by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023
The Checkerboard Ultrarocket cruised through the upper atmosphere of Zorpa II. Commander Annie sat cross-legged in the cramped cockpit of her tiny, homemade spaceship and watched the enticing purple deserts and pale green oceans glide by. After her first aborted attempt, she’d never had the courage to land on Zorpa II alone. She’d been waiting all summer for Captain Callie to have time to join her, but Callie had been busy with a summer math class her mother was making her take.
But today would be different — today was Captain Callie’s birthday, and she’d have time for adventures.
A voice crackled over the Checkerboard’s radio: “Annie? Are you out here? It’s time for the party.”
“Yes, Mom,” Annie answered through the mike in her adapted bicycle helmet. “I’ll be back right away.” She’d embedded a force-field generator in the helmet to make it airtight and an algae-pack air-scrubber to recycle her air; she could have embedded the generator and algae-pack in any old hat, but it’s important to protect your head when flying through space just as much as when riding a bicycle. Besides, this way if she rode her bike into a lake or something, her helmet would let her breathe under water. She’d have to try that some time. She’d look up where the closest lake was the next time she borrowed her mom’s phone.
For now, Commander Annie veered the Checkerboard Ultrarocket up and out of the gravity-well of Zorpa II and zipped through the darkness of space to the nearest wormhole back into the hub-system of Andromezax. Wormholes littered the system of Andromezax like Pokémon in downtown Hill City.
Every way Commander Annie looked, swirling blue singularities beckoned to her, promising interesting new worlds to explore beyond them. The computer display on the Checkerboard marked the wormholes she’d already explored with little triangles, color-coded by how dangerous the planets they’d found had been. Green triangles for safe, easy worlds they’d explored with no problem. Red for dangerous worlds. Zorpa II was marked red. Tantalizing red.
The voice over the radio again: “Annie! Don’t make me come looking for you!”
“Just a minute, Mom!” Annie steered into the familiar, comforting wormhole back to the Terran Solar System. Its blue swirls were frothy with white streaks like sea foam in a tidepool, and the temperature aboard the ship fell, cool and crisp, as the vessel nosed in. The ship stretched through the folds and twists of space, making Annie’s limbs feel tingly and rubbery. On the other side, the Checkerboard emerged just beyond the orbit of Jupiter, and Commander Annie pushed the throttle.
The sleek little ship barreled across the solar system and didn’t flinch at slicing straight down through the Earth’s atmosphere. Commander Annie engaged the ship’s camouflage circuitry, and the individual-sized rocket blended into the blue sky until it crashed into the thicket of shrubs in the far back of the field behind her home. A controlled crash. Commander Annie was a daredevil, and she’d built her spaceship to handle rough landings.
Annie unfastened the safety belts she’d constructed from old backpack straps, took off her space helmet, stood up, and climbed out of the Checkerboard Ultrarocket. Leafy branches clawed at her head, pulling out strands of her messily tied ponytail. She held her space helmet by its chin strap with one hand, and she grabbed the Checkerboard by its open door with the other. She dragged it behind her through the field towards her house. With its chameleon circuits engaged, the Checkerboard Ultrarocket looked like nothing more than a tatty old cardboard box from when her parents had bought a new refrigerator, scuffed up on the outside and decorated on the inside with a battered checkerboard and wires pulled from any broken, outdated piece of electronics Annie had been able to get her hands on. There was even an ancient rotary dial from a crazy-old telephone in there.
The cardboard slid over the grass smoothly. Annie had pulled it across the field behind her house many times.
Annie’s mom was standing in the open sliding glass door of their kitchen, hands on her hips. She didn’t know that her words had been carried across folds in space to a radio in a different galaxy by a smart transmitter that Annie had hidden in one of the hanging flower pots behind the geranium leaves. “Are you going to make me throw that thing in the car again?” She was talking about the Checkerboard Ultrarocket, but to her it looked like nothing more than an old, well-loved cardboard box.
Annie didn’t answer. She just pulled the deactivated space vessel up onto the porch with a bump and stared her mother down until she stepped aside, letting Annie pull the seeming-cardboard box into the house.
“Do you really think Callie wants to play spaceships at her fourteenth birthday party?”
“Yes,” Annie hissed. Callie had asked her to wait on Zorpa II until she had time to help. Callie cared as much about space exploration as Annie did. Callie was her captain.
Annie’s mom shrugged, scooped up the wrapped birthday present from the kitchen table where it had been waiting, and pointed toward the rolled up sleeping bag and backpack on the floor. Annie had packed her stuff earlier in the backpack — toothbrush, change of clothes, flashlight, high protein snacks, anti-venom, and other basic sleepover/space exploration supplies. Annie carried the backpack and sleeping bag out to the car. Her mom wrestled the spaceship into the car’s hatchback, rolling her eyes and sighing.
As they drove over to Callie’s house, Annie’s mom didn’t say anything about growing out of spaceship games, but she’d said those things before. Annie heard them in her silence as they drove down the suburban blocks towards Callie’s house anyway.
When they arrived, Annie’s mom carried the sleeping bag and backpack up to Callie’s front door and talked to Callie’s mom, Doris, while Annie threw the cardboard spaceship over the fence into Callie’s backyard like she’d done dozens of times before. Then Annie got the wrapped present from where she’d left it on the front seat of the car and went up to the front door with a big grin. She barely stopped to say ‘hi’ to Doris on her way up to Callie’s room.
On the stairs going up, Annie heard giggling and voices from the floor above. She knelt down on the carpeted stairs and listened. She’d sat on these stairs talking to Callie many times. The whole house was like a second home to her. But she’d never heard other kids’ voices here. Had Callie invited other people to her birthday party? For the last three years, birthdays had been just Annie and Callie, sleeping over, sneaking out in the middle of the night to fly to other planets, and sharing secret adventures. Ever since fourth grade when Annie had gone up to Callie in the lunch line and asked her if she had any pets (two cats and a rabbit — just like Annie!), they’d been best friends. Always just the two of them. Even when they’d been in different schools for a year, because Callie was a year ahead and they’d met while in a fourth/fifth split class, that hadn’t fazed their friendship at all.
Last year on Annie’s twelfth birthday, they’d found a planet with flowers that chattered and sang in alien languages. The experience had been like walking into Alice in Wonderland if the book had been ten times more awesome, because instead of singing about springtime, these talking flowers — once the Checkerboard’s computer translated the recordings for them, which had taken weeks of computation — gave Callie and Annie directions to Andromezax, opening up whole new sectors of the universe to them.
On Callie’s last birthday, they’d visited a planet where purple dolphin-like creatures soared through the sky. Sure, they’d had razor-sharp teeth and tried to eat the two of them, but Captain Callie had turned the tables on the psycho-dolphs, caught one with a spear, and roasted its flesh over a campfire. The purple meat had tasted like chewy, smoky cotton candy.
Why would Callie want to ruin all that by inviting anyone else today? The Checkerboard Ultrarocket wouldn’t fit more than the two of them…
And it sounded like there were a lot more than two voices behind the door to Callie’s room. Usually the door wasn’t shut. But it was now. Annie pulled herself together, went up the last few stairs, and knocked on Callie’s door. She held the neatly wrapped birthday present in front of her like a shield.
A girl with pixie-cut hair opened the door slightly and poked her face through. “What’s the password?” she asked, but she devolved into laughter before Annie could indignantly refuse to answer.
“Is that my mom?” Callie’s voice said from inside. “Is it time for cake and pizza?”
The door opened wider, and Callie started to grin when she saw Annie. The grin faltered though — either at Annie’s confused frown or maybe wondering about the pizza. Though from the way Callie’s gaze flicked over her, Annie almost wondered if she’d dressed wrong for the occasion. Annie always wore her mom’s old NASA t-shirt, even though it hung almost to her knees when she didn’t tie a knot in the side. Her mom had to steal it from her twice a week while she slept to wash it. And her jean shorts were raggedy cutoffs with holes in them. They were great, comfortable adventuring clothes, and Annie had never felt self-conscious about them before. Not until now.
The girl with pixie hair was wearing a jean jacket studded with pink crystals and some kind of leggings with ruffles around the ankles. Another girl behind her was wearing a strappy top and red jeans. And a boy with long hair was wearing a flowy sundress. Actually, Annie wasn’t sure if he was a boy. All of them had pierced ears and necklaces and bracelets. The kind of jewelry that could get caught on things and be dangerous while adventuring.
Annie only wore one piece of jewelry: a silver chained anklet with half a heart dangling from it. The half heart read “best,” and Callie had the one that read “friend.” Annie wore hers tucked into her sock to keep it safe, even though Callie always told her that was silly. “What’s the point of wearing jewelry if no one can see it?” she’d ask. But Annie could feel the links of the chain and the ragged edge of the heart under her sock.
“You look weird,” Annie said. It was the kind of comment that her mom always chided her for, and she could see it made Callie unhappy as soon as she’d said it. But it was true. And she and Callie were always honest with each other.
Callie had cut her hair at an angle and dyed it with rainbow streaks. She was wearing a dress instead of her usual Mickey Mouse shirt and shorts. Annie wondered if Doris had made Callie wear it… but then she looked at the other girls in the room again. Callie fit in with them. Annie… not so much.
Usually, Callie and Annie fit together, like the two half hearts on their anklets. Right now, even though Callie was wearing a lot more jewelry than usual, she didn’t have her anklet on. Annie saw it sitting crumpled up in a little pile of silver on one of her bookshelves in front of the books about space and dinosaurs.
“These are my friends from summer math,” Callie said, gesturing at the three others. She introduced pixie-hair as Juno, red-jeans as Danielle, and the boyish one as Mike.
But Mike leaned forward, waved, and said, “Actually, Mckayla. I’m changing it before high school. To start fresh.”
“Oh, sorry,” Callie said.
“No problem.” Mckayla sat down on the end of Callie’s bed. “I hadn’t told you yet.”
“So, who are you?” Juno asked.
Commander Annie wanted to answer that she was Captain Callie’s second in command, best pilot in the sector, and vanquisher of the tentacled octopus-creatures on Hegula VIII. But mostly she wanted Callie to answer for her and say, “Oh, Annie? She’s my best friend.”
When Callie didn’t say anything, Annie mumbled out her own name. Then she sat down on the bed beside Mckayla, keeping the present for Callie awkwardly on her lap. She played with the ribbon, pulling the curls taut and letting them snap back, while the other girls went back to their earlier conversation. The three new girls teased Callie about some boy in their math class, and her cheeks blushed bright red. But she also smiled, like she was happy to be talking about boys and crushes. She never talked about anything like that with Annie.
But then Annie wasn’t interested in talking about crushes. She didn’t like any boys or any girls and found the whole idea frustrating and embarrassing. She didn’t know why Callie was wasting time being so frivolous with these new friends.
Annie was relieved when Doris knocked on the door and called out, “Pizza time!” But then she was puzzled and troubled by how all the other girls rolled their eyes and mocked Callie’s mom before going out the door.
All five girls filed downstairs. Annie took the lead, eager to get back to a more familiar situation and hoping that after dinner all of these interlopers would go away. Probably, she was the only one spending the night, and they could get in some late night exploration even if the afternoon had been a confusing bust. Callie dawdled in the back whispering with Danielle, like she didn’t even care about cake and presents.
The pizza was boring — plain pepperoni instead of the fancy artichoke and feta stuff that Callie and Annie usually picked — and the cake was a huge disappointment. Callie’s dad, Ryan, was an incredible baker and for her last two birthdays had made amazing, layered, chocolate ganache and caramel creme cakes from scratch. This year, he hadn’t made a cake, because Callie insisted she wanted one of the flavorless white sugar bombs from the grocery store. One of those cakes with beautiful, brightly colored roses on top that taste bitter because of all the food coloring. Callie and her new friends loved it, fighting over who got pieces with the roses. Annie barely touched her piece.
Annie was not having a good time. But Callie was. And that made everything so much worse. Annie had never been around Callie while feeling left out, sad, and alone before. At school, the two of them would always hunker down in a corner of the courtyard during lunch and plan out the Checkerboard’s flight path for their next sleepover and write out stories about the worlds they’d visited during their last sleepover. Until this summer — with Callie being so busy with the math course — Annie had measured her life from one sleepover to the next. This summer, she’d been exploring the universe all alone, and it was looking like things were going to stay that way.
After pizza and cake, Callie opened her presents — a new tablet computer from her parents; mostly trendy clothes and art supplies from her new friends; and of course, there was Annie’s present. Annie’s mom had helped her take apart stuffed animals she’d found at thrift stores and sewed them back together, rearranged and mismatched. She’d selected the maned head of a lion; the long, ridged green body of an alligator; some wings from a yellow bird; and extra legs from a giraffe and a unicorn. Also the unicorn’s horn, sewed right into the middle of the lion’s fluffy, fuzzy mane for good measure.
Annie was really proud of the work she’d put into making her present for Callie — the hybrid plushie looked kind of like one of the alien races they’d met during winter break on a marshy, meadowy green world covered in tall grasses and star-like white flowers.
Annie saw the recognition in Callie’s eyes when she saw the plushie nestled inside the unwrapped box. The corner of her mouth quirked in a smile, but she said, “Thank you, Annie,” really quickly and overly politely. She moved on to the next present without even pulling the plushie out of the box or naming it.
With each of the cutesy tops, pairs of leggings, and patterned socks, she’d held them up against herself admiringly, showing them off proudly.
Annie was so hurt that when the other girls went back upstairs, she didn’t go with them. She quietly peeled away and slipped into the darkened living room, a weirdly fancy room unlike any in her own house. The living room here had a piano, glassed-in shelves covered in porcelain dolls, and couches that looked like no one ever sat on them. Annie sat on the floor in front of one of the couches, leaning her back against it, moping in the dark.
After a while, Doris looked in and saw her. “Would you like a light on?”
“No thanks,” Annie said. “I’m just…”
“Having trouble fitting in?” Doris offered.
Annie didn’t answer.
Doris sat down on one of the pristine couches. There was enough light spilling in from the hallway to see. “I could talk to the other girls about including you,” Doris said.
Annie shuddered. She knew enough to know that having an adult intervene on her behalf wouldn’t help. “I’m fine. Just taking a break.”
“Okay.” Doris got up. “Let me know if you need anything.”
“Do you know…” Annie hesitated. She wasn’t sure she’d like the answer to her question. “Do you know when the other girls are being picked up?”
Doris pointed at a lumpy pile at the far end of the couch, and Annie realized with a sinking feeling that it was her rolled-up sleeping bag… beside three others. “Ten o’clock tomorrow morning,” Doris said. “Same as you.” She turned away, stepping toward the hall. But then she stopped, turned back and said, “Ryan and I are doing a puzzle of one of M. C. Escher’s paintings in the entertainment room. You’re welcome to join us. We could probably use the help. It’s very challenging.”
“No thanks,” Annie said. “But I might go outside…” She knew Doris wasn’t crazy about her and Callie playing in the backyard after dark, and the sun had already gone down while Callie and the others lingered over pizza. “…and check on Mr. Fuzzybottom if that’s okay?”
Doris smiled. She could never resist Annie’s connection with the animals, especially their Holland Lop bunny who got extra bouncy whenever Annie was around. “I’m sure he’d love the attention.”
Annie stared at the lumpy pile of sleeping bags for what felt like a very long time in the darkened room. She could hear happy voices upstairs. She wanted to be part of the happiness. But she was afraid to go up there. Sometimes, kids her own age (or a little older, in this case) seemed scarier to her than all of the dangerous alien planets in the universe.
She looked at the light coming from the hallway, and she imagined a little red triangle marking the door to Callie’s room. Dangerous. In comparison, the red triangle marking Zorpa II seemed downright inviting. Enticing, even.
Maybe Annie had waited long enough for her captain. Maybe it was time for Commander Annie to go on an adventure — a real adventure, not just lurking about in the upper atmosphere — on her own. Solo. One intrepid explorer against the universe.
Continue on to Part 2…