Chapter Excerpt

Cara Sierra Sykes

Perfect?

How

do you define a word without

concrete meaning? To each

his own, the saying goes, so

why

push to attain an ideal

state of being that no two

random people will agree is

where

you want to be? Faultless.

Finished. Incomparable. People

can never be these, and anyway,

when

did creating a flawless facade

become a more vital goal

than learning to love the person

who

lives inside your skin?

The outside belongs to others.

Only you should decide for you—

what

is perfect.

Perfection

I’ve lived with the pretense

of perfection for seventeen

years. Give my room a cursory

inspection, you’d think I have OCD.

But it’s only habit and not

obsession that keeps it all orderly.

Of course, I don’t want to give

the impression that it’s all up to me.

Most of the heavy labor is done by

our housekeeper, Gwen. She’s an

imposing woman, not at all the type

that most men would find attractive.

Not even Conner, which is the point.

My twin has a taste for older

women. Before he got himself

locked away, he chased after more

than one. I should have told sooner

about the one he caught, the one

I happened to overhear him with,

having a little afternoon fun.

Okay, I know a psychologist

would say, strictly speaking,

he was prey, not predator.

And in a way, I can’t really

blame him. Emily is simply

stunning. Conner wasn’t the only

one who used to watch her go

running by our house every

morning. But, hello, she was

histeacher. That fact alone

should have been enough warning

that things would not turn out well.

I never would have expected

Conner to attempt the coward’s way

out, though. Some consider suicide

an act of honor. I seriously don’t agree.

But even if it were, you’d have to

actually die. All Conner did was

stain Mom’s new white Berber

carpet. They’re replacing it now.

Mom Stands There Watching

The men work, laying mint

green carpeting over clean beige

padding. Thick. Lush. Camouflage.

I sit on the top stair, unseen.

Invisible. Silent. I might as well

not even be here at all. And

that’s all right. At least I don’t

have to worry that she will focus

her anger on me. Instead she blasts

it toward the carpet guys.Idiots!

You’re scratching the patina!

Her hiss is like a cobra’s spit.

I might want to expose that wood

one day. I can’t if it’s marred.

But she never will. That oak

has been irreparably scarred

by gunpowder-tainted

blood. And even more by

the intent behind the bullet.

Sprawled on the floor,

Conner wanted to die.

Mom and Dad don’t think

so. In fact, for once they agree

on something besides how bad

their stock portfolios looked

last year. Both of them believe

Conner only wanted attention.

But he was way past hoping

for that, at least the positive

kind. No, Conner was tired

of the pressure. Sick of trying

to find the equation that would

lighten the weight of expectations

not his own. Listening to Mom

tell skilled laborers how to do

their job is almost enough to make

me empathize. The more she goes

on, the more I’m sure the carpet

guys understand. There is no

possible way to satisfy our mother.

I Guess In A Way

I have to give Conner a little

credit. I mean, by putting the gun

to his chest, he made an overt,

if obscene, statement—

I will no longer force myself

inside your prefab boxes. I’d much

rather check out of here than let

you decide the rest of my life.

“You,” meaning Mom and Dad.

The pressure they exert individually

is immense. As a team, it’s almost

impossible to measure up

to their elevated criteria. I have done

my best, pushed myself to the limit.

To get into Stanford, I have had to

ace every test, stand out as a leader

(junior class pres, student council),

excel in sports, serve as a mentor,

take command of extracurricular

pursuits—cheerleading, honor choir,

theater. All around dating Sean.

Sometimes I just want a solo vacation.

Hanging out on a beach, submitting

to the temptation of sand, sun, salt

water, sans UV protection. Who

cares what damage they might

inflict on my skin? Nice dream.

But what would my mother say?

I can hear her now.Don’t be

ridiculous. Who in their right

mind would invite melanoma

and premature aging?

When I look at her, I have

to admit her beauty regime

is working. It’s as if by sheer

force of will she won’t permit

wrinkles to etch her suede

complexion. But I know, deep

down, she is afraid of time. Once

in a while, I see fear in her eyes.

That Fear Isn’t Something

Most people notice. Not Dad,

who’s hardly ever home, and even

when he is, doesn’t really look

at Mom. Or me. Not Conner,

because if he had even once seen

that chink in her fourteen-carat

armor, he’d have capitalized on it.

Not her friends. (I think the term

misrepresents the relationship,

at least if loyalty figures into

what it means to be a friend.)

Book club. Bridge club. Gym

spinners. She maintains a flock

of them. That’s what they remind

me of. Beautiful, pampered birds,

plumage-proud, but blind

to what they drop their shit on.

And the scary thing is, I’m

on a fast track to that same

aviary. Unless I find my wings.

I Won’t Fly Today

Too much to do, despite the snow,

which made all local schools close

their doors. What a winter! Usually,

I love watching the white stuff fall.

But after a month with only short

respites, I keep hoping for a critical

blue sky. Instead, amazing waves

of silvery clouds sweep over the crest

of the Sierra, open their obese

bellies, and release foot upon foot

of crisp new powder. The ski

resorts would be happy, except

the roads are so hard to travel

that people are staying home.

So it kind of boggles the mind

that three guys are laying carpet

in the living room. Just goes to

show the power of money. In less

than an hour, the stain Conner left

on the hardwood will be a ghost.

The Stain

That Conner left on our lives will

not vanish as easily. I don’t care

about Mom and her birds.

Their estimation of my brother

doesn’t bother me at all. Neither

do I worry about Dad and

what his lobbyist buddies think.

His political clout has not diminished.

As twins go, Conner and I don’t share

a deep affection, but we do have

a nine-months-in-the-same-womb

connection. Not to mention

a crowd of mutual friends. God,

I’ll never forget going to school

the day after that ugly scene.

The plan was to sever the gossip

grapevine from the start with

an obvious explanation—

accident. Mom’s orders were

clear. Conner’s reputation

was to be protected at all costs.

When I arrived, the rumors

had already started, thanks

to our neighbor, Bobby Duvall.

Conner Sykes got hurt.

Conner Sykes was shot.

Conner Sykes is in the hospital.

Is Conner Sykes, like, dead?

I fielded every single question

with the agreed fabrication.

But eventually, I was forced to

concede that, though his wounds

would heal, he was not coming

back to school right away.

Conner Sykes wasn’t dead.

But he wasn’t exactly “okay.”

When People Ask

How he’s doing now, I have

no idea what to say except for,

“Better.” I don’t know if that’s

true, or what goes on in a place

like Aspen Springs, not that any-

one knows he’s there, thank God.

He has dropped off most people’s

radar, although that’s kind of odd.

Before he took this unbelievable

turn, Conner was top rung on our

social ladder. But with his crash

and burn no longer news of the day,

all but a gossipy few have quit

trying to fill in the blanks.

One exception is Kendra, who

for some idiotic reason still

loves him and keeps asking about

him, despite the horrible way he

dumped her. Kendra may be pretty,

but she’s not especially bright.

© 2011 Ellen Hopkins



Excerpted from Perfect by Ellen Hopkins, Christina Wildson
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.