Eleven Paper Girls
Terri spent the last remaining hours of light hiding in the attic. Some part of her was hoping the boy would come back, but another part of her was hoping he wouldn’t. That part of her wanted to die of embarrassment.
School would be an embarrassment too. She could already feel it. She didn’t fit in with these people in Southern California. They were all burnished bronze skin and surfer tans. Not her. She had fit into Seattle perfectly. She could hide her red hair and pale skin in large jackets, in hoodies, in anything she could hide in. Her freckles and imperfect skin could be disguised by makeup and scarves. Not here in Southern California. Her makeup ran with sweat and made her break out the first day. Her hair frizzed up. She couldn’t hide in any of her old clothes.
They’d nicknamed her Strawberry Shortcake. It had meant to be hurtful, but she had worn the name with pride. And when Josh had asked her for help, she’d exulted in the looks of derision that the popular kids had steered her way. It didn’t matter. In terms of brains, she’d been untouchable. It was her only protection from the others. It didn’t protect her heart, but Josh had been sincere in asking for help. She had been hoping that finally, finally in her senior year, she would have someone to call a friend. Now she would never know.
Sulking again, she decided to go downstairs. She could hear her mother calling about something, probably dinner. Ever since they’d arrived here, her mother had insisted on having dinners together – “Like a family, again,” her mom had said brightly. – but it hadn’t worked out the way they all had thought. Terri had sulked through most of the week’s dinner and her father had distractedly been writing notes in a notepad. Her mother too, despite her insistence on dinner, had been stuck to her phone, feeling the need to have it close by in case someone called to reserve or ask for a job.
With heavy feet, she made her way to the trapdoor of the attic, when something caught her eye. The light from the window must have been catching on something because out of one of the attic’s dark corners was a golden glow.
Terri took apart the boxes and junk that crowded around the glow and saw what it was that had shined so brightly. A mirror had reflected the light onto a very shiny, very beautiful book. It was made out of white, tooled leather. Scrolling ran up and down its sides and the pages were edged with a golden sheen. It was titled, “The Book of Happiness.”
Terri couldn’t help the smirk that came to her mouth. Riiiiight. As if there was such a thing, such a secret to happiness that reading a book could solve. Stupid self-help manuals. But it was such a pretty book nevertheless. It had a clasp, like a diary, but there was no lock. It clicked open easily and when she turned to the first page she gasped.
It was like an illuminated manuscript. She’d seen some of those in museums, but this book was better. It was truly beautiful. The colors were swirling and seemed almost alive. She saw that it was divided into sections, like different chapters. After the title page, the chapters were each fronted by a glowing picture of a girl. They were all of varying ages, but none seemed to be older than herself. There were eleven in total; eleven paper girls.
She scanned through the first chapter. It was about a girl named Marie, who lived in France. She seemed to have been a peasant even though, when Terri flipped back to her picture, she looked like a princess. She was just getting into the story when her mother called loudly from just below the attic trapdoor.
“Fine!” she called back, none too happily. She flipped yearningly through the rest of the pages. The pictures were all so happy, all so gorgeous. Oh, how she wished she were that happy and that gorgeous. How beautiful all the girls were! She came to the last girl and turned the page. Curiously there were no more pictures. The rest of the book was blank.
She ran her fingers over the blank page. If only she were like those girls: pretty, confident, perfect. With a frightened yelp, she threw the book away from her. It landed like a thud in front of her. Closed, it was no longer glowing, the light outside was fading and throwing the attic into darkness.
Strange, she swore the texture of the paper beneath her finger had changed. It had suddenly felt cold, like the texture of chicken meat straight from the fridge. And it had felt like something else, it had felt like it had curled around her finger.
Freaked out, she scooted from the book and practically fell out of the attic.