She jabs her pink-polished claw upward. I blink sleepily. A dark stain is spreading across the ceiling. My heart sinks. A leak. In the attic. “I thought I told you to fix it last time!”
Down the hall, the twins peek out of their bedroom. Great. Now we have an audience.
“Can’t you do anything right?” she fumes, folding her arms over her chest, where her bathrobe has a few wet splotches. It must be leaking into her room or else she wouldn’t have bothered waking me up.
“I did,” I mutter. It’s not like it matters. Isn’t she selling the house anyway? “The wind must’ve knocked the shingles loose again—”
“Apparently you didn’t.” She glares at me as I shift from one foot to the other. “Well?”
I glance over at her, confused.
She jabs her finger toward the ceiling again. “Get up there and fix it!”
I blanch. “Now?”
“Before it gets worse!” she cries, and hands me a flashlight. “First your attitude this evening and now this. Honestly, Danielle, you’re lucky I am being this forgiving.”
Half of me wants to tell her it’s absolutely bonkers for me to go searching for a leak in the middle of the night during a storm. And I have work early tomorrow morning—they don’t.
“Now, you are going to crawl up there and stop the leak. And I think you should pay for the damages, don’t you? I can’t very well sell a house like this.”
My mouth falls open. “That makes no sense! This could have happened to any house—it’s a freaking thunderstorm!”
“Oh? And did the thunderstorm forget to repair the leak the first time?”
I clamp my mouth shut. How the hell do you argue with crazy?
“That’s what I thought,” Catherine replies, and then turns on her heels swiftly and stalks back to her room. “Go back to bed, girls. Danielle is taking care of it.”
The twins look at each other and close the door. Sighing, I reach for the string and pull down the stairs until the dark mouth of the attic yawns open above me. I shine the flashlight into the darkness to banish the ghosts and climb up.
Even though I’ve lived in this house my whole life, the attic feels forbidden. My entire childhood home feels like a stranger now, just like the Federation Prince felt after being rescued from the Nox. Familiar, but foreign. No longer how I remembered. No more tabletop games in the living room. No more swords and shields above the mantel. When Dad married Catherine he boxed it all away, and when Dad died she donated everything. Erased the last bit of history that belonged to me. Or tried to. You can’t erase a house, or the stories in the walls.
But Catherine found a way around that, I guess. You can sell it instead.
The attic is hot, dark, and damp. There’s definitely a leak somewhere. But there’s also a surprising amount of clutter, which, on second thought, makes total sense. It’s just like Catherine to be a secret pack rat—“perfect” house below, all her broken-down junk stuffed up here out of sight.
I shine the light across the plastic bins that are stacked to the gabled ceiling as a clap of thunder rattles the house. I jump, my heart ballooning in my throat. The rain is pounding so hard, it sounds as if water is seeping in everywhere. How in the world am I supposed to find a leak in a downpour?
I crawl across the plywood floorboards, quietly scooting aside cardboard boxes labeled WINTER CLOTHES and BABY TOYS, searching for wet areas. The wood gets damper the farther I crawl.
This is ridiculous. Look at me—creeping through an attic in the middle of the night searching for a leak. I’m not sure how I’m going to stop it if I do find one. Maybe just shout at it until it does something. Works for Catherine.
A shadowy box pushed into the corner catches my eye. The glint of an iron hinge. I shine my flashlight on it. A trunk. No—no, not just any trunk. I remember this trunk. From a long time ago. A faded memory, old.
I crawl up and put the end of the flashlight in my mouth and dig my fingernails under the lock. My hands are shaking. The lock pops open, unnaturally loud against the rain pelting the roof. Another roll of thunder vibrates the rafters as I push up the lid, the flashlight illuminating a beautiful blue jacket.
I remember the fabric before I even touch it. I remember how it feels, and how it rustled when Dad walked, trailing like a cape. Dad’s Federation Prince cosplay. I pull on the jacket, unveiling it inch by inch as though I’m easing it back into existence.
Slowly, half afraid it’ll turn to dust, I slip it on.
The coat’s too big, of course. The buttons need to be resewn, the tassels rethreaded. I turn my nose into the collar, inhale. It still smells like him too, mixed with the starch he used on the coattails.
But then the flashlight beam catches glitter and dark-purple cloth. Can’t be—Catherine threw all this stuff out. She said she did. Donated it with the twins’ clothes and her clutter.
I sink my hands into the trunk and take hold of a dress that could have been made from a midnight sky, the fabric a rich plum, soft and silky. I lift it up, wisps of gauzy silk slipping between my fingers. In the shadows, it sparkles like a galaxy caught in the threads.
Tears brim in my eyes. It’s Mom’s dress. Princess Amara’s dress. I never really knew her, not like I knew Dad. But I wish with all my heart that I did.
I hug it tightly, squeezing my eyes closed. For a moment, it feels like I’m not alone in the attic. It feels like they’re here.
An idea begins to dawn on me. Catherine can sell the house. She can take away my parents and put them in boxes. She can make me do the chores. She can berate me for working at a food truck…But besides what’s here, in this trunk, I’m the last bit of my dad the world has left. I might be no one, but my father was extraordinary. And he loved me more than anything.
What kind of daughter would let that fade?
Then again, what can I do when the only thing I really own in the world are my parents’ old costumes?
The answer hits me like a lightning strike.
I’ll go to ExcelsiCon and enter that contest. I’ll win that contest. And I’ll get my tickets out of here, away from Catherine and the twins, and create a new universe where I can be whoever I want to be and not what everyone thinks I am.
I’ll be my father’s daughter.
It’ll be work. I’ll have to clean these things up, alter them so they fit, somehow find a way to get to Atlanta for the convention. But Dad taught me a long time ago that it takes much more than a few good pieces of costume to be worthy of the Federation insignia. It takes courage and perseverance. It takes all the good things I still feel in Dad’s old cosplay uniform. All the kind things in Mom’s galaxy dress.
And with their help, I’ll make them proud.
I’ll ignite the stars.
I’VE MET MY DOOM, AND IT isn’t even breakfast yet.
Six foot eight, as broad as a New York Jets linebacker with sausage fingers that could snap me—even buff, gained-twenty-pounds-of-muscle-for-a-movie Darien 2.0 me—in half. A tribal tattoo winds across the side of his mostly shaved head.
Holy looming nose hairs, Batman.
Mark looks between me and my doom with this proud grin on his face. Like he’s won the county fair with a stolen prized pig.
“So?” he says, egging on a compliment that I will not give him. He can call me petulant. He can tell me I’m showing my age. I don’t care. “What do you think, Darien?”
“I don’t need a bodyguard,” I reply, crossing my arms over my chest. I try to stand as tall as I can, but even then Mr. Doom towers over me by a good six inches. Think half the Rock, half Terry Crews. All three hundred pounds of muscle. And when I stand up straighter, so does he. Showoff.
“He’s not here for your benefit,” Mark replies through a smile. His teeth are clenched. “He’s here because our insurance company insisted on it.”
“It’s not my fault you insured my abs. They never asked for that. If you hadn’t made me do that stupid stunt on Hello, America—”
“I’m thinking of your future, Darien. You don’t want to mess it up more, do you?” He taps my chin—the same spot where I have a “career-ending” scar. After my unfortunate boat fail, Mark tossed around names of plastic surgeons like NFL quarterbacks throw Hail Mary passes. I didn’t think the stitches were that bad, but the showrunner had to go back and reshoot almost every scene in the finale to incorporate them. Needless to say, the resulting scar did not end my career. The only thing that ended was my last and only friendship.
I tear my eyes away from Terry Crews Jr. to glare at my dad.
“Don’t give me that look, Darien,” he says with a sigh. “I just want to do best by you. I just want you to get jobs in this town. You understand that, right?”
“Fine. Fine.” There’s no point arguing. “For how long?”
“Now see, that’s the thing—”
“How long? And what does Gail say about it?”
“Gail agrees it’s a good idea. And indefinitely.” He takes out his vibrating phone and glances at the number. “I need to take this. You two get to know each other. This’ll be an adventure, right?”