I stood at Madison’s front door, staring down at the new text that had zinged onto my grungy old cellphone. Unbelievable! Madison had rung me up first thing, before I’d even finished half of my bowl of the gluey muesli that Mom makes me eat every morning, full of linseeds and much stranger things. Maddy had been practically in tears on the phone, begging and pleading with me to get over to her house “right now” so I could deal with her latest emergency—as if I didn’t have anything better to do on a gloriously sunny Saturday morning.
The sad truth is that I didn’t have anything else better to do, especially since Braydon dumped me. Besides, I’ve always done anything and everything that Madison has asked me to do, ever since we were both nine years old and she was the only person at the new school who smiled at me. She can be infuriating, but she’s the most alive person I’ve ever met. So, I growled a bit, and maybe stomped once or twice, and lashed my metaphorical tail, but then I wrote a note for Mom for when she got home from yoga, cleaned my teeth, and put the rest of my muesli in Ben’s doggie bowl on the floor. (Mom says the muesli is scientifically formulated for my animal nature. My mad-inventor Uncle Jim came up with the recipe at about the time his big, slobbery St. Bernard, Bella, disappeared. Aunty Dorrie told us back then that Bella was stolen, but I eventually found out that the truth was more unusual than that.)
So, anyway, after I’d biked halfway across Sydney for some emergency too terrible for Madison to explain over the phone, and I was on her front steps ringing the doorbell, she texted me that I would have to let myself in. She wasn’t even going to come to the front door! Something was holding her up, she said, and I’d understand when I saw her.
I almost kicked the front door, hard, but I didn’t want to hurt my foot. Instead, I just kicked myself for being such a sucker, and fished around in my shoulder bag for my spare key. (I always have to keep a spare key to Madison’s family’s house, for the regular occasions when she locks herself out and loses her keys. It was one of my little tasks, as her official best friend.)
There was no sign of Maddy in the huge, scary-white living area. I was always terrified to eat or drink anything, even water, anywhere near the white sofas and white carpet. It made me nervous just looking at them. She wasn’t in the glossy white kitchen, either. I even peered down the long white corridor—but there was no sign of Madison anywhere, and her pink bedroom door was closed. Retro New Romantics music trilled down the hallway from Madison’s revolting brother Jarrod’s door, also (thankfully) closed.
Just then, my phone chirped again like a hungry baby bird wanting a worm—the ringtone I’d given Maddy.
Her voice through the phone was uncharacteristically soft, not at all her usual excited shriek. “Are you in the house yet?”
“Yes.” I tried not to sound too irritable. “Where the hell are you?”
“I’m in my bedroom,” Madison whispered. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to let yourself into my room. You’ll understand in a minute.”
Madison couldn’t even open her bedroom door to let me in? What? And why was she whispering?
The call cut out and I stalked down the corridor. I wished that the meditation exercises that Mom gave me actually worked to make me calmer, but if anything, they only made me more nervy. It wasn’t fair. Trying my damnedest to channel calm, I took a deep breath before pushing the door open.
I could see the pink Disney princess bed that Madison already had when we were both nine, the Star Wars silver desk from when she was twelve, and the glittery laptop she’d got for her sixteenth birthday—but there was no sign of the girl herself. The room was empty.
I was just about ready to scream. “What the…” But before I could finish, I heard Madison’s familiar husky whisper.
“Up, Jessica. Look up.”
What was going on? Was Madison hiding? I sighed as noiselessly as I could manage, and wondered again if I should just turn around and go back home. Even the gluey muesli was starting to sound good.
“Please, look up.”
Why would Madison be hiding on top of the wardrobe (an elegant new one, French-ly chic) or the old hot-pink bookshelf? Obediently, I looked. She wasn’t on top of either of them, of course.
Madison hissed, “No, up here. Higher. Come all the way into the room, and close my door, then look up.”
“What?” But I did as I was told and tilted my whole head up to the ceiling, in the direction the voice was coming from.
My mouth fell open. Madison was floating up near the ceiling in her feather-trimmed dove-grey designer pajamas that would have cost my clothing allowance for the whole year. No, that wasn’t quite right—she wasn’t floating exactly—it was more that her body was pressed flat up against the high ceiling, as if a huge invisible paw was holding her up. In one hand, she was gripping her cellphone hard.
“See,” Madison said, softly. “I told you it was a real emergency. Now shut the door! I don’t want any of my family to find out about this. Especially Jarrod!”
That was the first thing that had made any sense all day. “Fair enough,” I said, and sat down on the frilly bed.
Just for once, Madison was right. Her parents were out, but if her big brother Jarrod got the teensiest hint of what was going on in her bedroom, he would video her and stick the result straight up on YouTube. Madison would never be able to show her face at school again—or anywhere. She’d be a social outcast, and so would I. (I’m fairly sure that she’s the only reason that anyone at school speaks to me at all.)
And what if it hadn’t worn off by dinner time? Or bed time? What would she do then? And, sooner or later, she was going to need the bathroom. This was a real emergency.
“Watch this!” Madison said, still whispering. She bent her knees and used her elbows and feet to push herself off the ceiling and down towards the floor. Her body moved down maybe one or two feet, then shot back up, banging her shiny blonde head hard against the white ceiling. Gravity wasn’t just ignoring her—it was positively repelling her!
“I can’t stand this much longer,” Madison said. “You’ve got to do something, Jessica. I’m counting on you.”
No pressure, of course.
“Madison, how did this happen?” I asked, careful not to sound too judgmental. I dreaded the answer.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Madison said, pouting. There were real tears in her huge blue eyes—though maybe that was because her head still hurt from being banged on the ceiling.
“I don’t care whose fault it is.” It was bound to be Madison’s fault; it always was. “If I don’t know what happened, how can I even start to try to fix it?”
“Oh, all right,” Madison said. “If I really have to. Remember when we went to visit your Aunty Dorrie last week? Because of her broken ankle?”
I remembered. We’d been sitting in my Aunty Dorrie’s living room, full of huge, squashy armchairs and too much bric-a-brac…
“I wish I could lose weight, Mrs. Lee,” Madison had said to Aunty Dorrie. “I’m sure I could get some acting work if I could just lose weight.” She pinched at her tight, flat stomach under her silvery silk top, and pouted her movie-star lips.
“Nonsense,” Aunty Dorrie said. “You’re a slim, healthy-looking young woman.” The lines around Dorrie’s eyes crinkled in a smile. Her face looked Chinese, like mine, but her accent was BBC English. She was really my great-aunt Dorothy; her mother had moved from Hong Kong to Sydney about a million years ago, along with my grandmother.
Madison kept pinching at different bits of her stomach, saying, “Look!” every time she took a new tiny pinch of nothing but skin.
Madison had wanted to lose three pounds the whole time I’d known her—even back when we were both nine, and she was skinny and long-legged as Bambi. It had gone on for too long. I said, crankily, “Don’t be ridiculous, Madison. That’s just silk and skin you’re pinching, not fat. You know what they said when we joined the gym: you’re at least three pounds underweight. You don’t need to lose any weight. You’re not fat.”
If anyone was fat, it was me. I looked down at my own stomach, which in my more positive moods I tried to think of as voluptuous and feminine. I’m four pounds heavier than Madison, and tragically shorter.
Madison pouted prettily. “At Pilates, Emily said my center would be stronger if I lost weight. I’ve got to lose weight.”
I wondered if I should escape to the relative sanity of the kitchen and make a cup of tea. Would Aunty Dorrie be shocked if I offered to make a cocktail? I couldn’t take much more of this. I snapped, “Emily’s just the receptionist, Madison.”
“Oh, don’t be cross with me, Jessie, please. I wish I could lose weight, that’s all.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” my Aunty Dorrie said, gravely. “You might just get it.”
“What do you mean?” Maddy said. “What could possibly be wrong with losing weight?”
Aunty Dorrie gave a feline smile and said, “Oh, nothing, Madison. It’s just an old saying.”
I was starting to get suspicious. What was my favorite aunty up to?
Dorrie looked tiny in her huge leather armchair. She was fully made up, wearing a quilted black satin dressing-gown, her white hair neatly bobbed around her triangular face, her unnervingly green eyes shining with intelligence—and her left leg propped up on the coffee table, encased in what looked oddly like a white ski boot. Her right foot, in a delicately furry white slipper, was crossed over it. Her right ankle looked very thin and vulnerable. What if it snapped, too? I hated the idea of my favorite aunt in a wheelchair.
Madison’s eyes had obviously followed mine to my aunt’s slender ankle. Madison said, “But how do you stay so slim, Mrs. Yee?”
Aunt Dorrie reached for a small green grape from the bunch I’d had brought her, and held it in front of her pink cat-like mouth. “It’s easy,” she said, and smiled enigmatically.
Yes, easy: golf three times a week, and lots of long walks. Wonderfully simple, as long as her ankle wasn’t broken.
Madison frowned. “You use Traditional Chinese Medicine, I suppose. Mysterious ancient healing recipes. You probably even compound them yourself.”
Oh, the embarrassment. It burnt. I closed my eyes, and tried to pretend I was somewhere else. Anywhere, as long as it was away from my clueless best friend. My beloved aunt had never boiled up herbs, or dubious parts of endangered animals. Earl Grey tea was the only herbal compound she’d ever been known to use.
Madison went on making a fool of herself. “And I suppose eating stir-fried tofu every night helps as well.”
Aunty Dorrie was a devout meat and three-veg carnivore—she made the best lamb roast in Sydney—but she just nodded. Why?
“I do know a little Traditional Chinese Medicine,” Aunty Dorrie said in her clipped British voice. Her enigmatic smile was starting to look like too much like a Cheshire Cat smirk. What is she up to?
“Really?” Madison said. Her blue eyes were like saucers.
“Oh, yes. It fascinates me.”
That was a big fib. Aunty Dorrie knew more about international finance than most investment bankers, but nothing at all about TCM.
Aunty Dorrie said, with exaggerated innocence, “And you want to lose weight, Madison. Really, that’s an amazing coincidence. I’ve been translating some papers my grandmother left to my mother. Just last week, I found a formula for weight loss.”
Uh-oh. It’s my own mom, not Dorrie, who is the translator of the family. I knew what was going on now. Aunty Dorrie was so bored with sitting at home eating grapes that she was toying with poor silly Madison.
My best friend lunged across the gap between the sofa and the armchair and grabbed Dorrie’s arm. “But that’s fantastic. Would you show me? Please?”
If I were a truly good person, I’d have stopped Madison then—but getting between a predator and her prey can be dangerous.
“How about I make a pot of tea?” I said.
“That would be lovely, darling,” Aunty Dorrie said and popped another grape into her carefully lipsticked mouth. “Earl Grey, please.”
On the way to the kitchen, I picked up Aunty Dorrie’s well-thumbed hardback copy of The Short Stories of H.G. Wells. I’d loved that book so much—I’d read it cover to cover every time I stayed over during vacations.
There was a photo of Uncle Jim stuck in it as a bookmark. A few strands of no-colored hair hung around the sides of his head, above his red and green fair-isle jumper. He looked sad. All those years tinkering in his shed, and the only useful invention he’d ever come up with was the excellent harness he’d made for Bella, their adorable, enormous St. Bernard. Then Bella had disappeared, along with the prototype harness. Uncle Jim had been devastated. He’d died a few months later.
I closed the book on poor Uncle Jim, then opened it again at random and lost myself in the scientific romance of the early twentieth century.
“So,” Madison said, “your Aunty Dorrie gave me a tiny bottle of the formula, and I took it this morning with my coffee. But it didn’t work. I’m no thinner, but I’m stuck to the ceiling. You’ve got to help me!”
“That’s it!” I hit myself on the head, like people do on TV. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it hurt.
“That’s what?” Madison said, irritably, from the ceiling.
I said, “That’s why you’re stuck to the ceiling. You’ve lost weight.” I tried not to giggle. The idea reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite remember what.
“No, I haven’t.” Madison pinched at her skinny little waist. “I’m as fat as ever.”
“You’ve lost weight. You haven’t lost fat—not that you had any spare fat to lose, you ridiculous mongoose. You’ve lost weight. You’re weightless.”
“Oh!” Madison’s mouth fell open, and stayed that way as long as I could bear to watch.
“I’d better call Aunty Dorrie,” I said. “See if there’s an antidote. Something to bring your weight back to normal.”
“But I don’t want to gain weight!” Madison said. “Look! I’m so fat already.”
I just rolled her eyes and walked out down the corridor to the back yard, fishing in my bag for my cellphone. I didn’t want Madison overhearing my conversation. On the way, the missing link popped into my head.
“Come clean, you tricksy old cat,” I said into my cellphone. “Where did you get the stuff you gave Madison, and what’s the antidote?
“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about, child,” Auntie Dorrie said, and sniffed as if I’d offended her deeply.
“Look, Aunty, I’m in a remake of an H. G. Wells story here, with Traditional Chinese Medicine instead of the Indian Fakir’s potion. I know you remember poor fat blubbery greedy Pyecraft in the story, who wanted to lose weight.”
“It sounds vaguely familiar, yes.”
She knew it practically by heart, of course. No point rubbing it in. “Well, Madison’s bobbing around on the ceiling, just like Pyecraft after he took the potion. You gave the stuff to her, you’d better fix it. Now.”
“That skinny little girl deserved it. Fat, indeed. Wanting to lose weight. And I was so bored!”
“Aunty,” I said in a low voice.
“You’re far too loyal to her, you know. Loyal as a dragon.”
“Aunty Dorrie,” I said, even lower. It might have sounded a bit like a dragonish growl, I suppose. “Tell me.”
“Oh, if I must,” the old cat replied, sounding cross. “Well, you remember how we told the whole family that poor Bella was stolen?”
“Mmm.” Almost a growl.
“It wasn’t strictly true.”
What? “So, what really happened to Bella?”
“Actually, Jim gave the poor dog a dose of the antigravity compound that he’d been working on. He did it out in the backyard, and she went up, right up into the sky, so fast that he lost hold of her harness. I almost killed him when he told me.”
“Jim said it would wear off in a few hours—it had only taken a few minutes with the guinea pigs he tested it on first—but we never found out where poor Bella came down.”
I heard Aunty Dorrie—not normally a sentimental woman—sniff with real sorrow. “I made Jim stop working on the drug that minute. Poor Bella. It was just too dangerous. And then poor Jim died so soon afterwards.”
While Aunty Dorrie was speaking, it had gradually dawned on me that this thing was several orders of magnitude more important than the usual Madison disaster. “But, Aunty Dorrie, this could be the scientific discovery of the century!”
“No. No no no. Forget it.”
“But Aunty Dorrie, why?” We could be rich and famous. Antigravity in a bottle!
“You ask me why?” Aunty Dorrie gave a bitter laugh. “Do you think I want black helicopters landing in my backyard and Men in Black poking through your uncle’s shed? The CIA? The FBI?”
“Well, no, but…”
“I’ll call them now, if you want,” Dorrie threatened, “send them round to Madison’s place. They’ll watch your every move for the rest of your life. And hers, not that I would be so upset about that. Such a silly girl.”
“But…” The scientific discovery of the century was slipping through my metaphorical fingers. It was painful. Fame, fortune, the Nobel prize… Finally, I shrugged. Aunty Dorrie was right about the black helicopters, dammit. “Oh, all right. But what are we going to do about Madison? Do we just have to wait for it to wear off?”
“She wanted to, ahem, lose weight.” Aunty Dorrie’s evil chuckle would have surprised anyone who didn’t know her as well as I did, anyone who got taken in by the sweet old lady exterior. “Jim estimated two or three hours for Bella, and your friend probably weighs about the same as she did. If I were you, I’d make sure there was something soft on the floor for her to land on, when it does wear off.”
“Great. That’s just great.” But I couldn’t help smirking, just a teensy, tiny bit. Madison had brought this disaster on herself, after all—as usual.
“And don’t let her out of the house!”
“No.” I shuddered. It was already sad about Bella—but what if the same thing happened to my best friend? Brrr. It was too horrible to think about.
Aunty Dorrie interrupted my brooding. “Maybe you could read her a story to pass the time.”
“I know just the one,” I said. Sadly, though, I knew that Madison would rather sit through a Mahler concert than listen to anything by H. G. Wells, especially a fable about how foolish it was to talk about losing weight.
Back in the princess’s pink bedroom, I grabbed a random glossy magazine from the pile on the floor and sprawled over the comfortable office chair, with my feet up at the desk.
“You’re going to be fine,” I said, in what I hoped was a bracing tone. “It’ll wear off soon. Just try to wriggle your way across the ceiling so you’re over the bed before you get that all weight back all of a sudden.”
“But I want to lose weight.”
“No, you don’t. Trust me.”
She started inching her way across the ceiling. Good.
“Now,” I said, “what do you want to hear about first, the new denim minis, new transparent heels, or new celebrity baby bumps?”
I groaned inwardly at the choice, but I saw Madison’s face light up. Uh-oh. Why was she looking so happy?
Then I looked properly at the magazine cover. The headline sprang out at me like a claw.
“No!” I shouted before Madison could open her mouth. “I’m not reading you anything about the ‘New Miracle Celebrity Weight Loss Diet.’”
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