With Landon’s support, Chandler quickly found himself immersed in Lab2O. He hardly even noticed the rest of the company. He started coming to the US more than he stayed in Shanghai. It was lucky Grace and the girls were in Britain. It didn’t make a difference to them which country he was working in. In fact, the girls seemed to get a sense of pride that their dad was working in the States. And Grace had her own life in Britain; in fact, she seemed even busier than he was. In his opinion, life was good.
Chandler knew the board wasn’t fully invested in this project. But he also knew he could prove them wrong. He worked with the scientists in the lab, watching them make strides toward a final product. He started on the marketing side. He let Landon deal with the legal stuff. Apparently there was a lot of it. Landon moved his workspace to the offices right above the lab. He wasn’t quite as obsessed as Chandler, but he was on board, and that was what mattered.
Chandler had hardly left the lab for weeks when he got a call from Landon one day.
“Hey man, where have you been?”
Chandler felt sheepish. He realized he hadn’t even gone upstairs in days. He had slept in the little room just off the lab and hadn’t even seen the sunlight. Landon literally worked a floor above him and he hadn’t even made his way over there.
“Just… working,” he said. He realized he wasn’t even sure what day it was. “Things have been pretty busy.”
“Too busy to come to a cookout on Sunday? Maya says the house is finally ready to show off. Don’t tell her I told you but she’s pretty cocky about it.”
Chandler heard Maya’s indignant gasp in the background and some shuffling sounds. Landon didn’t come back for a minute, and when he did he was laughing.
“Listen, Yuri is having some friends from school over and we thought it’d be nice to have another adult around. We’d really like you to come.”
Chandler agreed. He had to—it had been too long and he felt he was fading from the real world. Besides, he had always liked Yuri. The kid reminded him of himself at that age, only better. He was an old soul, just growing into his bones. He was a funny kid. He didn’t seem to know if he was American or Chinese. Chandler snorted. He was more like him than he knew. Maybe Yuri would do a better job figuring it out.
Chandler felt a little awkward walking up the steps to Landon and Maya’s house. He had never been to a cookout before. He wasn’t even completely sure what that meant. He’d looked it up and found that he was expected to bring something, and one blog said the safest thing to bring was chips and dip. He sighed, crinkling the bag of potato chips in one hand and tightening his grip on the jar of salsa in the other. There was a time when he felt comfortable in America. Now he felt that he had lost his place again. He didn’t even know what the kids were eating these days.
The door was open and he walked into a beautiful, open house unlike any he had ever seen. In Shanghai there seemed to never be enough room for anyone. And when he’d been here at UCLA they lived in bungalows—two-bedroom houses with one-car garages and bathrooms just big enough for a toilet and a shower. This house just expanded. It was simple and peaceful, and from the front door he could see clear to the backyard. He grinned and recognized that Maya had really picked up on feng shui. He felt relief. This felt like home. There were people, some familiar, some not, milling around the backyard. He smiled and made his way toward them.
And stopped. His brain clicked like a trigger. She was here.
It couldn’t be possible. Her blonde hair was cut short and blunt, her hands clasped behind her back and her balance shifted from foot to foot. She was exactly as he remembered. He saw, as if in a vision, himself breaking into a run toward the yard, willing her to turn her face to him. His mind flashed with thoughts and memories. Was it really her? How did she find him? Did she know he was here? And all the time the question. Why?
In his mind he laid a hand on her arm, she turned to face him, and she smiled. Just a smile. She put a hand up to his cheek and held it there. His body filled with warmth. She was as beautiful as he remembered.
He felt a bump on his shoulder and came back to reality. Yuri was grinning. “Hey Uncle Chandler, glad you could come.”
Chandler blinked and turned back to the spot where she had been standing. She was gone. He shook his head, trying to clear the vision that had suddenly become blurry.
“Come meet some of my friends from school,” Yuri was saying.
Chandler followed him dumbly. It must have been some kind of mind trick. That’s what you get for staying up late, Chandler, he thought. He knew where Ella was. Gone. She was just gone. She had made herself impossible to find and nothing he did would have changed that. It had been 18 years, it was delusional to even think about her now. But then, he had seen her, really seen…
Yuri led him to the backyard, where Landon gave him a hug and set him on grill duty. He watched Yuri with his friends. After a few minutes a girl came out of the house and came up behind Yuri, ruffling his hair, demanding his attention, just like she used to….
Chandler couldn’t believe it. Who was this girl? It was Ella on the very day he met her. Maybe a little taller, and with short hair, but she could have been her sister. He nudged Landon and pointed to the girl.
“Who is that?”
“Adriana? That’s Yuri’s… well, friend.” Landon smiled slyly. “He won’t tell us anything else.”
Chandler sighed and Landon looked at him curiously. “What’s up, Chandler?”
“I… she looks like… someone I haven’t seen for a very long time.”
He felt strange, like he was floating on the ground. He felt pinpricks all over his arms and it was getting harder to stand. Landon looked quickly at Adriana and back to Chandler. His face changed.
Chandler put a hand up and shook his head. “It’s fine,” he said. “Just… weird.”
“I didn’t even realize,” Landon said.
Yuri was suddenly right there, in front of Chandler, urging him to come meet his friends. Chandler stumbled through hellos with a few kids who looked much too young to be in college. He tried hard to keep his eyes from shifting to the girl. He could see her watching him from the corner of his eye. When they reached her, Yuri’s smile got wide.
“Uncle Chandler, this is Adriana.”
Adriana smiled at him, a little shyly, and shook his hand. Yuri started telling her about Chandler’s business, and his lab, and their time in China. Chandler could hardly hear a word of it. It sounded like someone talking underwater. The whole time, Adriana just looked at him.
Her eyes were the exact same shade of blue, like the sky in the summer. She even bit her lip, right there on the bottom right side, and a little sore was forming. He remembered the countless times he’d put a hand up to Ella’s face and kissed her mouth to stop her from doing it. The thought made his stomach fall. All the things he’d thought he could change, could control.
Adriana shifted her weight and said, “So Uncle Chandler, you work in a lab?”
He faltered. “Not… really,” he said. “I manage it. Well, I own it.” No point in sugarcoating the truth now. “We’re trying to come up with ways to manage water shortages. We think we can find a way to engineer bacteria that can produce water.”
She grinned. “What, like, make new water? I thought that was impossible.”
“Well, it is technically, but there’s water all over the world, just not in the right state. All it takes is hydrogen and oxygen, combined the right way. We think some bacteria could produce water as a metabolic byproduct. It’s amazing, really. You feed them trash and they give you back water.”
She bit her lip and shifted her weight again. “Oh, so you’re a big nerd.”
Chandler laughed. “Getting bigger every day,” he said.
She chuckled and hit him lightly on the arm, looking sideways at Yuri. “I like nerds.”
Chandler and Adriana talked for the better part of an hour. He hadn’t talked this way about his work to anyone. She asked all the right questions, she seemed legitimately interested, even fascinated. It wasn’t until Yuri patted her arm and mentioned a movie starting that she blinked and looked around.
“I’d better go,” she said. “It was good talking to you, Uncle Chandler.” She smiled. “You almost have me liking my own major.”
Chandler grinned. “The lab even has me liking biology.”
“Do you think…” Adriana looked down. “Do you think we could maybe see it sometime?”
Chandler grabbed at the opportunity to show someone else his work. Especially someone who just might get as excited about it as he was. “Of course!”
She grinned and nodded. Yuri looked excited.
“Let us know,” she said as she floated away on Yuri’s arm. She turned back and smiled at him, her face surrounded in a halo of flyaway blonde hairs.
Chandler watched them go inside. Landon came up behind him and slapped him on the back.
“So you met Adriana?”
Chandler nodded mutely.
“She and Yuri have been spending a lot of time together. We’re all rooting for them. We kind of want her to stick around.” Chandler sighed. For as crazy as it made him to think about Ella, he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t stop replaying the moments with her, when he felt happier than he knew was possible. The way she made him rethink everything, and the way she snuggled into his neck when she was sad, the way his world was a different color when she was around him. This girl, this Adriana—she had something to her that he had only seen once. He had only seen it in Ella. So of course they wanted her to stick around.
He did too.