The next day, Michael and his family arrived early at the townhouse where Sharon lived. She was dressed, but just barely. The limo only had to wait a few minutes for Sharon to pull her hair into a ponytail and then grab the salad she’d promised to bring.
The party was at the Cooper home in Vienna, Virginia, a suburb at the end of the DC Metro line feeding into the city. It was a quiet area filled with split-level homes surrounded by lots of trees. The house shared by Eddie and Cordelia Cooper and their four children was actually a colonial with two stories and a basement that opened onto the lush green backyard.
Rebecca Cooper had arranged that everyone would meet there for a welcome/school’s starting party, the idea being that the more casual setting would make Mark less intimidating for Jodi. It was a kind thought. But Jodi found herself managing the crowd quite well. She knew most of the teens there, if not in person, then by video chat. The parents were pretty much non-entities, although Jodi was polite and thanked the Coopers for inviting her and her family.
Toby took over the social duties after that, introducing Jodi, Tiffany, Michael and Inez to Eddy and Cordelia, then Roy and Melody Hodgkiss, and Tony Garces, then Karen Tanaka and Hideo Matsumoto, and Kira and Allie, and finally to Matt and June.
Mark slipped into the party somewhat later, which turned out to be lucky for Toby. As soon as she saw him, her jaw dropped.
“He’s gorgeous,” she whispered to no one in particular.
Sharon, however, happened to overhear.
“Do you want me to introduce you?” Sharon asked Toby.
“No!” Toby yipped. “Yes! No. Let’s wait a few minutes. I mean, he just got here, right?”
Sharon laughed as Toby wandered to the other part of the backyard from where Mark was.
Mark, for his part, got a can of beer and wandered somewhat aimlessly until he saw Tony Garces talking rather animatedly with a slender blonde teen-age girl. Curious, Mark wandered closer.
“But I still use pen and paper,” Tony was saying.
“Of course,” the young girl said. “It’s totally a fixed medium. You can easily scan it. Still, you’ve got to admit that the new e-pens are working just as well as a pencil.”
“Not as well as a pencil.” Tony looked up and grinned at Mark. “Oh, hi. This is Jodi.”
Jody grinned and stuck out her hand. “How do you do, sir.”
“Quite well, thank you.” Mark smiled, feeling a little confused. “What are you guys talking about?”
“Drawing tablets,” Tony said. “Although I think we’re sliding into the whole digital versus analog debate.”
“Does it have to be one or the other?” Mark asked.
“Well, digital does have certain advantages and it can replicate some of the softer virtues of analog formats,” Jodi said.
“Not always,” said Tony.
“It also depends on what you’re talking about,” said Jodi. “Like self-driving cars. They have been proven to anticipate a problem and brake faster than a human.”
“What about making the decision regarding where you want to go?” Mark asked, enjoying the banter immensely.
Kira got into the conversation on the acoustical side of the issue and Mark finally slipped away to say hello to Eddie and Cordelia. He was also vaguely aware of a young brown-haired girl watching him from the edge of the yard. As he chatted briefly with Eddie, Sharon walked up.
“Hey,” said Sharon. “I saw you talking with Jodi.”
“Yeah.” Mark looked back over the group. Jodi and Rebecca were talking with Matt and Michael. “I thought you said she was the shy one. We had a great little debate going.”
Sharon laughed. “Well, she told me last night that Rebecca and Tiffany have been helping her fake it when she’s nervous. She figured she’d better get used to meeting people with the new school and all.”
“Rebecca’s coaching her? That’s my girl,” said Eddie with a slightly rueful chuckle. “Has to take care of everyone and everything. No idea where she got that from.”
Mark and Sharon snorted as Eddie laughed and took a pull on his bottle of beer.
“Anyway,” Sharon said. “It seems Jodi and her sister Toby have switched roles.”
Mark nodded at the young girl on the edge of the yard. “I’m guessing that’s Toby skirting the bushes back there.”
“That’s her,” said Eddie. “You should have seen her ten minutes ago. All Ms. Social Butterfly, introducing everybody to everybody else.”
Toby appeared to have gotten her nerve up and walked toward the adults.
“Hi,” she said softly to Mark. “I-I’m Toby.”
Mark shook her hand. “Nice to meet you, Toby. I hear you’re going to High School for the Performing Arts this fall.”
“Yeah. I’m taking an acting program,” said Toby. “It’s, uh, kinda what I do.”
“Yeah. Thanks. I-I’ll talk to you later.” Toby dashed away.
“I’d better go check on her,” said Sharon, working very hard not to laugh.
June had found Toby first.
“That’s your brother?” Toby was asking her. “He is so amazing. Oh, my god, he is so cute! And he’s really sweet. Oh, my god, how did you stand living with someone so gorgeous?”
“I managed,” said June, struggling to hold in her laughter. She saw Sharon approaching through the corner of her eye and didn’t dare catch her friend’s eye.
“Aunt Sharon, isn’t he the dreamiest?” Toby gasped. “You are so lucky you get to work with him. I can’t believe how gorgeous he is.”
Toby wandered off, first finding a soda from the bucket near the serving table, then sliding back to the bushes to admire Mark from afar.
June and Sharon turned their back to her and let the laughter roll.
“She is seriously crushing on your brother,” Sharon giggled.
“Ya think? I mean, I haven’t seen a girl react to Mark like that since I was in high school.”
“Hey, guys,” Mark walked up to the two woman. “What are you two laughing about?”
“My niece,” said Sharon. “Toby.”
“Someone’s got a serious baby crush on you, brother dearest,” June said with a giggle.
“Oh, come on. She’s just a kid,” Mark said. But he glanced back at Toby and saw the look on her face and sighed.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sharon said. “She’s sure to come out of it soon enough.”
“I hope so.” Mark said.
“It’s cute,” said June.
“You don’t have to deal with the fallout from the broken heart,” Mark said.
“Neither do you,” said Sharon. “The Tobester is made of sterner stuff than that. Besides, she’ll be in New York. You’ll be here.”
Mark wandered off to talk to Roy Hodgkiss.