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Dear Agent for a Day:
When begging and bribery fail to free Em Hopkins from theater class, she discovers that her shape-shifting might not remain a secret forever. Em’s tasty neighbor is more of a temptation than she needs at this point, but the real struggle will be keeping her gossip-loving best friend in the dark about Em’s unique ability.
SHIFTER is a complete, 50,000-word young adult novel about what it’s like to feel alone in the world.
One of my speculative fiction stories (“Karma,” in Sam’s Dot Publishing’s 2007 COVER OF DARKNESS anthology) and several of my poems have been published. SHIFTER is my first novel. I have included the first five pages below, for your consideration.
Thank you for taking the time to consider representing my work.
Part One: January
I stood in front of the water-spotted bathroom mirror and shifted myself into a supermodel, a tall one with sexy lips and a juicily curving figure.
If there were other shape-shifters in the world, they would probably despise me for being so shallow. But I live in the land of cow patty bingo and weekly Two-Step Night, so I have to find entertainment where I can.
I checked out the supermodel in the mirror. She was hot.
I could’ve gone to school that way. I could’ve pretended to be someone else, and everyone would’ve been so fascinated by the gorgeous new girl that no one would notice the absence of Em Hopkins, who had gone to school in Llano her whole life and, just like the rest of them, had never done anything interesting.
I added an extra inch of height and thick black eyelashes.
My sister, Lauren, yelled from the kitchen, “You’re going to be late for school if you don’t get your ass out the door, Em.”
I mocked her in the mirror, the supermodel figure shifting into Lauren’s short, thin body, the hair shifting dark blonde and shineless. One face faded into the other as smoothly as changing expressions.
I tried a smile in the face. It hardly looked like Lauren. I tried to remember if Lauren used to smile and when she had stopped doing it.
The shift from Lauren to me won’t be a huge one. Shorten and darken the hair. Make small changes to the nose and pale green eyes. Lauren is only two years older than me, so there won’t be any wrinkles to stretch or teeth stains to whiten.
But it’s different, always different, when I come back to my own face.
The usually fluid, instantaneous shift paused and shuddered, and for four seconds, I waited, and horror twisted around my lungs like a thorny vine while I waited for my own face and shape to return.
I don’t know why it terrifies me. I don’t know why my terror never prevents me from shifting, even when I have no real need to shift. Maybe the fear that I might lose my face, my barely adequate face, gets lost in the desire to do the one thing that keeps me from being dull.
But there I was, after my four panicked seconds, staring back at myself, my stomach in knots and my heart beating at hummingbird speed. I looked like me again: combed, mascaraed, and ready to blend in, my face feeling stretched and unstretched like a balloon. I smeared another layer of foundation over the fading bruise on my right cheek, a souvenir from my mother’s last visit.
“I liked the supermodel more,” I whispered to my reflection. She glared back at me.
I took a purple striped bangle bracelet from my collection and slid it over my hand, resting it over the scars on my wrist. Then I left the bathroom, grabbed the week’s lunch money and my backpack, and headed for school.
I stepped off the porch as an old motorcycle snarled past me and on down the gravel road, the driver’s thick black hair whipping back in his own personal wind.
Unfortunately, he didn’t know that I dreamed about licking his face. He would know someday. I’d tell him eventually, and even though he was three years older and several billion times sexier than me, he would sleep with me. Then I could move on to someone who noticed when I entered the room.
My sneakers crackled against the gravel. Because I was listening to it and only half daydreaming, I heard the footsteps running up behind me.
I stepped out of the way just in time to prevent Manu, brother to the awe-inspiring Ipo, from bowling me over. He grinned and fell into step beside me.
“Not walking to school with me anymore, Em?” Manu asked.
“I figured you’d catch up.”
Manu’s grin showed his one crooked tooth. I had watched him hone that smile in the mirror since we were six. Three girls fell in love with him every week because of that smile or because of his dark Hawaiian skin. Half of the sophomore girls were already zombies under his sadistic control.
Manu shrugged off his jacket as we walked and jammed it into his backpack. “I think I might die of heat stroke before spring,” he said.
It was January. Even for Texas, this weather was ridiculous. The brown grass and shrub skeletons and persistent Christmas lights insisted that it was still winter, but I was skeptical.
“Is Lauren getting a ride to school?” Manu asked. He glanced back at my little white house, right next to his little white house. I wondered if he expected to see Lauren walking behind us, staring at her shoes and pretending not to know us as usual.
“She’ll probably vanish into smoke and drift to school. You can do that when you’re pure evil,” I said.
“So why can’t you do it?” Manu said.
I gave him a mock laugh and kept walking, past the mailbox shaped like Rudolph’s head, past the one part of our route where we could see the river from the road.
“So, did you miss me while I was gone?” he asked.
“You were gone?”
“You don’t have to answer,” he said. “I know you don’t like to lie. I’ll just accept your look of overwhelming joy as a ‘yes.’”
I smoothed my sweater and wiped the sweat from my nose. “I missed your mom’s cooking while you were all sun-bathing and surfing and roasting pigs. I missed your basement. I missed having someone around who was so obsessively self-centered that he spends an hour smoothing his hair but can’t manage to zip his fly.”
Manu glanced down, stopped, turned away, zipped, and turned back grinning.
I thought about saying the words, “I didn’t miss you,” but it was probably a lie. And Manu was right. I hated to lie.
Instead, I said, “Did they perform some primitive growth hormone rite of passage while you were there? Or do people with your freakish genes usually grow three inches taller over Christmas?”
He glanced at me—or glanced down at me. He was a freaking giant. And he had that sort of bent shuffle that said he wasn’t comfortable with being a freaking giant yet.
It’s weird, but that made me kind of sad. Manu usually came out of the gate with flair, cape flowing. Never mind the raging Spanish bull.
But three ungainly inches and he’s Quasimodo.
“Four inches,” he said, and I couldn’t tell if it was shame or pride or some mixture in his voice.
We turned off the gravel onto the paved road that led to school. One car passed us, then the road was silent. Llano, Texas: Home of People Who Stay Home to Watch The Price Is Right.
“You could play basketball, now,” I said, trying to sound encouraging.
“Yippee,” he said. “What about you? What’s new at the Hopkinses’?”
“I’m officially living in the living room now. My clothes are in the ottoman, and I keep all the other essentials in the cabinet under the bathroom sink. Lauren and I had been sharing a room for too many years. I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did.”
“You should just throw all of your mother’s crap out onto the lawn and move into her room,” Manu said.
Something between my heart and my stomach went heavy. I twisted my face into a half-smile. “She still lives there,” I said.
“When’s the last time you saw her?” he asked.
“Last week,” I said, touching my cheek.
“And before that?”
I couldn’t remember. Sometimes she came home when I was out, and I knew she’d been there because there was a dirty glass in the sink or because some of my CDs were gone or because the house smelled faintly of liquor and Vanilla Fields.
Manu didn’t understand. His mother was every perfect TV mother and the quirkiest Friends episode combined.
He pulled my hair. Maybe it was his version of a hug.
Llano High School, tall and skinny, stood wedged between the old prison (now the library) and the shops that lined Peach Street like train cars.
We trudged toward it.
As soon as I walked into my first period class, I was sent to talk to the office gremlins about my schedule.
I passed Whitney and Brandi in the hall and waved hello. They were nice and relatively interesting, and because they didn’t mind when Cola gossiped about them to the entire sophomore class, Cola and I usually ate lunch with them and considered them more or less friends.
Whitney waved back, Brandi commented on my cute sweater, and I continued past them through the glass doors of fate.
Three office ladies sat behind the tall counter, staring at their computers with a vague sort of misery. Their faces would inch closer and closer to the monitors as the semester passed. By the end, they would be swigging from the fun flask when the vice-principal, Mr. Baldie, was out.
Mrs. Brewer, a woman with twice the mass of an average human being, asked for my name. She typed, then handed me the page that the printer spit out.
I took it.
“I can’t be in theater,” I said, handing the schedule back to her. She wouldn’t take it. “I have a medical condition. Call my doctor. He’ll tell you.”
Mrs. Brewer ignored me. She stared at her computer and jabbed the tab key with her index finger. According to Cola, Mrs. Brewer sold one of her kidneys on the black market to finance her husband’s gourmet beer business.
“I signed up for taxidermy,” I said.
“Taxidermy’s full. Theater is not, Miss Hopkins.” Jab, jab, jab.
Cola also said Mrs. Hernandez, the theater teacher, was a member of the Neo-Nazi party. That one might be true.
“But my whole schedule has been rearranged,” I said, searching Mrs. Brewer’s face for signs of empathy. “What about band? Athletics?”
“Full,” Mrs. Brewer said.
“You haven’t taken German I,” Mrs. Brewer said immediately.
I had a vision of Mrs. Brewer lying in her single bed, memorizing student transcripts as her husband snored from his bed across the room.
I said, “German I, then.”
“German I isn’t offered this semester.”
The second bell rang, blasting from the speaker on the wall behind Mrs. Brewer’s desk. I flinched. She didn’t.
“Medical condition,” I repeated.
I pulled my sweater away from my skin. Never mind that it was a summery winter outside. We had to have the heater on until the calendar announced the first day of spring. Down with Mr. Baldie’s despotic regime.
“Please call my doctor,” I said again. “He’ll tell you.”
“I’m sure he would. Here is your schedule. Theater meets in B1. That stands for ‘basement one.’ Can you find it?”
Mrs. Brewer slapped the schedule and slid it back across the counter to me.
I tapped my fingers next to the schedule, then reached over and picked up the receiver of Mrs. Brewer’s phone.
She stared at me as though she couldn’t believe I would invade her inner sanctum.
I smiled at her and dialed.
“I’m in class,” Manu whispered, but he didn’t hang up.
“Hi,” I said. “This is Emily Hopkins. Is Dr. Shyamalan available?”
“Damn it. Hold on a minute,” Manu said.
“Of course. I’ll hold.” I heard him ask to be excused.
After a few muffled seconds, Manu said, “Okay. Let’s get it over with.”
I passed the phone to Mrs. Brewer, whose glare had deepened into an expression of loathing.
But she took the phone and gruffed, “Is there any medical reason why Emily Hopkins can’t participate in theater class?”
I heard the distant babble of Manu’s voice, and I twirled my bangle bracelet for luck.
Of course, there was a medical reason why I couldn’t take theater. I’d shape-shifted while reading, drawing, watching TV, salsa dancing, daydreaming, and staring at blank walls.
Acting, actively pretending to be someone else, did not seem like a bright idea. If I accidentally shifted in front of my class, or worse, on stage in front of a room of parents and teachers, everyone would know what I was.
And I was pretty sure that that would ruin my magically defective life.
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