“People behaving badly is, like, most of literature, Cass.”

He squints at me. “I guess. And life. Maybe.”

“Maybe,” I concede. What are we saying here?

“That Angel Clare dude is a complete prick.”

Mom’s now moved on to the rug, and has sucked up something that’s rattling around frantically. Talking is like trying to be heard standing on a jetty in a hurricane.

Angel who? Oh, right, Angel Clare. The hero of Tess, which I reread last night just to be in practice even though it’s number one on my list of Books I’d Like to Throw Off the Pier. “I thought you didn’t read the entire book.”

“SparkNotes,” he admits, again with that embarrassed expression.

“Hey, we’ve all done it. Just to supplement, of course.”

He shrugs, with a smile. Mom jams the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner under his feet. He lifts them up obediently. I duck my head under the table.

“Mom. Do you have to do this now?”

She flips the deafening vacuum cleaner off, says quietly, “Sorry. You know how I am. Can’t stand a mess.”

“Try to survive this one until we’re done,” I whisper.

“Sorry, honey,” she responds in a normal voice Cass is sure to hear. “Didn’t realize you two wanted to be alone.”

“We don’t— Ow!” Attempting to raise my head, I’ve smacked it on the underside of the table.

“You okay?” Cass reaches out to touch my hair, succeeding in covering my hand as I’m rubbing the spot. He tightens his grip for an instant, then pulls his hand away. “Should I get ice?”

“No, I’m fine.” Not really. I’m imagining the deepening shades of red I’m cycling through, trying to recall their names from art class sophomore year: scarlet, crimson, vermilion, burgundy. “Let’s just keep going.”

Mom coils up the vacuum cleaner cord, looping it hand to elbow, hand to elbow, carefully not looking over at us, as though we have, in fact, started going at it on the kitchen table.

Now the kitchen door slams. “Mommy!” Em soars across the room to her. He’s followed by a sweaty-looking Nic. Who smells particularly ripe.

“Nico! You stink like old gym socks!” Mom says. “Take your shirt off, outside, please, and get into that shower.”

Nic, however, has spotted Cass. His expression hardens into one of unnatural grimness. “I was running up the Ocean hill carrying Em,” he says. “Seemed like good training. Now I’m going to lift, though, so the shower will have to wait.”

The combined odors of Cass’s subtle aftershave and the dis-gusting reek of Nic are overpowering. I wonder if Cass will keel over and I’ll have to perform CPR. This speculation should not feel so much like a fantasy.

Cass is biting his full lower lip now, looking down at Tess.

I can’t tell from his downturned face whether he’s amused or completely horrified by the three-ring circus that is my family.

“Hi!” Emory’s face lights up completely. “Superman. Hi!”

He points triumphantly at Cass, like ta-da!

“Hey there, Superboy,” Cass says easily. My brother immedi-250

ately comes over and throws his arms around Cass’s neck. And kisses him. On the neck.

Cass pats Em’s back. “Hey buddy.” His voice is muffled by Emory’s hair.

“Superman,” Emory repeats.

Cass adjusts so that Emory has room to sit on his chair, but Em’s having none of that and climbs into his lap, occupying it firmly, like Fabio in his “here I stay” mode on my bed.

Time to intervene.

“Em, you need to give Superman some room. He has to—”

“It’s fine, Gwen.” Cass cuts me off. “Want to keep going?

You were about to explain why Angel Clare wasn’t a di—uh— jerk. I’m all ears.”

“Well, of course he’s a jerk! I mean, come on. She tells him she was basically raped and he can’t forgive her because she’s ‘not the woman he thought she was’ even though I’m sure he’d been around. That’s without even mentioning the scene where he sleepwalks afterward, carries her to the cemetery and puts her in a coffin.”

“This is why I read romance novels,” Mom says, abandon-ing all pretense of not eavesdropping. “None of that nonsense there.”

Cass rubs his nose. “Seriously? I didn’t get to that one. Must not’ve been in SparkNotes.”

I wave my hand, exasperated. “It’s supposed to symbolize that the person he loved is really dead to him now, and—”

“But it’s just basically twisted—” Cass interrupts. The door to Nic’s room slams open. He’s wearing a wife-beater, takes a few menacing steps into the room, then lifts the forty-pound weight and starts doing bicep curls with a belligerent expression. Very Stanley Kowalski. Hullo, Nic was the one who begged me to take on this tutoring thing.

Cass lifts an eyebrow at Nic. “Cruz, hey.”

“Bro,” Nic returns, practically snarling. He swings the weight to the other arm. More curling. More glowering. Cass’s eyebrow remains in an elevated position. How does he do that?

“Shiny.” Emory smoothes Cass’s hair, pushing it behind one ear. I notice now that it’s longer than usual, and has a little wave to it. It is shiny. I practically have to sit on my hand to avoid reaching over and brushing back the other side.

I need to do something to break the tension. “Sure you don’t want a snack?” I ask, forgetting how lame that offer seemed when Mom made it.

“Nah. I’m fine. Thanks, though.” His eyes meet mine and linger a few moments before returning to the paperback edi-tion of Tess. Who I’m starting to hate even more than before.

Look back at me. What was that you were thinking?

Mom has settled herself on the couch with a book that, naturally, has one of the more aggressively sexual covers. Most of hers are not quite so bad, but this one has a guy with his shirt off, one thumb hooked into his overly tight white, practically painted-on pants, crooking his index finger out at the viewer.

Come and get me, baby.

Nic’s set down the first weight with a thunk; picked up an even larger one. Em’s now resting his head on Cass’s shoulder. His lashes float down, snap up, drift down again. He’s falling asleep.