Nana Jo gently let Jess’s pettiness settle in the space between them as she and Pops played the rest of their hands.
“Okay, parking lot etiquette aside, could you like him?” she finally asked.
The quiet murmur of Bahn Thai customers drifted over the fence, making Jess wonder whether they could hear her, too. She lowered her voice. “Aside from the score, I really don’t know.”
Nana and Pops shared a look across the table. “And the proposition?” Nana asked.
“That we get to know each other.” Nana’s eyes widened, and Jess quickly clarified. “Not like that, jeez. Just—see if the data is right, if we are somehow emotionally compatible.”
Apparently satisfied with this answer, Nana Jo looked down at her cards before counting aloud the points she had in the crib. She moved her peg on the game board, and then turned her attention to Jess. “You seem more conflicted about it than if you simply didn’t like him.”
“Well …” Jess stared into the dark abyss of her bottle. “They offered to pay me.”
Nana reached for her wine again. “Oh boy.”
Pops fixed Jess with his watery gaze. “How much?”
She laughed. Of course that would be Pops’s question. “A lot.” They waited. “Ten grand a month a lot.”
They both blinked. The silence stretched. A car sped by; someone laughed at the restaurant next door.
“Just to get to know each other,” Nana clarified. “No sex.”
“Right.” Jess lifted a single shoulder. “They need to validate the science. And I would definitely like $30,000.”
“But you’re hesitating,” Pops said.
“Of course I am.”
Pops pinned her with a serious expression. “He seems harmless?”
“We don’t really get along, but as far as I can tell, he’s not a sociopath. He’s not nearly charming enough to be one.” When neither of them laughed at this, Jess said, “He has a lot riding on the company, obviously. I don’t think dropping my body in a dumpster would be worth losing the millions he stands to make if they have a successful IPO.”
Pops took off his glasses. “Then I don’t know what you have to think about.”
“Ronald Davis,” Nana chastised. “This has to be her decision.”
“What?” he said, hands up in defense. “You would turn down that kind of money?”
“Not now, obviously.” She motioned to herself before giving Jess a conspiratorial wink. “Ask me forty years ago and you’d get a different answer.”
“Nana Jo, I am shocked,” Jess said with a teasing smile.
“If you saw her forty years ago, you wouldn’t be.” Pops leaned back, dodging Nana’s playful slap to his shoulder. “Nobody’s asking me, but I think you should do it. As long as they’re not asking you to lie, or cheat, or rob a bank,” he said. “Go to a couple restaurants. Make conversation, hear some stories. At the very least you’ll earn a little time to breathe.” He picked up his cards again. “UCSD isn’t getting any cheaper.”
“YOUR KID CRACKS me up.”
Seated on a park bench, Fizzy and Jess watched Juno try to teach Pigeon to walk on a leash. The kid took one step forward and patiently waited for the cat to follow. Around them, dogs chased balls and licked faces and barked, tails wagging. Hunkered low to the ground in the harness and suspicious of every shadow, sound, and blade of grass, Pigeon looked like she was about to sprint out of her skin, cartoon-style.
“Other than the Great Cat Chase a few weeks ago, she’s never really been out of the courtyard,” Jess said. “I’m sure she feels the way we would if we were put in a harness and set down on Mars.”
For native San Diegans, any forced indoor time was borderline intolerable, and by three o’clock on Friday afternoon, the first sunny day in over a week, Trolley Barn Park was crawling with people seeking sunshine. The air had that bright, cold smell after all the pollution was washed from the clouds and the dirt was cleared from tree branches. The sky was an unreal royal blue. And Juno’s chestnut braids were a streak of playful red against the blue-green backdrop.
“Don’t tug her,” Jess reminded her gently.
Out of the corner of her eye, Jess saw Pigeon’s tail twitch just moments before she dove forward, catching something triumphantly in her paws. All that time she’d been hunkering down, she’d been on the hunt.
Juno squealed, delighted. “Mom!” She waved Jess over, and Jess halted just as Juno said, “Pigeon caught a praying mantis.”
That was a Hell No from Jess, but Fizzy jumped up, getting an eyeful of the six-inch-long insect Pigeon clearly had no idea what to do with. She trapped it, batted it with a paw, and simultaneously looked semi-disgusted by the entire thing.
“Juno,” Jess said, laughing, “baby, just get Pigeon to let it go.”
Juno bent, prying the cat’s paws apart and releasing the praying mantis, which calmly prowled away.
Fizzy settled back on the bench and, somehow, Jess knew what was coming. “We could all learn a lot from that cat.”
“Here we go,” she said.
“Jumping on an opportunity when we see it.”
“Mm-hmm,” Jess answered, distracted.
“Like, sure,” Fizzy continued, ignoring her, “I get being careful, but when the opportunity arises, take it.”
“Like Pigeon did?” Jess said, laughing. “She caught that poor thing and had zero clue what to do next.”
She felt Fizzy turn to look at her. “You think you wouldn’t know how to use thirty thousand dollars?”
“Actually, that’s the part that I’m stuck on—the greatest incentive and the biggest drawback. I need money, but in some ways, I think it’d be easier to do this purely for the sake of science or whatever.” She shrugged, tilting her face to the sky. “Being paid to ‘get to know River’ feels vaguely … illegal.”
Fizzy laughed. “And see, I put that in the ‘pro’ column.”
“You’re the adventurous one.”
“All I’m saying is you’d be insane to not do this.”
Jess let out a long, slow breath. “Trust me, I’m seriously considering it.”
“Good.” After a long stretch of quiet, Fizzy added, “Incidentally, I met someone I really like last night.”
They’d been together since almost seven thirty that morning, and she was only mentioning this now? “Really? Is he a match?”
“He is what’s known in science as an ‘organic match,’” Fizzy joked. “Daniel had a few people over, and this guy Rob was there. He’s Daniel’s brother’s friend from college and is now a banker, which I realize sounds so generic it has to be fake, but I made him show me his business card and it’s legit. It actually says ‘Banker.’ He’s funny and good-looking, and I was in peak Fizzy mode last night and he seemed charmed by it.”
“Peak Fizzy mode as in oral manifesto about the positive impact of romance novels on society? Or peak Fizzy mode as in spontaneously wallpapering your bedroom at midnight with pages from your favorite books?”