Home > The Flipside of Perfect

The Flipside of Perfect
Author: Liz Reinhardt

 

1


   Freshman Year

 

 

Last Day in Florida Keys/First Day back in Michigan after Summer

Two Weeks before the First Day of School


   FLORIDA

   When I was a little kid, I always thought I was double lucky for having two of everything—two families to love, two houses to grow up in, two sets of siblings, two times the gifts and attention and laughs. But this summer—the summer I was fourteen—I start to see the flaws in that logic.

   “Della! You really smell-a! I just have to tell ya! ’Cause I’m a nice fella!”

   My brother, Duke, stands in my doorway, drumming the wall next to my bed with his palms, singing the ridiculous song he just made up to get me out of bed.

   Any other summer morning, I would have launched assorted stuffed animals and pillows at his head and laugh-screamed for our sister Dani—Duke’s twin, older than him by seven minutes—to save me, and she would have flown down the hallway to my rescue. But this summer has been so different.

   After weeks of trying to talk to Dani, make her laugh, or help her forget her sadness, I learn a very hard lesson: the worst thing you can go through is watching someone you love suffer without being able to do anything to help them.

   “C’mon, bugbite. Pancake time!” Duke scoops me out of bed and throws me over his shoulder. Or tries, anyway. “Oof. You’re, like, twelve feet tall all of a sudden, Jolly Green Giant.”

   Having to walk down the hall to our sunny kitchen instead of being bounced on Duke’s shoulder definitely takes some of the fun out of our morning rumbles.

   As we head toward the smell of breakfast pancakes sizzling on the frying pan, I ask Duke the same question I’ve already asked a million times this summer.

   “Is Dani okay?”

   Duke pushes his thick hair off his forehead and blows out a long breath. “You know how tight she and Nan Sunny were. We’re all really sad. Like...this has been the hardest year of my life, and I miss my grandma every day. But I think it’s the worst for Dani.”

   When Nan Sunny had a heart attack and died suddenly this past winter, Dad called Michigan to let me know, but part of me hadn’t totally believed it was true. I still come around corners and expect to see her all over our cozy cottage. I’ll find little things—her tortoiseshell hair combs in the bathroom cabinet, her thin-framed embroidery glasses on the TV stand, her tulip-patterned shower cap tucked into a pile of towels in the laundry room—and I’ll immediately feel sucker punched.

   “I miss her so much, too.” I let Duke pull me into a bear hug.

   My brother always smells like freshly turned dirt—probably because he’s always digging around in it. With Dani locked away in her room so much this summer, Duke and I have been going “treasure hunting”—he’ll lug his metal detector to a random patch of yard or beach, swing it around in slow arcs, get a ping, and then we’ll take bets on whether it’s going to be total garbage or the find of a lifetime.

   It’s almost always garbage, but that’s okay. I miss hanging out with Dani, but I love spending time with my big brother, even if we’re mostly just digging holes.

   “You know she would have told you, you need to eat.” I point to his chair and do my best impression. “Eat, eat! You’re too skinny! Look at your bones! Eat!” Nan Sunny lived in Italy until she was fifteen, and she still had this great accent, especially when she was talking about her two passions—food and family.

   Dad laughs. “Feels like she’s standing in the kitchen with me. Mornin,’ sunshine. I’m sure gonna miss seeing this little face every day.” Dad squeezes my cheeks, making my lips puff out, and kisses my forehead. “You all packed up? Ready to get back to it?”

   “Mmm-hmm,” I murmur. I don’t want to admit that I’m packed, but I’m not remotely ready to go back. Usually by the time summer ends, I’m eager to see my sisters and Mom and my stepdad again. And I’ve always been so excited for the first day of school, because I am—as Duke so charmingly describes me—“a bona fide Grade A nerd.” But this fall is the first fall since preschool that I won’t be going to Trinity Lutheran, the K–8 private school Marnie, Lilli, and I have all attended since we graduated from Good Shepherd Pre-K.

   I’ll be a high-school freshman at St. Matthew’s. It’s weird to think Marnie and Lilli will put on their green-and-yellow-plaid jumpers, and I’ll wear a navy-and-white kilt; Mom will drive them to the school of our childhood, and Peter will drop me off at my brand-new high school, alone.

   My stomach rolls over every time I think about it.

   “Are you excited to go back to school?” I ask Duke as Dad loads a heaping pile of banana and chocolate chip pancakes with whipped cream on my plate. Nan Sunny would have made the whipped cream in her mixer, but we just use the canned stuff now.

   “Not even a little bit. Dad, hit me!” Duke holds up his plate, and Dad’s smile is full of mischief. My brother and my father don’t always see eye to eye, but they can both be super goofy. Dad settles a pancake on the spatula, tests its weight, and slings it. Duke catches it half on his plate, half with his hand, and whoops before sitting down at the table with me. He shakes the whipped cream container and tilts his head back, filling his mouth with the fluffy stuff.

   “Aren’t you, like, even a little bit excited for senior year?” I prod. “You’re, like, such a good student.”

   “Meh.” Duke shrugs. “I make good grades. That’s not really the same thing as being a good student. Most of the time I’m pretty bored at school, but this year the local community college is doing a program with the seniors, and I got in at the last second. So, maybe this year will be cool?” He stuffs a huge bite of pancake in his mouth and seems to swallow without chewing. “I’m not betting on it, though.”

   “I think you’re finally going to find your place in college.” Dad plunks down next to me, his calloused hand cupping a mug of steaming coffee, and eyes Dani’s door nervously. “A smart guy like you needs to be challenged, and Coral High was never gonna do that.”

   Duke gives Dad a curious look, but a creak from Dani’s door focuses our attention in her direction. She comes out in a loose maxi dress, hair fixed, makeup on, and we don’t even try to hide our excitement.

   “Hey! Good morning! Come eat!” we all cheer in a chorus of voices.

   “Good morning, everyone,” Dani says softly. Her smile is the best thing I’ve seen in days.

   “Can I get you some coffee?” Dad jumps up and heads to the pot.

   “Ye—um, no. No thank you. Just milk, I think.”

   “Sure. Milk it is,” Dad says. “And pancakes?”

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