There’s a sweet burnt-jelly smell in the air. When I enter the kitchen, Ivy’s standing by the toaster.
“Hey, Ives. Making a snack?” I stick a mug of water in the microwave and get a tea bag out of the cabinet.
“Yeah.” In her pajamas, with her round face, big eyes, and blondish ponytail, she looks like an oversize five-year-old. She doesn’t say anything else. Ivy’s not a big conversationalist.
The toaster clicks, and by the time my tea is ready, Ivy is installed at the table, a Pop-Tart on a plate, a glass of cold milk at its side. She’s got her iPad in front of her, and she’s doing something on it—?probably playing a game. I open my laptop to work on an English paper, and the two of us fall into companionable silence.
There are footsteps in the hallway and then Ron’s in the doorway, filling it up with his broad shoulders. He’s wearing his after-work uniform: sweatpants and a T-shirt with sleeves short enough to show his bulging biceps.
Ron’s beefy without being cut. His face is heavy, especially down at the jaw and chin, but he wears his light brown hair on the longer side in front, so he can thrust the mass of it back with his fingers—?it’s a ridiculously youthful gesture for someone edging toward sixty, and I’m convinced he practices it in front of the mirror.
My mother married him over a year ago. He still feels like an intruder in our house. I don’t think he’ll ever not feel like one.
“Hey, there!” he says with unconvincing geniality. “Look at you two girls, working away! I’m going to assume you’re doing homework and not messaging boys.” He crosses to the refrigerator. “Your mom’s thirsty, and as usual, I’m waiting on her hand and foot.” He snaps his enormous hand like he’s got a whip in it. “Coosh-oo! She orders, and I obey.”
Neither of us responds. He grabs a half-empty bottle of wine from the fridge and two glasses from the cabinet. He’s heading back out when he notices the plate in front of Ivy.
“What’s that you’ve got there?”
He sighs. “Oh, Ivy,” he says in the overly gentle tone he always uses with her. “We’ve talked about this, haven’t we? About making better choices? About eating to fuel our bodies and not just because we’re bored?” Ron’s always trying to micromanage Ivy’s diet. He acts like it’s all about her health, but I eat just as much junk as she does and he never says anything to me about it, because I’m thinner than she is. Not that Ivy’s fat, exactly, just kind of solid. She’ll never be a supermodel, but that’s not exactly her destiny anyway, so who cares?
Other than Ron, I mean.
“I was hungry,” she says.
“Were you?” Ron says. “Were you really hungry? Because you ate quite a bit at dinner tonight. Quite a bit.” He leans against the side of the doorway, wineglass stems threaded through the fingers of one hand, bottle in the other. There’s a scar on the side of that hand—?he claims he cut it as a teenager working in a lab one summer, but I bet it was from a broken beer bottle. He acts all cultured now, but I’m convinced he was a total bro back in the day. Probably beat up all the nerdy kids and high-fived his friends afterward. “A lot of what you ate was carbohydrates—?potatoes and bread. You didn’t touch your salad.”
“It had peppers in it.” She appeals to me. “I don’t like peppers, right, Chloe?”
“No one does.”
“Chloe,” Ron says. “Don’t.” His voice tightens when he talks to me, but I prefer that to the patronizing tone he uses with my sister. Which he now slips back into. “You don’t have to finish that, Ivy. We can wrap it up, and you can have the rest for breakfast tomorrow. Or we can just throw it out—?processed food like this belongs in the trash anyway, as far as I’m concerned.”
“But I’m hungry.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Don’t tell her whether or not she’s hungry,” I say. “It’s her body.”
“Can you just stop?” he snaps at me. “I’m trying to help her out here.” He flashes a strained smile in her direction. “I want to keep our sweet Ivy healthy.”
“Her health is fine,” I say, because it is—?Ivy never gets sick. “You’re the one with high cholesterol. Worry about yourself. You really need that wine? Lot of calories in wine, you know.” I deliberately eye his waist—?he’s always complaining to my mom that no matter how many sit-ups he does, he can’t get back to a size twenty-eight, so I know he’s self-conscious about it.
Ron stands up straighter, sucking in his stomach—?it’s the kind of thing people do when you stare at their love handles. “When I want your advice, Chloe, I’ll ask for it. But don’t hold your breath.” He turns back to Ivy. “You could be so pretty,” he says. “I mean, you are so pretty. You don’t want to go and mess that up by eating so much junk food you get fat and pimply, do you? Don’t you want a boyfriend one day? And a husband? My mother got married when she was younger than you! Doesn’t that blow your mind?”
“I know,” Ivy says. “She was nineteen when she got married, and your father was twenty-three. You were born two years later in 1961. Mom was born in 1972. She’s eleven years younger than you.”
For a moment he blinks at her, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of accurate information she’s just thrown at him. Then he recovers. “Yeah, well . . . good. It’s good you remember. My point is you’re old enough to be thinking about boys and to care about how you look. Like Chloe.” He jerks his chin at me. “She always looks nice. I’ll give her that.”
I stifle a sarcastic retort—?I don’t want to prolong this.
“Chloe’s really pretty,” Ivy says.
“So are you,” says Ron. “But you won’t be if you keep eating junk.”
She considers that, and while she considers it, she absently picks up the Pop-Tart and takes another bite of it.
“Stop eating that!” he says. “You’re not listening to me.”
“I am list...