Chapter One: In which Duchess 'dies' so that I may remain a 'good friend'

The king fell easily, taking a knight and two pawns with it. The faux glass chess pieces spun around a few times on the mahogany coffee table before thumping against the wood in a satisfying victory. My mother eyed the pieces as she always did after I beat her at chess; her facial features pinched together in a look of confusion as she pondered where she'd made her mistake in the game.

Playing chess with one's mother on a Saturday morning strayed from the typical teenage plans of hanging with friends, but I had decided last night to take a break from my social life for the day, meaning a day of vegging-out and playing a couple rounds of chess. Not that I possessed much of a social life, considering the one school-friend I had was Valerie. But today, all that was on hold. I didn't have to speak. I didn't have to pretend to be anything. Not that I didn't love pretending, I just needed a break from it every now and again. It felt odd saying that-to me a break from acting seemed equal to taking a break from breathing.

"Checkmate," I announced with a smile, "I win!"

Mother's murky brown eyes, like gum drops above her chubby cheeks, flashed annoyance. Her eyebrows furrowed together and her lips pursed in a thin line. She didn't want me to boast about my victory. Her stern expression only lasted for a moment before she flashed me a warm expression.

"You always do," She admitted as she leaned across the chess board and kissed my forehead.

I crinkled my face in disgust. Maybe when I was a toddler, perhaps even as a ten-year-old, I would have allowed her a consolation kiss when I beat her at my favorite game. But I turned fifteen three days ago and an overly affectionate mother certainly didn't make my list of birthday presents. A new book on Meisner's acting technique did, much to my delight. I'd only read the first chapter, but already I eagerly anticipated applying it to the latest monologue for my acting class.

I decided to let the forehead kiss slide without protest, considering she had decided not to lecture me on my poor sportsmanship. Then again, she never stayed angry at me too long; it just wasn't in her nature. With her plus-sized frame, cheerful disposition, and endless supply of warm smiles, she sort of resembled a Mrs. Claus. Except, of course, instead of making sure the elves were making gifts for all the good little girls and boys, she had to make sure I was behaving and balance her career as a newspaper journalist. Oh, and I always imagined Mrs. Claus as someone who baked cookies. Mother hated baking.

"You are such an odd girl," My mother shook her head as she put away the pieces of my new chess set, another birthday gift.

"I'm not sure what to make of that statement," I said with a raised eyebrow. Before she could expand on the thought, my phone blared out Blow by Kesha.

"You listen to that type of music now?" she asked, her face a mixture of confusion and slight distaste.

"Valerie downloaded it and set it as my ring tone." I explained, repulsed by the meaningless lyrics sounding from my cell phone. Speak of the devil; Valerie was the one who texted me.

U rn't here!

I studied her text once more, trying to interpret it. Here? Where? I remembered suddenly, and guilt churned inside of me as I bit my lower lip. Being late for an important event of Valerie's did nothing for my role as her best friend. I needed to do some damage control before she thought I just blew her off.

My fingers tapped the keys of my cellphone so quickly they almost became a blur.

I'm sorry! Things came up and I couldn't make it on time

I didn't even bother re-reading the text before pressing send and rushing to my bedroom to slip out of my white satin pajamas. Neglecting my usual pickiness with my appearance, I threw on a simple yellow T-shirt and a white Cardigan with intricate lace on the sleeve's cuffs. A sweet flower pattern graced the cardigan's neckline. My acid-washed skinny jeans didn't exactly look professional, but I doubted any of my peers cared. Not that I tried to dress professional all the time for my peers. No, I dressed to impress for my chance at stardom; first impressions meant everything, and what talent scout would give a grungy teenager a second look?

I needed to buy some time to think of an excuse. How could I tell her the art exhibit slipped my mind? More directly, that I simply didn't care? No, telling her I didn't care would destroy my fa├žade as her bestie. For a bestie, she annoyed me quite frequently; she'd been pushing me to go to her art exhibit for the past two months. Every Friday after school we drove to the strip mall located one mile outside of our suburb-the girl required frequent retail therapy. I wouldn't mind this so much-I mean, what better place to study people than a mall?-except she talked the entire time about meaningless things as she raced from store to store, so she wouldn't miss any sales.

Once a month, sometimes more, she insisted on having a sleep over in which she randomly started a pillow fight, or even worse, a game of Truth or Dare. The last time I made the mistake of saying 'truth' I ended up lying and saying Phillip, my father, died in a car accident before I turned five.

I knew attending a friend's important events, shopping, and sleepovers seemed like normal friend things, but I never quite understood the purpose they served. Not only that, these normal 'friend things' put a serious dent in my self-assigned rehearsal schedule.

I still had yet to think of an excuse for Valerie before my ringtone went off yet again. I really needed to change it.

U better have a damn good reason u know how much this means to me!

Her text sent another wave of guilt over me. I told myself not to feel guilty, because it made me feel yucky, as if I actually cared that I was late. If I actually cared-if I actually cared-well, I didn't like the idea. I liked to believe I only had room for one thing in my life: acting. Anything else, including a social life of any sort, simply existed for show and the embellishment of my one passion.

What's more, Valerie didn't even appreciate my craft. She found my tendency to study people during lunch-so I could apply their specific gestures to future acting assignments-creepy. I called it research. She was one to talk anyway; she frequently doodled during lunch, ignoring me completely.

I multi-tasked, slipping on my simple brown snow boots as my fingers searched for the right digits on my phone.

I'll be there, I'm just running late!

Scanning the text briefly for typos, I jammed my thumb down on the send button and dashed for the door.

"Where are you going?" Mother gave me a baffled look as I flew through the living room's entrance. She had curled up into the blue recliner and held the latest romance novel she obsessed over. Reading and my mother equaled acting and me. Besides working as a journalist for the local newspaper, she wanted to become a famous author someday.

She never actually let me read any of her work, so I didn't know how great her writing was, but her newspaper articles held my interest. Once in a while I caught her pulling an all-nighter, sipping hot cocoa or something else equally sweet. She would hover over the keys of our house's only computer, her eyes narrowed as she muttered to herself. Despite the dark rings forming underneath her eyes, her face always glowed with the promise of a new idea I never witnessed come to life.

"I'm off to play the role of 'good friend,'" I announced, my hand on the door knob ready to leave.

"Okay, well-don't forget your coat."

Out of the corner of my eye, I think I saw her shake her head before returning to the pages of make-believe. She learned to stop questioning my odd tendencies long ago, and she knew I always stayed out of trouble-after all, an actress with a bad reputation to start with might find it more difficult trying to launch a successful career.

With a quiet sigh, I grabbed my brown trench coat hanging by the door.

Winter greeted me with a chilling snarl as I stepped outside. The school stood less than two blocks away, but my ears burned from the cold by the time I entered the double doors of Beresford High School. I didn't like Beresford. Our mascot was a Beaver with ridiculously exaggerated buck teeth.

"There you are!" Valerie stormed toward me, her hazel eyes narrowed into tiny slits. I couldn't tell if it was due to anger or the fact that her blonde hair was pulled back into two very tight buns-one on each side of her head, tied off by bright orange bangles with star clasps-but her face matched the color of a tomato. She grabbed my wrist and pulled me towards the art room. Her bright fuchsia lipstick and yellow eyeliner seemed pleasant and cheerful, not at all matching her pixie-like facial features twisted in absolute anger.

"Honestly, what came up that you were so late?"

"Duchess died." I replied off the top of my head, the words leaving my lips before I even gave them permission. Duchess was my pet guinea pig. I'd owned her for about two years now, and she served as a connection to my study of animalistic behaviors that I could incorporate into acting. Although admittedly, I didn't mind cuddling with Duchess for the sheer pleasure of it. More importantly, I knew with confidence she was probably sleeping soundly on the polka-dot bed-pillow thing I made for her.

Valerie stopped in her tracks, her practically golf-sized yellow earrings hitting her pale cheekbones as she faced me with a look of complete sympathy. "Duchess died?"

"I know it seems like a lame excuse, being late because of a guinea pig, but-you know how much I loved Duchess."

Not only that, I knew how much Valerie adored my furry pet. Duchess entertained Valerie for hours by simply nibbling on cut up bits of celery or hopping around the cage excitedly as the furball's high-pitched squeals of delight bounced off the walls of my room.

Valerie's eyes widened and she tugged at her earring, something I'd long since learned indicated her distress. Well, she'd tug her earring or she'd tap her right foot repeatedly-never her left foot, I noticed-but she currently wore five-inch heels that made toe-tapping uncomfortable.

Right, distress-I needed tears for the proper effect. Effortlessly, the thoughts I needed infected my mind. He never called, and even though I knew he wouldn't, I still hoped he would like a stupid idiot. He'd rather pretend to be some person's father in a Hollywood blockbuster than show me any kind of attention, and I wanted that to stop affecting me more than anything. Yes, that was the most damning thing of it all; as much as I hated him, I still wanted to finally receive the role of his daughter. I was his daughter, after all. As if on command, my eyes watered and I could feel the warmth as a tear slid down my cheek.

"I loved Duchess too!" Valerie's lip wobbled. She bought my sob story completely. After a moment of silence, she swallowed hard and nodded, as if she came to a conclusion of something in her head. "You can go, I know that's where you want to be right now."

Admittedly, I considered backing out and telling her the truth before this spiraled out of control. A part of me whispered I had just done something completely insane. But the actress in me took over, and right now this scene, this upset character mourning the loss of her guinea pig, needed completion. "Are you-are you absolutely sure?"

To make the act completely believable, I allowed the false feelings of the situation to leak through my body language. Duchess died; she choked on a carrot. I loved Duchess, loved the way she cooed when I hugged her and stroked her soft fur. On the other hand, my friend wanted only one thing in the world: to become a world-renowned artist, so this exhibit meant a lot her. She truly deserved the high praise she would receive today, but what good was that if I wasn't there to support her?

Oh yes, my face twisted in agony. The tears fell unrestrained, and I sniffled as I wiped my nose with shaking hands. I reduced myself to a blubbering mess.

Valerie swallowed me in a tight hug as her answer. "I'll show you my work later, okay?"

I gave her my best smile, a smile that screamed excitement at the prospect of viewing her art work while remaining tainted with the grief of my 'loss'.

"Avery, we need to talk," Mother announced as I stepped into the foyer of our house. Her tone indicated a lecture, and what's more the book she'd been consumed by earlier laid on the wooden side table, right beside her black-rimmed reading glasses. These facts combined with her tone couldn't mean anything pleasant.

She waved my pink-and-brown-plaid cell phone in her crossed arms. Her lips were pursed, a clear indicator she was ticked off. She also tapped a finger impatiently against her arm. I made a mental note to keep these in store for acting gestures in the future. Meanwhile, I wondered how she had my cell-phone. Had it dropped out of my purse on my way out?

"Care to explain this?" She demanded as she tossed my cellphone toward me without warning.

"Hey!" I yelped, scrambling forward. I practically dove into the living room's cream-white carpet, and barely managed to catch it. I didn't possess the highest level of hand-eye-coordination. The glowing screen declared I had a new text from Valerie.

Again, I am SOOO sorry about Duchess dying It really is tragic.

"So, Duchess died?" She spat angrily, rising from her recliner. "What lie do you plan on telling your friend next? This isn't normal, Avery."

Not normal? Valerie had told me that a few times, that I wasn't normal. Mother just earlier called me 'an odd girl'. Every time they said those things, they were simply teasing, with a light grin playing across their features. Of course, I understood they weren't completely joking around. Only now, no playful smile softened the blow of the words. Not normal.

It didn't matter so much if Valerie said that to me-her opinion of my odd tendencies held little weight in my mind. But for Mother-my mother, the only person I allowed to see every authentic aspect of my true self-to say I was 'not normal'-well, it left a sick, unbalanced feeling in my chest.

She stuck by me through my pursuit of becoming an actress; every step of the way. As my mother it was kind of her job to support me, but really, I knew it hadn't been easy for her to stay sane raising an acting-obsessed child. For a long time my world revolved around that single topic; ever since I first watched the movie my father starred in. As a young girl of five, caught up in the emotions he feigned so expertly, I wanted to do that to. I wanted to make people feel things. I remembered my exact words: "that will be me one day." There had been no child-like naivety to the statement. I would be an actress or die trying.

Mother signed me up for acting classes the next day. The divorce of my celebrity father left her with quite a substantial sum, so she spoiled me. She attended every play I was in, even the lame kindergarten ones I took seriously because, hey, it was kind of my thing. She let me recite monologue after monologue to her and endured all the, "wait, that wasn't right, I needed more emotion! Let me retry it."

Only she knew how devoted to acting I truly was.

"Avery, you've gone too far this time."

I cringed as she choked out the words. Her hands shook with frustration, and I could see the struggle as she fought to keep herself relatively calm.

I hated upsetting Mother more than anything-even more than her 'surprise' tuna casseroles.

"I would have failed as a good friend if I hadn't lied!"

To me this phrase seemed perfectly logical, and I waited for her face of understanding to replace the heart-wrenching anger written across her softly-wrinkled features. I waited for her clenched fists to loosen, and her hunched shoulders to drop. However, She looked more worried than before. Her face crinkled in repulsion and desperation, and her eyes brimmed with tears.

"Avery, I went along with you wanting to be an actress because-I don't know, you were a kid, and you are so talented. Honey, you've always had a knack for this."

Her voice cracked on the next words. "Just like your father. But this is too much. Valerie is a good girl, Avery. She's sweet, and she genuinely cares about you. You can't just use people for your own good, do you understand? No more 'role playing' with your peers just to gain acting experience."

"Look at where it's gotten to me, you said yourself I'm talented!"

"You are, but that isn't the point-"

"Then the point is?"

"Acting has a place, Avery. On stage. During rehearsals. In your room as you run lines, that's all fine. Not with your friends in real life," She cried, stressing each syllable of the last sentence. I could almost see a vein pulsing on her forehead.

"William Shakespeare would beg to differ!" I pointed out, "The world is our stage, right?"

"You're not listening to reason. This has nothing to do with William Shakespeare, and I'm pretty sure he didn't mean it quite so literally."

"I just want to be the best actress I can possibly be, is that so bad?"

Her eyes flared, and I believe I witnessed something inside of her snap.

"If you want to be like your father so much, then fine! I'm done, Avery Milan! Done."

My phone slipped from my suddenly sweaty palms and cracked against the tiles of the front entrance.

"What does that mean?" My voice sounded pathetic as I fought to keep my emotions from spiraling out of control, but fear grabbed a hold of my gut and twisted it. Repeatedly.

I'd never seen my mother so angry before.

"It means-you're spending the rest of your Christmas vacation with your father."

I staggered a bit, and one hand reached for the front door to lean against as I fumbled for words that would calm her down. Unfortunately, I could barely manage to find the words to calm myself down at the moment.

"Isn't that-I mean, isn't that a bit-aren't you overreacting just a bit?" I fought against my sandpaper-dry throat and cracked a bit in the delivery of that sentence, but I succeeded in speaking at least. The words hung in the air and she rubbed her temples in an effort to pull herself together.

"I don't think I am," she concluded, sinking down into the blue comforter. Speechless, I sat down on the flower-printed sofa on the opposite wall. For a few minutes, neither of us spoke, and I could tell the silence weighed heavily upon us both; the spacious room suddenly felt so much smaller. My gaze fell on Mother's elephant collection, each small animal trinket arranged so all their unique features showed. I bought her that one with a beach ball sitting atop its lifted trunk when I went to Florida two years ago. I stayed for a week, and that is the farthest and longest I'd been apart from Mother. My heart raced wildly, fully aware of her seriousness and how close I was to being sent away to Chicago. Chicago, where my father lived when he wasn't somewhere else filming.

"What do you mean, you don't think you are?" I heard myself whisper finally.

She lifted her head from hands and looked to the side as she tried to wipe a tear away without me noticing.

Once she collected herself, she faced me. The wrinkles gracing her face-had they been so deeply etched into her skin before?

"Your dad and I have been talking. A few phone calls now and again. He's sent me a few letters. He-um, well he sent one recently in fact. He wants you to visit."

"What?" A hot rush of anger sped through every nerve. It didn't help I forgot to take off my coat after Mother bombarded me with her nervous break-down, but now I found the room suffocating. A shallow gasp of air entered my pursed lips. The oxygen steadied my dizziness, allowing me to think logically.

"I know, I know honey," she said, seeing my panicked expression. She crossed the room in a few quick strides and knelt in front of me, grabbing my hands and holding them tightly. Mother almost seemed-apologetic as her eyes pleaded for my understanding.

"I was going to just tear the letter up, and-"

"Why didn't you?" I demanded, my nostrils flaring as rage consumed me again. "Why didn't you just rip it to shreds?"

"I-," she started, but the single syllable collapsed in a whisper. I could feel her searching for the right words to explain as she hung her head. She took a deep breath before meeting my gaze again. This time her eyes held a tad more confidence and determination, but she still looked pale-weak.

"I made a bad choice when I divorced your father. He didn't want the divorce."

The way she ended that, I almost felt she didn't finish the sentence. I believe she left a thought unvoiced.

I didn't want the divorce, either. Had she stopped herself from saying that?

Sharon's hands pressed against my knees as she stood from her crouching position in front of me. She melted into the couch, completely drained and exasperated.

"I wanted the best for you, and I didn't like you being under the microscope of the public eye, you know? Your dad didn't want to give up the spotlight, and I didn't want you in that spotlight," she chuckled softly, almost inaudibly, as she reached for my hand.

I let her lace her fingers through mine. Honestly, at that moment, my head raced so much I barely managed to keep up with her words, let alone her gestures. I certainly didn't possess the strength to tell her to piss off, though I think I wanted to. I couldn't quite tell what I wanted at that moment, but I think I wanted to.

"Of course, you want to be an actress, so I guess that doesn't really matter anymore. If I hadn't divor-," she choked on the last word, and I struggled to remember to breathe. I felt like I was witnessing her soul coming undone at the seams. "I mean, you could have been famous by now. So when you looked up at me with your big brown eyes and said, 'that will be me someday'-I couldn't help but go along with the acting classes and all that jazz. The thing is, I always believed you'd be fine without him. I honestly thought I could raise you by myself without too many problems."

A gentle smile crossed her face and she gave my hand a squeeze.

"Right now I just think you really need a father figure in your life. I'm not saying he'll be the best role model, or that you two will be all 'Brady Bunch' right away. Hell, he drove me insane sometimes and I loved the man. But I think you need him."

I felt betrayed as I stood in a trance-like state and turned towards my room. She didn't try to hold me back as my fingers slid out of her grasp.

How could I explain to her what I'd always known, and how did she not see it? I couldn't need him at all; I trained myself not to. Not by choice of course, but it made things easier if I conditioned myself to loathe him. So I learned to live without him for my own good because he had learned to live without me.