When I encounter a guy who is too gorgeous for his own good, one of three things tends 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 over my own feet. Yeah, it’s easy to do that when you’re five feet seven and gangly, but I managed to make the dance teacher cry when I was five years old. Or even worse, I knock things over and spill food.
All three of these happened within three minutes when I bumped into Gabriel Castellano this morning.
I was heading toward class when my cell phone beeped and a text message from Mom came up on the screen:
“Hon, I’ve got to work an extra shift tonight. Get home ASAP after school.”
Mom has started taking more work whenever possible so she can save up for when I go to college. I wish she didn’t have to—I offered to get a part-time job, but someone has to look after Paige in the evenings, and besides, I have to study extra hard for scholarships. The competitive ones provide a lot more funding than I could save up from flipping burgers several hours per week. Still, I feel bad when she comes in around ten, completely exhausted.
Shoulders slumped, eyes on the ground, I turned round a corner and nearly bumped into this guy coming in my direction. I would have passed on if he hadn’t talked 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.” My mouth went dry and I tried hard not to gawk. 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!” I had to hurry to catch up with his long strides. My foot caught on a lower step—I stumbled and fell, my knees hitting the cement. My cell phone and the books I was carrying spilled around me.
Great. How did 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, 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 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 was 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 cosmopolitan 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 will 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 in front of 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’m...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 nut-brown hair that’s thick and luxuriant, 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 she talks to gets this glassy, glazed look.
Paige, lucky Paige, looks just like Mom. She got thirty-seven Valentines when she was in kindergarten. I got two. Mom looks like a plumper version of Penelope Cruz, while I’m like Jo March in Little Women. I have long arms and big feet and 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 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 have devoured book after book ever since she first took me to the library when I was four. If the Beast gave me a library like he gave to Belle, I’d marry him too. Books open 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.
Once a commercial is on, Paige bounces onto the floor. “Hey Kat!” she says excitedly. “Guess what’s for dinner today?”
I don’t get what she’s so excited about. When Mom isn’t home, we have leftovers or frozen meals. Actually, even when she’s home, we usually use the microwave or call takeout, since she’s too exhausted to whip up anything freshly cooked on the spot.
Paige drags me to the kitchen and makes me sit on a stool.
“Close your eyes.”
I hear her opening the fridge. Then the sound of a bowl being set on the table.
“Can I open them now?”
“Not yet.” More rustling—she pops open a plastic bag, I think. “Okay! Now you can open your eyes.”
In front of me sits this large bowl filled with bits of juicy red tomatoes, purple onions, and green cilantro scattered over the top. Next to the bowl is a plate of tortilla chips.
“You made salsa?”
“Grandma emailed me the recipe,” Paige says, beaming. “She says fresh is the way salsa should be eaten. You know how she hates the canned stuff we get in the supermarket. All I did was chop up everything and mix in a bit of lemon juice and salt. Come on, try some.”
I dip a chip into the salsa and take a bite. Sweet, tangy flavors explode in my mouth, blending into each other in perfect harmony.
“This is awesome,” I say. “And you’re even more awesome to make it.”
She glows with pride. Unlike me, Paige is genuinely happy when doing household chores, though she’s a sloth when it comes to her lessons. Another thing that shows how different we are, whether in looks or personality.
The commercial ends; Paige scrambles back to the sofa.
“By the way, Mom says you have to clean out the attic,” she says, her eyes instantly glued to the TV. “She 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 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 loads 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 young for me now anyway. God knows I have enough stacked in my room.
I trudge off to the attic before it gets 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 dim and flickers, and there aren’t any windows. It’s kind of spooky even when the light is on.
After just 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, 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 in our corner at 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.”
“You’ve met him already?”
“Right. I want you to interview him, it’s the first time we’ve had an exchange student.”
Panic races up my chest. Nooooooo! I can’t even speak to him without stuttering or making stupid mistakes.
“I…I don’t think I can do it.” I grope for a good reason to get out of doing this interview. “Blake, I’m an editor, not a writer. And besides, why must we interview him? 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. Girls’ heads were literally turning 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. Although a tiny part of me is thrilled at the chance to speak to him, 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-first on the ground. I can’t do it.
“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 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 twelve years ago?
But even though the box isn’t familiar, the books are. I lift out a gilt-edged volume of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales, a gorgeously illustrated version of Sleeping Beauty, and a large thin hardback of Cinderella.
I hold up the copy of Cinderella. The pages are yellowed, the edges of the cover peeling off, and the binding loose. Carefully, I turn a page. The first page shows a maid kneeling in front of a fireplace.
“Once upon a time...”
Of course. What fairy tale doesn’t start with that infamous opening line?
Paige is calling me. I scramble up, still holding the book in my left hand, and somehow it slips. Like, I’m holding the front cover with my hand, but the rest of the book falls 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 toward 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.