Four blocks from the bus station to the hotel didn't sound far, but heaving baggage along and negotiating the girls' bickering made it a marathon. Though April was unfolding the warmth had not yet been sufficient to melt the snowbanks away, but had instead revealed their black, cigarette-butt stuffed cores, ledges of treacherous silty ice that snaked along the sidewalk borders like petrified boa constrictors coming off dumpster-diving benders. India tripped on one and blamed Bianca, whom she subsequently characterized as a bumbling bum-goblin.
"No swearing," muttered Father wearily.
"She hip-checked me," whined India.
"Didn't," said Bianca.
They walked through Chinatown. There were squashed vegetables mashed into the ice crusts, and the air smelled like a fast-food grease-trap. The family wormed their way through dense, jostling crowds of shoppers pressed around make-shift market stalls filled with octopus tentacles and knock-off MP3 players. They were awash in a constant babble of Mandarin, and Mike experienced some regret that he understood none of it despite his heritage.
"I want to learn Chinese," he told his mother.
"Not now, honey" she said.
The Fairbrook Hotel rose from the corner of Dundas Street and a dingy side alley populated by oily-haired aboriginals arguing over a patch of grating through which bloomed warm farts of subway air. India drew up against Mike at the sound of their sharp, gravelly profanity. Bianca laughed at her.
The bellhops at the Fairbrook were dressed like movie-ushers. They wore little crooked cranberry caps and had stripes running down each pantleg like Han Solo. They bowed to people who looked like big tippers and ignored everyone else, including Mike and his family.
When one of the bellhops was dispatched by the desk clerk he reluctantly loaded the baggage onto a cart with a squeaky wheel and studied the wall with severe indifference while they all waited for the elevator. He swiped the card to admit them into the room and then piled the bags unceremoniously next to the closest bed.
On his way out the bellhop loitered at the jamb and held open his hand expectantly. Father slapped his palm and said, "Thanks, man."
Once they were settled Mother reviewed the itinerary, stepping through two days of round robin spelling and themed lunches culminating in a grand awards dinner of roast beef for finalists and parents only. Tentatively, half-jokingly, musingly, Mike set that final evening as the stage for his mission.
"Will you two be okay on your own?" asked Mother.
"Yes," said Mike.
"No," said Bianca.
"I don't like roast beef," said India.