Wanted to give everyone a look at the first chapter of my new book, Season of the Witch. On sale, October 8th. Would love to hear what you think.
You know how it is with little girls. It’s all about the princesses. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel—gorgeous cartoon females yearning for their princes and trapped by jealous old witches. When I was a kid, me and my two best friends, Francesca and Elodie, had a princess club. Every day at school, we’d get together at recess and do the princess thing. The rules were strict. You could not be a princess if you didn’t wear a dress to school that day. You could not be a princess unless you had something pink on your person—socks, hair band, whatever. And you had to have a favorite. In case you care, mine was Snow White. I was wild for that black hair, red lips combo.
However, it was understood that you played a princess who had the same color hair as you. Francesca had blond hair, so she could do Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Elodie had red hair, perfect for Ariel. I had dark brown hair, which meant I was stuck with Belle from Beauty and the Beast. No one ever wanted to play the Beast, so we didn’t do a lot of Belle stories.
We couldn’t do Snow White either, no matter how much I begged. Francesca said Snow White was too scary for her. So, for one reason or another, I never got to do my story. When we played Cinderella, I was the stepmother and Elodie was the fairy godmother. We did Little Mermaid. Francesca was Flounder’s sister, Goldie, and I was Ursula. Once I said we had to do Mulan, but Francesca and Elodie got bored with it because she wasn’t really a princess and there was only one girl part. Also, she cut off her hair, which was a big fat no-no.
And that’s how it was. Day after day, we would meet by the old iron bench under the tree in the recess yard. While the rest of the kids were climbing and swinging and chasing each other, Francesca and Elodie would sigh and dream and pretend to talk to woodland creatures—while I got stuck playing whatever lousy role they gave me.
And what I started wondering was, why did they get to decide? Who put them in charge?
One day, we were on the playground. Our teacher, Ms. Tina, was standing by the door, keeping an eye on the boys in case they started shoving. Francesca and Elodie were sitting on the little bench, trying to decide whether we would do the scene where Cinderella’s step mother says she can’t go to the ball or the one where the fairy godmother turns the pumpkin into a coach. I stood to one side, waiting to hear if I was a stepsister, one of the mice, or what.
And that’s when I said “I’m tired of Cinderella.”
Francesca and Elodie looked at each other. Francesca said, “It was your day yesterday. I get to pick today.”
“My” day. We had spent “my” day with me singing to my backpack, which was standing in for the talking clock, while Elodie said “Belle wouldn’t say that” and “Those aren’t the words to the song.”
Francesca looked stormy. I had never challenged her before. If I pushed too hard, I could very well be kicked out of the club. Which meant I would have to hang out by myself in the dirt patch at the end of the playground.
So I said, “What about Sleeping Beauty?” Francesca would be Aurora, but there were a lot of good parts in Sleeping Beauty: the fairies, the mom… Francesca thought about it, then said sweetly, “Okay. But you have to be the witch.”
The witch. We never did witches. Supposedly, the whole reason we couldn’t do Snow White was because the witch was too scary. In Sleeping Beauty, we always did the scene when the fairies are dancing around getting ready for Aurora’s birthday.
Seeing me hesitate, Francesca said, “You’re so good at Ursula.” Meaning: You’re a good bad guy. You’d be a great witch.
But playing the witch would be like a curse. I knew if I played her this one time, I wouldn’t ever get to be a princess again. But if I said no, I still wouldn’t get to be a princess, because I’d be kicked out of the club.
So I said, “Okay.”
While Francesca and Elodie tried to decide who Elodie would be—Aurora’s mom or one of the fairies—I tried to figure out how to do the witch. Her name was Maleficent. Even not knowing what the name meant, I could feel its darkness.
Maleficent gets mad because she’s not invited to a party held in Aurora’s honor. Listening to Francesca and Elodie chatter away, I understood that I had also been left out. I could still play with them, but only if I played certain roles. Only if I understood that they were the princesses and I was not. I was always going to be the outsider. The accepted but not-quite-as-good. The tolerated, as long as I played by someone else’s rules.
However—Maleficent did have black hair. And red lips.
Francesca said, “Let’s start when I’m a baby and you come in and curse me.” I felt a fierce desire to do this well. Looking at Francesca curled up on the bench and sucking her thumb, I thought, I’m going to win. I’m going to beat you. You are not going to have the power anymore.
I snatched up a stick, then said to Elodie, “Who dares not let me in?”
Waving her hands in the air, Elodie cried, “Oh, please don’t hurt my baby.” “I shall not hurt your baby—yet,” I sneered. “But on her sixteenth birthday, she shall prick her finger and fall into a sleep that shall last forever!”
And I pointed the stick at Francesca. “You are doomed.” She started crying loud baby sobs.
Then she said, “Okay, let’s do the part where I fall asleep.” Francesca loved fainting. Picking up a twig from the ground, she pretended to stab herself in the finger and swooned backward on the bench.
“Sleep,” I said in a low voice. “Sleep as if you are dead till the prince comes to waken you.”
Francesca giggled, then started to get up.
“No,” I said. “Stay down, you’re dead.”
She looked scornful. “No, I’m not.” “You are. I made you dead.” I held the stick out, let it float above her head.
“Sleeping Beauty comes back alive,” she argued. “The prince makes her come back alive.” I looked all around the playground to make my point: no prince.
“I’ll be the prince,” said Elodie quickly.
“No!” I snapped. “No changing. You have to stay what you are.”
To Francesca I said, “You can’t get up till I say.”
And she lay back. I’m not sure why. Either she was genuinely scared of what I might do with that stick or she realized that that’s how the story goes. The princess can’t rescue herself. As we waited, Francesca uncomfortable on the bench, Elodie standing awkward and bored, I realized that the witch and the prince had the same power over life and death. I could take it away; he could give it back. A princess couldn’t do anything.
But the princess gets the prince in the end; the witch goes away and dies. That made me feel strange and lonely at first. Then I noticed Francesca squirming because her legs were too long for the bench. Really, she’d never been my friend. Only now, she had to do what I said.
Ms. Tina called for everyone to come in. Francesca looked at me.
“You’re still dead,” I told her.
“But my leg hurts,” she whimpered.
You made me be the witch, I thought. So this is how it goes.
Here’s something I don’t tell most people. When I was ten, my dad gave me a small green hippo made of glass with ruby eyes. (That’s what I thought at the time. Now I know they’re just crystals.) She sat in the palm of my hand, happy and peaceful. I stroked her broad, smooth back with the tip of my finger and said, “This is the nicest thing in the whole world.” I named her Mimi, which was what I wished my parents had named me instead of Antonia.
Every year after that, I got another animal. Now there are six and they live on my windowsill. There’s Mimi in the center because she was the first. Then Phoebe the Unicorn and Dallas the rabbit. Boo Boo is an ape and Gloriana a butterfly. At the very end, Aura the serpent. Aura, I decided long ago, has the most power. I like to keep her a little separate from the others because I’m never quite sure what Aura will do.
The thing I won’t tell people—because it’s childish, lame, and borderline obsessive- compulsive—is that every day before I leave the house, I sit with my animals and arrange them how they need to be. Each of them has a very different personality—basically, different sides of me—and I like to set them up to give me the best shot at a decent day. For example, if I’m feeling a little lonely and out of it, I’ll put shy, awkward Dallas near Gloriana, who’s flirty and gorgeous. Mimi is the core me, and a lot of days, I’ll put her, Boo Boo, and Phoebe together in a tight group, representing humor, strength, and purity. But if it’s going to be one of those “I need you not to mess with me” days, I put Aura in the center. All by herself, because the others are scared of her.
Today is the first day of school. Today Mimi needs her friends around her.
I put her in the center where the sun can shine on her, put Phoebe and Dallas to her right and left. Boo Boo protects her back; Glorianna is in front to distract her from ugliness.
Aura goes to the corner of the windowsill. I don’t want malevolence anywhere near me today.
When I’m done, I put on my backpack and take a deep breath. Then another.
I can’t actually breathe all that well.
To distract myself, I look around my room. My messy bed with my purple star quilt. My squashy green chair that used to be in my mom’s office. Now Apples, my ancient rag doll, slouches there. On my walls, little promises for the life I want to have someday: a postcard from Venice; a gorgeous black-and-white shot of Dorothy Parker, a sharp-point pen poised at her lips; a shot of people strolling down Fifth Avenue in 1912; Bette Davis with her sly, knowing look. Someday, I think, I’ll be elegant. Fiercely smart. Strong. But still funny, still nice.
I stand in front of the mirror, check out my back-to-school outfit. Cute plaid skirt, plaid bow in the brown hair that seems to be cooperating. Black top, on the tight side. One time, I was at Sephora looking at eyeshadow, and the salesman said, “Baby, you got big eyes, big mouth, and big tatas. Work what the good Lord gave you.” So I do. At least, I try.
Clothes are fine. What’s inside the clothes is a mess. But it’ll have to do.
At the last minute, I take out my phone, hoping, praying, whatevering, there is another message. A different message. One that says, Ha, ha, just kidding!
But there isn’t. Just the one that came last night. The one that says:
Get ready for hell.
Really—what’s the worst that could happen? This is what I ask myself while I wait for my friend Ella on the corner of Ninety-Fourth and West End.
Get ready for hell.
I try to envision what kind of hell is in store exactly. My mind stretches, tries to feel for the outer reaches of doom. Thick, black, greasy smoke fills my head, seeps down to my stomach until I feel sick.
I won’t die, I remind myself. She will not actually kill me.
No, okay—realistically, she is not going to kill me. This I know. Or am relatively sure of. I will still be breathing for the next seventy years or so. If I’m not, it won’t be because of Chloe Nachmias.
Chloe Nachmias is not going to kill me for real. She doesn’t have to. She can just kill me in all the ways that truly matter when you’re starting your junior year of high school.
To distract myself, I look across the street. Two kids standing at the curb. One is maybe my age. He’s wearing a black T-shirt. The other’s a little younger, like twelve; he’s wearing a red hoodie. The light changes, both of them step off the curb.
I think, If red hoodie makes it across first, today will not be a bad day.
Black T-shirt darts ahead, gets to the other side in a flash. I sigh, wishing I didn’t believe in signs. But I do, especially when there’s a big bucket of caca hanging over my head.
Well, it’s a nice day, I tell myself. My favorite kind of day. Clear blue sky, a little breeze, the air sharp and fresh. But still warm enough that you can go outside in just jeans and a T-shirt. Usually, I love the first day of school. I love seeing everyone again, hearing the craziness that went on over the summer. The long, hot months away from school turn twerpy boys into broad-shouldered guys. Girls get curves, rad haircuts. People try things over the summer they would never, ever dare in school. So there’s a lot to talk about. The five Ws of dirt: who did what where, when, and with whom.
I can’t lie. This summer got a little crazy for me. I’d like to say I don’t remember some of the things I did. But I do. And so does everyone else. I will definitely be one of the whos discussed. I would give a lot of money to have that not be true. To have no story anyone’s dying to hear. No scoop, no dirt.
“Oh, my God, I am so sorry!” Ella stumbling and tumbling toward me, her backpack askew on her shoulders. She is round in all ways—pudgy, curls, moon face—and bounces chaotically through life. She’s like a hyper puppy: cute, but you worry someone will kick her.
I haven’t seen Ella for two months; she’s been at a…well, “fat camp” for lack of a nicer term. The New You Health Center. She wasn’t allowed to have contact with the outside world, in case someone tried to smuggle Snickers bars through the mail. The camp was her parents’ idea; frankly, it sounded kind of cruel. Ella’s not that heavy. But food is her drug of choice. And her parents are super-pure stick figures. Eat only fiber. Drink only water. Run a million miles, then do sit-ups till they vomit. Whenever I eat dinner at their house, I get so stressed out with them watching every bite, I want to go directly to Shake Shack afterward. So I get Ella’s problem.
Nonetheless, I’m all ready to exclaim, “Oh, my God, you look fantastic! I can’t believe how much weight you lost!” Only Ella looks exactly the same.
She raises her fist ironically. “Six pounds, whoo-hoo!”
“Hey, more than I lost.” Which I guess is true if we’re only talking weight. Looking for something else to compliment, I notice Ella has a new bag. It has an image of The Scream, the Munch painting with the ghostly figure on the bridge holding his face and shrieking.
“Love that,” I say.
“Kind of how I feel, right? The camp put me on this insane diet I’m supposed to stay on for my whole entire life.” She reaches into the bag, takes out a bag of mini Chips Ahoy. “These aren’t exactly on the plan, but hey—first day of school.”
She grins. I grin back. Some kids don’t like Ella because she never stops talking—usually about somebody else. What they did and who they did it with, why, and man, what do you think will happen because oh, my God, this could get really bad. She often communicates with her eyes popped wide open, gasping slightly as if she’s out of breath—it’s that amazing. She lives for what she calls “total drama,” as if other people are one big reality show for her to watch and comment on.
But I too like to talk about people. So do most of us, right? The difference between Ella and most of us is Ella doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. It would not occur to her to be bitchy; she’s so fricking grateful to people for giving her something to talk about, she goes out of her way to be nice about them. Like when Amber Davies showed up for school stoned and it came out that she’d been raiding her parents’ pot supply for breakfast, Ella joked, “Man, I’d like some herbal happiness with my low-fat yogurt.” Or when Paul Jarrett took up a dare to kiss David Horvath at a party and they kind of sort of ended up making out. Everyone else was all whisper whisper because Paul’s a major jock with a girlfriend, and now, oh, my God, he’s a fag. But Ella just said, Whoa, good for him. I’d totally swap spit with David, he is H.O.T.
She throws her arms around me. “Oh, my God, so great to see you! Catch me up, I know nothing! What insane naughtiness went on? I must know EVERYTHING!”
Everything, I think. That’s a lot.
I nod my head sideways. Let’s walk. It’s twelve blocks to school. Twelve blocks of safety before the hell.
I decide to start with the most important news. I say lightly, “Well, you know Chloe, right?”
“Super scary diva bitch Chloe who speaks fluent French and has the wardrobe of life,” says Ella promptly. She has everyone at school catalogued in her brain, everything they’ve ever done and said.
I nod. “And of course, Oliver…”
“Chloe’s super sweet brainy boyfriend and you kind of don’t get it, but you think, Okay, he’s kinky for cruel.”
I nod again. “Well, they had this fight over the summer…”
Ella stops dead. She’s been friends with me long enough to know where this is going. She mouths, “Oh. My. God.”
“Yeah,” I say unhappily. “A little bit. But it’s over, they’re back together.”
“Is everything cool?”
I can say a lot of things in my defense. Yes, Chloe and Oliver have been an official School Super Couple since last winter. But supposedly they were on some kind of sex break, because Chloe’d had this pregnancy scare and wanted to cool it. That was in June. Then in July, Oliver was like, okay, this has gone on for a while, I’m starting to take it personally and Chloe was like, Maybe it is personal, I don’t know.
He asked, Do you want to break up?
She said, I don’t know.
And that’s how it was in August when Oliver walked me home from Erica Mittendorf’s party. When a guy walks three miles with you on a hot, humid night, and you’re both making jokes about taking off your clothes and just walking naked and a certain amount of beer has been consumed—
Afterwards, we had breakfast at dawn at a diner on 91st Street. I said, “Look, I know you’re with Chloe, and my lips are sealed, I promise. I don’t want to screw you guys up.”
Oliver was quiet for a long time. Then he said, “Actually, I don’t know if I am with Chloe.”
To which, I said, “Oh.”
“It seems like we’re kind of taking a break this summer.”
I waited. “But you don’t know.”
He looked sad; I felt sad for him. Chloe was Oliver’s first girlfriend; everyone knew she had him under her thumb.
Still, I had to ask. “Do you know if the break includes other people?”
He looked at me and we laughed and said at the same time: “No.” And I swear, I do not know if we meant No, he didn’t know or No, it doesn’t include other people.
I said, “This is getting very confused.”
“It is,” agreed Oliver, and pressed his knee between my legs.
I let it stay confused for about two weeks. But then Lulu Zindel saw us being confused outside a movie theater. That’s when it got nasty.
The next day, Oliver called me and said, “Chloe found out. She’s pretty upset.” Well, I thought, now we know how Chloe feels about the break including other people question.
“I can imagine,” I said. And waited.
Oliver said, “I’m not really sure what to do.”
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
And of course he said, I don’t know.
I said, “You should deal with Chloe before anything else happens with us. I think that’s fair.”
“Probably,” said Oliver. “Sorry, this kind of sucks for you.”
“Eh,” I said lightly, “I’ll deal.”
And I would have—because I have been through this before. I have deeply weird boyfriend karma. Every guy I’ve gotten together with has either just broken up with someone or is obsessing about someone else. In eighth grade, Daniel Schrodinger french kissed me at Carrie Nussbaum’s party—not, as it turned out, because he liked me but because he wanted to make Saskia Phelps jealous. I had a total nervous breakdown. Oh, my God, I thought he liked me and he totally used me—waahhh.
Same thing in ninth grade when James Olmstead asked me to go out with him the day after Ramona Digby dumped him—and then dumped me two weeks later when Ramona took him back. Tears, tears, tears. Many phone calls to many people. Sob, sob.
But by tenth grade, I knew the score. In tenth grade, when Enzo Carmichal asked me out, I was like, “You and Jane have that whole bestie thing going on. I’m not getting in the middle of that.” He was like, “Platonic, dude, platonic.”
Now, I knew Jane didn’t feel the same way, even though she had never said anything. But I also thought, Well, you know, maybe she needs a push to let him know.
The push worked. About a month after Enzo and I started, Jane got tipsy at a party and tearfully confessed that she was insane about him. Enzo and Jane are still together. She gives me the stink eye whenever I come near them, which is odd, but whatever.
Bottom line: I’ve learned that freaking gets you nowhere. Stay cool and everybody has more fun.
Yes, I did kind of hope that Oliver was going to break it off with Chloe. And yes, it sucked when it became clear that was not happening. But I dealt with it. What I couldn’t deal with—what I’m still not dealing with so well—is Chloe hating me. And not just Chloe. Her two best friends, Zeena and Isabelle, hate me as well, because, hey, why think for yourself when you can share a brain with two other girls? So much easier! Isabelle and Zeena have been sending me messages too. Highly original and oh so witty things like
Don’t think this is over. It’s not.
Oh, and the phone calls. They’re fun. Sometimes they hang up. Sometimes not.
Two nights ago, I tried saying, “Chloe, can we talk about this?” Because I didn’t want this stuff to still be going on once school started.
I said, “I’m really, really sorry. I did not mean for this to happen. I thought you guys had broken up. Now that I know otherwise, I’m out. Okay?”
I thought, She can’t be mad now. I said I was sorry. That means I’m saying I was wrong, you were right. Like a dog showing its belly to another dog. I give up, don’t hurt me.
Then I heard empty silence as she hung up.
So here we are. First day of school and it’s still going on. Yay.
“Well, you said Chloe and Oliver made up,” says Ella when I’m done with my tale. “So, really, she should be chill.”
“Yeah, not so chill,” I say unhappily.
I want to tell Ella about the messages Chloe and her psycho posse have been sending. But I realize we’re two blocks away from school and I haven’t asked Ella anything about her. Yes, I am terrified, but that’s no excuse for narcissism.
So I say, “So, how was your summer? Was New You total hell or basically bearable?”
Ella goes quiet. Oh, dear, I think, total hell.
Then she says, “Um, this really awful thing happened, actually.”
Startled, I stop. “What awful thing?” “Uhm—” Ella sighs unhappily. “You know my cousin Cassie?”
Cassie, I think quickly. Ella’s cousin who goes to our school, but they never hang out, which is why I don’t know her that well. Hardass brainiac woman. Plays rugby and runs with that crowd sometimes. Mostly keeps to herself.
Ella adds, “And my little cousin, Eamonn?”
Ella shakes her head. “No, duh, why would you? Well, Cassie has this little brother, Eamonn, he’s eight and he’s like—autistic. Severe. You can’t leave him by himself, he’s so spastic.”
“That’s hard,” I say.
“Yeah, it is. Or…it was. A week ago? He died.”
My brain goes on the fritz. I can’t even think of the obvious polite thing to say. All I can think of is, Died. Someone died. A little kid died. How can I be worried about my stupid crap when a little eight year old kid is dead?
Finally I manage, “What happened?”
Ella starts walking again. “I really have no idea. It happened my last week at camp. I didn’t find out till I got home, and my parents told me. They said he had a seizure or something and drowned in the bathtub. I was like, Why didn’t you call me? They were all, Oh, it would have been too upsetting for you. Meaning, ‘God forbid you don’t lose every last ounce you can.’ But it sucks. I didn’t even get to go to his funeral.”
“Were you guys close?”
Ella makes a face. “Um, not amazingly. My mom’s super competitive with Cassie’s mom, and there’s always drama, drama. And Eamonn was cute but a little hard to be around. Still—”
Still you want to be included in your own family. I nod.
“Your poor cousin,” I say. “Was she there when it happened?”
“Yeah, she was,” says Ella. “In fact, she was supposed to be taking care of him. Their parents weren’t home.”
“Oh, God. She must feel awful.”
“I wouldn’t know,” says Ella. “Everyone’s like, Don’t bring it up, whatever you do! My mom said, Your aunt and uncle are very fragile right now, leave them be. Cassie won’t share with me, she thinks I’m a grade A moron. Which, you know, maybe I am, but she could be nicer about it. All I heard was that she wants everyone to call her Cassandra now. No more Cassie.”
Weirdly, I get that. Wanting to be a different person after something awful happens to you. Thinking, Yeah, everything’ll be fine if I’m not the person who went through that hideous crap.
Maybe I should change my name too. We’re a block away from school now. It’d be nice to be able to say, “The craziness this summer? The Oliver/Chloe drama? No, that was some other girl. Toni, yeah. I’m not her. I’m… Anastasia.”
At the last crossing, I think, If the light changes to green before I count to five, I will be safe. If it changes after five, I am in danger.
One, two, three…
Please change, I think. Seriously, universe. Do me a favor.
Four, five…six…seven… It goes green.
I am so screwed.