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.