The journey into adulthood is stranger than she expects.
Hetty Locklear lives in a nerd girl fantasy where she is the savior of a dying ancient galactic race. When she’s not role playing in the exotic game world she created, she dreams of being the new It Girl with suave clothes, hundreds of friends, hunks galore falling at her slippered feet, awesome parties, and a job to make every person in the cosmos drool.
Instead she’s stuck at the convenience store wearing stretchy clothes to fit over the paunch formed from a steady diet of donuts and coffee and with a social calendar as empty as deep space. In her whole life she’s only acquired two friends — a cousin, who barely counts, and her best friend since grade school.
Hetty is banking on graduation from community college to transform her into a full-fledged woman. It doesn’t. It gets her an unflattering coffee stain down the front of her gown and an invitation from her parents to visit. Estranged since they went gallivanting off to fulfill their dream of working the Renaissance Faire circuit, Hetty isn’t eager to see them. However, this trip is the best chance she has to repair their broken relationship.
A steamy romance with her boss or the handsome stranger she met at the coffee shop would cure her doldrums, but she’s stuck with the annoying Sir Gnat and is stalked by a ghost. The invisible stranger leads her to a reality she finds hard to believe. It also leads to love and a better relationship with herself.
*Check out the story trailer!
Cover by: EDHGRAPHICS
Graphic Artist Erin Dameron-Hill
Edited by: Leigh T. Moore
Copyright 2012 M. Pax, all rights reserved
At dawn she expected magic. It didn’t happen. She remained the same as yesterday, disappointingly so, yet Hetty Locklear clung to hope. It could still happen, perhaps when the dean called her name.
She searched for her friends in the crowd, but couldn’t see past the line of fluttering blue graduation gowns stretching in front and behind her. The overly cheerful color of the robes threatened to blind her and didn’t make up for the overcast skies outside or the added letdown dealt to her by her parents.
They should have come.
Hetty’s fingers, bloated from too much pastry, sugar, and caffeine, clutched at the long, blue shroud dragging on the floor. She’d taken the time to decorate her nails — black paint with little white skulls — but the effort was wasted with her fingertips buried in fabric. Stealing glances at the little skulls, she neglected the length of the graduation robe, not always lifting the hem, tangling her feet again and again. She lurched into Bobby Lobb.
“Damn. Sorry,” she said.
He glared over his shoulder. She hadn’t expected his forgiveness, but she’d hoped for some small change from the norm. More than that, she hungered to enter a new era, one where her life morphed into something like Ann Marie’s on the classic TV show That Girl. A stupid wish, she knew, because she needed to know different people, have more stylish clothes, and get a better-paying job.
Hetty shrank behind her long mane of purple and black — the purple freshly applied last night — letting the fringe conceal the world she wanted to escape from at least five times a day.
Memorial Coliseum erupted in hoots and hollers for each graduate, extra loud for Bobby, then the dean spoke her name. Henrietta Guinevere Locklear. A hush settled like conversation in an elevator. Her heart rate sped up, and her palms sweated. She felt certain the crowd in the auditorium gawked at her horrid name, the two extra years it took her to graduate, her lackluster grades, and the fact she remained stuck in adolescence.
The gown bunched around her ankles, teetering her on the stairs leading up to the stage. The hair clips securing the cap on her head threatened to give way, and one hand released the drape of her gown to clutch at the mortarboard.
She blinked at the dean, her face paling and her pulse sprinting as if on three triple espressos. What if he said she hadn’t graduated after all? It could explain the lack of magic.
Perspiration beaded along her hairline. Her chest and back felt sticky. This was the moment. If she didn’t feel the change now, it would never happen.
The dean’s eyes narrowed and he shoved the padded booklet at her. A very promising start, more so than if he’d handed her nothing. Reflex made her let go of her robe and cap to clasp the certificate to a new version of herself, and she reveled in the metamorphosis about to envelop her. It didn’t happen. There was no tingle, no different feeling.
Her fingers trembled, caressing the silver lettering on the slate-blue pleather. Like the magic lantern, perhaps she had to rub it. Oh please, she begged silently, but the universe ignored her. Nothing enchanting happened. The dean said nothing evocative. No transformation made her more of an adult. She was still the same Hetty Locklear, still as clueless and confused as the day she’d enrolled at the local community college four years ago. Jeez, she couldn’t catch a break.
Tears welled, blurring her vision. Here unfolded the key event insuring she’d not become her parents, but graduation turned out to be such a nothing thing. Only a few woots and a smattering of applause marked it. She wished to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. The best place lay in her mind…
The auditorium disappeared, the gown transformed to hug her curves, and her chubby bulges faded away. The flow of fabric became a stylish spacesuit, the mortarboard a helmet.
As the Hysic high priestess, Hetty reached up toward the sky, speaking with the sun, asking it to break from the clouds. A beam blasted its way out of the heavy, gray billows, highlighting the world behind her. Some of her people broke from the ranks, demonstrating why the Hysics were the best society in the galaxy. One at a time they paraded into the glory streaming down, each in turn basking in what Hetty had gifted, then they moved off to allow the next Hysic a moment in the life-giving light.
A tiny blonde girl joined Hetty on the platform and added her thanks to the heavens. The Cosmic Lords had answered their prayers.
Thunderous applause — the accolades Hetty sought — followed. She twirled, round and round, wrapping herself in the new epoch dawning, tossing up her helmet.
A round boy-man joined her and the blonde on the stage then a freckled boy-man. They gestured rudely at Hetty, calling to a man beside the stairs robed in a respectful black. Black Robe squinted up at her and offered his hand, showing her the love of the people. She could see it in his gaze, deep and penetrating. He drew her closer. She let him pull her in, squeezing his fingers.
“You’re backing things up, Miss. Get moving please.” Black Robe dragged her down from the stage and slung her to the side.
The blonde, Round Boy, and Freckles disappeared into waiting arms and flashing lights. Photos and celebration. Family and love. Things Hetty wanted more of in her life. She had counted on adulthood bringing them. Where was the magic?
Like a swipe across a dry erase board, the Hysic Empire vanished. Hetty’s star became stage lights, her helmet turned into a mortarboard, her cosmic uniform changed into a graduation gown, and her summons to the sky was only an infantile gesture, a dream to get through her disappointment of the day being nothing special.
The meager cheers for her came from Raspberry Barrett, her best friend, and Maisy Koyama, her cousin. She could see them whistling, jumping, and hollering. Better than nothing.
Hetty swept her straight tresses, which flowed down to her waist, off her shoulders and out of her face. The fringe immediately sprang back, hiding an eye as startlingly blue as cobalt glass catching the light. Her eyes were her best feature, but she didn’t believe they counteracted her long, oval face enough. So she let her hair fall into its usual place, keeping the world at bay — a confusing and desolate place where nothing could be depended upon, not even adulthood. A job and money didn’t materialize, friends didn’t appear like Portland’s rains, and she didn’t suddenly become outgoing.
Despite all that, she reminded herself to be proud and raised her chin. She’d earned her degree and half the day remained; plenty of time for a little magic to happen.
High-energy chatter and merriment accompanied Hetty to where her cousin and best friend waited. “Let’s go,” she said. Obviously, her new- improved life didn’t begin here.
“What the hell was the twirly thing?” Maisy Koyama stood as blunt as the black-framed glasses sliding down her nose—small, round, and wide like her body.
“I liked the twirl. It was so you.” Raspberry Barrett tugged at bright pink beads dangling down onto her chest. Her freckles crinkled with her giggle, and her bright pink lips matched her bright pink glasses and the polka dots on her fifties-style dress. The brassy red hair, cut in a sweet pixie, bordered on clashing with all the fuchsia.
“Thanks,” Hetty kicked at the floor, hugging her diploma holder.
“So let’s see it, dinklehead,” Maisy put her hands on her hips, widening the gaps between the buttons on her blouse.
For herself and her cousin, Hetty mustered some self-consciousness and crossed her arms, thankful for the cover of the shapeless gown despite its off-shade of blue. If it were a better color, it’d be a great addition to her wardrobe.
“What?” she asked.
“The degree you slaved away for these last five years.” Maisy clucked her tongue.
Her lips pressing hard together, Hetty’s small mouth disappeared. “It was four years.”
The cousins had the same long cheekbones, their mothers having passed the classic feature onto their daughters. However, Maisy had dimples. Sometimes Hetty wished she did, too.
“Was it only four? Either way, show me. I want to see.” Maisy pushed up her glasses, which were the exact dark shade as her hair and eyes. They gave her a stern air when she remembered that was how she was supposed to behave.
“It’s just a book with a ‘your-diploma-will-go-here’ thingy.” Hetty opened the blue and silver cover to show an elegantly printed piece of paper which said exactly that. “My real diploma will be coming in the mail. Maybe it’s even here today.” That had to be the key. As soon as she touched the actual associates degree, she’d feel like an adult. She exhaled all her angst in a great huff and danced toward the exit, pressing into the folks in front of her to hurry them along.
“We should go party.” Raspberry shrugged jauntily, swaying her pink beads side to side.
Maybe a bit of fun was also what the day needed. It couldn’t hurt. Then Hetty remembered the glitch. “Aren’t you working in an hour?”
“Come hang out at the coffee shop. You like it there.” Raspberry hopped toward the doors leading out to the streets of Portland, Oregon. “I’ll shower you with confections and caffeine. Enough to put any other celebration to shame.”
Maisy put an arm around Hetty. “A good donut will put a brighter smile on your face, and I could use a hit of caffeine. The sun hasn’t shone for days.”
The rainy season should have ended by now. Hetty scowled up at the sky. A fat raindrop hit her cheek, another dribbled down her aquiline nose.
The short walk over to the MAX station winded her. The steady poor fare of coffee, donuts, soda, and crap food was taking its toll. “I need a lifestyle change.”
“You mean a diet?” Raspberry’s hazel eyes popped. Her tongue dabbed at her pink lips. “Not today. Today we scream and boogie and stuff our faces with frosting. When are you ever going to graduate again?”
“She could get more degrees.” Maisy held her hand over her eyeglasses to shield them from the paltry rain. “She could graduate again. You should go for your bachelors.”
“There will never be another today. C’mon, Hetty,” Raspberry said.
“Very well.” Hetty didn’t see the point in arguing. It would take more energy than a carafe of coffee could infuse. “Boogie? Really?”
“The bar across the street from the Beanut is having an open mic. You can go over there and kick up your heels. You and Maisy.”
The cousins exchanged a look and laughed.
“Perhaps in an alternate universe,” Hetty said.
They stood waiting for the MAX. At five-foot-ten Hetty towered like a lummox over Raspberry and two inches taller than Maisy. The train would take them back across the Willamette River, where they all shared Hetty’s one-bedroom condo. Her parents bought it for her when they quit their jobs, sold their house, purchased a used RV, and took off to pursue their dream of pretending to live in the Middle Ages. Since Hetty had yet to graduate high school at that point, Liz and Larry allowed her to stay in Portland to minimize the disruption to her youthful development. So they said. To Hetty it hadn’t mattered, she stopped evolving the day they drove off and left her.
Six months after their startling announcement, Liz and Larry retreated to the lands of yore and knights. They delayed their departure long enough for Maisy to arrive from Arizona. Accepted to a renowned university in the city, Maisy jumped at the chance to live so close to the school and to get to know her only cousin better.
It was nice to know someone in the family wanted to be close to her. For that reason, Hetty loved having Maisy around, even when she behaved like a de facto mother.
Raspberry moved in four years later — one year after graduating high school — when she and her parents decided she needed more independence to flower properly. Hetty didn’t get why Raspberry wanted to ditch them. Leila and Henry Barrett were pretty decent. Sometimes they made up for Liz and Larry’s defects when they came into the city to take the roommates to dinner and shopping.
If the Barretts hadn’t gone on a cruise they’d booked and paid for last fall, they’d have been at the ceremony. Leila’s usual fussing would have made the occasion special. Hetty was certain, but she understood and didn’t resent them for going on their trip. Leila had yearned for that cruise since Hetty and Raspberry were in elementary school.
The MAX arrived, and the doors hissed open. A noisy group of sticky kids, laughing and yelling with too few adults to control them, filled the train car. Hetty and her friends stood hanging onto poles near the door. The child-commotion skirted past them every few minutes, so Hetty didn’t bother to talk. Instead, she stared without focus at the gray outside the windows. The train clacked over the Steel Bridge spanning the Willamette, the old metal shook and the water reflected the dreariness.
At the last free stop, they hopped off, not wanting to pay a fare to travel a few blocks closer to their destination. Down Burnside they ambled, and over to NW 23rd Avenue, strolling past lime-green storefronts, quaint brick buildings, a funky painted fiberglass horse, and tables and racks of goods shoved into the crowded streets. Hetty stood out louder than anything else in the oddly-hued graduation gown. The lack of sun and soggy sky didn’t dampen its enthusiasm to shriek at the world, “I’m blue. Really, really blue.”
Past all the mayhem of merchants and tourists, Hetty and her friends sauntered to the Beanut Patisserie located in a renovated old house. Every time she entered the place, Hetty sighed. It smelled rich and bold, sugary and delectable. Dark and upholstered, the cozy shop offered its patrons mismatched chairs around black oval coffee tables. Hetty’s favorite seat was an overstuffed toile near the fireplace, and she cheered up at the sight of it unoccupied. Maisy took the wingback beside it.
Raspberry went in the back to put on her apron and find the day-old pastries and coffee they could have for free. She heated both up in the microwave behind the counter and set the platter and large mugs before her friends.
The pecan-encrusted éclairs remained Hetty’s favorites. Whether day-old or staler, they delivered the most sugar and tasted the best. Longings for a better figure gave way faster than she could blink and she took a big bite. The sugar melted in her mouth along with the fat, bringing out all of the flaky layers of dough, creamy vanilla, and salty pecans. Sweetness and tang tickled her cheeks and ran down her throat.
Bite after bite she swallowed down the day’s disappointments until she’d eaten two. She felt better until she became conscious of all the unfulfilling calories she had just mindlessly stuffed into her body. Guilt built up, demanding to be drowned, so she picked up a cinnamon scone.
“Did you hear back on any jobs?” Maisy asked, sipping the thick hazelnut coffee that left rings of gloppy residue in the mugs.
Hetty diluted her clotted caffeine with half-and-half, licking cinnamon crumbs from her too-small mouth. It was a size that should have kept her slimmer than it did. She put the scone down, and narrowed her one visible blue eye at her cousin. “Can’t we celebrate in peace?”
Maisy pushed up her glasses. “What? We’ve been silent since we got on the MAX. How much more peace do you need?”
“You’re giving me heartburn.” Hetty stuffed the rest of the scone into her mouth, reaching for coffee cake.
Dabbing chocolate crumbs from her chin, Maisy raised an eyebrow. “You haven’t sent out any more résumés, have you?”
A yuppyish blond man with silver eyeglasses took the dainty, French provincial across from Hetty, smiling at her — just her. He plucked lint from his sharply creased khakis and forest green polo. The cotton stretched over honed muscle, which flexed and beckoned. An aura of responsibility dripped like pheromones from his pores.
Neither taller than her nor dark, he did have good looks enough to cause her to stare. He appeared closer to thirty than Hetty and her friends, but no older than that. A bold gray gaze met hers, piercing through her as if he were a Hysic prince summoning starshine.
She set the cake back on the platter, wiping her hands and face with a napkin and peeked through her mane of purple and black. “I have, but I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
“Don’t mind me,” the man said.
His blond waves didn’t move, yet they whispered a seductive invitation. Hetty imagined running her fingers through them. Biting her lower lip, she wished someone like him could fall for someone like her. Someone like him had to know how to guide her through this bumpy transition into full adulthood. She didn’t have a clue and neither did her parents nor Raspberry. And for all her mouth, Maisy had no better idea than the rest of them. Unpaid internship after unpaid internship, degree after degree, she hadn’t migrated all the way into the grown-up realm either.
He ordered a double espresso from Raspberry then read the city music magazine. He didn’t appear the type — no piercings or tattoos.
As if he heard her thoughts, he peered over the top of the glossy pages right into her gaze. Her open, fly-catcher mouth reflected in his lenses; mini-Hettys mocking her tiny mouth and lack of decorum. Heat rose from her neck into her cheeks. She snapped her lips shut and grabbed the nearest periodical off the coffee table, aimlessly thumbing through it.
“Congratulations.” He had a toothpaste-commercial smile, and the stubble on his chin was trimmed to the perfect metrosexual length. An air radiated from him that suggested a real job with money, not that of a person who hid from the world at Renaissance fairs.
Sir Blond, she dubbed him. Hetty swept her bangs off her face, daring to meet his gaze. Usually, she avoided trying to connect with men, but not today. Maybe there’d been no magic so far, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t change things.
“Thanks.” She picked up her mug of coffee, missing her mouth. Hazelnut went all down the front of her. “Shit.” She dabbed at the spill with a napkin.
Sir Blond sprang into action summoning Raspberry, who ran over with a rag to mop and wipe at Hetty’s mess. He helped, cleaning off the table, getting more napkins, winking at Hetty.
“Let me buy you a refill,” he said.
He had to think her a freaky buffoon, and she expected him to run for the West Hills in another minute. Perhaps to challenge her assumption, he stayed, putting her in the awkward bind of having to respond. Jeez.
“Why?” she asked.
He rubbed his hands with some purifier from a tiny bottle in his pocket. One of those. “It’s your graduation day.”
Chivalrous. An offering that warmed Hetty’s spirits. She’d take advantage before he figured out she was a daughter to be abandoned, a thing not to be loved. “OK, thanks. That’s very nice of you.” Some sort of gesture might encourage him to hang around. She waved at the platter of stale pastries. “Please, help yourself.”
The corners of his eyes crinkled and he flashed his brilliant smile. “Quite a party you have going here.” He picked up a cheese Danish. “Thanks.”
After taking a rather dainty bite and swallowing, he asked Raspberry to bring Maisy and Hetty fresh coffees. Hetty ordered a fancy vanilla and caramel latte. Maisy went for a mocha with extra chocolate sauce.
Sir Blond played with a corner of his magazine, flipping the pages. “I think I heard your friend say you’re looking for employment?” He gestured at Maisy then went back to strumming the pages.
Raspberry set the fresh latte in front of Hetty. Aromas thick and nutty rose with the steam, rich, sweet, alluring. Inhaling deeply, her eyelids fluttered, and she couldn’t resist sipping the coffee again and again. Fresh-brewed tasted a universe away from the day-old crap she usually drank. Half of the contents of the bowl-sized mug slipped down her gullet before she remembered the handsome man who bought it for her waited on an answer to his question. What was it? Oh yeah, about her job hunting.
“Haven’t had much luck yet,” she said.
“What did you major in?” His interest in her didn’t seem to waver, not at all diminished behind the silver rims.
He made her feel as if she teetered on an abyss. About to jump into what, she didn’t really know, but she was curious. “Accounting.”
His expression became more animated. “Great choice. That’s what I majored in. You shouldn’t have much trouble.”
“Hetty does,” Maisy snickered. “It took her longer than most to graduate.”
Hetty scowled at her cousin, then faced Sir Blond with a smile. “I was working through some personal issues. They’re over now.”
Sir Blond grabbed his lower lip with his teeth, rubbing at his wide chin “So your grades aren’t great?”
Here it came. Judgment. The blazing logs in the fireplace beside Hetty became quite fascinating, crackling fingers leaping and snapping. They gave her no ideas of how to reply, neither did the floor or ceiling, nor the two-page spread advertising the latest breakthrough in feminine hygiene. She slammed the magazine shut.
“It may take you awhile to find something,” Sir Blond said, “but you will. You picked a great degree.”
She considered him with a narrowed eye. Why was he being so nice? He should be calling her weird and hastily retreating across the room. Was this the day’s magic? Because this was certainly different from the norm. She liked it, even if it wasn’t the flashy sort of wizardry she’d been expecting. “Thanks.”
When his gaze met hers, his lips twitched into a smile. “You working right now?”
“Part time. Shop Stop. Death of the soul.” She didn’t care for the work at the convenience store.
He chuckled. “I like the way you say that. The experience will help, though.”
She twirled the synthetic fabric of the blue graduation gown around her index finger. “You seem to know a lot.”
He finished his espresso, rolled up his magazine, and shrugged. “Someone helped me once. When the opportunity comes up, I like to pay it forward. Let me scout around. I know some people. I’ll give you what I come up with next week.”
Maybe he was a Hysic prince, or the earthling equivalent. “Really?”
“Meet me here next Saturday. Same time.” He nodded at her, Raspberry, and Maisy, a gallant gesture, then left.
Sir Blond of the Rain vowed to rescue her from the distress of finding an adult job. Enchanting, indeed. Grinning, Hetty hugged the graduation gown around her.
“I think he likes you,” Raspberry beamed.
Hetty shrugged. “No way. He didn’t even ask for my name or number.”
“He heard me call you by name,” Maisy said, “and he made plans to meet you next week.”
Raspberry bounced. “Ooo! A date!