Authors: Nate Ball
“It better be important,” Mom said, throwing her arms up.
“I'll get it,” Taylor said, turning to go, the ball still under his arm.
“Oh, no, you don't,” I said and slapped the ball out from under his arm.
The ball bounced off the wall and landed next to me. The bouncing must have thrown off Amp's focus because he suddenly appeared stumbling around inside the ball.
I had no choice. I threw my body over the ball.
“What was that?” Taylor shouted.
“What was what?” Dad snapped.
“It's like a fat blue hamsterÂ .Â .Â . or something.”
“Don't be ridiculous,” Dad said.
“This ball is none of your business!” I shouted.
“Zack!” Olivia screamed.
Everyone stopped and turned to see Olivia standing at the top of the stairs looking out of breath and bug-eyed. “I let myself in.”
“What's in that ball? How does it roll by itself?” Taylor asked her.
Olivia walked past him and kneeled down next to me. She grabbed the plastic ball from me and placed it inside a brown paper bag, the kind you get from the grocery store.
“It's just a trick ball,” she said.
She pulled the ball back out of the bag as she removed the circular door.
“Olivia, don't,” I cried.
“It's okay, Zack,” she said calmly. “It's just a trick.”
She walked over to show my dad and Taylor. Taylor stuffed his hand into the ball and felt around inside. “Okay, but how does it roll around on its own?”
“A real magician never reveals her secrets,” she said. “I
tell you that this illusion is called âThe Invisible Hamster.'”
“How clever,” Mom said, impressed.
While they were distracted, I peeked into the paper bag. And sure enough, there was Amp, on the bottom of the bag, looking dazed and confused. Olivia had secretly dumped him out!
Olivia had many interests, and one of them was magic. I had to admit, that was a skill that came in handy more often than you'd imagine. Her other talentsâlike being able to bake banana bread, make realistic animal noises, dance like a robot, and speak in weird accentsâhad not proven to be as useful.
Olivia gave me another smile and she picked up the “empty” bag. “Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go practice my magic.”
With that, she gently placed the ball back in the bag and we all watched her walk down the hallway and descend the stairs.
Mom let out a thunderous sigh. “Zack, I'm sure this is a good time for another pain pill.”
“No more nonsense for the rest of the day,” Dad said. He picked up his cell phone, which I had dropped, and he and Mom headed downstairs, leaving Taylor and me in the hallway.
“I don't know what you two are up to,” Taylor said, “but I'll figure it out sooner or later.”
“I can't wait,” I said, rubbing my shoulder. I thought of Amp's spaceship and how close we were to sending him back home, which would save Earth from an Erdian invasion. “Look, Taylor, I think I was onto something with that parachute. What do you say we take another shot at that idea, for science's sake?”
Taylor studied my face to see if I was making fun of him. “Seriously?” he asked. “Did the bathroom door damage your brain or something?”
I smiled. “Maybe. But let's just say I'm curious on behalf of a friend of mine.”
This seemed to satisfy him. He waited for me to reveal more, but I just stared back. He sighed. “Okay. I've built some bigger parachutes that you may want to see. Or your friend may want to see,” he said, making air quotes with his fingers on the word “friend.”
And with that, I spent the next hour getting schooled by my bossy little brother in the science of parachute design, operation, and maintenance.
One thing was for sure: Amp owed me big time.
kay, guys, this is crazy. You two need to kiss and make up. Or shake hands. Or whatever.”
Olivia sat between Amp and me. We were all on the old, dusty couch in her grandpa's garage. It was our regular hangout, away from the prying eyes of Taylor and my parents. Amp sat on the arm at the other end of the couch and glared at me, shaking his head. I kept rolling my eyes at him.
“Please, you two, it all worked out in the end, right?” Olivia said.
“I could have been killed in that floofy hamster ball.” Amp simmered.
“I could have been killed on that metal bike rack,” I said back.
Olivia had in her lap the plate of cookies Lexie and Jade had brought me.
“How good was I, huh?” Olivia continued, now talking with her mouth full of snickerdoodles. “I used that paper bag as my blind; that's what a magician calls something that blocks the view of the audience. Fooled the whole McGee family.Â .Â .Â .”
“I wasn't fooled,” I said.
“I wouldn't know,” Amp said. “At the time, my brain was scrambled like an egg, thanks to Zack.”
“I bet my big toe is bigger than your brain.”
“Sheesh, I'm stuck between Grumpy and Grumpier,” Olivia said, picking up her fifth cookie.
Yes, I was counting. They were my cookies, after all.
“How did you know we were in trouble, anyway?” I asked.
“Duh!” Olivia said. “I heard you screaming in your backyard about Taylor going into your room. The whole neighborhood probably heard you.”
“I wasn't that loud.”
She pulled Mike out of her sweatshirt pocket and began feeding him cookie crumbs while he wandered around on her thigh.
That was the last straw. I grabbed a cookie from the plate and bit off half.
“Listen, I know you guys are steamed at each other. I get that. But at least Amp is safe. Our secret is still a secret. The world isn't turned upside down. No harm, no foul. Right?”
“I'll take a cookie,” Amp said quietly.
“Really?” Olivia said. “Wow, Amp, expanding your diet! Now I know anything is possible.”
She handed him a cookie and he nibbled on the edge of it without enthusiasm.
Without saying it, I was pretty sure this was Amp's way of saying sorry. He was trying to patch things up; he just wasn't able to apologize properly.
“You did look funny running around in that ball,” I said.
“I wish I could have seen you flying over your handlebars,” Amp said.
We looked at each other. I had to smile. It was hard to be angry with a blue guy no bigger than Pop-Tart.
“I guess we're even,” I said, taking a second cookie.
“See, look at how mature you guys are. Two civilizations coming together over snickerdoodles. They should fly me to the Middle East.”
“Perhaps I can hear something about these parachutes you and your brother were experimenting with,” Amp said, putting down the cookie and brushing the cookie dust off his fingers.
“Perhaps you're thinking of something like this.” I reached behind me and pulled out a large silk parachute I had borrowed from Taylorâborrowed without asking, of course. But I'm sure that once I explained to Taylor that his missing parachute prevented two civilizations from fighting with each other, he would understand.
Olivia whistled. “Wow, that looks professional.”
Amp crossed the couch for a closer look. He nodded as he ran the parachute through his little blue fingers and studied the fabric intently. “Light. Strong. Compact. It's perfect. I must say, I'm impressed.”
“This parachute should be perfect for the size and weight of your spaceship.”
Amp seemed relieved. “Well done, Zack McGee. We're closer than ever to sending me home.”
“You owe me, short stuff,” I said.
“Nice work, Zacky,” Olivia said, punching me lightly on the leg. “Now, you two, can we sit back, relax, and enjoy these cookies that Zack's girlfriend made?”
“Girlfriend?! She's not my girlfriend!”
“Really? These cookies were made with love, for sure.”
This made us all laugh. Even Mike, but that may have been my imagination again.
s Zack finds out, as much fun as it is to go fast, it's not nearly as fun if you can't slow down! You probably know this, too, if you've ever crashed your bike, fallen down some stairs, run into a tree while playing in the yard, or even tumbled off of a slide at the playground that was faster than you expected.
No matter what you're doing, whether it's biking, running, driving, or even flying in an airplane, there are really only two ways to slow down: the fast way (we call that crashing) and the slow way (much preferred). We use brakes of all different types in order to slow down the slow way and avoid crashing.
By why do we slow down sometimes and crash others? Imagine jumping off the top of the slide. You know not to do that, right? You could get hurt really bad! But why would it hurt? One way to think about it is that your legs (the brakes, in this case) don't slow you down enough to cushion your impact after jumping off something that tall. You need better brakes.