by cynthia and greg leitich smith

“Where’s the dry cleaning?” Mom demands as she opens my bedroom door. “You know your father?—”

“Stepfather,” I say. My mom married him eleven months, two weeks, and four days ago. Worse, he came with a prissy daughter who’s a couple of years older than me and two obnoxious sons who’re a few years younger. I’m outnumbered, and, as if that’s not bad enough, we also had to move to their house.

“—needs his gray suit for a client meeting tomorrow morning.”

I notice the Colonel himself hasn’t deigned to grace me with his presence (no, he doesn’t sell fried chicken—he’s a retired Marine who works as a security consultant).

As Mom’s rant goes on, I minimize the Web page on my PC so she won’t catch a glimpse of the bare-assed fan art beside the Underworld fic I’m reading.

“You know, Dawn, your sister?—”

“Stepsister,” I put in. Megan. The athletic one. She of the chemical blondness. The one whose boyfriends have heavy brow-ridges and square jaws. “Megan took the car before I could run errands.”

“You should have told her you needed it,” Mom replies, because it’s important that everything be my fault.

I don’t point out that I tried but Megan ignored me. I don’t point out that even if I hadn’t told her, she could’ve asked me before taking off.

Mom crosses her arms. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt you to give her a chance. This adjustment hasn’t been easy for Megan, either.”

I don’t say it, but it bothers me when Mom takes her side. The thing is, I did try in the beginning. When our parents announced their engagement at the Olive Garden, I told Megan in the ladies’ restroom that it was hard for me, too. Out of nowhere, she starts yelling at me that I don’t know anything and that my visiting my dad at his apartment in Round Rock is totally different from her visiting her mom’s grave in Smithville.

Of course it’s different. I get that—I got it then—but Megan’s treated me like a lesser species ever since. Like how she always calls my room “the guest room.” And how she always foists little-brother-babysitting duty on me because I have “no life.”

I offer up a theatrical sigh. “Poor Megan!”

“You’re grounded,” Mom says as she exits.

I don’t bother to shrug. To Mom, “grounded” means not going out, but doesn’t include ’net, cell, or DVD restrictions. By this weekend, she’ll have moved on to another of my allegedly fatal flaws, and it’s not like I’ve got plans on the average Tuesday night.

When Mom leaves, I shut the door behind her. Then I bring my browser back up on screen and begin checking RSS feeds. I read this story about a sixth grader in Wyoming who’s trying to get a new word accepted into The Unauthorized Dictionary of the Klingon Language. It’s kind of cute, so I comment Qapla! Then I happily spend the next hour on the readergirlz boards at MySpace.

My mood is ruined again when Megan bursts into the room.

“You could knock,” I say without turning around.

“Sorry,” Megan replies. Then she says the most shocking thing imaginable: “Want to come with me tonight to the Buffy Sing-Along?”

Megan knows I want to go. I’ve been talking about it for weeks. And she’s just come from speaking to Mom. She’s clearly toying with me.

I shake my head. “Thanks to you, I’m grounded.” I swivel in my desk chair. “Wait. You’re going?”

Megan is not into anything remotely interesting. Her tastes are simple. She watches “reality” television. Worse, she wants to be on reality television. Last week, the Colonel practically pissed a kidney stone when she mentioned driving to San Antonio to audition for So You Want to Marry a Movie Star?

“Ryan’s working the sing-along tonight,” Megan replies. “We’re going out after.”

Ah, Ryan. The second and blander of her great loves. Like her, he rows a skinny boat backward and is into other sports that involve grunting and spandex.

I do have to admit, though, that he’s pretty much gorgeousness personified. His only physical defect is the beginning of what promises to be a severe case of male-pattern baldness.

“He’ll be bald by twenty-two,” I say.

“Who cares what he’ll look like at twenty-two?” She winks like we just shared a moment, which we did. But I don’t think we got the same thing out of it.

“This involves me…why?” I ask, getting back to the Slayer.

Megan’s smile turns brittle. “For reasons I don’t understand, Ryan’s cousin Eric will be joining us, and we need someone to keep him out of our way.”

I’m in no mood to babysit again. “Waterloo doesn’t allow kids under ten.”

Megan steps daintily through the maze of paperbacks and graphic novels on my floor, brushes imaginary lint from my black comforter, and sits, addressing me in the same tone she might use with a cocker spaniel. “I’m not asking you to babysit, Dawn. I’m setting you up on a blind date.”

I make a half-laugh, half-barfing noise. “No.”

Megan lifts her French-manicured nails, examining them. “It won’t kill you. He’s not a troll, and he’s into the same geeky stuff you are.”

I minimize the screen again. “Like?”

“Like, like Buffy!” she replies, glancing at my posters. “Star Trek! Batman! Comic books, and…” Her gaze lingers appreciatively on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine.

Despite myself, I’m tempted. I adore Buffy. Well, actually, I like Buffy. I adore Willow and Tara, and I think their love ballad is the most romantic…Wait. Even if Eric is cool and it didn’t mean spending a whole evening with Megan…“I’m still grounded.”

“Carol says it’s okay so long as you’re with us,” Megan replies, standing.

I hate it when she calls my mom “Carol,” and I’m positive the “date” aspect is going to suck. Still, it is Buffy. “Fine, I’m in,” I say. Then I add, “But you’re paying for everything.”

The doorbell rings at seven sharp. I rush to the door. Fortunately, the twins don’t realize a world exists beyond their latest video game, and the Colonel isn’t here to indulge in his usual tactic when a boy comes over (giving him the third degree while ostentatiously cleaning his Winchester thirty-ought-six on the living room coffee table).

“Um, hi,” Eric says.

He’s a little over six feet tall, skinny, generally symmetrical, has fewer than the average number of pimples and a full head of hair. He’s also wearing blue jeans and a green button-down oxford shirt, which is kind of boring and does nothing to set off my black sleeveless T, black tiered knit skirt, and combat boots.

Still, I’ve seen worse.

“Told you he was borderline cute,” Megan murmurs as she comes down the hall. Brushing by, she adds, “I asked Daddy to lay off his whole intimidation-by-firearms shtick.”

I take that in as she leads me out the front door to a minivan with fake wood paneling. We live in Austin, so I walk around to look at the bumper stickers: THE WHEATGRASS PRESERVATION SOCIETY. SAVE OUR SPRINGS. Number three is the universal negative symbol crossing out the name Wesley.

I take shotgun (Megan for once is happy to ride by herself, lower profile, in back). And as Eric backs out of the driveway, I ask, “Wesley Wyndham-Price or Wesley Crusher?”

Eric hits the brake and glances at me. “Oh, Crusher. I’m sure you’ll agree that Wesley Wyndham-Price was less than outstanding in his early Buffy appearances?—”

“Though he made Giles seem more buff?—”

“Granted, but in any case, he dramatically improved on Angel, whereas Wesley Crusher started out bad and went downhill. No redeeming qualities whatsoever.”

“Sure there were,” I say, undaunted. “Redeeming qualities, that is.” I try to recall if there’s a single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Wesley Crusher is not annoying. Okay, maybe I’m a tad daunted.

I have to admit it, though. Megan was right. Eric’s not a troll.

Glancing at his MapQuest printout, Eric begins reverse engineering his way out of the neighborhood. A moment later, he shoots me that supercilious look of the über-geeky. “Well?”

An instant later I have the answer. I take a breath to ensure there’s no smugness in my voice. “He’s not Dr. Z.”


“Starbuck’s kid. You know, Starbuck from BattlestarGallactica.”


“He,” I interrupt. “He has a kid. In the original series.” Which I used to watch with my dad on the only surviving Betamax videotape player this side of eBay. “Actually, it was Galactica1980.”

Eric looks at me like I’ve turned into a Fyarl demon and swerves just in time to avoid a bicyclist.

I’ve established enormous geek cred.

“A spin-off,” I say. “Probably the single worst example of the child-genius motif in science fiction history. Much worse than Wesley Crusher.” I’m actually enjoying myself now. “Dr. Z always had this weird white glow about him, practically an aura, which I suppose was how people could tell he was a genius.” I fiddle with my seat belt. “Well, that and the fact that Commander Adama genuflected every time he saw him.”

“La, la, la,” Megan sings from the back, sounding bored but amused.

I’d half forgotten she was back there.

Eric does the smart thing and ignores her. “Yeah, the kid-genius thing is bad, but it pales next to the previously unknown, never-mentioned pseudo-sibling who appears suddenly out of nowhere.”

“Fascinating,” Megan mutters, checking her lipstick.

“Most prevalent on family sitcoms,” Eric adds, “but also frequent and problematic in speculative fiction.”