Chapter 1: The Way Hearts Do 1 The Way Hearts Do
On the first day of seventh grade, I calculate the distance between my sister and me. We’re five miles apart. If it were last year, Daniella would be somewhere in this building, taking notes on Joan of Arc in history class or picking cheese off cafeteria pizza. Now a great gust of wind has swept her 26,400 feet away, to Mapleton High School.
I dial the combination for my new locker. 13-27-31.
It’s been thirty-one days since I sat cross-legged on my bed while Daniella painted my nails sparkly blue. (Twenty-seven days of August, plus four days in July.) This can’t be what teachers mean when they say we’ll use math in real life. Adding the number of days since you last heard your sister’s laugh. I stuff my binders into the locker and shut the door.
“Gah,” I blurt. Mr. Garrison, my sixth-grade algebra teacher, is standing in front of me with a wide grin and a fluorescent pink piece of paper in his hand. His tie has division symbols on it.
“Congratulations, Cassi,” he says as if I’ve done something extraordinary. As if I didn’t just make a noise in his face like one of those screaming goats.
“For what?” I try to catch my breath.
“Your grades from last year qualify you for Math Olympics.” He hands me the piece of paper. “What do you think?”
I would dance up and down the hall if I could. But I have about as much rhythm as a raisin.
“I’ll be there,” I say, instead of the dancing. A smile stretches so wide across my face that I can almost see my cheeks. Mom says Daniella and I have the same smile, sister smiles, but I think that’s because we have the same bottom teeth. Crooked, but not quite enough for braces.
Mr. G high-fives me. Almost all the blue polish on my nails has chipped off, but one tiny speck still clings to my thumb like it can’t let go. I use an old piece of tape to hang the flyer in my locker. Things look brighter now. For the rest of the day, I trace the word “Math” on the flyer every time I take out a binder.
I find Mom in the kitchen after school. Mondays are her day off from working at the Mapleton Library.
“Mom, guess what?” I take the chair next to hers. Her fingers wind up in her black hair the way they do when she’s stressed. The last time I saw her sitting like that was when the town council wanted to cut the library’s budget in half. Mom fought back, going to all the town meetings and typing emails on her laptop late at night until the council changed its mind.
A newspaper sits on the table, opened up to the puzzle page.
The smell of burnt coffee in the kitchen + mistakes on Mom’s sudoku (difficulty level: two out of five stars) = Nothing good.
“Tell me, mi amor,” she says. Mom writes the number six in a box, looking too tired to fight against town councils or anything else.
“It can wait.…” I let my voice fade away. I fold over the edge of the place mat, a laminated parrot. “There’s already a six in that row.”
Mom sits in front of the blue jay place mat. We have a whole set of bird place mats, each one shaped as a different kind of bird. It’s like our kitchen table is a bird sanctuary. She studies the puzzle and then smiles at me in a watery way.
“Will you try to talk to your sister? I told your dad to bring home her favorite pizza for dinner.”
My stomach dips.
“She won’t listen to me,” I tell her. She’s ignored me for thirty-one days.
“Please.” Mom doesn’t say it like I have a choice. I shove the chair back. The movement shifts the parrot-shaped place mat, so that it looks like it fell onto its face.
Daniella’s room is across from mine. Three feet apart. A sign on the door spells out her name in tiny, turquoise seashells. We collected the shells with Buelo and Buela in Mayagüez, the town in Puerto Rico where they lived until Mom turned thirteen. I have a name sign like Daniella’s too. “Cassandra” is spelled out in pebbles. No one calls me that, except this sign, and my cousin Jac when she wants to be dramatic. Which is often.
I knock once, twice, three times. A shell is missing from one of the Ls. I knock again. When she doesn’t answer, I open the door. Daniella’s doorknob has a malfunction. It was installed the wrong way, so it only locks from the outside. Dad is always telling Daniella he’ll fix it. I secretly like that she can never lock herself away from me. Not completely at least.
Her desk is straight ahead, facing the window. Daniella sits looking at the sunset. She is bronze shoulders, yellow tank top straps, dark curls hanging over the chair. A sister in pieces.
My heart hollows out the way hearts do when they see something so sad that it’s almost unbearable.
“Dinner soon,” I tell her.
Her backpack spills out on the throw rug by her bed. I see a navy pencil case, a wooden ruler, a textbook. The spine says The Chemical Property of Life. It seems like the kind of book that would answer big, important questions. Like how my sister could swipe blue polish across my nails one night, and be somebody else the next morning.
I want to ask Daniella everything about her first day of high school, like if she got placed in American Studies and had the same lunch period as her friend Jenna. She told me she was worried about that.
“I’ve been told there will be Pepper’s Pizza. Extra crispy, extra pepperoni, light cheese.”
The word cuts sharp, like stepping on a broken shell. I stop myself from thinking that Daniella is a broken shell. Because she’s not. Because she can’t be. My hand hovers above the doorknob. I guess it doesn’t matter whether something locks from the inside or outside. No one can get in either way.