Tilt-A-Whirl
by Rachel Furey

Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

It’s just you in the Tilt-A-Whirl cart until Jimmy Miller slips in beside you. He reeks of cigarette smoke, and you want to grind an elbow into his stomach and tell him to find another cart. But the handlebar clicks shut and the ride starts up and Jimmy’s sitting there beside you smiling underneath his baseball cap, his camo pants brushing against your basketball shorts.

On a different day, this might be a good thing. He’s one of the few guys in school as tall as you. You respect that he doesn’t try too hard, that his hair is messy, that he’s almost always wearing camo pants, not giving a shit that some people call him Camo. He’s an expert shot—always brings down a deer on the first day of the season. You appreciate that kind of efficiency.

But you came here to be alone—came because all that spinning is your way of slowing down the swirl of thoughts in your head. Your cart hasn’t started moving yet, and Jimmy reaches over and places a hand on your knee. His palm is hot, damp, and it stings your floor-burned knee. You push his hand off.

Your cart teeters back and forth, then takes its first full spin. Your body presses into the back of the cart. Jimmy pushes his hands into his pockets and stares at you as if to say, See, now I have my hands contained. Your knees are no longer in danger. Most guys wouldn’t dare to sit beside you. Most guys think you are more guy than girl.

You’re about to tell him his hands don’t have to stay in his pockets—they just have to stay away from you—when your cart turns again. More slowly this time. It doesn’t seem fair. The cart beside yours is spinning like crazy. You catch flashes of three middle school girls in jean shorts and tank tops. They squeeze the handlebar and laugh so hard one of them has spit running down her chin. You used to laugh on this ride. In fact, you probably laughed the last time you were on it.

“What the fuck is wrong with our cart,” you say to Jimmy. He stares at you hard, like he’s looking at you through the sight in his rifle. He has hazel eyes. You never noticed that before.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asks.

You squeeze the handlebar. It’s sticky and you wonder what pudgy, popsicle-eating kid sat there before you. You want to be that kid. Ten again. Not six feet tall. Not a licensed, driving adult.

“My dog died,” you say. You time the words just right. Your cart makes its biggest turn yet, and he can’t say a word.

You stare down at your hands. There’s a spot of blood on your thumbnail that you missed when washing your hands. You found it when drying and couldn’t soap again. It seemed fitting that you couldn’t wash all of her away—that a part of Assassin would remain on you. She’d earned her name by hunting groundhogs as a puppy. Even when she was the same size as them, she could kill a couple every week. At the time you were seven and also loved that the word ass was in Assassin twice.

“What kind of dog,” Jimmy asks.

“I’d have to show you a picture,” you say. You had one of those mutts that was part everything. Long ears and short tail. Black, brown, gray, and white hair. Short in some places, long in others. You used to get a kick out of going down to the dog park and telling people Assassin was sixty percent St. Bernard or thirty percent greyhound despite the fact the dog was about two feet tall. You had the swagger to make people believe just about anything.

Your cart spins again. Hard. Three times in a row. You close your eyes. This is what you came for. This moment when your body is one with the seat. You thought this motion might make you forget the morning. But you can still feel Assassin’s warm, wet fur in your palms. You squeeze the handlebar more tightly and her fur is still there.

Your cart slows and you wait for another hard turn, but the ride is slowing altogether. If Jimmy weren’t sitting beside you, you’d curse at the ride operator—tell him to go for another round. Instead, you scoot farther from Jimmy. As soon as the ride stops, you crank open the handlebar and scuttle out.

Jimmy follows you. “Hey,” he says. “Can I get you something to eat?”

You almost tell him to fuck off, then you remember that he is not seeing the same images you have been seeing for the past hour. He wasn’t there on your road to see Assassin’s head turned at an angle so horrific that you had to sit on the pavement a minute before crawling forward. He didn’t pick the dog up and hold her in his arms, didn’t press his neck against the wet snout, hoping to feel a pant of warm air again his skin. He didn’t stand in the backyard with the dog in his arms, its dampness transferring to his T-shirt, while he decided where to bury her.

You hadn’t buried Assassin. Not yet. You needed to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl first. You’d merely picked out the spot, which you believed to be beside the Barbie doll your Aunt Evelyn gave you for your eighth birthday. Barbie was tall like you, but there were no other striking resemblances. With your dad’s power sander, you sanded off her breasts. Then you dissembled her, limb by limb. You took her parts to school in a paper bag—a decision that earned you a week of after-school detention and an order from your dad to either put the doll back together or throw her away. Instead, you buried her. Assassin once dug Barbie up and you had to bury her once more, deeper.

“I’m not hungry,” you tell Jimmy.

“We could ride the train,” he says.

“You mean the dinky kid train?”

“Yep.” He takes a step closer to you. He pulls his hands out of his pockets and keeps them at his sides. “When my little brother gets upset, I take him on the train. It’s calming.”

“Do I look like a little kid to you?”

He shakes his head. “Just a suggestion. That’s all.” He turns like he might leave.

“Fine,” you say.

There’s not a line for the train. That’s one upside to a boring ride. The two of you climb into one of the front cars. They’re made for kids and your knees press against the warm metal. Your floor burn stings again. The kids are slow to load because they’re yammering about the snow cone man being out of watermelon and Mom only allowing one bag of cotton candy. You shift in the tiny seat, eager to be in motion again. Jimmy taps his fingers against his knees. He looks at you, and you think he might say something, but he doesn’t.

Finally, the train starts up. It rattles on the tracks, and vibrations shoot up your feet. The driver pulls a cord, activating an annoying horn that the children cheer for and Jimmy laughs at. The horn blows one more time and you’re back in that scene from an hour ago, the garbage truck blowing its horn. Once. Twice. Three times. You got up off the couch on the third and ran outside to find Assassin.

Your basketball shorts don’t have pockets in them. You wish they did because you don’t know what to do with your hands. The train doesn’t have a handlebar like the Tilt-A-Whirl. You squeeze your fingers into fists and let them bounce up and down on your thighs. You glance up ahead. Gray squirrels are playing chicken with the train. Darting back and forth across the track, their furry tails flitting up and down. On a different day, this might be funny. On a different day, you might root for the train to clip one. Today, you pound your fists into your thighs harder.

The train clatters along, then hits a tunnel. It’s cool and dark and you let yourself go for a moment. You stop pounding your thighs. You relax your face. You take a deep breath, and on the release, you feel something catch in your throat. In the movies people cry one tear at a time, but when the train comes out from under the tunnel and back into bright sun again, your face is wet. You tilt your head away from Jimmy and stare at the grassy hill to your left.

Jimmy does the nicest thing he can. He takes off his baseball cap and places it on your head. He punches the bill down low and then gives you a minute.

You wipe your face. You hold your elbows out to your sides in a way that suggests strength. “It’s my fault,” you say. “I let the dog out. I forgot it was garbage day. The garbage truck was her favorite.” She’d pace up and down the road for an hour after it had gone through, her nose pressed to pavement as if she could absorb each of the smells.

“Okay,” he says. One word. That’s it.

You ease the bill of the hat up and look at him. He meets your glance. “I flipped the trash man off like it was his fault,” you say, “but it wasn’t.”

“To be fair,” Jimmy says, “it was partially his fault. And partially the dog’s fault.”

You shake your head. “No, it wasn’t Assassin’s fault.”

“Wow.” He gazes out into the park. “That’s one hell of a name.”

You want to tell him the part about the word ass being in there twice, but it feels silly now.

He reaches for your knee, then remembers and pulls his hand back. “According to my brother, all dogs go to heaven.”

“Please,” you say, “no clichés.”

“Sure.”

You glance up ahead. Squirrels are still scrambling over the tracks. “This isn’t really a calming ride,” you say.

“Sorry. It was either this or the dunk tank.”

You’re not sure if he’s joking. Maybe you could go for a dip in the dunk tank. All that cold water. A moment without air.

The squirrels are still playing chicken. You swear one had its tail nipped by the train. You can’t watch anymore. You scoot toward the edge of the seat, then you tilt to the side and let yourself fall. You thud against grass, the fall not as hard or satisfying as you expected. But you are on a hill. You let gravity take you. Let yourself roll. Let yourself be ten again, the world circling around you the way you wanted it to on the Tilt-A-Whirl. It’s all warm grass and soft dirt.

Until a chip bag rustles under your thigh. A rock under your hip. Geese shit against your forearm. You pull your arms away from your sides to slow yourself down. The park and the hill and the train are all spinning, but you can make out Jimmy rolling toward you. You reach a hand toward him. You want him to be the one to stop the spinning.

The Lies And Illusions Of Lucy Sparrow
by Sharry Wright

Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Young Adult Category Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

September 1876

Part One: Sleight of Hand

CHAPTER ONE

Today is the day my new life begins. One hundred and twenty-three days since we sailed from New York harbor bound for San Francisco. Seventy-one days since I buried Mother at sea.

A cold wind whips the sails and sloshes sea spray on the deck. My skirts snap at my ankles. Loose strands of salt-stiff hair fly at my face in a frenzied dance. I can’t see land yet, but I smell it—stone and earth and things that plant their roots deep down in the soil, plus tar smoke and cold iron that bring the promise of civilization. Soon, thank the stars and angels, will come the sweeter smells: pressed linens, perfumed baths, a roasting leg of lamb, sliced oranges. Mother loved oranges.

Mother. Every time I look at the churning water, a surge of heartache washes over me. I see her wasted body, wrapped and bound, slide down the plank and into the ocean and wonder if the smell of fish will always make me cry.

But no, I tell myself. Enough tears—they’ve given ample salt to the ocean these past two and a half months. It’s time to buck up, as Father would have said. Whatever life dishes up, you must go on until you can go on no more.

 

 

We slip midday through the Golden Gate, though there’s nothing golden about it. Silvery light mutes the land and glints off the rough water. Starboard, a babel of masts confuses the shore, while houses upon houses, stacked like children’s blocks, stretch up into a shroud of fog.

I jump as the cannon’s boom announces our arrival, then brace myself against the rail. Toes curl in my boots—my feet long for solid ground that does not shift or sway. Squinting at the crowd that swarms the approaching dock, I strain for a glimpse of Kit. A year and a half have passed since I’ve seen my twin—we had just turned fifteen when he left with Father for California. As much as I long to see my brother, I dread the news I have to share.

When the gangplank comes down, I scramble to be among the first to disembark. I hit the dock, wobble and sway as if I were still on the water. I snatch up my skirts and lurch forward into the chaos of the crowded wharf. The din of so many voices makes my head spin. I try not to panic as I’m pressed and jostled with the surging mob, meeting and greeting family and friends, and those shouting out their services to the newly arrived. I cover my ears, which lowers the decibel to a rumbling roar. How will Kit and I ever find each other in this bedlam?

I make my way to the edge of the crowd and clamber on top of a pile of trunks the sailors have unloaded to search for my twin brother—long limbed, light brown hair—at least, last time I saw him.

My heart leaps and my hand shoots high in the air as a slender, wheat-haired boy of medium height catches my attention. “Kit!” I cry, “Kit! Over here!”

He doesn’t look up, but continues through the crowd, nudging his way between a press of distracted passengers. I cry out again, “Ki—” but swallow the name as his hand slips into the side pocket of a nearby gentleman’s coat—so quick and slick, like a magic trick. Whatever he’s plucked, he slides inside his own coat and keeps going!

Good god—has my brother taken to a life of crime since I saw him last?

He turns and worms his way in the other direction, then looks up and sees me staring. I let out a held breath—it’s not Kit. Thank goodness. When I glare at the shameless thief’s dishonesty, he shoots back a self-satisfied smirk and disappears into the crowd.

“I’ll thank you to get down off my trunks, Lucy Sparrow,” booms Mr. Chaney, who has no patience for young people. I’d like to tell him that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar but of course I say, “I beg your pardon,” and jump down. He scowls at me, the sour old coot, and directs two men to load his things into a waiting hackney coach.

I go to find my own trunks. When I locate the set marked Sparrow, I sit and wait for Kit to find me. No sense in both of us wandering around, missing each other.

In the midst of the bustle of debarking passengers, another group is saying their farewells, preparing to board a large steamer boat. An elegant young man in a top hat standing in the swirl catches my attention. Where Kit is fair and slender, this handsome young man is mahogany-haired and broad at the shoulder. Seemingly abandoned, his expression drifts between impatience and melancholy. He pulls out his pocket watch, checks the time, and searches the crowd. I wonder who he’s waiting for?

A wife returning from a long journey? A lover come to join him from some place far away? A sister or a brother? Maybe a business partner come to claim his share of California riches? I stand on tiptoes, craning my neck for a better look when his dark eyes catch mine. He smiles and I sway off balance, nearly falling over my trunks. Good lord Lucy. Just because it’s been forever since a handsome young man has smiled at you doesn’t mean you have to go tripping all over yourself.

I risk a glance and his eyes crinkle with both sympathy and amusement. He tilts in my direction but briskly turns as a pretty, ringleted young woman in a stylish traveling ensemble, calls him away. She’s followed by a porter laden with baggage and bundles, hatboxes and a flitting, frightened bird in a cage. She gives the young man a quick kiss and beckons him to follow her to the waiting steamer.

A hitch of disappointment catches in my throat. I scold myself at my silliness as a familiar voice draws my attention.

“Lucy, darling,” a voice calls. It’s Elsa Dickerson , the only person on the ship to befriend me. She weaves through the crowd with her baby fussing at her shoulder and her little Peter in tow. “Is he here? Have you found him?”

“No, not yet.” I hold out my pinkie and baby Charlotte latches on with her tiny fist, drawing my finger to her rosebud mouth.

“Our coach is loaded and ready to go,” Elsa tells me, releasing Peter’s hand and shifting the baby to her other hip. “But we’ll stay until your brother comes.” Peter stretches his arms up to his mama, wanting to be picked up, too. When she tells him no, he whimpers and stamps his feet. Poor Elsa—she’s just eighteen, little more than a year older than I am, and already a widow.

“You don’t need to wait,” I tell Elsa. “If Kit doesn’t show in the next twenty minutes, I’ll take a hack to his boarding house. I have money and the address. I’m quite sure I’ll be fine.”

Peter has worked himself up into a fine fit, now yanking on his mother’s skirts and banging his head at her knees.

“Look, Petey.” I squat and pull a penny from behind his ear. He wipes his face with the back of his hand and takes the offered coin.

“Again,” he says, never tiring of my trick or questioning my ability to pull countless coins from his little ears. I pull out another penny. He takes it and clacks the two together.

“It works every time,” Elsa says when I stand up. “We’ll miss your magic touch.”

“My small handful of tricks—you’ve seen them all. Now Kit, he’s the real magician. The showman in the family.”

The baby whimpers, getting ready for a good cry. She’s too little to be distracted by a coin trick. Elsa glances at the line of coaches. “I hate to leave you on your own…”

“Really, Elsa, I’ll be fine. You still have hours of travel. You should start or you’ll be traveling after dark.”

“If you’re quite sure…”

“I am. Thank you for everything—your kindness and friendship got me through these past few months. I hope you find your sister and her husband well.” We exchange a warm embrace and a kiss on the cheek, then she and her children head toward her waiting coach.

I sit and pull Kit’s letter out of my satchel, the one he’d written after Father had been killed and Kit had made his way to San Francisco. I read over my brother’s bold and solid script in the upper left hand corner. C.S. 1423 Sacramento Street, SF, Ca.

I slide the letter back and reach deeper into my satchel, fingering the fat purse of money—plenty to get by for a week or so. The rest of our savings, enough to buy a modest house and make a life for ourselves in California, are in bonds safely hidden inside Mother’s large trunk. Beneath the purse of bills and coins sits a knot of rope. A cattail knot, the last one Mr. Farnsworth, first mate, taught me. After Mother’s death, all I could do was sleep and tie knots. Grief knot, strangle knot, blood knot, monkey’s fist. Tying knots was the only thing that kept my hands from shaking and I practiced with an urgent desperation until I could tie and untie them all.

Now I can’t help but smile at the prospect of showing Kit. Won’t he be surprised and even a little bit envious! I might teach him a few in exchange for his divulging another illusion or two from his jealously guarded repertoire.

“Good evening, Miss.”

I look up at a small, square-headed man in a bowler hat. An enormous nose, whitened with some kind of powdery substance, blooms above a large dark moustache, waxed at the ends into two tight curls. A clutch of diamonds closes the neck of his starched white shirt. He doesn’t look like a thief, but I grasp my satchel all the same. I’ve been warned to be wary of strangers. The pick-pocketing boy I’d seen earlier drummed that into my head well and clear. “Good evening.”

“You appear to be on your own.” His head tips at my plain grey dress as his face assumes an expression of sympathy. “And in mourning.”

“Yes. I…I recently lost my mother.” The words catch like a fistful of cold coins wedged in the center of my chest. I swallow and straighten, trying to regain my composure, then smooth the sleeves of my mourning dress—one of two plain grey wool dresses that I’ve worn since Father’s death.

“Allow me to assist you.” He gestures to my set of trunks. “You have a lot of luggage and no apparent way to transport them. I can offer a ride to your destination. Which is…?”

“I thank you,” I answer, perhaps too curtly. “But I’m waiting for my brother.”

“I see.” He glances around at the thinning crowd. Many of the passengers, like Elsa, have already left with their families and belongings, although the pier is still buzzing with sailors.

“He seems to be delayed,” says the odd little man. He pinches the gold watch chain that hangs from his vest pocket to one of its jeweled buttons and runs his fingers along the links. “Young lady such as yourself shouldn’t be left on her own around these parts. I would be quite willing to deliver you and your belongings free of charge to your destination.”

“I appreciate your offer,” I say. “But I wouldn’t want to miss my brother.” And I do know better than to go off with a strange man.

As if he’s read my thoughts, he holds out his suede-gloved hand. “Name’s Frank Kenny. At your service, Miss—?”

“I’m not in need of service at the moment.” I don’t volunteer my name—he has no need to know who I am. Besides, it would only encourage further conversation. I can’t decide if he’s a gentleman or not, but either way, there’s something in his manner that unsettles me. His words are friendly enough but his eyes are cold and hard as lumps of black ice and continue to stray below my neckline. I cannot help but feel as if he is assessing me like a side of beef or a horse at auction.

“If your brother comes and misses you,” Mr. Kenny goes on, “then he’ll find you at his residence when he returns.”

“Thank you for your offer, but I’ll wait here a little longer,” I tell him. “Good day, Sir.”

“Suit yourself,” he says, his nose visibly reddening. “But I wouldn’t wait too long. All sorts of scum—” he coughs the word, “—come crawling out around these docks after dark.” He coughs again into a fist then reaches into his breast pocket and takes out what looks like a saltshaker filled with powder. He sprinkles the white substance liberally on his nose, then rubs it in with his fingertips. If this puzzling gesture is meant to mask the blooming crimson, it does so at the cost of making his nose look like a nob of floured dough. He returns the shaker to his pocket, touches the brim of his hat and gives me a slight nod, then turns away.

My teeth catch the corner of my lip as he strolls off towards a diminishing row of coaches. How much longer should I wait?

I close my eyes and see Kit’s face, a near mirror image of my own. Or has he changed in the year and a half since I saw him last? I’d cried when he and Father left Concord to come out west. I hate now that my first words to him after all this time will bring him grief.

Angry shouts draw my attention in another direction, then a swirl of flailing limbs makes me gasp as two savagerous ruffians punch and kick each other to the ground. I let out a squeak and scuttle to the far side of my trunks as they roll and growl, tearing at each other.

One grabs hold of a loose plank and swings it at the head of the other. A tough pack of scoundrels circle around, cheering and urging the fighters on until a shrill whistle cuts through the din and two policemen appear to break up the fight.

“Lucy Sparrow?”

Startled, I whip around to face a plump, ruddy-faced woman standing next to me. A good inch of grey roots separates her forehead from a crown of faded red hair.

“Why, yes. I am. How did you know my name?”

“Thank goodness I found you! I’m Mrs. Terkle. Your brother, Kit? He asked me to fetch you and your mother.” She takes in my dress then looks around. Her hand covers her mouth. “Oh, my dear. You’re all alone?”

“Yes. Mother…didn’t make it.” A cold pinch flattens my windpipe, pressing the last three words out in a thin stream of air.

“You poor thing. I’m so sorry. Your brother will be devastated.”

Yes. I know he will. “But why isn’t Kit here himself?”

“A small disaster at the theater—”

“Wait—what theater?”

“Why, the California. Where your brother works? He didn’t write and tell you?”

“No—the last letter we had, he was hoping to get work as a clerk in a land office.” That was three weeks before we boarded the ship, so nearly five months ago.

“Ah. Well. He’s moved up in the world. Assistant stage manager, he is. But you’ll see him soon and he can tell you all about it.” She reaches over and pats my arm. “We’ll get you settled and then he should be home for supper, before tonight’s show.”

This is such good news! The tightness in my brow and jaw eases—I can feel my face soften with relief. “And you work at this theater, too?” I ask.

“Me?” She tips her head back in a short laugh. “Heavens, no. I’m his housekeeper. A young man such as your brother has no time to cook or clean.”

Stars and angels. Mother would be soothed. She’d never liked the idea that Kit was living in a boarding house.

“Wait here,” Mrs. Terkle commands. “I’ll fetch someone to help with your baggage.” She hurries off, leaving me with my head in a flurry. A job in the theater—how perfect for Kit! Even if he isn’t the one on stage.

I’m not so sure Mother or Father would agree with me—I doubt they’d approve of theater work. Mother had seen to it that both Kit and I were educated. That was one of the reasons she was in such a pucker at Father for taking Kit with him to look for silver. Father’s argument was that once they struck it rich, Kit could use his good education to start a business and forget the nonsense of being a magician.

But then Father was killed and no fortune had been made. The news of Father’s death, his head kicked in by a mule, had left us both wrecked. Mother wandered the house like a grief-stricken ghost while I emptied out the china cabinet and scrubbed each plate, cup, and saucer with lye until my hands were blistered. Later that night, I found Mother crying under the rose bush Father had planted when they were first married, her lips bloodied from eating thorns.

But knowing Kit was on his own, Mother pulled herself together—within a month, she’d sold everything and booked us passage on a ship around the Horn, tracing the same route Father and Kit had taken. Her big plan was to set Kit up in business somewhere in California with the less attractive plan of finding me a husband. As if a girl of a certain age without a ring on her finger wasn’t worth her weight in beans. While I never said it out loud, I was a little disappointed that Mother didn’t expect more from me. And while I’ve no objection to an eventual happy marriage, I’d like the chance to first fall in love before becoming someone’s wife.

But now, who knows? With Kit working at a theater, maybe I’ll be the one to open a business. A bookstore. Or a hat shop. Why not? A tingling of excitement travels through me but is quickly doused by a wave of shame. Mother only wanted what she thought was best for both of us.

Mrs. Terkle returns with two large, rough-looking men pulling a wooden cart and gives the instructions to load up my belongings.

“Come along now, dear. I’m sure you’re quite exhausted after your long voyage.” She turns and I follow her and my trunks to the waiting coach.

My new life is about to begin. I can’t help but take one last glance back in hopes of seeing the handsome man with the mahogany hair standing there with a smile on his face. Of course he isn’t—but the possibility, no matter how vague, is enough to make me smile.

 

CHAPTER TWO

I climb inside the rather run-down coach with my temporary guardian. The smell of stale cigars and sour bodies makes me wonder who the previous passengers were. Mrs. Terkle reaches into her bag and brings out a small bottle of amber liquid. Unscrewing the top, she holds the bottle out to me. “I brought along a little Sherry to settle your nerves.”

The fumes make my head rear back. “No, thank you.” Mother had held the firm belief that alcoholic beverages invited wantonness. I’m not sure I agree, but right now the sickie-sweet smell of this Sherry makes it about as appealing as a dose of cod liver oil.

“Surely a little sip wouldn’t hurt. It’ll perk you up—put some color in your cheeks.”

“No, really. Thank you. But go ahead.” I nod to the bottle.

Mrs. Terkle tucks the bottle back in her bag with a small harrumph, apparently not wishing to imbibe alone.

The road we take is muddy and full of holes. Clusters of shacks give way to rows and rows of little rectangular wooden box houses with plank sidewalks. Construction is everywhere—pounding hammers, rumbling wagons piled high with lumber, and sidewalks piled with heaps of bricks and slabs of stone and marble, forcing people to take to the muddy street.

But then we turn and the view changes—we travel down a wide, brick-paved boulevard lined with large buildings ornate as wedding cakes. Before and behind us, teams of horses pull clanging streetcars along iron tracks. The pungent smell of horse manure pierces the air. The light is flat and harsh—so different from the patterns of dappled light and shade at home. It strikes me that there are no trees in sight. Before he left, Father had told us that San Francisco was a brand new town—that just twenty years ago there were more tents than buildings.

Even so, here the walks swarm with fashionable people, hastening along in their finery. Most men wear shorter frock coats and top hats or bowlers. The ladies are dressed in satins and velvets—rich golds, crimsons from rose-red to pomegranate, and deep, dark, midnight blues—some bustled, all trimmed in cunningly pleated ruffles and bows. Hair is pulled up in clusters of ringlets or high knots, topped with amusingly small, perky veiled hats. I tug and tuck up strands of my own wind-whipped hair—I must look a fright. I’m glad I’ll have time to freshen up before Kit sees me.

We turn off the boulevard and make our way up another muddy street with vendors selling fish and fowl—live geese hiss from behind the bars of their cages. A large tub crawls with red-backed crabs, climbing on top of each other, waving their pinchers around in the air, looking for something to latch onto.

We pass a row of carts filled with produce—lettuces and spinach, peppers, green beans, and carrots. And fresh fruit! My mouth waters. All we’d had on the ship were potatoes, beets and some dry, mealy apples full of worms. And disgustingly bitter Brussels sprouts. I vow never to eat another Brussels sprout in my entire life.

But here, there are even strawberries! Kit had written about the sweet and juicy California strawberries, how good they were. How much he knew I’d love them. He didn’t need to try and convince me—I’d wanted to come to California from the start. I’d hated being left at home while Kit and Father were off on an adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder how different things would be if we had all come out together. But we didn’t, and I am here now.

I turn to Mrs. Terkle and point at the display. “Could we stop?” I ask. “I’d like to get some berries.”

Mrs. Terkle hesitates, then answers, “Of course.” She thumps on the outside of the carriage door, bringing it to a halt, then turns to me. “You do need to beware of pick-pockets,” she reminds me. “Take what you need to buy some fruit and leave your satchel with me. A bit will buy you a nice tin of berries.”

I think of the boy who slipped his hand into the gentleman’s pocket. I do plan to be careful. I take out two bits and tuck them in the cuff of my sleeve. “I’ll be right back,” I tell Mrs. Terkle.

I climb out and start to cross, but gasp and jump back, limbs flailing, as another horse and carriage speeds by me. Heart knocking in my chest, I watch my two-bit coin roll away from me into the street. I catch my breath and wait for several more carriages to pass in each direction. At last, the street is clear, and I cross, snatching up my coin on the way.

A young man hurries toward me. My pulse quickens.

It’s the handsome man from the docks. Apparently, he did not get on the steamer ship.

“Are you all right?” he asks, out of breath. “I am so sorry. But really, you need to be more careful crossing. I nearly ran you over.” He holds a top hat in one hand. He rakes the fingers of his other hand through a spill of dark curls. He is quite tall. And yes, very handsome. His eyes search mine.

My heart flutters at his gaze, but I do not look away.

“I believe I saw you at the pier,” he says.

“Yes.” I barely manage to keep my voice steady.

He clears his throat and his eyes drop to his hands. “Please tell me that you’re all right.” Up close I see his dark hair has a honeyed streak, like it’s been kissed by the sun.

“You gave me a fright,” I say with a mock sternness, “but no, I’m not hurt. I dropped my coin, is all.” The two-bit coin sits in my open right palm—without thinking, I make a pass to my left hand and the coin disappears. An easy trick. I wait a breath and reverse the motion to reveal the coin in my palm again. A habit, I suppose, and something to do when I’m nervous. It seems to help steady my hand.

His face opens with a grin that makes him seem more boyish than he first appeared. “Nicely done,” he says with a laugh. He tips his head back, reassessing me.

My face warms with a flush of pleasure. “Thank you.” I lean with a small bow. “And thank you for not running me over. I…I was just on my way to buy some strawberries.” I wave in the general direction of the berry vendor. I could stand here for hours looking into his fine, intelligent face, but I mustn’t forget the waiting Mrs. Terkle or my brother. “I should probably do that now.”

“Yes, of course. And I’ve left my horse unattended.” He dips his head in another small bow, then sets his top hat on his head. “Perhaps I’ll see you here again sometime? I’m told strawberries are in season until the end of September.”

“Yes,” I say, unable to suppress a grin of my own. “I…I adore strawberries.”

He smiles at me. His eyes look deeply into mine and softly widen, as his face grows solemn. As if he can see the sadness inside of me, as if, for a moment, he can see into my soul.

Neither of us moves.

Finally, he takes a sharp sip of air and breaks his gaze. “I…I should be going.”

“Yes.” My chin dips. “Well. Goodbye then.” I nod and reluctantly turn.

“Please,” he says, making me turn back.

“Yes?”

“Please…be more careful crossing the street from now on.”

“Yes. I will.” I turn again and make my way to the berry vendor, both buoyant and slightly stunned by what has just transpired. I pay my bit on a tin of the plump red fruit, drop one into my mouth and sink my teeth into the firm, sweet flesh. The juicy burst makes me laugh out loud. A taste of heaven.

Dear Mother, you would have loved it here.

I see bowls of berries and cream—bushels and bushels of berries!—in my near future. Strawberry jelly, strawberry jam, strawberry shortcake…

But then—

Zzzzz—pop! Pop-pop-pop-pop!

I gasp and duck as a loud string of explosive pops shatter the air, immediately followed by the shrill scream of frightened horses.

Chaos erupts—shouts, clatters, a crash and a drawn-out, ear-splitting screech that makes me cringe.

I steady myself in the midst of the frenzy then stretch up on my toes. An overturned hack lies in the road, still attached to a wild-eyed horse, frothing at the mouth. Bystanders rush to get closer to the accident, shoving and elbowing to the front of the crowd.

I’m carried along with the jostling mob—a shove to my shoulder knocks the tin from my hand. In seconds, my berries are trampled to red pulp. A chill shivers up my spine.

Gasps and a hushed murmur of pity travel through the crowd. I push through to see three men pulling a writhing young man from under the overturned hack. I cover my mouth as a cry slips up from the back of my throat.

It’s the man I had just been talking with—the one who’d nearly ran me over! My stomach twists at the dark stain that seeps out below the knee of his trousers. Moments ago he was telling me to be careful. Why didn’t I tell him the same? I don’t even know his name.

I pray he will live. Even if he does, it will be a miracle if he ever walks again.

The man I’d bought the strawberries from turns from the front of the crowd, making his way back to his cart. “What happened?” I ask as he passes.

“Hoodlum pranks,” he says, frowning and shaking his head. He points off to the side where some vendors have grabbed several shirking boys by their collars. One of the boys guiltily clings to a string of still unlit firecrackers.

Wretched boys! Wretched firecrackers!

The good Samaritans lift the poor young man, his beautiful face distorted in agony, and place him in another carriage that will hopefully take him to a surgeon. His top hat has been kicked into the gutter in the process. I hurry over, pick it up and run to the coach before it leaves.

“His hat,” I say, handing it through the window to one of the attending men.

“Thank you.” The man nods to me solemnly.

“Thank you for helping him.” A swell of gratitude for the kindness of strangers surges through me.

My desire for berries has evaporated—their sweetness would only taste false. I start back to Mrs. Terkle’s carriage.

I stop, confused. Did it move? Am I turned around?

There it is. Down the street.

I hurry to the waiting coach, but as I near, I see a family inside with a different driver, and I slow to a walk. This carriage has shiny brass trim—not the rusted iron of the other. I turn in a dizzy circle, heart slamming in my chest like a fist.

No. Please, no.

I run wildly from carriage to carriage.

Not this one.

Not the next one.

Is that it?

I race from one end of the block to the other, but know in my sickening heart that none of them are mine.

Maybe my carriage, Mrs. Terkle’s carriage, moved a safe distance from the activity?

I check all possibilities. But no.

The carriage with all of my belongings is gone.

 

CHAPTER THREE

I stand, turned to stone. Still and cold. Holy saints have mercy.

What am I to do now?

All of my money. All of my clothes…photographs…letters. Gone. Everything. Gone.

Around me, strangers return to their lives.

I grab the sleeve of a passing man. “Help me,” I cry, my voice like ripping cloth.

He shakes his head, his brows raised high. “What’s this?”

My hand shakes as I point at the empty space where the carriage stood. “A woman. She robbed me—my money…my clothes.” My words spill in breathless spurts.

He steadies my elbow, looking around. “There.” He points to a policeman taking notes near the site of the accident. “That’s the man to tell.”

I run, stumble, catch myself and keep going until I reach the officer. “I’ve been robbed,” I cry. “A woman—in a carriage—she took everything!”

He holds up a hand. “Calm down there, Miss. Take a deep breath. I just need to finish up this report and I’ll be right with you.” He scribbles something on the pad he’s holding. He turns to the man standing beside him and asks another question.

“Please! It’s urgent!” I grab hold of his sleeve and he levels me with narrowed eyes. “I said wait—I’ll be with you soon as I can.”

My head is going to burst if I have to wait any longer.

He scribbles a few more words on his pad and then turns to me. “Now,” he says, finally. “What happened?”

I swallow and start to describe the knot of events from the time Mrs. Terkle spoke to me while the officer nods and pulls at his ear, gazing over the top of my head.

“So,” he says when I’ve finished, “you got in a carriage with a complete stranger.” He says it like an accusation.

“Why yes. She said she knew my brother.”

“Thieves generally aren’t opposed to telling lies.”

The sarcasm in his tone brings me back to myself, makes me want to kick something. Like his leg. “How would she have known my brother’s name? And mine, for that matter?”

“Lots of ways she could have figured that out—someone saying your name, you mentioning your brother’s name to someone.”

“I didn’t—” Or had I? I stop, dumbfounded, as the scene at the wharf plays out in stronger detail. Mr. Chaney saying my name, my calling out to the pickpocket, thinking it was Kit. I’d even told the man who’d offered me the first ride that I was waiting for my brother. To someone standing near by, paying attention, that was all information that could be used to make a fool of me.

My fingernails dig at the palms of my hands. How could I have been so stupid? So…so naïve? “I have to get my things back—you need to find that woman and my things!”

“Getting huffy won’t help,” the officer says. “Just tell me where you’re staying. We’ll let you know if we locate the goods.”

“I…don’t know where I’m going to stay—I need to find my brother.” How was I going to find Kit now? I had no idea where his house was. I had no idea where to go.

Yes I did—the theater! The California. Kit had a show there toni—Oh. Wait.

Kit’s the showman in the family. That’s what I’d told Elsa at the dock. Mrs. Terkle could have used that to build a story I would believe. She’d fed my own words back to me and I’d swallowed them like a fish swallows a worm.

The letter—Kit’s letter. I reach for my satchel before remembering it was gone. Blast it!

“Hard to help you if we can’t find you,” the policeman says.

“Sacramento Street,” I say.

“That’s a start but I need a number.”

“I…I’m not sure.” I rack my brain for the right numbers. It’s some combination of one, two, three, four. But in what order? Twelve forty-three? Or thirteen forty-two? Or is it fourteen twenty-three?

“Where’s the police station?” I ask.

“City Hall, Washington and Kearny.”

“I’ll come down when I know where I’ll be.”

“All right, little sister. You do that.” He tucks his notebook in his shirt pocket.

I’ll start with the only piece of true information I have—the boarding house where last we’d known Kit was staying. “How do I get to Sacramento Street from here?” I ask.

 

It’s a steep climb up a bump of hills to Sacramento Street, which can hardly be called a street—at least at this point, it’s no more than a rutty dirt road. My heart sinks at the rundown row of boarding houses that stretch ahead. The dilapidation goes beyond mere thrift. I’d assumed that Kit had modest means from the mining claim he’d worked with our father, or had found a job that paid a decent wage—he was clever and charming, albeit easily distracted by what interested him at any given moment.

The first guessed address is not a boarding house but rather a one-story saloon. A veil of black flies drawn by the stench of urine and alcohol buzz loudly from the mud yard. I won’t even bother inquiring after my brother here.

The second address looks to be more of a possibility but when a scantily dressed woman with bleached hair opens the door, my hopes falter.

“What do you want?” the woman says, narrowing her eyes. “If you’re looking for work, you need to spiff yourself up and come back later. Lacey Lil don’t get up ‘til four.”

“No,” I say, horrified at her presumption, for I’m pretty certain what kind of house this is: a house of ill repute where wanton women without morals debase and sell themselves.

“I’m looking for my brother—Kit Sparrow.” I’m nearly as horrified to think that this might be where my brother lives. If this is his residence, I’m glad that Mother isn’t here to see it. It would break her heart.

But I do not, will not, believe it.

“All men out by eight a.m. Looks like you missed him.” She scans my appearance and sneers. “I can see why he’d prefer the company around here,” she says, and shuts the door in my face.

Well! I step back, cheeks burning.

What kind of hellish place have I landed in? Father’s letters had painted something fresher…brighter. The land of golden opportunity, he’d called it. Perhaps for thieves and ladies of the night.

But it’s where I am now. Two down, one to go. I walk another ten blocks to fourteen twenty-three. A quiet house with peeling paint, but the front steps have been swept and decorated with pots spilling red geraniums. I approach the door and pull the strung bell.

A thin woman in a clean but faded dress opens the door, looks me over, and shakes her head. “I’m sorry, but I don’t rent to single ladies.” She starts to close the door without waiting to hear my request.

“Wait! Please, I’m looking for my brother, Kit—Christian—Sparrow. I believe this is the address he gave? Is he…does he live here?”

The door opens slowly again and the woman stares at me. “You look like him.”

“Yes! We’re twins—”

She shakes her head. “He’d heard your ship was lost in a storm. He believed you and your mother dead.”

“Dead?” Oh! Poor Kit. He was right about Mother, but I’m still among the living. “Please, is he here? Can I see him?”

“I’m sorry, Miss. Young Sparrow’s been gone for almost a month, now.”

“G—gone? What do you mean gone? He’s not—” I cannot say the word again. Dead. It can’t be. I would know. I would have felt it, felt that invisible line snap. My hand shakes as I grab the doorframe to steady myself.

“You’d better come in.” She steps back and motions me into the room. “Let me fix you a cup of tea and then I’ll tell you what little I know.” She points me into the parlor and disappears down the hall.

I collapse onto a love seat, numb except for the clutching ache in my chest. Kit. My Kit. He couldn’t have…died. Not without me knowing. And how could he have believed that I was dead?

She returns shortly, hands me a cup of tea and sets a plate of tea biscuits on the table in front of me. The teacup rattles against the saucer. I set it on the table next to the biscuits before I spill hot tea in my lap.

“I’m not certain what happened to your brother,” the woman says, taking a seat in the chair across from the love seat. “All I know is he disappeared about three and a half weeks back. It was a Tuesday.” Her brow furrows and she gets up, goes to a small secretary in the entry way and pulls out a ledger. She turns the pages, squints and nods. “August fifteenth, I believe it was. I heard later that my sister’s husband’s cousin saw him that Tuesday evening with a group of boys on their way down someplace on the Barbary Coast. Out on a spree to sow some wild oats. Went looking for trouble and probably found it. They all disappeared, most likely shanghaied.” She shakes her head.

“Shanghaied? What…what does that mean?” My mouth is so dry, the back of my tongue sticks to my throat.

“Shanghai’s kidnapped. Out to sea. There’s those who get their crew by drugging and taking unattached and fit young men. Poor unsuspecting fellows wake up on a ship miles from shore with no choice but to work as sailors until the tour is over.”

I suck in air, as the smallest of weights wings off my chest. “So—he’s not dead?”

“Like I said, I don’t know what happened. This is all supposition. And I hate to get your hopes up. I hear that once these boys get started going to sea, it’s impossible for them to get away. Most last less than a week back on shore before they drink up their wages and have to do it all over again. They’d be better off dead, if you asked me.”

The landlady’s face blurs and something inside of me collapses again as I think of Kit in such a dreadful situation. I swipe at my eyes with the heel of my hand. My poor brother.

But I have to remember that Kit is clever. I have to believe if he’s been taken to sea, he will find his way back. And I will be here waiting here for him. “How can I find out what ship he might be on? They must keep a record of who comes on board.”

“Not likely. Harbormaster could tell you what ships went out the week your brother went missing, but I doubt there’s a record of those taken against their will. You’ll find out soon enough that most people round here don’t play by any code of ethics.”

I’ve already found that out, and lost everything I had.

“Did anyone check with the land office? Where Kit was working?”

“He’d lost that job. Him thinking you and your mother drowned at sea, he took to his room, missed showing up for work three days in a row. Lots of boys looking for work, so they replaced him, let him go. I checked with them a week or so after he hadn’t come back here. They said they hadn’t seen him for more than a month.”

“What about Kit’s things?”

“I’m sorry.” She touches her fingers to her lips. Her eyes drop to her lap. “I waited two weeks and then gave away everything.” She brushes at invisible crumbs on her faded skirt.

“Everything?” I say, over the hard knuckle in my throat.

Her eyes flick to mine and then back to the hands in her lap. Her head rocks in what might be a nod, then stills. “There’s one thing.” She gets up, goes back to the secretary and opens a small drawer in the middle.

My eyes fill with tears when she places the tiny blue velvet box in my hands. Inside rest two humble treasures—Father’s cufflinks. A gift from Mother two Christmases ago.

“Not expecting you, I’d thought of giving them to my nephew for matriculation,” the landlady says, then lets out a surprised, “Oh…” when I pop one open to reveal the miniature watercolor my mother painted of me, inside. I open the other, and there is Kit.

“Of course, they’re yours now,” she tells me.

I tuck them back and close the box. “Thank you.” They’re all I have. I clutch the velvet box to my heart.

“Of course.” She shifts, uneasy, and clears her throat. “I don’t wish to be rude, but my boarders start returning within the hour and I have business to attend to. When you’ve finished your tea, you best be on your way.”

I attempt a sip of tea but the bitter brew sloshes the brim and puddles the saucer as the realization hits me that I have no place to go. I take a deep breath to clear my head and quickly try to explain how I’ve lost everything. “I cannot pay you,” I say, “but would it be possible for me to stay here for a few days?”

“I’m very sorry for your troubles,” she says, fidgeting with her hands. “Besides keeping a strict rule of no unmarried women, the rooms are full. I have no free beds. It’s a terrible predicament you’re in. If I were you, I’d turn around and go back to where you came from as soon as possible.”

“I have nothing to even pay for a telegram.” Much less a room. Or food. Even if I did have a ticket back to New York, I doubt that my father’s cranky spinster aunt would have me. She was fond of Kit but never liked me much—said I had too many opinions for a proper young lady. Just thinking about her makes me dig the heels of my boots in the carpet. I wouldn’t return to live with her even if I had the money to. Besides, I won’t leave without my brother, or until I at least know what’s happened to him.

My brother’s landlady leaves me sitting, then returns and presses a gold coin in my hand. A quarter eagle. Two and a half dollars. “I’m sorry, but this is all I can do. It should be enough to send a telegram. You must have family somewhere who can wire you the cost of a ticket. Other than that, I really cannot help you.”

 

CHAPTER FOUR

As soon as the landlady closes her door behind me, I slump down on the top step. I can’t think of what to do. This morning I awoke with the hope that I’d be sitting with my brother by now, catching up on the past year and a half, comforting each other in our mutual loss, discussing what to do. Now all I can hope for is his safe return in the not-too-distant future. And that I can find a way to survive while I wait.

My limbs feel thick and heavy. I rub my temples to ease the ache behind my eyes. I need a plan, but fog has seeped into my brain, making my wits dull.

It’s almost dusk when the first boarder comes up the steps. The gaunt man glares at me with pale grey eyes like my presence is a personal offense. I am feeling so cross, I stick my tongue out at him.

His door slam is followed by a muted but agitated exchange on the other side. Moments later, the landlady comes scurrying out. “You cannot sit here,” she says, her forehead bunched. “It will upset my boarders. You need to go on now.”

“I’ve no place to go,” I say, my voice weary.

Her thin lips press together, her hands grip each other in bleach-boned silence. Finally, her breath slides out in a flat whistle and she gestures to the back of the house, then turns and goes inside.

She’s at the back door holding a broom and a bucket when I come around. “Sweep out the hen house and you can sleep in there tonight. Clean straw’s in the shed. Wash up at the spigot when you’re done and I’ll bring you out a bowl of soup. Oh, and watch out for Naughty Boy. If that cock thinks you’re interfering with his biddies, he’ll try to peck your eyes out.”

Stars and angels. Fighting off a cock is all I need to make one of the most awful days of my life even worse. Still, I muster up my manners. “Thank you,” I say. I grab the broom and bucket and follow my nose to the stinking chicken house.

There’s no hint of the evil rooster, so I climb the plank to the door. Inside, I squint at the startled hens and gag at the even fouler smell. A far cry from the starched sheets and perfumed bath I’d been looking forward to. I try breathing through my mouth, but the feather dust stirred up by the flapping chickens makes me cough, sending the hens into a squawking frenzy. Wings beat my arms and face.

“Stop!” I cry, ducking and swiping at them with the broom. This does not have a calming effect. I take a few breaths into my elbow and then hold my breath while I tuck up my skirts. I take a few more elbow breaths and then sweep. When it feels like my lungs will burst, I press my nose back into my elbow for another muffled breath.

When I’ve filled the bucket with dirty straw, I hurry out the low door. Naughty Boy is right there, waiting for me. He rears back, evil-eyed, ready to attack.

I drop the bucket and start swinging. “Stay away or I’ll send you flying.” Either my actions or my words make him stop and take stock. He puffs himself up and struts off in the other direction, pretending he’s lost interest in me. Stupid cock.

I keep him in my sight while I clean up the spill from the bucket, dump it in a heap at the back of the yard and refill it with clean straw from the shed. I spread the clean layer of straw on the hen house floor. As I wash the filth off my hands, the landlady appears with a blanket and a bowl of soup.

“Only one night,” she tells me. “Tomorrow, you need to move on.”

“I will,” I say, although have no idea where ‘on’ will be. “Your brother-in-law’s cousin—the one who saw Kit the night he disappeared? Where might I find him?”

“Tom Deene. Tends lunchtime bar down at The Phoenix. On California. He won’t tell you anymore or different than I did, but if you feel the need, you can catch him when he gets off at five.”

“Thank you Mrs.—?”

“O’Doul.”

“Thank you Mrs. O’Doul. I’ll be gone in the morning.”

I sit on the plank leading up to the hen house and eat the bowl of soup. It’s unseasoned and spare, but I make a display of enjoying the stringy bits of chicken while Naughty Boy gives me the evil eye from the fence and the nervous hens fret inside. “Who rules the roost now, Naughty Boy?” I taunt. He pecks the air and flaps his wings at me but keeps his distance.

I set down the bowl and close my eyes, forehead in my palms. My mind slips to the market, the handsome stranger whose leg was crushed in the accident—I wonder how he’s doing? I curse the boys who lit the firecrackers. And the thieving Mrs. Terkle, deceptive witch—I hope she chokes on her flask of sherry. And the policeman with his arrogant disdain—he acted like someone getting all their belongings stolen happened everyday. Well, for all I know, in this dreadful town, it does. If the police don’t find my trunks, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll have to find some way to keep myself while I try to learn what has happened to Kit. Until I can find him. But what? And what if I don’t find him? Oh Kit. What can a sixteen-year-old girl do, all alone in this terrible and unfamiliar city?

My lungs feel tight and hard like shriveled walnuts. Breathe, I tell myself. Air in, air out, air in, air out. Not easy in a corset but I cannot let myself fall into a pit of despair. I’m smart—Father always said I was and never to forget it. I will figure it out.

I will find my brother.

 

 

A Brief Synopsis:

Joining a gang of cross-dressing ex-prostitutes who pick pockets for a living is not what demure but feisty Lucy Sparrow envisioned when she stepped off the ship in San Francisco. But when her brother doesn’t show and she loses everything she has in a con, Lucy does what she has to do to survive. It’s 1876 and the young city of San Francisco, bursting with new wealth from the influx of gold and silver, is cultured, glamorous, wild, dangerous and full of extraordinary characters, many who have woven their way into the fabric of Lucy’s story, including Jeanne Bonnet, Emperor Norton, Miss Piggott and Herrmann The Great.

In the midst of bootleggers, pimps and thieves, Lucy struggles to maintain her moral compass. When Jeanne is killed, it’s up to Lucy to find work and shelter and to help keep the girls safe while avoiding a notorious pimp set on revenge, maintaining her disguise as a boy, and negotiating complicated friendships. THE LIES AND ILLUSIONS OF LUCY SPARROW tells a unique coming-of-age story, full of adventure, shanghaiing hoodlums, and a mistaken-identity romance triangle that nods at Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Banu the Builder
by Mathangi Subramanian

Middle-Grade Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Middle Grade Category Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

See her?

That one, there. The one who’s always looking up up up at the tops of things? Falls in every crack in the sidewalk? Always forgetting that she’s on the ground?

That’s Banu. Banu, who is not like the rest of us.

For a long time, we thought Banu was slow. Not slow in the feet. Slow in the head. We’re not even sure how she’s still in class with us, she’s failed so many subjects so many times in so many ways.

The rest of us, we figured everything out pretty fast. The answer to school is simple: mug[1]. Mug, mug, and then mug some more.

Poor Banu. She was never good at mugging. Ask her to add two plus two, and she’ll cower like you’re waving a lathi. As for the ABCs, she never got past B. We’re not even sure if she can write the second half of her own name.

Some of us think it’s because of her afterschool activities. And I don’t mean debate club or field hockey or Model UN – those aren’t for kids like us, or for Banu. After school, Banu goes to construction sites.

Now let me tell you something. You know the only thing worse than a slum like ours?

Construction sites.

There’re always a couple of kids at our school who follow their parents from site to site. You can tell as soon as you speak to them: chopped up hair, hollow eyes, words thick like ragi mudde. They never stick around for long–most don’t even buy school uniforms. They just show up every day in the same outfits until the pants get too short or the blouse gets too tight. Start wearing whatever their older sister or brother was wearing the week before.

Not that we mind having them around. We can always roll our eyes at each other over their heads, raise our eyebrows at their bare feet and skinny elbows.

After all, if you can’t be better than somebody else, what’s the point?

At first we think Banu is having an affair. Not that Banu has ever cared about anything much but the tops of things–trees, buildings, skies. But what else is there at a construction site? The sound of jackhammers? The sandy air? The smell of 10,000 village dreams burning?

Then Banu starts coming home with pockets full of rocks and sand and nails and metal rods. Everything she takes is broken or thrown in the rubbish.

And that isn’t even the strangest part.

The strangest part is that Banu starts building.

I know what you’re thinking. So what? The girl makes a few towers, maybe ties some rods together. That’s what children do. They build things.

But Banu is not like the rest of us.

Most of us never notice. We’re too busy mugging our seven times eight equals fifty six and Gandhiji was born on October 2nd and johnny johnny yes papa[2]. Sometimes we wonder about a thumping or a rattling or a crunching, but mostly we just carry on.

While we mug, Banu builds. Starts going off behind the bushes where the tallest and sturdiest coconut trees take root. Imagines an empire along the banks of the river of sludge flowing down from the hospital.

She builds a fort with metal spikes and pebble-sand towers and a moat big enough for a dragon or two. A palace with windows made out of broken bottles and a gate that slides open and closed. Rows and rows of flats with parking spaces and letter boxes and balconies lined with black iron railings. A farmhouse with a wire fence and two bedrooms and a kitchen with the fixtures for one of those brand new ignition stoves. She even builds roads, and let me tell you, Banu’s roads are stronger and straighter than any of the roads in Bangalore.

In fact, her whole city is stronger and straighter than Bangalore. Makes Bangalore look like it was stuck together with Fevicol and broken promises.

Don’t ask us how. She just does it.

It’s not that she builds to show off, either. We only find out because Yousef steals Joy’s bag and runs off and we chase him into the clearing where Banu looks at us with eyes like Bangalore potholes.

Yousef stops and we all run into his back, but not before Joy gives him one tight slap.

It’s like walking in on Bhumi while she’s becoming the earth. We just stare and stare and hold our breath.

Until Joy says, “Banu, you’re a builder.”

Until Kabini says, “I told you there was no boy.”

Until Prema says, “All this time you never told us.”

Not that it matters. In slums, everyone finds out everything eventually.

We go to a government school.

I’m guessing you go to a private school. Which means you have a lot of stuff that we don’t: new books, maybe? Toilets? Water? (The drinkable kind, not the mud puddle kind.)

But there’s one thing we have that you don’t.

Rats.

Lots and lots of fat, juicy, scurrying, burying rats.

You know what rats like to do?

Eat.

You know what rats like to eat?

Everything.

The radishes in the school garden. The registers on teachers’ desks. The pipes at the water pumps. The pais that the little kids sit on.

See what we mean by everything?

Janaki Madam–that’s our headmistress–she doesn’t like rats. That’s why she pays people to come and put traps and poison and whatever else to scare them away. Though if you ask us, Janaki Madam is scarier than any poison we’ve ever seen.

But even Janaki Madam can’t hold off a vermin scourge with just a government school budget.

These rats? They’re clever, mostly. (Definitely didn’t go to government schools.) At first, they leave bite marks and the occasional dropping, but they don’t show themselves. Not even a flash of paw or twitch of whisker to be seen.

Slowly, though, they start to get bold. We hear them shuffling behind the walls in the middle of the day. We catch their pink noses poking out from cracks in the plaster. We see their fuzzy behinds disappearing into burrows they leave wide open right where the oldest, nastiest boys play cricket after stopping by the liquor store on Sunday mornings.

And then, when still nothing happens to their scaly tails? That’s when the boldness really begins.

They smell the free government breakfast or the holiday meal served once a year on foil plates. Besan ladoos and chicken biryani. Donated by the rich guy who went to our school and miraculously made good. Proof that he didn’t forget the rest of us, even though, let’s be honest, he probably wishes he could.

Those rats smell the crumbs left on the plates and payasam slurps left in the tumblers. And they make a decision: in the middle of the day, they decide to run across the room, humans be damned, and feast.

And if they have to cross Maths Miss’s feet to get there, treading over her bare toes with their cold, pointy claws, then so be it. Annual ladoos are worth the risk.

Let me ask you this. Have you ever seen a grown woman jump up on the only desk in the whole room, not even caring when her sari hitches itself up around her bare belly in the most undignified way?

Have you ever heard the echoes of a shriek that is pure, unadulterated fear?

Have you ever seen a headmistress fly into the room faster than an August evening wind, her eyes blazing with the fire of a thousand vermin funerals, wielding a spade so expertly that she makes a crack in the wall where she just misses an uppity rat’s behind?

Well, we have. And it’s enough to make you believe that all those stone Kalis are too tiny to hold the fury in a single human woman’s heart.

“This has gone too far,” Janaki Madam says, pushing her loosened gray hair behind her ears, correcting her tilted spectacles. “These rats think they run the place.”

“Might I suggest an exterminator, Madam?” Maths Miss squeaks from on top of her desk, “or at least a bureau to hold some of the most tempting materials?”

“With what money, Sushila?”

“I can help,” Banu says.

“Who’s that?” Janaki Madam and Maths Miss ask.

“It’s me,” says Banu. “My name is Banu.”

Now don’t pass judgment. It must’ve been the third or fourth time Banu spoke in class. Ever. So how are the Headmistress and Maths Miss supposed to know? The scrambling scratch of rat feet is more common than the whisper of Banu’s voice.

You?” Maths Miss asks, probably remembering the score Banu got (or didn’t get) on our last exam.

“I can build something. To hold the records. To fence the radishes. To block the burrows.”

“Please,” Maths Miss scoffs.

“She can, Miss,” says Joy. “You should see the way she builds.”

“How much will it cost?” Janaki Madam asks.

“Nothing, Ma’am,” Banu says. “I’ll source the materials myself.”

“How much time do you need?”

“With the right team, I can do it in three days.”

“Then name your team,” Janaki Madam says, “and start today.”

Of course, the team is obvious–if you need something done, you ask us girls. So for three days, Banu becomes our forewoman, school becomes a construction site, and we become construction workers. We don’t mind, though, because we all skip lessons. Plus none of us are afraid of rats–we’ve protected each other from much worse than a bunch of over-achieving fur balls.

So we build.

And we build and we build and we build.

We build a fence around the kitchen garden with long pieces of wire Banu finds in the garbage pile behind the new showroom on 100 Foot Road. We install shelves with doors using pieces of wood and metal Banu drags from the houses they are bulldozing behind the posh flats made of glass. With the leftovers we build a trunk for the pais and toys for the little kids.

Banu finds new pipes for the water pump. She finds sand to stuff into the burrows on the compound grounds. She even finds plaster to seal up the cracks in the walls and along the floors where rats might hide, and paint to cover up the handiwork.

“Where’d you get this, Banu?” Deepa asks, tracing the newly filled cracks with her fingers.

“Behind the hospital,” Banu says.

“In the waste?” Leela shrieks.

Banu shrugs.

“Doesn’t that spread disease?” Kabini asks.

“Probably to the rats,” Banu nods.

“But what about us?” Rukshana asks.

“Stop it, all of you,” Joy snaps. “You’re builders now. Don’t question. Just build.”

Our feet are dusty and our backs ache. Our cheeks are coated in grime and our hands are scraped and rough. Our hair smells like sweat and paint and twisted metal.

But by the end of three days, it is a whole new school. Just like Banu promised.

Our midday meals are full of radishes. The little kids are snug and cozy on their pais. All the paper goods are nibble-free. The space behind the wall gets quiet.

Until one day, Janaki Madam says, “They tell me there’s a terrible rat infestation down at the new shopping mall.” She pushes her lips together so she won’t smile, and sticks out her hand to Banu. “Well done, child.”

Banu grins and shakes Janaki Madam’s hand. Because this, of course, is the surest sign of victory: the rats have given up on Ambedkar Government School. They have moved on to posher places. Places that would throw us out.

Where they went is not the point. The point is that they went, and it’s all because of Banu, and her builders.

Just then a raggedy looking thing in a faded patta pavade and dusty feet shuffles into the room, two pathetic brown pony tails sticking out from her chopped up hair. Her lips can’t hide her two front teeth. Her feet are too big for her legs, like her body was meant to grow more, but just didn’t have the strength.

“New student?” Janaki Madam asks.

“Another of those construction kids, is it?” Yousef says. “Or is it a rat?”

Normally, the rest of us would’ve laughed. After all, if you can’t look down on someone, what’s the point?

But today is not a normal day.

Joy leans across her desk and smacks Yousef across the face.

“What, yah?” Yousef turns red, maybe from Joy’s hand, but probably from her eyes.

“Don’t call her a rat,” Joy says. “Here, new girl,” she pats the space on the bench next to her. “Come sit next to me.”

The girl smiles her buck toothed smile.

“Are you…” the girl begins hesitantly.

“I’m a builder,” Joy says. “Just like you.”

 

~

Footnotes

[1] Indian English slang term for “memorize.”

[2] A rhyme commonly taught to Indian preschoolers. The full rhyme goes, “Johnny Johnny. Yes Papa? Eating sugar? No Papa. Telling lies? No Papa. Open your mouth, ha ha ha.”

Anglerfish: the Black Devil of the Deep
by E. M. Alexander

Picture Book Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Picture Book Category Winner 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

Far, far below the ocean’s surface, where no trace of light can be seen, the deep sea Anglerfish makes her home.

She glides slowly through the dark water. Always on the hunt, her jaw protrudes, baring razor-sharp teeth. She is a fearsome creature. She is the Black Devil of the Deep.

Unlike some of her cousin species like the monkfish, the goosefish, or the frogfish that live in more shallow water (a mere 300 feet down), the Angler lives in water so deep, it is always as black as midnight.

Although she doesn’t remember it, the Anglerfish once lived in the upper mesopelagic zone, known as the twilight zone, where the last traces of sunlight could still penetrate the water. In the scant light a thousand meters below the surface, creatures adapt to the darkness with large eyes.

Anglerfish began her life as a tiny egg that was released far below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, and floated gently to the surface. As a baby fish, or fry, she feasted on plankton. As she grew into adulthood, she began her descent into the bathypelagic zone, 1,000 to 4,000 meters below the surface.

In the depths of the blackest water, the Anglerfish makes her own light. A tiny bioluminescent lure sprouts forth from a fin that grows between her eyes. “Bioluminescent” is a Latin word that means “living light.” Creatures with bioluminescent adaptations usually live in places where it is very, very dark. They might use their light as a signal, to scare away predators, or to illuminate prey. Only the female Anglerfish has this ability.

The Anglerfish needs her light to survive. She uses the glowing orb as bait, dangling it in front of her mouth like her very own fishing pole. Buried in the mud and sand, she lies in wait for a fish, a shrimp, or maybe even a crab.

Sometimes the Anglerfish wiggles her lure to entice her prey. She hopes they will be deceived and think that the moving light is a tasty morsel of food. When a fish or crab comes close enough, her stomach descends and she extends her flexible jaw. She opens her large mouth and swallows her meal whole. The Anglerfish prefers fish and shrimp, but in the deep, dark depths she calls her home, she will eat whatever she can catch.

A fierce hunter, she has earned the name of Black Devil. Living in a world without sunlight, her dark brown or black skin is a clever camouflage that helps her blend right into her surroundings. The average Anglerfish is six inches, but some can grow as large as 35 inches long. With her large mouth filled with sharp, pointy teeth, the Anglerfish looks like a prehistoric creature. Her skin does not have scales, but it can be covered in warts or spines.

The Anglerfish has jagged teeth that work like a hinge, snapping back into place when she has trapped her prey. Any fish caught in the mouth of a Black Devil will find itself locked in her mouth like a prisoner in a cell.

The Black Devil of the Deep traps her mates as well. She is larger than the tiny male Anglerfish, who only averages two and half to six inches in length. Previously scientists mistook the male Anglerfish for a tiny parasite living under the female’s skin. Now they know that the male attaches to the female’s skin and becomes absorbed into her body.

Their union is a matter of survival. The tiny male, born without a digestive system, cannot survive alone. His sole purpose at birth is to use his heightened sense of smell to seek out a healthy female and attach to her by biting into her flesh. Once attached, his jaws are dissolved by enzymes and his blood fuses with hers.

The Anglerfish will always carry with her one or more males. As their bodies join, all that will be left of the male is his reproductive organs, which the female Angler will use to fertilize her eggs. When she is ready to reproduce, in the spring or early summer, the Anglerfish will lay more than a million eggs in a single spawning.

Her offspring will spend a brief time closer to the sea’s surface, just as she once did, before slowly sinking down for a life in the water’s dark depths.

Once there, her children might be caught by a fisherman seeking out the only edible part of her body—the tail. Or, perhaps they will be lucky enough to make their own homes—far, far below the ocean’s surface, where no trace of light can be seen, in the darkest, loneliest place in the sea.

~

Sources For ANGLERFISH: THE BLACK DEVIL OF THE DEEP

Ganeri, Anita. Creatures That Glow. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.

National Geographic. 12 October 2015.  http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/anglerfish/

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 5 October 2015. http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/facts/light-distributed.html

 

 

In the Middle of the Night
by Catey Miller

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Special Mention 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

Twenty-one days ago, exactly one month before Layla and I were set to move to different states for different colleges, I was lying on the couch in Layla’s family’s den, pretending to be asleep while she and her mom, Ellen, had a loud fight. The den was dark and Scrubs was on Netflix in the background and Layla and Ellen were shouting at each other about something I don’t remember. I kept pretending to be asleep until the fight ended and Layla moved back onto the couch, at which point I sat up and let her curl her feet up on my thighs and didn’t touch her very ticklish toes while she cried and then fell asleep and I watched more Scrubs. Sometime around midnight, Ellen put her hand on my head as she walked behind the couch and said, “Danielle, if you’re falling asleep, you can stay.” I didn’t want to stay. I said I would rather sleep in my own bed, but thanks. Ellen helped me tuck a blanket around Layla. She told me to please be careful out there and I nodded and waved and didn’t think to hug her goodbye. I made it home fine.

Twenty days ago, Ellen was walking to her car in the Food Lion parking lot, and the driver of the F-350 didn’t see her. It was an accident. I can picture Ellen with her purple reusable shopping bags slung over her shoulders, talking to Layla’s dad on the phone about dinner, reaching for the remote to unlock her car. I can’t picture Layla and her dad and her brother eating dinner that night.

Seventeen days ago there was a service, and my parents cried, and Layla’s dad and her little brother cried. I didn’t talk to Layla at the service, but I held her hand when we circled back to look into the casket again after everyone else had, my second time and her third time. Layla’s mom’s nails were still painted a matte purple called “Black Cherry Chutney,” which we’d picked out for her even though she said it was too dark for her. The polish had chipped on two fingers on her right hand, and this was the part of her that looked the most wrong to me, and I couldn’t remember if I’d painted her right hand or if Layla had. I wondered if her toenails were still painted, too. I wondered if the polish would ever chip if it stayed in her socks in her shoes in the box in the ground. Toenail polish lasts forever.

I’ve been leaving my phone volume turned up overnight, just in case. The first time the phone rang, I answered, “Hello? L?” She hung up. The second time, and the times since, I just slid the green bar, was just there. Sometimes there’s crying, sometimes just the white noise hiss of being connected. Tonight, ten minutes ago, twenty days since I last saw her, there were words. “I’m picking you up.”

Layla is just rounding the cul-de-sac to loop back to my driveway when I slip out the front door. I take quick short steps to the end of the driveway, skimming my fingers along the side of my mom’s burgundy Wrangler as I pass it. The Jeep always looks like some hulking creature in the darkness, its taillights glinting the wrong colors in the bright moonlight. I pat its bumper as I go by.

Layla has the windows rolled down so when she comes to a stop on the road a foot in front of me, I can hear her music. And it’s not her mix CD of songs about girls with L-names—“Lola” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Laura” times three, but not “Layla,” because she hates that it’s a song written about someone else’s wife; “Clapton is such an asshole,” she says, “couldn’t he have just waited for the divorce to write about me?” Clapton notwithstanding, that mix is Layla’s comfort food, and hearing jazz music in its place stops me for a second.

Then I take the last few steps to the car and gently lower the duffel bag I’m carrying onto the floorboard—the half-empty bottle of whiskey swishes against the tempo of the trumpet or whatever is hissing out of the speakers—and fold myself into the car after it. Layla drives the Mazda Miata now, the one her mom was walking to, and it’s so small, so low to the ground and confining. Layla has been badly claustrophobic since I’ve known her, but it doesn’t seem to bother her now.

“Hi,” Layla says when we’re off my street, zipping past stop signs and speed limit markers in the maze of the development my family lives in.

My line is How’s it going, but she’s driving too fast and her fingers are tight on the steering wheel and her hair is tight in her ponytail, and I don’t say anything until we’re out of Sunrise Echoes, out on a main road with traffic lights and shadowy clumps of trees that could be shielding cop cars, and Layla slows to five over. Her fingernails are painted bright yellow, thick and gloopy like she’s been painting over cracks. Mine are dark purple and chipping badly and I hide them under my thighs. Yellow is, I guess, as far from purple as you can get.

It’s too late for my opener now, so I try, “Where we headed?” even though I know we’re headed east, for the ocean, and she knows I know so she doesn’t respond. We always said growing up that it was the best place to be on a hot summer night, said it must be hard to be bored or lonely or sad with the moon on the water; it seemed too perfect. Our parents wouldn’t ever let us go.

It’s just a few minutes to the ocean from my house. My family lives closer than Layla and her dad and her brother, and I wonder if she’s been coming without me, making the longer drive alone all those nights. The hiss of bedroom background noise could’ve been waves, maybe. I wonder if every night she’s been listening to jazz—which is/was a favorite of her parent/s—and what happened to the L-name girls. A saxophonist takes a solo and Layla’s knuckles are popping up against the steering wheel and she hasn’t said anything yet but I know soon she’ll need me to listen, maybe to talk, and I suddenly, selfishly wish I could just nod off in the front seat, my foot rolling the whiskey from above my parents’ fridge back and forth on the floorboard.

But then we’re there and she’s launching herself out of the car, drawing in deep lungfuls of salt air, and I wonder if maybe the claustrophobia didn’t go away after all. It’s always hard to know with Layla, has been since fourth grade, when she was the only one of us who didn’t love horses but still wanted to be involved in all our conversations about them. I keep thinking it will get easier and it keeps going the other way, especially since graduation, and since Ellen.

It occurs to me, listening to Layla get her breathing under control, that maybe now is when it starts to get easier. Maybe if I can understand the shape of her grief I can finally understand her. And then it occurs to me how stupid that is, how things can only get harder from here, and what a bad friend I am to want something good—for me—to come out of this. What a bad person.

“Come on, Dani!” Layla’s voice is high and too loud. She half-walks-half-dances away from me, toward the water, becoming a silhouette. I flick the Miata’s headlights on, grab the duffel, and pocket the keys before I climb out of the car and lock the doors behind us. Then I jog after Layla, half-dancing toward the water, spotlit by the headlights. It smells clearer here at night than during the day, or more private, the salt in the air getting through to us better in the absence of sunscreen and snacks and so many bodies.

“My mom loved it here,” she shouts at me over the ocean spray, even though we’re not close enough to the water yet for it to drown her out.

The last time we all came here together, my parents and Layla’s family, Ellen wore tennis shoes and jogging shorts and a scowl, and she dragged my mom, in a one-piece, on a half-mile walk with her toward the pier. When my mom, chafing and irritated, begged off to play with Layla and me and the others in the water, Layla’s mom kept walking the same loop to the pier and back, arms pumping, stopping every few laps to ask if anyone wanted to join her, and no one did, and I feel a little bad about it now but then I only felt bad that she wouldn’t stop asking. It didn’t seem like she loved it here at all, but that she came here as an obligation.

But I watch Layla kick off her sandals and run in the direction of the pier, her arms spread wide and her head tipped back, and I let the memory she’s creating replace the one I have. Ellen loved it here. We were part of that. I run after Layla and we’re doing what she would’ve wanted us to do, what she would’ve wanted, and it’s an honoring thing, not a grieving thing.

It feels like a grieving thing again when we walk back to the duffle. Layla, like she can sense the mood shifting, starts doing her jerky dance-walk again, sort of a skipping motion that I can’t picture her doing when she’s by herself.

“Hang on,” she says, and darts away toward the parking lot before I can react. I watch her vanish into the darkness the closer she gets to the car, the headlights blinding me more than illuminating her. I have a brief and horrible vision of her going, getting back in the Miata and peeling out, letting me think she was letting me join her and then leaving me out as punishment for something, like maybe I should have called her before tonight, maybe I should have been the one to reach out and say let’s be sad together. But she wouldn’t. She won’t. And then the headlights go off and I’m left blinking in the dark, and suddenly I feel the bulk of her car keys in my pocket and I feel like an idiot.

I reach blindly for the duffel and wish I’d had the presence of mind to shake out the blanket I grabbed from our hall closet before she turned off the lights. The sliding thuds of her bare feet running back toward me in the loose sand make me feel more relieved than I try to let on. I take the car keys out of my pocket and offer them to her when she’s closer, but she waves me off, so I put them back.

“Look up, Dani,” she says, plucking at the back of my T-shirt. “Can’t you see them so much better?”

She must mean the stars because I can, she’s right. I also think the ocean sounds louder, somehow, like the Mazda’s lights were muting the roar of the waves. It’s like we always thought it would be, dark and bright all at once and left here just for us.

We haven’t watched Disney movies together in years, but suddenly I’m looking at the stars and thinking of The Lion King and wanting to ask Layla what she thinks about that, about souls in the night sky like Mufasa, if her mom is one of those big balls of gas and we’re looking up at her light.

But then Layla is sitting on the blanket and reaching for the whiskey in the bag and I’m glad the moment has passed. Though I wish now, out of nowhere, that we’d kept up the Disney movie night tradition from middle school. I can’t tell if it’s a real wish or if it will be gone in the morning.

“It’s so empty,” she says. She swings the bottle around by its neck. “How much did you have before I got to your place?” she asks, teasing, as she unscrews the cap.

I make a pfft noise because I’m not sure if we’re allowed to laugh yet. “Nah, this is just my mom’s favorite.”

“Oh.” She pauses with the bottle an inch from her lips.

“No, that’s not—I mean, that’s why there’s not much left. But no, like, it’s fine. I brought it for you. For us to share.”

She takes a quick sip, or holds the bottle to her mouth long enough for me to believe she did, and passes it back.

While I’m sipping, Layla rolls off of the blanket and onto the sand beside it and spreads herself like she’s going to make an angel. This her mother definitely wouldn’t have done. But Layla looks right at home, squirming a little so that the sand slides and whispers under her moving shoulders. She curls her fingers around fistfuls of sand and tosses them up, does it again, does it again, makes a sound that’s almost a laugh. Her laugh in all its variations sounds like her dad’s, and her round brown eyes are his, and she and her brother both have their dad’s thick curly hair.

“Have you talked to your roommate yet?” I ask.

It takes a while before she answers. “For school, you mean,” she says.

“Yeah. Mine Facebooked me this week to ask what I could bring for the room. She wanted to know about, like, rugs and dishes. Like am I bringing pots and pans. She wants to bring a crock pot.”

“To your tiny dorm room?”

“Yep.”

“She sounds delightful. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

We go silent for a while. We pass the bottle back and forth. I can’t tell if she’s drinking. I can tell there’s something one of us should be saying now. The waves are loud and the sand is cool and I’m still thinking about The Lion King.

“Didn’t your roomie write you a few weeks ago?” I ask, prodding.

“Yeah. She sent a Facebook message.” Layla’s words come slow, like she has to pull them out one by one from some recess in her brain. “She asked me to bring a TV.”

“More normal than a crock pot. But also kind of assumption-y.”

“Yeah. But I mean, I have one, so.” She tosses up another handful of sand. “Her name’s Lily.”

I hmm sympathetically. There are so many “Lily” songs. Not fair.

Layla sighs like she’s feeling like it’s not fair, too, and I don’t mean to, I’ve been trying to avoid it, but I can’t help it anymore and I spin her feelings—my feelings about what her feelings must be—out in front of me, up at the stars. Layla, left behind by a mother who had grown too smothering sometime in junior or senior year, who didn’t know about the bird tattoo she’d gotten twenty-five days ago, on her eighteenth birthday. A mother she told me she was hoping to re-engage with in just a few months, once we graduated, once she moved three states down and could use the distance as a bridge. Layla, songless by choice; close-to-but-not L-o-l-a Lola, close-to-but-not Billy Joel’s troubled Laura, and so maybe it was just easier to listen to jazz, where you never had to worry about not hearing yourself mentioned.

She interrupts my interior monologue in a faltering voice: “Aren’t you sad, Danielle?”

And everything in me falters. My heart collapses in on itself and my stomach is full of acid. My eyes close against tears that rise fast and make them burn. I wish I’d hugged Ellen goodbye. I wish I’d told my mom I was going out tonight. I am so sad. It is not my sadness.

I inch my left hand into the gap between our bodies, my wrist on the hem of the blanket, and Layla reaches out and grabs it right away, holds it tight, and suddenly I can hear her crying, the wet sniffling sound complementing the rhythm of the ocean in a way that makes me think they’ve synced up before after all.

“I was giving you space,” I say.

Her fingers tighten around mine and I squeeze back, trying not to dig my nails into her skin as much as she’s digging hers into mine, and she scoots across the sand and back onto the blanket. “Too much space,” she says.

“I’m sorry.” I twist so that I’m facing her more and wrap my arms around her, brushing the sand off the back of her shirt while she keeps crying.

She’s saying she’s sorry, too, and she’s saying “I love you,” but I don’t think she’s talking to me. Maybe tomorrow I’ll ask if she wants to watch The Lion King.

I press a hand into Layla’s curly hair and think about how she doesn’t look anything like Ellen and I miss Ellen, who always invited me to stay, who always had blankets ready, who called herself my other mom. I miss her in a way I don’t feel like I have a right to. I hold onto Layla and I miss her, too, and I try but I can’t remember what they were fighting about or why I pretended not to hear.

 

 

Paddy Cats
by Helen Kampion

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Special Mention 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

Toshiko lived in a small village in Japan where the rice grew in rows as straight as chopsticks. Every day on her way to the rice paddies, Toshiko greeted the stray cats and scratched their backs.

Late one Monday afternoon, the sky grew black with feathers. A gigantic flock of birds swooped down and pecked at the rice.

Papa-san, what kind of birds are eating our rice?” asked Toshiko.

“I do not know, Little One,” answered Father. “But we must stop them, or all the villagers will starve. Tomorrow we must chase them away with kakashis, scarecrows.”

 

On Tuesday, Father, Toshiko, and the villagers marched to the rice paddies. The cats crouched in the shadows.

The villagers carried bamboo poles hung with rags, fish bones, and meat. They hammered the poles into the ground and set them on fire. Smelly smoke swirled in the air.

Toshiko held her nose.

The cats growled and scurried away.

All day long the villagers lit kakashis.

But the birds stayed and ate.

“It didn’t work, Papa-san,” said Toshiko. “The birds must think it smells like koh, incense.”

Hai, yes, my daughter, these birds find the scent sweet,” said Father. We must try again tomorrow.”

That evening at mealtime, Toshiko’s rice bowl was not filled to the rim.

 

On Wednesday, Father, Toshiko, and the villagers plodded to the rice paddies carrying drums. The cats huddled nearby.

The villagers placed the drums on either side of the paddies and beat them.

Boom! Boom!

The cats yowled and their tails bristled.

All day long the villagers banged the drums.

But the birds stayed and ate and ate.

“Oh no, Papa-san. The drums didn’t work either,” said Toshiko.

Hai, my daughter, these birds like the thunder of the drums,” said Father. “We must try again tomorrow.”

Papa-san, I have an idea,” said Toshiko, watching the cats chase a dragonfly.

“No, Little One, the problem is too big,” said Father. “And you are too small.”

That evening, Toshiko’s rice bowl was only half full.

And so was her stomach.

 

On Thursday, Father, Toshiko, and the villagers trudged to the rice paddies. The cats straggled behind. The villagers carried bamboo poles topped with fierce cloth dragons. They pounded the poles into the ground.

The dragons snapped from side to side in the wind.

The cats arched their backs and hissed.

All day long the villagers added dragon poles.

But the birds stayed and ate and ate and ate.

Papa-san, these birds aren’t afraid of the mighty dragons,” said Toshiko.

Hai, my daughter, these birds have made friends of the dragons,” said Father.

“What will our village do now?” asked Toshiko.

“I do not know,” said Father. “If we cannot stop these birds, we will have nothing to eat and nothing to trade for fish or firewood.”

That evening, Toshiko’s rice bowl held only enough to fill a teacup.

And her empty stomach rumbled like an earthquake.

Papa-san, I can stop these birds from feasting,” said Toshiko.

“Little One, what can you do?” asked Father.

“I have an idea,” answered Toshiko.

“An idea? You are just a child.”

Hai, Papa-san, but it’s a very good idea.”

 

On Friday morning, every family carried a narrow wooden plank to the paddies. Toshiko showed them how to lay the planks between the rows of rice. Then she scattered scraps of fish on the wood. Toshiko grabbed the smelliest chunk.

“Wait here,” she said to the villagers, and darted down the road.

After a short while Toshiko reappeared with the stray cats. She walked backwards into the paddies, dangling the stinky fish in front of the cats. They followed her onto the planks and gobbled up the fish pieces. The startled birds screeched and took flight.

After eating, the cats strolled away and the birds returned.

Over the next two days, Toshiko fed the cats at different times. Each time, the cats scared away the birds. But when the cats disappeared, the birds returned.

 

On Monday morning, the cats waited for her.

Ohayō gozaimasu, good morning,” said Toshiko, feeding the cats. “Today you must stay in the paddies all day and keep the birds away.”

At the end of the day, Father and Toshiko checked the rice paddies. Toshiko saw only contented cats on the planks, and a few black feathers.

Papa-san, there are no birds!”

Hai, my daughter, your cats have saved our village,” said Father. “You may be small, but your ideas are big. Domo arigatō gozaimasu, thank you very much.”

Father bowed to Toshiko and to her paddy cats.

That evening, while the village celebrated, Toshiko filled two bowls of rice to the brim. A small bowl for herself, and a big one for her paddy cats.

 

~

Author’s Notes

For more than 2,000 years, rice has been an important part of Japanese culture. Not only used as a food source, for centuries rice was used as currency for paying taxes and high-ranking government workers, and as an indicator of one’s wealth.

Rice is such a staple of the Japanese diet that the word for meal and cooked rice are the same, gohan. The Japanese added a prefix to gohan to indicate their daily meals: breakfast, asa-gohan; lunch, hiru-gohan; and dinner, ban-gohan.

The most common way to grow rice is in water. It is cultivated by first soaking rice seeds in water and planting them in seedbeds. While the seeds are growing, the farmers plow the paddy to prepare the soil. After the seeds have germinated (sprouted), the seedlings are transferred from the seedbeds to the water-filled paddy. They are planted about two inches apart in neat rows by a machine or by hand. The plantings take place anywhere from the end of April to late June, depending on the region. The rice is harvested in the fall.

As with most crops, the farmers must deal with pests and predators. For centuries, the Japanese used scarecrows to frighten away birds in the rice paddies. The first type of scarecrow consisted of bamboo poles hung with rags, fish bones, and meat. The farmers would light them on fire and the smell would drive away birds and other animals. Because the smell was so bad, they called them kakashi, which means something stinky. Eventually, the farmers made scarecrows in the image of people, using reeds and placing straw hats on their heads. Sometimes farmers added bows and arrows to make the scarecrows appear more fierce. Even though they didn’t set these scarecrows on fire and the reeds didn’t stink, they kept the same name.

 

Attack of the Giant Meatball!
by Callie C. Miller

Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature

Special Mention 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize

SYNOPSIS

When a giant meatball terrorizes the American Moon colony, twelve-year-old Jupiter and his best friend, Kraig, are recruited by Apollo Command to help track down the menace and take it out. Kraig is a certified genius who always has a plan, and wants nothing more than to be a spy. Jupiter is just your regular smart kid who doesn’t really know what he wants, and is content to be Kraig’s sidekick—until the Meatball Incident allows Jupiter to see his best friend for what he really is: just another twelve-year-old kid.

 

CHAPTER ONE

TO: Agent Vortimer, Central Interstellar Intelligence Agency, United States of America, Earth

FROM: Jupiter Michelangelo Williams, Apollo Command, Apollo Colony, Moon

SUBJECT: Giant Meatball Incident

 

MEMO:

 

Dear Agent Vortimer,

After this message, you will find a recording with everything pertaining to the giant meatball incident—and probably a thing or two that doesn’t pertain, because Agent Theo didn’t tell me that I wouldn’t get to edit anything. Something about the “honesty of the first recall.”

That’s why I got to send a memo.

I guess you know where to find me if you need more information.

This message will self-destruct in five seconds.

Just kidding. I’ve just always wanted to say that.

 

Sincerely,

Jupiter Williams

Apollo Command

 

CHAPTER TWO

The first thing you should know about me is that I am not a rule breaker. Sure, maybe I occasionally toe the fine line between bending and breaking, but what kid doesn’t? If rules were glass grav-discs (a stupid invention, by the way), I’d opt for sticking with the more durable, un-shatterable kind, no matter how slick the other kids said the glass discs rode.

And then there’s Kraig.

Tell Kraig Dash where that fine line is, and he’ll shatter it like a rampant dinosaur during a feeding frenzy, and somehow come out without even a tiny cut. Or detention.

It’s not that he tries to break rules. He just doesn’t see the point of them. They get in the way. I think half the time he just likes seeing how he can get around them.

And somehow, ever since Little Dipper Daycare, he’s convinced me to come along for the ride. That’s why I was standing outside of the principal’s office at Interim Academy.

I wasn’t in trouble. Not yet anyway—it was 1:33 a.m., on a Saturday morning, and our sixth-level year didn’t even start until Monday. Interim is the top middle school in Apollo, and we’d sat through some grueling test sessions to get in.

Okay, I sat through grueling test sessions. Kraig pretty much napped. I’d gotten in with a good amount of wiggle room, but Kraig? He’d aced them.

Which is another thing you should know about Kraig. He’s a twelve-year-old genius. Seriously. I hold my own and get some of the top marks in our class, but Kraig can blow even the instructors out of the water with his IQ—if he wanted to.

If Kraig is so smart, you may ask, why then is he doing something as foolish as breaking into the principal’s office at Interim Academy?

I refer you to the rampant dinosaur.

We were decked out in dark jeans and dark hoodies and Kraig had even insisted on smearing some black gunk on our faces to help us blend in with the night. I already thought the whole operation was ridiculous, but this was just stupid. I mean, once the atmosphere fades to “natural” for the night, everything is black.

Oh, I guess that’s another thing you should know. We live on Moon.

Just Moon, none of this “the moon” nonsense, thank you very much. A couple of centuries ago people got bored with just living on Earth, and I guess they got antsy. At least this time they colonized something where nobody already lived. We see stars like you never could on Earth (so I’ve been told, anyway). We have artificial atmospheres so we can breathe, artificial gravity so we can walk around, and we have complete control over our weather.

Okay, the people in the Center for Atmospheric Realities have complete control, and sometimes they mess it up on purpose to make everything seem more realistic. But basically we live pretty normal lives. School, video games, gravball, whatever. Kids are kids.

Most kids, anyway. Then there’s Kraig again.

Oh, and I’m Jupiter. Yes, like the Roman king of the gods. No, I don’t want to talk about it. Nice to meet you.

Kraig unslung his backpack and pulled out his Omega 4000 Ultra Deluxe Burglar Extreme. He plugged it into Principal Ortega’s drawer and watched the lights blink. He looked like a kid in a candy store.

With a name like “Omega 4000 Ultra Deluxe Burglar Extreme,” it probably sounds like we were up to something pretty awful. I guess breaking into the principal’s office isn’t exactly noble, but the real reason we were there?

In addition to being an actual genius—which, by the way, is Kraig’s best-kept secret—he wants to be a spy. So we were testing his new lockpick. That’s it.

He invented the Omega 4000 Ultra Deluxe Burglar Extreme (he named it too, by the way) and since we could get into serious trouble trying to use it somewhere like the Apollo Command headquarters, he said the school was the next best thing.

The fact that he’d explained all of this to me only about thirty minutes before maybe had something to do with me agreeing to go along. I’m not very good at making decisions at half past REM.

“Give me ten minutes,” Kraig said.

I’d been dozing against the wall but started awake. “What?”

No one was there. Kraig was already through the door.

I poked my head inside. “Ten minutes for what?” I whispered.

Kraig ignored me. He was already behind Principal’s Ortega’s desk, watch off and connecting to the computer. Tiny holographic text scrolled above the watch’s face.

Everyone on Moon has a watch—they do everything from scanning the latest grav-ball stats to tracking how many calories were in that second slice of chocolate-coconut cake. Parents mostly like them for keeping track of their kids.

Kraig mostly likes his for hacking into computers systems. He’s modified his watch. Severely.

Kraig’s fingers flew across the command keys. A hologram display popped up above the desk and lit up the room with a pale light, then a bar started flashing as something loaded. Kraig smiled, then looked through the hologram and at me. He blinked.

“You should probably go keep watch.”

“But—”

“Want to get caught?”

“No—”

“Then keep a lookout. It’s nothing illegal, I promise.”

That was probably true, but I was more than a little irked that Kraig hadn’t told me this was more than a lockpick test. My job is usually to keep watch anyway—partly because I’m not the genius, but also because ever since the one time we got caught reprogramming our old elementary school’s lunch menu to serve only milkshakes on our last day in the fourth level (“How was I supposed to know the lunch staff bots would show up early?” Kraig had said), I’ve generally been a giant nervous breakdown waiting to happen when rules are being utterly and hopelessly shattered as opposed to just being poked a little.

Kraig says this is generally a distraction to his work.

His schemes are usually harmless, and even fun. In daycare he’d ordered a kitten from the supply office during nap time (I had a “nightmare” to provide a distraction). The teacher was totally confused, and last we checked Mr. Mouse was still purring for children in room Alpha 3.

Kraig had never told anyone else, but for a long time after he’d giggle whenever one of the adults mentioned Mr. Mouse—which is another thing about Kraig. It’s not just that he doesn’t want anyone else knowing his real IQ, he just likes knowing that he’s smarter.

So while Kraig did whatever maybe-illegal-but-definitely-rule-breaking activity he’d selected this time, I tiptoed over to Ms. Scott’s desk and sat down.

Ms. Scott is the school secretary, and she is innately creepy even in the middle of a busy school day. But when you and your best friend just broke into the school and now he’s doing something he shouldn’t be on the principal’s computer, and the lights are off except for the weird orange security light that streams in because the door is glass and the windows are huge and all anyone outside would have to do is take half a glance inside to see that something is up—then Ms. Scott’s desk is downright unnatural.

It’s not just all of the stiff birds she has everywhere—it’s all the eyes. Penguins. Hawks. Ostriches (especially the ostriches). Invented birds, real birds, extinct birds, statue birds. The worst was the one without feathers (Interim Academy legend says that Ms. Scott went on vacation and caught, plucked, and stuffed an African swallow herself).

“How’s it coming?” I whispered. I was locked in a staring match with an endangered New York Pigeon because it was better than jumping at every swooping bat (yes, we have imported bats) and twinkling star outside the window.

Also, if I looked away I was pretty sure the pigeon would go in for the kill.

“Ortega’s files are coded,” Kraig called.

My eyes watered. “So?”

“So why does a middle school principal need coded files?”

“Even my little sister has a password for her toy box—”

“No, I mean coded. Encrypted. Way above security for a middle school.”

I thought I might be winning the staring contest. Aside from that, I just really, really wanted to go back to sleep. “Can you just do whatever you’re doing so we can go?”

“Have a little fun, Jupe.”

“I love being Grounded. It’s loads of fun.” “Grounded” doesn’t mean forbidden to play video games and do anything remotely entertaining for a month. It means exiled to Earth, which is basically the worst punishment imaginable (no offense).

I couldn’t take the pigeon anymore. My vision darkened.

But then I realized it wasn’t my vision. The orange light from outside was being blocked by something.

And the something had a face that stared right at me.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

I bolted out of the lavender chair, slammed Ortega’s door shut behind me, and locked it for good measure.

“Kraig!” My voice squeaked, and not because of puberty. If my asthma hadn’t been cured years ago, I definitely would’ve needed my inhaler. “Someone’s here.”

And just like that, the desk’s display was wiped clean, Kraig snapped his watch back onto his wrist, and started digging around in his backpack.

Kraig was calm, cool. I, on the other hand, had just processed that we were about to be caught hacking the principal’s computer in the middle of the night, so I might have freaked out a little.

Okay, a lot. I started to hyperventilate. “We’re going to be expelled. We’ll be expelled, and then Grounded, and never allowed back—oof!”

Kraig yanked my hoodie over my head to get my attention. “We’re too young to be Grounded,” he said. “Follow my lead.” He handed me a spray can and pulled a bag of something colorful out of his backpack.

And then he started throwing confetti all over the office.

The handle to Ortega’s office jiggled. “I know you’re in there!” a voice called. “If you come out right now, things’ll go a lot easier for ya.”

It was Riggers, the old security guard who we’d strolled past on our way inside the grounds. He was legendary for his napping abilities, which is why Kraig had chosen a night Riggers was on duty. He was nice enough during the day, and even when you were in trouble—but you still got in trouble.

“Maybe we should give ourselves in,” I whispered.

“Not yet,” Kraig scoffed. He was artfully tossing handfuls of confetti in a manner that suggested we weren’t about to be totally busted. “A little help?” he said.

I looked down at the spray can he’d handed me. Kraig wasn’t the type to vandalize (mostly because he says it’s inelegant) so I took the cap off and tested it.

A stream of foam shot out and stuck to the wall.

It was silly string. The twentieth century had the best inventions.

Of course Kraig would have planned a cover-up. At least, I hoped the confetti and silly string were a cover-up. And also the tin of slugs he decided to open, for reasons I still don’t understand.

“I’m coming in!” Riggers yelled, and I squirted out the silly string with a vengeance.

It would’ve been memorable if Riggers had at least kicked the door in, but he had a master override code for every door lock in the school. So the door clicked open and swooshed to the side and he stepped into the room.

Kraig and I stood there, looking caught (okay, because we were caught, but Kraig was just pretending). Silly string dangled from the ceiling. Confetti snowed and swirled gently around. Miniature slugs slowly inched across the room.

Riggers stared, mouth open. A few shreds of pink confetti landed gently in his silver hair.

“What in Saturn’s rings are you doing?”

I looked at Kraig, because I wasn’t sure where else to look, and he was leading this operation anyway. He looked embarrassed, like—well, like he’d been caught with his hand in the moon pie jar.

I knew from long experience that this was totally an act. So I waited for him to do something really epic, like throw a smoke bomb so we could run away in stealth or something, but he didn’t do anything. Except I think that he tried to make himself cry.

I groaned. I meant to keep that to myself, but it came out and Riggers gave me a stern look. “Now, you tell me what’s going on—and what’s that gunk on your face? Wipe it off so I can get a good look at you.”

I wiped my hand across my face, but it came away clean. I stared at it.

“You’ve caught us!” Kraig wailed. “We thought it would be a prank to go down in school history, but it’s all ruined!”

Something I have learned about geniuses: they are not natural-born actors. At least, Kraig isn’t. He’s always overdone it a bit in the acting department (which you think he’d have on lockdown because of the whole spy thing), but Riggers didn’t seem to notice.

“Is that all?” he asked. “Now, tell me exactly what sort of prank you pulled.” He looked straight at me when he said this, which I hated because if my parents, or a teacher (or anyone really) asks me a direct question, I can’t not answer it.

“Um,” I said. I held up the can of silly string.

Kraig let out a shuddering breath and made his eyes go sort of squinty, like he’d squirted lemon juice into them or something. “We snuck in, and threw confetti and sprayed silly string, and I opened a tin of slugs.”

“I see that,” Riggers said. One of the slugs was crawling up his pant leg.

I was waiting for the cue from Kraig to bolt, but so far he was just still fake almost-crying. I didn’t think Riggers recognized us because of the black gunk (which I’d decided wasn’t such a stupid idea after all) but that couldn’t last for long.

Mom would take away my Earth rock collection for sure.

Riggers sighed. “Kids will be kids, I guess. I know I loved a good prank back in my day, too. But trespassing is different. How’d you get inside of here, anyway?”

I didn’t know how Kraig was going to answer that one, but as it turned out, he didn’t have to.

Because that’s when everything went dark.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

When I say the lights went out, I don’t mean that the office lights shut off and the orange security lights flickered a bit.

I mean all the lights. It was a total blackout.

I stood there blinking until someone grabbed my arm and yanked me towards the door, and I may or may not have accidentally elbowed Riggers, which made me run even faster, which is when I banged into a wall.

“C’mon!” Kraig whispered fiercely. He grabbed my arm and dragged me up and we stumbled to the starlight—which was the only light, anywhere.

So maybe a complete blackout was a bit extravagant—and also unnerving—but it was certainly effective. I mean, I knew the “prank” thing was just a cover-up for whatever Kraig had been up to, but this at least covered our escape.

Riggers had his flashlight out and tried to track us with it, and I could hear him calling the security bot (which was even older than Riggers). Something landed with a thud right behind me—probably a Stopper, which would’ve ruined everything—but I was so freaked out that I would’ve won the Junior Moon Olympics for sprinting. Kraig and I were off school grounds in record time and we didn’t stop running until we were halfway across Bravery Park.

“How did you do that?” I panted. We were both breathing hard, but my eyes had mostly adjusted to the starlight. The sun was on the other side of Moon.

“I ran really fast,” Kraig said. He was doubled over. We both managed to pass PE—but that was about it. Stellar athletes, we were not.

“I mean, how did you turn all the lights off?”

Kraig stood up. “Luna, Jupe, I couldn’t have done that without getting inside about eight different Apollo offices at once.”

I blinked. “So you’ve looked into it, then.”

“Science project in the first level. There were a few tangents.” I had placed well for our level that year, but Kraig won second place overall in Apollo—which was basically unheard of, since overall prizes were selected from kindergarten all the way through the twelfth level. His dad hadn’t even helped him that much, back before his dad was Grounded.

“We should go,” Kraig said. “The emergency generators are on, but that’s the only reason we’re not space dust. This is going to have every Apollo official up.”

Nothing about that statement was comforting, but my internal gravity didn’t shift because of the emergency generators.

My dad works for the Apollo Center for Energy and Resources. Over a year had passed since the failed milkshakes-for-lunch mission, but he made a point to bring it up anytime I seemed to be even slightly out of line: tone of voice, A- instead of A+, ignoring my sister.

I couldn’t sprint any more, but I started speed walking. “What were you doing in Ortega’s office anyway?”

“Changing my schedule.”

I almost stopped walking. “Luna, you used your Ultra Mega Criminal—”

“Omega 4000 Ultra Deluxe Burglar Extreme.”

“—just to change your schedule? You couldn’t talk to the guidance counselor?”

“I tried,” Kraig scowled. “But when you try telling Mr. Han that you’re tired of Mrs. Han’s attempts to teach you test-taking skills, it doesn’t go over so well.”

And that was Kraig. No need to use a spark when a supernova would do.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

I knew I was busted before I even crossed the security perimeter to my house.

The kitchen light glowed faintly—backup generator light—which was a dead giveaway in and of itself, but the window to my room was also lit. I may not exactly be in the habit of sneaking out, but I know you’re supposed to make it look like you’re sleeping.

I felt like a black hole had sucked out my stomach. It wasn’t just that I was going to be grounded (little “g”) until I graduated from college. It was that my parents would be space sick not knowing where I was. I usually don’t give them any reasons to worry (only sort-of a rule breaker, remember?), and on the rare occasion I have they really shouldn’t have worried, but that’s just a thing about parents I don’t understand.

I walked around to the front door and braced myself to open it when it whooshed open on its own. My dad almost barreled me over but he pulled up short just in time. “What the—Jupiter? What the heck is all over your face?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “Marie, he’s right here!”

Dad turned back to me and in his no-nonsense voice said, “You get inside and you stay inside and we’ll talk about this later.”

It had to be two or three in the morning, but Dad was mostly dressed for work (his bow tie wasn’t quite together and he’d grabbed two different shoes) and he had on this really serious expression that he only uses when he thinks Sputnik might be getting a little ambitious with its energy use, or that Olympus is slowly expanding its atmo-dome to gain more territory. For some reason he always thinks that at least one of the other colonies is up to something.

He dashed past me and jumped into the grav-car, pointed at me real sternly one more time, then drove off.

I was still staring after him when my mom came into the hall. “Jupiter, where were you? We—” she got a good look at my face and shrieked—which was not good because it startled her candle. She’s a yoga instructor and not originally from Moon, so she likes to keep candles and incense and a good number of plants around.

“Mom! Mom, it’ll come off.” I hoped.

“Jupiter, we trusted you. First the milkshake incident and now this—” she waved her arms towards the road, but I couldn’t tell if she meant, “How could you create this massive power outage,” or, “How could you willfully sneak out and cause us so much grief and worry?”

“Sorry,” I said meekly, because it was true and also covered both questions.

Mom doesn’t usually get very worked up over things, so seeing her this upset was really uncomfortable. Redirecting seemed like a good idea. “Where’s Dad going?”

“Work.”

I checked my watch just to make sure Kraig and I hadn’t also gone into a time warp during the blackout.

“It’s 3:02 a.m. And it’s Saturday.”

Mom was in her robe and it was clear she’d been crying, which didn’t do anything to make me feel better. “This power outage,” she said, “they don’t know what happened. Jupiter, don’t you realize that you might have been killed if something is wrong with the generators? You could have been sucked into space!”

It didn’t seem like the time to point out that everyone in Apollo, and maybe all of Moon, would have been sucked into space, too. Not to mention that we had generators for the main generators, and backup generators for those generators, and if Kraig was right (and he usually is) there were even secret backup generators for those, just in case.

“Sorry,” I said again.

“Oh, no,” Mom said. “Not yet. But you will be. Go straight upstairs to bed. You’re going to the parade with us tomorrow.”

“Mom!”

“No arguing! That’s just the start of your punishment. Your father will likely be at work all day, and we’ll need you to fill in with Lacey’s float. When he gets home, we’ll discuss the rest of your punishment, and you had better tell us exactly what you were up to. I can’t listen to it right now.”

 

#

 

I made a half-hearted attempt to wash my face, but gave up pretty quickly and collapsed into bed. A few hours later—and I do mean a few—I got my wakeup call.

“Getupgetupgetup!”

Lacey jumped up on my bed, then down, then ran around and jumped off my chair, then jumped onto me and then off again.

I threw my pillow at her and missed.

“It’s parade day!” she sang. “Parade day! Parade day! You’re coming to parade day!”

She wasn’t trying to be annoying. She was excited. She’s only five, so everything is exciting.

I shut my eyes but she peeled one of them open. Her face was two inches from mine.

“What’s on your face?” she asked.

I groan-roared and she finally scurried out, singing her parade day song.

You might think being forced to go a parade is cheap for a punishment, but I hate parades. They’re long, and boring, and you get elbowed and bumped by tons of people just to see a bunch of strangers wave at you while they travel at negative kilometers an hour, and they always throw the candy to the other side of the street, and by the time it’s over everyone is cranky and sweaty and I don’t understand why people think that’s fun.

This parade was Apollo’s annual patriotic parade, so it was going to be extra long, and extra full of all the stuff I already hate about parades.

Lacey, on the other hand, was going to be on a float with her Space Scout Troop, and had been practicing her wave for three weeks. Like I said, she’s five.

After the Lacey Alarm, there was no going back to sleep, even though the parade wouldn’t start for hours. So I got up and showered and scrubbed my face raw—except the black gunk wouldn’t come off.

Mom was still asleep and Lacey was strutting around in front of her mirror (“getting in character” she called it), so I wrote a Very Responsible Note explaining that I thought Kraig might have something to clean my face, that I had my watch, and that I would meet Mom and Lacey early at the parade. Technically, she had said the parade was the start of my punishment, so I figured I’d be in the clear for this.

I left the note on the coffeepot where I knew Mom would find it, and then slipped out the door.

Kraig’s mom had given me my own access code to their house’s security perimeter because I was over so much. I didn’t want to wake her up by ringing the doorbell, so I climbed the tree outside of his window and rapped on it. There wasn’t an answer, so I looked inside.

It looked like a crime scene, but that’s how his room always looked. It took me a while to spot Kraig with all of the half-empty coffee cups, video games, tools, and bubbling experiment tubes, but I finally spotted him half hidden by a pile of laundry. He was using a broken violin for a pillow. Dead asleep.

I banged harder and was close to shouting at him when he finally moved a little, then stumbled over and unlocked the window.

“What are you do-do-doing?” he yawned.

I pointed at my face.

“Peanut butter,” Kraig said.

“Say again?” I thought he must still be asleep.

“Peanut butter.”

“I heard that.”

He yawned again. “The oils in it. Haven’t you ever gotten gum stuck in your hair?”

“Yes. Yours.”

“Oh, right.” Kraig stepped away to rummage through his stuff and I climbed into his room. “You really should learn to forgive and forget,” he called from under his bed. He emerged with a half empty jar of Sticky’s Smooth Peanut Butter.

It worked like magic. “What is this anyway?” I asked while I rubbed the black off.

“An invention I’m working on.” Kraig shrugged and started tinkering with something on his work table, which is what he does when he’s avoiding something.

“What’s it supposed to do?” I tried.

He picked up some wire cutters and started clipping away. “Act like a liquid suction cup. You know, for climbing buildings and things. Only I haven’t figured out the consistency yet, so it’s too sticky—” He glanced up and saw my expression. “Oh, come on. Every spy in the flicks has some sort of suction thingy, only I’m making one that’s real. Super portable, too.”

I had no words. Pass a simple astrophysics test? Not a chance. Create a dangerous and possibly illegal substance for life-threatening activity?

Yes, please.

 

#

 

Kraig said he’d buy us breakfast as Florian’s, because I’d run out of the house without eating, and it was his fault I was grounded, had nearly been caught by Riggers, and was going to be confined to my house for the rest of our known lives. Breakfast at Florian’s almost made everything worth it.

Florian’s used to be the fanciest restaurant in Apollo, until the current owner (that would be Florian) inherited the family business. He started dishing out hot dogs and milkshakes and any other classic American comfort food you could think of—usually with a few twists. His posh ancestors were probably rolling over in their graves, but his business was always booming.

The sign hanging from the roof outside was shaped like a smiling plate with eggs for eyes and pickle for a mouth (don’t ask) and had flashing lights that said “Best breakfast in ApolloTry our Bacon Juice!

There were a few other customers, which was surprising since it was so galactically early. We sat down and programmed our order into the menu.

Ka-thunk! came a crash from the back kitchen.

“Sweet mother of Luna!”

Kraig and I looked at each other.

“Pierre,” we both said.

Florian came out in a crisp white shirt and one of those silly paper hats and set our food in front of us. “Morning boys,” he said. “Early for you two, isn’t it?”

“We’re going to the parade,” Kraig said.

I started. “I’m going to the parade,” I said. “Kraig is going to—I don’t know, ignore his summer reading or something.”

“Which can be done quite well at the parade,” he said. “Pierre all right?”

Pierre was an old robot who had been the maître d’ before Florian’s was Florian’s. He had a few glitches in his programming, and one of them was that he’d never forgiven Florian for tearing down the family establishment and building a diner.

Another was that if you asked for cherry pop instead of cherry soda, he put pepper in your drink. You didn’t make that mistake twice.

“Got a call yesterday that our beef shipment’s canceled, and the bot’s going berserk,” Florian said. “Apparently, there’s a cow shortage.”

“That’s okay, Florian,” Kraig said consolingly. “I’m a vegetarian.”

My head drooped then jerked awake. “Cow shortage?”

“Yep.” Florian wiped his forehead with a cloth. “Don’t know what I’ll do for the lunch rush. No Moonburgers!”

I couldn’t quite get past the issue. “What causes a cow shortage?”

“Stars if I know!” Florian said, which was his polite way of swearing around us (as if we hadn’t heard worse). “Put in the order a week ago, everything’s fine, got a call yesterday, and it’s canceled due to ‘unfortunate circumstances.'”

Something crashed in the kitchen.

“’Scuse me, boys,” Florian called—he was already behind the counter. “Have fun at the parade!”

My eyes were doing this thing where they kept trying to close when I wanted to use them. I forced them to focus on Kraig. He was pouring strawberry syrup all over his food.

“You can’t come to the parade,” I said.

“Everyone is invited,” Kraig said. “Plus, I’m a citizen. It would be unpatriotic not to go.”

“My parents went supernova,” I said. “I haven’t even heard what my dad has to say about things because he had to rush out and go to work. The house smelled like four different kinds of incense—you know how my mom feels about mixing incense. You can’t come. Ever since the Milkshake Mission—”

“That’s exactly why I have to go!” Kraig said. “I have to prove to them that I’m not a bad influence.”

“You are a bad influence!”

That shocked both of us—but it was true, wasn’t it? I mean, I could have decided to stay home the night before—but like I already said, Kraig’s schemes are usually harmless.

And fun.

“Okay, genius,” I said, changing the subject. “What causes a cow shortage?”

He shrugged, and shoved a giant bite of syrup-covered egg-hash brown-ketchup-onion ring mush into his mouth. “Ionno.” He took a gulp of his vanilla mint milkshake and I gagged a little.

I looked at my own fluffy French toast and apple juice.

Simple. Comfortable.

Boring.

“What did your mom think about the blackout?” I asked.

Kraig arranged his mush into a flower shape. “She’s in Sputnik.”

Neither of us said anything else.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Nothing in Apollo is ever too far away because of the grav-rail public transit system, but Bravery Park, Florian’s, and Interim Academy are all just a short walk from mine and Kraig’s neighborhood. If you rode a grav-board, things were even closer, but I had a terrifying accident in the third level and still haven’t quite gotten over it, so walking suits me just fine.

Kraig and I found Space Scout Troop 173’s float. I didn’t see Dad anywhere, but thankfully things were so crazy Mom couldn’t decide if she was mad at me for leaving that morning or not (I had left a note).

I think she couldn’t quite decide how she felt about Kraig being there, either. Even if I hadn’t told her anything about last night, she definitely knew he was involved, but ever since his dad got Grounded she’d always had this real soft spot for Kraig.

The meeting area was just inside Bravery Park, and people and bots and animals were everywhere. Someone at the Center for Atmospheric Realities had missed the parade memo and scheduled ‘moderate winds,’ so props and balloons and wigs were blowing all over. Kids were screaming and parents were shouting and animals (and a bot or two) bolted loose at every chance they got. There were people dressed like George Washington (America’s first president), and like Celestra (Apollo’s first pop star), and I saw Miss Junior Apollo chasing down her tiara.

Lacey was strutting around, at her finest. Her troop’s float was a tribute to Apollo’s great inventors, and she was Bartholomew J. Bounce, creator of portable artificial gravity. She wore a giant silver ‘gravity’ belt I’d made for her, jumped around and cried, “A-ha!” and then waved and grinned and bowed—and the parade hadn’t even started yet.

“Hear anything from Dad?” I asked Mom.

“Not yet.”

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Kraig said.

“He’s at work, Kraig,” Mom said. “Not gallivanting around doing who-knows-what.”

I winced. Thankfully, Kraig had the sense to keep his mouth shut, and the bell went off signaling the start of the parade.

My job—and I guess Kraig’s, too—was to walk alongside the Space Scout Troop float and make sure none of the little kids fell off and died.

All things considered, the parade went pretty well—for a parade. Lacey got a lot of laughs, and the float in front of us was rigged to smell like freshly-baked apple pie, which meant we didn’t smell the horses and their you-know-what. Three miles of park later, we’d finally made it to the Neil Armstrong Memorial statue.

Now, every kid in Apollo—and I do mean every kid—has visited Neil at least once on a school field trip. Neil stands right on top of where the real Neil Armstrong planted the American Flag after he first walked on Moon, and Bravery Park is built around it. If you aren’t careful about where you walk, Neil will give you the entire history of his career and how we colonized the moon and how then all of the other countries wanted to colonize the moon, too (the argument that no one can own the moon definitely outweighed the American argument of “We touched it first!”). Neil is sold in souvenir shops for tourists, and is programmed with a special Apollo Parade Day routine.

So we all stood there, waiting for Neil to get through his spiel so that we could get on with our lives.

But he didn’t say his usual, “Hey, there, Apollo citizens!”

Instead, he laughed maniacally.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

No one moved except for Neil.

He did this sort of awkward dance (he was a statue) and then his podium started to rise.

Usually at this point, Neil congratulated everyone on surviving for another year on an originally unlivable surface, and went on to talk about how great we were. Then some sparklers would go off, maybe some colored smoke and fireworks, and then that was it because everyone wanted to leave to have cookouts and eat ice cream.

But Neil still hadn’t said anything. The platform rose slowly and groaned a bit, like it was weighed down. When it got a little higher, the crowd gasped, because it was weighed down. By a humongous, lumpy, hideous mound of…something.

It was shaped like a ball. A huge, disgusting, brownish-reddish-greenish ball. If I’d wanted to hug it (which was the farthest thing from my mind) my arms wouldn’t have even reached halfway around. To give you some perspective.

Two thin legs held it up (no idea how—they were like twigs), and two thin arm-things stuck out from its sides, and ended in wispy claws. On top of the huge lump was another, smaller, mostly round-ish lump. It had two squiggly circles, and a big ugly gash for a mouth, and a couple of sharp fangs.

The apple pie smell was gone. Instead, the air smelled like something cooked. Something seasoned. A bit like an Italian restaurant. And that’s when I realized—

It was a giant meatball.

No one moved. I mean, what would you do if, say, a giant pastrami sandwich with fangs crashed your patriotic parade?

A little dog from the pet show ran up and yipped. It ran forward, then back, then sniffed like it was trying to decide whether or not it was in doggy food heaven, and went back to yipping. It moved forward to try and take a bite.

And then—get this—the meatball moved.

It let out this low garbled groan, like a painful sigh, then reached down and picked up the dog by the scruff of its neck.

And then it stuffed the dog into its mouth and down its throat.

“Octavian!” a man shrieked.

“BUUUUURRRRRP,” said the meatball. Then it grinned and stepped off the platform.

It was like a supernova went off. All of Apollo unfroze, and the chaos level was a million times worse than before. Parents screamed for their children, children screamed for their balloons, and the meatball smashed through whatever it pleased and happily stuffed anything it grabbed with its creepy claws into its mouth.

“Luna!” I swore, and ducked behind the now-empty Space Scout float.

Kraig wasn’t beside me. He was rooted to the spot, staring at the meatball, eyes wide. His body was locked up, shaking.

“Kraig!” I shouted. “Move!”

The meatball swallowed a unicycle—with a clown riding it.

I jumped up and hauled Kraig out of the way of a stampeding giraffe-bot (don’t ask). He finally jolted awake and we started running.

We’d only gone three steps when I heard a familiar scream.

I whirled around just in time to see the meatball swallow my sister.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

“LACEY!” I screamed. “Lacey, you stupid sister, COME BACK!

I charged forward for the meatball but Kraig grabbed my shirt and probably saved me from a gruesome and meaty death. “It’s too late! Run!”

I wanted to keep going (either because I actually really like Lacey sometimes, or because I figured I’d get blamed for this, I didn’t know), but he was right. Unless I wanted to jump down the meatball’s throat—which I did NOT—I couldn’t do anything.

So we ran with the rest of Apollo.

The crowd exploded in every direction, trying to escape the meaty terror at the center. Kraig and I jumped over float pieces and broke through streamers and tripped over at least four plastic astronaut helmets. Parade prop casualties were everywhere and people were everywhere and we really didn’t make much progress for all the times people ran into us (again—managing to pass PE doesn’t exactly prepare you for running for your life).

“Find a tree,” I panted, after the eighth hysterical person knocked me to the side.

Most trees in Bravery Park are good for climbing. Kraig dashed up like the ground was on fire, and I hauled myself up after him.

“Luna,” I gasped. “It ate Lacey—and that dog—and that gardenia display—”

Kraig didn’t look like he’d just run a marathon and escaped with his life. He looked like he’d sprinted through needle tortures and spent too long in Hypnoto’s Fun House and narrowly escaped being shredded by angry pixies. “It’s a giant—a giant m—m—”

“Meatball,” I moaned. “And it ate Lacey. Quick, you’re a genius! How do we get her back?”

The meatball roared from somewhere close to Neil’s statue and my genius best friend nearly fainted out of the tree.

I grabbed him and propped him against the trunk. Kraig was always confident, always knew what was going to happen and what to do about it. He was the creator of the Omega 4000 Ultra Deluxe Burglar Extreme, and loads of other crazy inventions, and could fix anything.

Except in that moment he was huddled against the trunk with his eyes closed, and I’m pretty sure he was whimpering.

“Kraig,” I said.

He muttered something unintelligible.

“Kraig!”

He opened his eyes and focused on me and stopped muttering—though he still leaned into the trunk like maybe it could protect him.

This was starting to get uncomfortable. He was acting like—well, like his security blanket had been taken away or something. Like his personal gravity wasn’t working.

“What gives?” I asked.

“There’s a—an enormous lump of ground beef eating everything in sight,” he said. His voice was a couple of pitches too high.

“And it just ate my sister!” I shouted. “So what the Luna is wrong with you and how do we fix it?”

He opened his mouth but nothing came out. I wondered if he’d started muttering again.

“Listen,” I said, in a mostly normal voice. “You aced the test for Interim Academy. You almost won the Apollo science fair when you were six years old.”

Kraig was tracking now, so I kept going. “You’ve invented all sorts of crazy things that have worked, and if you really wanted to—and I don’t know why you don’t—you could test out of college! So how do we get Lacey back from that giant meatball?”

Kraig flinched.

“Meatball!” I screamed. “Meatball! Meatball! MEATBALL!”

“Stop it!” he shouted. “Stop it! Okay, I’ll tell you!”

I sat back and crossed my arms and waited.

“Okay,” he said. “Okay…”

“You said that already,” I growled.

“O—right. Um…so, back when my dad was—still in Apollo, he and my mom would go out a lot. Like on dates. And I had a really nice babysitter and then she moved so they had to get a new one.”

His eyes started to glaze a bit, but he kept with it.

“Her name was Nancy, and she was crazy. Like, seriously had something wrong. She was nice at first, but then for dinner she made pasta and meatballs, but I was, like, four, and I wanted cereal because the last babysitter always let me have cereal. So Nancy went super-super-supernova, and tried to force the meatballs down my throat. She even blended some up with marinara sauce to make it easier, and then locked me in the hall closet with a humongous plate of them and said I couldn’t come out until they were all gone. Like I said, crazy.”

I nodded slowly, not convinced that Kraig hadn’t lost it himself. “So—what did you do?”

“Mostly just sat and cried,” he said miserably. “She let me out right before my parents came home and told me if I said anything, I’d regret it.”

“And then?” I prompted.

“I became a vegetarian.”

I’d always wondered about that. “No, what did you do about Nancy?”

“My parents asked how I liked her and I told them everything. She didn’t babysit me again.”

I gave him the look my mom gives me when she knows I’m not telling the whole truth, but he was dead serious.

“So…you had a traumatic experience and now you flinch at the sight of meat.”

“Meat? No. Deadly, man-eating, rampaging meat? Yes. How would you feel if a couple of space sharks suddenly appeared and one started chomping after you?”

My face flushed. In the third level he’d convinced me to sneak into Space Sharks 3: Vortex of Doom. I had nightmares about flying sharks spiraling out of a wormhole and chasing me for months.

But he had a point. If the thing you’re most afraid of is a meatball, you’re probably pretty safe (though, I would argue, while there’s no evidence for space sharks, that doesn’t prove they don’t exist).

I thought it would be best if we stayed up in the tree for a little longer, but I don’t think Kraig could have climbed down even if he’d wanted to. His eyes kept darting around, and he’d gone back to muttering.

That was when I realized that, for everything Kraig was, there were also some things he wasn’t.

He wasn’t invincible, no matter how much he pretended. He didn’t always know what was coming, even if he had a master plan. And maybe he was smarter than most (or even all) adults, maybe he was even the smartest kid to ever live—

But he was still just a regular twelve-year-old kid like me.