When I returned home that evening, my mother was at it again. This time, she was in the process of mixing some sort of casserole. As Brian and I entered the house, she came out of the kitchen donned in an apron. She looked slightly ridiculous.

"Mom," I commented dryly, "Is this apron really necessary?"

"I know, it's a little cheesy," she said, smoothing out the white lacy cloth, "But it came free with my cooking set."

I could only stare, watching my mother slowly morph into a Stepford Wife. Brian, on the other hand, was beaming at my mother.

"I think it looks great on you, Karen," he said, nodding in approval. Dan and my mother had asked us to refer to them by their real names, as nothing else seemed quite appropriate for the time being. I'm sure Dan secretly hoped I'd start calling him dad one day. Not going to happen, Danny.

"Why thank you Brian," my mom answered, delighted.

He would.

I wasn't about to let Brian show me up, carrying all of the weight of this honeymoon issue. So, I lightly punched him in the arm and shook my head.

"Aw, you're such a suck-up," I said, laughing. Brian only shrugged and joined in the laughter. It was so blatantly obvious that we were putting on a show, but Karen seemed to take it all in. Perhaps she just wanted to believe that we were getting along so bad that she welcomed every opportunity of peace, even if it were for show.

"Are you guys hungry?" she asked, suddenly changing the subject. "Dinner won't be ready for a while, but I can make you a snack."

Brian declined politely and excused himself to go do homework, but I was famished. "I would love one," I said, speaking sincerely for the first time since I had returned home.

"Why don't you come in the kitchen, tell me about school, and I'll make you something?" she suggested. Because my mood hadn't been soured today by the huge gash in my forehead, I agreed, but first ran upstairs to put down my books. When I got downstairs, my mom had already prepared a platter of celery and peanut butter.

"Awfully healthy snack," I muttered as I grabbed a stalk of celery and munched on it.

"There's nothing wrong with healthy," she replied, taking a seat across from me on a stool surrounding the island.

"There's nothing wrong with sugar and carbs either," I answered cheekily. Karen rolled her eyes.

"There is when you start eating too many of them," she said flippantly. I stopped munching for a second and slowly glanced at her. My mom caught the stare and licked her lips. "I wasn't saying that you have," she started. "I'm just saying it's a possibility."

I wasn't really sure what to say. I, for one, had never really cared about my weight. My mother had never made me feel very self-conscious about my appearance, but for the first time, I was questioning myself. I had gained some weight since Greg left my mother, but I had come to accept the curves I had formed in replacement of my once tight body.

"Do you think I'm fat?" I asked, not really sure how I felt about the situation. As my weight had never been an issue before, I wasn't about to burst into tears.

"Of course not," she said, raising her voice just a little. "It's just that, Brian and Dan lead such healthy lifestyles, it wouldn't hurt if we joined in." I knew it. It all went back to Brian and Dan. Brian worked out for an hour every day, did she want me to do that too? I felt slightly disgusted with the idea. However, could I really throw a fit about eating healthier? I suppose it would help me in the long run. If I replaced a few Mickey D's cheeseburgers with a few Subway sandwiches, I might even add a couple years to my life. As I was contemplating this, my mother mistook my silence for hurt, and she attempted to make up for it.

"Really, I can always pick some extra cupcakes or something at the store if it's that important to you," she said frantically.

I gave her one last lingering look before picking up another stalk of celery. "When you put it that way, it just sounds bad," I said, beginning to find amusement in the situation. My mom grabbed a celery stick and licked the peanut butter off of it before laughing also.

"Yes, I suppose it does."

While I hadn't realized it then, that was the first time I had learned to take a somewhat depressing situation and make it positive. If I had only realized my ability to do so then, life with the Hardings would have been so much easier. However, I was too stubborn to start looking for positives.


The rest of the week passed by without difficulty. I forced myself to become accustomed to Brian's schedule, waking myself up earlier, yet taking my sweet time to reach his car after school. He was annoyed.

I had put my investigation on hold for the moment, as I was using the rest of the week in order to adjust to life at Washington. I don't think Claire realized it, but she and her friends had basically restored my sanity. Wednesday and Thursday consisted of bickering with Brian on the way to school, pointless comments from Casey in physics, lunches with Claire, and chatting with Maureen in pre-calculus. After school was certainly uninteresting, though I had taken up running after school on the treadmill. I had contemplated asking to borrow Brian's weights one time, but found that I couldn't suck up my pride to do so. I had noticed, though, that my daily workouts had helped with my mood considerably.

It wasn't until Friday that things became interesting. I was sitting in physics class, tapping my pencil against the countertop when Casey slid into the seat next to me. Brian didn't notice as he was too enthralled in a conversation with Maureen. I was still angry at him from the night before, so I hadn't even spoken to him on the ride here.

Thursday night, it had become obvious that we were making an impression on the parents when they commented on how well we were getting along. After dinner, I suggested to Brian that we talk each others' parents individually, telling them how we'd like for them to go on a honeymoon. I was prepared to plead my case with Dan, but Brian would have none of it.

"We're doing fine," Brian had muttered. "I'm not going to talk to your mother."

He had said it so drolly, but the comment offended me more than he would know. The fact of the matter was, it was easier for Brian to hate Karen than for me to hate Dan. I hated that.

With that memory in mind, I decided to humor Casey for the first time in a couple of days.

"That bruise is looking swell," Casey said with a broad grin. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from spouting something stupid and turned my gaze to him.

"You're in Drew's seat," I replied, though my lab partner was nowhere to be seen.

"Let's be honest here," Casey said puckering his lips. "My company is much more preferable than 'the love machine's.'"

I couldn't help myself; I chuckled at Casey's reference. However, I still wouldn't give in to him. "That's debatable," I quipped and Casey looked unconvinced. The truth was, Drew had kind of grown on me. True, he was Brian's best friend, but he treated Shannon decently once she got past the crude remarks. She almost pitied him, though. His best friend was, in essence, lying to him. Drew still had yet to find out that Brian's father had remarried, and that I was now Brian's stepsister. If a girl lied to her best friend like that, it would cause a serious, almost unforgivable rift in their relationship.

"So," Casey said, kicking his feet onto the countertop and leaning back in his chair. His loose-fitting jeans sagged as he did so, revealing the elastic waistline of some Joe Boxers. I averted my attention as soon as I realized I had stared at his underwear, and looked him in the eye.

"So…" I waited for another self-righteous comment.

"It's Friday," Casey said as if I hadn't realized the fact. "What are you doing tonight?"

"I don't know," I shrugged as if this too were obvious. "I only moved here a week ago."

Casey snuck a glance at Brian and Maureen, one which did not go unnoticed by myself, before continuing. "Then isn't it convenient that you have a friend like me," he stated. "Because I am going to a party tonight, if you'd like to tag along."

I noticed that Brian's attention had been diverted and Maureen had turned to wave at Casey. His eyes lit up and he waved back before she turned away once more. The scene was sad, to say the least.

"Well, when you put it that way," I replied dryly. "As much as I'd love to, I don't think I'm the right person to make Maureen Jacobs jealous."

Casey scoffed and laughed loudly. Brian turned around, saw that I was with Casey, and shook his head in disgust. "Oh my dear, how little you know."

"This is true," I said turning back to Casey. "Care to fill me in?"

"Not particularly," Casey replied, fiddling with the lanyard that hung loose from his pocket. "But honestly, it hurts me to think that you think I would use you so. I just want the pleasure of your company."

"You are so full of…" I began, but was cut off when Drew abruptly stepped in.

"Go away," Drew said, with a tone I hardly ever heard him use. He waited patiently as Casey scribbled something on the corner of my notebook and then got up to leave, but not before giving us both a salute.

I rotated my notebook to read what he had written.

If you change your mind…555-0928

I laughed. Like that was going to happen.


At lunch that day, I took my usual place between Claire and Joey. The circle of friends was discussing their plans for the weekend. Hannah (not surprisingly) was going to stay home that night and baby-sit her little sister. Regina (I had finally learned her name) was going to a party with a boy she had met from Northeast High, the poorer high school of the two in the area surrounding my neighborhood. Adam, Joey, and Claire were all going to some big basketball party that night. Apparently, the entire junior and senior class would be there. This I seriously doubted due to Washington's insane size, but I took it that the party was pretty important.

"If you'd like, you can come with me," Claire offered. She continually surprised me with her sincerity. However, I had been contemplating Casey's offer all day. I had the inclination to accept, merely to piss off Brian. But this little war we were in was so immature, I almost felt shallow doing so. Now, though, my friends had actually invited me to the party. I would have people to talk to and the opportunity to meet many more people my own age. Would it be such a bad thing if I merely showed up with Casey? It wasn't as if my whole purpose was to piss off Brian, it was just an added bonus.

"Actually," I said, "I would like to, but somebody in my physics class asked me to the party earlier, and I can't really decide if I should go with them."

"Who is it?" Regina asked, always eager to find out about others' social lives.

"Your cousin," I looked at Claire and grimaced as I said the words.

"No way," Regina's jaw dropped as I said it. I had long ago figured out Regina's list of gorgeous boys in this school, and Casey certainly was near the top.

Claire, on the other hand, looked skeptical. "Well, if you want to go with him, that's fine." I could easily read the confusion in her voice. After all, we had spent the last week laughing at the stupid things Casey had said to me. Now, she probably thought I had been harboring a secret crush on him the entire time.

"I don't really," I started, but caught myself with Regina's incredulous stare. "It's kind of a long story."

"You girls and your drama," Adam shook his head. Joey laughed.

"Why don't you go with Casey and come find us at the party," he added and I shrugged.

"I don't know," Claire said curiously, "I'm kind of interested in this long story." I clearly did not have enough time to explain it all to her at lunch. And Claire had been my only friend up to this point, I didn't want to lie to her. I wouldn't act as Brian had toward his friends, that was for sure.

"Why don't you come over to my place tonight to get ready and you'll see," I said, knowing how peeved Brian would be that somebody would know his secret. Claire shrugged. "Sounds like a plan," she said. "I'll get your address after school."

We agreed to meet at the front door after the final bell, then I was off to my next classes. At the end of the day, I was sitting in pre-calculus when Maureen brought up this huge party once more.

"Are you going tonight?" she asked as Ms. Guttrel droned on about linear programming.

"I think so," I whispered back. Maureen looked pleased. "Oh good, come find me when you're there."

"I will," I answered politely. I figured now was a good time to do a bit more research on her influence over the two most popular boys in school. "Are you going with Brian Harding?" I asked, sounding genuinely curious. I hoped I wasn't overstepping a boundary by asking.

"Oh I think so," she waved her hand flippantly. "It is a party for the basketball team, after all. Brian's starting this year and he and Gunner are kind of the guests of honor."

"I guess I'll see you there," I said, an idea forming in my head. I supposed if I was going to use Casey in my war against Brian, I could help him out just a little. "Casey offered to take me because I don't know anyone. He's been such a nice guy." I sort of gagged on my words, but forced them out nonetheless. I knew that Maureen was a nice girl, but I also knew that she was treading a dangerous line. She was in the midst of a war between the school's most infamous enemies, and she was playing both sides. And this is why I was convinced my words would have an effect on her.

"So, you're going with Casey," Maureen said slowly, testing out the words as she said them. I shrugged nonchalantly, as if it meant nothing.

"I guess if you want to call it that," I replied. This seemed to leave a sour taste in Maureen's mouth. I wasn't sure why this would have such an effect on Maureen. But, because nobody would tell me what was going on with that trio, I would have to discover it for myself. Today, I had discovered that Maureen Jacobs did not like the idea of Casey and I.


At the end of the day, I was standing by the front door giving Claire my address when Casey strolled up.

"Claire Bear," Casey said, scrunching his nose. Claire glared at him.

"Go away cuz," she said as she took the slip of paper with my address and pocketed it.

"I would," Casey answered "But I have some details to discuss with date for the night," he said pointedly. Claire shot me one more look of confusion.

"Again, it'll all be explained," I said. "But for now, you can come over at eight tonight, if that's good for you. I have a family dinner to attend at 6:30." The last part I said with as much distaste as I could muster. Casey caught the change in my voice but said nothing.

"Ok, I guess I'll see you tonight," she said, flipping her book bag over her shoulder. "Bye Case."

Casey waved her off before placing his arm around me. I made a point to remove it before we walked outside. "So Maureen tells me I have a date for tonight," he said as we descended the stairway outside. I could see Brian sitting impatiently in his shiny gray car, but I made no attempt to speed up.

"I decided to take you up on your offer," I shrugged.

"I'm not entirely sure why," he said. "But I will figure it out," he promised as we broke apart at the sidewalk.

"How little you know," I deadpanned, using his own line from earlier that day. Casey seemed amused as he shoved his hands in his pockets and made his way towards his car. I finally made it to Brian's car, and he was absolutely livid.

"Seriously Shannon, I'm going to ask you one more time to stay away from him," Brian said as I ducked into the car. I looked at his blank face to try and find some cause for his concern, but he gave nothing away. If he had shown but one kind deed to me before this moment, I may have considered it. But Brian Harding had done nothing but make my life miserable. I wasn't about to cut him any slack.

"Brian, unlike some people, I choose my friends based on their personality. Casey has been…" I struggled to find an honest word to describe him, "…cordial to me so far, so I'm not going to blow him off because you said so."

Brian looked straight ahead and refused to look at me the rest of the trip home. We were fighting once again, and only too soon would I find out why.