EXCERPT FROM “BETTER YOU THAN ME”
Blah, Blah, Blah . . . Genie
The magic lamp shimmers in the hot red sand. A diamond in the rough. A jewel in the desert. I wipe the sweat from my brow—evidence of walking through miles and miles of scalding-hot nothingness. With trembling fingers, I reach for the ancient relic, my breath catching in my throat as soon as I make contact.
“This is it!” I tell Miles, my travel companion and best friend. The violent desert winds have wreaked havoc on his perfect hair.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
I nod. “This is the one from my dream.”
I sink to my knees, my silk caftan immediately filling with rough grains of sand. I rest one shaking hand against the side of the lamp, hold my breath, close my eyes, and rub. And then . . .
I fall back into the sand, hopeless, defeated. Miles sinks down next to me. “I’m sorry, Ruby.”
He puts a hand on my arm and we sit in silence for a moment. Then I tilt my head back and call into the cloudless sky, “Where are you? Why can’t I find you?” The words are cheesy. But I say them anyway. Because I have no choice.
Just then, the golden lamp I’m still clutching begins to shudder. Gently at first, like a shiver on a cool day, then more violently, until I have to squeeze it between my knees to keep it from shaking out of my hands.
I fight not to roll my eyes. It’s a bit much.
Then, in a puff of blue smoke that looks more like glittery pixie dust than genie smoke, a man appears before me. An ancient, powerful genie with blue skin and golden eyes that sparkle in the desert sun. From my seated place in the sand, he looks gigantic. Towering above Miles and me in gold harem pants that flap in the breeze and a red jewel-encrusted turban covering his hair.
He folds his arms over his bare blue chest and glares down at me, his gilded eyes cruel and cold. “Who awakens me from my long and peaceful slumber and for what purpose?” he says in a deep, booming voice.
I look up at him, eyes wide, mouth agape, struggling to keep a straight face. But I just can’t do it. With the blue-tinted skin, and the yellow contacts, and the BeDazzled turban, it’s too much. I try to speak, but instead of words coming out, I break into uncontrollable laughter.
“Cut!” says a voice from the darkness beyond the desert. “Cut! Cut! Cut!”
The lights come on and the giant warehouse-size building is illuminated around me, making this little patch of fake sand and green background look even more ridiculous than it feels. I know the background won’t really be green. It’s just temporary. In post-production, when the editors splice the episode together, they’ll insert rolling hills of sand dunes behind me so it’ll look like I’m actually outside in the Sahara Desert and not inside a soundstage in Burbank, California, at four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. Three hours past schedule, I might add, because Barry Berkowitz, the show’s executive producer and creator, didn’t like the look of the first three batches of sand.
“What was that?” Barry demands, stepping out from behind the bank of cameras and viewing monitors. “We’re one line away from the end of the scene!” I secretly call him Barry Barkowitz—or some variation of that—because he seems to bark everything he says.
“Nice job, Ruby,” Ryder sneers, pushing himself up from his seated place in the fake sand. The sarcasm is rich in his voice. I stick out my tongue in reply. Ryder Vance, my costar, has played Miles on the show for the past four years. He’s like a brother to me. A very annoying, obnoxious, way-too-obsessed-with-his-hair brother. “Now we have to reset the whole shot.” He stomps offset toward the food table, smoothing down his windblown hair with one hand while he grabs a chocolate donut with the other and shoves half of it in his mouth. He turns to me and taunts me by chewing dramatically. He knows I can’t have chocolate donuts because I’ve basically been on a flavor-free diet since I was eight, and he loves to rub it in my face.
I roll my eyes and turn away from him, my gaze landing once again on the actor playing the ancient genie. And then I lose it all over again, laughing uncontrollably. I feel bad for the guy, I really do. This—blue skin dye and harem pants—is probably his big break into Hollywood.
Barry Barkhead stalks menacingly toward me, wiping sweat from his bald head. “Do you find my writing humorous?”
No, I think. I find it ridiculous.
But I don’t dare say that aloud. The whole stupid show is over the top. I mean seriously, a school for genies with classes like Wish Granting and Carpet Driver’s Ed, and Yoga for Lamp Dwellers? It’s like Barry just sat down one day, made a list of the cheesiest genie-related things, and poof! Here’s a hit TV show for you.
“They have twenty more minutes,” Russ reminds Barry. He’s the show’s production assistant, recognizable from the clipboard that’s practically glued to his hand, and the way he seems to shake in his shoes whenever he’s around Barry.
Barry waves him away with a rough hand, nearly swatting Russ in the face. Fortunately, Russ ducks just in time before running away. Of all the people on set who are afraid of Barry—which is pretty much everyone—Russ is probably the most terrified. And I can’t blame him. If he’s not getting nearly smacked by Barry’s wild gestures, he’s getting spit on by Barry’s saliva-heavy rants.
But Russ is just doing his job, reminding Barry that Ryder and I have only twenty more minutes until they have to let us go home. It’s California state law. Because we’re only twelve, we can only work for five hours at a time, and can only be on set for nine and a half hours total, including makeup, hair, and meals. Thank goodness for that law, or Barkhead would make me stay here all night.
Frustrated, Barry jams his fingertips into his temples. “Do you know the line, Ruby?” he asks me through gritted teeth.
“‘I’m looking for my mother,’” I recite dutifully.
“Yes!” Barry shouts with mock enthusiasm, as if I’ve just announced I’ve discovered the cure for some mysterious disease. “Yes! That’s the line. ‘I’m looking for my mother.’ The last line of the episode leading up to the epic season finale. This is a moment the viewers have been waiting for, for four seasons. It’s a significant line. It’s a dramatic line. What it is not is a laughing line.”
“I—” I start to respond, but I’m quickly cut off by my mother, who’s suddenly standing next to Barry, looking like she just got a blowout and a makeover, despite the fact that we’ve been on this soundstage since six in the morning. That’s because she spends almost all her time between takes in the makeup trailer, refreshing her perfectly drawn cat eyes and her plum lipstick.
“Of course it’s not a laughing matter,” she says soothingly, placing her hand on Barry’s arm in a way that makes my insides squirm. “It’s a wonderful line. A Shakespearean line.”
I cringe. Shakespearean? Really?
The only way my mom would ever like Shakespeare is if they somehow managed to turn it into a reality show with people running around in swimsuits on an island.
“Thank you,” Barry says, flashing her a smile. “I’m glad someone around here appreciates creative talent.”
Mom gives Barry’s arm a friendly squeeze, her three-inch red acrylic nails practically digging into his shirt. My eyes immediately drift to the huge sparkling Tiffany diamond on her ring finger. It’s new. Not from a guy, of course. She bought it as a present for herself for managing to finish two weeks of the Paleo Diet. Mom says you should never reward yourself with food. Always jewelry. When she finished the Werewolf Diet—fasting on every full and new moon (yes, it’s a thing)—she bought herself a fifty-four-carat diamond choker, which I thought was fitting for the Werewolf Diet because it kind of looked like a bejeweled dog collar.
Mom turns to me. “Why don’t you try the line again, sweetie,” she says in a tender voice that’s supposed to fool every single crew and cast member on this soundstage. But it doesn’t fool me. I see the real message in her eyes.
Don’t screw this up, Ruby. It’s contract negotiation time.
I silently calculate how many of Barry’s cheesy, clichéd lines I’ve had to recite to pay for that diamond ring. Three hundred? Three thousand?
Just say the stupid line and get it over with, I tell myself. The last thing I want is to have to come back here tomorrow and do the scene all over again. Put on this cheesy silk caftan, trudge through the fake sand dunes, and listen to Ryder gripe about what the wind machine is doing to his hair.
After this you’ll be one step closer to the end of the episode and the end of the season.
I force a smile onto my face. “Sorry, Barry. I’ll get it right this time.”
He returns my smile, although his is probably faker than mine. “Good.” Then he calls out to the rest of the crew. “Reset! Let’s do this! We have eighteen minutes and counting!”
Russ repeats the command into the headset of his walkie-talkie, relaying it to all the other crew on set. Sierra, the costume designer, adjusts my silk caftan, straightening it around my hips. Cami, the makeup artist, touches up my powder before spraying my forehead with artificial sweat. And Gina, the hairstylist, poufs my high ponytail, adjusting the gold cuff around the base and finishing it off with a spritz of extrahold hair spray.
Jericho, the prop guy, runs over, takes the gold genie lamp from my hand, and reburies it in the sand. Then he switches the wind machine back on, causing sand to swirl around my feet.
“Places!” Barry calls.
I return to my position and Ryder runs over to stand next to me. “Let’s see if you can manage to do this without royally messing it up again,” he says, flashing me a goading grin. His teeth are stained with chocolate glaze and I’m tempted not to say anything and just let him make a complete fool of himself, but Cami catches everything. She runs over with a cloth and rubs his teeth until they’re shiny white again. The blue genie man steps off camera, leaving Ryder and me alone again in the middle of the green-screen desert.
“And, action!” Barry barks.
The soundstage falls silent; the giant stage lights blaze overhead. All eyes and cameras are pointed directly at us. Ryder’s face instantly takes on the caring, dutiful expression of a boy in love with his best friend. And then I, Ruby Rivera, magically transform myself back into a twelve-year-old genie, on a four-season quest to find her mother.
It’s just breathing, I tell myself. It’s easy. You do it every day. You just inhale. Then exhale. Inhale. Then—
My whole body spasms as I let out another loud and out-of-control hiccup.
Oh gosh. This is not happening. This is not happening.
I can’t get the hiccups now. Not now. I’m up next! This is my one and only chance to prove to these people that I’m not the weird, shy kid who smells like cabbages. Okay, to be honest, I’m not sure where they got the cabbage thing. I shower every day. I even made my mom buy me the same body wash that all the Ellas use. (I overheard them talking about it at lunch once. Apparently, it’s supposed to smell like roses after a rainstorm. I don’t get any of that when I smell it, but I admit it smells pretty good.)
But anyway, this is my shot. My one opportunity to make friends in this place. If I can just get on that stage, perform the monologue I’ve been practicing nonstop for the past week, and get a role in the film club’s new movie, then this nightmare will all be over. The kids at Fairview Middle School will finally see that I’m normal. That I fit in somewhere. That I’m just as cool as those Ellas.
Okay, well, no one is as cool as the Ellas, but at least I’ll show them I’m cool enough to be someone’s friend. Anyone’s friend. Honestly, right now I’d settle for being friends with the cafeteria ladies.
I wish Leah were here. She’s my best friend back in Amherst, Massachusetts. That’s where my dad lives, too. I live with my mom, in Irvine, California. It’s temporary, though. At least, that’s what Mom and Dad keep telling me. Mom’s only here because she got a visiting professor job at UC Irvine. One school year tops, they promised me. But I’m not sure I believe them. I mean, I believed them when they promised me they would never get divorced and look how that turned out.
It’s Wednesday afternoon. School is out, and I’m standing in the wings of the auditorium, peering around the edge of the curtain, watching Daniella finish up her audition. She’ll definitely get a role in the movie. And not just because she’s the leader of the Ellas, but because she’s really good. Like Ruby Rivera good.
Daniella finishes her monologue with a dramatic bow and everyone in the auditorium goes wild. Mr. Katz, the film club advisor, who also happens to be my Language Arts teacher, is clapping right along with everyone else.
Yup, she’s definitely getting a part.
I sigh, wondering if I made a mistake signing up to audition. It doesn’t really help that Mr. Katz kind of hates me. He’s always ragging on me in class for not reading the assigned books. What makes me think he’s going to cast me in this movie?
I don’t need to be the lead or anything. I’d settle for being a random extra. I just want to be part of something. I just want to join something and be able to say—
And there’s my problem. Every time I get nervous I get the hiccups. And not just regular hiccups. The wildest, loudest, most violent hiccups ever. I mean, they’re pretty much equivalent to an earthquake in a small country.
As I stand in the wings, I close my eyes and try to take deep breaths. And yes, I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to tell me the best way to cure hiccups is to hold your breath/drink water/eat hot sauce/get someone to scare you/swallow a spoonful of sugar/guzzle vinegar/breathe into a paper bag.
I’ve heard just about every supposed hiccup cure there is, but none of them actually work. I just have to wait it out and pray that by the time they call my name—
“Skylar Welshman!” Mr. Katz’s voice booms from the stage.
My whole body freezes. I can feel blood rushing from my head to my toes and I’m pretty sure blood isn’t supposed to rush that way. My toes don’t need that blood. My brain needs that blood! I sway slightly and grab on to a nearby chair for balance.
You can do this, I tell myself. You’re ready. You’ve practiced this.
As I fight the wave of dizziness that passes over me, I think about what Ruby Rivera would do. She’s my all-time favorite celebrity. Not only is she the star of the best show in the world—Ruby of the Lamp—she’s also the best singer in the world. She wouldn’t let a little bout of hiccups stop her.
In fact, the monologue I prepared for today is from one of my favorite episodes of her show: season 1, episode 22. It’s called “Dream a Little Dream,” and it’s the one where Ruby discovers (through a magic dream) that her mother (who she thought died when she was a little girl) has actually been trapped inside a genie lamp for the past ten years. I’ve seen the episode at least twenty times and I still cry every time.
Just pretend you’re her, I tell myself. Be Ruby. Channel Ruby.
I stand up straight and push my shoulders back, ready to walk onto that stage with confidence, and poise, and—
I sigh again. I wonder if Ruby Rivera ever gets the hiccups. Probably not. Rich and famous people probably have a secret cure for the hiccups that us normal people don’t know about.
I take one step toward the stage but am stopped when I hear the high-pitched voice of Daniella call out behind me. I turn to see her approaching. She must have left the stage through the other wing and come around the back of the curtain.
“Nice outfit,” she says, giving me the once-over. I don’t have to be an award-winning English literature professor like my mother to figure out she’s not complimenting me.
The non-compliment compliment is followed by a chorus of giggles, and I turn around to see the other two Ellas walking toward me. Actually, “walk” is the wrong word. The Ellas don’t walk. They swagger. They strut. They sashay. All hips and highlighted blond hair and attitude. Okay, well, Gabriella’s actually a brunette, but she still has the attitude. And she always has this bitter, just-swallowed-a-bug look on her face.
“No offense, but where did you get that?” Daniella asks, scowling at my clothes. “The Salvation Army?”
“Probably like a Halloween costume discount store,” Isabella guesses.
“Yeah,” Gabriella chimes in. “A discount store for Halloween costumes.”
Gabriella is the least original of the three Ellas. She usually just finds a way to reword what one of the other Ellas says, and it’s never very creative.
I bite my lip, fighting the urge to tell them my outfit—fuchsia leggings, a black chiffon leopard-print skirt, and a sequined top—is actually inspired by something Ruby wore in her music video for “Living Out Loud” (my favorite Ruby Rivera song), but I know that won’t help. The Ellas think Ruby Rivera is lame. Something they made a point of telling me on my first day at Fairview Middle, when I showed up to math class with a Ruby Rivera binder.
“So, what are you going to do for your audition?” Daniella asks, like she genuinely wants to know, even though I know she doesn’t.
“She’s going to get up there and just stare awkwardly at people like she always does,” Isabella says. “That’s her real talent.”
“Yeah, she’s really talented at staring,” Gabriella agrees, before getting a weird look from her friends and quickly adding, “Awkwardly.”
“I—” I start, wanting to tell them that I’m not just going to get up there and stare at people, that I’m going to do the monologue I rehearsed relentlessly for the past week. But I feel another hiccup coming on, so I quickly close my mouth.
“You?” Daniella prompts, looking eager to hear what I have to say. When I don’t continue, she turns to the other Ellas and laughs. “Wow. That’s the most I’ve ever heard her say.”
“Skylar Welshman?” Mr. Katz’s voice repeats from the stage. “Are you here? You’re up!”
I have to go. I have to get out there and prove to these people that I’m not who they think I am. Everything will change after this moment. I’m sure of it. Everything will get better.
Daniella crosses her arms and stares at me, as if to say Go ahead. Show us what you got.
I put on my best Ruby Rivera smile, turn on my heels, and glide out of the wings. I position myself in the center of the stage and wait for Mr. Katz to signal me to begin.
“Action!” comes the cue.
I take a deep breath and open my mouth to say the first lines of my monologue.
“Mom! I know it was you. I saw you. I thought you were dead!”
I know the words. I’ve known the words since I was eight years old, when the episode first aired. But when I open my mouth now, it’s not those words that come out.
It’s the loudest, most obnoxious hiccup I’ve ever heard in my life.
Except, in the middle of the dead-quiet auditorium, it doesn’t sound like a hiccup. It sounds like a giant burp.