JUST SO YOU KNOW, WHEN THEY SAY “ONCE UPON a time”… they’re lying.
It’s not once upon a time. It’s not even twice upon a time. It’s hundreds of times, over and over, every time someone opens up the pages of this dusty old book.
“Oliver,” my best friend says. “Checkmate.”
I follow Frump’s gaze and stare down at the chessboard, which isn’t really a chessboard at all. It’s just squares scratched onto the sand of Everafter Beach, and a bunch of accommodating fairies who don’t mind acting as pawns and bishops and queens. There isn’t a chess set in the story, so we have to make do with what we’ve got, and of course we have to clean up all evidence when we’re done, or else someone might assume that there is more to the story than what they know.
I can’t remember when I first realized that life, as I knew it, wasn’t real. That this role I performed over and over was just that—a role. And that in order for me to play it, there had to be another party involved—namely one of those large, round, flat faces that blurred the sky above us every time the story began. The relationships you see on the page aren’t always as they seem. When we’re not acting our parts, we’re all just free to go about our business. It’s quite complicated, really. I’m Prince Oliver, but I’m not Prince Oliver. When the book is closed, I can stop pretending that I’m interested in Seraphima or that I’m fighting a dragon, and instead I can hang out with Frump or taste the concoctions Queen Maureen likes to dream up in the kitchen or take a dip in the ocean with the pirates, who are actually quite nice fellows. In other words, we all have lives outside the lives that we play when a Reader opens the book. For everyone else here, that knowledge is enough. They’re happy repeating the story endlessly, and staying trapped onstage even when the Readers are gone. But me, I’ve always wondered. It stands to reason that if I have a life outside of this story, so do the Readers whose faces float above us. And they’re not trapped inside the book. So where exactly are they? And what do they do when the book is closed?
Once, a Reader—a very young one—knocked the book over and it fell open on a page that has no one but me written into it. For a full hour, I watched the Other-world go by. These giants stacked bricks made of wood, with letters written on their sides, creating monstrous buildings. They dug their hands into a deep table filled with the same sort of sand we have on Everafter Beach. They stood in front of easels, like the one Rapscullio likes to use when he paints, but these artists used a unique style—dipping their hands into the paint and smearing it across the paper in swirls of color. Finally, one of the Others, who looked to be as old as Queen Maureen, leaned forward and frowned. “Children! This is not how we treat books,” she said, before shutting me out.
When I told the others what I had seen, they just shrugged. Queen Maureen suggested I see Orville about my strange dreams and ask for a sleeping potion. Frump, who is my best friend both inside the story and out, believed me. “What difference does it make, Oliver?” he asked. “Why waste time and energy thinking about a place or a person you’ll never be?” Immediately I regretted bringing it up. Frump wasn’t always a dog—he was written into the story as Figgins, my best buddy from childhood, who was transformed by Rapscullio into a common hound. Because it’s only a flashback of text, the only time he’s ever read he’s seen as a dog—which is why he stays in that form even when we’re offstage.
Frump captures my queen. “Checkmate,” he says.
“Why do you always beat me?” I sigh.
“Why do you always let me?” Frump says, and he scratches behind his ear. “Stupid fleas.”
When we’re working, Frump doesn’t speak—he just barks. He follows me around like, well, a faithful pup. You’d never guess, when he’s acting, that in real life he’s always bossing the rest of us around.
“I think I saw a tear at the top of page forty-seven,” I say as casually as I can, although I’ve been thinking of nothing but getting back there to investigate since first spotting it. “Want to come check it out?”
“Honestly, Oliver. Not that again.” Frump rolls his eyes. “You’re like a one-trick pony.”
“Did you call me?” Socks trots closer. He’s my trusty steed, and again, a shining example of how what you see isn’t always what’s true. Although he snorts and stamps with the confidence of a stallion on the pages of our world, when the book is closed he’s a nervous mess with the self-confidence of a gnat.
I smile at him, because if I don’t, he’s going to think I’m angry at him. He’s that sensitive. “No, we didn’t…”
“I distinctly heard the word pony…”
“It was just an expression,” Frump says.
“Well, now that I’m here, tell me the truth,” Socks says, turning in a half circle. “This saddle totally makes my butt look fat, doesn’t it?”
“No,” I say immediately, as Frump vigorously shakes his head.
“You’re all muscle,” Frump says. “In fact, I was going to ask if you’d been working out.”
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.” Socks sniffles. “I knew I shouldn’t have had that last carrot at breakfast.”
“You look great, Socks,” I insist. “Honestly.” But he tosses his mane and sulks back toward the other side of the beach.
Frump rolls onto his back. “If I have to listen to that stupid horse whine one more time—”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” I interrupt. “What if you didn’t have to? What if you could be anywhere—anything—you wanted to be?”
I have this dream. It’s kind of silly, but I see myself walking down a street I’ve never seen before, in a village I can’t identify. A girl hurries past me, her dark hair whipping behind her like a flag, and in her haste she crashes into me. When I reach out to help her up, I feel a spark ignite between us. Her eyes are the color of honey, and I cannot turn away from them. Finally, I say, and when I kiss her, she tastes of mint and winter and nothing like Seraphima—
“Yeah, right,” Frump says, interrupting me. “How many career opportunities are there for a basset hound?”
“You’re only a dog because you were written that way,” I say. “What if you could change that?”
He laughs. “Change it. Change the story. Yeah, that’s a good one, Ollie. While you’re at it, why don’t you turn the ocean into grape juice and make the mermaids fly?”
Maybe he’s right, maybe it is just me. Everyone else in this book seems to be perfectly happy with the fact that they are part of a story; that they are enslaved into doing and saying the same things over and over, like in a play that gets performed for eternity. They probably think that the people in the Otherworld have the same sorts of lives we do. I guess I find it hard to believe that Readers get up at the same hour every morning and eat the same breakfast every day and go sit in the same chair for hours and have the same conversations with their parents and go to bed and wake up and do it all over again. I think more likely they lead the most incredible lives—and by incredible, I mean: with free will. I wonder all the time what that would be like: to feel the book opening yet not beg the queen to let me go on a quest. To avoid getting trapped by fairies and run ragged by a villain. To fall in love with a girl whose eyes are the color of honey. To see someone I don’t recognize, and whose name I don’t know. I’m not fussy, really. I wouldn’t mind being a butcher instead of a prince. Or swimming across the ocean to be hailed as a legendary athlete. Or picking a fight with someone who cuts in front of me. I wouldn’t mind doing anything other than the same old things I have done for as long as I can remember. I guess I just have to believe there’s more to the world than what’s inside these pages. Or maybe it’s just that I desperately want to believe that.
I glance around at the others. Between readings, our real personalities show. One of the trolls is working out a melody on a flute he has carved from a piece of bamboo. The fairies are doing crossword puzzles that Captain Crabbe creates for them, but they keep cheating by looking into the wizard’s crystal ball. And Seraphima…
She blows me a kiss, and I force a smile.
She’s pretty, I suppose, with her silver hair and eyes the color of violets in the meadow near the castle. But her shoe size is bigger than her IQ. For example, she honestly believes that just because I save her over and over again as part of my job, I must truly have feelings for her.
I’ll be honest, it’s not a hard day’s work to kiss a beautiful girl repeatedly. But it all starts feeling same old, same old after a while. I certainly don’t love Seraphima, but that little detail seems to have escaped her. Which makes me feel guilty every time I kiss her, because I know she wants more from me than I’m ever going to give her when the storybook’s closed.
Beside me, Frump lets out a long, mournful howl. That’s the second reason I feel so guilty kissing Seraphima. He’s had a crush on her for as long as I can remember, and that makes it even worse. What must it be like, watching me pretend to fall in love with the girl he’s crazy about, day after day? “I’m sorry, buddy,” I say to him. “I wish she knew it was just for show.”
“Not your fault,” he replies tightly. “Just doing what you have to do.”
As if he’s conjured it, there is suddenly a blinding light, and our sky cracks open along a seam. “Places!” Frump cries, frantic. “Everyone! Into your positions!” He runs off to help the trolls dismantle the bridge, only so that they can rebuild it again.
I grab my tunic and my dagger. The fairies who were our chess pieces rise like sparks and write the words SEE YOU LATER in the air before me, a trail of light as they zoom into the woods. “Yes, and thanks again,” I say politely, intent on hurrying to the castle for my first scene.
What would happen, I wonder, if I was late? If I dawdled or stopped to smell the lilacs at the castle gate, so that I wasn’t in place when the book was opened? Would it stay sealed shut? Or would the story start without me?
Experimentally, I slow my pace, dragging my heels. But suddenly I feel a magnetic tug on the front of my tunic, propelling me through the pages. They rustle as I leap through them, my legs moving in double time while I stare down, amazed. I can hear Socks whinnying in his stall at the royal stables, and the splash of the mermaids as they dive back into the sea, and suddenly, I am standing where I am supposed to be, before the royal throne in the Great Hall, at dispute court. “It’s about time,” Frump mutters. At the last moment there is a brilliant slice of light that opens above us, and instead of looking away like we usually do, this time I glance up.
I can see the Reader’s face—a little fuzzy at the edges, sort of how the sun looks from the ocean floor. And just like when one stares at the sun, I can’t make myself turn away.
“Oliver!” Frump hisses. “Focus!”
So I turn away from those eyes, the exact color of honey; from that mouth, its lips parted just the tiniest bit, as if she might be about to speak my name. I turn away, and clear my throat, and for the hundred billionth time in my life, I speak my first line of the story.
I did not write the lines I speak; they were given to me long before I remember. I mouth the words, but the actual sound is in the Reader’s mind, not coming from my throat. Similarly, all the moves that we make as if we’re performing a play somehow unravel across someone else’s imagination. It is as if the action and sound on our tiny, remote stage are being broadcast in the thoughts of the Reader. I’m not sure that I ever really learned this information—it’s just something I’ve known forever, the same way I know that when I look at the grass and associate it with a color, I know that color is green.
I let Rapscullio convince me that he is a nobleman from afar whose beloved daughter has been kidnapped—a speech I’ve heard so often that occasionally, I murmur the words along with him. In the story, of course, he has no daughter. He’s just setting a trap for me. But I’m not supposed to know that yet, even though I’ve played this scene a thousand times. So while he is going on and on about the other princes who won’t rescue Seraphima, I think about the girl who is reading us.
I’ve seen her before. She’s different from our usual Readers—they’re either motherly, like Queen Maureen, or young enough to be captivated by tales of princesses in peril. But this Reader looks—well, she looks to be about my age. It doesn’t make any sense. Surely she knows—like I do—that fairy tales are just stories. That happy endings aren’t real.
Frump waddles across the polished black-and-white marble floor, his tail wagging vigorously as he skids to a halt beside me.
Suddenly I hear a voice—distant, through a tunnel, but clear enough: “Delilah, I told you twice already… we’re going to be late!”
From time to time, I’ve heard Readers talking. They don’t usually read out loud, but every now and then, a conversation occurs when a book is open. I’ve learned quite a lot from being a good listener. Like, for example, Don’t let the bedbugs bite is apparently a common way to say good night, even in rooms that do not appear to be infested with insects. I’ve learned about things the Otherworld has that we don’t: television (which is something parents do not like as much as books); Happy Meals (apparently not all meals bring joy. Just the ones that come in a paper bag with a small toy); and showers (something you take before bedtime that leaves you drenched).
“Just let me finish,” the girl says.
“You’ve read that book a thousand times—you know how it ends. Now means now!”
I have heard this Reader speaking to the older woman before. From their conversations, I’m guessing it’s her mother. She is always telling Delilah to put the book away and go outside. To take a walk and get some fresh air. To call a friend (though how many could be within earshot?) and go to a movie (whatever that is). Repeatedly, I wait for her to heed her mother’s directions—but most of the time she finds an excuse to keep reading. Sometimes she does go outside, but opens the book and starts reading again. I cannot tell you how frustrating this is for me. Here I am, wasting away inside a book I wish I could escape, and all she wants to do is stay in the story.
If I could talk to this girl Delilah, I’d ask her why on earth she would ever trade a single second of the world she’s in for the one in which I’m stuck.
But I’ve tried talking out loud to other Readers. Believe me, it was the very first thing I attempted when I started to actively dream about life in the Otherworld. If I could just get one of those people holding the book to notice me, maybe I’d have a chance at escaping. However, the people holding the book see me only when the story is playing, and when the story is playing, I am compelled to stick to the script. Even when I try to say something like “Please! Listen to me!” I wind up announcing, instead, “I’m on my way to rescue a princess!” like some sort of puppet. If I ever had reason to believe that a Reader could see me for who I really am—not who I play in the story—I’d do, well, anything. I’d scream at the top of my lungs. I’d run in circles. I’d light myself on fire. Anything, to keep her seeing me.
Can you imagine what it would be like to know that your life was just going to be a series of days that were all the same, that were do-overs? As Prince Oliver, I may have been given the gift of life… but I have never been given the chance to live.
“Coming,” Delilah says over her shoulder, and I exhale heavily, a breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding. The thought of not having to go through the motions again—it’s a gift, an absolute gift.
There is a dizzying whirl of gravity as the book starts to close, something we’ve all gotten used to. We grab on to details—candelabra and table legs and in some desperate cases, the hanging tail of a letter like g or y, until the pages are completely closed.
“Well,” I say, letting go of the drapery I was clutching. “Guess we got off lucky this—”
Before I can finish, however, I find myself flying head over heels as the pages are riffled through, and our world reopens on the very last bit of the story. As if by magic, and Seraphima is glittering beside me in her shimmering gown. Frump has a wedding band tied to a silver ribbon around his neck. The trolls are holding the pillars of a bridal bower; the pixies have spun silken ribbons that wrap around them and blow in the sea breeze. The mermaids gather in the shallows of the ocean, watching us bitterly as we wed.
I glance down, and suddenly panic.
The chessboard. It’s still there. The pixie chess pieces are gone, certainly, but the squares I drew with a stick—the proof that there is life in this book when no one is reading it—are still carved onto the beach.
I don’t know why the book hasn’t reset itself. It never makes mistakes like this; every time we are flipped to a new page we will find ourselves ready, in costume, with any necessary set in place. Maybe, for all I know, this has happened before and I never noticed it. But it stands to reason that if I noticed, someone else might too.
Like a Reader.
Deep breaths, Oliver, I tell myself. “Frump,” I hiss.
He growls, but I can understand him clearly: Not now.
Okay, Oliver, I tell myself. This is not a disaster. People read a fairy tale for the happy ending, not to hunt for a faintly visible chessboard scratched into the sand on the final page. Still, I try to pull Seraphima toward me in an attempt to hide the chessboard beneath the fabric of her billowing dress. Seraphima, however, misinterprets this to mean that I might actually want to get closer to her. She tilts up her chin and her eyes flutter closed, waiting for her kiss.
Everyone’s waiting. The trolls, the fairies, the mermaids. The pirates with their anchor lines tightly wrapped around Pyro the dragon to keep him subdued.
The Reader is waiting too. And if I give her what she wants, she’ll close the book and that will be that.
I lean forward and give Seraphima a kiss, winding my hands in her hair and pulling the length of her body along mine. I can feel her melt beneath my touch, leaning into me. She may not be my type, but there’s no reason I shouldn’t enjoy myself at work, after all.
As the girl leans closer, the sky darkens above us. “How strange,” she murmurs.
Her finger comes down, pushing at the edges of our world, bending the scenery even as we stand in it. I draw in my breath, thinking she is going to trap me, but instead, she touches the very spot where the chessboard is etched onto the sand.
“That,” she says, “was never here before.”
Everyone says so. I suppose it’s because while other fifteen-year-olds are talking about the best lip gloss and which movie star is hotter, I would rather be curled up with a book. Seriously—have you been to a high school lately? Why would anyone sane want to interact with Cro-Magnon hockey players, or run the gauntlet of mean girls who lounge against the lockers like the fashion police, passing judgment on my faded high-top sneakers and thrift-store sweaters? No thanks; I’d much rather pretend I’m somewhere else, and any time I open the pages of a book, that happens.
My mom worries about me because I’m a loner. But that’s not entirely true. My best friend, Jules, totally gets me. It’s my mom’s fault that she can’t see past the safety pins Jules sticks through her ears and her pink Mohawk. The cool thing about hanging around with Jules, though, is that when I’m with her, nobody even looks twice at me.
Jules understands my fixation on books. She feels the same way about B-movie horror films. She knows every single line of dialogue in The Blob. She refers to the popular girls in our school as Pod People.
Jules and I are not popular. In fact, I am pretty much banned from ever being popular or, for that matter, within a hundred feet of anyone popular. Last year when we were playing softball in gym, I swung the bat and broke the left knee of Allie McAndrews, the head cheerleader. Allie had to stay off the top of the pyramid for six weeks and accepted her prom queen crown on crutches.
The worst part was I completely missed the ball. Anyone who didn’t hate me before the Injury suddenly had a reason to ignore me or sneer at me or slam me against a locker when we passed in the halls. Except Jules, who moved here a week after it happened. When I told her why I was a social pariah, she laughed. “Too bad you didn’t break them both,” she said.
Jules and I have no secrets. I know that she is addicted to soap operas, and she knows that my mother is a cleaning lady. There’s only one thing I haven’t told Jules, and that’s the fact that for the past week, the reason I’ve avoided her is that I’m embarrassed by my choice of reading material.
A fairy tale written for elementary school kids.
If you think it’s social suicide to literally bring the head cheerleader to her knees, you should try reading a children’s book in plain sight in a high school. If you read Dostoyevsky, you’re weird but smart. If you read comic books, you’re weird but hip. If you read a fairy tale, you’re just a dork.
I discovered this story a month ago, when I was eating lunch quietly in the school library. There I sat, chewing on a peanut butter and Fluff sandwich, when I noticed that one book on the shelf was upside down and backwards, as if it had been jammed in. Figuring I could help Ms. Winx, the librarian, I went to fix it, and got an enormous electric shock to the tips of my fingers.
The book was tattered and the spine was shaky—I would have thought that by now it would have made its way to the annual sale, where you could buy old novels for a dime each. It was illustrated—clearly a fairy tale—but it was shelved with nonfiction books about World War I. And strangest of all, it didn’t have a bar code to be checked out.
“Ms. Winx,” I asked, “have you ever read this one?”
“Oh, a long time ago,” she told me. “But it’s actually quite special. The author hand-painted the pictures and had it bound.”
“It must be worth a fortune!”
“Not so much,” Ms. Winx said. “The writer was known for her murder mysteries. This was more of an experiment for her. A prototype that never evolved. In fact, she never wrote another book after this one. I was a big fan of her other novels, and couldn’t pass this up when I found it at a rummage sale. So for a nickel, it became the property of the school.”
I looked down at the cover—Between the Lines, by Jessamyn Jacobs.
I checked it out that first day, and while I was in Earth Science class, I hid the fairy tale inside my textbook and read it from cover to cover. It’s about a prince, Oliver, who goes on a quest to rescue a princess, who’s been taken hostage by the evil Rapscullio. The problem is that Oliver, unlike most fairy-tale princes, isn’t a big fan of taking risks. His father died in battle, and as far as he’s concerned, it’s far better to be safe than sorry.
I think that’s what made me keep reading. The very first thing you learn about Oliver is that it wasn’t easy growing up without a dad. It was as if the words had been taken straight from my mouth. My father had not died in battle, but he’d left my mother when I was ten years old and found himself a new, improved family. She cried every night that year. I was a straight-A student—not because I loved school but because I didn’t want to be one more person who disappointed my mother. We had to move to a small house and my mom had to work hard cleaning the homes of the girls who treated me like pond scum.
True confessions time: Oliver is cuter than any guy in my school. Granted, he is two-dimensional and illustrated. Don’t judge me—go take a look at Wolverine in an X-Men comic and tell me he isn’t hot. With his jet-black hair and pale eyes, it seems that Oliver is smiling up from the page directly at me. Clearly, any normal girl would take this as a sign that she needs to get out more. But me, I don’t have too many places to get to.
Plus, he is smart. He conquers one obstacle after another—not with his sword but with his cleverness. For example, when he is held captive by a trio of creepy, boy-crazy mermaids, he promises to get them dates in return for a pack of supplies—flotsam and jetsam that had washed into the ocean after shipwrecks. He uses that junk—other people’s garbage—to rescue himself from the snares of the fiery dragon that had killed his own father. He’s not your typical prince, more like a square peg in a round hole, kind of like me. He’s the sort of guy who wouldn’t mind reading side by side on a date. And he knows how to kiss, unlike Leonard Uberhardt, who practically tried to swallow me whole behind the jungle gym in seventh grade.
That first week, I read the book so often that I memorized the words; I knew the layout of the pictures on the pages. I dreamed that I was being chased by Rapscullio or forced by Captain Crabbe to walk the plank. Each week, I’d bring the book back to the library, because that was school policy. I’d have to wait until it was returned to the shelf a day later, giving someone else a chance to read it. But what other ninth grader cares about fairy tales? The book was always waiting for me, so I could check it out again and reconfirm my position as Public Loser Number One.
My mother worried. Why was a girl like me, who could easily read thousand-page adult novels, obsessed with a children’s book?
I knew the answer to that, not that I was about to admit it to anyone.
Prince Oliver understood me better than anyone in the world.
True, I’d never met him. And true, he was a fictional character. But he also was what people needed him to be: a dashing hero, an articulate peacemaker, a cunning escape artist. Then again, Prince Oliver had never existed anywhere but on a page, and in some random author’s brain. He didn’t know what it was like to be stuffed into a locker by the cheerleading squad and left there until some janitor heard me yelling.
Today, I decide as I wake up and stare at the ceiling, is going to be different. First thing, I am going to return the book to the library. In my English journal, I’ll write down that I’ve been reading The Hunger Games for my outside reading requirement (like 98 percent of the ninth grade), and I’ll explain why I am Team Peeta instead of Team Gale. I’ll tell Jules that we should go to the Rocky Horror marathon at the cheap theater this weekend. Then in Earth Science I’ll finally get enough courage to go talk to Zach, my vegan lab partner who insists on feeding tofu crumbles to the class Venus flytrap, and who probably will save the whales before he turns twenty-one.
Yes, today is the day everything is going to change.
I get up and take a shower and get dressed, but the fairy tale is sitting on my nightstand where I left it before I went to bed. This must be what an addict feels like, I think, trying to fight the pull of one last, quick read. My fingers itch toward the binding, and finally, with a sigh of regret, I just grab the book and open it, hungrily reading the story. But this time, something feels wrong. It is like an itch between my eyebrows, a wrinkle in my mind. Frowning, I scan through the dialogue, which is all the way it should be. I glance at the illustration: the prince sitting on a throne, his dog waiting beside him.
“Delilah!” my mother yells. “I told you twice already… we’re going to be late!”
I stare at the page, my eyes narrowed. What is it that’s off? “Just let me finish—”
“You’ve read that book a thousand times—you know how it ends. Now means now!”
I flip through the book to the final page. When I see it, I can’t believe I haven’t noticed it before. Just to the left of Princess Seraphima’s glittering gown, drawn into the sand, is a grid. Sort of like a bingo chart. Or a chessboard.
“How strange,” I say softly. “That was never here before.”
When my mother uses my middle name, it means she’s really angry. I close the book and tuck it into my backpack, then hurry downstairs to scarf down breakfast before I am dropped off at school.
My mother is already rinsing her coffee cup as I grab a slice of toast and butter it. “Mom,” I ask, “have you ever read a book and had it… change?”
She looks over her shoulder. “Well, sure. The first time I read Gone with the Wind and Rhett walked out on Scarlett, I was fifteen and thought all that unrequited love was wildly romantic. The second time I read it, last summer, I thought she was silly and he was a selfish pig.”
“That’s not what I mean…. That’s you changing—not the book.” I take a bite of the toast and wash it down with orange juice. “Imagine that you’ve read a story a hundred times and it always takes place on a ship. And then one day, you read it, and it’s set in the Wild West instead.”
“That’s ridiculous,” my mother replies. “Books don’t change in front of your eyes.”
“Mine did,” I say.
She turns and looks at me, head tilted as if she is trying to figure out if I am lying or crazy or both. “You need to get more sleep, Delilah,” she announces.
“Mom, I’m serious—”
“You simply saw something you overlooked before,” my mother says, and she puts on her jacket. “Let’s go.”
But it’s not something I overlooked. I know it.
The whole way to school, my backpack sits on my lap. My mother and I talk about things that don’t matter—what time she is coming home from work; if I’m ready for my Algebra test; if it’s going to snow—when all I can focus on is that faint little chessboard scratched into the sand of the beach on the last page of the fairy tale.
Our car pulls up in front of the building. “Have a good day,” my mother says, and I kiss her goodbye. I hurry past a kid plugged into his earphones, and the popular girls, who cluster together like grapes. (Honestly, do you ever see just one of them?)
The school’s current “it” couple, Brianna and Angelo—or BrAngelo, as they’re known—are wrapped in each other’s arms across my locker.
“I’m gonna miss you,” Brianna says.
“I’m gonna miss you too, baby,” Angelo murmurs.
For Pete’s sake. It’s not like she’s leaving on a trip around the world. She’s only headed to homeroom.
I don’t realize I’ve said that out loud until I see them both staring at me. “Get a life,” Brianna says.
Angelo laughs. “Or at least a boyfriend.”
They leave with their arms around each other, hands tucked into each other’s rear jeans pockets.
The worst part is, it’s true. I wouldn’t know what true love feels like if it hit me between the eyes. Given my mother’s experience with romance, I shouldn’t even care—but there’s a part of me that wonders what it would be like to be the most important person to someone else, to always feel like you were missing a piece of yourself when he wasn’t near you.
There is a crash on the metal of the locker beside mine, and I look up to see Jules smacking her hand against it to get my attention. “Hey,” Jules says. “Earth to Delilah?” Today she is dressed in a black veil and a miniskirt over leggings that seem like they’ve been hacked with a razor. She looks like a corpse bride. “Where’d you go last night?” she says. “I sent you a thousand texts.”
I hesitate. I’ve hidden my fairy-tale obsession from Jules, but if anyone is going to believe me when I say that a book changed before my eyes, it’s going to be my best friend.
“Sorry,” I say. “I went to bed early.”
“Well, the texts were all about Soy Boy.”
I blush. At 3:00 A.M. during our last sleepover, I confessed to her that I thought Zach from my Earth Science class was possible future boyfriend material.
“I heard that he hooked up with Mallory Wegman last weekend.”
Mallory Wegman had hooked up with so many guys in our class that her nickname was the Fisherman. I let this news sink in, and the fact that I had thought about Zach this morning before reading my book, which seemed a thousand years ago.
“He’s telling everyone she slipped him a real burger instead of a veggie one and it overloaded his system. That he has no recollection of doing anything with her.”
“Must have been some really good beef,” I murmur. For a second, I try to mourn Zach, my potential crush, who now has someone real, but all I’m thinking of is Oliver.
“I have to tell you something,” I confess.
Jules looks at me, suddenly serious.
“I was reading this book and it… it sort of changed.”
“I totally understand,” Jules says. “The first time I saw Attack of the Killer Tomatoes I knew my life was never going to be the same.”
“No, it’s not that I’ve changed—it’s the book that changed.” I reach into my backpack and grab the fairy tale, flipping directly to the last page. “Look.”
Prince? Yup, standing right where he usually is.
Frump? Wagging happily.
It was there less than a half hour ago, and suddenly it’s gone.
“Delilah?” Jules asks. “Are you okay?”
I can feel myself breaking out in a cold sweat. I close the book and then open it again; I blink fast to clear my eyes.
I stuff the book into my backpack again and close my locker. “I, um, have to go,” I say to Jules, shoving past her as the bell rings.
Just so you know, I never lie. I never steal. I never cut class. I am, in short, the perfect student.
Which makes what I am about to do even more shocking. I turn in the opposite direction and walk toward the gymnasium, although I am supposed to be in homeroom.
Me, Delilah McPhee.
“Delilah?” I look up to see the principal standing in front of me. “Shouldn’t you be in homeroom?”
He smiles at me. He doesn’t expect me to be cutting class either.
“Um… Ms. Winx asked me to get a book from the gym teacher.”
“Oh,” the principal says. “Excellent!” He waves me on.
For a moment I just stare at him. Is it really this easy to become someone I’m not? Then I break into a run.
I don’t stop until I have reached the locker room. I know it will be empty this early in the morning. Sitting down on a bench, I take the book from my backpack and open it again.
Real fairy tales are not for the fainthearted. In them, children get eaten by witches and chased by wolves; women fall into comas and are tortured by evil relatives. Somehow, all that pain and suffering is worthwhile, though, when it leads to the ending: happily ever after. Suddenly it no longer matters if you got a B– on your midterm in French or if you’re the only girl in the school who doesn’t have a date for the spring formal. Happily ever after trumps everything. But what if ever after could change?
It did for my mom. At one point, she loved my dad, or they wouldn’t have gotten married—but now she doesn’t even want to speak to him when he calls me on my birthday and Christmas. Likewise, maybe the fairy tale isn’t accurate. Maybe the last line should read something like What you see isn’t always what you get.
There is still no chessboard on the sand.
I start flipping through the pages furiously. In most of them, Prince Oliver is in the company of someone or something—his dog, the villain Rapscullio, Princess Seraphima. But there is one illustration where he is all alone.
Actually, it’s my favorite.
It comes toward the end of the story, after he’s outsmarted the dragon Pyro and left the beast in the care of Captain Crabbe and the pirates. Afterward, as the pirates load the dragon onto the ship, Oliver is left alone on the shore looking up the cliff wall at the tower where Seraphima is being imprisoned. In the picture on page 43, he starts to climb.
I lift the book closer so that I can see Oliver more clearly. He is drawn in color, his jet-black hair ruffled by the breeze, his arms straining as he scales the sheer rock face. His bottle green velvet tunic is tattered: singed from Pyro’s fiery breath and torn from his escape from shackles on the pirate ship. His dagger is clenched between his teeth so that he can grasp the next ledge. His face is turned toward the ocean, where the ship slips into the distance.
I think the reason I love this illustration so much is the expression on his face. You’d expect, at that moment, he’d be overcome by fierce determination. Or maybe shining love for his nearby princess. But instead, he looks… well… like something’s missing.
Like he’d almost rather be on that pirate ship. Or anywhere but where he is, on the face of the rocky cliff.
Like there’s something he’s hiding.
I lean forward, until my nose is nearly touching the page. The image blurs as I get close, but for a moment, I’m positive that Oliver’s eyes have flickered away from the ocean, and toward me.
“I wish you were real,” I whisper.
On the loudspeaker in the locker room, the bell rings. That means homeroom is over, and I have to go to Algebra. With a sigh, I set the fairy tale down on the bench, still cracked open. I unzip my backpack and then pick the book up again.
Oliver is still climbing the sheer rock wall. But the dagger clenched between his teeth is now in his right hand. Steel to stone, its sharp tip scratches the faintest of white lines into the dark granite, and then another, and a third.
I rub my eyes. This is not a Nook, a Kindle Fire, or an iPad, just a very ordinary old book. No animation, no bells and whistles. Drawing in my breath, I touch the paper, that very spot, and lift my finger again.
Two words slowly appear on the surface of the rock wall.