GRANDMA’S HOUSE was a study of crystal and glass and contained 1,153 unicorns. I knew, because I counted one drizzly, dreary Thanksgiving when we were stuck inside waiting for the world’s slowest turkey to brown. Horned beasts of crystal, glass, china, wood—she called them her “babies” and treasured them more than her dwindling life savings. (Dwindling mainly due to her unicorn habit. You wouldn’t believe the prices of these things from the Franklin Mint.) Whenever we’d come over, she’d sit me down and show me her favorites.
She had a lot of favorites.
That was fine and tolerable when we lived an hour away and saw her once a year. Over the river and through the woods and all that. But now we were living with her. In her museumlike house. Surrounded by unicorns.
I suppose my story isn’t unique. After all, half of marriages end in divorce, or so they say. Maybe I should count my blessings that Mom and Dad stuck it out as long as they did. Still, having to vacate our über-hip Back Bay Boston brownstone, leave my private school and friends behind, and move to Unicorn Land—all in the middle of my sophomore year—was a bit much.
But I had no choice. Mom and Dad weren’t speaking, unless they were yelling. Neither one could afford the mortgage on the brownstone, so they smacked down a For Sale sign and split—Dad to a smaller apartment down the street and Mom, me, and my eight-year-old sister, Emily, to New Hampshire. To Grandmother’s house we go.
I can’t even begin to tell you how painful that last day at my old school was. Saying good-bye to all my beloved teachers, promising my friends I’d IM and text at every possible second, cleaning out my locker, and tearing down the My Chemical Romance poster I’d stuck on the inside door on the first day of the school year. I’d been so full of hopes and dreams for the year back then. I was going to join the art club, write for the school paper, and, of course, make Ashley’s older brother, David Silverman, my boyfriend. (Okay, the last one was a long shot, but you couldn’t blame a girl for being goal oriented, could you?) It was going to be the best year ever.
Now, four months later, it was gearing up to be the worst.
“Maddy! You’d better get down here or you’ll miss the bus!” Grandma called from downstairs, bringing me back to my hellish reality, aka my first day at Hannah Dustin High School. There were prisoners on death row more excited about their pending visit with the electric chair than I was about my enrollment.
I mean, hello! First off, there was a bus. An actual bus to take me from my middle-of-nowhere Grandma’s house to my still-middle-of-nowhere school. Back home, I always walked. Met my friends at Dunkin’ Donuts for French crullers and coffee, then giggled and gossiped all the way to the campus of Boston Academy. Now I’d actually have to board a smelly, fume-filled, environment-destroying bus to get to school. At least I was getting my license in a few weeks when I turned sixteen. Though my chances of getting Grandma to lend me the car were slim to none.
My cell buzzed, scattering all thoughts of transportation. I glanced down to see the text. From Caitlin.
GOOD LUCK ON FIRST DAY!
I smiled, feeling a tiny bit better. At least I had my friends. Sure, they were farther away from me now, but they still cared. I punched in Caitlin’s number.
“Hey, girl,” I said into the phone after she answered.
“Oh, hey, Mads, how’s it going? How’re the ’burbs? They arrest you for not wearing Gap yet? Turn your mom into a Stepford wife?” Caitlin had a habit of asking at least four questions in the same breath, making it impossible to answer any of them.
“Hardy-har-har,” I replied. “You are too funny.”
“Whatevah. At least I’m not funny-looking.”
“Haven’t looked in the mirror lately, have you?” I asked, with mock sympathy.
“I’m looking now, bay-bee. And I’m looking fine. DAMN fine.”
I grinned, picturing my best friend dancing in front of the mirror as she was known to do, flaunting all that God had given her to anyone who cared to look. Caitlin was born without an insecurity gene. She died her hair pink and pierced her own nose in seventh grade. Her mother was totally cool with it, too, saying that girls needed to express themselves early in life so they could blossom into healthy, self-sufficient women who didn’t need a man to complete them. (Caitlin’s mother was also divorced—after her husband ran off to Vegas with his secretary. Some believed she was still a bit bitter about the whole thing.)
Hmm. Maybe my divorced mom would now let me explore the Manic Panic hair color rainbow, too. It’d be so cool to get some pink streaks in my hair. One time Caitlin and I went to Harvard Square after school and got the clip-on kind. Mom nearly had a heart attack until she found out they weren’t real.
“Madeline!” Grandma again, this time sounding more insistent.
I groaned. “Sorry, Caits, gotta run before Grandma has kittens and starts sneezing to death.”
“Okay, no prob,” Caitlin said. “Good luck today. I hope you meet tons of über-cool rock girls and sexy, sexy bad boys.”
“I’ll settle for anyone not openly worshipping the gods of Aberzombie,” I replied with a laugh. “I’ll miss you guys. Don’t have too much fun without me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. We’ll mourn you all day and fast in your honor at lunchtime. Unless they’re serving pizza, of course. If they’re serving pizza, consider yourself gone and forgotten.”
“Fair enough. I’ll call you after school to let you know how it went.”
“Cool. Later, gator.”
I pressed End, grabbed my hoodie, and vacated the Pepto-Bismol–colored, unicorn-themed bedroom Grandma had stuck me in. Pretty nauseating, let me tell you, though I couldn’t exactly complain. After all, originally she wanted me to share it with Emily. I think I would have stabbed myself with a unicorn horn if I had to bunk up with my little sis. Luckily for me, Emily wasn’t so keen on the idea either and used her big mouth to voice her displeasure. Repeatedly. So Grandma cleaned out her sewing room and declared it Emily’s. Kid had a gift for getting exactly what she wanted. I envied her that.
I started down the shag-carpeted stairs and found Grandma standing in the unicorn-infested living room below, a sentry guarding the path to freedom. And let’s just say her stern, disapproving look could have been picked up by a satellite.
I glanced around for Mom, but she was nowhere to be found. Must have already left for work. Not good. I bit my lower lip, knowing exactly what was coming before the woman even opened her mouth.
“You’re wearing that to school?”
“Uh . . . yes?” I really couldn’t think of anything else to say. I prayed I was wrong about Mom being at work and that she’d suddenly come around the corner and assure Grandma that my look was perfectly acceptable for a twenty-first-century teen. But no luck.
Okay, fine, maybe I should have dressed a tad more conservative. We were in the suburbs after all. But image was everything in high school and I felt I needed to make the appropriate “This is who I am” statement from day one to attract the right friends. (Sad, but true.) So I’d donned a short plaid skirt, paired with Doc Marten boots and a zip-up hoodie over my Pooka the Goblin Cat baby doll tee. It said, Gothy, but approachable.
At least to me. Grandma was obviously getting a different message as she fanned herself with a wrinkly hand, shaking her head in disbelief. Eesh. You’d have thought I’d come downstairs in Britney Spears’s last VMA outfit.
“Madeline Ann, you look like a dead prostitute,” she declared.
I opened my mouth to defend and retort, but reluctantly closed it again. We’d been drilled by Mom since day one not to talk back to Grandma. After all, she’s sooo nice to let us live here. We need to respect her and her rules.
“I don’t know what kind of getup you wore back in that city,” Grandma said, spitting out the word city as if it were poison. “But you’ll find kids in Farmingdale don’t dress like that.”
It was an effort not to roll my eyes. How did she know what kids wore? When was the last time she hung out at the local high school? I’d be willing to bet it was back when Grease was still the word. I looked longingly at the front door, wondering if I could just make a run for it. Grandma was old. Had arthritis. She probably couldn’t catch me if I dashed outside and caught the bus just as it was picking up the neighbor kids down the street. . . .
Then, as if by a miracle, I heard a beep outside. Phew.
“The bus!” I cried. “Gotta go.”
Grandma leaped in front of the door, effectively blocking my escape. For a lady approaching seventy, she sure could move quickly. “Not so fast,” she said. “I’ll drive you.” She folded her arms across her chest. “After you change.”
“But . . .”
“No buts. Now hop to it!”
My shoulders slumped. I wasn’t going to win this, was I? I trudged over to the stairs, my feet feeling like they were made of lead. Out the window, I caught the bright yellow vision of freedom pulling away from the curb.
“You know,” I remarked as I climbed, stair by stair, “I don’t have anything in my closet you’d possibly approve of. Seriously. Most everything I own is black.”
But Grandma had already thought of this. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” she replied immediately. “You can borrow some of my clothes.”
I stopped walking. Oh, no. No, no, no!
Sure enough, fifteen minutes later I’d been stuffed into a pair of bulky, pale blue “mom jeans” that came up past my belly button and a totally nonfitted oversized sweatshirt with—brace yourself here—frolicking unicorns embroidered on the front.
It couldn’t get worse. It just couldn’t.
I looked in the mirror, tears welling up in my eyes. “Please, Grandma. I can’t wear this to school. Seriously.”
“And why not?” she demanded, coming up behind me and straightening my sweatshirt. “I think you look adorable.”
Of course you do. “Yeah, but they’re . . .” I was about to say old lady clothes, but remembered Mom’s warning not to offend. “No one my age would be caught dead in this kind of outfit,” I amended. “If I show up like this, everyone’s going to laugh at me.”
“If they laugh at you, then they’re not your friends.” Grandma huffed. “Real friends don’t judge people by what they wear, but what they’re like on the inside.”
There was a huge, gigantic flaw in that argument since she was the one who made me change clothes in the first place, but I realized it would do no good to point it out.
Instead, I looked back in the mirror, praying maybe I could pull it off as some kind of edgy street wear the kids in the ’burbs hadn’t heard of yet. Like, Dude, unicorns are so in right now, where have you been? But it was no use. While I might have slid by with the unicorn thing, there was no way the mom jeans would escape notice.
I would have to kill myself on the way to school. Or run away and join the circus. Or . . .
A plan formed in my mind. As soon as Grandma dropped me off, I’d leave campus and find a store. There had to be stores around somewhere. Buy a decent outfit and head to class. I might have to miss first period, but it would be well worth it.
“Okay, let’s go,” Grandma said, jingling her keys.
Feeling better at having a plan, I joined her in her ancient Toyota and let her drive me to school. Ten minutes later she pulled into the parking lot. I looked up at the brick building on the hill. What would it be like? Would my teachers be cool? Would I find new friends? I looked down at my hands and realized they were shaking. I wished for the thousandth time I was wearing my normal clothes. I would have felt a hell of a lot more confident dressed as me.
I exited the car, thanking Grandma for the ride. To my dismay, she pulled the key out of the ignition and joined me on the curb.
“Um,” I said, looking at her smiling face with concern. “What are you doing?”
“I thought I’d walk you into the office,” she replied, obviously pleased with herself.
Oh, God. Oh, God. “You really don’t have to—”
Of course she did. She also insisted on grabbing me by the hand when we crossed the street and her iron grip didn’t loosen as we approached the school. The sinking feeling in my stomach was getting worse.
I could feel the stares as soon as we reached the school entrance and heard the snickers. Not surprising, I guess. How often did you see a grandma dragging a unicorn-clad girl through the front doors of your local high school? They all probably thought I was special needs.
“We’ll go to the principal’s office and get your schedule,” Grandma explained, as if I were a five-year-old on her first day of kindergarten. I hung my head and prayed for some kind of divine intervention. Maybe I was only dreaming. I’d wake up any second now, cozy in my bed, realizing this was all just one big, long, horrible nightmare.
But no such luck. I was really here. And the nightmare was my reality.
We stepped through the double doors, into a sea of lip-glossed Barbies and Tom Brady wannabes. I did a double take. Caitlin warned me this could happen, but I’d laughed her off. Surely every high school had some diversity, right?
Evidently wrong. It was as if I’d wandered into a living, breathing American Eagle commercial. Shudder. I looked around, desperately trying to pinpoint at least one person who would prefer Hot Topic over H&M, but came up empty.
Where were the mop-headed emo boys and Edward Cullen–worshipping Goth girls? Where were the skater kids? The punk rockers?
I felt a lump rise to my throat. This was so not good.
Anger burned in my gut. Stupid Mom for leaving Dad. Maybe if Mom wasn’t in such a hurry to skip town, they could have gotten counseling or something. Worked it out. Then I’d be back in Boston right now, in my old school, laughing with my old friends, without a care in the world.
Instead of rotting away in my current hell.
The sea of kids parted, suddenly, almost diving out of the way. I look down the newly formed path, raising my eyebrows. Four kids—two boys and two girls—sauntered down the hallway in a way you usually only see in teen movies. Heads high, shoulders back, self-satisfied smirks written across their perfect faces. They might as well have been wearing T-shirts with the word popular scrawled across the front.
“Who are they?” I wondered aloud, forgetting Grandma for a moment.
“You must be new,” a Buddy Holly/Elvis Costello look-alike to my right chuckled. The only kid I’d seen so far that even remotely stood out from the rest of the clones. “That’s Hannah Dustin High’s royal court. Billy, Chad, Lucy, and Chelsea. In that order. They pretty much rule the school.”
That much was obvious, given the awed stares of the rest of the kids. I studied the four of them closer. Lucy wore a cheerleading outfit. No shock there. Chelsea, on the other hand, was channeling her inner Jackie O, dressed to impress with a pristine pink suit, complete with a requisite string of pearls and a dainty white clutch in her well-manicured hand. It should have looked old-fashioned, but the girl totally worked it.
I turned my attention to the two boys. Billy was tanned, tall and muscular, good-looking—your typical jock meathead, really—wearing a Patriots jersey and camouflage pants. And Chad . . .
My breath hitched as my eyes fell on Chad. He was tall, too, but lean—like a cat, almost—carrying himself with the slinky grace of a model or movie star. He had curly blond hair and piercing blue eyes, framed with long sooty lashes. A chiseled face with perfectly sculpted cheekbones and a full mouth that looked perfectly kissable.
I shivered. Utterly delicious.
Not that it mattered. I mean, let’s face it. Even if I were dressed in my normal clothes and not unicorn chic, no one like him would ever go out with someone like me. I was a skater kid’s girlfriend, not the homecoming queen. And this wasn’t some bad eighties Molly Ringwald movie like Pretty in Pink.
Besides, I reminded myself as I forced my gaze away from his beautiful face, he was probably dumb and spoiled and used to girls fawning over him. Good-looking guys usually were. Especially if they found themselves in the popular clique, as this guy had. I’m sure he would annoy the hell out of me the second he opened his mouth.
Still, I had to admit, there was just something about him. . . .
I realized the four of them had stopped in front of me. Oh, joy. Time to be sized up and judged by the popular clique. This day was getting more and more like a bad after-school special every minute. After the commercial break, I’d probably start drinking and doing drugs, just to fit in, only to have my best friend die and my mother convince me to head to rehab and restart my life, friendless, sober, and alone, but strangely happy and peaceful about it all.
“Nice shirt.” Chelsea sniffed, giving me a once-over.
“Yeah, I think my five-year-old sister has one just like it,” Lucy added snottily.
“Hey, leave the girl alone,” Billy said with a smirk. “It’s obvious she’s horny!” He cracked up at his own lame joke. “Get it? Horny? Like the unicorn on her shirt?” He high-fived Chad, who seemed a bit reluctant to slap his hand back. Or maybe it was just my imagination.
In the meantime, the hallway erupted in laughter and jeers, totally egging him on. I could feel my face burning with humiliation as I stared at my feet, wishing to be anywhere in the world but here. I couldn’t believe it. Two minutes into my new school year and I was already the class joke.
I suddenly realized Grandma was squinting at Billy intently. At first I thought she might be considering coming to my aid. But then her face lit up and she squealed, “Billy? Billy Henderson? Is that you?” to my new arch nemesis.
I cringed. I had no idea what was coming, but I knew it couldn’t be good.
Sure enough, Billy stiffened. “Hi, Mrs. Miller,” he mumbled out of the corner of his mouth. I cocked my head in question. The two of them knew each other? A split second later, Grandma had let go of my hand to crush Billy into a tight embrace. Guess so.
“Oh, Billy,” she crowed, releasing him from the hug. “It’s so good to see you! You’re all grown up now. Last time I saw you, you were four feet tall and still wetting the bed!”
Laughter broke out among the crowd and Billy’s face darkened to a beet red. I gaped in horror. This was not happening. This could not be happening. My grandma, embarrassing the most popular kid in school. On my first day.
Billy whirled around to face the crowd. “Shut up!” he growled. “She’s lying. I swear.”
Was it too late to pretend the old woman had Alzheimer’s and had just wandered into school by mistake? Absolutely no relation to me whatsoever?
“Billy, this is my granddaughter Maddy.”
Evidently it was.
She shoved me forward, having no idea about the scene she was causing. “Maddy, do you remember Billy from back when you were little? He used to live down the street. I babysat him while his mother was at work.”
I stared at Billy. He stared back at me, his face a mixture of humiliation and fury. I read his expression clear as day. I was the one who would pay for this public embarrassment. And I would pay dearly. After all, the others might have eventually forgotten my fashion faux pas, but Billy would never forget this.
“Come on, Grandma,” I said, steering her toward the door marked MAIN OFFICE. “I need to get my schedule.”
“Come on, Grandma,” Billy mocked in a high-pitched voice as the elderly woman turned away. “Let’s go home and play with unicorns.”
I glared at him, wanting nothing more than to smack him upside the head and wipe that ugly smirk off his face. But what good would it do, really? There was no winning for me in this situation and I knew it. So I sucked up my pride and turned away, following Grandma into the office, where she was talking to a secretary. “I think you’re all set now, Madeline,” she declared, handing me a slip of paper. “I’ve done my grand-motherly duties. Now you behave yourself on your first day.”
I sighed and took the schedule. “Thanks, Grandma,” I said.
“Have a great day, sweetie, and I’ll see you back at the house tonight.” Stepping out into the hall, she called out, “I’ll even make you your favorite bunny rabbit cookies.”
Ah, yes, the bunny rabbit cookies I liked back when I was six years old. The icing on the anticool cake.
“Bye, Grandma,” I said, resigning myself to my fate of school loser.
I reluctantly stepped into the hallway and faced the masses again.
“Aren’t you going to say good-bye to Grandma?” Chelsea was teasing Billy, nudging him in the ribs. He glowered at her.
“Shut the hell up,” he growled. “I don’t even know who that crazy loon was.”
“She certainly seemed to know you.”
“Billy wets the bed, Billy wets the bed,” Lucy chimed in, in a singsong voice.
“SHUT UP!” Billy roared. He met my eyes with his, furious and full of hatred. “You are so dead, Freak Girl,” he muttered under his breath. Then he pushed by me and into the crowd, which parted for him as it did before. His gang followed him, still giggling. Chad lagged behind, glancing backward. He caught my eye, gave a sheepish shrug, and mouthed the word “Sorry.” Then he and his friends turned the corner and disappeared.
I stared after them, shocked by Chad’s apology. I had so not expected that. Maybe he was different from his friends. Not that it mattered. Nice or not, he was way out of my league and I knew it.
Still, he was so cute. So, so cute.
“Wow, way to make a first impression,” said a voice to my right as the crowd dispersed. I looked over to see the Elvis Costello boy on my right. He wore a black turtleneck, dark blue jeans, and thick black glasses over his brown eyes. Very hipster-nerd chic. “I’m Matt,” he said, holding out a hand. “And you, Maddy, have just embarrassed the most powerful kid in school.”
“I didn’t say anything,” I protested weakly, knowing that it didn’t matter. I was guilty by association, and while Billy couldn’t retaliate against Grandma, he could and would make my life a living hell. I just knew it. “This is so not how I wanted my first day to begin.”
“Meh, it’s really not about you, you know. Those guys hate pretty much everyone not in their immediate social circle. And that means ninety-five percent of the school. Funny, when you consider the same ninety-five percent loves them and worships the ground they walk on.”
I made a face. “Well, not me. Count me in for hating the haters, thank you very much.” Except maybe Chad. He was different. But I wasn’t about to admit that to Matt.
“The Haters.” Matt chuckled. “That’s a fitting name actually.” The bell rang, cutting him off. “Gotta get to class,” he said, winking at me. “See you around. And don’t let the Haters get you down.”
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While the game Maddy plays, Fields of Fantasy, is not a real video game, it's loosely based on World of Warcraft and the Final Fantasy series.
What do you do if your ho-hum real life doesn't live up to your amazing virtual reality?
Maddy's life couldn't get much worse. Her parents split and now she's stuck in a small town and at a new school. Most of the time, she retreats into her manga-style artwork, but when she gets into the Fields of Fantasy online computer game, she knows she's found the one place she can be herself.
In the game world, Maddy can be the beautiful and magical Allora and have a virtually perfect life. And she even finds a little romance. But can Maddy escape her real-life problems altogether, or will she have to find a way to make her real world just as amazing as her virtual one?
Chosen by the American Library Association as a QUICK PICK FOR RELUCTANT READERS and for their POPULAR PAPERBACKS list.
NOTE TO PARENTS: This book is a teen (YA) novel. While the subject matter may appeal to younger readers, it does contain some minor language. Likely appropriate for 5th grade and up.