Last week we announced that A Brief Stay at Earth Human Camp: Book 1 of the Secrets of Farbookonia Series by Marie C. Collins is our Kids Corner Book of the Week and the sponsor of our student reviews and of thousands of great bargains in the Kids Book category:
Once you find out your mother is an alien, what ISN’T possible?
That’s what 12-year-old Anne and 10-year-old Atticus Reade want to know. Minutes after learning that their mother is from the planet Farbookonia and that their parents’ secret project has put them all in danger, the children are wrenched from their sheltered existence in the Midwest and whisked off to a safe sleep-away camp in New Jersey — each with a tiny, protective “Globot” on one shoulder.
Painfully aware they’re not like the others at camp, Anne and Atticus do their best to fit in while concealing their alien background and the “special talents” that go with it. But everything is so new to them, they have a hard time sorting reality from fiction. Quirky campers, campfire ghost stories, a bizarre camp director, vintage sci-fi Fridays, Anne’s mysterious dreams, and Atticus’s unusual animal encounters are all equally disturbing.
Just as they start getting the hang of life among young Earth humans, a broadcast on the Rec Hall TV shakes things up, and things that are truly strange emerge from normal newness. It turns out Anne and Atticus — and their new friends — may not be safe at camp after all. A Brief Stay at Earth Human Camp thrusts them into a reality they wish was fiction.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
In which we first meet Anne and Atticus Reade …
The curious thing about the Reade children — there are just two of them: 12-year-old Anne and 10-year-old Atticus — is that they want nothing more than to be seen as ordinary. Ordinary! And by that they mean, “just like everyone else their age.” Most ridiculous. If there is anything the Reades are not, it’s ordinary.
Perhaps you can answer a question for me: What is it that makes young people prize being just like everyone else? No one is, you know. And why should they be? Things are special because they are different. Take ice cream, for example. Every flavor leaves a one-of-a-kind imprint in your taste-memory that is so specific, it can make you long precisely for that flavor when you least expect it.
When you get an urge for ice cream, do you calmly remark to friends and family, “I wish I had some ordinary ice cream right now”? Of course not. More likely you say, “I could really go for some strawberry ice-cream!” — or toffee-crunch, or coconut, or double-fudge brownie, or peach. Why, you might even crave vanilla, the flavor that is synonymous with “ordinary” yet tastes like no other!
I simply will never understand why young people don’t take as much pride in their differences. I admit, Dear Reader, that in the case of the Reade children, we are talking about differences of a very unusual nature. That does complicate things a bit. But what do the Reade children know about ordinary? The irony is they know very little indeed.
Forgive me — I keep forgetting you don’t know Anne and Atticus. You see, up until the time when our story begins, the young Reades could count on one hand the number of other children they had ever seen or met. In fact, now that I think of it, they could count that on one finger: Anne for Atticus and Atticus for Anne. They had lived their entire lives in a sparsely settled part of the northern Midwest United States — a place of deep, dark forests, long, cold winters, and extreme isolation. They had no experience with what most people — here on Earth, anyway — call “civilization.”
How can this be, you wonder? Well, due to what you would likely consider some very unusual family circumstances — which by the way, Anne and Atticus were also in the dark about — their parents had carefully sheltered them from the outside world since birth. Neither child had ever seen what you would call a “television show” (although they did watch some films that their parents believed had “educational value”). And until this time, they had never left home. Not just overnight. I mean at all. The Reades got milk, eggs, meat, and produce from their own cows, chickens, pigs, and greenhouse, and had other provisions shipped to them. (That Internet of yours is a lifesaver.)
You would think deliveries might bring the children in contact with the outside world … but no, the Reades are not the type to leave such things to chance. They hid their house, laboratory, greenhouse, barns, and garages deep in an old-growth forest and took steps to make sure the compound was invisible. I don’t pretend to understand how they engineered their home security system, but somehow the Reades’ unusually quiet “right-hand man” — who they called Friday — always knew when an outsider was approaching. He intercepted all deliveries at the gate, then carted them in a rusty red pickup truck to wherever they belonged.
The Reade children didn’t go to school as you probably know it. Oh, I don’t mean they were uneducated. On the contrary, their mother, Cameo, and father, Einstein, deeply valued learning and wanted the children to be well-versed in all subjects — literature, mathematics, history, science, the arts, languages. They tutored Anne and Atticus from eight until noon every day except Sunday. Then, after lunch and a brief recess, the children studied on their own while the parents worked in their laboratory.
In the afternoons, Anne and Atticus researched topics that interested them in their home library, occasionally using — well, something similar to your Internet connection. They wrote essays on this and that. They drew and painted and sculpted. They conducted experiments and invented things (Anne’s self-cleaning hamster cage, powered by the hamster itself, was a family favorite). They read literary classics; explored maps of Earth and the universe; solved mathematical problems and puzzles; wrote, directed, and acted in short plays; and closely observed the flora and fauna of their northerly habitat. They were always surprised when the day ended and they were called to supper.
In the evenings, the Reades entertained themselves and each other by playing musical instruments, competing at board games, performing in skits, making things, reading aloud, or just talking. They enjoyed each other’s company very much, you see.
It never actually occurred to Anne or Atticus that they might be different than other families. They were so busy, I’m not sure they even thought about other families. They more or less took it on faith that other people — whoever and wherever they were — lived the same sort of — well, ordinary lives.
But oh, Dear Reader, this innocent time was about to end. Anne and Atticus would soon learn something that would make them question everything they took for granted, including the parents who created this childhood paradise.
One day in early summer, Mr. and Mrs. Reade announced during dinner that there would be a family meeting later in the evening. That by itself caused no stir. The elder Reades called family meetings all the time — to map the year of homeschooling, discuss scientific breakthroughs, plan the summer garden, brainstorm ideas for recycling. Anne and Atticus didn’t give it a second thought. They glimpsed the pale light of the setting sun through the back windows of their happy home and calculated that they still had an hour to themselves. They finished dinner, grabbed the sample jars they had prepared, and ran out the back door to collect insects for the science project they were working on.
As they walked in the deeply shaded woods, long spears of light pushed through the tree limbs to the understory of the forest, surrounding them like the bars of a comfortable cage. A small chorus of common field crickets (which in spite of their name, are relatively uncommon in these parts) chirped their evening song. And as the children plucked unsuspecting bugs from leaves and deposited them in glass jars, they talked about how the creatures’ unique features — color, shape, wing structure, stingers, antennae — helped them surmount the obstacles they faced in their surprisingly treacherous daily lives.
A very unusual family meeting unfolds …
That evening, Anne plopped herself down on a big comfy chair in the great room and pulled a large ball of wool from the bag by her side. She had an idea for a scarf based on pi and wanted to try it out. She pushed a fugitive brown curl out of her eyes, cast a row of stitches onto a needle, and started knitting.
At the other end of the high-ceilinged room, Atticus launched a lightweight airplane he designed and built to demonstrate the principles of flight. He kept an eye on his stopwatch as the plane navigated the ceiling rafters, then glided to the floor. “Three minutes, 14 seconds!” he called out.
“Not bad,” Anne said from her chair. “I think it might stay aloft even longer if you trimmed the fuselage and tilted the prop back a little more.”
Through the French doors that led to the next room, Anne could see their mother and father whispering earnestly to one another, but she could not hear what they were saying. That’s odd, she thought mindlessly as she clicked her knitting needles back and forth. Mom’s just Mom tonight.
Cameo usually started family meetings by masquerading as important figures from books the children read. Anne and Atticus were always astounded by what they thought of as their mother’s “theatrical flair.” Her impersonations were startlingly convincing. Even her children had trouble recognizing her through her uncanny disguises. Often, the only reason they agreed it had to be her was that the actual character was fictional or dead!
For example, once Cameo appeared as the literary character Anne was named after — Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables. At the time, the children wondered how their mother managed this costume.
“Does she look shorter than Mom to you?” Atticus whispered anxiously to his sister.
Anne nodded. “What about the freckles and red hair?!” she whispered back.
“How do we know it really is Mom?” Atticus worried. “What if it’s actually an alien from another planet, who has killed Mom and is here to abduct us or experiment on us?”
“Dressed as Anne of Green Gables?” Anne said skeptically. “I don’t think so, Atticus. An alien would need more cunning than that just to get here. Trust me. It’s Mom.”
When Marco Polo came to visit, Anne again insisted they take it on faith that it was their mother.
“But the hair in the ears?!” Atticus challenged her.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Anne admitted, “but it’s the only plausible answer.”
Anne was about to say something to her brother about how odd it was that their mother wasn’t “in character” tonight, when their parents stepped into the room and paused uncertainly near the doorway.
Einstein had an unhappy relationship with fashion. He wore faded bell-bottom jeans and a tie-dye tee-shirt imprinted with a large peace sign — both “won” on eBay. He adopted this retro style when he was quite young and saw no need to think about that troublesome topic again. As he stood in the doorway, curly hair askew, he clung to a small box with both hands and looked to his wife for guidance.
Cameo’s ivory skin contrasted sharply with her cropped dark hair. Comfort was her primary fashion statement. In the house she liked to go barefoot and wear loose-fitting dresses that fluttered like a breeze when she walked. As she stood there tonight, she gazed at the children with a gravity they never saw before.
“Mom, why aren’t you — ?” Anne started to ask.
But at the same time, their mother moved toward them, proclaiming with alarming seriousness, “We have something very important to discuss with you.”
“It’s a f-family emergency,” their father stammered, following her across the room.
Anxious by nature, Atticus suddenly felt sick to his stomach. He set his plane on a table, walked over to the oversized chair in which Anne sat, and nestled next to her.
Anne leaned close to him. Ordinarily, she was the calmer of the two, but tonight she was overcome by foreboding. She looked down at her lap and resumed knitting — faster and faster — as if that might prevent their parents’ strange news from unfolding.
Cameo and Einstein perched on the edge of the sofa across from the children. They eyed the unusual scarf that was rapidly emerging from between Anne’s knitting needles and glanced at one another meaningfully.
Their father started. “You know that your mother and I have been working for several years on an important government project, right?” he said.
“Do we?” Atticus whispered to his sister. “I don’t remember anything about that.”
Anne kept her eyes on her scarf. It was already five feet long.
“Well,” Einstein continued, “we recently completed something — something that is expected to be very useful to the citizens of our nation — to the entire planet, really, but that’s a longer story —”
Cameo elbowed him.
“The problem,” he went on awkwardly, “is that — well — once it’s public, certain unsavory individuals will want to get their hands on this thing of ours.” Worry flashed across his brow. “The less you know about that, actually, the better.”
“The important thing,” their mother interjected, “is that we agree with others in the program that it’s time to go into protective custody.”
“It means we have to close this lab and move the project to a secret location so our government colleagues can provide protection while we finish our work,” Cameo said.
“Protection from … what again?” Atticus asked, struggling to form a mental picture of something that had the power to frighten his parents.
“From the unsavory individuals I mentioned,” Einstein said. “We believe they’ll be very motivated to steal the technology we’ve developed and use it for their own purposes.”
Atticus took in these limited details. “So we have to go to a secret place … that doesn’t sound so bad. Will we like it?” Anne’s scarf had fallen in folds on his lap, and without thinking, he brushed it from his leg. It tumbled to the floor in a large, colorful heap.
“Well, that’s not exactly right,” their father clarified. “Your mother and I must go to this place, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for the two of you to come with us.”
Atticus’s mouth fell open.
Anne knitted faster.
“While we’re figuring things out, we’ve arranged for the two of you to spend a few weeks at a summer camp in New Jersey,” their mother said.
“What’s a summer camp?!” the children asked in unison.
“Is it anything like a prison camp?!” Atticus shuddered.
“No,” Einstein said sympathetically. “Not at all.”
“A summer camp is a place where children go on a kind of vacation without their parents,” Cameo put in. “A few adults are in charge of the camp as a whole, but for the most part, young adults called camp counselors run things. They have all kinds of fun things to do — canoeing, rock climbing, crafts, campfires …” She watched the children’s faces for a sign of interest. “You’ll make friends with other children, bunk with them in cabins, learn to swim. It’ll be fun!” she added, doing her best to sound excited. “You’ll see.”
Anne ran out of wool and had to stop knitting. She looked up from the very long scarf that lay in a pile at her feet. “We’re going alone?” she said with disbelief.
“Yes,” their father stated. “Friday will take you. This is a wonderful opportunity for you to learn how to get along with other children your age. And we think you’ll be able to handle yourselves very well in this new environment — so long as we explain a few things first.”
Atticus let out a soft moan.
His sister put her arm around him. “What kind of things?” Anne asked.
“Well, some things your mother and I have never spoken to you about have suddenly become very important,” Einstein said, looking at the mound of knitting on the floor. “Quite a scarf,” he remarked absentmindedly. “Is it done?”
“It’s based on pi,” Anne told him. “Theoretically, it could go on forever.”
“Very clever, sweetheart,” Cameo said.
“Thanks, but what things?” Anne repeated.
“We were never sure how to begin,” Einstein continued distractedly. “Living here the way we do … it didn’t seem to matter. I’m afraid we’ve all been existing in a bit of a bubble.”
“It concerns your family background,” their mother put in. “The beginnings of the Reade family and, well, your, um … origin as a species.”
“Origin as a species?!” Atticus echoed incredulously. “Who says that? Even in books they don’t say that! I don’t understand.” He turned to his sister. “Do you understand?”
“I think we will soon, Atticus,” Anne reassured him, even as her own stomach churned. She looked at her parents and said, “I’ve been having these strange dreams …”
Family secrets emerge …
“That’s wonderful, Anne!” Cameo said. She elbowed her husband and whispered proudly, “Early adolescence. I told you it would happen this way.”
“Now we know,” he smiled back, taking her hand.
“Will somebody please tell me what’s going on?” Atticus interrupted impatiently. “What dreams?! What species?! What origins?!”
“Why don’t you start at the beginning, dear,” Cameo suggested to her husband.
“Certainly, darling. Well, you know your mother is a very special individual,” Einstein hinted, looking at the children for a reaction. “She has no equal on this planet.”
Atticus looked quizzically at his sister. “Okay, she’s out of this world,” he translated, raising two fingers on each hand in air-quotes. “How does that help us?”
“What your father’s trying to say,” Cameo helped, “is I’m literally not from Earth.”
“You’re —” Atticus stuttered. “Wait, what?”
“I was born on the planet Farbookonia in galaxy M87 of the Virgo cluster — not far from here, really, but Earth scientists still know very little about our part of the universe.”
Anne and Atticus sat in stunned silence.
Their mother continued. “Farbookonians are very similar to Earthlings biologically. We’re descended from an advanced civilization that fled Earth before its last ice age. But as our people evolved, we developed some unique qualities that now set us apart.”
“Wait,” Atticus commanded. “You’re telling us you’re an alien? Are you an alien, too, Dad?”
“Now son, we don’t use the term alien; it’s derogatory. Your mother is a Farbookonian human and I’m an Earth human.”
“But no ordinary Earth human,” Cameo gushed proudly before resuming her story. “My early studies on Farbookonia were focused on science. But what I really wanted to do was help make the universe a better place to live. So I became an interplanetary social worker — a person whose job is to prevent the people on other planets from destroying each other. The mission I designed involves living as an Earth human to save the planet from within.” She raised her arms with a flourish. “And here I am!”
The children stared at her blankly.
“This is where I come in,” Einstein beamed.
“Yes, my parents supported my choice, but were very protective of me,” Cameo explained. “When I told them my plans, they began a quest for the perfect Earth human to become my partner — someone who was my equal, intellectually … who would be loyal to me and my family … who could be trusted with Farbookonian secrets … who would help me understand Earth culture … and who shared my mission. It was a tall order! But when they found your father, they said he was the ideal specimen — the most intelligent, kind, hardworking, and principled Earth man alive.”
Einstein winked at his children. “Just a little hard to live up to,” he chuckled. “I was moonlighting as a UFO investigator in the Dakotas at the time. There I was one night in the middle of nowhere, when your mother literally materialized out of thin air! I’ll never forget it. I thought I was hallucinating!”
Cameo laughed. “I haven’t had that effect on another man since.”
“I had no idea what was in store for me that night,” Einstein continued, “but I always believed there was life on other planets. I had been watching and listening for signs since — well, for a very long time. I think that’s part of the reason your mother’s parents chose me. In fact, I would have been an astronaut if it wasn’t for my motion sickness. So when I saw your mother, I was stunned, yes, but I just pinched my arm and told myself, This is what you’ve always dreamed of, man! Don’t lose your nerve now!”
Anne and Atticus looked at each other and rolled their eyes, but couldn’t help smiling a little, too. The story their parents were telling was strange, but this is what they were really like — sweet and corny and passionate.
“I risked everything by telling your father all of my secrets right then and there,” their mother recalled.
“It was love at first sight,” their father returned dreamily.
“Fate, karma, kismet …” Cameo cooed, her voice trailing off. “My parents chose better than they knew.”
Einstein and Cameo gazed into each other’s eyes, momentarily lost in the shared recollection.
“Ahem!” Anne coughed. “I think we’re getting a little off track here.”
The Reade parents sat up straight.
“Let me see if I have this right,” Anne said. “Atticus and I are half — um — Earth human and half Farbookonian?!”
“That’s right,” they confirmed hastily.
“Do we look like other Earth humans?” Atticus asked.
Cameo and Einstein shook their heads yes, but with scientists, nothing is ever simple. “Well, technically, no two Earth humans — with the exception of identical twins and other identical multiples — look exactly alike,” their mother qualified, “but I don’t think that’s what you mean. You both have all the right parts in all the right places. Nothing physical distinguishes you as half Farbookonian.”
“So what’s the big deal?” Anne asked. “We’ll fit in fine with other Earth kids, right?”
Their parents’ eyes dropped to the scarf on the floor.
“Your physical characteristics don’t give away your Farbookonian ancestry …” Cameo said gently.
“Mm, yes,” their father put in, “but as your mother said earlier, Farbookonians do have other characteristics that set them apart from Earth humans.”
“All Farbookonians are extremely intelligent — in excess of most Earth humans,” Cameo said. Looking at her husband, she added, “For instance, photographic memories like yours, dear, are rare among Earth humans, but commonplace on my side of the family.”
“I’m very lucky to have one,” Einstein admitted humbly.
“Also, every Farbookonian is born with one unique talent,” Cameo continued. “Take you, Anne. You have the ability to do things at a pace other Earth humans can’t match. That 25-foot scarf on the floor would have taken an Earth human a few hours to knit, but it only took you a few minutes.”
Their father laughed. “When you were a baby, you crawled so fast, we had to run to keep up with you.” He slapped his leg. “That was one parenting challenge we couldn’t find a solution for in Earth human baby books!”
“I’ve always wondered why none of you can beat me when I run — not even George Eliot,” Anne noted. “Although the dogs do come closest.”
At the sound of her name, Georgie — one of the Reades’ two pet Border Collies and a very talented runner — looked up at Anne and wagged her tail hopefully.
Anne reached down and scratched the dog’s creamy white-and-caramel-colored ears.
“What about me?” Atticus asked, scooting forward until he was more leaning on the chair than sitting on it.
“You, Atticus, were born with the ability to communicate psychically with animals,” Einstein said. “You just naturally know what they are thinking and feeling, and they in turn can sense what’s on your mind.”
Cameo nodded. “We knew the moment you were born. You let loose your first cry, and without skipping a beat, the dogs started howling, the cows mooed in distress, the chickens squawked and ran in circles, and the cats meowed as if they were caught in a thunderstorm. Then you started nursing, and as quickly as it all began, the animals went back about their business.”
“Is that why — no matter where I am — when I think about the dogs, they just appear?” Atticus asked.
“Most likely,” Cameo answered. “It’s probably like you’re calling them in your mind.”
As if to add their input on the matter, Charlotte Bronte bounded into the room and sat on Atticus’s left, while George Eliot nuzzled up to him on the right.
“Stop, Lottie!” Atticus cried halfheartedly as the black-and-white dog reached up and licked his face. Both dogs nosed Atticus’s hands until he scratched their heads in tandem. “You’re so demanding!” he complained.
“How about the time Georgie injured her paw, Atticus?” Anne asked. “It was bedtime, but you kept saying, Where’s Georgie? Why isn’t she home? She’s hurt — I know it! We have to go find her!”
“Oh yeah,” Atticus recalled. “I couldn’t sleep. When I closed my eyes, I saw her lying near the creek and heard her whimpering.”
“We tried to convince you that everything was all right, but you were unshakable,” Einstein added. “You held your arm and moaned, She can’t move it! It hurts! Finally, we put on our coats, put a flashlight in your hand, and said, Take us to Georgie, Atticus.”
“Because of you, she didn’t suffer in the cold all night,” Cameo pointed out.
“And Anne, more than once, your speed allowed you to get help for your brother when he was hurt,” their father said.
“Don’t you see how special each of you is?” Cameo asked hopefully.
The children looked at them blankly.
The parents prepare the children for the journey …
“So-o-o,” Anne said, attempting to make sense of all she had heard. “In the past you told us everyone has special talents, but really, that’s not the case at all.”
“It’s all been a lie!” Atticus wailed — eliciting sympathetic howls from the dogs.
“No one else — at least, not on Earth — has special talents quite like our family’s,” Anne went on. “Is that right?”
“We’re freaks!” Atticus cried.
“Ow-woo-woo-w-o-o-o-o-o!” echoed Georgie and Lottie.
“The two of you — who we innocently believed had our best interests at heart — actually gave birth to us as part of an ‘Earth mission.’ And now you’re sending us into the world for the first time, alone, to be mocked, ridiculed — who knows, maybe even eaten alive! — by young Earth humans,” Anne concluded. “Does that about sum things up?”
“Why not just feed us to wolves like fairytale parents?” Atticus ventured.
“He has a point,” Anne added. “It would be faster and more humane.”
“Now, now,” said their father, growing impatient. “Atticus! I can’t hear myself think — calm those dogs, please!”
“There, there, pups,” Atticus said, faking a cheery “good dog” voice. “The nice parents are going to feed their children to Earth humans! Won’t that be fun?!”
The dogs tilted their speckled heads in confusion.
“Wait! Is this a game?” Anne asked as she stood up. “That’s it, isn’t it?! I’ve got it — Atticus and I are Hansel and Gretel. Dad, you’re the poor, misguided woodcutter. And Mom, you’re the wicked stepmother! Atticus! Quick! Grab some crumbs! We’re going for a long walk in the forest.”
“Not this time, I’m afraid,” Cameo said. “This is no game.”
“Please don’t be overly dramatic,” Einstein pleaded. “You’re not making this any easier for us. There’s more good here than you realize right now.”
As it slowly sank in that her parents were serious, Anne’s dread of what was ahead for her and her brother grew. “Didn’t you think some knowledge of normal Earth human children might be useful to us at some point in our lives?” she asked.
“In the little time we have left to us tonight, it would be impossible for us to explain the reasons why we raised you the way we did,” Einstein offered. “But this is a conversation we can continue. We are talking about a brief separation. You can do this.”
“The important thing to remember,” Cameo stressed, “is that you will someday have trusted friends you can share your unique talents and background with, but for now, you must keep what we’ve told you to yourselves.”
“Do you understand what your mother is telling you?” Einstein asked. “Most of the time, to protect yourselves — and us — you will have to keep your Farbookonian background a secret. You can’t tell anyone.”
“Which means you will have to restrain yourself from using your Farbookonian abilities in front of Earth humans,” their mother added.
“Anne, I’m sure you realize it would be unfair of you to use your speed to win a race against an Earth child who doesn’t share your ability,” their father pointed out.
“And Atticus, if you try to convince Earth human children that you can talk to animals, I’m afraid they’ll make terrible fun of you,” their mother predicted.
Everyone was quiet for a moment — except the dogs, who barked protectively at Atticus’s mental picture of an imaginary crowd of small Earth humans mocking him.
Einstein cleared his throat meaningfully. “Anne, in your case, this is going to be a little extra complicated,” he said.
Anne put her hands over her ears, but after a few moments, reluctantly let them fall.
“Your father is right,” Cameo agreed. “As Farbookonians, we begin developing our adult talents in early adolescence, which you are approaching. Until they emerge, we have no way of knowing what they will be. I suspect those dreams you mentioned earlier are a sign of your first adult ability. Are you dreaming things that come true sometime later?”
Anne nodded. “First it was little things. One night I dreamed I was running with George and Lottie and found an arrowhead near the creek. Then, the next day, we were playing in that very spot and I actually did find one.”
Their parents nodded encouragingly. “Go on.”
“Well, I think it was Cheyenne —”
“Not about the arrowhead!” her parents said together.
“Oh, you mean the dreams. Another time I dreamed that we were all eating a really yummy supper — a curry, I think — and the next day, there it was on the table.”
“Big deal!” Atticus piped up. “I dream about food all the time and we always eat the next day.”
“The same meal on the same plates?” his sister challenged him. Cameo had a kind of obsession with dishes, so the Reades never knew what to expect in the way of table settings. “And with each of us saying the same things? It was like rehearsing a play — nothing changed.” Anne looked around and added, “Speaking of food, I’m kind of hungry —”
“You can have a snack in a little while, Anne. Stay on track,” her mother urged.
“Last night’s dream was the weirdest yet. I dreamed Atticus and I went to one of those circuses we read about. But when we entered the big tent, Mom was the exhibit. Dad stood at her side holding a sign shaped like an arrow that said, MEET A REAL-LIVE ALIEN! SEE HER PERFORM! Atticus and I just stood there with our mouths open. Then I woke up.”
“You must have sensed what we were about to tell you,” their father said.
“I guess,” Anne said. “I thought I dreamed it because when Mom dresses up as a character from a book, Atticus worries she’s an alien in disguise.”
“Yeah,” Atticus muttered. “And who was right about that one?”
Anne nodded appreciatively at her brother, then continued explaining the dream to her parents. “When you started talking tonight, I had a weird feeling it was going to have something to do with the dream, but I never imagined all of this.”
“Fascinating. Because it was all so strange to you, your mind turned it into a story about circus sideshows,” Cameo said. “It will take you some time to learn how to interpret your dreams, Anne. Also, new talents unfold in phases, so it could be years before you really know how to use it and feel comfortable with it.”
Both parents — even Atticus and the dogs — gazed intently at Anne.
“Um — feeling a little like a sideshow myself here,” Anne mumbled.
“What are your Farbookonian talents, Mom?” Atticus asked.
“Well, you already know one. I was born with my ability to impersonate. My parents — your Farbookonian grandparents — said that instead of learning to talk one word at a time like other babies, I repeated whole conversations I heard them having with their friends. I mimicked their voices and speech patterns exactly. My parents found it very entertaining, but were terrified I would do it in front of their friends, who might think I was mocking them. When I got older, I started physically transforming into my subjects as I impersonated them. The first time it happened, I saw myself in the mirror and thought I was going crazy! Later I learned I could transform my clothing just by thinking about it.”
Anne and Atticus looked at each other, mouths agape.
“You were right,” Atticus whispered to Anne. “It was her all along.”
“And yet — it wasn’t,” Anne returned.
“My head is spinning,” Atticus complained as he fell back in the chair. “I feel sick.”
“Now Atticus, we know this is a lot to take in,” Einstein said. “But you won’t be surprised by emerging talents for a few years, so take that off your worry list. And you won’t be without assistance while we are away.”
The Reade parents eyed one another.
“Now?” Einstein asked Cameo.
Cameo glanced at the box her husband was holding and nodded her approval. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to completely prepare you for this journey before we left,” she told the children.
“So we devised another way to protect you,” their father finished. He reached into his pocket and pulled out what appeared to be an old-fashioned pocket watch, but was actually a tiny computer. “One of the benefits of your mother’s and my unique partnership” — he pressed a button to open the watch, then entered a series of commands — “is that we have access to highly advanced Farbookonian scientific and technological knowledge.”
“Yes,” Cameo added. “We can make things that, in the eyes of Earth humans, are not at all possible.”
This got the children’s attention. “Like what?” they asked, craning their necks to see what their father was doing. “What’s in the box?”
Protective new “friends?”
“Wait — when are we leaving?” Anne asked.
“Tonight,” Cameo answered.
“We did say it’s an emergency,” Einstein gently reminded the children. “Friday is connecting the Airstream to the pickup truck right now. He’ll drive through the night while you two sleep in the trailer.”
Atticus wrapped both hands around his neck, as if choking himself. “Just kill me and get it over with, please!” he begged.
Anne fell backward into the chair, rolled her eyes into her head, and stuck out her tongue, as if to suggest that this latest piece of news had already killed her.
Cameo and Einstein ignored their antics.
At this point not even the dogs could get excited by the children’s hyperbole. Georgie let out a long yawn, and Lottie left the room in search of rawhide remnants.
“We actually came up with these a while ago,” their father said, “but until now, we couldn’t decide the best use for them.”
“Then this — well, emergency — came up, and we both knew in a flash how they could help,” their mother added.
Einstein reached a hand into the box on his lap. “We call them Globots,” he said.
The children stood, leaned toward their parents, and tried to see inside the box.
Einstein slowly pulled his hand from under the lid.
Anne and Atticus looked on, confused, as the orb of multicolored light their father held in his hand steadily brightened.
Einstein eased the light onto his son’s right shoulder. “Atticus, meet Huck,” he said.
Atticus walked toward the mirror on the wall and watched the small ball of light on his shoulder gradually take the shape of a tiny boy wearing a dirty white shirt, patched overalls, and a straw hat. When the image was complete, Huck flexed up and down at the knees as if it had been a long time since he used his legs. Then he punched the air in a show of confidence and strength. “Howdy!” he said to Atticus.
Atticus laughed shyly. “As in Huckleberry Finn?” he whispered to his father.
Einstein nodded. “Updated and enhanced, but you have to start somewhere.”
Atticus turned toward Huck. “Hi, yourself,” he said.
“Ow, not so loud!” Huck winced. “I’m right here next to you.”
“Sorry,” Atticus said sheepishly.
Huck cupped his hands around his mouth and loud-whispered in Atticus’s ear. “You have to be careful. Earth humans can’t see me, you know. I have a shield that screens out any iris pattern but yours, Anne’s, and your parents’. If Earth humans catch you talking to me, they’ll think you’re crazy as a loon!”
“It’s true,” Einstein confirmed. “Your new little friend is equipped with a 360-degree vapor lens that will allow him to capture and interpret all of the events taking place around you. He’s programmed to observe your environment, recognize potential social hazards, and help you deal with them. He’ll transmit reports to your mother and me using a frequency unknown to Earth humans. He can reach us that way in an emergency, too.”
“He’s my — bodyguard?” Atticus asked.
“Mm … kind of. More like a cultural liaison — someone whose job it is to help you find your way among young Earth humans,” Einstein replied. “Huck has no physical substance so he can’t engage in brawls for you — which, by the way, you should also avoid.”
“Brawls?” Atticus responded. Just what he needed, something new to worry about.
Georgie trembled at the thought of her gentle master in a fight.
“Do I get one?” Anne asked, squirming eagerly.
The shaking box made it clear that a second orb was stamping up and down impatiently inside of it.
“Of course you do,” her father replied as he reached his hand into the box. “Stay still, I’m coming!” he said to the agitated beam. He caught it and gently placed the fluttering ball of light on Anne’s right shoulder.
The image of a winged fairy, frantically smoothing her skirt with the palms of her tiny, neatly manicured hands, slowly came into view. “Geesh!” she exclaimed loudly. “No respect for a girl’s outfit!” She gazed at the others. “How do I look?”
“You look fine,” Anne answered, moving toward the mirror so the little sprite could see for herself.
The fairy gasped at her reflection and covered her tiny body with her arms. “You thought it would be a good idea to dress me in leaves and berries?!” she asked, looking accusingly at Anne. “Really?! Is this what you’d wear if you were me?!”
“I didn’t — he —” Anne said pointing at her father.
Bella put her hands on her hips and stared at Anne.
“It’s who you are inside that matters,” Anne tried, “not what you wear.”
“Oh, ri-i-i-ight — a-huh,” the fairy announced cryptically as she eyed Anne up and down. “It’s all starting to make sense. Mm-mm! We really do have a lot of work to do!”
Anne looked insulted. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Come on now … everyone knows me. Think back.”
Anne hesitated, then cautiously tried, “Are you Tinker Bell? From Peter and Wendy?”
“Brava,” the little creature clapped sarcastically. “But I go by Bella these days. It’s much more me.”
“D-a-a-a-a-d!” Anne turned toward her father. “How are these particle-brained computer images supposed to help us survive Earth human camp? And why does mine have to be so annoying?”
“Humph!” Bella put her hands on her hips and turned her back to Anne.
“Tink — I mean Bella — is nothing like me!” Anne complained. “How will she know what I need?”
“That’s the point, Anne,” her mother answered. “You don’t need to hear what you already know. Bella is there to provide a different perspective for you. She will see what you don’t see. Your job is to use that information to make informed, well-thought-out choices.”
“Yes,” added her father. “Remember what you learned about symbiotic relationships? How a host and a symbiote support one another’s different needs? Think of your relationships with Huck and Bella that way.”
“Ri-i-i-ight,” Anne answered. “We’ll think of it that way.” Then under her breath she muttered, “You little parasite.”
“I heard that!” Bella shouted back. “Who’s helping who here, huh? I could go on strike, you know!”
“She’s not a parasite, Anne,” Einstein interceded. “That’s inaccurate. And Bella, you are not programmed to rebel or be antagonistic. Please review your code.”
“Sorry,” Bella apologized.
“It’s important to stick to your mission, Bella,” Cameo added. “And Anne —”
“I’ll try to get along with her,” Anne interrupted, showing a mere hint of sincerity.
Friday entered the room through the front door and nodded toward the Reades — the signal that everything was ready for the trip to New Jersey.
“Time to go,” Cameo told the children, motioning for them to follow her outside as she gave last minute instructions to Friday.
“Woohoo, road trip!” Bella announced, jumping up and down on Anne’s shoulder.
Huck looked around the room. “Now where’s that ole yellow brick road …”
“Programming flaw!” Atticus interrupted.
“Yeah, Dad — The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?” Anne criticized.
“I’ll fix that,” their father promised. “I can never keep those darn children’s stories straight.” He fiddled absentmindedly with his pocket-watch computer as he followed the children out the front door.
“Wait!” Anne shouted in a last-minute panic. “Have you told us everything we need to know? And — come to think of it — how do we even know that you know what we need to know?!”
Atticus added his worries to the pile. “Yeah, have you ever actually spent time among Earth human children? You were a kid once, right? Are you sure there’s nothing else we do that they don’t do?”
Einstein looked over their heads for his wife, hopeful that she could help him, but she was already at the trailer. He nudged the children to keep them moving.
Anne and Atticus walked backwards along the path while looking at their father expectantly. They were desperate to believe he had the one piece of information that would put their minds at ease.
“We — um — think you have everything you need for now,” Einstein improvised. “It’s not like you won’t see us again. Just think before you act, children, think before you act. And um, well …” He dug for a pearl of parenting wisdom. “Don’t talk to strangers.”
“Strangers?!” Atticus asked cautiously. “What are strangers?”
“But they’re all strangers!” argued Anne.
“Er — yes. Good point,” Einstein said, looking puzzled. “Well, just do what the camp counselors tell you. Oh nonsense, you’ll be fine.”
The children stood numbly at the end of the walk, their eyes shadowed with worry, their arms hanging limply at their sides.
Cameo and Einstein gave them each a long, last hug, prodded them into the trailer, and closed the door behind them.
Anne and Atticus staggered to the rear window of the RV. Eyes wide and hands pressed against the glass, they watched as everything they had ever known slowly grew smaller and smaller.
The adventure begins …
“How can you eat?” Atticus asked incredulously.
As Friday drove, the children sat at a speckled Formica table that folded, Murphy-bed style, into the wall of the trailer when it was not in use. Friday had packed the vehicle’s small refrigerator with foods Anne and Atticus enjoyed: Carrots with spinach dip, sharp cheddar cheese with crackers and honey mustard, deviled eggs, fresh whole-grain bread with homemade raspberry jam, and chewy peanut-butter cookies.
“I’m hungry,” Anne answered unapologetically. She washed down a bite of bread-and-jam with a gulp of cold milk.
Atticus looked around. Their mother had decorated the interior of the Airstream trailer around one of her favorite dinnerware patterns — pastel-colored plastic plates from the 1950s with “wings,” a hallmark of Space Age design. (Cameo saw the 1950s — a time when Earth humans were just beginning to see the possibilities of space travel — as an endearing period of Earth human history. It was as though she couldn’t helping saying, “Aren’t those Earth humans just the cutest!”)
Atticus suddenly saw the humor in his mother’s choice of curtains for the RV. The pattern was made up of tiny, disc-shaped spaceships with glass-domes swirling through a cartoon version of outer space.
Anne watched her brother absorb the space-themed details. “It all takes on new meaning now, doesn’t it?” she asked, not actually expecting an answer. “Here, eat a cookie.”
In spite of himself, Atticus broke off a piece and popped it into his mouth. “Is this really happening?” he asked as he nibbled. “I mean, couldn’t it be, I don’t know, a dream?”
“Well,” Anne sighed, “it seems unlikely that we would both be having the same dream. But if it makes you feel better, we could pinch each other to see if we wake up.”
They reached across the table and squeezed each other’s fingers until they both said “Ow!” and pulled away.
“Dream is out,” Anne concluded, picking up a cookie.
“Could somebody have, you know, slipped us something? Some kind of bad drug?”
“It’s also unlikely we’d both have the same hallucination, Atticus. This isn’t a story — like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s our life. I know — it’s the most absurd life you can imagine. But if we told somebody — Please rescue us, our mother is an alien! — they’d probably lock us up.”
Atticus’s hopes fell as he followed Anne’s logic. “Great,” he said. He folded his arms in front of him, slid them toward the middle of the table, and plopped his head on them. “Wake me up when you have this figured out,” he mumbled.
“Really, you two are pitiful,” a little voice said.
Anne was startled. “Oh, it’s you. How could I have forgotten your cheerful presence among us,” she said flatly to Bella.
“Bella’s got a point,” Huck put in. “You two can’t afford to mope around.”
“Uh, major life changes taking place,” Atticus said. “Excuse us if it takes us a second to regroup.”
“Yes, we sincerely apologize,” Anne said insincerely. “The last thing we want to do is disappoint you.”
“Whining! Self-pity!” Bella retorted. “I can’t stand it, I tell you!”
“Look,” Atticus tried more diplomatically, “we just found out our mother is an alien — pardon me! I mean a Farbookonian! — which makes us each half-freak. We’ve never left our parents overnight ever. Friday is the only other person we’ve ever known besides them.” He stopped a moment. “At least I think he’s a person,” he added uneasily. “And now we’re off to a camp full of Earth human children, where I strongly suspect we’ll be offered up in some kind of ritual sacrifice! What do you expect from us?!”
“Don’t look at me,” said Huck calmly. “I’m made of light, I’m stuck on your shoulder forever — that is, until someone turns me off, which I have no say over. I’ll never raft down a river. I have no family or friends —”
“Yes,” Bella interrupted. “We can only do what your father has programmed us to do and you’re the only ones who can see us — that’s just not enough audience for someone like me! I need attention!”
“We’ll never know what those yummy looking peanut-butter cookies taste like,” Huck added, licking his lips.
“And I could be stuck in these dreadful clothes forever!” Bella exclaimed. “We all have our problems!”
Anne and Atticus looked at each other, eyes wide, as their computer-animated friends spoke, then they burst into laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Huck asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Nothing, really,” Atticus sputtered. “It’s just that you’re — we’re — I don’t know! I guess we do have something in common. All four of us are freaks!”
“Can you picture a teeny version of me on Bella’s shoulder, Atticus?” Anne joked.
Atticus smiled at the thought.
“Humph,” Bella commented.
“It’s not that we’re all freaks,” Huck qualified. “It’s like Bella said, we all have our problems. You never really know what the people around you are dealing with. I bet some regular Earth humans go off to summer camp feeling the way you do. You don’t have to be an alien to be afraid other people won’t like you. Right, Bella?”
“Uh, how would I know?” the hologram muttered. “Everyone loves me.”
The RV suddenly lurched to the right. Anne and Atticus hung onto the table, while Bella and Huck grabbed the children’s collars to avoid falling from their shoulders.
As the trailer came to a stop, the children ran to the side window and looked outside.
“We’ve pulled onto the side of the road,” Anne announced.
“I don’t know,” his sister answered. “We can’t be in New Jersey yet.”
“Do you think we have a flat or something?” Atticus asked.
“No,” Anne said. “I think we’d feel that.”
They gazed up at the brilliant stars spattered against the black sky. Except for the Airstream — and the small creatures Atticus sensed peering out from the woods — the highway was deserted.
“Maybe Friday took us to this secluded spot so our Farbookonian ancestors could take us back to the home planet without any witnesses,” Anne quipped dryly.
Atticus looked uncertainly at his sister. He hated when she was sarcastic. He always fell for what she said just before he realized she was kidding, and afterward, he couldn’t let go of the thought for a while.
Anne felt bad for distressing him, but joking was her way of coping with her own uneasiness. The truth was she didn’t know what to expect either. Once you find out your mother is an extraterrestrial, she wondered anxiously, what ISN’T possible?
The sound of Friday’s slow, heavy footfalls outside the trailer brought the children back to reality. This time, it was Anne who agonized over whether Friday was the man they thought he was. But when the door swung open and she saw his familiar face, she relaxed.
Friday quietly raised his chin toward the back of the vehicle, letting them know it was time for bed, and went to set up their bunks.
Atticus put the food away.
Anne brushed the crumbs from the dinette table into her palm, oblivious to the quake the simple gesture caused in Bella’s world.
The computer fairy wrapped her arms around her human host’s ear and hung on until things settled down. As Anne folded the table back into its cabinet, Bella cast a look in Friday’s direction. “He really shouldn’t talk so much,” she said.
“Huh?” Anne responded distractedly. “Oh, Friday? Yeah, not a big talker.”
Friday released a series of latches on the walls, and two small but very inviting beds — already made up with powder-blue sheets and soft, navy-blue blankets — fell into place. He pulled two puffy pillows from a cabinet and flipped a switch. The main lights in the trailer went dark. Dim lights running along the top edge of the walls began to glow. And the trailer ceiling slowly transformed into a convincing night sky, complete with constellations.
“E-e-e-e-e-h-u-u-u-m-m-m-m!” Huck yawned very loudly, considering his tiny stature.
Startled, Anne looked at the little country boy. His glimmer was beginning to fade. “You are well programmed, little man,” she said, looking at her watch. It was 10 PM.
Huck stretched his arms. “What do you think? Should we call it a day?” He sat down, leaned his back against the gentle rise in Atticus’s neck as if it was a haystack, and played a soothing tune on a tiny pennywhistle.
Oblivious to the others, Atticus stared at the stars projected on the ceiling. “I don’t recognize these constellations,” he murmured dreamily. “I don’t think it’s a decoration — the pattern doesn’t repeat.” He glanced at Anne. “Do you think this is what you would see from Farbookonia? Is it — what did Mom say — galaxy M87 of the Virgo cluster?”
Now Anne looked up, too. “What do you mean?”
“Maybe Mom and Dad created this star map in case Mom got lonely,” Atticus speculated. “That way she could come out to the trailer, turn on her personal planetarium, and think of her family and friends on Farbookonia. You know, a little reminder of home.”
Suddenly, both children felt a little sad for their mother.
“We have grandparents up there,” Anne said quietly. “It must have been so hard for Mom to leave them.”
“Do you think she has brothers and sisters?” Atticus asked. “Maybe a dog or two?”
Anne shrugged, astonished at just how little they knew about both of their parents.
“Think about it, Anne,” Atticus encouraged his sister. “If Mom could go to a new planet by herself and be happy, maybe we can survive a brief stay at Earth human camp.”
Anne looked at her brother silently for a moment. “You know, Atticus,” she said warmly, tousling the boy’s sleek brown hair, “sometimes you are really smart.”
Atticus grinned and hugged his sister.
“Oh, puleeeze!” interjected Bella. “That’s all I can take from you little bleeding hearts.” The tiny sprite flung her arm to the side and tossed what appeared to be fairy dust into the air. “You are getting very sleepy,” she whispered as it fell on the children’s heads.
“Drama queen,” Anne muttered through a smile. She gave Atticus one last squeeze and yawned. “Let’s go to sleep. Suddenly I’m incredibly tired.”
“Me, too,” Atticus said drowsily as he ascended the ladder to his bunk.
“Wait!” Anne reached out and grabbed her brother’s arm just before he reached the top. “Our lives will never be the same after tomorrow. Let’s remember this moment.”
“We’re closing the door on version 1.0 of our lives,” Atticus said solemnly.
“Who knows what things will be like when morning comes …” Anne trailed off.
Lines reappeared on Atticus’s creamy brow and his lips tightened.
“Don’t worry, Atticus,” Anne said. “It’s different for us. We have each other. No matter where you are, I won’t be far away. We can help each other do this!”
Atticus smiled a goofy, tired smile, climbed up to bed, and was asleep in seconds.
Anne’s imagination skipped from star to star along the trailer ceiling as she lay waiting for sleep to overtake her. Eventually, she turned onto her side and imagined she was at home. “Goodnight, Mom. Goodnight Dad,” she whispered out of habit. “Good night, Georgie and Lottie.” It may have been a dream, but she didn’t care. She wanted to believe she heard the dogs bark cheerfully and her parents whisper back, “Goodnight, brave girl.