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As she seeks her niche in life, Thea becomes involved in volunteer work at the local hospital.
"What a dump."
"I wish you'd stop saying that," Thea Sebastian said to her sister Claire. "You say that about every place we move into."
"They're all dumps," Claire replied.
"At least we own this dump," Sybil Sebastian said. "Have we ever owned our dump before?"
Thea and her two younger sisters turned to their oldest sister, Evvie, aged eighteen and family expert, for the answer. "I think we may have owned one years ago," she said. "Right before you were born, Claire. But we've rented ever since then."
"And now we own," Thea declared. "And Megs will get to really work on the house, turn it into a mansion. You wait and see, Claire."
"This house will never be a mansion," Claire replied. "Maybe less of a dump, but no mansion."
"Think how much better it is than that awful place we had in Harrison," Evvie said. "A couple of years ago, when we first moved there."
"The house was awful, but I liked Harrison," Sybil said. "I don't see why we had to leave there."
"We left because Nicky thought he could do even better here in Briarton," Thea said. "And the way Nicky's been going, he's bound to be right."
"He's on a lucky streak," Claire said. "It'll never last."
Thea stared at her sisters. Evvie was two years older than she was; Claire, two years younger; and Sybil, four years younger. Except for Claire, Thea loved them all, almost as much as she loved her parents, Nicky and Megs. Except for Claire, they were the perfect family: close, caring, and full of fun. She wished she could believe Claire was a foundling, some unrelated baby Nicky and Megs had taken in as a misguided act of charity. But while she, Evvie, and Sybil all had Megs's blond coloring and blue eyes, Claire, with her black hair and blazing green eyes, was every inch Nicky's daughter. Not that Claire liked Nicky. Not that Thea liked her.
"I know this house feels like a comedown," Evvie said. "That last place in Harrison was pretty spectacular."
"We each had our own room," Sybil said. "I never had my own room before."
"But it was a rental," Evvie continued. "And you know how much it means to Megs to have a real home, a place she can work on. So we share again."
"That's easy enough for you to say," Claire replied. "You're going off to college in a week. Then Thea gets the room all to herself. Meanwhile Sybil and I have to share for the rest of our lives. It's so unfair being younger."
"Sometimes I think everything's unfair," Sybil said, and Thea turned to pay attention to her. Sybil didn't waste much time complaining.
"We've already explained it to you. Opportunities were better here," Thea said. "Don't you want Nicky to be real rich again?"
"If that would only happen," Claire said. "Were we ever really rich, Evvie? Tell us about the richest we ever were."
Evvie laughed. She curled up on the floor next to her bed, and rested her feet on an unpacked box. "I guess we never were as rich as Aunt Grace or Clark," she said. "They own their mansions. But once, long ago, Nicky did have a major boom and for a year or so we were wonderfully rich. Then the boom busted. The mansion we lived in vanished, and the servants we had vanished, and the only things we had left were each other and our memories."
"I don't even have the memories," Claire complained. "All I ever remember is us being poor and pretending not to be."
"That's better than being poor and acting like you're poor," Thea declared. "Besides, we aren't poor now. So stop whining, Claire, and hand me that box."
"Sometimes I feel like all I ever do is unpack," Sybil said. "This is our third home in two years. My entire childhood has been spent in a suitcase."
"Think how I feel," Evvie said. "I don't know whether I'm packing or unpacking. When we left Harrison, I know I put everything in a deliberate order so I'd remember what I was leaving here, and what I was taking to Harvard. But now it's all a jumble, and I have to start all over again."
"Harvard," Thea said. "You're actually going there."
"In a week," Evvie said.
"That's another thing that isn't fair," Claire said. "We've already started school, and you have another whole week."
"I wish I was there already," Evvie replied. "It's driving me crazy that I have a week left to go."
"Because you want to be in school, or because you miss Sam?" Thea asked.
"Both," Evvie said.
"You really are lucky," Thea declared. "You go off two summers ago, to spend time with Aunt Grace in Eastgate, while we're stuck in that terrible house in Harrison, not knowing a soul, and you fall in love, and you stay in love, too. Just like Megs when she met Nicky the summer she was sixteen."
"Except Sam is reliable," Claire said. "Unlike Nicky."
"Do you really think you and Sam are going to get married?" Sybil asked.
Evvie nodded. "But not until I'm through with college," she said. "That's why we're both going to Harvard. So we can be together while we wait."
"I hope I fall in love," Thea declared. "I've been sixteen for three months already, and I haven't met anybody to fall in love with except the guy who drove the moving van."
"Love is overrated," Claire replied. "I don't want to waste my time being in love. I want to be rich instead."
"You can be both," Thea said. "Even though money doesn't really matter."
"I don't want to be piddling rich," Claire said. "I want to be so rich I can eat diamonds."
"I just want to be rich enough so that I can live in one place forever," Sybil said. "When I'm grown up, I never want to pack or unpack again."
"I won't care what my life is like," Thea declared. "Just as long as I'm as much in love with my husband as Megs is with Nicky. The way you and Sam are, Evvie."
"That'll happen," Evvie promised. "Just give yourself some time, Thea."
"I'm tired of waiting," Thea grumbled, and then she laughed. "I sound like Claire," she said. "Yuck."
"Yuck to you, too," Claire said. "Come on, Sybil. We have our own stuff to take care of."
"Okay," Sybil said. "See you later." She followed her older sister into their bedroom.
"Are you sure you labeled some of the boxes Harvard?" Thea asked Evvie when they were alone. "I remember you said you were going to."
"I was going to do lots of things I never got around to," Evvie replied. "I'm afraid I'm going to be leaving you with an awful mess."
"That's okay," Thea said. "It'll make me feel better having your things around. Maybe I'll miss you less that way. We've moved so often, you've always been my one best friend. And now we've moved again, only this time you won't be here for me."
"Oh, Thea," Evvie said, and she got up and hugged Thea. "I'm going to miss you so much."
"As much as you miss Sam when you're not together?" Thea asked.
"Differently," Evvie said.
"Tell me about love," Thea said. "I know I'm always saying I'm in love, but I want to know what it's really like. I am sixteen now. I'm the age girls in this family fall truly and permanently in love. So tell me what to expect."
"Look, Thea, I never expected to fall in love when I was sixteen," Evvie said. She opened up a box, stared into it, sighed, and closed it again. "Sam was an accident that summer. He was there, and I was there, and that was it."
"But suppose you hadn't met him that summer," Thea said. "Suppose you met him next week at Harvard. Would you fall in love with him then?"
Evvie nodded. "I'd fall in love with Sam if we were both seventy-five years old and married forever to other people," she replied. "I know that's how Nicky and Megs feel, too, kind of preordained. But I don't think all love works that way. Maybe just the spectacular kind."
"That's the kind I want, then," Thea said. "And I want it now."
"Take my word for it, it's easier if you wait," Evvie declared. "Sam's grandparents aren't real thrilled that we're still in love. And frankly, Nicky and Megs haven't been crazy about the idea, either."
"Because Sam's Jewish?" Thea asked.
"Because he's different," Evvie replied. "He isn't what they would have picked for me, and I'm certainly not what the Greenes would have picked for Sam. Not that everyone hasn't been very friendly and tolerant. But it would have been easier if we'd met later, when we were older. Maybe seventy-five. By then the Greenes wouldn't care."
"I know Nicky and Megs will like whoever I fall in love with," Thea said. "This box is definitely yours, and it's definitely stuff you want to take with you, Evvie. Check it out."
"Good," Evvie said. "This box is yours. It's all your poetry books."
Thea walked over and moved her box to her side of the room. "Last year, when we had money again, I kept buying poetry," she declared. "I didn't read nearly as much of it as I meant to. Maybe this year I'll read it all. Sometimes I think I'd like to be a poet."
"Great," Evvie said. "There's a lot of money in that."
"Now you sound like Claire," Thea said. "I want to be so rich I can eat poetry."
The girls laughed. "I wish you weren't going," Thea said. "I wish you could stay here forever, and things could be the way they always were. I didn't even like us having separate bedrooms last year. I like sharing everything with you, Evvie."
"Life doesn't always work that way, Thea," Evvie said.
Thea grinned. "I may be a romantic, but even I know that," she said. "Everything changes. Mansions come and go. It's only love that lasts forever."
"Love and zits," Evvie said. "I've had one right under my chin for ages now."
"Let me look," Thea said, and she was engrossed in Evvie's skin problems when Megs knocked on their door.
"Supper's ready," Meg said. "I see you've gotten a lot done here."
"We talked," Evvie said. "I can never talk and unpack at the same time."
"We've been in this house for almost two weeks," Meg said as she escorted her daughters downstairs. Thea could hear Sybil and Claire already in the kitchen. "And the house looks like we arrived here yesterday."
"You're being impatient, Megs," Evvie said. "You own this house. You can take as long as you want to get it looking just right."
"It's nice to think that way, but it really isn't true," Meg replied. "Nicky wants us to start entertaining as soon as possible. And I can't have anyone over with the place looking like this."
"I'll do more tomorrow, I promise, Megs," Thea said. She did feel guilty over how little she'd done. Claire and Sybil already had their bedroom set up. Sybil, she suspected, had done all the work, while Claire bullied her around, but whatever the system, it had proved more efficient than her and Evvie's trick of falling into conversation and leaving the boxes right where they were.
"It's my fault, too," Evvie said. "I really thought I'd packed better when we moved, but now, each time I open a box, I find half the stuff is going with me, and the other half is staying, and the thought of having to repack everything depresses me so much I don't get anything done."
"I know," Meg replied. "Nicky says we can afford a piano, and half of me is so excited that I want to go out and buy it right now, and the other half of me says, wait, get the wood stripped and the walls painted before moving a piano in. So I don't do anything. I just sit around the living room and daydream about how lovely it will be to have a piano to play again."
Thea looked at her mother. Megs had grown up orphaned, in the house of her aunt Grace. Aunt Grace wasn't the warmest, most loving person around, but she had provided Megs with everything a proper girl from proper society should have. And that included a piano. The plan had been that Megs would fall in love with and marry someone equally appropriate from Boston society, probably Clark Bradford, who'd been in love with her since the day Megs stopped wearing diapers. But instead, on her sixteenth birthday, Megs had met Nicky Sebastian, also an orphan, but one without money or social position. None of that had mattered. They'd fallen in love, and in spite of Aunt Grace, had eventually married, and continued to love each other while raising four daughters, and dealing with the ups and downs of Nicky's fortunes. Now the fortunes were up, and Megs could have her piano again.
"I'll help tomorrow," Thea said. "I don't have much homework. I'll get it all done in the morning, and then you can order me around in the afternoon. That way you can get the piano sooner."
"Thank you," Meg said. "I appreciate all your help. Sybil's been especially helpful. I think she should be a restorer when she grows up, someone who cleans old paintings or rebuilds cathedrals."
"What do you think I should be?" Thea asked. They were almost at the kitchen, and she wasn't sure she wanted Claire to hear Megs's answer, but it was one of those opportunities that might never come up again. Did Megs think she should be a poet? Or the perfect homemaker, the way Megs was? Thea was never sure what she wanted her future to hold, and she liked the idea of having Megs tell her what to do.
"I really don't know," Megs replied, which surprised Thea, who believed Megs knew everything. "Sometimes I think you should be a teacher, or have lots of children. You have such a capacity for loving and caring. But other times I want you to be an explorer, to chart unknown worlds. I guess I like the image of you in a pith helmet."
"An explorer?" Thea asked.
"I'm never going to be an explorer," Sybil called from the kitchen. "Explorers have to unpack all the time."
"They have servants and guides who do it for them," Claire said. "It would be fun to be an explorer if you got to keep everything you found. Diamonds and emeralds."
"What do I get to be?" Nick asked, coming in from his office. "Assuming I bother to grow up?"
"You get to be my husband," Meg said, giving him a kiss. "A full-time job."
"I can't think of a better one," Nick said, and he returned Megs's kiss. Thea was accustomed to the constant signs of love between her parents. She was taken aback at other people's homes, where the parents didn't hug and kiss and lose themselves in each other's eyes.
"The person we should be asking about careers is Evvie," Meg said. "Have you thought about your major?"
"I've thought about it endlessly," Evvie replied. She walked over to the stove and started carrying the chicken curry to the table. "I haven't decided yet. Sam's majoring in journalism, but he's always known he wants to be a reporter. Sam wants to tell people the truth about things, and he figures the best way to do that is by reporting."
"There's no money in reporting," Claire said.
"Nobody's asking you to be a reporter," Thea said. She brought the homemade chutney to the table, as well as a dish of slivered almonds. "Who'd believe anything you wrote, anyway?"
"What did you want to be, when you were a kid, Megs?" Sybil asked. "When you grew up?"
"I never gave it much thought," Meg replied. "We were all programmed then, to be debutantes and brides and young mothers. I guess I expected to wear white gloves and attend cotillions until the day I died."
"What about you, Nicky?" Thea asked. She sat down at the table, and poured herself some juice. "What did you want to be when you were a kid?"
"I wanted to be out of there," Nick said, glancing away for a moment. "I wanted to be all the things I wasn't."
"You got what you wanted, then," Evvie said.
"I got all that and more," Nick replied. "I never could have dreamed, when I was a boy, of a girl like Daisy." Daisy was the private name he used for Megs. "And I certainly never could have pictured myself as a family man, proudly sitting in my kitchen, surrounded by four exquisite daughters. I knew I wanted money, when I was a kid, but it never occurred to me I could have love as well."
"What did you dream about?" Thea asked. Her father rarely talked about his childhood, and they all knew better than to ask. But this seemed to be one of those rare evenings when he might open up and tell them things they would never otherwise learn.
Excerpted from Thea at Sixteen by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Copyright © 1988 Susan Beth Pfeffer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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