“It’s a secret magazine.”
Iro’s eyes widened for emphasis, and he looked left and right in the weedy backyard like he wanted to make sure no one could hear the three of them.
“There’s 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, not like, ten-thirty.” He scowled at Sandy, like she was some kid who didn’t know what midnight meant. “Then if you read them right, the aliens come!” Iro threw his hands up, “And they give you secret powers!”
Sandy covered her mouth with her hands. Her loose tooth moved; any day now it’d fall out, and Momma would panic again, even though everyone said losing baby teeth was normal.
“But you gotta really believe in them,” said Cait, her conspiratorial hush barely louder than the rustling shrubbery. “Or else when they come, they put you in the hospital.”
Iro nodded. “This kid Joey from school read the symbols five times. He’s been in the hospital three times…”
Sandy was rapt: “And the other two?”
She loved staying at her cousins’ house. Iro and Cait were already ten, and they knew all the cool stuff.
They remembered Sandy’s Papa, too, better than she did. She’d been just three when he vanished, and all she remembered was standing by his knee watching the night sky. Iro and Cait had known him better, and they told Sandy about him.
They said Papa loved stories about aliens and stars, so Sandy loved those stories, too.
“You think Papa read the special symbols? Maybe the aliens put him in the hospital!”
Momma said Papa was in the hospital ‘cause he didn’t know when to stop, but Sandy never knew what he was supposed to stop. Maybe he’d read the secret magazine too many times.
“You think that’s why Papa had to go away?”
Iro scratched his chin, sharing an uncertain look with Cait. “Eh…”
“You’re not really supposed to tell anyone when you read 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 their wonderful shared secret.
“I want to read the magazine!” She jumped to her feet. “Where do we buy it?”
But the twins looked mournful.
“We can’t buy the magazine,” said Cait, with a big sigh.
“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.”
Sandy wilted. “We can’t get the magazine?” What was the point of knowing about it if she couldn’t read the alien symbols and get powers?
“But we know where there’s a copy,” said Iro, and he lowered his voice as Cait looked cautiously around the yard again.
“Mikos keeps it under his mattress.”
Standing at the far end of the hall from Mikos’s room, Sandy felt like her dog Millie, when Momma opened the door to let her out at night and it was raining. Millie’s spotted ears flopped nervously and she tucked her tails between her legs. 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, and the door was always closed.
“You’re sure Mikos has the magazine?” Sandy glanced warily around the corner, to his black oak door with a big ‘Stay Out’ sign. “Does that mean he has…powers?”
She could picture tall, lanky Mikos lengthening into a horned monster, making her vanish like Papa had…
“Nah.” Iro waved a hand, “I bet he’s 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 tiptoes, looking down the hall to Mikos’s closed door again.
“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—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. They drove Papa’s old car to school or around town, while Momma’s sat in the cornfield behind the house, and Momma was always looking for parts to fix it.
“They can give you anything you want,” said Cait. “Long as you get the magazine…”
Sandy looked back to the black ‘Stay Out’ door. Her heart beat real fast.
“’course, if you’re too chicken to get it, we can always ask Joey…”
“I’m not chicken!” Sandy glared at Iro. “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. “I know all the colors, I’m not a baby!”
“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 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 Sandy was doing something not allowed.
A dusty telescope sat by the window. 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.
Sometimes Sandy asked Momma to show her where Papa was, in the night sky, and Momma pointed to faraway stars and Sandy pretended she could see him.
She peered through the Mikos’ telescope, but she couldn’t see anything at all.
“Did you find it?” Iro whispered from the end of the hall.
“No.” She walked back to the open door, but the twins waved her back in, arms flailing:
“Don’t come out, go get the magazine!” “Hurry up!” “Go!” “Under the mattress!”
Sandy 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 alien magazine?
Sandy flipped to the end, but there were no secret symbols. Then she remembered: you had to read the whole thing 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 than blue…
“What the hell!”
Sandy jumped. Mikos stood in the doorway, angry, scowling:
“You’re not supposed to be here!” He took a step toward her: “This is my room! Get out! Give that back! Hey—” He grabbed the edge of her shirt as she dashed past him. “Stop!”
Sandy wailed a high-pitched scream. Mikos let go, and 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 banged a palm to the kitchen table.
“I don’t see why I’m grounded when they invaded my privacy,” spat Mykos.
Sandy scowled: “’cause you wouldn’t share the secret magazine!”
“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 red. “I can’t believe you. Where did you ever get this?”
“I found it, okay?”
“That’s not true!” Cait glowered, arms crossed in the corner. “We know where he got it!”
“Shut up, wormface!”
“Don’t call me that!”
“He got it from Uncle Bobby’s garage,” said Iro. “When we went to clean it out last spring. 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 from the garage?”
“No I didn’t! They’re lying!”
“Who cares? It’s not like he’s gonna come back and ask for it! He’s dead!”
His words rolled through the small kitchen, bouncing off the walls like brown ugly bats.
Aunt Delly put a hand over her mouth.
Uncle George stood up, “Damn it, boy,” and Sandy gaped at them, the world taking on a brown tinge.
“Papa’s not dead. He’s not!” She jumped to her feet, fists clenched. “He’s with Momma’s family in the sky, but we’ll go look for him one day when she fixes her car!”
Mikos rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”
“We are! Momma said…!” Sandy looked to Iro and Cait, who gave her identical helpless looks. “We’ll go look—Papa’s not dead!”
Uncle George stood up, reached for her—“Now, Sandy…”
“My Papa’s coming back!” Sandy grabbed the magazine from Aunt Delly before anyone could stop her, and she ran out the back door, dashing out into the street.
Aunt Delly and Uncle George shouted for her in the backyard, 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 in the sky with Momma’s family, and 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 close 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’s voice was hushed, annoyed. “Honestly George, this brother of yours. The drinking, the delusions—and I told you when he married this strange woman out of the blue that there’s something–”
“Sandy-y-y-y!” Iro’s voice boomed over Aunt Delly’s, drowning out her words. 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 Momma and Papa, so it was alright, then…
“…don’t think she still does those magazine shoots, right? You think that’s why she’s away so often? 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, alright? But she’s gonna be back any minute and we better have a kid to give her.”
“I told you there was something wrong with her…”
Their voices faded as they reached the far end of the park and disappeared around the corner. Sandy shifted on her branch and pulled her knees up to her chest, still clutching the magazine.
If she could only read the secret symbols and contact the aliens, Momma wouldn’t have to worry about fixing her car, and they could find Papa. Sandy missed him, but Momma missed him more. She was always looking up to the sky, with her worried look, then back at Sandy, and her eyes got droopy and sad.
Sandy opened the magazine, but the last page held only small writing and an ad for juice bottles called “BACARDI”. She flipped back, through dozens of pictures of shiny ladies with yellow hair. Many showed the lady who looked like Momma but wasn’t. Her face was too round, her eyes the wrong color. Sandy touched the crumpled pages. Was that the secret of the magazine? Perhaps the mystery of those pictures would help summon the aliens and find Papa.
But if secret symbols hid in those pages, Sandy couldn’t find them. In the end 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 as Sandy made her way around the house. Momma always knew where Sandy was, if she was near enough. She 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 from the aliens 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.
“Oh?” She picked up the magazine, flipped through it. “No, I don’t think that’s going to work. 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 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 to look at 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 behind the rose bush on the lawn. She looked like Millie when confronted with a thunderstorm.
“Your Papa’s gone for now,” she told Sandy.
“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.”
“Listen, Cel,” said Uncle George, “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…”
“Thank you,” said Momma, and, closing the door on Sandy’s side with a bang, she 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 the flying car anymore. We talked about this, right?”
Momma smiled and looked back to the road. But Sandy wasn’t done thinking.
“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 color,” 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 of Papa’s car, watching the trees go by on the side of the road. “Did Papa ever see your home face?”
She 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 big eyes and lots of moving muscles. Momma said the muscles helped when she had to change to her outside face.
“He did. That’s what I looked like when we met.” Momma smiled, “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, too. “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 Momma’s face muscles. Momma said most developed later, but she thought Sandy’s might not develop at all, ‘cause they were meant for blending in, and Sandy blended in just fine with her face just the way it was.
Sandy found that very unfair. She wanted a home face and an outside face, too.
“We’ll see,” said Momma, which was grown-ups always said when they didn’t want to give straight answers. Sandy went back to tapping her seat belt bear.
“Are you sure Papa’s okay?”
“I hope so.”
“Why did your family take him?”
“He asked too many questions,” said Momma, and Sandy didn’t know if she was kidding, so she stuck her tongue out until Momma laughed. “After we met, your Papa was curious. He wanted to meet my family, so he tried until he found a way to contact them. They didn’t like it.”
Momma hummed. “They don’t like different, either. Your Papa was different, and they were afraid of him. They didn’t…understand the situation.”
“Why?” Sandy began to wiggle her loose tooth, but then she remembered how Momma panicked when teeth fell out, and she stopped. “Was it because of me? ‘cause I’m different like Papa?” She frowned, “Are they afraid of me, too? Are they gonna put me in the hospital?”
“No.” Momma sighed, “They don’t know about you. We were—hiding, when they came. In my car. But your Papa didn’t listen to me and thought he could talk to them.”
Sandy chewed on her lower lip, until Momma’s eyes met hers in the rearview mirror.
“You don’t have to be afraid. No one will hurt you, or take you anywhere you don’t want to go.” Momma smiled, “And if anyone tries, I’ll eat them.” And she returned her home face briefly, 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 in the corn field, 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? Your family won’t mind, right?”
Momma smiled. “We’ll see.”
Sandy wrinkled her nose at her.
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.