Here at Den of Geek, we love a good fan culture-inspired novel, and it’s been a delightfully active young adult subgenre since Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl took the book world by storm back in 2013.
The latest example to blip our radar? Alice Birch’s I Kissed Alice, an enemies-to-lovers rom-com about two girls/classmates who hate each other in “real life,” but who are unknowingly falling for one another online as they collaborate on an Alice in Wonderland fanfic (which also happens to be a comic). Sounds great, right?
Den of Geek has an exclusive excerpt from I Kissed Alice (which includes one of the in-universe comic spreads from the book, done by the very talented Victoria Ying). Check out the official synopsis below, then scroll down for a sneak peek at Birch’s upcoming novel.
Rhodes and Iliana couldn’t be more different, but that’s not why they hate each other.
Hyper-gifted artist Rhodes has always excelled at Alabama’s Conservatory of the Arts despite a secret bout of creator’s block, while transfer student Iliana tries to outshine everyone with her intense, competitive work ethic. Since only one of them can get the coveted Capstone scholarship, the competition between them is fierce.
They both escape the pressure on a fanfic site where they are unknowingly collaborating on a graphic novel. And despite being worst enemies in real life, their anonymous online identities I-Kissed-Alice and Curious-in-Cheshire are starting to like each other…a lot. When the truth comes out, will they destroy each other’s future?
And here’s the excerpt:
We all have that one friend we make poor choices with, one who gives you permission to leave your problems in the rearview mirror and only focus on what’s in front of you. The kind that wouldn’t know a good decision if it slapped her in the face, that pulls you into her vortex of weird ideas, and family drama, and cassette tapes of nineties Christian metal bands because they’re the only topic she and her dad know how to talk about.
She’s my roommate and my “manic pixie dream girl.”
It isn’t flattering for either of us to admit I think of her that way, even if it’s only a 99 percent platonic MPDG situation and I’m not actually objectifying anyone.
But still: I know it.
She knows it.
And I also know that tonight I chipped off a little piece of her “manic pixie dream girl” heart earlier. I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know why I act that way, and I don’t know why I lash out at her when it’s Iliana I hate, and I don’t know what I’m doing here tonight at all.
I don’t deserve to be her friend, and I wish she would have just done what I feel like she probably wanted to do (and the thing I know Iliana would have wanted): to tell me to stay home.
Sarah’s eyes are rimmed in heavy black liner that screams against her pale skin, and she seems to have largely forgotten about our three-way suckfest back in the dorms before dinner. She’s a peroxide-bleached blur in the dark, running and laughing with the handles of painter’s buckets swung over each arm, her dad’s red-and-blue flannel button-down billowing behind her with each blast of chilly autumn wind. Iliana Vrionides’s short legs pump twice as fast to get her half as far as the rest of us, and her body practically vibrates with tension: Her shoulders are tense, and her hands are balled where they swing at her sides. She’s Venus of Willendorf, short and strong and feminine in shredded jeans and a shirt that reads “unapologetically fat.” Ninety-seven percent humidity has given her honeyed curls sentience.
I don’t need to be Iliana’s friend anymore to know what she’s thinking: Not again.
She’s eighteen now, and trouble will stay with her forever.
On the other side of the fence, crowds press into metal bleachers, against concession stands, through parking lots. The sky is as wide as it is dark over our heads, spangled with stars, like diamonds scattered in blue velvet. A perfect night for a high school football game— even if neither football team belongs to the Conservatory, since we don’t have one at all.
This is the song of the South: cheerleaders chanting, trumpets blaring, and a referee’s whistle punctuating another down.
It’s Sarah’s birthday, and it’s homecoming at the high school Sarah— and Iliana—left after their freshman year for higher ground where we all go to school now, the Alabama Conservatory of the Arts and Technology. According to Sarah, Iliana left Victory Hills High School like she leaves everything else: scorched earth, dousing every bridge with gasoline, and dropping matches on her way out. Sarah told me once that she doesn’t know which came first: Iliana hating, or being hated.
Sarah’s experience was different, and tonight feels more like catharsis than birthday shenanigans.
“Rhodes!” Sarah calls to me from the field house. “We’re going to get caught! Come on!”
Iliana is a smaller shadow to Sarah’s left, stooped with her hands pressed into the tops of her thighs and panting. I fast-walk to keep up, but the very thought of running is exhausting on an existential level.
My therapist likes to tell me there are two kinds of exhaustion: one for your body and one for your soul. I like to tell her she’s full of crap—I’m just tired.
I don’t care where my exhaustion comes from. I want to go home. I want to work on the next update for my Alice in Wonderland fan fiction comic, Hearts and Spades. I want to spend the night talking with Cheshire—my coauthor—about everything and nothing. I don’t feel much these days, but I ache for this.
“This is a terrible idea, Sarah—” Iliana’s nasal-heavy voice carries down the hill. “I can’t—”
When I finally reach the top, Sarah is squatting with both buckets positioned in front of her, and Iliana’s stooping over the top of Sarah’s head. The field house is spectacularly unspectacular as far as school architecture goes: It’s cinder blocks on four sides, built like a little LEGO house complete with rusted metal doors. At the bottom of the hill, the game continues.
The first bars of “Dirt Road Anthem” echo up from where the football field recesses into the valley below. A glance at the scoreboard, and we have five minutes of play before halftime—more like fifteen, given the fact that both teams are playing dirty and the referee’s —-1 throwing penalty flags approximately every eleven seconds.
Sarah pries the lids off the painter’s buckets and pulls a paint roller for each of us from the bag slung over her shoulder.
“We’re going to get arrested,” Iliana says.
Her lips are pressed together, and her brows are high on her forehead, and everything about her is the fly in this night’s chardonnay. Her eyes shift to me, then to the thin, rectangular profile of my phone in my front pocket.
“Good thing your brother’s an attorney,” Sarah says. Iliana makes a face.
It wouldn’t be the first time Iliana’s oldest brother has gotten any of us out of hot water.
I wish I’d thought of the barb first.
Instead, I dutifully take the roller from Sarah’s hand. Our eyes meet.
That thing between us—the wildness in her and the numbness in me—finds where it puzzles together, and before I know it, her grin spreads across my face. I grab a handful of the stuff that sloshes in the bucket and sling it into Sarah’s hair; she lets out a shriek of a laugh and dumps a handful of the slimy substance down the front of my shirt. Iliana and Sarah share eye contact for the slightest of moments, Sarah grinning and Iliana frowning, but after a split second Sarah slings the substance onto the wall instead.
“What is this?!” I yelp, pawing at my cheeks and squinting in the dark for a better view of the grit that covers my hands.
“It’s, like, blended-up moss,” Sarah says, dipping the roller into the mixture. She applies it to the cinder blocks, instead of me, this time. “And liquid fertilizer.”
I follow suit, rolling behind her. Sarah begins painting on the petals of a flower, and suddenly the side of the field house isn’t a wall anymore—it’s a blank canvas. “So I guess it will grow back as . . . moss?”
“I included some little wildflower seeds, too.” Sarah’s grin is wicked.
“They’ll just pressure-wash it off,” Iliana says. After a moment, she dips her own roller into the mixture. “If you’re going to commit a felony, it should at least be somewhat permanent.”
“It’s not a felony, grandma,” Sarah says, grinning.
Whatever is happening between them is over as soon as it starts.
Some people would just want to do dinner and a slice of birthday cake at Olexa’s Bakery, but not Sarah. She needs to do something bigger and more ridiculous.
“My dad and Principal Hoffman go to the same Masonic temple,” Sarah says. She turns to Iliana, frowning, and rests her hands on her hips. “He wouldn’t press charges; I’d just come wash it all off. Chill out, all right? You’re harshing my mellow.”
“Who says that?” Iliana snaps.
“I just did, obviously.”
Iliana sneers, and paints the illusion of a cat around the wide smile.
“We should make this Alice in Wonderland themed,” Iliana says.
“Flowers growing out of the walls feels very Alice.” It’s my turn to sneer.
Alice in Wonderland belongs to me.
My laptop is completely covered in Alice in Wonderland stickers— Tenniel’s original illustrations, and Disney’s Alice, and even Mia Wasikowska bearing the White Queen’s suit of armor.
Ever since I was little, the idea of being able to shrink down to the size of a thimble and enter an entirely different world—no matter how wild or wonderful it would be—has always been tantalizing. As a child, the stories meant escape—escaping my mother, escaping my problems, escaping myself. The thought of Wasikowska’s delicate, lovely Alice bearing the vorpal sword has always given me strength.
It was Wasikowska’s Alice that inspired my Alice in the fan comic I coauthor. Curious-in-Cheshire—my partner in crime—loves this version of Alice, too. She says she sees this version of Alice in me and reminds me almost daily that being brave simply means doing the hard thing—even if you’re terrified.
I don’t know if she’s right, but I want her to be.
All of this is a universe that Iliana doesn’t belong in—a wonderland of its own kind, with no tiny bottles of potion at hand to usher her in through its tiny doors. No one can stop her from enjoying it, but it doesn’t exist for her like it does for Cheshire and me.
No, Alice in Wonderland doesn’t exist for Iliana—not at all.
“No, I want to write something.” Sarah swipes through Iliana’s cat with one hand. “I don’t want it to be just a picture.”
“Guys! We don’t have time!” Iliana gestures to the board. When she turns back to face us, her words are for me. “We have, like, two minutes of play left.”
Iliana whirls on me. “Rhodes. Just draw something! Jesus!” Draw something.
The easiest thing on the planet, right? Wrong.
I’ve been screaming at myself to just draw something for days. Weeks. Months.
The blankness of the wall itself is an assault, and the only kindness is that the sky is too dark for the burn in my cheeks to be known by anyone but me.
Draw something. Draw something. Draw something.
Just a week ago, I was standing in the back of the auditorium balcony, and the students crammed around the stage could be one hundred miles away. Like the rest of campus, it’s the sort of place built specifically to photograph incredibly for the school’s promotional literature with no actual consideration for basic human comfort: Everything is a variation of the color “oatmeal.” Beige walls; pops of an earthen green in the curtains and chair upholstery. Ugly backless benches under our bottoms and hardwood floors gleam under our feet.
“The Capstone exists as a stepping stone for the best and brightest in the Southeast,” June Baker said from the stage, a withered frame hidden under layers of pastel cashmere, “a rite of passage for young people who exhibit the kind of artistic excellence that has become synonymous with who we are as the Ocoee Arts Festival.”
June, who sent me a card and a sweet little painting for my eighteenth birthday, has been a juror for every Ocoee Arts Festival ribbon I’ve won since my first time in the show as a nervous thirteenyear-old. I know her money’s on me for the Capstone, and I know it’s something she’s focused her energy on because she considers my success a reflection on her insight as a mentor and a member of the board.
“As an extension of the Ocoee Arts Festival, the Capstone Foundation Award is more than a scholarship: It’s a yearlong seat on the board of directors, a guaranteed placement at Alabama College of Art and Design, and a yearlong fellowship with the Birmingham Museum of Art following graduation. It’s a bedrock for a résumé, and exposure. The first step of the rest of one fortunate student’s life as a career artist.”
The Capstone was supposed to be my birthright, but instead it’s the final nail in a coffin I never thought I’d build myself.
“The award season will take place in three parts, starting with an essay declaring intent, due November first. Those who are selected in the essay round will be invited to participate in a public project proposal on December seventh. Students whose projects are selected by jury will compete in a final show on December twentieth, where a winner will be awarded on-site.” June smiled and adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose. “The requirements are simple, as we do not wish to stand as a barrier for students in need: a grade point average of three-point-seven or higher and a record in good standing with your educational institution.”
Three-point-oh would be a reach. Three-point-five, a pipe dream.
Three-point-seven, a snowball’s chance in hell.
Besides, what would I do if I could make it in?
It’s not like I’ve painted or drawn anything new since the last Ocoee Arts Festival.
I don’t think I even know how to do that anymore.
Draw something. Draw something. Draw something.
I’m irreparably broken—my brain, my hands, my heart—and no one knows it.
Or maybe everyone knows it, and this is all some cruel machination for Iliana to make me feel like crap. Both are possible.
“Oh, give me a break.” Iliana’s grumbling is barely audible over the sound of the band warming up just off the field—the football game continues, but the percussion line sounds like a warning call that halftime is around the corner. She swipes a broad, arching vertical stroke upward. Then another, perfectly complementary, creating a long, rounded teardrop.
“Iliana!” Sarah claps her hand over her mouth.
“I don’t—” I cross my arms, red-faced again.
This time, it’s an inside joke I’m clearly not meant to understand.
Iliana adds a second shape inside the first that looks like a rosebud, with its petals pressed together. By now, the two girls are laughing riotously—loud enough to get us caught—and I feel like crying all over again. I drop my roller into one of the buckets.
She swipes a small circle into the highest point of the—flower? Fruit? Some combination of both?—and Sarah is hunched over, cry-laughing.
“Rhodes!” Sarah cries out. “You don’t know what you’re looking at?!”
I want to get in the car and go home. This is terrible—everything is terrible—and I should have never let Sarah convince me that the three of us could spend the night together without somebody getting hurt. I would get in the car and go back to campus, except I drove us here. Even if I’d strand Iliana without batting an eyelash, I can’t do it to Sarah, so I’m stuck.
“Tell us what you think it is,” Iliana says.
Her grin is the Cheshire Cat’s, brilliant white against the dark. As soon as the thought hits me, I strike it away. It’s sacrilege to think of the Cheshire Cat—not to mention, my Curious-in-Cheshire—and Iliana at the same time.
“Oh, come on, Rho,” Iliana says. “It’s okay. It’s funny. I just want to know what you think it is.”
“Don’t call me that,” I say. “That nickname’s not for you.”
I would give anything to be Iliana right now. If the shoe were on the other foot, and if it were Sarah and somehow me making Iliana feel like this, she’d have laid us all to shreds. She’d raise her sharp brows and bare her sharp teeth, and in a matter of a dozen words, we’d both be crying. And with a toss of all that wild, curly hair, she’d march off without so much as a look behind her.
But I’m not Iliana. I’m me, and I’m terrible at this sort of thing.
“It’s a mango,” I say.
“Well, apparently, this will be educational for you and the entire Victory Hills athletic program,” Iliana says. With her hands, she swipes an arrow pointing to the small circle at the top of the teardrop- flower-fruit.
In wide, crude letters, she writes:
The moment reframes itself, and I’m embarrassed again, for entirely different reasons.
“I knew that,” I mumble, but the girls are lost to giggling again.
It’s not so much that I’ve never heard of one before. Sarah told me once that Iliana has been with a lot of girls—well, not a lot a lot, but more than Sarah, who has never actually disclosed her number but strongly implied that she’s had sex more than a few times—and I’ve physically been with exactly zero.
I mean, I’ve kissed girls. But I’ve never actually seen a clitoris that belonged to someone else, and I’ve never been brave enough to use a mirror to take a look at my own.
Not to mention—in my family, sex isn’t something we talk about at all.
I don’t know how to even begin talking about it so casually; a part of me wishes I could. The rest of me still squirms with discomfort.
The announcer’s voice echoes up to us, declaring the end of the first half. The score is tied, the air is thick with tension, and an entire platoon of shiny helmets and shoulder pads are marching toward the backfield gates below. With a shriek, Sarah and Iliana slap the lids onto their buckets and toss the rollers into the woods.
We’re running again—this time the long way across the back of the field and out toward the parking lot.
I have no idea if the girls are going to remember tonight five years from now, or what they did, or what I said. It’s hard to know where my thoughts ended and the stuff that came out of my mouth began— only that everything felt personal, and then it wasn’t, and that I didn’t know something, and everybody else did.
I pull out my phone when we get back to the car, and while Iliana and Sarah are loading the trunk, I get in and swipe past eight bajillion notifications to open where a Slash/Spot shortcut is saved to my home screen. I have an entire afternoon’s worth of direct messages waiting on my phone.
The relief is so palpable, I could cry with it.
Cheshire knows me. She knows my heart, and she knows that these kinds of conversations terrify me, and she doesn’t judge me for any of it. It’s okay that I’ve never been with anyone. It’s okay that I’m still a little bit afraid of how everything works.
It’s okay that I don’t want to talk about it until I do.
And when I am ready, when I’m burning with want for her, she’s always ready to catch me. I open the direct message feature on my phone and reread Cheshire’s messages from earlier:
Curious-in-Cheshire 3:41p: Incredible.
Curious-in-Cheshire 3:42p: This is even better than I could have imagined.
She loved my concept sketches for our next Hearts and Spades update.
I could cry with relief—this is the only thing I have left. The only piece of my creativity I have left that isn’t broken.
It’s also the only thing I won’t let anyone else in the world see.
Iliana’s and Sarah’s voices are echoing through the windows from outside the car. I don’t know what they’re laughing about, and I don’t really care—of course I care, I hate being left out of anything—but I hurry to fire back a response before I lose my phone for the rest of the night.
I-Kissed-Alice 8:41p: yes, tomorrow <3 let’s go over the script one more time after you get off work, okay?
“Let us in!” Sarah yanks on the handle of the locked passenger- side door. Iliana is propped against the car behind her, eternally un-invested in Sarah’s plight.
My heart is wild in my ears.
All I want is to curl up next to Cheshire and listen to all of her theorizing face-to-face, find some kind of a keyhole I could squeeze through into another life and another world where anonymity and distance doesn’t separate us. Sometimes I’m afraid that all she sees of me is a computer screen—to me she’s real, and she’s perfect. She’s all I’ve ever wanted.
But I belong to Sarah tonight—not Cheshire—so I allow myself one last message before I put my phone away for good.
I-Kissed-Alice 8:42p: I have to go. More soon. <3
With a kiss popped onto my darkened phone screen, I throw the thing into the console and unlock the car doors.
“Petty much?!” Sarah shrieks when she falls face-first into the front seat. “Jesus Christ on a cracker, it got chilly fast.”
In the rearview mirror, I catch Iliana glowering at the seat warmer controls.
“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, Sarah,” Iliana snips. She squints at the numbers on my dashboard. “Besides, it’s just sixty-seven degrees. It’s only comparatively colder than it was before the sun went down.”
I turn on the radio, and Sarah turns it off. We ride back to Sarah’s house in utter silence.
The car may be quiet, but tension screams in the air around us.
Comment 11: I-Kissed-Alice 11:43p: OH MY GOOOOOD.
Comment 12: I-Kissed-Alice 11:43p: You literally lifted that word for word from our direct messages the other night
Comment 13: Curious-in-Cheshire 12:15a: Are you ok? Was I not supposed to use that? You didn’t say . . .
Comment 14: I-Kissed-Alice 12:15a: It’s fine. It’s perfect.
Comment 15: I-Kissed-Alice 12:15a: I’ll be in my bunk