For Real

3 Books Donated 15 min

1

 

On the tiny screen of my phone, I watch Jayden Montoya grill grubs over a campfire. It’s hard to hear much of anything over the noise of the party inside, and I can barely make out the sizzling, popping sounds the grubs make as they sear on the car door he’s using as a hibachi. As Jayden reaches in with a pair of eyelash curlers to select a snack, the firelight ripples over his chiseled abs and biceps. So far, he’s spent the whole episode wearing only a pair of low-slung shorts. The show’s producers have probably forbidden him more clothing to drive up ratings. Not that I mind–Jayden isn’t exactly the smartest one on the island, but he’s by far the best eye candy. I wish I were watching this on a real television. I fear I’m missing nuances of his six-pack.

 

The camera zooms in on Jayden’s tanned, stubbled face as he pops the grub into his mouth and chews, and I’m impressed that he doesn’t even flinch. Then again, he’s been eating them all season, so he’s probably used to it by now. I’ve heard they taste like chicken with an undertone of almonds, if you can get over the texture.

 

As Jayden goes for a second grub, someone reaches over my shoulder and snatches my phone out of my hand. I spin around to find my sister, Miranda, standing on the step behind me, the porch light glowing through her wavy blond hair like a halo. “There you are,” she says. “I’ve been looking all over for you.

 

What are you doing?”

 

I give her my best nonchalant shrug. “Just getting some air.”

 

Miranda stares down at my phone with a combination of horror and fascination. “Ew, Claire, is he eating bugs? What is this?”

 

Jst added 15 min to #ProjectReadathon w. @PenguinRandom by reading @alison_cherry to support @SavetheChildren

 

“The finale of MacGyver Survivor. It’s that show where people have to survive on an island by making tools and shelter and stuff out of things like Xerox machines and garlic presses and bowling pins and–”

 

One of her eyebrows goes up–I’ve always wished I could do that. “You’re watching reality TV now? Don’t you want to celebrate my graduation?”

 

“Of course I do. I’m just . . . taking a break.” I had intended for the break to last until Miranda was ready to leave, but she doesn’t need to know that.

My sister sighs. “Come back inside,” she says more gently, sitting down next to me on the steps. “Everyone’s dancing. You’ll have fun, I promise.”

 

Maybe that’s Miranda’s definition of fun, but it’s the farthest thing from mine, and she knows it. The very thought of dancing in a crowd of strangers makes me want to vomit–I can’t even bring myself to waltz with my dad at family weddings. “I’m perfectly fine,” I say. “Go enjoy the party.”

 

“You shouldn’t be out here alone. I can’t keep an eye on you this way.”

 

“I don’t need a babysitter. It’s not like anyone’s going to attack me. I’ve been out here half an hour, and nobody’s even talked to me.”

 

“If you came in, you could meet some new people.” The edge of pity in her voice makes me cringe. She’s probably remembering the time before she started college, when I was so painfully shy that she was basically my only friend. It’s been a really long time since that was the case, but in my sister’s world, my small, tightly knit group isn’t nearly enough. To her, you’re doing something wrong unless everyone wants to hang out with you.

 

“Miranda, I suck at parties,” I say. “I don’t know why you even brought me.”

 

She drops my phone back into my lap. “I brought you ’cause I wanted to hang out with you, silly. And what else were you going to do tonight, sit in the hotel with Mom and Dad?”

 

When I don’t answer, Miranda nudges my shoulder with hers and puts on her best pleading face, her big blue eyes widening to cartoon-character proportions. It’s the look she always used to give me when she’d eaten all her Halloween candy and wanted me to share mine. “Come on, Clairie, please? I barely even got to see you this weekend with all the commencement stuff.”

 

It’s true, I’ve hardly seen Miranda since my parents and I arrived in Vermont. To be honest, I haven’t seen much of her since she left for Middlebury four years ago. Except for a few days here and there, she’s spent all her school vacations backpacking with friends and boyfriends and her summers teaching English in exotic locations. I was hoping for a few hours alone with her this weekend, but as usual, there hasn’t been time.

 

“Plus, Samir and I leave for Brooklyn tomorrow, and you guys haven’t hung out at all,” Miranda continues. “How can I move in with a guy who doesn’t have the Little Sister Stamp of Approval?”

 

I can’t tell whether she actually wants my opinion of Samir or not, so I try to be diplomatic. “I talked to him for a minute when we got here,” I say. “He seems really . . . charismatic.” When I spotted him in the kitchen half an hour ago, my sister’s boyfriend was swirling his four-dollar box wine around in an actual wineglass and talking about how “print is no longer a viable form of storytelling in this modern age.” He seemed to be delivering most of his monologue to his own reflection in the kitchen window. As I slipped out the back door, I heard a girl telling her friend that Samir had his genius-level IQ tattooed on his arm.

 

Miranda doesn’t notice the distaste in my voice. “He’s brilliant onstage. Did I tell you he’s the only person in the whole theater program who had more than one agent come see him in Angels in America?”

 

I know I should keep my opinion to myself–it’s not like I have to date the guy. But Miranda has a history of choosing boyfriends who aren’t nearly good enough for her, and it sucks to see her doing it again. “I heard him talking earlier about how print is dead,” I blurt out. “Has he not noticed that you’re a creative writing major? Isn’t your own boyfriend supposed to support you?”

 

My sister smiles and shrugs. “It’s fine, it’s not personal. He just really believes in what he does. And hey, you guys will have tons to talk about–he just found out that he and his brother got picked to do some race-around-the-world reality show on LifeLine. You watch all those race shows, right? Maybe you could give him some pointers on eating bugs or something.” She stands up and holds out her hand to me, and the porch light glints off the silver rings she’s wearing on every finger. “Come inside with me and talk to him, okay? Just for a little while? It would mean a lot to me.”

 

I know from experience that Miranda won’t give up without a fight. And if I go inside with her, she’ll probably do most of the talking, anyway. My sister’s been picking up conversational slack for me since we were little kids, and it’s a pattern we still fall into when we’re together. All I’ll have to do now is smile, nod, and try not to say anything stupid. Hanging out with Miranda, her pretentious boyfriend, and a swarm of drunk, dancing college grads isn’t exactly ideal, but it’s still better than not hanging out with her at all.

 

“Fine,” I say. “I’m coming.”

 

I glance at my phone one last time–the three finalists on MacGyver Survivor are having a fish-gutting contest–and drop it into my bag. Miranda pulls me up, and I brush the splinters from the porch steps off the butt of my jeans.

 

The party has gotten significantly louder and more crowded since I escaped to the back steps. I hang on to Miranda’s shoulder as we work our way into the packed living room and snake through a sea of grinding bodies and beer breath and hands wielding red plastic cups. One of those generic pop songs about falling in love in the summer is blasting on the stereo, and my sister manages to sway her hips in time with the beat while she’s walking–I had no idea that level of coordination was even possible. As she exchanges greetings with every single person we pass, squeezing outstretched hands and kissing cheeks, I let my hair fall over my face and do my best to remain invisible. It works, and nobody makes eye contact with me or asks who I am.

 

My sister stops in the middle of the room and cranes her neck to see over all the people pressing together and spinning apart. “Samir was in here earlier, but I don’t see him now,” she calls over her shoulder. I can barely hear her over the thumping bass. “I’m going to see if he’s in his room, okay? It’ll only take a second. Stay right here so I’ll know where to find you.” I can’t believe she’s about to leave me alone after dragging me in here but I nod, and she heads for the stairs.

 

I quickly discover how ridiculously uncomfortable it feels to stand still in the middle of a mass of dancing strangers. Everyone else seems to be moving together like a single sweaty, pulsating organism, but I keep getting bumped around pinball-style by stray hips and butts. For one insane moment, I try to streamline the process by dancing along with them, but as soon as I start thinking about it, I’m paralyzed with awkwardness. I watch a skinny girl to my left undulate against a tall, shirtless guy–she doesn’t seem to be having any trouble, even in her four-inch heels. How is it that everyone but me inherently knows how to dance? Am I missing part of a chromosome?

 

The skinny girl notices me staring as I clumsily shift from side to side, and she shoots me a what are you gaping at? look. It’s clearly time to abandon ship, regardless of Miranda’s instructions. Being short has its advantages, and I manage to squeeze into a long corridor crowded with girls in filmy dresses waiting for the bathroom. Then I see the comforting flicker of a television beckoning from the room at the end of the hall, and my knotted muscles start to relax as I make my way toward it.

 

On the screen, a peroxide blonde is flinging men’s clothes out the window of a McMansion while shouting a steady stream of bleeped expletives. I recognize her as Chastiti, one of the four trophy wives from Sugar Daddies. In front of the TV, two guys and a girl are sprawled on a ratty orange sofa that’s leaking stuffing the consistency of cotton candy. The whole room has an acrid smell, and I spot a bong shaped like a pair of boobs on the coffee table–classy. Nobody has heard me come in, and I stand very still in the darkness, trying to keep it that way.

 

“This show is so stupid,” says the guy on the left. “Who watches this crap?”

 

“You’re watching it, dumbass.” The guy on the right chucks his plastic cup at his friend’s head, and a fine rain of beer spatters the carpet.

 

“Yeah, but, I mean, do people watch it for real? Like, every week?”

 

“Somebody must, or it wouldn’t still be on,” the girl says. “This is, like, the third season.”

 

“It’s the fourth,” I hear another voice say, and it takes a minute before I realize with abject horror that it’s mine. Well done, brain, with your endless store of TV trivia and inability to let an error stand uncorrected. So much for invisibility.

 

All three people on the sofa turn and stare at me blearily, and a heavy silence stretches out for five seconds, then ten. It quickly becomes unbearable, and I start babbling to fill the space. “I think a lot of people watch this kind of show ’cause they want to feel better about themselves,” I say. “It’s really cathartic to see other people making horrible choices, you know? And it’s always nice to see someone who has the shoes you want, or the house you want, or the boyfriend you want, or whatever, but who still objectively sucks as a human being, so you can be like, ‘Sure, she’s prettier and richer than I am, but I’m still superior.’ ”

 

All three of them continue to stare; the guy on the right’s mouth is hanging open a little. “Hi,” I finish lamely. Thank God the room is dark enough that nobody can see me blushing the color of a raw steak.

 

“Do you like this show?” the guy on the left asks, completely missing the point. His eyebrows almost touch in the middle, like two caterpillars making out.

 

“No, I–I want to work in television. Some reality shows are actually good. Not this one, obviously.” On the screen, Chastiti screams, “If you ever bleeeep bleeeep me over again, I will cut your bleeeep bleeeep off; don’t you think I won’t!”

 

Nobody says anything for a minute. Then one of the guys on the couch asks, “Who are you?”

 

“I’m Claire.”

 

“You don’t go here, do you? You’re, like, twelve.”

 

I draw myself up to my full, unimpressive height. “I’m eighteen. And no, I don’t go here.” I don’t tell them I’m only a senior in high school–it’s embarrassing to be a year older than most of my class, but I was still too shy to speak to strangers the year I should have started preschool. “I’m Miranda’s sister,” I offer instead.

 

“Miranda Henderson?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“You’re her sister? Seriously?”

 

I feel my cheeks grow hotter, if that’s even possible. I know what these people are thinking–I’ve seen that same expression reflected back at me all my life. How could this girl, this short, dark-haired, socially challenged girl with the glasses, be related to gorgeous, willowy, outgoing Miranda? I watch them search me for some sign of my sister’s grace, her unique sense of style, her warm, breezy way of putting everyone she meets at ease. They don’t find it. I got all the awkward genes in the family. And all the spouting-media-theory-at-total-strangers genes, apparently.

 

“Seriously,” I say. For some reason, it comes out sounding like an apology.

 

As if to prove that we actually are related, Miranda comes barreling into the room just at that moment and grabs my hand so tightly it’s painful. This is not the happy, bubbly Miranda of ten minutes ago; she’s wild-eyed and breathing hard, and the glow of the television reveals tearstains on her cheeks. I’ve never seen my sister lose control like this in public. Something must be very wrong.

 

“Come on,” she says, her voice choked with anger. “We have to leave. Right now.”

 

“Mira, what happened? Are you okay?”

 

Miranda drags me out of the room without answering. We rush down the hall and past the bathroom line, and a chorus of whispers swirls in our wake. I clutch my Doctor Who tote bag to my side to avoid whacking people as we stampede through the living room. “What’s going on? Why are we–”

 

From the Hardcover edition.

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