The stepmonster is at it again.
Raffles, discount coupons, and magazine sweepstakes lay strewn across the kitchen table. My stepmom sits straight-backed in one of the creaky wooden chairs, delicately cutting out another coupon, dyed blonde hair piled on top of her head in perfect ringlets, lipstick the color of men’s heartblood. Her white blouse is spotless, her dark pencil skirt neatly ironed. She must have a meeting with a potential client today.
“Sweetie, a little faster this morning.” She snaps her fingers for me to hurry up.
I shuffle over to the counter and pry open the coffee tin. The smell is strong and cheap—the only kind I was raised on. Which is all the better, seeing as we can’t afford expensive coffee, although I know that never stops the stepmonster from ordering her double-shot dirty chai soy latte no whip every morning and charging it to one of her dozens of credit cards.
Catherine—my stepmom—picks up another magazine to cut. “No carbs this morning. I’m feeling bloated and I have a meeting with a couple this afternoon. Big wedding plans. She’s a debutante, if you could believe that!”
In Charleston? I can believe it. Everyone’s either a debutante, a Daughter of the Confederacy, or a politician’s kid—Thornhill or Fishburne or Van Noy or Pickney or a handful of old Charlestonian
names. And I couldn’t care less.
I dump two scoops of coffee into the machine—plus an extra one for good measure. It feels like a three-scoop kind of day. Maybe adding more caffeine to their morning will get my stepmother and the twins out before nine. That’s not too much to wish for, is it?
I glance up at the clock on the microwave. 8:24 a.m. Unless the twins start moving at warp speed, I’ll be cutting it real close. I say a silent prayer to the Lord of Light or Q or whoever is listening:
Please, for once,
let the stepmonster and the twins leave the house on time.
Starfield history will be made today at 9 a.m. sharp on
Hello, America, and I won’t miss it. I
refuse. Finally, after years of delays and director changes and distribution snafus, the movie is happening—a reboot, but beggars can’t be choosers—and today they’re making the long-awaited announcement of the official film platform. The lead actors, the plot, everything. I’ve missed
Starfield marathons and midnight rereleases of the final episode in theaters and convention appearances because of Catherine and the twins, but I’m not missing
“They want to say their vows under the magnolia trees at Boone Hall Plantation,” Catherine goes on. “You know, ever since Ryan Reynolds and his wife got married there, that place is always booked.” Catherine is a wedding planner. I’ve watched her spend entire weekends hand-sewing sequins onto table toppers and hand-pressing invitations at the print shop downtown. The way she plans a venue, down to the type of cloth on the tables and the color of flowers in the vases, making every wedding look like a magical land of unicorns. You’d think she does it because of her own happily-ever-after cut short, but that’s a lie. She wants her weddings in
InStyle, the kind you Instagram and Pinterest a hundred times over. She wants the renown of it, and she’s sunk all of Dad’s life insurance payout into her business. Well, her business and everything she claims is “essential” to her “image.”
“I want to at least
look like I shop at Tiffany’s,” she says, talking more to herself than to me.
It’s the same spiel again and again. How she used to shop at Tiffany’s. How she used to attend galas at Boone Hall Plantation. How she used to be happily married with two wonderful daughters. She never mentions me, her stepdaughter.
Catherine finishes cutting her coupon with a sigh. “But that was all
before. Before your father left me and the twins here in this dreadful little house.”
And there it is. Like it’s my fault that she’s blown all her savings. Like it’s
Dad’s fault. I take out Dad’s
Starfield mug—the only thing left of his in our house—and pour myself a cup of coffee.
Outside, the neighbor’s dog begins to bark at a passing track-suited jogger. We live on the outskirts of the famous historical district, the house not quite old enough to be a tourist attraction but not new enough to be renovated—not that we could afford it anyway. Two streets over and you run into the College of Charleston. Our house was one of the last ones left after Hurricane Hugo decimated the coast of South Carolina before I was born. The house has its leaks, but all good and old things do. I’ve lived here my whole life. I don’t know anything else.
Catherine absolutely hates it.
The coffee smell is rich and nutty. I take a sip, and I almost melt. It’s heaven. Catherine clears her throat, and I pour coffee into her favorite mug: white with pink flowers. Two sugars (the only sweetness she splurges on each day), lightly stirred, with three ice cubes.
She takes it without even looking up from her magazine. And then, when the neighbor dog lets out a sharp howl, she sets down her cup. “You would
think dogs would learn when to shut up. Giorgio has enough on his plate without that dog barking.”
Catherine likes to pretend she’s on a first-name basis with everyone, but especially people she deems important. Mr. Ramirez—Giorgio—is a banker, which means he has a lot of money, which means he’s an influential part of the country club, which means he’s important.
“If it doesn’t shut up soon,” she goes on in that cool, detached voice of hers, “I’ll muzzle it myself.”
“His name’s Franco,” I remind her. “And he doesn’t like being tied up.”
“Well, we all must get used to disappointment,” she replies, and takes another sip of coffee. Her blood-colored lips turn into a scowl and she shoves the mug back at me. “Too bitter. Try again.”
Begrudgingly, I put in another cube of ice to water it down. She takes the coffee and tries another sip. It must be sufficiently soulless, because she sets it down beside her stack of coupons and goes back to scanning the gossip column in her magazine.
Well?” She prods.
I hesitate, looking from her coffee to her, wondering if I’ve forgotten something. I’ve been doing this for seven years—I don’t think I’m missing anything.
Outside, the dog gives a pitiful howl.
She raises a pencil-thin eyebrow. “How am I supposed to have a calm morning with
that racket?” she goes on in that overworked, all-knowing voice of hers. “If Robin was still here . . .”
I glance back at her. Open my mouth. Begin to say that I miss Dad too. I want him here too—but something stops me. Or I stop myself. I blame it on the lack of coffee. One sip doesn’t give you the insta-courage a cup does. Besides, I’m not trying to make Catherine mad. I’m trying to get her caffeinated, placated, and
out the door.
She flips the page in her magazine and picks up the scissors again to cut out a coupon for a winter coat. It’s June. In South Carolina. But then Catherine clears her throat. “Danielle,
do something to get
that mutt to quiet down.”
Now,” Catherine says, flicking her hand for me to hurry up.
my queen,” I mutter under my breath. While Catherine puts down her coupons and picks up an article about Jessica Stone’s latest red carpet look, I slip last night’s steak tips out of the fridge and hurry through the back door.
Poor Franco sits in the mud outside of his doghouse, thumping his tail in a puddle. He looks at me through the broken slat in the fence, a muddy brown Dachshund in a dirty red collar. It rained last night and his doghouse flooded, just like I told Mr. Ramirez—sorry,
Mr. Ramirez brought Franco home a few weeks after he married his second ex-wife, I guess as a dry run for having a kid. But since his divorce a few years ago, he pretty much lives at work, so Franco is this forgotten idea that never panned out, with the flooded doghouse to prove it. At least the poor Frank can float.
I slide the container through the slat and rub the dog behind the ears, slathering my fingertips in mud. “You’re a good boy, yes you are! Once I save up enough, I’ll spring the both of us out of here. Whatcha think of that, copilot?” His tail pat-pats excitedly in the mud. “I’ll even get us matching sunglasses. The whole nine yards.”
Franco’s tongue lolls out of the side of his mouth in agreement. Maybe they don’t even make doggy sunglasses, but for a while I’ve had this picture in my head: me and Franco crammed into a beat-up car, heading out on the only highway out of town—wearing sunglasses, of course—and headed straight for L.A.
Ever since I can remember, my fingers have itched to make things. To write. I have filled journals, finished fanfics, escaped again and again into the pages of someone else’s life. If Dad was right—if I could do anything, be anyone —I would make a show like
Starfield and tell other weird kids that they aren’t alone. And after next year—my senior year—I’m going to do it. Or start to. Study screenwriting. Write scripts. I’ve already got a portfolio, kind of. Right now I satisfy my need to write by blogging on my site
Rebelgunner, where I cover the one thing I know for certain:
Starfield. That and the money I’m scraping together from my job at the food truck are gonna be my ticket out of here. One day.
“Danielle!” my stepmom screeches from the kitchen window.
I push the steak tips under the fence and Franco dives headfirst into the bowl.
“Maybe in another universe, boy,” I whisper. “Because for now, my home is here.”
This place is too full of memories to leave, even if I wanted to. Dad technically left the house to me, but Catherine’s in charge of it while I’m still a minor. So until then—
Until then I’m here with my stepmother and her daughters.
“All right! Coming!” With one last scratch behind Frank’s ear, I say goodbye, make a mental note to return later for the dish, and dart back to the kitchen.
“Girls!” Catherine calls again, slinging a Gucci purse over her shoulder. “Hurry up or you’ll be late for Mr. Craig’s lesson! Girls?
Girls! You better be awake or so help me I’ll . . .” Her footsteps thud up to their room and I glance at the clock. 8:36. There’s no
way they’ll be out of here in time. Not unless I speed things along.
Begrudgingly, I assemble kale and strawberries and almond milk to fix the twins’ morning smoothies. Catherine has, of course, left her magazine splayed on the counter, so Darien Freeman’s face is grinning up at me. My lips curl into a sneer. There were rumors that he had signed on to the new
Starfield remake, but that’s about as big of a joke as saying Carmindor will be played by a pug riding a skateboard. You don’t put a soap opera star in charge of an entire galaxy.
Ugh. I press blend and try not to think about it.
Upstairs, there are muffled thumps as Catherine drags the twins out of bed. This happens every morning, like clockwork.
My summertime morning routine goes like this: Wake up—coffee, extra scoop for Mondays. Catherine stoops over the morning papers, cutting out coupons. Lingers too long on purses and pretty dresses. Says something passive-aggressive about her old life. Orders me to fix breakfast. Instead, I feed the Frank. Catherine goes upstairs to yell at the twins for “forgetting” to set their alarms. I still don’t fix breakfast. Ten minutes later, the twins are fighting over the shower, and Catherine reminds me that she is the one with the deed to the house,
Danielle, and unless I want her to cash in this place for a luxury condo —as if this house would ever get that much—I had better fix breakfast. So I blend up their Grinch vomit, the twins grab their matching tumblers, and Catherine shoves them out the door for tennis lessons.
The rest of my day is never much better. I’ll be five minutes late to work, but my coworker Sage—the food-truck owner’s daughter—is too engrossed in her Harajuku fashion magazines to even notice. Then it’s eight hours in the Magic Pumpkin, doling out healthy food-truck fritters to bankers in tight business suits and soccer moms with babies bouncing on their hips. Then I’m elbowing my way through the supermarket armed with coupons that make the cashier roll her eyes when I get in line (everyone hates coupons). Then home again for “family dinner,” made by me. Cue the twins’ mean comments on my cooking, then their disappearance upstairs to film a beauty vlog about the perfect cat eye or best eyeshadow pairing with ruby lips or whatever. Then dishes, leftovers, one last check on Franco, and bed.
Well, sorta. Then late-night reruns of
Starfield on my Dad’s boxy TV in the corner of my room. Maybe I write a blog post about the episode, if I’m feeling inspired. Check all my Stargunner fansites for news. I fall asleep to the Federation Prince’s voice. “
Look to the stars. Aim. Ignite.”
The next morning I wake up, and we do everything all over again. But this time—plot twist!—I get to work on time. Maybe Sage actually talks to me for once. Maybe the twins are nice. Maybe someone stuffs two airplane tickets to L.A. into the tip jar. Maybe I write a love-letter to episode 43 instead of criticizing the integrity of the characters as the colony blows up. Maybe I dream about Dad.
The blender growls as though it’s in pain. I let it rest and shake the kale smoothie into two separate tumblers, nervously glancing at the microwave clock. 8:41 a.m.
After sliding the twins’ breakfasts across the counter like the seasoned food service employee I am, I root around in the cabinet for the jar of peanut butter I tucked away last night. I protect my peanut butter like Smeagol protects the One Ring—
mine, precious—no matter what diet “we” are on as a household. Right now, Catherine’s on a paleo kick, but last month it was raw foods. Before that South Beach—or was it Atkins? Something with bacon. Next week will be low-fat or low-salt or...whatever she’s craving. Whatever food she can make
me make by threatening to sell this house—Dad’s house.
I scrape out the last bit of peanut butter from the bottom of the jar, savoring its taste on my tongue. I take my victories wherever I can get them.
Upstairs, the shower turns off with a groaning of pipes.
Finally. The twins are taking their sweet time this morning. Usually they enjoy tennis practice at the country club because their friends are always there. It’s the hangout spot if you’re popular and rich. As for me? Catherine’s always not-so-subtly insisting that the only thing I’m fit for at the club is toting someone’s golf clubs.
I dispose of the peanut butter jar in the garbage and check my indestructible brick phone, which I “inherited” after Dad died. Another grand idea from the stepmonster, another way to save the money we barely have: the twins were allowed to buy new ones, but if I wanted a phone, I had to take what I could find in the house. It’s huge—you can practically fend off a ship full of Reavers with it—but at least it tells the time.
8:43 a.m. Can’t they leave any sooner? Just once. Just once be out of the house by 9 a.m.
They’re upstairs, but Chloe’s nasally voice can be heard clear as a bell. “But,
Mom, Darien Freeman’s going to be on TV this morning! I will
not miss that.”
My heart sinks. If Chloe commandeers the TV, there’s no way I’ll get to watch
“We can be a few minutes late,” echoes Calliope. Cal sides with Chloe on everything. They’re the same age as I am—rising seniors—but we might as well be on different planets. Chloe and Calliope are starters on the varsity tennis team. Organizers of the homecoming committee. Prom leaders. And they don’t mind using their popularity to remind everyone at school that I’m practically dirt. That without their family, I’d be an orphan.
Thanks. Like I could forget that.
can’t miss this,” Chloe says. “We have to watch it and vlog about it or everyone else will get their reactions up before us. And that would kill us, Mom. It would
“Sweeties, I’m paying Mr. Craig a
handsome tuition to teach you girls tennis. I am not wasting your varsity positions next year for a television program!” Catherine descends the stairs and reenters the kitchen, rustling through her purse. “Danielle, have you seen my cell phone?”
I reach over the counter to unhook it from the wall charger. “Here it is.”
“Now why did you put it there?” She takes the phone from me without a second glance and begins scrolling through her Facebook feed. “Oh,” she adds, “and remember, tomorrow is—”
“Yeah,” I say. “I know.” Like I’d forget the day my own father died. “Should I get orchids this year or—”
Girls!” Catherine yells, checking her watch. “Get down here
Fine!” They trample down the stairs in their tennis whites and grab their smoothies from the counter. The twins are the spitting image of Catherine. Light hair, hazel eyes, pouty heartbreaker lips. Chloe and my stepmom are cut from the same cloth, but Cal’s cut a little different, a little quieter. I think that’s because she takes after her own dad, who ran off when the girls were young and married the daughter of some Atlantic City casino owner.
Right now, they both have their blonde hair pulled back into tight ponytails, and they’d be impossible to tell apart if you didn’t know Calliope always matches her earrings to her purple glasses, and Chloe has a new nail color every day—today, a sweet summer blue. Sometimes evil
comes in disguise.
“This isn’t fair! Why doesn’t Elle have to go to these stupid lessons?” Chloe whines.
“Girls.” My stepmother
tsks, putting on a patient smile. “Elle has to make do with the talents she does have.”
I try to ignore her as I grab my house keys from the bowl in the foyer and put them in my satchel, pretending like I’m getting ready for work. Sometimes I think Catherine just forgets I’m in the room.
“You’re going to ruin our career,” Chloe accuses, sucking on her green smoothie. “We
need to be on top of this.”
“Everyone else will be tweeting about it,” Calliope adds.
“Ever since we got a hundred thousand views because of our
Seaside Cove makeup tutorial, people expect us to be on our game!”
“GIRLS!” Catherine jabs a pink nail toward the door. “Four hundred dollar lessons. NOW!”
Calliope rolls her eyes, grabs her purse from the rack in the foyer, and storms out the door to the red Miata (another “necessity” for Catherine’s “image”). Catherine glares at the remaining twin. If there is one thing Chloe can’t stand up to, it’s her mother’s disapproval. She grabs her purse too—the exact same as Cal has, except pink—and stomps out after her sister. I don’t envy
that ride to practice.
My stepmom gives one last victory fluff to her hair in the foyer mirror. “Are you sure you don’t want me to put in a good word for you at the club, Danielle? I’m sure they’d take you back even after your...incident...last year. You’ve learned, haven’t you?”
To never trust a guy again? Sure. I pull on a polite smile. “No, thanks.”
“It’s the best place for someone like you, you know.” She shakes her head. “You’ll see I’m right in the end.”
With that, she closes the door.
I wait until the Miata pulls out of the driveway before I dart into the living room and turn on the TV. 8:57. Perfect. The food truck’s supposed to pick me up at ten to head to the RiverDogs baseball game across town, so I have plenty of time. For the next hour, I will be basking in perhaps the biggest news in
This moment to end all moments—or maybe begin them. A new
Starfield for a new generation. I like the possibility in that.
Grabbing the remote from the coffee table, I sit down cross-legged in front of the 54-inch TV. The black screen flickers, and anticipation blooms in my chest. I wish Dad could be here to see this. I wish he could be sitting beside me. He’d be just as excited—no, he’d be
more excited. But the reality is, I don’t really have anyone to fangirl about this with. About who will finally don the Federation starwings and follow in the legendary footsteps of David Singh, the original Prince Carmindor. I’ve been blogging about it for months in my little corner of the world, but no one really reads it.
Rebelgunner is therapeutic, more like a journal. The closest I have to friends is the online Stargunner community, where everyone’s been speculating about the casting: maybe the guy from the latest
Spider-Man movie? Or maybe that cute Bollywood star who’s in all the Tumblr GIFsets? Whoever it is, they’d better not whitewash my prince.
On the TV,
Hello, America is wrapping up a segment about pets doing goofy things on the internet. The host beams, and then the camera cuts to the audience. It’s full of girls—lots of girls—and all of them are cheering. Holding signs. Wearing T-shirts with the same name scribbled across them. A name that makes the anticipation in my chest grow cold and drop like an atomic bomb into my stomach.
The girls throw up their hands for the camera, screaming his name. One person’s name. Some look like they’re literally going to swoon.
I don’t swoon.
My excitement makes a U-turn into dread.
No—no, this can’t be right. I must have the wrong channel.
I jab the remote info button.
Hello, America, the caption states, and I want nothing more than for the Black Nebula to swallow me whole.
What are the odds? What are the odds of him being on the same morning talk show? What are the odds of him being the guest appearance on the show that will announce the
But the host is smiling, and says a few choice words, and suddenly all my fears come to light.
Starfield logo blazes across the screen behind her. This moment has become a train wreck I can’t look away from. It’s my entire fandom crashing into a burning, bubbling pit of despair.
No. No, it’s not him. It can’t be
Darien Freeman is
not my Federation Prince Carmindor.