Today's Reading

"This is awesome, Patrick," Mom says to her college friend—and frequent guest expert on the show—via Zoom. "I knew you would know. You were always Dr. Henderson's favorite for a reason." Mom waves at me over the top of her computer monitor. "Let's do this all again on..." Mom looks at Stephanie, our show's talent coordinator, who gives her the answer. "Tuesday at one thirty p.m. Same convo without the personal stuff. And be sure to move to your left about six inches more so we can get your business logo in the background. Great. See you soon."

Mom takes off her headset and swivels her chair around. "How was school today, Koty?"

"Eh." I shrug.

Stephanie moves a pile of research books off the only other chair in Mom's cramped home office and pats it until I sit down. Ugh. There will be work-work coming any second now.

"Tea break?" Stephanie says, confirming my suspicions.

"Yes, please, Steph." Mom slides off her reading glasses and rubs her eyes. "Let's break open that goodie box from Cadbury's."

While Stephanie heads to the kitchen, Mom rolls her chair over to the circular table and peers at Stephanie's open laptop.

"So next Monday, break out the flannels. We're going up to McGuthrie Farms to pick out our Christmas tree for the holiday special."

Sweat pools in the back of my tank top after my short skateboard ride home from Matsuda. "Do I have to wear a winter coat? All that faux fur around my sweaty face is going to be itchy."

"Yes."

"C'mon, Mom. It's still eighty degrees up north, I bet."

"Seventy-five," Mom corrects me. "But we're going to wear the coats and enjoy McGuthrie's famous hot chocolate and think cool thoughts. After all, we are professionals. Unless, of course, you've changed your mind about buying a car."

"Hot chocolate and winter coats in August it is."

"That's my girl."

Leo refers to the way my family lives four or more months in the future because of our shooting schedule as the "McDonalds' Alternate Universe." For example, we filmed our traditional McDonald Family Thanksgiving with turkey, matching sweaters, and the air conditioner turned down to arctic levels before heading over to the Matsudas'
house for a belated Independence Day barbecue.

"Can't we go on Saturday or Sunday instead?" I say. "I don't want to miss school."

Mom raises an eyebrow. "Because of school or because Leo's only day off is Monday?"

"School." But when Mom's laser stare penetrates me, I add, "And it's Leo's only afternoon and evening off. We still have to go to school. We wanted to watch a movie after our JCC meeting."

"I'll see if Stephanie can move it back to the weekend, but you know that comes with the extra crowds. Which is more important to you? Your personal space while filming or an afternoon with Leo?"

Hands down, a free afternoon with Leo, but I pretend to think it over. "I'm getting better with the crowds. Just promise that if someone brings up last year's Homecoming that we are out."

"Of course. I know that's still a sore spot for you."

That's the understatement of the century. A sore spot is an embarrassing moment that your friends rag you about for a few months. A sore spot isn't having your social blunders made into gifs and memes that circulate the internet. And then there's the SNL skit that cemented the moment into pop-culture history. My heart rate doubles, and the prickling sensation returns to my chest.

"Dakota. Deepen your breaths." Mom's hand on my arm slows my downward spiral. "We are not going there. Not today. Not ever again. Come back to today. Tell me about what you did after school. Tell me about Leo. What was he wearing?"

In any other context, that last statement would be somewhere between wildly inappropriate and completely gross, but I know what Mom is doing. I picture us sitting in the booth. Leo wears a T-shirt the same color as the cooked edamame shells. I focus the lens on Leo's face as the bean misses his open mouth and ricochets off his upper lip. The lips that keep ending up on mine in my dreams. When I open my eyes, Stephanie stands next to us with the tea tray and a concerned look on her face.

"How are you doing now?" Mom says.

"A little better. Dr. Berger's techniques help," I say.
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