“Well, boys, your dad and I are proud. Very, very proud,” said Solly’s stepmother, waving their report cards in the air. It wasn’t hard for Solly to see she was talking to his stepbrothers Jason and Mason. She sure wasn’t talking to him. She pressed a button on the answering machine. “Boys, I’m very, very proud,” came Solly’s dad’s voice. “I’m sorry I can’t be there to tell you that in person. But things are so busy here in Boldwangia. Whoops, gotta go…” Solly’s stepmother smiled a starched smile. “He’s going to put Boldwangia on the map!” she declared.
“Somebody ought to,” said Jason. “It isn’t there now.”
“You mean he’s nowhere?” said Mason.
“You boys are too funny,” Solly’s stepmother told them, though she didn’t sound as if she thought they were. Solly certainlydidn’t. “Well, I guess I get to do the honors all by myself.” She lifted up two big boxes from under the dining room table. “Jason, for getting an A in science.”
Jason grabbed the box and pulled out his prize quicker than a snake sucking out an egg. “Wow, a microscope! Just what I wanted!”
“Of course it is, dear,” said Solly’s stepmother. “And Mason, for being the best athlete in gym.”
Mason ripped open his box faster than an anteater tearing apart a termite’s nest, and pulled out his new basketball.
“Coolarama, Ma. Let’s go shoot some hoops, Jason!” He ran out the door.
“Nah, I’m gonna study some nasal mucus – boogers to you” -Jason looked at Solly – “under my microscope. “He hurried off to his room.
“Uh, what do I get?” asked Solly, chewing on his thumbnail. He wondered why he bothered to ask.
His stepmother blinked and stared at him as if she’d forgotten that he was there. She fiddled with the fake pearls at her neck. “Oh, yes, Solly. Well, I found something special for you. In honor of not flunking anything, you might as well have it now.” She opened a drawer – the one where they kept fuses, batteries, twine, and other assorted junk – and pulled out something small and vaguely green,then handed it to him.
Solly looked down at the gift. It was a lizard made of some sort of rubbery plastic in a crumpled package that was ripped at one corner.
“You put it in water and it grows,” his stepmother explained.
“I know,” said Solly. He had at least half a dozen of those things- although none of them were lizards. His dad hated lizards the way some folks can’t stand spiders or snakes.
“It looks like a lot of fun. I’m sure you’ll want to try it right out.”
“Uh-huh. May I be excused?”
“Of course,” said his stepmother. “Right after you do the dishes.”
“Of course,” muttered Solly under his breath.
He shoved the lizard into his pocket and stuck his tongue out at the sink.
“Somebody’s at the door,” announced Solly’s stepmother, not gettingup from the sofa. “Will somebody get it?”
Neither Jason or Mason got up either. They were too busy squabbling over the TV remote control.
“Hey look, it’s an ad for the Circus Lunicus,” Jason said, having accidentally flipped to the local cable channel. The Circus Lunicus was a legend in Mintzville. There was a rumor that some of the performers were not from Planet Earth. Everybody in town filled the stands, trying to figure out if the rumor was true. So far no one had succeeded. Jason and Mason had never seen the circus. Neither had their mother. But Solly had.
For years the circus used to show up every June, regular as fireflies. And every June, Solly and his parents had gone to see it. Allof the acts were wonderful. But Solly’s favorite performer was the Ringmaster. The man was very tall and very thin and he had the strangest voice Solly had everheard. Solly found him wonderful and terrible and for a long time he’d wanted to be just like him when he grew up. He’d never met the Ringmaster, but he could imitate his voice quite well – he’d always been an excellent mimic – and he did have the man’s autograph. Nobody else he knew had one. It said: To the Boy of Boys – There’s no place like the circus! It was signed, The Ringmaster.
The Boy of Boys…it was what Solly’s mom used to call him, and it was she who’d gotten him the prize. He never found out how. She was always doing things like that – surprising him with amazing treats: odd-looking stones, brilliant feathers, strange-tasting candy, crazy socks; but the autograph was by far his favorite. Even though he was too young to write script, he’d practiced tracing the signature over and over. Like a silly kid, or so he now thought, he’d planned to show his skill to the Ringmaster if they ever met.
Then suddenly, the circus stopped coming. Nobody knew why. There was a rumor that the Men in Black had deported the performers. But nobody really believed it. Solly missed them badly. Thatwas the year he started missing so many things, the year his life completely changed. But now the circus was coming to town again. Solly wondered if perhaps his life would change again – for the better.
He stared eagerly at the picture of the big top on the TV. That was all there was to the ad – a photo of a tent with ticket and performance information scrolling over it. But still it gave Solly goosebumps.
“We’re going Opening Night, right, Ma?” Jason declared.
“That’s right,” Solly’s stepmother replied.
Yippee, said Solly,to himself. It was just five days away.
“Pee-yip!” cheered Mason.
“Mason, you know I hate that kind of talk!” said his mother.
“Aw, Ma, it’s just Backspeak,” said Mason. “All the kids talk like that.”
“I don’t,” mumbled Solly.
Mason heard him. “All the cool kids.”
The bell rang again.
“Will somebody pul-eeze get that door?” Everybody looked at Solly.
He sighed and went to open it.
Ruben, four months younger than Solly and twice his size, was standing there. He was Solly’s best friend. More than a best friend really since once upon a time Solly had practically lived at his house. He’d be living there still if Old Staircase would let him get away with it. “We’re your family now,” she’d insisted when she and Solly’s dad had married. She still said it sometimes, though Solly wondered who she was trying to convince – him or herself.
“Hey, Sollerella,” Ruben greeted, waving something in abag.
“Don’t call me that.”
“How’s the wicked stepmother?”
“Shh,” said Solly. “She’s got ears like a bat–except when I’m talking to her. Let’s go to my room.”
“So, wanna see what Grumpy sent me today?” Grumpy was what Ruben called his granddad – although the name didn’t fit. It fit Solly’s grandpa – his dad’s father – quite well indeed. His grandma, too, for that matter. As for Mom’s parents, he’d never met them. They lived too far away. Solly didn’t know where. His Mom must’ve told him once, but he’d forgotten.
“Sure,” Solly answered his friend.
Ruben pulled out a stiff leash and harness. He held them out and pretended he was walking a dog. “Invisi-pet!” he exclaimed. “No mess, no fuss, no bother!”
“Your gramps is nutty,” said Solly. But he grinned when he said it. He’d met Ruben’s grandpa only twice, but both times were memorable. Grumpy was a clown, a real one. He traveled even more than Solly’s dad did on business, performing with circuses all over the world. But he’d never performed with the Circus Lunicus. “That bunch is too weird for me,” he’d told Solly.
“You mean because they’re aliens from outer space?” Solly’dasked.
“No. Because they’re cheap,” Grumpy had answered.
Solly laughed – but he didn’t believe it. Not for a minute.