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If movies and books have taught me anything, it's that Los Angeles is the greatest city with the greatest people and the greatest beaches. And so, like every girl to ever walk this earth, I dreamed of visiting this Golden State. I wanted to run along the sand of Venice Beach, to press my hands on my favorite celebrities' stars on the Walk of Fame, to one day stand behind the Hollywood Sign and look out over the beautiful city. That and all the other lame tourist must-dos. With one earphone in, my attention half on the music humming into my ear and half on the conveyor belt rotating in front of me, I try my hardest to find a spot clear enough for me to grab my luggage. While the people around me shove and chat loudly with their partners, yelling that their luggage just went past and the other yelling back that it wasn't actually their luggage, I roll my eyes and focus on the khaki suitcase nearing me. I can tell it's mine by the lyrics scrawled along its side, so I grab the handle and yank it off as quickly as I can. "Over here!" a familiar voice calls. My father's astoundingly deep voice is half drowned out by my music, but no matter how loud the volume, I would probably still hear him from a mile away. His voice is too irritatingly painful to ignore. When Mom first broke the news to me that Dad had asked me to spend the summer with him, we both found ourselves in a fit of laughter at the sheer insanity of it all. "You don't have to go anywhere near him," Mom reminded me daily. Three years of hearing nothing and suddenly he wanted me to spend the entire summer with him? All he had to do was maybe start calling me once in a while, ask me how I was doing, gradually ease himself back into my life, but no, he decided to bite the bullet and ask to spend eight weeks with me instead. Mom was completely against the idea. Mom didn't think he deserved eight weeks with me. She said it would never be enough to make up for the time he'd already lost with me. But Dad only got more persistent, more desperate to convince me that I'd love it in southern California. I don't know why he finally decided to get in touch out of the blue. Was he hoping he could mend the relationship with me that he broke the day he got up and left? I doubted that was even possible, but one day I caved and called up my father to tell him that I wanted to come. My decision didn't revolve around him though. It revolved around the idea of hot summer days and glorious beaches and the possibility of falling in love with an Abercrombie & Fitch model with tanned skin and an eight-pack. Besides, I had my own reasons for wanting to get nine hundred miles away from Portland. So, I am not particularly thrilled to see the person approaching me. A lot can change in three years. Three years ago, I was three inches shorter. Three years ago, my dad didn't have noticeable graying strands throughout his hair. Three years ago, this wouldn't have been awkward. I try my hardest to smile, to grin so that I won't have to explain why there's a permanent frown sketched upon my lips. It's always so much easier just to smile. "Look at my little girl!" Dad says, widening his eyes and shaking his head in disbelief that I no longer look the same as I did at thirteen. Oh, how shocking that, in fact, sixteen-year-olds do not look the same as they did when they were in eighth grade. "Yep," I say, reaching up and pulling out my earphone. The wires dangle in my hands, the faint lull of the music vibrating through the buds. "I've missed you a lot, Eden," he tells me, as though I'll be overjoyed to know that my dad who walked out on us misses me, and perhaps I'll throw myself into his arms and forgive him right there and then. But things don't work like that. Forgiveness shouldn't be expected: it has to be earned. However, if I'm going to be living with him for eight weeks, I should probably try to put my hostility aside. "I've missed you too." Dad beams at me, his dimples boring into his cheeks the way a mole burrows into dirt. "Let me take your bag," he says, reaching for my suitcase and propping it onto its wheels. I follow him out of LAX. I keep my eyes peeled for any film stars or fashion models that might happen to brush past me, but I don't spot anyone on my way out. Warmth hits my face as I walk across the sprawling parking lot, the sun tingling my skin and the soft breeze swaying around my hair. The sky is mostly clear apart from several unsatisfying clouds. "I thought it was going to be hotter here," I comment, peeved that California is not actually as completely free from wind and clouds and rain as stereotypes have led me to believe. Never did it occur to me that the boring city of Portland would be hotter in the summer than Los Angeles. It is such a tragic disappointment, and now I'd much rather go home, despite how lame Oregon is. "It's still pretty hot," says Dad, shrugging almost apologetically on behalf of the weather. When I glance sideways at him, I can see his growing exasperation as he racks his brain for something to say. There is nothing to talk about besides the uncomfortable reality of the situation. He draws my suitcase to a halt by a black Lexus, and I stare dubiously at the polished paintwork. Before the divorce, he and my mom shared a crappy Volvo that broke down every four weeks. And that's if we were lucky. Either his new job pays extremely well or he just chose not to splurge on us before. Perhaps we weren't worth spending money on. "It's open," he tells me, nodding at the vehicle as he pops the trunk and throws my suitcase inside. I move around to the right side of the car and slide my backpack off my shoulder, opening the door and getting in. The leather is scorching hot against my bare thighs. I wait in silence for a few moments before Dad edges in behind the wheel. "So, did you have a nice flight?" he asks, engaging me in a generic conversation as he starts up the engine and backs out of the spot. "Yeah, it was okay." I tug my seat belt over my body and click it into place, staring blankly out the windshield while holding my backpack on my lap. The sun is blinding, so I open up the front compartment of my bag and pull out my shades, slipping them over my eyes. I heave a sigh. I almost hear my dad gulp as he takes a deep breath and asks, "How's your mom?" "She's great," I say, almost too enthusiastically as I try my hardest to emphasize just how well she's getting on without him. This is not entirely the truth though. She's doing okay. Not great, but not bad. She's spent the past few years trying to convince herself that the divorce is an experience that she can learn from. She wants to think that it's given her a life-affirming message or filled her with wisdom, but honestly, the only thing it's done is make her despise men. "Never been better." Dad nods then, gripping the steering wheel firmly as the car peels out of the airport grounds and onto the boulevard. There are numerous lanes, cars racing down each one, the traffic heavy but moving quickly. The landscape here is open. The buildings are not leaning, towering skyscrapers like those in New York, nor are there rows of trees like the ones back home in Portland. The only satisfying thing I discover is that palm trees do really exist. Part of me always wondered if they were a myth. We pass under a collection of road signs, one above each lane, outlining the surrounding cities and neighborhoods. The words are nothing more than a blur as we speed under them. A new silence is forming, so Dad quickly clears his throat and makes a second attempt at holding a conversation with me. "You're going to love Santa Monica," he says, smiling only briefly. "It's a great city." "Yeah, I looked it up," I say, propping my arm up against the window and staring out onto the boulevard. So far, LA doesn't look as glamorous as it does in all those images I saw on the Internet. "It's the one with that pier thingy, right?" "Yes, Pacific Park." A glint of sunlight catches the gold wedding band around my dad's finger where his hands grip the steering wheel. I groan. He notices. "Ella can't wait to meet you," he tells me. "And I her." This is a lie. Ella, my dad informed me recently, is his new wife. A replacement for my mom: something new, something better. And this is something that I can't understand. What does this Ella woman have that my mom doesn't? A better dish-scrubbing technique? Better meat loaf? "I hope the two of you can get along," Dad says after a moment of suffocating silence. He merges into the farthest right lane. "I really want this to work." Dad might really want this to work, but I, on the other hand, am still not completely sold on the whole reconstituted-family-model idea. The thought of having a stepmom does not appeal to me. I want a nuclear family, a cereal box family made up of my mom, my dad, and myself. I don't like adjustments. I don't like change. "How many kids does she have again?" I ask, my tone contemptuous. Not only have I been blessed with a lovely stepmother, I have also been graced with stepbrothers. "Three," Dad shoots back. He is growing irritated by my obvious negativity. "Tyler, Jamie, and Chase." "Okay," I say. "How old are they?" He talks as he focuses on the stop sign only yards ahead and slows the car down. "Tyler just turned seventeen, Jamie's fourteen, and Chase-Chase is eleven. Try to get along with them, honey." Out of the corner of his hazel eyes, he fixes me with a pleading stare. "Oh," I say again. Until now I just assumed I'd be meeting a couple of toddlers who could barely string sentences together yet. "Okay." Thirty minutes later, we're driving through a winding road in what appears to be the outskirts of the city. Tall trees decorate the parkway on each sidewalk, their thick trunks and crooked branches providing shade from the heat. The houses here are all larger than the one I live in with my mom back home, and they're all uniquely designed and constructed. No two houses are alike, neither in shape nor color nor size. Dad's Lexus pulls up outside a white-stone one. "You live here?" Deidre Avenue seems too normal, as though it belongs in the middle of North Carolina. LA isn't supposed to be normal. It's supposed to be glitzy and out of this world and totally surreal, but it's not. Dad nods, killing the engine and closing his sun visor. "You see that window?" He points to a window on the second floor, the one right in the center. "Yeah?" "That's your room." "Oh," I say. I wasn't expecting my own room for the eight weeks that I'm here. But it looks to be a pretty big house, so I'm sure spare rooms are plentiful. I'm glad I won't be sleeping on an inflatable bed in the middle of the living room. "Thanks, Dad." When I try to push myself up, I realize that wearing shorts has proven to have both pros and cons. Pro: my legs feel fresh and cool in this weather. Con: my thighs are now stuck to the leather of Dad's Lexus. And so it takes me a good long minute to actually get myself out of the car. Dad heads around to the trunk, collecting my suitcase and placing it on the sidewalk. "Better head inside," he says as he yanks out the handle and begins wheeling it along behind him. I take a wide step over the parking strip and follow my dad along the stone path. It leads up to the front door: mahogany and paneled, just like the doors to houses owned by the rich should be. All the while, I'm just staring at the Converse on my feet, taking a moment to let my eyes run over my scrawling handwriting, which decorates the sides of the white rubber. Just like my suitcase, there are lyrics written in black Sharpie. Staring at the writing helps keep my nerves at ease: slightly, just until we reach the front door. The house itself-despite being an obnoxious symbol of consumerism-is very pretty. Compared with the house I woke up in this morning, it may as well be a five-star guesthouse. There's a white Range Rover parked in the driveway. How flashy, I think. "Nervous?" Dad asks, hesitating outside the door. He smiles reassuringly down at me. "Kind of," I admit. I've tried not to think about the endless list of things that could go wrong, but somewhere within me, there is a sense of fear. What if they all absolutely hate me? "Don't be." He opens the door, and we head inside, my suitcase trailing behind us, its wheels scraping along the wooden flooring. In the entryway we're immediately overcome by an overwhelming scent of lavender. In front of me there is a staircase leading upstairs and a door to my right leading, from what I can see through the crack, to the living room. Straight ahead there is a large archway into the kitchen: a kitchen from which a woman is approaching me. "Eden!" the woman cries. She swallows me into a hug, her extreme bustiness getting in the way a little, and then takes a step back to examine me. I return the favor. Her hair is blond, figure slim. For some absurd reason, I expected her to look similar to my mom. But apparently Dad has altered his taste in women along with his living standards. "It's so nice to finally meet you!" I take a slight step back from her, fighting the urge to roll my eyes or pull a face. Dad would surely drag me straight back to the airport if I ever displayed such disrespect. "Hi," I say instead. And then she blurts, "God, you've got Dave's eyes!" which is possibly the worst thing someone could ever say to me given that I'd much rather have my mom's eyes. My mom wasn't the one who walked out. "Mine are darker," I murmur in disdain. Ella doesn't push the subject any further and instead turns the conversation around in a completely different direction. "You'll need to meet the rest of us. Jamie, Chase, get down here!" she yells up the stairs before turning back to me. "Did Dave tell you about the get-together we're having tonight?" "Get-together?" I echo. A social gathering was certainly not on my Things to Do While in California list. Especially when it's strangers who are doing the gathering. "Dad?" I glance sideways up at him, willing myself not to fire a death glare in his direction, and arch my brows. "We're sparking up the barbecue for the neighbors," he explains. "No better way to kick off the summer than with a good old barbecue." I really wish he'd stop talking. Quite frankly, I hate both large groups of people and barbecues. "Awesome," I say. There's a series of thuds as two boys come jogging down the staircase, their footsteps pounding against the oak as they jump down two steps at a time. "Is that Eden?" the eldest of the pair whispers to Ella as he reaches us, but I hear him anyway. He must be Jamie. The younger one with the wide eyes must be Chase. "Hey," I say. My lips curl up into a beaming smile. From what I remember of my conversation in the car, Jamie is fourteen. Despite being two years younger than me, he is about the same height. "What's up?" "Just hanging out," Jamie answers. He is so totally Ella's child. His sparkling blue eyes and shaggy blond hair make this connection clear. "Do you want a drink or something?" "I'm good, thanks," I say. From his straightened posture and his attempt at good manners, he seems mature for his age. Perhaps we'll get along well. "Chase, are you going to say hi to Eden?" Ella encourages. Chase comes across as very reserved. He, too, has inherited Ella's flawless genes. "Hi," he mumbles, not quite meeting my eyes. "Mom, can I go to Matt's?" "Of course, honey, just be back by seven," Ella says. I wonder if she's the type of mom who grounds you for dropping crumbs on the living room carpet or the type who doesn't mind if you disappear for two days. "We're having the barbecue, remember?" Chase nods and then brushes past me, swinging open the front door and closing it again just as quickly without even a whisper of a good-bye to any of us. "Mom, do you want me to show her around?" Jamie asks the second his brother is gone. "That'd be great," I answer for her. Jamie's company will surely be better than my dad's or Ella's or both of them combined. I don't quite see the point in spending time with people I'd much rather be nowhere near. So for now I'll stick to my new, wonderful stepbrothers. Surely they are finding this entire thing just as foreign as I am. "That's nice of you, Jay," Ella says. She sounds grateful at the idea of not having to be the one to tell me where the bathroom is. "Let her see her room." Dad gives me a clipped nod and grins. "We'll be in the kitchen if you need anything." I try to refrain from snorting as Jamie takes my suitcase and begins hauling it up the staircase. Right now, the only things I need are tanned legs and fresh air, which I most certainly won't get from lingering inside with my dad. As I turn to follow Jamie upstairs, I hear my dad hiss, "Where's Tyler?" "I don't know," Ella says. Their voices begin to fade as we all distance ourselves from each other, but not far enough that I can't hear Dad reply with, "So you just let him leave?" "Yes," says Ella before we move out of hearing range. "You're right across from me," Jamie informs me as we reach the landing. "You've got the coolest room. The best view." "Sorry." I laugh lightly and try to keep a smile on my face as he makes his way over to one of the five doors. But I can't help but pause to glance down to the hall below, my eyes focusing on the back of Ella's blond hair as she disappears through the archway into the kitchen. I figure she's the type who doesn't mind if you disappear.