Her black hair wound into a bun and no makeup was her preferred look as she crept down the stairs.
She read the note on the kitchen table and took the money.
Opening the zipper was like a thunderclap. She shoved the note in her backpack, listening for any movement in the house.
She noticed a light on upstairs.
No one can see me leaving the house at 3:30am, she thought.
Lin could tell something was wrong. Her mother’s heels made a clicking noise on the kitchen floor as she paced back and forth.
“Did Stanford and Cal Tech contact you about your applications?” her mother asked.
Lin sighed, relieved her mother did not discover her morning destination.
“They didn’t email me.”
“Why?” Her mother asked, drumming her nails on the marble counter top.
Lin walked towards the refrigerator, avoiding her mother.
“They probably have a lot of applications to review,” Lin said.
Her mother rubbed her temples and took a deep breath.
“Care to explain why they did not receive your applications?”
Lin opened the refrigerator door to avoid her mother’s interrogating stare.
“Close the door and look at me. If you don’t graduate from college, you will not receive your inheritance from your grandfather.”
Lin closed the door, unable to tell her mother why she didn’t send the applications.
“You’re on the wait list to Caltech thanks to your father’s alumni connections, but you need to send the application by Friday.”
Lin stopped mopping when she heard Mr Chen’s van. The highlight of her day was unloading the cargo before school.
“Good Morning Mr Chen,” Lin said, watching him disarm the store alarm.
Mr Chen said nothing as he adjusted his apron and inspected the dough.
“Excellent work. It is good to be back. Please read the temperature of the oil, Mr. Chen asked, removing the thermometer from the fryer?
Lin glanced at the thermometer.
He wiped the oil from the thermometer and sat at a prep table.
“Perfect temperature. Please bring me some hot water. You don’t seem yourself today.”
Lin poured hot water into a teapot from the coffee machine on the counter.
“I am ok Mr Chen. Tell me about your trip while we unload the van.”
Mr Chen removed two teacups from a box on the prep table.
“Tell me your troubles over some tea. We can discuss the Mount Shasta discovery later. ”
Lin glanced at the clock on the wall.
“Let’s unload the van. I don’t want to be late for school.”
Mr Chen took his time preparing the tea.
“If you don’t want to talk, I understand after tea we can unload the Van.”
Lin sat across from Mr Chen, her foot tapping against the table.
“Mr Chen, I may have to quit my job.”
Lin poured herself a cup of tea.
“A smart girl like you leaving for college already?”
Lin pushed the teacup towards the center of the table and crossed her arms.
“My mom would go ballistic if she found out I have a job. The worst part is I don’t want to go to college.”
Mr Chen stroked his white beard, waiting for the tea to steep.
His calmness was infuriating, while her life was in chaos, she thought.
“Where does your mother think you go?”
Lin took a deep breath and reached for her teacup.
“I told her I have tennis practice.”
His rare boisterous laugh was calming, but why does he think this is funny? She thought.
“Do you enjoy your job?”
Mr Chen noticed the question displaced her gloom.
“I like working here, but my mother would not understand. She has never had a job.”
Mr Chen finished his tea and lit a cigarette.
“Would your father approve of working instead of college?”
Lin took a sip of tea while thinking about the question.
“My mother runs the house, so I don’t think he has a choice.”
Mr Chen removed a jade key from his pocket.
“Stand your ground with your mother. We can talk later. Help me unload the van before the customers arrive.”
“Mom, where are we going?”
Her mother smiled while glancing at the elementary school.
“We are meeting your father.”
It seemed like yesterday when they arrived in the USA, she thought.
“Remember Lily from elementary school?”
Lin scrolled through cellphone videos, recalling her first friend.
“Yea, I have not seen her since private school.”
Her mother changed lanes before responding to her daughter.
“Her mother told me Lily has a scholarship to the University of Texas,” her mother said.
Lin massaged her forehead.
“Did Caltech contact you?” her mother asked.
Lin closed her eyes, dreading the conversation over dinner with her dad.
“I have not,” Lin said, crossing her arms.
Lin noticed her mother digging her nails into the steering wheel.
“I’ll call your guidance counselor.”
Lin uncrossed her arms, recalling Mr Chen’s advice.
“He might convince me to enlist in the Army,” she said.
Lin’s mother gripped the steering wheel.
“You will not enlist!” she admonished.
One more jab and I’ll accept my fate, she thought.
“You could share pictures of my shaved head at boot camp with your friends.”
Lin noticed her mother’s clenched jaw.
“Forward me your application email and I will contact admissions!”
Lin slumped in her seat.
“I did not send the application.”
Her mother cut across traffic, oblivious to the horns blaring, and stopped the car.
“Why are you stalling?”
Lin shifted in her seat.
“I want to work at the bakery instead of college.”
Lin’s mother glowered.
“You have a job? Did your father approve?”
Lin said nothing.
“You can do what you want after college. Tomorrow you quit your job!.”
The smell of doughnuts and something else greeted Lin when she entered the bakery.
Four bears with red streaks of hair pounced on her before she could lock the door.
“Hi Lin, we missed you,” a bear said.
“Back to work!” Mr Chen shouted.
The bears hugged Lin before scurrying past Mr Chen as he approached from the kitchen.
“Everything ok? You have never been late,” Mr Chen said, locking the door.
Lin’s hands trembled and her face turned downward as she approached Mr Chen.
“I can’t work here anymore,” Lin said, handing him a jade key.
Mr Chen removed a doughnut from the display case.
“Keep it. Visit the bears anytime. Try their new creation,” Mr Chen said, offering her a marmalade doughnut.
Lin’s mother motioned for her to enter the kitchen.
“I spoke to Mr Chen, and he apologized for causing any problems. He spoke highly of you and understands your family obligation,” her mother said.
Lin balled her fists and nodded.
“Mom, would it be ok if I stopped by the doughnut shop after school?”
Her mother opened her purse, aware her daughter was angry about quitting.
“Of course, and buy a dozen for us,” her mother said, handing her some money.
Mr Chen smiled when he saw Lin and brought a pot of tea after serving the last customer.
“Hi Lin. The bears will join us once the kitchen is clean. For now, we can talk.”
Lin filled two cups with tea.
“Mr Chen, you never told me about your Mount Shasta trip.”
Mr Chen unrolled a map on the table.
“The expedition was a success. Cyrus led us to 4 more Lava Bears,” Mr Chen said, pointing at the map.
“We are close to understanding how the bears talk.”
Pots clanging in the kitchen interrupted their conversation.
“We discovered other locations enabling the bears to speak English.”
Lin leaned over the map, intrigued by more talking bears.
“I thought they could only live on Mount Shasta. Otherwise they would act like regular bears,” Lin said.
Mr Chen slapped his hand on the table, startling Lin.
“True, until we discovered Austin has similar properties to Mount Shasta. I plan to open a second bakery.”
Lin took a sip of tea, thinking about a second bakery.
“I would like for you to run the Austin location with these clowns,” Mr Chen said.
The bears barged through the kitchen door.
“My mother would never approve.”
Mr Chen Smiled returning to his normal composure.
“I figured, so I contacted an alumni colleague at the University of Texas and she granted you admission this fall to their honors program.”
The bears clambered over the table to encourage her.
“Ok, Ok. I can convince my mom going to UT is a good idea,” Lin said, roughhousing with the bears.
“Be quiet and hide,” Lin said, pushing the bear into her backpack.
Lin ran to the front door.
“Mom, I am accepted at UT!”
Her mother looked up from her book.
“Texas, don’t they have a cow mascot? Did Lily’s acceptance influence you?”
She rubbed the back of her neck and sighed before responding to her mother.
“Austin is a high-tech city,” Lin said.
Her mother closed the novel Beyond the Goat Trails and shook her head.
“I don’t know. Cal Tech is better.”
Lin set her backpack on the floor.
“Cal Tech is for graduate school. I can start this fall in UT’s honors program. You can tell grandmother the good news! She does not know a Caltech Beaver from a Texas Longhorn.”
Lin knew her mother was considering her grandmother’s approval.
“An honors program and immediate acceptance,” her mother thought.
Lin saw a paw reaching through the bag and closed the zipper.
“Are you going to tell grandmother?”
Lin moved the backpack out of view.
“You can attend UT.”
Lin ran towards her mom.
“You smell like marmalade." Her mom said, hugging Lin.
Thank You for Reading,
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Photo of Mount Shasta by Jill Clardy