The only book by Gurtler I've read is IF I TELL, which I liked but didn't love. However, many people have told me that IF I TELL is the worst of her books. And I did enjoy her style. And I'M NOT HER being free is the perfect opportunity for me to give Gurtler a second chance. Be sure to check out Gurtler's new novel, HOW I LOST YOU, as well.
Thanks to Sourcebooks, I have an excerpt from I'M NOT HER to share.
Not surprisingly, I don’t hear anyone complain. I hardly hear any sound at all except the occasional whisper, cough, or sniffle. Everyone wears dark colors, even kids who don’t usually follow rules or social customs. I guess it’s like that when someone young is snatched from the earth. It’s wrong on so many levels that thinking about it makes my already sad heart ache even harder.
Dad says parents shouldn’t have to bury their children. He says a lost child leaves a hole in the heart of the parents, a hole hacked out with a dull knife. The heart can function with the wound, but it never entirely heals.
I begin plotting my escape just as a drunk guy plunks down on the couch beside me and leans against me for support. Smoke and alcohol fumes waft off him and he blocks me, pinning me in place. Wrinkling my nose, I elbow him in the side, trying to move him. He hacks up the equivalent of a human fur ball, focuses his eyes on me, and then grins the carefree smile of the intoxicated. He leans closer, giving me an up-close view of the angry red pimples on his shiny skin.
“Hey, Freshie. You’re Kristina’s little sister aren’t you?” He whistles through his teeth. “She’s seriously hot.”
He’s implying that I’m not and, honestly, I’d be okay with his observation if he’d get out of my way. I take a deep breath, but no words form in my mouth. I glare at him but he doesn’t notice. His long blondish hair curls up at the edges and in the middle of his face is a big crooked nose that looks like it’s been broken or something, but the imperfection kind of works on him. His eyes look like they might have been a great shade of blue before the alcohol consumption hit, but they’re pretty much pinkish now.
Folding my arms across my chest, I push hard with my shoulder, but he doesn’t budge. Other than the brief pant over my sister, there’s no indication he even notices I’m not part of the furniture. I wiggle and push and finally make progress, when he snaps his arm out and grabs mine, pulling me back down. The strength in his arm is deceptive for such a skinny guy.
“What’s she like?” Drunk Pimple Guy stares at her, his voice dripping with the kind of reverence people save for the very famous or very beautiful. Far as I know, Kristina isn’t famous outside of Great Heights, but even I can’t deny she has the beauty part down.
Breathing deep, I try to shake him off but he doesn’t let go. Propelled by growing humiliation, I decide to give him some truths. “She burps. Red meat gives her gas and she won’t eat anything that contains a carbohydrate. Oh, and she takes medicine to control her acne.” I consider recommending the brand to him but no. Not cool. “She also hogs the bathroom and is a slob who treats my mom like her personal maid.”
I think it’s the most I’ve ever said to a boy at one time. I don’t add that Kristina cries at sad commercials, never mind the blubbering she does during movies, or that when I was nine, she punched a boy who called me ugly and gave him a bloody nose.
He stares at me as if I’ve grown three horns from my ever-so-ordinary, two-minutes-to-get-ready face. Well, if he didn’t want the truth, he shouldn’t have asked. After all, as the younger sister of Kristina Smith, I have an in on the lifestyle and personality of the Goddess.
I try to break free again, but he holds on like I’m his security blanket and he’s five years old. He grins and his expression changes and he almost looks cute. If he weren’t holding me hostage and all.
“You mean she doesn’t have a real maid? I heard your old man is loaded.”
Please. My mom would never share control of her home with hired help, but I don’t tell him that.
He studies my face. “You don’t look much like her.”
My crooked nose matches Dad’s and I also inherited his stupid red hair. Unlike my curvaceous sister, I’d never be mistaken for a pole dancer. People would be more likely to compare me to the pole. DNA is indeed a baffling concept. Thanks for pointing it out, dude.
“Whoa, she can dance,” he says, without letting me go.
I’m forced to watch with him as Kristina performs as if she’s on a stage, acting like she doesn’t know almost every eye in the room is on her.
Kristina continues to grind and shake to the music in her skinny jeans and a tank top seriously helped along by a push-up bra. She gets off on crowd approval, like I get off on watching the guys on MythBusters blow up things.
Silence hangs between me and my captor. Well, not exactly silence since a new pop song is vibrating the speakers in the living room, and all around us kids yak and laugh. But there’s a definite lull on our couch.
“All righty then.”
Just like that Drunk Pimple Guy lets me go and vaults himself off the couch.
“I have a name too,” I say under my breath, because of course, he didn’t ask. “It’s Tess. Rhymes with mess.” No one ever asks my name. No one knows that there are jokes trapped inside my head.
I push myself up, even more determined to sneak down the hallway, slip out the back entrance, and escape. I don’t care that it’s dark outside or even that going home alone will require walking over two miles. And that I hate walking. And the dark.
I start pushing past bodies crowded in the living room. People brush me away like I’m an annoying insect, or their eyes meet mine for a brief second before they look away. Just as the entrance to the kitchen is visible, a hand reaches out and grabs my shirt from behind and pulls. Hard. Kristina latches her free hand on my arm. Damn. She pushes me back into the living room where flocks of freshmen lurk awkwardly in twos and threes. She bops her head and keeps mouthing the words to the song playing, just as well since her voice is not as pretty as her face. I don’t brag about it but I’m the one who can sing in our family. She’s the one who looks good lip-synching.
Eyes follow us because, after all, she is Kristina. She doesn’t loosen her grip on my arm, and shoves me past a group of seniors and the freshies stalking them. Great. Might as well stick a kick-me sign on my butt the way she’s dragging me around. Kristina leans in close, making a wincing sound as she pushes us toward an open spot by the dining room table. From the corner of my eye, I catch the art of Robert Bateman and a teeny part of me notes that based on the textured look of the paper and the pigments collected in tiny hollows, it’s an original, not a print.
Kristina lets go of me and leans down, rubbing at her knee. “Ouch. My stupid knee,” she mumbles. “What are you doing?” she demands in her “I’m the big sister, now listen to me” voice.
“Going home.” I stick out my bottom lip for courage. “This is humiliating.”
She stops massaging her knee and straightens, glancing off in the direction Drunk Pimple Guy disappeared. “Did Nick make a pass at you or something? I’ll kill him. He’s such a man-whore.”
I shake my head back and forth, mortified by the concept. As if he’d make a pass at me.
“There’s lots of cute boys here your own age. You promised to at least try to make friends.”
“I already have friends,” I mumble, wishing she would try to understand how hard it is for me to talk to people.
“No. You have friend. One. And Melissa is a socially inept, religious freak. You can do better.”
“Melissa is a better friend than you’ll ever have.” Melissa does have her religion thing but it doesn’t come between us. Well, except for the time when she told me I wouldn’t be going to heaven because I don’t go to church.
Anyhow, I’m not about to argue quality versus quantity here, but all Kristina’s friends do is giggle a lot and screech OHMYGOD and talk about boys. And take pictures of each other, usually in skimpy clothes. And then post the pictures online.
Kristina sighs. “This is an opportunity to meet new people. Not just art freaks or brainiacs from the Honor Society.”
“Art is not freaky,” I remind her for the millionth time, but it still hasn’t registered in her head. She’s exactly like our mom. She doesn’t understand how important art is to me. Or even that I’m pretty good at it. “And neither are people from the Honor Society,” I add, and ignore her huge eye roll.
“You can’t leave,” she whines. “Come on, Tess. Live it up a little. It’s your first high school party. Have fun. I really want you to get something out of this.”
I can’t understand why she even cares. She checks me out from head to toe but then something catches her eye and she directs a full-watt Reese Witherspoon smile across the room.
Her eyes don’t twinkle though, and she self-consciously fixes her tank top as she wiggles her fingers in the air. I see her ex, Devon Pierce. The male equivalent of Kristina. Prince Charming to her Cinderella. Except in this story they split up instead of living happily ever after.
“He broke my heart,” she whispers in a sad voice, without wiping the mega-grin off her face. I can’t tell if she’s lying about the state of her heart. Sometimes I wonder if she has one.
“So why’re you smiling at him like he’s a bowl of sugar-free Jell-O?”
She leans forward and the force of her breath on the tiny hairs on my ear hurts. “I kind of have to. He’s super A-list.”
I almost feel sorry for her having to be nice to a boy who broke her heart. I want to go over and punch him in the stomach on her behalf.
She keeps smiling though, watching him from the corner of her eye. “He’s not a bad guy. We mostly broke up because I wouldn’t hook up with him.”
I pretend to stick my finger down my throat, but I’m a little relieved to hear that she didn’t give in to him just because he’s a hot guy. From what I’ve heard, most of her friends don’t have the same reservations.
Her expression tightens and her eye twitches slightly in the corner. “You have to be careful with guys.”
No, she does. I don’t. Boys don’t notice me. For example, right then a boy approaches us, checking out my sister. He has a cute baby face but is wearing a dorky rap star T-shirt. He’s carrying a digital camera and has a look of utter adoration on his face. I don’t think he even sees me standing beside her.
“You were awesome in the game last night,” he says. “You’re captain this year, right?”
Kristina nods. “Yup. And as of last week, I’m the outside hitter too. If my knee holds out.” She frowns for a second and then shakes her head once.
“Can I take your picture?” His lips tighten as if he’s nervous.
“Sure,” she gushes, and flashes her perfect teeth at him. She treats her admirers with equal deference, I’ll give her that. No one can accuse my sister of being one of the mean girls; she’s not like that.
She throws an arm around me. “Take one of me and my little sister, Tess. She’s a freshman, you know, just like you.” She smiles and squeezes my shoulder harder. “And she’s also available.”
My face warms and she pinches me to warn me not to run in horror as she tries to pimp me out to some kid. I say nothing but can’t stop blushing and refuse to smile at his camera.
“Say ‘Facebook,’” the boy says.
Kristina squirms happily, hearing one of her favorite words. “Facebook,” she says, smiling at his camera with her eyes, her arm tight around my shoulder so I can’t escape. She manages to turn her body to expose her most flattering angle. I glare at the camera. “Make sure you friend me so I can see the pics after you post them. My last name is Smith,” she chirps, as if he didn’t already know.
“Cool. Thanks,” the boy says. “I’m Jeremy. Jeremy Jones. I play volleyball too.”
“Jones?” Kristina says. She taps her fingers on her chin, thinking.
I almost smile. His last name is as lame as ours. Jones. Smith. As common as celebrities in rehab.
“I made the junior team,” he tells Kristina.
She smiles but she clearly hasn’t heard of him.
He peeks at me but I duck my head.
“You’re in my friend’s homeroom and a few of his classes,” he says to me.
Kristina nudges me out of my stupor.
“Oh,” I say, only because of her prompting. I have to admit he’s kind of cute in a lost-puppy-dog way, but he’s obviously a member of the Kristina fan club and that deducts major points.
“What’s your friend’s name?” Kristina asks him sweetly, nudging me harder with her pointy, anorexic elbow.
Clark Trent. I know who he’s talking about. The poor guy’s parents obviously have a warped sense of humor. I mean, come on. Clark Trent? Superman much? He even wears glasses.
I know who he is because he’s one of the top freshmen this year. Academically. Rumor has it he’s after a spot in the Honor Society. Well, the rumor is between Melissa and me. She made a list of all the prospects. In our school, freshman members of the Honor Society aren’t chosen until the end of the first semester, so it’s imperative we get great marks until November.
Jeremy squirms, holding his camera tight as if he has something else to say, but Kristina’s already been distracted. She only feels she owes her fans so much time, I guess.
She signals her hand at a boy leaning against the wall opposite ours. He appears at her side in a flash. Jeremy makes a quiet excuse and leaves. I lift my hand and wave good-bye, mostly sorry for him because Kristina doesn’t even seem to notice his exodus from stage right.
“Sweetie, would you get a cup of punch for my sister? You know. The special punch,” she says to the boy she’s called over.
He grins, thrilled to be put to use for Kristina Smith, and hurries off to do her bidding. Seconds later he returns and hands a cup to me.
“Drink up, little sister,” he says with a laugh.
I take a sip from the cup and sputter and cough. I stare at Kristina, shocked, while the boy laughs some more. I put it down on the table and cross my arms, glaring at Kristina.
“What?” Kristina says. “It has a little rum in it. Drink it fast. Maybe it’ll loosen you up a little.” She studies me for a second. “Tell Mom and I’ll kill you. She’s already freaking—”
I shake my head. “I’m not drinking alcohol to loosen myself up.”
Kristina sighs. “You know, most little sisters would think I was pretty cool giving you a drink. I’m not trying to get you drunk. You need to chillax a bit. Take the edge off. ”
The boy wisely steps away from us and takes off toward the kitchen.
“I don’t want to get drunk and throw up just to show people how cool I am,” I say.
“I didn’t say you had to get drunk. Or throw up. I just want you to be, you know, a little more relaxed.” She lifts her chin. “Get you a little more connected. I only want what’s best for you.”
“So does Mom and she tries to make me eat porridge for breakfast every day.”
As far as I can tell, Kristina’s idea of connected is how many people text her each day.
“I won’t always be around to try to help you out socially, Tess. You need to make an effort on your own too.”
“Did you ever think I don’t want your help?” I glance around to see if ears are tuned in to our conversation, but no one appears to be listening in. “Maybe I’m happy.”
She crosses her arms. “Define happy.”
“Happiness is going home,” I tell her.
Kristina frowns and is about to continue to lecture me when a gaggle of volleyball girls burst into the room and squeal her name. The volleyball girls stick together like waterlogged book pages. She has no choice but to go to them. She turns to me before she takes off.
“I just want to help,” she says and then she walks off, limping toward her friends.
“I’m not the one who needs help, Kristina,” I tell her. Pure bravado. Kristina doesn’t know what I would give to be like her. So outgoing and likable. Not to mention beautiful.
“Is your sister still in bed?” Mom asks as she enters the kitchen from the sliding patio door. “We have to go to the doctor in a couple of hours.”
I don’t bother to ask why Kristina’s going to the doctor this time, or which one. She’s always getting tested and poked at and prodded and X-rayed by chiropractors, naturopaths, and sports therapists. My mom invests a lot of time and energy in Kristina’s volleyball “career.”
I glance up from the newspaper and then at the oversized clock. “Yup. A new record.”
Mom pulls out her ear buds and chugs the bottle of water she’d taken on her run. Her blond hair is pulled into a high ponytail; her aqua running band matches the stripe on her running pants, and does double-duty keeping stray hair from her face. She puts her water down on the table and checks the Garmin GPS strapped to her wrist. “Five miles in forty-nine minutes, even without Kristina keeping up my pace.”
I raise my eyebrows, pretending to be impressed, but really, I don’t think there’s a good reason to run unless someone’s chasing me. Seriously. And that hasn’t happened since Brad Myers came after me in fourth grade when my art was featured in the local paper instead of his.
“Kristina’s knee’s been bothering her,” Mom says as if I’ve asked a question. “That’s why I didn’t wake her to run with me. We’ve been having a few things looked at. Trying to figure out the problem.”
Her voice sounds off, higher than usual, enough that I look up and see that she’s frowning, but then she glances at the clock.
“Good party last night?” she asks, and turns back to me, hope I’ve actually frolicked at a party lighting up her entire face.
My unease flees and I shrug and return to the comics. I don’t have to look at her to see her disappointment.
“Honestly, Tess. You’re just like your father. I swear, if he didn’t have me and his golf partners, he’d be a hermit.”
I flash my best good-daughter smile. “Well, you do give good parties.”
If she hears contempt in my voice, she chooses to ignore it. She complains all the time but he gives her a purpose. She helps my dad, Mr. Introverted University Professor, with his networking by throwing parties for his colleagues. No one intimidates her, not even stuffy college professors.
Despite their opposite personalities, Mom clings to Dad in public and crawls on his lap to make out with him, which is completely gross and embarrassing. It might be kind of sweet if they were someone else’s parents, but they’re mine.
“You need to get ready,” Mom says. “And a shower would be nice.”
“Awww, Mom. Do I have to go?” After finishing with the newspaper I was looking forward to finishing an English assignment. I know I’ll ace it and pump up my GPA. Honor Society beckons. After that I planned to work on some sketches of Melissa’s cat. A surprise for her birthday.
Mom turns her back on me and opens the refrigerator. She bends at her waist and peers inside as if something’s calling her name. Like plain yogurt or fat-free cottage cheese.
“I promise I won’t go on the Internet.”
She’s got this weird thing about the Internet and rarely lets me use the computer unsupervised, as if I’m going to search around the Web for hot muscle men or be lured into private chat rooms by creepy pedophiles. It’s not like I’m the daughter with the social networking addiction.
Mom closes the refrigerator door without taking anything out. She walks over to my side, glancing down at the newspaper. “I’m a little nervous about this meeting,” she tells me.
“Please?” I say, ignoring her. Kristina is her purebred pony. She’s always worried about her.
She lets out a deep breath, seeming distracted. “Fine,” she says, taking me completely by surprise. “You can do your homework on the computer and use your art program, but nothing else online.”
I’m so shocked I don’t know what to say, but I’m no idiot either and keep my mouth shut.
“I wonder if I should wake Kristina,” Mom asks, glancing toward the stairs.
I flip a page in the newspaper but follow her gaze to the stairs, wondering if Kristina is suffering from drinking too much of the “special” punch at the party.
“She’ll be up soon,” I say. “I’m sure she’s just tired from socializing last night. You know. Like mother, like daughter.”
Even though Kristina pretty much added to my total humiliation, it’s still us vs. them when it comes to the units.
“Yeah, and like father, like daughter,” Mom says.
I stick my tongue out, knowing she doesn’t mean it as a compliment, but she’s already leaving the kitchen and misses it. I reabsorb myself in the newspaper and a write-up in the Arts section catches my eye. My heart skips out an excited beat. An art contest for contemporary drawing. I read on. The Oswald Drawing Prize for emerging artists.
Me. I’m an emerging artist! I continue to read and see there’s a Junior Division for grades nine to twelve. A winner from each state will be announced along with a Grand Champion. Winning pieces will be shown in universities and art galleries across the country.
My eyes scan the fine print. The winner from each state will be interviewed for a television documentary, plus an illustrated catalog will be published to accompany the exhibition. The catalog will include images of the winning drawings, biographical details of each artist, and a statement about the drawing.
The Grand Champion will receive a full scholarship and acceptance into the Academy of Art University in San Francisco in their graduating year. The art school I’ve been salivating over since I studied the art school rankings over the summer. Gah! On top of all that, there’s a free trip to San Francisco for the winner.
A rumble like the lava of a volcano surges through my body. There’s a three-hundred-dollar entry fee, but I’ve got more than enough to cover that in my bank account. The entry deadline is November 1, so there’s time. Not a lot, but enough if I get to work right away. I glance down. Winners will be announced the week of November 18 by email or phone.
There’s kind of a destiny vibe, coming across the article like this. Feelings I didn’t know I had stirred in my soul. True, serving killer volleyballs is not in my future, but I’m truly proud of my art skills. Something no one else in my family can claim. A recessive gene, probably.
Maybe, just maybe, winning would quiet the voice in my head. The voice that tells me drawing pictures is silly, unimportant. The voice that sounds a lot like my mom. As I try to visualize myself accepting the award and finding my voice in a room full of admirers, something brushes against my arm. I grab my throat and yelp. Kristina stands over me, looking unusually pale and drawn. Not nearly as radiant as last night.
“Did you have to sneak up on me?” My heartbeat sprints like a greyhound charging after a mechanical rabbit.
She takes a step back. “Sorry,” she whispers. I look closer at her. Bags under her eyes. Washed-out skin.
“Whoa,” I tell her. “You look terrible. Did you freebase a bottle of tequila or what?”
“Funny,” she croaks. She heads to the fridge, pulls out bottled water, undoes the cap, and chugs it, much like Mom a few minutes before her. “I must have the flu or something.”
“Flu?” I stare at her. “More like hangover-itis.”
“I never have more than one drink. One hundred calories max.”
Mom says the same thing. One glass of red wine is acceptable as an antioxidant. Dad teases her that she doesn’t drink because it makes her mean, but I’ve never seen it and have no idea if it’s true or not.
Kristina glares at me and then walks forward and leans right over me. “Here. Feel my forehead.”
I stare at her and scrunch up my face to show my reluctance, but she doesn’t leave, so I relent and reach up and put the back of my hand on her forehead.
“Hey.” Her body definitely doesn’t feel like it’s running at 98 degrees. “You feel like you slept in polar fleece or something.”
“I know, right? I’m hot. I feel like hell.” She collapses into a chair opposite mine at the kitchen table. “It has to be the flu. I don’t want to be sick. We have a big game coming up. Against Westwood High.” She drinks more water and then plunks it on the table and stares at me. “You got home okay last night?”
I don’t meet her eyes. “Yeah. Fine.” I close the paper and slide it away from her. I don’t want her to find out about the contest. Not yet. I have to do some thinking about the perfect entry. I want it to be my own thing.
She gulps more water and then gets up and walks to the stove. Standing on her tiptoes, she reaches to the cupboards above and pulls out a bottle of Tylenol. The only non-herbal medicine Mom allows in the house. She opens the cap, pops two pills in her mouth, and swallows them without water before returning the bottle to the shelf.
“Gross.” I don’t know how she swallows them like that.
“I hope it’s nothing serious,” she says as she stares off into space. “I can’t afford to be sick in the next few weeks.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I tell her. “You won’t get sick. You’re perfect. Just ask that drunk pimply guy from the party last night.”
Kristina focuses and tries to hide a smile but she’s pleased. She takes a sip from her water bottle. “Which one?” she asks.
I focus back on the paper, refusing to feed her unquenchable ego. I can’t wait until she’s gone so I can have the house to myself and start brainstorming ideas for the drawing contest.
A few hours later Mom and Kristina walk into the kitchen right while I’m in the middle of dunking Oreos into chocolate milk. I stop chewing, with cookie crumbs bunched up in my cheeks like a chipmunk. Busted. Dad came home early and brought the cookies with him as a peace offering for making me go to the party. He often provides me with stashes of sweets instead of heart-to-heart talks. I was supposed to hide the cookies before Kristina and Mom got home. I can hear him clattering away in his home office off the kitchen.
I’m scrambling, about to make up an excuse about why I’m gorging myself on cookies instead of something healthy like Mom’s delicious yogurt with fruit or nuts, but neither of them even says a word about my snack. I chew as quickly and quietly as I can and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, trying not to look guilty.
Mom takes one look at me, though, and bursts into tears. I blush, ashamed my gluttonous actions have caused her such anguish. On one hand I wonder why she’s freaking, but I also can’t help worrying if I’ve messed up my future shots at staying home alone?
“Mom. It’s my first snack of the day. I swear. I finished my homework and I’m starving…” I don’t want to tell on Dad for bringing the treats home.
Kristina plops hard onto the chair beside me. “Don’t sweat it.” She keeps her back straight, her posture perfect. “That’s not why she’s crying.” Her face is pale and strangely devoid of emotion, a creepy contrast to my mom’s tears.
Mom sniffles and struggles to get a hold of herself. “I’m sorry, Kristina. No tears. It’s going to be fine. I’m just shocked, you know. That’s all. You’re going to be fine.”
My heart skips a beat. Mom turns away from us, opens her mouth and hollers. “Dan!” she yells in a most unladylike way. “Dan, come in here. We need to have a family meeting. Now!”
I hear my dad mumble something from his office at the end of the hall. When he’s working I think he forgets our names.
“Seriously, Daniel, I mean it. Come here this instant.”
Uh-oh. She used his full name. I look back and forth from my mom to my sister. Mom rarely interrupts Dad when he’s working. “What’s going on?” I ask, too afraid to even try to imagine.
The cookies bungee-jump to the pit of my stomach. Mom pulls out a chair and sits gingerly, as if she’s afraid someone might have put a tack or a whoopee cushion on it.
“What?” I repeat.
“I want to wait until your father joins us,” she says to me. She avoids Kristina’s eyes. “We’ll discuss this as a family.” She stands up and leaves the room to go and get him.
“What’s going on?” I ask my sister. I haven’t seen my mom this flustered, well, ever. It isn’t easy to ruffle old Lisa Smith.
I wonder if my perfect sister lied about not doing it and got herself pregnant. I hope not. I know I’ll be stuck changing diapers. And rubbing lotion on her fat belly to avoid stretch marks on her flawless skin.
“It’s no big deal.”
Kristina’s top lip quivers a second but then she swallows and looks right into my eyes. A cold feeling runs up my spine and a chill settles on my arms. I realize I’m holding my breath.
“I have cancer,” she says.