I think even if nothing had happened the next day, even if my life had stayed just as it was that night at supper, I’d still remember what Jack said. He has that way of startling me by saying something totally unexpected but then, when I think about it, something that makes perfect sense, something I should have known all along.
We were all at the supper table. It was Wednesday night, and Wednesday nights we eat together. Jack has Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, but we could never manage two nights in a row. Mom’s committed to completing her bachelor’s degree, so she takes a couple of classes during the day and one or two at night. Brooke always has something: lacrosse, dressage, violin, not to mention her dozens of friends. Alyssa has tennis plus the swimming and yoga she uses for cross-training. And I keep busy enough too, with choir and the occasional school play.
But Wednesday nights we eat together. Jack does the shopping and the cooking, and whoever is around pitches in to help. This time Alyssa made the salad and Brooke set the table. I had a choir rehearsal and got home only a few minutes before suppertime.
I wouldn’t remember any of that if everything hadn’t changed the next day. But I’m sure I would remember what Jack said.
Mom was telling us about her nineteenth-century literature class. Mom wants to be a fourth grade teacher, and fourth grade teachers don’t need to know much about nineteenth-century literature, but it’s always bothered her that Jack’s so well read and she isn’t. And Val, Brooke and Alyssa’s mother, who lives in Orlando, sends them lots of books, current bestsellers mostly, but sometimes a classic she thinks they should read.
"Have you decided what you’re going to do your paper on, Terri?" Brooke asked Mom.
Mom took a bite of the tilapia and shook her head. "I’d like to do it on Jane Eyre," she said. "But my professor said she’s read too many papers on Jane Eyre and we have to pick something else. She said not enough students write papers on War and Peace, but I’m not even sure I’ll finish it before the final. War and Peace is awfully long."
"I don’t like long books," Alyssa said. "I think there should be a rule that books can’t be more than two hundred pages."
"There’d be a lot fewer good books with that rule," Brooke said.
"Yeah," I said. "But there’d be a lot more trees."
"You know something," Jack said, as we sat at the table, eating and laughing, "Tolstoy was wrong."
"About what?" Brooke asked, helping herself to the string beans.
"Who’s Tolstoy?" Alyssa asked.
"He wrote War and Peace," Mom said. "And a lot of other very long books. What was Tolstoy wrong about, darling?"
"He said all happy families are alike," Jack replied. "Unhappy families are all different."
"What’s wrong about that?" I asked.
"Well, look at us," Jack said. "We’re a happy family. But we’re not identical to other happy families. Happy families come in their own shapes and varieties, same as the unhappy ones."
"Are we going to stay a happy family if I go to USC?" Brooke asked.
"I thought you were going to North Carolina," I said, "and take that lacrosse scholarship."
"I haven’t decided yet," Brooke said. "So, Dad, how happy will we be if I pick USC instead?"
"North Carolina’s kind of equidistant between us and Orlando," I said. "If you go to USC, we’ll hardly ever see you."
"Brooke said she hasn’t decided yet," Mom said to me.
"I know," I said. "I heard her."
Jack looked straight at Brooke. "Have you talked to your mother about it?" he asked.
"Not yet," Brooke said. "We’ve both been too busy to talk."
"Speaking of your mother, she called today," Jack said. "There are some changes in plans for your spring vacation."
"What changes?" Alyssa asked. "She’s taking me to Brussels, right? For the tournament?"
"Dad, it was all set," Brooke said. "Terri and I were meeting Mom in Maryland for my dressage test. Then she was coming back here to take Lyss to Brussels. What happened this time?"
"First of all, I would appreciate it if you didn’t use that tone of voice when you’re talking about your mother," Jack said.
"I’m sorry, Dad," Brooke said. "But I know I’m not going to like what’s coming."
"No, it isn’t that bad," Jack said. "Your mother’s trip to Munich was postponed, so she won’t be able to come here."
"But I can still go to Brussels," Alyssa said, and I could hear the panic in her voice. "Daddy, it’s my first international tournament. I’ve got to go."
"Your mother understands that," Jack said. "So she asked her parents to fl y here. Gram will go with you and Terri to the dressage test, Brooke, and Grandy will take Alyssa to Brussels." He smiled at his daughters. "Monday, Gram and Brooke will fl y to Switzerland for a few days of skiing, then go on to Brussels, and you’ll all fl y back together."
"Mom was going to see me play," Alyssa said. "I want her to see how good I’ve gotten."
"She wants to see it too," Jack said. "She’s hoping to get to Brussels for the quarterfinals."
None of us asked what would happen if Alyssa didn’t make it to the quarters. She always did.
"Lauren’s in Europe, isn’t she?" Alyssa asked me.
Lauren is my best friend, my only real friend outside of the kids in choir. She’s spending her junior year abroad.
"Spain," I said. "Madrid."
"I was looking forward to being home for the week," Brooke said. "Have a do-nothing vacation, like Willa."
"Willa’s going to keep busy enough," Mom said. "She’ll be working on turning her B’s into A’s."
"Willa’s grades are fine," Jack said. He smiled at me. "Maybe we’ll take an overnight trip to Washington," he said. "Go to the Smithsonian. Tour the White House. What do you say, Terri? Think we could swing that?"
Mom nodded. "That sounds nice," she said.
"Good," Jack said. "It’s settled. Brooke and Alyssa with their mom and grandparents. You and Willa and me with the president."
Once, when I was eleven, before we moved so Brooke and Alyssa could live with us, Jack found me sitting on the kitchen floor, crying. He asked me what was the matter, and I told him that all the girls in sixth grade were prettier than me.
"Oh, pumpkin," Jack said. "You don’t want to waste your pretty years in middle school. Not on middle school boys. Wait until they’re ready to see how beautiful you are. High school, or even college. You can hold off until then, can’t you?"
"Will I really be pretty then?" I asked him.
Jack helped me up off the floor and hugged me. "You’ll be as pretty as you want to be," he said. "And all the boys will notice."
I’m sixteen now, and a long way from beautiful, but I’ve noticed that on days when I feel pretty, the boys in my school do seem to notice. And I’m glad I didn’t waste my pretty years on middle school.
That night, at supper, I knew we really were a happy family. Happy didn’t mean all singing and dancing. Brooke and Alyssa weren’t shy about letting Mom or Jack know when they were unhappy about something. There were battles of will, fl ashes of temper.
But I knew enough about stepfathers and stepsisters to understand how lucky we were, how hard Jack and Mom worked to make sure we knew we were part of the same family, equally loved by both of them.
It couldn’t have been easy for either of them. Jack already shared custody with Val when Mom met him. The first few years after they got married, the three of us lived in a house about an hour away from Val’s. Brooke and Alyssa spent practically every weekend with us, and Christmas vacation, and summer when they weren’t at camp or visiting their grandparents. Jack was a sports reporter for the Union Gazette, so he worked on weekends, but that didn’t matter. Brooke was busy with dressage, and Alyssa with tennis lessons, so Mom did the chauffeuring, and either I’d tag along with her or I’d go to football or basketball games with Jack. I liked it best when Brooke came with us. She’s a year older than I am, and I worshiped her. Alyssa is two years younger than I am, but she only worships other tennis players.
We were a happy family then too. We even stayed a happy family when Val got transferred for three years to Shanghai. Alyssa refused to go with her, and Brooke admitted she didn’t want to.
Jack and Mom had a lot of discussions about the situation, none of which I was supposed to hear but did anyway. Val came over a few times when Alyssa was at tennis practice and Brooke was taking her violin lesson. I made sure to eavesdrop then.
But even with all my spying, I was still shocked when Jack and Mom and Val sat us down together and explained what was going to happen. Jack and Mom were going to sell our house and buy one in Westbridge, where Brooke and Alyssa lived. That way they could continue to go to Fairhaven Academy, and Alyssa could keep her tennis coach and Brooke her violin teacher and riding academy. Mom would quit her job so that she’d be available to take Brooke and Alyssa where they needed to go (Val’s housekeeper used to do that). Jack’s commute would be a little longer, and I’d transfer to the middle school in Westbridge. It was easier for us to move than for Brooke’s and Alyssa’s lives to be disrupted.
I’d grown up with Brooke and Alyssa, and they were as close as sisters to me, but that didn’t keep me from crying that night. Mom came into my room, sat on my bed, and held my hand.
"I know this isn’t easy for you, Willa," she said. "But it would break Jack’s heart if Brooke and Alyssa went with Val to Shanghai."
"But why can’t they move here?" I cried. "Why do we have to give up everything?"
"We’re not giving up everything," Mom said. "We’re moving from one nice house to another one, and you’re changing schools. I’ll get to be a stay-at-home mom, for you and Brooke and Alyssa. Think of what the girls are giving up. They’ll only get to see Val once or twice a year for the next three years. You’ll still have Jack and me and our home together."
"But I don’t want to start a new school in February," I said. "It’s not fair."
Mom kissed me on my cheek. "Shush," she said. "You don’t want Jack to hear you, honey. He has to do what’s best for the girls. It’ll be fine. You’ll see."
I wanted to ask Mom if Jack would still love me, but even though I knew her answer would be yes, of course he would, I was too frightened to ask. Instead I did everything I could to make the move easier, and even when we all settled in together and Mom told us that Brooke would have her own room, since she was the oldest, and Alyssa and I would share, I didn’t complain. Alyssa did, loud and long, but she didn’t have to worry about losing Jack and she didn’t seem to care if she lost Mom.
But Jack and Mom made it work. Jack flew with Brooke and Alyssa to Shanghai every Christmas, and Val stopped by each summer and took her daughters on vacation trips to London and Paris and Rome. Brooke left Fairhaven Academy for Westbridge High and added lacrosse to her activities. Alyssa stayed on at Fairhaven, continued with her tennis, and was ranked sixteenth nationally in her age group.
Because Jack had never adopted me, my name hadn’t been changed to McDougal. Everyone at school knew Brooke McDougal, but only those kids who knew her or me well knew we were stepsisters. To everyone else, I was just Willa Coffey, reasonably pretty, with a nice voice, good grades, and a handful of friends.