Chapter One: Valerie CHAPTER ONE VALERIE Monday / September 9
There’s a Hi-Chew flavor for every occasion. Grape to focus. Mango to celebrate. Strawberry to calm the hell down when things aren’t going the way I planned. Like this afternoon. The first sales day of a new school year was always, without a doubt, one of the most unpredictable. I mean, I definitely hadn’t expected two of my classmates to have a major throwdown right in front of my locker. Talk about high stress.
At least I’d come prepared. My fanny pack was filled to the zipper with emergency strawberry Hi-Chews. I tore one open and popped the chewy sweet into my mouth as I surveyed the situation before me. The lineup to my locker twisted all the way down the hall, comprised of the familiar faces of regulars who had been shopping with me for years, plus freshmen who were eager to get a glimpse of V&C K-BEAUTY, Crescent Brook High School’s most popular student-run business. The line hadn’t moved for a good thirty seconds thanks to Natalie Castillo and Amelia Perry’s big blowup, and it was making me seriously antsy. Thirty seconds was thirty seconds too long.
The object of their desire: a brand-new citrus-honey hydrating moisture gel.
“I got here first!” Amelia said, elbowing Natalie out of the way with her tiger-striped tote bag. “I’ve been eyeing this gel since Valerie posted it on Instagram this morning.”
“Excuse you, but I was in front,” Natalie snapped back. Her curly hair was practically springing out of her scrunchie in shopping-induced rage. “You cut the line.”
“Just let it go! You can get this same gel on Amazon.”
“You know my dad puts a limit on my online shopping. I’m already capped out! You buy it on Amazon.”
“Uh, no, not for the price that V&C charges. Besides, I don’t have my own credit card, and my parents will kill me if I take theirs without asking. Again.”
It was true about the prices. You couldn’t find a deal like ours anywhere else, thanks to my uncle. He worked in Seoul as a manager at a Korean beauty company and sent my aunt a box of products every month. Too bad for him, Sunhee Eemo couldn’t care less about face masks. What she really wanted was for her husband to send more money so she could work fewer hours at the soondubu restaurant.
“Money! Send more money!” she’d yell during their phone calls. “What am I going to do with all these face creams?”
“I know you love them,” he’d always tease. “Only the best products for my wife!”
The man was extravagant or just plain clueless. Either way, the packages continued, and my cousin Charlie and I had the brilliant idea to sell them to our classmates at a discount. Charlie’s dad was cool with it as long as we gave Sunhee Eemo first pick, not that she ever took us up on the offer. He got us a permission slip allowing us to resell his products as a student business project, and bam: V&C K-BEAUTY was born.
We’d built up this business since our sophomore year, and I wasn’t about to let Amelia and Natalie bring it all down now. People at the back of the line were starting to lose patience and trickle away. Enough was enough.
“Okay, executive decision,” I said. “The only fair way to decide this. Rock-paper-scissors.”
“Are you serious?” Amelia said. “You’re going to hinge this life-altering decision on a juvenile game of rock-paper-scissors?”
Amelia was a theater student. I had very little patience for theater students and their dramatics. “Rock-paper-scissors,” I said, my voice firm. “Unless you’d rather surrender the gel to Natalie in peace?”
A look of determination flashed across Amelia’s eyes. She held out her fist in front of Natalie. “Let’s do this.”
Natalie followed suit and they chanted, “Rock-paper-scissors.” The entire line sucked in a collective gasp as Natalie’s hand came down in a peace sign and Amelia’s formed a flat open palm.
“Yes!” Natalie cheered, while Amelia groaned, slapping her paper hand against her face.
“A plague on all your houses!” she cried.
I reached into my locker for the citrus-honey moisture gel. I could feel everybody watching me, their gaze following my reach into my infamous school locker–turned–K-beauty storefront. It was the stuff of Crescent Brook High legends. The inside was lit up with battery-powered fairy lights. A glittery laundry-clip hanger dangled from the top, but instead of mismatched socks and underwear, packets of glossy Korean face masks hung from the clips. Clear drawers lined the faux marble shelves that Charlie and I had painted and installed ourselves, filled with every kind of Korean beauty product imaginable. You name it, I had it. Toners, cleansers, serums, lip tints, and BB cream galore. Everything was arranged by type, size, color, and scent. The bottom corner was reserved for my schoolbooks, but nobody cared about that.
What people cared about was the product. And I always delivered on what the people wanted.
I bagged the gel for Natalie and tucked her payment into my fanny pack in a separate pocket from my Hi-Chews. Amelia bought five lip tints to make up for her loss, and the line started moving again. Crisis averted. My heart rate eased back down.
“Finally. That took forever.” Kristy Lo stepped up in line, sequined wallet already in hand. Aside from her Starburst-colored hairstyles, which changed weekly, Kristy was known for having the biggest mouth in our senior class. She sniffed out gossip like a bear tracking honey, which suited me just fine. Kristy was my best customer, and there was no better advertising than word of mouth.
She smiled brightly. This week her hair was the color of pink cotton candy. “Did you have a good summer, Val? Sucks that we don’t have any classes together this year. I don’t have any with Charlie, either.” She pouted. “Tell him I say hi, will you?”
I narrowed my eyes. Unspoken rule of shopping with V&C: Don’t try to flirt with my cousin through me. Kristy giggled nervously.
“Okay, got it—you’re not my messenger,” she said. “By the way, did you hear Tina Pierce and Matt Whitman broke up over the summer? Ten bucks says they’ll spend all of senior year trying to make each other jealous and then hook up again during prom. Oh, and have you met the new guy yet? Wes Jung?” She leaned forward and whispered, “He’s seriously hot. Maybe even hotter than Charlie.”
“What can I get for you?” I asked, tapping my fingers against my locker door.
“Oh, I’ll take five packages of the green-tea eye masks and one tub of the coconut body cream,” Kristy said, opening her wallet. She pursed her lips thoughtfully, in deep contemplation. “I guess Charlie is more cute than hot, though. There is a difference, you know?”
I plucked the bills out of Kristy’s hand. “Always a pleasure, Kristy. Next in line, please.”
As the line rolled smoothly along, the anxiety in my chest continued to lift. The beginning of this school year had me feeling seriously on edge. Would students come back? Or would they find a better deal elsewhere while we were on vacation? To my relief, it looked like summer break hadn’t done anything to hurt our sales.
“Sorry, all sold out.” I zipped up my fanny pack and looked at the time. Twenty minutes, even with Amelia and Natalie’s squabble. We cleaned out fast. “See you next week, everybody. Remember, we restock and sell every Monday.”
The students still in line grumbled as they dispersed through the hall. I stepped back and took a satisfied look at my now-empty locker. My favorite sight. I pulled out my phone and snapped a photo for my Instagram story. Senior year starting strong! I typed. I added a GIF of a SOLD OUT sign with dancing donuts for the Os.
Just as I was about to lock up, I felt someone tug at the fanny pack around my waist. I whirled around, ready to beat the thief to a pulp. Charlie Song, my cousin and business partner, grinned back at me, dangling the fanny pack in my face, his hair sweaty and matted on his forehead from basketball practice.
“How’d we do today, Val?” he asked.
“I did great,” I said, swiping the pack out of his hands. “You, on the other hand, will get a black eye if you sneak up on me like that again.”
Charlie laughed, bouncing around me as I locked up. “Really, though. Did our reputation hold up over the summer like I said it would?”
At this, I couldn’t help but grin. “Yeah. Yeah it did.”
Charlie fist-pumped the air as we made our way outside. “See! I told you we’d be okay. We always are.”
He wasn’t wrong. Ever since we’d started our sales, we’d been growing at a steady rate. At first, it was just a few girls who were interested in our discounted prices, but soon word of mouth (thank you, Kristy Lo) gave us more business than we were prepared for. Over time, we built up a solid client base and an even more solid reputation. Now Charlie asked his dad for a specific list of the hottest products every month.
If I had just looked at how things had gone after last year’s summer break, I supposed I wouldn’t have had much reason to be worried. We’d survived between school years once before; we would survive again. But that was then and this was now, and I could never quite shake the feeling that something would swoop in and topple everything we’d built. A new online store with competing prices, maybe. Or waning interest in our products. But today reassured me that we were still strong, and I was more determined than ever to make sure that V&C had a great final year. After all, not only did I want to round us off with a solid ending, but this was also the year I would be highlighting in my college applications.
We walked out to the parking lot and climbed into Sunhee Eemo’s car. Bless her for letting Charlie drive it when she was at the soondubu restaurant. Hauling a box of beauty products to school every week would be a serious pain without it, and I say that from experience. Before Charlie got his license, we would lug all our products around in a wagon that’s since lots its wheels to a speed bump incident. RIP. Charlie revved the engine as I pulled the day’s earnings from my fanny pack and counted out the cash.
“So,” Charlie said, backing out of the parking lot. His tongue stuck out between his teeth in concentration. “Senior year is officially underway and I think I know who I’m going to ask to prom. Curious?”
“Not even a little bit.” I held up a wad of cash. “Here, this is yours.” We split all our profits seventy-thirty. We used to do an even fifty-fifty before Charlie became co-captain of the basketball team and didn’t have as much time for the business anymore. Still, he helped out where he could, and he earned his 30 percent. I stuck the money in the glove compartment before folding up my own share and tucking it back into my fanny pack.
“Okay, first off, rude, and second, I think you’ll be surprised to hear my answer.”
I sighed. “All right, I’m sorry. Go ahead.” Senior prom was ages away, but Charlie had been talking about it since we started high school. He was a hopeless romantic. I was also looking forward to prom, mostly because I wouldn’t have to listen to him talk about it anymore.
“Apology accepted. Now guess.”
“You think I keep track of all the girls you’ve gone on dates with? I’m not guessing.”
“All right, fine.” He straightened up in his seat. “I’m going to ask Pauline.”
My eyebrows shot up. “Pauline as in Pauline Lim? The girl you had a major crush on in sophomore year?”
“Told you you’d be surprised,” he said smugly.
“The same girl you were friends with until she ghosted you out of nowhere and totally broke your heart?”
His smile faded a touch. “Yeah, her.”
“Why? I thought you were over her.”
“I was. I am! I think.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. I just feel like I never got closure between us. I never even got to ask her out on a proper date like I wanted to back then. And this is our last year of high school. I don’t want to have any regrets and always wonder what could have been.”
Like I said, hopeless romantic. I sighed. “I’m pretty sure you’ll regret it more if you reopen this jjak sarang.”
He groaned. “Why do you have to call it that?”
“Because that’s what it is. Jjak sarang. One-sided, unrequited love.”
“That’s what it was,” he corrected me. “It’s been two years. You never know what can change. Besides, I’ve grown up a lot since then. I’m more mature and, let’s face it, way better looking. Sophomore year was not my year.”
“Speaking of which, Kristy Lo was saying there’s a new guy who’s ‘even hotter than Charlie.’?” I raised my fingers into air quotes at that last part.
“Oh yeah? What else did she say?”
“That’s it. And that she thinks you’re actually more cute than hot. There’s a difference, she said.”
Charlie frowned. “Untrue. I’m definitely both. Tell me I’m both.”
“We’re done talking about this.”
I rolled down the window. It was an old car, so I had to use the manual hand roller to get the window down. I loved the feeling of the crisp September air blowing strands of hair out of my fishtail braid. I slid my tortoiseshell sunglasses from the top of my head onto my face, snuggling deeper into my thrifted corduroy jacket. Fall is definitely my favorite season. “By the way, did you talk to Ms. Jackson about setting up our mentorship meetings for the year?” I asked.
“Yep. The last Wednesday of the month over lunch. Is that cool with you?”
“Yeah. Thanks for doing that.”
He grinned and flashed me a thumbs-up. Crescent Brook High was big on creativity and innovation in all departments: they encouraged new science experiments, out-of-the box art programs, and, of course, student-run businesses. To run a business, you needed permission from the principal and a teacher to mentor you, and Ms. Jackson had been our mentor since we first started V&C. She was whip-smart and one of the first people to encourage my goals as an entrepreneur. She ran her own start-up with a team of all Black women before she switched gears and became a social studies teacher. “I missed being around teens,” she said when I asked her why she’d changed careers. “Now if only I could get these start-up CEOs to stop calling and trying to poach me!” Basically, she’s goals. I plugged in our monthly meetings into my phone calendar as Charlie turned up the radio.
We drove through the suburbs, passing playgrounds, corner stores, and tree-lined streets, admiring the outline of mountains through the open windows. I’d spent my entire life in the Pacific Northwest, but I didn’t think I could ever get tired of this view. Mountains called out home to me and even though their snow-capped tops scraped against the sky, the sight of them always left me feeling more grounded.
Ten minutes later, we pulled up in front of my town house. “Are you going to hang out with me and Halmeoni today?” I asked, unbuckling my seat belt.
“I would, but I gotta pick up my mom from the restaurant,” Charlie said.
“She asks about you.”
“Does she? I’ll have to come by soon, then. Can’t deprive our grandmother of Charlie time.”
He laughed and I rolled my eyes even as my lips quirked up in a smile. Charlie could be annoying sometimes, but he was genuine and he always kept his word. I respected that about him.
“Hey, Val?” he called as I got out of the car.
I turned. “Yeah?”
“You really think it’s a bad idea to ask Pauline out?”
I sighed. Genuine, reliable, and utterly hopeless. “I just don’t want you to get crushed again.”
“Okay, but what if this is my last shot? I know it’s been a while, but obviously I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about her still. Don’t I owe it to myself to at least try?”
I slammed the door shut and leaned down to look at my cousin through the open window. I didn’t want to see him get hurt, but Charlie wore his heart on his sleeve, which basically increased his chances of getting hurt by ten as far as I was concerned. I had to give him some tough love. “Listen, Charlie, you do what you gotta do, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. And don’t let it get in the way of our business. Last time she stopped talking to you, you were in such a funk, you were no help for months. If you want to put yourself through that again, I can’t stop you, but don’t leave me hanging.” I patted the side of the car. “Thanks for the ride.”
I turned and jogged into the house. Charlie honked the horn behind me, and I raised a hand to wave without looking back.
As soon as I stepped through the front door, I heard yelling in Korean. I knew what that meant. Umma and Halmeoni were fighting. Again.
I toed off my sneakers and tried to tiptoe through the living room unnoticed.
“You can’t just keep me locked up in the house!” Halmeoni cried. She was dressed in her walking outfit, complete with a puffy purple vest, track pants, and a reflective visor over her short, curly permed hair. Her hands were on her hips, her round chin jutting out in defiance. Puffy purple had never looked so fierce. “I’m only seventy-six. I’m healthy. Healthy! The doctor said so herself!”
“Well, you can’t just disappear without telling someone where you’re going,” Umma said, throwing her hands in the air. Her clothes were splattered with what looked like fresh paint stains, as if she had been right in the middle of her most recent home-renovation project when the fight had begun. When she isn’t setting up staging rooms for Appa’s real estate open houses, Umma is always remodeling something around our own house. She also gets into way more fights with Halmeoni. “What if something happens to you and no one knows where you are?”
“You’re my daughter, not the other way around,” Halmeoni said, narrowing her eyes. Her gaze fell on me and she waved me over. “Valerie, come here and tell your mom to let me go on walks without her supervision.”
I froze, halfway up the stairs to my room. I turned back around, lifting my sunglasses up and clearing my throat. Something told me rock-paper-scissors wasn’t the way to go with this fight. “Halmeoni should be allowed to go wherever she wants.”
“Valerie,” Umma said, pinching her nose like she was already exhausted by this conversation. “Please. What did I tell you about listening when adults are speaking?”
“I’m almost an adult,” I said.
“No. You’re seventeen. What kind of mother would I be if I let you talk back to me, huh? Now stay out of matters you don’t understand.”
I winced, shrinking at Umma’s words. I wanted to run up to my room and disappear, but for Halmeoni’s sake, I would stand my ground. “Well, I think Halmeoni knows what she’s talking about. Not to mention the doctor, who said she was doing fine at her last checkup.” I walked down the rest of the stairs, linking arms with my grandma. “If she wants to go out, you can’t keep her locked up here like a prisoner.”
Halmeoni straightened up, nodding her head. “Like a prisoner,” she repeated.
Umma looked back and forth between the two of us, pressing her lips together. “You two always gang up on me. Umma, the doctor might say you’re fine, but there’s nothing wrong with being extra careful at your age. You’re not as healthy as you once were, no matter what you want to believe. Why must you be so stubborn? And you, Valerie.” She shook her head. “You need to learn how to listen like your sister. Samantha never disrespects me like this.”
With that, she turned on her heel and disappeared into the kitchen, where she started vigorously painting the cabinets again. I scowled, feeling the tips of my ears heat up in anger. Why did Umma always have to compare me to Samantha? This wasn’t even about her. Leave it to Umma to take any opportunity she could to highlight my older sister and make me feel like I was too young to know anything. Fuming, I dug into my fanny pack and tore open a strawberry Hi-Chew. I chewed furiously.
Halmeoni’s wrinkled hand covered mine. “Don’t listen to your mom,” she said gently. “You are doing me a favor. You’re my girl.”
She patted my hand and I smiled back, relaxing a little. Umma might not understand me, but Halmeoni always did. She made me feel like I was fine just as I was.
“How about I go for a walk with you and then we can have a spa day inside?” I suggested. “I’ll dye your hair again.”
“My girl,” Halmeoni said, patting me on the arm. “You know just how to cheer me up.”
And so we did. As I dyed Halmeoni’s hair that evening, with a Korean drama that we’d seen a hundred times already playing on my laptop, I couldn’t help but notice how stooped her shoulders were. She used to be so much taller than me, even just a couple of years ago.
“Halmeoni, you’re shrinking,” I said, trying to keep my voice jokey and light.
“Yah, you silly girl,” she said, swatting me in the arm. “I’m not shrinking. You’re just growing. You’re at a growing age right now. You’ll keep on getting taller for a long, long time, much taller than your halmeoni.”
I smiled. “Yeah, you’re right.”
She stared at the laptop screen, where the couple in the Korean drama was dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower. “What do you think it’s like there?” she asked. “Paris? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go?” Her nose wrinkled in displeasure. “I don’t know why your mom has a fit anytime I talk about going anywhere. She thinks I can’t think for myself anymore.”
I said nothing, dyeing her curls in silence. When Halmeoni had first emigrated from South Korea with her two teenage daughters, she’d had big dreams of exploration. But between raising a family and getting older, she never had a chance to travel the world like she wanted to, even though she was always talking about the endless list of places she longed to see. I thought of the cash in my fanny pack and the rest of the money I’d been saving since my sophomore year. Halmeoni didn’t know it, but I’d been saving all that money so I could take her on a trip of a lifetime. We would go to Paris and visit art museums and eat cheese from charcuterie boards with gochujang, because Halmeoni never went anywhere without a travel-sized tube of her favorite spicy paste.
She deserved to see everything she wanted to, and I would take her there. Umma would disapprove, of course, but like I said, we weren’t her prisoners. How could she hold us back if I was the one funding everything and Halmeoni was healthy enough to go? I was going to make this happen no matter what, and when I did, Umma would finally see that I wasn’t just a child who knew nothing. I was way more capable than she thought I was.
I’d prove it.
Monday / September 16
The following Monday, I was still mulling over Umma and Halmeoni’s never-ending argument while I waited for my customers. I leaned against my locker, chewing on a green-apple Hi-Chew, the best flavor for thinking. I didn’t understand why Umma couldn’t see how trapped she was making Halmeoni feel. Besides, everyone knew that fresh air was good for your health. Why wouldn’t Umma want that for Halmeoni?
I looked at the time. Ten seconds until the final bell. I put my thoughts on hold and got into business mode. Three, two, one.
The lineup arrived but felt shorter than usual as I sold face masks and cleansers. Maybe people were held up in class? Or maybe there had been a field trip today. By the time school emptied out, I stared at the products in my locker. There were still a few things left. Usually, I would have sold out by now.
“Valerie!” a voice called down the hall. Kristy came jogging toward me. “Sorry I’m late. Do you have anything left?”
“Um, yeah,” I said, half closing my locker so Kristy couldn’t see inside. “Barely anything, though.” I didn’t want people to think V&C was losing its touch, especially not Kristy. Once Kristy knew something, it wasn’t long before the entire school knew too.
“Oh good,” she said. “I’ll take one of the peach lily masks.”
“Just one?” Strange. Kristy was usually a serial shopper.
“Yeah. You know Wes Jung, the new kid? Turns out his mom works for a huge entertainment company in Korea.” Her eyes widened as she spoke. “He was selling Crown Tiger lip balm in band class, and I spent half my week’s allowance on it.”
My jaw tightened. “What? What are you talking about?”
“You don’t know Crown Tiger? They’re only the biggest K-pop boy band around.”
“No, not that. What do you mean he was selling lip balm?”
“Oh yeah! Crown Tiger’s new lip-balm line. They’re all sold out everywhere else, but Wes had a bunch from his mom, and he was selling them. He literally made a hundred bucks like this.” She snapped her fingers. “Natalie and Amelia were fighting over all the flavors. I swear, those girls are out to kill each other.”
Natalie and Amelia? They were my regular customers, and they’d been noticeably missing from the line today. “Do you know if they’ll be coming by the locker today?” I asked, trying to keep my voice even.
“I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure they spent all their money with Wes,” Kristy said. “If he keeps this up, he won’t just be the hottest guy in our grade. He’ll be the richest.” She peered over my shoulder. “So, where’s Charlie today?”
I clenched my teeth. Wes Jung. I didn’t have any classes with him, but maybe it was time I met this new kid. Someone had to teach him that there was only room for one K-beauty business around here.