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To be fair, when the alarm goes off, there’s barely even any smoke rising out of the oven.
“Um, is the apartment on fire?”
I lower the screen of my laptop down, where my older sister Paige’s now scowling face is taking up half the screen on a Skype call from UPenn. The other half of the screen is currently occupied by the Great Expectations essay I have written and rewritten enough times that Charles Dickens is probably rolling in his grave.
“Nope,” I mutter, crossing the kitchen to shut the oven off, “just my life.”
I pull the oven open, and another whoosh of smoke comes out, revealing some seriously blackened Monster Cake.
I grab the stepladder from the pantry to shut off the fire alarm, then open all the windows to our twenty-sixth-floor apartment, where the Upper East Side sprawls out beneath my feet—all the scores of towering buildings with their bright lights burning even long after anyone in their right mind should be asleep. I stare at it for a moment, somehow still not quite used to the staggering view even though we’ve been here nearly four years.
Right. Paige. I pull up the laptop screen.
“Under control,” I say, giving her a thumbs-up.
She raises a disbelieving eyebrow, then mimes sweeping at her bangs. I raise my hand to touch my own, and end up streaking the Monster Cake batter all the way down them as Paige winces.
“Well, if you do end up calling the fire department, prop me up on the taller counter so I can see the hot firefighters bust in.” Her eyes shift on her screen away from me, no doubt to look at the unfinished post on the baking blog we run together. “I take it we’re not getting any pictures for the entry tonight?”
“I have three other pans of it from earlier I can snap once they’re frosted. I’ll send them later.”
“Yeesh. How much Monster Cake did you make? Is Mom even back from her trip yet?”
I avoid her eyes by looking at the stove top, where my pans are all lined up in a neat row. Paige barely ever asks about Mom these days, so I feel like I have to be extra careful with whatever I say next—more careful than, say, the state of academic distraction that led me to nearly burn the kitchen to the ground.
“She should be back in two days.” And then, because I apparently can’t help myself, I add, “You could come up, if you wanted. We don’t have much going on this weekend.”
Paige wrinkles her nose. “Pass.”
I bite the inside of my cheek. Paige is so stubborn that anything I say to try to bridge the gap between her and Mom will usually just make things worse.
“But you could come down to Penn and visit me,” she offers brightly.
The idea would be tempting if I didn’t have this Great Expectations essay and a whole slew of other great expectations to deal with. An AP Stats test, an AP Bio project, debate club prep, and my first official day of being captain of the girls’ swim team, to name a few—and that’s only the tip of my figurative, ridiculously stressful iceberg.
Whatever face I’m making must say it all for me, because Paige holds her hands up in surrender.
“Sorry,” I say reflexively.
“First off, stop saying sorry,” says Paige, who is now waist-deep in a feminist theory class and embracing it with aggressive enthusiasm. “And second off, what is going on with you, anyway?”
I fan the last of the smoke toward the window. “Going on with me?”
“This whole … weird … Valedictorian Barbie thing you’ve got going on,” she says, gesturing at the screen.
“I care about my grades.”
Paige snorts. “Not back home, you didn’t.”
By “home,” she means Nashville, where we grew up.
“It’s different here.” It’s not like she’d know, considering she never actually had to go to Stone Hall Academy, a private school so elite and competitive that even Blair Waldorf would probably burn within two minutes of crossing its threshold. The year Mom moved us here, Paige was a senior and insisted on going to the local public school, and she already had grades from her old school to buoy her applications. “The grading scale is harder. College admissions are more competitive.”
“But you aren’t.”
Ha. Maybe I wasn’t before she ditched me for Philadelphia. Now my peers know me as the Terminator. Or Two-Shoes, or Preppy Pepper, or whatever moniker Jack Campbell, notorious class clown and the metaphorical thorn in my very irritated side, has decided to grace me with that week.
“Besides, didn’t you apply to Columbia early decision? You think they’re gonna care about a lousy B plus?”
I don’t think they will, I know they will. I overheard some girls in homeroom saying a kid at another school down the block from ours had their Columbia acceptance pulled after a bout of senioritis. But before I can justify hinging my paranoia on this extremely unsubstantiated rumor, the front door opens, followed by the click click click of my mom’s heels on the apartment’s hardwood floors.
“Peace,” says Paige.
She ends the call before I even turn back to the screen.
I sigh, shutting the laptop just before my mom walks into the kitchen, decked out in her usual airport fare: a pair of tight black jeans, a cashmere sweater, and a pair of oversize black sunglasses that, frankly, look ridiculous on her given the late hour. She pulls them off and perches them up on her perfectly coiffed blonde hair to inspect me, and the hurricane that used to be her spotless kitchen.
“You’re back early.”
“And you’re supposed to be in bed.”
She steps forward and pulls me into a hug, and I squeeze her a little tighter than someone covered in cake batter probably should. It’s only been a few days, but it’s lonely when she’s gone. I’m still not used to it being so quiet, without Paige and Dad around.
She holds me there and takes a demonstrative whiff, no doubt inhaling a lungful of burnt baked good, but when she pulls away, she raises the same eyebrow Paige did and doesn’t say anything.
“I have an essay due.”
She glances over at the pans of cake. “It looks like a riveting read,” she says wryly. “Is this the Great Expectations one?”
“The very same.”
“Didn’t you finish that a week ago?”
She has a point. I guess if push really comes to shove, I can pull up one of the old drafts and submit it. But the problem is, the figurative pushing and shoving at Stone Hall Academy is more like maiming and destroying. I’m competing for Ivy League admissions with legacies who probably descended down from the original Yale bulldog. It’s not enough to be good, or even great—you have to crush your peers, or get crushed.
Well, metaphorically, at least. And speaking of metaphors, for some reason, despite having read this book twice and annotating it into oblivion, I’m having some trouble interpreting any of them in a way that wouldn’t put our AP Lit teacher to sleep. Every time I try to write a coherent sentence, all I can think about is tomorrow’s swim practice. It’s my first day as acting captain and I know Pooja went to a conditioning camp over the summer, which means she might be faster than I am now, which means she has every opportunity to undermine my authority and make me look like an idiot in front of everyone and—
“Do you want to stay home from school tomorrow?”
I blink at my mom like she grew an extra head. That’s the last thing I need. Even missing an hour would give everyone around me an edge.
“No. No, I’m good.” I sit up on the counter. “Did you finish up your meetings?”
She’s been so dead set on launching Big League Burger internationally that it’s practically all she ever talks about these days—meetings with investors in Paris, in London, even in Rome, trying to figure out which European city she’ll take it to first.
“Not quite. I’ll have to fly back out. But corporate’s been having a cow over the new menu launches tomorrow, and it just didn’t look good for me to be away in the middle of it.” She smiles. “Also, I missed my mini-me.”
I snort, but only because between her designer digs and my wrinkled pajamas, right now I look like anything but.
“Speaking of the menu launches,” she says, “Taffy says you haven’t been answering her texts.”
I try to keep the twinge of annoyance from my face. “Yeah, well. I gave her some ideas for tweets to queue up, like, weeks ago. And I’ve had a lot of homework.”
“I know you’re busy. But you’re just so good at what you do.” She sets her finger on my nose the way she’s done since I was little, when she and my dad used to laugh at the way I’d go a little cross-eyed staring at it. “And you know how important this is to the family.”
To the family. I know she doesn’t mean for it to, but it rubs the wrong way, considering where we started and where we are now.
Copyright © 2019 by Emma Lord