There is a loud solid crack, and my heart stops.
“Chloe?” Catherine calls up from the front door. “Calliope? I’m home!”
Chloe smirks. “Coming!” she replies, flipping her hair behind her shoulder, and leaves my room.
Slowly, I pick myself up, but the damage is done. I don’t need to open the bag to know what I’ll find. I do anyway—the crown that Sage spent hours crafting lies in pieces at the bottom. I pick up a few and they crumble between my fingers.
Bile rises in my throat.
Outside my door, there’s a padding sound of footsteps. I look up just as Cal peeks in.
“Elle?” she asks timidly—and then gasps. “Oh my god—what happened?”
I curl into myself. I wish the Black Nebula would eat me whole. I wish it would take me away. Hot tears burn as I squeeze my eyes closed and then they gush down my cheeks. I just want to go away. I don’t want to exist anymore.
“Get out,” I tell her, my voice wavering. “Get out of my room, Cal.”
For a moment she doesn’t move, wanting to stay. To, what, watch as I break down? Does she get a kick out of it, like her sister? But then she sinks away.
It’s all ruined. Everything is ruined. Just once I thought I could have something for me. Just once I thought…
But I guess this universe doesn’t have happily ever afters. I was stupid to think it could.
I find myself reaching into my back pocket, taking out my phone. I close my eyes, holding it against my chest, afraid it’ll be taken away too. Everything’s taken away.
Everything always is.
It’s past midnight. He might be asleep. I remember the way his voice sounded. Deep but young. Weightless. Sweet. I wonder what it would sound like if he ever called me ah’blena aloud.
That thought is what makes me tap the phone icon beside his number, put it to my ear as my heart races faster and faster, as the signal pings off a satellite far into space and sends my call back down to earth to the exact spot I wish I could be.
His phone rings once, twice, a mayday out into this impossible universe. And then it goes to voicemail. A generic one without his voice, so it could be anyone’s. He must be busy. Or asleep.
I hang up and press the back of my head against the door, blinking back the tears to try to stop crying.
We don’t look up often, I remember texting. Maybe we should start.
Only glow-in-the-dark stars whisper down to me, an imaginary constellation. It took Dad and me an entire weekend to hang them. Afterward, we stretched out on the floor and stared up at the ceiling and he asked me, “Where do you want to go? Pick a star, any star. Then set your course. Aim.” He pointed at a star, one eye closed, and pulled his thumb down as though he was firing a stargun.
I stretch my hand to my destination, aiming with one hand, and falter.
“Ignite!” I hear my father say, even though he’s not here and never will be again. Because this is the impossible universe. And there is no Carmindor, there is no Prospero, or Euci, or the Federation, or observation decks. There’s just me, stranded on the wrong side of everything that I love.
Like Princess Amara, lost in the Black Nebula.
“NOW GIRLS, I WANT YOU TO text me the moment you get to your tennis tournament.” Catherine smiles over the breakfast—eggs with spinach—that I made. I stand at the counter, sipping my coffee. I barely slept last night, and I’m not particularly hungry, either.
“Oh, of course,” Chloe says pleasantly. She throws me a look, as if to warn me to stay quiet. But the truth is, I’ve never been quieter. What’s the use of ratting her out, anyway? “And isn’t Elle going to clean the carpets today?”
“Oh, that’s right!” My stepmother claps and turns to me. “Now you know what to do, right? You won’t leave the carpet sudsy like last time?”
“No,” I reply, staring down into my cup.
Chloe checks her phone. “Cal, we’d better hurry or we’ll miss our ride. James’ll be here any minute.”
Cal, who hasn’t said a word all morning, hesitates. “I don’t…”
Catherine’s tweezed brows pucker. “Are you feeling well, darling? You look a little pale.”
“She’s fine,” Chloe answers, and prods Cal up out of her seat. “She’s just nervous is all. Aren’t you, Cal?”
Cal steals a glance at me. Then back down at her untouched plate of spinach and eggs. “Yeah.”
I can’t stand it anymore. I excuse myself to my room. A few minutes later, I watch James’s car pulls into the driveway and the twins hop in, taking my savings with them. My stepmother doesn’t come to check on me; she just yells up to tell me the steam cleaner is in the garage and she’ll see me tonight. Then the front door closes and the steady hum of the Miata turns out of the driveway and down the street.
After who knows how many minutes of lying on my bed, my phone buzzes in my pocket. I pull it out.
Sage 7:03 AM
—Hey! Where are u?
—I’ve been calling ALL MORNING
—I’m not going. I’m sorry.
Sword points begin to sting in my eyes. I blink back hot tears.
The first ExcelsiCon I remember was the year I turned seven. Dad had been going crazy planning it for the last nine months of our lives. He spent so many sleepless nights arranging the panels, guest appearances, security detail, talking about the con in circles until I was so sick of hearing about ExcelsiCon that I didn’t even want to go when it opened.
That morning, I woke up to the sound of Dad playing the Starfield theme at full speaker volume. So loud it rattled the stuffed animals off my shelves. He swooped into my room in his starched coat and his crown and took me up in his arms, singing with tone-deaf accuracy.
“DUN DUN-DUN-DUN DUN-DUN-DUUUUUUN-DUN,” he howled, waltzing me around my room in my moon-and-stars pajamas, and it was the beginning of the best day of my life. When I got my stargun signed by Mr. Singh. When I first thought I could be Carmindor. When Dad told me, “Starlight, star bright, you can be anyone you want to be tonight.”
Tears flood down before I can stop them. I wipe them away as quickly as they come with the back of my hand, but there’s more. They won’t stop. I’m crying so hard I can barely suck in a lungful of breath.
Outside, something rumbles.
Wiping my eyes, I stumble to the window. Out on the street, a large orange truck takes the corner tighter than Spider-Man’s leotard, barreling down the one-lane road, a green-haired maniac at the wheel.
When Sage bangs open the front door and stomps up to my bedroom, she finds me kneeling on the ground, my face in the crook of my arm because I don’t want her to see me crying. I don’t like anyone to see me cry. Not since Dad’s death.
Crying doesn’t fix things. It doesn’t bring anyone back.
“Elle—it’s okay. It’s all okay. This’ll be okay—”
I shove away from her. “No it w-w-won’t!” I take one look at the crumpled crown and the torn jacket and start crying harder. “They th-thought I stole the dress—my own mother’s d-d-dress. So they t-took my money and r-ruined my…our…”
Sage falls to her knees and tries to hug me, but I push her away.
“Don’t,” I say. “Get away from m-me. I’m weird and h-h-horrible and—and—and I r-r-ruin e-e-everything. C-Catherine’s life. The t-t-twins’. I’ll ruin y-your life too. I haven’t yet, but you j-j-just wait.”
She scoffs. “Elle, you can’t ruin someone else’s life. Are you nuts? They’re the ones who wrecked your stuff.” Sage studies me for a long moment, rocking back on her heels. “Why would you ever think you’re the one who ruins things?”
I laugh a small, thin laugh. “Because I’m just a b-burden. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be a part of this. I’m not Carmindor, Sage,” I admit, hiccupping. “I c-c-couldn’t be. I’m the Black Nebula, I’m Princess Amara—and I destroy ev-ev-everything I touch.”
She sits back. “Okay, then.”
“Okay what?” She sounds way too calm. “Don’t you get it? This is it, Sage. This is the end of it. I don’t get good things in this life. None of it.”
“I don’t believe that.” Sage stands up and reaches out to help me up too. “C’mon.”
Her hand hovers, outstretched, waiting for me to take it. I hesitate, looking up at it, wondering what she sees in me as a friend, why she doesn’t get it. Can’t she understand?
“Why?” I say at last.
“Because you’re right; you aren’t Carmindor. You’re Amara. And you know why you are? Because you’ve taken a crappy subplot and managed to live through it, and you are selfless and you’re brave.” She squats and takes me by the shoulders. “Elle, when I watched the last episode I didn’t think Amara destroyed anything. She saved the universe.”
“Carmindor saved the universe! All she did was die!”
“I thought you said there was another universe on the other side?”
“Does it matter?” I snap back. “I couldn’t be Amara if I wanted to. The twins lost Mom’s dress and—and—” A lump forms in my throat.