Neal Shusterman

Duckling Ugly

Dark Fusion, book 3

I am not one of the beautiful people.

Some people are born with everything? looks, personality, brains. Any combination of two can usually get you by. You might not be much to look at, but if you're a fun person and are smart, you'll be fine. If you're beautiful and personable, you could have oatmeal between your ears and no one would care much. But these natural laws that govern the social uni­verse all fall apart when your looks are like a black hole. That's me: a freakish blip in time and space?a singularity of ugliness. An ugularity?and no matter how smart I am, no matter how friendly or funny, it doesn't matter. All that's good about me gets sucked in and crushed into nothing when the world looks at me.

This is what the world sees when it dares to look:

A pair of sewer-shade eyes two sizes too big for my face; a weak chin with a spidery mole. Hair like brown weed-whacked crabgrass, and a flat chest over shapeless hips. It's worse when I smile, because my brother got all the good teeth. Braces were always out of the question.

As I once overheard my dentist say to his assis­tant, 'Braces on that girl would be like lipstick on a horse.'

The word is ugly. Oh, there are other words for it. Words like plain, you know? Like vanilla. But if I were ice cream, I'm sure I'd be broccoli- or cabbage- flavored.

I could have accepted my fate, doomed to be an ugularity for my entire life, but then one day I was given the chance to trade in this face for all time. Who wouldn't choose that if they could? No matter how unspeakable the consequences...

Part one



To the bone

I will always remember the lights, stark and hot, shining on me from every angle. They exposed my face for the whole world to see. Being onstage in front of hundreds of people should have been a high point of my life, but those lights . . . I felt naked beneath them. My pores had opened?I could feel sweat running down my face, coursing around zits and moles like boulders in a river, then pouring down my neck, to soak the collar of my blouse. I knew even before we began that things were going to go wrong.

'Contestant number thirteen,' the head judge said, his voice booming into the microphone. 'Cara DeFido.'

I stood up. There were hundreds of people in the audience. I couldn't see them, but I did hear whispers. I tried to make my­self believe they weren't whispering about me.

'Spell the word unprepossessing.'

That's an easy one, I thought. There was a little tittering from certain members of the audience when he said the word, but I didn't let it get to me.

'Unprepossessing.' I said. 'U-N-P-R-E-P-O-S-S-E-S-S-I-N-G. Unprepossessing.'

'That's correct.'

There was some halfhearted applause as I sat back down.

Everyone's good at something. I can spell. I guess it's just an inborn ability?something to do with the way my brain is wired. It's the kind of skill that goes unnoticed except at spelling bees. Kids can win thousands of dollars at the national level. 'There's a market for every skill,' my dad says, 'even the weird ones.' So once a year I get to go up onstage for the county spelling bee, and I always win it. I never go on to the state or national spelling bees, though. I could, but I don't. Those bigger contests are tele­vised; I got my reasons for not getting in front of cameras.

As I sat there and waited for my next turn, the word I had just spelled stuck in my throat like a pill, just dissolving there, tasting bitter.


It was another one of those nice words for 'ugly.' Even nicer than plain. It was just a coincidence that the judge's computer came up with that word for me to spell, but still it bothered me. Momma would have called it ironic. The Almighty showing He's got Himself a sense of humor. I'm sure that's what she was thinking out there in the audience.

Well, she's not me. The contests she went out for when she was my age were beauty contests, not spelling bees. She was pos­sessing, pre possessing?there was no 'un' about it.

'Contestant thirteen,' the judge's voice boomed.

In the previous round, there had been five more eliminations. Only six of us remained. I stood up and felt the searing spotlight on me again.

The judge looked at the word that had been thrown up on his computer screen, and he hesitated. He glanced at the judge next to him, who only shrugged. He took a deep breath and turned to me.

'Please spell abomination.'

Some gasps of surprise from the audience. A few snickers.

The heat I felt in my ears, then cheeks had nothing to do with the lights. I knew I was going blotchy red. I tried to tell myself it was just coincidence again, but deep down I knew it wasn't. This word was too easy. The other kids were getting words like cairn­gorm and pneumonectomy. Whether this was the Almighty having a major laugh or something other, I couldn't figure out yet.

'Abomination,' I said. 'A-B-O-M-I-N-A-T-I-O-N. Abomina­tion.'


I sat back down and looked at the crack-nail toes sticking through the tips of my sandals.

There's that old joke: 'Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes right to the bone.' But they're wrong?because with me it goes deeper than the bone. It goes right to the marrow. I once over­heard our pastor say to one of the other parishioners that looking at me was enough to question your belief in God. Momma over­ heard it, too, so we left that church and found another.

Four more contestants were disqualified, one after another. It was down to me and some brainiac who kept nervously cracking his knuckles.

'Contestant thirteen,' came the booming voice.

I stood.

When the judge looked at the computer screen this time, he took his time. He called all the other judges over. They con­ferred, then sat down again, looking back and forth to one another. When the head judge got on the microphone, he didn't offer me a word to spell. He offered me his apologies.

'I'm sorry, Miss DeFido . . . but the rules are very strict,' he said. 'We have no choice but to give you the word that comes up on the screen. You understand?'

I nodded.

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