|Special Mention 2015 Katherine Paterson Prize
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.
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
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.
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.”
“Want to get caught?”
“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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
“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.
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.
“I heard that.”
He yawned again. “The oils in it. Haven’t you ever gotten gum stuck in your hair?”
“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?
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 Apollo—Try 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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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?”
“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.