able to take it back unless she reset the game. She wanted to pick “Wonderful,” and felt it was the correct option, but she couldn’t tell a lie right now.
“Oh. I’m sorry. Is that why you came here? To escape?”
Escape, Stacy thought. Yeah, I’d like to get out of here too. She picked “Yes.”
“I see. Well, we don’t have much, but I hope we can do whatever we can to help you settle in. Father may be a bit odd, but he wants to make life here as exciting as possible for you. How’s he doing at that?”
Suddenly, her cell phone started ringing. Stacy noticed it was from her aunt.
“Hi Stacy,” Aunt Zhao called. “How was dinner?”
“Oh, it was good!” Stacy replied in a cheerful tone. “Thanks for the recipe!”
Aunt Zhao paused. “Okay, what really happened?” she asked, unconvinced.
Stacy was shocked. She really couldn’t hide it, could she? “I didn’t eat,” she said. “Got into a fight with Dad.”
“You need to eat,” Aunt Zhao said, concerned. “You’re a growing girl, after all.”
“It’s okay. I’ll just have it when he goes to sleep. Besides, I’ll have plenty to eat on Sunday, right?”
The two became silent for a moment. There was something Stacy wanted to say, but she had trouble figuring out how to put it in words.
“By the way…” she began. “What would you say if I asked if Dad could come along?”
Aunt Zhao paused. “Why? Do you want to make things up with him?”
“Not really,” Stacy said. “But it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? To include everyone?”
Stacy felt an awkward taste in her mouth after saying that. She knew from experience that saying that phrase only lead to trouble, but she felt bad about leaving anyone out. Even her dad.
“Well, he and Min don’t exactly get along,” her aunt replied. “But I guess we could do it just this once. It’s been a while since our families met, after all.”
Stacy smiled. “Thanks, Auntie. See you there!”
Mr. Nazarenko was oddly quiet while driving to the restaurant, though Stacy didn’t mind. Sitting in the back seat, she preferred the silence. Her dad had on a black and white suit ensemble and his brown hair was finely combed backwards. She had to admit, that actually made him look good. Almost. For her part, Stacy wore an opaque jade-coloured dress. She felt awkward wearing it, but she wanted to make a good impression.
They pulled into the parking lot of a building with bright red banners and Happy Valley Restaurant emblazoned in golden letters. Stacy texted her aunt that they had arrived, both excited and nervous to meet her family.
“Well, where are they?” her dad asked.
“They’re coming,” Stacy replied, checking her phone. “In fact, they’re already inside.”
“What, they couldn’t wait for us?” her dad moaned.
Stacy was trying to be as calm and unsarcastic as possible. “It’s a reservation.”
They walked into the restaurant and were greeted to a huge spectacle. The walls were adorned in red and gold, proudly displaying Dragon and Fenghuang statues along with Chinese artwork. All the tables were neatly arranged within the circular hall.
Good thing Uncle and Aunt are paying for us, Stacy thought. We’d never come here otherwise.
She scanned the room for her family. At first, she didn’t notice them, since it was such a loud room. Suddenly, she heard Ian waving to him.
“Oh, hi, everyone!” she said, as they both walked over to the group.
“Hi, Stacy,” Ian replied. “We were wondering when you’d show up!”
“Aw, how long have you been waiting?”
“Two minutes,” Nick replied, gesturing to ignore Ian.
Another woman at the table turned towards her. “Hello, Stacy.”
Stacy smiled nervously. “Oh, hi, Ms. Markov. What brings you here?”
“Lianzi invited me. Anyways, you’ve been practicing well?”
“Yeah, fine, I guess.”
Meanwhile, her dad was staring at her Uncle.
“Hello, Alex,” her uncle said quietly.
“Hello,” her dad replied, pausing nervously. “Er…”
“Call me Min. Please, have a seat.”
The table suddenly fell quiet as Mr. Nazarenko sat down, separated by one seat each in between Stacy and Nick, and across from Min. Their menus were already laid out, and everyone stared at them for a few seconds, not making eye contact.
“So, what’s good here?” Stacy asked.
“Oh, you’ll find out,” Nick said. “Leave it to ma ma and ba ba. They always know what’s best.”
Stacy grinned, sipping some tea while seeing how confused her dad was. “Sure thing!”
An attractive male waiter came over to the table, conversing in Mandarin to Mr. and Mrs. Zhao. As he prepared to pick up the menus, Stacy’s dad held his firmly.
“Hey, wait, I haven’t ordered anything yet!” he protested.
“We ordered plenty,” Mrs. Zhao told him.
“Well, I’d like my own order.”
“What would you like, sir?” the waiter asked.
Mr. Nazarenko was taken aback. Scanning his menu, he settled on Peking Duck.
“We already ordered that,” Mr. Zhao pointed out.
“Well, I didn’t get one yet,” Mr. Nazarenko retorted.
“We got enough for everybody,” Mr. Zhao said. “Don’t order too much, or else you’ll be too full to finish everything.”
“Just who do you think I am?” Mr. Nazarenko snapped.
Mr. Zhao said nothing as Mr. Nazarenko turned over to the waiter. “Full order, please.”
The waiter, flustered by his attitude, merely bowed and said thank you as he picked up the remaining menus and walked away. Ian made a balloon belly gesture to Nick and Stacy, and they chuckled, in contrast to the sombre adults.
The waiter returned with the first dish, a salad full of slimy-looking yellow noodles. Stacy was slightly grossed out by the sight of them, but smiled anyway.
“Xièxie,” she told the waiter, before turning to Nick. “What is that?”
“Jellyfish, cousin!” he chuckled. “Brave enough to try?”
Stacy’s face scrunched up. “Of course I am!”
She picked up her chopsticks. Her aunt did teach her how to use them, but her grip still felt awkward. Quickly, she grabbed some salad to take to her plate, but as she withdrew her chopsticks, some of the jellyfish flew off, right onto her dress! She desperately tried to wipe it off, hoping no one noticed, but it was too late. The entire table was staring at her, and her dad shook his head disapprovingly. She looked away from him as she stuffed the remaining jellyfish in her mouth.
“Um…” she mumbled as she swallowed her food. “It’s really good!”
She wasn’t lying. The tentacles felt as slimy as they looked, and was hard to chew, but she enjoyed the flavour slipping and sliding through her mouth. Nick and Ian smiled, the latter patting her back for accepting Nick’s dare. Her aunt, also pleased, turned to Ms. Markov.
“Well, Nataliya,” she said. “Your turn!”
As Ms. Markov reached for her serving of jellyfish, Mr. Nazarenko interrupted.
“Sorry about my daughter,” he told everyone. “Tried to teach her manners, but she just never listens.”
Stacy felt a sinking sensation in her heart. She spent so long preparing for tonight: practicing her table manners, straightening out her hair, and yet, she still somehow managed to mess up. She turned away, holding back the urge to cry. She looked back, and saw that everyone was staring disapprovingly, but not at her.
“You haven’t changed a bit, have you Alex?” her aunt replied quietly.
Stacy’s dad gasped in frustration. “What do you mean?” he demanded.
“You shouldn’t talk to Stacy like that,” she said.
“What? I’m just telling it like it is. You Chinese folk should know all about discipline!”
Everyone gasped. Mrs. Zhao turned to her sons, looking guilty, while they looked back at their uncle defiantly.
“Ma ma and ba ba never talk to us like that!” Nick protested.
Mr. Nazarenko was dumbfounded. “Oh what, your kids talk back too? I thought you were better than this.”
Mr. Zhao, who had been quiet throughout the entire evening, finally spoke up. “Still don’t know why Julie left you?”
“What are you talking about?” Mr. Nazarenko retorted. “That’s none of your business.”
“My sister, is none of my business?” Mr. Zhao replied coldly. “Maybe if you thought about someone other than yourself for once…”
Everyone else but Stacy glared at Mr. Nazarenko in agreement. Just then, the waiter came by with the remaining dishes. He saw the tension unfolding, and quickly slipped away. Mr. Nazarenko quickly grabbed his Peking Duck dish.
“Fine! I know when I’m not wanted.”
Seeing that the Smith family was also at another table, Mr. Nazarenko walked off towards them. Mrs. Zhao looked embarrassed as the entire table fell into an awkward silence.
“Sorry to drag you into this, Nataliya,” she told Ms. Markov.
“Don’t worry,” she replied. “I understand.”
Mrs. Zhao then turned to Stacy, who was still looking down.
“What…happened to Mother?” she asked. “Why did she leave?”
The Zhaos and Mrs. Markov stared at each other nervously.
“She never told us,” her uncle said.
“We were as surprised as you were,” her aunt added.
Go figure, Stacy thought. However, Mr. Zhao looked unconvinced. “I wasn’t. Alex changed her.”
“What do you mean?” Stacy asked.
Mr. Zhao sipped some tea before he continued, smiling for the first time in ages. “She was a wonderful sister to have around. She was kind, always saw the bright side of everything, and could make anyone smile. Kind of like…you.”
Stacy was surprised to hear that coming from her uncle, and she felt an awkwardly warm sensation in her heart. “But…” she protested.
“And she also had big dreams,” he continued. Stacy held her thought and listened curiously.
“She was one of the very best students I ever had,” Ms. Markov added. “Always coming to lessons asking what she could improve on, and her performances were absolutely wonderful.”
Mrs. Zhao agreed. “Yes, the way she played her melodies, it was like being in a dream. And she was always eager to join in our sports. I’m still amazed at how fast she could swim.”
The conversation shifted back to Mr. Zhao. “She also spent a lot of time volunteering with our town’s parks. I often thought maybe she was doing too much. She picked up waste even on days where it was raining heavily. But, she said she just wanted to make Cedar Grove more beautiful.”
Stacy was still quiet, with a blank expression on her face. She wanted to know more, but if she really was as wonderful as everyone said, why was this all new to her? How did everyone know more about her own mother than she did?
“But after she married Alex,” Mr. Zhao continued. “Everything changed. She came out of the house less often.”
“You more than anyone know how he is,” Mrs. Zhao told Stacy. “She was still always smiling whenever she would meet for family dinners, but over the years, we saw her less often. She also said fewer things, especially since Alex got upset whenever we talked to her for too long. We never knew what was going on between them, but Alex always seemed grumpy.”
“When you told me your dad stopped you from playing,” Ms. Markov confessed, sadly. “Well, Julie said almost the same thing. Her playing became worse over time, and in the end, she just quit. Said she was too busy.”
Mrs. Zhao emphasized that excuse. “Yes, busy. Yet, she would never miss our social gatherings before.”
“And then one day, she just…left,” Mr. Zhao concluded. “Without telling anyone.”
A mixture of sadness and frustration welled inside Stacy. “Well, if Dad was such bad news, why did she marry him then?” she argued.
Mr. Zhao frowned, looking hurt. “He did not seem so bad at first, and Julie really did love him. But she was worried that if she didn’t marry him, no one would ever love her again.”
“But I thought everyone loved her,” Stacy told him.
“I thought so too. But she said people talked behind her back. Said people only liked her because she was young and pretty, that she just did everything for attention. They called her…a fake.”
Fake. Stacy knew that word all too well, and started sobbing at the sound of that word.
“I should have known,” she cried. “what she went through. And yet, I hated her. I was so selfish, not even thinking about how Dad must have treated her. But, I still don’t understand. Why, why would she just leave? Without a single word?
Her voice became sharper, gazing at her relatives. “And why? Why did you never tell me anything?”
Mrs. Zhao was taken aback at her niece’s accusation. “We didn’t know how to.”
Mr. Zhao interjected. “However much you hated your mother, I deserve it more. I saw how badly Alex treated my sister, and yet, I just avoided him. I should have helped you, but I was a coward. I let both you and my sister down.
He paused. “I’m sorry.”
Stacy stared angrily at her uncle, realizing that, yes, he too abandoned her. She opened her mouth to yell, but the words never came. She couldn’t bring herself to say it. It wasn’t worth it.
“It’s okay,” she replied. “I’m just glad that, you’re all here now. That I have a family.”
The entire table was relieved to hear her say that. Stacy looked around, suddenly noticing her dad arriving.
“Stacy, we’re going home,” her dad said guiltily.
“Why?” Stacy asked.
“I caused enough trouble for one day,” he replied.
Stacy was confused. “Well, okay,” she said. “But, can I say some things to my relatives first?”
Her dad frowned, thinking of his response. “Fine, go ahead.”
He walked away as Stacy faced her family.
“Um,” Stacy said. “I just wanted to ask. Could I, um…”
Stacy paused, but why? This was finally her chance, to be free of her father forever. What was she waiting for?
“You, want to stay with us?” Mrs. Zhao finished. “Is that what you wanted to say?”
“Um…yes. But, I don’t know. Everything would change, and I’m not sure, if I’m ready for it yet. And, I guess, I would feel bad for leaving Dad alone. Somehow.”
Mrs. Zhao smiled. “You don’t have to decide right now. But, just know, you don’t have to take care of Alex by yourself.”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “We’re always here to talk, cousin.”
“And listen if you need to scream sometimes!” Ian added.
Stacy grinned as her uncle prepared to speak.
“Our doors are always open for you. And I promise, from now on, I won’t abandon you again.”
Stacy walked up to her uncle and hugged him. “Thanks, uncle.”
Everyone else in the table joined in the group hug. When they released each other, Stacy prepared to leave.
“Goodbye everyone. See you all soon.”
“So, why’d you leave the Smiths?” Stacy asked her dad on the way home.
“Well, they weren’t as nice as I thought,” he replied.
“Wow, you’re surprised?” she remarked.
“Don’t give me that attitude!” he yelled, but quickly corrected himself. “Well, they seemed okay at first. But then I noticed that they only ever wanted to talk about their son, Lucas.”
“Oh, him,” Stacy said.
“You know him?”
“Let’s just say, we don’t get along very well.”
“I see. So I noticed that Abby girl being all upset she was getting ignored, and it seemed like she had to deal with it for a long time. So I told them, shouldn’t they ask her how she’s been doing? But they got mad, telling me I should worry about my own family rather than butting into their affairs, and…”
“Well, I haven’t been the best father, have I?”
Stacy was prepared to make some snide remark, but decided against it. “No, not really.”
Her dad looked sad. “Well, I’m sorry. I’m not good at this whole parenting thing. But, well, let me know what I can do to improve. To make it up to you.”
Stacy was unconvinced that his about-face would last, but it was better than nothing. “Okay. Right now, I just want to know, what did Mother say to you before she left?”
Her dad’s face sunk. “She told me she didn’t know who she was anymore. Said she needed to leave, so she could find meaning in her life again.”
“Did she say anything about me?”
“Well, yeah, she couldn’t just leave you, right? I tried to get to stay by reminding her of you. But she said was that you deserved a better role model than her. That she would just set a bad example. That was the last thing she said before she ran out the door, and she started crying just thinking about you.”
Stacy finally had an answer to the question that haunted her up until now. It wasn’t a pleasant one, but why would it be? She wished that she could talk to her mother right now, to have the chance to make everything better. But right now, all she could do was look at the moon.
Mother, I don’t know where you are right now. But, I hope you found the answer you were looking for. That you’re happy with your new life. I just wish…I can find you someday, so I can say, I’m sorry.