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    Echo

    “My father is a control freak, I hate my stepmother, my brother is dead and my mother has … well … issues. How do you think I’m doing?”

    That’s how I would have loved to respond to Mrs. Collins’s question, but my father placed too much importance on appearance for me to answer honestly. Instead, I blinked three times and said, “Fine.”

    Mrs. Collins, Eastwick High’s new clinical social worker, acted as if I hadn’t spoken. She shoved a stack of files to the side of her already cluttered desk and flipped through various papers. My new therapist hummed when she found my three-inch-thick file and rewarded herself with a sip of coffee, leaving bright red lipstick on the curve of the mug. The stench of cheap coffee and freshly sharpened pencils hung in the air.

    My father checked his watch from the chair to my right and, on my left, the Wicked Witch of the West shifted impatiently. I was missing first period calculus, my father was missing some very important meeting, and my stepmother from Oz? I’m sure she was missing her brain.

    “Don’t you just love January?” Mrs. Collins asked as she opened my file. “New year, new month, new slate to start over on.” Not even waiting for a reply, she continued, “Do you like the curtains? I made them myself.”

    In one synchronized movement, my father, my stepmother and I turned our attention to the pink polka-dotted curtains hanging on the windows overlooking the student parking lot. The curtains were too Little House on the Prairie with the color scheme of a bad rave for my taste. Not a single one of us answered and our silence created a heavy awkwardness.

    My father’s BlackBerry vibrated. With exaggerated effort, he pulled it out of his pocket and scrolled down the screen. Ashley drummed her fingers over her bloated belly and I read the various handpainted plaques hanging on the wall so I could focus on anything that wasn’t her.

    Failure is your only enemy. The only way up is to never look down. We succeed because we believe. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

    Okay—so that last one didn’t make the wall of sayings, but I would have found it amusing.

    Mrs. Collins reminded me of an overgrown Labrador retriever with her blond hair and much too friendly attitude. “Echo’s ACT and SAT scores are fabulous. You should be very proud of your daughter.” She gave me a sincere smile, exposing all of her teeth.

    Start the timer. My therapy session had officially begun. Close to two years ago, after the incident, Child Protective Services had “strongly encouraged” therapy—and Dad quickly learned that it was better to say yes to anything “strongly encouraged.” I used to go to therapy like normal people, at an office separate from school. Thanks to an influx in funding from the state of Kentucky and an overenthusiastic social worker, I’d become part of this pilot program. Mrs. Collins’s sole job was to deal with a few kids from my high school. Lucky me.

    My father sat up taller in his seat. “Her math scores were low. I want her to retake the tests.”

    “Is there a bathroom nearby?” Ashley interrupted. “The baby loves to sit on my bladder.”

    More like Ashley loved to make everything about her. Mrs. Collins gave her a strained smile and pointed to the door. “Go out to the main hallway and take a right.”

    The way she maneuvered out of her chair, Ashley acted as if she carried a thousand-pound ball of lead instead of a tiny baby. I shook my head in disgust, which only drew my father’s ice-cold stare.

    “Mr. Emerson,” Mrs. Collins continued once Ashley left the room, “Echo’s scores are well above the national average and, according to her file, she’s already applied to the colleges of her choice.”

    “There are some business schools with extended deadlines I’d like her to apply to. Besides, this family does not accept ‘above average.’ My daughter will excel.” My father spoke with the air of a deity. He might as well have added the phrase so let it be written, so let it be done. I propped my elbow on the armrest and hid my face in my hands.

    “I can see that this really bothers you, Mr. Emerson,” Mrs. Collins said in an annoyingly even tone. “But Echo’s English scores are close to perfect….”

    And this was where I tuned them out. My father and the previous guidance counselor had this fight my sophomore year when I took the PSAT. Then again last year when I took the SAT and ACT for the first time. Eventually, the guidance counselor learned my father always won and started giving up after one round.

    My test scores were the least of my concerns. Finding the money to fix Aires’ car was the worry that plagued my brain. Since Aires’ death, my father had remained stubborn on the subject, insisting we should sell it.

    “Echo, are you happy with your scores?” asked Mrs. Collins.

    I peeked at her through the red, curly hair hanging over my face. The last therapist understood the hierarchy of our family and talked to my father, not me. “Excuse me?”

    “Are you happy with your ACT and SAT scores? Do you want to retake the tests?” She folded her hands and placed them on top of my file. “Do you want to apply to more schools?”

    I met my father’s tired gray eyes. Let’s see. Retaking the tests would mean my father hounding me every second to study, which in turn would mean me getting up early on a Saturday, blowing the whole morning frying my brain and then worrying for weeks over the results. As for applying to more schools? I’d rather retake the tests. “Not really.”

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