Mikaela Parker was in the center of a very complicated tangle of family.
Just because she was in the middle, it didn’t mean that she had lots of company. She very often felt very much alone.
The inside of this big white house, for a little girl with a jealous mother and a stepdad who hated children, could be a very lonely and uncomfortable place.
Outside was a very different matter.
Once she cleared the front steps, Mikaela forgot all about her real dad, who lived in a different house and was married to different lady, Alysia, who was the mom of her brother, Pierce.
And once she ran down the front sidewalk, she forgot all about her new stepfather, Solomon Portillo, who had two different daughters with a different mom, and who, though he hated kids, loved to play alone with all her favorite games.
Once she reached the long walkway beside the canal, she forgot all about her mom’s headaches, that got worse and worse every time her new stepdad went to visit those other daughters and their other mom.
With each step away from her house, the tensions faded, and Mikaela thought she might just be a happy kid, after all.
Early one Sunday morning, on her run towards freedom and happiness, she met a nice red-headed lady fishing along the canal.
“That’s a pretty fish,” said Mikaela. “Are you gonna eat it?”
“No,” said the lady. “I think I’ll put it in an aquarium. How does that sound, Mikaela?”
“You know my name?” Mikaela asked.
“Oh, I know all about you!” the lady replied. “Your stepdad told me.”
“You know my new dad?” Mikaela asked, and suddenly, she knew. This was the other mom.
“Yes,” she said. “Me and my girls know your stepdad real well. But don’t worry. We live all the way in Oasis Springs, and we hardly ever come to Willow Creek. I just wanted to do some early morning fishing today. You’re welcome to come visit us any time, as long as it’s OK with your mom.”
Mikaela thanked her, but she wasn’t really sure if she should go to other mom’s house, even if it did mean she could meet her stepsisters. Her mom always said you keep the blue socks with the blue socks and the yellow ones with the yellow, and you don’t mix and match.
Apparently, though, as Mikaela was to find out that day, fate didn’t mind mixing socks.
That afternoon, Mikaela’s friend Jaclyn called to invite her to the state park at Oasis Springs. Her mom, dreaming of an empty house, said she could go.
“Thanks for inviting me!” said Mikaela. “Mom had one of her heads, so I had to be extra quiet. It’s more fun out here!”
“Sure it is!” said Jaclyn. “Out here you can be as loud as you want!”
“I actually brought you here for a reason,” she continued. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Over by the monkey bars stood a girl with hair as red as the hair of the fisherman lady.
“Are you Mikaela?” asked the girl.
“This is Bridget Harmonson,” said Jaclyn. “Do you know who she is?”
“Yeah!” said Mikaela. “I do!”
“This is my sister!” Mikaela told Lil Penguin.
“I guess Bridget’s got a few sisters then, huh?” said Lil. “That’s OK. We’ve got the Penguin Power here, just in case things get out of hand.”
When Mikaela turned around, she saw that Jaclyn and Bridget were deep in conversation as they were watching the clouds.
“And back where I come from,” she heard Jaclyn say, “I must have twenty or more sisters! And at least half of them have different moms or different dads. It’s the elvish way…”
Mikaela caught the scent of steak cooking on the barbecue, and she remembered that all she’d had to eat all day was a bowl of potato chips for breakfast very, very early that morning.
“Think I could have some?” she asked the funny blue lady who stood at the grill.
“Of course!” the woman answered. “I knew you were hungry, so I made them for you!”
The woman’s voice sounded like a thousand flutes playing at once.
“Are you real?” asked Mikaela.
“Of course!” replied onezero, and she told Mikaela her name.
“And is the food real?” asked Mikaela. “And not poison?”
onezero laughed. “It’s steak! Real and delicious!”
onezero dished up her own plate and sat next to Mikaela.
“How is it?” she asked.
Jaclyn joined them.
“I see you met my friend onezero!” she said to Mikaela. “She and I are in the same club!”
“I thought she might be make-believe,” Mikaela confessed.
“No, she’s real!” said Jaclyn. “As real as me!”
onezero began to tell Mikaela about her own family.
“Jaclyn tells me you have a big family,” onezero said, “and you all live in different houses. I come from a big family myself! I grew up with a half-brother, a half-sister, my real dad, my stepmom, my aunt–that’s just here on this planet. Then, elsewhere, I had thousands of half-sisters and half-brothers, and one thousand mommies!”
“One thousand mommies!” said Mikaela. “What happened when they all had headaches?”
“Oh, they don’t get headaches where they come from,” said onezero.
“Do you think I could talk to my stepsister?” said Bridget, joining them at the table.
onezero excused herself. “I enjoyed talking with you, Mikaela,” she said, as she headed back to Cradle Rock.
“This is impossible!” she grumbled.
She closed her eyes tight and then she yelled as loudly as she could. “I never wanted a stupid stepsister! Stepsisters are always mean and evil! Just step off!”
When she opened her eyes, she smiled. “You wanna come over and play sometime?” she asked. “I’ve got some really great toys!”
“That’s OK,” said Mikaela, and she left the table.
Mikaela headed into the bathroom, someplace where she could be alone and try to sort out what had just happened.
“Are you OK, Mikaela?” Lil Penguin, who’d watched the whole scene, joined her.
“I don’t like being yelled at,” said Mikaela.
“I know,” said Lil. “I don’t like it either. Sometimes kids yell cuz they don’t know how else to calm down. That’s what Gi-Gi does. Don’t take it personal, OK?”
“Ugh. I’ll try,” said Mikaela.
Mikaela looked at herself in the mirror. She had to laugh. Her face was kind of red and scrunched up.
“I look like a possom nose!” she said, and Lil Penguin laughed with her.
“You know what I like to do when I feel sad or worried?” said Lil. “I like to look at the sky.”
“That’s a great idea,” said Mikaela. “Let’s go!”
Here in the desert, the sky seemed bigger than it did at home.
“Is it the same sky?” asked Mikaela.
“It is,” said Lil Penguin. “We’re all underneath the same sky. Sometimes I like to pretend I’m up there with a cloud, looking down, and then, it doesn’t matter who’s your mom and who’s your dad. We’re all everybody’s babies.”
They watched the sky until it began to grow dark.
“Oh! I’ve got to get home!” said Mikaela. “Mom gets mad when I’m out late. Thanks for everything, Lil. I think maybe you might be my sister, too!”
“Prob’ly so!” called Lil, as Mikaela ran towards home.