By Jeanette Lee
For us kids, the only thing less enjoyable than a funeral was a family vacation.
That morning started off like most summer days. My brother Mackie had stolen the remote control for our new robo-puppy and retreated to the back yard, refusing to share. He hid in the blackberry bushes, thinking himself safe, but I knew the trick of reaching in without getting scratched. I was about to grab his ankle and start pulling when I spied Dad talking to our neighbor. The word “vacation” instantly grabbed my attention.
Mr. Smith leaned on our front gate as he spoke. He mopped his bald head with a handkerchief and then blew his nose in it. “Got any summer vacation plans?” His voice was tight, barely repressing his excitement.
Dad removed a “Vegas Baby!” gardening hat and fanned himself. The underarms of his pink and blue Hawaiian shirt were dark with sweat. “We haven’t decided yet…”
“Because we just bought one of those new RV spaceships!” said Mr. Smith. “Gonna take the family on a road trip this summer. See the solar system. Mars, Venus, Saturn. Maybe stop off at Jupiter and camp out in orbit. Do a little ice fishing on Europa…”
Mackie and I crept closer, our squabble over the robo-puppy momentarily forgotten. I grabbed the remote while he was distracted and set it to the “FOLLOW-ME” mode. The white plastic dog glided behind us on silent hover fans.
“Is that so?” Dad asked, scratching one stubbled cheek, deep in thought.
“Just imagine—panning for iron-nickel nuggets in Saturn’s rings! Spelunking in the Venusian lava caverns! Plus, the kids are getting school credit.” We listened, awestruck, until Mrs. Smith sent their son Jimmy over to ask if he planned to eat lunch or what.
Mackie and I exchanged a look. He frowned; I shook my head. As the eldest, I knew better than he how this was going to go.
That’s why I was not surprised, the next day, to discover we had become the proud owners of an Etherstream Recreational Space Caravan Deluxe. It was about the size and shape of a silver school bus, except with wings and rocket engines and fewer kids.
Mom was skeptical at first but quickly won over when Dad pointed out the built-in hot tub and wine bar. They spent a long time giggling over a book titled “Interplanetary Resorts: Topless Beaches and Bottomless Beers Await You!” which they insisted was the RV owner’s manual. Dad passed around travel brochures that night after supper, eyes shining with excitement. The brightly colored pictures of planets and moons fell from his hands like tarot cards predicting a summer of adventure.
The next day the Porch family—me, Mackie, Dad, and Mom—plus the robo-puppy, Juno, and Mom’s sister Aunt Fairy—loaded our RV and zoomed up and up until the blue skies fell into blackness, and the Earth rolled at our feet like one of Juno’s squeaky toys.
“This is gonna be great!” Dad grinned.
“That’s what you always say,” said Aunt Fairy, who was not fond of fools—or my father.
“Who invited you, anyway?” he muttered, pretending to study a street map of the Martian canals .
“Jonathan!” said Mom. “Fairy’s been horribly depressed since her aloe vera plant died last month. It wouldn’t be right to run off and leave her alone.”
Aunt Fairy smirked, sauntering back to a paint-spattered canvas propped in the sink of the cramped galley. Picking up a brush, she began to hum a tune that made Mom’s ears turn pink.
The rest of us crowded into the tiny common area. We sat jumbled up, knees to elbows, while Mom passed out lemonade in these awesome plastic bulbs that you have to squeeze while you drink so they don’t make a mess in zero gravity. Outside, the Earth was a blobby smear of color that looked a lot like one of Aunt Fairy’s paintings.
“A toast! To adventure!” Dad lifted his bulb.
We dutifully raised ours back.
“Has anyone seen Juno?” my brother asked.
“We have to go back!” wailed Mackie. “She doesn’t know how to plug herself into the wall jack yet to feed herself. She’ll starve!”
“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” said Dad, ignoring Mom’s warning look. Mom shrugged and popped open another lemonade. We both knew what was coming from long experience.
Mackie’s eyes sparkled with well-rehearsed, unshed tears. He took a deep breath.
“SHE WAS WITH US WHEN WE LEFT FOR THE SPACEPORT!”
I rolled my eyes.
“Piper!” Mom whispered, but I saw her do it too.
Dad flinched at the outburst and scanned the room again. As if we’d somehow overlooked the family pet behind a cushion or squeeze bulb.
“You had the dog’s remote control last,” said Aunt Fairy. She once told me her brother-in-law’s mistakes were both sweeter than butterscotch candies and funnier than hell.
Dad’s neck flushed a dark red. He began patting down his pockets.
“Find the remote, find the dog,” he muttered.
“The last time I saw it was on one of the landing struts,” Mom said, cracking open another bulb. It had a sharp smell—more like jet fuel than lemonade.
“That’s right,” Dad said. “I was helping you load the luggage. So, where did I put it after…?”
Aunt Fairy, who had been flipping through various exterior cameras for shots of the receding planet, suddenly started laughing. She whooped out great, big belly laughs until she was bent over, hands on her knees and breathless.
“What’s so funny?” Dad asked.
“That!” Still chortling, she pointed to the dashboard’s view screen.
An image there showed one of the landing struts—dark grey against the receding white clouds. Wedged into a crevice, a soft blue light flashed. Twice fast, twice slow.
“FOLLOW-ME mode,” I breathed, horrified and excited.
“That’s right.” She wrapped a skinny arm around my shoulders. “And somewhere out there is your dog.”