By: Donna Cooner

“Your dad sent the check today,” Charlotte says.

Briella looks up from the phone in her lap.

“Did he say anything about this weekend?” she asks. “Is he coming?”

“He didn’t say, but I wouldn’t count on it, Briella. He’s really busy these days.”

“Right,” Briella says, and goes back to texting. Roxanne licks my hand to remind me she’s still under the table. Waiting.

“You’re invisible to everyone but the dog,” Skinny says.

I clean my plate, then walk over to the dishwasher to put my dishes inside. Charlotte moves over to let me pass. A car honks outside and Charlotte walks over to the front window, pulls back the shades, and peers outside.

“Lindsey!” Charlotte turns away from the window to yell up the stairs. “You’re going to be late. Hannah is here.”

No answer from upstairs.

Roxanne follows me, looking up with her big, golden “I’m starving to death down here” eyes. When Charlotte looks away, I slide a piece of meat loaf into a napkin and then into my pocket. Roxanne wags her tail just a little bit and goes to wait for me at the bottom of the stairs. She might be part goat, but she’s not stupid.

“I’m going to do my homework,” I say to nobody, picking up my backpack from the couch and pulling myself up the stairs. Roxanne matches my slow pace, step for step, sniffing at my pocket. Halfway up, we are both confronted with the whirlwind of perfume and pom-poms that is Lindsey. Her dark, almost black, hair is pulled into a perky ponytail and tied with a ribbon in the green-and-gold school colors. The short, pleated cheerleading skirt flounces around her tan thighs as she jogs down the stairs in perfectly matching tennis shoes. Roxanne and I both squeeze to one side of the staircase to let her size-two body pass as she rushes for the door, leaving glittery strands of green plastic behind.

“Hey,” she says to Charlotte and Briella, and then she’s gone with a door slam. Roxanne and I keep going up the stairs and into my room at the end of the hall. The meat loaf is gobbled up from the napkin almost before I can shut the bedroom door behind us.

“You’re welcome,” I say to Roxanne. She wags her tail, jumps up on the end of my bed, and settles into a big circle of soft brown fur with a huge sigh of satisfaction. I pull out my iPod and push the earbuds into my ears. Turning up the volume, I dig around for an algebra book in the bottom of my backpack. I get to the right page of the assignment, which I carefully wrote in my homework folder, take out a properly sharpened pencil, write my name at the top of the blank page and then . . .

I close my eyes and lean back against my headboard. The music is what I want, not algebra. I need the melody, the harmony, the emotion of the music. My mind takes flight behind my closed eyes.

Then suddenly, the earbuds are yanked out. Briella. I’d been expecting her, but the sudden interruption of Kristin Chenoweth’s original cast version of “Popular” is a rude awakening. Roxanne jumps down off the bed and finds a spot out of sight under my desk. Even the dog feels the wintry gust of air that always seems to accompany my younger stepsister. Briella stands just inside the bedroom door, hands on her impossibly tiny hips, glaring at me with icy blue eyes. The exact opposite in coloring to her dark older sister, she inherited all the genes from her mother’s German ancestors while Lindsey looks just like her father’s Portuguese side of the family. She’s dressed for bed in some tiny green sleeping shorts and a tank op; her long, thin legs are bare. With her strawberry hair combed into long, loose pigtails, Briella’s face is free of any makeup. A rare sight to see. She looks impossibly gorgeous.

“You could have knocked.” I push over to the side of my bed and confront her.

“I did. You were playing that stupid music so loud you didn’t hear me.”

“I wouldn’t call it stupid if I were you. Not if you want that poem on Huck Finn.”

“You heard,” she mumbles. “Nerdy rat boy.”

“That’s going to cost you. The price just went up to two downloads.”

“Come on, Ever,” she whines. “I don’t have that much this week. I need a new dress for the homecoming dance on Friday.”

“But you also need a poem by Thursday.” I smile up at her. “It’s a dilemma.”

“Fine,” she snaps. “Use my password. You know it.”

I shove my body back up to the headboard and lean back in triumph. The bed creaks. I start to push the earbuds back into my ears, but she isn’t leaving. She looks down at me with a sneer.

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