Annie couldn’t quite shake the sense that there was something unnerving about Alissa. It wasn’t anything she could really put her finger on; Alissa was certainly all the right things, and everyone seemed much happier since the day she arrived from the airport for the exchange program. She was quite likeable and sweet, she always agreed to push Annie’s little brothers on the tire swing even if they asked a million times in a day, and she was far more helpful to Annie’s mom than Annie herself was (although Annie always behaved similarly in other people’s homes as well, so that her friends’ mothers would often remark that they wished their own daughters could be more like her, and Annie would feel quite embarrassed about it). Alissa’s goodness was creative in a way that sometimes gave Annie a twinge of jealousy. She had a knack for motivating people to get on board with her ideas without them noticing.
One day mom came in all frazzled after a meeting with Lukey’s teacher. Apparently he had been missing some of his classes and homework assignments, and mom hadn’t even been checking his work because she’d had to stay extra late at her nursing shifts in the hospital so many nights that year. Alissa made a quick assessment of the situation and organized after school study sessions complete with flashcards, prizes and charts. Lukey loved the attention, and soon both his grades and his confidence levels soared. Alissa even managed to turn the whole production into a major ego boost for mom, who after all, was responsible for raising such a gifted son. She made sure Annie was involved too, and somehow imbued menial tasks with a sense of pride and ownership. Annie would read out quiz questions that Alissa composed for Lukey, and every time Lukey answered correctly, Alissa would shoot Annie this look of admiration as though Annie was personally responsible for Lukey’s progress, and it made Annie beam inside.
Alissa was always busy with projects like this. She enlisted her friends to help her build and paint a small ramp to cover the step of old Mr Henry’s back door stoop so that he could wheel his chair in and out of the house on his own. They all felt wonderfully altruistic and pleased when they finally set it in place and called him out to try it for the first time. He was a rather lonely soul, so the sight of a whole neighborhood group of kids gathered together just to surprise him with their gift caused him to tear up and beam the most adorable gappy wrinkly old smile.
Annie herself could never manage to pull such efforts together. Even if she had ideas like that (which she never did), she doubted she’d have any success persuading others to help her. She could just imagine how Lukey would react if she asked him to help her clean out mom’s broom closet for example, or fix the wobbly table leg in the kitchen that always drove dad crazy. He would just laugh at her and run out to play in the empty backyard lot with his friends. They’d probably ruin the whole operation if they attempted it in the first place. With Annie’s luck, the table leg would pop right off for good. It wasn’t that she was envious of Alissa necessarily, although she did admire all her talents. No, it just made Annie realize that she shouldn’t waste her efforts trying to keep up.
And still, there was something mildly disturbing about Alissa. Whenever Annie tried to pinpoint it, she came to the conclusion that she must be crazy; it was just silly to harbor any suspicions towards such a kind generous girl. She wondered why the feeling came to her in the first place, and realized that it was because Alissa almost seemed too good. Her emotions were always perfectly suited to the situation at hand: she was sad when there was bad news, she empathized with Annie when Annie was having a bad day and assured her that everyone felt grumpy at times; she was angry over injustices, like when she heard that dad’s co-worker had received the Physics Society Fellowship that he had been working towards for so long.
But it was as if all these reactions were too well matched to everything that happened. Annie realized she needed to see someone’s flaws to know who they really were, not in a bad way, but just in a human way. For example, she’d never regarded Miss Flynne as anything other than her teacher until one day Annie had walked into the classroom to find Miss Flynne all alone at her desk, crying and tearing one of the student’s essays into tiny little shreds. Annie walked right back out before she was noticed, and the next day when all the graded assignments were passed out, Miss Flynne apologized to one student for “misplacing his excellent essay.” It was a small incident, but after that, Annie paid more attention to her teacher and wondered about her life and what her interests were and whether she was happy and what excited or scared her.
Alissa never let her guard down like that, and it almost seemed strange to imagine that she had any guard to let down in the first place. Despite all the do-gooding and the sweetness and the concern and the socially appropriate flares of temper, there was something a bit spurious about Alissa that almost reminded Annie of the Flat Stanley cut-out that had been mailed around the world when she was in second grade. Not quite though. No doubt Alissa was far more complex than the two-dimensional paper man, but in what ways exactly? And when would the complexity show itself?
Annie schemed about ways to force Alissa to mess up, to rumble her right out of the textbook Boxcar Children perfection that couldn’t really be who she was all the time. Or could it? Were some people just that good? Actually, Annie’s Polish friend Sophie did seem to be just that good, and there was nothing alarming about it. What was wrong with Alissa then? Maybe Annie was just mildly jealous. Maybe it was the fact that Annie had finished reading East of Eden last summer, and the thought of Kathy still sent shivers down her back. Maybe it was the empty look that Annie thought she could detect in Alissa’s eyes just after certain more convincing shows of understanding. Whatever it was, Annie vowed that she wouldn’t let it affect her friendship with Alissa, but then again, she wouldn’t be entirely surprised to come home one day and find the house burned down.