by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023
The Checkerboard Ultrarocket shot through the hyperspace portals linking Zorpa II’s location in the universe back to the Milky Way galaxy, the terran solar system, and finally Earth. The greens of Earth’s continents looked richer and the blues more regal compared to the faded shades of Zorpa II’s honeydew green oceans. Earth is a beautiful world, and all worlds are like gemstones set in the black backdrop of space. Even dusty, rocky asteroids and icy hunks of comet, hurtling aimlessly through space, are the bits of gravitational color that make the universe complicated and exciting.
Annie flew past the well-lit day side of Earth into the shadowy night side, and aimed at the city lights glittering along the coast of her continent. She’d flown this way home so often, she could do it instinctively, without the sensors and readouts on her shipboard computers at all. She knew which cluster of lights was her city, and she knew the constellation within that cluster that was her neighborhood. She could see the lights on in her own house, but she flew past her house, and on to the slightly warmer yellow lights of Callie’s home. She landed in the backyard, setting the Checkerboard Ultrarocket down silently, gently, beside Doris’s vegetable garden. Callie’s mom had been furious the one time that they’d landed on top of her garden, squashing all of the tomato plants. And truth be told, Annie had missed picked fresh, sun-warmed tomatoes from their garden for the end of that summer. Although, they’d found some pretty good substitutes on a grayish-blue planet orbiting a triple sun. Of course, they couldn’t bring them home to Doris as a consolation — the alien fruits would have raised too many questions to be worth the slight improvement to dinner salads at Callie’s house.
Annie climbed out of the Checkerboard and pulled off her converted bicycle helmet. She breathed in the air deeply and let it out with a sigh. It smelled like home. Boring. She missed Zorpa II already.
But she had bridges to build and rebuild. She had a birthday party to participate in. She wasn’t going to give up on her friendship with Callie this easily.
Before going inside, Annie dug through the extra garden supplies beside the back porch. She found a tiny, empty terracotta pot and filled it with a handful of soil. She took Eye-la from where the little flower had been clipped to her backpack strap and placed the tiny bloom gently, ever so gently in the soil-filled pot. Eye-la blinked prettily at Annie with her pink petals, and Annie smiled. “I hope you grow,” she whispered. “I’ll take good care of you, and you can be the first plant from Zorpa II to colonize a whole new planet. Would you like that?”
Eye-la didn’t have much choice. The daisy-like flower was already here, for better or worse, for sickness or health. Annie hoped she’d grow into a strong, strange bush of flower-eyes in her backyard. Until Eye-la grew bigger though, Annie thought she’d take the plant around with her, let the little daisy explore this new world, see as much as possible before setting roots into the ground of an alien planet.
For now, Annie brought Eye-la inside and set the terracotta pot on the kitchen windowsill. No one would notice or disturb Eye-la there. If by chance Doris or Ryan did notice Eye-la, they’d simply see a funny little flower. Adults who aren’t expecting to see anything out of the ordinary are remarkably good at not understanding what’s right in front of them.
Annie stowed her backpack and space helmet in the living room, and then she gathered all of her courage to climb the stairs up to Callie’s room. Somehow, climbing those familiar, carpeted stairs was as scary as it had been to descend into the atmosphere of a totally foreign alien planet. Crashing into a forest of alien trees is supposed to feel scary, so she knew she was feeling the right way when she’d been terrified.
Walking through the door into her best friend’s bedroom — a door she’d walked through countless time before and a room that felt almost like a second room of her own — shouldn’t be scary. She’d always felt safe and loved at Callie’s home. It was a place she belonged. A second home.
Tonight, she didn’t know if she belonged here at all, and feeling that way was so strange to her that she didn’t even feel like herself. She felt detached and floating, like she was only watching herself step into Callie’s room.
The room was empty, but there were clothes laid out on the bed, and a torn-out sheet of notebook paper with a scrawled note lay on top of them. Annie picked up the note and recognized Callie’s handwriting.
“If you want to join us, the portal’s in the closet. You should wear something appropriate for a Midnight Ball in a fairy realm — I picked out a dress that would fit you, but McKayla thought you should have another option, so I also found some of my dad’s old dress clothes that are too small for him but he keeps in the back of his closet. I hope you decide to come! — Callie”
Annie stared at the clothes for a while. She didn’t like wearing anything but her NASA t-shirt and shorts, but she had to admit that Ryan’s old dress clothes looked kind of fun — black slacks with a shiny stripe up the side of each pant leg; a blazer with a collar that came to angular points; and a bright red bow tie. She liked the bow tie. It made her think of the bright cherry red of her bicycle helmet.
Even though the room was empty, Annie felt nervous and self-conscious pulling off her shorts. Being bare-legged in a room that had so recently been filled with kids she barely knew made her feel vulnerable and anxious. She pulled the slacks on as quickly as possible.
The slacks might have been too small for Callie’s dad, but they were still way too big for Annie. Fortunately, Callie had left a belt out for her as well, and she cinched the pants up tight. She left her NASA shirt on under the blazer and bowtie. She could see in the mirror on the closet door that she looked silly. But kind of dashing too.
Annie opened the closet, pushed aside the row of hanging clothes, and found herself staring at a portal much like the one in the back of Ootel’s closet. Much like the portals floating in space that Annie flew the Checkerboard Ultrarocket through on her missions.
The universe — no, the multi-verse — is riddled with stitches that sew the fabric of space and time together in multifarious ways. Everything connects to everything. Annie stepped toward the portal. She held out her hand. The bubbling, rippling blue and purple surface bent outward, just slightly, as if it were reaching towards her. But in this portal, Annie saw no reflection of herself. The bubbly blue surface glowed softly, and the light fell on her hand like dappled sunlight under a broad oak tree on a late summer evening. Then the light shifted, brightening, and suddenly it was like the early morning light that slanted through the blinds in her room, filtered through the leaves of the pink rose bush outside.
Annie touched the bubbly blue surface, and the palm of her hand tingled. She pushed her hand through, and she felt a cool draft whistle through her fingers. Annie stepped through to the other side.
On the other side, golden sunlight as full and warm as fresh apple cider streamed down through trellises and arches of intertwining vines, growing thick with flowers of every color. Every color of the rainbow. Laughter tinkled like silver bells from the flowers, and Annie felt the panic rising inside of her. One of the flowers — a red rose as large as a head of cabbage — bobbed lightly, and a tiny fluttering creature rose from where it had rested among its velvety, scarlet petals.
“You must be Annie,” the fairy said, hovering like a hummingbird above the flower. She was most certainly a fairy with her swallowtail butterfly wings, flowing white dress, and proportions as perfectly charming and symmetrical as any porcelain doll. There was nothing else she could be, no other way to describe her, no matter how Annie’s scientific sensibilities rebelled against what she was seeing.
“The others told me you might be coming,” the fairy said in her voice of tinkling bells. “Well, one of them told me you’d be coming — the others didn’t think so. Would you like me to take you to them?”
The fairy flew closer. She narrowed her eyes, measuring Annie in a way that made Annie feel small, even though she was looking at a person who could fit in the palm of her hand. “Or would you like to go back to hiding in your own realm?”
In spite of the size difference, this fairy looked more human than Ootel, but Annie had felt so much more connected to Ootel. She’d liked Ootel better.
Annie remembered the vision of herself in a universe where she’d turned her back on Callie, and she swallowed her pride. “Yes, please, I’d like to join the others from my… realm,” Annie said, only fumbling a little over the world “realm.” She kept reminding herself that she was simply in a parallel universe; not scientifically impossible. Only improbable. But Ootel had been working on technology that might reach to realities like this one too.
The fairy smiled coldly, flew up close to Annie’s ear, and whispered, “Follow me.” Then she flitted away, flying down a cobblestone path between the arching trellises of flowers. Annie followed, feeling uncomfortable in her different, fancy clothes and out of place in a realm she didn’t understand.
Finally, the cobblestone path opened up to a courtyard, surrounded by buildings that looked like old Victorian cottages. In one corner, a quartet of elven musicians played harp and lute-like instruments. Their music lilted like threads of gold and silver. A nightingale on a perch sang with them, music flowing from its downy throat like ruby red ribbons woven into the tapestry of silver and gold.
The cobblestones in the courtyard were arranged in patterns, darker and lighter stones creating pathways that chased and swirled around each other. Dancing on the cobblestones, delicate feet following the swirling cobblestone patterns, were more elves, wearing fancy clothes, and letting their long hair stream behind them.
Annie had never felt more out of place in her life.
Then two of the dancing elves parted, and between them Annie caught sight of Callie. Her hair had been piled high on her head in intricate braids, woven with flowers like those hanging from the trellises everywhere. On her shoulder, three of the fairies perched, whispering in her ear, and Callie laughed, happier looking than Annie had ever seen her before.
Annie smiled at the sight of Callie’s smile. The joy apparent on her face was the same expression that accompanied all of the best of Annie’s memories. But then the happiness soured to jealousy inside of her. Callie was happy without her.
Callie was happier without her. She was surrounded by her friends from math class and literal fairies and elves.
Annie turned to leave, but the fairy who’d led her from the portal flew after her, grabbed the tip of her messy pony tail, and pulled.
“Ouch!” Annie cried. The cry drew attention to her, and Annie felt the gaze of a courtyard full of mythical creatures turn upon her. Daggnabiblast, there was even a shining white unicorn, lying on its side by one of the adorable Victorian cottages, and the unicorn was looking at her, seeing her in ill-fitted men’s dress clothes stolen from Ryan’s closet. Her face burned, and she wanted to cry. She felt like she’d die from embarrassment. She wanted to leave. But she didn’t think she could ever face Callie again if she ran out now. The embarrassment would follow her forever. She had to power through it.
Annie approached Callie and said, staring down at the cobblestones under her feet, “Hey, happy birthday.” She was still wearing her comfortable but beat-up sneakers. Those looked all wrong here, surrounded by elves in satiny shoes with ribbon laces. Were they all wearing ballet slippers? What was wrong with elves? And why in the name of science were there even elves here at all? How could they possibly exist? And how could Callie’s friends have possibly found them among all of the infinite possibilities of parallel universes?
Callie came forward and took Annie by her hands. Her hands felt smooth and warm, completely different from Ootel’s. And when Annie looked up, Callie stood nearly a head shorter than her. Annie hadn’t realized she’d grown so much taller over the last few months. Callie pulled Annie into a spin, and the two girls spun around in the middle of a cobblestone courtyard.
Annie leaned her head back as she spun and looked up at the ceiling of woven vines and rainbow flowers, blurring together into a rainbow smudge as she spun. She could feel herself getting dizzy. It had been a long day, but it made her happy to spin with Callie. It reminded her of the world with carnivorous purple dolphin creatures and how the two of them had spun on the slippery surface of an iceberg after slaying one.
Annie and Callie spun right into one of the elegant elves, and Annie was horrified. But then Callie started laughing, and the elf helped steady her back on her feet. Then curtsied elaborately. And Callie curtsied back. Unsure of exactly what to do, Annie bowed.
“Spinning,” Annie said awkwardly. “Like after we killed the psycho-dolph, remember?”
Callie only rolled her eyes, either to say, “How could I forget?” or maybe “Why do you bother to remember?” Annie wasn’t sure how to interpret it. But she took a deep breath and let herself get swept up in the party.
She drank punch that tasted like nectar and crumby pastries that tasted like honey. She tried not to worry about fairy tales she’d read where eating food from fairy realms caused mortals to wither away when they returned home. She also tried not to worry about having left her scanner in her backpack, meaning she couldn’t be one hundred percent sure this fairy food was edible for humans.
But it did taste good.
After hours, Annie pulled Callie aside and said, “Should we get home? Aren’t you worried about your parents realizing we’re gone? You could get in trouble. We all could.”
“Oh, time passes differently here,” Callie said lightly. She leaned against the wall of one of the buildings edging the courtyard and slid down until she was sitting on the cobblestones. She looked tired. “We’d been here three days by the time you showed up.”
Annie’s eyes widened. Time passing differently in fairy realms was a classic hallmark of the kind of fairy tale that was actually thinly veiled horror. Of course, time differentials could also be made possible by the time continuums of two different universes travelling at an angle to each other instead of in perfect parallel. Physics. Geometry. That thought made Annie feel better. More grounded. She sat down beside Callie.
“How long are we planning to stay?” Annie asked. It sure would be easier to go off exploring other planets if their time continuums travelled at a different rate than on Earth as well… Then she could always be home in time for supper. She wondered if this knowledge could be used for developing time travel. “Which of your friends did you say knew how to make this portal?”
Callie shrugged. “I don’t think we’ll stay too much longer. And it was McKayla and Juno. You should talk to them.” She glanced at her other friends. Juno was dancing in the arms of a much taller elf, and McKayla was browsing the table of honeyed treats. “If you gave them a chance, I think you’d like them.”
“Maybe,” Annie hazarded. She had her doubts. But she was curious about what kind of “magic” they’d used to get here. If she could learn about it, maybe she could pass something useful on to Ootel. Magic is nothing more than science that isn’t understood yet. At least, that was what Annie kept telling herself, no matter how pointedly the regal unicorn stared at her with lavender eyes from across the courtyard.
“Callie,” Annie said. She let herself lean over, toward Callie. The sides of their heads touched, and Annie felt a sense of safety flow through her. Even if Callie had moved on from visiting alien planets, she was still Annie’s best friend. And they could go on new adventures together. If nothing else, high school sounded like a terrifying adventure, and Annie was glad to have a friend who’d already have been there a year when Annie arrived. She’d be friends with a sophomore. And if she could figure out making friends with Juno, McKayla, and Danielle, then maybe she’d be friends with a whole group of them.
“Yes?” Callie asked.
“I flew to Zorpa II tonight, before coming here,” Annie said. “Without you.”
“I figured. What was it like?”
Annie told Callie all about crashing the Checkerboard, the springy ground under the forest, and meeting Ootel, Yand, and Eye-la. Then she showed Callie the magenta cord around her ankle, right above the silver chain that represented their own friendship.
“Oh, I have the perfect thing!” Callie exclaimed, touching the magenta cord lightly. “Danielle gave me a jewelry making kit, and we can make a charm bracelet together for you to give to Ootel!”
“That would be great,” Annie said. With a yawning fear in her stomach, she added, “Would you like to come with me? To give it to Ootel?”
Callie answered how Annie had feared. “No… But we can make it together.”
Annie nodded, accepting the way their friendship was changing. “That would be nice. Thanks.” After another moment’s thought, she asked, “You know your space helmet?”
“You mean my dad’s old football helmet?”
“Yeah… Can I… can I have it? You know, so I can take Ootel on a few space flights? I’ll need more than one helmet to take on a passenger.” Though, she’d still have to put some thought into how to make either of the helmets fit a head with knobby horns like Ootel’s.
“You can borrow it,” Callie said.
Annie smiled. “That will be good enough.”