“Stop!” I yelp. “What are you doing?”
She gives me a side-eye. “Alterations, Elle.”
“But you’re cutting it!”
She sighs. “Look, do you want this to fit or don’t you? I told you. You can’t just hem it up, you have to get into the seams and stuff. Either stop me and try to win with nostalgia, or let me do this and help you clinch your victory.”
I hesitate, glancing between her and the jacket. Maybe she’s right. Pursing my lips, I nod and let her cut the fine seams that Mom sewed years ago. I watch as, thread by thread, Sage unravels the history of my parents and the opening credits of Starfield begin.
In the middle of the third episode, a raspy voice calls from the top of the basement, “Sage! You down there?”
“Yeah, Mom!” she replies as footsteps come down the stairs. I don’t say anything, seeing as I’m trapped inside the coat with a forest of pins preventing my moving even an inch.
A graying-haired woman reaches the bottom step. She looks as surprised as I am to see her, but then her smile turns warm. “Ah—well! Elle, right?”
“Hi, Miss Graven.”
“Please, call me Wynona.” She extends her hand to shake. “Sage’s mom.”
“I think she figured that out,” Sage states, crossing her arms over her chest. “Seeing as you hired her?”
“She could’ve thought I was your sister.” Sage’s mom leans toward me with a mock-whisper. “I still get carded at bars, you know.”
Sage rolls her eyes.
“Don’t let her give you any mouth,” Sage’s mom goes on. “She’s really a sentimental brat under all that hair and makeup.”
“Mom,” Sage whines. “Stop it. We’re kinda busy right now.”
“All right, all right. Well, Elle, you staying for dinner?” she says with a lopsided smile. “It’s wheat-meat night!”
I glance at the clock—and then curse. How’d it get to be eight-thirty already? Jerking to my feet, I quickly begin to gather up the costume. “I have to get home—I’m sorry. It’s almost my curfew.”
Sage waves her hand. “Leave the costume here. And be careful, there’s still pins in the shoulder!” she adds when I pick up the jacket and yelp. I drop it, sticking my poked finger in my mouth. She looks at me patiently. “Told you.”
I hesitate, glancing down at the jacket.
“It’ll be fine here, daisy,” Sage’s mom says with a laugh. “It’s in the best hands.”
I nod, gathering my empty duffel bag. “All right.”
We climb the stairs out of the basement. A sweet aroma wafts from the kitchen, making my stomach grumble. Nothing at the Wittimer household ever smells half as good as wheat-meat night does. Probably because I season our dinners with tears for the carbs we’ll never eat.
Sage sees me to the door as her mom calls out from the kitchen, “Was a pleasure, Elle! Come back anytime!”
“You’ll see her tomorrow!” Sage yells back. She sees me out the door. “Sorry. My mom can get up in everyone’s business sometimes.”
“I like her,” I reply. “She’s cool.”
“Yeah, try living with her. You sure you don’t want me to drive you home?”
I shake my head, thinking of Catherine and Giorgio and their hatred of the Pumpkin’s faulty muffler. “Nah, it’s nice out tonight. I’d like to walk. But, um, thank you.”
“Suit yourself.” She gives me a salute, and I head down the porch stairs and toward the end of the block. After a few steps, I realize I’m grinning. For the first time, I’m looking forward to tomorrow—and I can’t remember looking forward to anything since the twenty-fifth anniversary of Starfield two years ago. And even then I looked forward to watching the recording while Catherine and the twins were on a ski retreat two weeks after it aired.
This feels different. Like something I can control. Happiness I can control. Happiness that is solely mine. I didn’t realize there was such a thing anymore. I didn’t think it existed in this universe. I thought that when Dad died, it moved to the other universe, the one where he’s still alive.
“Hey!” It’s Sage, yelling all the way from her porch. “Elle! When’s your contest again?”
“Two weeks from Friday. Is that…” I clear my throat. “Enough time?”
There’s a long pause. But then she gives me a thumbs-up.
“Are you kidding? Nothing’s impossible with me.”
WE FILM FOR TEN HOURS STRAIGHT, not to mention the two hours in the makeup chair and the time spent waiting on Calvin to get his freaking lines right (maybe they’re a little harder between Euci’s shark teeth, but no one forced him to sign on as Euci, so I don’t feel the least bit bad).
When the director finally calls it a wrap for the day, Calvin shrugs out of his coat so fast that his assistant doesn’t have time to catch it before it hits the dusty ground. He jumps off the soundstage, pulling his pointy teeth out of his mouth. He couldn’t at least wait to disrobe before reaching the costume trailer? Jeez.
Gail rushes up instantly, digging into her jacket pocket. “It’s been going off like crazy,” she says. “Who’s wanting to contact you so badly?”
“Dunno.” I take the phone and slide open the lock screen, a cascade of blue messages filling the screen.
Elle 6:42 PM
—Introducing a friend to Starfield
—this is going to be tres interesting
—I’ll keep you updated
Elle 7:02 PM
—Yesterday’s thoughts: she is not impressed
—kept asking questions like “What’s a solar flux capacitor and why is it broken?”
My lips turn up without my consent. Earthenders is what anyone from the stars calls people who prefer a planet. The people who stay in one place forever, stuck in their narrow ways. It’s like calling a person a Muggle in the Harry Potter world.
I scroll down. There are so many texts; she wrote an entire novel. Entirely to me.
Elle 7:32 PM
—TODAY: Fifth episode, not as many questions.
—Thought the general’s sawed-off horns looked like boobs on his head.
—oh, oh Carmindor
—they actually kinda do.
—(also I know you’re probably busy but I have to tell someone or I’ll bust.)
Elle 7:35 PM
—pee break. Also, sixth episode or skip to ten?
—skipping to ten, executive decision.
Elle 8:10 PM
—BEST IDEA EVER.
—also it’s the episode with Carmindor in the shower
—I mean, not you in the shower—i’m sure you take showers
—and not that I’m repulsed by you being in a shower
—I was just saying it’s the one with the other Carmindor being sexy in the shower.
—Not that YOU couldn’t be sexy either…
—I’ll shut up now.
That’s the end of the texts, but my lips are straining so far over my teeth they’re beginning to hurt. Suddenly, getting my ass kicked by Calvin I’m-Better-Than-You Rolfe doesn’t seem too terrible.
“You’re smiling. What is it?” Gail stands on her tiptoes to sneak a peek at the messages, but I click off the phone and stash it in my pocket before she can read about me in a shower. “Is it that girl from Seaside?”
“No,” I say. “Just someone I met.”
“Randomly?” Gail’s eyebrows shoot up. “Like, a stranger? You don’t think she could be the one who—”
“She’s not the snitch. I’m going to get changed.” I exit the soundstage, with Gail following to ask more questions. The night air is humid and sticky as I cross the lot to the costume trailer. On the other side of the chain fence surrounding the compound, a girl cries out my name. “I love you, Darien! Look over here! Darien!”
I look over, pulling on my Darien Freeman mask, and wave to them. They squeal.
“Don’t antagonize them,” Gail scolds.
“I’m just saying hello. Can’t I do that?”
She fakes a smile to the fans, teeth clenched together. “Not without your bodyguard.”
In the costume trailer, Nicky, the costumes manager, is beating the dirt off Calvin’s costume, muttering darkly. Of course Calvin had to go and put him in a bad mood, so he’ll be in an even worse mood when I tell him that a button’s fraying on my coat. The same button. Again.
“Is this girl anyone I have to worry about?” Gail asks, following me into the costume racks. I decide to wait and tell Nicky about the button tomorrow. I’ll pretend I didn’t notice until then—I’m an actor, right?
“I don’t think so.” I shrug out of the coat and grab a hanger.
Gail’s face scrunches in suspicion. “How’d you meet her?”
I shrug. “The internet?” Sort of true.
“Darien!” she gasps.
“What? It’s cool.”