Opposites Attract - One
Please see notes before reading this, just to get a bit of backstory. Thanks!
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The Georgia sun beat down, unrelenting, on my hair. I signaled to Avery to pull over. She braked and slid effortlessly off her bike. My juggle to hop down from the seat—I was riding Seth’s since mine had a flat tire—was a little less graceful. When my feet hit steady ground, no scraped knees or anything, I breathed a sigh of relief. The old ones were just now starting to scab over. I didn’t need to reopen any wounds.
“Can I have a drink?” I asked Avery, watching as she tipped the lip of a water bottle into her mouth. She took a few swigs, screwed the cap on, and tossed it to me. I fumbled the catch. It rolled away and I watched it, too breathless to do anything more than stare. Finally, it came to a stop against a parked car three houses down the street.
“Really?” Avery put up her kickstand and went off in pursuit of the runaway bottle. I pursed my lips as I watched her, biting back the urge to yell out for her to watch for cars. Now that she was eleven, my maternal tendencies were starting to annoy her. It was less endearing, more frustrating.
Finally, assured that she was not going to be hit, I tugged off my helmet. My hair was plastered to my scalp. I ran my fingers through it, wishing I’d had enough foresight to put it up in a ponytail. I should have known.
“Here,” Avery said, making a big show of handing the bottle to me. “Since you can’t catch.”
I took a relieved drink, ignoring her snarkiness. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” She maneuvered back up on her bike, a surprising feat for someone so small. “Can we go?”
“How far are you thinking?” I gestured forward, down the endless expanse of quiet suburban street. “Days? Weeks? Months? Years?”
“Centuries,” She responded with her usual ease. “Let’s go get ice cream.”
“No…we can’t do that without the others.”
“Why? Bennett and Seth and Gracie always get to go!”
“That’s right.” I eyed the monster of a bike at the mention of Seth. We’d been winding through the neighborhood for the past hour, more than I was used to. My armpits had to be a monstrosity if my hair was this bad. I loved being outside, but it was just too hot. It was almost always in the sixties come Christmastime, but the eighties were sticking like—well, frankly, like my shorts to the back of my legs.
“So can we?” Avery pressed. I shook my head.
“No. That wouldn’t be fair.” I smiled, hoping to soften the blow. “But if we ride home now and pick them up in the car, then we can make it before it closes.”
Avery didn’t even respond. I could tell by the set line of her mouth that she was fuming. When my little sister was mad, she completely shut down. Code red. No one allowed. She wouldn’t speak to anyone, and nobody dared to speak to her. I shrugged my shoulders to show her I wasn’t affected and turned around, readying myself to get back on the bike-slash-horse. There was a disheartening similarity between the two.
“Wait! Where are you going?” Avery demanded as I put one foot on the pedal. She’d just broken her own no-talking rule. I smiled to myself.
“Home,” I said, hoisting myself up and onto the seat.
“Why? We still have more riding to do!”
“Well, ice-cream just sounds so good. I’m going to get the kids and go get some. Good idea.”
“What about me?” She appeared in my peripheral vision, pedaling furiously to catch up. We were on a subtle incline uphill. I was already struggling for breath.
“You look like you’re drunk,” She said with a laugh.
“Avery!” I chastised. “What would Mom say?”
“Mom’s not here.”
“You’re not going to get ice cream if you’re not nicer,” I taunted. She took the bait.
“It was my idea, Stella! You have to take me.”
“Au contraire, little sis. I do not.”
“Yes you do!”
“I’m going to tell Mom!” And with that, she shot off like a bullet, careening forward without fear. I pumped my legs faster.
“Avery!” I yelled. “Slow down! I was just kidding!”
She beat me home by a good minute and a half. She was waiting there as I plowed into the driveway, huffing and puffing, managing to be totally unaffected by the hot and humid and miserableness that was nature. Not a blonde hair was out of place. Was it weird to be jealous of a kid?
“Don’t do that...again,” I wheezed as I braked to a stop. The bike wobbled beneath me. My toes strained for purchase against the concrete, but none came. Avery rushed forward.
I hit the grass backside first. The bike came down on top of my legs. I stared at it for a minute and then fell back, sprawling against the grass. It seemed too great a feat to stand up.
Avery’s face appeared in front of mine. “Are you alive?”
“Just bummed out?”
I nodded again.
“You’re really clumsy.”
I could manage nothing but a shake of my head in agreement.
Her thin hands reached out to grasp the sides of my mouth. She moved them, forcing my lips apart, and deepened her voice to match mine. “I know I am, Avery, but that’s okay, because I’m still the best sister there ever was. Even when I’m really annoying.”
A smile bubbled up from beneath the surface of my defeat. Avery leaned away, satisfied. “Now you should probably get up.”
I was propping myself up on my elbows when the front door opened. Katie came hurrying out, holding the phone in one hand. “Girls! Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, Mom,” Avery answered, grabbing onto the bike. She heaved it up and off my legs. I stood up, only slightly shaky.
“Stella?” She pressed, doing a quick full-body scan with her brown eyes to assure there were no broken bones. Katie was skilled in this profession—she’d had practice with four children, after all.
“Fine,” I replied crisply, smiling. “Just had an accident trying to get off Seth’s bike.”
Sympathy etched itself into her soft features. “Oh, I’m sorry, honey. We need to get your bike fixed. This is ridiculous. It’s way too big for you.”
“No problem.” I waved her comment away. “Where are the kids? Can I take them for ice cream?”
“Actually, that would be great. I’m trying to make cookies and they keep coming in for dough.” She let out a loving sigh. “I have to keep telling them that they can’t because of the eggs. I don’t want them getting salmonella.”
“Okay. Just let me get changed.” As I brushed past her into the house, she put her hand on my back.
“Thanks for taking Avery, hon.”
I went up the stairs two at a time. We lived in a big, old house—it had probably belonged to a plantation owner back in the day, although it was perhaps a bit too modest for that. The air conditioning had a mind of its own, and today it was only working downstairs. My room was stifling. My bare feet were cool on the rustic hardwood, but my windows needed opening. A welcome breeze rushed in, one I’d been numb to when outside.
I reached into my wardrobe for a clean pair of shorts and a tank top, changing into them quickly. Then I stood in front of the full-length mirror that hung on the back of my closet door. It had come with the house, and we’d never replaced it, despite there being cracks in the frame. I yanked a brush through my light brown hair but it didn’t do much to make it fuller. My sweat had turned it into wet strings akin to dental floss. I reached for my lusted-after hair tie.
“Who wants ice cream?” I called as I went down the stairs. I heard a clatter from the next room as whoever was in their dropped their toy. A moment later, Gracie was in front of me. Her auburn curls sprouted every-which-way. I smoothed them down and took her hand as she started chattering about what flavor she wanted.
“Bennett?” I yelled, coming to a standstill in the middle of the living room. Katie came out of the kitchen, holding the smiling three-year-old in her arms.
“Guess who helped himself to a spoonful of cookie dough?” She asked, depositing him in front of me. He immediately tried to take off, giggling, but I was too quick. I reached down with an expert arm and scooped him up, keeping my other hand in Gracie’s.
“When?” I asked, biting back a smile.
“While I was outside talking to you.” She ran a hand through her hair. It flopped back into place, almost as limp as mine. It was too hot to be baking.
“Do you want me to bring you back some ice cream?” I offered as I re-adjusted Bennett in my arms.
She shook her hand. “No, you’ve already got your hands full. Thank you, Stella. Really.”
Her hand rubbed tension from the back of her neck.“Because I know you didn’t exactly—”
“Did someone say ice cream?”
We both turned toward Seth, who had materialized in the doorway of his first-floor bedroom. I nodded.
“Yeah. Did you just now get the memo?”
“Guess so.” He tossed a baseball between his two hands, smiling. “Can I get two scoops?”
“One,” Katie said, reaching into her pocket. She pulled out a ten. “I don’t have any extra money.”
“How about if I pay for it myself?”
“If you really want to do that, Seth, then fantastic. Get five scoops. I don’t care.”
“Awesome!” His eyes lit up.
“Honey, I was joking. Two. Yes, you can have two.”
“Whatever. That’s still good. Let me get my money—” He disappeared back into his room. I refocused on Katie.
“What were you saying?”
“Oh, nothing.” She bent over to kiss the crown of Gracie’s hair. “Just that you didn’t—”
“I only have two dollars,” Seth announced. “Is that enough?”
She and I shared a private smile. Kids were always interrupting, it seemed. No big deal. It was the way of the Chaston household. I glanced around, suddenly remembering we had another sibling. “Where’s Avery?”
“Avery!” Katie yelled.
“I’m outside!” She called back.
“Don’t you want to come in?”
There was a bit of a pause. Then: “For what?”
Katie laughed. “Good point. Enjoy yourselves. Seth, you’re to help.”
“That’s fine.” He handed me the money and reached for Gracie. “Come on, Gracie-Girl. We gotta go get in the car so we can drive to the ice-cream place.”
“I want bubblegum.”
“They don’t have bubblegum, doofus.”
“Seth,” Katie cautioned.
He widened his eyes in exasperation. “Sorry, Mom. But they don’t have bubblegum. She’s been there a million times. If she thinks they do, then she’s a doofus.”
“I am not!” Gracie protested. She backed away from him when he tried to grab her hand. “I want to walk with Stella! You’re ugly!”
“She means strawberry,” I explained. “Seth, you know that.”
“Then she should call it strawberry. She’s six, not Bennett’s age.” With that, he banged through the screen door. Gracie stuck her tongue out at him in parting.
“Don’t make me sit next to him,” She pleaded as we followed his lanky form out the door. “He’s mean. I don’t like him.”
“No he’s not,” I argued halfheartedly. I didn’t blame her. Sometimes I was tempted to say the same thing about Seth. Except I never did, because I could kind of understand where he was coming from.
It had been the same for me five years ago, when I moved down to Georgia with Dad to join his new girlfriend and her kids—Seth, who was nine at the time, Avery, who was six, and Gracie, who was a year old. After a few months, they got married, and along came Bennett a year later. It was basically me and a bunch of annoying, strange little kids I didn’t want any part of. But as my resentment softened, so did my resolve. And I came to love them.
Just thinking about it made me tear up the tiniest bit. Gracie reached for my face. I bent over to oblige her, and she ran her thumb along my lower lid where moisture was quickly collecting.
“Are you crying?” She asked, wiping her hand on her jeans.
I shook my head. “Allergies.”
Avery loitered in the yard, dangling off the door to the car. I shooed her away amidst protests and unlocked it, stooping over to buckle Bennett into his toddler seat. Gracie came next. She primly plopped herself down into her booster. She’d only recently graduated to it, and proud as a peacock about it. I tickled her as I fastened the belt and brushed my nose across hers. She giggled.
“Let me in!” Avery yelled, scooting past Gracie’s legs to the back, who kicked her behind as she passed.
“Stop it,” I scolded automatically.
“Yeah, stop it. Or you’re not going to get strawberry ice cream,” Avery added. I guess she’d heard our conversation inside. Gracie let out an indignant shriek.
“It’s strawberry! Quit calling it bubblegum!”
“Both of you, stop, or I’m going to get Katie.”
Gracie frowned. “Who’s Katie?”
“Mommy, Gracie.” Avery’s eyes swung heavenward. I poked her knee.
“Yes,” She answered impatiently. “Seth, turn on the radio!”
I glanced toward the front, where my brother sat silent in the passenger seat. I hadn’t even heard him get in.
“Seth!” Avery thundered. He let out a groan.
“Avery! I’ll turn on the music, okay?” I checked Gracie’s seatbelt once more, then Bennett’s. The ice cream place was only a mile away, but I liked to be safe.
Avery, perhaps reading my mind, buckled up without me telling her to. I closed the door.
“Why do you have to turn on the radio?” She asked as I slid into the driver’s seat. “Seth could have.”
I flicked it on and found a country station. “There. It doesn’t matter who did it anymore, because it’s done.”
“Next time I want to ride up front.”
“Shut up, Avery.”
“Sorry.” He slumped further into the seat. “Can we go? This has taken forever.”
I put the car into reverse and backed out of the driveway. Gracie sang along to the drifty melody that blared from the speakers. I could make out Avery’s faint, off-key humming in the background.
It was a fairly serene drive there, all things considering. The song wound on like a backwoods road, the kind Dad had taught me to drive on, keeping them mostly quiet. Bennett liked to pipe in with some irrelevant revelation now and then, to which I always responded, much to Seth’s chagrin.
“He doesn’t make any sense,” He muttered as I finished agreeing with Bennett over a house-mouse-cat thing. Probably Goodnight Moon. “There’s no point responding.”
I pursed my lips. “Come on, Seth. It’s fun for him.”
“He’s not a dog, Stella.”
We drove into the parking lot. It was mostly empty, save for an ancient green volvo and a couple minivans. Probably parents with kids. We all piled out of the car. I carried Bennett, even though he squirmed, because it was easier. Gracie reluctantly took Seth’s hand after a couple no-bubblegum-ice-cream-if-you-don’t threats from me. Avery lagged behind, dragging a stick along the ground she’d picked up from God knows where.
The bell above the entrance to Sweetest Treats sang as we stepped inside. Everybody lined up at the counter turned toward the noise. Faces broadened into smiles as we recognized and greeted each other. Mrs. Kline and her two kids; Elisha Brown who was on a similar ice cream run with her own siblings. Avery ran over to join her friend Delanie, who ate tiny bites of Rocky Road at a pastel-blue table.
“What do you want?” I asked as we got in line. I locked eyes with the boy who dished up the different flavors on the other side of the counter. He smiled at me. I felt a blush spread through my cheeks.
Elisha took her cones and told me goodbye. I tore my stare from his long enough to smile at her and wave. Bennett copied me.
“What can I get you today, Miss?” The boy asked as we stepped up.
“Um—” I laughed, unable to help myself. “Ice cream?”
“How unusual. Most people come here for escargot.”
“Not us—” I hooked my thumb toward myself. “We would like—”
“Superman,” Avery piped up from the background.
“Cherry Garcia,” Seth said.
“Mint chocolate chip for Bennett, and bubblegum for Gracie.”
He knew what this meant. “Ah, bubblegum. Good choice, Grace.”
She gave him a thumbs-up.
“And what will that be for you, lovely Stella?” He asked in low tones, leaning across the counter.
I felt the redness creep up to my hairline. “Um—fudge.”
“Good choice.” His mouth turned up into a smile only a couple inches from mine. I returned the gesture. His hand found the back of my neck, and our lips met for a chaste kiss. It still sent thrills sparking in my stomach.
“Ew!” Gracie objected, even though our liplock hadn’t lasted all of two seconds.
Avery smiled like a chesire cat. “Steven and Stella sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes lo—”
“Love, marriage, baby carriage,” Seth interrupted. “They get it.” He glanced around him. “Can you just make our cones, Steve?”
“Sure thing, man.”
I moved Bennett to my other hip and watched my boyfriend scoop out our ice creams. Admittedly, he was the reason we came here so much. It had started that way, too, five months back, when Mr. Umbridge hired him. The cute counter boy with the liquid brown eyes kept me returning every week. And then, one of those times, I was by myself (a rarity, believe me) and he asked me to take his break with him.
We’d sat at a table across from each other, me with my ice cream while he ate a ham sandwich, and filled the air with stilted conversation. People in books and movies always say how easy it is to talk to somebody when you have a connection, but it’s either a big fat lie or untrue only for us. He asked about the kids I came in with, and I gave him a brief summary of my story. A long pause followed where we busied ourselves with eating and pretended that things weren’t nearly so awkward as they were. Then he took a breath and laughed and said they were lucky to have me as their big sister—I was so good with them, a natural. I think I fell in love with him then.
He was beautiful with his mussed hair, and I loved his southern accent. His kindness. It just reverberated through him, filling the room with it. A kind of swelling that was pleasant, and desirable. Whenever he held my hand I felt special. I felt like a Stella who mattered.
He handed me Avery’s ice cream. Our fingers brushed together, and he smiled widely. His skin was honeyed against the white of his teeth, and so smooth. I’d carried over my pasty New York complexion for the first couple of years after moving, but then it gradually faded, and now I was almost as tan as him. I grinned back.
“Thanks,” Seth said a moment later, accepting his Cherry Garcia from Steven. He went to plop down in the seat next to Avery, who immediately protested his being there. Delanie stared at Seth with goo-goo eyes. My lips turned up further at the sight of them. Then Gracie was thanking Steven, and I returned to the present.
“Yum, bubblegum,” She said, digging into her ice cream with gusto. There was probably nothing in the world Gracie loved more than her bubblegum ice cream, save for me and Katie. I’d have liked to believe that, anyway, but it probably wasn’t even true. Bubblegum was supreme.
“And here’s the last two,” Steven said, setting them on the counter. “That will be thirteen ninety-five.”
“Oh.” I felt the weight of the money in my pocket—all twelve dollars of it. “Actually, forget my order. I don’t want any. I’m sorry.”
He watched wordlessly as I took the mint and gave a bite to Bennett. Then he nudged the cup toward me.
“Babe, really. It’s okay.”
The flutter in my stomach grew almost unbearable. Babe. I loved when he called me that.
“I have twelve,” I offered, as if that made any difference.
He shrugged. “I’ll cover the difference.”
I took my peach ice cream. “How many scoops did Seth order anyway?”
I glanced at my brother, who met my eyes with raised brows. I pointed to the cone. He quickly looked away. It had looked a little large for only two scoops, but I figured Steven was just being generous.
“Sorry about that,” I apologized, feeling sheepish.
He brushed stray hair back from my face, tucking it behind my ear. “Don’t sweat it.”
I gazed around the cute little shop. Avery was nearly done with her ice cream, and Seth—despite the heaping four scoops—was aiming to finish first. I glanced down at Gracie, who was people-watching with pink smeared all down her chin. Bennett was no better.
“You know what,” Steven said, noticing my observing, “I’ll take my break and help you.”
“Oh, gosh. Thank you.” I let out a relieved breath. Steven took off his Sweetest Treats apron and came around the counter. He was still wearing his nametag.
“Leave that on,” I said, daring to press my fingertip to the cool metal. “Just in case I forget.”
He bent over and kissed my hand, too quick for me to pull away. “Sure thing ah…I’m sorry. Who are you again?”
“Very funny.” I gave Gracie a gentle shove his way. Steven was armed with a handful of napkins. “Let him clean off your face, okay? I’m going to get Seth and Avery.”
We cleaned up the kids and threw our cones away, most of which were demolished. It was nearly this much of an ordeal every time we went out anywhere, but I’d grown used to it. At first, embarrassment had been the only thing I felt—when Gracie would cry in a restaurant, or Avery would throw a french fry at a waitress. It took me a while to learn that those were normal, kid things. And then another long while to learn how to deal with those.
In less than ten minutes everyone was buckled and set for the ride home. Steven leaned against the driver’s door, watching wordlessly as I fastened my seatbelt. Seth stared out the window, studiously ignoring us. Probably fearing we were going to kiss again.
“When can we spend some time together?” Steven asked under his breath, lacing his fingers through mine.
I smiled reluctantly. “Probably after Christmas.”
“I have a gift I’d like to give you, though.”
“Of course, babe.”
Someone gagged. Might have been Seth. Might have been Avery. Even Gracie was capable of such cynicism every now and then. I pressed my forehead to his.
“We’ll plan a time.”
“Okay.” His hand rubbed my arm. I longingly tore myself away and closed the door. He disappeared inside the shop.
“You guys are gross,” Avery said cheerfully from the back.
“Will you get married?” Gracie asked.
I bit back the sensible answer—no—and shrugged. So what if we’d been dating only a few months? Anything was possible, right? You had to start somewhere.
Maybe Steven was my somewhere. That didn’t seem so bad a prospect.
We got home in a couple of minutes. Everyone poured out of the car, toward the front door. I stayed back a minute, relishing the sudden quiet and the breeze from before that had returned with a vengeance. The yard was a little overgrown, and a few toys were scattered here and there. I walked around slowly, picking them up from the dry grass. One poor doll had her dress hooked on our white picket fence—probably Avery’s doing. She was known to be a little sadistic like that, although she could play dress up with the rest of them just fine.
I turned around, lingering by the picket fence, to look at the house in full view. Five years. It was incredible to think that this had been my home so long. And what a welcome change it turned out to be—even with the chipping white paint, the old siding, the creaky windows and doors and floorboards—this was home.
Dad’s voice rang out from the propped-open screen door. I gathered the dolls in my arms.
“Coming!” I yelled back, starting forward. I stumbled on a baseball bat that was hidden beneath an especially wild patch of green.
“Yeah?” I asked at as I stepped inside. Dad stood in the living room, a phone pressed to his ear. He was smiling, nodding. I watched him, curious, and he pulled me into a quick hug of greeting.
“Uh-huh. Yeah. That’s great. We’re so excited. Well, Stella’s right here. Do you want to talk to her? Okay. See you soon. I’m thrilled, really. All right, bye.”
He held the phone out to me. Who is it, I mouthed. Dad waved the phone in answer. I frowned and took it.
“Hello? Who’s this?”
Her voice came clear over the line, like she was standing right next to me. It took me a moment to connect the name with the face, which felt wrong on so many obscure levels. My throat thickened.
“Yeah. Is this Stella?”
“Uh-huh,” I answered, unable to say much else.
“I was just calling to let you know—to let Dad know—that I’m going to come down in a couple days for Christmas.”
“Oh. Wow. Really?”
“Since you weren’t able to make last March. The March before last, I mean.”
“Right.” Dad’s eyes followed me across the room as I went to sit down on the couch. Suddenly, it felt hundred and one degrees in here. The ponytail was sticking, now. I fanned my neck.
“So…I’ll see you.”
“Wow. Great.:” I snapped myself out of it. This was my sister, after all. Mind you, the sister I hadn’t properly seen in almost two years, the sister I hadn’t talked to aside from Happy Birthday Happy Easter Have a Good Summer Happy Thanksgiving Merry Christmas Have a Good New Year texts. And one phone call, in that whole time period, but that was so she could ask me a question for a family tree she had to turn in for school.
“So you’ll be happy to see me? I’m happy to be coming.”
“What? Are you kidding. Of course I’m happy y’all are coming!” I forced some enthusiasm into my voice.
She laughed shortly, but not like she found anything particularly funny.
“What?” I asked, fearing I’d said something wrong.
“No, it’s nothing. You just said y’all, that’s all. I’ve never heard you say that before.”
“It’s not a big deal.” She had this affected way of speaking that made it sound like every word was being pushed through the smallest breath of air. “Sorry. I made it sound like one.”
“Oh…” I picked at a loose thread on the couch. “No you didn’t. That was me.” Could my tone be any more insincere? Why did I have to take everything so personally? She was right. She hadn’t meant it to be rude and now—now I had made things even weirder between us.
Funny, to think I was the older sister.
“How’s Mom?” I asked when she didn’t say anything else. I’d been hoping she would.
“Oh, you know.” She said vaguely. I could almost see her shrugging, see her thin shoulders arcing up and slowly sinking down. “We can talk about it more in person.”
“Right. In person. Two days.”
We breathed into the phone for a few loaded seconds.
“Well—” I forced myself to perk up. “I better go!
“Yeah. I’m excited.” Her tone was enthusiastic, but thin, wavery. Like at any moment it would break and reveal her true feelings on the matter. “It should be fun. Anything in particular I should pack?”
“Shorts, shorts, and more shorts,” I said with a laugh.
“What? But it’s winter. You’re joking, right?”
“I guess we’ll have to get my summer clothes out of storage.” This was muffled, making me think she was speaking to someone else. Probably our mother.
I glanced at Katie from the corner of my eye. She was talking to Gracie, making exaggerated hand movements. I caught wind of something about an elephant and polka dots.
Her voice came back on the line. “Thanks, Stella. I’ll see you in two days.”
That seemed a sufficient enough goodbye, so I hung up, tossing the phone onto the couch. I stared at it for a few seconds, shocked.
I was supposed to have visited Riley and Mom in New York the spring before last. They’d planned for us to go shopping, to a broadway show. That was back when Riley and I saw each other pretty regularly—I’d go up to New York a bunch, and we’d spend our birthdays there together. It was always fun, but I missed home.
That year, something was different. We Skyped a week before I was supposed to leave and she just didn’t look like...her. When her face filled the screen, I did a double take.
“Your hair!” I managed, and that was about it.
She self-consciously ran her fingers through her bright red bangs. “Do you like it?”
It came a few inches past her shoulders, but it had been cut. For as long as I could remember, Riley’s blonde hair—a color best described as sand—had twisted over her shoulders, curling halfway down her back. It was long, and gorgeous. Last time I’d been to New York she’d wanted to stop in to a salon and get it cut, but I’d practically begged her not to. Riley had the hair I was dying for.
“Why did you dye your bangs?” I asked, trying my best to mask my disapproval.
“Oh…you know. I just wanted a change!” She spread her arms out in a showy fashion. I curled my hands in my lap. Was she wearing eyeliner?
I felt suddenly plain with brown hair just brushing the tops of my shoulders, an uneven tan, a splatter of freckles across my nose. I was wearing Dad’s old Pepsi Cola t-shirt. My eyes, a deep green, flickered away when her brown ones sought me out.
“Yeah! Fine!” I was suddenly acutely aware of the differences between us. I stared at her face, slightly pixelated on the screen, and I wondered what people would see when I visited them in New York. When we walked on the street. They wouldn’t look at us and think ‘sisters’. She favored Mom—they were closer in appearance than we were. I was Dad in a girl’s body, through and through. The only thing we shared was our nose.
I mean, we didn’t even share the same parents. Not after the divorce.
A few days later, when Katie gently reminded me that maybe I should start to pack, I told her I didn’t want to go. I was sitting at the kitchen table, going over my homework, and the words barely made it past my lips. But they did.
“What do you mean?” She asked, turning away from the stove. She was stirring a pot of macaroni and cheese.
“I don’t want to go there.”
“What? Why? It’s all you’ve talked about.” She walked over and pressed her hand to my forehead. “You’re not hot. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes. I just don’t want to go.”
She stooped over to look me in the eye. I couldn’t meet her gaze.
“Stella,” She prompted. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
The kids were upstairs napping. Seth was playing in his room. I sniffed.
“Stella…” She grabbed a chair and pulled it up to me, taking my hand. “Did something happen?”
I shook my head.
“Then what is it, sweetheart?”
I looked at her with a quivering lower lip. “You’re my Mom, Katie.”
I was fifteen, way too old to be crying. She pulled me into a hug and let me, though. She seemed to understand. It had finally hit me—there was them, and there was us. The bridge in between didn’t mean anything when it came down to it. Riley and I were closer to friends than sisters.
We told them I had the flu, and I avoided every invitation that came that year, all the way through Christmas. Finally, they stopped sending them. I had no idea Dad had been planning for her to come to us.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked him now, feeling hurt. I wanted to get angry, but I couldn’t bring myself to. It just wasn’t worth it. I was me, Stella, anyway. I simply didn’t get angry—feeling sorry for myself was easier.
“I didn’t know how you’d react,” He said, sitting down next to me. He put his arm around my shoulders. “Don’t look so worried. This is a good thing. You need to reconnect with Riley before you head off to college.”
“That’s pointless. Because as soon as I go to college, we’ll be right back where we started.”
“Don’t say that, Stell.” He truly did look discouraged by this.
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” I shook my head. “I was being…dramatic.”
“It’s fine.” He stood up, squeezing my shoulder. “Look forward to it, honey. It’s something look forward to.”
He joined Katie in the kitchen, where they started up whispering. Like I wouldn’t notice. I rolled my eyes.
Bennett, who’d been watching this entire exchange, rolled his eyes back.
“Oh, don’t do that,” I muttered, reaching for him. “You don’t need to be disgruntled at three years old.”
He rolled them again as he backed away from me and giggled. I propped my chin up in my hand and sighed.