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When the anniversary of my return to Anaheim comes and goes without further comment from my mother, I wonder if she’s forgotten our conversation about my future. It’s almost entirely out of character for her to drop something so easily, but she has spent the last few days in a state of neurosis preparing for my sister’s impending return, dusting the ten-year-old studio family portraits that line the green walls of our hallway with military precision. She’s already cleaned Esme’s room twice, even though my sister isn’t due home for another week.

For my part, I’ve spent the last few days proving how content I am by smiling like a maniac whenever I’m in her presence, even though it turns out that being happy all the time is exhausting. I have no idea how the Mormons keep it up. I stay out of my parents’ way as much as possible, even skipping the morning coffee ritual despite knowing it means I have to walk four blocks to the nearest Starbucks for my Americano.

I am woken up one morning by a particularly loud front door slam, and the thud of something being dumped in the hall outside my bedroom. As I stretch in bed, I can hear hushed voices drifting under the gap in the door and perhaps even the sound of someone crying. It’s early, and I could probably fall back to sleep, but I’m mildly interested in what’s happening, as it’s not following the blueprint of my parents’ usual morning routine.

I slip out of bed in my gray tracksuit and an old Winnie the Pooh T-shirt, stumbling over a large purple suitcase that has been dumped in the hallway outside my bedroom door. My parents are in the living room, sitting around the table we only use on the rare occasions we have company. A bunch of yellow tulips are arranged in a vase, and the pink sparkly mug nobody is allowed to touch when Esme is away is laid out in front of an empty chair.

“When did you start drinking coffee?” I ask as my sister walks into the room from the kitchen. Her black hair is pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of her neck, and her skin has gotten worse since I saw her last, sort of tender and raw where she’s been picking at her spots. We hug briefly but, as always, we don’t quite fit together right, and her shoulder digs into my throat. I pull up a chair opposite her, and nobody talks for a moment.

“What are we talking about?” I ask.

My dad picks at a rough bit of skin on the back of his hand, but my mom is already frowning at me. Something is definitely off. I’ve always known how to read a room, even if I don’t always adhere to the rules.

“I’ve been suspended until the end of the year,” Esme says after a moment in which it becomes clear my parents aren’t going to tell me. She’s attempting to sound bored, and my mom flinches. I can’t imagine how much she’ll hate that I’m here to witness the decline of yet another of their progeny.

“What for?” I ask. The suspension is interesting to me for a few reasons, not least because, to my limited knowledge of Esme as a teenager, it is entirely unprecedented. Always a thoughtful kid, my sister has grown up into a solemn teenager, cocooned both by my parents’ adoration of her and her advanced placement status in everything she does at her elite boarding school. Even her pale skin seems too vulnerable for the unflinching Southern Californian sun when she’s back, as if she’s somehow remained untouched by anything harsh up to this point.

My sister takes after my dad, aesthetically speaking, which would be a euphemism unless you’d actually met my dad. Growing up, before I realized how it worked, how sometimes the thing that you were always told was a blessing can actually be a poison, I would feel guilty when people complimented me on my hair or my perfect white teeth, and Esme for her grade in math or her piano playing. I thought that it meant I was better somehow, and that my parents were only overcompensating for her plainness by loving her more, when in reality Esme was probably just kinder than me, less slippery, less attention seeking. If I thought about it too much, I could feel jealous of her, but I think she could say the same about me.

Esme stretches her arms above her head and then shrugs, a movement that reminds me so much of myself that I pause.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Esme says, her accent more pronounced than ever. I try to find the sister I once knew in this American sixteen-year-old, but it feels like a lost cause. I remember how, when she was younger, Esme used to break anything she loved. She’d take apart her favorite American Girl doll or the Transformers car she got for her sixth birthday just so she’d know how to put it back together again if the worst were to happen. The floor of our house in England was always strewn with abandoned limbs and random rubber wheels as a result, but she never once faulted her own logic.

My mom exhales helplessly next to me, and I feel sorry for her even though she’s probably already working out how it’s my fault. I do the math and figure that we wouldn’t have left England if it weren’t for me, so the connection shouldn’t be too much of a reach for her. It never is.

“What was it, bad grades?” I ask, trying to lighten the mood. Even when she was a kid, it was clear that Esme was smarter than the rest of us put together.

Esme shakes her head.

“Did you finally set fire to that vile uniform?” Esme frowns at me, and I realize too late that she’s still wearing the green pleated skirt underneath her wooly sweater. I remember now that my sister has this way of looking at you as if she can see through you to your blood.

“Alcohol?” I ask. “Not drugs?”

“I’m not you,” Esme mutters, just loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Well, I highly doubt that it’s sex,” I say, stung that she mentioned my sobriety in front of our parents, even though I already understand that I deserved it.

“Grace!” my mother says, before preempting Esme’s tears by taking her hand. I push my chair back and walk into the kitchen, debating whether or not I need to apologize already. I don’t know when it became so difficult for me to have a civil conversation with another human being. I pour myself the end of the jug of coffee, the part with the sludgy grains that get caught in your teeth, and figure I’ll probably just head back to bed instead.

* * *

? ? ?

I’m flicking through some old photographs when my mom knocks on the door. After less than a second she’s standing in my room, and it’s the first time she’s been in here since I moved back.

She hovers above the bed, and I move my legs so that she can sit on the end. She does so, folding her hands on her lap and leaning against the sparkly purple wall. This already feels too intimate for us, and I squirm under the sheets, wishing I wasn’t tucked back up in bed like an invalid.

“Who are these people?” she says, squinting at one of the photographs on the duvet.

“Her name was Anna.” I point at a pretty dark-haired girl standing next to me, flashing a peace sign at the camera.

“Oh yes, you did ballet with her. I remember her mother. Their TV was practically bigger than their house,” she says as she drops the photo back on the pile. This used to mean that they were low-rent, tacky, but I think she’s forgetting the sixty-two-inch screen she has hanging above the electric fireplace downstairs. She shifts her position on the bed, and I can see how thin she is underneath her cotton shirt.

“Esme’s had a rough year, you know,” she says.

“She’s barely been here,” I say. “How would I know?”

“You’re one to talk,” my mom says, and I realize too late that I walked right into her trap. Because I’m the one who made them move across the world and then left them behind, and the only way they knew how to punish me was to make their world smaller and smaller until there was no room for me in it anyway.

“I get it, I’ll apologize to her,” I say after a pause, just in case I can change the course of this conversation for the first time in my life.

My mom shrugs, as if I’m missing the point.

“I meant what I said the other day. You can’t hide here forever.”

“Mom, do we have to do this? I’m not a kid anymore.”

“Says the girl in the Disney pajamas, making her sister cry,” my mom says. “You never had to want for anything, that’s why you’re like this.”

Say what you like about my mother, but she’s never missed an opportunity to get a good dig in.