Under the light of two turquoise moons and a blazing starlit sky, a family relaxed peacefully in their backyard swimming pool.
The son was asleep, curled up on the water’s surface, his thumb jammed in his mouth.
The daughter ﬂoated ﬂat on her stomach reading a book and trailing one hand back and forth through the ﬁzzy pink water.
The parents bobbed upright, sipping giant cups of blueberry tea while they watched the evening news on a large screen at the end of the pool. They frowned and made tch! noises as a redheaded princess wearing a rather grubby gown shook her head forcefully at the camera.
“She won’t budge,” said the mother.
“She’s a spoiled brat,” said the father.
“I hope you’re not talking about me.” Their daughter didn’t lift her eyes from her detective book.
“Of course not! We’re talking about the princess,” said the father. “She wants to destroy a planet!”
“Earth,” answered the mother.
The daughter sat up straight, her book forgotten. “Earth! That cute little planet where you went on your honeymoon? But we’re all going there on vacation for your anniversary! She can’t do that!”
“I’m afraid she can,” said the father glumly.
“We have to do something about it!” said the daughter.
“We can’t,” said the father.
“We can,” said the mother. “And we must.”
Honeyville Primary School,
Nicola Berry sat as still as concrete. Even when the fan at the front of the classroom rotated in her direction and everybody’s hair whooshed back as if they were sticking their heads out of car windows, she didn’t ﬂicker an eyelash.
She was trying something new.
Her subject was her teacher, Mrs. Zucchini, who was scribbling furiously on the board and shouting something about oceans and seas. Nicola didn’t know why Mrs. Zucchini was so upset about oceans and seas. They should have made her feel cool and refreshed.
Mrs. Zucchini’s real name was Mrs. Zukker, but everyone secretly called her Mrs. Zucchini. It suited her, as she generally had such an “eeeeuuuuw” expression on her face, you would think she’d just that minute been force-fed a plate of mashed zucchini. She was in a bad mood every day of her life because she disliked children and she had a severe allergy to chalk. She also hated hot weather and was particularly cranky on steamy, humid days like today. Once, Nicola had written her an anonymous note.
Dear Mrs. Zukker,
I am writing to suggest other careers that
might make you feel happier and less stressed. Possible interesting jobs include:
1. Jail warden (in an air-conditioned jail)
2. Dog trainer (of big snarly dogs who need to be yelled at)
3. Any job in a cold snowy country without chalk or children!
A Most Concerned Student
Nicola’s dad said she should deﬁnitely send Mrs. Zucchini the note and then laughed so hard he choked on his ham and pineapple pizza and had to be thumped on the back. Nicola’s mom said she thought Mrs. Zucchini might be offended and think that Nicola meant she wasn’t a good teacher. Nicola said well, actually, that was exactly what she meant. Then her mom told her a long story about a horrible teacher she’d had at school, who turned out to have a kind heart and gave her a lemon meringue pie recipe or something. Nicola knew that Mrs. Zucchini actually had an evil black heart, but she didn’t want to upset her mom, so she just patted her on the shoulder and said, “Thanks, Mom, that was really interesting and helpful.”
Yesterday, Nicola’s older brother, Sean, had told her that whenever he didn’t want to be picked by his teacher to answer a question in class, he just used mental telepathy. He said this was absolutely one hundred percent true and that he would do a lie-detector test if she wanted. Nicola said she didn’t have a lie detector handy, and Sean said that was her problem and did a somersault in midair. (They were on the trampoline in their backyard at the time.)
Nicola was pretty sure that Sean was making it up, but it was worth a try. She was hoping to learn mental telepathy before her birthday, which was December ﬁrst, just three days away. It would be so impressive. After everybody sang “Happy Birthday” and she blew out the candles, she would do a demonstration of her amazing new skills. Everyone would be astonished. Last year’s birthday had been a little dull, to be honest, and she wanted to make this one especially memorable. After all, if Sean could do mental telepathy, she could, too.
“WHAT IS THE NAME OF THIS SEA RIGHT HERE?” hollered Mrs. Zucchini as if they were all a million miles away instead of sitting right in front of her. She banged the chalk next to the squiggly map she’d drawn on the blackboard.
A few people put up their hands, but Mrs. Zucchini ignored them. She didn’t like it when someone knew the answer because that meant she couldn’t yell. Her pink piggy eyes darted around the classroom, searching for a person who would get it wrong. Her chalk allergy made her skin red and ﬂaky, and as she tapped the chalk in the palm of her hand, pieces of skin showered to the ﬂoor. It made Nicola itchy just looking at her.
“EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU SHOULD KNOW THE NAME OF THIS SEA!”
Nicola’s eardrums throbbed.
“I SAID IT JUST FIVE MINUTES AGO. IF YOU DON’T KNOW, THEN YOU’RE NOT LISTENING!”
Nicola did not know the name of the sea. There wasn’t even a name on the tip of her tongue. The only thing on the tip of her tongue was a frosty strawberry sensation from the ice pop she’d had at lunchtime.
If ever she needed mental telepathy, it was now.
She tried as hard as she could to beam her thoughts directly into the dark, swirly depths of Mrs. Zucchini’s brain: Don’t pick me. Don’t pick me. Don’t pick me. Pick Greta Gretch. Pick Greta Gretch. Pick Greta Gretch.
Greta Gretch was Nicola’s worst enemy. (Everyone knew Nicola and Greta couldn’t stand each other because they’d had some rather loud arguments in front of the whole class. Nicola found Greta to be one of the bossiest, most annoying people she’d ever met.) Unfortunately, Greta was waving her hand frantically like a drowning swimmer, so Mrs. Zucchini was pretending not to see her.
Nicola saw Mrs. Zucchini dart a suspicious look at Tyler Brown. Tyler was one of Nicola’s best friends and he was smart. Nicola guessed he probably knew the answer but was deliberately not putting up his hand. He looked back at Mrs. Zucchini with wide innocent eyes behind his round glasses and scrunched up his forehead as though he was trying to remember the name of the sea. Mrs. Zucchini would be thrilled to catch Tyler out with a wrong answer, but would she take the risk? What if Tyler was blufﬁng?
Don’t pick me. Don’t pick me. Pick Tyler! Don’t say Nicola Berry. Don’t say Nicola Berry. Say Tyler Brown. Don’t say . . .
Nicola nearly jumped out of her skin. She couldn’t believe it. She had been convinced the mental telepathy was working. It just went to show you couldn’t trust a single word her brother said.
“Up to the blackboard, young lady!” Mrs. Zucchini could tell by the expression on Nicola’s face she had a winner (in other words, a loser). She brandished the chalk. “Write down the name of the sea right here! If you’ve been listening, it should be a snap!”
Nicola sneaked a look over to the far side of the classroom and saw her other best friend, Katie Hobbs. Her face was ﬁlled with despair, as if Nicola had been sent off to ﬁght in a dangerous battle. Katie’s heart was as soft as marshmallow.
Nicola looked back to Tyler, who was slumped back in his chair as if he was all set for a midday nap. Hmmph! He wasn’t very sympathetic! She stood up slowly behind her desk. Her arms and legs felt all droopy, like stretched-out Silly Putty.
“Oh, dear, you poor thing, I’m so sorry, it’s such a terrible effort to walk all the way to the blackboard!” Mrs. Zucchini mocked.
Nicola looked back at Tyler and saw that he’d slumped even farther in his seat and was tipping his head back and squeezing his neck with both hands. What was he doing? Was he making fun of her? Nicola shot him an “I’ll get you later” look, but then she saw his eyes rolling about wildly. Was he trying to tell her something? He shut his eyes and stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth as if he were playing dead.
Of course! Part of her brain must have been listening after all. The answer was the DEAD SEA!
Apparently the Dead Sea had the saltiest water in the world. It was so salty, ﬂoating was incredibly easy. People bobbed happily about like corks and you could lie on top of the water as easily as lying on a boogie board. Nicola remembered thinking that this was one of the more interesting things Mrs. Zucchini had ever said and that she’d quite like to try swimming in the Dead Sea.
Nicola grinned to let Tyler know she got the message and went to take the chalk from Mrs. Zucchini’s outstretched hand. Then she saw Mrs. Zucchini’s face had turned a deep, triumphant purple.
“TYLER BROWN! DID YOU JUST GIVE NICOLA BERRY THE ANSWER? HAVE I JUST CAUGHT THE TWO OF YOU . . . CHEATING?”
Nicola saw Tyler blink rapidly, and Katie press her ﬁngers to her mouth. Her own knees started to shake.
And that’s when it happened.
There was a loud, urgent tapping on the classroom door.
Everybody turned to look and suddenly the air in the classroom felt different, like that magical moment just after the lights on a Christmas tree have been turned on.
Something fantastic and unexpected and unusual was about to happen. Nicola was sure of it.
There was a man tapping on the door, but he wasn’t someone boring like hairy-eared Mr. Nix, the school principal, come to give them a long lecture about “responsibility” and “community spirit” and picking up orange peels on the playground.
No, this man looked quite . . . interesting.
It wasn’t his clothes that were interesting. He was just wearing an ordinary suit and tie. His face wasn’t especially unusual, either. He just had an ordinary face—like someone’s dad. (Although he did have one of those extra large, bristly mustaches that can sometimes bring on a horrendous attack of the giggles if you look at it for too long.)
The thing that was so interesting about this man was that he was incredibly, incredibly tall. He was so tall that he had to bend almost in half to put his head through the door.
“Sit back down, Nicola!” hissed Mrs. Zucchini as if Nicola shouldn’t have been out of her place. Nicola practically danced back to her seat. She noticed Tyler sitting up very straight and alert, while Katie’s eyes were round with surprise.
“Can I help you?” snapped Mrs. Zucchini.
“Oh, I doubt that very much.” The man’s voice was as smooth as a warm caramel sundae.
“Well, but I haven’t been notiﬁed about any visitors today! Who are you? What do you want?”
“My name is Georgio Gorgioskio, and I’ve traveled from the other side of the galaxy on a very important, top secret mission that doesn’t concern you. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to have to kneel down. The ceilings on your planet are disgracefully low, aren’t they?”
With that, Georgio knelt down and somehow managed to shufﬂe quite gracefully into the classroom on his knees. The top hairs of his head lightly grazed the lightbulb.
He inclined his head politely at the class.
“I’m afraid, ah, Madam, I must respectfully ask you to leave,” said Georgio to Mrs. Zucchini. “My business only concerns your students. Please remove yourself.”
There was a gentle ripple of pleased huh! and confused huh? sounds around the classroom.
Mrs. Zucchini’s face reminded Nicola of a pot about to boil over. “I don’t know who you are, or where you have come from,” she spluttered. Tiny balls of spit ﬂew from her mouth in all directions. “But I will certainly not be leaving this classroom! This is my classroom! You have no right to order me around, you, you—beanpole!”
Up until then, Georgio had been listening with a courteous, mildly interested expression, but at the word beanpole, his face changed.
“DON’T YOU EVER, EVER CALL ME A BEANPOLE, YOU DREADFUL ZUCCHINI-FACED WOMAN!” He extended one long arm, grabbed Mrs. Zucchini by the throat, and thrust her from the classroom like a rag doll.
The class erupted.
The bad boys in the back thumped their ﬁsts on their desks and gave each other high ﬁves, yelling, “GO GEORGIO!” Even the really good students in the front clapped and cheered politely.
“Thank you! Why, thank you!” Georgio looked quite touched and gave a little bow. “Now, if I could ask for your attention.”
Instantly the class was quiet. It was the sort of quiet that Mrs. Zucchini only experienced in her dreams.
Georgio paused for a moment and then he lifted his chin. His bright blue eyes blazed and he held his hands out wide. “I am here to ﬁnd the Earthling Ambassador.”
Everyone stared at him. They had no idea what he was talking about, but it certainly sounded intriguing.
Georgio looked annoyed. “DIDN’T YOU HEAR ME? I’M HERE TO FIND THE EARTHLING AMBASSADOR!” he thundered.
There was silence. Nobody knew what to say.
Georgio dropped his arms. “I see you don’t keep up with current affairs. Well, I’ll be brief. I’m currently testing all school-age children throughout the world to see if I can ﬁnd the one qualiﬁed to take on the role of Earthling Ambassador. If I ﬁnd the Ambassador, he or she will then join me on a top secret intergalactic mission.”
Greta Gretch’s hand shot straight in the air and she waved it about madly.
Georgio looked startled, as if he’d never seen such a thing before. “Are you all right?” he asked worriedly. “Do you suffer from some sort of medical condition? I’m afraid I’m not very good with that sort of thing.”
“I just wanted to ask a question,” said Greta. “What qualiﬁcations do you need for the position of Earthling Ambassador? It’s just that I’m class president, so I have excellent leadership abilities.”
“I was just getting to that, you strange girl!” said Georgio. “I am the president of a rather exclusive committee comprised of some of the most highly intelligent, astute thinkers you’re ever likely to meet. Together we have come up with a very complex, very clever testing process to help pinpoint exactly the right person to undertake this mission. I won’t explain more because trying to understand would make your little brains explode, which would be messy. All you need to know is that we believe there is only one child on this entire planet with the necessary qualities to successfully complete the mission. So far, I have tested over two billion, three hundred forty-two thousand children without success! That means I have—” He did some quick calculations on his ﬁngers, muttering to himself. “—over four trillion, ﬁve hundred twenty-three children to go!”
For a moment he seemed depressed at the thought of all those children still to be tested, but then he brightened. “Who knows!” he cried. “The Earthling Ambassador might be in this very classroom sitting right in front of me! The Earthling Ambassador could, for example, be YOU!” He pointed at Lizbeth-Ann Roberts, who was extremely pretty and in love with herself.
Everybody stared jealously at Lizbeth-Ann as she ﬂicked her ponytail and batted her eyelashes. Georgio narrowed his eyes and gave Lizbeth-Ann another look. He frowned in distaste. “Although I rather doubt it,” he said, and Lizbeth-Ann pouted.
“ENOUGH DILLYDALLYING!” shouted Georgio. “Let the testing begin! Everybody to your feet! In just a few minutes we will know if the Earthling Ambassador is in THIS CLASSROOM!”
Copyright © 2018 by Liane Moriarty. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.