Excerpt from Bubble World
The signs were all there, but Freesia chose to ignore them. She didn’t question the power surges. The electrical blackouts. The sudden departures that bordered on disappearances. Had she been paying attention, Freesia would have noticed that things on the island had fallen a little bit out of sync. No, more than a little bit: a lot a bit. Nothing so terrible that you’d cry malfunction, but still.
But Freesia never looked for, considered, or even noticed much of anything, good or bad, until she’d had her first cup of frothy coffee, and this morning, for the first time in her admittedly short memory, no coffee smells tickled her nose when she sat up among her fuzzy pink and orange pillows and stretched her toned, tanned arms toward the cloud mural overhead.
The missing coffee? Yes, it was a sign – the second on that day alone — that something in Freesia’s world had gone very, very wrong.
The first sign had come a few minutes earlier, when the two peacocks, Ashley and Jennifer (both of whom were boys), failed to wake Freesia with the latest Chase Bennett song. Instead they just kind of screeched and screamed, which would have flipped Freesia out if she hadn’t been so utterly tired from staying so utterly late at Ricky Leisure’s pool party. When Freesia was tired, she didn’t flip out. She just got really, really cranky.
“Shut it!” she told Ashley and Jennifer as they began their second round of screeching.
Just like that, the peacocks changed their tune. Rather, they started their tune – Chase Bennett’s latest, to be exact.
It’s another day
On the island we say, Hey,
Hey, oh. Hey, oh. Hey, oh.
Don’t wanna see you frown,
Girl, turn it upside down.
Hey, oh. Yeah, turn it upside down.
Chase Bennett? Was an artistic genius.
Freesia shooed the peacocks back out to the balcony. The rising sun cast a pink glow on the glassy ocean that lay beyond the island’s crystal sand. Graceful water birds dove for silver fish, and twenty kinds of flowers released their perfume into the still, cool morning air.
But Freesia didn’t notice any of this because it looked perfect and pretty and peaceful like this every morning and, besides, she still hadn’t had her coffee.
Freesia’s mother appeared at the door, almost as if she’d been waiting. She looked mom-perfect, as always: nice and trim with shiny brown hair, shiny tanned skin, shiny pink nails. She looked a lot like Freesia, only older. And shinier.
Freesia pointed to her white night table, empty except for her bubble, a solid silver ball cradled in a trumpet-shaped charger.
“Peacocks. Loud. Coffee. No coffee.” The very effort of speaking exhausted her.
“Sweetie!” Just like that, Freesia’s mother hurried out the door. Just like that, she returned bearing Freesia’s favorite chunky mug, filled to the brim with steaming, frothy coffee.
“It’s Tracey’s Famous Coffee!” she told Freesia. “Nothing like a coffee cloud to start your day the Tracey way!”
Freesia forced a smile. She adored her mother, but did she have to say the same thing every time she served coffee? And what about that coffee cloud business? It was frothy, sure, but a cloud?
“Would you like an omelet, oatmeal, or pancakes for brunch?” her mother asked.
“In here or in the kitchen?”
“Should I stay or should I go?”
Her mother turned to leave.
Her mother turned back.
“I love you, Mummy of mine.”
“I love you too, sweet Freesia.” Mummy’s skin sparkled with affection.
Freesia blew a kiss. Her mother pretended to snatch it from the coffee-and-flower-scented air and slipped it into the pocket of her peach satin robe before heading downstairs to make breakfast.
Alone now (except for the peacocks), Freesia took her coffee, her silver bubble, and a plush pink blanket out to the balcony, where she settled onto a pillowy lounge. Ashley watched her from the corner while Jennifer jumped on the railing and fanned out his magnificent tail.
Freesia’s house looked like a fancy cake built into a hillside full of other fancy-cake houses. In the half-moon harbor below, kayakers dipped paddles into glassy water, navigating around quiet white boats and lolling blue buoys.
When she’d gulped enough coffee to clear her cloudy head, Freesia settled her chunky mug on a glass side table and cupped her bubble, which was now a tangerine-sized silver ball, in both of her hands. Soon, the bubble began to emit a greenish light, and her hands grew warm. As she drew her hands apart, the bubble grew larger, first to the size of an orange, then a grapefruit, then . . . something larger than a citrus fruit. Like a honeydew melon, maybe. Deciding that honeydew-melon-size was perfect, Freesia lay the silver bubble on her knees and reached for her mug.
“Enemy check,” she commanded, sipping her cooling brew.
The bubble’s green light changed to blue. Soon names emerged on the screen, followed by messages.
Chai Cotillion . . . Not transmitting
Taser Lucas . . . Not transmitting
Dare Fiesta . . . Not transmitting
Dash it. Freesia only had three enemies, and as many times as she tried to catch them at weak or ugly moments, they only used their public bubble settings when they were being especially luminous or triumphant.
“Fine. Friendlies check, then.”
A long list of names appeared on the orb. Freesia tapped the edge of her pink-polished fingernail onto Ricky Leisure. Just like that, Ricky, curled up in a yellow blow-up raft and still wearing his swim trunks from last night’s pool party, came into focus. The raft was out of the water, lying in a patch of sun near the pool cave entrance, just down from the steps that led up to one of two water slides.
“Ricky? Ricky, wake up!”
After a few more “Rickys,” he put his head up and rubbed sleep out of his eyes. If Ricky had any enemies, they might enjoy seeing his blue eyes all puffy, his golden hair sticking up at strange angles. But everyone liked Ricky, and besides, even at his worst he looked utterly de-vicious.
Ricky groped around the raft until he found his own bubble, which he didn’t bother enlarging from its original size. Now Freesia could choose between two views: the panoramic she’d started with or face-to-face. Ricky wasn’t wearing a shirt. She chose panoramic.
“Freesia! Where is everybody?”
Freesia laughed. “Party’s over, Ricardo.”
“Dunno. I left around two, but a few people were still around. Cabo, Ferdinand . . . Chai.”
She checked Ricky’s face for a reaction to Chai’s name. Nothing. If Ricky and Chai ever linked, she’d just – ugh.
Not that Freesia wanted to link with Ricky herself or anything. She liked him too much. And everyone knew that if you linked with someone and it didn’t work out – it never worked out – you wound up on their enemy list whether you found each other noxious or not. After Jelissa Moon, Ricky was her best friend. Freesia couldn’t risk losing him.
“You going to cultural immersion?” Freesia asked.
“Dunno. What’s the language today?”
“Too hard. And I don’t like kimchee.”
“Well, you better come tomorrow for Spanglish. We can share nachos.”
A maid in a white uniform, one of Ricky’s many serfs, appeared at the edge of Freesia’s bubble and handed Ricky a glass of pale green liquid.
“Kiwi mocktail?” Freesia asked .
Ricky shook his head. “Happy juice. If you come over, I’ll share.”
Freesia laughed. “I had enough happy juice last night. And anyway, some of us get into trouble if we miss class.”
Freesia’s parents added shells to her personal bubble account every time she went to class. If she skipped, she got shells taken out. Freesia needed shells for clothes, coffees, conch burgers – everything, really. For her, more shells equaled more fun: simple. But Ricky was lucky. His parents lived on the mainland and kept his account full no matter what he did or didn’t do.
“Bubble me later?” Freesia said.
“Come see me,” Ricky said. “After class. I’ll be dressed by then.”
“Don’t get dressed for me.” Just because they were just friendlies didn’t mean Freesia couldn’t appreciate his sinewy brown arms and his rippled abdomen. Ricky rarely did anything but lounge around drinking happy juice, yet he was all muscle.
She said, “After immersion, I’m going shopping with Jelissa. I want something new for the dance. And then I’ve got music class.”
“What’s the dance theme this week?” Ricky asked. Every Saturday night, there was a dance in the Rotunda’s grand ballroom. Students from the Advanced Event Planning class chose the theme and dress code, plus they took care of the decorations, the music, and the food.
“Sweet Seventeen. The girls are to wear girly dresses. The boys have to dress all in white or all in black.”
“Come over tonight, then,” Ricky said. “I’ll throw another party.”
“All righty.” Freesia blew Ricky a kiss and then tapped her bubble three times. Immediately, it turned back to silver and shrunk to its original size.
Another party at Ricky’s house. That was something fun to look forward to. Freesia liked looking forward to things.
With only two and a half hours to get ready for her one o’clock cultural immersion class, Freesia finished her coffee and ate her pancakes, which her mother had wheeled in on a white-cloth-covered table. Then it was time to pick out clothes.
Freesia’s closet was a giant square room with a skylight, a pink chenille loveseat, and a gold mini-fridge filled with sips and nibbles. Along the walls, racks and shelves held jeans (skinny, loose, cropped, flared), dresses (frilly, slinky, tight, lacy), tops (blouses, tees, tanks), sweaters (long, cropped, silky, chunky), purses (huge, tiny), and shoes. Lots and lots of shoes. Wheeled ladders helped her reach the higher shelves, where she kept her costumes and holiday clothes. At the closet’s far end, a floor-to-ceiling mirror offered lighting options for daytime, evening, or disco.
Freesia tossed her bubble on the loveseat, retrieved a lemon sipper from the mini-fridge and surveyed her options. Skinny jeans with a billowy blue blouse? No. Orange sundress with tan wedge heels? No. White mini-skirt with . . . anything? No, no, no.
“I have nothing to wear,” Freesia said out loud. And then she laughed, because of course she could go a year without repeating an ensemble.
She retrieved her bubble from the loveseat. As soon as she touched the silver orb, it turned green. She held it in her palm and pointed toward the mirror.
“Attire assistance,” she commanded.
The mirror went dark, and then it lit with a lifelike reflection of Freesia wearing thigh-high boots and a black tube dress she’d forgotten she owned. Cute, but . . . not quite.
“Daytime,” she told the mirror.
Black tights and flats replaced bare legs and boots. A hot pink cardigan went over the dress. Better. But not exactly what she had in mind.
“Another,” she said. The mirror went dark and then she was back, the life-like image of Freesia, this time in faded jeans, strappy tan sandals, and a short-sleeved floral blouse.
“Better,” she said. “But another.”
Again the mirror went dark for an instant before projecting another outfit. This was going to be the one. Freesia could feel it.
What? No! The Freesia in the mirror wore a floor-length, one-shouldered gold sequined gown that she’d bought for . . . she couldn’t even remember. A Sweet Fifteen, maybe. She’d never really liked it, and anyway, she’d said daytime, not evening, not formal, not dance.
“Daytime!” she told the mirror.
In the instant before the picture changed, Freesia realized something awful. The girl in the mirror, the one in the gold gown, wasn’t her. She’d been so distracted by the outfit’s inappropriateness that she hadn’t even noticed, especially since the girl looked a little bit like her. Only the girl was shorter. Fatter. With frizzy dun hair, bushy eyebrows, and bumpy skin.
Freesia had never seen someone so ugly.
Why did she look so familiar?
And then: she was gone.
The next outfit was up: knee-length jean shorts, a white eyelet shirt, long coral beads, tan espadrilles. Perfect. It was perfect!
Okay, truth: it wasn’t perfect. But it was good enough. And this time the girl in the mirror was Freesia, no doubt about it. There were her long limbs, her flat tummy, her gentle curves. Her thick hair, brown with a touch of copper, shone under the skylight. Dense black lashes rimmed enormous green eyes. No bumps marred her flawless skin, which was creamy beige with a touch of pink. If Freesia were able to choose her appearance, she’d look precisely the way she did.
Hands shaking, Freesia busied herself retrieving the knee-length shorts, the eyelet blouse. She couldn’t find the coral necklace, so she chose a turquoise one instead.
Who was that girl?
A bubble upgrade. That’s all it was. Every once in awhile, the bubbles got funny while improvements were being loaded[KF1] . Usually they just ran a little slow. Or maybe the picture flickered. Nothing like this. But that didn’t mean it was anything to wonder or worry about.
Freesia didn’t like to worry – she wasn’t real big on wondering, either – which is why she didn’t realize that, yes, the mirror’s error was yet another sign that something in her world had gone very, very wrong.