“Stop stealing my toothpaste,” Luke says without so much as a glance in my direction.
“Why? Would I steal? Your toothpaste? I don't even like paste. I prefer gel. And anyways, I have my own.” We're each standing in front of our individual sinks, both looking in the mirror that stretches across the bathroom that we are forced to share. He turns his head slightly in my direction, not enough to really look at me, only enough to address my reflection.
“Mine’s better and you know it. Now quit taking it.”
Before I can protest his accusation, the sting of a towel snaps my leg. It’s the dirty hand towel Luke was using to dry his face and it leaves an instant red welt right above my knee. He’s so fast I didn't even see it coming.
Does every teenage guy act like this, or is it only my monster of a brother? It’s like it’s his job to make sure, daily, that I live a tortured existence. I consider telling him to take the day off—life would go poorly enough for me without his involvement. But I don't. Here’s the thing… big brothers are masters at sniffing out weakness. The slightest trace of insecurity can trigger an attack. I know from experience.
What’s so wrong with today? Well, for starters:
· I was up studying until all hours of the night, thanks to my vicious, pitiless seventh grade teachers. I went to bed exhausted, woke up exhausted, and figure I will probably spend the better part of my day just wishing I could go back to bed.
· My face looks like a tomato paste bomb went off and splatted all over my forehead. It seems that nothing—not the best dermatologists in Atlanta, not spa facials or organic diet changes, not any soap product known to Man—can clear up the battleground that is better known as my skin.
· Tomorrow, my grandmother is coming to stay with us. Don't get me wrong… I love her and can’t wait to spend the next two weeks with her while my mom is away. But, whenever she comes, someone loses their bed. And guess who that someone usually is. Well, I don't actually lose it entirely, I just end up having to share it, which is almost worse. I figure my mom will ordain at breakfast that Tessa, my seven-year-old little sister, will be moving into my bedroom while Nana is here.
And if that’s not enough, it’s Friday, which means I have the Friday Dad Call. The Friday Dad Call (or FDC) was established exactly ten months ago, when my parents decided to get divorced and my dad took a job in Charlotte, North Carolina. He runs a big bank, and I guess his company must have figured that, since he was no longer tied up with a family, he could be moved like a chess piece to anywhere they needed him. My parents set up this FDC when he left so that he would still feel involved in our daily lives. Nice in theory, but the only way to really be involved is, well, to be involved. Last week, he told me he started dating someone. Call me nutzo, but I really didn't want to hear that. I’m figuring tonight he’s going to tell me he’s moving to a different country or going to work for the circus or something.
I struggle to get a brush through my tangled hair and try to unsee what is happening at the other sink. Luke has found his toothpaste, and he’s belting out his favorite song while brushing his teeth. Not only is he the worst singer ever, but he’s got a constant wave of thick, white, pasty drool coming out of his mouth while he is screaming the wrong words to the wrong verse in the wrong key. He can’t see himself because, in his zeal to sing, he’s got his eyes squeezed tightly together. There’s an eruption of spit and toothpaste, then he lets the remnants hang out of his lips to ooze into the sink. It’s clearly intended to make me sick. And it’s working.
Ignore, ignore, focus. I glare at my image in the mirror. Why do I even bother brushing this crazy mop of hair? It’s not like it looks any better brushed than not. It used to be bright blond and perfectly straight. Now it’s wavy in all of the wrong places and getting more blah every day. I’m wondering what my head would look like shaved when my mom walks into the bathroom. She is smiling and coming straight at me for a good morning kiss on the cheek.
“How’s my perfect girl this morning?” she asks after she delivers the kiss.
“Far from perfect,” is all I mutter, hoping to squelch her baseless optimism. She smells nice and her hair and makeup are already done. She must have gotten up early to go into her office. It's her first day back to work since I was born and I should probably try to be more supportive. But I can’t muster it.
“Awwww, don’t say that! You are going to be beautiful today.” She’s relentless. She takes the brush gently out of my hand and starts working through my hair, the way she did when I was a little girl. “Your hair looks so healthy after the cut.”
“It doesn't. It looks drab. I want to be blond-blond like when I was Tessa’s age. It looks boring and dark now. I want to get highlights.”
“I told you, Miss Skylar Moss, you are too young to start all of that. Anyways, it’s winter… hair is supposed to be darker in the winter. Don't worry so much about it. You look pretty no matter what color your hair is. And most importantly,” she says, handing my brush back and kissing the top of my head, “you are beautiful on the inside. And I love you.”
Great. Mom thinks I’m beautiful on the inside. Let me tell you how far that goes when you're thirteen.
I’m the last one downstairs for breakfast. Tessa is at the table lazily spooning bite after bite of cereal into her mouth and Luke is emptying the carton of milk into his cereal bowl. He looks up at me as the last drop leaves the carton and feigns a surprised expression.
“Oh. Have you not eaten yet?”
“You know I haven't, you ogre.”
“I had no idea. I would have saved you some milk. I'm so sorry.”
He’s not. And he wouldn't have. I snarl my lip at him and hope to myself that he gets bitten by a tick today.
“Mom? Is there more milk?” I ask, but I’m pretty sure I already know the answer.
“Um.” She’s standing by the stove thumbing through her phone. She looks at me, shakes her head a little as if to clear it, then says, “What, Love?”
“Milk. Luke just finished it all. Is there more?”
“I'm not sure, Skylar. Could you check the fridge? I’m trying to find the best route to the office. I haven't been there at this time of day yet, and I hear traffic is terrible.”
I let out an annoyed sigh and stomp over to the refrigerator. Sure enough, there’s no more milk.
“There isn't any. What am I supposed to have for breakfast?” I ask her.
Luke throws his hands up in the air. “Make some toast or something, Skylar. Give Mom a break. She’s trying to start a new job today. Can’t you do anything for yourself?” He shakes his head at me.
Tessa, who hasn't said a word since I came down, stops mid-bite, milk dripping from her spoon.
“Skylar, you can have my cereal,” she offers sweetly. I don't have the heart to tell her that I don't want her soggy, used cereal, so I just say, “That’s okay, Tess. You eat it.”
“I’m sorry, Dear. I didn’t get to go to the store last night. Can you just do toast or yogurt this morning?”
I grab a container of yogurt out of the fridge and sit down at the table with Luke and Tessa. Mom comes over and sits at the head of the table, coffee in her hand and a timid smile.
“So, is everyone going to be good for the next two weeks while I am away?” Mom has never left us for more than a few days, and tomorrow morning she leaves for New Employee Training in Germany. I can tell the trip is making her nervous. I would probably be nervous, too, if it was anyone other than Nana staying with us. But Nana’s got this!
I almost say that I’ll be fine as long as my little sister isn’t allowed to infiltrate my room and steal all of my privacy. Mom knows Tessa is going to be anxious without her here, and the most obvious solution is to glue her to me. I love my little sis and all, but a girl needs her space!
Luke speaks up. “I think we’re all good, Mom. Anyways, Nana’s here if we need anything. Don’t worry so much.”
Tessa’s got her head down, eyes locked on one specific Cheerio as it floats around her cereal bowl. Her white-blond wispy hair is threatening to take a swim if her head gets any lower. I do feel for her—she’ll miss Mom the most. A tinge of guilt for not wanting to share my room rushes over me, and I wonder how I am going to protest without hurting her feelings.
“Good. So, as you know, Nana will get in sometime after lunch tomorrow. My flight is first thing in the morning, so unless there is some kind of miracle and you kids wake up early, you’ll be asleep when I leave. We’ll just say our goodbyes tonight.” She pauses and looks at each of us.
She notices the pokey lip and droopy eyes when she gets to Tess.
“And, Tessa? I have a special idea for you.”
Tessa looks up, still sad but also intrigued. Though she doesn't say anything, at least she takes a break from crying in her cereal.
“I was thinking… Would it be okay with you if I camped out in your room tonight? We can have a sleepover in your bunk bed and get in extra snuggles. Annnnnnnd, Nana loves snuggles, too. She’ll be staying in my room and you are welcome to visit any time.”
My sister’s little face lights up like Santa Claus just personally invited her to the North Pole in his off season. So does mine. This was maybe the best news I could have heard over breakfast. Nana’s coming and I get to keep my room? Now I’m feeling lucky… maybe my acne will go away, and Dad won’t tell me he’s joining the circus tonight.
Done with breakfast, Tessa and I put our jackets and gloves on and give Mom a goodbye kiss. We gather our backpacks and head out into the January morning. It’s sunny but breezy, and the morning air gives me a chill as I leave the warm house.
“Let’s skip!” Tessa yells back at me as she takes off down our driveway, her backpack bouncing up and down with the rhythm of her feet. Why not? No one is looking, so I copycat her until my heart starts racing and my cheeks flush. She giggles and turns around to look behind her every four or five seconds to make sure I’m still skipping.
It’s not far to her school, Candler Elementary, so I always drop her off. Sometimes it’s the best part of my day. All of the teachers remember me, and they are so nice when they see me. Whoever is outside greeting the kids always makes a point to stop and ask me how things are going at my school, Wesley Middle. I keep it simple and just tell them that things are great. But it feels like they really care, and it reminds of a time when things actually were great… a time when making straight A’s was easy, when everyone was encouraged to be a good friend, when my face didn't break out, and when I got to see my dad every day instead of talking to him once a week on the FDC.
I get Tessa delivered to school and then pull out my phone to keep me company. I Google cures for preteen acne, natural hair lighteners, makeup tricks to make your nose look thinner. I'm so engrossed in searching that I walk right past Eavie Riley, my best friend since first grade. She is waiting for me at the corner of her street like she does every day. She does a loud fake cough to get my attention. I glance up to see her making faces at me and snickering at how phone-distracted I am.
“Sorry, Eavie. I was just… well, nothing. You look pretty today.” She does. She’s wearing new jeans and a bright blue shirt that I’ve never seen before. The blue looks warm against her wavy, caramel-colored hair and light skin. Plus, she’s wearing eye makeup, so her pale blue eyes really pop.
“Thanks, Sky! I talked my mom into taking me shopping yesterday. I’m hoping Brian will notice me in social studies. Mr. Howard rearranged our seats into a circle for our government chapter, and Brian sits directly across from me now. If he looks up from his desk, I am the first person he will see.” She bobbles around and clutches my hand while describing the new seating arrangement. “I had a dream about him last night. We were at the movies and he…”
My attention gets derailed by a vibration on my phone and I only half listen to the rest of her dream. She’s gone totally boy crazy since Winter Break. Today it’s Brian, tomorrow it’ll be Rider, next week it will be Logan. So, I don't feel too bad about checking my phone.
There’s a notification on my screen. It’s an app icon that I haven't ever seen before—a striking avatar girl with thick, golden hair and full, red lips. Her head is tilted back and her mouth is slightly open. She seems to be looking right at me. Beside the icon, there’s an elusive message:
Want to be Perfekt?