Hello! I'll be uploading several excerpts from my upcoming book, The Ugly Stepsister. Please note that this is NOT the final version, but it has been edited multiple times and unlikely to have major changes when I finally publish. This story is a huge change from my previous books: the protagonist is from modern day America, it's written in first-person and present tense. A few years ago I would never have dreamed of writing in present tense, but Hunger Games and Legend made it feel natural to me. And for this story, which focuses heavily on the protagonist's perception and reaction to a whole new world, first person present felt like a better fit.
So...that's enough rambling. On to the story:
Part One: Kat
When I encounter guys who are too gorgeous for their own good, three things tend to happen:
1. Silence. I open my mouth but no words come out. All I can do is stare stupidly with my mouth hanging wide enough to accommodate a triple deck burger while my brain turns to mush.
2. Stutter. I can be on the phone for hours with my best friend, but if confronted by a cute guy, wham! I get power outage, my brain is short circuited. You’d be lucky to get anything out of me besides “Er...um...uh...” and a ton of blushing.
3. Stumble. I trip on my own feet. Yeah, it’s easy to do that when you’re five feet seven, gangly, and managed to make the dance teacher cry when you’re five years old. Or even worse, knocking things over and spilling food.
All three of these happened in three minutes when I bumped into Gabriel Castellano this morning.
So I was heading towards class when my cell phone suddenly beeped. A text message from Mom.
“Hon, I’ve got to work an extra shift tonight. Get home ASAP after school. Love, Mom."
Mom has started taking up more work whenever possible so she could save up more when I go to college. I wished she didn’t have t—I offered to take up a part-time job, but someone has to look after Paige in the evenings. If only Dad were still with us, Mom needn’t work so hard.
Feeling down, I turned a corner and nearly bumped into this guy coming in my direction. I would have passed on if he didn’t talk to me.
“Excuse me. Can you tell me where the gym is?”
I stared. Six feet of pure, unadulterated hotness. There was a slight accent in his voice, but that only made him sexier, in my opinion.
“I’m new here,” the guy said with an apologetic smile. “I transferred yesterday from Australia.”
“Oh…er…hi.” I could feel my heart pounding in my ears. Focus, Kat. What was he asking? “The gym…it’s over there.”
“Thanks.” He flashed me a dazzling smile and walked on. Then it suddenly dawned on me: I had given him the wrong direction.
“Hey! It’s that way!” He had long strides so I had to hurry. My foot caught on a lower step—I stumbled and fell, my knees hitting the cement ground. My cell phone and the books I carried spilled around me.
Great. How could I forget that extra step? Who’s the new student here, huh?
“Are you all right?” the guy crouched and began to help me pick up my stuff, but I waved him away.
“Seriously, I’m fine.” I didn’t want him to see my cell phone—it’s an old black-and-white Nokia model. Nor did I want him picking up my well worn copy of Anne of Green Gables, which I had planned to read in math class. As if I needed to remind him I’m a huge freak who still reads classics. Children’s classics, in fact.
“Gabriel!” A girl squealed. It’s Ashley, this gorgeous, sophisticated junior who just moved here from New York City, and has been in a state of mourning because nothing in Oakleigh can measure up to her standards. This is the first time I’ve seen her so…perky. “I’ve been looking all over for you! The bell’s going to ring soon. Come on, Mr. P would kill us if we’re late.”
I quickly collected all my stuff and ran off. Just my luck—I’ve never managed to act normal before any cute guy.
At home, Paige is glued in front of the television, watching Sponge Bob. I don’t understand what’s so appealing about an ugly yellow character that lives in a pineapple under the sea (Sailor Moon I can understand), but that’s one of the many differences between me and Paige. She’s ten, I’m seventeen. She prefers TV, while I’m addicted to reading (though we both spend ridiculous amounts of time on the Internet). She’s beautiful, like my mother, and I am...well, every time I see my father, I want to yell at him for superseding HIS genes over Mom’s. You see, Mom’s family is Latino. Even though she’s nearly forty, she doesn’t look it. She has luxuriously thick dark hair, eyelashes so long they look like butterfly wings, and full red lips that need no lipstick. All right, she might not be model-thin, but it doesn’t matter. When she smiles and those big, luminous eyes of hers light up, pretty much any guy whom she talks to gets this glassy, glazed look.
Paige, lucky Paige, looks just like Mom. She got thirty-seven Valentine candies when she was in kindergarten. I got two. Mom looks like a plumper version of Penelope Cruz, I’m like Jo March in Little Women. I have long arms and big feet, which make me move awkwardly, and I have freckles all over my nose. Whoever says lemon juice works is lying.
Like Jo, my only good feature is my hair. It’s thick and wavy like Mom’s, and auburn red like Dad’s. In first grade, a boy had called me “carrots,” but I was too wimpy to whack him over the head like Anne Shirley did to Gilbert Blythe. Also like Jo, I love to read. Mom says it’s a miracle that I don’t wear glasses, judging how I devoured book after book since she took me to the library when I was four. If the Beast gives me a library like he did to Belle in the Disney movie, I’d marry him too. Books opened new worlds to me. Life in small town Oakleigh is horribly dreary—we only have one main street downtown with all the shops, and the rest is just boring residential areas.
“Hey Kat,” Paige says, once the commercial break is on. “Mom says she won’t be back tonight, she’s working an extra shift. Dinner’s on the table.”
I glance at the half-eaten pizza on the table. Cheese and...just cheese. Probably cold as well. Looks like this is a bad month for Mom—she works as a salesperson for one of the two second-hand clothes store downtown. I guess it’s because it’s May and summer sales don’t start until the end of June. With the economy in recession, everyone is saving more and spending less.
“Oh, and I almost forgot this.” Paige rummages in her school bag and hands me a chocolate bar. “It’s Milly’s birthday today and everyone in class got a piece.”
I glance at the wrapping, surprised that it’s from an expensive brand that I’ve only seen in a specialty store in the mall. Dark chocolate truffle flavor with whole hazelnuts and raisins. Yum.
“You’re giving me your share?”
Paige pauses just a second before shaking her head. “Oh no. T.J. gave me his piece ‘cause he doesn’t like chocolate.”
I could see she isn’t telling me the truth, though I do believe T.J. would give in if Paige wheedles him. Still, it’s really sweet of her to think of me. Chocolate is my obsession—after books, of course.
The commercial ends; Paige scrambles back to the sofa.
“By the way, Mom tells you to clean out the attic,” she says, her eyes still glued on TV. “Mom says you have too many books in there. There’s a yard sale this weekend, and she wants to try and sell off whatever stuff that doesn’t look like junk.”
I roll my eyes. All right, I admit I splurged way too much on books when Dad was still with us. I still get a lot of books, but that’s because there are plenty of free/dirt-cheap e-books out there, plus you don’t have to worry about moths eating up the pages.
But even if I clean out the attic, we hardly have any stuff to fill it up. Mom has been super frugal since the divorce.
I sigh. I don’t want to part with my books, but a lot of them are probably too old and faded to be read. God knows I have enough stacked in my room.
I finish the pizza with a glass of water, put the chocolate away for a special day, and trudge off to the attic before it becomes dark. I’d never admit it to Paige, but I’m scared of going up to the attic at night. The light up there is kind of dim and there aren’t any windows. It feels kind of spooky even when the light is on.
Five minutes in the dusty attic, I sneeze. No wonder Mom is keen to get rid of the stuff, it’s becoming too crowded in here. Boxes and boxes of my old books take up like, half the room already.
Still, I open every box and check the contents before hauling them downstairs. I have to know which books are going into the yard sale. I don’t want any out-of-print books being sold off...but then again, maybe no one will want books that old anyway.
After heaving five boxes to the garage, I am out of breath. I sit on the floor and rest for a while.
Just then my cell phone starts ringing. It’s from Blake, the editor-in-chief of our school paper.
“Hey Kat, we’re all meeting tomorrow, so get your butt parked at our corner in lunch hour.”
“Okay. You got any ideas for the next issue?”
“Oh yeah,” he sounds pleased. “I’m thinking of doing an interview with that guy who just transferred from Australia.”
“Gabriel?” I say without thinking.
“You’ve met him already?”
“Right. I want you to interview him, it’s the first time we have an exchange student.”
Nooooooo! I can’t even speak to him without stuttering or making stupid mistakes.
“I’m an editor, not a writer. And why must you interview him? Since no one reads the paper anyway.”
“Thanks for the encouragement,” he says sardonically. “But actually yes, I think it’ll get more people to read it if we feature Gabriel. I could literally see girls’ heads turn when he walked down the hall today.”
Yeah, I can imagine that. Ashley, who looks down her nose at everyone, actually squealed when she called out to Gabriel.
But I can’t. I don’t want to make an idiot of myself in front of Gabriel again. He already knows I gave him wrong directions, at a school I’ve been going to for two years, and he’s seen me fall face flat on the ground. I don’t need more humiliation.
“Find someone else, Blake. I’m sure someone else will be willing to do it.”
I click off the phone. Then I sigh and reach for the last box—it smells of sawdust. I don’t even remember this box, it must have been here ages.
I pop the lid open. Half of the box is filled with plush toys, while the other half contains picture books.
No wonder I don’t remember this box. These books are from what, at least ten years ago?
But even though the box isn’t familiar, the books are. I lift out a gilt-edged volume of Hans Anderson’s fairy tales. A gorgeously illustrated version of Arabian Nights. And a large, thin hardback of Cinderella.
I remember this book—Mom must have read it to me a hundred times. The pages are yellowed, the edges of the cover peeling off, and the binding loose. Carefully, I turn a page. This might be the last time I hold this book.
“Once upon a time...”
Of course. What fairy tale don’t start with that infamous opening line?
Paige is calling me. I scramble up, still holding the Cinderella book still in my left hand, and somehow it slipped. Like, I was holding the front cover with my hand, but the rest of the book fell apart. I watch, horrified, as the faded pages flutter to the floor.
“Kat?” Mom’s voice floats from the stairway. “Can you come down for a second?”
“Coming!” I call.
I drop the cover on the floor and dash towards the stairs. My foot catches on something—a jutting nail I think—and I lose my balance. I fall forward, tripping down the stairs, clawing wildly for support—can my klutziness get any worse? And then a sharp pain sears through my head and the world goes black.