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When Mom bakes chocolate-chip pancakes Thursday morning, I know something's up. Something big. I mean, my Mom's not the type of person to go around baking fatty breakfasts for her 16-year-old daughter, who should be watching her weight, because hello, you can't be a dancer if you're a size like, 6 or whatever. Oh, no. One must be so thin that one barely exists.
So you can imagine my surprise (and okay, immediate suspicion) when I stumble out of my bedroom Thursday morning and find my mother standing in the kitchen happily, with a big plate of my favorite food. "Morning, Keelie!" She exclaims, holding up the pancakes for me to see. "Nicole's here!"
I assume that by "Nicole," Mom is referring to the polished young brunette who is sitting at our kitchen table, dipping a spoon into a container of fat-free yogurt. Although it does seem a little odd that she feels the need to point this out. I mean, duh, Nicole's here. She's only been my best friend since, like forever. When is she ever not here?
"Um, yeah, Mom," I say, grabbing a plate and fork from the cupboard. "I know. What's the deal with the pancakes?"
"Oh, I don't know." My mom attempts a breezy smile. "I just thought maybe we could celebrate..." She glances meaningfully at Nicole.
"Morning, Keel." Nikkie licks yogurt off the bottom of her spoon. Smiles easily. Of course she enjoys keeping me in suspense. Anything dramatic or ground-breaking is right up Nicole's alley. This could take forever. "So I was talking to Chandra last night."
Woah. My chest seizes up right away. Talking to Chandra Baker is generally something Nicole wouldn't mention. And certainly not to my Mom. I mean, sure I know that I'm every bit as good a dancer as Nicole. So there's really no hard feelings that she'd been selected early decision (by Chandra Baker, troupe captain, no less) to join our high school's nationally recognized dance troupe, La Troupe Noir. But my mother is way bitter about it. After all, there's exactly two ways to get recognized in our small but remarkable town: dancing, or playing football.
In towns with populations of 7,000, let's face it: most people grow up to be farmers or plumbers or something. Not that I'd mind either of those professions. I've heard plumbers make pretty good cash, actually. But that's where our town differs from others. You see every year, Port Harris High School sends several aspiring football players and dancers off with full college scholarships, to continue pursuing their talents. We have the best high school football program in the province. We have the best high school dance program in the province. No two ways about it.
So are you starting to get why my mom's all uptight about La Troupe Noir? After all, if only I, her daughter, were chosen for a scholarship, we'd have the perfect family at last. My father, valiant mayor of Port Harris. My mother, award-winning personal trainer and nutritionist. And then, of course, Carver, the Perfect Child. Gorgeous, intelligent Carver, who we'd sent off to the states on a football scholarship. He who could do no wrong. You see? You see what I have to live up to?
"So Chandra," Nicole continues with a grin, "Told me to tell you, that you're up for an audition. Wednesday evening. The Troupe needs two more members!"
Ohmygod. I fake a squeal. Laugh out loud. My mother puts down the plate and claps her hands. "Oh, honey, isn't this wonderful?!"
Sure. Wonderful. Okay. I moved toward the pancakes. This was SO not supposed to happen. I mean, sure I'm good and everything. Sure, I enjoy dancing every now and again, stretching the old bones. But La Troupe Noir... that's serious business. How can I ever explain to my mother that I don't really want to be up for a scholarship? That dancing is something cool to do on a Sunday afternoon, but maybe I just don't like pirouettes all that much? I can't, that's how. There is no way I could ever say that to my mother. It would shatter her. Shatter. So instead, I sit down with my pancakes, and I pretend to look like I'm happy. Chew, chew, chew, smile, swallow. Until Nicole drags me off to school.
By the end of first period, two things have become blatantly clear:
1) Everybody knows that I'm up for La Troupe Noir
2) I am going to ace my audition for La Troupe Noir
I know the second tidbit because of who I'm up against: Jennie Hurley, Tania Ortiz, and Caley Brown. There are two spots, and they are SO badly going to me and Tania. I mean, come on. Caley Brown? She can't balance to save her life. And Jennie? Sweet girl, not so good with flexibility. If anything, the troupe is only using these girls to inspire people to try out. Or something.
And on top of everything, Nicole is making my audition no secret. I've had people coming up to me every five seconds being all "Hey, good luck Keelie! Way to be like Carver!"
Okay, they haven't actually been saying that. But they're thinking it, you can totally tell. Around here, I'll always be mini-Carver. A younger version of the smooth-talking, good-looking, high-scoring football God. Just toss me a jock strap.
Mom picks me up after second period and takes me out to lunch. This would be uncool for most students, but not me. Oh no, my mom works out with the football team every Tuesday. She's the man.
"Oh, honey," Mom gushes over onion rings. "You can't imagine how excited we are for you! Your father nearly fell over backwards! And just wait till we tell Carver!" I attempt a smile as I choke down Diet Pepsi. What can I say? I mean, really?
By the time Mom returns me to school, Nicole has picked out what I'm going to wear, which dance I'm going to perform, and whose party we're going to go to, to celebrate.
It's a very long afternoon.
When I get home from school, Dad's car is sitting in the driveway next to Mom's. I register faintly that this is strange, because Dad's usually at work till like 6. But whatever. Mom probably insisted he come home early to celebrate. Totally likely. I turn the doorknob, step into the kitchen.
So when you suspect a celebration, you usually expect to see cake, balloons, stuff like that. Maybe some streamers. Your mother, crying hysterically into your father's arms? Yeah, not so much.
"Mom!" I drop my bag and run over to where my parents stand shaking beside the phone. My father is patting Mom on the back, and kind of looking like he wants to punch someone. Very, very badly. "What happened?"
Because something has happened, that much is apparent. No way would my Dad let snot get all over his favorite suit like that unless something BIG has happened.
"Keelie." Dad stares at me, almost as if he doesn't register I'm there. "It's Carver."
Mom sobs loudly and buries her head in Dad's shoulder.
"The team had a random drug test last night."
"They found cocaine in his bloodstream."
"They found acid in his bedroom."
"He's been expelled from University. Kicked off the team."
"He's coming home tomorrow."
I remember when I was nine and Carver was twelve. It was right before he got too cool to be seen with me, and we used to hang out all the time. We'd sit in his room watching "The Simpsons," because Mom and Dad wouldn't let us watch it downstairs. They said it was a horrible show. But we didn't think so.
Carver is lactose intolerant, so we used to eat weird snacks. Rice milk, and cookies with soy chips. They didn't taste all that good, but I didn't really care either. I was with my big brother. The one who everyone loved. The one who everyone envied. The one who everyone looked up to.
But that's not the Carver who comes home on the bus Friday evening. That Carver goes straight to his room. He stays there all night, not talking to anyone, not even coming out to eat. Mom and Dad and I sit around the dinner table with forced smiles, while Mom passionately raves about how well I'll do at my audition. Nobody notices that I don't touch my potatoes.
Afterwards, I overhear Mom and Dad talking in the kitchen while I sit in the living room, staring at my math homework.
"A disgrace to the family," Mom whimpers.
"Never amount to anything," I hear my Dad comply.
For once, I wish they're talking about me.
I spend the weekend training at the dance studio. I work with my instructor, Siobhan, and with Nicole. The hours are long and intense, and I don't want to be there for any of it. But I also don't want to be home.
Mom and Dad won't talk to Carver. Carver, in turn, won't come out of his room, except to grab the odd Eggo or something. The tension around the house is unbearable. Mom and Dad won't even mention Carver. Won't even say his name. All of this makes me do nothing but work harder. Mom won't stop talking about my audition. It's like, if I can only get into the troupe, Carver and his failure will just go away. So I train really hard, and pretend I want it, too.
By the time Wednesday evening rolls around, I almost feel as if I am ready. Certainly, my dancing is good enough. After all, I'm a shoe-in. I could go in and do the Macarina, and still beat Caley and Jennie. But something doesn't seem right. As I slip my ballet shoes into my bag, I know that as badly as Mom wants this, I just don't. What if I just want to be a plumber? What's so wrong with that?
Mom and Dad are still at work, but they've left a note on the table. "Good luck, honey! I know you can do it! Make us proud!" Ten minutes until the audition.
And so I throw on my favorite green sweater, and I let my feet take me to where I need to go. To where, at this point, it feels like I have no choice but to go.
When I get there, I stop in front of the door. Collect my nerves. And then I knock three times.
The door opens. Just a crack.
"Hi," I say.
There is no response. Maybe I shouldn't have come after all. Maybe I just should've stayed in my own room, letting the evening slip away.
"I heard the Simpsons is on." I hold up a carton of Rice Milk, a feeble peace offering.
Then the door swings open. And my brother lets me in.