Chapter one

"Ashlan!" This was the second time mom had called me. I knew I still had some time left. I looked from my laptop screen at Fatso, whose eyes had slid open at the scream.

"Wouldn't it be great if she let me know exactly when my time was up? By using my whole name?" I murmured. He slid his eyes shut and lay his head down sleepily. Sometimes I wished my Siamese tom could talk. God, he'd sigh and close his eyes, leaning his head to the side; your mother is such a dreadful woman; I cannot abide her. For some reason, Fatso has an English accent in my head. It's probably because his real name is Bogart. I started calling him Fatso (along with its many variations), even though he's not fat, and somehow it stuck with the entire family.

"Ashlan! Get down here now!" That was my cue. Years of anthropologic research had given me an uncanny ear for pitch. I saved the file, got up and stretched. I hated interrupting my work when I was in the zone. Sleep, food, water, peeing, everything seemed mundane. And as pleased as my mother was with my returned inspiration, she was, deep down, a mother hen and a worrywart. Dinnertime would be dinnertime. I leaned into Fatso and smelled his forehead. Sweet dust. There was no other description for it. Suddenly he jerked and his bright blue eyes snapped open. Someone was coming. I pulled the curtain aside and peered down at our yard.

I saw the tops of two heads coming nearer. My sister and a guy I hadn't seen before. It was always entertaining, meeting her new boyfriends. Maybe he'd even stay for dinner! I turned and followed a fast, territorial Fatso out of the room. "Coming! Claire has a boy with her!" I hollered downstairs.

"Mark?" my mom yelled. "No, someone new!" I replied. A few awkward seconds followed, uniting us perfectly even through floors. It was hard to keep up sometimes. At the top of the stairs was where Fatso halted every time a stranger was about to enter the house, and I stayed with him. The lock rustled, the door opened, and a beautiful girl entered. She cast a lazy, almost absent-minded glance at the full-body mirror; only mediocre girls studied their reflection. She didn't need to. She kept walking straight forward towards the kitchen, disappearing out of sight. A tall, lean guy entered behind her, closing the door carefully. I slid down the stairs, my palms supporting my weight, four of five stairs at a time. My mom hated when me and my baby brother did that, rumbling and tumbling down the stairs, shaking the entire core of the house. Loud, brash, exhilarating.

Claire didn't walk down the stairs. She descended.

"Hi!" I said and took a good look at his face. He was perfect. My sister had finally found her match. They would have perfect babies. This guy would become my brother-in-law, if for no other reason than the fact that she could never do better than him. There was something very Jonathan Rhys Meyers about him, but not as effeminate. He gave a small, polite smile, not showing his teeth. His upper lip was slightly fuller than his lower; it was insanely sensual.

"I'm Ashlan," I said; I still needed to assess his voice.

"Jude," he said. Even his voice was perfect; low, a bit hoarse, a bedroom voice.

I feel I need to take a moment to explain something. I know most 16-year-old girls would be terrified in front of a guy as beautiful and superior as him. Flushed, stunned, dry-throated, shaking, sweating. But when a child gets braces, they start to get used to seeing the dentist, and the sheer familiarity of it makes the fear vanish. Claire was my braces.

"How long have you two been dating?" I asked with a knowing smile. His eyes widened in surprise, which he managed to conceal almost immediately. This was not something you asked without a considerable age-difference between you. He was probably used to these prying questions from elderly female relatives, and it would've been savvy and endearing coming from a 10-year-old, but not from someone a year younger. His eyes scanned me quickly, and I realized he wasn't sure of my age. Claire had said nothing, and considering my appearance, I might just get away with it. My dark brown hair was curly and wild, frizzy, my unmade face open and clear, my upper body slender and petite with a full A-cup. And the SpongeBob T I was wearing couldn't hurt.

Sometimes I wondered whether it looked less ironic and more age-appropriate than I intended it to.

I leaned against the staircase, feeling Fatso's offended whiskers trembling against my cheek as he evaluated Jude from behind the safety of my frizz.

"You two going out or staying for dinner?" I asked. "I don't know," he said. He glanced into the corridor and leaned against the closet. He was wearing faded jeans and a dark jacket, material unidentified no matter how I glared at it.

"Let's exchange anecdotes," I said. He looked confused, and rightfully so.

"Anecdotes," he repeated, his voice flat. He either didn't know the exact definition of the word, or wasn't interested. But who did know? I decided my version would do.

"Yeah. Funny little stories you tell strangers at parties when you want to keep talking without actually revealing anything intimate about yourself. It's like advanced small talk," I said. He stared at me.

"Advanced small talk," he said. I was starting to worry whether he was challenged. And whether or not I would let that stop me from loving my brother-in-law. He was perfect, but at what a price? I looked at the ceiling and smiled.

"I'll start," I offered generously. "A few years ago this boy next door tried to romance me by showing me just how low he could let a saliva clump dangle from his mouth, and just before it touched the soil, he sucked it back in like a super vacuum," I mused. Then I demonstrated the sound with a loud, wet slurp.

He stared at me.

Stared.

Let nobody say I don't know how to carry a conversation.

Fatso had descended silently and was now sniffing Jude's jeans, alert and timid. My sister's boyfriend looked down and slowly slid into a crouch. After backing away for a few moments, Fatso neared the invitingly dangling hand and sniffed it. Jude didn't move. He let the cat do its thing. I could see he knew how to be around animals. Respectfully, not petting them right away, not approaching them from above, like so many people did, unknowingly dominating and superior. Go low and let them come to you at their own pace. Fatso made up his mind and pushed against the palm graciously. The stranger had been accepted into greater company. A small smile on his lips, Jude scratched my boy under the collar, making Fatso close his eyes. Soon, the purring started, loud and violent.

Jude whispered something to Fatso I couldn't make up. I wasn't sure if I was too comfortable with this. As much as I respected people who understood and adored cats, I didn't necessarily want them romancing mine. I wanted them to want Fatso, but for him to disregard them with distant politeness and turn to me. I couldn't stand it when Fatso jumped onto someone else's lap. He was mine. What we had was special.

Then Fatso jumped on Jude's thigh.

"Slut!" I hissed. Jude looked up at me in shock.

"Not you. Him!" I growled. He stared at me, bewildered. His hand was still on the cat's sleek, chocolate back, arching against him.

"Do you want me to… put him down?" he mumbled, brows high. I stared at him. I had no idea whether he was serious or just unbelievably dry and deadpan; Do you want me to give you two some privacy so you can work things out? I had no idea which one I was hoping for. The latter might be too appealing. The kind of thing I envisioned my future boyfriend saying to me. Then I remembered I also said things like that to my best friend. I decided to test which one it was.

"No," I sighed lowly, "His true nature is out. It's all spoiled now. Thank God we had prenup. I'm getting the silvers." He smiled slowly, fully. His left cheek dimpled. Even this asymmetry made him more appealing. His teeth were not perfect, I realized with astonishment. I had expected even, plastic soap star teeth, boring and unnatural. But his teeth had character; they were insanely attractive. I had always loved actors with teeth like that. Not crooked or twisted, not gnarly; unique. It was a hard thing to explain. When he smiled at you, with those surprising teeth and lopsided dimple, you just stared. Gawked. He was gorgeous.

And he had gotten my joke.

To be continued.