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DARIUS THE GREAT is #Relatable & You Can Read It Now!

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If you like making Tolkien references and watching Star Trek you’ll love Darius, a teenage tea enthusiast who’s half Persian and who feels constantly out of place. Interested? You can read the first few chapters below!

Dive into Darius the Great is Not Okay for a touching story of self discovery that spans continents and cultures, and be sure to tell su what you think by tweeting @penguinteen!

 

CHAPTER 1

THE CHIEFEST AND GREATEST OF CALAMITIES

Steam belched and hissed. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck.

Smaug the Terrible was furious with me.

“What does it mean, ‘filter error’?” I asked.

“Here.” Mr. Apatan wiggled the hose where it fed into Smaug’s gleaming chrome back. The blinking red error light went dark. “Better?”

“I think so.”

Smaug gurgled happily and began boiling once again. “Good. Were you pushing buttons?”

“No,” I said. “Just to check the temperature.”

“You don’t have to check it, Darius. It always stays at two-twelve.”

“Right.”

There was no use arguing with Charles Apatan, Manager of the Tea Haven at the Shoppes at Fairview Court. He was convinced, despite all the articles I printed out for him—he refused to read web pages—that each and every tea should be steeped at a full boil, whether it was a robust Yunnan or a fragile gyokuro. Not that Tea Haven ever got such fine teas. Everything we sold was enriched with antioxidants or enhanced with natural super-fruit extracts or formulated for health and beauty.

Smaug, the Irrepressibly Finicky, was our industrial-strength water boiler. I named it Smaug my first week on the job, when I got scalded three times in a single shift, but so far the name hadn’t stuck with anyone else at Tea Haven.

Mr. Apatan passed me an empty pump-action thermos. “We need more Blueberry Açai Bliss.”

I shoveled tea from the bright orange tin into the filter basket, topped it with two scoops of rock sugar, and tucked it under the spigot. Smaug, the Unassailably Pressurized, spat its steaming contents into the thermos. I flinched as boiling water spattered my hands.

Smaug, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities, was triumphant once more.

As a people group, Persians are genetically predisposed to like tea. And even though I was only half Persian, I had inherited a full-strength tea-loving gene sequence from my mom.

“You know how Persians make tea?” my mom would ask. “How?” I would say.

“We put hell in it and we damn it,” she would say, and I would laugh because it was funny to hear my mom, who never used colorful metaphors, pretend to curse.

In Farsi, hel means “cardamom,” which is what makes Persian tea so delicious, and dam means “to steep.”

When I explained the joke to Mr. Apatan, he was not amused. “You can’t swear at the customers, Darius,” he said.

“I wasn’t going to. It’s Farsi. It’s a joke.”

“You can’t do that.”

Charles Apatan was the most literal person I knew.

After I replenished our strategically located sample thermoses with fresh tea, I refilled the plastic cups at each station.

I was categorically opposed to plastic sample cups. Everything tasted gross out of plastic, all chemical-y and bland.

It was deeply disgusting.

Not that it made much difference at Tea Haven. The sugar content in our samples was high enough to mask the taste of the plastic cups. Maybe even high enough to dissolve them, given enough time.

The Tea Haven at the Shoppes at Fairview Court was not a bad place to work. Not really. It was a significant upgrade over my last job—spinning the daily special sign at one of those take-it-and-bake-it pizza places—and it would look good on my resume. That way, when I graduated, I could work at an artisanal tea store, instead of one that added the latest superfood extract to whatever dismal fannings the corporate tea blenders could find at the steepest discount.

My dream job was Rose City Teas, this place in the Northwest District that did small-batch, hand-selected teas. There were no artificial flavorings in Rose City’s tea. But you had to be eighteen to work there.

I was stuffing the cups into their spring-loaded dispenser when Trent Bolger’s hyena laugh rang through the open doorway.

I was completely exposed. The entire front of Tea Haven was composed of giant windows, which, though tinted to reduce sun exposure, still offered a full and enticing view of the wares (and employees) inside.

I silently wished for the sun to bounce off the window, blinding Trent and cloaking me from what was sure to be an unpleasant encounter. Or, at the very least, for Trent to keep on walking and not recognize me in my work uniform of black shirt and bright blue apron.

It did not work. Trent Bolger rounded the corner and instantly got a sensor lock on me.

He grabbed the doorframe and swung himself into the store, followed by one of his Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy, Chip Cusumano.

“Hey! D’s Nuts!”

Trent Bolger never called me Darius. Not if there was a suggestive nickname he could use instead.

Mom always said she named me after Darius the Great, but I think she and Dad were setting themselves up for disappointment, naming me after a historical figure like that. I was many things—D-Hole, D-Wad, D’s Nuts—but I was definitely not great.

If anything, I was a great target for Trent Bolger and his Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy. When your name begins with D, the sexual innuendos practically write themselves.

At least Trent was predictable.

Trent Bolger was not technically a bully. Chapel Hill High School—where Trent, Chip, and I were sophomores—had a Zero Tolerance Policy toward bullying.

It also had Zero Tolerance Policies toward fighting, plagiarism, drugs, and alcohol.

And if everyone at Chapel Hill High School tolerated Trent’s behavior, that meant he wasn’t a bully.

Right?

Trent and I had known each other since kindergarten. We were friends back then, in the way that everyone is friends in kindergarten, before sociopolitical alliances begin to cement, and then, by the time third grade rolls around, you find yourself spending every game of Heads Down, Thumbs Up with your head down and your thumb up, completely ignored by your entire class until you begin to wonder if you’ve turned invisible.

Trent Bolger was only a Level Two athlete (Level Three at best). He played somethingback on the Chapel Hill High School junior varsity football team (Go Chargers). And he was not particularly good-looking, either. Trent was almost a head shorter than me, with close-cropped black hair, blocky black glasses, and a nose that turned up sharply at the end.

Trent Bolger had the largest nostrils of anyone I had ever seen.

Nonetheless, Trent was disproportionately popular among Chapel Hill High School’s sophomore class.

Chip Cusumano was taller, better-looking, and cooler. His hair was long and swoopy on top, with the sides shaved. He had the elegant sort of curved nose you saw in statues and paint- ings, and his nostrils were perfectly proportioned.

He was also nicer than Trent (to most people if not to me), which of course meant he was far less popular.

Also, his real name was Cyprian, which was an even more unusual name than Darius. Trent Bolger shared his last name with Fredegar “Fatty” Bolger, a Hobbit from The Lord of the Rings. He’s the one that stays home in the Shire while Frodo and company go on their adventure. Fatty Bolger is pretty much the most boring Hobbit ever. I never called Trent “Fatty” to his face.

It was a Level Five Disaster.

I had avoided letting anyone at Chapel Hill High School know where I worked, specifically to keep that knowledge from falling into the hands of Trent and the Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy.

Chip Cusumano nodded at me from the doorway and began to examine our line of brightly colored steeper mugs. But Trent Bolger headed straight for my station. He was wearing gray swishy shorts and his Chapel Hill High School Wrestling Team sweatshirt.

Trent and Chip both wrestled in the winter. Trent was junior varsity, but Chip had managed a spot on the varsity roster, the only sophomore to do so.

Chip had on his team sweatshirt too, but he wore it with his usual black joggers, the kind with stripes down the sides that taper around the ankles. I never saw Chip in swishy shorts outside of gym class, which I assumed was for the same reason I avoided them.

It was the only thing we had in common.

Trent Bolger stood in front of me, grinning. He knew I couldn’t escape him at work.

“Welcome to Tea Haven,” I said, which was the Corporate Mandated Greeting. “Would you like to sample one of our fine teas today?” Technically, I was also supposed to produce a Corporate Mandated Smile, but I was not a miracle worker.

“Do you guys sell tea bags?”

Across the store, Chip smirked and shook his head.

“Uh.”

I knew what Trent was trying to do. This was not Chapel Hill High School, and the Tea Haven at the Shoppes at Fairview Court did not have a Zero Tolerance Policy toward bullying.

“No. We only sell mesh strainers and biodegradable sachets.”

“That’s a shame. I bet you really like tea bags.” Trent’s grin crept up one side of his face. He only ever smiled with half his mouth. “You just seem like the type of guy who would really enjoy them.”

“Um.”

“You must get tea-bagged a lot, right?”

“I’m trying to work, Trent,” I said. Then, because I had the tingly feeling that Mr. Apatan was somewhere close by, carefully watching and critiquing my customer service, I cleared my throat and asked, “Would you like to try our Orange Blossom Awesome Herbal Tisane?”

I refused to call it tea when it did not contain any actual tea leaves.

“What’s it taste like?”

I pulled a sample cup out of the stack, filled it with a pump of Orange Blossom Awesome, and offered it to Trent, using my flat palm as a sort of saucer.

He downed it in one swallow. “Ugh. This tastes like orange juice and balls.”

Chip Cusumano laughed into the empty tea tin he was examining. It was one of our new spring-patterned ones, with cherry blossoms on it.

“Did you brew it right, Darius?” Mr. Apatan asked behind me.

Mr. Apatan was even shorter than Fatty Bolger, but somehow he managed to take up more space as he stepped between us to fill a sample cup of his own.

Fatty winked at me. “Catch you later. D-Bag.” D-Bag.

My newest suggestive nickname. It was only a matter of time.

Trent nodded at Chip, who grinned and waved innocently at me, as if he hadn’t just played accomplice to my humiliation. They jostled each other out the door, laughing.

“Thank you for visiting Tea Haven,” I said. “Come again soon.”

The Corporate Mandated Farewell.

“Did he just call you tea bag?” Mr. Apatan asked.

“No.”

“Did you tell him about our mesh baskets?” I nodded. “Hmm.” He slurped his sample. “Well, this is right. Good job, Darius.”

“Thanks.”

I had done nothing worthy of praise. Anyone could brew Orange Blossom Awesome. That was the whole point and purpose of Tea Haven. “Was that a friend of yours from school?”

Clearly the nuances of my interaction with Fatty Bolger, the World’s Most Boring Hobbit, were lost on Charles Apatan. “Next time, have him try the Blueberry Bliss.”

“Okay.”

 

TRUCK NUTS

The bike rack for the Shoppes at Fairview Court was located at the far end of the shopping center, right outside one of those clothing stores that catered to Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy like Fatty Bolger and Chip Cusumano. The kind that had pictures of shirtless guys with abdomens that could only be expressed in integers.

Five different kinds of overpowering cologne waged war in my sinuses as I passed the store. When I made it out into the parking lot, the sun was still up, barely, but the mercury lights had come on. The air smelled dry and vacant after weeks of rain. I had been riding my bike from Chapel Hill High School to the Tea Haven at the Shoppes at Fairview Court ever since I got the job. It was easier than getting a ride from either of my parents.

But when I got to the bike rack, my bicycle was gone.

Upon closer inspection, that was not technically true—only part of my bike was gone. The frame was there, but the wheels were missing. The bike slumped against the post, held on by my lock.

The seat was missing too, and whoever had taken it had left some sort of blue blob in its place.

Well, it was not a blue blob. It was a pair of blue rubber testicles.

I had never seen blue rubber testicles before, but I knew right away where they had come from.

Like I said, there was no Zero Tolerance Policy toward bullying at the Shoppes at Fairview Court. There was one toward stealing, but apparently that didn’t cover bicycle seats.

My backpack sagged on my shoulders. I had to call my dad.

“Darius? Is everything okay?”

Dad always said that. Not Hi, Darius, but Is everything okay?

“Hey. Can you come pick me up from work?”

“Did something happen?”

It was humiliating, telling my father about the blue rubber testicles, especially because I knew he would laugh.

“Really? You mean like truck nuts?”

“What are truck nuts?”

“People hook them on the hitch of their truck, so it looks like the truck has testicles.”

The back of my neck prickled.

In the course of our phone call, my father and I had used the word testicles more than was healthy for any father-son relationship.

“All right, I’ll be there in a bit. Did you get the goldfish?”

“Um.”

Dad breathed a Level Five Disappointed Sigh. My ears burned. “I’ll go grab them now.”

“Hey, son.”

Dad got out of his car and helped me load my wheel-less, seat-less bike into the trunk of his Audi. Stephen Kellner loved his Audi.

“Hi, Dad.”

“What happened to the truck nuts?”

“I threw them away.”

I did not need the reminder.

Dad pressed the button to close the trunk and got back in. I tossed my backpack onto the backseat and then slumped in the passenger seat with the goldfish suspended in their plastic prison between my legs.

“I almost didn’t believe you.”

“I know.”

It had taken him thirty minutes to come get me. We only lived a ten-minute drive away.

“Sorry about your bike. Does security know who did it?”

I buckled my seat belt. “No. But I’m sure it was Trent Bolger.” Dad put the Audi in drive and took off down the parking lot. Stephen Kellner liked to drive much too fast, because his Audi had lots of horsepower and he could do that kind of thing: Accelerate to escape velocity, slam the brakes when he had to (in order to avoid running over a toddler holding his brand-new

Build-a-Bear), and then accelerate again.

Thankfully, the Audi had all sorts of flashing lights and sen- sors, so it could sound Red Alert when a collision was imminent. Dad kept his eyes on the road. “What makes you think it was

Trent?”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell my father the entire humiliat- ing saga.

“Darius?”

Stephen Kellner never took no for an answer.

I told him about Trent and Chip, but only in the broadest strokes. I avoided mentioning Trent’s references to tea-bagging.

I did not want to talk to Stephen Kellner about testicles ever again.

“That’s it?” Dad shook his head. “How do you know it was them, then?”

I knew, but that never mattered to Stephen Kellner, Devil’s Advocate.

“Never mind, Dad.”

“You know, if you just stood up for yourself, they’d leave you alone.”

I sucked on the tassels of my hoodie.

Stephen Kellner didn’t understand anything about the socio- political dynamics of Chapel Hill High School.

As we turned onto the freeway, he said, “You need a haircut.” I scratched the back of my head. “It’s not that long.” My hair barely touched my shoulders, though part of that was how it

curled away at the ends.

That didn’t matter, though. Stephen Kellner had very short, very straight, very blond hair, and he had very blue eyes too.

My father was pretty much the Übermensch.

I did not inherit any of Dad’s good looks.

Well, people said I had his “strong jawline,” whatever that meant. But really, I mostly looked like Mom, with black, loosely curled hair and brown eyes.

Standard Persian.

Some people said Dad had Aryan looks, which always made him uncomfortable. The word Aryan used to mean noble—it’s an old Sanskrit word, and Mom says it’s actually the root word for Iran—but it means something different now.

Sometimes I thought about how I was half Aryan and half Aryan, but I guess that made me kind of uncomfortable too.

Sometimes I thought about how strange it was that a word could change its meaning so drastically.

Sometimes I thought about how I didn’t really feel like Stephen Kellner’s son at all.

 

THE DISTINGUISHED PICARD CRESCENT

Despite what boring Hobbits like Fatty Bolger might have thought, I did not go home and have falafel for dinner.

First of all, falafel is not really a Persian food. Its mysterious origins are lost to a prior age of this world. Whether it came from Egypt or Israel or somewhere else entirely, one thing is certain: Falafel is not Persian.

Second, I did not like falafel because I was categorically opposed to beans. Except jelly beans.

I changed out of my Tea Haven shirt and joined my family at the dinner table. Mom had made spaghetti and meat sauce— perhaps the least Persian food ever, though she did add a bit of turmeric to the sauce, which gave a slight orange cast to the oil in it.

Mom only ever cooked Persian food on the weekends, because pretty much every Persian menu was a complicated affair involving several hours of stewing, and she didn’t have the time to devote to a stew when she was overwhelmed with a Level Six Coding Emergency.

Mom was a UX designer at a firm in downtown Portland, which sounded incredibly cool. Except I didn’t really under- stand what it was that Mom actually did.

Dad was a partner in an architecture firm that mostly designed museums and concert halls and other “centerpieces for urban living.”

Most nights, we ate dinner at a round, marble-topped table in the corner of the kitchen, all four of us arranged in a little circle: Mom across from Dad, and me across from my little sister, Laleh, who was in second grade.

While I twirled spaghetti around my fork, Laleh launched into a detailed description of her day, including a complete play- by-play of the game of Heads Down, Thumbs Up they played after lunch, in which Laleh was “it” three different times.

She was only in second grade, with an even more Persian name than mine, and yet she was way more popular than I was.

I didn’t get it.

“Park never guessed it was me,” Laleh said. “He never guesses right.”

“It’s because you have such a good poker face,” I said. “Probably.”

I loved my little sister. Really. It was impossible not to.

It wasn’t the kind of thing I could ever say to anyone. Not out loud, at least. I mean, guys are not supposed to love their little sisters. We can look out for them. We can intimidate whatever dates they bring home, although I hoped that was still a few years away for Laleh. But we can’t say we love them. We can’t admit to having tea parties or playing dolls with them, because that’s unmanly.

But I did play dolls with Laleh. And I had tea parties with her (though I insisted we serve real tea, not imaginary tea, and certainly not anything from Tea Haven). And I was not ashamed of it.

I just didn’t tell anyone about it.

That’s normal.

Right?

At last, Laleh’s story ran out of steam, and she began scooping spaghetti into her mouth with her spoon. My sister always cut her spaghetti up instead of twirling it, which I felt defeated the point and purpose of spaghetti.

I used the lull in conversation to reach across the table for more pasta, but Dad pressed the salad bowl into my hands instead.

There was no point arguing with Stephen Kellner about dietary indiscretions.

“Thanks,” I mumbled.

Salad was inferior to spaghetti in every possible way.

After dinner, Dad washed the dishes and I dried them while I waited for my electric kettle to reach 180º Fahrenheit, which is what I liked for steeping my genmaicha.

Genmaicha is a Japanese green tea with toasted rice in it. Sometimes the toasted rice pops like popcorn, leaving little white fluffy clouds in the tea. It’s grassy and nutty and delicious, kind of like pistachios. And it’s the same greenish yellow color as pistachios too.

No one else in my family drank genmaicha. No one ever drank anything besides Persian tea. Mom and Dad would sniff and sip sometimes, if I made a cup of something and begged them to taste it, but that was it.

My parents didn’t know genmaicha had toasted rice in it, mostly because I didn’t want Mom to know. Persians have very strong feelings about the proper applications of rice. No True Persian ever popped theirs.

When the dishes were done, Dad and I settled in for our nightly tradition. We sank into the tan suede couch shoulder to shoulder—the only time we ever sat like this—and Dad cued up our next episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Every night, Dad and I watched exactly one episode of Star Trek. We watched them in broadcast order, starting with The Original Series, though things got complicated after the fifth season of The Next Generation, since its sixth season overlapped Deep Space Nine.

I had long since seen every episode of each series, even The Animated Series. Probably more than once, though watching with Dad stretched back to when I was little, and my memory was a bit hazy. But that didn’t matter.

One episode a night, every night. That was our thing.

It felt good to have a thing with Dad, when I could have him to myself for forty-seven minutes, and he could act like he enjoyed my company for the span of one episode.

Tonight, it was “Who Watches the Watchers?” which is an episode from the third season where a pre-warp culture starts to worship Captain Picard as a deity called The Picard.

I could understand their impulse.

Captain Picard was, without doubt, the best captain from Star Trek. He was smart; he loved “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”; and he had the best voice ever: deep and resonant and British.

My own voice was far too squeaky to ever captain a starship.

Not only that, but he was bald and still managed to be confident, which was good, because I had seen pictures of the men on my mom’s side of the family, and they all shared the distinguished Picard Crescent.

I didn’t take after Stephen Kellner, Teutonic Übermensch, in many ways, but I hoped I would keep a full head of hair like his, even if mine was black and curly. And needed a haircut, according to Übermensch standards.

Sometimes I thought about getting the sides faded, or maybe growing my hair out and doing a man-bun.

That would drive Stephen Kellner crazy.

Captain Picard was delivering his first monologue of the episode when the doot-doot klaxon of Mom’s computer rang through the house. She was getting a video call. Dad paused the show for a second and glanced up the stairs.

“Uh-oh,” he said. “We’re being hailed.” Dad smiled at me, and I smiled back. Dad and I never smiled at each other—not really—but we were still in our magic forty-seven-minute window where the normal rules didn’t apply.

Dad preemptively turned up the volume on the TV. Sure enough, after a second, Mom started yelling in Farsi at her computer.

“Jamsheed!” Mom shouted. I could hear her even over the musical swell right before the act break.

For some reason, whenever she was talking over the computer, Mom had to make sure the sound of her voice reached low Earth orbit.

Chetori toh?” she bellowed. That’s Farsi for “How are you,” but only if you are familiar with the person you are speaking to, or older than them. Farsi has different ways of talking to people, depending on the formality of the situation and your relationship to the person you’re addressing.

The thing about Farsi is, it’s a very deep language: deeply specific, deeply poetic, deeply context-sensitive.

For instance, take my Mom’s oldest brother, Jamsheed.

Dayi is the word for uncle. But not just uncle, a specific uncle: your mother’s brother. And it’s not only the word for uncle— it’s also the relationship between you and your uncle. So I could call Dayi Jamsheed my dayi, but he could call me dayi also, as a term of endearment.

My knowledge of Farsi consisted of four primary vectors: (1) familial relations; (2) food words, because Mom always called the Persian food she cooked by its proper name; (3) tea words, because, well, I’m me; and (4) politeness phrases, the sort you learn in middle school foreign language classes, though no middle school in Portland has ever offered Farsi as an option.

The truth was, my Farsi was abysmal. I never really learned growing up.

“I didn’t think you’d ever use it,” Mom told me when I asked her why, which didn’t make any sense, because Mom had Persian friends here in the States, plus all her family back in Iran.

Unlike me, Laleh did speak Farsi, pretty much fluently. When she was a baby, Mom talked to her in Farsi, and had all her friends do the same. Laleh grew up with the ear for it— the uvular fricatives and alveolar trills that I could never get quite right.

When she was a baby, I tried to talk to Laleh in Farsi too. But I never really got the hang of it, and Mom’s friends kept correcting me, so after a while I kind of gave up. After that, me and Dad talked to Laleh exclusively in English.

It always seemed like Farsi was this special thing between Mom and Laleh, like Star Trek was between Dad and me.

That left the two of us in the dark whenever we were at gatherings with Mom’s friends. That was the only time Dad and I were on the same team: when we were stuck with Farsi-speakers and left with each other for company. But even when that happened, we just ended up standing around in a Level Seven Awkward Silence.

Stephen Kellner and I were experts at High Level Awkward Silences.

Laleh flounced onto the couch on Dad’s other side and tucked her feet underneath her butt, disturbing the gravitational fields on the couch so Dad leaned away from me and toward her. Dad paused the show. Laleh never watched Star Trek with us. It was me and Dad’s thing.

“What’s up, Laleh?” Dad asked.

“Mom’s talking to Dayi Jamsheed,” she said. “He’s at Mamou and Babou’s house right now.”

Mamou and Babou were Mom’s parents. Their real names were Fariba and Ardeshir, but we always called them Mamou and Babou.

Mamou and babou mean mother and father in Dari, which is the dialect my grandparents spoke growing up Zoroastrian in Yazd.

“Stephen! Laleh! Darius!” Mom’s voice carried from upstairs. “Come say hello!”

Laleh sprang from the couch and ran back upstairs.

I looked at Dad, who shrugged, and we both followed my sister up to the office.

 

MOBY THE WHALE

My grandmother loomed large on the monitor, her head tiny and her torso enormous.

I only ever saw my grandparents from an up-the-nose perspective.

She was talking to Laleh in rapid-fire Farsi, something about school, I thought, because Laleh kept switching from Farsi to English for words like cafeteria and Heads-Down, Thumbs-Up.

Mamou’s picture kept freezing and unfreezing, occasionally turning into chunky blocks as the bandwidth fluctuated.

It was like a garbled transmission from a starship in distress. “Maman,” Mom said, “Darius and Stephen want to say hello.” Maman is another Farsi word that means both a person and a relationship—in this case, mother. But it could also mean grandmother, even though technically that would be mamanbozorg.

I was pretty sure maman was borrowed from French, but Mom would neither confirm nor deny.

Dad and I knelt on the floor to squeeze our faces into the camera shot, while Laleh sat on Mom’s lap in her rolling office chair.

“Eh! Hi, maman! Hi, Stephen! How are you?”

“Hi, Mamou,” Dad said.

“Hi,” I said.

“I miss you, maman. How is your school? How is work?”

“Um.” I never knew how to talk to Mamou, even though I was happy to see her.

It was like I had this well inside me, but every time I saw Mamou, it got blocked up. I didn’t know how to let my feelings out.

“School is okay. Work is good. Um.”

“How is Babou?” Dad asked.

“You know, he is okay,” Mamou said. She glanced at Mom and said, “Jamsheed took him to the doctor today.”

As she said it, my uncle Jamsheed appeared over her shoulder. His bald head looked even tinier. “Eh! Hi, Darioush! Hi, Laleh! Chetori toh?”

“Khoobam, merci,” Laleh said, and before I knew it, she had launched into her third retelling of her latest game of Heads-Down, Thumbs-Up.

Dad smiled and waved and stood up. My knees were getting sore, so I did the same, and edged toward the door.

Mom nodded along with Laleh and laughed at all the right spots while I followed Dad back down to the living room.

It wasn’t like I didn’t want to talk to Mamou.

I always wanted to talk to her.

But it was hard. It didn’t feel like she was half a world away, it felt like she was half a universe away—like she was coming to me from some alternate reality.

It was like Laleh belonged to that reality, but I was just a guest.

I suppose Dad was a guest too. At least we had that in common.

Dad and I sat all the way through the ending credits—that was part of the tradition too—and then Dad went upstairs to check on Mom.

Laleh had wandered back down during the last few minutes of the show, but she stood by the Haft-Seen, watching the goldfish swim in their bowl.

Dad makes us turn our end table into a Haft-Seen on March 1 every year. And every year, Mom tells him that’s too early. And every year, Dad says it’s to get us in the Nowruz spirit, even though Nowruz—the Persian New Year—isn’t until the first day of spring.

Most Haft-Seens have vinegar and sumac and sprouts and apples and pudding and dried olives and garlic on them—all things that start with the sound of in Farsi. Some people add other things that don’t begin with to theirs too: symbols of renewal and prosperity, like mirrors and bowls of coins. And some families—like ours—have goldfish too. Mom said it had something to do with the zodiac and Pisces, but then she admitted that if it weren’t for Laleh, who loved taking care of the goldfish, she wouldn’t include them at all.

Sometimes I thought Dad liked Nowruz more than the rest of us combined.

Maybe it let him feel a little bit Persian. Maybe it did.

So our Haft-Seen was loaded with everything tradition allowed, plus a framed photo of Dad in the corner. Laleh insisted we had to add it, because Stephen begins with the sound of S.

It was hard to argue with my sister’s logic. “Darius?”

“Yeah?”

“This goldfish only has one eyeball!”

I knelt next to Laleh as she pointed at the fish in question. “Look!”

It was true. The largest fish, a leviathan nearly the size of Laleh’s hand, only had its right eye. The left side of its head— face—(do fish have faces?)—was all smooth, unbroken orange scales.

“You’re right,” I said. “I didn’t notice that.”

“I’m going to name him Ahab.”

Since Laleh was in charge of feeding the fish, she had also taken upon herself the solemn duty of naming them.

“Captain Ahab had one leg, not one eye,” I pointed out. “But it’s a good literary reference.”

Laleh looked up at me, her eyes big and round. I was kind of jealous of Laleh’s eyes. They were huge and blue, just like Dad’s. Everyone always said how beautiful Laleh’s eyes were.

No one ever told me I had beautiful brown eyes, except Mom, which didn’t count because (a) I had inherited them from her, and (b) she was my mom, so she had to say that kind of thing. Just like she had to call me handsome when that wasn’t true at all.

“Are you making fun of me?”

“No,” I said. “I promise. Ahab is a good name. And I’m proud of you for knowing it. It’s from a very famous book.”

“Moby the Whale!”

“Right.”

I could not bring myself to say Moby-Dick in front of my little sister.

“What about the others?”

“He’s Simon.” She pointed to the smallest fish. “And he’s Garfunkel. And that’s Bob.”

I wondered how Laleh was certain they were male fish.

I wondered how people identified male fish from female fish. I decided I didn’t want to know.

“Those are all good names. I like them.” I leaned down to kiss Laleh on the head. She squirmed but didn’t try that hard to get away. Just like I had to pretend I didn’t like having tea parties with my little sister, Laleh had to pretend she didn’t like kisses from her big brother, but she wasn’t very good at pretending yet.

I took my empty cup of genmaicha to the kitchen and washed and dried it by hand. Then I filled a regular glass with water from the fridge and went to the cabinet where we kept everyone’s medicine. I sorted through the orange capsules until I found my own.

“Mind grabbing mine?” Dad asked from the door. “Sure.”

Dad stepped into the kitchen and slid the door closed. It was this heavy wooden door, on a track so that it slid into a slot right behind the oven. I didn’t know anyone else who had a door like that.

When I was little, and Dad had just introduced me to Star Trek, I liked to call it the Turbolift Door. I played with it all the time, and Dad played too, calling out deck numbers for the computer to take us to like we were really on board the Enterprise.

Then I accidentally slid the door shut on my fingers, really hard, and ended up sobbing for ten minutes in pain and shock that the door had betrayed me.

I had a very sharp memory of Dad yelling at me to stop crying so he could examine my hand, and how I wouldn’t let him hold it because I was afraid he was going to make it worse.

Dad and I didn’t play with the door anymore after that.

I pulled down Dad’s bottle and set it on the counter, then popped the lid off my own and shook out my pills.

Dad and I both took medication for depression.

Aside from Star Trek—and not speaking Farsi—depression was pretty much the only thing we had in common. We took different medications, but we did see the same doctor, which I thought was kind of weird. I guess I was paranoid Dr. Howell would talk about me to my dad, even though I knew he wasn’t supposed to do that kind of thing. And Dr. Howell was always honest with me, so I tried not to worry so much.

I took my pills and gulped down the whole glass of water. Dad stood next to me, watching, like he was worried I was going to choke. He had this look on his face, the same disappointed look he had when I told him about how Fatty Bolger had replaced my bicycle’s seat with blue truck nuts.

He was ashamed of me. He was ashamed of us.

Übermensches aren’t supposed to need medication.

Dad swallowed his pills dry; his prominent Teutonic Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he did it. And then he turned to me and said, “So, you heard that Babou went to the doctor today?”

He looked down. A Level Three Awkward Silence began to coalesce around us, like interstellar hydrogen pulled together by gravity to form a new nebula.

“Yeah. Um.” I swallowed. “For his tumor?” I still felt weird saying the word out loud. Tumor.

Babou had a brain tumor.

Dad glanced at the turbolift door, which was still closed, and then back to me. “His latest tests didn’t look good.”

“Oh.” I had never met Babou in person, only over a computer screen. And he never really talked to me. He spoke English well enough, and what few words I could extract from him were accented but articulate.

He just didn’t have much to say to me.

I guess I didn’t have much to say to him either. “He’s not going to get better, Darius. I’m sorry.” I twisted my glass between my hands.

I was sorry too. But not as sorry as I should have been. And I felt kind of terrible for it.

The thing is, my grandfather’s presence in my life had been purely photonic up to that point. I didn’t know how to be sad about him dying.

Like I said, the well inside me was blocked. “What happens now?”

“Your mom and I talked it over,” Dad said. “We’re going to Iran.”

 

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