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“Where are we going to sit for lunch, Ellie?” Heather’s shoulder bumped mine as we entered the overwhelmingly crowded cafeteria.
“I don’t know yet, just give me a second. I’ll figure something out,” I sighed. Another new school, the second time in three years. My twin sister and I stood at the entrance to the cafeteria and looked for empty seats. I spotted a table that looked like it had all the popular girls sitting at it, and there were two empty seats. This was our chance to actually make some friends, unlike at all the other schools. I started walking up to the table before I freaked and changed my mind. I recognized a girl at the end from my English class. She had on a green skirt and a tank top, and her sleek black hair was perfectly straightened. “Hey,” I started. She turned around.
“Aren’t you the new girl?”
“Um, yeah. And you’re Jennifer, right?” I asked, while I twirled the bottom of my shirt around my thumb. “Hey, can we sit here with you guys?”
“You can... but not her!” She pointed distastefully at Heather who was half hidden behind me, clutching her lunch bag. This was just like last year. I had to choose. I glanced back and forth between Jennifer, who was looking at me with her startling green eyes, and Heather, who was staring at the ground. I took a deep breath and twisted my blond hair around my finger.
“Heather, can I talk to you for a sec?” I pulled her over, just out of earshot of Jennifer and her posse. “Do you remember Amanda? And how she didn’t want to be friends with you?” I winced. That didn’t come out right.
“Yes,” Heather looked at me with expectant blue eyes.
“Well, Jennifer is like that too. She doesn’t want to sit with you.”
“So are we going to sit somewhere else today?”
“Um, well, I am going to sit with Jennifer, but you can go sit at that table over there.” I pointed to the table in the corner where a few other girls I didn’t know sat.
“But why? We always sit together. And Jennifer is mean!” Heather’s eyes filled with tears, and my heart filled with guilt.
“B-because I wanted to tell Jennifer that she should let you sit with us. Plus, there isn’t enough room for me at the other table,” I Iied. Heather started walking over to the table after I reassured her that I would sit with her tomorrow. Another lie. I watched her sit down at the other table, until I was interrupted.
“Hey, are you gonna just stand there? Or are you gonna actually sit down?” Jennifer asked, with a hint of annoyance. I sat down.
“Who was that girl? She’s so weird! Is she new too?”
“You mean Heather?” I couldn’t believe how rude they were being.
“Is that her name? How do you know her, anyway?” I stared at her, confused. Then I realized that she didn’t know we were sisters.
“She’s my sister,” I muttered quietly, sure they would kick me out of the group now.
“So you two are like, twins?” I nodded in response.
“What’s wrong with her? She looks so weird. And I heard she’s retarded.” My face flushed with anger, but I quickly regained composure. I wasn’t going to blow it this time. I was going to make friends.
“She has Down’s Syndrome. But it’s not a big deal. Compared to other people, her’s is actually pretty mild. And she isn’t retarded, she just learns differently.” I repeated what had been drilled into my head since the moment I could understand what it meant. I could hear my mother saying, Stand up for your sister, She just learns differently, blah, blah, blah. Even though I loved Heather, I’ve started to get sick of always making sure she’s comfortable, making sure everyone was nice to her. I was basically her stand-in mother whenever we left the house. I always sacrificed my social life for her. This time, that wasn’t going to happen.
I was jerked from my thoughts by Jennifer’s laughter. The girl to my left said, “She certainly seems retarded.”
“Well she’s not!” I snapped.
“Woah, calm down, we were just joking. Geez, don’t be so sensitive.” She rolled her eyes. I needed to stop jumping to her every defense.
“Let’s just drop it, okay?”
“Whatever,” Jennifer changed the subject to the new magnetic nail polish she got.
The rest of the day, I pretended not to see Heather whenever we passed in the hallways. This wasn’t difficult, considering how crowded the hallways were between classes.
I threw my math binder into my already full backpack, when I looked up and saw Jennifer leaning against my locker. “I’m having a party on Friday. Wanna come?”
I couldn’t believe my luck! Friday was just two days away! “Sure,” I replied, trying to sound indifferent.
“Here’s my number. I’ll text you more info later. Oh, and don’t bring Heather.” I didn’t respond, and she walked away.
I always do my best thinking while I lay in bed, so thats exactly what I did. I tried to sort out my feelings, but to no avail. I couldn’t decide whether I should stay true to my sister, or to go to Jennifer’s party. I really, really wanted friends, and I really, really wanted to act like a normal thirteen year old girl. Heather always stopped me from this. I remembered last time, when I stood up for Heather and basically ended up with no friends. That would mean that Heather owes me one... but is that really fair? I flipped my pillow over to the cold side and rolled over. My tired eyes told me that I should just go to sleep and figure things out in the morning. “Ellie?” Heather called out from the bottom bunk in our shared room.
“Can I sit with Jennifer now?”
“I didn’t ask yet,” I replied, knowing that it would never ever happen, even if I asked a million times.
“But you said you were going to!”
“I know, I just didn’t get to it. Go to sleep now.”
I woke up at five thirty the next morning, even though I didn’t need to get up for another hour. I needed to have a talk with Mom.
I found her getting her papers ready for work on the kitchen counter. Everyone else in the house was still asleep.
“Hey, kiddo. Why are you up so early? Is everything okay?
“Yeah, everythings okay,” I decided that maybe I shouldn’t tell her what’s going on. She’d probably be disappointed. “I got up because it’s so hot in my room.”
“We need to finish unpacking and find your air conditioner. Sorry I couldn’t get it out sooner. There’s a lot going on. Hey, how’s Heather adjusting? Are people being nice to her? Is she making friends?”
I sighed. Its always about Heather. My whole life revolves around Heather. What about me?
Does anyone care if I’m making friends? Just because I don’t have Down’s syndrome doesn’t make my life automatically perfect. It doesn’t mean people flock to me, wanting to be friends.
I would never dare say these things out loud, though. “She’s doing great. I think she’s made a few friends.”
“That’s good. Make sure you keep an eye out for her, okay?” I nodded, and went to get a bowl of Rice Krispies.
After my mom left, but before the rest of my family woke up, I snuck into the bathroom. I wanted to try straightening my hair, like Jennifer.
The next day was pretty tough. Again, I avoided Heather and hung out with Jennifer and her friends. They liked my hair. It was nice to be part of a group.
At lunch, they talked about Heather. The more they made fun of her, the more I realized that she was kind of weird. I was even a little embarrassed to be related to her. The way Jennifer and her friends talked about Heather changed my whole view of Heather. I knew that I couldn’t be seen with her at the party, or anywhere else. My decision was made. I would go to the party- without her.
Another school day of looking away whenever I passed my sister came and went. All the talk at lunch was about the party. What were we going to wear, who was going, and other stuff. I was getting excited, but a little nervous at the same time. I hadn’t told my mom yet. Would she let me go?
As soon as Mom walked through the door, I asked.
“Of course! I’m glad you two are making friends. What time do I need to drive you and
“Mom, Heather isn’t going.”
“Why wouldn’t she?”
“Well, she wasn’t invited. See, the girl who invited me is in my English class, and Heather isn’t in the same class. She and Heather haven’t really met.”
“Are you sure? Why doesn’t Heather go anyway? You can introduce her!”
I twisted my shirt.
“What’s wrong?” My mom knew that was my nervous habit.
“Uh, it doesn’t really work like that. I just don’t think Heather should go. She might feel uncomfortable.” It wasn’t a total lie. If Heather came, Jennifer would probably do her best to make her feel more than uncomfortable.
“Okay, if thats what you really think would be best for Heather. I’m so proud of you for looking out for her all the time. I don’t know what she would do without you.” A knot formed in my stomach. My mom’s answer had made me question my decision. I pushed the thought aside.
My phone buzzed against my thigh. I pulled it out of my pocket. It was a text from Jennifer:
Hey, R u cuming?
I glanced at the clock. 6:00. I was late!
On my way. B there in 5 min
I explained to my mom that we had to go, and she put her shoes back on. I did the same.
Heather watched us from the top of the stairs. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“To a party.” I saw the hurt in her eyes. Now or never, I thought. “You wanna come?”
“Yeah. Go get ready.” What was I thinking? Jennifer would kill me! It doesn’t matter. A voice in my head whispered. Heather is family. I can’t avoid her forever. Jennifer was just an annoying girl. When I grew up, she wouldn’t be in my life anymore. Heather would. That is, if I didn’t let her slip through my grasp.
We pulled up in front of Jennifer’s house, and walked up towards the door. Heather tried to rush up the steps, but I held her back. We went up the steps together, out shoulders bumping just like on the first day of school. Heather rang the doorbell. Jennifer opened the door, and stared at Heather in shock. “I thought I told you not to bring her!”
“She’s my sister, and my best friend. I wouldn’t go without her.”
“But she’ll totally ruin my party!” She complained, hands on her hips.
“Heather is standing right next to me. Don’t talk like she isn’t. She can understand you too, even though you might think otherwise. Heather will not ruin the party, she’ll do the exact opposite. I’ve done some of my most memorable things with her!” I shouted, my face red with anger. Who did she think she was, talking about my sister like that? “I’m sick of you being a total jerk and making fun of Heather. She’s a real person, just like you. She might even be more real than you. You try to fit in, hide behind make-up and pretty clothes. It doesn’t work. Anyone can see that behind your mask, you aren’t so perfect. Heather is herself, and I like her better that way!”
Jennifer turned red, then pale, then muttered, “Fine, j-just go away.” She seemed ashamed.
Serves her right.
Right then and there, Heather, who at been stand silently, turned and hugged me. I would have been embarrassed a few days earlier, but now I didn’t care. All I cared about was that Heather and I were together, without anybody standing between us.