In a Parallel Universe
Hugging the warm basket to her body with one arm, Delilah opened the back door and slipped quietly into Jenna’s kitchen. On the countertops were a few large serving plates, bearing the scattered remains of brunch: slices of bread, a jam-covered knife, various pastries and baked goods, a depleted bowl of fruit. The smell of coffee had soaked the room. After taking a brief moment to survey her surroundings, the red Kau set her basket down and hurriedly began transferring the large, fresh muffins onto an empty platter.
The sounds of conversation drifted through an open door, and she wondered if she might be able to join the group without drawing attention to herself. The discussion itself had probably just gotten underway, although she knew that the members of the book club must have arrived at least half an hour ago.
As she was replacing the lid of the basket, Delilah heard someone step into the room. She turned to see Lane standing on the tiled floor, halfway between her and the door. He was holding an empty paper plate in one hand; the other was in his pocket.
The grey Kougra regarded her languidly.
In a parallel universe, Delilah was gorgeously tall. Her legs went on for miles, and she accentuated her height with sky-high heels and airy skirts that moved like wisps of cloud.
In reality, Lane looked down at her with a frown. “Thanks for showing up,” he said.
“Yeah, sorry I’m late,” said Delilah, bending down to push her basket underneath the kitchen table. “Did you just start?”
Lane wandered over to the small waste bin. “We started discussing Part Three about five minutes ago,” he said, dropping his plate into the black bag, “but everybody was here before eleven.”
Delilah glanced at the clock on the wall; its bold numbers shouted the time at her: 11:36 A.M.
The Kau sighed. “I don’t know how my morning got so tied up,” she said. “I was on track to pick up the muffins at 10:30, but—”
“Everyone’s already eaten,” said Lane, passing her on his way back toward the door. “It probably would’ve been better if you’d just come straight here.”
In a parallel universe, Delilah finished her sentence. “Excuse me,” she said, “but I was going to explain that before I made it all the way to the bakery this morning, I remembered I still owe my membership fee for this month. I didn’t want to pay late again, so I went back and got the money. I know Jenna is buying next month’s books soon, and I wanted to make sure she got my contribution. So before you tell me what I should and should not have done, I’d appreciate it if you’d listen to what I have to say.”
In a parallel universe, Delilah’s ruby eyes could flash with whatever emotion she wanted to display; in this case, indignation and disapproval. Her face spoke as clearly as her words. She was never misunderstood.
In the real world, the Kau watched with a blank expression as Lane disappeared into the other room.
She hurried to follow him.
Jenna’s sitting room was large, but it had the feeling of being much smaller. This was accomplished by rows of heavy bookshelves along the walls, exquisite, dark wood paneling, oversized furniture softened by plush cushions, and scattered lamps whose glow was like candlelight. A wide window looked out onto the neighboring park, framed by silky curtains that fluttered with life during the summer months when Jenna let in the breeze.
The white Acara was sitting in her favorite chair, surrounded by four others, all of them clutching copies of Illusens Novel. Lane was sliding into his seat as Delilah entered the room.
“We have a guest,” the grey Kougra said, prompting everyone to glance up at her.
Delilah managed a self-conscious wave. “Hey, guys,” she said. “Sorry I’m late.” She struggled for a moment, unsure if she should take the time to explain what had happened or merely shrug off the unwanted attention and let the meeting continue. “I brought the muffins.”
A few of the Neopets exchanged glances.
“Have a seat,” said Jenna, offering her a smile. “We’ve been talking about Part Three and what each of us thinks the ending means.”
Delilah found an empty chair and melted into it.
“We already went around and read our favorite passages,” said Jenna. “Do you want to do yours now?”
“Where’s your book?” said Hannah. The Aisha was sitting across from Delilah, and she leaned forward, tossing her hair to the side and squinting, as if she were trying to make out the blurred form of a book that was clearly not resting in Delilah’s lap.
In a parallel universe, of course, Delilah could flip her hair with the rest of them. Its auburn strands were long and perfectly straight, and they framed her face like falling water, fluid and shimmering. In a parallel universe, Delilah didn’t forget things like books or membership payments. She was smart, responsible, witty, and beautiful—oh, was she ever beautiful in that universe!
But the Delilah of this world could only supply a drooping gape as six pairs of eyes x-rayed her from head to tail. Her clunky braid hung behind her like a fraying rope. Her throat was caked with the dryness of cracked mud. Her hands held the empty space where Illusens Novel should have been.
“Delilah,” said Jenna. “Where’s your book?”
“I’m sorry.” The Kau closed her eyes for a moment; everything in her field of vision had begun to fade, like dye washed from fabric. She grasped for words in her makeshift darkness. “I can’t believe I forgot. I—”
“Wait,” said Lane, his droopy eyes alighting on Delilah as soon as she opened her own. “So you forget your membership fee, arrive more than thirty minutes late, and you don’t even bring the book?” He let out an incredulous laugh; it popped like a bubble. “Delilah, you know this is a book club, right?”
“Hold up,” said Hannah, holding up her hand as a visual aid. “You don’t have the fee for this month? Jenna is buying the books this afternoon.”
“I have the money,” said Delilah. “It’s in the basket in the kitchen.”
“Guys, this is disrupting the flow of the meeting,” said Jenna.
“That’s what happens when you walk in late and don’t bother to bring the book,” said Lane, leaning back in his chair.
“She can look at mine,” said Tess, the Lupe who was sitting to Delilah’s left.
“She shouldn’t have to look at anyone’s,” said Hannah. “Did you at least read the book, Delilah?”
“Of course I did,” said Delilah, a waterfall pounding behind her eyes.
“That’s not the issue we’re addressing here,” said Lane.
“You’re making a small problem into a big one,” said Tess.
“It’s not like this is the first time something like this has happened,” said Hannah.
“Look, I’m sorry, really—”
“Can everyone please calm down?” said Jenna, setting aside the book she’d been holding. The voices stopped. Her eyes traveled around the circle. “This is a matter we can discuss later.”
Silence settled on the room, and the hush ripened as Jenna fixed her gaze on Delilah.
In the Acara’s eyes, Delilah could see the future. She was going to be asked to leave the club. After all, as Hannah said, this was not the first time. In fact, Delilah had never really fit into this group; she had skipped a few meetings, toying with the idea of telling Jenna that the next book would be her last. It was only habit that kept her in. Now, the thin shell had cracked, and one way or another, she was going to leak out.
In a parallel universe, Delilah left on her own terms. When the moment was at its ripest, she snatched it.
Her ruby eyes flashed weariness and disdain.
As she stood up, her miles-for-legs lifted her into the clouds, from which she could look down at the Neopets below and say, “I think it’s time for me to find another book club—one that’s more accommodating to my personality. Thank you for everything, Jenna, but I’m ready to leave.”
Her falling water hair rose up in a tidal wave as she tossed her head and turned toward the door.
In her sky-high heels, she strode out of the sitting room, each step resonant with her decision, punctuated at last by the defiant sound of the door.
But Delilah was stuck in the wrong world. In this world, she wilted under Jenna’s gaze; in this world, she suffered through the remainder of the meeting; in this world, she accepted her dismissal after the others had departed; in this world, she packed up the uneaten muffins and stepped outside, only to dump the whole basket into a garbage can as soon as she turned the corner.