NYC, New York
She does not look like an actress. I stand with my arms slung carelessly around my ribs in half a hug. Watching her. The girl who Dad informs me will be my new sister. She’s riding toward us down the escalator, carrying a book and nothing else. Her hair is dark brown, reaching to her shoulders. She’s pretty. Not beautiful, but pretty. Much prettier than the drama freak I had first imagined when Mrs. O’Brian informed me that she was bringing her daughter along to finish conquering my mother’s domain.
I shouldn’t be standing here, watching Dad’s arm wrap tighter and tighter around some other lady’s waist. They’re not even married. She turns with that sickening smile.
“Scarlet, this is Kate. Kate, Scarlet.”
“Hello,” Kate takes the cue and holds out her hand.
My gosh. She has her mother’s smile.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I say, but I don’t mean it. We all stand with stiff, plastic smiles until the adults turn to walk to the baggage claim, giggling and whispering. Kate and I follow like a couple of old buzzards chaperoning a pair of lovers. Only different buzzards. Kate’s eyes look resigned like she might be the next dead animal. I’m out for the kill. Waiting for the woman to rot.
“Scarlet always wanted a sister.”
Dad’s talking to Kate, but his eyes are glued on her mother.
“Not you,” I whisper.
She hears. She ignores.
She’s infuriating. Really.
We stop to get her luggage. Kate reaches for a large suitcase that holds everything she owns in the world. The sickening feeling in my stomach hits me all over again.
Dad’s in love.
With the wrong woman.
Kate says nothing as we slide into the car. Her jaw is set, which makes me wonder if she’s angry. Perfect. Maybe I should recruit her. Maybe she’s no happier about this than I am. Maybe I won’t have to share my room for more than one night. Maybe Kate doesn’t have to be my enemy. Just her mom.
“I smell hamburgers!” Dad calls out from the front seat.
I roll my eyes. All I smell is the stupid lemon air freshener he keeps plastered on the dashboard right underneath the dancing hula lady from another cruise. The one that he got on and off with Mom.
The woman speaks!
Can a voice sound like slime? Because I’m pretty sure hers does.
“How was the run?”
Run? Run where? She’s been on a plane for the last few hours.
“It was good.” Kate shrugs. “They didn’t want me to leave the cast.”
“Oh, I know, honey. I’m sorry. I would let you stay. When you’re eighteen, I’m sure you can get back on with another show.”
Eighteen is like light-years away. Eighteen is graduation. It’s a new car. It’s the first step to becoming free from my goofy dad and his conniving mistress.
I zone back into the car as Kate’s voice drones on.
“Then Mark said if I keep on, I might be able to work up into a lead someday—in something bigger. Broadway even. Not the kid stuff.”
“Who wants hamburgers?” Dad calls out as two yellow arches loom ahead. I wrap my hands around the headrest in front of me and stick my face next to Dad’s head.
“Dad! No way! Are you serious?”
“Come on! You love this place!”
“Yeah, when I was four.”
Kate says nothing. I wish the girl would talk. Aren’t actresses supposed to be loudmouthed, obnoxious, Prima Donna girls?
I glare holes into the back of Dad’s head as he ignores me and pulls into the drive-thru. “This is Kate’s first meal with us,” I try again. “Shouldn’t we do something special?”
Hey. I can play the sweet game, too.
“Oh, I don’t mind.” Kate remains oblivious to my plotting.
I fume over chicken nuggets all the way home. Kate doesn’t unpack her bag in my room. I appreciate the gesture.
When Dad has told us for the fourth time to go to bed—after trying for the first time at 6:30—we finally do. It sickens me to think of him somewhere in the house with her mom, whispering and giggling like a couple of thirteen-year-olds.
The recruiting begins. I plop down in front of Kate.
“So. How do we break them up?”
She looks at me like I’ve lost my mind.
“My dad and your mom.”
Her eyes flicker to the door. “Why? I like your dad.”
“But I don’t like your mom.”
“Well,” she says, fumbling with the hem of her shirt, “she’s really nice when you get to know her.”
“My dad broke up with my mom because of her.”
“She didn’t know he was married.”
I stare. That’s a lousy excuse.
She shrugs, almost looking frightened. “He was planning on divorcing anyway. He told her he already separated.”
Her eyebrows rise. “Yeah.”
I try a different approach. “Okay. So, where’s your dad?”
“He had cancer. He was really nice.”
Which is beyond my point again. Gosh. I swear she’s a blond who dyed her hair.
“So she doesn’t even love my dad? She just wants a roof? What kind of a…”
“No!” Life flares into Kate’s eyes as she springs to grab my arm. “No, she does. She does. She adores him. He’s nice and funny and he’s kind to her and she really, really wants to stay with him. So don’t screw it up, kay? Just try. ‘Cause even if we broke them up, he’s not gonna go back to your mom and my mom’s had so many jerks it’s not even funny.” To my horror, her eyes fill. “She’s happy. She’s so happy and it’s been so long since I’ve seen her happy. She says he’s the real thing and she knows it’s gonna be different this time and he’s not just using her and he’s not gonna leave her and if you try to make him, you’re going to break her heart.”
I stare. Maybe the dramatic, tragic actress should have stayed buried.
“So you won’t help me?” I ask stupidly.
She winces. “I—I really want it to work, too.”
My teeth grind. “But…”
“Come on. You can’t really believe your dad’s never been with anyone else, can you? I mean. He’s rich. He travels. He’s not always with your mom and—and he’s a guy.”
“Not every guy sleeps around with just anybody.”
She rolls her eyes. “How do you figure?”
“My dad loved my mom,” I protest, after a moment of the quiet.
“I’m telling you. He was going to leave her.”
“No, he wasn’t!”
She just glances over at me with her eyebrows raised.
“He waasn’t.” I draw out the word.
Kate flops onto her back as Sherri’s laugh floats into the room. “Do you think he’ll marry her?”
“No. I think he’s lost his mind.”
She’s silent for a moment, staring up at the ceiling with her hands behind her head. “If I ever get a guy, he’d better marry me.”
I settle back against the wall with my arms folded. “I’m never getting married. Guys are stupid.”
“Yeah. They are.”
Hey. We do agree on something.
NYC, New York
Reasons for being the perfect candidate:
Good at knowing and getting what I want
A student with a high GPA
A member of the history honors class
A member of the English honors class
A member of the National Honor Society
Getting a major headache…
I set down my pencil to rub my head. Kate slips into the room behind me, script in hand, whispering lines to herself. She peeks over my shoulder at my paper.
“Does it look good?” I ask.
“Looks just like you. Why’d you mark through perfectionist?”
“It could look bad. Like I’m a…”
“Something like that.” I glance down. “I have to get this scholarship.”
“You will. Or one like it.”
“I have to get this one.”
“That’s the perfectionist voice. Squash it.”
“Why? When the odds are stacked against you…”
“Dad said that he would pay for any college you wanted.”
“Or I could start saving now, work my way through my own education and be completely independent by the end of high school.”
She sighs. “You’re smart and driven and have a 3.8 GPA. Your odds are pretty good, even if you are too stubborn to accept help.”
I scrunch up my face.
“Besides, you have my full support. Someone has to get rich so she can help out her poor, starving actress sister.”
I roll my eyes to hide the grin. “No kidding.”
Except that Kate’s pretty enough to be a model, talented enough to act and make money doing it, and musically inclined. Not to mention cunning enough to make it all work out.
She has a long row of auditions, schooling and working her way up.
I have a long row of scholarships, entrance exams, all-nighters and working my way up. After high school.
“What did you decide to do for your essay?”
I grin. I have no idea what I’m doing yet. “If I could change the world one way, I would bring about world peace. Of course.”
The phone rings, and she jumps for it. “Beldon residence.”
She grins at me, plopping back onto the couch. “Hallooo, Justin.”
I roll my eyes. She’s so going to end up married. There’s no “just friends” with those two.
He’s pretty sweet in a weird way. He’s going to be a poor, starving artist too. But if she’s happy, I guess it’s okay. She will have a hard time making it on her own if she insists on lollygagging around, trying to make enough money from show to show to eat between. She needs a guy.
I have determined that I will never need a man. If I should choose to have one someday, then it will be because I want him. So I need to be independent, goal-driven and rich. Just plain rich.
“Hey, girls. I made cookies.” Sherri comes in with a smile and a plate of steaming confections. We dive for them. Long gone are the calorie-counting days. I’m going to be nice to myself, and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.
That includes curing headaches with chocolate. Oh. Yeah. And Sherri–well, she’s not too bad. Not Mom, but she tries hard.
Kate reaches for a cookie, singing nana booboo into the phone. “Mama made us cookies, and you’re not here to get one.”
I hear Justin moan from the other end.
Sherri makes really good cookies.
“How’s the essay coming?” Sherri asks.
“It’s not.” I scrunch my nose to glance down. “I feel like I’m writing an advertisement, and I don’t know the best way to change the world. There are too many problems for one answer.”
“Well, everyone would have to work together, I think, so I guess the best option for you would be to find a way to motivate them.”
I ponder that.
“I guess. Never thought of it that way.”
“Make more chocolate,” Kate hints. “Moods will brighten everywhere.” She turns back to the phone. “What? Oh. No. We’re discussing ways to change the world.”
The door slams, and we turn simultaneously to look.
“Hey honey, how was work?” Sherri brightens like God himself walked through the door.
Dad sends us that dry, dagger-like look that we all know is really meant for his boss.
“I’m getting a new job. Maybe I’ll take up gambling.”
“Bad idea,” Sherri warns.
Kate backs her up, grabbing the plate to take over. “I agree. Have a cookie instead. It’ll make you feel better.”
He takes a cookie, forgetting to actually eat it and flops onto the couch. “I hate my job,” he moans. “I feel so stifled!”
“Awww.” Sherri sympathizes, rubbing his head. “Things aren’t that bad.”
“You know what I want?” Dad mindlessly swats her hands away. “I want to start over.”
Kate’s eyes open a bit. I can almost hear bells going off in Sherri’s head. Even after two years, Dad still hasn’t married Sherri. She says she doesn’t expect him to, but I know Kate won’t feel secure until there’s a ring on her mama’s finger.
Dad remains oblivious as he continues his plot. “Take you guys and move.”
“I don’t know.” He rubs at his eyes. “Do something different. A change of pace.” He bolts up. “Slow down!”
I glance around the tidy house. “Dad, if we were going any slower we’d be living in a turtle shell.”
“Hey, Justin? I have to go.” Kate hangs up the phone without as much as a “goodbye.”
Sherri nibbles her lip before suggesting, “We could live on the yacht for a while.”
Dad paces. I hate it when he paces.
Sherri shifts. “It’ll be okay, honey.”
“Yeah.” I shift, trying to find somewhere to lead the conversation. “Kate will do her stunning performance and pick up a Hollywood contract. Then she can support all of us, and you won’t have to work anymore.”
“Yeah.” Kate nods, though yesterday she lamented that she wasn’t good enough to make it.
I glance back to my paper with a sigh. It’s a start. A start to my future. That’s the problem with life. Everything you do affects your future, and it all goes on from there. Today’s mistakes are tomorrow’s failures.
The phone rings, and Sherri leaves to answer it. Kate picks up her script and moves out of the room again, slightly more determined. I sit and grit my teeth over the look in Dad’s eye.
“A change,” he mumbles. “I just need a change.”
“When do you think they’ll get home?” Kate is perched upside down on the couch with her socked feet sticking high in the air, doing her best to distract me from my research.
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t wait up.”
“But I want to wait up. Mom’s having a third anniversary….” She sings it and giggles. She’s in a good mood tonight.
I hardly respond. Maybe if I ignore her, she’ll go away. I have to get my homework finished.
She peers. “Are you still working on that assignment?”
“Same page.” I sigh. “I can’t figure out what to write.”
“That’s the problem with perfectionists.” She picks up the remote to flip through, stopping on an old comedy.
An IM message pops onto my screen, and I glance at it.
Iceman: Hey girl. Wut’s up?
I look at the email address and blink.
“Blake is talking. Do I answer?”
“Do you want to talk?”
I sit for a moment before typing.
Scarlet: Not much. Talking to Kate. How are you?
Iceman: Kate ur sis?
Iceman: I c. You got plans for Sat?
My eyes fly open, and I whirl in my chair. “Kate, he’s asking for a date.”
“Do you want to go?”
“No.” I huff. But the problem is—I do.
“Can’t help you then.”
I turn back.
Scarlet: Kind of. What do you have in mind?
Iceman: You. Me. Dinner?
Iceman: Wherever you want, babe.
I flush, even as I bristle that he is calling me ‘babe.’
Half a smirk.
Scarlet: I’ll think about it.
There is a long pause before I see he’s replying.
Iceman: I’ll plan on it. 7 at ur house. You decide where 2 go.
Scarlet: I said I’ll think about it.
Iceman: Still planning.
I scratch my ear and click the X.
“Are you going?”
“I said I’ll think about it.”
“That was cruel.”
“Well, I’m not gonna just go with any guy who asks me.”
“But you’ll go with him.”
“I said I’ll think about going with him.”
“You’ve been talking about him for three weeks. What’s there to think about?”
“I haven’t been talking.”
She raises her eyebrows at me. I whirl to face her and shake my head. “Uh-uh.”
“Yeah, sweetie. You have.”
“Not like that.”
The door slams and Sherri hurries through, face trailing black tears of mascara. We stare as she storms past, slamming the bedroom door.
“Mom!” Kate leaps to her feet to race after her. I hear her pleading at the door.
Dad trudges into the room.
“Dad?” I swing around to confront him. “What happened?”
“Um,” He shifts as Kate rushes in from the hallway, eyes wide with accusation.
Kate collapses, missing the chair and landing on the floor. She doesn’t seem to even notice.
“What!” I jump to my feet. “Why? You can’t!”
“I can, and I am, and nothing you say is going to change anything. It’s over. It’s final.”
“Kate, get your things.”
It’s Sherri’s voice. She stands in the hallway, face washed, eyes still red and puffy but resolute.
“Mom…” Kate wails.
Sherri’s eyes plead. She’s trying to keep some sort of dignity. Kate swallows, before turning to her room. Her eyes are filling. Dad doesn’t look at her. I do, and my heart rips.
Sherri turns back toward what was our parents’ bedroom, and I whirl around to carry on the battle.
“Why?” I scream. “You can’t just decide overnight to split with her!”
“No, no it isn’t fair. It isn’t right.”
“It’s not working out.”
“It is working out. She’s making it work out. You don’t do one stupid thing for her. Sherri gives you everything you want.”
“Scarlet!” Sherri calls from the other room.
“You’re such a jerk!” I scream again, as if I repeat his failings enough times, he’ll believe it.
Dad hardly flinches. He doesn’t look happy, but he’s not shrinking like I want him to.
I pull back. “I’m going with them.”
“No, you’re not.”
“I’m not staying with you.”
“Scarlet!” Dad’s bellow sends the cat sprinting under the couch.
I shut up. I hate myself for doing it. There’s just something about yelling, angry men. Jerks. I clamp my mouth and let my eyes do the talking.
Dad stands irresolute and then storms off to shut himself in the bathroom. I roll my eyes as Kate returns with an overnight bag.
Reality sets in, and I grab her hand before towing her to Sherri’s room.
“You can’t go,” I state.
Sherri sighs. “I have to.”
“Then I’m going with you.”
“Sweetie, I’d take you but I can’t.”
“Mom, what about us?” Kate sputters.
“I know, I know. I don’t want to separate you two but…”
“Stand up to him,” I plead. “Let him know he can’t just toss you away like an old toy.”
“Scarlet, we’re not married. I don’t have any legal rights.”
“That’s why you should have made him marry you in the first place!” Kate snaps.
I fume. Kate cries. Sherri melts and steps over to hug both of us. Kate buries her face into her shoulder. I cling to her and seethe.
“We’ll be okay.” She glances toward me. “You’ll be okay.”
Oh, how he won’t.
“We’re still going to be in the area. You can be in the performances. You two will see each other at school, and Scarlet can come to our house whenever she wants.”
“What house?” Kate moans.
“We’ll get an apartment.”
“It’ll be good.”
“Just you and me.”
“Yeah, right,” Kate mutters.
Sherri pulls away to pick up her bag. “The taxi is here.”
“I think you should get Dad to drive you,” I spat.
So he can have the lovely memory of dumping a beautiful lady and her daughter out onto the streets to fend for themselves.
Sherri kisses my head and hurries out. Kate stands, shifting from foot to foot.
“We’ll see each other,” Kate says.
“We’ll figure something out,” I speak over her.
Her eyes melt. “Scarlet. Be realistic.”
“Kate, hurry, he won’t wait!” Sherri calls.
Kate picks up her suitcase with a shrug. “I–here we go again.”
“We’ll get you back.”
As soon as their headlights pull away, I regret not saying a better goodbye. I turn determined steps toward the hallway where Dad lurks.
“Scarlet, just shut up, okay!” He spins and snaps. “We’re gonna start over. We’re gonna get a new life. And things are going to be good.”
“Things were good!”
I stare. I will never see my father the same way again.