“Danielle!” my stepmom screeches from the kitchen window.
I push the steak tips under the fence and Franco dives headfirst into the bowl.
“Maybe in another universe, boy,” I whisper. “Because for now, my home is here.”
This place is too full of memories to leave, even if I wanted to. Dad technically left the house to me, but Catherine’s in charge of it while I’m still a minor. So until then—
Until then I’m here with my stepmother and her daughters.
“All right! Coming!” With one last scratch behind Frank’s ear, I say goodbye, make a mental note to return later for the dish, and dart back to the kitchen.
“Girls!” Catherine calls again, slinging a Gucci purse over her shoulder. “Hurry up or you’ll be late for Mr. Craig’s lesson! Girls? Girls! You better be awake or so help me I’ll…” Her footsteps thud up to their room and I glance at the clock. 8:36. There’s no way they’ll be out of here in time. Not unless I speed things along.
Begrudgingly, I assemble kale and strawberries and almond milk to fix the twins’ morning smoothies. Catherine has, of course, left her magazine splayed on the counter, so Darien Freeman’s face is grinning up at me. My lips curl into a sneer. There were rumors that he had signed on to the new Starfield remake, but that’s about as big of a joke as saying Carmindor will be played by a pug riding a skateboard. You don’t put a soap opera star in charge of an entire galaxy.
Ugh. I press BLEND and try not to think about it.
Upstairs, there are muffled thumps as Catherine drags the twins out of bed. This happens every morning, like clockwork.
My summertime morning routine goes like this: Wake up—coffee, extra scoop for Mondays. Catherine stoops over the morning papers, cutting out coupons. Lingers too long on purses and pretty dresses. Says something passive-aggressive about her old life. Orders me to fix breakfast. Instead, I feed the Frank. Catherine goes upstairs to yell at the twins for “forgetting” to set their alarms. I still don’t fix breakfast. Ten minutes later, the twins are fighting over the shower, and Catherine reminds me that she is the one with the deed to the house, Danielle, and unless I want her to cash in this place for a luxury condo—as if this house would ever get that much—I had better fix breakfast. So I blend up their Grinch vomit, the twins grab their matching tumblers, and Catherine shoves them out the door for tennis lessons.
The rest of my day is never much better. I’ll be five minutes late to work, but my coworker Sage—the food-truck owner’s daughter—is too engrossed in her Harajuku fashion magazines to even notice. Then it’s eight hours in the Magic Pumpkin, doling out healthy food-truck fritters to bankers in tight business suits and soccer moms with babies bouncing on their hips. Then I’m elbowing my way through the supermarket armed with coupons that make the cashier roll her eyes when I get in line (everyone hates coupons). Then home again for “family dinner,” made by me. Cue the twins’ mean comments on my cooking, then their disappearance upstairs to film a beauty vlog about the perfect cat eye or best eyeshadow pairing with ruby lips or whatever. Then dishes, leftovers, one last check on Franco, and bed.
Well, sorta. Then late-night reruns of Starfield on my Dad’s boxy TV in the corner of my room. Maybe I write a blog post about the episode, if I’m feeling inspired. Check all my Stargunner fansites for news. I fall asleep to the Federation Prince’s voice. “Look to the stars. Aim. Ignite.”
The next morning I wake up, and we do everything all over again. But this time—plot twist!—I get to work on time. Maybe Sage actually talks to me for once. Maybe the twins are nice. Maybe someone stuffs two airplane tickets to L.A. into the tip jar. Maybe I write a love-letter to episode 43 instead of criticizing the integrity of the characters as the colony blows up. Maybe I dream about Dad.
The blender growls as though it’s in pain. I let it rest and shake the kale smoothie into two separate tumblers, nervously glancing at the microwave clock. 8:41 a.m.
After sliding the twins’ breakfasts across the counter like the seasoned food service employee I am, I root around in the cabinet for the jar of peanut butter I tucked away last night. I protect my peanut butter like Smeagol protects the One Ring—mine, precious—no matter what diet “we” are on as a household. Right now, Catherine’s on a paleo kick, but last month it was raw foods. Before that South Beach—or was it Atkins? Something with bacon. Next week will be low-fat or low-salt or…whatever she’s craving. Whatever food she can make me make by threatening to sell this house—Dad’s house.
I scrape out the last bit of peanut butter from the bottom of the jar, savoring its taste on my tongue. I take my victories wherever I can get them.
Upstairs, the shower turns off with a groaning of pipes. Finally. The twins are taking their sweet time this morning. Usually they enjoy tennis practice at the country club because their friends are always there. It’s the hangout spot if you’re popular and rich. As for me? Catherine’s always not-so-subtly insisting that the only thing I’m fit for at the club is toting someone’s golf clubs.
I dispose of the peanut butter jar in the garbage and check my indestructible brick phone, which I “inherited” after Dad died. Another grand idea from the stepmonster, another way to save the money we barely have: the twins were allowed to buy new ones, but if I wanted a phone, I had to take what I could find in the house. It’s huge—you can practically fend off a ship full of Reavers with it—but at least it tells the time.
8:43 a.m. Can’t they leave any sooner? Just once. Just once be out of the house by 9 a.m.
They’re upstairs, but Chloe’s nasally voice can be heard clear as a bell. “But, Mom, Darien Freeman’s going to be on TV this morning! I will not miss that.”
My heart sinks. If Chloe commandeers the TV, there’s no way I’ll get to watch Hello, America.
“We can be a few minutes late,” echoes Calliope. Cal sides with Chloe on everything. They’re the same age as I am—rising seniors—but we might as well be on different planets. Chloe and Calliope are starters on the varsity tennis team. Organizers of the homecoming committee. Prom leaders. And they don’t mind using their popularity to remind everyone at school that I’m practically dirt. That without their family, I’d be an orphan.
Thanks. Like I could forget that.
“We can’t miss this,” Chloe says. “We have to watch it and vlog about it or everyone else will get their reactions up before us. And that would kill us, Mom. It would kill us.”
“Sweeties, I’m paying Mr. Craig a handsome tuition to teach you girls tennis. I am not wasting your varsity positions next year for a television program!” Catherine descends the stairs and reenters the kitchen, rustling through her purse. “Danielle, have you seen my cell phone?”
I reach over the counter to unhook it from the wall charger. “Here it is.”
“Now why did you put it there?” She takes the phone from me without a second glance and begins scrolling through her Facebook feed. “Oh,” she adds, “and remember, tomorrow is—”
“Yeah,” I say. “I know.” Like I’d forget the day my own father died. “Should I get orchids this year or—”
“Girls!” Catherine yells, checking her watch. “Get down here now!”
“Fine!” They trample down the stairs in their tennis whites and grab their smoothies from the counter. The twins are the spitting image of Catherine. Light hair, hazel eyes, pouty heartbreaker lips. Chloe and my stepmom are cut from the same cloth, but Cal’s cut a little different, a little quieter. I think that’s because she takes after her own dad, who ran off when the girls were young and married the daughter of some Atlantic City casino owner.
Right now, they both have their blonde hair pulled back into tight ponytails, and they’d be impossible to tell apart if you didn’t know Calliope always matches her earrings to her purple glasses, and Chloe has a new nail color every day—today, a sweet summer blue. Sometimes evil comes in disguise.
“This isn’t fair! Why doesn’t Elle have to go to these stupid lessons?” Chloe whines.
“Girls.” My stepmother tsks, putting on a patient smile. “Elle has to make do with the talents she does have.”
I try to ignore her as I grab my house keys from the bowl in the foyer and put them in my satchel, pretending like I’m getting ready for work. Sometimes I think Catherine just forgets I’m in the room.
“You’re going to ruin our career,” Chloe accuses, sucking on her green smoothie. “We need to be on top of this.”
“Everyone else will be tweeting about it,” Calliope adds.
“Ever since we got a hundred thousand views because of our Seaside Cove makeup tutorial, people expect us to be on our game!”
“GIRLS!” Catherine jabs a pink nail toward the door. “Four hundred dollar lessons. NOW!”
Calliope rolls her eyes, grabs her purse from the rack in the foyer, and storms out the door to the red Miata (another “necessity” for Catherine’s “image”). Catherine glares at the remaining twin. If there is one thing Chloe can’t stand up to, it’s her mother’s disapproval. She grabs her purse too—the exact same as Cal has, except pink—and stomps out after her sister. I don’t envy that ride to practice.