Chapter 1: A World of Suck 1 A WORLD OF SUCK
Fact: Grapes don’t always explode with scientific reliability.
The microwave had stopped heating, but the little green oval halves looked exactly the same. Refusing to give up, I ignored the graveyard of dissected fruit on the countertop and plucked another from a bowl, cut it almost in half, and then placed it on a plate with five other grapes.
Even though natural plasmas are rare on Earth—other than lightning or the northern lights—man-made plasmas are everywhere. Just about everybody has seen a TV or computer with a plasma screen. I was still fuzzy on why nuking grapes could cause a plasma ball. Something to do with the microwaves trapped in the watery fruit and getting really hot. Whatever the scientific theory, I loved the idea of creating my own mini twinkling star, even if it only lasted for a microsecond.
I tried to focus on making my experiment precise, but my nose crinkled from the smell wafting in from the Crock-Pot. Dad’s “chili.” With Mom working so much after he lost his job, he was trying his best, but I sure missed Mom’s cooking.
My cat, Sir Fig Newton, didn’t seem to mind the smell. He sat at attention on the kitchen floor with his tummy sprawled out beneath him, so big that he looked like he’d swallowed a basketball, along with the whole Orlando Magic team.
I set the plate in the microwave again. My finger hovered in front of the start button. “Third time’s a winner, right, Fig?”
He chattered, a cross between his dainty meow and a goat’s bleat, usually reserved for when he’s spotted a bird through the sliding glass door. His excitement was contagious, but before I had a chance to start the microwave, my phone rang.
I snatched my cell from my back pocket. My best friend’s narrow face, almost buried under his chestnut curly shag, filled the screen in the video-call app. I grinned.
“Oh my Einstein! I was just about to do your favorite experiment.”
“Hey, Miranium,” Thomas replied. His wide smile exposed the gap between his top center teeth. “Exploding grapes?”
“You think it’ll really work this time?”
I huffed. “I always make it work.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hey, why did the man take his clock to the vet?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
Silence. Thomas wiggled his nose. I sighed, waiting for it. As always, he allowed the dramatic pause to go on way too long.
“Well?” I prompted.
“Because it had ticks.”
I groaned, but couldn’t mask the grin on my face.
“You’ll never believe what I saw,” Thomas said. “Can’t be as awesome as a grape plasma ball.” I gestured to the microwave.
“The US Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the White House. Did you know that plans for a monument started before Washington was elected president?”
I rolled my eyes. Thomas was over the moon when it came to American history. It was the one teeny-tiny reason he’d been excited to move precisely nine hundred and one miles away from Florida to Washington, DC.
“Mm-hmm. Sounds neat. But did you know that plasma is the most common state of matter in the universe? And that stars, including our sun, are big balls of plasma—a really hot gas with lots of energy?”
“Okay, okay.” Thomas chuckled. “I’m no match for your stubbornness superpower.”
“Um, I prefer ‘persistent.’?” I held the phone out so it faced the microwave. “Prepare to be blown away.”
I hit the start button. The microwave hummed. Ten… nine… eight… A bright yellow spark hissed, right at the bridge of skin joining the two halves of the grape. Another flame crackled. I snuck a glance at Fig. His proud facial response clearly read: Fur reals, you got this.
Five… four… three… Just as a third plasma ball ignited, the microwave shut off and the timer countdown vanished, along with the kitchen lights.
I slapped my forehead. All hail the Short-Circuit Scientist.
“Mira!” Dad’s voice boomed from down the hall.
Fig tore out of the kitchen, and I dashed in the opposite direction. As I ran, my phone flew from my hand, smacked against the cabinet door, and skipped across the kitchen floor. No time to stop. Once I reached the laundry room, I scrambled up the ladder and flipped the circuit breaker switch twice. Electricity zoomed back on.
I hustled back into the kitchen and braked a few inches before slamming into my dad towering in the middle of the room. The microwave door hung open. A charred, sugary stench tangled with Dad’s chili. Using an oven mitt, he was gripping the plate of smoking grapes.
“You know better than to do this experiment without an adult present. You could damage the microwave, or worse.” He sighed. “Plus your mother would kill us both if you blew up the house.”
His voice wasn’t all angry. He mostly sounded exhausted. He wore a faded purple Prince concert tee and ancient running shorts he constantly had to pull up. Tangled kinks crowned his head. Stubble tickled his chin. I called it his stuck-at-home uniform. It was all you had to wear to spend your days surfing the job ads.
Dad unplugged the microwave and poked inside the slow cooker. I shifted on my feet, feeling guilty. I’d forgotten about not overloading the outlet. Hmm, maybe I should conduct an experiment on what it takes to blow out a circuit. But Mom actually might kill me if I did.
The house phone rang. Startled, Dad and I exchanged confused looks.
Fact: Only 36 percent of US homes still have both landlines and cell phones. Mom refused to let go of our home phone because she was afraid of another hurricane disaster, like Jeanne and Frances, which had both hit Florida in September 2004. There’d been no electricity for over a week! Imagine: no AC, no TV, and NO INTERNET FOR TEN DAYS. Thankfully, that’d happened two years and one month before I was born.
The phone rang again. Dad answered the corded phone receiver.
“Hello?” He paused, nodding his head. “Sorry, Thomas, but Mira can’t talk right now. She should be cleaning her room.”
My shoulders fell.
“You too. Tell your parents I said hello.”
“Sorry, Dad,” I said after he hung up.
He ruffled my curls and with a tired smile said, “It’s all good.”
I decided I’d better get out of there before he changed his mind and grounded me. So I scooped my cell from the floor and plodded off.
Inside my room I pulled out my phone to text Thomas and apologize for cutting us off. I gasped. A shattered screen stared back at me. I pressed the power button. Nothing. I held the button in longer. The screen remained black. I pushed it over and over, but it was useless.
Superheated energy bounced around in my body at 291,000 miles per hour, like a star hurtling in space. Or like the grape plasma balls in the microwave. My head dizzy, I clutched the edge of my dresser.
I opened my mouth to scream, but the only sound that escaped was a nervous squeak.
I wanted to rush down the hall and beg Dad to take me to the store this very second to get a new cell. Or at least persuade him to let me use the family laptop so I could do an internet search on how to fix a broken iPhone. But I hesitated.
With Dad’s days spent job hunting, his patience was wearing thin. And after my plasma ball experiment had gone wrong, I didn’t want to push my luck. Maybe it’d be better to wait for Mom to get home from work.
I hated that Dad was so miserable since he’d lost his job. I hated that my experiment had caused a power outage. But I really, really hated that my phone was dead.
“I live in a world of suck,” I announced to no one.
Well, technically there was an audience of one. Sprawled across my bed, Sir Fig Newton paused his afternoon tongue bath. His paw hung in midair, and his lime-green eyes were wide, piercing into my thoughts.
“You get it, don’t you, Fig?”
Fig blinked, an obvious nod to my situation, and resumed grooming his belly with steady determination.
My finger dragged across the phone’s screen, tracing the spiderweb-shaped cracks. I’d only had it for two weeks. At the start of sixth grade, my parents had promised me a tablet if I made the honor roll all year. When I’d presented my final report card boasting straight As, I’d gotten Mom’s hand-me-down iPhone instead.
I set it facedown on my dresser. Now I had nothing. Thomas was gone. And just like that I had no way to reach him.