Chapter One

In the neighborhood that I lived in, my family was the odd one out, and only because everyone else had lived there forever.

Seriously, you could ask anyone else from the neighborhood, and they would say, "Oh yes, I've lived here my whole life actually. My whole family has been living here since, oh, I don't know, the beginning of time."

Or something like that. Ask them about my family, and you'd get, "Oh, the Bertruns? That family living in the old inn? Oh, they are all right, I suppose. I swear to you, though, that man gives me the creeps. No, not the father, his brother. The elderly chap. And let's not forget those children, the boy, and the two strange, little girls. Not to say anything bad about them, of course! Why do you ask, are you from the newspaper?"

Yep. Home sweet home. Maybe I'm overreacting. Not everyone in the neighborhood is horrible. The adults just think of us as seven pinches of salt in the cup of tap-water that is their community, but the other kids are fine, like Lee or Claudia. Kids don't really care about why a family just suddenly moves in across the street to the house that had been empty for years. Or maybe they do care. Either way, they do a good job of being my friends anyways.

So we all live in the designated weird "house", me and Mum and Dad and Liam and Beck and Kenneth and Ammie, too, at least before she went to college. I think we're alright, though, give or take the fact that my uncle has been in prison three times in this neighborhood alone. Trust me, if they knew our backstory, they would be even more scared.

The night it all started seems like the beginning of my life. It's hard to believe that I was just sitting in my room, irritated at having to do homework on a Friday night.

"Ohhh, but Stef, honey, you need to stay on top of your work, honey. It's not like you have two whole days to copy some idiot teacher's notes. Ohhh, but Stef…"

"Who are you talking to?"

The sound of Liam's voice instinctively sent me shooting into the air from my chair, upsetting my school binder, and spreading my once-well-organized science notes across the floor. Liam clearly had to suppress a snort of laughter.

"Sorry…"

"You idiot! How many times do I have to tell you to knock when you come in my room?" I glared at him, even more annoyed now than I was at my teacher. "Are you going to help me or aren't you?"

"I said I was sorry!" He bent down and started picking up my papers. "It's hard not to get curious when your sister starts talking to herself. You know, you should really leave the role of the crazy one to Kenneth."

"That's not funny. Besides, I wasn't talking to myself, I was making fun of Mum. And no, that does not go there! Idiot!"

Liam clearly thought I couldn't see him trying to slip my notes under the bed because I was too blinded by rage. One day I'll get him back for the numerous Barbies, pieces of gum, bingo trolls, toy trucks, and some disgusting green goo substance that I wasn't mad enough to ask about at the time, that I found under my bed when I was four and he was six.

Liam is my older brother. He's thirteen, and probably the most immature and obnoxious person on the planet. Ever since the day I was born, Liam and I have been at each other's throats. I can tolerate Beck, my younger sister, who is only eight, but Liam really gets on my nerves.

"My god, chill! You sound like Mum when I broke the window." He looked at me and grinned, clearly waiting for my reaction.

"Jeezus, Liam, if you start using words like 'chill' on a regular basis, like some sort of hippie or surfer or something... " I broke off for dramatic effect. Surfer slang like "chill," "bro," and "dude" have always bugged me for some reason, and Liam knew it. I'd bet anything that's exactly why he said it. He pulled an infuriating face.

"Awww! Is my wittle sister concerned for my vocabulary-"

I shoved him. "Get out, loser! I have homework, and the last thing I need is for a teenage academic failure dropping in every ten seconds."

"If you don't watch out, I'll have to tell Beck to come up here - you know she hates it when you start studying."

"I'll just tell her to leave anyway. You know she does anything I ask. Now leave!"

Liam rolled his eyes and walked out, dropping my notes back out all over the floor. I had no doubt he was mad now too (he was biting his nails, which he always does when he gets mad or upset or worried), but that was my intention. I had been sent to the principal's office earlier that day for talking back to my math teacher, and all I wanted was to get my homework done, and make sure that everyone else is in just as bad a mood as me.

Liam is usually all weird and goofy and joking around, but calling him an "academic failure" was definitely the way to go if you wanted to make him sour. He never really managed to get good grades. We were so used to getting a report card every marking period covered in Cs and Ds and sometimes even Fs that Mum and Dad quit getting mad three years ago. He had been to summer school four summers in a row. Trust me, he's not dumb. He reads a lot at home, although not nearly as much as I do, and he could work out any problem that you forced him to work out. Unfortunately, school just always bored him to death so he would stop trying.

I remember how happy my parents were last year when Liam got his first A. It was in Phys-Ed. By now sports were his main concern in life. Don't let his constant boasting about athletic health fool you. He's pretty skinny for his age, and he has no visible biceps, but he is still tall and fast, and is pretty well known in our middle school for being on both the school's basketball and track teams. He took soccer and swimming lessons too this past summer, but once the school year started he had to quit because of his overbooked schedule.

Like I said, Liam is always all happy-go-lucky and outgoing, and he flourishes in his popularity in school, but sometimes I think he takes it for granted. He doesn't seem to remember a year ago when we were both the same: well known for being part of this family and for having Kenneth as our uncle. I always hated that. Back in October this year, I tried out for a number of different sports. Not because I want to be like Liam, like he taunted me at the time. Not even because I like sports, like Beck asked me, wondering if she should be a copycat. I just wanted my classmates to think of anything other than Uncle Kenneth when they see me.

That was how I met Lee. On my first day of Year Two everyone was crowding me. That past weekend was the first time Kenneth was arrested in our new neighborhood. All the other kids would keep asking me what he was like, did I like him, you get the idea. I wished that Ammie could be there to tell them to back off, but she was in Year Ten then, and went to the local high school, or "secondary school" as they said in Britain. Liam, who was nine then, was having just as miserable a time as me. Even the teachers were saying things like, "This is the homework, honey. But it's alright if you can't do it. I understand that you have a difficult home life."

Anyway, so later I sat down at lunch, and soon enough I had a crowd around me. They were mainly boys around nine or ten years old. These ones were mean. They were insulting me and Liam and Kenneth, and even little Beck who was only three years old at the time. They wouldn't have known she existed if they hadn't seen her walking the dog with me. I wasn't even seven at the time, and being so small, I didn't stick up for myself. Every little insult, every little bit of teasing about my family that they threw at me hurt like I was falling down the stairs, and soon enough hot tears were falling down my face. They eventually settled down and ate their lunch, but they still stuck their tongue out and mouthed crybaby at me every time I looked up. The the silence was broken when a new boy walked over and sat down at the table.

"That man that was in the news. He's your uncle?"

He was younger than the rest, about my age. His hair was long for a boy, and almost as dark as Ammie's. His eyes were a dull grayish-brown, and his skin was as pale as mine and Liam's, and littered with freckles. I nodded meekly, wondering if he would start on me too.

"That's a shame. My name's Lee. If you want, there is a table away from them with a free space. Do you like books?"

He's been my best friend ever since.