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    CHAPTER 1 Brittany

    Everyone knows I'm perfect. My life is perfect. My clothes are perfect. Even my family is perfect. And although it's a complete lie, I've worked my butt off to keep up the appearance that I have it all. The truth, if it were to come out, would destroy my entire picture-perfect image.

    Standing in front of my bathroom mirror while music blares from my speakers, I wipe away the third crooked line I've drawn beneath my eye. My hands are shaking, damn it. Starting senior year of high school and seeing my boyfriend after a summer apart shouldn't be so nerve-racking, but I've gotten off to a disastrous start. First, my curling iron sent up smoke signals and died. Then the button on my favorite shirt popped off. Now, my eyeliner decides it has a mind of its own. If I had any choice in the matter, I'd stay in my comfy bed and eat warm chocolate chip cookies all day.

    "Brit, come down," I faintly hear my mom yelling from the foyer.

    My first instinct is to ignore her, but that never gets me anything but arguments, headaches, and more yelling.

    "I'll be there in a sec," I call down, hoping I can get this eyeliner to go on straight and be done with it.

    Finally getting it right, I toss the eyeliner tube on the counter, double and triple check myself in the mirror, turn off my stereo, and hurry down the hallway.

    My mom is standing at the bottom of our grand staircase, scanning my outfit. I straighten. I know, I know. I'm eighteen and shouldn't care what my mom thinks. But you haven't lived in the Ellis house. My mom has anxiety. Not the kind easily controlled with little blue pills. And when my mom is stressed, everyone living with her suffers. I think that's why my dad goes to work before she gets up in the morning, so he doesn't have to deal with, well, her.

    "Hate the pants, love the belt," Mom says, pointing her index finger at each item. "And that noise you call music was giving me a headache. Thank goodness it's off."

    "Good morning to you, too, Mother," I say before walking down the stairs and giving her a peck on the cheek. The smell of my mom's strong perfume stings my nostrils the closer I get. She already looks like a million bucks in her Ralph Lauren Blue Label tennis dress. No one can point a finger and criticize her outfit, that's for sure.

    "I bought your favorite muffin for the first day of school," Mom says, pulling out a bag from behind her back.

    "No, thanks," I say, looking around for my sister. "Where's Shelley?"

    "In the kitchen."

    "Is her new caretaker here yet?"

    "Her name is Baghda, and no. She's coming in an hour."

    "Did you tell her wool irritates Shelley's skin? And that she pulls hair?" She's always let it be known in her nonverbal cues she gets irritated by the feeling of wool on her skin. Pulling hair is her new thing, and it has caused a few disasters. Disasters in my house are about as pretty as a car wreck, so avoiding them is crucial.

    "Yes. And yes. I gave your sister an earful this morning, Brittany. If she keeps acting up, we'll find ourselves out of another caretaker."

    I walk into the kitchen, not wanting to hear my mother go on and on about her theories of why Shelley lashes out. Shelley is sitting at the table in her wheelchair, busily eating her specially blended food because, even at the age of twenty, my sister doesn't have the ability to chew and swallow like people without her physical limitations. As usual, the food has found its way onto her chin, lips, and cheeks.

    "Hey, Shell-bell," I say, leaning over her and wiping her face with a napkin. "It's the first day of school. Wish me luck."

    Shelley holds jerky arms out and gives me a lopsided smile. I love that smile.

    "You want to give me a hug?" I ask her, knowing she does. The doctors always tell us the more interaction Shelley gets, the better off she'll be.

    Shelley nods. I fold myself in her arms, careful to keep her hands away from my hair. When I straighten, my mom gasps. It sounds to me like a referee's whistle, halting my life. "Brit, you can't go to school like that."

    "Like what?"

    She shakes her head and sighs in frustration. "Look at your shirt."

    Glancing down, I see a large wet spot on the front of my white Calvin Klein shirt. Oops. Shelley's drool. One look at my sister's drawn face tells me what she can't easily put into words. Shelley is sorry. Shelley didn't mean to mess up my outfit.

    "It's no biggie," I tell her, although in the back of my mind I know it screws up my "perfect" look.

    Frowning, my mom wets a paper towel at the sink and dabs at the spot. It makes me feel like a two-year-old.

    "Go upstairs and change."

    "Mom, it was just peaches," I say, treading carefully so this doesn't turn into a full-blown yelling match. The last thing I want to do is make my sister feel bad.

    "Peaches stain. You don't want people thinking you don't care about your appearance."

    "Fine." I wish this was one of my mom's good days, the days she doesn't bug me about stuff.

    I give my sister a kiss on the top of her head, making sure she doesn't think her drool bothers me in the least. "I'll see ya after school," I say, attempting to keep the morning cheerful. "To finish our checker tournament."

    I run back up the stairs, taking two steps at a time. When I get to my bedroom, I check my watch. Oh, no. It's ten after seven. My best friend, Sierra, is gonna freak out if I'm late picking her up. Grabbing a light blue scarf out of my closet, I pray it'll work. Maybe nobody will notice the drool spot if I tie it just right.

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