The mission of Ladybird Scouts is to promote peace, prudence, and public good.
—THE LADYBIRD HANDBOOK
It’s so late that it’s early again. Under the dead streetlamp on Pine Street, next to the house with the metal rooster statue—our regular meet-up spot—my boyfriend, Kyle, parks but leaves the engine running.
He stretches an arm behind my towel-draped headrest and leans in close enough that I can smell the pool water still weighing down his curls. “Thanks for coming to watch the meteor shower, Prudence.”
“Of course, especially after you skipped the cool-kid pool party for me. I’m just sorry we didn’t see any UFOs,” I say.
“It’s okay. Swimming with you was better than UFOs.”
It’s not quite I love you, but it feels close enough that I want to write it down and keep in my pocket.
“You could have been drinking light beer in a hot tub tonight. Ring in the end of your junior year in style.”
Kyle and the rest of our friends had suggested crashing a graduation party in Faithlynn Brett’s neighborhood, but it was absolutely nonnegotiable for me. It would be like sneaking out directly into a trap. A trap that would love nothing more than to chop me in half with two matching pink hatchets.
Unless Faithlynn’s upgraded to something showier.
“I don’t feel like I missed out on partying with all of Paul’s weird track friends from North Hills. Pretty sure we chose the right pool party.” He frowns down at his rounded stomach pressed against his damp T-shirt.
I may not have convinced the Beast to take her glasses off in the pool, but I’m proud to say that I did get my boyfriend shirtless tonight.
“Happy last day of school, Prudence.”
“It’s tomorrow, babe.” I tap the stereo clock as a reminder. “Happy first day of summer. Please text me when you’re back in the shedroom.”
“Not from the road,” he promises with a smile, familiar with our routine. His skin is pale as moonlight and as freckled as the starry sky. “Not from the driveway.”
“It’s not mission accomplished until you’re back in your own bed.” I touch his cheek and smile like I’m joking, like the motto isn’t a literal legacy in my blood. I try to relax. I remind myself that when I’m with Kyle, there’s no Ladybird Scout birthright to live up to.
Kyle’s thumb sweeps up the shaved nape of my neck, settling into the curve of my ear. Despite the air conditioner, a hot shiver runs from the top of my pixie cut down to the pruny tips of my toes.
I know it’s silly, but sometimes when I’m kissing my boyfriend, I still think, Oh my God, I am kissing Kyle Goodwin. Thirteen-year-old me would never believe that my all-time number-one crush—whom I once code-named “My Hobbiton Prince” so I could journal about him with impunity—would actually like me back. Much less become my actual, kissable boyfriend.
Even after almost a whole year together, dating Kyle can still feel like a dream. Tangling my fingers in the mass of his wet hair. Bumping noses. The dizzy sweetness of shared air. Kissing Kyle in this moment makes me feel as weightless as we were underwater, tucked safe in the dark of the deep end.
Everything else—worries, curfew, the low-burning fire of anxiety in my stomach that alerts me to the presence of interdimensional monsters that only a fraction of the population can See—just falls away.
Well, it mostly falls away. Even as we kiss, I can’t help but peek out of the corner of my eye, scanning the darkness for White-Eyes.
Instead, a hand thwacks against the passenger window. Heart pounding, I jump away from Kyle’s lips. I know it’s next to impossible for my mom to be here—here, now, two and a half hours before her patrol alarm goes off—but I can’t stop myself from imagining her glaring down, the white streak in her hair shining in the darkness.
It doesn’t help that my cousin Chancho has the same pissy way of crossing his arms, impatience radiating off him in waves. The bill of his hat taps the glass as he ducks down to frown at me directly.
“We parked one second ago!” I snap at him.
“Yeah! Come on!” The glass muffles his voice but not his disapproval. Months into his first best friend—me—dating his other best friend—Kyle—and somehow my cousin still can’t contain his annoyance that he doesn’t have dibs on a seat belt anymore.
“Next time, we’ll sneak out just the two of us,” Kyle says. He jerks his head toward the back window and the rest of the Criminal Element. “I should probably drop off Paul and the Beast.”
I turn back to peer at the truck bed where our friends Paul Blair and Sasha “the Beast” Nezhad are stretched out on beach towels. It looks like they’re sunbathing in the moonlight. Paul’s dark brown legs are ten miles long, while his swim shorts are perhaps a single inch wide. He has what my abuela Ramona would have called a regal bearing—good posture and high cheekbones—even as he blows clouds up in the air and passes the vape to Sasha.
Sasha sits up, droplets of pool water dripping off her ever-present sunglasses. Despite what the kids at school say, the Beast—a nickname she gave herself—does not have a pentagram carved into the whites of her eyes, and her irises do not change color like a mood ring. She does have multiple pairs of round blackout sunglasses so that she can commit to wearing them twenty-four/seven. She says makeup is too expensive and only benefits men.
Neither she nor Paul has bothered to cover up their bathing suits. Their parents wouldn’t care about them going to an end-of-the-year pool party—as long as they never found out that our pool party was at the community pool after hours.
Tugging on the curl next to Kyle’s right ear, I steal a kiss good night while opening the door. I hop out of the truck, which is as long as a full-sized pickup but almost as low to the ground as a go-kart.
Dawn is hours off, but the air is already heavy and hot. All of Northern California is drowning under a heat wave this week. Poppy Hills hits triple digits every day by lunch and can’t cool down at night. Ladybirds call it Scranch weather.
“Finally!” Chancho says. He booty-bumps me out of the way, a move he never would have dared to try three years ago—he’s so lucky I’m never armed anymore—and starts to close the door. He waves to Kyle. “Later, man. Thanks for the ride. I’ll hit you up tomorrow.”
“Good night, babe!” I add as the door slams closed. “Be—”
“Be safe!” Paul and Sasha chorus from the truck bed. Kyle bangs on the window and they both shimmy back down to lie flat. The Beast’s fingers waggle in the air, the Sharpie tattoos on her fingers runny.
As the truck makes a slow U-turn, I try not to imagine the many ways they could die back there—without seat belts, without a roof, with whatever Sasha can set on fire in three blocks. The taillights illuminate the I BRAKE FOR CRYPTIDS bumper sticker just before the truck disappears around the corner. I find the knot of my hoodie drawstring between my teeth and chew, imagining how easy it would be for a grub to climb over the tailgate and feast on my friends. None of them have the Sight, and under the Ladybird legacy code Chancho and I both have to follow, we can’t even warn them.
For two hundred years, basic Ladybird operating procedure has been to keep all mulligrub information on a need-to-know basis. Only those with the Sight know about grubs. Historically speaking, when girls talk about things no one else can see, they tend to wind up dead. Scouts call it the Cassandra Paradox. The girl who speaks the unpalatable truth dies.
My friends don’t even know what to be scared of. Sometimes I envy that.
Just like I envy the fact that Chancho was born with the Sight but was never forced into fighting murderous monsters.
“I hate to rush your cupcaking,” Chancho says, “but do you want to start sneaking back in or…?”
The hoodie drawstring falls out of my mouth as I turn toward home. “Fine. Let’s go.”
Chancho and I live on the older side of Poppy Hills—far from the freeway and gated communities—in a development of two-story stucco boxes in all different shades of brown. Because Mom and Tía Lo share a Ladybird boundary, they have to live within two miles of each other so they can go out for daily dawn patrol. Because Mom and Tía Lo are Ladybirds, who are by definition as extra as can be, we live in back-to-back houses. Our backyards connect via a gate in the fence.
Different scouts have different missions. Girl Scouts sell cookies and sing silly songs. Boy Scouts are very proud of their belt buckles. Camp Fire is about glorifying work because they had nothing left once Native American appropriation fell out of fashion.
None of them, to my knowledge, share the Ladybird mission of secretly fighting energy-sucking monsters. None of them have special Ladybird brand motion-detector porch lights sensitive enough to catch when invisible monsters cross their path. But we do, which is why it’s easier to sneak back through Chancho’s yard, where Tío Tino’s Escalade blocks part of the sensor.
“While you and KG were busy eating each other’s faces—” Chancho starts.
“Saying good night,” I correct.
“The rest of us thought of the next place to take the escape ladder.”
The escape ladder is supposed to stay in Sasha’s closet in case her apartment catches fire. She started using it to sneak out of my house to smoke during sleepovers—far from my mother’s bloodhound nose—and now it just lives in her backpack. It’s always handy to be able to get over walls and out windows. It makes me wonder why the scouts made me drill so many human pyramids and basket tosses.
“Please don’t say the movie theater,” I groan. “They said if they caught us sneaking people in again, they’d ban us for life.”
“No way!” he says. “They just got those moving chairs and I want to see Spider-Man in roller-coaster seats. No, I was gonna say that we should climb into The Wooz!”
“The smelly arcade next to the bowling alley?” I make a face, picturing the carnival-style funfair for little kids. “Why? If we were going to walk all the way uptown, Kyle could just get us free shoe rental.”
I rake my fingers through the top of my hair, shaking the water out. Chancho throws up an arm to protect himself from the spray. He changed into pajama pants at the pool so that if he runs into his brother or sister on the way back to his room, he can pretend he just got out of the shower.
I don’t have to worry about a nosy sibling waiting to tattle on me. My sister, Paz, isn’t coming home from college this summer. Ladybird Headquarters may have given her a scholarship to study pharmacology in Arizona, but her side research into hybrid mulligrubs in a desert climate doesn’t pause for summer vacation, apparently. Emotions spike when it’s hot. Especially when people can’t cool down enough to sleep.
More emotional spikes, more mulligrubs.
Headquarters still isn’t sure how the monsters can scent human emotions from their dimension. I’ve always pictured it like a cartoon pie on a windowsill, wavy lines of tasty human emotions crossing from our world to the grubs’, tempting them to come chow down. After they’ve had their fill of feelings, they grow Roots and go from Critter to Carnivore class—and from consuming emotions to eating people whole. Warts and all. Bones and breath.
I flinch as I remember the snapping sound, and I shiver despite the heat.
Up ahead, a boxwood hedge rustles. Beads of sweat break out above my upper lip. The shrub wall outside the McGaffeys’ house is thick but not tall enough to hold anything carnivorous. Probably not tall enough.
I’ve been wrong before.
Even people born without the Sight know the feeling of a grub nearby. After a big emotional moment—a burst of anger, a jolt of sadness, a sudden wave of elation—there’s a hair-raising awareness at the base of your neck, sharp as invisible fangs. The sounds of skittering where there’s no shadow. The energy suddenly drains away from you, leaving you almost numb. The Handbook calls it “instant ennui.”
I search my feelings for a sharp shift. Am I more annoyed than usual at Chancho parroting Sasha’s ideas like they’re his own? Am I sadder than normal to see Kyle leave? All I feel is anxious. Even with medication, I can’t trust my gut. Ladybirds are supposed to be keyed into their fear, to notice every minor flinch inside themselves. But I’m not wired that way. My anxiety is on all the time, a permanent red alert.
Copyright © 2022 by Lily Anderson