Read an Excerpt
Cara Sierra Sykes
do you define a word without
concrete meaning? To each
his own, the saying goes, so
push to attain an ideal
state of being that no two
random people will agree is
you want to be? Faultless.
Finished. Incomparable. People
can never be these, and anyway,
did creating a flawless facade
become a more vital goal
than learning to love the person
lives inside your skin?
The outside belongs to others.
Only you should decide for you—
I’ve lived with the pretense
of perfection for seventeen
years. Give my room a cursory
inspection, you’d think I have OCD.
But it’s only habit and not
obsession that keeps it all orderly.
Of course, I don’t want to give
the impression that it’s all up to me.
Most of the heavy labor is done by
our housekeeper, Gwen. She’s an
imposing woman, not at all the type
that most men would find attractive.
Not even Conner, which is the point.
My twin has a taste for older
women. Before he got himself
locked away, he chased after more
than one. I should have told sooner
about the one he caught, the one
I happened to overhear him with,
having a little afternoon fun.
Okay, I know a psychologist
would say, strictly speaking,
he was prey, not predator.
And in a way, I can’t really
blame him. Emily is simply
stunning. Conner wasn’t the only
one who used to watch her go
running by our house every
morning. But, hello, she was
his teacher. That fact alone
should have been enough warning
that things would not turn out well.
I never would have expected
Conner to attempt the coward’s way
out, though. Some consider suicide
an act of honor. I seriously don’t agree.
But even if it were, you’d have to
actually die. All Conner did was
stain Mom’s new white Berber
carpet. They’re replacing it now.
Mom Stands There Watching
The men work, laying mint
green carpeting over clean beige
padding. Thick. Lush. Camouflage.
I sit on the top stair, unseen.
Invisible. Silent. I might as well
not even be here at all. And
that’s all right. At least I don’t
have to worry that she will focus
her anger on me. Instead she blasts
it toward the carpet guys. Idiots!
You’re scratching the patina!
Her hiss is like a cobra’s spit.
I might want to expose that wood
one day. I can’t if it’s marred.
But she never will. That oak
has been irreparably scarred
blood. And even more by
the intent behind the bullet.
Sprawled on the floor,
Conner wanted to die.
Mom and Dad don’t think
so. In fact, for once they agree
on something besides how bad
their stock portfolios looked
last year. Both of them believe
Conner only wanted attention.
But he was way past hoping
for that, at least the positive
kind. No, Conner was tired
of the pressure. Sick of trying
to find the equation that would
lighten the weight of expectations
not his own. Listening to Mom
tell skilled laborers how to do
their job is almost enough to make
me empathize. The more she goes
on, the more I’m sure the carpet
guys understand. There is no
possible way to satisfy our mother.
I Guess In A Way
I have to give Conner a little
credit. I mean, by putting the gun
to his chest, he made an overt,
if obscene, statement—
I will no longer force myself
inside your prefab boxes. I’d much
rather check out of here than let
you decide the rest of my life.
“You,” meaning Mom and Dad.
The pressure they exert individually
is immense. As a team, it’s almost
impossible to measure up
to their elevated criteria. I have done
my best, pushed myself to the limit.
To get into Stanford, I have had to
ace every test, stand out as a leader
(junior class pres, student council),
excel in sports, serve as a mentor,
take command of extracurricular
pursuits—cheerleading, honor choir,
theater. All around dating Sean.
Sometimes I just want a solo vacation.
Hanging out on a beach, submitting
to the temptation of sand, sun, salt
water, sans UV protection. Who
cares what damage they might
inflict on my skin? Nice dream.
But what would my mother say?
I can hear her now. Don’t be
ridiculous. Who in their right
mind would invite melanoma
and premature aging?
When I look at her, I have
to admit her beauty regime
is working. It’s as if by sheer
force of will she won’t permit
wrinkles to etch her suede
complexion. But I know, deep
down, she is afraid of time. Once
in a while, I see fear in her eyes.
That Fear Isn’t Something
Most people notice. Not Dad,
who’s hardly ever home, and even
when he is, doesn’t really look
at Mom. Or me. Not Conner,
because if he had even once seen
that chink in her fourteen-carat
armor, he’d have capitalized on it.
Not her friends. (I think the term
misrepresents the relationship,
at least if loyalty figures into
what it means to be a friend.)
Book club. Bridge club. Gym
spinners. She maintains a flock
of them. That’s what they remind
me of. Beautiful, pampered birds,
plumage-proud, but blind
to what they drop their shit on.
And the scary thing is, I’m
on a fast track to that same
aviary. Unless I find my wings.
I Won’t Fly Today
Too much to do, despite the snow,
which made all local schools close
their doors. What a winter! Usually,
I love watching the white stuff fall.
But after a month with only short
respites, I keep hoping for a critical
blue sky. Instead, amazing waves
of silvery clouds sweep over the crest
of the Sierra, open their obese
bellies, and release foot upon foot
of crisp new powder. The ski
resorts would be happy, except
the roads are so hard to travel
that people are staying home.
So it kind of boggles the mind
that three guys are laying carpet
in the living room. Just goes to
show the power of money. In less
than an hour, the stain Conner left
on the hardwood will be a ghost.
That Conner left on our lives will
not vanish as easily. I don’t care
about Mom and her birds.
Their estimation of my brother
doesn’t bother me at all. Neither
do I worry about Dad and
what his lobbyist buddies think.
His political clout has not diminished.
As twins go, Conner and I don’t share
a deep affection, but we do have
connection. Not to mention
a crowd of mutual friends. God,
I’ll never forget going to school
the day after that ugly scene.
The plan was to sever the gossip
grapevine from the start with
an obvious explanation—
accident. Mom’s orders were
clear. Conner’s reputation
was to be protected at all costs.
When I arrived, the rumors
had already started, thanks
to our neighbor, Bobby Duvall.
Conner Sykes got hurt.
Conner Sykes was shot.
Conner Sykes is in the hospital.
Is Conner Sykes, like, dead?
I fielded every single question
with the agreed fabrication.
But eventually, I was forced to
concede that, though his wounds
would heal, he was not coming
back to school right away.
Conner Sykes wasn’t dead.
But he wasn’t exactly “okay.”
When People Ask
How he’s doing now, I have
no idea what to say except for,
“Better.” I don’t know if that’s
true, or what goes on in a place
like Aspen Springs, not that any-
one knows he’s there, thank God.
He has dropped off most people’s
radar, although that’s kind of odd.
Before he took this unbelievable
turn, Conner was top rung on our
social ladder. But with his crash
and burn no longer news of the day,
all but a gossipy few have quit
trying to fill in the blanks.
One exception is Kendra, who
for some idiotic reason still
loves him and keeps asking about
him, despite the horrible way he
dumped her. Kendra may be pretty,
but she’s not especially bright.
© 2011 Ellen Hopkins