A/N: Happy New Year! And of course there's no greater way to start the new year than to start a new story, so... here's mine! It starts out as more of a family story but don't worry, there's romance on the way in a few chapters.
Anyway, I hope you like it. And don't forget, reviews rock my socks.
I thought my life was pretty ordinary. Yeah, right. How was I to know that, at the age of fifteen and five-sixths, it was all going to start changing? That was when my mom came home dancing.
It had just been my mom and I for seven years at that point, and for a long time we were both fine with that. Well, at least I was. It took Mom a long time to get over my dad, I guess, but I barely remembered him any more. Mom had started dating a little, which was okay with me because now that I was a teenager she was depending way too much on me to make her life interesting. We loved each other and everything but I wasn't exactly her dream daughter, I don't think, not really being interested in clothes and haircuts and the cute guy who worked at the deli. I didn't do slumber parties or after-school clubs or, heaven forbid, wear pink. I was just me. Kris Ritter, plain old teenager with one absolute best friend and lots of fringe friends (you know, the ones you're glad are in class with you so you have people to talk to or to eat lunch with when your best friend is home sick). After school I listened to my music on my plain bed in my green-and-purple bedroom (Mom was cool about paint). I never liked TV, which was handy because we hardly ever had one during the Poor Years, but I did love movies. I would go to any movie (cheap show, thank you) any time, alone or not, and the good ones I would go to twice if not more. Mom said it wasn't a great idea to spend half my life in the dark with my eyes glued to a glowing rectangle, but she exaggerates.
Okay, so. I started noticing that Mom was tossing out these casual remarks about the man she'd been dating. Jerry said that the station on Fifth is five cents a gallon cheaper than anywhere else in town. Jerry roots for the Yankees. Oh, and did I mention Jerry blah blah blah. You know. Once she finally got the idea that I didn't mind the whole idea, she had him come over for dinner. It was kind of cute watching her get all nervous waiting for him and making sure everything was perfect. And, actually, he was okay. He impressed me by thinking of things to talk to me about besides the typical "How's school?". We talked about all kinds of stuff over that first dinner, like why Indiana Jones is much cooler than James Bond, and whether the old or new Mustangs had more style. Not that we agreed on everything, but at least it was a decent conversation with a grown-up man. The first one I'd had in... well, maybe forever.
After that dinner, Mom seemed to relax more. She went out more often with Jerry, sometimes even taking me along, on picnics or hikes. I got used to having him around after a while, and so did Mom I guess, because on the night she came home dancing and singing some song under her breath, she was nearly busting a gut to tell me she was getting married in June.
Married. To Jerry.
I just stared at her for a minute, and then shrugged. Maybe having him for a dad would make me feel more like I had all the customary parts. Two eyes, two ears, two parents. So when she stopped dancing and sat me down for a little "talk" about how nothing would ever change between us, I hugged her and told her I was happy about it. And I wasn't lying. I thought it might be a real good thing.
Of course, I didn't think about all the details. That came later, when Mom mentioned that we'd be having dinner at Jerry's on Saturday, and I would see the house and meet his son.
"Wait a minute. He has a son?" I asked in disbelief. "Where's this kid been for the last year, boarding school?"
Mom shot me that look. You know the one. "No, he lives with Jerry. It's just been the two of them since Elizabeth died." Elizabeth being the First Wife, of course. "We just didn't want to throw you two together until we were sure this was going somewhere." She got this goofy little smile on her face then. "Oh, and it's the cutest thing, Kris."
"What's the cutest thing?"
"His name is Chris. With a C-H."
Wonderful. Fantastic. For the rest of my life it'll be like being one of a set of twins named Holly and Molly. Or, even better, Bobby and Bobbie. "Chris... and Kris." I couldn't hold back a groan. "Perfect."
Usually Mom got my sarcasm, but this time it had obviously gone right past her getting-married ears and lodged in the wall somewhere. "So, how old is this Chris with a C-H?" Personally, I was thinking either twenty-two or six would be all right. If he was twenty-two, he would know about cars and I'd have a mechanic handy when I started driving next year. And if he was six, he would think I was mature and cool and I could boss him around and he would still worship the ground I walked on. Well, maybe.
"He'll be seventeen on Friday." Seventeen. Great. Yep, this could be awkward. "That's why we're going on Saturday. He wants to go out with his friends on Friday, then Saturday is family." She smiled somewhat cheesily. "And that's us now." She put an arm around me and squeezed. "Isn't that nice?"
"I guess so." I tried to look on the bright side. I mean, I really was somewhat happy for her, and I guess I was curious about my new... brother. Okay, step-brother. Weird. But Mom wasn't done yet.
"And you'll love the house. There's a perfect room for you, with a window-seat and a cute slanted ceiling where the roof comes down."
I didn't even make it to the slanted ceiling part. "Wait. We're moving?"
There should've been a halo over Mom's head for all the innocence in her voice. "Well, of course. We can't all live here, there's no room. Jerry's house is big and roomy, and it has this great back yard with all - "
"And where is this nice roomy house, Mom?"
Now she frowned, just a little. "I'm sure I told you this before. Didn't I?" She shook her head. "Well, anyway. It's in Langston."
"Now, Kris, don't start. Langston is a beautiful little town, and only twenty-five miles away."
"Little is right. I don't want to go school in Langston. Can't we stay here until I graduate?"
"Two years? No, Kristina. We're moving. The schools are good, it's a friendly little town, and for the first time in years we are going to have a normal family life with a house and enough money and a man who loves us." Her stern Mom face gave way to my favorite Mom face. The one she wore when we stayed up late talking about stuff. The one that showed up when we goofed around in the middle of the grocery store and didn't care who saw us. "He does love us, you know," she said softly. "I know you two don't know each other that well yet, but he told me he thinks you're intriguing. Isn't that a nice word to be, intriguing?" She giggled, and I had to smile.
"Intriguing is good." It made me think of the lady in Casablanca, what was her name? Anyway, it made me feel good that Jerry might wonder what made me tick like Bogie did with her, or be interested in stuff I had to say. I could live with intriguing. "I do like Jerry, Mom."
"And I love him," she said, hugging me. "And I love you." She backed off and looked at me, right in the eyes. "Honey, I thought hard about this. This is a good thing for both of us, I promise."
When Mom looked at me like that, I knew I couldn't shatter her hopes. "Langston, huh?"
"And a seventeen year old step-brother... named Chris. Sheesh, Mom."
She laughed, then, a real laugh. "I guess it is pretty corny, isn't it?"
"Corn does not begin to describe the idiocy of the situation." That seemed to tickle her funnybone, and she nearly busted a gut laughing, and before long we were both wiping away tears, and it felt like everything might be okay as long as I had my mom.
Still, I had to call my best friend Mina and complain long and loud about having to move. She did all the appropriate best-friend things like say I couldn't move, she couldn't bear school without me, and what the heck was there to do in Langston anyway? We sniffled together for a while and made the expected promises that we'd stay best friends forever, and then I remembered the piece de resistance and told her about Chris with the C-H. Of course she fell all over herself laughing (and I imagined every kid at Langston High would do the same when they found out – what a great way to start off in a new town). Mina sympathized over the whole older-brother thing, having one of her own, but it was hardly the same thing.
Mina's brother Peter was eighteen, and actually nice to her. Sometimes he even did stuff with us and I loved those times because in my secret-est secret place I had always thought Peter was gorgeous and perfect. For years I'd dreamed about how I would someday burst out of puberty with a bang and he would realize how beautiful and desirable I was. But as the years kept going by and he started college without one adoring gaze my way, I finally just let my heart break and moved on.
Knowing I was moving away was a new and different heartbreak. Mina and I had already planned out our whole junior year, and what classes we would have together, and now I was stuck watching her register for them and knowing I wouldn't be around. It sucked. I'd lived in Evansville since I was three, been to school with the same kids all my life, and now I was just going to disappear and things would go on without me. It didn't seem fair, and that night while I laid in my bed trying to go to sleep, I cried a few tears of self-pity. I mentioned the unfairness thing to Mom the next morning at breakfast, but she just looked thoughtful. "I wonder if I should go ahead and register you at Langston for next year."
"Naah, I'll just show up the first day and wander around the halls until somebody notices me," I answered, but again she missed the sarcasm completely. Anything not having to do with Langston or any day before June 16th was alien to her now.
"I know," she said brightly. "You can ask Chris what we should do at dinner tomorrow. That'll give you two something to talk about."
That didn't exactly make my day and I wanted her to know it, so I stood up quickly and reached for my backpack, even though I'd only eaten half of my PopTart. "If I want some seventeen year old kid for my parent, I know plenty of senior guys right here in Evansville you could marry."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Oops, she'd actually been listening that time.
"It means I don't want to go to a new school, but I have to so you can be a happily married woman. The least you can do is still be my mom and not pawn me off on some kid I don't even know!"
"I'm doing no such thing. I just said you could ask." Now she stood up too, and wadded up my PopTart paper-towel plate and threw it away. "Forget it. You're going to miss the bus, get going."
I wasn't, but we knew each other well enough to know that sometimes it's just better to drop a subject and come back to it later. This was one of those times, so I went outside and was still there waiting when she drove off to go to work.
She was already home when I got home from Mina's that afternoon, and she hugged me hello and whispered a quick apology in my ear. I gave her one back, and she sent me off to shower and change for our big dinner appointment. Not that I knew what to change into. All my clothes were basically the same. Jeans or capris, t-shirts or jerseys or maybe a shirt with actual buttons if it wasn't too girly. I was standing there in my bra and underwear staring at my closet like an idiot when Mom finally came to check on me. "You aren't dressed."
I wrinkled up one corner of my mouth. "Is it that obvious? And here I was hoping Jerry and C-H Chris wouldn't notice."
She walked over to the closet and pulled out a few shirts, looking them over and putting some back. "You shouldn't call him C-H Chris, you know. You wouldn't want him calling you K-Kris, would you?"
I thought about that for a second, and decided I wouldn't. "So how are we gonna do this then, keep it straight?"
She shrugged, coming toward me with the winning shirt, a soft green plaid that Jason Brockman had once told me made my eyes look even greener, so I liked wearing it. "We'll figure something out." She held the shirt up against me and smiled. "I think we should find you a dress in this color of green, don't you?"
If I'd been drinking something just then, I would've choked. "A dress? Why, pray tell?"
"For the wedding, silly. You're not wearing jeans."
"Oh." Not my snappiest comeback, I admit, but I'd somehow spaced out the fact that I'd be in a wedding in about a month. Wearing a dress. "Are you wearing a big white thing?"
She laughed and pulled out my favorite capris while I put on the shirt. "Not a chance. I'm going to deck myself out in a simple little sheath and the guys are wearing suits, no tuxes." I couldn't think of anything else to say, so I just got dressed. Then it was out to the car and half an hour later we were in Langston.
She pulled up into a driveway and I felt like if this were a movie, the soundtrack would swell and the sun would come out. The house was really pretty, with a wide front porch complete with a swing and two dormer windows on the second story. Could use some flowers out front, but of course two men alone in a house wouldn't have flowers. I looked up at those dormer windows as I got out of the car. Would one of those be my room? Would I be happy in there, or would I look out of it and wish I was back in Evansville? I turned and looked across the street, studying the view I might have. Trees, other houses with nice yards, a streetlight down the block. Nothing special, maybe, but after living in a cramped little shoe-box house for seven years it seemed pretty amazing to me. There weren't even any cars parked in the yards. They were all in the driveways where they belonged, or tucked away behind wide garage doors.
Jerry's happy "There you are!" startled me out of my own world and I turned to see him giving Mom a hug and kiss. Then he came toward me and put my arm through his. "Come on in. I hope you're hungry because I made my biggest pan full of lasagna."
"For lasagna, I could be hungry," I said, letting him have a smile because he looked so darn happy to have us there. Mom got his other arm and they talked a little about their days while we walked up onto the porch and stepped inside. I stood awkwardly in the entryway while Mom put her purse on the hall table like she'd done it a hundred times, and suddenly I felt really weird. I kind of knew she'd been to Jerry's house before, but I never actually thought about it. Maybe she already felt at home here. Maybe the three of them already fit together like a little family, and I was the piece of the puzzle that didn't quite go. My stomach clenched and even the smell of garlic butter and tomatoes wafting around didn't seem so appealing any more. But Jerry was beckoning to me.
"Come to the kitchen. I want you to meet Chris, he's making the salad ."
I turned toward my mom, hoping I didn't look as pale as I felt. "Mom," I whispered.
She moved up close and whispered next to my ear, "Don't look so terrified. Chris won't bite you."
"It's not him. It's..."
I couldn't tell her, not with Jerry right there, so I just shook my head.
"Then come on." I let her take my hand and we walked further into the house. On the left by the stairs there was a dining room with a big fancy table and chairs that all matched, and I was glad to see it wasn't set for tonight. I could see myself spilling something in there way too easily, and the thick carpet definitely didn't look lasagna-friendly. We went through what must be a family room, and then there was the kitchen, and a normal round wooden table that had plates and silverware for four and flowers in the middle. "How pretty," Mom said, obviously pleased. "Flowers even."
"Pretty flowers for my two pretty ladies," Jerry said, kissing her cheek and winking toward me. He was so corny I relaxed a little, until I saw that there was someone else in the kitchen. The teenage-guy body at the counter turned to face us, and I was getting my first look at Chris with a C-H. He was taller than me but not by much, light-eyed with shaggy sandy-brown hair, and wearing a t-shirt and faded jeans with a rip on the knee. So much for dressing for the occasion. We sort of glanced at each other for a second, and then he looked over at my mom with a shy smile.
"Happy birthday, Chris," she said, going over and giving him a hug, and he didn't pull away. "How was the big day?"
"Good, thanks. Went to the lake with some friends."
"Wasn't the water cold?"
"You better believe it." Chris grinned, Mom laughed, and Jerry smiled along, and again my stomach twisted. My mom was going to be his mom now too, and they all looked like they were just fine with it. But was I? I wasn't so sure.
Wouldn't you know Jerry picked that time to draw everybody's attention my way. "Chris, this is Kris," he said, gesturing toward me. "And Kris, this is Chris."
How did I know they would do that? I stepped forward one step, not sure what I was supposed to do. Shake his hand? Surely not hug him. Luckily he just raised his hand a little and said hey, so I said hey back.
"Kinda sucks, doesn't it?" he asked.
"The name thing."
"Oh. Yeah." At least I wasn't alone. "Don't suppose you'd like to change yours?" I said, smiling and hoping I sounded witty.
"I'm thinking no. You?"
"We'll figure something out," Mom said a little too cheerfully, and I got the feeling she wanted to make sure we weren't going to start arguing at our very first meeting. "Now, what can we do to help with dinner?" Of course Jerry said nothing, and she protested and helped anyway while I sort of stood there awkwardly. In no time dinner was on the table and we all sat down. Chris and I were across from each other, which I realized was okay because I could look back and forth between Mom and Jerry and still give the impression that I was including him too. Maybe he thought the same thing, I don't know, because Jerry and Mom did most of the talking. They tried to draw us in, and Mom asked the registration question, but Chris just shrugged and said we could do it any time before school started, and that pretty much took care of that.
It was weird, sitting there together like a TV sitcom family, mom and dad and two kids eating dinner together. I tried to imagine doing this every night and I couldn't really imagine that one day it would feel normal. It was all so... Beaver Cleaver. I almost wanted to look around for a dog.
There wasn't a cake for Chris's birthday since he'd had his real celebration yesterday, but Mom had brought a gift. She gave it to Chris as Jerry cleared the dishes. I already knew what it was because she had no idea what teenage boys liked, so she'd dragged me out shopping with her. Like I knew the guy. Anyway, we ended up buying all sorts of car-cleaning-and-detailing stuff, more than I would think could ever be necessary, but he seemed to like all of them. At least he knew what they were for, which was more than we did. Mom got up and gave him another hug, and I saw him hug her back as he said thanks, and I just sat there.
Then there was a terrible moment when Jerry suggested that Chris show me around the house, but thank heaven Mom jumped in, saying she liked men who did dishes and she would show me, if that was okay. Jerry agreed like he always did, besotted as he was with Mom, so we left the kitchen. "Family room," she said with a wave of her hand. "They use this most, it has the big TV and the comfy couches." We went on. "And you saw the dining room when we came in."
"Looks like a no-spill zone."
"I thought the same thing," she whispered, and we shared a giggle. "But it's still pretty." I nodded that I agreed, and she showed me the living room I hadn't noticed by the front door and a short hallway with a little bathroom and the door to the garage. The last door downstairs was the master bedroom, and I wiggled my eyebrows at the big bed.
"Ooh la la, Mom," I teased.
"Oh, stop it," she giggled and I could swear she was blushing, and then we headed upstairs. I'd never lived in a house with stairs, so that was pretty cool right there. And these stairs turned in an L-shape which seemed fancier to me than regular straight ones. Leave it to me to be impressed with stairs. The first door on the right was supposed to be a little home office for Jerry. It had a desk and books and a basic desktop computer that I wouldn't mind checking out. The next door, a bathroom. Linen closet next, then to the other side of the hallway. "This is Chris's," she said without opening the door, and I was glad that I had a cool mom who knew better than to invade people's privacy. "And this," she said as she reached the last door before we got back to the stairs, "will be yours."
I stepped inside and saw right away that I did have one of those dormer windows, and Chris must have the other one. There was a little window seat there with a soft cushion, in the same material as the bedspread. Flowers, ick. I grimaced at Mom, and she knew right away. "You can bring your quilt."
"Thank heavens." I stepped in a little further and looked around. Okay, the room had potential. The dormer meant it had a crazy angled ceiling, but I liked it. And the walls weren't white, they were a soft golden brown. It was a nice enough room. I just wasn't sure it was a place where I'd ever feel at home, not really, because it wasn't my home. It was theirs, and I was just part of the package. All of a sudden I wanted to be back in my own room, with my own stuff in its own place, and not have to move and get used to living with people I didn't know. Mom must've seen it in my face because she put her arms around me from behind and looked around with me.
"I thought your mirror would look good over there," she said, pointing. "And I bet your music cabinet would fit there in the corner, what do you think?"
I couldn't answer her. For some reason my throat didn't want to work. She let me go and went to another door, and opened it to show off a walk-in closet. "Check this out, Kris. This is bigger than our bathroom at home."
I didn't care. I wanted our tiny little bathroom, my dinky little closet. I wanted my life back, not this weird new life in a new place with new people. "Can we go home?" I asked, my voice a pitiful whimper, and I could see my mom's disappointment. I blinked fast before she could see the tears I felt coming.
"We can, in a little while. But this will be home soon, baby." She came toward me and put her hands on my shoulders and I knew things were gonna change whether I liked it or not. "It will feel better when you have your own things in here. You can paint, purple and green even if you must, but I think this color is nice too, don't you?"
I managed a nod, and she smiled like she appreciated it.
"Maybe we can even buy you some new clothes to fill up that big closet." I grimaced at that, and she laughed. "I forgot. You hate shopping."
"You'd think you would know me by now."
"After fifteen years, you would think so." Then her smile faded. "But then again, sometimes fifteen years seems like fifteen seconds." She reached up and smoothed my hair. "I can't believe you'll be grown soon, and you'll move out and have a life of your own." Something in her voice told me that she'd thought of that before, more than once. She must have been afraid, afraid she would end up alone, and now she wouldn't be. And since I loved my mom, I bit my lip and blinked again and tried a smile.
"I'll still bring you my laundry when I'm gone."
That brought her out of her parental daze, and she laughed and whapped my arm. "Oh no you won't. She who wears the clothes..."
"Washes the clothes," I finished, and she gave me a quick hug before we started downstairs. Jerry was sitting alone in the family room but got up when we came in, and when Mom asked he told her that Chris was out in the back yard getting some air. He hesitated a little as we sat down, Mom beside him on the sofa and me in a big fat chair, then turned toward us both.
"Might as well just say it. He's trying to adjust to this whole idea, but it's a big change for him too."
"At least he doesn't have to move into a stranger's house and leave all his friends," I muttered, not feeling all that sympathetic at the moment, even though it was a little bit of a relief to know that I wasn't the only one feeling a little unsure.
"That's true, but both of you kids are used to being an only child with a parent whose life centers on you. And we're blending a male household with a female one. It's bound to have its moments." He shrugged, then smiled at Mom. "It's going to be different, but it's going to be good. I know it is." Mom reached over and took his hand, and they grinned mushily at each other, and I stared at the fireplace. I'd never had a fireplace either.