Chapter 1

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Penelope was lounging on the couch when I walked in.

"Hey, Ronny, wassup?" she greeted through a mouthful of popcorn.

On the small, boxy television I could see Snooki and her hair taking up the screen. I told her not to watch that stuff-it's no good for a twelve-year-old.

Dumping my purse, cell and keys on the worn out dining table we had in our kitchen, I made my way over to her, shedding my uncomfortable heels in the process. When I reached the couch, Penelope pulled her feet in, giving me room to sit. I sank gratefully on the lumpy couch and sighed.

"Do you ever wonder why life sucks?" I asked, putting my feet up on the coffee table.

Penelope repositioned herself so she was sitting upright and she passed me the popcorn.

"Thanks," I mumbled, grabbing a handful and stuffing it unceremoniously into my mouth.

"Well," she began, all schoolteacher-like, "to answer your question, life does not suck. You just make it suck if you act like it sucks. Therefore the suckiness you are feeling right now is merely your mind putting you in a sucky state."

I stared at her for a brief moment before chucking a kernel at her. Her serious face crumbled and she smiled from ear-to-ear.

"Quit mocking me with your cheap Confucius mumbo-jumbo," I growled, rolling my eyes. Inside, though, I grinned at her goofiness and the frustration I'd felt at work slowly began to ebb away.

We watched the mindless television for a while, not really paying attention except to comment on the lack of good TV show creators. Sometime later, Gina stumbled in, barely making it into the bathroom before the sounds of dry-heaving ensued. She didn't even acknowledge us.

Before you get the wrong idea, I just have to speak in defense of Gina. She didn't always neglect me and Penelope. In fact, when I was adopted by her and Matt at the age of three, they were the best parents anyone could ask for. Even when Gina gave birth to Penelope, I was as much of their family as she was. Of course, whenever I'm concerned, nothing ever goes right. Seven years later, when I was ten and Penelope was only four, Matt died in a horrific accident.

See, Matt was an archeologist-a successful one at that-and his expeditions often led him to dangerous locations. His last project was in some mountainous region in Norway and he met his end due to an avalanche. They didn't even find his body.

Needless to say, Gina cracked. She started drinking constantly and was almost never home. Sometimes I would have to walk home or catch a ride with a friend because she would forget to pick me up from school. Then when I did get home, I had to take care of Penelope. At the age of ten, I learned to grow up pretty quick. It was a wonder she managed to keep the bills paid.

Anyway, that's Gina's story. Or as much of it that is relevant to my current situation. Sometimes I feel bad for her, but mostly I feel bad for Penelope. She barely knew her father and all the memories of her mother are obscured by childhood incidents of her drunken rages. As far as she knew, I was the adult in this house.

I shuffled closer to Penelope and put my arm around her as Gina left the bathroom and started tinkering around the kitchen. I heard several glasses wobbling around in the cupboard and I hoped she wouldn't break anything again.

"Goddammit!" she yelled, opening cupboards and drawers, "Rhonda, where's the fucking Coke? I need my fucking COKE!"

I didn't turn around. The kitchen area was right behind the living room area and there was no wall separating the two rooms. I didn't want to look at her. I didn't want to see this kind of Gina. Squeezing Penelope tighter to me, I kept my eyes glued on the television and I answered through gritted teeth, trying to remain calm, "In the fridge, Gina, behind the carton of milk."

The shuffling stopped and after the quick opening and closing of the refrigerator door, I heard her heavy footsteps retreating to her room. The door slammed shut without so much as a thank you.

I stayed in the position I was in in, not daring to move for fear that Gina would come storming out of her room again, angry at something else.

Under my arm, Penelope sniffled quietly. I pulled her away to look at her face, but she wouldn't meet my eyes. I saw tear streaks on her cheeks. Wordlessly, I let go of her shoulder and began rubbing her back to sooth her. We were both used to this by now. Gina came home drunk nearly twice a week now, yet it still hurts.

After a few minutes, I glanced at the clock. 9:24. Tomorrow, I had to be up at five 'o clock sharp to get everything set for the day, drop off Penelope at the middle school, and then head over to my own classes at the high school. This June I would be a graduating senior and I couldn't wait to get a full-time job. That way, I could finally make enough to help out me and Penelope. Maybe even Gina.

"Alright kiddo," I said, putting on my most casual voice, "Bed time."

Normally, Penelope would whine a bit, forcing me to drag her to her room. Tonight, she just nodded mutely, shutting off the TV. She went into the single bathroom we all shared then came out, going into her room and muttering a soft-spoken good night.

I was suddenly left in a silent house.

I was too tired and worn to do much of anything, so I went about my nightly routine and then into my room. We lived in the same small condo Gina and Matt had bought when they first got married. It was pretty small with three bedrooms and one bathroom, but I'm happy we managed to keep it. We lived in a more urban area of the suburbs so I could pretty much walk or take the bus to anywhere I needed, but I was also glad I had saved up enough money to buy my own car, no matter how crappy. It would suck to have to borrow Gina's.

I lay on my bed thinking about how our lives had amounted to this. As much as I'd like to believe Penelope's reasoning about how a life's suckiness is merely a state of mind, sometimes I wonder if some people are just born to be happy and others are just there to scrape through life.

Whatever the case may be, I closed my eyes to the thought that as bad as we have it, it really can't get much worse.

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