When other adults find out that my dad is a single father of three girls, they shake their heads in admiration, like How does he do it? How does he ever manage that all by himself? The answer is Margot. She’s been an organizer from the start, everything labeled and scheduled and arranged in neat, even rows.
Margot is a good girl, and I guess Kitty and I have followed her lead. I’ve never cheated or gotten drunk or smoked a cigarette or even had a boyfriend. We tease Daddy and say how lucky he is that we’re all so good, but the truth is, we’re the lucky ones. He’s a really good dad. And he tries hard. He doesn’t always understand us, but he tries, and that’s the important thing. We three Song girls have an unspoken pact: to make life as easy as possible for Daddy. But then again, maybe it’s not so unspoken, because how many times have I heard Margot say, “Shh, be quiet, Daddy’s taking a nap before he has to go back to the hospital,” or “Don’t bother Daddy with that; do it yourself”?
I’ve asked Margot what she thinks it would have been like if Mommy hadn’t died. Like would we spend more time with our Korean side of the family and not just on Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day? Or—
Margot doesn’t see the point in wondering. This is our life; there’s no use in asking what if. No one could ever give you the answers. I try, I really do, but it’s hard for me to accept this way of thinking. I’m always wondering about the what-ifs, about the road not taken.
Daddy and Kitty come downstairs at the same time. Margot pours Daddy a cup of coffee, black, and I pour milk in Kitty’s cereal bowl. I push it in front of her, and she turns her head away from me and gets a yogurt out of the fridge. She takes it into the living room to eat in front of the TV. So she’s still mad.
“I’m going to go to Costco later today, so you girls make a list for whatever you need,” Daddy asks, taking a big sip of coffee. “I think I’ll pick up some New York strips for dinner. We can grill out. Should I get one for Josh, too?”
My head whips in Margot’s direction. She opens her mouth and closes it. Then she says, “No, just get enough for the four of us, Daddy.”
I give her a reproving look, and she ignores me. I’ve never known Margot to chicken out before, but I suppose in matters of the heart, there’s no predicting how a person will or won’t behave.
SO NOW IT’S THE LAST days of summer and our last days with Margot. Maybe it’s not altogether such a bad thing that she broke up with Josh; this way we have more time with just us sisters. I’m sure she must have thought of that. I’m sure it was part of the plan.
We’re driving out of our neighborhood when we see Josh run past. He joined track last year, so now he’s always running. Kitty yells his name, but the windows are up, and it’s no use anyway—he pretends not to hear. “Turn around,” Kitty urges Margot. “Maybe he wants to come with us.”
“This is a Song-girls-only day,” I tell her.
We spend the rest of the morning at Target, picking up last minute things like Honey Nut Chex mix for the flight and deodorant and hair ties. We let Kitty push the cart so she can do that thing where she gets a running start and then rides the cart like she’s pushing a chariot. Margot only lets her do it a couple of times before she makes her stop, though, so as not to annoy other customers.
Next we go back home and make chicken salad with green grapes for lunch and then it’s nearly time for Kitty’s swim meet. We pack a picnic dinner of ham-and-cheese sandwiches and fruit salad and bring Margot’s laptop to watch movies on, because swim meets can go long into the night. We make a sign, too, that says Go Kitty Go! I draw a dog on it. Daddy ends up missing the swim meet because he is delivering a baby, and as far as excuses go, it’s a pretty good one. (It was a girl, and they named her Patricia Rose after her two grandmothers. Daddy always finds out the first and middle name for me. It’s the first thing I ask when he gets home from a delivery.)
Kitty’s so excited about winning two first-place ribbons and one second place that she forgets to ask where Josh is until we’re in the car driving back home. She’s in the backseat and she’s got her towel wrapped around her head like a turban and her ribbons dangling from her ears like earrings. She leans forward and says, “Hey! Why didn’t Josh come to my meet?”
I can see Margot hesitate, so I answer before she can. Maybe the only thing I’m better at than Margot is lying. “He had to work at the bookstore tonight. He really wanted to make it, though.” Margot reaches across the console and gives my hand a grateful squeeze.
Sticking out her lower lip, Kitty says, “That was the last regular meet! He promised he’d come watch me swim.”
“It was a last-minute thing,” I say. “He couldn’t get out of working the shift because one of his coworkers had an emergency.”
Kitty nods begrudgingly. Little as she is, she understands emergency shifts.
“Let’s get frozen custards,” Margot says suddenly.
Kitty lights up, and Josh and his imaginary emergency shift is forgotten. “Yeah! I want a waffle cone! Can I get a waffle cone with two scoops? I want mint chip and peanut brittle. No, rainbow sherbet and double fudge. No, wait—”
I twist around in my seat. “You can’t finish two scoops and a waffle cone,” I tell her. “Maybe you could finish two scoops in a cup, but not in a cone.”
“Yes, I can. Tonight I can. I’m starving.”
“Fine, but you better finish the whole thing.” I shake my finger at her and say it like a threat, which makes her roll her eyes and giggle. As for me, I’ll get what I always get—the cherry chocolate-chunk custard in a sugar cone.
Margot pulls into the drive-thru, and as we wait our turn, I say, “I bet they don’t have frozen custard in Scotland.”
“Probably not,” she says.
“You won’t have another one of these until Thanksgiving,” I say.
Margot looks straight ahead. “Christmas,” she says, correcting me. “Thanksgiving’s too short to fly all that way, remember?”
“Thanksgiving’s gonna suck.” Kitty pouts.
I’m silent. We’ve never had a Thanksgiving without Margot. She always does the turkey and the broccoli casserole and the creamed onions. I do the pies (pumpkin and pecan) and the mashed potatoes. Kitty is the taste tester and the table setter. I don’t know how to roast a turkey. And both of our grandmothers will be there, and Nana, Daddy’s mother, likes Margot best of all of us. She says Kitty drains her and I’m too dreamy-eyed.
All of a sudden I feel panicky and it’s hard to breathe and I couldn’t care less about cherry chocolate-chunk custard. I can’t picture Thanksgiving without Margot. I can’t even picture next Monday without her. I know most sisters don’t get along, but I’m closer to Margot than I am to anybody in the world. How can we be the Song girls without Margot?
MY OLDEST FRIEND CHRIS SMOKES, she hooks up with boys she doesn’t know hardly at all, and she’s been suspended twice. One time she had to go before the court for truancy. I never knew what truancy was before I met Chris. FYI, it’s when you skip so much school you’re in trouble with the law.
I’m pretty sure that if Chris and I met each other now, we wouldn’t be friends. We’re as different as different can be. But it wasn’t always this way. In sixth grade Chris liked stationery and sleepovers and staying up all night watching John Hughes movies, just like me. But by eighth grade she was sneaking out after my dad fell asleep to meet boys she met at the mall. They’d drop her back off before it got light outside. I’d stay up until she came back, terrified she wouldn’t make it home before my dad woke up. She always made it back in time though.
Chris isn’t the kind of friend you call every night or have lunch with every day. She is like a street cat, she comes and goes as she pleases. She can’t be tied down to a place or a person. Sometimes I won’t see Chris for days and then in the middle of the night there will be a knock at my bedroom window and it’ll be Chris, crouched in the magnolia tree. I keep my window unlocked for her in case. Chris and Margot can’t stand each other. Chris thinks Margot is uptight, and Margot thinks Chris is bipolar. She thinks Chris uses me; Chris thinks Margot controls me. I think maybe they’re both a little bit right. But the important thing, the real thing, is Chris and I understand each other, which I think counts for a lot more than people realize.
Chris calls me on the way over to our house; she says her mom’s being a beotch and she’s coming over for a couple hours and do we have any food?
Chris and I are sharing a bowl of leftover gnocchi in the living room when Margot comes home from dropping Kitty off at her swim team’s end-of-season barbecue. “Oh, hey,” she says. Then she spots Chris’s glass of Diet Coke on the coffee table, sans coaster. “Can you please use a coaster?”
As soon as Margot’s up the stairs, Chris says, “Gawd! Why is your sister such a beotch?”
I slide a coaster under her glass. “You think everyone’s a beotch today.”
“That’s because everyone is.” Chris rolls her eyes toward the ceiling. Loudly, she says, “She needs to pull that stick out of her ass.”
From her room Margot yells, “I heard that!”
“I meant for you to!” Chris yells back, scraping up the last piece of gnocchi for herself.
I sigh. “She’s leaving so soon.”
Snickering, Chris says, “So is Joshy, like, going to light a candle for her every night until she comes back home?”
I hesitate. While I’m not sure if it’s still supposed to be a secret, I am sure that Margot wouldn’t want Chris knowing any of her personal business. All I say is, “I’m not sure.”
“Wait a minute. Did she dump him?” Chris demands.
Reluctantly I nod. “Don’t say anything to her, though,” I warn. “She’s still really sad about it.”
“Margot? Sad?” Chris picks at her nails. “Margot doesn’t have normal human emotions like the rest of us.”
“You just don’t know her,” I say. “Besides, we can’t all be like you.”
She grins a toothy grin. She has sharp incisors, which make her look always a little bit hungry. “True.”
Chris is pure emotion. She screams at the drop of a hat. She says sometimes you have to scream out emotions; if you don’t, they’ll fester. The other day she screamed at a lady at the grocery store for accidentally stepping on her toes. I don’t think she’s in any danger of her emotions festering.
“I just can’t believe that in a few days she’ll be gone,” I say, feeling sniffly all of a sudden.
“She’s not dying, Lara Jean. There’s nothing to get all boo-hoo about.” Chris pulls at a loose string on her red shorts. They’re so short that when she’s sitting, you can see her underwear. Which are red to match her shorts. “In fact, I think this is good for you. It’s about time you did your own thing and stopped just listening to whatever Queen Margot says. This is your junior year, beotch. This is when it’s supposed to get good. French some guys, live a little, you know?”
“I live plenty,” I say.
“Yeah, at the nursing home.” Chris snickers and I glare at her.
Margot started volunteering at the Belleview Retirement Community when she got her driver’s license; it was her job to help host cocktail hour for the residents. I’d help sometimes. We’d set out peanuts and pour drinks and sometimes Margot would play the piano, but usually Stormy hogged that. Stormy is the Belleview diva. She rules the roost. I like listening to her stories. And Miss Mary, she might not be so good at conversation due to her dementia, but she taught me how to knit.
They have a new volunteer there now, but I know that at Belleview it really is the more the merrier, because most of the residents get so few visitors. I should go back soon; I miss going there. And I for sure don’t appreciate Chris making fun of it.
“Those people at Belleview have lived more life than everyone we know combined,” I tell her. “There’s this one lady, Stormy, she was a USO girl! She used to get a hundred letters a day from soldiers who were in love with her. And there was this one veteran who lost his leg—he sent her a diamond ring!”
Chris looks interested all of a sudden. “Did she keep it?”
“She did,” I admit. I think it was wrong of her to keep the ring since she had no intention of marrying him, but she showed it to me, and it was beautiful. It was a pink diamond, very rare. I bet it’s worth so much money now.
“I guess Stormy sounds kind of like a badass,” Chris says begrudgingly.
“Maybe you could come with me to Belleview sometime,” I suggest. “We could go to their cocktail hour. Mr. Perelli loves to dance with new girls. He’ll teach you how to fox-trot.”
Chris makes a horrible face like I suggested we go hang out at the town dump. “No, thanks. How about I take you dancing?” She nudges her chin toward upstairs. “Now that your sister’s leaving, we can have some real fun. You know I always have fun.”