Chapter One

The alarm blared at exactly 7:30am, signalling that it was time for me to get my lazy butt up and out of bed. Unfortunately, the cool morning breeze contradicted that need and told me to stay put under the warm covers. I slapped the annoying lime green clock and heard a thunk as it dropped to the floor.

Ahh. Much better.

"!!" came a whinging from outside my door for what felt like mere seconds later, the nasally voice coming from my younger brother Stephen.

I sighed and forced myself off the bed and quickly scurried around my walk-in closet, looking for clothes that matched – which was a bit of a feat, considering my eyes were still blurry.

After having washed my face and brushed my teeth, I stepped out of my room, decently attired in faded shorts, a magenta sweater and my trusty gray Keds.

"You're late," the surly face of my kid brother greeted me at the breakfast table, his dark blond hair falling over his eyes and his mouth turned down in a pout.

"You need to learn how to take the bus," I answered back, swiping a muffin from the table and gave him a bright smile. "Now come on, we can still make it in time if we leave now."

My brother, Stephen, was nine years old and went to elementary two blocks away from my high school, which is why mom preferred that I drive him instead of him taking the bus. Also, he used to get wedgies every morning while waiting for the bus. He's a little on the skinny side and a bit of a braniac – two things that don't mesh well with kids in the third grade.

I'm exactly like Stephen, only with girl parts and eight years older. (Let's please not get into the eight-year gap we have, it horrifies me just having to think about my parents bumping uglies.) I'm also a little on the skinny side and a bit of a braniac. Unlike Steve, I wasn't always teased. Mainly because I had a friend who used to stand up for me... but we'll get to that later. Right now we were on the fast lane to Steve's school and I couldn't afford getting him late or getting a speeding ticket so early in the day.

--

The late bell rang just as I entered the entrance doors of Lawrence High School, making me a few minutes late for first period Calculus. The only reason I allowed myself a few minutes of tardiness is because I have the highest mark in Calculus in my batch. And Ms. Polly, our teacher, thinks I'm smarter than her. I raced to my locker, taking out the books I'd need and spun the lock quickly, all of these done in a span of thirty seconds. I was rushing up the stairs to get to my class when I slammed disgracefully into a human brick wall.

"Nguh," I mumbled, stepping back and dropped down quickly to gather my books. When I looked up, I saw familiar clear green eyes. My fists clenched in reflex.

"Hey," he said curtly, nodding at me in acknowledgment.

Ignoring him, I continued on my way to Calculus, feigning indifference. Deep down, I wanted to slap him until his face turned purple.

--

"Hey chica," Ziennah, my closest friend greeted me post-third period, as was her usual before we went to the lunch room together.

I smiled at her in greeting. Ziennah moved in from dismal Illinois (her words, not mine) to sunny Nevada just two years ago and we quickly bonded through shared passion of '90s Nickelodeon TV shows, which I learned about the one time she had to baby-sit Stephen and had Figure It Out playing on TV.

"What's up chiquitita?"I said back.

With that out of my mouth, she started singing Abba's Chiquitita all the way to the lunch room, all the way through the lunch line and all the way outside to the courtyard where we finally took our spot under a huge tree.

"I just received a letter from SUNY," Ziennah said, stopping her Abba impersonation and was now looking at me with an intense look on her face.

"And...?" I was excited for her. Going to SUNY had been a dream of hers ever since she stepped foot on the campus grounds five years ago when her cousin had enrolled.

"I haven't opened it yet. I was scared, you know? But here," she got out the manila-sized envelope from her backpack and handed it over to me. "Read it. And then just nod if it's a yes and tear it to pieces if it's a no."

"I can't!" I protested, handing the letter back to her. "It's your personal mail. You should read it first. Not to mention, it's a federal crime—"

"Not if I'm authorizing you to open it," she interrupted me.

Sighing, I took the envelope from her and tore it open. Unsurprisingly, the first sentence was congratulatory. I pretended to rip it to pieces until I saw the look of devastation on my friend's face.

"Oh no! Ziennah," I laughed, smoothing the envelope of its wrinkles and folds. "I was only joking, of course you got in."

"Aaarrrgh!" she yelled and pretended to choke me. I, in turn, sputtered laughing, almost choking in my laughter.

"So, you're definitely going to Columbia then?"

"Yeah," I grinned. "I better. That early decision is binding and my dad already paid the enrolment."

She was quiet for a while. I knew what she wanted to ask, but she was trying to phrase it in a better way.

"My dad's fine, Zien," I said instead so she wouldn't have to ask.

"Right," she nodded. She didn't bother asking more, she knew I didn't really want to talk about it. "So that's cool. You're going to Columbia, I'll be in SUNY, and we could see each other like every weekend or something."

"You do know that Albany is hours away from Manhattan, right?"

"Pft. Minor hurdle."

I smiled.

--

I picked up Steve from his school right after mine let out. It was already mid-April and we only had around two more months remaining before school officially and finally let out for the last time. I'd be off to New York in August and for most people, it would be the best day of their teenage life. For me, it felt like life was caving in and no matter how I wanted to stop time from ticking, it still went on.

Steve ran up to the house the moment I parked in front of the garage. I breathed in deeply, trying to prepare myself for battle. My parents just recently separated a few months ago. My mom moved to Sweden where her parents lived just to "clear her mind", or so she says. How she was able to disregard Stephen was beyond me. My dad, seeing my light blond hair and pale blue eyes, would sometimes, in moments of weakness, see me as my mom. No, he'd never physically hurt me, it was more of a blow to my sanity.

He'd see a dish left in the kitchen sink and he'd rant and rave for hours on end on how I'm lazy... just like my mother.

He'd see a test paper with a grade lower than a B+ and he'd rant and rave for hours on end how I'm stupid and ignorant... just like my mother.

He'd see a shopping bag on the living room couch and he'd rant and rave for hours on end how I spend too much money – money I didn't earn – on unimportant things. And yes, you got it, just like my mother.

When he's in one of those moods, every single action he'd see me do, he'd easily associate it with how I'm exactly like my mother. And believe me, he can literally go for hours repeating himself over and over about how I'm useless and judgemental and stupid and wasteful and everything other negative adjectives you can think of. I've locked myself in my room several times just to get away from him but he'd stand outside my room yelling and repeating himself again and again. The one time I told him to shut up and go to Sweden and yell at my mom, he started kicking at my door. Ever since then, I'd taken to not responding to him and tacked up egg cartons on my wall just to drown out his voice.

My dad, being a surgeon, had a weird schedule. He could be home any time of the day and be out working weird hours as well. If he was home today, I had to mentally prep myself for another verbal abuse that may or may not happen.

Once I stepped into the house, my dad was standing by the doorway the led to the kitchen, apparently awaiting my arrival. He had a stony look on his face. Something was up.

"Stephen almost split his lip running up the stairs. How could you be so careless as to just leave him running up that stairs?" he demanded, not expecting an answer from me. All of his questions are rhetorical anyway. He never needed answers. He just wanted an outlet to get rid of all of his anger directed at mom.

I shrugged and went up the stairs. I could still hear him from down the stairs telling me what an inconsiderate and useless sister I was. I gritted my teeth, stalked into my soundproof room and slammed the door shut.

I wanted to stop time so that, despite my resentment of the way he's treated me, I prefer that I'd the target of the abuse. Once I'm in college, dad will zero in on Steve. And I don't think he's mature enough to handle it.

Sifting through my drawers, I pulled out a pack of Marlboros and a lighter and went out the balcony of my room. A bad habit I picked up ever since mom left. I found that it did lighten the stress somewhat. I shook my head in disappointment at myself. I learned how to smoke at fifteen, but that was just because it was on a dare. I told myself I'd never ever really smoke at that time. And yet here I was.

I was on my second stick when I felt someone looking at me. I looked up and saw, on the house across, in the room directly across mine, those familiar green eyes. He was scrutinizing me, confused and discerning all at once.

I raised an eyebrow and flipped him the bird before killing the cigarette and going back in.