“Tiffany! DIN-NER!” From somewhere far across the neighborhood, almost mistaken and ignored for another kid’s shout, I faintly heard my name being called. The smell of red meat searing on a charcoal grill drifted across the warm summer air and found its way into my nostrils, and I hoped to God that something similar waited for me. I flung the cross-hatched, red rubber ball back to my pack and scrambled to my bike, laying carelessly on some stranger’s lawn. They said it was okay, we could do that.

“I gotta go, my mom’s calling me!” Before the words were even out of my mouth, I had straddled my bike and was awkwardly dragging it to face the direction of home.

“Wait! I’ll come with you!” Kenty retrieved his bike from the Stranger’s sidewalk and took a running mount, wobbling briefly before standing on his pedals and straining to catch up with me.

“Hurry!” I called over my shoulder, squinting against the wind and loving that freedom of flying, “I’m not supposed to be past Lois Street!” A cricket jumped at the wrong time and hit my face.

Minutes later—gasping, sweating slightly, smelling of outdoor children and trying desperately to not look like we came from three blocks away—we burst in through my front door, the warmth of inside immediately overwhelming me.

“Where were you? I’ve been calling you for half an hour.” My mother stood over a stove alive with crackling, oiled frying pans and sauce pots that were dangerously close to bubbling over. A warm, red glow came from the oven, the silhouette of something large and glistening barely visible through the stippled glass door. The smell of baked chicken and bell peppers hung in the air.

“I just…I told them…Tenzen needed help finding his sister first…” My breath gradually slowed to normal as Kenty nodded vehemently behind me.

My mother examined me with hard, calculating eyes. Something popped in the pan closest to her, and she returned her attention to the stove, jabbing at the contents of the pan with a greasy-splattered wooden spoon.

“Alright…you better stay where you can hear me next time, or you’ll have to play in the yard from now on.”

“I know…” for a moment, a look of genuine remorse crossed my face—I knew how close I had come to being caught. I perked up again.

“Can Kenty stay for dinner? What are we having? His mom says it’s okay.” His mom always said it was okay—we’d ask her later just to be sure.

“No, it’s a family night. We’re having chicken with mashed potatoes.”

“But I smell bell peppers?”

“…And bell peppers.”

My face sank. I imagined the oven-roasted chicken that could double as bark dust, the bell peppers and yellow onions that would be cut extra-thick and only half-cooked. The pre-packaged rolls that sat beside her on the counter, surely unaware of their future as blackened rocks. Mom’s cooking was always hit-or-miss, and tonight it was shaping up to be a big miss.

“Well…” My mind grappled for ideas—for a way out. “Can I eat dinner at his house? His mom says it’s okay.” She would say it was okay. She loved me. Kenty stood behind me, keeping his mouth shut and his eyes open, still nodding furiously.

My mom turned around, her round face pulled with impatience, her icy blue eyes—so much like my own—now flooded with anger.

“I said no. Tonight is for your family. You have to spend time with your family tonight, Tiffany. I’m sorry to inconvenience you. Now tell Kenty he needs to go home.”

Shoulders slumped, I turned and led Kenty silently through the tiled hallway to the front door.

“I can ask my mom if she can ask your mom if you can—”

No!” I hissed as I glanced over my shoulder before opening the door. “Then she’ll know I told you and I’ll get in even more trouble!” Kenty frowned sympathetically as he stepped outside, the sidewalks now dirty gold from the streetlights.

“Well…I’ll ask if you can come play tomorrow. I’m gonna tell my mom we should have pizza tonight!” His face broke into a grin as he spun on his heel and ran down the front walk, leaving me gaping and livid. His mom would do it, too. Video games, toys, computers, pizza—Hoa gave him everything he wanted. Bitterly, I closed the door, the smell of something burning drifting out from the kitchen.