Thursday, December 15, 2011

First Four Chapters of "All in the Family"


Hope everyone's well! I'm posting the first four chapters of "All in the Family." You can click here for a .pdf (no need to download) or just read below. If you want something shorter, check out this excerpt from later in the book.
*****

No part of this story may be reproduced without the permission of the author. From "All in the Family" Copyright © 2011 by Q. Kelly

This is an excerpt. The final version may be slightly different. For the entire story, check out Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble IN JANUARY 2012.
You can also email me at yllek_q@yahoo.com for a copy. :-)

Blurb: "All in the Family"
Allison Albrecht and Samantha Cannizarro are thrown together when their parents become engaged. Sam is deaf, so Allison begins to learn sign language. Allison is eager to please Sam and to make a good impression on her. Sam does not care about good impressions. She is a loner, always has been, and she resents her new instant family, especially her stepmother-to-be. Sam is also reluctant to bond with three-year-old Allen. However, Allison and Allen gradually crack Sam's facade, and the two girls fall in love.

But life in a stepfamily is rarely easy. Throw in romance between two stepsiblings, and the ride is going to be bumpy.



Chapter One


Allison did not like the woman with the big black hair who bounced into The Addict a moment ago. Allison's dislike was not because of the nasal Jersey-accented voice that made her want to invest in good earplugs. Nor was the dislike because the woman, braying with laughter at her own indecision, kept changing her order, from a black coffee to a latte to a cappuccino then back to a plain coffee with a brownie.
Allison did not like the woman because of the way she handled the baby. The boy looked to be about six months old, but his mother handled him as if he were a rag doll, tossing him over her shoulder, sending his neck this way and that way. Then she practically dropped him into his stroller.
"How much was that, again?" the mother asked.
"Five dollars, right on the mark," Allison repeated.
The woman frowned. She dug through her purse and added more coins to the motley pile in her hand. "Is $4.85 all right?"
Allison swallowed in resignation. Fifteen cents was not a lot to most people, but it was to her. She had to scrimp, save and work her butt off to help her mother pay the bills and take care of Allen.
The customer’s eyes lit up. "I found another nickel! How’s $4.90?"
"All right," Allison muttered. She accepted the customer’s pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.
"Wonderful. You’re a doll! I tell you what. I’ll come back tomorrow, get more coffee and pay you back."
"Oh, that isn’t necessary," Allison demurred. But she felt lighter, happier. This customer was not so bad after all.
The woman scoffed. "Nonsense. I take care of my debts. Besides..." She let her voice trail off.
"What?"
"You look like you need the money."
Allison's hands crept to her hair. I look like I need money? How so? Her hair was shiny. Her skin was healthy. Her clothes were clean. The giveaway must be her eyes. Allison hated mirrors sometimes because they revealed something in her gaze. Something odd, haunted, indefinable. In any case, Allison would not let the customer get away with her remark. "Let me worry about myself," Allison retorted.
The woman flitted a dismissive hand. "Chill, simply an observation. We've all been there. No shame in it. Look, I’m in town just for the weekend, visiting my mama. She's like my best friend. But I’ll be back tomorrow, okay? About noon."
Allison lowered her gaze. The handle of the baby’s stroller peeked above the counter, and Allison wanted with all of her being to never see this customer or her son again.
An ear-piercing cry rattled Allison’s ears. "He's a grumpy Gus," the mother said. She dug the baby out of the stroller. Again, he was but a rag doll to her, his head bobbling dangerously.
"You should...ah..."
The mother’s eyes narrowed. "What?"
"Maybe support his head a bit." Allison demonstrated for the customer.
"He’s fine," the woman snapped. "He's teething is all."
 Be pleasant. Remember, customer service first. "It’ll get better. I gave Allen a clean, wet washcloth to chew on. It helped him a lot."
"Oh yeah? I’ll have to try that."
Allison began to count the woman’s change. "So, what’s his name?"
"Christopher," the mother declared proudly. "After his father."
Allison let out a breath she had not realized she was holding. "That's a great name." Christopher. Not Bob. Had Allison really been thinking the customer would say Bob? Well, it was such a common name, and the baby was blond with light-colored eyes. But Bob was in jail.
The mother took her coffee and brownie. "Have a good day. See you tomorrow." She left The Addict, humming a happy tune.
Bob's chiseled features, complete with his sun-bleached blond hair and blue-green eyes, whooshed into Allison's mind. Stop stop stop. He's gone. It's done with. Allison forced herself to the present, to the nearly deserted, toasty coffee shop hundreds of miles from Arkansas.
Allison resumed counting the pile of change, and her stomach hardened. The total of the coins came to $2.50, a far cry from $4.90. Allison rubbed her temples; she was so gullible. The woman had known how to read her, all right. And she would not be back. Bye-bye, money.
Allison glanced at her cellphone, and the time leaped out. She forgot about the Jersey customer. Her shift would be over in thirty minutes. Normally, she would jump for joy. Not today. She was too nervous.
Her heart thrummed, and blissfully ignorant seconds ticked away. The picture, that wonderful picture of Sam. Allison bit her lip, trying to force the image out of her mind. She fished a flash card from her apron pocket.
"School," she muttered. She put the card on the counter and opened her palms. She laid a hand, palm down, sideways on the other hand. "School," Allison repeated, and she lifted the top hand twice. "No. Ugh."
"What ya doin’?" Her boss, Mr. Dierksen, ambled up. He was a kindly, fifty-ish man with graying hair. "Ah, more signs for Sam?"
"Yes." Allison puckered her lips. "I don’t think I’m doing this one right."
"Let me see." Mr. Dierksen took the card. "School." His hand movements were the same as Allison’s had been. "That look right?"
"That’s what I did," Allison admitted, but she did not feel better. "I think asking Sam about military school would be a good conversation starter."
"Don’t worry so much. You and Sam will get along great."
"School," Allison murmured, repeating the sign.
"Take off early, hmm? Nothing’s happening here."
Allison’s heart fluttered. Yes, yes, this was going to happen. Ready or not, she was going to meet Sam. Sam, who was clueless that her father was engaged to Allison's mother.
"I don't have the car. Joshua’s coming to get me."
"Sit, then. Rest your feet, study your signs in the book."
"You sure?"
"Sure I’m sure. Now scoot."
Allison untied her apron and collected her things. She slipped money from her purse into the cash register to make up the difference for the Jersey customer. She plopped down at an empty table and opened her sign language book to a random page. School stared back at her, and she slammed the book shut. Gawd. Allison never wanted to see that sign again.
She wanted desperately to impress Sam and for Sam to like her. Sam would hate her, though. It had been Sam and Barry for ten years. Sam would not be happy, coming home from school one afternoon and finding an instant family. They had practically moved in with Barry, and even Allison had not recovered from the whirlwind. A month ago, Beauregard Cannizarro was just a guy her mother waited on at the cafe and flirted with. Three Tuesdays ago, he was the guy her mother was going out on a date with. One week ago, they were in love. And then Allison came home five nights ago to that ratty old apartment to find that her mother was engaged to be married. Susan and Barry seemed happy together, deliriously in love. Allison genuinely was glad for her mother, and Barry would be a great father figure to Allen.
Would Sam be happy for her father and future stepmother? Allison was not so sure. She had the feeling her mother and Sam would clash. Susan had that effect on some people. One thing Allison was sure of: Sam held a spell over her. The picture had done it instantly. That picture, that wonderful, lovely picture on the fireplace mantel in the huge Cannizarro living room.
"Hey, this is Sam," Barry indicated to Allison about two weeks ago.
Allison went over to look. Sam's face was angular, not cute or pretty, but it had that indefinable something. Sam shared her father's impossibly deep blue eyes. A sly grin peeked from the corners of her lips. She had long, shiny black hair. Allison wondered right away how that hair would feel on her stomach, on her back, on her breasts. Barry had not noticed the reaction; he’d wandered off to Susan. Allison had walked off as well, startled at how a little photo had provoked such a response inside her.
Allison reminded herself that the photo was simply a picture. Most likely when she met Sam, there would be no attraction, no chemistry. Allison would wonder what the fuss had been about.
"Hey." A deep voice startled Allison from her thoughts.
Joshua.
He groaned at the sign language book. "You're not gonna make me practice again, are you?"
Joshua Wilbanks belonged on the runway. He was six feet two inches tall, with wavy brown hair and twinkling hazel eyes that most girls swooned over. He had the body of a Greek god. He also had the ego of a Greek god. Susan loved Joshua, absolutely adored him, and Susan had done so much for Allison. No harm indulging her mother by going out with Joshua. He was harmless anyway, all talk.
"I'm not going to make you practice again," Allison said.
"Whew. So, ready to go? Oh, hey. I can't stay at the house long. I've gotta meet Jeff."
"That's fine," Allison murmured. The Sam butterflies started up again. Time to meet Sam, her future stepsister, that lovely girl in the picture.

*****

Sam pulled into her three-car garage and grabbed her duffel bag. Finally, she would find out what was up. Her father had arranged for her to come home from military school for the weekend and to miss school Monday, all in the name of "a big surprise."
Sam jumped out of Dino. The red sport utility vehicle was Sam's Bronco, a gift from her father on Sam's sixteenth birthday. She was not allowed to drive Dino at school. She could only use the Bronco when she was home and to go between home and school.
"Corny!" Sam greeted her yellow Labrador retriever mix. Corny was his usual rascally self, hopping around like he was a puppy instead of a sizable twelve-year-old fellow. Sam threw her long arms around the dog's soft neck, trying to ignore the fact that his muzzle seemed two times whiter than it had been during winter break almost two months ago. He’s old. Too old.
Sam strode into the kitchen, Corny at her heels. She threw her duffel bag onto the floor.
A man, a broad grin on his handsome face, rounded the corner. He resembled Barry, Sam’s father. They were both hulking guys, at six feet six inches tall, with slabs of concrete for hands and feet. But Sam's father did not have spiky, gelled hair, a goatee, or a gold hoop earring. Her father had distinguished gray streaks in his hair, and he hated piercings on men.
Sam could not believe what she was seeing. Good grief. The man swept Sam into his arms and did not let go for several moments. Finally, he drew back. "You like?" he signed. He ran a hand through his hair, reminding Sam of a strutting peacock.
"It's different. So, what's the surprise?" she asked, half-signing, half-speaking. Her father was the only person that Sam used her voice with. Other people were not able to understand her garbled and mostly unintelligible speech. Barry could because he was used to it. Sam had gotten cochlear implant surgery when she was about a year old, but as in some cochlear implant cases, she had not been a good fit. Because cochlear implants eradicated all residual hearing, Sam had no hearing in that ear. Her parents opted not to implant her other ear. Sam hated hearing aids, and Barry had not pressed her to wear a hearing aid. Like it would have done much good, anyway. Sam's deafness was profound.
Barry chuckled. "You'll find out soon." He signed slowly and haltingly, but his mouth movements helped Sam understand him. His signing skills had gone downhill after Sam's mother and brother died.
Sam knew her dad could keep a secret. He dealt with lawyer-client privilege every day and probably knew hundreds of dirty divorce secrets. She would not be finding anything out until he was ready to let the goods slip. "Okay," she grumbled. "I’ll put my stuff up."
Anxiety clouded Barry’s face. "Don't go upstairs. Give me a minute to finish up a few phone calls, all right? The Hansons—remember them? They used to live down the street. They're going through a nasty divorce." Barry glanced at his watch. "Stay right here, sweetheart. Don’t leave the kitchen."
"Is it a TV?" Sam had a TV in her bedroom, but it was thirteen inches. She had been asking for a thirty-incher. Don't be an idiot. Dad wouldn't pull me from school for a TV.
"It’s much better than a TV."
"Why can’t I go to my room?"
"Just wait."
Sam took a step back, not liking the look on her father's face. "You sure this is something cool?"
Barry smiled widely, but Sam detected apprehension in his eyes. "You'll love it!"
Can’t go upstairs, can’t go outside. The plot thickens.
Barry leaned in for a quick kiss on Sam's cheek. "I missed you, sweetheart."
After Barry left, Sam headed to the refrigerator. She opened the door, her mouth salivating at the thought of the usual slices of leftover pizza or Chinese takeout. Barry worked long hours and was not a cook. But there was no pizza, no Chinese.
There were, however, plenty of salad bags, enough to feed a small army. And unless Sam’s eyes were failing her, her father had gotten majorly into apples, oranges, grapes and...Slimfast shakes. What the hell? Sam flung open the freezer door, and instead of the usual fattening ice cream were boxes of Weight Watchers ice cream bars.
Sam closed the doors. Okay, so her father was dieting. He could stand to lose a few pounds, but he always exercised to lose weight. He loved his junk food, just as Sam did. They adored pizza for breakfast. Barry did not expect her to join him on the diet, did he? No, of course not. She was in tip-top shape, thanks to military school.
Sam checked out the pantry, and the usual chips and cookies were nowhere in sight. In their places were rice cakes, diet popcorn and granola bars. "Hell," Sam muttered. What were they going to have for dinner, salad? No way was she bringing that nasty rabbit food near her mouth.
She wandered back into the kitchen. Five minutes had passed, and she was getting restless. Stay put. Yeah, right. Sam led Corny to the front yard and found a well-worn tennis ball. She brought her arm back and sent the ball sailing in a perfect arc. Corny galloped after it, although he was not as quick as he used to be. Sam gritted her teeth. Stop thinking about Corny getting older.
After Corny brought the ball back, Sam kneeled and scratched him behind the ears. "You smell," she proclaimed. "Ew."
Out of the corner of her eye, Sam saw a flash of white. It was a worn Chevrolet Lumina screeching into the Cannizarro driveway. Corny slunk off, and Sam hauled herself to her feet. A woman stepped out of the Lumina and cast an appraising glance in Sam’s direction.
Sam did not like the looks of the woman. She was a few inches shorter than Sam. She appeared about thirty-five years old, and dyed red hair hung limply on her shoulders. She carried a few extra pounds around her stomach and hips. Black leggings clung to her like a second skin, and a baggy red sweater and high heels completed her garish outfit.
The woman took a few steps toward Sam. "Susan." She pointed to herself and mouthed exaggeratedly: "SUSAN. SUSAN."
Gotcha. Susan had long, flaming red nails. No way was this woman touching Sam. She better not be Dad's girlfriend.
Susan held up a finger and turned back to the Lumina. She unbuckled a little boy from a child seat in the back. A mop of strawberry-blond hair covered his head.
Crap. Not only did Barry have a girlfriend, he had a girlfriend with a small child. Sam hated kids. They were boorish, grubby, smelly.
Susan gathered the boy in her arms. "Allen," Susan mouthed. "ALLEN." She kissed his forehead. "Say hi to darling Samantha!"
Scarlet flooded Allen's cheeks, and he dropped his gaze to the ground.
"Samantha," Susan chirped. "I adore your hair."
Sam could not stand being called Samantha. "Sam." She pronounced her name as clearly as she could.
Susan squealed. "I understood you!"
Barry bounced out of the house. He was grinning like there was no tomorrow. He scooped Susan up in his big, meaty arms. He crushed her and her son to his chest.
Sam knew, in that one moment, that her father was in love. With this crazy flaming-red-nailed woman. Oh God, oh God. Sam could not breathe.
Barry let go. "I see you met," he signed to Sam.
She could not meet his eyes. She had not seen him light up like this since...well, ever.
"Beauregard, Samantha's such a dear!" Susan exclaimed, and she set down her son. At least Susan's lips were fairly easy to read. Many people's were not.
"So are you, baby." Barry leaned in for a kiss and another hug. Sam could not bear to watch. She opted to look at Allen. The tot sucked his thumb and stared back at her with big, round green eyes.
Sam scowled. She hated stare-y kids most of all. She hated them more than women with long, flaming-red fingernails. Okay. So Dad has a girlfriend. No big deal. It won't last long. Just play nice.
Barry pulled away from Susan, and Sam swallowed her revulsion. "Wow!" She forced herself to smile. "You have a girlfriend! Cool."
A sheepish grin overtook Barry's face. "Actually, Susan’s not my girlfriend. She’s my fiancee. Surprise!"







Chapter Two


After the big surprise was revealed, Sam slipped into shock. She was not aware of the goings-on around her, nor did she care to be aware. All she could think about were her mother and her father.
Beauregard Cannizarro and Norene Adams, both aged  twenty-five, were married on an April morning. They decided on the spur of the moment to elope. Virginia had no waiting periods, so why  not? However, Barry and Norene wanted to get married in the right place. The cramped, bureaucratic stuffings of Roanoke City Hall did not appeal to Norene. "No problem," her groom told her. "I’ll persuade the justice of the peace to marry us outside."
Norene's sister, Julia, had her doubts. "Good luck. The justice's a mean old fart."
Julia's husband, Gerald, the other witness to the wedding, told Barry not to worry. "The fates are smiling upon you and Norene," he said. Gerald was right. The regular justice was out sick. His substitute was a hopeless romantic.
And so under dogwood trees and amid the honks of buses and cars, Barry and Norene recited their vows and promised to love each other for eternity. Their grinning faces would forever live on in Gerald’s photographs. The groom was brawny and handsome in his spiffy suit, and the bride was beautiful, especially with the contrast between her cream-colored dress and her dark hair and dark eyes.
After the ceremony, the new husband and wife decided to go home and celebrate. Then they realized they had a problem. They were not sure where home was. They had known each other two weeks. Barry had proposed that morning. Norene’s apartment was a little bigger, and a lot tidier, so they settled on that as home. And they never looked back. People said it wouldn’t last. Barry and Norene hardly knew each other. They were crazy, nutty kids in love. They would be divorced within five years.
People could not have been more wrong.
Sam loved that story. She was as unromantic as a person could be, but the thought of her parents’ whirlwind courtship never failed to warm her stomach with fuzzies. Her parents were right for each other, destined for each other. They were the stuff of fairy tales. Proposing to Norene on the spur of the moment and then marrying her that same day was the only impulsive thing Barry had done. Except he had gone and done it again. In the process, he had cheapened the memory of Sam’s mother.
Sam was on the couch now, and her stepmother-to-be was beaming at her. "We’re going to get along wonderfully, Samantha!"
Barry told Sam how they met. "Susan works at a cafe I go to a lot on my lunch breaks. I always had my eye on her, to be honest." Barry shot Susan a shy look, and she giggled. "I finally got the guts to ask her out. The rest is history."
Oh, Daddy. How could you? You're blind. This Susan was nothing like Norene. Sam's mother was cool. She was easygoing, beautiful and kind, inside and out. She laughed a lot. This Susan dressed like she was mired in the 1980s. This Susan mouthed her words like the fool she was. This Susan was fake as hell. She was wrong for Barry.
Sam wanted to vomit. All over Susan. She could not believe the woman beaming so widely at her was her future stepmother. Jesus Christ. And the boy sprawled on the floor coloring in a book was her future stepbrother. What the hell? Sam did not need a stepbrother. Her father did not need another kid. He was nearing middle age. He should be able to enjoy his fishing and reading and doing whatever he wanted to do, not chasing after some snotty brat who was not his own kid.
"Hey, Allen," Barry said. "Come over here and finger spell your name for Sam."
The boy shook his head no.
"Come on, buddy," Barry coaxed.
Allen shook his head again.
"Hey, Sam, spell your name for him."
Sam scowled. "No."
"Why not?"
Sam jerked to her feet. She had no intention of staying in the house any longer.

*****

Sam knew where she was going even before she jumped into Dino—to her aunt Julia’s house. Sam loved Julia as much as she loved her own father. If anyone would understand this Susan mess, Julia would. Gerald was okay; his signing was about the same as Barry's. Sad that Sam's uncle who was not related to her by blood signed about as well as her own father.
No one was home. Not a problem. Sam knew where Julia and Gerald hid their keys, and she let herself in. Fuck, fuck, fuck, goddammit. How could her father up and get engaged to some 1980s floozy? And spring it on her like it was some wonderful thing? How could he expect her to be jumping for joy and finger spelling stupid crap to some kid who thought boogers were the best thing since ice cream?
Sam paced the living room. Her father was such an idiot. Did he know if Susan was who she said she was? Had he run a background check? What if she was a psycho killer? What if she specialized in swindling money from wealthy men? Hundreds of questions scurried through Sam’s mind, and her rage built and built.
She found herself in the hallway, right in front of the picture of her mother. Her mother was with Julia, on Julia’s wedding day. Julia had been twenty-three and Norene twenty-four. They could have been twins, so alike were their features, dark hair and almost-black eyes.
Next to the wedding picture was one of Sam with Lucas. She had been seven; he had been four. Exactly one week after the picture was taken, he died in a car crash, along with Sam’s mother and maternal grandparents.
That Lucas was a good kid. Sam felt this more than knew it, because she remembered precious little of her time with her brother. Nor their mother, for that matter. The mind movies had become more blurry and dusty with the years, and Sam rarely allowed herself to think about her mother and brother these days. What were they now but worm food? Sometimes, though, they flashed into her mind, laughing, smiling and very much alive. Sam hurried those memories out as quickly as possible.
But here she was now, alone in a house not her own, and staring at those long-ago images. "Fuck," Sam muttered. She wanted to grab both pictures and smash them to the floor. Or even better, shove them in her father’s face. "Remember them, Dad? Now this was a cool woman. A cool kid. This Susan chick and her brat—they’re not cool. So just, you know, forget about them. We’ll pretend this never happened."
Sam detected movement out of the corner of her eye. Julia was stepping into the house. Sam ran to her aunt, and Julia held her close. Julia smelled good, wonderfully familiar, of cotton candy and coffee and roses and all kinds of things mixed into one. Sam clenched her jaw, willing tears not to fall.
They fell anyway, and Sam realized this was only the second time her aunt had seen her cry. The first time was when Lucas was in the coffin. He had been white, like he was really sick. His eyes were closed, and his hair was slicked back. He wore his favorite shirt and blue jeans. Sam shook him and tried to wake him up. When he would not, Sam cried and cried. Julia held her.
It was the clearest memory Sam had of her brother, sweet four-year-old Lucas frozen in death. Sam fucking hated that memory.
Julia drew back. "What's wrong?" She signed fluently, easily, unlike Barry.
Sam swallowed the lump in her throat, then it hit her that Julia knew. How could she not? She and Barry ran in many of the same social circles. They talked on the phone every once in a while, and not always about Sam. They were friends in every sense of the word.
Renewed anger frothed inside Sam. "How could you not tell me? Don’t act like you didn’t know!"
Julia's eyes shifted guiltily. "Your dad wanted to do it himself, in person."
"He wasn't dating anyone during winter break! How could he just up and get engaged to some chick?"
"You mean like with your mother?"
"No! That's comparing apples and oranges. Susan is...she’s nothing like...she’s...ugh."
Julia took Sam's hand and guided her to the couch.

*****

Sam was on her second bottle of water when Julia brought up the possibility that Sam ought to be happy for her father.
Sam blinked. "What?"
"He’s been lonely for a long time," Julia pointed out. "I’m glad he found someone. It's wonderful to see him smile again."
"Fine, if Dad wants to find someone, fine, but do it the normal way. With a better person. You obviously haven't met Susan, or you'd understand."
"We've met."
"What did you think?"
Julia's fingers tensed before she began to sign. "She's very different from your mother. But that's not necessarily a bad thing."
"You don't like her either!" Sam crowed.
"All you need to ask yourself is this: Does this woman make your father happy?"
"He's not himself anymore. I hardly recognized Dad! Did you see? He has a goatee and this funky hoop earring. He looks like freaking Blackbeard. He just needs an eye patch. I’m sure his clients love it, too."
"Give Susan a chance. Your father needs her. He's tried so hard to be brave and strong for you, but he's been unhappy. Do you think your mother would've wanted him to be happy?"
Sam's temper rose again. "But the kid! The kid kept staring at me. What is Dad thinking? He's going to have to chase after some little brat when he should be enjoying retirement."
Julia grinned. "Honey, Allen won't be a kid by the time your dad retires. Anyway, Allen's a dear. He's so cute. Your dad's crazy about him. You will be, too."
Sam scoffed. "Whatever."
"Allison's wonderful. She's such a lovely young woman. She kept asking me all kinds of questions about you. She's very excited about learning sign."
Sam's mind went blank. "Who?"
"Allison."
"Who?"
Julia coughed. "Allison. Susan's daughter. Allen's mother."
Allen's mother. "Wait a minute. Susan isn't the kid's mother?"
"It's a long story. But, basically, Susan had a boyfriend who..." Julia swallowed. "He molested Allison, and she got pregnant. Allen knows Allison is his biological mother, as well as a three-year-old can know, but Susan's the one he calls 'Mom.' It's like..." Julia shrugged. "I don't know exactly. I didn't want to press."
"How old is Allison?"
"A little younger than you. Sixteen."
Sam cocked an eyebrow. "And she's that kid's mother?"
"Yep."
Oh, Christ. Sam's whining, her problems paled in comparison. Petty. You're full of petty shit. "Okay. Okay." Sam's chest was suddenly heavy, very heavy. "Okay, whatever. I still don't want them."

*****

Allison felt as if she was back to square one. She was not meeting Sam anytime soon, and she did not know how much longer she could go on with her stomach in knots.
"Why doesn't Samantha like me, Beauregard?" Susan asked for the umpteenth time. "I tried so hard."
"She likes you fine," Barry said. "It's my fault."
"So you think she went to her aunt's?" Allison asked before her mother could continue her whine party.
Barry rubbed his forehead. "Yeah. Or Paul's. I'll call soon. I was hoping she'd come back on her own. But, uh..." Barry glanced at the clock. "I don't want to wait too long." He got on his cellphone and frowned into it. "Hey, Julia." A long pause. "Yeah. I figured. All right. Thanks." He hung up.
"Well?" Susan asked.
"Sam is over there. She's gonna spend the night."
Allison's heart crashed into her stomach. Damn it. One more day of waiting.
Susan snorted. "We should bring her home. She should be with us."
"I want to bring her home, Susie. I do. This will be better, though. She'll come back tomorrow, and we'll move on. Start fresh."
"Well, all right," Susan said. "I was thinking of taking a little lunch and shopping trip Sunday. Me, Allison and Samantha. What do you think?"
Barry rubbed his chin. "Sam's not big on shopping, but why not? Actually, Susan, that's an excellent idea."
"Really?"
"Really. And don't you worry your wonderful self about money. You spend as much as you need to. God, Susan, how did I get so lucky? I love how you care about Sam. She's going to love you as much as I do."







Chapter Three


"Arms up." Allison slid a white pajama top onto Allen. Susan had decided to spend the night with Barry. Allison and Allen would be bunking in the guest room. Allison knew the room well; she had spent the past five nights there, with Allen. The bed sucked.
"Not tired! Wanna sign!"
"I know, sweetie, but it's your bedtime. We've been signing all night. We'll practice more tomorrow."
"Sam don't like me."
"She does. This is new to her. She needs to get used to us."
"Wanna sign colors!"
Allison smoothed Allen's hair out. She helped him into bed. "We'll do colors tomorrow, I promise."
Susan poked her head in the room.
"Momma!" Allen cried.
"Hey, sweetie." Susan took her place beside Allen. She kissed his forehead.
"Story!" the boy demanded.
"Not tonight. I need to talk to your sister. I’ll tell you two stories tomorrow."
Allison's stomach twisted. What does Momma want?
Susan gave Allison a smile. "I'll be in the other room."
"Okay."
Susan retreated, and Allison brushed her lips against Allen's forehead. She wondered when he would start pushing her away. Ew! Don't kiss me. That's yucky. You're embarrassing me in front of my friends. "Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite."
Allen giggled, as he always did. Allison turned on the night light and lingered by the door. Some days Allison had herself almost convinced she never gave birth to this child, never had him inside her, never felt his little legs kicking against her stomach. She did not want to go to her mother and see the eternal hardness in her gaze.
Allison would rather watch Allen drift off to sleep. She loved doing that, although she felt guilty each and every time. Because whenever she tucked Allen in, took in his angelic, sleeping face, his golden eyelashes, the little sighs of contentment he made, her heart swelled with love. And she did not want to love this child, but God help her, she did. She wished she did not love him so she could turn him over completely to her mother. Maybe she could, maybe she would, if not for the hardness in Susan's gaze. Allison got the feeling sometimes that her mother was teetering on a thin line. Anything could send her over the edge. Anything could send her punishing Allison and Allen for what Bob did.
"Good night," Allison whispered. She left the door open a crack.
What Susan called the "other room" was a junk room. Storage room. It would become Allison’s bedroom soon. It was on the second floor too, between Sam's bedroom and the guest room.
"We haven't had much of a chance to talk," Susan said. "How are you? How's Joshua?"
"Fine. Good."
Susan's purse hung from the doorknob, and she got a package of condoms from it. "Here."
"I don't need condoms."
"You never know." Susan's voice was soothing, understanding, but her gaze had that hardness. The hardness had appeared when Susan found out Allison was pregnant and who the father was. The hardness had never gone away. Susan had done her best to be a good, understanding mother, and Allison loved her for it despite being scared at the same time of the possibility of Susan snapping. Susan had insisted on counseling, and only last year had she allowed Allison to stop. Allison's choice. She frigging hated the counseling. She wanted to suggest to her mother that she go for counseling. There was no denying that Susan had never looked at Allison the same way again after Bob. Their camaraderie was gone, totally gone. Susan had been in love, crazy, completely, flipping head over heels in love with Bob.
"Take the condoms," Susan urged. "You really never know."
"Okay. Fine." Allison slid the condoms into her pants pocket. No use arguing with her mother. This was not the time to stir the waters, anyway. Allison truly was glad her mother was with Barry. Her mother had had two boyfriends between Bob and Barry, and these men had been...well, they had been okay, but Allison had not let herself get to know them. After Bob, that would have been stupid. Not so with Barry. Allison clicked with Barry instantly. Something about him radiated honesty and decency. He was not Susan's usual type. Allison hated the phrase "trailer park trash" because she had grown up in a trailer park. Most people there did not fit the stereotype. However, "trailer park trash" did fit Susan's usual boyfriend. Fit Allison's father, too, at least later in his life.
Susan reached into her purse again. "Gum?" She proffered a pack of Wrigley's Big Red Cinnamon.
The room disappeared, and Allison was back in the Arkansas trailer, hoping Bob had not seen the magazine she was reading. She had shoved it under her pillow, but doubtless he would grab it to see what she was hiding. He winked. "What you reading?"
"Nothing."
Bob fished gum out of his pocket. "Want a stick?"
Allison pretended her mother had said something else. Ice cream. She said ice cream. The gum was one example of why Allison was afraid her mother would snap. Bob had chewed that type of gum like he breathed air. He was forever offering it.
"Sure." Allison accepted the gum nonchalantly. No way would she show her mother she was intimidated. And maybe it was not conscious. Allison would give her mother the benefit of the doubt.

*****

Sam could not sleep. It was not that she had trouble in strange places—she could fall asleep anywhere—and it was not because she was wide awake. She was as tired as she had ever been. The day had been long and draining. She tossed and turned, replaying the moment her father said: "Actually, Susan’s not my girlfriend. She’s my fiancee. Surprise!"
Sam got to her feet. There was no use trying to sleep. She padded to a window and pulled the curtains back. Glittering stars crowded the sky, and Sam thought of her mother. Norene had been an amateur astronomer, and Sam knew Norene’s favorite stars and constellations by heart. That was thanks to Barry and Julia, who had pointed them out many times.
Sam should be happy for her father. It was obvious he was head over heels in love—not just with Susan, but with her son, too. Grandson. Barry had another little boy, and his biological mother was sixteen years old. Crazy stuff. Sam was not sure how she should act around Allison. Should Sam bring up the fact she knew the kid was Allison's? Was it appropriate to ask about the molestation—would Allison expect her to? Was Allison an emotional, fucked-up mess inside?
Should Sam say nothing about the kid and the molestation?
Shit. Time to forget about Allison. Sam itched to be out of Julia's house. I'm going home now to sleep in my own bed, with my own dog. I’ll do damn well what I please, in my own house.

*****

Sam pulled into her driveway about twenty minutes later but did not press the button to open the garage door. No sense waking her father up at one in the morning and suffering through a: "You’re home! I missed you. We’re gonna be one big happy family, okay?"
Sam cut the engine and eased out of Dino. Shit. Wait. She had overlooked something; her father was awake. Had to be, because the living room was lit up. Sam’s resentment escalated. Here she was, home, to sleep in her own bed, but no, her father would grill her and get on her ass. Leaving Julia’s early had been a mistake. Sam decided to simply sign "Later" and stalk past her father.
Sam unlocked the garage side door and turned the light on. The Lumina greeted her. More like mocked her. Shit. Susan's here.
Corny bounced up. "Hey, boy." Sam rubbed his head and slipped him a doggy biscuit. Wait a minute. Why was Corny in the garage? He was shivering. He was old! It was late February and about ten degrees outside. Barry always kept Corny inside the house.
Susan. Sam visualized her stepmother-to-be's fat red lips whining about allergies and cleaning dog hair and the smell. Fuck that bitch. My dog comes inside whenever he wants.
Sam stormed to the door connecting the garage and the kitchen. She threw the door open. Then she stopped cold. Someone was sitting at the kitchenette table. Someone she did not recognize, someone glancing among several scattered books and writing into a notebook, someone whose eyelashes belatedly flew open to meet Sam's gaze. Must be Allison. Good God, she was beautiful,  nothing like her mother's forced looks. Loose tendrils of strawberry-blond hair tumbled down Allison's shoulders, and her lips were a full, soft pink. She was ethereal and unreal under the lights. Her mustard-yellow sweat pants and thin white T-shirt diminished nothing.
A fierce red flooded the girl's face. She snapped her head back toward the books, as if they would tell her what to do.
Sam stared, amazed and shaken. Panic grabbed her; in her haste to leave Julia's house, she had not brushed her hair or looked herself over. Sam had never been smooth around girls. She had known for a few years that she was gay. She could not pinpoint the exact moment she realized, but it was when she was about ten years old and began to understand that her crushes on her girl friends were how they felt about boys.
None of this mattered to Sam at the moment. She was paralyzed. She needed to get out, now, before she made a spectacle of herself. But her legs refused to cooperate. Her arms worked okay; she was able to reach out and absent-mindedly pet Corny.
The girl looked up again. She offered a tentative smile and went to a purse on the counter. She dug a piece of folded paper from it and shoved it into Sam’s hands. The paper was addressed, in big, blue block letters, to SAM.
Hi Sam! Your dad's told us so much about you. He's really proud of you. I hope we can be friends and that you can help me learn sign language better. I've been teaching Allen too. The abc's, numbers, basic signs such as who, what, why, where, when, how. I'd love to take a class. Any ideas? Well, I better stop writing and let you reply!! A huge smiley face ended the note.
Sam gave an anxious little cough and turned the garage light off. She stepped fully into the kitchen and closed the door behind her. She ventured a few steps more to the kitchen table. Now that's a nice surprise. The books Allison had been studying were on sign language. Sam got a pen. "Are you Allison?"
Allison inclined her head for a yes. She made the sign for sorry, a backward ‘s’ on her chest, and moved it in a circle.
"Why are you sorry?" Sam wrote.
Allison shrugged and looked away.
Sam wrote: "That's cool you have sign language books. Spell your name."
"Um…" Allison tucked loose hair behind her ears. "S…l…l…i…s…o…n."
Sam reached for the pen. "You made your a like s."
Allison cringed, and Sam hastened to reassure her. "It’s okay. People do it all the time. With d and f, too. Just remember to keep your thumb to the side with a."
Allison nodded uncertainly. "Sorry." She did look sorry. Deeply, painfully, sorry, like someone had died.
Sam wrote again: "Why was Corny in the garage? We keep him inside, especially in winter."
"My mom doesn’t like him being in because of her allergies."
"Screw her. Corny sleeps with me."
Allison studied Sam’s note. "Yeah, um…"
Sam’s stomach growled, and she grabbed the paper back. "I’m hungry," she announced. Julia had ordered pizza, but Sam’s appetite had been on hiatus. She strode to the refrigerator. The fridge door had been bare before, but now it displayed a drawing, titled SAM, in wobbly, red crayon letters. Sam ignored the picture and opened the door. Same healthy crap from earlier. Sam whirled to her stepsister-to-be. "Where’s good food?" Sam finger spelled and signed slowly.
"No understand," Allison signed. "Slow."
Sam jotted her message. "Where's the good food?"
"Diet," Allison finger spelled, mangling the word. "No good food."
 "Why?"
Allison reached for the pen and paper. "My mother’s really into health food. But don’t worry. She’s a good cook. She can do wonders with anything."
"I don’t want healthy crap."
Allison ran her tongue over her lips. "I have some things in my backpack. Candy and chips."
Sam flashed Allison an approving grin. Now that's more like it. "We can eat in my room," Sam wrote.
Allison gathered her books and stuff from the table, and Sam noticed that Allison was not only studying signs. Two pictures were on the table. In one picture, Allison had her arms around a tanned young man. He had wavy brown hair. They were both dressed up—probably at a dance. So Allison had a boyfriend. A boyfriend whose picture was likely the last thing she saw every night. Gag.
"Joshua," Allison finger spelled.
Sam kept her expression neutral. Sissy name.
"My...my..." Allison scrunched her face, apparently struggling to remember the sign.
"Boyfriend," Sam signed abruptly, combining the signs for boy and friend.
Allison grinned. "Boyfriend." She repeated the sign.
Why do all the cute girls have boyfriends? Sam pointed to the second picture. "Who?" This photo was of a handsome, young blond man with green eyes.
Allison stuffed both pictures into a sign language book.
Huh. Sam wrote: "Who was that blond dude?"
"No one. Let's go to your room."
Corny followed Sam and Allison upstairs. To Allison's credit, she said not a word about Corny being with them.
Allen's father? Was that the blond guy? Wasn't that kind of creepy for Allison to be looking at a picture of the dude who molested her?
Sam lifted Corny onto her bed. He walked twice in a circle and plunked down.
Allison smiled and signed haltingly: "Cute. Good dog."
Sam grabbed the notepad. "Too bad your boyfriend isn’t cute."
Allison’s eyes widened.
What did you go and do that for, Sam? Tsk, tsk. Temper.
Allison took several moments to reply. A few times, she scratched through lines. The message Sam got at last read: "It’s a bad picture. He looks better in person. He’s really nice. He’s learning sign, too. Anyway, I’ll dig out the food."
Sam shook her head. "Not hungry now. Going to bed."
Dismay crossed Allison’s face. "But..."
"Tired."
Allison reached for the notepad. "You can’t pass up free candy."
Sam tried to not let the plea get to her. She was restless and irritable. She was tired of this sort of crap happening. When would she learn? It went something like this: Sam meets girl. Sam likes girl. Girl has boyfriend. Sam thinks maybe girl will grow to like her, anyway. Sam is dreadfully wrong. Always. Girl never likes Sam as anything more than a friend. Sam ends up hating herself.
And this was not any girl. This was her stepsister-to-be, who was also, from the looks of it, mooning over the dude who raped her.
Allison reached into her backpack. She came up with a party-sized bag of peanut M&M’s. Her eyes shining, she held the bag up. She pointed to herself and signed "Yellow," meaning she was claiming the yellow M&M’s.
Sam blew out a breath. Hell, yes, she was staying. When Allison broke her heart, Sam would only have herself to blame.

*****

As the night went on, and with more practice, Allison’s signing improved. Sam was impressed. Allison’s finger spelling was quicker and clearer, and she already knew a good amount of signs. She got better at reading Sam's signs, although the majority of their conversation was through writing.
Sam asked how Allison had been learning. "Your dad’s helped some. Also books and the Internet."
"For how long?"
Allison shrugged. "Two weeks?"
"You sign well. Like you've been studying a month at least."
Allison blushed, and Sam enjoyed the response. A lot.
"So," Allison asked after a while, "how come you’re back early from your aunt's?"
"I couldn’t sleep. I was mad. I mean, this is my house. I have every right to be here."
"Yes, you do. I’m glad you’re here. I’ve been dying to meet you. Your dad’s said so many great things about you."
Sam snorted. "Such as?"
"You’re really funny and smart. You’re a great dancer. You outshine your grandfather on the dance floor. Me, I can’t dance worth a whit. You’re champ at poker. You kick your dad’s ass in basketball and chess. You want to be a lawyer like him."
"The lawyer part isn't true, but Dad keeps saying it."
"What do you want to be?"
"Dunno yet." Sam rubbed the white patch on Corny’s otherwise tan head. "What bad things did Dad tell you?"
"Bad things?"
"Like why I go to military school."
A shadow crossed Allison’s face. "He said you got in trouble."
"And?"
"You were expelled. Mom told me that you were sneaking out and smoking. That you set off a bomb at your old school."
"Stink bomb," Sam scrawled proudly. "The best one I ever made."
"Right."
Sam puckered her lips. Change the subject. "Where's your father?"
Allison's expression hardened. "Back in Arkansas. Dead."
"What happened?"
"Died of alcoholism, basically."
"He the blond dude in the picture?"
Allison shook her head, and a muscle flickered at her jaw. "That man in the picture is Allen's father."
"What's his name?"
"Bob. He's in jail now."
Sam quickly, mentally ran over her reply before she wrote it. "My aunt told me what happened with you and him."
"Please don't tell my mother I have a picture of him."
"I won't. Why were you looking at it?"
Allison gave a laugh, a helpless little laugh. "Don't know. I don't like him. I look at his picture sometimes. But I don't know why. Can we not talk about him?"
"That's fine."
Allison smiled widely and pointed to the bag of M&M’s. "Almost empty. Wow."
"You did most of the damage," Sam wrote. It was true; Allison was not afraid to eat. Sam fished out the last yellow M&M. "Here."
Allison grinned. "About our parents, I really am sorry your father didn’t tell you earlier."
Sam rolled her eyes. "Dad's an idiot, but I’ll get over it."







Chapter Four


When Allen awoke Allison at eight a.m., the sun was shining, and she felt refreshed and vital. Yes, she smelled like old dog, but so what? Allison slipped into the hall bathroom she shared with Allen. Sam's room was the only one upstairs connected to a bathroom.
Allison brushed her hair and her teeth. She had met Sam, finally. And they had gotten along swell. More than swell. Signing with Sam had been so cool, easy and natural. Allison’s skill had more than quadrupled from that practice.
Allison wondered if Sam was awake. Probably not. They had chatted until three-thirty.
But maybe Sam was awake. And downstairs. Gotta look nice for her. Allison sifted through her clothes, of which there were not many. She was not officially living at the house yet, but the reason for her lack of clothes was because she, Susan and Allen were poor. Dirt poor. They'd shared their apartment with ants and cockroaches. Now they lived in this palace of sorts, but Allison's wardrobe had not caught up. Nor did she plan to ask Barry for money or handouts.
Allison settled on the usual black pants she wore to work and on a green sweater that would bring out her eyes. After she dressed, she studied herself in the mirror. She looked good. The sweater hugged her curves and her chest in all the right places. The pants and her boots made her look taller.
Sam, of course, was not downstairs. Allen was watching TV. "Colors!" he squealed. "We learn colors."
"Okay, I'll show you a few before work."
Allen ran for his kiddie sign language book, and Allison wandered into the kitchen for a Slimfast. Barry was already there, swilling a Rich Chocolate Royale.
"Hey, Allison," he said. "Sam came home last night."
A smile stole across Allison's face. "I know. I was up. We met."
"How'd it go?"
Allison pulled a Creamy Milk Chocolate from the refrigerator and met her stepfather’s hopeful gaze. "We got along great."
"Wonderful. You'll be good for my daughter. You're exactly the influence she needs."

*****

Sam woke up at noon, to Corny's tail slapping her face. He licked her cheeks for good measure.
"Ugh." Sam wiped her face and sat up. "Dude. You're gross. You're lucky you're cute." She tumbled out of bed and into the bathroom.
Allison. This was bad, if Sam was thinking about Allison first thing in the morning. Something was different with Allison. Something Sam could not quite put her finger on. Perhaps it was that Allison would grow to like her back, after all.
Sam combed her hair. No. That was what she said, each and every time, and it never came true. Geez. She was deluding herself again. She brushed her teeth and slipped into her favorite pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Her stomach was killing her, and she vowed to have a good lunch, no matter what Susan decreed.

*****

Barry was the only person downstairs. He greeted Sam with a bear hug and held her tight. He let go after a moment and peered into her face. "I screwed up. I'm sorry."
Sam smiled uneasily. "It was a shock."
"I'm glad you're back early from Julia's. Susan and I are. She's a wonderful woman, she really is, and she's excited about getting to know you. So are Allison and Allen."
Sam did not reply.
"I know this is sudden, but remember—"
"I know," Sam interrupted. "You and Mom did the same thing. Blah blah blah."
Barry became wistful. "When I laid eyes on your mother for the first time, I knew she was the one for me. It was the same with Susan. I walked into that cafe three months ago." He shrugged. "I saw her, and I knew she would be my wife one day. It scared me. That’s why it took me so long to ask her out."
"Why’d it scare you?"
Barry flicked an invisible speck of dirt from his shirt. He furrowed his brow and puckered his lips. He seemed on the verge of tears. No, no, don’t cry. "Well, Sam, it scared me because I never thought I could feel for anyone else the way I did for your mother. You might not remember how I was after she and Lucas died, but I couldn’t take care of you for a long time. Thank God Julia and Gerald were there to take you and Corny in. Anyway, to have those feelings again, out of the blue, I was scared. And yeah, Sam, I felt guilty. I felt like I was betraying your mother. I did some deep soul-searching. I talked with Father Charles. I realized that what I was feeling was okay. Healthy. It was time to move on."
"Oh."
"She makes me happy, Sam. I’m sorry for how I sprung this on you. I didn’t know exactly how to tell you. Please don't punish the woman I love because I'm a bumbling fool."
"Okay."
Barry jerked his thumb toward the front door. "So, let's have a good day. Susan and Allen will be home soon, and we can eat lunch. Allison gets home from work at four, and we're going to have fun."
"Allison works?"
"Oh, yeah. Over at The Addict."
Sam nodded slowly. She knew the coffee place but had never been there.
"Tomorrow, Susan will take you and Allison for lunch and shopping. Ladies' day out, quality time together."
Sam gritted her teeth. Great.

*****

After a tiny lunch of salad prepared by Her Evil Highness, Sam feigned a stomachache. She sneaked Corny upstairs, and they spent the afternoon holed up in her room. At four-fifteen, Barry coaxed Sam downstairs for "fun time." Sam followed her father to the dining room, and there, at the foot of the table and sitting next to Allen, was Allison. Her beauty had doubled since last night. Sam's brain turned to mush, but she managed to smile at her stepsister-to-be.
"Sit here." Allison patted the open seat on her other side, and Sam slid in. Play it cool.
Susan brought a box from under the table and waggled a knowing eyebrow at Sam. Shimmery pink paper covered the package, and a white bow topped it.
"You can read Susan's lips pretty well?" Barry asked.
"I guess."
"I wanted to give you a small something, darling. We can get lots more like this tomorrow at the mall!"
Sam could not look directly at the box; the pink was blinding. But at least Susan was making an effort. Sam took the gift and stripped the wrapping paper off. The present was a pink sweater. And too small for Sam, not that she'd want to wear it. Sam stared at the mangy thing. Ew. Double ew. After a few seconds, she remembered her manners and smiled. "Thank you," she signed to Susan.
"Go try it on!" Susan exclaimed.
Try it on? Hell no.
"Go try it on!"
Barry nodded eagerly. "Model that for us, sweetheart! You'll look great."
Sam’s gaze slid to the stack of Uno cards on the table. Cutesy, girly sweaters were not her thing, and that piece of crap would be hell to get on and off.  "Later."
Susan apparently got the gist of Sam's message, because her face fell. "She doesn’t like it, does she, Beauregard?"
Barry steeled his jaw. "She likes it. Go try it on, sweetheart."
Sam pushed her chair back and clambered up to her room. She slid her loose-fitting T-shirt off and fought to get the pink monster on. She resorted to sucking in her stomach and praying for the best. The sweater clung to her like a second skin. She could hardly breathe. She felt like a tin man who needed oiling.
Fuck this.
Sam would go back downstairs, twirl around once, exactly once! After that, she would return to her room, get her scissors and cut the sweater off. She would never lay eyes on the stubborn, ugly fucker again for as long as she lived.
Susan lit up when Sam stepped into the dining room. "Perfect!" Susan shrilled. "Oh, Beauregard!" She clapped her hands together. "It’s a perfect fit!"
Barry brought his fingers to his lips and whistled. "Wow. You look great."
Allen giggled and pointed, and Sam felt her first wave of affection toward the boy. Finally, someone else understood how ludicrous the situation was.
But Allison's reaction sent tingles racing through Sam. Allison was not amused, like Allen was. She was not beaming from ear to ear like Susan and Barry were. She was staring, as if she were in awe. She was stunned.
Sam became aware of her own breasts straining against the tight sweater, of pointy nipples, and she crossed her tin-man arms.
"It’s much more form-fitting than what you had on before," Susan exclaimed. "Don’t you love it, Samantha?"
Sam smiled weakly, and Barry motioned for her to sit. "Come on, let's play."
Indecision tore at Sam. She hated the sweater; it was stiflingly small and fuzzy. It was making her itchy as hell. It was from that crazy Susan. But Sam knew what she saw. She knew what she saw. Or did she? Was she reading too much into Allison's wide, amazed eyes?
Sam took a tentative step forward, and then another. Fine. She could live with the sweater for a few more hours as a favor to her father and future stepmother. Plus if Allison liked how it looked...well, fine.
"So!" Barry boomed. "Time for me to whup y'all's butts." He dealt the cards, and Susan proceeded to drape herself over Barry. Sam hated the way Susan batted her eyelashes at Barry and caressed his shoulder, but most of all, she despised how her usually sensible father giggled at everything Susan said and did. He was a smart man. Why could he not see his fiancee was a superficial airhead?
Susan mouthed at Sam: "Has Allison told you about Joshua?"
The image of the wavy-haired youth flashed into Sam's mind. She hated the dude already.
"Joshua's great," Barry signed. "You'll love him."
"He couldn't join us today," Susan mouthed. "He had a basketball meeting. He made the all-conference team last year. As a sophomore! Imagine. What an honor." Susan talked some more, becoming so excited about Joshua that her words ran together. Sam could no longer understand Susan, which was definitely for the best.
After Susan finished her ramble, Barry chimed in, then Allison did. They were all talking, jabbering. No signing. Sam thought she caught the word "skirt" on Susan's lips a few times.
Sam settled in for another long night of being excluded, not that she expected anything else. She hated socializing with hearing people, and even after seventeen years, her father did not get it. The sweater was becoming more unbearable, and Sam cursed herself for leaving it on. Trying to impress Allison? Trying not to get grounded? So what?
The group played a few hands of Uno, and Sam's scowl deepened. Fucking hell. The sweater was killing her; it was freakishly itchy. Sam was ready to leap to her feet and rip the damn thing off with her bare hands. Then she was going to murder Susan.
Sam glanced around the dining room, wondering what they would have for dinner. More salad? Kiss my ass. Sam's gaze fell onto Allen. The boy, his green eyes big and round as usual, was studying her. He offered a shy smile, and Sam jerked her head. Whatever, kid. Stop staring.
Allen stuck his tongue out, and Sam could not help but grin. The kid was probably as bored as she was. Yeah, fine. Sam played along, sticking her tongue out. In response, Allen snaked his tongue out of his mouth until it reached the tip of his nose.
Sam cocked an eyebrow. Impressive. Wonder if Allison can do that.

*****

Allen won the first game. And the second. After his third victory, Allison turned to Sam and half-signed, half-spoke: "Don't feel bad about a three-year-old beating you. He’s obsessed with Uno."
Sam was grumpy and in no mood to joke. The only acknowledgement she bestowed upon Allison was a tilt of the head.
Allison nudged Sam. "You okay?"
"Fine."
"What's wrong? Are you mad at me?"
Sam chuckled. What was she supposed to say? I'm having the time of my life, except that, well, y'all are leaving me out, I hate your mother, a snotty-nosed brat is whipping my ass in Uno, this sweater is driving me up the wall, and oh, yeah, I wanna kill your boyfriend.
How was that?
"Not mad," Sam signed.
The game began, and, surprise, big, huge, giant surprise, Allen took an early lead.
"Sam, come on," Allison urged. "What's wrong?"
Fine. Sam scrawled her response: "I'm bored as hell. I have no fucking idea what anyone's saying."
Allison signed, "I'm sorry," then she wrote: "I didn't realize. I thought maybe that...I don’t know. Why doesn't your dad sign for you?"
Sam snorted and drew four Uno cards.
"No. What?"
Sam wrote: "He doesn’t mean to. It just… you know. I’m used to it."
She and Allison began to exchange written messages quickly, only stopping for their Uno turns. "I wish I wasn't so slow. I could interpret for you," Allison remarked.
"You all are probably talking about boring crap anyway."
"Well…" Allison paused for a second to pay more attention to the voiced conversation. "Barry and my mother are talking about going bird watching sometime."
Sam sat back smugly. "See. Boring crap." Wonder if you'd enjoy girl watching.
 "What are you two writing about?" Barry asked, voicing and signing. "Plotting to wrestle the game from Allen?"
"I asked Sam why you don’t sign for her," Allison replied in voice and halting sign.
Barry froze, and Susan's gray eyes widened.
Sam shot Allison a hard, deep glower. It's my business. I don’t need you sticking up for me.
Barry laid his cards down. "I know I should. I forget. When you have all those conversations going on…" He caught himself not signing and threw a couple of clumsy signs in. "It’s no excuse."
Susan reached for his hand. "Of course you can’t do it all, Beauregard. Allison realizes that."
"No." Barry's reply was earnest, and he turned an appealing gaze on Sam. "I do need to sign more. I’m sorry."
Sam nodded. This was what happened every time. Barry promised to do better but forgot five minutes later. He did mean well, and it was not just him. Most hearing people did it, except for Julia. "Okay. Whatever."
The card game resumed, but without conversation. Allen won a few minutes later and announced he wanted to watch The Lion King.
Sam staked out the sole armchair in the living room. She was determined to stay as far from Allison as possible — not just because being around Allison made Sam light-headed, but because she was still miffed at Allison for nosing into her business. Barry and Susan curled up on the loveseat, and Allison and Allen sat on the couch.
After the movie started, Allen pointed at boxed words running across the bottom of the TV screen. "What's that?"
"That's the closed-caption," Barry explained. "That puts the sound into words so Sam can understand the movie. Like how the lights flash when the phone and doorbell ring."
"Cool!" Allen bounced in his seat as if he had won a prize.
Sam rolled her eyes. Get a life, kid. She settled back into her chair. She crossed her tin-man arms and fixed her attention on the TV. Lion King, okay. Lion King, yay! She tried to focus on the animals jumping across the screen, and with Allison only a few feet away.
Don't look. Don't look.
Sam knew she had willpower. She refused to give in to her temptation. She vowed not to look. She would not look. Wild horses could not make her peek. She would not look even if the couch burst into flames.
Sam looked. A tiny, furtive look, and it broke her heart. Allen was in Allison's lap, and his eyes were glued to the TV screen. Sam admitted to herself at last that the child was adorable and not too bad of a kid. Allen exclaimed something and wriggled. Allison pulled him closer. A pang of loneliness hit Sam, and she turned back to the TV. She stared at it blankly.
No. Don't think about them.
Sam balled her hands into fists. Her father had Susan, and Allison had Allen. But who did Sam have? Only that itchy, god-awful sweater she was going to fucking kill.



This is an excerpt. The final version may be slightly different. For the entire story, check out Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble IN JANUARY 2012.

You can also email me at yllek_q@yahoo.com for a copy. :-)

Q. Kelly's other lesfic books:
Waiting
Strange Bedfellows
The Odd Couple
The Old Woman and Other Lesbian Stories

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