Amber didn’t know why she was moving into her future step dad's house a week before he married her mom, nor was she happy about it, but here she was, standing in her new bedroom anyways. It was small-ish with bare white walls. The afternoon sun streamed through the window into the empty room. She could unload some more of her stuff to make herself more at home, but a part of her was still in denial. She would only be living here for a few more years anyway.
“Amber,” her mom called from the kitchen down the hall. Amber had hoped that because she was at the end of the hall, it would be quiet, but no such luck. She pretended not to hear her mom. Amber was the queen of the silent treatment after all. It wasn’t that she was mad at her mom for leaving her dad who couldn’t seem to keep a job, but did she have to jump right to another man and move them out of their nice house into a one-story home with an 8th-grade boy? She tried not to shudder.
No matter what she told herself, she still couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that T.J. was going to be her stepbrother. She knew she hadn’t been the nicest to him, but he hadn’t made any effort so far either. Everything she had heard about him led her to believe they were both too prickly to ever get along. The first time they met, he had called her an ice queen and said, “don’t expect me to get along with you.”
“AMBER,” her mom called much more loudly and sternly. Amber sighed and turned towards the hall, knowing it would be worse if she didn’t come now.
“Coming,” Amber called, slamming the door behind her. She only got halfway down the hall when the home phone started ringing. (Yes, there was still an honest-to-god landline in this house.) She stopped in front of TJ’s room, crossing her arms.
“Hello?” she heard her mom say. Her demeanor had completely changed, her anger replaced by polite professionalism. “Oh yes, you must be looking for one of my kids,” she cooed after a moment. Mrs. Brown, well, almost Mrs. Kippen, was always doing that, insisting that they were a family.
“I’m not your kid,” TJ shouted from inside the room, loud enough for Amber to hear but not her mom. They could agree on that at least. The younger boy opened up his door and glared at Amber when he saw her standing there.
“There’s a Cyrus Goodman on the phone,” Amber’s mom shouted to them.
“It’s for me,” both kids shouted back at the same time. They both whipped their heads back around to gape at the other in surprise.
“Why would Cyrus be calling you?” TJ asked incredulously.
“I’m giving him dance lessons,” Amber explained. “Why would he be calling you?” She hadn’t thought about the fact that the two boys would know each other.
“Uhhh….. “ TJ’s ears grew red suddenly. Amber had never seen him this shy, but she decided not to comment on it. “We’re friends?” he fumbled. He wilted slightly under Amber’s suspicious glare. “It’s probably for you,” he admitted, obviously wanting to move on. Amber nodded pridefully. Before she could move towards the kitchen, a look of realization passed over his face. “Wait a minute.. dance lessons?” he chuckled, his voice cracking.
“I should probably answer it,” she reminded him cooly. TJ just sighed and nodded once before slipping into his room. She wondered if he would ask for an explanation later.
“Hey,” Amber said once she had taken the phone from her mom.
“Amber?” Cyrus asked in shock. “Is that you?” Suddenly, Amber felt very stupid. Why would Cyrus be calling her on this phone? He had her cell phone number, and she didn’t think she had even told him she had moved.
“Uh, yeah…..” she mumbled.
“What are you doing at TJ’s house?” Cyrus asked, very confused. She tried not to wince at the fact that he had called this ‘TJ’s house’.
“I live here now,” she sighed, feeling it was better just to explain now.
“Wait……” he yelped. Amber could practically feel the cogs in Cyrus’s head turning through the phone. “So your new stepdad……”
“Is TJ’s dad, yes,” she confirmed. She had talked to Cyrus about her parent’s split but she hadn’t mentioned the name of her mom’s fiance, mostly because it hadn’t seemed important at the time.
“Woah,” Cyrus breathed energetically. Amber couldn’t tell exactly what his reaction was, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted him to be as excited as he sounded. She gave him the briefest moment to process.
“Anyways, I guess I’m living in ‘TJ’s house’ now,” she quipped, shooting his previous words back at him.
“Sorry, I didn’t know” he hissed, and Amber immediately felt bad. Cyrus didn’t deserve to get pulled into the middle of her resentment towards TJ.
“It’s okay,” she said quickly to patch over her mistake. “I’m assuming you called to talk to him though?” she sighed.
“Uhhhhh…. Yeah,” Cyrus admitted shyly. Amber actually smirked at this out of pleasure at how shy the two boys were around each other. It was funny to see this other side of them. It made it feel like she had the upper hand, even though she had to go admit to TJ now that he was right.
“I’ll get him on the phone,” she said, already stepping off the kitchen tile into the carpeted hallway. She pulled the receiver to her chest while she tapped quickly on TJ’s door. Before getting a response, she pushed it open and barged in. “It was for you,” she mumbled to Kippen before tossing the phone onto his bed and strolling out.
It wasn’t even ten minutes later when Amber heard her bedroom door creak open. She turned around and scowled to see TJ in the doorway.
“If you’re here to gloat, you can forget it,” she snipped. TJ leaped back a little bit at her scowl and she realized her tone was probably a tad bit too aggressive.
“I didn’t come here to gloat,” he scoffed, taking one step forward. “I wanted an explanation.” Amber sighed, and he took that as his cue to come inside. He stopped in the middle of the room, looking around for a place to sit, but the bed was the only furniture there. Grudgingly, he lowered himself down on it next to her. “You’re teaching Cyrus how to dance?” he asked amused, but not in a mean way like Amber would’ve thought.
“Yeah, he’s taking it as a substitution for P.E,” she explained, pausing to decide how much she should share. “He…….tends to struggle in athleticism.”
“Oh, yeah, like somersault,” TJ agreed, chuckling to himself.
“What?” Amber looked over at him in confusion.
“It’s our thing,” TJ grinned, his ears turning bright red again. Amber smiled sardonically and he looked away.
“What did he want?” Amber asked loudly after a slight moment.
“What?” TJ fumbled, turning back around to face her.
“On the phone,” she explained impatiently. What had gotten into him?
“Oh,” he breathed. He relaxed slightly, but his eyes now held a little pain. “His grandma has just passed. Apparently they’re going to have some kind of shiva thing for her? He told me I could come.”
“Oh, wow,” Amber breathed. “Poor Cyrus.” TJ nodded, biting his lip in thought. Amber tilted her head trying to read his expression.
“I don’t know why he wants me there,” he admitted after a moment. “I’m probably just going to mess everything up again.” Amber looked over at him in surprise.
“You really think that?” she asked. He nodded, tilting his head down dejectedly. “He… sounded pretty desperate to talk to you…” she added before she could think better of it.
“Really?” He lifted his head back up, his eyebrows quirked. Amber smiled slyly.
“Don’t be an idiot,” she teased. “It sounds like Cyrus is your only friend.”
“Hey!” TJ gasped before she could finish. His mouth was hanging open, for once at loss for words.
“He took a chance on you even though you didn’t deserve it, he wants you to be better but he also genuinely wants to spend time with you as you are,” Amber guessed, ticking the points off on her fingers. It was a long shot, but by TJ’s reaction, she assumed she’d gotten close to the truth.
“How would you know that?” he asked, flabbergasted.
“Because it happened to me,” Amber explained. TJ breathed out, muttering something like ‘underdog’. “What was that?” Amber asked.
“Oh, uh,” TJ fumbled to formulate a response. “He always stands up for the underdogs.”
“Yeah,” Amber agreed with a smile. TJ was right- Cyrus never gave up on someone if they were worth it. If he saw that in TJ, her new brother couldn’t be that bad.
TJ must’ve been thinking along the same lines, because he said, “I don’t know if we deserve that chance, or if I do, but I’m glad it happened?” His voice went up on the end like he was having trouble getting the words out. “I don’t think his friends like me though.” He tucked his arms in a little bit.
“Me either,” Amber sympathized, gritting her teeth. “Although I don’t blame them for hating me,” she muttered as an afterthought.
“No one hates you,” TJ scoffed. Amber shot him a withering glare.
“Really? Don’t tell me you didn’t think I was a prissy high school mean girl.” TJ’s face went a little pale. Amber huffed and threw her hair over her shoulder as she looked away.
“Maybe a little at first,” TJ admitted. “I- don’t really have room to judge though.” Amber turned back to him. Her face was stone, but she couldn’t hold it for long before a smile cracked through.
“So you’re not just a heartless jock?” she mused. TJ stood up and rolled his eyes.
“No,” he mumbled. “But if you tell anyone about this conversation then maybe I will be.”
“I think we’re gonna get along fine,” Amber chirped, a mischievous gleam in her eyes.
“Maybe….” TJ groaned. “I’m still not calling you my sister though.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest, retreating back into defense mode.
“I think you just did,” Amber teased without missing a beat. TJ opened his mouth to protest but quickly realized she was right. Not wanting to lose an argument, he just rolled his eyes again and slipped out of the room. Amber smiled though, knowing no matter how much he might want to argue, neither of them was cold enough to blow the other off forever, even if everyone thought they would. They were much too similar for that.