Chapter 1: Loonier Than the Tiptoe Lady

I’m pretty sure nobody’s ever gotten good news from a man with twitching eyebrows. So when our English teacher disappears for an emergency appendectomy and the new sub, Mr. Trolp, appears in front of our class, eyebrows all a-wiggle, I’m not expecting him to start handing out cookies.

Of course, I’d likely get the first cookie if he did – because he’s staring right at me.

“You never know who’ll be out to get you in life,” he says.

Right. No cookie from this guy.

“You’ve got to stay on your guard, always checking behind you.”

We’ve found ourselves a sub loonier than the lady who walked on tiptoes and only talked about leprechauns. And it’s not just his eyebrows – his left hand is twitching, too. Maybe he got bit by a rabid spider. Maybe he’s becoming a rabid spider.

I glance over at Tessa, ready to share in a satisfying eye roll, but she’s hidden beneath her softball sweatshirt in her classic pose – hood up, head on desk – and is probably sound asleep. When you’re brilliant and get straight A’s without trying, teachers let you nap through just about anything.

Unfortunately, the man hunched at the front table is still staring me down with laser eyes. “It could happen anytime.” His mouth twists like he has to chew each word before it comes out. “Next Tuesday, for example – when you think everything’s going fine.”

Jeff Harkiss tips back in his chair, his hat perched on top of his head so he can claim he’s not actually wearing it. “Just start the DVD, dude.”

There’s always a first time to agree with Jeff Harkiss.

Mr. Trolp looks down to locate the DVD, but then his eyes bore into me again. “It’s like dark energy.”

Right. Even Jeff Harkiss puts all four legs of his chair on the floor for this one.

“You think you know what the universe is like, and then BAM!” Mr. Trolp smacks the front table. “You find out most of it is made up of this invisible stuff that we didn’t even know existed. And while that stuff has been forcing the universe to expand faster and faster, you’ve just been sitting around, twiddling your thumbs.” His mouth morphs into a weird kind of smile. “You know, every minute you spend chatting away with your little friends, the universe has stretched an additional 66,392,269 miles.” He sticks his jaw out, and the smile is gone. “Give or take.”

I glance again at Tessa. Still out cold. I totally should have taken her lead.

“Isn’t that kind of like the Big Bang?” Ben Michelson says, looking up from his drawing.

Mr. Trolp at last turns away from me to fix a stare on Ben. “More like the Big Rip.”

I sigh and can’t help but mutter under my breath, “Except that the universe has somehow managed to go for 13.75 billion years without ripping apart.” The man’s making it up like a wackadoodle.

“Except!” Mr. Trolp smacks the table again, his eyes back on me.

For crying out loud.

“Except dark energy didn’t exist for the first 4 billion years.” The weird smile has returned. “But since then it’s been popping into existence pretty darn fast. You don’t end up as 73% of the universe without a fight, now do you, Julia Veltman?”

There’s a whole load of things I want to say to that, like, “How do you know my name?” and “Why on Mars do you keep looking at me?” But since more than anything I want him to get on with class, I keep my eyes glued to my desk where long ago someone tried to carve out IDK but gave up halfway through the K. Thankfully, on the far side of the room, I hear some boys fall out of their chairs – like they always do when there’s a sub – and the attention switches to them.

Seventy-three percent. There’s no way that could be true, right? That’s like thinking you know what the earth’s like and then finding out there’s this little thing called oceans. And how would I not have heard of this stuff? Sixty-seven meetings of the Scientastic SuperGirls, two physicists for parents, and it hasn’t come up once? No way.

I dig my pencil into the groove of the D in the desk. Whatever. Everyone knows energy doesn’t just pop into existence. Of course, I’m not about to be the one to explain to this guy how E=MC2 applies to the conservation of energy – not with him staring me down like a psycho.

Still, those are some wicked specific statistics for someone who has no idea what he’s talking about.

What I would give to have a smart phone and be able to Google “dark energy” right now. Because what if he’s not making it up? I look at the clock. One hour and 37 minutes until the next Scientastic SuperGirls meeting. I sure know what I’m proposing for today’s agenda.

When the lights go off, I look back up front and am relieved to see someone has inserted the DVD into the DVD player. But Mr. Trolp is still on the loose, and darned if he isn’t circling around the back of the room toward my desk.

Pretend you don’t see him. Focus on the movie. My, what fascinating opening credits these are. Truly awe-inspiring. But even though I am obviously engrossed by the beginning of this B-grade version of Clan of the Cave Bear, he stops right next to me.

Then, that nervy, rabid spider leans closer, smacking his lips like I’m the fly he’s packaged up for a later meal. He growls into my ear: “Not without a fight, Julia Veltman, Not without a fight.”

Like a complete and utter wackadoodle.

I hear him swallow before he adds in a hoarse whisper, “And that’s all I’m going to say about it.”

Of course it is.

He stands abruptly, circles back around as though his mission is complete, and settles down at Mrs. Hamshaw’s computer. Because after thoroughly freaking people out, it’s always good to check your e-mail.

* * *

Maddy puts on as solemn a face as you can have when you’ve got a pink pen stuck behind your ear. “As president of the Scientastic SuperGirls, I hereby call the 68th meeting of the Scientastic SuperGirls to order. Now for the oath.”

The four of us, sitting around our corner table in the deserted cafeteria, repeat together: “I will pursue the truth that is science, and I will not be distracted by the boys in that other, way lame science club.” We all put the appropriate emphasis on “way.”

“OK, SuperGirls,” Maddy says. “Let’s get to business. Caroline, what’s on our agenda?” Since Caroline has just popped the rest of a mini doughnut into her mouth, she slides a piece of paper over to Maddy. I bite my tongue to keep from interrupting protocol as Maddy looks it over, tapping the pink pen against her temple. There’s nothing Maddy loves more than protocol and a good bulleted list. She might have lost the seventh grade student council election last week, but she’s totally going end up in the White House someday.

“Tessa, how’s ‘Assignment: Acquire Dry Ice’ coming along?” Maddy asks, the pen working its way through one of her close-cropped blonde curls.

Across the table, Tessa is tugging at the strings of her sweatshirt, pulling the hood tighter and tighter around her face. “It’s a no go. Too expensive if you include shipping. We only have $13.75.”

Maddy mutters “snazzifrass Swedish fish” under her breath and draws a pink box around ‘Acquire Dry Ice.’

“Anyway,” Tessa continues with just her nose and mouth visible, “I still don’t see why we don’t do my question about how to make a fireball with common household cleaners. If we’re going to go dangerous, we might as well go big.

“And it’s free,” Maddy says, nodding. “That okay with you, Caroline? The dry ice was originally your question.”

Caroline nods as she daintily wipes powdered sugar from her fingers with the corner of her napkin. Her perfectly fitting sweater is, of course, powder-free.

Maddy looks at me. “Sound good to you, Julia?”

The opening I’ve been waiting for. I look at each of them. “Something’s come up. Something we need to look into.”

“Whatever it is, we can do it after the fireball,” Tessa says, but her voice is muffled since her mouth has disappeared into the sweatshirt. “Everything’s more fun when your eyebrows have been singed off.”

I swallow. “It needs to happen now. Even if it’s just to check online to make sure it’s not true.” Why am I so worked up about this? Do I honestly feel like I’m supposed to already know every little thing in the scientific world? Of course, this isn’t just another new element on the periodic table that some random guy developed in the lab. It’s only most of the universe.

Caroline tucks a strand of her long, straight hair behind her ear and takes out her phone. “What is it? I’ll pull up Wikipedia.”

“Dark energy.”

Tessa loosens her hood and squints at me. “What, like witches and stuff? What’s gotten into you, Jules? And come on, people. If we’re going to get into black magic stuff, we better have a fireball ready to go first.”

“It’s not witches,” I say. “It’s like space and the universe…astrophysics stuff.”

Maddy writes “Dark Energy” down on the agenda. Somehow it seems less intimidating when it’s in pink. “What do you know about it?”

“Just what Mr. Trolp said at the beginning of English class today.” I glare at Tessa. “What you slept through.”

Maddy looks up from the curlicue doodle forming around the words. “Wait, Mr. Trolpalump told you about this? The Trolpmeister? You can’t believe anything he says.”

Tessa is laughing. “He would totally make that kind of thing up. You know, he’s young enough to be one of the cool subs, but it’s like his circuit board’s on the fritz. I heard last week he spent five minutes arguing with the head cafeteria guy, claiming that he shouldn’t have to pay as much for his shepherd’s pie because he’d just asked for the corn and potato parts.”

“Maybe he’s a vegetarian,” Caroline says as she selects something on her phone.

“And when he was in charge of our class last week, when we had that assembly for Constitution Day,” Maddy says, “he refused to take us to the auditorium and went on this rant about freedom of speech! Isaac Feltner made the excellent point that there was also an amendment about the freedom to assemble, and he flipped a lid. He only let us go when the secretary called up to see what was keeping us. Thank goodness he finally did, though.” Maddy gives us her signature, epically-high eyebrow raise. “Otherwise I would have missed Mr. Walker stopping by to give an update on the construction.”

“You almost missed your Mr. Hottiepants? Maddy, that’s like your worst nightmare,” Tessa says, rolling her eyes.

“Totally,” Maddy says, leaning forward. “And, you know, I’ve been thinking: we should ask the principal if Mr. Walker and his construction team need any student assistants. Now that the new school is built, they should have some students tour it, take notes, and give Mr. Walker feedback from a student’s viewpoint.” She smirks. “Because I wouldn’t mind getting some more views of his butt.”

“Ugh. Gross, Maddy.” Caroline mutters without taking her eyes off her phone.

“Not gross. Dreamy.” Maddy grins. “I’m writing it down on the agenda.”

Maddy might have a total gutter mind, but it’s still nicer to ponder “Operation: Mr. Hottiepants Needs Assistants” than to sit in a stew of dark energy panic. And now that I think about it, Trolp has been a poster child for the loony bin since he started subbing a couple of weeks ago. I exhale. “Sorry I overreacted to the dark energy stuff. It’s probably because I didn’t get my daily dose of Choco-Crunchies this morning.” One of the club’s investigations last spring was to research the health benefits of chocolate, and since then we’ve all worked hard to make sure we stay as healthy as possible.

“Don’t worry,” Maddy says. “Which is more likely: that Julia Veltman has never heard some big science idea, or that the Trolpinator is making stuff up to mess with you?”

I take a swig of my Snapple. “Right. I mean, come on. As if some huge percentage of our universe is really mysterious, invisible stuff. There’s no way.”

“Like 73%?” Caroline says, eying her phone. We look at her, and her eyes are wide. “It says it right here.”

Maddy goes around the table to look over Caroline’s shoulder, but now that I’ve switched over into Captain Disbelief Land, there’s no turning back. “You know, I bet Mr. Trolp was the one who wrote that. He could have even done it today during the DVD. He’s sick like that.” I look at Tessa. She’s bound to be on my side for this one. “Right?”

Tessa nods, but she’s scooting her chair closer to Caroline’s so she can see, too.

“And anyway,” I continue, although at this point I’m talking to my Snapple cap. “My parents and I talk about physics stuff all the time. You’ve been to our house.” That’s actually not true for the Snapple cap, but whatever. “It’s like you can’t turn a corner without running into someone analyzing something at the atomic level.” Of course, since Andrea died, we haven’t exactly been the type of family that talks to each other much. Most of that analyzing is really just someone mumbling to themselves as they try to microwave leftovers.

Tessa’s head is squeezed next to Caroline’s. “So, dark energy is causing the universe to expand. But what actually is it? Man, this article is hard to follow. What in the world does ‘parameterized’ mean?”

“Or ‘quintessence’? Or ‘FLRW metric’? Yeah, I can’t figure out what this thing is talking about,” Maddy says through the pen in her teeth. She stands up. “And this is big stuff. I mean, how can we possibly claim to be ‘pursuing the truth that is science’ if we don’t have a clue about what this is? We need a real person to explain this to us. I’m sorry, Tess, but I think the fireball’s going to have to wait.”

“No kidding,” Tessa says without taking her eyes off the phone. “This stuff’s personally making the universe explode outwards. That’s like a fireball three-quarters the size of the universe. Wicked crazy.”

I knock my friend, Snapple Cap, back and forth between my fingers. “But you can’t just accept that that stuff is true. Everyone knows Wikipedia–”

“Oh, look here,” Tessa interrupts. “One theory is that it’s stuff from another dimension. That could be like from another time or something. What’s another dimension besides time?”

Caroline shakes her head. “You read it wrong. That part’s talking about dark matter, not dark energy. Look at the pie chart. Dark matter’s the stuff that makes up 23% of the universe.”

“What? See, all this has got to be made up.” I pretend that I didn’t just flick the friendly Snapple Cap across the cafeteria. “There’s no percentage left for the actual universe – you know, like the billions of stars out there and all the gazillions of planets that go with them.”

Caroline smirks. It’s never good when Caroline All-Goodness-and-Light Massey smirks at you. “Four percent is left. This says everything else, like atoms and stuff, only makes up 4% of the stuff in the universe.”

There’s only one way out of this. “Scroll down. I bet there aren’t any references or any external articles listed.” Because even Mr. Trolp couldn’t be crazy enough to fake that.

Caroline flicks her finger at her phone, and the three of them seem to go stiff. Maddy lets out another “Swedish fish,” but then none of them says anything else – until Caroline stops biting her lip long enough to whisper, “Julia.”

“Julia what?” I say. I want to see whatever it is they’re looking at, but there’s no way I’m going over there now.

“There are a bunch of articles listed,” Tessa says. “And the top one…Clustering Trends in the Formation of Dark Energy…” She rubs her forehead. “It’s written by your mom.”

By my what?! Caroline offers the phone to me, and there it is: my mom’s name, Ivonia Veltman, next to some blahbitty blahbitty blah paper about dark energy, published this year. “I thought she’s been working on tracking the path of electrons,” I sputter, in a voice that makes it sound like I’ve been sucking on too many balloons. She’s been talking about that project for like seven years, about how it takes up all of her time.

I look back at the phone but can’t even focus on the words. There has to be some mistake. She couldn’t possibly be lying to me. This is the woman who, after the Epic Outdoor Sleepover at Maddy’s house, grounded me for the whole blazin’ summer and started giving me a lecture about lying every other blazin’ day – all because I’d neglected to mention that Maddy’s parents weren’t exactly home the whole time.

Tessa, who has gone over to the vending machine like she can will one of the drinks to turn into Mountain Dew, calls out to me, “You know, this is why you should always Google your friends and family on a regular basis – make sure everything’s on the up and up, you know. I Google you guys like every other week.”

“Just to make sure we’re not publishing articles about evil clouds floating around in space?” I slump down in my chair. I wish I still had Snapple Cap. It would understand.

“It’s not called dark energy because it’s evil,” Caroline says with her infinite patience.

Tessa gives the vending machine a kick and comes back empty-handed. “But what if it is? What if parameterized monsters are waiting to blow the quintessence out of us with their FLRW metric laser guns?”

“I’ll call her,” I say. “I’m sure it’s just some little article she wrote that wasn’t worth mentioning. And…” I glance at Tessa, “I’m doubly sure that she’ll confirm that there are no parameterized monsters.”

Tessa nods solemnly. “Because they’re secret parameterized monsters.”

Of all people who need Mountain Dew.

As I take out my phone, a door on the far side of the cafeteria opens, and the attention at our table shifts. I look over, and a janitor I’ve never seen before is dragging a trash bin behind him.

“That’s funny,” Caroline whispers. “Where’s Big Mike? I hope he wasn’t fired or anything. He’s the only one who can get my locker open when it gets stuck.”

Maddy shakes her head. “They wouldn’t fire him. Maybe he’s just sick. Or maybe he’s working at the new school today. I mean, if we’re supposed to switch over to the new building next week, I’m sure there’s a lot of cleaning to do. Construction’s messy stuff.”

“Still,” Caroline whispers, with her eyes now locked on her mini-doughnut wrapper. “Did they have to get a replacement who would keep looking over at us in such a creepy way?”

Tessa drums her fingers on the edge of the table with wide eyes. “Maybe he’s a spy for Julia’s mom. Maybe he’s supposed to report back if we learn the truth about her and dark energy.”

I give Tessa an I-am-so-not-amused look and scroll down to the listing for my mom’s lab on my phone. “My mom’s the high and mighty queen of honesty. No way is she going to lie about this.” I press send.

It takes forever for her to answer, and when she does, she’s breathless. “Julia? Is that you? Are you okay?”

I glare at the ceiling. “I’m fine. I’m fine.” I suppose this is what I get for never calling her during the day. She thinks the apocalypse has arrived when I do.

“Oh, good. Well, listen, I’m really busy, so I don’t have time to chat.”

As if you ever have time to chat.

“And if you’re calling for a ride, can you get one from one of the other moms today? Because I won’t be able to leave work early.”

“I’m not calling for a ride,” I say through my teeth. Honestly, was it my idea to call her? “I just have a quick question.”

“Quick. Sure. I can do quick.”

I can practically feel her watching the seconds tick by on her watch.

“OK, so, we were just having our Scientastic SuperGirls meeting and something came up about dark energy.” I nod at Tessa, who looks back at me innocently. “Tessa thought you might know what it was and could help us figure–”

“Dark energy? Sorry, can’t help you. I’ve been too busy to stay on top of developments in other areas of science. And, speaking of which, I’ve got to go now. I’ll see you tonight.”

It takes me a moment before I realize I should hang up the phone.

Everyone’s looking at me – probably even the creepy janitor who’s taking forever to empty the trash.

“She said she couldn’t help us,” I mutter.

Caroline bites her lip. “Maybe she’s telling the truth. Maybe someone else with the same name wrote the article.”

Another physicist named Ivonia Veltman. Right.

Maddy sucks in her breath. “Man, this is serious.”

I pick up Caroline’s phone again and scroll back down to my mom’s article. “But why wouldn’t she just tell me what she knows? I can understand relativity when she and Dad talk about it. It’s not like I’m stupid. I’m the one who keeps trying to explain to Mrs. Shirley why her Styrofoam model of an atom with the electrons circling on orbits like blazin’ planets is a bunch of hoo-ha.”

Clustering Trends in the Formation of Dark Energy. For crying out loud.

I take a deep breath – and click on it.

In an instant, I’m on a fully loaded white page that has bold blue words in the center:

Error 9257: CLASSIFIED

Classified? By who? I glance at the web address box and see three very important letters at the end: .gov. And suddenly I know Mr. Trolp was right. You can go along thinking you know what’s going on, until one day when you suddenly don’t. And you realize you never have.