George and the Unbreakable Code
On another planet, the tree house would have been the ideal spot for stargazing. On a planet with no parents, for example, it would have been perfect. The tree house—halfway up the big apple tree in the middle of the vegetable patch—was the right height, location, and angle for a boy like George to spend all night staring up at the stars. But his mom and dad had other ideas, involving chores, homework, sleeping in beds, eating supper, or spending ‘family time’ with his little twin sisters, none of which were of any interest to George.
All George wanted to do was take a picture of Saturn. Just one teeny photo of his favorite planet—the enormous frozen gas giant with its beautiful icy, dusty rings. But at this time of year, when the sun set so late, Saturn didn’t appear in the evening sky until it got dark out. Which was so far past George’s bedtime, there was no hope of his parents leaving him out in the tree house until then.
Sitting with his legs dangling over the edge of the platform, George sighed and tried to calculate how many hours and days it would be before he was old enough to be free. . . .
“?’S up?” His train of thought was broken as a slight figure dressed in long baggy camo shorts, a hoodie, and a baseball cap bounded onto the tree house platform.
“YOLO!” George cheered up instantly. “Annie?”
Annie was his best friend, and had been ever since she and her mom and dad had moved to Foxbridge a couple of years ago. She lived next door, but that wasn’t the only reason why they were friends. George just liked her: Annie, the daughter of a scientist, was fun and clever and cool and brave. Nothing was beyond her—no
adventure could be shunned, no theory go untested, and no assumption stay unchallenged.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Nothing,” George muttered. “Just waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“For something to happen.” He sounded miserable.
“Me too,” said Annie. “D’you think the universe has forgotten about us now that we’re not allowed to go on space adventures anymore?”
George sighed. “D’you think we’ll ever get to fly in space again?”
“Not right now,” said Annie. “Perhaps we’ve had all our fun already; now that we’re eleven, we’ve got to be really serious all the time.”
George stood up, feeling the wooden planks rock slightly under his feet. He was almost sure that the tree house was safe and that there was very little chance they could both go crashing down to the hard ground below. He’d built it with his dad, Terence, out of stuff they’d scavenged from the local dump. And once, when they were busy constructing the “house” part where he and Annie now sat, his dad had plunged his foot through a rotten plank. Fortunately, he hadn’t fallen through entirely, but it had taken all George’s strength to pull him back up again, while below, on the ground, his twin sisters, Juno and Hera, shrieked with laughter.
The good thing about the mini-accident was that the tree house was judged dangerous enough by George’s
parents for his toddler sisters to be banned from coming up the rope ladder. Which made George very happy. It meant that the tree house was his kingdom, protected from the chaos of the rest of his house. Under strict instructions to pull up the rope ladder to stop eager small people from shinnying up to join their beloved brother, George was very careful about security. He never left the ladder down. Which meant . . .
“Hey!” He suddenly realized that Annie shouldn’t have been able to appear out of nowhere like that. “How did you get up here?”
Annie grinned. “I was bitten by a spider when I was just a baby,” she intoned dramatic-ally. “Which gave me special magic powers that I am only just coming to understand.”
George pointed over to the knotted rope that he had just spotted lassoed on to the end of the thickest branch. “Is that your work?”
“It is,” admitted Annie in her normal voice.
“I just wanted to see if I could do it.”
“I would have let the ladder down for you,” George told her.
“Last time I asked you to do that,” she complained, “you made me guess about a thousand million different passwords, and I still had to give you half my Kit Kat.”
“That wasn’t a Kit Kat!” George reminded her. “It was a piece of ‘chocolate’?”—he used his fingers to make quotation marks around the word—“you’d tried to create under lab conditions, done up in a Kit Kat wrapper to see if I could tell the difference.”
“If a mouse can grow an ear on its back,” protested Annie, “then why can’t I grow a Kit Kat? It’s got to be possible to make self-replicating chocolate molecules that just keep on doubling.”
Annie was a budding experimental chemist. She often used the kitchen as her own personal laboratory space, which drove her mother, Susan, crazy. Her mom would reach into the fridge to get a carton of apple juice, and encounter crystalline protein growth instead.
“FYI,” said George. “Your Kit Kat tasted like a dinosaur’s toe—”
“It did not!” interrupted Annie. “My homegrown chocolate was delicious. I don’t know what you mean. And when have you ever chewed a dinosaur’s toe anyway?”
“Toenail,” finished George. “Seriously gross. Like
it had been fossilized for a trillion years.”
“ROFL,” replied Annie sarcastically. “?’Cos you’re, like, so gour-may.”
“You don’t even know what ‘gourmet’ means,” George retorted.
“What is it, then?” George was pretty sure he’d won this one.
“It’s like when you have some gours,” explained Annie, “and it’s the month of May. It makes you go all gour-may.” She just made it to the end of the sentence before bursting out laughing—so hard that she fell off the beanbag.
“You’re an idiot,” said George good-naturedly.
“With an IQ of 152.” Annie picked herself up off the floor. She’d had her IQ tested the week before, and she wasn’t about to let anyone forget the results. Suddenly she spotted the lineup of George’s possessions. “What’s all this?”
“I’m getting my things ready.” George pointed at the equipment, which had been rescued from the tiny hands of his twin sisters and borne up to the tree house for safety. There was a 60 mm white telescope with black bands at each end, and a camera that he was attempting to rig up to the telescope so that it could take a picture. The telescope had been a present from his grandmother, Mabel, but amazingly, the camera had come from the dump. “So I can get photos of Saturn
when it gets dark. If my boring mom and dad don’t make me go in. It’s my vacation project.”
“Cool!” Annie squinted into the eyepiece of the telescope. “Ew!” she exclaimed immediately. “It’s got something sticky on it!”
“What!” shouted George.
He looked at the telescope more carefully. Sure enough, around the eyepiece was some kind of gluey pink substance.
“That’s enough!” His temper suddenly exploded. He started to climb down the rope ladder.
“Where are you going?” Annie scrambled after him. “It’s no biggie! We can clean it off!”
But George had steamed ahead, back into his house, his face red with fury. He barged into the kitchen, where his father was attempting to give Juno and Hera their dinner.
“And one for Dadda!” Terence was saying to Hera, who opened her mouth, accepted the green goo, and promptly spat it back at him. Hera then shrieked with laughter and banged her spoon maniacally on the tray of her high chair, which made all the other bits and bobs of food jump around like Mexican jumping beans. Juno, who tended to copy her twin, joined in, banging her spoon and making a disgusting wet farting noise with her lips.
Terence turned to look at George, an expression of mixed suffering and joy on his face; green slime dripped off his beard and down his homemade shirt.
George took a deep breath to start on his angry tirade about small people who messed up other people’s stuff, but Annie managed to squeeze past him just in time.
“Hola, Mr. G.!” she sang cheerily to Terence. “Hello, baby girls!”
The girls banged their spoons and gargled eagerly at this new distraction from dinnertime.
“Just wanted to ask if George could come over to my house!” chirped Annie. She reached out a hand to tickle Hera under her soft sticky chin, which made the little girl dissolve into helpless giggles.
“What about my telescope?” George muttered crossly behind her.
“We. Will. Sort. It. Out,” she said firmly back to him in a low voice. “So lucky to have baby sisters,” she cooed over the twins. “I wish I had lovely little baby sisters. I’m just a one and only lonely child. . . .” She pulled an exaggeratedly sad face.
“Hmph.” George would have liked nothing better than to live in Annie’s quiet, geeky, techno-obsessed household, with her scholarly father and her increasingly career-minded mother. Where there were no babies, no noise, no organic vegetables, and no mess—except, perhaps, when Annie had been conducting one of her more “interesting” experiments in the kitchen.
“Er, yes, you can go—but make sure you’re back in time to do your chores,” said Terence, trying to sound like he was in charge.
“Great!” shouted Annie enthusiastically, pushing George back out the door.
George knew that when Annie was in bossy mode, he just had to go with the flow. So he followed, which wasn’t so hard: he didn’t feel like hanging around at home in a bad mood when a visit to Annie’s house was an option.
“Bye, Mr. G. and baby Gs!” bellowed Annie as they ran off. “Have a wonderful time!”
“Don’t forget, George, you need to fill in your reward chart by completing your weekly tasks!” Terence called weakly after the departing figure of his oldest child. “You’ve still got three-fifths of the pie chart left!”
But George was gone, swept away by Annie to the exciting domain of Next Door—the home of all things techno, cutting edge, scientific, electronic, and amazing in George’s eyes.