Chapter One Countdown to Christmas: 11 Days Lumpy snowflakes tumble from above, "Blue Christmas" dancing out of the speakers of Mary Had a Little Boutique. The historical brick buildings glisten like icicles in the pearly dusk that shadows Old Homestead Road, all of their names hand-lettered across display windows. This tiny Colorado valley town has a population south of two thousand, composed of six blocks neatly divided between three roads, the middle one the commercial strip. Despite having lived here for about eight months, I've never ventured into town before, since I might be recognized (wearing off-the-rack Rue 21!). Or worse: I might not be recognized at all. Everything here has a cutesy name, usually Old West or mountain inspired, as if anyone could forget we're in the Rocky Mountains when we're literally shaded by them-Spruce It Up Hair Saloon, Frontier Hardware, Silver Mine Dining, Rocky Road Ice Cream Parlor. The boutique glowing in front of me is rustic-wedding-in-a-barn trendy. Like if the Lumineers were a store. Surely I'll find gifts for my prickly, difficult-to-please relatives in here. I have to. The store is small and brightly lit, so it's impossible to avoid the attention of its manager, leaning eagerly across the counter when I push open the door, its bells chiming. Her eyes squint, then widen. "You look familiar. Are you-?" "No," I'm quick to respond, turning to run an idle finger over a cloth napkin. My stomach churns at the forty-dollar price tag. "I'm nobody." She snaps her fingers. "Bettie Hughes! Oh my goodness! You must be here visiting your grandparents. I'm always seeing Lawrence's car whizzing around. It's such a treat, every time, always waves hello, stops for a chat if he has a minute. Couldn't be nicer." Her voice goes a bit wobbly. "Your grandmother isn't as... well, she's busy. Probably gets tired of being stopped all the time for autographs." She tries to sound cheerful about whatever memory she's reliving, in which my grandmother crushed the warm, friendly image this woman had held of her like a sorceress grinding the bones of her admirers. I smile tightly. "Sorry to disappoint. I get that comparison a lot, but I'm not Bettie." She's confused for a moment, and then she winks exaggeratedly. "Ahh, gotcha. Don't worry, I won't say anything. Not a peep." We're in on a secret together as she watches me browse. I can't concentrate, painfully aware of her attention. This is what's popular now: high-quality, artisanal presents from small but expensive holes-in-the-wall. I can see my younger sister Kaia now, gifting me a secret, never-before-released album from one of my favorite bands that she procured in a water-tower-turned-musical-speakeasy somewhere in New York; Athena, my other sister, topping her by gifting me a bathtub fashioned from a rare type of volcanic rock that self-heats, which she got from a store in Denmark that disappeared the day after she made her purchase. My relatives and I don't give each other anything with a recognizable label: the more obscure and personalized, the more exclusive. I'm tired of giving the family's worst gifts. I'm tired of everyone pretending my offerings weigh the same as theirs. "Do you need help? Hunting for a present for someone special? Look at this," the manager says, emerging over my shoulder with a clay pitcher. "I think your grandfather might like this." I jump. "Ah!" I twist a You don't even know my grandfather into submission, because maybe that's not true. Maybe Mary from Mary Had a Little Boutique knows Lawrence Watson better than I do. After all, he's lived in Teller City half his life. "I'm not who you think I am." "Right, right." She glances at the window, at all the cars parked along the slushy street. Business is booming at the evil shop next door. "They're gonna run me out of business," she laments. Then she cranes up at the sky, as if photographers might be dangling from helicopters. "We got this in today." She shows me a crocheted sweater with a price tag of one hundred forty-five dollars. " Beautiful . Isn't it beautiful? Handmade, too. Lady by the name of Daisy makes these, told me she only crochets one a month, they're so much effort." "Mm." I'm going through the motions, picking up ceramic pots, feigning interest in cakes of handmade soap. Twenty-seven dollars. I need twenty-seven-dollar handcrafted soap that costs five bucks. I suppose it's nice that everything here is sourced from local entrepreneurs, but there's nothing in this store I can afford. A tiny knife for cutting cheese would prevent me from filling my car with gas for a week. The manager grins with dollar signs for eyes. "Do you like coffee? We sell the most amazing ground coffee you've ever tried. Here, I can give you a sample." I'm given free samples of coffee, cologne, a bag of muffin mix, and tinted moisturizer. Eventually, I contrive an excuse to leave ("very busy, got a 'thing'") and she's visibly disappointed but expresses hopes that I'll return tomorrow. Back out on the sidewalk in "downtown" Teller City, I force a slow exhale between my teeth, tightening my purse against my body. Wind snaps and belts like the feedback in an old home camcorder video. Next door, the mutual nemesis of Mary Had a Little Boutique and myself stares down with big block letters and Edison lanterns. Magnolia Hope Chest. In their plot to take over society with shiplap and oversized wall clocks, Fixer Upper home renovation stars Chip and Joanna Gaines have conquered the western U.S. state by state with their cute little stores. Even towns as bite-sized as this one have fallen prey to Joanna's love of industrial farmhouse chic and white subway tile. This location is less than a year old. I can see their thinking: the rural, down-home image looks good on their website, and they know that their star power will draw shoppers from every town in the county. That a sleek bronze glass-front building such as this one, while scaled back in comparison to its Texan motherland, is permitted to sit comfortably between Shahad's Toy Shop and Mary Had a Little Boutique is an abomination. My mind flickers to my sister Athena, who loves the Gaines style: rustic dZcor with an upper-middle-class price tag that makes her feel she's relatable and down to earth. I remember being in the upper upper class, trying to persuade Macy's to stock my perfume label while considering myself too good to shop at Macy's. Now I clip Dollar General coupons. After my finances imploded, I dreaded my shopping runs for fear of being photographed perusing the clearance sections. Even though I couldn't afford high-end products anymore, I still had my pride. But with Christmas around the corner, I've been frantic to find gifts for my wealthy family, who are congregating up the mountain three days from now. A couple of weeks ago, I bit the bullet and entered the contact sport beloved by millions of American citizens known as Black Friday shopping. There I was, skulking into Magnolia (with sunglasses and a wig) at six in the morning the day after Thanksgiving-a little bit hungover, brooding over spending the holiday alone-and I began filling my cart. Prices were low. Adrenaline was high. I'd just nabbed an antique-style wall sconce at half off, which I knew Athena would love-the rush gave me such tunnel vision that, medically, I cannot be held liable for my actions. A woman and I brawled over a reclaimed-wood recipe box, the police were called, and we were both dragged from the store with lifetime bans. I kept shouting "It's not me!" for some reason. I remember being devastated to lose the wall sconce, which I'd never be able to afford at regular price. I was also devastated by the teenage assistant manager, who called me ma'am , which resulted in a full breakdown. I can't be a ma'am, I'm only twenty-three! Or I was a few years ago, anyway. I'm pretty sure I'm twenty-six, but I spent so many years being twenty-one that I'd have to check my driver's license to be sure. Chip and Joanna are my mortal enemies now, discriminating by expecting customers to pay with money rather than exposure, even though I would have basically done them a favor by letting them give me merchandise. I have 9.3 million followers on Instagram. Frustrated that this shopping trip proved fruitless, I slam my car door, which I like to imagine is still my sleek, deep red Aston Martin Vantage rather than a 2003 Chevrolet Impala in bird-poop white. I ignore the stoplight since nobody's here to see me run a red, thinking about how utterly rude it is that I peaked at twenty-four and didn't even appreciate it, because I thought the money would keep flowing forever. I leveraged my name to broker deals for a fragrance line, a clothing line, a jewelry line, one right after the other under bad advisement, a horde of yes-men bleeding me dry without my knowledge, because I trusted anyone who said they believed in my creative vision. With ten million dollars in the bank, I began spending like an idiot, assuming that every year I'd double those millions. I bought a top-of-the-line car. A Hawaiian villa. I invested in all my friends' loose-threaded start-ups, all high promises, no substance. I was sitting in one of the most expensive restaurants on Melrose Avenue, celebrating my rise to the Top Thirty Entrepreneurs under Thirty , when I got the call that I was broke. The restaurant declined my credit card. Halfway up a mountain at the north end of Old Homestead Road, a big, shuddersome house gazes down at me like a beady-eyed crow, tracking my progress to the opposite side of town. Even though that house and its occupants don't know I've been hiding out in Teller City for the last several months, I feel it watching me all the time. It's why I do all my shopping in nearby Springhedge. Needing to keep a low profile means I can't risk trying to make any friends here, so I sit alone on the couch night after night, dreaming of the good old days. I scurry like a beetle back into my rotting log, a small dwelling on the wooded outskirts of town with no cable, where the electricity and Wi-Fi are unwittingly being powered by one of the neighbors. (I run an extension cord from their outdoor outlet.) I stopped paying the water bill, so I've been waiting on that to dry up: my future holds either getting a job or showering at the YMCA in Springhedge and doing my toilet business unspeakably. I subsist on frozen pizza and peanut butter sandwiches. And Evian bottled water, of course. I'm not a pleb. Once inside, I collapse onto the couch to feel sorry for myself. "Why couldn't you have lived somewhere else?" I moan to Eileen. "Or had a bigger television?" This one is twenty-four inches. Eileen doesn't respond, as she is very busy being dead in Florida. She was only supposed to be in Florida for a three-week vacation last February, but the ninety-year-old lady snuffed it at Disney World during week two. I had needed money and a place to stay, and found her advertisement asking for someone to water her plants at a time when the situation was dire (I had been staying with a woman I'd just met, who said I could take her sofa if I acted as lookout whenever she was doing illegal tattooing). My three-week stay has grown into nearly a year. Every single day, I am terrified a cop is going to show up and arrest me for squatting, or a long-lost relative will come to claim Eileen's house and belongings. I can't believe no one's kicked me out yet. It's a drafty little place, musty-smelling, like it knows Eileen is dead and has decided to die right along with her even though someone's still trying to live in it. The walls are dark wood paneling, the carpet gray shag that's crunchy in areas. Crayons and dead mice have melted under the radiators to form the world's most grotesque rainbow. There isn't a single decent wall to pose in front of for pictures. I had to nail a tie-dye tapestry up on the wall with the best lighting, which as far as my followers and family know, is the "bohemian room" in my private Hawaiian villa. Don't ask to visit me because I am simply too busy to accommodate guests-I am making a fortune as an influencer for a nonexistent company called verdIgRIS Tea, a multilevel marketing venture I made up. Allegedly, if you drink the tea it can make your eyes greener. I'll send details to you in the mail, which will then be lost by our inefficient postal system. Even though verdIgRIS isn't real, other brands will surely see my sponsorships, so the goal is to make them think I'm in demand. If you build it (the lie), they will come (with enough cash to get me out of Teller City before my grandmother discovers I'm here and heckles me for being a failure). I swallow, staring at the ceiling. Three days. Only three days left until I have to see everyone and put on a convincing show that I'm Doing Great, Actually. No, I certainly did not make a huge deal out of how rich I was, then blow my money on big, elaborate parties for fair-weather friends I haven't heard a peep from since my brands went kaput. The media didn't overexpose me to the point where everyone hates me. My face wasn't all over tabloids, first for my success, and then for my lavish parties, and finally as a target of ridicule. Constant accusations of cheating on partners or being cheated on. Plastic surgery. Debt. (They got that one right, at least.) I didn't lose job opportunities, left with nothing except for credit too bad to get a loan. It's what my parents have been warning me about since I was four years old and crying that I wanted to be a Disney star. My frugal, responsible, ordinary parents, who shunned the limelight my grandmother casts, who've been scrupulously saving for their retirement since they were in their twenties. I certainly couldn't approach them for help, not when my dad tried so hard to keep his kids from chasing fame but we all did, anyway, because bad people in nice suits offer fame-adjacent children the world the second they turn eighteen, exploiting their connections, sweet-talking them right into ruin, and then moving promptly along. Dad hoped we'd choose normal lives, too. He was worried we'd end up spoiled or broken. Joke's on him: I'm both! I get up and pour the remaining quarter of a bottle from the fridge into a glass. California zinfandel has never let me down. Three days. The ticking clock is a roar. "This sucks," I tell my wine. "And so do you, but at least you're trying." I have nothing to give to anyone. All of my possessions have already been featured in social media posts. Athena will know if I'm giving out my own stuff as Christmas presents, she will absolutely say something, and then what? At any rate, I couldn't possibly part with the few belongings I own from my old life. Gold-infused essential oils recommended by my aromatherapist, a prosperity-boosting body scrub that only works if you're a Scorpio. Musk-scented CBD oil made especially for depressed blue tang fish. Most of these are GOOP products, obtained through my persistent extortion of Gwyneth Paltrow. She's in the wind now and hasn't sent me anything in months. I pop open a fresh bottle. "It's not fair!" The closer Christmas gets, the sicker I feel. I rev up social media to do the number one no-no: look up my own name. What I find is bad. Tweets with the highest engagement accompany the hashtag #BettieHughesIsCanceled, followed closely by #LucasDodgedABullet. This was the fallout after I tried to tell people that my ex-boyfriend, Lucas Dormer, was emotionally abusive, via an interview with Andromeda Magazine . Lucas's fans swiftly crushed me. We've been broken up for years now, but they still won't let their hatred go, dogging me all over the internet, posting GIFs of people throwing Raisin Crème Pies at each other's faces (I'll explain that reference later). I pour another drink, digging into TikTok. The only time I'm mentioned by the merciless teens of today's society is in mean hashtags on videos they post of themselves dancing to Lucas Dormer's songs. One of them green-screened my years-old mugshot into the background. I'm making a bad day much worse. I need to put my phone away, but I can't. I have to know what people--people who think I'm too rich and busy to look it up--are saying about me. Some of the girls I used to be friendly with before their modelling or acting careers took off have posted cryptic Tweets like It's so sad to see what's happened to her and I don't know who they're referencing, but just the fact that it might be me pumps my body full of furious adrenaline. How dare they! I'm drying up my second bottle. Every boyfriend I've ever had has, at one point, used a #BettieHughesIsOverParty comment to link to their melodramatic "What's It Like to Date a Watson-Hughes" exposés on Medium.com from two, three, four years ago. I "like" a few of them, just so they'll know I see what kind of shitfuckery they're up to. A reporter at the New York Times , Kelly Frederick, who used to dig around in my finances and tell everyone my companies were drowning, declared she was praying for me. She tagged @BettieHughes, the wrong handle, as mine is @RealBettieHughes. Her most recent thirty Tweets are gushing over Lucas Dormer's guest appearance on some teen drama, tagging him in every one. I know she's hoping he'll show interest, maybe gratitude. I know he'll probably flirt with her a little from afar but never date her, because he's a celebrity whose public persona doesn't match up with reality behind the scenes, and she's a reporter. The worst part? Almost all of these Tweets are from last year. Hardly anyone's been talking about me since, except to make jabs. A theory that I'm in rehab is floating around. Some people think I'm dead. Even my unpopularity isn't popular anymore. Excerpted from Just Like Magic by Sarah Hogle All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.