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CHAPTER ONE

They say you shouldn’t try to be someone you’re not. But what about someone you almost are? Or how about someone you used to be?

My sister, Claire, walked into the Alder Grove High cafeteria, and on impulse, I sat up a little straighter. As kids, people used to tell us that we were like two peas in a pod with our perfect posture. “What little ladies!” they’d always say.

We’re far from twins, but I hoped others still might notice some small similarity. Our perfect posture could be the one reminder that Claire’s not the secret love child of Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashton Kutcher. And I’m not the true offspring of Danny DeVito and an ungroomed poodle.

“You trying to make them look like double Ds?” my friend Shayleen blurted at me from across the table.

You know those moments when you say something embarrassing and everyone around you stops talking at that exact second?

Yeah.

Even Claire looked over to see what everyone was gawking at, and in that second, I realized how stupid I probably looked. As if I could morph my potato-like body into the skinny French fry it used to be. Claire still wore her long, lean—and erect—body as naturally as her white capri pants and strappy sandals.

I collapsed back into a slouch, wrapping my arms across my chest. Thankfully, before Claire could register another of my attempts to emulate her, Josh raced up to give her a hug, stealing her attention away.

She leaned in and whispered something in his ear. Heat circulated like lava in my veins. Josh.

As in, Josh Garrison. The Josh Garrison. Not the quarterback, but certainly the cutest guy on the football team. I gripped my arms tighter, wondering if she was whispering about me.

This was Josh, the guy I’d been silently swooning over since middle school.

Josh, my sister’s boyfriend of three weeks, two days—I checked my watch—and about twenty-two hours.

Claire looked over again, but this time, the second my eyes met hers, her mouth broke into a huge smile, like her face wasn’t big enough to contain it. My embarrassment calmed with her excitement. Whatever she might have been saying about me didn’t look to be bad. She leaned in to say something else to Josh and then pointed in my direction. I resisted the urge to touch my chest. Who, me?

I was sitting with my friends Shayleen and Deirdre at our usual table, close to the cash register. Shayleen had her attention where it usually was: on her pocket mirror and eyeliner. I had to wonder, wasn’t she already wearing enough? She’d overemphasized her already large eyes and lips, making her look a little like Betty Boop. She was my reason for going easy on the makeup. Well, that and my lack of skill at applying it.

Shayleen and Deirdre looked up just as the rest of the most popular group of seniors turned our way. Other juniors probably didn’t have the same kind of senior envy we did. I think it stemmed from the fact that all three of us fit better with the freshman crowd than with our own class. Deirdre looked about twelve with her freckles and pixie cut, Shayleen had a habit of throwing juvenile temper tantrums about breaking a nail or something equally catastrophic, and I could pretty much walk upright through a doggie door. Not only was I the shortest person in the entire junior class, I was also the youngest. My parents registered me for kindergarten at the tender age of four, thinking I’d be some kind of prodigy like my sister.

It was only natural that the three of us “youngsters” had bonded, but Shayleen was the only one who seemed determined to break out of our mold. She had a broader circle of friends than either Deirdre or I, but always wanted to make more—especially of the senior boy variety. She practically frothed at the mouth toward my sister’s friends. Deirdre just gaped at the group of them.

“Hey,” I said, trying my best to act normally. Hopefully, if I broke my friends’ stunned gazes, we wouldn’t look like the starstruck nerds that we were. “What’s for lunch?”

“What is for lunch,” Shayleen stated, looking Josh up and down. He’d gone back to ordering his food, and thankfully the rest of the group also quickly lost interest in our little envy fest.

Shayleen knew I’d had a crush on Josh for forever, and she said things like that to egg me on, even if he was way out of my league. But still, when she continued to eye him, it irked me. I motioned to a wrapped gift sitting on the table beside her.

“What’s that?” I cringed inwardly at my question. I’d always been annoyed by people who made a big deal of their own birthday.

Shayleen turned her attention back to our table. “For you, of course!” She passed it over. “It’s from both of us.” Deirdre started to interrupt with a “But . . .” when Shayleen cut her off, asking me what I got from my parents.

I rolled my eyes. “You know what my mom’s like. She gave me these clothes that I’ll never wear.” I pulled open the pink shimmery wrapping of Shayleen’s gift. A few people glanced over at the flashy paper.

I barely had the back of the present open when I recognized it. More pink. Which was not my favorite color. But it wasn’t just the color. Shayleen’s gift was the exact same shade and texture as the tank top I’d gotten from Mom last night.

We’d had an early family birthday party because Mom and Dad both had to work late today. When I first saw the outfit Mom had gotten me, I figured there had to have been some mistake. She must have bought it for Claire and forgotten to give it to her for Christmas. Pink made my sister look like a fairy princess. Mom must’ve missed my sweats-abounding wardrobe and my acreage of boobage.

I swallowed, turning over the gift from Shayleen. Sure enough, the same dainty white flower shone up at me like a beacon of femininity.

The beacon had the wrong girl.

I’d never liked the term “tomboy.” I felt instead like I simply brought balance to the force of Claire’s flowery life. I could understand my mother wanting me to be more like Claire. But Shayleen and Deirdre?

“Uh, thanks. Wow,” I said, trying to sound happy and dazzled and all those other positive emotions I wasn’t feeling.

Shayleen pulled the tank fully from the wrapping, letting it fall open. “I hope I got the right size. Here, hold it up.”

I did as she said, purposely keeping it a foot away from me, as though the distance would hide the discrepancy between the size of the tank and the size of my breasts. In that second, I realized what seemed really strange about the tank top: it would perfectly suit Shayleen, especially with her dark skin and hair. Part of me wanted to push it back and hold it up to her.

“I hope it’ll fit.” Shayleen gave me a sideways look, scrunching her mouth a little in decision. I glanced at Deirdre for help. It wouldn’t seem so rude if she told Shayleen it would look much better on her.

But Deirdre’s dilated eyes looked like she’d been hypnotized. I followed them a few feet away.

Claire. Coming straight for me. With Josh Garrison on her heels, carrying a tray full of food.

Claire let out this lighthearted laugh before she’d even reached us.

“Look what Shayleen gave me,” I said, at the exact same time that Claire said, “Why’d you bring that thing to school?” She glanced behind her, laughing again, and that’s when I noticed how many people had followed Claire to our table. At least six, but it felt like a hundred. I sat there stunned, unable to speak, while Claire’s best friend, Jasmine, went on.

“Your mom always gets the most unsuitable clothes, Loann. I mean, can you see her in that tank top?” Jasmine said to Claire. Jasmine had been over for my birthday dinner last night. Claire had asked me if it was okay to invite her, and I figured, why not? Now I knew why not.

Shayleen’s face went from its normal flawless bronze to a deep tomato red. “What did you say?” she demanded.

Jasmine didn’t seem to notice the edge in Shayleen’s tone or me motioning toward the wrapping paper. “Did you bring the miniskirt, too?” she asked me. I shook my head, silently praying that Jasmine wasn’t about to make any kind of judgments on miniskirts. Shayleen was wearing one.

There was an awkward pause while everyone digested what had just been said. Recognition eclipsed Claire’s face first. She looked down at the discarded wrapping paper, then at Shayleen. She nudged Jasmine.

“Oh, you got this for Loann?” Jasmine’s words tapered off until they were almost a whisper, which made the whole episode seem even more humiliating for Shayleen. As if that wasn’t bad enough, now that the seniors had joined our little discussion I could feel stares from all over the cafeteria.

“Look, it was a stupid idea,” Shayleen seethed, “and it’s the last time I’ll ever get you a gift.” She pushed herself to a standing position.

“Wait,” I said, reaching for her hand, but she brushed it out of reach, spun, and marched for the cafeteria doors. The doors smacked shut behind her.

I turned to Claire for help. She always knew how to deal with people, how to solve problems that required charisma and diplomacy.

“You should let her cool off,” Claire said, reading my mind. “That Shayleen has quite a temper on her.”

I jerked my head in what might look like a nod, barely being able to function with Josh in such close proximity. I would just have to stay as still as possible until they made their way to their usual table near the window. Then I could calm down and talk over Shayleen’s hostility with Deirdre.

“It’s Loann’s birthday,” Claire announced, picking up the gift wrap and folding it. “Do you mind if we sit with her?”

Her friends surrounded our table like the Northern Lights, bright and brilliant in all their glory. I cowered in my seat. I wasn’t sure who Claire was asking, but if it was anyone at my table, I doubted it would be taken as anything but rhetorical.

Claire knew how much the upset with Shayleen would eat away at me and was trying to make me feel better. My sister wouldn’t want my birthday ruined if she could help it.

I thought Claire would squeeze in beside me, but instead she took the seat across the table. Deirdre shifted to make room for her. A few other seniors sat at the far end of the benches on either side. Jasmine and Lazarus—aka Jaz and Laz, a nickname Jasmine had come up with before they were even dating—stood staring down at Deirdre.

This was a problem. Jasmine obviously wanted to sit beside her best friend, Claire, and I wondered if in Deirdre’s awed state she’d be able to figure that out.

“Hey, Deirdre, could you . . .” I nudged my head to the side.

Suddenly Deirdre looked like she’d been woken up by electrical currents. “Oh! Of course!” She grabbed her bag lunch and cleared out of their way. Only I guess she’d taken my suggestion more drastically than I’d intended, and moved to the next table. She sat down and picked at the bottom of her short hair like she always did when she was embarrassed.

Great. Now I’ve alienated both of my friends. I opened my mouth to call her back, but when I glanced at the empty seat still beside me, my mouth went dry. Josh stepped over the bench and his leg brushed mine as he sat down.

Sure, he was sitting across from his girlfriend, my sister. But I had never, ever been this close to him. Close enough to smell his musky boy scent. Even though I’d crushed on him for years, it’s not like I ever expected to do anything about it. It was more like a celebrity crush, and I felt as nervous as I would sitting three inches away from Zac Efron. I was certain my heartbeat was as loud and erratic as a pinball machine.

Claire slapped one of her schoolbooks on the table in front of her, interrupting my cardiac arrest. It was kind of bittersweet, Claire dating Josh. It irritated me and yet gave me these beautiful opportunities to be near him I’d otherwise never have.

“Happy birthday, Loann,” Josh said quietly, like it was a shared secret. I met his eyes and his adorable, slightly offcenter smile made my lips tremble.

I cleared my throat for some composure. He’s my sister’s boyfriend, I reminded myself, though I was as likely to score an Olympic gold in men’s pole-vaulting as I was to have a chance with someone like Josh Garrison.

“I hope you like my gift,” Josh half-whispered in my direction.

Suddenly I had no feeling in my hands. Or the rest of my body, for that matter. Josh got me a gift? He must be joking. But he was so absorbed in his lunch, it was impossible to tell. His hand brushed my leg as he shifted on the bench and my heart stopped dead for a few seconds.

Get a grip, Loann.

Claire and her other friends chattered about classes and teachers and after-school plans. I could barely keep up. Deirdre watched from a few feet away with a huge grin on her face, like she couldn’t believe her luck getting to hang out with these people. Or at least near them.

Even though all the conversation at our table centered on my sister and her friends, it was way more entertaining than any normal day for me at Alder Grove High. I wondered how my sister handled living with this kind of adrenaline.

Purely out of nerves, I opened my sandwich and scarfed it down as though I was watching a really good movie. But I couldn’t get what Josh had said out of my mind. He had a gift for me. Seriously?

Claire scrunched her nose at me and I realized how rude my gorging probably looked. A couple of the other girls at the end of the bench were also raising their eyebrows.

“Did you forget your lunch again?” I asked Claire, to divert the attention from me. Claire forgot her lunch on the kitchen counter so often I’d started counting on it for my after-school snack.

“No.” She concentrated on the paper she’d pulled out to doodle on. I could dazedly daydream for hours, but Claire couldn’t let thirty seconds go by without doing something with her hands. “I have a big history test after lunch. Nerves,” she said.

As the girls started talking again, I felt a nudge to my arm.

“I love a good sandwich with lots of protein,” Josh said, as if to make me feel better. “Makes me strong and fast.” The football player in him clapped his hands together and rubbed them like even lunchtime was a competitive sport.

I was tempted to push the rest of my turkey sandwich in his direction so he could enjoy it, or inspect it for protein levels, but thankfully caught myself. He had a full plate of shepherd’s pie in front of him. And besides, passing a half-eaten sandwich to someone you barely know is just weird. “It’s good, too!” I said, cringing inwardly at my overenthusiasm.

Claire slid her golden-brown hair behind her ear as she doodled. It wasn’t a picture, just her name in big, embellished letters. Her full name first: Claire Isabella Rochester. Then just her middle name with a loop from the last a all the way around to the I. Then just “Claire” in letters so ornate I decided someone should name an opera after her.

My name wasn’t nearly as pretty. Loann Rochester. No middle.

Lo, as in low—the story of my life. Low man on the family totem pole, low grades in school, and a full six inches shorter than Claire. Then there’s the second half: Ann—aka ordinary. Take everything flashy in the world: metallic eye shadow, sparkly clothes, red sports cars—Claire—and wipe it all off the face of the earth. Basically, I’d be what’s left. I’ve always wondered if people grow into their names or if it’s just one big coincidence when someone like me ends up with a name like Loann.

As if Josh could sense my insecurity, I swear his foot touched the top of my sneaker. Nibbling at my crust, I waited a second to see if he’d do it again.

A little blond Superman curl fell onto his forehead and I had the urge to reach up and twirl it in my fingers.

He caught me looking and, pulled on the curl, letting it spring back up again, like he was teasing me with it.

Then. He winked.

I breathed in through my nose slowly and convinced myself I’d misread it or it was nothing or maybe he was just being nice because it was my birthday or sandwiches and shepherd’s pie gave him a homey feeling and I reminded him of his sister. Or maybe, oh, I don’t know, maybe he was just way too nice, and why couldn’t I stop thinking about my sister’s boyfriend?

My stomach started to bulge with a turkey sandwich and about a million acrobatic, caffeine-overdosing butterflies. The girls at the table all laughed at some joke I missed. I took one deep breath after another, trying to bring my body temperature down from a boiling point.

Laz stood, saying something about wrestling practice and a coach and something else I didn’t hear. Jasmine gathered her things and said she’d go with him. To wrestling practice? Whatever. They were pretty much Siamese twins.

But Laz obviously had the same thought. “You can’t come into the locker room, hon. You know that.”

She gave him a pouty look, so he leaned in to wipe it off with his lips. Josh got up too, and seemed to have a silent, nodding conversation with my sister.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, as he followed Laz out of the cafeteria. As sad as I was that he’d left, I was glad he’d be back. And that I’d have a chance to catch my breath.

“So, I wasn’t going to say anything yet,” Jasmine said, watching the boys walk away, “but I’m just way too excited! I got into the U!”

This grabbed the attention of the entire table. There was a pause while no one reacted. I admit, I felt a little stunned. Jasmine could barely think her way through a traffic light and it was hard to picture her walking the grounds of the University of Wisconsin.

“Seriously,” she added.

This seemed to kick everyone into excited banter. The girls at the end of the table let out squeals of excitement. Comments flew so fast I couldn’t place any of them. “No way!” “I got in, too!” “When did you find out?”

Claire smiled with her own congratulations. But even though she had gotten early acceptance to the same university, I could see something else in the way her eyes drooped slightly and didn’t light up with the rest of her face.

Was this one area in which Claire thought she’d trumped Jasmine, and now she was sad because Jasmine had caught up? Or did Claire, for some strange reason, not want to go to college with her bestie?

Claire met my eyes, blinked a few times, and then her whole face brightened. I had the feeling she wasn’t that happy to see me. She just didn’t want me to read her right now.

And that was one thing we had always been good at. She’d succeeded in distracting me from Shayleen’s outburst, the same way she’d realized I needed help talking to our parents when I got a D in math last year. I didn’t save her the way she did with me, but I at least understood.

And right now I understood she didn’t want to talk about this.

“Josh’s back,” I blurted, and then gave an inconspicuous slap to my chest to kick-start my heart again.

He walked toward us—toward me!—a gold-wrapped, toaster-size box with flouncing purple ribbons in his hands.

Josh placed it in front of me, then sat down again, leaning in even closer.

I hesitated, a little afraid to get fingerprints on the wrapping.

“I came up with the idea myself.” Claire beamed.

So the gift was from both of them? Even though another twinge of jealousy hit at the idea of them doing “couple things” like this, my foot bounced under the table. I’d never even dreamed that Josh would give me a gift.

I dug a blunt fingernail along the tape and yanked at the ribbons. All eyes at the table stayed on me and my shaky hands. Eventually the wrapping came free and I pried open the cardboard box inside.

At first I couldn’t tell what was inside, and I had to pull the heavy object all the way out of the box to see it.

“It’s a camera,” Claire confirmed, clapping her hands.

A camera? Okay. But this wasn’t the miniature digital kind of camera Mom had. It was a gargantuan fossil of a thing with a large, round lens sticking off of it like the cannon on a tank.

“Do you . . .” Claire ducked her head down to try to meet my eyes and I realized I was grimacing. I forced a quick smile.

“So cool!” I said, looking between Claire and almost at Josh.

“It’s used,” Josh said with a shrug. “But Claire saw it at my place and thought it might be your kind of thing.”

It was his! My cheeks warmed. I rotated the camera, staring at the zillions of buttons and sliders and gizmos to adjust. When I held it up and pressed the button on top, the mechanics inside sprang to life, surprising me and making me nearly drop it.

“You’ve always been so artistic,” Claire said, scratching her nail into a dent in the table. “Those paintings you brought home last year, and with drama.”

Okay, true, I’ve always taken art and drama, but only in an attempt to make up for my waning academics. Still, my face felt like it was about to catch fire with all this attention and compliments.

“Here’s some instructions from the Internet,” Claire went on. “But I don’t know, they seem pretty complicated.”

“I might be able to help you figure them out, if you need.” Josh nudged me with his elbow again, and in three seconds I pictured our entire lives together: taking pictures in our yard, hanging them in our house, inviting our couple friends over to see.

The others at the table had lost interest quickly after I’d opened the gift, and I could tell by the way Claire kept picking at the table that she felt unsure of whether to keep focusing on me or turn her attention to them.

I gave her a nod to let her know it was okay if she ignored me now, but instead she said, “I know you don’t like being in front of the camera, or onstage . . .” She flipped her hair and that garnered the attention of the girls at the table. “But you’re the perfect person to meld into the background and capture everything around you.”

My hand slipped on the edge of the camera box and I gave myself a paper cut. Sucking on my finger, I tried to process her words. Did she really just say I might as well just fade into the background? In front of everyone? Okay, I knew I was no match for her talent and grace and beauty, but was I that unimportant?

I looked over at Josh and he was nodding, but I couldn’t tell if it was at me or at Claire or at the story Jasmine had just started telling.

The bell rang, and I swallowed my embarrassment. I didn’t want Claire’s words to end my birthday lunch. “Thanks for the camera!” I said, forcing some volume as they all stood and the din in the cafeteria rose. “And for saying I was creative,” I added, practically shouting, but I don’t think a single one of them heard me.

Before I could think of another way to get their attention, they were gone.

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