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 this.
“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 Vogue and 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. Oh.
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.
“Sure, 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, Giorgio—it would.
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.