BY ANA GARDNER
Copyright is held by the author.
“IT’s A special magazine. There’s secret symbols on the last page, and if you read them out loud at midnight — but you gotta be alone, and it’s gotta be exactly midnight, you know, not like, 10:30 — then if you read them, the aliens come.” Iro’s eyes widened for emphasis, “And they give you secret powers!”
“But you gotta really believe in them,” Cait spoke in a conspiratorial hush, barely louder than the rustling patio plants. “Or else when they come they put you in the hospital. This kid Joey from my school read the symbols five times, and he’s been in the hospital three times . . .”
Sandy covered her mouth with her hands: “And the other two times?”
Sandy loved staying at her cousins’. They were ten, and they knew all the cool stuff.
They remembered her Papa, too. Sandy was just three when he vanished, but Iro and Cait told her about him sometimes. They said Papa loved telling stories about aliens and stars, so Sandy loved those stories, too. Some nights she asked Momma to point to the night sky and show her where Papa was.
“You think Papa read the symbols? Maybe the aliens put him in the hospital!” Momma said Papa was in the hospital was ’cause he didn’t know when to stop, but Sandy never knew what he was supposed to stop. Maybe he’d read the magazine too many times.
Iro scratched his chin. “We just know about Joey.”
“You’re not really supposed to tell anyone when you do it,” said Cait. “It’s a secret.”
“Hush-hush,” Iro agreed, and their twin mops of brown hair bobbed in unison against Aunt Delly’s myrtle bush. Sandy relished in the excitement of this wonderful secret.
“I want to read the magazine!” She skipped down the patio steps and crossed the weedy lawn in a few excited jumps, stopping on the sidewalk to look back to her cousins. “Hurry up! Where do we buy it?”
But the twins jumped after her only to hush her down:
“We can’t just buy the magazine,” said Cait. “Because . . .”
“They only sell it up in the city,” Iro put in. “And only if you got lots of money.”
“And you gotta know a secret code, or the seller won’t give it to you.”
“But we know where there’s a copy,” said Iro, and Sandy’s disappointment turned back to joy.
“Mikos keeps it under his mattress.”
Sandy felt like their dog Millie, when Millie was all excited to go outside at night and then Momma opened the door and it was raining. Millie’s ears flopped down and she tucked her tails between her legs and made a sad whine. Going outside was Millie’s favorite thing, but rain was scary.
Mikos was scary, too.
He was Sandy’s oldest cousin. He went to high school and never played with her and the twins. Aunt Delly said they weren’t allowed in his room to play, and the door was always closed.
“You’re sure Mikos has the magazine?” Sandy glanced warily around the corner, to his room. “Then he has . . . powers?” She could picture tall, lanky Mikos lengthening into a horned monster, making her vanish like Papa . . .
“Ehh.” Iro shrugged, “He’s probably never read it. Mikos hates to read.”
“Yeah.” Cait sighed, tragically, “The magazine’s just sitting there . . . useless . . .”
“He should give it to us, then!”
“But he won’t,” said Iro, “’cause he’s a big mean dolt. And if he knew we wanted it he’d just hide it and we’d never find it again.”
“We’re not allowed in his room,” Cait smiled, “but Mom and Dad can’t punish you . . .”
Sandy shifted on her tip toes, and looked down the hall to Mikos’s closed door again. It loomed, giant and silent and scary.
“Are you sure the aliens give you powers?”
“Totally,” said Cait. “You could fly, or be invisible.”
“Or always know the answers on a math test,” said Iro. “Or have endless pizza.”
“Can they make you find missing people? Or fix things that are broken?” Momma said they’d go look for Papa, when she fixed her car. But Momma’s car had been broken forever. It sat in the field behind the house, and Momma was always looking for the right parts for it.
“Anything you want,” said Cait.
Sandy looked back to Mikos’s closed door. Her heart was beating real fast.
“’course, if you’re too chicken to do it, we can always ask Joey . . .”
“I’m not chicken!” Sandy glared at Iro, and she steeled herself. “I’ll get it. I’m not scared of anything.”
The twins grinned, and they shooed her down the hall.
“Remember, it’s got a blue cover —”
“She can’t see blue, dimwit! The cover’s all glossy —”
“I can too see blue!” Sandy hissed over her shoulder. It was Momma who didn’t see blue. She thought it was the same as green.
“It’s under the mattress,” Iro reminded her, “Oh and if there’s other magazines in there, get all of them. Go on, hurry up before he comes back! We’ll stand watch.”
Sandy turned the doorknob and, hands clenched tight for luck, opened the door.
Mikos’ room smelled a little weird, like laundry that Momma hadn’t put in the drier in time. Dust floated in the air, and angry band boys in posters on the wall looked at her like they knew she was doing something not allowed.
A dusty telescope sat by the window. Sandy’s Papa used to have a big telescope. Momma said you’re supposed to look at the stars with it, but that Papa looked at stuff he wasn’t supposed to. Sandy peered through the Mikos’ telescope, but she couldn’t see anything.
“Did you find it?” Iro whispered from the end of the hall.
“No,” Sandy walked back to the door, but they waved her back in, flailing their arms:
“Don’t come out, go get the magazine!”
“Under the mattress!”
She turned back.
Mikos had a big grown-up bed, with a striped blanket covered in papers and socks and books and electronics cables. The mattress was too heavy to lift, but Sandy’s hand fit under it easy. She pictured something under the bed grabbing her, and she yanked her hand back.
The angry boys in the wall posters looked like they were scolding her.
Sandy stuck her hand under the mattress again, until her fingers felt something like paper, and she pulled out a crumpled glossy-paged magazine. It had big letters on the front, and a nice lady in a sun hat. The lady looked like Momma.
What would Momma be on the cover of the secret magazine?
Sandy flipped to the end, but there were no secret symbols. Then she remembered: you had to read the whole magazine first! She flipped back to the cover. The lady looked like Momma, but she wasn’t. Her eyes were all wrong. They were blue like the sky, and Momma’s eyes were more green . . .
“What the hell!”
Sandy jumped. Mykos stood in the doorway, angry and scowling.
“You’re not supposed to be here!” He took a step toward her: “This is my room! Get out! Give that back! Hey —” Mikos grabbed the edge of her shirt as she dashed past him.
Sandy wailed a high-pitched scream, and he let go. She stumbled and landed hard on her knees on the hard floor outside his room. The magazine dropped from her hand and slid along the polished wood, and Sandy roared her pain and fear in loud, tearful wails.
“Honestly!” Aunt Delly pressed the wet kitchen towel to Sandy’s bloody knee, causing her to screech again. “Mikos, why weren’t you more careful with her?”
“I didn’t do anything! They’re the ones who were snooping through my stuff!”
“We weren’t even near your room!” shouted the twins.
“Quiet!” Uncle George put his hands over his ears. “I don’t care who did what! You’re all grounded.”
“What?! I’m grounded when they invaded my privacy? How’s that fair?”
“’cause you wouldn’t share the secret magazine!” growled Sandy.
“Why don’t you just ask your mom for a copy!”
“Mikos!” Aunt Delly shot him a scandalized look. When she glanced again at the magazine cover, her face was all red. “I can’t believe you. Where did you ever get this?”
“I found it, okay?”
“That’s not true!” Cait sat, arms crossed, in the corner, “We know where he got it!”
“Shut up, wormface!”
“Don’t call me that! Mo-o-m!”
“He got it from Uncle Bobby’s garage,” said Iro. “When we went to clean it out last month. There was a big old box, and Cait and I saw him take stuff out of it and hide it.”
“This was Papa’s secret magazine? So, it’s mine!” Sandy hopped down from the stool, but Aunt Delly yanked the magazine away before she could grab it. “Give it back! It’s mine!”
“Sit down!” shrieked Aunt Delly. Then she rounded on Mikos, “You took this?”
“No, I didn’t! They’re lying!”
“Who cares?! It’s not like he’s ever gonna use the stuff again, he’s dead!”
Aunt Delly put a hand over her mouth. Uncle George stood up. “Damn it, Mikos.”
“My Papa’s not dead!” Sandy turned from Mikos to Uncle George, “He’s not! He’s with Momma’s family in the sky, but we’ll go look for him one day when she fixes her car!”
“Cars can’t fly, stupid,” muttered Mikos. Aunt Delly gasped, and Uncle George banged his fist on the table:
“Quit needling her, boy!”
“Momma’s car can fly! When she fixes it —!” Sandy looked to Iro and Cait, who gave her identical helpless looks. “It can! Momma said so! Papa’s not dead!”
Uncle George reached for her —“Now, Sandy . . .”
“He’s not dead! My Papa’s coming back!” Sandy ran across the kitchen and grabbed the magazine from Aunt Delly before anyone could stop her, then she ran out the back door.
Aunt Delly and Uncle George shouted for her in the back yard, and Iro and Cait ran up and down the sidewalk calling her name. But Sandy, tucked away in the little park behind Aunt Delly’s house, up among the leafy branches of an old oak tree, didn’t answer.
They were wrong about Papa. He was up there in the sky with Momma’s family, and one day Sandy and Momma were going to fix Momma’s car and go find him. They just needed the right parts. Momma was always traveling to look for them; that was why Sandy stayed over at Iro and Cait’s house so often.
“Sandy? Where are you, girl? Come out.”
Aunt Delly and Uncle George walked into the park, looking behind bushes and around the swings. Sandy pulled herself closer to the oak trunk so the branches would hide her. But grown-ups never looked up, anyway. They passed right under her and didn’t notice. Sandy could see the top of Uncle George’s head, with a round, shiny patch of missing hair.
“Did you know Celeste did that?” Aunt Delly wasn’t calling for Sandy anymore; instead her voice was all hushed and annoyed. “Honestly George, this brother of yours. The drinking, the delusions — and I told you when he married this woman out of nowhere that there’s something–”
“Sandy-y-y-y-y-y!” Iro’s voice boomed over Aunt Delly’s. Sandy leaned down so she could hear better. It wasn’t nice to eavesdrop, Momma said — but Aunt Delly and Uncle George were talking about Sandy’s Momma and Papa, so it was alright to listen, then.
“. . . don’t think she still does those magazine shoots, right? You think that’s why she’s away so often? No wonder that child’s so wild! I mean, I knew it had to be something fishy, the way Celeste never talks about her life before Bobby, and she doesn’t have a real job . . .”
“I don’t know what she does Delly, all right? But she’s gonna be back any minute and we better have a kid to give her.”
“Saaaaaandy!” called Cait in the distance.
Sandy pulled her knees up to her chest. She was still clutching the magazine. She flipped it open and looked through every page. The writing was small and hard to read, but there were lots of pictures of shiny ladies with yellow hair. Many were of the lady who looked like Momma but wasn’t. Her face was too round. Her eyes were a different colour.
She stared at the photos until she heard Papa’s car pull up to the curb. It always made the same noise, when it stopped: a little rat-tat-tat-tat and a cough from the tailpipe, and it smelled like gas and like Momma.
Sandy slid down from the tree and wandered back toward the house; out front, Aunt Delly was talking in her whining voice:
“—just ran off, we couldn’t catch her, I’m sure she’s nearby but . . .”
Momma’s head turned in Sandy’s direction, as Sandy made her way around the house. Momma always knew where she was, if she was near enough. Said she could smell her.
Momma smiled, and Sandy picked up the pace.
“Oh, thank god!” shrieked Aunt Delly, “Where have you been! Didn’t you hear us calling? Listen, Celeste, you need to teach this child . . .”
Sandy ran up to Momma and hugged her legs. “I wanted powers so we could fix your car and go look for Papa, but Mikos says Papa’s dead!”
Momma tilted her head. Uncle George hurried over from the other side of the house. “Sorry, Cel . . . bit of trouble this afternoon.”
“Momma, Papa’s not dead, right?”
Momma’s eyes changed colors. They always turned a sort of brown when she was mad. Then she noticed the magazine in Sandy’s hand. “What’s that?”
“It’s Papa’s! Iro said we can read the secret symbols and call the aliens at midnight . . . !”
Aunt Delly groaned. Momma’s eyebrows rose, like they did when she was thinking.
“Oh?” She picked up the magazine, flipped through it. “No, I don’t think that’s how it works. Why are your knees bleeding?”
“I fell when Mikos caught me. And you gotta read the whole thing, and it only works at midnight. Momma, is Papa coming back?”
Uncle George put a hand on Momma’s shoulder. “Listen, Cel, maybe it’s time the kid knew the truth. She’s almost six now, she’ll understand. And we’re here for you . . .”
“Why did you have Robert’s things?”
“That was an oversight,” Aunt Delly snapped, “but Sandy went into Mikos’s room without permission —”
“Iro and Cait told me to!”
“— and then ran off, honestly Celeste, this is a dangerous way to raise —”
“We’re sorry!” wailed the twins, “We just wanted Mikos’s magazines.”
“Cel,” said Uncle George.
“Papa’s coming! Right? Right, Momma?”
Momma looked from Sandy, to Aunt Delly and Uncle George, to Iro and Cait hovering awkwardly behind the rose bush on the front lawn. Her expression looked like Millie’s when confronted with a thunderstorm.
“Your Papa’s gone for now,” she told Sandy. Uncle George sighed and shook his head.
“But we can go look for him, right Momma? Up in the sky? When you fix your car?”
Momma cleared her throat. “Time to go home, now.” She took Sandy’s hand and walked her to the car, then turned to Aunt Delly and Uncle George. “Thank you for watching her.”
“No problem, but listen, Cel, about your job . . . I mean if you’re strapped for cash, we could lend you some, or — Delly’s salon’s probably got some job . . .”
“Thanks,” said Momma, and, closing the door on Sandy’s side with a loud bang, walked around to the driver’s seat. They pulled away from the house with rat-tat-tat-tat noises, while Uncle George was still waving his hands behind shouting, “Let’s talk . . . !”
Sandy toyed with the little bear clip on her seatbelt. “Are you mad?”
Momma’s eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. They were still a little brown. “No. But let’s not tell people about fixing the flying car anymore. We talked about this, remember?”
“I forgot . . .”
Momma smiled, and looked back to the road.
“If Papa’s gone to the sky, does that mean he’s dead?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Is he an alien?”
Momma’s eyebrows made a funny shape.
“No. Your Papa’s not an alien. You know he was born just down the road.”
Sandy did know. Papa was born the next town over, like Uncle George. But it would’ve been nice if he were an alien. Then Sandy would read the magazine and Papa could come. And they’d go to the sky and see all the stars she couldn’t see through Mikos’ telescope.
“Momma? Why does the lady in the magazine look like you?”
Momma glanced back again. Her face changed, from her outside face to her home face. Only Sandy and Millie saw Momma’s home face, and they weren’t supposed to talk about it to other people.
“Your Papa had those magazines lying around, when we met. He thought those ladies were…pretty.”
“You’re prettier than all of them.”
Momma grinned. Her face changed back to the cover lady’s face.
“Your eyes are the wrong colour,” Sandy told her, and Momma laughed.
“Your Papa said so, too. I can’t get the shade right.”
It was ’cause Momma couldn’t see blue, and the cover lady’s eyes were blue. Sandy looked out the window Papa’s car, watching the trees go by on the side of the road.
“Did Papa see your home face?” Sandy liked Momma’s home face; it was a funny color that she never learned in school, the color of the air when they listened to a specific station on the car radio. It had more angles and lots of moving muscles. Momma said the muscles helped when she had to change to the outside face.
“That’s what I looked like when we met.” Momma said, smiling. “He wasn’t scared of it, like most people would be.”
“’cause people don’t like things that are different?” She and Momma had talked about this. “And that’s why we don’t tell them about your car, or show them your home face?”
Momma winked. “That’s right.”
“When do I get a home face?”
Sandy had only a couple of those extra muscles. Momma said most developed later. She thought Sandy’s might not develop at all, ’cause they were meant for blending in, and Momma said Sandy blended in just fine with her face the way it was.
Sandy found that very unfair. She wanted a home face and an outside face, too.
“We’ll see,” said Momma; grown-ups always we’ll-see’d you when they didn’t want to give straight answers. Sandy sighed loudly and went back to tapping her seat belt bear.
“Are you sure Papa’s up there with your family, and he’s not dead?”
“Why did your family take him?”
“He asked too many questions,” said Momma, and Sandy didn’t know if she was kidding or not, so she stuck her tongue out until Momma laughed. “It’s a long story. Your Papa wanted to meet my family, so he looked until he found a way to contact them. They didn’t like that.”
Momma hummed. “They don’t like different, either. Your Papa was different, and they were afraid. I warned him not to call them here . . .” Momma sighed and shook her head.
“Am I different, too?”
Momma’s green eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. “Yes. But no one’s gonna hurt you, or take you anywhere,” she said, before Sandy could ask, “and if anyone tries, I’m going to eat them.” And she returned her home face for another second, to flash a long row of sharp crowded teeth.
Momma pulled off Route 31 onto the little country road that led through the corn fields to their house. Papa had picked this house, miles from the nearest town, ’cause he liked to look at the stars and the town lights got in the way. It meant Sandy lived too far from school for a bus to pick her up, and in rain season the driveway flooded, but Sandy didn’t mind. If Papa had bought a different house, he wouldn’t have seen Momma’s car break down, and they’d never have met.
She rolled the window down to smell the familiar dirt and dusty corn cobs.
“Momma, did you find more pieces today to fix your car?”
Momma’s eyes met hers in the mirror again. “I did. Almost got everything we need.”
“And then we can go look for Papa?”
Momma smiled, and Sandy grinned back.
Then Momma parked Papa’s car by the little corn field so they could walk the rest of the way like Sandy liked to do, and they wandered among the tall corn stalks and past the area where they were all flattened in a perfect circle, until they reached the little house, and Millie ran out to greet them, thumping her twin tails, and she began to lick Sandy’s scraped knees.