DISCLAIMER: Characters of Popular are not mine. The title is taken from a Radiohead song, which is not mine either.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This fic is set in season one, and riffs on plot points from "Fall On Your Knees," and "Ex, Lies and Videotape," so those are the spoilers, if anyone still pays any attention to that. I've taken some liberties with the parentals' back stories, but not too many, hope you don't mind. I'm not a lawyer, so any legal stuff in the story is strictly fiction; I have no idea if this could ever happen. Oh yes, one more thing, it's all in Brooke's POV.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Fake Plastic Trees
By Green Quarter


Part 1

Today had just about been the longest day ever, and of course, it was Monday, which only made the day suck that much harder. It seemed like all the teachers got together and decided to inflict mass retribution, all giving obscene amounts of homework just to prove some kind of point. Then Glamazon practice went long because Mary Cherry could not get that herkie to save her life, and we had to do it over and over and over. And to top it all off, there was nothing good in the refrigerator. At least Sam wasn't around to annoy and irritate, as was her wont.

But what's this? Two letters sitting on the kitchen counter delivered registered mail, one addressed to me, and one to Sam. The return address read from the Law Offices of Medeski, Martin and Wood. The hell? I slid a butter knife between the folds of the vellum envelope and withdrew a single sheet, half expecting the expensive paper to be saturated with perfume; it was too nice in quality to be used merely for business purposes. It wasn't a love letter, however, but a strongly worded censure from the legal counsel of Enterteenment Today and Ms. Jamie Gunn, producer of said TV program.

I turned when I heard the back door open, and watched Sam enter wearily, dropping her bag right in the middle of the kitchen floor where she knew I would be sure to trip over it.

"Hey," she sighed, "what a day."

"Tell me about it," I replied, "and it's about to get worse."

Sam frowned. "Meaning?"

I picked up her envelope and tossed it to her. "Meaning we're going to get sued by Enterteenment Today for breach of contract."

Sam's eyes grew round, and her mouth opened like her doctor had asked her to say "Ahh," only without the sound effect. It would have been funny if the charge weren't so serious. It was an extremely rare event when Sam was at a loss for words. She tore open the envelope and scanned the text of the letter. "Contract? I don't remember signing any contract, do you?"

"Yes," I replied. "In Principal Hall's office, the day we met Jamie." The slick Hollywood producer had whipped out the contracts so fast it wasn't surprising that Sam had forgotten. Sam glanced up at me; I could tell she remembered now. We had both signed without a second thought, and Principal Hall had insisted on making copies for us. I wasn't positive, but thought that mine was probably somewhere in my locker at school. "I don't suppose you kept your copy?"

"I must have," Sam said, already moving to the stairs, her head bent to the letter once again.

I had to smile with satisfaction when I saw her stumble over her book bag, that was usually my job, but she kept walking, barely noticing the obstacle in her path. I cut up an apple and slathered it with some peanut butter, then took it with me as I followed Sam upstairs.

It had been over a month ago that we finished working on the ten-minute segment for Enterteenment Today on the pitfalls of fame in the world of a popular teen, using Josh Ford as our subject, only to destroy all of our hard work and replace the segment with an apology of sorts. We explained in a short, videotaped message that we couldn't in good conscience submit something that went against the wishes of the subject, who was a good friend of ours. It had been one of the few times that Sam and I agreed on the proper course of action, feeling guilty for using Josh purely for selfish purposes. Now it looked like our good intentions were coming back to bite us in the ass, because we really had erased not only the edited segment, but all of the footage Sam and Harrison had shot as well. Prison jumpsuit orange is so not my color. We were fucked.

Sam's door was open, so I entered without knocking and sat on her bed. She was standing over the open drawer of the filing cabinet next to her desk. I ask you: what teenager has a filing cabinet in which to keep all of their "important" papers? She had this really involved filing system for her Zapruder stories and whatever the hell else she kept in there, but for once, her anal-ness had paid off, as she had found and was now poring over the contract we had signed with a look of concentration.

I looked around Sam's room and was struck at how neat everything was. Ever since she had moved in there was never a book or an article of clothing out of place, almost as if she didn't want to give up any personal information by leaving a stuffed animal on the bed or something. Would it kill her to hang up a few posters? She did have a few framed photographs sitting on her dresser, including the one of our newly formed family unit that I had given her for Christmas.

She extended her arm towards me and snapped her fingers, holding out her hand, but didn't look up from her reading.

"What?" I asked, not having a clue what she wanted.

"Apple?" she demanded.

What a snotty brat. But I grudgingly handed her a chunk from my plate, anyway.

After another few minutes of eating and reading, she put down the contract and picked up the letter again, frowning at it like it had ruined her day, which I guess it had. It had certainly put a damper on mine. Then the wrinkles in her forehead became a little less pronounced, and she looked at me.

"Okay," she said, picking up the contract once again, and read aloud. "'All materials produced become the sole property of Enterteenment Today and its parent company, including any and all exposed film shot in support and development of finished segment.' So they have us dead to rights on that one. But," Sam then looked again at the letter and started reading.

"But, what?" I asked impatiently.

"But the letter is only a warning of what they are planning on doing. I think it's a scare tactic."

"Well it worked, I kind of have a little pee running down my leg," I joked. "So what do they really want?"

"I think they just want their segment," Sam directed her gaze at me.

"You mean do it over?" I wailed. "We can't do that to Josh, Sam," I shook my head. "No. I won't do that to him." I was surprised at her. She was just going to cave in to the man like that? So much for her championing the cause of the underdog and all that.

"The contract doesn't specify what the subject has to be," Sam explained, sitting down next to me. "We just have to do another segment, it doesn't matter what the story is." She pointed to the letter. "They're not filing the suit until the end of the month, so if we can get it done by then, we can avoid this whole mess. I think they just want what they are legally entitled to, they don't want to take us to court any more than we want to be taken."

"Oh," I said. It made sense. But what a pain. I wished I had never met Jamie Gunn. It was my own fault for being swept up in my own stupid dreams of being Holly Hunter in Broadcast News. Or was it William Hurt? Whatever. "Sam, the end of the month is only ten days away, we'll never get it done in time."

"We're going to have to, unless you want to become a number on a shirt pocket, smoking cigars and slinging hash in a women's prison," Sam replied pragmatically, folding the letter and getting up again, beginning to pace. "Why don't we do the teen runaways idea I originally pitched? Or maybe we could do something on the homeless in general," she brainstormed, head down as she wore a path in the carpet.

"What is it with you and teen runaways?" I asked. "God, Sam, if we only have ten days, we have to keep this simple."

"Well, what do you suggest we do, Katie Couric?" Sam asked, exasperated.

"I don't know, but not something where we're going to have to do a lot of legwork to line up a bunch of interviews, there's no time for that," I returned, reasonably.

Sam stopped pacing and looked at me. "You're right. I have to scale down."

Hello? I'm a part of this too, dumbass.

"How about something with Carmen becoming a cheerleader? Or maybe we could profile Lily and one of her causes," Sam started pacing again.

"No way, Sam," I shook my head. "How is that any different than invading Josh's privacy?"

"Arghh! How come you always have to be right all the time?" Sam exclaimed, raising her fists to her temples, acting about as dramatically as possible.

"Just trying to be the voice of reason," I said, trying to hide my amusement.

I had to admit that there were moments during that project when Sam and I really clicked. It was like we were on the same wavelength and could finish each other's thoughts or something. I mean, yeah, she is a total pain most of the time, but it really felt good when she complimented me on my interviewing style, or asked me for my input on different shots or whatever. Then the project was over, and not long after that, Emory Dick's trial had put us back on opposing sides. Two steps forward, two steps back. Not that it mattered to me whether or not we got along. I had enough friends and a life of my own to worry about without adding high-maintenance McPherson to the roster.

"If we can't do something about people we don't know, and we can't do something about people we do know, where does that leave us?" Sam faced me, hands on hips.

I didn't know, isn't she the one that's supposed to have all the ideas? I was about to shrug my shoulders and leave the room, and tell her to get back to me whenever she thought of something, when an idea, fully formed, popped into my head. "We should do the story about us."

"Huh?" Sam was frowning again.

"We should do a story about how second marriages and high divorce statistics and other factors impact the life of the modern teen." I thought the idea was a good one, and ways to augment it came tumbling out of my mouth before I could censor them. "We could do the segment in three parts: an interview of you, an interview of me, and one with Dad and Jane." I looked at Sam and tried to gauge her reaction, I could never tell if she was going to love something or hate it.

She peered at me with those beady brown eyes for a few moments. "A journalist shouldn't be a part of the story," she finally objected.

"Sam, desperate times call for desperate measures. It's simple, it's easy, and it's doable in ten days," I said with finality. "Unless you want to study for the SAT's in the prison library," I added.

Sam eyed me speculatively, and seemed to have become convinced. She had a habit of staring while she was deep in thought, and at this particular moment, her eyes were boring into me as the wheels turned in that pea-brain of hers, and it was kind of disconcerting. I tried to stare her down, but she wasn't even seeing me, so I just sat there, fidgeting with my now empty plate, waiting for her to snap out of it.

"Okay," she finally said. "I'll start doing some research about the effects of broken homes and remarriage on adolescents. First thing tomorrow I'll book the equipment we'll need and some time in the editing room. What are you going to do?"

"The six hours of homework I was assigned?" I said, more snippily than necessary.

"I have homework, too, Brooke, you have to help." Sam crossed her arms.

"All right," I relented. "I'll start drafting questions for your interview and the one with the parentals, but how can I interview myself?"

"I'll do that," Sam replied. "But let's get one thing clear. You can't be pulling any of your high maintenance shenanigans, okay? We just don't have time for you to take five hours deciding what shirt you want to wear."

I was so offended. Was she actually calling me high maintenance? When she was the one who held everybody up deciding on the exact right wording for the introduction of our original segment, like it was going to the Sundance Film Festival or something. "Whatever, Sam. You just do your part and I'll do mine, and we can try to get through this without killing each other."

"Actually, that would make an even better story," she smirked at me. "Salacious scandal as scrapping soon-to-be-stepsisters snuff selves in sanguinary and sordid but ultimately silly scuffle," Sam announced in her best Ripped from the Headlines voice. "How'd you like that alliteration?" She raised her eyebrows.

What a goofball. This was going to try my patience to the utmost, I could tell. "Sam, do you deliberately wait until I have only one nerve left and then take malicious glee in stomping all over it?"

"It's just a natural talent, I guess," Sam was still grinning, which for some reason annoyed the shit out of me.

"I'm leaving before you make me have to hurt you," I said, collecting my plate, turning away from her irrepressible cheeriness. What does she have to be so happy about? She and I have just added about fifty hours of work to the next ten days, and she looked almost jovial at the prospect.


"Fine." I got up and left, closing the door behind me with a force that was closer to a slam than a click.

The cursor blinked away, mocking me with its expectant blinkyness, while I sat, utterly uninspired, in front of a blank Word document. I had already changed the font to Times New Roman, which I thought was appropriately hard hitting and news-like, hoping it would spur some kind of thought process, and I could get these interview questions done, but I had nothing. Nada. After getting Trig, English, French and Biology out of the way, there were very few synapses firing for the Enterteenment Today project.

Now, I usually didn't spend much time thinking about Sam, my nemesis-cum-housemate, unless she had done something to piss me off, which was admittedly a frequent occurrence, and then I would only dwell on the many and varied ways I could return the favor and make her life a living hell. But this project was forcing me to think of her in a different way, to see her not just as the bane of my existence, but objectively, as a girl who had lost the only family she had ever known and who was compelled to find a place for herself in a situation she hadn't chosen. Taking our personal history out of the picture and looking at her as the victim of her mother's decisions made her appear very sympathetic indeed, and I didn't really like it. It made it harder to dislike her if I was identifying with her plight. Which, of course, I would have to, since, there we were, sitting in the same boat. But the fact that I, too, was a casualty of my father's whims didn't really seem to factor in so much.

I could admit to myself that, despite all my protestations in the beginning, having Jane and Sam around had made the house a much livelier and happier place to be. After years of just my father and me rattling around in this big old place, which, let's face it, sometimes felt like mausoleum, I enjoyed Jane's maternal presence in the kitchen, and even, god forbid I mention it, the comforting sound of intermittent bursts of rapid fire keyboard action coming from Sam's room. Like now, she was probably busy typing up a production schedule or getting her own interview questions done, or maybe she was just drafting her Academy Award acceptance speech for best documentary – short subject.

There was something about Sam, she had a single-minded ruthlessness for getting things accomplished, and she never procrastinated. It was so annoying. It was kind of ironic that I was the one who consistently got the better grades, because I seldom did more than what was required to just slide by, while Sam attacked each assignment like it was her bid for the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe there was something to all her bitter accusations that popularity had an effect on how teachers viewed someone.

Wait. What am I doing? Am I actually finding validity in one of her weak, syllogistic arguments? Only someone like Sam could make a fallacious deductive leap like "Brooke gets good grades, Brooke is popular, therefore all popular people get good grades unfairly." I've definitely spent too much time at the computer tonight; the glare from the monitor must be affecting my brain, or something.

I leaned back on the two rear legs of my desk chair and thought of the way Sam and I had interacted since we had become aware of each other's existence at the beginning of the school year. I had only known her for about six months, which seemed incredible because it felt like she had been making my life miserable for eons. At least our encounters had taken on the satisfying predictability of a mathematical equation. If someone like Pythagoras was to write a theorem based on Sam's and my arguments, it would go something like this:

Sam(x) + Brooke(y) / Brooke(x) + Sam(y) = n.

Where x = bitchy remarks concerning intellect, friends, social standing

y = insults about hair, face, body image, etc.

n = someone leaving in tears and/or frustration

Usually there were an equal number of x's and y's and all those disparaging comments just ended up canceling each other out. Rarely did either of us gain an advantage in these sometimes-epic battles of the barbed tongue, it had been weeks since any tears had been shed due to creative invective or spiteful verbal abuse.

Which is why, I suddenly realized, Sam was changing things around on me. I brought all four legs of my chair back to the floor with a thump. It was true that things had been relatively tranquil for the past little while, and I couldn't remember when it started. It had to be the calm before the storm. Sam was gearing up for something new and different, and it was sure to make me look like an ass. Maybe she was trying to lull me into a false sense of security before striking in some new and dastardly way, but then maybe she was just getting tired of the repetitive nature of our arguments, as I was, and didn't want to participate anymore. Whatever she was up to, I had to stay vigilant; it would not do to be caught unawares with an adversary as formidable as Sam.

I had to be really tired if I was using Algebra to deconstruct my relationship with Sam. I was never very good at Algebra anyway. I shut down my computer, the interview questions would have to wait until tomorrow, anything I did now would just be crap, anyway.

I looked up from my fruit salad to see Sam approaching my table, carrying her lunch tray precariously in one hand. Dear god, she didn't think she was entitled to sit with me just because we were working on a project together, did she? She ignored the other occupants of my table and stood before me.

"Brooke, can I talk to you for a second?"

"What is it, Sam?" I replied, shortly. Mary Cherry and Nic were looking disdainfully at Sam as if she was a piece of crud that had landed on their Miu Miu slingbacks, but she hadn't even noticed.

"In private?"

Sam looked pained at needing to ask for privacy, and I was intrigued. I got up and steered her by the elbow away from the table, noticing that her posse of neo maxi zoom dweebies across the cafeteria were rapt with attention. I guess it did warrant a mention on the nightly news if Sam was making an overture towards the enemy.

When we were a sufficient distance away from the prying ears, but not eyes, of my tablemates, I turned to her, "What?"

Sam put her tray down at the empty table next to us and looked at me. "About the TV segment thing, it occurred to me last night, as I was making up some interview questions, that this is some really personal information we'll be discussing, that has a possibility, however small, of ending up on national television. Stuff about your mom, and everything," Sam looked down, trying to hide her embarrassment. "I just wanted to make sure you still wanted to do this."

She was so sweet. How thoughtful. "I appreciate that, Sam, but what choice do we really have? Besides, it's not going to be a picnic for you, either, with your father. Are you comfortable with that?" I knew Sam's father was a touchy subject, but nothing else. She didn't talk about him, well, not to me, at least.

"I'll be fine," Sam nodded briskly, moving to pick up her tray. "So, I was able to get the camera and the DAT, and I thought we could get my interview over with today, after school, and then… What?"

Sam had obviously seen my guilty expression. "I didn't have time to do your questions, yet," I confessed, it sounded lame even to my own ears.

Sam dropped her tray back to the table with a thud. "God, Brooke, I only asked you to do one simple thing and you couldn't even do that. If we can't get this done, need I remind you that it's both of us who will be receiving visitors through bullet-proof glass, not just you," she huffed.

Forget what I said, she's not sweet. She's a sanctimonious pain in the keister. "Well, excuse me if I needed a few hours of sleep last night, and can't fuel myself with smug self-righteousness like some people I know," I glared at her. "What's the big deal? If your questions are done, you can do me today, and I'll do you tomorrow." Wait, that didn't sound right.

"Whatever," Sam muttered, obviously swallowing the retort that had been on the tip of her tongue. "Okay, but we'll have to do it right after school, I have an editorial meeting at four."

"I can't," I told her, "I have practice right after school." Like I do every day, Sam, duh.

"Can't you miss it just this once, Brooke? It's not like civilization as we know it will begin to crumble if you can't practice a basket toss for one day," she snarked.

"Why can't you miss your meeting? I know cheerleading can't compare to getting your lousy little rag out to all ten enquiring minds that want to know," I replied, equally sarcastically, "but I'm sure they can carry on without their fearless leader for one day."

"I can't miss my meeting." Sam's nostrils flared in anger, but she didn't say anything else.

"Well I can't miss practice," I folded my arms across my chest. We were at an impasse.

"Whatever," Sam said, again.

"Whatever," I mimicked, childishly.

"Okay, I get it," Sam bit out.

"Good," I returned, petulantly. God, why were we such babies?

"Then I guess we're not doing this today," Sam sighed, resignedly. "I'll cancel the gear." She turned to go back to her side of the cafeteria.

"Wait, can't we do it at, like, five, or something?" For some strange reason, I suddenly hated the thought of Sam disappointed in me. "And I have a free period this afternoon, I could work on the questions then, if you want." It was the closest I could come to an apology.

I could see the wheels start turning again. "Five isn't too late if we do it outside, we could use the natural light," Sam said, half to herself. "Why don't I meet you out on the field when I'm done, we can do it on the bleachers."

Again, something didn't sound quite right about that last statement.

"You can keep your practice uniform on," she continued, getting excited, "it'll be great for the interview, like characterization shorthand. Even the most popular cheerleader isn't immune from the effects of divorce." Sam said it like she was reciting a voiceover for the segment.

"But I'll be all hot and sweaty," I objected. If there was even the remotest possibility of this being on TV, I was not going to be perspiring when it happened.

"Hot and sweaty is a good look for you," Sam dismissed, casually.

"What?" I gaped at Sam, just what in the hell did she mean by that?

"I'm kidding, Brooke," Sam deadpanned, "Sheesh, can't you take a joke?" She picked up her now ice cold hot lunch. "Do whatever you want, see you later," she turned and walked away, leaving me to stare at her retreating back as she did so.


Part 2

Sam showed up just as we were getting ready to rehearse the new number we would be unveiling at the next game. I was confused for a second, it wasn't even half past three yet, what was she doing here? She stood leaning against the chain link fence that separated the bleachers from the track and the playing field, with her chin resting on her folded arms. Harrison had helped lug the camera equipment, but hadn't stuck around.

After I noticed she was there, it became increasingly difficult for me to concentrate on the choreography of the new steps, which was frustrating, since I had made them up. It was really unnerving to have her watching my every move, glowering at me like she was Simon Cowell, about to deliver a scathing tirade about my performance. It wasn't until I flubbed that tricky move at the second verse for the third time that I decided to do something about it.

"Sam, what are you doing here? I thought we agreed on five o'clock." I belligerently asked as I approached her, peeved at having to give the squad a break. It wasn't until I got closer that I noticed that she did not, in fact, have the scowl on her face that I thought she had.

"Hey," she smiled in greeting. "I like that little thing you guys are doing, it looks great." Sam shuffled her feet and flapped her arms a little, trying to emulate one of the steps in the routine.

I could only stare at her. Was this the same girl who took potshots at cheerleaders every chance she got? This had to be some new elaborate way to make fun of me, and the punch line was moments away. I needed to nip this shit in the bud right now.

"Yeah? You'd better stick to more cerebral pursuits, Sam, because you dance about as gracefully as a hippo on muscle relaxants," I snapped. "Now, I repeat, what are you doing here?"

Sam's expression sobered, she seemed stung at my harsh words, and I felt bad. For a second.

"You don't own the whole damn world, Brooke. I have every right to be here, watching a bunch of clueless klutzes do their lame-ass, Hammer-time dance moves. Even a routine by Sparky Polastri would be an improvement for you losers." Sam stared defiantly at me, her earlier smile long gone.

I drew in a breath. Invoking a reference to the seminal modern classic, Bring It On, was one thing, but attacking my skill as a choreographer was hitting way below the belt. Before I could form an appropriately cutting rejoinder, Sam was speaking again.

"Look, I'm only here because my meeting got cancelled," she explained in a calmer tone. "Our advisor had to have an emergency root canal. I thought we could get this interview thing going after your practice."

"Oh." That was Sam, instantly reorganizing her priorities and on to the next thing. I should have known. "You're going to wait around until I'm done?" I thought about moving on to practicing our lifts and stunts, it would be more impressive. Wait, who am I trying to impress?

"Yeah, but first I'm going to shoot some footage of you practicing, it'll be good atmosphere for the segment," Sam commented, bending down and opening the camera case.

"Right." Impressive for the segment, that was what I meant. Everybody loved to watch cheerleaders being thrown around in the air. I went back to the squad and quickly organized them into groups and had them start practicing Cradle Catches. I snuck a look over to where Sam was setting up the tripod and wondered if I should designate myself the flier this time instead of being part of the base, as I usually was.

"What the hell is Spam doing here, B?" Nic asked, ever suspicious of Sam's motives.

"We have to do a project for Enterteenment Today, she's shooting some footage of us practicing," I replied, looking over at Sam once again. She had her eye behind the viewfinder and was slowly panning across the field.

Nic immediately struck a pose, and ran her hand through her hair. "I thought you already did that," she said distractedly, looking towards the camera.

"It's a long story," I sighed, not wanting to get into it. "Come on, let's get back to work."

"Isn't Harrison going to help with the filming?" I asked, a little while later, sitting about halfway up the bleachers and trying to blink the sun's glare out of my eyes.

"No, he's going to the driving range," Sam said, absently, fiddling with the microphone. "I'm going to set this up right outside the shot, just keep your eye on it, okay?" She looked quickly up at me, before moving behind the camera. "There's hardly any breeze today, so the sound quality should be pretty good."

When practice had ended, Sam had given me fifteen minutes to go back to the locker room and clean myself up. I did my best, but I took a little longer than that. When I rushed back out to the bleachers, Sam was grinning, saying that she knew if she budgeted fifteen minutes, I would be back in half an hour. Pretty sneaky, sis. She was so pleased with her own cleverness that I gave her a pass and neglected to be mad at her. Didn't want any frown lines when I would be on camera, either.

"Okay, so, camera one closes in, an ordinary high school in Anytown, USA," Sam started setting the scene, getting all caught up in her cliché-ridden, TV journalistic fantasy.

"Sam," I interrupted tiredly, "we only have one camera. Let's just get on with it."

"Right," Sam said, abashed. She squatted in front of the tripod, just below the camera, so that I could talk to her and have it look like I was looking into the lens. And she started asking her questions, starting with basic, general stuff, like how old was I when my mother left, what was my relationship with my father like, that sort of thing. She was a good interviewer, using her questions as a guide, but straying from the script when she thought something would be good for the story. Soon her questions started reflecting recent history, and she had me describe the events leading up to our parents' decision to cohabit.

"How did it make you feel when your dad told you he was bringing his girlfriend home to live with you?" Sam asked.

"Well, I was pretty resentful at first," I responded. God, could this be any more awkward? "But it's really not so bad having Jane around. The meals have certainly improved since she moved in. And it's not like she's trying to take my mother's place, although she's actually a pretty good mother in her own right."

"She's a mother?" Sam prompted.

"Yes," I said, understanding that Sam was playing the part of the disinterested, impartial reporter, and was simply trying to get the entire story for the viewer, but I couldn't help feeling slightly irritated despite that fact. "She has a daughter my age."

"And does she live with you, as well?"

"Yes," I gritted out.

"How is that working out?"

"Fine." I said with a warning edge, but Sam didn't, or chose not to, pick up on it.

"Do you get along?"

"Sometimes," I replied tersely.

"What is your opinion of your father's girlfriend's daughter?"

"Cut!" I sang out, loudly.

"You can't say cut, I'm the only one that can say cut." Sam was indignant. "When it's your turn, then you can say cut, but this is my interview." She was pissed, and I realized that all the momentum she had been building was lost. "What's wrong with you? What was the matter with that question?"

"I don't think people will be interested in what we think of each other. It should be more about what we think of our parents," I said, defensively.

Sam looked at me like I had lost the plot. "Brooke, the name of the show is EnterTEENment Today. That means that TEENS will be watching it. Do you seriously think they'll want to know anything about our parents? There are a lot of kids out there in our situation, and I think what they are most interested in seeing is how we are dealing with suddenly having to live with someone who we see on a daily basis at school, but who is completely outside our social circle, not a friend, and definitely not a family member." Sam stated her case quite convincingly. "And may I remind you that this was your idea in the first place," she finished exasperatedly.

She was right, of course. I didn't know what was bothering me about this line of questioning.

"Look, if it makes you feel uncomfortable to say what you really feel about me," she continued, in a more conciliatory tone, "just pretend that I'm somebody else, like Nic, or someone. Don't feel bad for telling the truth, I know we don't really like each other. Don't worry, I'm tough, I can take it." She smiled encouragingly, not fazed in the least at the prospect of having her character maligned by me. "The story is more important than my feelings."

I frowned, finally comprehending what it was that bothered me. If I were to tell the god's honest truth, the answer to that question would be that I liked Sam. Somewhere along the way I had developed a fondness for this irritating, frustrating, irksome girl, but she didn't like me, and probably never would. I finally had verbal confirmation on something that was obvious to even the most casual observer. Sam didn't like me. To actually hear her say it hurt more than I expected, but there was no way she was going to see how her words had affected me. The camera was still rolling, and Sam was looking at me expectantly.

"Okay, let's finish this," I said, steeling myself for her questions, but not knowing how I would respond.

"Good. Now then, what is your opinion of your soon-to-be stepsister?" Sam looked down at her notes, drawing a line through something.

I shrugged, a grimace on my face. "She's all right, I guess," I said weakly.

Sam looked up at me. "Could you elaborate on that a little bit, please?"

"I don't think I know her well enough to say, really. We go to the same school but we're not really friends," I faltered here, not knowing how to continue. "She seems like she would be a nice person, if I took the time to get to know her better?" I was making a statement but it sounded like I was asking a question, like some idiot who wasn't in their right mind. Could I be any more vague?

Sam rolled her eyes, but seemed satisfied, nodding, and moved on to other things.

Later, when I was helping her bring back the camera equipment, she commented, "Boy, this was your chance to really let me have it, to get everything off your chest for the world to hear, but you were pretty diplomatic. I thought you would start enumerating your grievances in alphabetical order," Sam grinned at me and laughed, finding the whole thing funny.

I chuckled weakly in response, standing beside her as she opened the door to the TV production classroom.

She took the DAT recorder from me and said, "Thanks for your help, Brooke. I think we got some good stuff today, I'll see you later."

"Do you need a ride?" I asked, masochistically not wanting to leave her.

"No, I have my car," she replied, withdrawing the videocassette from her bag. "I'm going to stick around and start a transcript of this."

"Do you want me to help?"

"No, it's okay," she assured me. "I know you must be worn out from hoisting Nicole into the air about a hundred times. I finally believe you, cheerleading is hard work," she smiled.

I should have just taken it as a compliment and felt gratified that she was finally giving me some credit, but it still sounded condescending.

"It IS hard work, Sam," I said vehemently. "If you actually had enough of a life to come to any of the games you would know that, nerd-girl."

"Nerd-girl?" Sam repeated, amused. "You lash me with your words."

God! It was impossible to get a rise out of her. Anything I said was just bouncing off of her, like it didn't even matter. "Well I'm sick of you judging me all the time," I shouted. "So I'm a cheerleader, big deal! Get off me, all right?"

Sam's eyebrows drew together in surprise. "No need to go all super-veiny-hockey-dad on me, Brooke. In case you forgot what the definition was, I was paying you a compliment. It's supposed to be a good thing." Sam looked at me, shaking her head in wonderment. "What got into your granola this morning?"

"Whatever, Sam," I mumbled. I was completely in the wrong, yet I still couldn't apologize. "I'll see you at home." I started walking down the hall, suddenly feeling very depressed.

"Later, Brooke," Sam replied, I could hear the bewilderment in her voice as I walked away.

I had gone to the one place that could soothe and calm me down after a rough day like the one I had just had, the Beverly Center. I had been intent on some hardcore retail therapy but instead of using the valet as I normally would, I entered the self-parking garage and drove up all the way to the top, slowly spiraling upward through the structure until I reached daylight again. The top level was deserted, so I gunned it diagonally across the white lines marking the spaces and parked haphazardly in the far corner.

I got out of the car and walked to the edge of the building, leaning my elbows on the concrete wall and gazed out to the western sky, I thought it was. Yes, must be west, because although the sun was hidden from view, the low-lying clouds in that direction were an amazing combination of orange, pink and purple. Sometimes the L.A. sky could look like Gauguin painted it, despite the smog.

So was I going to actually think about things, or was I just going to sit here and contemplate the effects of air pollution on Southern California weather patterns?

Sam didn't like me. It had been easy to not care about that fact when I was actively disliking her as well, but her announcing her contempt for me was the very thing to make me realize that I didn't really dislike her, and hadn't for some time. Which was kind of crazy, considering I had probably said something similar, that I didn't like her, to her face at some point during the time I had known her. What were the words she had used? 'I know we really don't like each other.' It was deceptively mild. The sentence put the blame squarely where it belonged, on the both of us. It wasn't accusatory, or one-sided, it was a simple statement of fact, from her point of view. She was admitting her loathing but also acknowledging her awareness of how she thought I felt. And on any given day, she would be correct in assuming that I thought her to be the thorn firmly lodged in my side. She had a way of getting under my skin like no one else. So what had changed, exactly? Why was I skulking about the parking garage like Sydney Bristow waiting to intercept the latest Rambaldi artifact instead of perusing the new arrivals in DKNY?

Everyone liked me. Why didn't Sam? I wanted her to like me. I'm a likeable person, dammit. At the risk of sounding incredibly conceited, I could honestly say that I was well liked among our classmates. I didn't go around trying to actively alienate people like Nicole, or freaking them out like Mary Cherry, and for some reason I had a knack for getting along with people. I could make anyone like me if I really dedicated myself to the task. Hadn't I won over the chess club after the whole Homecoming debacle? I couldn't bear the thought of knowing that a person existed who didn't like me, even if it was Sam, who was so recently a persona non grata to me.

I could win her over, too, I decided. I could make her be my friend, couldn't I? A part of me wasn't so sure. The things that impressed most people about me, the popularity, the status, the way being acquainted with me increased the value of their own stock in the free market economy that was teenage social standing, held no sway with Sam. If anything, they were a handicap working against me where she was concerned, being that she viewed my blue chip popularity with all the distrust and distaste that a sixties radical held for capitalism. She was smart enough to know that all of those things were illusory and meaningless in the long run, so, in essence, I had no real currency with which to barter for friendship. All I had was me.

All I could do is try. I was sure Sam was content in her complacent animosity towards me, but she was about to become the target of a full-scale covert operation. She would never know what had hit her. I wasn't going to stop and think too hard about my motives, it was enough that there was someone out there who remained immune to the McQueen charm, but she was going to succumb. I was going to see to that.

"Sam?" I knocked on her door and called out to her.


"Can I come in?"

I heard movement from behind the door, and then it opened and Sam was standing in front of me, an expectant look on her face.

"What's up?" I asked. Was this the charm for which I thought myself so famous? Come on.

Sam looked momentarily disconcerted. "Nothing. Homework." She gestured to her bed, where nearly every subject was represented by an open textbook. She left the door open and went back to the bed, where she threw herself down on her stomach, her feet up by the headboard, and picked up a pencil, lightly tapping it against her notebook with a vague sense of impatience.

I slouched against the doorframe, not having been invited in, and tried to think of something devastatingly witty to say. But she spoke before my brain could supply the words.

"New shirt?"

"Yeah." Donna Karan always knew exactly what I liked. I had just tried it on, and the price tag was making the back of my neck itch.

"It's nice," Sam complimented.

"Thanks," I smiled. "You think I should keep it?"

Sam nodded politely, then waved me in. "Why don't you come in and sit down, I think the door frame will stay up by itself."

"Thanks," I said again. I crossed the room and swiveled her desk chair around to face her, sitting down a few feet away from the bed.

"The stuff I filmed at your practice today came out great," Sam began, conversationally. "And the sound of the interview is perfect. I was kind of worried about that."

"Good. I'm glad," I said, relieved that one of us wasn't suffering from the loss of language ability. What the hell was the matter with me?

Sam was looking at me kind of funny. Like she couldn't figure out what I wanted. I'd better just get on with it.

"Sam, remember those tickets you gave me for Christmas? The Radiohead concert?" I asked. "The show is tomorrow."

Sam looked over at the calendar on the wall by her desk. "So it is. You're going to have a great time. They put on a great show."

"Do you want to go? With me?" I watched her closely to see what her reaction would be.

"Oh, Brooke," Sam demurred, shaking her head. "I didn't give you those tickets so that you would have to invite me. That would have been so lame. Take someone you know you'll have fun with, someone who likes the band."

"Well, that's just it," I sighed. "I've liked them ever since Pablo Honey, but Nic is all about Madonna, and Mary Cherry has that weird Ru Paul fixation, so, as much as I love them, I don't think either of them would enjoy it. I was going to ask Josh, because I know he likes Radiohead, but I think I would just be sending the wrong message if I asked him at this point. So, really, you would be doing me a favor if you came with me. Plus, I know you would have fun, because you like the music. You would just have to suffer my company for the evening," I finished humbly, thinking I had sounded like a blithering idiot with diarrhea of the mouth. I did think that making it sound like she would be doing me a favor was a good tactic, though.

But Sam looked undecided, and the silence stretched out between us. Here I was, asking her out, and she was making me sweat. Well, to hell with her, I certainly was not going to beg. God. A simple yes or no would have sufficed. Hold on. I was NOT asking her out. I just wanted to know if she would accompany me to the concert, as step one in my plan to get her to like me. Currying favor with concert tickets was an age-old tradition. It was NOT a date. But it didn't matter anyway because she was going to turn me down, I could see it on her face. Maybe if I get up and leave the room right now we could act as if this had never happened. This had been an excruciatingly bad idea. I stood up.

"You know, I forgot about that concert." Sam said, casually. "I set up our interview with Mom and Mike for tomorrow night, but if we have the show we obviously won't be able to do it. I'll go ask if we could switch it to the afternoon, maybe."

Sam rolled off the bed and left the room, I heard her calling out to her mother as she bounded down the stairs.

I guess that means she's going with me. I stood there in her room, wondering if I should wait for her to come back. But Donna Karan's tortuous price tag needed attention, so I returned to my room and surveyed the merchandise I had so recently acquired laid out on my bed. I took off the new shirt and flung it down, reaching for the Marc Jacobs sweater that had been an impulse buy, a very expensive impulse.

Just then Sam opened the door and barged in. "Brooke, my mom said…"

I turned to see her, hand on the doorknob, looking gobsmacked, as she gazed at me in all of my half-dressed glory.

"Jesus, Sam! Knock, much?" Surprised by the intrusion, I clutched the sweater to my chest, good thing I was wearing a bra.

"Oh god, I'm so sorry," Sam looked at the floor and started backing out of the room, closing the door as she went.

Oh please, she's such a prude. I was exposing a lot less skin than the average Victoria's Secret model. "Wait." I commanded. She immediately stopped, half in and half out of the room, but didn't raise her eyes from the ground. I took a moment to put the sweater on before speaking again. "What do you think of this?" I asked, standing before her.

Sam looked up at me, her body wedged between the doorframe and the partially closed door. She appraised my outfit; he eyes raking over my body, lingering over my midsection, and the new garment in question. She took her time before replying, and I felt myself grow warm under her gaze.

"Nice," she commented, coming through the door once again and leaning against it after closing it gently. "Is it cashmere?" she asked, and watched me nod my head. The sweater was a very simple v-neck in a heatherish green color that was a muted cross between hunter and pea. I had to confess that it hugged my body in all the right places, and draped like it was made of silk. I felt positively decadent wearing it. "The color does amazing things to your eyes," Sam continued. "Did you know that your eyes can range from the most brilliant emerald to the color of a dark French roast? But they're usually a tawny, gold-flecked brown, except when you're yelling at me, then they're more in the green family," she smiled ruefully.

I was speechless. Sam barely ever looked at me, how could she know so much about the color of my eyes?

"Definitely a keeper," she finished, then rapidly changed the subject. "So, does an interview with the parentals tomorrow afternoon work for you? Mom said she would try to get your dad to come home early. Then we can go to the concert after that."

"Yeah," I said vaguely, still trying to process the last three minutes.

"Good," Sam smiled again. "I'd love to stay for the whole fashion show, but I have a lot more homework to do." Then she left.

What had just happened? Sam and I had just had a civilized conversation that hadn't erupted in vicious barbs and slammed doors. Quite possibly a first in our convoluted little history. Also, this pleasant behavior? It was throwing me. This was the same girl who said she didn't like me not three hours ago, wasn't it? But Sam did fancy herself a reporter, and observation was her stock in trade. I guess it's only natural that she would notice small details like the color of my eyes. But cluing me in on her observations was something new. What was she up to?

I went to the mirror over my dresser and saw that what she had said was true. The sweater had turned my eyes the color of the Pacific in those moments before a storm hit, when wind and waves had churned the water into a roiling opaque shade of antique jade. Sam was right; it was a keeper.


Part 3

Sam and I had to practically sign our lives away to get permission to take the video equipment home with us. I was learning a bit more about the camera, and Sam had for once relinquished her talon-like grip on controlling things and had let me set up the interview with my dad and Jane however I wanted.

I had moved the sectional sofa against the wall and had placed the camera facing the loveseat, where the 'rents were now sitting, patiently waiting to start. A few bright lights were needed this time, as the room was pretty dim. I was sitting on the couch, going over my notes, while Sam finished setting up the microphone and gave the viewfinder a final check. She appeared satisfied, and started the tape. "Okay, Brooke, we're rolling. Any time you're ready." She sat down on the sofa, a few feet away from me, the tripod set up between us.

I cleared my throat and put on my best Barbara Walters, tear-inducing, sympathetic expression. "I thought we'd start with a little background first. Jane, could you tell us a little about your life before you met my father, I mean, Mike McQueen?"

Jane sat up and leaned forward a little, and Sam instantly hopped to her feet and checked the focus.

"Well," Jane began, "I got married relatively young. Joe McPherson was my high school sweetheart, and the two of us attended the same college. When we graduated we saw no reason to wait, so we eloped. We were young and in love. Joe was an extremely talented writer, and got a job in the newsroom at the Los Angeles Times. I started working for a commercial real estate company in an administrative capacity while I studied for my real estate license. Joe's star at the paper began to rise, and he began to receive some good assignments for someone so young. He was happy and very fulfilled in his work, he would come home and tell me every detail about his day." Jane stopped for a moment and smiled wistfully.

I looked over at Sam, but her face was turned away from me and I couldn't see her expression.

"A few years later I got pregnant with Sam, and although I liked my job and was doing pretty well, Joe was doing well enough at the paper that I didn't have to work after she was born. I was so happy. We were so happy. Sam was our joy, even when she was screaming blue murder at 3AM," Jane grinned. "I honestly believed that I had reached the 'And they lived happily ever after' part of the story. And for many years, we were content in our lives. Joe and I raised Sam, who was happy and healthy, if not a little obstinate and willful at times, but she was beautiful and feisty and smart and I was thrilled at the person she was becoming." I saw Jane look over at Sam, who was looking back at her mother, an embarrassed smile on her face.

"But what happens after 'happily ever after?'" Jane asked rhetorically, sighing sadly. "The fairy tales leave it vague for a reason, I now believe. Joe got sick, and was taken from us so, so quickly as the cancer ravaged his body." Jane paused, and blinked back the tears that threatened to fall. My father placed his hand on Jane's back in silent support.

Once again I looked over at Sam, who didn't appear to be paying attention, she was just looking absentmindedly towards the kitchen. My heart broke to think of her happy family devastated by the whims of fate.

After Jane had regained her composure, she continued. "I went back to work, residential real estate, this time, and Sam and I carried on. Life has a way of forcing you to keep living. I thought that I was done with romantic attachments, and was not looking to replace Joe. Then I went on that cruise that Sam had persuaded me to take, and I met Mike." Jane and my father looked at each other and smiled.

"Sometimes things happen that you're not prepared for, that you could never predict, and I think those are the best moments in life," Jane went on. "If you can leave yourself open to the unexpected, and not close yourself off because the timing's not right, or you can't see yourself in a certain situation, or whatever reason your subconscious can come up with, than you'll be happier." Jane's philosophy was laid out simply, and made every kind of sense. How did she get to be so wise?

I noticed that Sam was now paying fierce attention to her mother. She had leaned forward and was resting her elbows on her knees, and propped her head in her hands, turning her ferociously attentive gaze towards her mother, her brow furrowed in concentration.

"I was so unhappy, and now I'm not," she said, with understatement, reaching for my dad's hand. "Your father and I knew that bringing you girls into this situation was not going to be easy, but we didn't think you would want to begrudge us our happiness. It comes along so infrequently. We thought that you were mature enough that, in time, you could see that we weren't doing it to make your lives miserable. I know it's been hard on both of you, and I think it's great that you can work together on a project like this, maybe it means things are improving," she finished hopefully, looking at me expectantly.

Everything Jane had said was true. I wanted my dad to be happy, how could I not? And there was no question that Jane made him happy.

"Mom, that was awesome, but could you guys answer the questions like you were talking to an impartial interviewer? We don't want them to know we're talking to our own parents," Sam said.

"Oh," Jane looked a little surprised. "Sure, Sam."

I rolled my eyes. I didn't think it really mattered one way or the other, as long as we got the thing submitted in time, but whatever perfectionist Sam wanted.

"Brooke, are you ready with your next question?" Sam prompted me.

I nodded at Sam and turned to my father. "Your turn, Mr. McQueen, could you tell us a little about your previous marriage?" I smiled and hoped he felt comfortable. "Could you answer the same question? What was life like before Jane?"

"Kelly and I met in college," my father began. "We had come from similar backgrounds in that we were both very much the product of our upbringing. I was raised with certain expectations in place from the time I was very young, and had never really thought to question them. After college, I was going to be groomed to eventually take over the family firm, and as such had to acquire the trappings that a pillar of society possessed."

I knew all about my dad's business, and how he had worked really hard after my grandpa died to keep things going, but he was talking about it like it was something he didn't want, which surprised me.

"Kelly's parents raised her to become a society wife, plain and simple." Mike continued, "Even at that time, it was a somewhat old-fashioned way to think, but Kelly loved her parents, and didn't see any reason to disappoint them. My fraternity and her sorority were often thrown together for mixers and parties, and we found each other, two people whose idea of the future seemed to mesh pretty well. We dated all through college, and both our families wholeheartedly approved of the match, so we threw a huge wedding right after graduation, which made the society pages, of course.

"I threw myself into my work, and was able to find satisfaction in that, but Kelly didn't have much to keep her occupied, and soon became dissatisfied with her life. I encouraged her to find an interest and take classes, volunteer, anything that would make her happy. Plus, I had hoped that we would start a family and she would find fulfillment in that. She discovered photography, and had a real gift for it, but it only seemed to be a way to fill the hours to her.

"Then we had Brooke, and things were better for a while," Dad looked at me and smiled.

Even though I knew how this story was going to end, it was still starting to get me upset. And my father had not mentioned the one word that I had been waiting to hear. He continued talking about me and how much joy I had brought to his life and how happy I made him, but I had to know and I interrupted him. "Dad, what about love? Did you and mom love each other?"

He looked at me for a little while before answering, and I felt Jane and Sam's eyes on me as well.

"I think that if your mother and I had been smart enough to ask ourselves what would have made us happiest when we were young, instead of blindly following the expectations of others, we would not have gotten married," my father said gravely, watching me closely. "If there is one thing I want to impart to you, Brooke, it is that you must look inside yourself and do what will make you happy, without thought or consideration to how people will perceive you. None of that matters; please, don't make the same mistake your mother and I made."

My father was basically saying that he and my mother had never really loved each other. And even after he laid out all the reasons why, I was still asking myself why the fuck had they done it. He had an uncomfortable look on his face, like he knew he had said too much. But we had asked them to be honest, and honest he had been. The silence stretched out, and I realized that I needed to ask another question, but the words were not coming, as there was a lump in my throat roughly the size of an SUV. I took a breath and thumbed through my cards, trying to get a hold of myself, when I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I turned to see Sam looking sympathetically at me.

"We don't have to finish this now," she said quietly.

"Yes, we do," I said determinedly, and swiped at my face, although my eyes were dry.

"Honey, you know that your mother and I –" my father interjected.

"It's okay, Dad," I said forcefully, cutting him off. If I had to hear him paying lip service to the fact that they both loved me one more time I thought I would scream. I thrust my notecards towards Sam. "Here. Keep going. I'll be back in a minute."

As I left the room I heard Sam smoothly direct the next question to my father, asking him about some of the logistical problems about combining households, effectively moving the interview away from the emotional minefield it had become. I went outside and sat on the deck, taking in deep lungfuls of the evening air, thinking about my place in the mess that was my parents' fucked up relationship. I supposed that I had been a band-aid to their failing marriage, a way to try and bring them together that had ultimately failed. And there I had been, innocently caught in the middle. I didn't know why it was making me so upset; I had been through all of this before, why did she still have the power to make me so unhappy? But it wasn't just her; it was him, too. I was pissed at them for being too stupid to realize that they never should've gotten together. But then what would have become of me if they hadn't? Would I have just not ever existed? That was a question for the fucking ages.

The way I saw it, I had two choices. I could continue to allow them to have power over me by doing stupid destructive things like starving myself down to the weight of an eight-year-old, or get over it and move on, and acknowledge the fact that their idiot choices don't have anything to do with me. This was all very easy to think about but actually putting it into practice would be another matter entirely. I would just have to keep it in mind. But now I didn't want to think about it anymore.

I returned to the living room to find Sam wrapping it up. She was thanking my dad and Jane for participating, trying to sound like Tom Brokaw or someone equally commanding, but instead sounding for all the world like the reincarnation of Chevy Chase in the news segment of Saturday Night Live. It was actually pretty funny, but I wasn't in the mood to laugh.

As soon as Sam turned off the tape, my dad jumped up and ran over to me, pulling me into a hug.

"I'm sorry, Brooke," he said.

"Don't be silly, daddy," I replied brightly, my voice sounding hard and hollow, "you were just telling the truth, which is exactly what we asked you to do."

"Are you okay?" he asked, looking into my eyes with concern.

"I'm fine." I looked over to where Sam and her mom stood, watching our exchange with matching somber expressions. Jane had her arm around Sam, and it gave me a pain to think of the loving relationship Sam had with her mother.

For reasons I could not fathom, I moved away from my father and pulled Sam by the arm away from her mother. Sam allowed herself to be pulled, a puzzled look on her face. I gripped her tightly around the shoulder, pulling her close as we stood side by side. I just couldn't handle the image of Sam standing so close to her mother; I needed her here next to me. "Jane, Dad, thanks for participating in this interview," I parroted the words Sam had used. "We are going to clean this stuff up and then we're leaving. Sam is going to be my date for the Radiohead concert tonight."

Sam gave me a strange look, but didn't say anything. She probably thought I would dissolve into a puddle of tears if she had objected, which there was no telling, maybe I would have. And I was back to calling it a date, I noted, even though it certainly was anything but that. Since I had come back into the room, it felt like there was a high-pitched hum running through my brain, and I almost asked if anyone else could hear it. I felt off-balance and oddly unsettled, like the way you get when you see the lightning in the distance and are waiting for the sound of thunder to catch up.

That's nice, Brooke, good, I'm glad," my father babbled, still looking anxiously at me.

Sam reached up and pried my fingers from her shoulder with some effort. "We don't have to go if you don't want to," she said.

Was she trying to get out of it? She had better not be. "NO." I said vehemently. "We are going."

I had to get out of this house, and I didn't want to go alone. I went over to the outlet and unplugged the camera and DAT recorder. "Come on, let's get this stuff put away," I said to Sam, wishing we were already gone.

A little while later, Sam and I burst out the front door, finally free for the night. It hadn't taken long to get everything packed up, and then to change into clothes more appropriate for a concert, but Sam had taken about five minutes to my half hour, and had patiently waited in the kitchen for me. When I walked into the kitchen and saw her in her Radiohead t-shirt that she had bought at the previous show she had been to, it was all I could do not to call her the nerd she obviously was. But who was I to judge, I didn't know what to wear either and that was what had taken me so long.

Sam had been chatting with her mom while she waited for me, but got up when she saw me. "Okay, Mom, we're going," she said.

"Wait, do you girls want me to make you a sandwich or something before you go?" Jane asked.

"No, Mom, we're already late," Sam replied, then looked at me. "You ready?"

I nodded and said goodnight to Jane.

"Have fun on your date, girls," Jane said, chuckling at the very idea.

"Not funny, Mom," Sam scowled, and stomped to the front door.

But her scowl was replaced by a look of suspicion when I handed her my keys in the driveway.

"We'll take my car, but you drive, okay?" I headed for the passenger side, while Sam just stood there dumbly.

"You never let me drive your car," she said.

"Well I am tonight, so get in before I change my mind," I replied. "Come on, Sam, you said we were already late."

Sam shrugged and got in. The truth was that I just didn't want to face the traffic on the one ten that we would be sure to encounter on our way downtown. I just wanted to sit in silence and not think about anything, and maybe being occupied at the wheel would keep Sam quiet. And it did, she didn't try to make conversation as we made our way to our destination. I was feeling brittle and breakable, a dozen moods rotating through my brain like scenes from a viewmaster. In quick succession I felt relief at being out of the house, sorrow for my parents loveless marriage, confusion over my father's advice to me, and annoyance with Sam as all my faculties zoomed in to focus on her index finger tapping on the steering wheel. Although it couldn't have been making more than a hushed tap as it struck the leather that encased the wheel, in my mind her finger had taken on the decibel level of a sledgehammer being repeatedly struck against corrugated tin, and I glared at it, willing it to be still.

Sam glanced over at me and noticed my insane staring and desisted. "Sorry," she mumbled. She had obviously picked up on my fragile mental state and had turned off the radio and concentrated on the road as I curled up on the passenger seat and looked out the window. Now that we had slowed down on the congested freeway, the bored people in the surrounding cars had been looking back at me, and had begun to freak me out, so I turned to face Sam and looked at her profile as she navigated the stop and go traffic. It really was nice of her not to demand to be paid attention to, as I would surely be having to do if it were anyone else in the car. I could not see Nic or Mary Cherry picking up on my black mood and willingly allowing me the time to surface from it on my own.

She noticed me studying her and looked over and smiled uncertainly, seemingly trying to gauge where my head was at. I decided to let her know I wouldn't bite her head off if she spoke in my presence. I turned on the radio to hear the latest hip-hop clone act going on about bitches and hos, as usual. Why did LA radio suck so bad, I wondered. I turned it off again and looked in the armrest and glove box for any CD's I might have left around, but didn't find anything that would put me in the mood for Radiohead. I sighed and looked at Sam. "I got nothing. You didn't happen to bring any CD's with you, did you?" At Sam's wordless headshake I said, "Well I guess it's unavoidable, we're going to have to talk to each other."

Sam nodded but didn't say anything.

"So why do you think all the radio stations in Los Angeles suck, Sam?"

"You mean why do they suck besides for the fact that nearly all the stations have been bought out by one massive corporation, that doesn't care about putting anything unique or interesting on the air but is only concerned with making a profit? Or the mindless tools they hire to program and DJ at said commercial stations who would rather keep their cushy job than go against corporate policy and play something other than the five internally mandated sucky songs that are in heavy rotation? Or the way that when you turn your radio on randomly at any given time you are more likely to hear an ad than a song? Or because this is such a large urban market that the stations try to appeal to the lowest common denominator, shoving the blandest, the most by-the-numbers, most monotonous music down our throats in an effort to keep everyone happy, and thus pleasing no one?" Sam either had run out of breath or out of ideas, I guess it didn't matter which.

"Yeah, besides that," I grinned.

"Haven't the faintest idea," Sam smiled back.

And that was all it took. She had done it. Thoughts of my parents had left and I was back in the moment and happy about it. I should have let Sam open her mouth sooner. I chuckled at her goofy response and shook my head. I looked out the window to hide the huge grin that had suddenly come upon my face, having no way to explain my extreme mood swings. Maybe I was going through menopause. Nah, too young. I looked into the car next to me as we were at a standstill and couldn't believe what I saw.

"Sam, look at that guy," I discreetly pointed to the car in the next lane.

Sam leaned forward and looked past me. We both watched as the guy shoved his pinky way up his left nostril, digging for gold.

"Oh my god," Sam breathed. "Does he think he has a force field or something around his lame little Civic that prevents us from seeing his dirty disgusting habits? He must have an itch in his brain he's trying to scratch."

Maybe he left something up there like his house key or a ficus plant or something," I giggled.

"Should we out him?" Sam asked, raising her eyebrow and grinning evilly at me. "Obviously his mother failed him if he's picking his nose practically in public like this. He should have tinted windows if he's going to indulge in socially offensive behavior of this kind."

Sam waited for my input. Sometimes you just got all caught up in your own little world when you were driving, I kind of felt bad for the guy. On the other hand, he was plainly visible to anyone driving on Route 110, Southbound, and it would be totally hilarious. I looked at her and nodded, praying he didn't have a gun.

My window instantly started coming down, Sam's finger had been poised on the control at her side. She started honking and pointing towards the guy, yelling "Nosepicker!!" and other choice pejoratives at him.

But the guy was oblivious, closed up in his car with the radio on. I started yelling too, and waving my arms, but the guy leaned over and changed the radio station or something, pulling his finger from his nose. When he straightened up again he noticed the two of us acting like monkeys at the zoo, but I guess he couldn't make out what we were saying, and he actually smiled and waved, then pulled his car ahead ten feet.

The two of us lost it, cackling like a couple of witches doped up on nitrous oxide.

"How frustrating is that?" Sam asked after she could breathe again. "Foiled in our judgmental attempt to bring basic hygiene and good manners to America's roadways."

"So frustrating," I agreed.

"We're going to hell," Sam commented casually.

"Probably," I responded, not the least bit worried about it.

Inexplicably, our lane started to move, and we passed the guy again, but he wasn't doing anything more offensive than sipping from a Starbucks cup just then. We finally got past the congestion and began to pick up speed, my hair was ruffled in the breeze coming in the open window, and I heard the whooshing sound as we passed the cars in the next lane over that meant we were actually getting somewhere. Sam was about to raise my window again when I told her no, and aimed my face directly into the evening breeze. It felt good against my skin, and although I squinted into the increasing wind, I couldn't stop the tears that escaped from the corners of my eyes, and trickled back horizontally towards my ears. Whether they were tears of sadness, or happiness, or merely wind-induced I couldn't say, but I preferred to designate them tears of contentment. And I almost forgot to remember that the girl beside me didn't like me at all.

Part 4

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