She’s the Worst
CHAPTER 1 APRIL
The best part of summer mornings is that I can skip them.
During the school year, I’m up by five to beat my sister to the shower. If I wake up even a few minutes late, I end up hopping from one foot to the other, desperate to use the bathroom, while Jenn straightens her dark brown hair one section at a time. And forget breakfast. I’d rather miss it entirely than hear her tell me for the hundredth time that powdered sugar donuts aren’t “brain food.”
That’s why summer mornings are the best. By the time I roll out of bed, Jenn’s reading in her bedroom, her perfectly straightened hair pulled into her signature Why, yes, I am the valedictorian, why do you ask? ponytail. I don’t have to fight for the shower, or fast until lunch. Instead, I can stand barefoot in the kitchen, my brown curls a bird’s nest on top of my head, eating sugary cereal out of a coffee mug, just like I’m doing now. It’s perfect.
The other best part of summer mornings is Nate.
“You’re up early,” he says as he strolls into our kitchen through the back door. He’s been coming over, no invitation necessary, since we moved in when I was ten. I remember the first time he appeared in the doorway and took a seat at the table. I’m Nate Lee. I live next door. Can I have a waffle?
“It’s not early,” I say, looking at my cell phone. “It’s nine forty-five.”
“That’s early for you.” He grabs a banana and pours himself a cup of coffee, which he promptly puts in the microwave. He’s been here often enough to know it’s been cold for hours. “Want?” he says, nodding to the pot.
I wrinkle my nose. I’ve complained about Mom’s coffee a million times, but he always asks me anyway. “You realize you don’t have to be hospitable in someone else’s house, right?”
The timer goes off on the microwave. I pull out the mug and hand it to him.
He takes a sip. “One of these days you’re going to say ‘yes.’?”
“One of these days,” I say, “I’m going to lock the back door.”
A male voice floats down from the second floor.
“Is your dad still home?” Nate asks.
“Umm . . . no.” I fidget with the microwave door, swinging it back and forth. “That’s Eric. He slept over.”
Nate raises his eyebrows, but doesn’t say anything. I get why he’s surprised—Eric and I have only been hooking up
since the soccer boot camp we both attended at the beginning of summer. But things are already pretty serious between us. He’s snuck in my bedroom window a few times already, and last night he stayed over for the first time. Actually, we fell asleep accidentally, but when we woke up at five this morning in a tangle of sheets, he chose to lock my bedroom door and stay until my parents left for the day instead of sneaking back out the way he came in. Which I think says something. I hope it does, anyway.
The floorboards overhead creak, and Eric comes pounding down the stairs, a pair of grassy soccer cleats in one hand and his soccer bag in the other. “There you are,” he says. “I was looking for you.”
“I hope I didn’t wake you up,” I say as he comes into the kitchen. “I tried to be quiet.”
“No worries,” he says, pausing to kiss me on the cheek on his way to the coffeepot. He drops his stuff in the corner, then pours himself a cup and takes a sip . . . and spits it back out. “This is cold. And very bad.”
I give Nate an I told you so look, but he’s too busy frowning down at his phone to notice it.
“What’s up, man?” Eric asks him. “You look like someone just stole your high score on Candy Crush.”
Nate scowls but doesn’t look up. “No one plays Candy Crush anymore.”
“My mom does,” Eric says. “Or maybe it’s FarmVille.” He starts to lift the coffee cup to his mouth, then realizes what he’s doing and dumps the whole thing into the sink.
“I’ve got to go. I’m meeting the guys at the field to practice. Gotta look like a stud for that USC rep. He’s eyeing me for next fall, and there might even be some scholarship money in it.”
He wraps his arm around my waist and pulls me in for a kiss, but I’m too busy fighting off nerves at the mention of the soccer rep to kiss him back. Nobody knows this—not Eric, not my family, not even Nate—but last week, Coach Keisha said my name came up too, and that if I play my cards right, I might be able to get a full ride to USC. I almost died right then and there, because while my grades aren’t bad, they aren’t impressive either—mostly in the B range, along with an A in Geometry and a C+ in World History. I might get into a few schools, but nowhere like USC. Not with how competitive college is. But with an athletic scholarship? All I’d have to do is maintain my GPA—okay, maybe I’d need to improve it a little—and continue kicking ass on the field, and I’d be set.
“You okay?” Nate asks from across the kitchen.
“Yeah,” I say, shaking free of my daydream. “Totally.”
Eric looks back and forth between us. “Did I miss something?”
“Nope,” I say, forcing a smile. “You coming over tonight?”
“If you’re lucky.” He winks, then slings his soccer bag over one shoulder and nods to Nate. “See you around, man.”
Nate looks back down at his phone and grunts.
Eric heads out the back door, leaving Nate and me alone in the kitchen.
“What’s wrong with you?” I ask the moment the door
closes. “Why do you get so weird and quiet whenever Eric is around?”
“I just don’t like him,” Nate says, still not looking at me. “He’s a total bro.”
“Eric isn’t a bro. You just don’t like athletes.”
Nate finally looks up. “I like you,” he says, “and you’re an athlete.”
“Fine,” I say, “then you don’t like male athletes.”
“Mike is a male athlete, and he’s practically my best friend.”
“First of all, Mike is on the bowling team, and the jury is still out on whether that counts as a sport. And second, Mike is not your best friend. I am.”
“Exactly,” Nate says. “You’re my best friend, and I’m yours. Which is why it’s my duty to be honest with you when I think people are bros. And that guy? He’s a total bro.”
Nate’s phone buzzes in his hand, and he looks down again.
“Who keeps texting you?” I ask, nodding to his cell phone.
He frowns again, and it occurs to me that maybe Eric isn’t the only reason he’s been quiet for the last few minutes. “Is she okay?” I ask. Mrs. Lee is one of the nicest people in our neighborhood, and the idea that something might be wrong with her makes me feel terrible.
“She’s fine,” Nate says, and puts his phone back in his pocket. “It’s no big deal.”
“If it’s no big deal, then why—”
The stairs creak again, cutting me off. “April?” Jenn calls. “Is there any coffee left?”
“Yeah,” I call back, “but it’s disgusting.”
She takes a step down, and the hem of her plaid pajama pants and her slipper-clad foot comes into view. “Wait—is Nate here?”
He grins. “Good morning, Jennifer.”
“Oh,” she says. “Be right back.”
Her feet disappear, and Nate and I turn to one another. “I’ll bet you ten bucks that when she comes down, she’s fully dressed and wearing heels,” Nate says.
“No way. Heels aren’t practical. Keep up.”
Jenn reappears a few minutes later. She is indeed fully dressed—she’d never let a non–family member see her in pajamas—and her slippers have been replaced with black leather flats, not heels. Nate tips his head at me in acknowledgment, but I barely notice. Something isn’t right. Jenn and I haven’t been close in a long time, but I can still read the warning signs. First of all, her hair still looks like mine—a frizzy, curly mess—and second, she’s chewing on her bottom lip the way she always does when she’s upset.
“Hey,” I say. “You okay?”
Jenn pours herself a cup of coffee and puts it in the microwave. “I just have a lot going on.”
Jenn always has a lot going on. She spent her entire summer hurrying between our parents’ antique store in Hollywood, where she clocks as many I’m the Better Daughter hours as
humanly possible, and her boyfriend’s house. But this is the first time she’s ever looked anything other than completely presentable and on top of things.
“Is this about Thomas?” I ask her. “He leaves for Stanford in two days, right?”
The microwave beeps, and Jenn takes out her mug. “Kind of.”
“It’s kind of about Thomas,” Nate asks, “or he kind of leaves in two days?”
Jenn’s eyes flash with irritation, but then she sags back against the kitchen counter and sighs. “It’s complicated.”
Once upon a time I would have pressed her for more, but there’s no point these days. If she’s going to open up to someone, it won’t be me.
Jenn’s cell phone rings in the back pocket of her jeans. “Hi,” she says. “Are you here?”
There’s a low voice on the other end—Thomas. Speak of the khaki-clad devil.
Jenn nods. “Okay, come around to the back and I’ll let you in.”
“Why does he even bother calling?” I ask after she’s hung up. “Why not just come inside like a normal person?”
“Some people have manners and don’t let themselves into other people’s homes,” she says, then immediately cringes. “Sorry,” she says to Nate. “I didn’t mean you.”
There’s a knock on the back door, and we all turn to see Thomas standing on the other side, waiting patiently to be let in.
“For god’s sake,” I say, “he knows it’s unlocked, right?”
Vampire, Nate mouths to me. Has to be invited in.
Jenn glares at us and opens the door.
“Morning,” Thomas says, stepping into the kitchen. His hair is neatly gelled, and he’s wearing a light blue polo and khakis. He looks like Captain America on his day off, if the Cap wore loafers.
Thomas gives Jenn a quick kiss, then turns to Nate and me. “How is everyone?”
“Not as good as you,” Nate says. “You look like you’re about to buy a yacht. Or three.”
“Or like he’s going to explain mortgage-backed securities,” I say. “Either one.”
“I wish,” Thomas says seriously. “The housing market is super lucrative these days.”
He hesitates for a second then says, “Come on, guys. I’m kidding.”
“Oh, thank god,” Nate says. “Because I had no idea what you were talking about.”
Jenn links her arm in Thomas’s and leans her head on his shoulder. “So what’s up?” she asks. “You sounded serious on the phone.”
“Um, yeah,” Thomas says, his smile gone. “How long till you have to leave for work?”
She checks her phone. “Five minutes?”
“Cool. Can we talk for a sec?”
Jenn glances at me, then leads him out of the kitchen, like she doesn’t want me to hear what they’re talking about.
When they’re gone, I cross the kitchen and press my ear against the swinging door to the living room.
“What are you doing?” Nate asks.
I hold up my finger to shush him, and listen. Jenn’s voice is muffled, but I can make out most of what she’s saying.
“Tom, I told you—”
“You’re going to piss her off,” Nate warns. I shush him again, and concentrate on their voices.
“I know, okay?” Jenn is saying. “Stop bothering me about it!”
Whoa. Jenn getting mad at Thomas? Unheard-of.
“I’m just trying to help,” Thomas says. “Just promise me you’ll tell them today, okay?”
“I will,” she says. “I promise.”
I step back and grab a random dish towel just as the door swings open. Jenn’s gaze travels from my face down to the towel and then back up again. She scowls. “You were listening.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Yes, you were,” she says, grabbing the towel out of my hands. “You know how I know? Because you never clean up after yourself.”
Nate laughs, and I stick my tongue out at him.
“Maybe I was listening,” I tell Jenn, “but it’s only because you were being so sneaky.” When she doesn’t stop glaring at me, I add, “I could barely hear anyway.”
“Good.” She folds the towel and puts it back on the counter. Behind her, Thomas looks uncomfortable.
“I’m taking the Prius and going to the store,” Jenn tells me. “Nate, are you coming in this afternoon?”
He nods, but doesn’t look happy about it. I don’t blame him. For the last year he’s been working at our family antique store with Jenn. I told him not to—that place is dusty and creepy and totally boring—but he needed a part-time job, and Jenn decided the antique store was perfect for him. And Jenn . . . let’s just say she has a way of getting people to do what she wants. Well, most people. I am proudly immune to my big sister’s power trips.
“Don’t be late,” she says. “I have to leave at three.”
Nate salutes her. “Yes, ma’am.”
Jenn grabs her purse and keys off the hook by the door, and she and Thomas head out, hand in hand.
I hop up onto the counter. “Something’s up. She and Thomas were arguing.”
Nate quirks an eyebrow. “His-and-hers arguing on the penultimate day of summer before they begin a long-distance romance for the ages? Say it ain’t so.”
“Do you hear yourself when you talk?” I ask. “Like, really hear yourself?”
Nate joins me on the counter. Our legs press up against each other, his thigh warming mine. For a split second, I wonder what would happen if I were to lean into him—then he pulls away. I feel a flicker of disappointment, but I remember the way Eric kissed me last night, the way his body felt next to mine as we fell back asleep, and the feeling disappears. Nate’s great, but he’s just my friend. Eric is . . .
a lot of things. Captain of the boys’ varsity soccer team. Tall and blond and hot in a way that makes me nervous. I’m also pretty sure he’s getting ready to ask me to be his girlfriend. Especially after last night.
“What were they arguing about?” Nate asks.
“Jenn and Thomas?”
“Oh! I couldn’t hear everything, but she has to tell someone . . . something.”
“Very mysterious.” He looks over at me, and his smile fades. “Hey, are you actually worried about her?”
I shrug. “Arguing with him isn’t like her. I think she might be upset because he’s leaving for Stanford in two days and she’s staying behind.”
“Oh,” he says. “That’s not funny, then. That sucks.”
“And you still don’t know why she isn’t going with him?”
“Nope. I’ve asked a million times, but she insists turning Stanford down was the right decision. She wants to stay closer to home and work at the store.”
Which makes zero sense. But then again, I’ve gotten used to not understanding my sister. I didn’t know she got into Stanford until I found the acceptance letter in the bathroom trash. If it had been me, it would have been impossible to find someone who didn’t know I’d gotten in. But that’s Jenn. She never brags, never complains, never makes waves, and if I’m being totally honest . . . she’s a teensy bit boring. But she’s also our family’s rock. If Jenn’s starting to
unravel, then there’s no hope for the rest of us.
I tap my foot against Nate’s. “Maybe we should do something to cheer her up.”
“I don’t know—hang out with her? Keep her mind off Thomas leaving?”
“You could come hang out with me at the store.” I give him a look, and he sighs. “It was worth a try. Okay, new approach. What makes her happy? What does she like?”
“School,” I say immediately. “And antiques. And Thomas.”
I rack my brain, but Jenn doesn’t have hobbies. She doesn’t play sports. She has friends, but they’re all into the same thing she is: taking over the world one AP class at a time. “Not that I know of.”
“Man, that’s depressing.” Nate rubs the back of his neck. “Okay. She’s upset because Thomas is leaving and she’s staying here, right?”
“I think so.”
“Then maybe you should make her feel better about that. Staying here, I mean. I don’t know how you make her feel better about Thomas. That’s above my pay grade as a neighbor and fellow antique store employee.”
It’s a lame joke, but he’s got a point. When Jenn first got into Stanford, she was excited about leaving LA. She might have decided not to go, but she’s been dreaming about going away to college forever. And for Jenn, that’s a literal forever.
She’s been talking about this since we were kids. Ever since—
I turn to Nate. “The pact! I forgot all about it.”
“So did I, apparently, because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I doubt I ever told you. It was kind of a secret.” I hop down off the counter and start to pace the kitchen. I can’t believe I forgot about this. “It was the summer before seventh grade and—”
“Seventh grade,” Nate interrupts, a dreamy look on his face. “That was the year I had homeroom with Miss Coppola. But she let us call her Genevieve.” He smiles. “I was totally in love with her.”
“Are you done?” I ask.
“Yes, sorry. You were in the middle of a precious childhood memory?”
“Right. I was going into seventh grade—which was apparently super formative for you, thanks to Genevieve—and Jenn was starting high school. She was nervous about it, though, so I took her on this fun, all-day adventure around our neighborhood. It was like we were the Boxcar Children, except instead of collecting teacups and trying to be civilized despite living in a train or whatever, we were eating ice cream and hanging out under the slide at that park down the street. But after a while we got tired, so we went back home and snuck onto the roof of our building.”
“You rebels,” Nate says. “Then what happened?”
“Jenn started talking about how she wanted to go away to college even though she’d only just graduated from middle school. Back then she wanted to go to Michigan or Illinois or
something, which I remember thinking was really far. Like, why not go to Antarctica while you’re at it? But then she got really serious all of a sudden, and said we should promise each other that in four years, when she was leaving for college, we’d spend the entire day together. Just us. To, you know, say goodbye. So we did a pinkie swear . . . and that was it.” I wrinkle my nose. “Her fingers were still covered in dry strawberry ice cream, so it was kind of sticky.”
“Gross,” Nate says. “But also perfect! You can hang out with her tomorrow and fulfill your weird urban adventure pact. I don’t know if you’ll still fit under the slide, but—”
“You’re right, the slide is really low—”
“No, I mean no. We can’t.”
“Because there’s no way Jenn’s going to want to hang out with me all day.”
Nate’s eyes narrow in that particular way they always do right before he tells me not to neg myself. But I know I’m right—I might think my sister is a little boring, but that’s nothing compared to the way my sister feels about me. I’m pretty sure every time she hears my name, the words “irresponsible,” “immature,” and “lazy” flash before her eyes. Regardless of how she felt about me back then, Jenn hasn’t wanted to hang out, just the two of us, in years. “Besides,” I continue, “she’s not going away to college anymore. She’s staying here. In this city. In this house.” I jump back up on the counter next to him. “So there’s no point.”
“Sure there is,” Nate says. “The point is to take her mind off Thomas leaving, and cheer her up about staying in LA. The pact is just an excuse. A cover story, if you will.”
“But a full day is so long. And we’re older now. We can’t just hang out on the playground all day doing nothing.”
“Stoner Larry does.”
I laugh. “Touché.”
“You’ve just got to come up with a list of her favorite LA things and do all of them. Go to places she likes.”
“That would be great if I knew any of that stuff. But I don’t.” I flick a stray Cheerio across the counter and into the sink. “Okay, what if I put together a bunch of famous LA landmarks instead? Like the Magic Castle and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, or the Hollywood sign? That would be super fun!”
Nate looks unimpressed. “That sounds kinda touristy.”
“Yeah,” I say, my excitement deflating. “You’re right.”
“You need to choose places that matter to both of you. That remind you of each other.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Jenn and I aren’t exactly close anymore. The last time we did anything just the two of us was months ago, when we had to pick up that set of dining chairs for Mom and Dad. Not exactly the kind of thing you want to re-create to cheer someone up.”
We settle back into silence, both of us thinking, but then Nate slides off the counter. “I’m heading out.”
“Wait, you’re leaving? I thought you were helping me brainstorm!”
He opens the back door and squints into the midmorning sunlight. “This is about you and Jenn. You’re not gonna figure it out if I’m here distracting you.” He grabs a banana out of the fruit basket. “Besides, I’ve only got a few more hours until work. I’m not about to spend them cooped up in here with you.”
I grab the towel Jenn carefully folded and throw it at him. He catches it and tosses it back on the counter. “See you later?”
“Obviously,” I say. “Bye.”
Nate leaves, and I pick up my phone. I’m halfway finished typing “Things to Do in LA” into the search engine when I sigh and put the phone back down. Nate’s right. If I’m going to make Jenn feel better, I’m going to have to come up with stuff that really matters to her. Stuff besides school.
I head into the living room, where we keep all our old family photos.
Time to take a trip down memory lane.