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While We Tell of Smekday Treasure

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"Okay, so, the two little bubbles go above--which one?" I pointed the turkey-baster-Boov-writer-thingy at the configuration of bubbles floating just above our heads.

"The big one," J.Lo said absently. He stared out the sliding glass door at the hotel balcony and the world beyond it. I had a pretty good idea what he was thinking about--the rumors that the Boov were finally leaving had the whole city buzzing--but I wasn't going to bring it up.

We'd moved out of the casino and into the hotel shortly after the Gorg had left Earth. Supposedly, Daniel Landry had invited some of his "dear friends", my mom included, to live in the luxury suites, but those few who knew the truth--that the Gorg had been defeated by cat allergies and a wicked clever Boov feedback loop, and not by defeat in hand-to-hand combat with Daniel Landry--knew he was hoping to keep us quiet. Of course, he had no idea he had an actual Boov living in the hotel he'd commandeered for his headquarters.

"Which big bubble?" I asked J.Lo. "There are three of them."

"Onto the left," he said.

"My left, or your left?"

"The left of the bubbles."

"How can bubbles have a left or a right? They don't have sides."

J.Lo turned from the window and shrugged, as much as a Boov who doesn't really have shoulders can shrug. "Is all in hows you look at it."

I looked, but I didn't see it. "Argh!" I flomped back onto the king-sized bed, staring up at the bubbles. These particular bubbles were supposed to spell J.Lo's name--his real name, the one I could never hope to pronounce. I'd finally made him say it for me, and it sounded like a hyena driving a car with failing brakes. "I can't do it."

"Don't be such a poomp." Finally distracted from his staredown with the outside world, J. Lo climbed up on the bed. For once, he looked down at me. "I am thinking Tip is being obtuse like a triangle. Maybies on purpose."

"I am not!" I plucked at the bedspread. It was slippery, nothing at all like the cotton quilt on my bed back home in Pennsylvania. Even though our apartment there was smaller than this hotel suite, I missed home more than I ever would miss this place. If we ever went home. "You know how hard Boov writing is for me. And I'm hungry. Not for a Boov milk shake, but for a sandwich. A real sandwich, with meat and cheese and bread. Do you know how long it's been since I've had fresh bread?"

"I am thinking...seventy-fourteen Boovweeks?"

"Something like that."

The Gorg had been gone for months now, and most of us were still crowded into Arizona, waiting for the "Most Excellent Program of Humanskind Relocation" to go into effect. As it turned out, it would happen fairly soon, and without much input from the Boov at all, but in those weeks after Thanksgiving (which the Boov had renamed "Smeksgiving"), the promise of home seemed more distant than ever. It was just another thing that was part of the wrongness of those weeks, the not being home, all jumbled up with sweltering heat in December, listening to Daniel Landry lie about how he'd been the one to save Earth from the Gorg, and being forced to go to middle school in a uBuy warehouse. It wasn't the warehouse I objected to; it was school. After saving the world and all, I thought maybe I'd get a pass on sixth grade. No such luck.

"It'll be good for you to have the structure," Mom said, "and I don't want you to fall behind." But I suspected she wanted me out of her hair while she hung around with her friends on the Boov and Earthling Cooperation Committee. And maybe she wanted me away from J.Lo--she still didn't quite know what to make of him, despite all the time she spent questioning him about Boov Culture.

"I am not seeing whyfor this is so difficult," J.Lo said, waving his arm at the bubbles. "Tipmom wrote a whole sentence yesterday."

"Yeah, well, Tipmom doesn't have to go to school and learn pre-algebra and write an essay about the heroic characteristics of Daniel Landry," I groused.

"Alls learning is good," J.Lo said, and he sounded too much like my Mom when he took on that tone.

"What if I learned how to--how to--" I couldn't think of anything bad enough. "--how to break windows and stuff? Would that be good learning?"

"Depends. It might to come in handy someday. But it will not be as useful as Boov writing, I am thinking. You nearly have it, you know. There are only four more bubbles to make J.Lo's name."

I knew why he wanted me to practice Boov writing, or at least I thought I did. He couldn't go out very often; now that the Gorg were gone, there were more Boov than ever patrolling Arizona, and it was pretty obvious they were looking for him. The local Boov commander had even come to our school one day, asking if anyone had seen a Boov named "Hyena Driving a Car With Failing Brakes". I told him--almost completely honestly--that I didn't know that Boov. I liked to think J.Lo had changed a lot since he'd met me.

We tried to get J.Lo out of the hotel room when we could, sometimes after dark, or when the Boov patrols were busy somewhere else, and always with his ghost costume on. He even came trick-or-treating with me on Halloween. The Boov renamed it Melloween and tried to tell everyone to give out more of their healthy milkshakes instead of candy. Most people didn't go along with that, of course, but it turned out all anybody had to hand out were a few odds and ends, like dried peas and toothpicks and keys to cars they'd lost ages ago, so it was kind of a bust.

The bigger problem was that too many people had guessed that J.Lo, who was supposed to be my little brother JayJay, was not just a ghost, but the ghost of a Boov. It was too close to the truth for comfort, and we were all worried that somebody was going to guess the truth. So J.Lo spent more and more time in the hotel room, and a lot of it alone. By the time I got home from school, he was usually bouncing off the walls looking for something to do.

So I got even more education, in the form of Boovish writing lessons.

I sat up and used the turkey baster to push more bubbles at the configuration. They missed the mark and floated over to the armoire that contained the television and our meager supply of real, non-cloned food.

"No, no, no!" J.Lo took the turkey baster out of my hand and pointed it at the bubble convention. "Little bubbles here." He landed them neatly on top of the big bubble that was, I assumed, the one on the left--depending on how you looked at it. "Now put the oblong bubble inside of it."

"Oblong? How am I supposed to make an oblong bubble?"

"Like this." J.Lo drew the baster behind his head as he squeezed. Out came an oblong bubble, like one of those balloons clowns use to make animals. It settled itself neatly between the big bubbles without popping them. "Now Tip."

I took the baster, drew it back, and squeezed, then peered at the result as it floated over our heads. "That's almost oblong."

J.Lo squinted. "Yes. It is as oblong as an orange."

"I can't do this!"

"Of courses you can. If Tip would only be paying attention--"

"Tip has been paying attention!" I jumped to my feet; the baster rolled into a corner, and Pig pounced after it. "Tip has been paying attention all day, to teachers who tell me over and over again how lucky I am to personally know the great Daniel Landry." I waved my arms and paced around the room. I was really getting into the rant, and it felt good. "Tip has been paying attention to every single word that comes out of her own mouth, because she can't tell anyone what a fraud that guy is! Tip has been trying not to let slip that she has a Boov hidden away at home, and that my best friend is one of the aliens who herded all of us to Arizona--"

"I did not to herd anyone! Waitaminute. Best friend?"

"And another thing--" I stopped short and looked down. I'd ended up near the bathroom, and my socks had ended up wet. The carpet squleched as I lifted my foot up and down. "J.Lo! What did you do?"

"Heh," he said weakly. "That? Is nothings. Just a little water."

"A little--the carpet is soaked!" I poked my head in the bathroom, where the oversized Jacuzzi tub sat, half full. "And there's cat hair in the tub. Come to think of it, Pig was hiding under the bed when I got home from school. She never does that."

J.Lo gave a little nod, as self-satisfied as Daniel Landry. Well, not that self-satisfied. No one was that self-satisfied. "Pig is resting from the learning of the lesson."

"You tried to teach Pig to write? In the bathtub?"

"Don't be sillies. I taught Pig to play Stickyfish. Is ancient Boov game. Very good for the health."

"Why is the carpet wet?"

"Stickyfish is played in water, of course. Stickyfish cannot to be played onto the land. The fish would die of asphyxiation."

"Shouldn't the water stay in the tub?"

"Yes, wells...Pig is still learning."

I just bet she was. Poor Pig. "We really should clean up this mess before Mom gets home." I started across the bathroom, slipped, banged my shin on the tub, and went down with a small splish. "Ow! Look what you made me do."

J.Lo looked down at me. "Do not be embarrassed. Humanskind are naturally clumsy. I havefor seen it many, many times on your entertainment shows such as Funniest Movies from Home."

"You watch too much television." I stared at the mess of water and cat hair in the tub. "You had a fish in here?"

"Of courses. We do not to play Stickyfish with birds."

"What happened to the fish?"

J.Lo looked away and hummed.

"Nevermind," I said. "I don't want to know."

It took a while to clean up the mess. Once I'd hung every towel we owned out on the balcony to dry, I went back to the bed, where J.Lo was studying the bubble word I'd created. It was still hanging in the air, though it was a bit lower than it had been before. "It isn't anywhere close to your name, is it?"

"If J.Lo had been named Lady Octopus Squishy Pants, then it would be very close, yes." At the look on my face, he said, "I am thinking J.Lo's Boovish name is not for beginners." He waved an arm through the bubbles and they popped and went wherever bubbles go. Then he wrestled the turkey baster away from Pig. "Try this one." With a squirt and a flourish, he created a new word: five medium sized bubbles in a pyramid kind of shape, and two bigger bubbles circling the whole thing. It looked weirdly familiar. For one crazy second I thought I might know what it meant--but then it was gone, quick as a bubblepop.

J. Lo handed me the baster. "Try."

It took me three times--the first of which looked like a miniature solar system, which was kind of cool until J. Lo told me what it meant in Boovish. Even Curly would have been ashamed to say it. But I finally got it.

J. Lo clapped his hands and did a complicated dance around the room, sending a fine mist up into the air when he got near the bathroom. "Tip did it! Tip spelled--" He made a noise like a flock of geese dragging their beaks across a chalkboard.

"What is that word?" I asked, watching my big bubbles orbit the rest.

J. Lo didn't answer, not exactly. "You have been seeing the Boov broadcasts?"

I shrugged. Ever since we'd sent the Gorg away, the Boov had been grateful--though not grateful enough to leave--and one of the ways they'd shown their gratitude was to treat us to some of their television broadcasts. J. Lo's favorite was something called Most Excellent Singer of Boov. From what I'd seen, it was a lot like those Earth shows where all the singers tried to be the most over-the-top-completely-standard pop singer in the history of pop music. I hadn't seen much, though; listening to Boovish singing was about as pleasant as having your ears pulled through a cheese grater.

"We have a show called..." He thought for a minute. "Its name is something like My Favorite Frenemy. It is about two Boovcop. They are complete opposites. Garack'chin is boy Boov, but Ha'barish is boyboy Boov. Garack'chin plays Stickyfish, but Ha'barish plays Loudly Question the Superintendent." He laughed and slapped what would have been his knee, if he had knees. "They are thrown together by funny circumferences, and together they--"

"--fight crime?" I asked.

"Do not to be silly. They fight each other. Mostlies with sticks. But then, other Boov tries to fight them. So then Garack'chin and Ha'barish band together to fight the other Boov."

"With sticks?"

"Every week. Is wicked funny and yet touching. Like your Earth show Laugh-Into."

"Oooookay." I waited for more, but J.Lo just nodded to himself and started humming again. I was starting to worry about him. Even with Pig for company, I'd probably lose my mind, too, if I was cooped up in this room all day.

Before I could ask J.Lo what a Boovcop show had to do with the word he was trying to teach me, someone knocked on our door. J.Lo ducked into the bathroom. I opened the door, and a big, wet tongue slobbered all over my face.

"Ugh, Lincoln, back down." I pushed the Great Dane off me, let his owner in the room, and called to J.Lo. "Come on out, it's just the Chief."

We'd met the Chief back in Roswell, where he'd saved me from a Gorg. He was Diné, and at ninety-two years old he was stronger and smarter than most everyone we'd met on our way to Arizona. Mom had talked Daniel Landry into giving him a room on one of the lower floors of the hotel.

The Chief nodded at me, and then at J.Lo. "Stupidlegs. Spook. I was thinking, it's pretty hot outside, and there aren't too many Boov around today. Some kind of meeting or something. You guys want to go for a walk?"

J.Lo was still humming a little under his breath, even as he fended off Lincoln. "Yeah," I told the Chief. "J.Lo, get your ghost costume."

It was way too hot for December, but the Chief was right--the heat had driven a lot of people inside, and we only saw one patrolling Boov. J.Lo ducked down behind Lincoln, and the Boov never saw him. We walked behind the hotel and down a couple of streets with shops that had long since been looted, to a little field by some railroad tracks. It had become a dumping ground for blown-out tires, broken glass, mattresses that were nothing but springs and a few scraps of fabric--all kinds of trash.

Looking back, it's hard to believe there was a junkyard there in Arizona, but it was by no means the only one. How could we have had junkyards--how could we have had junk--when most people had hardly anything? But that's humanity for you. It takes more than a few months for most people to break the habit of getting rid of things when they didn't work the way they should. Or the way we think they should

J. Lo had brought along his toolbox. He started picking up pieces of junk and messing around with them--still humming, of course--while I balanced on the rails and Lincoln sniffed around.

"This must seem like small time to you," I said to the Chief, who was watching J.Lo pretty intently. The Chief had lived right in the middle of a junkyard in Roswell, but it was nothing like this. His junkyard had old cars and motorcycles and refrigerators--and a Boov ship that had crashed on Earth more than sixty years ago. "Compared to this, your place was better than a fully stocked uBuy."

"It's not so bad." The Chief flashed me a grin that made the wrinkles around his mouth deepen. "Takes a real good eye to see potential in some of this stuff, but it's here."

Just as I was trying to figure out if his words had a double meaning, J.Lo held up an old fashioned clock, the kind with a numbered dial and long and short hands. He did something to the back of it, and the hands spun wildly in opposite directions. Little bits of metal--broken screws, bent forks, and soda can tabs--flew toward the clock and stuck onto it, as if it were a magnet. J.Lo let out a honking laugh.

"You see?" he chortled. "Good as new!"

*

We stayed until the sun started going down, then took a different way back to the hotel, skirting a tent city that had been set up in a HandyMart parking lot. Someone had strung Christmas lights around the place and was running them off a generator. About a week ago, and after a lot of lobbying on the part of Mom's committee, Captain Smek had declared that he would allow "appropriate Smekday decorations" to be hung in public places. The definition of what was appropriate seemed to expand every time someone hung a giant plastic candy cane from one of the hotel's balconies or put a menorah in a window. The Boov were growing more and more distracted, it seemed.

"Do you really think they're leaving?" I asked the Chief.

"Seems like it," he said. He looked down at J.Lo. "You going with them?"

For the second time that day, J.Lo avoided a direct question. It was hard to tell, what with him under the sheet and all, but he seemed to be fixated on the pathetic single string of lights around the tent city. I'd tried to explain all the different winter holidays, or at least the ones I knew about, but until that moment, I hadn't been sure if any of it had gotten through his thick Boov head.

"The Boov had a most excellent holiday for giving gifts," he said. "Beforeto the Takers came. Was called Sound Of A Crying Baby Riding A Duck That Is Talking With Its Mouth Full Day, after the first Boov to come onto the land. Quackening Day for short. There were special foods, like squid liver pie, and songs. My favorite is, 'Do You See What I Ate?'" He hummed again, the same tune he'd been humming all day. "After the Stickyfish tournament and the playful throwing of seaweeds at the faces of the chosen Boov, we gave gifts to all our workmates."

"Waitaminute," I said. "You threw seaweed at each other's faces? That was your holiday?"

"Of course. It was a great honor to be so slimed. I myself received many, many slimings. Those were good times."

"What kinds of gifts do Boov give?" the Chief asked.

"Mostly T-shirts for communications of course, and tool belts. But we do not give them into giant socks, like the one Tipmom has."

Mom still had my stocking with her, the one she'd had on her arm when the Boov abducted her. It was hard to believe it was almost a year since it'd happened. It felt like a few days ago, and at the same time, it felt like a lifetime ago.

"There was once a Very Special Quackening Day episode of My Favorite Frenemy," J.Lo went on. "Garack'chin went to the shops and traded his Stickyfish paddle forto a pair of holographic glasses to give to Ha'barish. And Ha'barish went onto a different shop and traded his holographic movies to get a case forto hold Garack'chin's Stickyfish paddle. When they exchanged their gifts, all of Boov could feel that Garack'chin and Ha'barish were really--" And he made a sound like a chalkboard being scraped by a flock of ducks.

Or a gaggle of geese.

Oh, I thought, as if a light bulb had gone off. Oh.

"What was that click?" J. Lo asked.

"You heard that? I mean, what click? It was nothing."

The Chief shot me a look, but he didn't say anything.

*

On Christmas--or Smekday, depending on who you talked to--we invited the Chief up for brunch. Mom had pulled together enough real food to make these things that were almost, but not quite, blueberry pancakes, and after she scraped them off the hot plate, we sat around the hotel room telling each other about the holidays we'd celebrated B.B.--Before the Boov. J.Lo was kind of quiet through it all. He didn't even mention Quackening Day. Pig and London curled up next to him on the slippery bedspread while he listened to our stories.

We never got around to exchanging presents. Sometime in mid-afternoon a sound started filtering into the room through the balcony doors. We stepped out and looked down. The streets were lined with people on either side, and down the middle the Boov came in formation, moving in straight lines toward their headquarters building. Above it, we could see the huge, bubble-shaped Boov ships hanging in the sky.

Mom ran back into the room and turned on the television. Like I said, some habits die hard. Captain Smek was on every channel.

"...and we thank the Noble Human Savages of Earth for their most generous invitation and hospitality," he was saying in his pinched voice. The Chief snorted at the word "hospitality".

"We must to explode--" A whispered voice came from somewhere off to the side of Captain Smek. "--explore. We must to explore the galaxy now, and establish a new Boov homeworld, to which you will all be most welcome, when your Earth technology becomes capable of such travels."

He went on, extolling the glories of Boov, but I was staring at my mom. "They're leaving?" I asked in a whisper. Even after the Gorg, even after all the rumors, I could hardly believe it. "We can go home?"

"Not right this minute, Turtlebear." Mom's eyes were shiny, and she smiled at me. "But we will." We hugged, until the Chief cleared his throat. We all, humans, cat, and dog, looked over at J.Lo. His face was kind of yellow, and his eyes were blinking fast.

"Are you sad?" I asked him.

"No. Yes. Noyes."

"You--you can go with them, if you want," I told him, though I had to get the words around a lump in my throat. "I don't want you to, you know that. I don't want you to be...punished. But if you stay, you'll be the only Boov here."

"I would be the only humanfriend there, I am thinking. I am not one thing or the other. I can never belongs to either place."

I nodded, trying to imagine what it would be like to be the only human in one of those Boov ships. "Probably a lot like middle school," I muttered.

So instead of singing carols and opening gifts, we watched the Boov go. It took a couple of hours for all of them to make their way to the ships, and then, one by one, the ships drew in their hoses and pulled themselves up into the sky.

Just as they had when the Boov had first come, people shot their guns up in the air. Not too long after that, the fireworks started.

Who knew where they came from? But they were going off everywhere, long before sunset, as if the entire population of the United States had received some secret message to bring them along when we were exiled to Arizona. Mom and the Chief and I went outside to watch them with everyone else. Actually, we did more listening than watching. The booms were coming from all over the city, but we weren't going to be able to see much until it got dark.

We could see the Boov ships, though, getting smaller and smaller as they headed out of the atmosphere. I wonder what the Boov saw as they left us. I wonder what the fireworks sounded like to them.

All around us people were laughing and crying and hugging and high-fiving. "Good riddance to bad rubbish!" a man across the street shouted, and shook his fist at the sky.

"And don't come back!" a woman yelled. Pretty soon people were yelling all kinds of things at the sky, things Mom wouldn't want me to write down. People got pretty brave, once the Boov couldn't hear them.

At a nudge from the Chief, I turned to look back at the hotel. A small, froglike hand waved frantically from one of our windows. "I'm getting kind of cold," I told Mom, even though I was sweating as much as everyone else, and went inside.

J.Lo was bouncing around so much, I was afraid he'd accidentally throw himself out a window. "I think I canto come outside now!" he said, nearly tripping over Pig. "Am thinking all of humanskind will thank me for calling the Gorg."

"J. Lo--"

"If I had not purely accidentally called the Gorg, we--the Boov, I means--would not be leaving, am I not right?"

"Yes, but--"

He pointed to the television. "Humanskind are celebrating everywhere," he said.

It was true. ANN, the All News Network, was back on again, almost as if it had never left. Star Reporter Bear Howitzer (who had legally changed his name to just that--Star Reporter Bear Howitzer--a few years ago) was at the newsplex, droning on in his deep voice about how historic and triumphant it all was.

"Oh, I like his hair," J. Lo said. "Looks good enough to eat."

Considering the amount of chemicals Star Reporter Bear Howitzer put in his pompadour, J. Lo probably would eat it--and enjoy it.

"Let's see how the citizens of Earth are celebrating Liberation Day," said Star Reporter Bear Howitzer, and they cut to footage from all over the world.

People danced on the ruins of the Great Wall of China and on the rubble of the Taj Mahal. Leaders made proclamations, and normal everyday people screamed and ran around as if the Boov had taken all common sense with them. And as night fell in our half of the world, there were more and more fireworks. Sparks of red, green, and gold exploded over the headless Statue of Liberty, the shorn-off tops of the Canadian Rockies, and the stump of the Space Needle, illuminating what wasn't there.

The more we watched, the less it felt like a celebration.

"And in other news," Star Reporter Bear Howitzer said, "justice is being delivered by brave citizens all over the globe to the traitors who cooperated with the Boov during the invasion."

"Whatfor does he mean, justice?" J.Lo asked, but I couldn't answer. They'd cut to footage of a place that looked an awful lot like Arizona. Ordinary-looking people were pulling other ordinary-looking people out into the street. And firing their guns. But not in the air.

Quick as I could, I turned off the television. J. Lo's face had a greenish cast.

"This is why you have to hide," I said quietly.

He nodded. "I told you. J.Lo will never fit in, not anywheres."

"No, not never. People are just worked up right now, but humanskind--um, we--can be very forgiving."

"Oh, yes, very forgiving," he said with a wet snort. "Just as Tip was very forgiving about the Stickyfish incident."

"That was last week--"

"Which is my pointy stick exactly!"

"--and the carpet is still damp!"

J.Lo sighed. "You see what I am saying? Very forgiving."

"It's not the same kind of thing," I told him. We both looked at the dark television.

"Is a much bigger thing," he said.

And far more dangerous, I thought. But I said, "Give them time. When they're ready, they're going to love you."

"Just like you love me? Even after the wet carpet?"

"Well..."

"J. Lo is very sorry," he said for about the millionth time. "Maybies Tip will be more forgiving when she opens her Smekday gift."

"You got me a gift?" I wasn't sure why he was changing the subject again, but I was certainly relieved. "How did you manage that?"

"I am a clever Boov. I went downto the Tenth Street Market for shopping."

"You went where?" I squeaked. The Tenth Street Market was a black market trading post, where people could find all kinds of stuff they weren't supposed to have. Real food, drugs (both medicine and the other kind), ammunition, cell phones...that kind of thing. "People die at the Tenth Street Market! And you're not even a person!"

"Easy sneezy," J.Lo said, puffing out his head a little. "I pretended to be a Boov."

"But you are a Boov!"

"Ah, but I pretended to be another Boov. One who was not J.Lo. It worked perfectly." He handed me a box, and I sat down on the bed.

The box was wrapped--sort of--in pages from The Nose Celebrity Weekly. "Too big to be a book, too small to be a bike," I said as I turned it in my hands.

"Tipmom was helping me to wrap it," J.Lo told me. "On Boov, we give our gifts to each other in bags--"

"Oh, well, you could have done that--"

"--made from Stickyfish bladders."

I gulped. "This is nice, too." Coming from the Tenth Street Market, it could be cigarettes, or chocolate, or anything. I put my ear close to the box, gave it a shake, and heard a metallic rattle. "It's not a bomb, is it?"

"Ah hah hah."

I tore off the paper--and I had to laugh. The box he'd put the present in had a picture of a Hello Kitty toaster on front. I opened it up. I looked at J.Lo. "It's a Hello Kitty toaster."

"Yes, you see! Tip is wanting bread, for sandwiches. You tolds me! Now you can have it, with the face of the Hellos Kitty onto the bread!"

"Which would be great, if we had any bread. Don't get me wrong, I love this," I said quickly. "It's the best toaster I've ever owned." It was white and pink. Mostly pink. Very, very pink.

"Hey," I said, "wouldn't it be funny if I had had real bread to sell in order to buy your present? Then this would be just like that Quackening episode of My Favorite Frenemy."

J.Lo gave a wet, snorty laugh. "Don't be sillies." He took the toaster from me, plugged it into a wall outlet, and pulled a screwdriver from his tool belt. "Watch!"

"No!" I shouted. "Don't--"

He stuck the screwdriver right into the toaster--and pulled out a piece of toast emblazoned with the face of Hello Kitty. "You see?" he chortled, waving a curl of smoke off his arm. "Work of art!"

I took it gingerly from the screwdriver and bit off a teeny, tiny corner. It was real bread, or close enough I couldn't tell the difference. "You are so weird." But he'd risked the Tenth Street Market to get me a gift, and, despite the fireworks that were still going off outside, he looked happier than he'd been in days. "It's perfect. Let me get yours." I dug his gift out from under the bed. It was in a Ding Dong box I'd found in the junkyard. "I'm sorry I don't have any seaweed to slime you with."

J.Lo opened the box and stared inside, about the same way I'd probably stared at the Hello Kitty toaster.

"I made it myself," I said, suddenly nervous. After all, I could have guessed wrong. He pulled it out of the box, examining the collection of tennis balls and marbles that I'd put together with crazy glue and duct tape. It wasn't the prettiest thing in the world, but I hoped he would understand. "The Chief helped me find some of the parts."

"Is most fascinating. J. Lo is speechless with gratitude. J.Lo cannot thank you with words for such a gift. To properly convey my thanks would take manies words, and right now J.Lo is too choked with emotion to say those manies words. His heart swells with gratitude, and--"

"J.Lo," I cut in. "You don't know what it is, do you?"

"Of course! Is a very stylish...hat?"

I laughed. "It's not meant to wear, but I guess you can if you want to. It's kind of a--a sculpture. Do Boov have those? It's something you keep to look at. Something permanent."

"Oh! Liketo the neck medals humanskind receive for most excellent running and catching and jumping on each other."

"Sort of." I took it from him and turned it a little, so the balls hung just above his head. "It's all in how you look at it."

"Oh. Ohs. Is the word I taught you." He made the gooses-on-chalkboard sound.

I nodded. "I figured it out. I mean, I hope I did. And I hope it means what I think it means."

"Yes. Yes. Is meaning...friend."

"Best friend," I said. J.Lo's grin stretched nearly around his head.

It was nearly dark, so I figured it was safe for us to go out on the balcony. J.Lo brought the sculpture with him, and we stood together, watching the last of the fireworks. He lifted a small hand and waved in the direction the Boov ships had gone. They might have been the bright spots that lingered after the fireworks faded. Or those might just have been stars.

"J.Lo will fit in with the humanskind one day," he said quietly.

"And until then," I told him, "we can not-belong together."