It is the summer before seventh grade and that show is on every weekday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. You know that show. The one with the sensitive alien dude who was born in an egg and the girl with the rainbow hair who you wish you could be even though her best friend is invisible and she’s kind of crazy, but it’s a cute kind of crazy, and her friend turns out to be real in the end so it doesn’t matter anyway. That show. It’s in repeats right now but might come back next fall. There are only twenty-six episodes of that show so in two weeks and change you can see them all though sometimes your mom makes you go to the chiropractor for your sinus headaches so you have to tape it. The same tape, one episode over another, until the image looks like strips of soggy newsprint left out in the rain too long.
You do an AOL keyword search, which is what you do back then. You go on usenet, which is what you do back then. You join a letter-writing campaign, which is what you do back then. You harangue the show’s producer about the general downward spiral in the myth arc in season two, which is what you do back then.
You write fanfic. Of course you do.
It’s September when you find the club, the fanfic club, the one with the starry background on their website, the one set on a space ship that’s shaped like a bird. You like this club because you have to write a story to apply. I mean, you have to be a good writer to get in. And you took a writing class at the community college this summer and even though the other kids didn’t really talk to you much you know you got this—it’s in the bag. You call your story “On the Loose” after that song you sang in Girl Scout Camp, the one that made all the older girls cry. You show your friend Stephanie the story over lunch and she tells you it’s really good so you go ahead and submit it.
They take their time getting back to you, their delicious time. Do they know how much it hurts to wait? You draw a picture of Radu in your art class. Years later, you wonder if seventh grade art teachers know that all those pictures their students mark out with grids are really just masturbation fodder.
They call themselves the Command Crew. They are very important. They tell you your story was one of the best they’ve ever seen, almost as good as Hayley’s.
Who the hell is Hayley, you wonder?
Your characters become friends, which means that you become friends. Your characters start dating, which means that you talk about meeting up at the mall sometime but it’s not a romantic thing, it’s just a friend thing, but your mom won’t let you go anyway. A boy joins and writes one drawn-out story whose climax is the reveal of his character’s name, which translates to “clever meat” in another language. He never writes another story after that. You talk to him on IMs sometimes, mostly about Animorphs.
After school, you and Stephanie and Jen B. ride your bikes through the ravine. Yours is second hand, and parts start flying off after you drop it. You traipse mud through the living room, all over your mom’s new beige carpet. Stephanie’s brother calls you a lesbian. Lesbo. Dyke. Fag.
Which is all a way of saying you’re different from the kids at school. Maybe it’s because your dad is dead and maybe it’s because your mom is Jewish and maybe it’s because you were in G&T and maybe it’s because you have small boobs and a soft belly and maybe it’s because you read fantasy novels, two or three inches thick. This year you’re trying a little harder, wearing those tight velour shirts and baggy corduroy pants like the girls in the delia*s catalog but honestly instead of cute you just feel kind of sweaty, sometimes.
You draw those girls from the delia*s catalog. Dewy eyes, doe eyes, big ripe alien eyes.
It’s a phase, and already it’s fading. You’ve moved on to dragons now. Who knows how long that will last. A year ago it was the Beatles, and two years before that, the local Renaissance Fair. Someday it will be boys, or one specific boy, or one boy after another. But now it’s dragons, and girls with talking swords.
You’re reading a book about a girl with a talking sword. You’ve almost reached the part where she finds her brother, the eunuch, whose tongue has been cut from his mouth. You feel like you’re dreaming when you get that email. Hayley’s story. The one about the swords. It takes place on a spaceship, but the words—they’re exactly the same.
I thought I should bring it to your attention, you write.
This is a serious accusation, they say.
You sit at the computer in your dining room, the book propped up beneath the heels of your hands. You copy the words down. You paste Hayley’s beneath, in bold face.
We take plagiarism seriously, they say.
Years later, you hear about another plagiarist. The famous one, the one with the book deal. You wonder if it was Hayley—some of these RPG friends stayed in fanfic, didn’t they? They moved on to Harry Potter when you started going to punk shows. But no, this was a different girl-or-woman who opened a book and copied out the text, tweaking a word here or there to make it fit within the framework of someone else’s world. A common occurrence, not at all unusual, but you couldn’t help wonder: why? When they had all of language at their disposal.
But then, if you’re honest with yourself, a few years before you traced a few of those portraits of John Lennon. You couldn’t get his crooked teeth right, his long nose, so you held the photos up against a bare light bulb. But I mean, you were learning and it didn’t matter, right? You were eleven.
Hayley is fourteen. She should know better.
There’s a public announcement, and a forced non-apology. Hayley says she didn’t know anything about swordfighting. What the hell does a ninth grader know about swords? She hardly ever writes after that. You’re mostly Pern RPGing now yourself. But when they ask you to join the Command Crew, you say sure. Your fanfic is still out there, if you know where to look.
Jen B. goes off to private school. Stephanie gets a boyfriend. It will be two years before you meet Ada—a long, lonely gap. It’s been a few months since you’ve finished a story. There have been dozens of beginnings, but no ends.
Phoebe North is a dork, not a geek or a nerd. She lives in upstate New York with her adorable husband, adorable baby, and adorable cat. Her new YA novel, Starbreak, about Jews in space and the alien plants who love them, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on July 8th.